TPublic broadcasting of musical tastes does not always bring out the best in human nature. It’s hard to overestimate the possibility of being snobbish, competitive, judgmental, boastful (humble or not), and a long list of other petty vices. Which is part of the reason why politicians, for example, care so much about calibrating their Desert Island Disks selections. And also why exercise is usually so fun.
The basic rules laid down by Tom Gatti in this anthology of 50 writers on 49 albums (Ali Smith, with some emotion, refused to stick to the rules), asks the writers not for a better album, but one that is “appreciated”, that is to say , or it was important to them. As Ian Rankin, adapting Jean Brodie, explains in relation to his love for John Martyn Solid air: “Give me an album at a certain age and it’s mine for life.”
There is a decent enough sample size for the reader to do some crude math. The oldest albums are from 1956: Duke Ellington at the Newport Jazz Festival, chosen by the late Clive James, and Clara Haskil’s Mozart. Piano Concerts, chosen by Neel Mukherjee – most recent being Daisy Johnson’s pick from Lizzo’s 2019 Because I love you. Among them, most of the albums come from the seventies or nineties. Depending on how you classify these things, there are three jazz albums, two classics, and two folk. But most of the options are in a loosely defined dominant modern pop tradition, with Joni Mitchell and David Bowie the only artists to be selected twice.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it turns out that writers tend to value literary abilities and effects, and to make literary comparisons. Deborah Levy, who chose Ziggy stardust, calls Bowie a “great writer” who has influenced her “more than Tolstoy ever will.” Sarah Hall compares Radiohead’s OK Computer “A great collection of short stories” and Musa Okwonga loves Aquemini as he loves “Kurt Vonnegut’s short story compilations: every time I go back to both works, I find a new way of looking at the human condition.” In a less festive way, Daljit Nagra links Morrissey – “reluctantly” through the Smiths Meat It’s murder and the hooligans of the ’80s who smashed their parents’ store windows and painted the shutters with racist insults, even Philip Larkin. “Like Larkin, he would get Morrissey out of the limelight, so he can love the best work before he breaks the window of his own great cuteness.”
Entries may be only a few hundred words long, some of them started as a column in the New Statesman, where Gatti is deputy editor, but they do throw up some vividly disparate autobiographical vignettes. In the mid-1980s, adolescent David Mitchell, who “had never been in love, much less lost,” first heard Joni Mitchell’s “stark autobiography” of California’s heartbreak, Blue, on his Walkman while wandering around his hometown of Malvern. His encounter with the great dark Christmas breakup song “River” occurred one day in June “halfway to the golf course.” Around the same time, Will Self was in a cavernous flat off Cromwell Road in West London “with a needle stuck in my arm, the barrel of the syringe full of blood” as Van Morrison Astral weeks “He strummed the strings of his heart.” Poet Will Harris recalls how his father made him “sit and listen to the eight-minute version of Donna Summer’s album ‘I Feel Love’” which, very indirectly, led him to Warren G. Regular … G Funk Era.
For the entire star-on-star format, there are comparatively few writer-musician encounters. Esi Edugyan, who chose Maxinquaye of Tricky, had an awkward interview with the artist in Vancouver and Clive James once “exchanged smiles” with Ellington after a concert. Most poignant is Rankin’s near loss of “whiskey-soaked angel” Martyn. Solid air he’d been Rankin’s partner in school and college, marriage and kids, even through punk. Years later, now famous himself, he was having lunch before continuing. Desert Island Disks where he was going to declare “the only song I can’t live without is”Solid air‘”. And there was Martyn, “with some colleagues at a nearby table full of bottles. And I can’t go talk to him. My only chance and I waste it. “
Some albums help self-realization. As a child in New York, British foster Erica Wagner had just met the English people of Steeleye Span. All around my hat “It runs through my blood.” And some are resources for self-help, like with Marlon James, 25, who is running out of “capital A answers to life’s big questions.” By Björk Mail He didn’t answer directly, “Instead, he gave answers to shit that I didn’t even ask.” The funniest piece features 12-year-old Joe Dunthorne discovering Black sunday of Cypress Hill and its production that allowed “even the most upright listener, the prepubescent boy who played Warhammer, to get high.” The award for being so uncool goes to George Saunders for the transcendent sincerity of his response to Fragile by Yes.
Taken together, the collection’s numerous observations and angles amount to a richly textured snapshot survey of artists on art. And at best, the pieces reveal something useful about the writer, the music, the world at large, and the world at the time. For Linda Grant, by Joni Mitchell Hejira clearly exposed “the great paradox of feminism of the 70”, the desire for independence of men and also a “love that lasts.” It also crystallized the strange and powerful relationship between the listener and the artist: “I never saw her perform live. I do not want. I have no interest in sharing her with strangers because none of this is about her, it’s about me. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism