Tag Archives: Music

Cheer Up – The Blues Lists Are Here!

I’ve updated my lists of best blues albums – adding a number of new lists, revising the formatting and creating two separate lists: one organized by rank (that is, with the albums on the most lists at the top) and one in chronological order.

Here are the updated lists:
Best Blues Albums of All Time – Ranked
Best Blues Albums of All Time – Chronological

The challenge of making a list of best blues albums is that so many of the albums are compilations and so many of the compilations have duplicate material.  As an example, take Sonny Boy Williamson (II), who has five albums on the list:
1. King Biscuit Time (rec. 1951-1965) (on 3 lists)
2. Down and Out Blues (rec. 1955-1958) (on 3 lists)
3. His Best (Chess, rec. 1955-1964) (on 3 lists)
4. The Essential Sonny Boy Williamson (rec. 1955-1963) (on 2 lists)
5. The Real Folk Blues/More Real Folk Blues (rec. 1957, 1960-1964) (on 3 lists)
I don’t know exactly, but my guess is that there are at least some of his tracks that are on all five albums, and probably a lot more that are on three or four.  The same problem is true for so many other blues artists.  To complicate matters, not all these compilations are of the same quality.  This creates a problem for the lister, and for the person trying to use the list to make choices about what .  My recommendation is that if you are looking for a first album to buy from a blue artist, start with my list, but in trying to decide among the compilations here take the next step of googling “what is the best compilation for [Artist’s Name]” and see what advice you get.

Sound Advice: The Updated Albums Lists

I’ve revised and updated my best albums meta-lists.  This is the combined wisdom of over 34 different listers – most of the lists were created by music critics, music magazines, newspapers and radio stations. The meta-lists I’ve created include every album on at least three of the original source lists.  Here they are:

Best Albums of All Time – Ranked
Best Albums of All Time – Chronological
Best Albums of All Time- By Artist

While updating the list, I decided to create some lists about the meta-lists:

Most Prolific: Artists with the Most Albums on the Meta-List
1. Bob Dylan (10 albums)
2. The Beatles (9 albums)
3. The Rolling Stones (8 albums)
4. Led Zeppelin (7 albums)
5. Neil Young (6 albums)
6. David Bowie (6 albums)
7. The Who (5 albums)
8. Jimi Hendrix (5 albums)
9. Bruce Springsteen (5 albums)
10. U2 (5 albums)
11. R.E.M. (5 albums)

 One and Done: Highest Ranked Albums by Artists with Only One Album on the Meta-List
Love – Forever Changes (1967)
Carole King – Tapestry (1971)
Patti Smith – Horses (1975)
Fleetwood Mac – Rumours (1977)
Television – Marquee Moon (1977)
Sex Pistols – Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols (1977)
Paul Simon – Graceland (1986)
Guns n’ Roses – Appetite for Destruction (1987)
The Stone Roses – The Stone Roses (1989)
Pearl Jam – Ten (1991)
Jeff Buckley – Grace (1994)

Just didn’t make it: Albums on two lists by artists with no albums on at least three lists
Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers – Moanin’ (1959)
Bobby “Blue” Bland – Two Steps from the Blues (rec. 1956-1960, rel. 1961)
Essra Mohawk – Primordial Lovers (1970)
Mott the Hoople – All the Young Dudes (1972)
Bob Seger – Night Moves (1976)
Young Marble Giants – Colossal Youth (1980)
Genesis – Abacab (1981)
Huey Lewis & the News – Sports (1983)
L.L. Cool J – Radio (1985)
Pet Shop Boys – Discography (rec. 1985-1991, rel. 1991)
INXS – Kick (1987)
Don Henley – The End of the Innocence (1989)
Bikini Kill – Revolution Girl Style Now! (1991)
The Black Crowes – The Southern Harmony & Musical Companion (1992)
Jane Siberry – When I Was a Boy (1993)
Tool – Undertow (1993)
Dave Matthew Band – Under the Table and Dreaming (1994)
Mary J. Blige – My Life (1994)
No Doubt – Tragic Kingdom (1995)
Paul Weller – Stanley Road (1995)
Tool – Aenima (1996)
Super Furry Animals – Radiator (1997)
Neutral Milk Hotel – In the Aeroplane over the Sea (1998)
Queens of the Stone Age – Rated R (2000)
Andrew W.K. – I Get Wet (2001)
Blink-182 – Blink-182 (2003)
Adele – 21 (2011)

My Favorites By Decade: Music, Books and Movies

I made a list of my favorite books, movies and albums from each decade since the 1950s. I chose to begin with the 1950s, as that was the decade that the long-playing record album was introduced. I limited my picks to 12 or fewer in each category.

NOTE: To be clear, these are works of music, literature and film that were produced during the decades listed – it doesn’t mean I read, saw or listened to them during that particular decade (which would be particularly difficult for the 1950s, since I wasn’t born then!).


Songs for Swingin’ Lovers! (1956) – Frank Sinatra
Jazz at Massey Hall (1956) – The Quintet (Parker, Gillespie, Powell, Roach, Mingus)
After Midnight (1957) – Nat “King” Cole
West Side Story (1957) – Original Broadway Cast
Birth of the Cool (1957) – Miles Davis
Brilliant Corners (1957) – Thelonious Monk
Saxophone Colossus (1957) – Sonny Rollins
At the Opera House (1958) – Stan Getz & J.J. Johnson
Somethin’ Else (1958) – Cannonball Adderley
Blues from the Gutter (1959) – Champion Jack Dupree
Kind of Blue (1959) – Miles Davis
The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959) – Ornette Coleman

Memoirs of Hadrian (1951) – Marguerite Yourcenar
Invisible Man (1952) – Ralph Ellison
Henry James: A Life (1953) – Leon Edel
Nine Stories (1953) – J.D. Salinger
The Foundation Trilogy (1953) – Isaac Asimov
Lucky Jim (1954) – Kingsley Amis
The Inheritors (1955) – William Golding
Lolita (1955) – Vladimir Nabokov
The Lord of the Rings (1956) – J.R.R. Tolkien
A Death in the Family (1957) – James Agee
Molloy; Malone Dies; The Unnameable (1958) – Samuel Beckett
The Tin Drum (1969) – Günter Grass

Sunset Blvd. (Wilder, 1950)
Ikiru (Kurosawa, 1952)
Singin’ in the Rain (Kelly & Donen, 1952)
Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (Tati, 1953)
Tokyo Story (Ozu, 1953)
The Apu Trilogy (Ray, 1955-1959)
The Searchers (Ford, 1956)
Wild Strawberries (Bergman, 1957)
Nights of Cabiria (Fellini, 1957)
Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958)
Touch of Evil (Welles, 1958)
The 400 Blows (Truffaut, 1959)


The Incredible Jazz Guitar (1960) – Wes Montgomery
Sunday at the Village Vanguard & Waltz for Debby (1962) – Bill Evans
Live at the Regal (1965) – B.B. King
A Love Supreme (1965) – John Coltrane
Highway 61 Revisited (1965) – Bob Dylan
Tristan und Isolde (1966) – Richard Wagner (Bayreuther Festspiele, Karl Böhm)
Chicago/The Blues/Today! (1966) – Various Artists
Blonde on Blonde (1966) – Bob Dylan
Revolver (1966) – The Beatles
The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967) – The Velvet Underground
The Beatles [White Album] – The Beatles
Tommy (1969) – The Who

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960) – William L. Shirer
Franny and Zooey (1961) – J.D. Salinger
The Golden Notebook (1962) – Doris Lessing
A Clockwork Orange (1962) – Anthony Burgess
Labyrinths (1962) – Jorge Luis Borges
Cat’s Cradle (1963) – Kurt Vonnegut
V. (1963) – Thoman Pynchon
Fanshen: A Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village (1966) – William Hinton
Giles Goat-Boy (1966) – John Barth
One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) – Gabriel García Márquez
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) – Tom Wolfe
The Double Helix (1968) – James D. Watson

La Dolce Vita (Fellini, 1960)
L’Avventura (Antonioni, 1960)
The Exterminating Angel (Buñuel, 1962)
Vivre Sa Vie (Godard, 1962)
La Jetée (Marker, 1962)
Lawrence of Arabia (Lean, 1962)
8 ½ (Fellini, 1963)
The Servant (Losey, 1963)
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Kubrick, 1964)
Repulsion (Polanski, 1965)
2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968)
Midnight Cowboy (Schlesinger, 1969)


Moondance (1970) – Van Morrison
Plastic Ono Band (1970) – John Lennon
Blue (1971) – Joni Mitchell
The Dark Side of the Moon (1973) – Pink Floyd
There Goes Rhymin’ Simon (1973) – Paul Simon
Quadrophenia (1973) – The Who
Blood on the Tracks (1975) – Bob Dylan
Born to Run (1975) – Bruce Springsteen
Music of the Gothic Era (1976) – Early Music Consort of London (David Munrow)
Ice Pickin’ (1978) – Albert Collins
This Year’s Model (1978) – Elvis Costello
The Roches (1979) – The Roches

A Theory of Justice (1971) – John Rawls
Invisible Cities (1972) – Italo Calvino
The Gulag Archipelago (1973) – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Breakfast of Champions (1973) – Kurt Vonnegut
Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) – Thomas Pynchon
All the President’s Men (1974) – Carl Bernstein and Robert Woodward
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974) – Robert Pirsig
Ragtime (1975) – E.L. Doctorow
Song of Solomon (1977) – Toni Morrison
The Family Crucible (1977) – Augustus Napier
The Stories of John Cheever (1978) – John Cheever
On Human Nature (1978) – E.O. Wilson

Five Easy Pieces (Rafelson, 1970)
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Buñuel, 1972)
Cries and Whispers (Bergman, 1972)
Aguirre: The Wrath of God (Herzog, 1972)
Badlands (Malick, 1973)
Chinatown (Polanski, 1974)
The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (Herzog, 1974)
A Woman Under the Influence (Cassavetes, 1974)
The Godfather: Part II (Coppola, 1974)
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Forman, 1975)
3 Women (Altman, 1977)
Apocalypse Now (Coppola, 1979)


Remain in Light (1980) – Talking Heads
Making Movies (1980) – Dire Straits
Pirates Choice (1982) – Orchestra Baobab
Imperial Bedroom (1982) – Elvis Costello
Legend (1984) – Bob Marley
Rain Dogs (1985) – Tom Waits
King of America (1986) – Elvis Costello
So (1986) – Peter Gabriel
The Joshua Tree (1987) – U2
Shadowland (1988) – k.d. lang

A People’s History of the United States (1980) – Howard Zinn
The White Hotel (1981) – D.M. Thomas
Midnight’s Children (1981) – Salman Rushdie
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981) – Raymond Carver
The Growth of Biological Thought (1982) – Ernst Mayr
White Noise (1984) – Don DeLillo
Money: A Suicide Note (1984) – Martin Amis
Common Ground (1985) – J. Anthony Lukas
World’s End (1987) – T.C. Boyle
And the Band Played On (1987) – Randy Shilts
Battle Cry of Freedom (1988) – James M. McPherson
Parting the Waters: America in the King Years (1988) – Taylor Branch

Stardust Memories (Allen, 1980)
Raging Bull (Scorcese, 1980)
My Dinner With Andre
 (Malle, 1981)
The King of Comedy (Scorcese, 1982)
Fanny and Alexander (Bergman, 1982)
Local Hero (Forsyth, 1983)
Brazil (Gilliam, 1985)
Blue Velvet (Lynch, 1986)
The Sacrifice (Tarkovsky, 1986)
Wings of Desire (Wenders, 1987)
Raising Arizona (Coen & Coen, 1987)
Do the Right Thing (Lee, 1989)


Goodbye Jumbo (1990) – World Party
Out of Time (1991) – R.E.M.
Aurora Gory Alice (1993) – Letters to Cleo
Whatever (1993) – Aimee Mann
Exile in Guyville (1993) – Liz Phair
To Bring You My Love (1995) – PJ Harvey
Garbage (1995) – Garbage
Odelay! (1996) – Beck
OK Computer (1997) – Radiohead
A Go Go (1998) – John Scofield
Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (1998) – Lucinda Williams
69 Love Songs (1999) – The Magnetic Fields

The Things They Carried (1990) – Tim O’Brien
Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos (1991) – Dennis Overbye
Consciousness Explained (1991) – Daniel C. Dennett
Mating (1991) – Norman Rush
Hard Rain: A Dylan Commentary (1992) – Tim Riley
Charles Darwin: Voyaging (1995) – Janet Browne
Ship Fever (1996) – Andrea Barrett
Infinite Jest (1996) – David Foster Wallace
Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth (1997) – Richard Fortey
The God of Small Things (1997) – Arundhati Roy
Annals of the Former World (1998) – John McPhee
We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families (1998) – Philip Gourevich

Unforgiven (Eastwood, 1992)
Short Cuts (Altman, 1993)
Pulp Fiction (Tarantino, 1994)
Before Sunrise (Linklater, 1995)
Lone Star (Sayles, 1996)
Secrets & Lies (Leigh, 1996)
Fast, Cheap and Out of Control (Morris, 1997)
The Sweet Hereafter (Egoyan, 1997)
Happiness (Solondz, 1998)
The Celebration (Vinterberg, 1998)
Being John Malkovich (Jonze, 1999)
Magnolia (P.T. Anderson, 1999)
All About My Mother (Almodóvar, 1999)


Fado em Mim (2000) – Mariza
I Am Shelby Lynne (2000) – Shelby Lynne
Strories from the City, Stories from the Sea (2000) – PJ Harvey
Sweet Tea (2001) – Buddy Guy
The Id (2001) – Macy Gray
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002) – Wilco
Fever to Tell (2003) – Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Electric Version (2003) – The New Pornographers
Funeral (2004) – Arcade Fire
Shostakovich: String Quartets (2006) – Emerson String Quartet
Boys and Girls in America (2006) – The Hold Steady
Bird-Brains (2009) – Tune-Yards

White Teeth (2000) – Zadie Smith
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000) – Dave Eggers
Atonement (2001) – Ian McEwan
Austerlitz (2001) – W.G. Sebald
Middlesex (2002)  – Jeffrey Eugenides
Europe Central (2005) – William T. Vollmann
1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (2005) – Charles C. Mann
Never Let Me Go (2005) – Kazuo Ishiguro
The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) – Michael Pollan
The Inheritance of Loss (2006) – Kiran Desai
The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (2007) – Alex Ross
The Hemingses of Monticello (2008) – Annette Gordon-Reed

Yi Yi: A One and a Two (Yang, 2000)
In the Mood for Love (Wong, 2000)
Requiem for a Dream (Aronofsky, 2000)
Mulholland Dr. (Lynch, 2001)
Waking Life (Linklater, 2001)
The Royal Tenenbaums (Anderson, 2001)
Talk to Her (Almodóvar, 2002)
Dogville (von Trier, 2003)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Gondry, 2004)
Grizzly Man (Herzog, 2005)
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Mungiu, 2007)
No Country for Old Men (Coen, 2007)

2010s (so far)

The Suburbs (2010) – Arcade Fire
The King Is Dead (2011) – The Decemberists
Let England Shake (2011) – PJ Harvey
Yuck (2011) – Yuck
Four Sonatas by Charles Ives (2011) – Hilary Hahn & Valentina Lisitsa
Bad As Me (2011) – Tom Waits
Visions (2012) – Grimes
Pedestrian Verse (2013) – Frightened Rabbit
Brill Bruisers (2014) – The New Pornographers
Monteverdi (2016) – Magdalena Kožená
My Woman (2016) – Angel Olsen
Antisocialites (2017) – Alvvays

Cleopatra: A Life (2010) – Stacy Schiff
Lennon: The Man, the Myth, the Music (2010) – Tim Riley
There But For the (2011) – Ali Smith
Tenth of December (2013) – George Saunders
The Riddle of the Labyrinth (2013) – Margalit Fox
Lawrence in Arabia (2013) – Scott Anderson
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2013) – Elena Ferrante

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Herzog, 2010)
The Tree of Life (Malick, 2011)
Moonrise Kingdom (Anderson, 2012)
The Act of Killing (Oppenheimer, 2012)
Boyhood (Linklater, 2014)
Anomalisa (Kaufman & Johnson, 2015)
Moonlight (Jenkins, 2016)
The Florida Project (Baker, 2017)


The Best Albums by Women: Another Perspective

You may have seen the list published last week by NPR of the best 150 albums by women since 1964 (click here to see it).  Like all the best lists, it is fun to read and fun to argue with. To provide another perspective, I went through my lists of Best Albums of All Time, Best Jazz, Best Blues, Best World Music, Best Hip Hop, Best Country, Best Music – Year by Year and Best Songs to compile an alternative list.  This one has 164 albums, in chronological order by date of the earliest recording on the album – the recordings here begin in 1920 and go all the way to 2016. I have added an asterisk to any album on my list that is also on the NPR list. Enjoy!

NOTE: Unlike the NPR list, which focuses almost exclusively on female vocalists, I have also including albums from bands with female instrumentalists, like Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five, The Velvet Underground, Talking Heads and The Smashing Pumpkins.

  1. Umm Kulthum (Oum Kalsoum): The Legend: The Arab World’s Greatest Singer (1920-1949)
  2. Bessie Smith: The Essential Bessie Smith (alternative pick: The Collection) (1923-1933)
  3. Ma Rainey: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1924-1928)
  4. Louis Armstrong: The Complete Hot Fives and Hot Sevens (1925-1930) (feat. Lil Armstrong)
  5. Memphis Minnie: Bumble Bee: Essential Recordings of Memphis Minnie (1929-1941)
  6. Billie Holiday: Lady Day (1933-1944)
  7. Big Maybelle: The Complete Okeh Sessions (1952-1955)
  8. Big Mama Thornton: Hound Dog – The Peacock Recordings (1952-1957)
  9. Amália Rodriques: The Art of Amália (1952-1970)
  10. Sarah Vaughan: Sarah Vaughan with Clifford Brown (1954)
  11. June Christy: Something Cool (1955)
  12. Ella Fitzgerald: The Complete Songbooks (1956-1964) (NPR lists Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Johnny Mercer Songbook (1964)*)
  13. Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong: Ella and Louis (1957)
  14. Billie Holiday: Songs for Distingué Lovers (1957)
  15. Patsy Cline: The Definitive Collection (1957-1963)
  16. Asha Bhosle: The Rough Guide to Bollywood Legends: Asha Bhosle (1957-1999)
  17. Billie Holiday: Lady in Satin (1958)
  18. Lambert, Hendricks & Ross: Everybody’s Boppin’ (1959-1961) (feat. Annie Ross)
  19. Koko Taylor: What It Takes – The Chess Years (1960-1971)
  20. Nancy Wilson & Cannonball Adderley: Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley (1961)
  21. Abbey Lincoln: Straight Ahead (1961)
  22. Dionne Warwick: Make Way for Dionne Warwick (1964)
  23. Stan Getz & Joao Gilberto: Getz/Gilberto (1964) (feat. Astrud Gilberto)
  24. Big Mama Thornton: Ball n’ Chain (1965-1968)
  25. The Mamas & the Papas: If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears (1966) (feat. Cass Elliott and Michelle Phillips)
  26. Aretha Franklin: I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (1967)*
  27. Bobbie Gentry: Ode to Billie Joe (1967)*
  28. The Velvet Underground: The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967) (feat. Nico and Maureen Tucker)
  29. Aretha Franklin: Lady Soul (1968)
  30. Tammy Wynette: D-I-V-O-R-C-E (1968)
  31. Carla Bley & Paul Haines: Escalator over the Hill (1968-1971)
  32. Dusty Springfield: Dusty in Memphis (1969)*
  33. Tammy Wynette: Stand By Your Man (1969)*
  34. Gal Costa: Gal Costa (1969)
  35. The Velvet Underground: The Velvet Underground (1969) (feat. Maureen Tucker)
  36. Fairport Convention: Liege & Leaf (1969) (feat. Sandy Denny)
  37. Loretta Lynn: Coal Miner’s Daughter (1970)*
  38. Essra Mohawk: Primordial Lovers (1970)
  39. The Velvet Underground: Loaded (1970) (feat. Maureen Tucker)
  40. Joni Mitchell: Blue (1971)*
  41. Carole King: Tapestry (1971)*
  42. Janis Joplin: Pearl (1971)*
  43. Dolly Parton: Coat of Many Colors (1971)*
  44. Aretha Franklin: Young Gifted and Black (1972)*
  45. Roberta Flack: Killing Me Softly (1973)
  46. Joni Mitchell: Court and Spark (1974)
  47. Richard & Linda Thompson: I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight (1974)
  48. Elis Regina & Tom Jobin: Elis & Tom (1974)
  49. Celia Cruz & Johnny Pacheco: Celia & Johnny (1974)
  50. Patti Smith: Horses (1975)*
  51. Joni Mitchell: The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975)
  52. Koko Taylor: I Got What It Takes (1975)
  53. Kate & Anna McGarrigle: Kate & Anna McGarrigle (1975)
  54. Emmylou Harris: Elite Hotel (1975)
  55. Joni Mitchell: Hejira (1976)*
  56. ABBA: Arrival (1976) (feat. Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad)
  57. Fleetwood Mac: Rumours (1977) (feat. Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie)*
  58. Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt & Emmylou Harris: Trio (1977)
  59. Blondie: Parallel Lines (1978) (feat. Deborah Harry)*
  60. The Slits: Cut (1979) (feat. Ari Up, Viv Albertine and Tessa Pollitt)*
  61. Talking Heads: Fear of Music (1979) (feat. Tina Weymouth)
  62. Gloria Gaynor: Love Tracks (1979)
  63. Pretenders: Pretenders (1980) (feat. Chrissie Hynde)*
  64. Talking Heads: Remain in Light (1980) (feat. Tina Weymouth)
  65. Rosanne Cash: Seven Year Ache (1981)
  66. Joan Jett & the Blackhearts: I Love Rock ‘n Roll (1981)
  67. Eurythmics: Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) (1983) (feat. Annie Lennox)
  68. Madonna: The Immaculate Collection (1983-1990)
  69. Prince & The Revolution: Purple Rain (1984) (feat. Wendy Melvoin, Lisa Coleman, Novi Novoq, Suzie Katayama and Apollonia)
  70. Talking Heads: Stop Making Sense (1984) (feat. Tina Weymouth)
  71. Tina Turner: Private Dancer (1984)*
  72. Kate Bush: Hounds of Love (1985)*
  73. Ofra Haza: Fifty Gates of Wisdom: Yemenite Songs (1985)*
  74. Salt-N-Pepa: Hot, Cool & Vicious (1986) (feat. Cheryl James and Sandra Denton)
  75. Bulgarian State Radio & Television Female Vocal Choir: Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares (1987)*
  76. Sonic Youth: Sister (1987) (feat. Kim Gordon)*
  77. Sonic Youth: Daydream Nation (1988) (feat. Kim Gordon)
  78. Pixies: Surfer Rosa (1988) (feat. Kim Deal)
  79. Tracy Chapman: Tracy Chapman (1988)*
  80. Pixies: Doolittle (1989) (feat. Kim Deal)
  81. Madonna: Like a Prayer (1989)*
  82. Queen Latifah: All Hail the Queen (1989)*
  83. The B-52’s: Cosmic Thing (1989) (feat. Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson)
  84. Sinéad O’Connor: I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got (1990)*
  85. My Bloody Valentine: Loveless (1991) (feat. Bilinda Butcher and Debbie Googe)
  86. Mary Black: Babes in the Wood (1991)
  87. Bikini Kill: Revolution Girl Style Now! (1991) (feat. Kathleen Hanna, Kathi Wilcox and Tobi Vail)
  88. Tori Amos: Little Earthquakes (1992)*
  89. Cesária Évora: Miss Perfumado (1992)
  90. Cherish the Ladies: The Back Door (1992) (feat. Mary Coogan, Siobhan Egan, Eileen Golden, Winifred Horan, Maureen Doherty Macken, Joanie Madden, Cathie Ryan, & Linnane Wick)
  91. Altan: Harvest Storm (1992) (feat. Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh)
  92. Cassandra Wilson: Blue Light ‘Til Dawn (1993)*
  93. Björk: Debut (1993)
  94. Liz Phair: Exile in Guyville (1993)*
  95. PJ Harvey: Rid of Me (1993)*
  96. Sheryl Crow: Tuesday Night Music Club (1993)*
  97. Jane Siberry: When I Was A Boy (1993)
  98. The Smashing Pumpkins: Siamese Dream (1993) (feat. D’arcy Wretzky-Brown)
  99. Portishead: Dummy (1994) (feat. Beth Gibbons)*
  100. Hole: Live Through This (1994) (feat. Courtney Love, Kristen Pfaff and Patty Schemel)*
  101. Annbjørg Lien: Felefeber (1994)
  102. Alanis Morissette: Jagged Little Pill (1995)*
  103. Cesária Évora: Cesária Évora (1995)
  104. Emmylou Harris: Wrecking Ball (1995)*
  105. Shania Twain: The Woman in Me (1995)
  106. Björk: Post (1995)*
  107. No Doubt: Tragic Kingdom (1995) (feat. Gwen Stefani)*
  108. Garbage: Garbage (1995) (feat. Shirley Manson)
  109. The Smashing Pumpkins: Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995) (feat. D’arcy Wretzky-Brown)
  110. Fugees: The Score (1996) (feat. Lauryn Hill)*
  111. Diana Krall: All for You (1996)
  112. Solas: Solas (1996) (feat. Karan Casey and Winifred Horan)
  113. Leann Rimes: Blue (1996)
  114. Susana Baca: Susana Baca (1997)
  115. Mary Jane Lamond: Suas e! (1997)
  116. Shania Twain: Come On Over (1997)*
  117. Lauryn Hill: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998)*
  118. Lucinda Williams: Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (1998)*
  119. Dixie Chicks: Wide Open Spaces (1998)*
  120. PJ Harvey: Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (2000)
  121. Mariza: Fado em Mim (2000)
  122. Lo’Jo: Bohême de Cristal (2000) (feat. Yamina Nid el Mourid and Nadia Nid el Mourid)
  123. Sezen Aksu: Deliveren (2000)
  124. Diana Krall: Live in Paris (2001)
  125. Björk: Vespertine (2001)
  126. Gillian Welch: Time (The Revelator) (2001)*
  127. The White Stripes: White Blood Cells (2001) (feat. Meg White)
  128. Dixie Chicks: Home (2002)
  129. Missy Elliott: Under Construction (2002)
  130. Joyce (also known as Joyce Moreno): Just a Little Bit Crazy (2003)
  131. Sevara Narzarkhan: Yol Bolsin (2003)
  132. Madeleine Peyroux: Careless Love (2003)
  133. The White Stripes: Elephant (2003) (feat. Meg White)
  134. Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Fever to Tell (2003) (feat. Karen O)
  135. Maria Schneider: Concert in the Garden (2004)
  136. Angélique Kidjo: Oyaya! (2004)
  137. Loretta Lynn: Van Lear Rose (2004)
  138. Arcade Fire: Funeral (2004) (feat. Régine Chassagne and Sarah Neufeld)
  139. Sleater-Kinney: The Woods (2005) (feat. Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss)
  140. Amadou & Mariam: Dimanche à Bamako (2005) (feat. Mariam Doumbia)
  141. Amy Winehouse: Back to Black (2006)*
  142. Cat Power: The Greatest (2006)
  143. Joanna Newsom: Ys (2006)*
  144. Miranda Lambert: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2007)
  145. Robert Plant & Alison Krauss: Raising Sand (2007)
  146. Santigold: Santigold (2008)
  147. Portishead: Third (2008) (feat. Beth Gibbons)
  148. The xx: xx (2009) (feat. Romy Madley Croft)
  149. Miranda Lambert: Revolution (2009)
  150. Janelle Monáe: The ArchAndroid (2010)
  151. Arcade Fire: The Suburbs (2010) (feat. Régine Chassagne and Sarah Neufeld)
  152. PJ Harvey: Let England Shake (2011)
  153. Adele: 21 (2011)*
  154. Fiona Apple: The Idler Wheel… (2012)
  155. Sharon Van Etten: Tramp (2012)
  156. HAIM: Days Are Gone (2013) (feat. Este, Danielle & Alana Haim)
  157. Laura MarlingOnce I Was An Eagle (2013)
  158. LordePure Heroine (2013)
  159. FKA Twigs: LP1 (2014)
  160. Taylor Swift: 1989 (2014)
  161. Courtney Barnett: Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (2015)
  162. Grimes: Art Angels (2015)
  163. Beyoncé: Lemonade (2016)*
  164. Solange: A Seat at the Table (2016)*


On the Town: Live Performances I’ve Attended

Although most of the lists on Make Lists, Not War are meta-lists, some are more personal in nature. Most recently I published a list of every place I’ve lived. Other personal lists include: Where Have I Been? (all the states and countries I’ve visited), The Birds (all the birds I’ve ever seen), My Backyard Menagerie (all the creatures I’ve seen near our house), Native Plants I Have Grown and Loved (Part I and Part II) and Concert Log (all the music and comedy performances I’ve been to). I recently revised the Concert Log to add plays and other theatrical performances, so that all the live performances are together in one list. (Note: I’ve omitted performances in which I participated in some way.)  There are significant gaps here – I know there are other plays, concerts and performances I’ve seen that I can’t recall right now, but I think I’ve covered the most significant ones. Here is the revised list: Live Performance Log.

I guess the real question is, why would anyone but me be interested in this list?  I don’t know the answer.  Some people like to look at other people’s experiences because it provides the vicarious pleasure of seeing through another’s eyes (“Oh, I would love to have seen Led Zeppelin live!”).  Others may use it as inspiration to dig into their own pasts (“I’m going to make my own list!”). For others, reading this list would be a complete waste of time.  No problem.  Read it or not, here I come!

The Joy of Shuffling (Music) and the End of Sameness

Imaginary Interviewer: So, is there any kind of music you don’t like?
Me: Yes.  I don’t like the same music.
Imaginary Interviewer: The same as what?
Me: The same as the music that was just on.

There was a time in my life when I listened to albums (and, later, CDs) from beginning to end. Many albums in the 1960s and 1970s were composed, not of a few singles and a bunch of filler, which had been the standard formula since the LP arrived in the mid-1950s, but of a through-composed artwork, in which songs were arranged in a particular order for an artistic reason. The artist meant the listener to hear Side A, Track 3 right after Side A, Track 2 and right before Side A, Track 4 – to hear the songs out of the context of the album was to miss part of the experience.  But that phase did not last.  Whether it was the times that were a-changin’, or whether it was me, as I reached my mid-20s in the 1980s, I found that listening to an entire recording of a single artist was something I did less and less.

It may have started with the technology.  I didn’t bring a turntable to college – just a tape player. This meant I had to record albums onto tapes to bring with me.  I found that I had room at the ends of the tapes after taping an album, so I would throw on a few songs from another album. When I only wanted to hear a few songs from certain albums, I would combine them onto one tape.  Then during college, I began putting together tapes for events – background music for the breaks during a concert, or a dance tape for a party.  I recalled the mixes of music that my favorite bands would play over the PA system before a concert.  But more than anything, I remembered the joy of radio.

Some of my best childhood memories are of sitting in my parents’ station wagon in the 60s and 70s, driving to some relative’s house, and listening to the music on the radio.  When I was growing up, my parents listened to WNEW-AM, a New York station that played adult popular music – I remember hearing lots of Frank Sinatra (referred to reverently as “The Chairman of the Board”), Dionne Warwick singing Bacharach tunes, country crossover hits like Ode to Billie Joe and I Never Promised You A Rose Garden, and even Spike Jones’ Gunga Din parody.  What I loved about listening to DJs like Jonathan Schwartz and William B. Williams was that I never knew what was coming next.  Sure, I suppose occasionally they would try that DJ trick – “Coming up, [Insert Name of Hit Song Here]”, then cut to commercial – but most of the time, one song would follow another, and I was surprised.  Once I had my own radio, I switched over to the FM rock stations, first WPLJ and then the more eclectic and intellectual WNEW-FM, where I also got to hear Jonathan Schwartz, along with Vin Scelsa, Allison Steele and others.  There was something magical about finding a radio station that shared my tastes in music, where the DJs picked out the songs in a way that made absolute sense but was completely unexpected. Except for those rare occasions when WNEW-FM DJs would play an entire album, or album side, the measuring unit was not the album but the song.

As I grew older and my musical interests and collection began to grow, I could no longer find a radio station that reflected my musical tastes.  But my love for the radio format (without the ads, of course) meant I rarely had the patience to listen to multiple songs by the same artist.  For one thing, I didn’t have the time.  For another, I found that there were certain artists and types of music that I appreciated more as one element in a patchwork quilt than a monoculture.  As much as I love old blues artists like Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, or Memphis Minnie, after a song or two, I am ready to move on to other sounds.  The same goes for many of the artists in the catch-all genre known as world music.  As I began to teach myself about classical, jazz, blues, country, hip hop, world and other unfamiliar genres, I found that I often appreciated the songs more when they were placed in unfamiliar surroundings.  Listening to 18 Charlie Parker tracks in succession may be a mind-blowing experience, but if the individual tracks stand out at all, it is as part of the whole.  Listening to a Charlie Parker track after a Modest Mouse track, a James Brown track or a Philip Glass track, on the other hand, places the bebop in high relief – the contrast adds to the experience.  The surprise of the unexpected sound, the act of recognizing it for what it is, and then listening closely, are all part of the experience I treasure.

My devotion to mix and match began in the era of CDs and tapes – I would select songs from various CDs – pulling favorite tracks from all my Elvis Costello CDs to make a personal greatest hits, or mixing various artists to create an alternative country mix, or a mix of sad, slow songs. Then, to up the ante, I began experimenting with aleatory techniques, inspired by John Cage – I would select every 7th CD from my shelves and record the 7th track, for example. Or I would select a song title beginning with the letter A, then B, etc.  I was fascinated and often amused by the juxtapositions such methods created.  Unintended thematic continuities would crop up from time to time.  At other times, it became a random tour through my music collection.  The problem, of course, was that, after a few listens, even a randomly-organized CD eventually became predictable – I knew that after the Astor Piazzolla tango came the Andrew Bird, then the Fats Waller, etc.

When the digital revolution arrived, I transferred my methods to the computer.  After uploading over 2000 CDs into my iTunes library, I began to make mixed CDs on various themes, including a fair number of random mixes.  Smart Playlist allowed me to create mixes that eliminated certain genres, so I created many mix CDS under the headings of “No Classical”, “No Classical, No Jazz” and “No Classical, No Jazz, No Blues.”  iTunes introduced the “Shuffle” function, which randomized my music collection without any tricky aleatory techniques (although I sometimes question the algorithm when two songs of the same artist or genre play after one another).

The introduction of the iPod made the shuffle function portable.  Now I could listen to my entire music collection on a random search – I never knew what song was coming next, but I knew it would be something I would appreciate because it was part of the music collection I had created.  This lasted for a few years until my music collection inevitably expanded beyond the iPod’s capacity – of the 25,000+ songs currently in my iTunes library, fewer than 16,000 fit on my 80 gigabyte iPod, requiring me to trim most of the classical and jazz from the mobile collection.  If I want a truly random shuffle of my collection, I have to listen to it at my desktop at home.  Still, the 15,964 songs on my iPod provide me with an enormous number of surprises.  On those rare occasions when I take the car to work, I hook up my iPod and the traffic jams vanish as I listen to my perfect radio station – it has no commercials, it has my music collection, and I never know what’s coming next.

To give you a glimpse at the soundtracks for my commutes, here are the results of my last few iPod shuffles:
O’ Sailor – Fiona Apple
Turtles – Flying Lotus
Do What You Have to Do – Sarah McLachlan
Fio Maravilha – Jorge Ben & Toquinho
Last Call – Kanye West
Elks Parade – Bobby Sherwood
Upswing – Dave Holland Big Band
Come As You Are (live) – Nirvana
Diamond Dogs – David Bowie
Hits of Sunshine (For Allen Ginsberg) – Sonic Youth
The Streets of Laredo – Johnny Cash
Submission – Sex Pistols
I’ve Been Working – Van Morrison
Forever Yours – Carl Perkins
Say Hello to Angels – Interpol
Race for the Prize – The Flaming Lips
Slippin’ Around with You – Dan Penn
Paperback Writer – The Beatles
The Circle Game – Joni Mitchell
We Live Again – Beck
I Think I’m Down – The Harbinger Complex
Change Is Now – The Byrds
A Million Days – Prince
Young Love – Sonny James
Vaya Nina – Machito & His Afro-Cubans
What’s the Buzz/Strange Thing Mystifying – Jesus Christ Superstar Soundtrack
Man Called Uncle – Elvis Costello
Yellow Sun – The Raconteurs
All I See – Linda Thompson
Cottonbelt – Lone Justice
Eddie’s Ragga – Spoon
Slipped – The National
Thin Man – Suzanne Vega
Little Sisters of Beijing – These Are Powers
Lots of Drops of Brandy – The Chieftains
Lifted by Love – k.d. lang
Julia Brightly – Caribou
Soma – The Strokes
Rhythm of the Pouring Rain – Vince Gill
Turn on Your Love Light – Bobby “Blue” Bland
I’m Not Talking – The Yardbirds
When Will We Be Married? – The Waterboys
You Still Believe in Me – The Beach Boys
Grow Slowly – Sibling Rivalry
(I Know) I’m Losing You – Rod Stewart
Blue Bayou – Roy Orbison
In Love with You – Erykah Badu
Complications – Steve Forbert
Agent Orange – Tori Amos
Rip This Joint – The Rolling Stones
String Quartet No. 5: Fifth Movement – Emerson String Quartet (Béla Bartók)
The Hardest Part – Coldplay
Foire Internationale – Orchestra Baobab
Bows + Arrows – The Walkmen
Tenderness – Deb Talan
Wasted – Letters to Cleo
The Voyage – The Moody Blues
Alabama – Neil Young
Don’t Get Excited – Graham Parker & the Rumour
If You Call – Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings
The World is Waiting for the Sunrise – Coleman Hawkins



The Moombahcore Problem, or Have We Gone Category-Mad?

Humans have an innate need to put things in boxes. My guess is that the first two categories were: (1) Things that are Me and (2) Things that are Not Me. It may have progressed to (1) People; (2) Animals; (3) Plants and (4) Inanimate Objects. Then we probably began subdividing. People became: (1) People from My Cave and (2) People from Other Caves. Animals became: (1) Animals I Eat and (2) Animals that Eat Me. Plants subdivided into: (1) Plants that Taste Good and (2) Plants That Make Me Sick. This categorization habit, which appears to be hard-wired into our brains by evolution, has served us well. It allows us to make decisions quickly by simplifying complex sets of facts. On the other hand, it is probably the source of much violence, cruelty and prejudice, because sometimes when you oversimplify, you miss the point.

At some point, the first art critics and theorists began to separate the various works of human creativity into categories. At first, I imagine, they distinguished among works of architecture, decorative art, literature, performance (including dance and theater), sculpture, painting and music. Over time, the critics and academics developed categories for styles, which could cross boundaries. A medieval mosaic could be made in the Carolingian style, as could a statue, a church or an illuminated manuscript. The term ‘post-modern’ could apply to a skyscraper, a novel, a piece of performance art or a piece of music. New styles developed for many reasons: changes in geography, economics, technology, government or religious belief, for example. Sometimes artists sought to distinguish themselves from what came before by doing something entirely new; sometimes they sought to reinterpret some beloved past time. Some artists sought to be different for difference’s sake; others felt that there was nothing new under the sun and the only legitimate option was to pastiche prior styles. All the while, the audience – particularly the critics and theorists – were putting names to the new styles, creating ever-more categories, to the point where now the proliferation of categories is overwhelming.

To better understand the categorization of the arts, an analogy from the biological sciences may be useful. Taxonomists in biology – those scientists who determine the nature of living species and the organization of those species and their relationship to each other – are generally categorized themselves into lumpers and splitters. Since every species contains variation within it, one of the jobs of the science of systematics is to decide when the variation is merely intra-species and when it is significant and meaningful enough to designate a separate species. (We won’t even discuss subspecies, varieties, etc.) A lumper is someone who sees two species that are very similar and decides that they really constitute just one species. A splitter sees one species with significant variation and decides it really should be divided into two (or more) species. Over the years, the lumpers have won some, and the splitters have won some.

From what I can tell, most (if not all) art critics and theorists are splitters. They are never happy with one category when they can have two (or twenty-two). The proliferation of categories seems to have reached a point of overload in the case of music. When I first made my music lists for Make Lists, Not War, I chose five categories: (1) Classical; (2) Jazz; (3) Blues; (4) World; and (5) Everything Else (pop, rock, country, hip hop/rap, folk, electronica, rhythm & blues, soul, funk, etc.). Naively, I thought that was enough. (I realize the World Music category is suspect – I am willing to listen to any reasonable alternatives.) But I have had some complaints from readers about the lack of this or that music category, so I decided to figure out whether to add any more. The problem is not where to begin, but how to stop. Take electronic music, for example. The Wikipedia page “List of Electronic Music Genres” contains approximately 180 different styles of electronic music, some of which are also considered classical music. There is a style called ‘trance music’ that has 11 sub-styles (one of these sub-styles, Psychedelic Trance, has its own sub-style, Suomisaundi). Of the 29 sub-styles of “House Music”, one of them – “Electro House” – has five sub-sub-styles, one of which is Moombahton, which has a sub-sub-sub-style called “Moombahcore.” The website musicgenreslist.com lists 41 “top genres”: Alternative, Anime, Blues, Children’s Music, Classical, Comedy, Commercial, Country, Dance, Disney, Easy Listening, Electronic, Enka, French Pop, German Folk, German Pop, Fitness & Workout, Hip-Hop/Rap, Holiday, Indie Pop, Industrial, Inspirational – Christian & Gospel, Instrumental, J-Pop, Jazz, K-Pop, Karaoke, Kayokyoku, Latin, New Age, Opera, Pop, R&B/Soul, Reggae, Rock, Singer/Songwriter, Soundtrack, Spoken Word, Tex-Mex / Tejano, Vocal, World.  Each top genre has a number of sub-genres.

If anything, the website’s list shows the difficulty involved in categorization. Anime seems like more of a visual arts style than a music style, while Comedy and Spoken Word are not music at all. Folk is not included except as a sub-genre under Singer/Songwriter, which seems strange since so much of true folk music consists of ballads and public domain songs that have been sung for generations. Why is Opera a separate “top genre” and not a sub-genre of Classical? Why aren’t various kinds of “Pop” music (Indie Pop, French and German Pop, J-Pop, K-Pop) listed under “Pop.”? Or, why not include the German, French, Japanese and Korean music under World? Why not put Tex-Mex/Tejano under Latin? (Or Latin under World, for that matter?) Is Alternative really a genre? Alternative what? Shouldn’t there be a noun with that adjective?  I could go on, but I won’t.  I’m actually impressed that the folks at Music Genres List took on the project, and I don’t want to discourage them.

All this talk about categories brings me to my latest music lists. I have decided to take the plunge and create some “Best of” lists for additional music genres, specifically Hip-Hop/Rap and Country. I don’t know how far I’ll go with this, but I can guarantee I won’t be doing a “Best of Moombahcore” list anytime soon.  The links are below:

Best Country Songs of All Time
Best Country Music Albums of All Time

Best Hip-Hop and Rap Songs of All Time
Best Hip-Hop and Rap Albums of All Time

The Best of 2014: Your Meta-Lists Have Arrived

When historians look back on 2014, they will probably remember it for one event: Vladimir Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine and annexation of the Crimea.  Putin’s action hearkened back to a long line of precedent of unilateral annexation by such power-mongers and empire builders as Cyrus the Great of Persia, Alexander the Great, Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, Tughril Beg, Ivan the Terrible, Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein and so many more. But for those who follow pop culture, the highlights of the year involved names like: FKA Twigs, Taylor Swift, Perfume Genius, Flying Lotus, Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, Anthony Doerr, Leslie Jamison and Marilynne Robinson.

Here are the meta-lists of the best movies, music and books of 2014, as determined by a critical consensus.

Best Films of 2014
Best Books of 2014
Best Music of 2014


Kill Da Wabbit: Introducing the Opera Lists

Without realizing it, we listen to opera all the time – snippets of opera music are found in movie soundtracks, television advertisements and in the background of Web pages.  My first introduction to opera came via Chuck Jones, Elmer Fudd and Buggs Bunny, whose archly clever spoofs of Wagner’s Ring Cycle and The Barber of Seville got funnier as I got older. But Bugs Bunny didn’t invent opera.  Opera was born in Florence, Italy at the very end of the 16th Century.  Throughout the Renaissance, courts in the various city states of Italy put on plays and festivals for royal weddings and other events.  In keeping with the era’s fondness for all things classical, the plays were often Greek and Roman.  But by the mid-1500s, the princes had begun to commission musical interludes to spice up the Latin and Greek poetry.  A group of Florentine composers and musicians, having seen these interludes, decided they needed to go further and create a new art form in which the words and music were linked together, similar to what they believed the Ancient Greeks had done.  The first composer to attempt such a work (in Italian, oper), was Jacopo Peri, whose all-singing Daphne debuted in 1597 at a court event in Florence.  The first true masterpiece of opera came ten years later, when Claudio Monteverdi composed L’Orfeo for the Mantua court in 1607.  Audience members at this and other early operas received a little book (in Italian, libretto) with all the words so they could follow along. Like other early operas, L’Orfeo used a specialized type of singing, called recitative, that was less dramatic than full-throated singing but more melodic than speech.  Monteverdi’s operas also explored the use of full singing for certain musical sections, called arias and arioso.

In 1637, opera moved from the royal court to the public arena when the first public opera house opened in Venice, Italy.  For the next 300 years, opera would be one of the most popular art forms in Europe, as it spread out of Italy, first to France, England and Germany, and then to all of Western Civilization.  Baroque opera, while it could be sublime in the hands of someone like Purcell (Dido and Aeneas), Handel (Julius Caesar in Egypt) or Rameau (Castor and Pollux), quickly developed some troublesome affectations.  Female parts were usually sung by castrati, men who had been castrated before puberty to keep their voices high, and the operas became showcases for their voices.  These superstar singers (Farinelli was the most famous) would stop the show by singing every aria twice (a practice known as da capo) and they would improvise on the written music in order to dazzle the crowd with their technique.  As a result, the dramatic content of the opera became overshadowed by vocal acrobatics.

Enter a German composer named Christoph Wilibald Gluck.  Gluck took on the task of reforming opera so the music and words once again carried fairly equal weight, eschewing excess and frilly overkill.  He achieved this lofty goal with his first reform opera, Orfeo ed Euridice, from 1762.  Also around this time, it became much more common for women to sing opera roles, much to the relief of the young castrati-to-be.  When Mozart produced a series of masterpieces between 1781 and 1791 in every major type of opera then existing (e.g., opera seria, opera buffa, singspiel), he put the crowning touch on Gluck’s reforms (e.g., The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute).

The major development in the first half of the 19th Century was the bel canto (beautiful songs) style promoted by Italians Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti in The Barber of Seville, Norma and Lucia di Lammermore.  In some ways, bel canto was a return to some of the best aspects of Baroque opera singing.  The next step was the magnificent productions of grand opera, promoted by Gounod (Faust) and Meyerbeer (Les Huguenots) in France and Giuseppe Verdi (Don Carlos, Aida) in Italy.  The Germans (e.g., von Weber’s Der Freischütz), meanwhile, practiced romanticism, which reached its culmination in the work of Richard Wagner.  Wagner sought to create Gesamtkunstwerk – the total work of art, a journey that would culminate in the four operas making up Der Ring des Nibelungen. His operas were longer and more serious, with few arias, but elaborate sets, costumes and complex and challenging orchestration.  Wagner was the first to insist that the audience quietly watch and listen, and so, for the first time in opera history, the house lights were turned down. Later in the 19th Century, Puccini, Leoncavallo, Mascagni and others in the verismo movement sought to bring the real world to opera audiences with true-to-life characters, instead of stories from fantasy and mythology (e.g., Madama Butterfly, Pagliacci, Cavalleria Rusticana).

While opera was still centered on Italy, Germany and France, by the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th Century, national opera movements had arisen in Russia (Glinka – Ruslan and Lyudmila, Mussorgsky – Boris Godunov, Borodin – Prince Igor, Tchaikovsky – Eugene Onegin, Rimsky-Korsakov – The Golden Cockerel) and what is now the Czech Republic (Janáček – Jenůfa, Dvořák – Rusalka, Smetana – The Bartered Bride).  Later on in the 20th Century, important operas came out of Hungary (Bartók – Bluebeard’s Castle, Kodály –
Háry János)
and Poland (Szymanowski – King Roger).

In 1905, German Richard Strauss took Wagner’s experiments with complex tonal structures and applied them to a daring and scandalous retelling of the story of Salome and John the Baptist.  Four years later, he did it again with Elektra.  But then Strauss backed away from controversy with a delightful comedy, Der Rosenkavalier.  Twenty years after Salome, Alban Berg applied the new atonal approach to the story of a murderous protagonist in Wozzeck.  At the same time, Benjamin Britten revived English opera with his masterwork Peter Grimes, which managed to be wholly modern without abandoning tonality.  For one thing, Britten had all but abandoned the recitative/aria dichotomy, a path most modern opera composers would follow.

While most of opera’s development has occurred in Europe, in 1935, George Gershwin penned the first all-American opera, Porgy and Bess, although its portrayal of black Americans offended some.  The Americans came into their own later in the century, when minimalist composers Philip Glass (Einstein on the Beach) and John Adams (Nixon in China) created critically-acclaimed operas.  At the same time, Judith Weir of the UK composed A Night at the Chinese Opera, making her one of, if not the first woman opera composer of the modern era.

The current state of opera is mixed.  Even though new operas are composed and staged every year, the operas most often staged for public consumption consist of a fairly narrow range of older masterpieces.  Surveys reveal that the most produced operas in recent years have been: La traviata (Verdi, 1853), La bohème (Puccini, 1896), Tosca (Puccini, 1900), Madama Butterfly (Puccini, 1904), The Marriage of Figaro (Mozart, 1786), Don Giovanni (Mozart, 1787), The Barber of Seville (Rossini, 1816), Carmen (Bizet, 1875), The Magic Flute (Mozart, 1791), Così fan tutte (Mozart, 1790) and Lucia di Lammermoor (Donizetti, 1835). On the other hand, farther down the list are more challenging and more recent works, indicating that there is still a place in the repertoire for operas of all sorts.

All this history forms the preface for my latest lists, which, as you might have guessed, have to do with opera.  I hope you enjoy them:

The Best Operas of All Time – The Critics’ Picks
The Best Operas of All Time – Chronological
The Best Operas of All Time – By Composer


It’s the Most Wonderful Time – For Listers

The month of December is high season for listers and those who love lists.  Because December is the time that arts critics in every newspaper, magazine, website, blog, TV or radio station look back over the past year and make lists (usually Top Ten lists, but not always) of the best accomplishments from the past 12 months.  I’ve been collecting these lists – specifically for films, music and books – since 2002, and collating them to find out which items are on the most lists, and then making my own meta-lists.  Why do I do this?  One (somewhat inexplicable) reason is that I enjoy the process.  But a better reason is that I believe it exposes me to the best of these three arts.  Each list becomes a set of recommendations that I trust and that pushes me beyond my comfort zone.  I know that some folks don’t trust critics and reviewers to guide their choices of what to see, what to read and what to listen to, but to me the critics’ lists are the best option available, given that you can’t read/watch/listen to everything and must make choices.

What  are the other options for choosing what movies to see, books to read, music to listen to: (1) recommendations of friends and family; (2) following one particular expert, critic or reviewer; (3) critics’ reviews in newspapers, magazines and websites, or on radio or TV; (4) recommendations of people who sell movies or CDs or books, like Amazon; (5) trailers or other types of ads; (6) crowd-sourced websites like Goodreads or reviews on Amazon or other sites by ‘regular people’; or (7) meta-data sites like Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes that collect critics’ reviews and assign ratings.  I have tried most of these methods myself, and I find that – except for (7), which is very similar to what I do – they all leave me disappointed.  I end up feeling like I have either adopted someone else’s tastes; sold out to The Man; ended up in a solipsistic spiral of stuff I know already, or that I’m just being exposed to the winners of various popularity contests judged by people completely unlike me who can’t spell and seem to base their opinions on completely irrational criteria.  So instead I rely on the critics and reviewers – people who analyze works of art for a living and may know more than I do about their subject.  While I may not agree with the tastes and judgment of each one, there is a pretty good chance that if several of them (or 10, 20 or 30 of them!) agree that a book is worth reading, a film is worth seeing, or an album is worth listening to, they are right.  Plus, when you pool the lists of many critics, you get a much wider variety than under most of the other available methods.  Taking this approach has led me to find masterpieces of artistic expression – from low to highbrow – that I would never have found had I just listened to what my friends’ recommended.  And while the critics’ top ten isn’t always my top ten, I have never regretted a choice I’ve made based on these lists.  (Even in the rare case that I don’t ‘like’ a highly rated book, recording or movie, I can appreciate the artistic qualities that led to its high rating and thus I benefit from it.  I just won’t be watching/reading/listening to it again any time soon.)

Here are the 2013 lists and Happy New Year:

Best Films of 2013
Best Books of 2013
Best Music of 2013