Desert Island Albums

February 2014 | Musings

Yeah, it’s a classic. What albums would you have if you were to be stranded on a sandbar with only a palm tree for company in the middle of the ocean? Essentially it’s just a way to make you list your favourite albums, but what I especially like about the desert island hypothesis is that it actually does give your choices an interesting set of criteria. Because what really makes a desert island album?

First, I needed a quantity limit. With the amount of genres I listen to, I felt five was too little. In fact my very first note already had four, and that was without thinking. So I’ll have ten – and even that was ridiculously hard to narrow down to.

Next, I had to define the characteristics that one would want in an album that would be part of a limited selection getting a lot of airplay. So… I started out thinking “length”, but absolute time is not that great a measure – what’s the point of having ten ridiculously long albums that you won’t enjoy every minute of? No, the criterion I needed was something more along the lines of “musical awesomeness per second”. Or ma/s, as I have now coined it. Literally how “deep” the musicality of the album gets – because really what you want is an album you delve further into with every listen, discovering new stuff each time.

I also had to be careful and make sure I try to cover every facet of my musical world. I needed to try and have at least one album representing each of the different types of sounds and textures I love.

So ten musically deep albums that span the whole range of styles I listen to? Here they are, in reverse order of how I thought of them.

10. Between the Buried and Me – Colors

Nine albums down and I still didn’t have a metal entry. So I had to throw in my favourite, the one that started the progressive metal revolution. The writing is so complex and layered, the instrumentation so perfectly balanced, and the playing so unbelievably tight that nature would have easily found a way to kill you before you had gotten tired of any part of it.

9. The Doors – The Doors

My favourite thing about The Doors is the false sense of simplicity they give you. There’s not much going on here, you might think, just some clean drumming, slick little guitar riffs, nicely driving keyboards, and a bumpy little… bass? But just wait until you’re lost in the magic combination of Morrison’s wild poetry and Manzarek’s genial phrasing, perfectly complemented by Densmore and Krieger’s at times hypnotic, at others screaming, and yet elsewhere lilting grooves. There’s no escaping now, but that’s quite alright…

8. Daft Punk – Discovery

I definitely needed an electronic music album, and a classic at that. I know some people dispute Discovery – mostly purists pointing out that great house started long before Daft Punk ever came along – but the fact remains that regardless of its commercial impact, this album changed the game in electronic music. Yet even beyond that, it’s just so easy to get lost forever in its superb tones, textures and grooves… And wasn’t that the main criterion?

7. Radiohead – OK Computer

This is undoubtedly the single greatest guitar-rock album of the modern era, and I’m not afraid to say it. They took so many things that seemed unintended for a rock band and just mixed it all together into a masterpiece of melody, noise, harmony, and electronics. This album changed and started so many things for me when I discovered it, and I can still listen to it back-to-back-to-back.

6. Arctic Monkeys – Humbug

If you want to find my favourite collection of guitar riffs, look no further than the Josh Homme-produced third album from the Sheffield lads. With Tuner’s magical songwriting and the QotSA-influenced sounds and textures, it’s a very special album I can get lost in and sing along to at the same time, mindlessly wasting the hours away.

5. The Police – Synchronicity

I know the obvious choice for a desert island Police album would be Reggatta de Blanc and the S.O.S.-sending “Message in a Bottle”, but their final masterpiece is just too enthralling to leave off this list. The fact that it reads like a greatest hits compilation from “Synchronicity II” onwards sure helps, but it’s the hidden gems like “Walking in Your Footsteps”, “Miss Gradenko”, and “Murder by Numbers” that really make this album for me.

4. Red Hot Chili Peppers – Blood Sugar Sex Magik

Clocking in at well over an hour long, this one might seem like an exception to my argument that pure length doesn’t count for this list, but the truth is that the Chili Peppers managed to create a collection of seventeen equally faultless tracks. So not only does it last you a good long while, it’s a good long while of pure punk-funky rocking awesomeness.

3. Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon

What can I say? This is an album that is known for getting lost in, and for very good reason. Anyways you’ll probably be philosophizing quite a bit about time yourself while stranded, so why not share in some of Waters’ views on the matter while you’re at it?

2. Miles Davis – Kind of Blue

I wasn’t even thinking about needing a jazz album on my list, because considering Kind of Blue as one of the greatest albums ever just makes sense… Plus you’ll have tons of time to study every little difference between the two takes of “Flamenco Sketches” while you’re waiting for your rescue.

1. The Beatles – Abbey Road

Sometimes I think I need to take some classes or a workshop on songwriting, and then I remember that I can just listen to this masterclass. Honestly, how can one album spawn so many classics? Not much more you can ask for to keep you and your palm tree company.

© 2015 Pierre Massé