Album of the Week, March 27: Robert’s Desert Island Discs

RBHSJDIDBadgeToday’s entry is something a little different. As I was looking over the almost 200 albums I have featured over the years, I asked myself the question that drives the famous BBC Radio 4 show Desert Island Discs: If I were stranded on an island, which discs would I be sure to have with me?

The task proved more daunting than I imagined, so I established a few guidelines and started over. These parameters made the selection a little bit easier.

  1. Original, legitimate releases only: no bootlegs, re-issues with bonus tracks, or any other chicanery to pad the offerings.
  2. Enjoy every track: If this is all I ever get to listen to, it had better be great. A perfect test case is Rubber Soul: it’s an unquestionably brilliant album, but if I had to listen to Michelle or Girl more than once a month, I’d throw myself into the shark-infested waters.
  3. Balance, balance, balance: I tried to embrace the breadth of my tastes and represent a good cross-section of the artists I love.
  4. When in doubt, favorite artists win: My collection includes several acts represented by one great album. In order to represent the artists whose whole catalogs I appreciate, I dropped the one-only artists. That included the hard decisions to eliminate Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, London Calling, Rumours, Blood On the Tracks, and I Am A Bird Now.
  5. Greatest hits: I pondered banning these as a corallary to rule 1, but decided to take them on their own merits. As it turns out, I didn’t wind up with any of these on the list, although I looked closely at a couple. In the end, rule 2 trumped them.

I set my album allowance at 13. Why that number? I could say that it represents the bad luck of being stranded on a desert island, but honestly trying to get to eight — the BBC number — was maddening. My list, my rules, so if this Gilligan-adjacent experience includes a weatherproof sound system, it has room for 13 discs.

Without further ado, here they are, in the order in which I finalized their placement on the list.

Richard & Linda ThompsonShoot out the LightsHIGH RESOLUTION COVER ARTShoot Out the Lights (1982, Hannibal) Richard & Linda Thompson
Surprising no-one, I’m sure, this was my first choice — brilliant lyrics, stellar playing, solid band, two of my favorite artists on one disc. Harrowing but hopeful, it captures the human spirit better than anything else for me. Linda delivers some of her best vocals and Richard some of his finest solos. If I had to pick 25 songs to take to the island (please, no!), at least four of them would be from this album.

DifferentKindofLoveSongA Different Kind of Love Song (1983, Appleseed) Dick Gaughan
Another easy choice for me, with some of the best protest music ever written. Gaughan is in fine voice and his guitar work is impeccable. It’s a collection of often dark songs with a shining heart beating at its core. The title track sums things up brilliantly, and inspired me to write an essay for Michael’s blog on the importance of looking at the darkness if we want to get to the light.

AbyssiniansAbyssinians (1983, Topic) June Tabor
June Tabor had to be on the list, but picking the album was tricky. This is my favorite by a narrow margin, and includes a stunning cover of a Waterson song, so it won the day. As Elvis Costello has famously observed, if listening to June Tabor’s voice doesn’t move you, give up music. (Bonus fact: She has worked as a librarian and restaurateur, so she covers the bases of my passions nicely…)

Robyn_Hitchcock_-_I_Often_Dream_Of_TrainsI Often Dream of Trains (1984, Hannibal) Robyn Hitchcock
Another artist I had to have on the island, but a tougher choice. The Soft Boys’ Underwater Moonlight and the Egyptians’ Element of Light are co-equal with this disc for me. It came down to the essence of the album. The spare setting of Trains lets Robyn shine through in all his eccentric glory.

LastWordThe Last Word (1992, RNA) Gregson & Collister
Another nice package, with two of my favorites on one album, both at the height of their powers. Clive Gregson’s observations about life and love are timeless, and this set includes a couple of tracks written with Boo Hewerdine, another favorite. Christine Collister has a wonderful voice that sometimes gets over-emphasized on her solo discs. Here, the production is flawless.

MitchellC&SCourt and Spark (1974, Asylum) Joni Mitchell
One of the few commercial successes on my list, it’s a little jazz, a little pop, a little folk, all tied together by the singular talents of Joni Mitchell. It also features her finest vocals, not as airy and bright as her earlier work and not as Cohen-adjacent as her later. All of that, and songs about David Geffen and James Taylor! What could be finer?

Til_Tuesday-Everythings_Different_NowEverything’s Different Now (1988, Epic) ’til tuesday
A sentimental favorite, this is an album I play when I’m feeling lost. It’s a powerful look at relationships and how they go wrong — and right. It landed at just the right time for me, providing insight and outlet as I worked through my own issues. Aimee Mann found her lyrical voice, presaging her later solo work. The band is crisp and smart, lending power to the songs. This is as close to flawless as 80s pop gets.

yaz-you_and_me_bothYou and Me Both (1983, Sire) Yaz(oo)
Speaking of 80s pop… A quick look at my Songs of the Day reveals my fondness for the music of my teen years. As I’ve aged, my favorites tend to be the more obscure music, especially synth-pop and smart dance tracks. Alison Moyet and Vince Clarke perfected both. Their brief collaboration as Yazoo (Yaz in the States) turned out two fine albums. This is the better of the pair by a safe margin. Creative synth work, good lyrics, and Alison Moyet’s rich, wonderful voice — magnificent!

FogelbergInnocentThe Innocent Age (1981, Full Moon / Epic) Dan Fogelberg
Not quite the first album I ever bought — an honor that goes to Helen Reddy’s Long Hard Climb — I consider this the launch of my serious music collecting. It’s also a great collection of songs, singer-songwriter magic at its most compelling. Fogelberg gets pigeonholed as an AC balladeer, but his songs could rock, jig, or soar as well. This beautiful song cycle, created as a cradle-to-grave series, shows off all his talents to great effect. A sentimental and musical favorite, packed with hits.

watersonlOnceinaOnce In A Blue Moon (1996, Topic) Lal Waterson & Oliver Knight
The only reason the extended Waterson family shows up this late is that it was nearly impossible to pick one album. While a stay on Waterson:Carthy island would be delightful, Rule 3 demanded a choice. In the end, a dash of Rule 2 combined with the fact that Lal Waterson is one of my favorite songwriters ruled the day. A brilliant set of songs told in her distinctive style with sympathetic support from her talented son, it’s one of the rare albums that I’ll sometimes put on repeat. As an added bonus, Some Old Salty wraps up the album with a good old family sing-along, sneaking some talented relatives onto the island. Family runners-up included Martin Carthy, Bright Phoebus, Norma Waterson, and Red Rice.

Fairport_Convention-Liege_&_Lief_(album_cover)Liege & Lief (1969, A&M) Fairport Convention
Another tough choice. Fairport belonged on the list (although the Richard Thompson double-dip almost got them cut), and What We Did On Our Holidays is my favorite of their albums. This is a close second, however, and Rule 3 brought it home. A pioneering disc, creating the trad-rock genre, it shows the band at the peak of their powers and adds more traditional British music to my island mix.

FearingIndLulIndustrial Lullaby (1997, True North) Stephen Fearing
Another Rule 3 decision, made with great difficulty. I encountered three very different modern folk talents in the same year (1993) and they form a musical trinity for me. Stephen Fearing, Patty Larkin, and Ellis Paul have unique voices but could easily share a stage. (I’d pay to see that!) Since they weren’t here to play rock-paper-scissors, the decision came down to the sheer poetry — lyrical and musical — of Fearing’s album and its astounding cohesion.

TriffidsCalentureCalenture (1987, Island) The Triffids
I had five albums left on my list, and the Triffids dark masterpiece won the final spot. This album is the least like anything else on the list (with Yaz coming in a close second), a strong rock sound with a uniquely West Australian perspective. Urgent and compelling from start to finish, it’s one of the strongest Rule 2 albums in my collection. It didn’t hurt that the title refers to hallucinations caused by too much time at sea.

There you have it, my island playlist is complete. Before I close, I’d like to acknowledge the many amazing artists that bring me musical joy who stayed safely on dry land: The Bats, Peter Blegvad, Nick Drake, the Finn Brothers in all their incarnations, Jethro Tull, the extended McGarrigle – Wainwright family, Stephin Merritt and his many projects, Oysterband, R.E.M., Spirit of the West, those mentioned above, and many more. I’m VERY glad that I don’t have to make this choice as anything but an interesting exercise.

Finally, a note of farewell to my Album of the Week feature. I truly enjoy writing these pieces — and there are certainly more albums to explore — but the limits of my time, collection, and budget demand closure. It seemed fitting that I bookend the regular features with two Richard & Linda Thompson albums and close out these posts as my Jukebox celebrates its fifth anniversary. I will continue my Song of the Day every weekday and Saturday Time Capsules; I may also add an album now and then as inspiration strikes.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, the music of my island is calling…

Song of the Day, January 18: Will She Just Fall Down by ’til tuesday

tiltuesWelcomeFallAfter a strong new wave debut, ’til tuesday showed real growth and confidence on their second outing, Welcome Home. Warmer and richer, the sonic palette is more diverse. Singer Aimee Mann expands her vocal and lyrical range and the band provide a rich musical setting.

One of the standouts is Will She Just Fall Down, a sad story song of the sort Mann would explore more thoroughly in her solo career. Short and sweet, the song explores the singer’s relationship with someone who can’t quite get the hang of everyday life. Mann balances caring and frustration in just the right balance, giving the track real heart.

Enjoy this smart song today.

Song of the Day, June 26: The Moth by Aimee Mann

MannMothToday’s song is another brilliant pop moment from Aimee Mann’s masterpiece Lost In Space. The Moth is that disc’s penultimate track, drawing together the themes of journeying, isolation, and determination. It opens with a great couplet:

The moth don’t care when he sees the flame
He might get burned, but he’s in the game

Mann carefully dissects obsession, pondering the balance between caution and blind action. Concluding “Come on, let’s go,” she chooses to move forward, aware of the risks but preferring them to being stuck. It’s a wonderfully crafted song, with Mann’s always smart lyrics forming an especially tight narrative. The stripped back instrumentation allows the tale to make its own point, adding just the right amount of quiet urgency.

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Song of the Day, April 3: Pay For It by the Both (Aimee Mann and Ted Leo)

TheBothToday’s song is a brilliant alt-pop collaboration. Aimee Mann rose to prominence in the new wave band ’til tuesday, then launched an acclaimed solo career noted for her smart lyrics and creative independence. Ted Leo has blazed a trail of solid guitar work and rugged vocals in a variety of post-punk and alt-rock bands including his primary unit, the Pharmacists. They met in Milwaukee when Leo was opening for Mann and discovered a highly sympathetic approach to crafting songs.

After a year of touring and writing together, they released an album as The Both (originally named with the hashtag #Both). The partnership gave both performers a real shot in the arm. Leo contributes a welcome energy to Mann’s smart but often too subdued pop while she helps focus his sometimes manic energy. The result is a fun album that shows off both partners’ talents to their best advantage.

The highlight is Pay For It, a bitter, clever alt track that finds the pair trading vocals seamlessly around a tight chorus harmony. Personal politics feature strongly in both artists’ catalogs, and this distills frustration into a perfect package, complete with lyrical realism and fun details. With the Both, the whole is far more than the sum of Aimee plus Ted.

Enjoy this delightful track today.

Song of the Day, January 15: ‘J’ For Jules by ’til tuesday

tiltuesJulesToday’s song is the centerpiece of ’til tuesday’s bittersweet masterpiece Everything’s Different Now. While singer and principle songwriter Aimee Mann has made it clear that the disc is not exclusively about her breakup with Jules Shear, this one clearly relates to those events. Sad but not despairing, it charts the end of something important but holds out hope for future happiness. It’s telling that Mann offers well wishes to both Shear and herself in the chorus, working hard to exorcise the darker aspects of the end of the relationship.

You know I’ll miss you
And thus it begins
But I’ll release you
And thus it continues
Someday we’ll be happy again

Featuring one of her strongest early vocals, it’s a low-key masterpiece with great emotional resonance. Enjoy this magnificent song today.

Album of the Week, November 23: Everything’s Different Now by ’til tuesday

Til_Tuesday-Everythings_Different_Now RBHSJDIDBadge’til tuesday was formed in Boston in 1982, by singer / lyricist / bassist Aimee Mann, late of the Young Snakes. She was joined by drummer Michael Hausman, guitarist Robert Holmes, and keyboard player Joey Pesce. The quartet took the town by storm, winning the 1983 WBCN Rock and Roll Rumble and quickly landing a deal with Epic records. With a slick but distinctive New Wave sound and Mann’s earthy vocals and smart lyrics, the band got a lot of early press and  a nice push from the label. Their first single, Voices Carry, was inspired by Mann and Hausman’s breakup just before recording the album. Dark and haunting but carrying a human warmth with Mann’s delivery, it became a hit [#8, 1983] and a mainstay of 80s radio. ’til tuesday wasn’t interested in repeating a formula, however successful, and their second release, Welcome Home, found Mann writing more of the music herself while the group pursued a richer, more complex sound. Critics loved it, but the public was less interested. Pesce left the group, replaced by Michael Montes. Struggling with pursuing her artistic vision while satisfying label expectations, Mann found herself in the midst of another breakup. Her two-year relationship with singer/songwriter Jules Shear came to an end just as she began writing tracks for the band’s third — and final, as it turned out — album.

Title Everything’s Different Now
Act ’til tuesday
Label Epic Released
1988
Producer Rhett Davies
U.S. Chart  124 U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
[U.S. Hot 100]
  1. Everything’s Different Now
  2. Rip In Heaven
  3. Why Must I?
  4. ‘J’ For Jules
  5. (Believed You Were) Lucky [#95]
  6. Limits to Love
  7. Long Gone (Buddy)
  8. The Other End (of the Telescope)
  9. Crash and Burn
  10. How Can You Give Up?

While Mann has stated firmly that not every track was inspired by the circumstances with Shear, some clearly are (see track 4…), and she has said that it is the most intimate of her early work. Ironically, it’s also her most collaborative, with a number of writers from outside the band pitching in. The result is a heartfelt breakup album that is also powerfully human, blending personal pain with universal themes to create one of the best albums of the 80s and a launching pad for an amazing independent career.

Things kick off with the only ’til tuesday song not written by Aimee Mann, the album’s title track. Penned by power pop rising star Matthew Sweet with Jules Shear, it’s a stirring farewell to a fading relationship. Mann turns in one of her best tuesday vocals, showing off a range she seldom explores and making the most of the emotional energy. It’s followed by one of her own best songs, Rip In Heaven, written with British bassist and singer Kit Hain. Painfully honest, it also charts an ending, reflecting on the contributions both partners make on the path to dissolution. Wrenching and anthemic at once, it’s a small pop masterpiece. Continuing in the reflective tone, Mann allows herself some space to grieve in Why Must I?, a nice look at coping skills — or the lack of them — featuring the fine lyric “Other people get by with either bourbon or God.” This opening trio is a strong statement of purpose, three different, equally compelling looks at endings.

The next track is the most clearly related to Mann’s personal circumstances, the wistful, moving ‘J’ for Jules. With an unflinching, open spirit, she unpacks the relationship with a mixture of sadness and hope, believing “Someday we’ll be happy again,” apart rather than together. Side one wraps with a rare Mann/Shear songwriting credit, (Believed You Were) Lucky. Another reflective piece, this takes a second person view, wondering why a departing partner couldn’t find their own value in the relationship. The pair work well together tying up the emotional weight of the side.

Side two opens with a bit of a departure, the story song Limits to Love, which looks at a self-destructive young woman and the point at which those who care for her must step back. It’s great pop track that changes the focus of the album but still fits the overall tone. Things get personal again with the Mann / Hausman composition Long Gone (Buddy). A darkly introspective song, it finds Mann singing about the difficulties of letting go. With a slow build and a soaring chorus — also featuring some nice vocal work — it picks up the energy musically while hewing to the contemplative feel.

Mann composed The Other End (of the Telescope) with Elvis Costello, a surprising pairing that works extremely well. (Costello enjoyed the song enough to rework it on his later album with the Attractions, All This Useless Beauty.) Mann’s wistful humanity nicely tempers Costello’s barbed wit, creating a perfect I-guess-I-never-really-knew-you song. Their voices blend beautifully, making this a highlight of both careers. Crash and Burn finds Mann and Hain crafting a brilliant post-New Wave anthem, featuring a stirring keyboard line and a bold vocal. With determination, Mann insists on breaking away from the darkest parts of the dissolving relationship. Biting but very human, it’s a perfect conclusion to the break-up themes. How Can You Give Up? adds a cautiously optimistic coda to the proceedings, offering hope for a future love even amidst the rubble of the previous. It’s a smart move, making the most of the album’s overall humanity and giving a welcome bright spot that still resonates with honesty.

Lyrically, Everything’s Different Now is a strong leap forward for Aimee Mann, presaging her future solo work. Musically, she and the band continue to move away from their New Wave beginnings into an early Indie Rock with Power Pop elements. It’s a potent sound that brings all their talents together in a tight, cohesive mix. Darkly personal and reflective, passionately universal in theme, this ten song journey is compelling, sonically satisfying, and ultimately cathartic.

FURTHER LISTENING: Inspired by this more personal work, Mann dissolved the band and began a solo career, slightly delayed by contract problems with Epic — her first of several battles with labels that led her to become a pioneer in independent releasing. All three ’til tuesday discs are worthwhile; Voices Carry is the least consistent but still a distinctive New Wave disc and Welcome Home is a wonderful set of songs by a group growing together. The compilation Coming Up Close features sixteen songs and provides a very good overview of the band’s work.

Mann’s solo work is centered on her smart, often wistful lyrics, quietly earthy vocals, and distinctly melodic song craft. All eight albums have wonderful songs. The finest is Lost In Space, another cohesive, literate meditation on the human condition. Her strong but somewhat inconsistent first two discs — Whatever and I’m With Stupid — are summarized nicely on Ultimate Collection, which also features some rarities and other gems. All the other albums are quite worthwhile, with Bachelor No. 2 or, the Last Remains of the Dodo and @#%&*! Smilers rising above the pack.

Song of the Day, July 25: Everything’s Different Now by ’til tuesday

TTDifferentToday’s song is Everything’s Different Now by ’til tuesday, the title track from their brilliant third — and final — album. Singer and writer Aimee Mann used the disc to exorcise her demons following her breakup with singer/songwriter Jules Shear. This apt track serves as a clear mission statement for the set, laying out her need to work through her feelings and move on.

Everything’s different now
And when I look in the mirror and talk to myself
I can’t pretend it’s the same

Mann is in particularly fine voice, making rare extended use of her higher range to achieve the emotional resonance that makes the song ache.

Enjoy this powerful song today.

Song of the Day, February 4: Superball by Aimee Mann

MannStupidBallToday’s song is Superball by Aimee Mann. It appears on her second solo album, I’m With Stupid. The disc demonstrated her growing confidence as an artist without her band but suffered from the alt-pop box that her label tried to keep her in. This is one of the finest songs, blending that genre’s energy with her trademark wit. A nice “don’t mess with me” track, it uses pop culture as a backdrop, warning the song’s target that she has more energy and resilience than they may be prepared to handle.

I’m a superball
If you think there’ll be no aftershocks
Well I’m a superball
Read the fine print on the back of the box
Stick to slinkies, hot wheels, alphabet blocks

Enjoy this delightful song today.

Album of the Week, August 25: Lost In Space by Aimee Mann

MannLostAimee Mann first came to fame as the leader of ’til tuesday, an impressive band that got stuck with the One Hit Wonder label. After three progressively stronger albums — increasingly showcasing Mann’s powerful observations and sensitive vocals — the band dissolved. Mann pursued a solo career beset by challenges. She recorded Whatever for Imago, a label that ceased to exist not long after the album was released. She moved to Geffen for I’m With Stupid, another strong set. Frustrated with the label’s lack of support and demands for “more commercial” material, she sought an exit. At the same time, her songs were selected as the backdrop for the film Magnolia. That opportunity increased her profile and her confidence. Her best songs have always been cinematic snapshots, and the showcase was perfect. She lifted some of the songs, started her own label (with the tongue-in-cheek name SuperEgo), and released her third solo album, Bachelor No. 2. She took two years to craft the follow-up, her solo masterpiece Lost In Space.

Title Lost In Space
Act Aimee Mann
Label SuperEgo Release Date August 27, 2002
Producer Mike Denneen, Ryan Freeland and Michael Lockwood
U.S. Chart  35 U.K. Chart  72
Tracks
  1. Humpty Dumpty
  2. High On Sunday 51
  3. Lost In Space
  4. This Is How It Goes
  5. Guys Like Me
  6. Pavlov’s Bell
  7. Real Bad News
  8. Invisible Ink
  9. Today’s the Day
  10. The Moth
  11. It’s Not

Lost In Space is a magnificent statement of isolation — even when in company — and the journeys we take to overcome it. Delightfully illustrated by Seth, the packaging serves to emphasize the themes and provides something of an existential travelogue. As with all her best work, Lost In Space features wry observations, witty wordplay, deep insights, and biting commentary. All of it is delivered with Mann’s quiet but expressive vocals and supported by her sympathetic, understated guitar work and a nice array of supporting musicians.

Things kick off with one of her best songs, Humpty Dumpty. It opens with the question “What if you were split in fragments and none of the pieces would talk to you?” Nothing could be a finer introduction to this journey. With explicit driving references and glorious imagery, Mann dissects a broken person and a broken relationship as she prepares to set out on a search for something better. High On Sunday 51 — with its request to “try, baby, try” — builds on this setup nicely. It also features a wonderful bit of wordplay as Mann asks to “be your heroin(e).” The opening scenes are wrapped up with the title track. Lost In Space is a perfect image for the real and abstract travels; the sense of radio waves bouncing off nothing also underscore the perils of human communication.

This Is How It Goes is a remarkably straightforward song from a master of suggestion, a cautionary reflection on what has been and what must come next. It features one of Mann’s finest vocals as she stretches her range and achieves an ache worthy of the most lonely country blues. She picks up the energy for Guys Like Me, a title that serves both as an explanation and an excuse. That bit of insight segues neatly into Pavlov’s Bell, a wonderful deconstruction of the forces that rule us — even as we know we’ve lost control. It repeats the explicit travel theme, reminding us that we’re on a journey, not just chatting about our feelings.

That journey can lead to Real Bad News, Mann’s look at misunderstandings and their perils. Wistful, but firm, she makes it clear that her listener may be confused, but she knows the score…and it isn’t pretty. That leads to the stark determination of Invisible Ink, another great metaphor explored deftly. It’s an old story, but she needs to share it, even if her words can’t be received. Mann demands more in Today’s the Day, asking for a commitment or a clear departure. Her quiet query “Isn’t it enough?” is plaintive but stakes out her growing strength.

As the journey draws to a close, Mann brings out another solid metaphor in The Moth. What could be stale in less adept hands is delightfully powerful, familiar images turned just slightly sideways. Building on the reflexive actions seen in Pavlov’s Bell, she issues a clear warning of the dangers of thoughtless action. In a nice, ironic twist, she wraps it up with a call for action, recognizing that risks must be taken if we are to grow. It’s Not wraps things up enigmatically, however, as the singer returns to the lover that set her off on her journey. Is she settling for comfort over growth, or has her journey prepared her to demand more from this relationship? Only time will tell, but the travels have been worth taking, and her tales of that trip are compelling for their raw humanity and the wonderful grace with which she relates them.

Song of the Day, July 10: Pavlov’s Bell by Aimee Mann

MannPavlovToday’s song is Pavlov’s Bell by Aimee Mann. Over a decade after the end of ’til tuesday, Mann had fought with record labels and struggled to maintain her integrity while pursuing the career she loved. She finally said, “enough,” and started her own label, ironically named SuperEgo. The second album she released on that imprint is her strongest work, Lost In Space, featuring today’s song.

It’s a vague concept album (complete with accompanying comic book) about journeying, and Pavlov’s Bell is clearly a travel tune, as Mann sings to Mario while they drive through Ohio and beyond. With her trademark dry wit and literate lyrics, she creates a vivid impression of hidden agendas, the need to work out a relationship, and the dark power of instinct.

But we could talk about it
Because nobody knows,
that’s how I nearly fell,
trading clothes
and ringing Pavlov’s Bell.
History shows
but rarely shows it well.

The album got a boost when Mann performed the song on an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, cementing her reputation as an icon of the quirky edge of pop culture. Enjoy this wonderful song today.

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