Travel back with us now to a time when rock stars, given a chance to make one good album, would often double down.
Did “more” necessarily equal “better”? Well, no, actually. But that’s an argument for a different day. For the purpose of this particular Desert Island Disc query, we’re going to talk about the ones that worked out.
The Beatles’ self-titled 1968 release, usually referred to as The White Album in honor of its unique cover design, received a poll-topping seven votes — capping off lists for Kit O’Toole, David Greenberg and Charlie Ricci. Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, commonly understood to be the concluding triumph in his classic period, was second with four total votes.
Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde led a group of albums tied with three votes, coming in first for Beverly Paterson and Gordon Hauptfleisch. Also receiving a trio of nods was Miles Davis’ jazz-rock masterpiece Bitches Brew, Pink Floyd’s The Wall and Chicago’s debut album, called Chicago Transit Authority. Other top vote getters included U2’s Rattle and Hum, Prince’s Sign O’ The Times, The Clash’s London Calling and Chicago’s second release.
The rules this time dictated that the release be recorded in studio, or mostly in studio, and that it originally have been issued as multiple discs — either on vinyl or as a compact disc. (We’ll delve into the far more common double-live releases later in this series.)
And now, our Top Five Desert Island Double Discs …
1. CAPTAIN BEEFHEART – TROUT MASK REPLICA (1969): It’s a rock album. It’s a jazz album. A folk album. A blues album. It’s a complete mess. It’s the tightest playing you’ve ever heard in your life.
2. MILES DAVIS – BITCHES BREW (1970): Whether this one started the fusion revolution or not (my pick is In A Silent Way) is beside the point, because nothing else sounded like this at the time. All of these years later, I’m still hearing new things in these sides.
3. JOE JACKSON – BIG WORLD (1986): No big hits for Joe here, but the decision to pare down his band payed dividends: the avoidance of 80’s over-production and a sharp focus on songcraft.
4. ANTHONY BRAXTON – WILLISAU (QUARTET) (1991) Perhaps Braxton’s most talented group playing some of his most challenging compositions with frightening power and precision.
5. JOANNA NEWSOM – HAVE ONE ON ME (2010): Chamber pop, freak folk, and a whole lot of other stylistic influences. Some people say Newsom’s voice in an acquired taste: it took me all of ten seconds.
1. THE BEATLES – THE BEATLES (1968): While this has been called the Beatles’ least cohesive effort, time has been kind to this staggering work. The double discs run the emotional gamut, from playful (“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”) to poignant (“Julia”) to just down and dirty rock (“Yer Blues”).
2. GEORGE HARRISON – ALL THINGS MUST PASS (1970): The so-called “Quiet Beatle” dazzled listeners with this deeply spiritual album. Harrison poured everything he wanted to say into this wide-ranging work, and few other albums have served as a personal statement as well—and as beautifully.
3. STEVIE WONDER – SONGS IN THE KEY OF LIFE (1976): No other title has better described an album, as Wonder covers an astounding variety of issues — poverty, fatherhood, romantic love, spirituality, nostalgia,
and joy. Only he could tackle such a project and produce such a timeless musical work.
4. BEES GEES, OTHERS – SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1977): This outstanding soundtrack unfairly suffered from the “Disco Sucks” movement of the late 1970s. The album stands as disco’s greatest statement, and demonstrates how the Bee Gees had come into their own as top songwriters and producers.
U2 – RATTLE AND HUM (1988): While the documentary received mixed reviews at best, the soundtrack features an impressive mix of live and studio tracks. I remained neutral on U2 until I heard memorable cuts
like “Desire,” “When Love Comes to Town,” and “All I Want Is You” — yes, all those great singles came from one album.
1. PRINCE – SIGN O’ THE TIMES (1987): Though the order of this list might conceivably change daily, I always come back to this one because it may, in fact, be the last truly necessary studio double disc of the rock era.
2. MILES DAVIS – BITCHES BREW (1970): As darkly majestic, as confrontational and sensual, as scaldingly groove-filled, as cocksure and quietly inviting, as relentlessly, jaw-droppingly inventive today as it was then.
3. BEATLES – THE BEATLES (1968): For a Beatles fan, this remains the ultimate (though admittedly, at times, crazy flawed) Desert Island Disc: There is, after all, no better showcase for this band’s every thrilling facet, every weird layer, every pop-star misstep and every found-object moment of genius.
4. CHICAGO – VII (1974): — The final double-disc from a band that shot out of the gate with a tractor-trailer full of them, VII included its share of radio-friendly hits (the superlative “I’ve Been Searching,” also “Wishing You Were Here,” “Call on Me”) but it also represents, for me, the last true moment of offbeat creativity from Chicago: A entire first side of jazz instrumentals? No shit?
5. STEVIE WONDER – SONGS IN THE KEY OF LIFE (1976): An act-by-act examination of existence — in all of its fulsome complexity — that somehow comments with equal sharpness and insight across a grand scale of topics. And, musically, it’s just as ambitious.
1. BOB DYLAN – BLONDE ON BLONDE (1966): With “a voice like sand and glue,” to paraphrase David Bowie (“Song for Robert Zimmerman”), an especially inventive and adventurous Dylan strangles up our minds by blindsiding us with a far-reaching and groundbreaking masterwork. Filled to the brim with everything from epic-length folk balladry to bluesy Salvation Army brass band — without the sense of salvation — the stylistic lines are often as blurred as the cover portrait of Dylan is.
2. THE BEATLES – THE BEATLES (1968): Sometimes I have a notion the “White Album” would make for a more solidly cohesive single LP if some of the flimsy snippets and self-indulgent experiments were omitted, but when push comes to crunch time I’d be hard-pressed to determine what gets left on the cutting-room floor.
3. THE CLASH – LONDON CALLING (1979): “Let fury have the hour, anger can be power”: If the fury was more focused on the 1970s’ Give ‘Em Enough Rope, the anger that made for the powerful London Calling also demanded – as most double albums – an expansiveness and opportunity to augment the depth with an energizing breadth of outlets, including punk, reggae, ska, rock, rockabilly, and pop.
4. TODD RUNDGREN – SOMETHING/ANYTHING? (1972): Infectious and affecting, Rundgren’s third album is quite something, while being anything you want it to be. As a multitasking studio wizard — on his way to becoming a true star — Rundgren sings all and plays all on three of the four sides, stretching his musical muscle in a kaleidoscopic exhibition of power-pop, blue-eyed soul, Motown, art-rock, and poignant balladry.
5. DEREK AND THE DOMINOS – LAYLA AND OTHER ASSORTED LOVE SONGS (1970): In a time when supergroups were as ubiquitous as drum solos, what looked good on paper lived up to the status.
1. MILES DAVIS – BITCHES BREW (1970): Mysterious, theatening and multi-layered, it’s a record that gives up a new revelation even on the hundreth listen.
2. CHICAGO – III (1971): From filthy blues-rock to abstract avant-garde jazz, this has not only nearly every stripe of music I like, but it’s all well done at a time when the band wasn’t self-conscious about anything they played.
3. PRINCE – SIGN O’ THE TIMES (1987): The staggering talent only hinted at on Dirty Mind and 1999 all comes pouring out with this sweeping statement.
4. THE BEATLES – THE BEATLES (1968): The Fabs show off some warts on this record, but it remains the best showcase for the amazing range of styles that they grasped.
5. LED ZEPPELIN – PHYSICAL GRAFFITI (1975): The path LZ went down starting with III, from being a heavy blues quartet to hard rock’s most influential band, brought them to this point.
1. CHICAGO – CHICAGO TRANSIT AUTHORITY (1969): I love the hunger on this album and the experimentation. This was what Chicago was all about.
2. SONS OF CHAMPLIN – LOOSEN UP NATURALLY (1969): Originally eleased on exactly the same day as CTA. The lyrics are products of the whole late-1960s Haight-Ashbury scene and the music has a soulful R&B edge to it that sets it apart from the more jazz-influenced CTA.
3. PINK FLOYD – THE WALL (1979): While most would argue Dark Side of the Moon is the better album, and complain that “The Wall” is a bit over-played, I’d counter that The Wall is a bit more nakedly personal. It comes from a different place and is brilliant in its own right for much different reasons than DSOTM.
4. CHICAGO – II (1970): Musically and lyrically a step forward for Chicago. The album is a more cohesive whole than CTA was, though II lacks some of the unbridled energy and passion of their debut.
5. DREAM THEATER – SIX DEGREES OF INNER TURBULENCE (2002): Disc 1 starts with a Pantera inspired heavy metal onslaught, “The Glass Prison” the first piece of Mike Portnoy’s multi-album spanning “12-Step Suite.” The second disc includes the multi-part 40+ minute title track which dabbles in not only progressive-metal but also features classical and jazz influences.
1. BOB DYLAN – BLONDE ON BLONDE (1966): From the intriguing lyrics to the killer instrumentation to Bob’s throaty sneer, which is indeed an acquired taste for some, Blonde On Blonde stands as one heck of a stunning sprawl of folk, blues and rock. This, my friends, is real music made for real people.
2. THE BEATLES – THE BEATLES (1968): Ah, the sound of a great group falling apart at the seams, but what amazing sounds they are. So much has already been written about The Beatles, which is often and otherwise known as “The White Album,” that any comments I have will simply be redundant. So there!
3. THE ROLLING STONES EXILE ON MAIN STREET (1972): It’s hard to believe this album received such poor reviews when it was originally released. However, like anything, perspectives are changed and rearranged with time, and the album is now rightfully considered a masterpiece.
4. ELTON JOHN – GOODBYE YELLOW BRICK ROAD (1973): Aside from the electrifying performances piercing the grooves, the imagery is so vivid that the characters, who tend to be seedy and needy, come alive. Add a vast array of genres and emotionally-charged movements to the program, and there you have it: A truly classic album.
5. STEVIE WONDER – SONGS IN THE KEY OF LIFE (1976): The title of this brilliant album is very fitting, as the material ripples with depth and humanity. Stevie is indeed a wonder, and Songs In The Key Of Life sealed his reputation to even higher heights as an utterly remarkable vocalist, tunesmith and instrumentalist.
1. THE BEATLES – THE BEATLES (1968): By the time I stop pressing the repeat button on “Blackbird” and “Mother Nature’s Son,” a boat or helicopter may already arrive to rescue me from the island (and yes, I recognize that could take years).
2. JOHN COLTRANE – ASCENSION (1966): Maybe being alone on an island would finally give me enough time to even attempt to fully comprehending Ascension. Although recordings by Ornette Coleman and others preceded this album, this is the one that lit the fuse for the free jazz movement.
3. BOB DYLAN – BLONDE ON BLONDE (1966): It is said that the notorious out-of-focus album cover (a picture of Dylan) was unintended to have meaning, but it can be argued that it is just as poetic as Dylan’s songs on the album. Perhaps it’s attempting to tell us something about the nature of cultural boundaries — a theme so inherent in this album.
4. THE JIMI HENDRIX EXPERIENCE – ELECTRIC LADYLAND (1968): Even though much tension (leading to the departure of its original producer) and erratic behavior from Hendrix (which included his recording 43 takes of “Gypsy Eyes”) surrounded the recording of this album, Electric Ladyland is a masterful work of art that touches perfection.
5. PINK FLOYD – THE WALL (1979): A storyline about abandonment and isolation — what other album can be more poignantly fitting for being on a desert island than this one?
1. HANK WILLIAMS III – STRAIGHT TO HELL (2006): This is the record that unleashed the beast in Hank III. Released after years of wrangling and battles with Curb Records, it was the first country record to feature a warning sticker, and it also gave the underground and traditionalist country movement a real shot in the arm.
2. ICED EARTH – THE GLORIOUS BURDEN (2004): Their first album with vocalist Tim “Ripper” Owens is probably my favorite Iced Earth record. It explores bandleader Jon Schaffer’s love of history and you can feel his passion for the topic. The second disc is a three-song, 30-minute concept piece about the battle of Gettysburg that is, far and away, the best thing Schaffer and Co. have ever put on record.
3. OPETH – DELIVERANCE/DAMNATION (2002-03): So it may not technically be a double album, but they were recorded at the same time and intended to be until the record company stepped in and decided to release them as two records five months apart. It plays on the light and darkness in the band’s sound.
4. PINK FLOYD – THE WALL (1979): Admittedly, I rarely return to this album today, but during my high school and college years, it was a very important record for me. Classic rock radio has watered the impact of it down through overplay of many of the tracks, but there won’t be any classic rock radio on the desert island, will there?
5. U2 – RATTLE AND HUM (1988): This is the only U2 album that I converted from cassette to CD all those years ago, and it’s the only one that I really come back to these days. I love the live version of my favorite U2 tune, “Bullet the Blue Sky,” that’s on this one. (My favorite version, of course, being the Sepultura cover, but that’s another article.)
1. THE BEATLES – THE BEATLES (1968): Simultaneously the best and worst album The Fabs ever made. It shows off all their varied styles more than any of their other LPs. I’ll live with the lesser stuff so I can hear the great ones like “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
2. CHICAGO – CHICAGO TRANSIT AUTHORITY (1969): It didn’t matter whether they were playing fast and furious, improvisational, psychedelic guitar jams or intricate ensemble pieces. This album shines in every way. Even Peter Cetera proved he could be a rock & roll animal when he wanted to be. It’s a masterwork!
3. CHICAGO – II (1970): It came down to either this album or 1974’s VII. Where the eclecticism of VII sometimes seemed forced, this set caught the band when they were still trying to make a name for themselves and the music all flowed naturally from their heads and hearts. In the end though, it was my choice because I couldn’t bear the thought of living alone on an island and never hearing Terry Kath’s solo on “25 or 6 to 4” again.
4. STEVIE WONDER – SONGS IN THE KEY OF LIFE (1976): Not a weak track anywhere. Two and a half discs full of some of the most original R&B, funk, rock, pop, jazz, & ballads ever put on vinyl. During the 1970s, Stevie was the decade’s resident genius. One of the greatest albums of all time, by anyone, anywhere, any era, any genre.
5. THE CLASH – LONDON CALLING (1979): I initially ignored the Clash, because I always hated punk but years later I eventually realized these guys weren’t just your run of the mill, teenage rebel, punk band. This album is smart and eclectic throughout and frequently the band even found some melodies. I apologize, Joe. You were quite the talent.