As I am known to do, I found myself looking at yet another car that I’m not going to buy. As I looked through the photos, I noticed that great signifier of Nineties-era car audio radness – a trunk-mounted CD changer. It sent me down a rabbit hole.
My in-car audio listening habits have been checkered. My first car, a 1985 Nissan Maxima, had the factory AM/FM radio with cassette. That was fine, as I didn’t even own a CD until a few months later. No, I’m not joking. I started driving in 1995, well into the CD era, but for whatever reason my listening was confined to cassette and vinyl until I had a job of my own.
That first CD was Rush’s Chronicles, their two-disc greatest hits compilation. Not surprising considering my proto-libertarian tendencies that were starting to manifest. Can’t say it was purchased with my first paycheck from the first job – but I bought it alongside a Sony Discman with a cassette adapter at the Incredible Universe store in Hilliard, Ohio.
More discs followed, but I quickly tired of the skipping from the player sitting on the dashboard. I further tired of swapping discs when encountering a tune I didn’t like. I quickly gravitated toward full albums that were great front to back.
Now that we’ve entered an era where nearly the entirety of the world’s published catalog is available with a click, the idea of listening to an album straight through might be quaint. But I’m nothing if not weird, so I got thinking (while on a long road trip, of course) of what would be in that imaginary six-disc changer.
- Studio albums only. No live tracks, no twenty-minute live jams. This knocks out one of my faves, At Fillmore East from The Allman Brothers Band.
- No greatest hits compilations. I’m looking for a regular studio album that has no duds – by definition, a hits album generally is 100% wheat, 0% chaff. I don’t want to skip a song – I’m clicking play on track one and hitting the road.
I’d love to open a discussion, both here and on Twitter. I’ll add my list below, but you can be assured that I’ll be adding many of your suggestions to my playlists. My selections are generally centered on the general rock genre and subcategories thereof from the Sixties through the current decade – I just don’t know other genres that well, though I’m slowly becoming a fan of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue.
1: Blood on the Tracks, Bob Dylan. I struggled choosing a Dylan album here. Highway 61 Revisited and Bringing it all Back Home both speak to me deeply, but the ten tight tracks on Dylan’s 1975 masterpiece keep revealing new things upon each listen. “Shelter from the Storm,” in particular, has confounded me for decades.
2: Zonkey, Umphrey’s McGee. Definitely NOT on appearing on any music expert’s “Most Essential 500 Albums of all time” clickbait story. I blame Spotify for turning me onto this album of mashups a couple of years ago by serving up the first track, “National Loser Anthem.” This is a combo of Radiohead’s “The National Anthem,” “Loser” by Beck, and the most air-drummed song in history, “In The Air Tonight” by Phil Collins. It doesn’t seem like it should work, but it does. The rest of the album follows with mashups from Corey Hart, MGMT, The Weeknd, Pink Floyd, and Rage Against The Machine, among many others.
3: Tapestry, Carole King. This one IS near the top of most of those clickbait lists for a damned good reason. She was one of the best, most prolific songwriters of the Sixties, but she never seemed to get wide recognition for her talents until this album topped charts in 1971. Each song seems as if it’s being wrenched from deep within her soul, dragged unwillingly to the surface.
4: August and Everything After, Counting Crows. Everyone my age recalls “Mr. Jones,” which was in heavy rotation during my freshman year. This is the album I think of first when this topic comes up – I bought the cassette with my allowance on the strength of the hit at an old music store in a now-abandoned shopping mall, and would slip it into the Walkman and play it for an hour. Each tune stands up to the last, making one incredible album. Unfortunately, Counting Crows seemingly blew their wad with their debut album. While there were a couple of good tunes on the followup, they’ve since been reduced to a weird cover version of a Joni Mitchell song and then a soundtrack tune for a Shrek film.
5: Songs in the Key of Life, Stevie Wonder. I might be breaking a rule I didn’t write down, but this was a double album – meaning it likely takes up two compact discs. No matter. This is a celebration of life, and of fatherhood. How many other artists put the sounds of a crying baby to introduce a song?
6: Dance on a Volcano, Genesis. The first album for the band after Peter Gabriel left, this showcases the incredible musical talent within the band and previews the voice that will haunt the pop charts throughout the Eighties. In 1976 however, Gabriel or not, Genesis was still a prog rock band, with unusual melodies, baffling lyrics, and weird time signatures. While I was long a fan of “Squonk” and “Los Endos,” YouTube is to blame for this album’s inclusion on my list. Rick Beato, a musician and producer, has an incredibly informative channel teaching music theory and relating it to the music we know and love. I’m not a musician, nor do I know music theory – but he breaks down the elements of many songs and shows exactly why they are incredible. He’s given his treatment to the title track here – it’s mind blowing.
There are so many more I could list – Abbey Road, of course. Both Ten and Vitalogy from Pearl Jam. Before These Crowded Streets from Dave Matthews Band. Rumours from Fleetwood Mac. Led Zeppelin IV just on the strength of “When The Levee Breaks.” But I’d like to hear your ideas.