Herbert von Karajan Debussy: La Mer, Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé etc. (with Berlin Philharmonic)
I sure did used to buy a lot of old Karajan recordings. Frankly I’m not sure what I heard in them anymore. Some are excellent (I still love his 1963 Beethoven cycle), but an equal number are generic and rote. This impressionist set is somewhat indifferent in my opinion, though the two works represented are abiding favourites of mine. Nowadays I’d default to more recent recordings, not just for sound quality but for better playing. Measure of gratitude: Middling. Thank you.
Kid Koala Some Of My Best Friends Are DJs Your Mom’s Favourite DJ 12-Bit Blues Live From the Short Attention Span Audio Theatre Tour
I liberated these from my employer’s vast collection out of sheer enthusiasm for Deltron 3030, a project Kid Koala was very much the tertiary member of. Nevertheless, he is an absolute virtuoso on the turntables, and one of the defining musicians of this particular bit of earth I live on. But frankly his recent, more ambient music is more mature and satisfying than these early albums. I still like them quite a bit. It’s a discography worth a deep dive into. Measure of gratitude: Noteworthy. Thank you.
King Crimson In the Court of the Crimson King Lizard Islands Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Red Red (remix) Discipline Three of a Perfect Pair The Power to Believe The Collectible King Crimson, Vol. 4: Live in Warsaw, 2000
King Crimson was never my number one prog band, but they are the one where I understand it least when somebody doesn’t like them. It’s pretty nuts to think that in March 1969 Genesis put out a debut album that sounded like the early Bee Gees, in July 1969 Yes put out a debut album that sounded like a blend of Simon and Garfunkel and Cream, and then in October 1969 In the Court of the Crimson King came out and it was a fully formed prog rock album that we can identify as such in retrospect. There are so few genuine before/after moments in music history. That’s one of them, and it isn’t even their best album. These days I’m most in love with the mid- to late-70s hard rock era that brought us Red (“Starless” is a good candidate for best prog song of the 70s). But there have been times in my life when I’ve loved the antiseptic math rock Talking Heads pastiche of the 80s lineup best. Robert Fripp always said King Crimson was less a band than a “way of doing things.” Truly, it’s several different ways of doing things, all of which I admire implicitly. Measure of gratitude: Enormous. Thank you.
Kraftwerk Trans-Europe Express
I feel like I haven’t listened to Kraftwerk enough. I love Kraftwerk. I probably like Autobahn better than this, when push comes to shove. But there is something really moving about a bunch of extremely German Germans of the post-war era making an album that points towards the connection and cooperation of all European nations. Also, “The Hall of Mirrors” is creepy and awesome. Measure of gratitude: Substantial. Thank you.
Kronos Quartet Black Angels Short Stories
Short Stories really doesn’t register here; I took it home from work and only listened to it once. It’s Black Angels we’re concerned with. The George Crumb composition it’s named after is one of the most extreme and wonderful works of 20th-century chamber music. Totally floored me when I first heard it in university, and it still does. The fact that this disc also contains a spectacular performance of Shostakovich’s eighth (and best) string quartet is secondary. The Kronos Quartet have been involved with some pretty tepid middlebrow projects in the years since this, but the impulse that started the group (specifically, to play Black Angels and other challenging music like it) is one that I wish had been taken up more widely. Measure of gratitude: Large. Thank you.
Mo Lefever Unposed
Lefever came to Fort McMurray for one of our annual jazz workshops and borrowed my friend’s homemade fretless bass. We all thought that was the coolest shit ever. This album is fun. One song was a CBC Radio theme for some time. Measure of gratitude: Small. Thank you.
John Lennon Plastic Ono Band Imagine
I have dined out on my loathing of the song “Imagine” for some years now. And having read Cynthia Lennon’s memoir, the knowledge that while John was exposing radical openness in public he had cut himself off from his first family informs Plastic Ono Band in a not-so-great way. I still love the hell out of these albums. “Mother” is self-indulgence weaponized in all directions with an audacious lack of self-awareness. “Isolation” is one of pop music’s great koans. “Gimme Some Truth” slaps. “Oh Yoko!” is one of the most purely joyful songs ever recorded, and it’s in Rushmore to boot. John Lennon is a basket of problems, but it’s hard not to love him anyway. Measure of gratitude: Large. Thank you.
György Ligeti Chamber Music (Pierre-Laurent Aimard, London Winds, etc.)
I bought this mainly for Ligeti’s wind bagatelles, which are marvelous and frankly better than their solo piano renditions. Haven’t listened to it for a billion years, but I like it just fine. Measure of gratitude: Middling. Thank you.
Magnus Lindberg EXPO/Piano Concerto No. 2/Al Largo (New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert, Yefim Bronfman)
Liberated from work, seldom played, probably pretty good. Who can say? I certainly can’t remember it. Measure of gratitude: Negligible. Thank you.
Love Forever Changes
This is famously one of the most unheralded albums of the 60s, to the point where it may in fact be adequately heralded. Remarkably its best and most memorable song is the one that’s not written by Arthur Lee. Bryan MacLean’s “Alone Again Or” is something I find myself humming on a regular basis, even though I haven’t played this for a dog’s age. Measure of gratitude: Great. Thank you.
Corb Lund Unforgiving Mistress Hair in my Eyes Like a Highland Steer Losin’ Lately Gambler Counterfeit Blues
I’m listening to Corb’s Cabin Fever as I write this, an album I used to have on CD and offloaded because I immediately bought it on vinyl. That’s how great it is. Joni Mitchell is clearly the best Canadian songwriter, but Corb Lund might be the runner up. This particular collection of albums is arbitrary, but every album he’s made is at least a minor masterpiece. Corb used to come to Fort McMurray every summer, but I never saw him because my family was resolutely anti-country. I first encountered him in (fuck, this is the worst) an ethnomusicology class, where I was assigned to give a presentation on Hair in My Eyes Like a Highland Steer. I nailed that presentation. It wasn’t hard. I was an instant convert. Still haven’t seen him live. Someday. Measure of gratitude: Massive. Thank you.
There are facets of Peter Hammill’s work that I love more than ever. In Camera is a sort of avant-garde bedroom pop album, which is a cool as hell vibe. I still love Van Der Graaf Generator. Their particular brand of drama can be a little sophomoric. You sometimes wish they’d lean a little harder into the camp so you know they’re in on the joke. I guess they probably weren’t. Hammill certainly isn’t in on the joke on Over, a breakup album so sincere that it finds him singing “I am drunk with sadness, sunk by madness” without so much as a raised eyebrow in the following line. I still find myself humming bits of “Time Heals” many years after the last time I listened to it. But this really isn’t a very good album. Measure of gratitude: Small. Thank you.
Herbie Hancock Maiden Voyage Head Hunters
These are two masterpieces of shockingly different stripes. Maiden Voyage is basically a mid-60s Miles Davis album with better trumpet playing, thanks to Freddie Hubbard. Head Hunters is an album I had assumed I was done with for years, until Pitchfork gave it a perfect score a couple years back and I revisited it. Turns out they were right. In my brief time in a jazz combo in high school, “Chameleon” was one of the tunes we played. We may even have played it at a fundraising gig. I wonder what my synth solo was like. I wonder how long my synth solo was. Measure of gratitude: Large. Thank you.
Håkan Hardenberger Famous Classical Trumpet Concertos
Hardenberger was one of my favourite trumpeters back when I had those. He was a little more restrained than Sergei Nakariakov, making him well suited to these buttoned down pre-romantic concertos, many of which are chalk dry. I can’t see myself ever listening to this music again in the finite time I have left on this mortal coil, but it meant something to me at one point. Measure of gratitude: Small. Thank you.
Jethro Tull This Was Stand Up (Three-disc edition) Benefit Aqualung Thick as a Brick A Passion Play War Child Minstrel in the Gallery Too Old To Rock ‘N’ Roll: Too Young To Die! The Jethro Tull Christmas Album/Christmas at St. Bride’s 2008 Aqualung Live Live at Montreux 2003
Jethro Tull wasn’t my first favourite band. (We’ll get there towards the end of the alphabet.) But they became my favourite band sometime around the age of 15, and their music continued to resonate with me just as strongly from that point on. These days I don’t listen to Jethro Tull as much as I used to, but when I do it does exactly the same thing to me as it did back then. I have this series I do on the radio where I interview people about the music that has shaped their lives. I have a set question I ask every time when we’re talking about music from their childhoods: “When you hear this now, do you hear it differently or is it pure nostalgia?” When I think about this question with respect to Tull, it’s hard to answer because I don’t hear it remotely differently. My enduring love for this music can’t be nostalgia, because nostalgia implies an awareness of the passage of time, an awareness I do not possess when I hear this. Some of my favourite albums by other artists, like Low or Another Green World are albums that I’ve known for a long time, but that took a long time for me to fully love. I look to those albums for evidence of growth: same music, different experience. Must be a different person. Listening to Jethro Tull has an opposite but equally reassuring effect: it demonstrates to me that there is some continuity of selfhood between my present self and the person I was at 15. It is just about the only experience that can do that. I don’t know anymore if I initially loved Jethro Tull because they resonated with the person I already was, or if the person I am is like this because of Jethro Tull. I recognize how ridiculous it seems to say this about the band with the flute player who stands on one leg. I recognize how ridiculous it seems to say this given that I was born in 1990. But here we are. Measure of gratitude: Larger than any other artist here. Thank you.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience Are You Experienced? Electric Ladyland
I really like Jimi Hendrix. But when I think of the Hendrix I love, it’s the one I know from live videos on YouTube. I like hearing him stretch out and be spontaneous. He is almost certainly the best rock musician of his time in that mode. Moments on Electric Ladyland equal those live performances, but Are You Experienced is too fussy to get close. Measure of gratitude: Small. Thank you.
Elton John Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
I saw Elton John with my mother and godmother in Edmonton one time. Without ever really having listened to him intentionally, I knew every song. That’s how many hits that man has. I started listening to this a lot after that. I don’t love it from start to finish, and overall I think Madman Across the Water is a little better. But there’s nothing more thrilling than “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding.” It’s got everything. Gothic cathedral synths. Cossack dances. Big keyboard spanning chords straight out of the Tchaikovsky first piano concerto. A really good guitar riff. It’s everything you want 70s rock to be. Measure of gratitude: Substantial. Thank you.
Paul Hindemith The Complete Sonatas for Brass and Piano (Glenn Gould, Philadelphia Brass Ensemble)
This has a hilarious moment where Gould and horn player Mason Jones read Hindemith’s poetry. Gould really gives it his all, but Jones just doesn’t have the voice for it. The contrast is magnificent. It’s one of the funniest moments on any classical recording. Generally I like Hindemith. I clearly bought this for the trumpet sonata. These are all pretty good, and it’s got Glenn Gould on piano. Can’t go wrong. Measure of gratitude: Not small. Thank you.
Andreas Martin Hofmeir & Andreas Mildner Why Not?
This is an album of duets for tuba and harp. They know what you’re thinking, the title anticipates you. I have listened to it front to back… once. But I remember revisiting their recording of the meditation from Thais by Massenet several times. It’s actually quite lovely. Measure of gratitude: More than it deserves. Thank you.
Steve Hudson’s Outer Bridge Ensemble Seamless
I saw these guys at my high school auditorium. I have no idea how a bunch of pretty decent New York jazz musicians ended up playing at a high school in Fort McMurray, but they gave it their all. My cooler friends said they were really stoned. Maybe. All I know is they sure did think the northern lights were magnificent after the show. Measure of gratitude: Middling. Thank you.
Michael Kamen Brazil: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (with National Philharmonic Orchestra of London)
Brazil was my favourite movie growing up. I’m not sure how I feel about it these days. On one hand, it’s a story about a faceless bureaucracy crushing a beautiful dreamer’s spirit. That’s pretty timeless. On the other hand, it’s a variation on the same story Terry Gilliam has been telling for his whole career, which is about how systems persecute the individual. At some point, that seemed especially resonant because of Gilliam’s struggles with the studio system, never more than with this movie. But these days, he’s developed a ridiculous persecution complex where he thinks that nobody in Hollywood wants to hear from white men anymore. In light of that, all of his old stories feel a little bit gross: has he just been an entitled jackass with no self-awareness this whole time? Whither Brazil if so? The music is unaffected by all of this. That Kamen wrote a whole score based on one stupid old standard, and that it listens like an old Hollywood epic is a remarkable thing. Plus, this has Kate Bush on it in a vocal performance that was (unforgivably) cut from the movie. Measure of gratitude: Substantial. Thank you.
John Kander & Fred Ebb Chicago (1996 Revival Cast)
When I was 14 years old I was in the male ensemble of a high school production of Chicago and my pants fell down onstage in the middle of “Razzle Dazzle.” Measure of gratitude: Fuck this music forever. Thank you.
I only listened to this once. I’m pretty sure it’s the only CD in my collection that’s true of. I was so freaked out by it that I just couldn’t go back to it. (This is a concept album meant to evoke the feeling of undergoing surgery while awake, or some shit.) Now that I’m writing this I feel I should revisit it, if only to remember what I was so put off by. Measure of gratitude: Greater than zero. Thank you.
Ella Fitzgerald The Cole Porter Songbook, Vol. 2
This is the only one of Ella’s iconic songbook recordings I had. (The past tense is still weird, I’ll likely be inconsistent with that.) I’ve heard all of them at some point, but this Cole Porter set is the one I know best, and therefore like best. But it is pretty nuts that there’s one singer who recorded such a huge chunk of the Great American Songbook and managed to get definitive takes of most of it. Measure of gratitude: Substantial. Thank you.
Robert Fripp Exposure
I’ve arrived at a point where I like this better than any of the King Crimson albums. King Crimson is a band for people who like their music in cogent, internally logical helpings: albums full of songs that complement and build on each other. This is the opposite of that. It’s Fripp in Eno mode, gathering whatever musicians he thought might be interesting at a given time, making whatever music with them happens to come out, and shoving it all on one disc together. It’s magic. You get instrumental prog with virtuoso bass playing from Tony Levin. You get Peter Hammill shouting his throat out like the proto-punk he doesn’t get enough credit for being. You get Peter Gabriel at the piano, singing the definitive rendition of “Here Comes the Flood.” You get another Peter Gabriel song without Gabriel singing, but with Terre Roche and Brian Eno. And depending on which version of the album you listen to, you get a whole lot of Darryl Hall, the last person you’d expect. It’s one of the wildest albums ever made, and nobody else could have possibly wrangled it together so effectively. Measure of gratitude: Immense. Thank you.
Fripp & Eno (No Pussyfooting)
This falls at an early moment in Eno’s ambient music career. I group it alongside the album “Discreet Music,” which also predates his creative breakthrough on “Music for Airports.” It’s fine, and my special edition also contains a bonus track that’s just a full side of it played backwards. Evidently John Peel played it on BBC Radio that way by mistake, which is a story I like better than the actual album. Measure of gratitude: Middling. Thank you.
Peter Gabriel Peter Gabriel (1) Peter Gabriel (2) Peter Gabriel (3) So Us Up Scratch My Back New Blood Big Blue Ball (with various artists)
Peter Gabriel is the only music I’ve ever lost in a breakup. There was a time when this body of work meant more to me than any other music. It is unique in my life for the extent to which it is tied up with my outer life and not just my inner one. As I’ve been going through all of these artists, it’s been interesting to note that I don’t associate many of them (trumpet-related music aside) with specific memories from my own life experience, but rather with abstract notions of how I was thinking at any given time. In general, music isn’t something I share with people: it’s a treasured private experience. It’s one of the ways I converse with myself. Peter Gabriel was, briefly, an exception to that. The events in question have long faded from consequence, and these days Peter Gabriel’s music is just another corridor from one bit of my brain to another, same as anybody else on this list. But there may always be something slightly different about my relationship with this music than with any other music, because for a moment it filled a different role. Measure of gratitude: Incalculable. Thank you.
Marvin Gaye What’s Going On
I’ve never liked this as much as I wish I did. Obviously it’s full of incredible singing. But Marvin Gaye has never resonated with me the same way as other Motown artists like Stevie Wonder and even less gigantic figures like Smokey Robinson. I can only imagine how shattering it must have been in its day, though. Measure of gratitude: Small. Thank you.
Genesis 1970-1975 (13-disc box)
A couple years ago a friend and I decided to score every Genesis song out of 50 points, divided up into a hyper-specific rubric. It took us until a couple months ago to finish, and it is one of the nerdiest things I’ve ever done. It didn’t take long for me to realize that my brain is about 40 percent full of theories about Genesis. I’ve been thinking about this band for twenty years now, and this lavish box set is part of what set me on the trail. It is a daily miracle that I’m not constantly telling passersby about how “Domino” is a spiritual sequel to “Supper’s Ready” even though you’d never know it since one of them is a Peter Gabriel-fronted prog rock classic and the other is Phil Collins singing 80s electro-pop but you see they both are about couples living through the apocalypse and they both make significant reference to television in ways that I feel are really demonstrative of the difference between the band’s two eras and isn’t it unexpected that it’s Gabriel turning the television of and seeking an unmediated experience of the world thereby presenting as the sincere one in this context while Collins the surprising ironist remains blasé sitting in front of the news. *big breath* I’ll write that essay one day, but this isn’t the time. Measure of gratitude: Staggering. Thank you.
Gentle Giant In A Glass House Free Hand Playing the Fool
Gentle Giant deserves their reputation for being the most pointy headed of all the major British prog bands, but they don’t get enough credit for being super fun. It’s good-natured music made by people drunk on their own ability to write and play the really hard shit. Playing the Fool is maybe the best live album ever made. I get why people don’t like prog, but occasionally you meet somebody who’s actually angry about it and I feel like they should really just pay more attention to Gentle Giant. Measure of gratitude: Huge. Thank you.
Philip Glass Heroes Symphony/The Light (Marin Alsop, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra)
I’ve played this on the radio so many goddamn times, mainly to give myself an opportunity to write about David Bowie on classical shows. But honestly it isn’t Glass’s best work. It renders Bowie’s music a little bit sterile. Measure of gratitude: Small. Thank you.
Glenn Gould The Young Maverick The Radio Artist
Gould is mostly filed under other composers in my collection. These are two big sets from CBC Records, one of which has old scratchy CBC recordings of a young Gould playing a pretty massive range of music from Bach to Berg. The other contains his radio work, which is so bonkers you can hardly believe it happened in Canada. Measure of gratitude: Large. Thank you.
As I write this, I have finally done it. I’ve gone through with the plan. I packed the vast majority of the Survivors into a wheely duffel bag. I wheeled them through the snow. I left them overnight at a shop. And I accepted an offer for the full collection that far exceeded my expectations. The bulk of the Survivors survive no longer. (Now it’s just the classical stuff. God knows how I’ll offload all that garbage.) I’ll continue my reminiscences and expressions of gratitude in their absence. Good night, sweet princelings.
Deep Purple Made in Japan
Of the three great British proto-metal bands of the early 70s, Led Zeppelin is my uncontroversial favourite. I could honestly take or leave both Deep Purple and Black Sabbath. But for a moment there, Deep Purple satisfied a need. I always love hearing their influence come out in later bands like the Decemberists and Opeth (though the latter has taken this influence a little too far in recent years). But this live album is almost unlistenably of its time. What do the 70s sound like? Nothing more than this. Measure of gratitude: Small. Thank you.
Dr. John The Very Best of Dr. John
We were a blues-first household for a good five years or so of my childhood. Dr. John was one of the artists in that milieu that I really latched onto, such that I’m about 75 percent sure I was the one who bought this. Since he died, I’ve bought a couple of his full albums: the high-concept swamp freakout Gris-Gris and the New Orleans funk masterpiece In the Right Place. This compilation represents both of them, plus his marvellous solo piano recordings from later in his career. It was a nice overview, and reading the tracklist makes me wish more people would check him out. Measure of gratitude: Very substantial. Thank you.
Bob Dylan The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan Bringing it All Back Home Highway 61 Revisited Blood on the Tracks The Basement Tapes (with The Band)
In recent years my tastes have moved further in the direction of acoustic/indie songwriter music than ever before. As this change has occurred, I find myself more and more enamoured of Blood on the Tracks and less and less tolerant of pretty much everything else Bob Dylan ever did. Blood on the Tracks is a masterpiece of directness. None of the songs on it can be pinned down to a single, stable interpretation, BUT, they are songs that prioritize clarity. It’s clear what is actually transpiring in each song, even if they do leave tantalizing blanks and inconsistencies for interpreters to fill in. By contrast, big swathes of Highway 61 and Blonde on Blonde (which I’m a little surprised to find is not here among the Survivors) seem deliberately obtuse and obfuscatory. It’s remarkable to me that one songwriter can so completely define two styles of songwriting, one of which I adore and the other of which I have less and less patience for. Measure of gratitude: Middling. Thank you.
Miles Davis Collector’s Edition (Cookin’, Relaxin’, Workin’) Kind of Blue Sketches of Spain In a Silent Way Bitches Brew A Tribute to Jack Johnson On the Corner
In my trumpet playing days, Miles Davis became a sort of personal totem for me. I was learning tone production on the trumpet as a matter of efficiency and blend: play in such a way that you’ll be able to physically sustain it, and so that it’ll work well with what everybody else is doing. It’s an awkward thing to resent, because it’s ultimately very sound advice, and a worthwhile metaphor for how to live generally. But as an 18-year-old musician, you have all these big ideas about ~expression~ and ~not compromising~. So I listened obsessively to Miles Davis, definitely one of the weakest technical players in the history of jazz. His famously quiet sound cracks frequently from inadequate air support, and he would have had to stay at Juilliard a little longer if he wanted to blend with an orchestra. None of this is why I liked Miles Davis. It wasn’t just me being defiant or perverse. But the fact that I loved him in spite of the fact that his playing contravened everything I was learning was certainly powerful. Nowadays, I find some of Miles’ playing even harder to take than I did back then. (I listened to the Plugged Nickel recordings for the first time last year and almost didn’t make it through because of Miles’ soloing.) But I can still revisit this music and find it absolutely visionary. In a Silent Way hits me harder now than ever. And while I sympathise with Robert Christgau’s fear that Sketches of Spain represented a gentrification of jazz, I still think it’s one of the most dramatic and satisfying jazz albums of all. Measure of gratitude: Massive. Thank you.
Claude Debussy Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, Images etc. (Pierre Boulez, Cleveland Orchestra)
Debussy is the shit. I feel as though people are realising this more. Even if it’s only “Clair de Lune,” he has been cropping up in unexpected places lately: video games, podcasts, Vulfpeck, etc. These days I like him best for his piano music, but it was his symphonic works that I loved first. Images for Orchestra is a wonderful and slightly underrated set of pieces–I like it easily as much as La Mer. I have become more and more sceptical of the classical canon over the last decade, but it’s been nice to go through some of these old CDs and realise that there are at least a few of the big names that I like more than I used to. Debussy is certainly one. Measure of gratitude: Large. Thank you.
Mike Downes The Winds of Change
Some surprisingly good jazz musicians came to Fort McMurray to do workshops with the high school students. I almost always bought their CDs. Some of them are pretty good, including this one, though I haven’t heard it for years. Measure of gratitude: Small. Thank you.
The Dirty Dozen Brass Band Funeral for a Friend What’s Going On
The Dirty Dozen were New Orleans’ preeminent brass band for a generation. That doesn’t mean that they can pull off a full-album cover of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On with rappers. But Funeral for a Friend finds them in their element, playing the New Orleans funeral classics that make New Orleans jazz such an amazing musical tradition. It’s a hidden gem of an album that I really think everybody should hear. I don’t even care if you like jazz. At least listen to the first track. It’s shattering. Measure of gratitude: Very large. Thank you.
Kenny Dorham Quiet Kenny
One of many CDs I purchased on a whim during the hottest heat of my jazz madness. No doubt I bought it at a store in Edmonton that’s been closed for a decade. Kenny Dorham is an underrated name in jazz. But I’d be lying if I said I remember anything on this except for “Lotus Blossom,” which is one of the most irresistible jazz tunes of its era. Measure of gratitude: Middling. Thank you.
Emerson, Lake & Palmer Brain Salad Surgery
Other ELP classics didn’t survive the first cull. I know I used to have Tarkus and Trilogy on CD as well, both of which are at least equal to Brain Salad Surgery in my opinion. But this was the album that first sold me on ELP. I have fond memories of listening to this straight through, including to the documentary at the end where Keith Emerson says something like “Brain Salad Surgery was the last album before I embarked on an orchestral… crusade, if you like.” What a magnificent jackass. His playing on the classic ELP records is reason enough to look past everything wrong with them. I still have trouble believing Carl Palmer’s the only one left alive. Measure of gratitude: Immense. Thank you.
Duke Ellington Black, Brown, & Beige (with Mahalia Jackson) The Essential Duke Ellington
My university jazz band did an annual concert focussing on old big band hits by folks like Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Harry James, etc. It was always kind of a bummer, because so much of that music sounds the goddamn same. Then, one magical year, the jazz profs decided we’d exclusively play music by Duke Ellington. If you’ve never considered just how different Duke’s music was from the hitmakers who got their start a few years later, I implore you to have another listen. His music is wall-to-wall surprises. It’s early in the history of big bands, but nobody ever did it better. Or as good. Or nearly as good. Measure of gratitude: Massive. Thank you.
Bill Evans The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961
These recordings are better known in rendered-down form as the single LPs Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby. But I got to know them in this utilitarian three-disc set, which simply plays the sessions in the order they happened. I can hardly imagine it any other way. Magic. Measure of gratitude: Large. Thank you.
John Cage Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano (John Tilbury)
Late in high school I made a point of getting into the most bizarre shit imaginable. With the aid of the internet, I sought out the strangest music from all of the genres I liked. In retrospect, what I actually found was just the most famously strange music that multiple genres had to offer. Captain Beefheart in the rock section. Ornette Coleman in the jazz section. And John Cage for classical music. These pieces are perhaps his most accessible music. The only thing bizarre about them is that there’s a bunch of bullshit stuck in the piano, which makes the notes sound not just tonally different but sometimes actually a different pitch from the notated one, so Cage’s notated chords are impossible to analyze on the score. Not that you’d know that from listening: when you don’t have the score in front of you it’s just fun, slightly odd-sounding music. John Tilbury’s performance is wonderful in my opinion, and he’s a personality I’d encounter again many years later as the biographer of Cornelius Cardew, a figure I find as compelling as Cage in his way. Measure of gratitude: Very large. Thank you.
John Cale The Island Years
I never could get into this. It’s a collection of Cale’s first three albums for Island, including the massively beloved Fear, plus Slow Dazzle and Helen of Troy. One of the most substantial writing challenges I’ve ever set for myself was making an episode of my podcast about Fear, an album about which much has been written and about which I have nothing new to say. I have had this for nearly half my life, and it is perhaps the thing in my collection that I’ve had for the longest without ever warming to. Someday. Measure of gratitude: Small. Thank you.
Camel A Live Record
Of the B-tier British prog bands, Camel is my least favourite. It’s perfectly pleasant, but I find it pretty simple and unsurprising, especially considering how long some of the tracks wear on. This live album has some stuff on it that I don’t mind, including vocal performances by Richard Sinclair, who’s in a couple other bands I like better (see immediately below) and the material from Rain Dances works especially well. I dunno. It’s fine, I guess. Measure of gratitude: Small. Thank you.
Caravan In the Land of Grey and Pink For Girls Who Grow Plump in the Night
Caravan was my entry point into the Canterbury scene and I’m thankful to them for that, even if they’re not my favourite of those bands anymore. In the Land of Grey and Pink is a really fun album that I wish had better solos. Great chords, fun song structures, mediocre soloing. For Girls Who Grow Plump is a little better in that regard. These days I prefer the stranger pastures of the Canterbury scene, particularly Soft Machine, Robert Wyatt, Steve Hillage and Caravan’s bizarre little brother Hatfield and the North. But these two albums were a fantastic and gentle introduction. Measure of gratitude: Large. Thank you.
Johnny Cash American III: Solitary Man American V: A Hundred Highways
When my workplace was offloading a bunch of CDs, I took a big pile of stuff I’d meant to listen to but hadn’t ever gotten to, including these two random volumes of Johnny Cash’s famous Rick Rubin collaborations. I’ve only listened to each of them once apiece, which is a shame because they’re as good as people say. Measure of gratitude: Middling. Thank you.
The Chemical Brothers Dig Your Own Hole
A friend made me listen to the Chemical Brothers for a dumb blog from a bygone time and it actually stuck. This isn’t my favourite of theirs. Probably not in my top three. But it does rip ass pretty hard in a few places. Measure of gratitude: Substantial. Thank you.
Chicago Symphony Orchestra Brass Live
One of the less regrettable brass porn recordings I bought during music school. The CSO has a famously good (and famously loud) brass section. This is just that section, playing arrangements of music that was originally for all sorts of configurations, from solo violin to full symphony orchestra. I’m not sure all of these arrangements justify their existence, but there are some real highlights here, and bear in mind that I still remember those moments after not listening to this for a decade. The arrangement of the Bach passacaglia is fantastic. And the opening of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet excels the symphonic arrangement because that massive build comes out of instruments that are timbrally similar, allowing each sound to build on the last instead of broadening the palette. Good shit. Measure of gratitude: Middling. Thank you.
Ornette Coleman The Shape of Jazz to Come
Never really got into this. I like other free jazz records (though I’m not convinced that’s the best label for this). I like Don Cherry’s Complete Communion just fine. Late Coltrane is wonderful. But this strikes me as sort of pointy-headed and not very expressive. Some albums I don’t get and hope to eventually come around to. With this I honestly don’t care. Measure of gratitude: Negligible. Thank you.
Tyler Collins Fall
A self-released CD by a friend of mine from high school that I used to play in a band with. He’d moved past this by the time we started playing together and I imagine he’d be mortified to even remember its existence. I thought it was alright. Nevertheless, because of the experience of playing in that band: Measure of gratitude: Massive. Thank you.
John Coltrane Giant Steps A Love Supreme Meditations
Every high school jazz nerd must get really into John Coltrane, these are the rules. Frankly, I hope those rules continue to apply forever because Coltrane is the shit. Giant Steps was never really my style, though Coltrane’s playing is incredible. But A Love Supreme and Meditations completely floored me and still do. Meditations is the jazz album that I most wish would become a household name. It has beautiful playing from Coltrane’s classic quartet (especially McCoy Tyner, who gets a magnificent unaccompanied solo that might be his best recorded moment), plus completely unhinged performances by young lions Pharoah Sanders and Rashied Ali. I listened to this obsessively as a kid and I still adore it. Measure of gratitude: Enormous. Thank you.
John Corigliano Circus Maximus (University of Texas Wind Ensemble, Jerry Junkin)
I performed in the Canadian premiere of this symphony for wind ensemble. It was a great experience in the end, albeit a little stressful during the process because Corigliano was actually there and our Northern Albertan university wind ensemble was about as good as you’d expect. The piece is kind of dumb in retrospect, but ~memories~. Measure of gratitude: Middling. Thank you.
Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet The Juliet Letters
An uneven recording I liberated from work. I feel like more people should listen to it, if only because “Taking My Life in Your Hands” is maybe the best Elvis Costello song. I could listen to it ten times in a row, and I’m sure I have. The rest I could take or leave. Measure of gratitude: Small. Thank you.
Ludwig van Beethoven Nine Symphonies (Herbert von Karajan, Berlin Philharmonic, 1963) Symphonies Nos. 4 & 7 (Joshua Bell, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields) Symphonies Nos. 5 & 7 (Herbert von Karajan, Berlin Philharmonic, 1982-83) Complete Overtures (David Zinman, Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich) Complete String Quartets (Emerson String Quartet)
Beethoven is kind of a problem because his legacy is louder than his music. It’s basically impossible to hear the fifth and ninth symphonies with fresh ears. For me, it’s hard to hear Beethoven without hearing a billion conflicting Beethovens at once, including the pop culture grump, the one who’s an unwitting combatant in the culture war around the canon, and somewhere in there the actual guy who wrote this music. But there are works in there that carve a detour past all of that, most notably the late string quartets. If you dangled me off the edge of a cliff and asked me what’s my favourite single movement from a classical work, I’d almost certainly go with the third movement from Beethoven’s Op. 132: a hymn of thanksgiving so gracious and human that it couldn’t possibly come from a mere icon. Measure of gratitude: Immense. Thank you.
Bix Beiderbecke In A Mist
Fort McMurray was a weirdly good place to learn about jazz. Briefly I played piano in a combo at the local college and I remember our instructor pulling Bix off the shelves, flipping past all the tracks where he plays trumpet, his main instrument, and settling on “In A Mist.” It’s a lovely parlour piano confection: jazz with a hint of Debussy. I miss those opportunities to listen closely to music as a group. That said, I haven’t spent much time with Bix Beiderbecke since high school. Measure of gratitude: Moderate. Thank you.
Adrian Belew Side Four
I should acknowledge that there are a few discs among the Survivors that are destined to survive the next cull as well. My mother will likely make a home for the Beatles, etc. And my autographed copy of this live album by Adrian Belew isn’t going anywhere. I saw Belew live when I was eighteen, possibly my first non-all-ages concert. Clearly, I was the youngest one there. He was playing with a brother/sister rhythm section who were barely older than I was. At the signing table I told Belew it was the best concert I’d ever seen, but somebody distracted him just as I said it and he never responded. I think about that during every solo on Remain in Light. Great live album, though. Measure of gratitude: Large. Thank you.
Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim West Side Story (Original Broadway Cast Recording)
It is reasonably well known at this point that I was a theatre kid. Aside from Dream Theater I daresay my most shameful childhood enthusiasm was Andrew Lloyd Webber. There are only three musicals among the Survivors, none of which are by him. A great many cast albums were culled. The ones that made it through are truly extraordinary, none more so than West Side Story, a show that is not overrated. The generation of Broadway blockbusters that followed this are frequently simplistic and manipulative. Bernstein’s music, by contrast, is complex and thorny. It’s easy to forget that because of how familiar it is. Measure of gratitude: Substantial. Thank you.
Mirosław Jacek Błaszczyk Henryk & Mikołaj Górecki (with Silesian Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, etc.)
It really ought to be filed under ‘G,’ but it is technically a disc by multiple composers: Henryk Górecki and his lesser known son. I have seldom revisited the bulk of this recording, but Górecki senior’s piano concerto has become a real favourite, and I wouldn’t have heard it had I not liberated this disc from my workplace. Measure of gratitude: Moderate. Thank you.
David Bowie Ziggy Stardust Aladdin Sane Low “Heroes”
David Bowie has been one of my primary obsessions of the last few years, rivalled only by the Mountain Goats, Joanna Newsom and my perpetual fascination with Brian Eno. It’s odd to think back on the time when I first heard these CDs, nearly a decade ago at the height of my CD buying, and to think that I merely liked them. That Low didn’t immediately strike me as music I couldn’t live without. That “Starman” was not the sound of a whole generation’s euphoria echoing across the decades, but just a decent tune. It’s reassuring to know that kind of growth is possible. Measure of gratitude: Unimaginably large. Thank you.
Sir Adrian Boult Brahms/Mendelssohn (with BBC Symphony Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra)
One thing I’ve learned since my early days of classical CD collecting is that the standard for symphonic playing is higher today than in anybody’s idea of a long-past “golden age.” This isn’t one of the CDs I bought. This one came to me by chance. But it’s a scratchy old thing where the playing, insofar as you can hear it, is only okay. Orchestras today play more in tune, more together and with greater focus and intensity, not to mention that they’re recorded in better sound. Give me Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s Mendelssohn 4 any day over this. Measure of gratitude: Negligible. Thank you.
Johannes Brahms Symphonies Nos. 1-4 etc. (Wolfgang Sawallisch, London Symphony Orchestra) Ein Deutsches Requiem (John Eliot Gardiner, Monteverdi Choir, Orchestra Revolutionnaire)
When I bought these discs, Brahms was a firmly third-tier composer to me. Since then he’s become one of my few truly essential canonical composers. The Brahms I love is the bittersweet old man of the late piano pieces: music filled with regret and yearning. Tossed-off trifles that are more profound and sincere than any of his fussier large-scale works. When I learned about Brahms in my music history classes, we learned about him as a composer who was consciously standing in the shadow of Beethoven. It’s easy to hear that version of Brahms in his first symphony, which is naturally what we were assigned for listening homework. But since then I’ve come to think of Brahms as the only composer in the canon whose legacy has been harmed rather than bolstered by this kind of “great man” history. When you stand him up next to Beethoven, he comes up short, because he was a totally different kind of composer. At his best, he wasn’t a composer of huge gestures and epic themes–he was a composer of small, intimate, interior music. The Deutsches Requiem is the one larger work where he’s able to conjure the grace and generosity that I love in those late piano pieces. But the symphonies, aside from the second, still leave me cold. So, parsing my gratitude towards these particular discs is a challenge. Let’s go with this: Measure of gratitude: Complicated. Thank you.
Brooklyn Rider A Walking Fire
Perhaps the best album I ever stole from work. Brooklyn Rider is an oddly named string quartet that makes albums that sound like rock records. The mics are close, the playing is frequently aggressive and a fair bit of the music is new. This has Bartók on it, but that’s hardly the point. The highlight is Ljova’s piece Culai, inspired by a magnificent old folk fiddler. It has that rare quality in classical music, where I couldn’t imagine it played by another ensemble. (Also I didn’t steal it, I was encouraged to take it. But it feels a bit like theft, because somebody sent it somewhere, not thinking it would end up with me.) Measure of gratitude: Significant. Thank you.
Clifford Brown and Max Roach Clifford Brown and Max Roach
There was a moment in my trumpet playing days when I realized I’d made a terrible mistake. I went to music school thinking I’d learn how to play many different kinds of music, only to realize that when you learn music at a university it’s all classical, all the time. I really should have done more research. This realization came less than a semester into my program and I absolutely could have pulled the ripcord in retrospect, but it didn’t seem like an option at the time. So, I collected and avidly listened to jazz, with a sense of profound longing. Today I feel absolutely no attachment to the classical solo rep I learned for the trumpet. But when I hear Clifford Brown, I still wish I could do that. Measure of gratitude: Large. Thank you.
Dave Brubeck Time Out Quadromania
My main music discovery trend in high school was trying to familiarize myself with the standards of the genres I was into, however niche those genres were. I don’t know where my obsession with canons came from, but it goes back all the way. Time Out is perhaps my least favourite of the S-tier jazz albums. Give me Kind of Blue, A Love Supreme or Mingus Ah Um any day over this. The four-disc budget set Quadromania actually has some stuff I remember fondly. I haven’t listened to it in years, but the second I pulled it off the shelf just now the bassline to “Tritonis” started playing in my head. Measure of gratitude: Small, but not offensively so. Thank you.
Anton Bruckner Symphony No. 9 (Carl Maria Giulini, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra)
Bruckner is a composer I’ve frequently claimed not to like. It’s a claim I’ve had to make fairly often as a Mahler fan, because the two of them seem to come as a package deal for lots of classical music people. I can see why: they’re both Romantic symphonists who like big orchestras and loud climaxes. But Mahler has a gift for melody and a subtle way of using his massive orchestras that I don’t hear in Bruckner. But I ought to note that there’s only one Bruckner symphony that I’ve really put the time and effort into “getting,” his ninth, and I actually do like that one. Maybe my early thirties will be my Bruckner era, the way my early twenties were all about Mahler. That said: I don’t feel like this symphony needs to be any longer than it is, and it wasn’t even finished. Measure of gratitude: Moderate. Thank you.
Kate Bush Aerial 50 Words for Snow Director’s Cut (Collector’s Edition) Before the Dawn
My CD shelves contain an idiosyncratic selection of works by the greatest living songwriter, but it’s a body of work that shows her in a compelling light. The albums that make the strongest argument for Kate Bush being the greatest living songwriter are probably The Dreaming and Hounds of Love, and they make two subtly different arguments. The Dreaming argues for Kate Bush as a superior, alien presence at the margins of pop music. Hounds of Love argues that she’s the strangest mainstream pop sensation of all time. For reasons I’m honestly not certain of, I only have music from after those two albums on CD. This collection contains all of her major releases since then (the collector’s edition of Director’s Cut comes packaged with The Sensual World and The Red Shoes). Every single one of these albums is uneven, but they’re the kind of uneven that I find interesting. I’ve always liked 50 Words for Snow more than I think most people do. It’s a spare, slow-moving album with a couple of songs towards the end that strain to fill the time. But it’s a big swing, and a completely new direction that came out of nowhere. Kate Bush trained me to expect this. Mostly I’m disappointed, but never by her. Measure of gratitude: Gigantic. Thank you.
A few years ago I went home to Fort McMurray and came back to Vancouver with many boxes of my old stuff, including a frankly unthinkable number of CDs. From the ages of about 12 to 23 I spent a pretty spectacular amount of my parents’ money on these things, and eventually an almost as spectacular amount of my own. Do I regret this? What would be the point? The truth is, I think I learned an enormous amount from all that dedicated searching and focussed listening. I don’t know if I’d be able to do the work I’ve done over the last few years without that experience.
But things change, don’t they? I’ve taken up vinyl collecting because I am a complete reprobate, and I have an Apple Music subscription even though I know that streaming services are bad and wrong. These days, the only device I own that can actually play CDs is a MacBook that barely boots up. It feels inappropriate somehow to be surrounded by them. I just did a quick count, counting double albums as two and all the discs in box sets separately, etc. I’m sure I wasn’t completely accurate but I have somewhere in the neighbourhood of 624 discs here, none of which I will ever play again. I’m beginning to feel like it’s time to find these discs a new home.
In fact, I offloaded perhaps a third of my collection as soon as I got it to Vancouver. The 600-plus discs that remain here are the Survivors. Not all of them survived for the noblest of reasons. I prioritized keeping CDs with potentially useful liner notes or especially beautiful design. I evicted many wonderful albums thanks to bare bones packaging. Now my shelves are lined with strange absences and ghosts. Marvellous recitals by Horowitz and Richter didn’t take their place alongside splashier sets by fellow legends. A tepid Jon Anderson live album was allowed to stay while Olias of Sunhillow was cast out. A previously wide-ranging jazz collection is now somehow missing Louis Armstrong. No amount of pretty album art could keep Dream Theater on my shelves, but their absence is felt nevertheless.
In retrospect, I wish I’d taken a catalogue of what I had. Now that I’m once again looking to downsize, I feel an obligation to do right by the Survivors. In the spirit of Marie Kondo, I feel I ought to thank these CDs before I bid them farewell. So: in this series I’m going to go through every CD I still own, alphabetically by primary artist,* and take stock of the memory and influence I associate with each. And because I can’t resist the urge to quantify, I’ll offer a “measure of gratitude” for every artist before thanking them and sending them on their way.
I’ve filed this under Abbado because of the rules,* but I bought it because of Adoph Herseth. Once upon a time, though few believe it now, I wanted to be a professional trumpet player. ‘Bud’ Herseth was the longtime principal trumpet of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and a person I was primed to idolize by every authority figure in my life. The fact remains that no matter how well he plays it, the Haydn trumpet concerto is kind of a boring piece of music. It’s also probably the most revered piece of solo music written for that instrument, which is why I don’t play it anymore. Measure of gratitude: Moderate. Thank you.
Allpa Kallpa Recuerdo a Chico Mendes
Growing up in Fort McMurray, our long weekend getaway of choice was to drive five hours south to Edmonton, the closest proper city. I loved the West Edmonton Mall. Not the stores, mind you, but everything else about it: the kitschy spectacles scattered through the mall’s massive corridors. The pirate ship, the whale, the fire-breathing dragon, the ice rink, the elaborate mini-golf course. And the bands who would occasionally perform by the escalators up to the movie theatre. Allpa Kallpa was one of them, an Andean pan flute ensemble. I harangued my parents to buy their CD and never listened to it. Years later I did. I feel like someday I might decide to explore the music of the Andes further, and when I do it will be because of a hazy memory of Allpa Kallpa at the West Edmonton Mall. It will not be because of this CD specifically. Measure of gratitude: Negligible. Thank you.
Maurice André Trumpet Concertos (with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra)
Adolph Herseth (see Claudio Abbado) may have been my various mentors’ favourite symphonic trumpeter. But as a soloist there was nobody who could beat Maurice André. This recording with the most prestigious conductor/orchestra combo of their day is more entertaining than a whole record of trumpet concertos ought to be because of André’s jolly, seemingly effortless playing. I haven’t listened to it for years but maybe I should. One of the few trumpet recordings I’d recommend to people who don’t play the trumpet. Measure of gratitude: Moderate. Thank you.
Ian Anderson Thick as a Brick 2
Ian Anderson was of course the frontman, singer, songwriter and flautist of Jethro Tull. I have already written, self-indulgently and at length, about what Jethro Tull meant to me growing up. I may have called them “the band that introduced me to myself,” and I deeply regret being the sort of person who would say things like that in a public forum. Nevertheless, here I am again, writing self-indulgently and at length about my music collection. The fact that I have this tendency is probably Jethro Tull’s fault. Self-indulgence and length are two qualities I learned to admire thanks to Jethro Tull, and particularly to Thick as a Brick. I’m sure I’ll have more to say on that when we get to letter ‘J.’ But for now the subject at hand is Ian Anderson’s solo album Thick as a Brick 2, about which I have very little to say. It struck me as a cash grab at the time: the sort of thing you release when your best and most popular music is several decades behind you and you need a gimmick to drive some record sales. I haven’t listened to it for nearly a decade, and I’m not as upset about it now as I was then. Still, I remember it as a wilful misunderstanding of what was interesting and great about one of my favourite albums ever. Measure of gratitude: Negative gratitude. Wish I’d never heard it. Thank you.
Jon Anderson Live from La La Land
Another day, another solo album by a prog rock frontman called Anderson. The way I feel about this is similar to TAAB2 (see above) in the sense that it is a document of faded glory. Anderson sounds fine on this live recording, but I can’t help associating it with the one time I saw him live. My ex bought the tickets as a gift for my 19th birthday. It was at a casino in Edmonton, which is depressing in itself. Worse, Anderson was ill at the time and had been hospitalized for respiratory problems the previous evening. He could only manage about twenty minutes onstage. Frankly he sounded great, but he was visibly about to fall asleep. Around this time, his old band Yes was touring with the singer from a Yes tribute band in his place. This was around the time I realized that it may have been a mistake to exclusively admire musicians who started their careers twenty to three hundred years before my birth. Measure of gratitude: Negligible. Thank you.
Johann Sebastian Bach Sacred Masterpieces (John Eliot Gardiner, Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists) The Art of Fugue/Musical Offering (Sir Neville Marriner, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields) A State of Wonder (Glenn Gould, complete Goldberg Variations, 1955 and 1981)
The most substantial item in my small Bach collection is the John Eliot Gardiner set, which is a budget-priced 22-disc box. By disc quantity, it’s the largest single item on my shelves. I’ve only listened to most of it once. It was a Christmas gift, and I spent a big chunk of one winter holiday listening through the discs sequentially, like a list of chores. There is music I adore here, like the final chorus of the Christmas Oratorio, the opening chorus of the St. John Passion and the Agnus Dei from the Mass in B Minor. But the cantatas all blend together after a while, no doubt partially because of the insane, dutiful way I first listened to them. I have been on the precipice of loving this music for years, without ever quite getting there. The Bach I love is smaller in scale and more conceptual, like the Musical Offering. I also love the version of Bach that Glenn Gould adopted as a muse. Gould’s Bach, including but not limited to these famous Goldberg Variations recordings, is more exciting to me than anybody else’s. Measure of gratitude: Substantial. Thank you.
Syd Barrett The Madcap Laughs Barrett
There are two Syd Barretts floating around the periphery of “classic rock.” One of them is the tragic hero of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here: a distant memory, framed in terms of the success his band achieved after they left him behind. The other is contained on these solo records, where he isn’t merely a legend told by an unreliable narrator but an actual material presence to accept on his own terms. This Syd Barrett is not a tragic figure, though the studio banter on The Madcap Laughs seems like it’s trying to mould him into one. He is a brilliant, intuitive songwriter whose unforced eccentricity unlocked a door that David Bowie and Kate Bush walked through. There’s nothing like this. Measure of gratitude: Enormous. Thank you.
Béla Bartók Concerto for Orchestra/Music for Strings etc. (Esa-Pekka Salonen, Los Angeles Philharmonic)
Both works on this disc have to contend with the troubling history of my music education, but astonishingly enough I have positive associations with both of them. I learned the first trumpet part of the Concerto for Orchestra for an exam, and the first movement of Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta was a central plank of one of my music theory courses. The Concerto is great fun to play, so much that I suspect Bartók intentionally wrote it with that in mind. And that opening movement of Music for Strings is modernism at its expressive best: the sort of music that reveals more of itself to adore when you pick it apart. In general I enjoy classical music less than I did when I bought this, but Bartók is one of the few composers that I’ve actually come to enjoy more. Measure of gratitude: Large. Thank you.
Howard Bashaw Hard Rubber, Hard Elastic
I performed one of the works on this disc in Edmonton, Music for Trumpet and Piano, with Howard Bashaw’s input. That was actually a pretty great experience. It’s a great piece too, performed on this recording by one of my teachers, Russell Whitehead. It’s far from the best thing on this recording though: that’s Three Movements for the Hard Rubber Orchestra, written for a Vancouver-based ensemble that I’ve heard more from since moving to this city. I listen to that work pretty frequently. Bashaw is a bit of a composer’s composer, but I really think more people ought to give this a shot. It’s heady, but it’s also playful and energetic. Measure of gratitude: Substantial. Thank you.
David Bates Handel/Vivaldi: Dixit Dominus (with La Nuova Musica, Lucy Crowe)
This is the first of many CDs we’ll come to that I brought home from work when work didn’t need them. It’s a pair of good performances of Baroque works, of which the Vivaldi is especially interesting because it was only recently determined to be by Vivaldi. I really don’t have much more to say about this than that. It’s a “good classical recording,” of which I have many that I don’t especially care about. Measure of gratitude: Negligible. Thank you.
The Beach Boys Pet Sounds
I’m conscious of the fact that this collection really makes me seem a good 40 years older than I am. I feel like for lots of kids, discovering music is at least partially a way of differentiating themselves from their parents. I wasn’t an especially rebellious child. My musical discoveries were mainly from my parents’ generation, but with the aid of the internet. Pet Sounds was one of the absences from my parents’ collection that I noticed first, and I rectified it myself. Nowadays it’s hard to talk about it without veering into either the breathless boomer enthusiasm for it or the mild exasperation of later cohorts. I tend towards the former. If you can look past the hype and the ambition, you’ll find a warm and generous pop album that ought to be loved more and admired less. Measure of gratitude: Substantial. Thank you.
The Beatles The Beatles in Mono (13-disc box) Yellow Submarine Let It Be Let It Be (Naked) Abbey Road Past Masters Love
You will have noted some ambivalence in the above remarks on the Beach Boys. I can’t bring myself to feel that same ambivalence towards the Beatles. I adore them unambiguously. They are as suffocatingly acclaimed in their milieu as the next artist on this alphabetical list is in his. (One guess.) But that apparently doesn’t matter to me at all. I love the Beatles so much it ruined my life. When I discovered them at age ten or whatever, they were the only band that meant as much to everybody else as they did to me. A few years back I used to joke that all I wanted was for every single person in the world to love me more than they loved anything else. Happily I’ve gotten over that, but it was the Beatles’ fault. Measure of gratitude: Incalculably vast. Thank you.
*This list is alphabetical by “primary artist,” which is defined as the top element on this list that is applicable to the whole disc:
To be clear, I know nobody asked for this. The audience for the first season of my podcast Ghost Echoes was fairly small, which was probably inevitable. It’s a very weird show. So I don’t have people beating down my door for me to go through my process in detail. But I want to. Ghost Echoes season one was a huge undertaking that’s been occupying me in one way or another for five years. I think it’s only natural I should want to reflect a bit–as much on the stuff that didn’t work as the stuff that did. Also, I do wish more creative people would break down their work the way Kieron Gillen does, because it’s really valuable reading for other people who want to make stuff. So, consider this ten percent public service, ninety percent exercise in vanity.
Oh, and if you’re looking for me to give away the secret rules, I’m afraid you’re out of luck.
First, some background. The idea for Ghost Echoes came to me in 2015, and it was supposed to be a blog. I was reading a lot of Elizabeth Sandifer and Chris O’Leary, whose blogs both followed the format of “discuss a body of work, piece by piece, in chronological order.” For Sandifer, the pieces were Doctor Who stories; for O’Leary, David Bowie songs. (Sandifer calls this way of writing “psychochronography,” if you must know.)
The thing I loved most about both writers was the way they turned the comprehensiveness of their projects into a feature, and not a bug. Not every Doctor Who story or David Bowie song is as interesting as every other. So, if you’re going to cover each and every one, you’re going to have to find an unconventional approach to keep things fresh. Instead of simply discussing the topic at hand, Sandifer and O’Leary discuss an entire world that’s adjacent to their main subject. Their own personal lives and pet obsessions are fair game as well. (You haven’t lived until you’ve seen Doctor Who characters reimagined as elements from the cosmology of William Blake.) These blogs can be a little self-indulgent, but they’re also risky and complex. They can be thrilling to read, in a way that conventional arts and culture journalism almost never is.
I thought I could have a crack at this. All I needed was an appropriate set of cultural objects to cover one by one and we’d be off. Enter the secret rules–and hey presto, there it is: a decades-spanning, eclectic list of LPs made by a cast of thousands ranging from celebrities to the hopelessly obscure. I had the subject for my blog. The only thing that made it different from the ones I’d seen before was that I could never tell anybody what that subject actually is.
The working title of my blog was “Infinitesimal Gradations,” Christ alive. I’d written one post when another pair of obsessions made me switch gears. Nate DiMeo’s The Memory Palace was the first podcast to convince me that one-voice scripted podcasts can actually work. DiMeo’s show tells historical stories, generally without any interviews or archival tape. It’s the sort of thing where, when you describe it, you might think it doesn’t need to be audio–it could work just fine on the page. But DiMeo’s writing is a sort of performance poetry. It demands to be heard, not read. Maybe, I thought, my psychochronography project could work in this format instead. Hearing Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This, which was even more similar to what I had in mind, sealed the deal.
While I was considering all this, I’d been working on a pair of comedy podcasts with a group of writers I knew: The Syrup Trap Pod Cast and Mark’s Great American Road Trip. Neither one made it past five episodes, but they got me used to making scripted radio set in imaginary sonic environments, rather than the documentary-style stuff I was making at my actual job. And they got me writing music, for the first time in my life.
At this point the ingredients were all there: Sandifer, O’Leary, DiMeo, Longworth, my dodgy sound design skills, and the secret rules. I changed the name to Ghost Echoes.
All of this took two years. By 2017, I was ready to make some radio.
No. 1 – The Great Learning
There’s a fantastic old video of Stephen Sondheim giving a masterclass on how to sing “My Friends” from Sweeney Todd. He talks about how he wrote lots of ‘s’ sounds into the song’s opening lines to give it a whispered quality, and amp up the trancelike mood of that scene. “Thesssse are my friendssss… sssseee how they glissssten…”
So, when I needed to draw my audience into a theatrically trancelike mood, where better to turn for advice than to the greatest songwriter in the history of the Broadway stage?
“Ssssingerssss consssstructed thissssssssonic casssstle out of ‘ifssss’… out of possssibilitiessss and happensssstansssse.”
Somewhere in the forgotten depths of a Google doc, there’s a draft of the script that goes on like that throughout the entire first section: with at least one ‘s’ sound in every word, aside from articles and conjunctions and such. Obviously it didn’t work. But the first line of my Sssstephen Ssssondheim draft made the final cut, and I think it does the job: it establishes an atmosphere of weirdness. It keeps the audience from starting to think of this narrator, whoever he is, as a friend. (More on that when we get to episode three.)
But even more importantly, that idea of only using words with ‘s’ sounds in them just helped me start writing. It reduced the number of words that were available from a terrifying near infinity to a comparably manageable subset. Paying this much attention to the letters that make up words may seem a little eccentric. But as a prescription for the dread of the blank page, I highly recommend it.
My point in bringing this up is that the script writing process started with the arbitrary imposition… of a rule. I am very serious about walking the talk. And I thought it was important to keep my mind trained on the theme of rules and rule-based creativity while I wrote this script, because the business this first episode needed to attend to included:
Explaining what Cardew’s The Great Learning is and how it works
Telling the story of how he got to the point in his career where he founded the Scratch Orchestra, and
Establishing the premise of the podcast
The thematic connective tissue between all of these is rules. The fact that the very first album prescribed by the secret rules happens to also be an example of rule-based creativity was practically dumb luck. As soon as I started reading up on The Great Learning, I realized that all I had to do was explain and advocate for Cardew’s approach to music, and I would effectively also be explaining and advocating for myself. I’m still slightly in awe of how elegantly everything came together. I really had nothing to do with it—the rules did all the work.
Okay, I will take credit for one thing. The rules did not discover Emma Cons. That was all me. You can get from Cardew to Cons in two jumps on Wikipedia. And once I’d supplemented that reading with a proper trip to the library, I realized that putting Cons in the story would help to underline another important theme: that people are generally curious, intelligent and open minded when given the resources to be. Cons and Cardew prove that this is a valuable principle in social reform and in the arts. And it’s a very important principle to me. (I know I sound extremely public radio right now, but note that public radio is conspicuously not the forum in which Ghost Echoes eventually appeared.)
Essentially, the connection between our three main characters (Cardew, Cons, and me) boils down to this: trust the audience. That’s another rule of Ghost Echoes, and the main purpose of this episode is to ensure that rule isn’t secret at all.
A final note on the music: the Ghost Echoes theme song went through many variations throughout the season. Six out of the ten episodes have their own unique version. But this original one is my personal favourite. Partially it’s the way that it fits together with Cardew’s music. But mainly I love it because I made it entirely in GarageBand on an iPad. As a mediocre but very rigorously trained musician, I hesitated to use a piece of software that comes preinstalled on a mass market consumer electronic device. But I also didn’t (and still don’t) really know how to record and mix music the professional way. So I swallowed my pride, freed myself to work within yet another useful restriction, and it turned out great. There’s life advice in there somewhere.
No. 2 – Roxy Music
In general, the famous albums were the hardest to deal with. For every episode of Ghost Echoes, I strove to come up with some kind of premise that went beyond “so, what’s the deal with this record?” But I felt like that was especially important with the albums by famous artists like Roxy Music, John Cale, and Nico. Enough has been said about all of them that I personally have nothing much to add. But the rules dictate that I must deal with these famous musicians somehow. So I’m obligated to at least find a novel way of framing what many people already know. I think the results of this were fairly mixed, and episode two sits right in the middle of the pack.
I figured out the premise for this one after watching Ken Russell’s wonderful documentary about British pop artists, Pop Goes the Easel. Russell made this film in 1962 for the BBC program Monitor. It was one of a slew of films he made for the BBC that reimagined what an arts-focussed broadcast documentary could be. There are no dour talking heads or garrulous voiceover. Instead, Russell takes inspiration from his subjects and presents a collage-like cavalcade of arresting images, intercut with footage of the artists at work and moments of pure fancy, as when all of the artists in the film gather at a carnival to play bumper cars.
I thought I could do something like that: a pop art collage about an album full of pop art-inspired collages. So, for good and ill, it’s got the most hyperactive sound design I’ve ever done, it’s full of archival tape from previous documentaries (including Russell’s) and it contains a frankly brazen amount of copyrighted material. If I ever receive a cease and desist, it will probably be for this.
The conceit of “four short films about Roxy Music” came from the theme song–I’d come up with a fun silent movie honky tonk version of the theme, and I thought it would sound good with a film projector sound over it. So I needed a reason to start the episode with a film projector sound. Also, credit where it’s due to François Girard.
With those two conceits in place–the pop art collage and the four short films–I realized there would be parts of this episode where I would have to try and convey the sense of old Hollywood glamour that Bryan Ferry was so attached to. My reach kind of exceeded my grasp, here. In retrospect, I could have drawn on all the hours of Karina Longworth I’ve listened to and I might have come up with something. Instead, most of this episode is a shameless Nate DiMeo impression, the Roxy movie palace section in particular. When you’re writing in a very heightened register, there’s a fine line between poignant and cloying. DiMeo’s really good at staying on the right side of that line. In 2017 I hadn’t really figured it out, and I kind of still haven’t.
Listening now, I hear a few things that mark this episode out as something I made a few years ago, with a bit less experience. The overcooked writing is one. Others include the omnipresent reverse cymbals, and the bit where I name all the rock stars who went to art school accompanied by a montage of tiny musical fragments. Those are choices that feel kind of hacky to me now. With the first episode, the stars aligned, and I managed to squeak out something I’m still proud of a few years later. That’s pretty rare. I can’t say that’s true of this one, although I think it’s got some good bits, particularly the stuff about Wagner: an unexpected recurring character.
Incidentally, I cut an entire section shortly before the episode went live, about King Crimson. I released a fragment of that section as a bonus episode towards the end of the season to buy me some time to finish the finale. In the bonus episode, I offer an explanation for why I cut this scene, then totally contradict myself mere minutes later. The real reason I cut it is because it was boring.
No. 3 – Little Red Record
The most challenging formal element of Ghost Echoes was trying to reconcile the fact that it is a third-person, exposition heavy, narrator-driven podcast with my desire for it to include an element of ambiguity and uncertainty. Whew, even trying to frame that in a sentence nearly made my brain fall out. I’ll try to elaborate.
Let’s think about movies for a second. Most Hollywood blockbusters don’t force you to think all that deeply about how the story is being told; you’re just meant to sink into it. You can basically take for granted that everything that appears on screen, notwithstanding the occasional heavily signposted dream sequence, is “true” within the world of the movie. And story threads that seem unrelated in the beginning always connect in the end.
It happens in prestige television, too: what’s with that scene where Don Draper nearly steps into an empty elevator shaft? The answer is not clear. You’re meant to come up with your own interpretation–or maybe you’re not. Even if you don’t, and you remain unclear forever, all of those examples are still satisfying, and they make sense in a sort of dream logic way. As Flann O’Brien put it, their components may be “entirely dissimilar and inter-related only in the prescience of the author,” but this in no way invalidates the piece.
I think this tradition exists in radio as well: obviously in sound art, which seems almost entirely based on unexplained juxtapositions of sound. But I’m sure it also exists in independent radio drama. And I can think of some examples from The Heart.
But in general, the kind of radio that features a host or narrator talking directly to the listener (which is to say, almost all radio and almost all podcasts) resists this kind of approach. I think listeners have a notion that when they hear that familiar narratological voice, in the context of nonfiction, they can assume that person is there to explain things to them. They assume that part of the host’s role is to reconcile away any ambiguity and close the loop on the story–or at least to clearly lay out any remaining questions in a straightforward way, Radiolab-style.
These assumptions are very understandable. When you tell a story with your voice on the radio, you’re basically doing the same thing as we’ve been doing at campfires and at children’s bedsides and in pubs since time immemorial. If you start telling a story to your friends, why would you refuse to fill in the gaps? Why would you insist on going on tangents, then not explaining their significance? Surely you’re telling the story because you want the people around you… to understand the story. Right?
My counterargument to that is based on a premise that many generations of radio professionals wouldn’t buy: that talking into a microphone isn’t necessarily the same as talking to people in person. The conventional advice given to beginning radio hosts is that it’s not a performance, it’s a conversation. Don’t picture a group of people you’re talking to. Picture one person.
Fine, but I prefer to picture zero people. I am not cognizant of any hypothetical audience at all when I tape the narration for Ghost Echoes. (Which may have something to do with why Ghost Echoes does not, in fact, have a very large audience, but that’s neither here nor there.) The narration in Ghost Echoes isn’t the same as a campfire story. It isn’t me talking to you. It’s just me talking. I’ve always considered my voice in this podcast to be just one component in an audio collage. The fact that it resembles conventional nonfiction podcast narration is almost a coincidence.
Anyway: back to that question of ambiguity. If you accept my admittedly bold premise that in the narration I am not actually talking *to* anybody, that should theoretically free me up to do some of the stuff you’re not supposed to do at the pub, i.e. going on long tangents and refusing to explain yourself. And it should therefore allow me to incorporate some element of ambiguity into the story: it should allow me to bypass the listener’s perception that I am talking to them directly, and thus their assumption that I owe them a complete explanation.
(There is one precedent for this that I’m aware of, namely the quasi-documentary F for Fake by Orson Welles, which is the single greatest and most confounding use of narration in the history of audiovisual media. But don’t take my word for it.)
This third episode (see, we got there) was my first attempt to pull this off. As per the secret rules, it was always going to have something to do with Little Red Record, and its chief architect Robert Wyatt. But I figured I’d throw our old friend Cornelius Cardew back into the pot as well, because I saw some resonances there. I thought it might be fun to just put the two of them beside each other, interleaving their stories, and leave it to the audience’s discretion to determine why I’d done it.
But I just couldn’t make that work in a way I felt good about. I got some feedback that the first cut of this episode didn’t make a lot of sense and felt sort of unmotivated. And for all the big ideas I just outlined about ambiguity in radio, I actually agreed.
I think in the end, pulling something like this off takes more trust from the listener than I’ve earned. It takes more sure-handedness as a storyteller than I possess. So instead, I preface. I disclaim. I announce my intentions. And I replace all of this episode’s tasty ambiguity with tedious journalistic affirmations of What You Are About To Hear And Why It Matters. Kill me!
Anyway, this is one of the episodes I’m least proud of. I think it’s objectively better than the Roxy Music episode, mainly because of the Cardew material. But it’s the one that disappointed me most compared to my initial mind movie. It is somehow my mom’s favourite, and I have no idea why.
No. 4 – For Your Pleasure
After episode three and its attendant frustrations, I quit making Ghost Echoes for two years. I had some rough sketches for this fourth script. I knew what the premise would be. But I didn’t finish and record the script until late 2019, once I’d found a network. The upside of this is that I got a lot better at making radio over those two years. Modestly, I think episodes four and five of Ghost Echoes are the two best pieces of radio I’ve made so far. That’s mainly because I made them in a beautiful golden sliver of time where I had the advantage of two extra years of radio experience, and I also didn’t have the pressure of looming deadlines. (We started dropping episodes once I was halfway done making the season, thinking that would give me a comfortable amount of runway. It did not.) So I’m really sorry if this next bit seems like gloating. I’ll get back to dragging myself soon enough. Promise.
I’d wanted to make something about the Pygmalion myth for ages, because I just kept seeing it everywhere. Aside from the examples I cited in the episode there’s The Stepford Wives, which I tried to incorporate into the robot sex montage at the end of the episode, but it didn’t work tonally. There’s the marvellous indie game Kentucky Route Zero, which reflects on the legacy of Joseph Wiezenbaum’s ELIZA and relationships with simulations. It also subtly undercuts the whole Pygmalion dynamic by featuring a couple who are, refreshingly, both robots. There’s the Yes song “Turn of the Century.” There’s the real-life story of Davecat and his relationships with two hyperrealistic Japanese sex dolls, as told by Love + Radio.
Indeed, the one scene I cut from this episode because it was just a little too gross was about the origins of the Japanese term “Datch waifu,” used to refer to modern sex dolls. They say that Dutch sailors in centuries past pioneered the practice of using rag dolls as sex surrogates when they were away at sea. Ergo, Datch waifu. Dutch wives. Cutting this segment deprived me of the opportunity to reference yet another Wagner opera (The Flying Dutchman) and it also meant I lost my favourite line in the entire draft script: “Remember, there is no such thing as the Dutch Hygiene Museum.”
Anyway, the whole premise is very Feminism 101–teetering on the precipice of mansplaining. (At least, I hope it only teetered.) But I had never seen a whole bunch of these stories all lined up in a row. And it seemed like an opportunity to do something that connected to the album in question, Roxy Music’s For Your Pleasure, without focussing on it specifically. So I decided to go for it. It solved the problem of how to deal with a very famous album in a novel way. For Your Pleasure is probably the most revered record I covered this season, and I ignored almost all of it. Worked fine.
I don’t have much else to say about this, except to point out one of my favourite moments of original music in the whole season. The music in the Ovid section, almost at the start of the episode, is made up entirely of mandolin samples lasting an absolute maximum of three seconds apiece. The Philharmonia Orchestra, god bless them, have made a massive sample library available of single notes at multiple dynamic levels from every instrument in the orchestra, plus a few auxiliary players like mandolin. But even the most sustained long notes on offer are of such teensy weensy lengths that if you want held notes, your mix ends up looking like this:
It was worth it, I think. The moment where this mandolin music comes back for a second appearance in the Bernard Shaw segment, to mark the moment when Eliza breaks free of the story as told by Ovid, is probably the closest I’ve ever come to being Jad Abumrad.
No. 5 – The Portsmouth Sinfonia Plays the Popular Classics
At first I didn’t want to admit that this was the best episode of Ghost Echoes, because it was so easy to make. There’s no question: it was straightforwardly the simplest episode to write and produce. And after all the work I’d put into episode four–all those crossfades–I couldn’t bear to think this one was better. But it is.
To go back even further in my personal history than this episode does, I was on my high school improv team. There’s a famous improv format called the Armando, where the improv team’s scenes are broken up by monologues from a designated speaker. Each monologue inspires the next scene. I remember learning that there was a format similar to the Armando called, maybe, the Miranda? The Melinda? I can’t find any reference to either online. The main difference is that in the Miranda (let’s call it that) the monologist is expected to deliver a final monologue at the end of the performance that gracefully ties together everything that’s gone before. After forty minutes of improv, this is nearly impossible. But when you see it happen, it’s magic.
The human brain craves connections, and it’s really good at drawing them. So a big part of my storytelling practice, in Ghost Echoes and elsewhere, is just to take things that don’t seem like they should fit together, put them together anyway, and draw lines between them. That was the case with Emma Cons and Cornelius Cardew, and with Robert Wyatt and Cornelius Cardew, and it’ll come up again in episode six with Robert Calvert and the German military, and in episode ten with Nico and the end of the world.
The uncharitable word for this is “contrivance.” And in a sense, contrivance is baked into this show’s DNA. To me, it doesn’t matter whether the stories naturally connect or not. The value comes in witnessing the attempt to make a connection anyway.
But this episode, the best one, contains no contrivance at all. The pieces fit together naturally because they all revolve around a central idea: failure. I first encountered the Portsmouth Sinfonia in a YouTube video called “Orchestra Fail.” I have my own personally scarring experience of musical failure to draw on. And then there’s Tom Johnson’s “Failing.” Those are the three main narrative elements of this episode, and once I’d decided on them, everything else fell into place easily.
I will always have time for stories that attempt to connect a large number of distant dots. But to paraphrase LaMonte Young, there is something to be said for simply drawing a straight line and following it.
No. 6 – Captain Lockheed and the Starfighters
A note on the marching band rendition of the theme song at the start: I mainly constructed this note by note from that same Philharmonia Orchestra sample pack I used in episode four. But after episode five, I decided that this one needed to have at least a snippet of my trumpet playing in it. So, in the melody line of that theme, and the smoky jazz rendition that comes right after, you’re hearing my first attempts to play the trumpet in more than seven years. It is what it is.
I had to find a way to record my trumpet playing in my quarantine studio (i.e. closet), so I improvised a mic stand out of a desk lamp, a washcloth, some electrical tape and a loop of kitchen twine to secure it to the hanging rack above and keep it from drooping. I am honestly prouder of that mic stand than I am of this episode.
I don’t have much to say about the episode itself except that the same phenomenon I complained about with episode three applies here as well. The same as in that episode, I tacked on a preface and an epilogue to try and tie the different story threads together thematically, and it didn’t work. Framing the stories of Robert Calvert and the Lockheed scandal as “two typical post-war stories” is a connection so broad that it’s meaningless.
There’s a difference between this and episode three, though. This time the two stories I’m telling, Robert Calvert’s biography and the story of the Lockheed bribery scandal, actually are related to each other in a demonstrable, material way: they both directly factor into the album I’m discussing, Captain Lockheed and the Starfighters. But I couldn’t allow that to be the full extent of their connection, because then I’d be veering into territory where I’m just making an episode about an album, without it having any larger significance or interest. So, I resorted to our old friend contrivance. I tried to bring the threads together like you do in that improv game, the Miranda. (The Mariah?) And the result is faintly disappointing.
This is the moment where I started struggling to maintain the sense that Ghost Echoes isn’t just about storytelling, but also about ideas. There’s a reason I didn’t start the show with an anecdote, but with a detailed explanation of how a piece of music by Cornelius Cardew actually works under the hood. Unfortunately, at this point I didn’t have any ideas for the show to be about. Which, to my great dismay, leads us to…
No. 7 – Fear
You know, it’s kind of a miracle that only one episode turned out this badly.
I’ve actually known John Cale’s Fear longer than any other album I covered this season. I still have my two-CD set of Cale’s complete recordings for Island Records, which I remember buying in my hometown’s one tiny, indifferent music store. You picked up what treasures you could find. But even having listened to this album for fifteen years or more, I could not find the premise for this episode. There was no obvious detail to hone in on, like with For Your Pleasure. There didn’t seem to be any clear opportunities for interleaving narratives like with The Great Learning or Little Red Record. And I’d already done one big pop art collage episode.
I realized I didn’t have much of a choice but to do what I’d come perilously close to already in the Captain Lockheed episode: I’d have to just discuss the album straightforwardly. I Do Not Like This. It’s not what Ghost Echoes is for. So, in the absence of a premise that would determine the episode’s story content, I decided to impose a purely formal premise instead.
That premise was inspired by the trailer that I made for the show’s announcement. The trailer was based on the pitch deck I sent around to potential publishers, which was phrased in a mildly snarky Q&A format. So, when I needed to translate it to radio, I figured why not have the questions voiced by a robot, with no explanation. That’ll show people what kind of podcast it is! (One might speculate about this robot’s relationship to the quippy male robot voice that occasionally appears in the right stereo channel, but I’ll leave that as fodder for headcanon.)
A few weeks later, having reached an impasse with Fear, I figured why not extend that idea out for the length of a whole episode. To be clear, I don’t think that was implicitly a bad idea. Listening back to my narration, I admire my commitment to the bit. And I’m glad it offered a chance to tease the secret rules a little more. I’d been neglecting that side of the show for a while. But it still all strikes me as a vaguely amusing way to say absolutely nothing original about music or history.
Moreover, I can’t help but notice that the robot character’s whole function is to ask me questions and not to offer any perspective or personality of her own. She is a Galatea. I wandered haplessly into the wrong side of my own feminist parable from three episodes prior. I am a jackass, and this episode is one of the worst things I’ve ever made.
No. 8 – Hallelujah
The situation at this point was that I’d just put out two episodes in a row that I wasn’t especially proud of, I had a pair of good ideas for episodes nine and ten that I knew were going to be incredibly labour intensive, and I was running out of time. I needed episode eight to be good, and also simple to make. Enter the Collection Of Fun Anecdotes: a story format I can do in my sleep.
I think it worked fine. A lot of crazy things have happened at the Royal Albert Hall, so there was plenty to choose from. I did cut one scene, about Rudolph Dunbar, the first black conductor to appear at the Albert Hall. He’s a fascinating figure, but there are too many lingering questions about his life that are more the business of a biographer than a podcaster looking to put together a four-minute anecdote. So we got the Kray twins instead, and their boxing grandfathers who were both named Jimmy. What a gift.
All of this did make me feel a little bit like a guy making lists on the internet, but it was perfectly straightforward and it bought me some of the time I needed. There are some bits I’d smooth over if I had my time back. Certainly I’d correct my pronunciation of the poet Simon Vinkenoog’s name. I have no idea where “Vinkenoov” came from. I don’t think any language works that way.
I guess it’s nice that there’s one episode of Ghost Echoes where my reach didn’t exceed my grasp, because my reach was only about a foot in front of me. I don’t have strong feelings on it one way or the other.
A couple notes on the music: the synth soundtrack to the scene with Arthur Conan Doyle’s seance is my extremely simplified rendition of “Nimrod” from Elgar’s Enigma Variations, a classic of British memorial services that I am very happy I worked in. Also, this is the first episode where I didn’t use my splainin’ music. Generally, whenever I launch into a more abstract section of the script, where there’s no real need for mood setting, I immediately reach for the arpeggiator track of the theme song from episode one. (E.g.: timecode 9:29 in episode five.) It works really well for splainin’. That arpeggiator does not appear anywhere between this episode and the final credits of episode ten, which I assume was a relief for some.
No. 9 – Lady June’s Linguistic Leprosy
I knew that this whole episode would take place at a house party since episode three, which has a scene at this same house party. (Not a thing you think you’ll get to say as a music history podcaster.) But the significance of that choice had obviously changed by the time I’d started making it. Nobody was hosting parties anymore. On the surface, this episode is about the wonderful June Campbell Cramer. But really, it’s an elegy for all the 2020 chilli nights I never got to have.
Here’s something else that’s been weird for me throughout the pandemic: normally I like to listen to podcasts something like this one. I like immersive, story-driven, crafted podcasts with lots of music and sound. But this year, I suddenly developed a nearly exclusive taste for roundtable chat shows. Over the past few months, I have listened to so many hours of podcasts from the McElroy family that I had no ethical choice but to finally become a MaxFun member. All I want to do is listen to those good good boys play Dungeons & Dragons with their dad.
Obviously, Ghost Echoes is never going to be the kind of show that can offer that sort of casual companionship. It is precisely the sort of thing I disavowed earlier, in my reflection on episode three. But just this once, I thought it might be nice to talk to the listener as if both they and I are actually people. So there’s our premise: you and me, at a party we couldn’t possibly have been invited to–even in the before times.
It took a bit more imagination than other episodes. I don’t know what the interior of that flat looked like, whether it actually had a paisley sofa, or whether Robert Graves was on the bookshelf. Call it historical fiction. Someday, on another podcast with different aims, I’ll track down somebody who was actually there and see how close I came.
It is the only episode where all of the sound is diegetic, owing to the goof where I give my guest wireless earbuds. It’s a bit, sure, but it’s also a way to integrate a music mix without breaking the premise. The other music you hear throughout the episode, the background music at the party, is just some junk I made on my iPad and digital piano. Both pieces of mood music are shameless Caravan rips: “Nine Feet Underground” at the start, “Winter Wine” a bit later. Caravan was a band that fluttered at the edges of Lady June’s scene. But they’re a heck of a lot easier to impersonate than Soft Machine. The music is just low enough in the mix that you don’t hear my terrible organ soloing.
This turned out to be one of the season’s simpler episodes, but I actually like it a lot. Plus, I feel like the bit about the balloon floating all the way over Europe is my first successful Nate DiMeo impression, so perhaps I’ve atoned for the misfires in episode two.
No. 10 – The End
So, listen. I started making this show in 2015. Back then, the claim that “people are generally smart, open-minded and curious” wasn’t quite as hard a sell as it is these days. But honestly, most of the time I still believe that. I think it’s probably best to conduct oneself as if it’s true, even if it’s not. But I don’t blame anybody who thinks I’m full of shit.
Anyway, I made my bed, and I found myself tasked with producing an inherently idealistic series during the Year Of Our Lord Two Thousand And Twenty: a year when it makes a lot more sense to be cynical. Still, I wanted the season to end where it started. Specifically, I wanted it to end as far away from cynicism as possible. I wanted to express, if only through force of rhetoric, and even though it is a shameless platitude, that people are still worth believing in: even if there are no indications that this is true, and even if we have absolutely no cosmic importance. I cannot defend this idea. I refuse to even try. It’s a matter of faith.
So the question was: how do I get to that from Nico? Well, the album’s called The End. The title song is a cover of a Doors track famously used in Apocalypse Now. And in Ghost Echoes, we are perpetually a maximum of two degrees of separation away from Wagner, apocalyptic storyteller par excellence. So I figured the end of the world was the best way in. One of humanity’s most adorable traits is the way our apocalypse stories don’t even show the world ending, just changing in some much-needed way. Surely a species with that habit is worth rooting for, in spite of *gestures broadly.* The last few lines of the script were the first part I wrote: “Make me something. Play me a song,” etc. Everything else had to lead up to that.
From there, the structure fell into place: a hybrid of the whole bunch o’ stories approach of episodes four and eight with the interleaving narratives structure of episodes three and six. Nico’s story would proceed chronologically. And in between the bits, there’ll be apocalypse stories where the world conspicuously does not end. Making this episode, I got to leverage everything I learned by making the first nine.
But the thing I’m proudest of about this one is that, finally, in the last episode of the season, I had the guts to not try and explicitly connect the two sides of the story. There really isn’t any specific connection between Nico and the apocalypse, so why force it? AMBIGUITY UNLOCKED.
There is, however, a figure that appears in both strands of the story. Naturally, it’s Wagner. So I thought I could lend some cohesion to the whole deal by making Wagner’s music the connective tissue of the episode. All of the original scoring is made up of excerpts from the Ring, arranged for a combination of my old Alesis Micron analog synth and a janky-ass Lowrey Micro Genie that’s older than me. (The exception is the Halley’s comet section, which is a corny acapella “Ride of the Valkyries,” referencing all the way back to the Roxy Music episode.) The Chen Tao scene has the forest murmurs from Siegfried. The last few minutes have a combination of music from Siegfried’s funeral march and Brünnhilde’s immolation from Götterdämmerung. And at the beginning, what you hear is a mashup of the prelude from Das Rheingold with Nico’s cover of the Doors, and with the chords from the Ghost Echoes theme song. That one wasn’t easy. I learned pretty fast why Wagner kept that whole prelude rooted firmly in E-flat major. Start throwing around more chords and everything stops lining up.
I think this finale turned out to be one of the highlights of the season. If I never make another episode of Ghost Echoes, which is a distinct possibility, I’d be happy to end with this.
If you do the math, you’ll find that my claim to have been working on Ghost Echoes for five years is a little dubious. The first two years were basically planning. And there was another two-year span in there between episodes three and four where I wasn’t actually working on it. Nevertheless, I definitely feel like I’ve been working on it for five straight years. Even when I set it aside, I still thought about it every day.
Since the finale dropped, friends have been congratulating me on finishing the season. Usually I find it very difficult to accept congratulations or praise with any grace at all because I am almost never proud of myself or my work. I’ve had absolutely no problem graciously accepting congratulations about Ghost Echoes. That’s in spite of the fact that I don’t think this season was a straightforward success–certainly not in terms of metrics. And as I’ve just outlined in tiresome detail, I have serious misgivings about nearly half of the episodes from a creative point of view.
But let me again reiterate a brief passage that became something of a refrain for Ghost Echoes: a repeated quote that I consider the single most important thought expressed in the whole season. It is, of course, a remark by Cornelius Cardew:
I confess, I do find the configurations produced by my own failures quite wonderful. I am not proud of all the individual parts that comprise Ghost Echoes season one—that would be too high a bar to clear. But I am proud of the whole. And that is such an unexpected and novel feeling that I needed to write seven thousand words to process it.
ABBA Gold is the apex of the compilation. It hails from a bygone era—the pre-streaming era—before all the hits and misses were in one place together by default. Once, collections like this were produced to satiate a legendary beast called the Casual Fan, who wanted access to the hits and didn’t want to be burdened with the deep cuts.
This is what ABBA Gold was designed to be. But, oh, it is so much more. It is the definitive ABBA experience: the central canonical text. It is a piecemeal masterpiece; it is ABBA’s best release. It is one of a small handful of the greatest capital-P Pop albums ever contrived, and they are all contrived.
Granted, this is at least partly because ABBA were not an album band.* For example, the album that spawned two of the greatest pop singles of all time, “S.O.S.” and “Mamma Mia,” contains by my estimate: zero other tracks that are even good—let alone timeless. There are two kinds of album bands: those that are ruthlessly consistent (e.g. the Beatles) and those that are pleasantly weird even on their off days (e.g. Neil Young). ABBA are neither. You don’t want to listen to their bad songs. Don’t listen to “Rock Me.” Don’t do it.
The other reason ABBA Gold is a special case among compilations is even simpler: ubiquity. Since its minimal, black and gold art hit Walmart shelves in 1992, it has become the defining image associated with the band. In the quarter century since its release, ABBA Gold has entered into the public consciousness not as an afterthought, but as an ABBA album. The ABBA album. Notwithstanding the one that’s almost actually called that.
So, while the Red and Blue albums and Decade remain treasured items in many record collections, they are fundamentally less essential than ABBA Gold. That’s not to say that it’s better than those albums. There are a handful of weak tracks on ABBA Gold that could stand to be replaced with more minor hits, or some of the stronger album cuts.
But in the end, those weak tracks barely register. Nobody’s best songs are more satisfying, cathartic, and flawless than ABBA’s. This album’s top-tier tracks are hewn from marble. They are natural phenomena that ABBA merely discovered. Listen to any other ABBA album and you’ll note that they’re contemporaries of the Bee Gees. Listen to ABBA Gold, and you’ll realize that they’re peers of Mendelssohn and Ellington.
To be clear: it is 2019. You can have as many or as few ABBA songs on your phone as you want. You can make your own ABBA compilation. You can let one of Apple’s expert curators or Spotify’s algorithm do it for you. Compilation albums are an obsolete format. But not this one. Because it’s ABBA Fucking Gold.
Below is my detailed appraisal of this genuine monument to human brilliance, in the only format possible on the internet: a ranked list of songs.
19: Does Your Mother Know
The biggest duffer on the disc by a mile. It’s almost a sure bet in the ABBA corpus that a male lead vocal indicates a bad song, and probably also a creepy one, c.f. “Man in the Middle.” I don’t like songs about adult men pursuing underage women *John Mulaney voice* AND YOU MAY QUOTE ME ON THAT. To be fair, that’s less true of “Does Your Mother Know” than “Man in the Middle.” The narrator in this one has some scruples, but he’s still a condescending jackass.
If we must have a song about a troublesome, unexamined power dynamic between an older man and a younger woman, couldn’t it at least be “When I Kissed the Teacher?” That one’s got better hooks.
18: Thank You for the Music
A music hall number, but the treacly, sentimental kind rather than the fun ironic kind. I hear you ask: how can you be complaining about sentimentality… in an ABBA song??? It’s a valid point.
Here’s the thing. I think there is a time for sentimentality, but that time is when you are indulging yourself in misery and despair. “Thank You for the Music” is hardly the only sentimental song on this list, but the good ones are despondent love dirges. Those of us with a tendency to wallow in self-pity might see ourselves reflected in songs like “The Winner Takes it All.” Their sentimentality is the point: they exist in a world absent of rationality, like we all do sometimes.
But anybody who sees themselves reflected in the trite platitudes of “Thank You for the Music” must be an empty, grinning skin balloon. If you’re going to compose a panegyric to the power of music, at least have the courtesy to couch it in mythic language. At least have the courtesy to write the Hymn to St. Cecilia.
17: I Have a Dream
Charitably, you could read it as a song in the tradition of “Whistle While You Work” or “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” in which the singer is trying as hard as they can to ignore something unpleasant. But “I Have a Dream” doesn’t offer any specifics about what the unpleasant thing is. Moreover, the cheery music makes it seem like the singer’s strategy is actually working. Where’s the tension in that?
Presumably it made a ton of money for UNICEF. But it’s basically “Blackbird” with a less memorable melody and the panpipes from “El Condor Pasa” grafted on. It is the song on ABBA Gold about which I have essentially no opinion.
15: The Name of the Game
It’s weird to me that the compilers of this album shunted so much of the weaker material onto side four. If not for the promise of “Waterloo” to finish, you might be inclined to switch off at the three-quarter mark. I often do.
“The Name of the Game” has some nice harmonies in the chorus, but it bides its time in the verses. Plus, it is a dreadful illustration of what I call “the ABBA problem.” The ABBA problem is the fact that sometimes ABBA’s lyrics take on a disturbing new dimension when you consider that they are written by two men, for their wives to sing. (See: “I’m a Marionette” for the most distressing example.) Lines like “I think I can see in your face there’s a lot you can teach me” and “I’m a bashful child, beginning to grow” are deeply icky when you think of Benny or Björn being like “yes, I would like to hear my wife sing that.” Ugh.
14: One of Us
ABBA excelled at writing songs for those of us who do not experience emotional numbness, but rather a surfeit of negative emotion. This song is right in their comfort zone, which is horrible anguish painted in broad strokes of luminous colour. So basically—adolescent anguish. There are subtle gradations of maturity in ABBA’s heartbreak songs—songs of innocence and songs of experience. This one’s the former. And that’s fine. We should all be willing to admit that pop music is actually for kids.
“One of Us” is an outlier on ABBA’s weatherbeaten final LP. Nestled among paranoid Soviet disco and divorce anthems, this one’s a teen movie reenactment, where a young woman cries in bed “feeling stupid, feeling small.” Its power comes from the fact that most of us are only one bad experience and a few drinks away from being our teenage selves again.
ABBA’s storytelling side isn’t well represented on ABBA Gold. And fair enough—they do usually traffic in relatable generalities, like most pop bands. But occasionally, a Johnny Cash/Bruce Springsteen/Kate Bush impulse surfaces and they get into character. It happens in their mini-musical The Girl With the Golden Hair. It happens in “The Visitors.” (If there’s one track that’s not on ABBA Gold that should be, it’s “The Visitors.”) And most profitably, it happens in “Fernando”: a tale of two comrades-in-arms.
It’s a slow burn to that magnificent chorus, but along the way, we get a pair of glorious, serpentine verses, packing in extra lines and syllables so gracefully that you never notice how weirdly shaped the musical phrases are unless you go looking. When the third verse comes around, you realize why these two soldiers are singing so wistfully about such a frightening experience: they’re old and grey, and this story has receded into a sepia-toned fantasy for them.
“Fernando” is a barely imperfect pop hit. The arrangement lets it down (there’s that pan flute again), and a couple lines don’t stick the landing (“the roar of guns and cannons almost made me cry”). But the chorus is iconic, the story connects, and hey—it’s the ABBA song that forced Brian Eno to admit he was a fan, so there must be something to it.
I suspect this might be the one people yell at me for not placing higher. But honestly, it’s nothing but bangers from here on out. “Fernando” is the shit. Here are twelve songs that are even better.
ABBA songs generally sound either dated or timeless. There isn’t really a lot of middle ground—you’re either rolling your eyes at the audio equivalent of dancing lamé, or you’re marvelling at how these songs could still be hits today. They are either painfully “70s/80s,” or they are ethereally detached from time.
Odd then, that ABBA’s breakout hit is a throwback to about 1963. Its infectious groove is what music school kids call a “shuffle feel”: a galloping “dut… duh dut… duh dut” that permeates the early Beatles records like a whiff of mothballs and dissipates gradually after Revolver. It’s a strange fish for 1974. It’s a strange fish on ABBA Gold.
“Waterloo” presages the sensation of listening to later ABBA hits: on the surface, it’s a blast of pure musical euphoria. But pick at that surface for a couple minutes and it reveals something… off. The English is stilted. That shuffle beat is a decade out of phase. And the premise is flat-out obtuse. I highly doubt that any person in the world has ever realized they were falling in love and immediately jumped to the battle of Waterloo as an apt metaphor.
None of this matters, of course. “Waterloo” is a rave-up of grand proportions. It’s the song where ABBA found their core identity: completely human and a little bit alien at the same time.
It’s all about those synth arpeggios. They’re more than a cool effect—they hold the song together. This is one of ABBA’s secret weapons: a seamless transition from one part of a song to another.
The arpeggios are doing more work than simply changing the key. (“S.O.S.” uses the classic structure of verses in a minor key, chorus in major. It’s a key change we’re used to hearing. There’s no need for any clever business to mask it.) They’re changing the whole mood of the song. It’s pretty desolate at the start, but the chorus is a banger. You need some kinetic energy to get from one to the other without it feeling like a smash cut. Those arpeggios are an efficient, elegant way to do it. They hold a song together that might otherwise feel like two separate, excellent but incompatible songs.
I’m not convinced that either section of “S.O.S.” measures up to all the later hits. But the ingenuity of its construction makes it better than the sum of its parts.
Quick! What’s your favourite ABBA riff? This is a question you have probably never been asked. (If so, was it me who asked you? Doesn’t count.)
Killer Riffs are the province of a different kind of band from ABBA. The farther you get from Delta blues, and the closer to Tin Pan Alley, the less likely you are to write a Killer Riff. This is one of the few ways in which the Rolling Stones outpace the Beatles. ABBA falls squarely in the Tin Pan Alley camp. And yet, here on “Voulez-Vous,” we undeniably have a Killer Riff. Most of ABBA’s attempts at disco sound faintly awkward, but the rapid-fire 21-note riff that launches “Voulez-Vous” provides so much momentum that it almost doesn’t matter what comes after.
And what comes after is pretty great, anyway: the horns and “a-has” in the chorus, the rising drama of “and here we go again, we know the start, we know the end,” the juxtaposition of the French title with the colloquial “ain’t.” It’s an uncomplicated delight.
9: Money, Money Money
Speaking of Tin Pan Alley, here’s a straight up showtune. To my ears, “Money, Money, Money” has one of ABBA’s two or three best arrangements—certainly the most elaborate one on this collection. The song itself is a rueful drama with a fabulous, vampy vocal from a careworn Frida Lyngstad. But it’s the piano and mallet percussion that brings it to life. The restlessly repeating honky-tonk pattern at the start of the verse underscores the anxiety in the lyric. The plunk-plunk-plunk piano line before the chorus, which switches the emphasis pattern halfway through, makes it sound like ABBA called up Irving Berlin for a co-write.
(Note: I’d originally written there that ABBA “exhumed” Irving Berlin for a co-write, but he was in fact alive at the time and 88 years old. He died in 1989 at 101. Irving Berlin outlived ABBA by seven years.)
8: The Winner Takes it All
Misery. Destitution. Dolor. Regret. Classic ABBA.
“Inside every cynical person is a disappointed idealist,” George Carlin used to say. Swap out “idealist” for “romantic,” and you’ve got “The Winner Takes it All.” This narrator expresses herself with surging melodies and rising drama—the language of a romantic. But the sentiment she’s expressing is boilerplate cynicism. Love is a game, she’s learned. This is a heartbreak ballad sung by a person who’s either never heard a heartbreak ballad before, or who’s never had any reason to trust them. It is a loss of innocence made manifest as music.
It builds and builds, expanding outwards from a lonesome soul at the piano to a whole disco universe consisting solely of one woman’s pain. A sadder and a wiser woman she’ll rise the morrow morn and pretty soon she might even give up on lines like “the gods may throw a dice, their minds as cold as ice.”
“The Winner Takes it All” is too much, stated too bluntly. No matter; it’ll still break your heart after a couple drinks.
7: Knowing Me, Knowing You
It might be the ABBA song where the pieces fit together the best. And there are a lot of pieces. Six chirpy chords off the top evaporate into a dramatic, torchy minor key verse. The chorus starts with a title drop and chunky guitar chords. Seconds later, we’ve gotten to “breaking up is never easy,” and the song’s finally made it to its major key home. (Like Schubert, ABBA gets sadder when they’re in a major key.) The chorus gives way to the riff half a measure before you expect it to. A pair of electric guitars wails at each other while one of them dies of consumption, and we’re back into the verse.
Although it comes from four years earlier, “Knowing Me, Knowing You” is as much a song of experience as “One of Us” is a song of innocence. It’s there in the title, twice—the disappointment explicitly comes from the condition of knowing. It is the tragedy of inevitability in retrospect.
That whispering in the second verse is ridiculous, though.
6: Lay All Your Love On Me
Anxiety disco in a gothic cathedral. Imagine those opening synth chords played on a gigantic church organ. “Lay All Your Love On Me” is a perversely liturgical-sounding song. It is borderline blasphemous; daemonic.
But who is the demon? Is it the potentially philandering lover the narrator is singing about? Is she truly paranoid, or is our narrator a victim of gaslighting? Or maybe the narrator is the demon. Maybe she’s Kathy Bates in Misery, winding up to preemptively break some ankles.
Either way, this song is pure evil.
5: Super Trouper
The first few times I listened to “Super Trouper,” I thought it was about the transformative power of performance—how the thankless grind of touring evaporates into ecstasy when the narrator goes onstage. I was hearing what I wanted to hear. Those of us who are not pop stars would like to think it’s a rewarding life; that the artists we choose as vessels for our own dreams are in fact “living the dream.”
But “Super Trouper” tells the opposite story: that performance has become meaningless to the performer. No line in ABBA rings quite as hollow as when the narrator refers to her audience as “twenty thousand of [her] friends.” Still, it’s one of ABBA’s most affirming songs, specifically because it emphasizes how civilian life offers deeper rewards than stardom. It isn’t the stage lights that dispel the darkness for the singer, it’s the comparatively mundane experience of a functional human relationship.
Mind you—for ABBA, functional relationships proved to be more difficult than topping the charts.
4: Dancing Queen
I am not the first person to hear a hint of melancholy in “Dancing Queen.” I could explain it with junk music theory. (“It’s done with suspensions… it’s about the way chords resolve…”) But the melancholy of “Dancing Queen” is really a matter of perspective.
“You are the dancing queen,” the lyric goes. An incurable optimist might hear this as an inclusive statement, bringing the listener into the show. (“You are the dancing queen! And you are the dancing queen! And you are the dancing queen! EVERYBODY IS THE DANCING QUEEN!!!”) But we’re not used to hearing pop songs sung in the second person—most of the time, we’re only explicitly involved in a pop song when the singer is entreating us to do something in the imperative: “Shake it up baby, now/twist and shout.”
So, when we hear “you” in “Dancing Queen,” instead of assuming that we are the protagonist of the song, we infer the presence of a narrator, talking to a specific person. And if there’s a narrator, with an inner life all of their own, there’s an unspoken line after the title drop: “You are the dancing queen… and I am not.”
Sure, it’s got a chorus like a box of neon crayons. But “Dancing Queen” is sung from the darkest corner of a brightly-lit room.
3: Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)
ABBA’s disco apotheosis. Leave it to them to write a song designed for dancing, which also explicitly points out the dark side of why people go out at night. It’s the same reason Springsteen pulled up in front of Mary’s porch, entreating her to come along for a joyride: “I just can’t face myself alone again.” It’s not just about love, or even sex. It’s about the tragedy that we are genetically predisposed to fear loneliness, but we are not universally adapted to avoid it. It’s about how hard we have work to escape the pull of the abyss.
The chorus is iconic, but as with so many ABBA songs (“Super Trouper,” “S.O.S.”) the crystallizing moment comes immediately before the chorus. When Fältskog sings “no one to hear my prayer,” drawing out the last word for two measures, she hangs on the seventh of the chord far past the point when you expect it to resolve upwards. She holds the song in an extended moment of almost. Her prayer never reaches its destination. The crowd dances on as all her efforts come to nothing.
2: Take a Chance On Me
I could go on forever about how every great ABBA song is a dark psychodrama dressed up in pastel colours. But really, everybody already knows that. The real reason ABBA songs are so good is that their hooks are a hit of pure dopamine, even when melancholy does register.
“Take a Chance On Me” is on one level a fairly pathetic song about a person so besotted that they’ll passively wait in line for a relationship that will probably never happen. But the groove of the “Take a chance, take a chance, take a take a chance chance” backing vocals is so undeniable that you can’t help but feel it might work out after all. The arrangement is packed full of audio bonbons like the pulsing synths on “It’s magic” and the incongruous country guitar lick after “I can’t let go, ‘cause I love you so.” It’s fun. It’s just fun.
The most telling moments in the song are the choruses where Fältskog and Lyngstad sing “bah bah bah bah BAH” over the first couple lines, in spite of the fact that there are perfectly serviceable lyrics available for that bit of the chorus. You can hear them right at the start of the song. Those nonsense syllables aren’t filling space. They just feel right. That one moment, maybe more than any other, demonstrates why ABBA are the best pop group ever.
1: Mamma Mia
There are more cathartic ABBA songs than “Mamma Mia.” There are more expressive and sincere ABBA songs too, that reflect listeners back at themselves more uncannily. But, look. If that’s all that ABBA songs were, they wouldn’t stand up to the kind of compulsive repeat listening that they do. The real reason that ABBA is a great band has nothing to do with their ability to articulate specific human emotions. Hundreds of bands can do that. What makes ABBA special is that they write music that feels like it’s always existed. I can’t explain it any better than that. The first time you hear a great ABBA song, it’s like becoming aware of a natural condition of the human mind that you hadn’t previously noticed, but which was always there. “Earworm” doesn’t begin to describe it. An ABBA song can become a part of you. That’s never been truer than in the case of “Mamma Mia,” because “Mamma Mia” is almost elementally simple—it is built with the smallest possible building blocks.
Next time you listen to “Mamma Mia” (do it now), note how much of it is made up of sequences of two alternating notes. Tick TOCK tick TOCK tick TOCK tick TOCK in the intro. MAM-ma MI-a at the start of the chorus. Almost everything the xylophone does fits that pattern. It’s an unsettling pattern—low-level anxiety rendered in music. Take the opening. Each of the first seven notes is either a statement or a question. “This. What? This. What? This. What? This.” Then the harmony changes and the questions become even more insistent. “What!?! This. What!?! This. What!?! This. What!?! This.” No answer is ever final enough to prevent another question. This music is unstable on a granular level. It’s the musical equivalent of this guy, except he never regains his balance.That’s part of what makes “Mamma Mia” so addictive: it is based on maybe the simplest riff possible, but it’s a riff with narrative perpetual motion baked into it. It can never be certain, can never sit still.
But of course, it’s not enough. We need a point of contrast. Enter the lead guitar, with a line that surges upward with all the decisiveness that the two-note riff lacks… and then slumps down again. Most of the melodies in the verses follow the same pattern: surging upward (“I’ve been cheated by you…”), and slumping back down (“…since I don’t know when”).
So: we’ve got a restless two-note riff that cycles endlessly, and a contrasting melodic pattern that charges forward only to lose its nerve and double back. This, in a song about a woman who is caught in a destructive cycle with her significant other (“here we go again”), who decides to finally break that cycle (“so I’ve made up my mind it must come to an end”), only to realize that she can’t (“one more look and I forget everything”).
Beethoven, music history’s most celebrated Swiss watchmaker, once labelled two three-note fragments of a string quartet movement “Must it be?” and “It must be!” With two tiny phrases, distributed throughout a piece, he told a story. It’s a remarkable achievement, one that musicologists have been drooling over for centuries. ABBA did it too. All hail the three Bs: Beethoven, Benny and Björn.
“Mamma Mia” is ABBA’s best song, a crowning achievement in popular music. It is music heard so deeply that it is not heard at all. You are “Mamma Mia” while “Mamma Mia” lasts.
*I believe the perfect ABBA record collection contains the following: ABBA Gold and The Visitors. The latter is their final LP, and it’s massively more consistent than the rest of their albums. It is also usefully underrepresented on ABBA Gold (only “One of Us” made the cut), so there’s not much in the way of redundancy. There are a handful of worthwhile deep cuts scattered across the other albums—especially Arrival—but nothing that compares with their top-tier hits. (Inconveniently, most of the good stuff from before The Visitors was also left off the hilariously titled collection More ABBA Gold, which is fairly tepid.) Tom Ewing has opined that “every ABBA song has something good about it.” I think that’s quite generous, but I take his point. When you listen to an original ABBA album that isn’t The Visitors, you constantly hear brilliant ideas that you wish were attached to better songs.
LET US SET SAIL ONCE AGAIN UPON THESE LITERARY OCEANS. I swore to myself that I wouldn’t read any more of this book until I kept up with my note taking. I’ve caught up with myself now, so we should be able to speed onwards from here. Okay. *deep breath*
Chapter 33: The Specksynder
Having just finished his digression regarding the taxonomy of whales, Ishmael now moves on to… another digression. This one is about the role of the specksynder (or more properly, as Dr. Parker informs me, the “speksnijder”): the chief harpooneer of certain whaling cultures that stood in equal esteem to the captain of the ship. From here, Ishmael transitions into a musing on the ways that people acquire power, and how they wield it. Specifically, how Ahab wields it: without any unnecessary display of majesty or pomp, but with the occasional lapse into tyranny. (Just ask poor, abused Stubb, who just before all of these digressions was recovering from being kicked.)
But the really interesting thing, at least for somebody with my particular obsessions, lives in this chapter’s short final paragraph:
“But Ahab, my Captain, still moves before me in all his Nantucket grimness and shagginess; and in this episode touching Emperors and Kings, I must not conceal that I have only to do with a poor old whale-hunter like him; and, therefore, all outward majestical trappings and housings are denied me. Oh, Ahab! what shall be grand in thee, it must needs be plucked at from the skies, and dived for in the deep, and featured in the unbodied air!”
Here we have the closest thing we’ve had so far to Ishmael admitting he’s a bullshitter. In his many digressions, he touches on royalty. One might think he’d rather be writing a great royal drama in the vein of Shakespeare’s Henriad. But he (Ishmael, though possibly also Melville) is compelled to draw his story from his own experience, which doesn’t touch on emperors and kings. And so, to tell the story that he needs to tell, he must pluck Ahab’s grandness from the skies — from his own fathomless imagination.
How many of us have done the same? Surely, we all have a friend who comes alive in the stories we tell more vividly than they do in person? Just because a person doesn’t have the outward appearance of literary greatness doesn’t mean they can’t attain it when paired with an energetic storyteller.
One of Melville’s biggest fans.
It never ceases to amaze me how concerned Melville is with whether or not his fictional narrator is telling a true story. Obviously, it’s not a true story. But the fact that it might not even be fully true for Ishmael is a huge part of what makes this such a rich book. I imagine it’s what made Jorge Luis Borges so enamoured of it.
As a quick aside, the poem I’ve just linked there is a big part of why I decided to read Moby-Dick in the first place. Any book revered by Borges is likely to appeal to me as well. Having cracked into it, I must say I wish Borges hadn’t included his line about “the pleasure… of spying Ithaca.” He’s referring to Odysseus’s home, of course, and thus to the concept of home in general, especially the home you return to after a sea voyage. But as we’ve discussed previously: in Moby-Dick, home is death for the soul. I think Borges knew this perfectly well and just couldn’t resist a classical reference. Still, he redeems himself and then some when he describes Moby-Dick as “azul Proteo” — “blue Proteus.” Another Odyssey reference, this time to the ever-transforming water god. Quite so. If Proteus were a book, he’d be this one.
Chapter 34: The Cabin-Table
There’s a reason I’ve leapt right back into the question of Ishmael’s authenticity. And that’s because the perspective from which this book is told is about to shatter completely. That process begins here, with a chapter where Ishmael tells us in great detail about things that happened in a room where he wasn’t present. (Unless he’s a truly excellent spy, but I feel like he would have told us.)
I think I’ve heard somebody say at some point that Ishmael has a tendency to “disappear” — as if he narrates only some of the book and the bits of it that he couldn’t possibly know are written in a different authorial voice altogether. I don’t buy that for a second. This chapter is manifestly still told in Ishmael’s voice. Who else would make reference to Belshazzar and the German emperor’s seven imperial electors during a description of a simple dinner scene? Who else would remark, after Flask lacks the courage to help himself to butter at the silent, tense table: “Flask, alas! was a butterless man!” If he’s telling us about things he couldn’t possibly know, well fine. I guess he’s making them up. This, after all, is the same guy who won’t straightforwardly tell us what his name is. But it’s him, and make no mistake.
Also, I can’t say whether or not this description of what mealtimes are like among the officers of a whaling vessel is accurate. But I can attest to the notion that there’s a delicious authority that comes from hosting others at your dinner table. “Who has but once dined his friends, has tasted what it is to be Caesar.” I do love cooking.
Chapter 35: The Mast-Head
And now, A BRIEF HISTORY OF PEOPLE STANDING ON TALL THINGS. I’m not joking. At the start of this chapter, Ishmael is summoned for his first lookout shift on the masthead. And before telling us anything about what that experience was like for him, he decides to let us in on his research about WHO WERE THE FIRST PEOPLE TO STAND ON VERY TALL THINGS. It’s not the builders of the Tower of Babel, clearly, since that got blown over by God before it was finished. So it must be the Egyptian astrologers with their pyramids (again with the pyramids). Ishmael enumerates the various historical personages looking out over great modern cities from atop towers: Napoleon, Washington, Nelson.
my primary asset as a critic is the breadth of my reference points
And just when you think that this indulgence is even more of Ishmael’s (or Melville’s) customary perversity — weaponizing the reader’s exasperation for comic effect — he brings it back around to the whaling vessel. According to Ishmael, the masthead aboard a ship is an evolution of mastheads that were once posted onshore at Nantucket and New Zealand, where a lookout would call to the manned boats in the harbour when a whale came near the shore. And these onshore mastheads surely are just evolutions of the same principle that led the Egyptians to build the pyramids. It all comes back to the pyramids.
This fucking book, sometimes, I swear to God.
Later, as he explains what it’s actually like on the masthead (uncomfortable), Ishmael makes a metaphor where a coat is your house, but then makes sure that we all know it’s just a metaphor and that a coat isn’t literally a house. “You cannot put a shelf or chest of drawers in your body, and no more can you make a convenient closet of your watch-coat.” So: you can, in a sense, bring your house with you to the masthead in the form of a coat — except that a coat is not a house, so you cannot actually bring your house with you to the masthead. Great, good to know.
It comes as no surprise at all when Ishmael reveals that he was a terrible lookout. He’s got far too much to think about to worry himself with something so mundane as doing his job.
I think this is one of my favourite chapters of Moby-Dick.
Chapter 36: The Quarter-Deck
In a lesser, saner novel, this would be chapter one. Our knights and squires are all assembled and at sea. The one-legged captain paces the deck, his brow as heavy as his gait. And at long last, he calls the crew around him to tell them why they are aboard this ship — to tell us why we are reading this novel. It took Ishmael sixteen chapters to invoke the name of Ahab. Here we are in chapter thirty-six, and only now does Ishmael allow a character to speak the dreaded name: Moby Dick.
From Christophe Chabouté’s comic adaptation, which I’ll read someday. In English.
As it turns out, the aim of the Pequod, the particular whaling vessel that Ishmael was fated to be aboard by Queequeg’s god Yojo, is not in fact to harvest as much sperm whale oil as it can, but to secure a more abstract commodity: vengeance. As we already know, Ahab lost his leg to a whale on a previous voyage. We now learn that the whale responsible for his disfigurement was itself a disfigured brute: a gigantic albino sperm whale “with a wrinkled brow and a crooked jaw.”
Aside from finally telling us what every contemporary person who will ever read Moby-Dick already knows, this amazingly non-discursive chapter also provides us with the first substantial bit of verbiage from Captain Ahab. His language reminds me of two vastly different literary figures. The more obvious (in fact, intentional) of these is Shakespeare. Like the great characters of Shakespearean tragedy — Hamlet, the Macbeths, Othello, Iago, Lear, etc. — Ahab is capable of expressing complex, abstract thought through inventive language. Ishmael’s even good enough to signal this particular reference point to us by including one of his increasingly frequent stage directions at the start of the chapter, and by allowing Ahab an (aside) direct to the reader in the middle of his speech to Starbuck, more on which momentarily.
Worse things happen at sea…
The other literary figure I’m reminded of is H.P. Lovecraft. Stay with me here. Lovecraft wrote “The Call of Cthulhu,” his classic tale of pure evil manifesting as a sea monster, in 1926. Ahab’s got him beat by 73 years. But the similarity between Ahab’s description of Moby Dick and the entire milieu that’s come to be known as “Lovecraftian horror” is undeniable. In the previous chapter, Ishmael self-identified as a Platonist — a person primarily occupied with the world of ideas, rather than the physical realm. Here, Ahab joins the ranks of those who see past the world of the senses, but Platonist he is not. He is something more akin to a Gnostic.
For Ahab, the physical world around us is nothing more than a “pasteboard mask,” obscuring the true nature of the forces that lurk just beyond our perception. “Hark ye yet again the little lower layer,” he tells Starbuck. The white whale is no mere animal upon which Ahab desires revenge. It is his portal out of the Matrix. It is his red pill. (Let’s for a moment pretend that very useful phrase hasn’t been appropriated by shitheads.) It is the serpent of Eden, which some of the ancient Gnostics worshipped.
And it is also a vast and incomprehensible manifestation of the unknowable evil power that governs the universe. It is Cthulhu, three quarters of a century ahead of schedule.
This chapter also shows us the moment of Starbuck’s foretold “fall of valor.” He is the only person onboard who’s so level headed that his soul isn’t completely taken in by Ahab’s extraordinary rhetoric. And yet, when it comes to the moment he could express a counterpoint — perhaps establishing a quiet resistance among the crew — he demurs. It’s Starbuck’s religion that leads him to condemn Ahab’s thirst for vengeance. But religion leads him all the same to the only rational conclusion voiced in this whole chapter: that the white whale is a dumb brute upon whom vengeance would be wasted.
But we’re in Ahab’s story now. He’s the only character aside from Ishmael who manifests as an intelligence in himself — clearly Ahab has taken up residence in Ishmael’s mind. And even if he’s making nearly all of this up, which he clearly is, this Ahab is as real to Ishmael as he is to himself, because this Ahab is a part of him. We are witnessing a story where the only tenable view of the white whale is that it is a manifestation of pure evil that must be wiped from the earth.
Starbuck never stood a chance.
Chapter 37: Sunset
The next three chapters are soliloquies by three characters who aren’t Ishmael. Some may suggest that this lends credence to the theory that Ishmael just vanishes from the novel sometimes, but we’ve already been through my thoughts on that rubbish.
On the topic of Ahab having taken up residence in Ishmael’s mind, I think there’s a reading to be had of Moby-Dick that the whole thing is Ishmael’s attempt to exorcise the demon Ahab that haunts him. We’ve talked from the very start about the idea that Ishmael’s tendency to get distracted from the story for long periods of time exists because the story is traumatic. These are events that have been rattling about in his brain for who knows how many years (“never mind how long precisely”), perhaps having become sensational in the process. Certainly, he’s changed all the names, or we surely wouldn’t have had a prophet named Elijah. And Ishmael has acknowledged openly that Ahab is at least partially a construction.
This is not Moby-Dick.
But I want to guard against a banal reading of Moby-Dick where the central question becomes simply whether anything that happens is real. Moby-Dick is not Life of Pi. For one thing, Ishmael’s Ahab is as grand and beguiling as he is terrible. And he’s clearly relishing the opportunity to put words in his mouth. (“I am quick to perceive a horror, and could still be social with it.”) And for another, some version of this story clearly happened to Ishmael. He wouldn’t be telling it to us in such astonishing detail if it hadn’t. So I’m going to put the question of what’s real and what’s fake aside for a while now, and just start looking at what’s actually happening in the words on the page. We’ll see how long that lasts.
Regarding this monologue by Ahab, I will only say that it’s well worth reading aloud. I’ve read most of Moby-Dick aloud at this point, and I can’t recommend it enough. As more characters begin to enter the narrative, reading aloud helps to note the extraordinary variety in their modes of expression. Where Ahab is concerned, it puts an even finer point on his debt to Shakespeare’s greatest characters. And it makes clear that Moby-Dick is one of the most theatrical novels ever written.
Robert McKee has written that the strength of theatre is in showing the ways that people communicate with each other, whereas the strength of novels is in painting intimate pictures of the lives people lead within their own minds. In that sense, Moby-Dick is almost a piece of theatre, because Ishmael is always talking to you — not himself. Moby-Dick is the world’s longest TED talk.
Ironically, it’s in these next few ostentatiously theatrical chapters that the book veers closest to that portrait of a mind’s interior that novels are supposedly so great at providing. But the theatrical tradition Ishmael/Melville’s riffing on is the Shakespearean soliloquy, which exists specifically to show what’s going on in a character’s head. So I suppose this isn’t anything particularly unexpected and I’ve basically just been spinning my wheels for two paragraphs. Moving on.
Chapter 38: Dusk
This is Moby-Dick.
Oh, Starbuck. Your death is going to hurt the most.
Every character in this book is fun to spend time with, but Starbuck, severe old Quaker that he is, is possibly the only truly admirable person aboard the Pequod. And in his first appearance since his “fall of valor” at the quarter-deck, he is already berating himself for allowing Ahab to overwhelm him and put the crew’s lives and livelihoods in danger.
And, on the curiously recurring topic of “Moby-Dick making accidental forward reference to major horror franchises,” Starbuck also refers to the white whale as a “demogorgon.”
Chapter 39: First Night-Watch
We’ve had soliloquies from Ahab and Starbuck now, so let’s continue down the line and hear from Stubb. Always good to get inside Stubb’s head. He’s really smart in a very dumb way, like the drunk porter in Macbeth, except we get to hang out with him for more than one scene.
And like a great many Shakespearean fools, Stubb enjoys commenting on the fine line between comedy and tragedy. “Wise Stubb,” he calls himself, and while he isn’t exactly right about that, he’s not wrong about as much as you’d think. Certainly he has a sense that this entire enterprise will lead the whole crew to madness.
Interestingly, Dr. Parker’s notes inform me that the rhyme Stubb recites in this chapter was written by a friend of Melville’s, Charles Fenno Hoffman, who was interned in a madhouse when Melville was writing this. *shivers*
Chapter 40: Midnight, Forecastle
Daggoo, as imagined by Rockwell Kent.
Now, because Flask isn’t worthy of a soliloquy, we get a chapter of dialogue from the harpooners and sailors. Maybe the most remarkable thing about this chapter, which is basically just drunken cavorting, is how plainly Melville is trying to portray the multiculturalism of the crew. The sailors who speak in this chapter come from scores of places both general and specific. We’ve got two black characters in Daggoo and Pip, a young boy who sweeps up. We’ve got Tashtego of the Wampanoag. We’ve got the expected handful of Nantucketers. But we’ve also got sailors from Denmark, France, Iceland, Malta, Sicily, Long Island, the Azores, China, the Isle of Man, India, Tahiti, Portugal, England, Spain, São Tiago and Belfast. This, perhaps, is the best argument we’ve seen thus far for Moby-Dick as “the great American novel.” There’s even a drunk racist dude to put the finest possible point on it.
Chapter 41: Moby Dick
One thing that will continue to drive me nuts throughout this book is the maddeningly inconsistent hyphenation of Moby Dick. In the title, it’s hyphenated. Throughout the book, it isn’t. EXCEPT for one time in chapter 133. (Thank you, Command-F.) It’s making me crazy. Anyway.
If anybody still has doubts about how utterly bonkers this book is, there is a moment in this chapter where Ishmael suggests that sperm whales can teleport. He’s not entirely convinced by this, but he won’t dismiss the possibility out of hand. And since Moby Dick himself is such a storied and borderline supernatural beast, Ishmael is more willing to ascribe him with special powers, like the ability to be in two places at once.
(Also, among Moby Dick’s deformities is a “pyramidical hump.” Pyramids everywhere.)
Art from Mastodon’s Leviathan. Trust a metal band to nail the tone of this book.
Ishmael’s got two main orders of business in this chapter. One is similar to what he was up to way back in the chapter about the chapel, where he called attention to how many people die at sea. Similarly to that, this chapter is about the dangers of the sperm whale, and of Moby Dick in particular. Many thought it suicide to give chase to even an ordinary sperm whale, let alone a fantastical giant brute of one. Discursive as he is, Ishmael does know how to keep you reading.
His other order of business is to give us a more detailed rendering than we’ve seen before of the story of how Ahab lost his leg. This is at best second-hand storytelling, but it’s a rollicking good bit. After the white whale had “reaped away Ahab’s leg as a mower a blade of grass in the field,” Ahab was confined to his bed for weeks, laced into a strait-jacket to prevent him from lashing out with all the remarkable strength that was left in him. His madness came on thick and fast, and then apparently subsided. But, as Ishmael says in one of the book’s best lines so far: “Human madness is oftentimes a cunning and most feline thing. When you think it fled, it may have but become transfigured into some still subtler form.”
Thusly maddened, Ahab sets to sea with the three mates most likely to see him to his purpose: the mediocre Flask, the reckless Stubb, and poor Starbuck, who almost but didn’t quite manage to conjure up the strength of character needed to protest.
More than ever, it feels as though the story’s about to get underway. Naturally, it isn’t.