Monday, July 12, 2010

The Basic Rock and Roll Library: The 50 Essential Discs

Computer breakdowns and iTunes crashes are generally thought of as stressful (if not catastrophic) events -- the post-modern equivalent of one's own personal Library of Congress burning down, just as it did when the British attacked in 1814, during the War of 1812. Thomas Jefferson sold his entire personal library (some 6,487 books) to rebuild the Library, two-thirds of which were subsequently destroyed when another fire occurred in the Library on Christmas Eve, 1851. All of this has been well-documented and celebrated -- indeed, you can go to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and see a reconstruction of Jefferson's "original" library enclosed in a glass horseshoe of shelving, with each book tagged as a Jefferson original, a recently tracked-down identical edition to Jefferson's original, or a dummy book to stand in for a destroyed book for which the original edition cannot be found.

Jefferson donated his personal library in 1815, but he would survive for over a decade before his death at the age of 83 in 1826. During this time, he must have spent a lot of time doing something that many modern Americans have to do every day: Rebuild his library. When you go to Monticello, you can see his library shelves lined with hundreds of his beloved books -- and when you go to the giftshop outside of Monticello, you can find almost as many handbags, magnets, and T-shirts with his bibliophilic mantra: "I cannot live without books."

But this is only half of the quote -- there is a second part that is rarely included, which puts it into a more interesting context. It appears in a letter to John Adams in June 1815, some six months after Congress accepted Jefferson's offer to sell his personal library (for which Congress paid a $23,950). The full quote reads: "I cannot live without books: but fewer will suffice where amusement, and not use, is the only future object." In these words, I hear Jefferson trying to draw the line dividing want and need, an aging statesman who is still rationalizing his decision to part with a life's collection that means so much to him. The statement is at once charitable, rational, and cocky: Having books for use is more important than having them for mere "amusement," implying both that donating his books will better serve the books' (not to mention the country's) higher purpose, but also that he had already gleaned all he needed from them -- hanging on to them at this point would be for his own personal "amusement."

Yet Jefferson is nothing if not a walking contradiction, for the library at Monticello is filled with books that were bought after his donation was accepted in 1815. I have to believe that, "amusement" or not, Jefferson must have tracked down and replaced at least some (if not most or all) of the books he donated to the library -- perhaps sometimes tracking down original volumes and other times tracking down more recent, definitive editions, just as one upgrades from vinyl to CD (or, for the hip kids, from CD back to vinyl).

The question at hand thus takes focus: How did Jefferson go about rebuilding his personal library? What purchases were first? What did he deem from his donated library as essential, versus what wasn't worth replacing? A letter survives of an elderly Jefferson advising a young scholar what is essential for him to study. From a modern standpoint, Jefferson's list is staggering: Ancient Greek to be read in Greek, French Literature to be read in French, classic Latin texts to be read in Latin. Perhaps we are jaded by things like television and movies (and computers!), but Jefferson's laundry-list seems like it would take over a lifetime to complete -- and, at the end, he makes it clear that this is but the tip of the iceberg and that the scholar should let him know when he's ready for more.

All of which is to say that, as I recently had to rebuild my personal iTunes Library (I had previously donated my old one to a Library of Virus), I began to think of what are the essential rock and roll albums -- what would I write to a young scholar as a core of where to begin? For just as Jefferson (or any serious rock and roll fan) knows, every great artist can lead you down a path of wonderful and important music. After collecting everything the Beatles released while they were together, the Stones, the Beach Boys, and Bob Dylan released in the 1960s, and tracking down everything that Elvis released while he was alive, I can vouch for this fact. Yet as rewarding as I may find albums like The Beatles for Sale, the Stones' Between the Buttons, the Beach Boys' SMiLE bootlegs, or Dylan's John Wesley Harding, these are not the places to begin. These are the treasures to be dug up later, in context, where they can best be appreciated.

What follows, then, is my list of the essential 50 rock and roll albums -- what I consider to be the basic core of the genre. To truly challenge myself to weed out the core from the great, popular, or influential, I set up some limits. First of all, I stuck with 50 CDs, that is, 50 single-disc recordings that would fit in a 50 CD case. I sometimes get frustrated by lists that claim the "Essential 200 Albums" and then include a dozen box sets, which are really more like two, three, or four albums worth of material. The only "double albums" I included (the Stones' Exile on Main Street and Dylan's Blonde on Blonde) currently fit on a single CD.

I included a number of "greatest hits" collections, but tried to rely primarily on original albums whenever it seemed appropriate. While this often cuts off some of the most popular individual songs of a performer (and there are scores of them missing: The Beatles' "I Want to Hold Your Hand," the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations," Van Morrison's "Brown-Eyed Girl," Janis Joplin's "Me and Bobby McGee," Marvin Gaye's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," Otis Redding's "(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay" and the Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," to name just half a dozen signature tunes missing from artists that are included here), I found that favoring the original albums told the better story.

That said, there are a fair number greatest hits comps, but only ones that have been considered definitive (such as Sam Cooke's Portrait of a Legend, which somehow made Rolling Stone's #107 on their list of the 500 Greatest Albums, despite the fact the album was less than six months old), legendary in their own right (such as Elvis's archetypal greatest hits album, Elvis' Golden Records, or Bob Marley the title-says-it-all Legend, which is the best-selling reggae album of all time), or covered a period predominated by essential singles that were never properly included on a complete album that does them justice (such as the case for Ray Charles' Atlantic sides, Chuck Berry's Chess sides, and Jerry Lee Lewis's Sun sides).

I also limited myself to the number of albums allowed for each artist. Taking the lead from a similar list I once found in a People Magazine entertainment almanac, I allowed myself three Beatles albums, three Dylan albums, three Rolling Stones albums, and two Elvis albums. (I had to restrain myself from including a second Beach Boys album as well.) I also generally fell back on the rule of three in terms of genres: There are three punk albums, three rap albums, and, depending on your definition, three psychedelic albums (at least by my count: Sgt. Pepper, Are You Experienced, and Cheap Thrills).

Furthermore, limited myself in terms of the scope of time. Hindsight is always 20/20, so I ended up only covering what I consider to be the first definite era of rock and roll (at least that I've seen): The 40 year period from 1954 (when Elvis released his first record) to 1994 (when Kurt Cobain killed himself). This gives the list a cautious fifteen-year buffer, for in order for an album to be essential, it must have the time to establish itself as such. Most people would agree that Elvis was the major force of '50s rock just as Nirvana was the major force of '90s rock; it is hard to define much beyond that (or if we can even define beyond that) because we are still living it out.

Finally, I want to make clear that this is not the list of my 50 favorite albums, but rather an attempt to make a list of the 50 essential albums. I've included several "masterpieces" that I have long found overrated and/or boring (such as -- get ready for sacrilege -- the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper, the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, and Van Morrison's Astral Weeks, none of which I could get "inside of" the way I can an album like The Doors, Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited, or the Stones' Exile on Main Street). Yet I still included these albums because of their stature, innovation, and influence; their absence would speak louder than the albums that would appear in their place.

So just like how Jefferson couldn't live without his books (and indeed proved it by the scores he bought after donating his original library), I cannot live without my rock and roll. But the next time my computer crashes or I need to refill an empty iPod, these are the first fifty I would feel the need to include.

But, as Jefferson would add about his books, they are merely the beginning -- the real joy comes from turning their use into amusement as you follow the endless places they can (and will) lead.

Plus, working on a list like this can sure kill time while you're waiting to be helped with your busted iTunes Library at the Apple Store.

  1. The Beach Boys: Pet Sounds (1966)
  2. The Beatles: Rubber Soul (1965)
  3. The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
  4. The Beatles: Abbey Road (1969)
  5. Chuck Berry: The Definitive (2006)
  6. David Bowie: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)
  7. James Brown: 20 All-Time Greatest Hits (1962)
  8. The Byrds: Greatest Hits (1967)
  9. Eric Clapton: The Cream of Clapton (1995)
  10. Ray Charles: The Very Best of the Atlantic Years (1994)
  11. The Clash: London Calling (1980)
  12. Sam Cooke: Portrait of a Legend: 1951-1964 (2003)
  13. The Doors (1967)
  14. Dr. Dre: The Chronic (1992)
  15. Bob Dylan: Bringing It All Back Home (1965)
  16. Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited (1965)
  17. Bob Dylan: Blonde on Blonde (1966)
  18. The Eagles: Hotel California (1976)
  19. Aretha Franklin: (I Never Loved a Man) The Way I Loved You (1967)
  20. Marvin Gaye: What's Going On (1971)
  21. The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Are You Experienced (1967)
  22. Buddy Holly: Greatest Hits (1996)
  23. Michael Jackson: Thriller (1982)
  24. Elton John: Greatest Hits (1974)
  25. Janis Joplin: Cheap Thrills (1967)
  26. Led Zeppelin: IV (1971)
  27. Jerry Lee Lewis: 18 Original Sun Greatest Hits (1984)
  28. Little Richard: 18 Greatest Hits (1990)
  29. Madonna: Like a Prayer (1989)
  30. Bob Marley: Legend (1984)
  31. Joni Mitchell: Blue (1971)
  32. Van Morrison: Astral Weeks (1968)
  33. Nirvana: Nevermind (1991)
  34. Elvis Presley: Elvis at Sun (2004)
  35. Elvis Presley: Elvis' Golden Records (1958)
  36. Prince: Purple Rain (1984)
  37. Public Enemy: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988)
  38. The Ramones (1976)
  39. Otis Redding: Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul (1965)
  40. The Rolling Stones: Beggar's Banquet (1968)
  41. The Rolling Stones: Let It Bleed (1969)
  42. The Rolling Stones: Exile on Main Street (1972)
  43. Diana Ross & The Supremes: Ultimate Collection (1997)
  44. Run-D.M.C.: Raisin' Hell (1986)
  45. The Sex Pistols: Never Mind the Bollocks (1977)
  46. Bruce Springsteen: Born to Run (1975)
  47. U2: The Joshua Tree (1987)
  48. The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)
  49. The Who: Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncey (1971)
  50. Stevie Wonder: Talking Book (1972)


  1. The other day I walked into a liquor store and heard Nirvana on the P.A. It occurred to me at the time that Nirvana and that period may be the last band and/or time we can think of as being part of the common language of rock and roll. It begins to get fragmented after that. So your choice of Kurt Cobain's death as an outer time limit I find interesting. Just thought I'd pass that along. If it even makes any sense as written.

  2. No man, you nailed it -- just as how other generations saw Elvis's death as the closing of an era, I believe that my generation will feel that way about Cobain. Like Lester Bangs wrote about Elvis in his amazing obituary for him, Elvis was the last thing that we could all agree on. I believe that the modern equivalent of that is Kurt Cobain.