I don’t know which came first, High Fidelity or the concept of the top five, but either way, the concept is now so much a part of the “cultural conversation” that even The Office casually references it, when Jim Halpert suggests the play the “desert island” game in “The Fire” (a classic Office episode, if only for Dwight’s amazing delivery of “Ryan Started the Fire”). This “desert island” angle actually adds something to the original concept–if these are literally the only five albums I will ever be able to listen to, ever again, I need to be sure they’re not five sleepy folk albums (a major temptation). Balance is key in the desert island situation.
It now seems essential to me that at any moment I be prepared to rattle off a list of my top five movies, books, songs, albums, etc. Who knows when someone will demand my list! Since today is my birthday, and I can listen to music at work (thanks Spotify, you’re the best!) I decided to spend the day listening to my all-time favorite albums. Of course there are more than five albums that I love, and this just will not do, desert-island-wise, so I decided that by the end of the day I would have narrowed my list to my top five, absolutely most essential, desert island albums.
So, without further ado, here they are…my top five desert island albums:
“Pet Sounds,” The Beach Boys
When I was growing up, we used to spend one week every summer at my grandparent’s house in Ohio, and they had a great pool with a bar and we blasted Beach Boys all week long. So the Beach Boys are a sentimental pick for me. But beyond that, this album is just so, so classic. In fact, Rolling Stone named it the #2 album of all time. It seems like every other album references it in some way these days. As they should: the Beach Boys did everything well. Relatable yet sophisticated songwriting? Check. Creative instrumentation? Check. Gorgeous harmonies? Check and check. And bonus: they sound like summer, always! But this is their masterpiece, the album that, after he first heard it, made Paul McCartney cry.
“Graceland,” Paul Simon
Another absolute classic. Paul Simon actually has no nostalgia factor for me; the only music we really listened to growing up was Motown, The Carpenters, and Amy Grant. And Psalty, followed by all things CCM a few years later. I discovered Graceland as an adult, but it’s one of those albums that just feels like it’s always been a part of me. It’s got such an energy, one that makes me excited about the possibilities of life.
“Live at Java Joe’s,” Jason Mraz
Jason was my first musical love. I still remember the first time I ever heard him; I was driving down 322, past my high school, in my friend Toni’s Jeep, and “The Remedy” came on the radio. She turned it up and said, “Oh I love this song! Have you heard of Jason Mraz?” And from that moment on, I was obsessed. I immediately bought his album “Waiting for My Rocket to Come” (back when you had to go to an actual store to do that!) and listened to it on repeat for, literally, months. It was only replaced by “Tonight, Not Again,” his live album from the Rocket tour, and then when I got to college and figured out how to download music, I started hoarding live bootlegs and rare demos. I found out he had released an independent album, “Live at Java Joe’s,” before being signed, and bought a copy off eBay. I thought I had loved him before, but this album…wow. Every song is perfection to me. I will never love Jason more than I do on this album. And I’m okay with that.
“Age of Adz,” Sufjan Stevens
This was tough. “Illinois” is also an incredible album, and the first Sufjan I loved. But this album…it just makes me FEEL things. Actually, it makes me feel EVERYTHING, all at once. The title song sounds somehow from a sterile, mechanical future and primordial at the same time, which makes the feelings it describes seem to have always been, even as they feel so particular and personal. This album also has the best dance party song ever (“Impossible Soul”). The best word I can think of for this album, other than “essential,” is simply “interesting.” When I first heard it, I didn’t like its radical departure from the “Michigan”/”Illinois” Sufjan, but the more I listen the more it becomes one of my favorite albums ever, exactly because it takes risks and taps into something even more intrinsic to what it means to be human.
“Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix,” Phoenix
This last spot was the toughest. Lauren pointed out that I really didn’t have a good poppy, peppy album in the bunch, and when considering a desert island reality it’s good to remember that there are days I would just want to escape into something light and fun. Enter Phoenix. This is not fluffy, mindless pop, but it doesn’t ask you to think too hard. I’m not even sure what any of these songs are about, except maybe “Love Like a Sunset” since that is wordless, and is more about expectations of what a song should be. But Phoenix brings a smile to my face more than probably any other band. And, bonus, this album reminds me of some truly awesome people and some truly amazing concert experiences!
There you have it! My desert island top five. For now, at least. And since I’m incapable of actually limiting things, here are a few albums I also love that almost made the cut:
“Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots,” The Flaming Lips
“Letters from a Flying Machine,” Peter Mulvey
“A Creature I Don’t Know,” Laura Marling
“Kansas,” Jennifer Knapp