We all love our short lists – especially this time of year, when the world, like a whirling CD, seems to be spinning faster and faster.
Still, naming only five essential albums is an impossible task. Rock and pop have been around since the 1950s. Jazz has been around even longer. And classical music – trace its history, and you are talking a millennium.
That’s why our critics are going to have to be highly subjective. Let’s put it like this: We are each going to list five albums we would suggest all listeners owe it to themselves to explore. Five albums that, were you never to hear them, would mean your life was lacking. Sure, you could live without this music, the way you could live without ever falling in love, or tasting chocolate, or going swimming in the ocean. You could survive, but you would be missing something.
By Mary Kunz goldman / News classical music critic
1. Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.”
Everything about life is in this sometimes madcap, oddly bittersweet love story. Like Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” it all takes place in one day, with confusion, comedy, hurt and, finally, an ending that brings tears to your eyes. You don’t have to get an intimidating box set of CDs. A highlights album will do, as long as you read up on what you’re hearing. There is a good one on Seraphim with Riccardo Muti conducting, featuring Kathleen Battle. Or splurge on a DVD so you can watch the action and study it. Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s made-for-TV version from the 1970s, starring Kiri Te Kanawa as the Countess, is what got me hooked.
2. Beethoven’s symphonies.
The ones you really need are the Third (the “Eroica”), the famous Fifth, the Seventh (with the thrilling Allegretto heard in “The King’s Speech”) and the Ninth (with the “Ode to Joy”). But what the heck, you can get the box set of all nine, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, for $22.99 on Amazon. Do it. You pay that much just walking in and out of a diner. Carry the symphonies around and live with them a while and let them envelop you. Beethoven, like Mozart, was writing for you.
3. Giovanni Pierluigi de Palestrina, the Pope Marcellus Mass.
From the first notes you are put into a sound world that makes you imagine you are seeing into heaven. Over and over on YouTube, comments come in from listeners who say the music put them in a trance. One kid who signs himself “The Metal Man” writes: “I’m only 17, and as a classical pianist trained for 12 years & a hard rock/heavy metal guitarist trained for nearly 4 years, never in my life have I heard something so incredibly peaceful & beautiful.” The Oxford Camarata has a disc on Naxos that will run you $11.
4. EMI’s “Great Recordings of the Century.”
This collection gives you Christa Ludwig singing Wagner’s “Wesendonck Lieder” and the famous “Liebestod” from “Tristan and Isolde,” as well as Brahms’ “Alto Rhapsody” and five of Gustav Mahler’s most beautiful songs. This is the glory of Romantic music; it’s enchanting stuff, not to miss out on. Otto Klemperer conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra.
5. Arthur Rubinstein, the Chopin Collection (RCA Gold Seal).
Every essential collection should have some piano music, and every piano collection should have some Chopin. There are a lot of wonderful pianists, and we all wind up with our favorites, but Rubinstein’s relaxed, extroverted style is a great place to start. This disc is a mix of exquisite nocturnes, waltzes and quirky mazurkas. Listen to it repeatedly. You’ll be glad you did.
By Jeff miers
News pop music critic
1. The Beatles, “Revolver” (Capitol).
If we’re discussing the album – as opposed to a collection of non-associated singles – then this is where we have to start. “Revolver” marked the Beatles’ full blossoming as masters of the recording studio, the album-as-artifact and the marriage of myriad styles beneath the umbrella of rock.
2. The Kinks, “Something Else by the Kinks” (Reprise) .
The Kinks are widely regaled as the inventors of the mighty rock riff, a la “You Really Got Me,” “All Day and All of the Night,” et al, but it was this 1967 release that marked the apotheosis of principal songwriter Ray Davies in his quest to marry the traditions of English music hall, psychedelia, pop and primal rock ’n’ roll into something startlingly fresh and, even by today’s standards, remarkably sophisticated. The full breadth of this band’s talents can be traced by the stylistic space between “Waterloo Sunset” and “Love Me ’Till the Sun Shines.”
3. The Rolling Stones, “Sticky Fingers” (Virgin/Rolling Stones).
This album marks the moment the Rolling Stones moved beyond its obvious indebtedness to African-American blues and Chuck Berry’s swampy rock ’n’ roll into the decidedly more dangerous and sexy world embodied by “Brown Sugar,” “Sway” and “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’.” The assimilation of country music influences can be heard in “Dead Flowers” and “Wild Horses,” too. Pound for pound, this is the Stones’ finest.
4. Led Zeppelin, “Led Zeppelin Four” (Swan Song).
What the Beatles were to the 1960s, Led Zeppelin was to the ’70s – the clear leaders when it came to pushing the envelope in terms of what rock music might encapsulate. The band also redefined what it meant to be “heavy,” although crediting it with creating “heavy metal” (as so many have over the years) is both absurd and unjust. Zeppelin, as perfectly encapsulated by the fourth album, wore a coat of many colors, among them blues-fusion, progressive rock, folk and classical. This album is timeless, and not just because of “Stairway to Heaven,” either – there’s not a millisecond of dead weight here.
5. Radiohead, “OK Computer” (Capitol).
We now experience rock as a postmodern entity – it must be viewed with ironic distance, and it is always self-conscious, aware of its need to lean upon former glories and to exist in the shadow cast by the highest peaks scaled by the form’s progenitors. “OK Computer” is the masterpiece of the modern idiom. It’s an album marked by brilliance, and thematically, it predicts the dehumanizing effects that would be part and parcel of the then-nascent Internet age and the explosion of social media. It’s a depressing album, but so inventive and soulful as to be somehow simultaneously uplifting.
By Jeff Simon / News arts editor
1. Miles Davis, “Kind of Blue” (Sony Legacy).
Jazz for people who love jazz, jazz for people who hate jazz, and jazz for almost everyone in between. Sublime American music for all time.
2. Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, “The Complete Ella and Louis” (Verve).
The greatest Beauty and the Beast pairing in the history of American music. All the art and charm each possessed individually increased geometrically in each other’s company. A single disc “Best of” also is available.
3. Sidney Bechet, “Ken Burns Jazz Collection” (Sony Legacy).
Before anyone dives into the Louis Armstrong Hot Fives and Hot Sevens to discover the glories of the earliest jazz, they should really listen to the most haunting and expressive musician in all of early jazz.
4. Duke Ellington, “Uptown” (Sony Legacy).
Great music of all kinds in a full self-portrait of jazz’s greatest composer/bandleader in one of his greatest eras.
5. Charles Mingus, “Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus” (Impulse).
The only composer/bandleader to rival Ellington in prodigious genius with one of his finest groups and most lavish recording circumstances.
After all this, a novice jazz listener will be up for anything.