Monday, February 20, 2012

1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die, by Tom Moon

1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die: A Listener’s Life List, by Tom Moon

One of the ongoing discussions my friends and I have been having for the past couple of decades is the difference between “best” and “favorite.” The argument boils down to this: imagine someone asked you to name the best movie ever made and then asked you to name your favorite movie; without defined criteria (highest grossing, most awards, etc.) is there a difference in your answer? Regardless of where you fall on this matter (by the way, the correct answer is obviously, “of course there is a difference!” :)) this book is an excellent example of this exact dilemma. Are these the 1,000 best recordings or simply 1,000 must-hear recordings? Without any defined criteria how possible is it for two people to have the same 1,000-deep list?

Semantics about the meaning of the title aside, this is an utterly fantastic book. Generating this list is an impossible task, but I applaud the inclusiveness Moon took to account for the wildly varying styles of music worldwide. As one would expect for a book targeted at an English-speaking market, the vast majority of selections come from North America and the UK; however, there are diverse entries scattered about from fifty or so other countries such as Brazil, Japan, and Tanzania. A wide selection of genres is represented as well, although I did find some too specialized and others missing entirely: opera and classical get separate categories as do vocals, gospel, and musicals, but swing and reggae are lumped in with jazz and folk respectively. Not a huge issue, but I found the inconsistency odd.

I’ve read this several times now; once cover-to-cover, again to mark the recordings I’ve heard, and then again simply searching for particular artists and songs. Virtually any time I pick this up I can flip to a random page and be enthralled by either the description of artists with which I’m unfamiliar or hearing in my head the music with which I am. My total came to 12% of the list, although I’ve heard much, much more—which brings me to my largest complaint: is someone better for never hearing Porgy and Bess rather than the recording made by the Glyndebourne Festival Opera? I say no.

Because Moon concentrated on specific recordings, most of the classical music included I don’t get to mark off the list because I haven’t heard that particular selection. Chopin, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Mozart, Holst, and many others familiar to most are present, but the specific listings aren’t in my repertoire. For instance, I’ve heard Handel’s Messiah several times, but never the recording by Gabrieli Consort and Players. Many of the more modern artists are difficult to officially count as well because the recordings chosen are compilations or greatest hits; Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Ray Charles all fall into this category. There is also an entire section dedicated to “Various Artists” that has this problem in spades; the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack is a reasonable entry here but Great American Train Songs just seems like cheating as a way to get Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans,” Johnny Cash’s “Rock Island Line,” and Bill Monroe’s “Orange Blossom Special” in the book without taking up multiple spots. There is also a distinct lack of spoken-word and comedy recordings here; I’ll take “Nobody Will Ever Play Baseball” off of Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart or “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “White & Nerdy” over anything by the Fugees or the Chemical Brothers any day of the week.

Musicals are an included genre that I don’t know is completely fair in this context; the music from Hello Dolly!, West Side Story, and Fiddler on the Roof is undeniably fantastic, but I think theater needs to be seen on the stage to be truly appreciated. In fairness to my quibble about specific recordings, though, I think hearing the music without seeing the accompanying book performed is still a wonderful thing. Besides, then we’d have to start arguing about which specific cast and performance of a production one should see!

For the genres where most of my personal musical preferences lay, I find some of the choices downright peculiar. The Dixie Chicks have a must-hear-before-death album but not Joe Ely? The Eagles but not Billy Joel? U2 but not Rush? Pantera and Slayer but not Van Halen or Iron Maiden? The Mikado but not The Pirates of Penzance? Britney Spears “Toxic” is seriously a part of this discussion? Sinatra’s Songs for Swingin’ Lovers is included instead of A Swingin’ Affair!? Okay, maybe Moon got that last one right, but still...! Clearly there are several fun bar arguments to be had here, and this sort of faux-outrage is exactly why I loved this book!

First Sentence (from the Introduction):
When I began work on this book in the fall of 2004, the big number in the title didn’t rattle me much.

Monday, February 06, 2012

The Power Makers, by Maury Klein

The Power Makers: Steam, Electricity, and the Men Who Invented Modern America, by Maury Klein

In our modern world we get annoyed when we find a dead spot in cell coverage and a call is dropped; merely 80 years ago electricity was only easily available in the larger cities and there maybe every other house was wired for it. Klein ends his history of power with this 1920’s era when electricity had reached its tipping point, but begins in the late eighteenth century and the onset of steam power. Why single out steam from wind, water, and heat? As he states in the introduction, “Without the steam engine there would be no electricity. Together they form the foundation of the modern world.”

I quite enjoyed this book. Klein makes the complicated topic of power generation both accessible and interesting. I found it fun to read about the men whose names are now permanently attached to energy: Ohm, Watt, Hertz, Galvani, Volta, and Faraday among others. Klein’s sly humor sprinkled throughout was a treat as well. “Unfortunately, [Lavoisier’s] work was literally cut short in 1974 when he was guillotined during the horrors of the French Revolution.” The only spots that rang false to me were those where a fictional person named Ned visited the three world’s fairs that served as touchstones for the progress of energy technologies. The descriptions of the expos and the exhibits therein were effective, but the imaginary Ned forced a viewpoint unlike anything else in the book and was a jarring departure from the narrative.

Klein balances the technologies themselves with the businesses that brought them to market throughout the book, giving a holistic view of energy that truly makes for an informative read. For instance, Edison and Westinghouse are the two names most closely associated with modern electricity, but it turns out that Sam Insull may have had the most influence on how our power grid works today. He was the pioneer of electricity distribution, and figured out that by creating a constant load on the generation system allowed it to run at the most efficient and the most cost effective manner. To achieve this he went after the ice-making market. “Refrigeration worked beautifully with lighting; it peaked during the summer as the use of lights reached seasonal lows.” Insull may not have invented any of the technologies that harnessed electricity, but he did more for bringing cheap power to the masses than anyone else.

Fascinating book!

First Sentence:
One evening in September 1876 a nine-year old boy, call him Ned, got the surprise of his young life.

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