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.

1 comment:

Mike said...

Great post on a book that could be very contentious. I think you are very fair in evaluating this, and I think the quote at the top of your page easily applies to music as well as literature. As a guy with very little classical or opera background, I'm glad Moon specified which specific performances to seek out: there can be such a wide range of differences (most probably imperceptible to my ear) and I also feel there are so many choices that for a novice its a little like walking into a library and picking up a random book off the shelf. I still think his intention was the piece first and foremost, the performer as an afterthought (except when he lists the entry under the performer's name). I hope you continue to find new music through the book: it sounds like you are already pretty knowledgeable. I am working my way through the book on my blog and creating a list of links to streaming music of each of the recordings if you'd like to check it out. link I'd love to hear about any new music you've discovered.

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