1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die (Tom Moon, 1,005 pages, Workman)
Who doesn't like a good long list?
Best movies, worst records, fanciest restaurants, coolest places to visit on a budget, sharpest cars, favorite action flick. ... On and on it goes, the distillation of a lifetime's passion into lists of what we like the most or the least.
Couple that compulsion with unfettered ambition and you have Tom Moon's brazen 1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die. Think about the audacity for a second: 1,000 works of music that you have to hear.
Before you die.
Of course it's all in good fun and Moon, a longtime music critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer and writer for a number of publications such as Rolling Stone, is the up for the job. Also a musician - he played saxophone in Maynard Ferguson's big band - he couples his innate musical knowledge with his skill as a writer to craft a fascinating exploration of every kind of music, from punk rock to classical.
Over the course of more than a thousand paperback pages he journeys from Abba's "Gold" album all the way to ZZ Top's "Tres Hombres," taking detours into classical, world, jazz, soul, and virtually every musical path anyone has taken since sound has been recorded.
It's a cool trip that zigzags wildly from "The Best of Louis Jordan" to "Missa panga lingua, Motets" by Josquin des Prez, to "Unknown Pleasures" by Joy Division, all in just a few pages.
Remarkably, Moon is able to write about such disparate types of music with a canny combination of insight and knowledge without ever getting so technical that the casual-but-passionate music fan doesn't know what he's talking about.
Here's a typical example from the review of the notoriously dour Joy Division: "Most punk productions are a poke in the eye with a sharp stick; Joy Divsion hovers in a predatory stance, the menacing stalker in the background."
In his introduction to the alphabetical listings, Moon talks about a metaphorical "ticking clock" that he used as a kind of internal metronome when putting the list together: in short, once he began researching the tome in 2004 he listened to everything with the idea in mind that with time running out on your life, this is what you must listen to. From there, he used Duke Ellington's simple formula that there are two kinds of music: good music and "the other kind."
Of course it's ultimately all a matter of taste, and Moon's is eclectic and quirky. There's no point in arguing with him too much because he's a good critic who is always on solid ground. For example, among brilliant musicians like John Coltrane, George Gershwin, and Aretha Franklin, there is, no kidding, Britney Spears, who gets in for the song "Toxic."
Does she deserve to be there? Probably not, but Moon makes a pretty compelling argument for her, but if you're not interested in reading about it, skip right on to the next review, which is of the Phil Spector collection, "Back to Mono."
I have a few personal quibbles: only two Rolling Stones discs and one is a compilation? Lucinda Williams is in for the inferior "My Sweet World," but not for the sublime "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road"? No "Quadrophenia" by The Who?
What makes 1,000 Songs such a breeze that keeps on delivering is that Moon designed it to be picked up and opened at random so that you can skip around and read it in quick bursts or in longer spells. There's no attempt to craft some kind of linear progression or sense of continuity, and the book works well as both a consumer guide and pure entertainment.
Leave one of these lying around on the coffee table and guaranteed it'll soon be worn out from repeated use.
Contact Rod Lockwood at: firstname.lastname@example.org