Yes, it’s something I think about when I’m not thinking about the impending zombie apocalypse: if I were stuck on a desert island, what would I want with me to make life tolerable?
Since this is an exercise in fantasy and/or silliness, we can forgo the basics. So, yes, this island—upon which no human has set foot prior to my untimely arrival—somehow has indoor plumbing. It has electricity and a strong Wi-Fi signal. It has a house with a fully functional kitchen with stainless steel appliances and granite countertops. This island even has a man-cave—carved out of an actual cave—complete with an arcade machine and a great stereo system.
For some reason, at this point I always imagine being told, “You’re going to be stuck on this awesome island for the rest of your life, and you can only take 10 albums with you. So pick wisely, now that you won’t be able to download any music once you’re on this island.”
Not sure if it’s because I’ve thought about this a little too much, or because I’m just preparing for the unlikely day when this might actually happen. Whatever the case, I’ve already figured out my must-have 10 albums if I’m going to be stranded on a desert island for the rest of my life.
Before unveiling my list, I just want to explain the criteria I used—more or less. First off, each album has to be nearly flawless, the kind that tells a great musical story from start to finish that transports you far away from any desert island you might find yourself stuck in. The kind that makes you feel one way or another, but keeps you actually feeling something. The kind of album you can listen to almost completely through without skipping over too many songs.
That last criterion is why, among 22 albums that almost made the grade, only one squeaked into that last spot on my list. And while all incredible albums in their own right, those last 22 just didn’t have the continuity or longevity that I’d want for an album I was going to be stuck with for the rest of my life. Nonetheless, honorable mention goes to the following albums, which unfortunately got left behind on the plane before I was parachuted down to my island:
The Arcade Fire, Neon Bible
The Beatles, Abbey Road
Deerhoof, The Runner’s Four
Devastation, Signs of Life
Foo Fighters, The Colour and the Shape
Goo Goo Dolls, Hold Me Up
Grant-Lee Phillips, Mobilize
Iron Maiden, Killers
Luminous Orange, Drop Your Vivid Colours
Phantogram, Eyelid Movies
Pulp, Different Class
Remy Zero, Villa Elaine
The Replacements, Don’t Tell a Soul
Sepultura, Beneath the Remains
Slayer, Reign in Blood
The Snow Fairies, Feel You Up
The Twilight Sad, Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters
Volumen Cero, Luces
The Webb Brothers, Maroon
And now, without further ado, the 10 music albums I’d want on my desert island (in no particular order):
1. My Bloody Valentine, Loveless: The trailblazers of shoegazing rock produced the perfect album back in the day, the kind that draws the listener into a sonar vortex of lush melodies played through a surrealistic filter of dreamy distortion and melancholic vocals. The album is like a drive along a deserted road at three in the morning, where you’re just not sure if you’re still awake or off in a fantasy dreamland (and about to smack into an ill-placed tree). The highlight for me on this album is “Sometimes,” one of my top three favorite songs of all time.
2. Radiohead, OK Computer: Having matured a little after The Bends but still before they got too weird, Radiohead created OK Computer, which just seems to flow naturally from start to finish like an uninterrupted stream of consciousness. After the wild, imaginative ride of songs such as “Paranoid Android” and “Electioneering,” the album eases into a contemplative send-off into the night with songs like “The Tourist” and (in my opinion) the perfect “No Surprises.”
3. Deceased, Fearless Undead Machines: C’mon, you knew some metal albums were going to make it onto this list. But you can keep your Metallicas and your Megadeths (no, really, you can have them!). Give me the underground metal scene any day, and give me what I think is the best death metal album ever created. The irony is that when I first saw Deceased during the legendary Day of Death show in Buffalo in 1990, I didn’t even think these guys were any good. Fast-forward to years later in Ann Arbor, when I decided to buy this album at a Tower Records (yes, I really did just say that). Wow. For starters, this is what Iron Maiden might sound like if they went death metal. Second, it’s a concept album centering around my favorite horror movie trilogy ever, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead films. In a way, the entire album is like an audio horror movie, starting off with the story of the epidemic’s start in “The Silent Creature” and taking us through society’s gradual collapse with thrash anthems like “Fearless Undead Machines” and “Night of the Deceased.” Deceased saves the best for last in “The Psychic,” the penultimate song about a cult that thinks it has found a way to survive the apocalypse only to succumb to the undead; the last minute or two of this song is death metal at its finest. The last song on the track, which slows the tempo down quite a bit, is like humanity’s fading whimper as it marches into extinction.
4. Belle and Sebastian, Tigermilk: My musical tastes have always been described as eclectic, probably because I’d be moshing out to death metal one second, then singing along to Japanese pop music the next. But also because I’d consider a folk pop album like Belle and Sebastian’s Tigermilk to be a work of musical genius and a must-have for my desert island. Starting off with the perfect “The State I Am In” that always inspires a (really bad) sing-along, and then moving through equally perfect compositions like “I Could Be Dreaming” and “My Wandering Days Are Over,” Tigermilk is a seamless collection of different songs finding perfect harmony with one another. Even the packaging seems perfect; the inlay card on the CD contains a charming, half-whimsical, half-melancholic story written in simple but engaging English that sets the tone for the album.
5. M83, Before the Dawn Heals Us: Talk about an album that just seems to flow effortlessly from start to finish! This French synthpop album can’t be listened to in segments, or can’t be dissected into hit singles or favorite songs. For the album to work, you have to listen to it from start to finish, without shuffling the songs or repeating or skipping past any. It’s best if you listen to it at night with the lights off, where the music really does transport you to enchanted forests, glowing lakes, solitary highways, and the distant fringes of society where you’re always looking in but never really taking part of. It’s a very melancholy album with songs like “I Guess I’m Floating,” “Safe,” and “Let Men Burn Stars,” but one that reminds you that there is beauty in everything, even in the passing and loss of times and things that can never return.
6. MGMT, Congratulations: But because I can’t be wanting to slit my wrists all the time on this desert island, it’s good to have a mix of more upbeat music, and MGMT’s Congratulations is the perfect mix of melody and songwriting. For a time, three of the album’s first four songs were in heavy rotation, each of them eventually making it onto my “Desert Island Mix” (i.e., songs that were played at least 150 times on my iPod). “It’s Working,” “Song For Dan Treacy,” and “Flash Delirium” formed one of the most memorable openings to any album, the latter easily topping 200 plays within the first few months I owned this album. But songs like “Brian Eno,” “Lady Dada’s Nightmare,” and the 13-minute-long “Siberian Breaks,” with all its melodic shifts and changes, really make this a complete album, transcending it from a collection of catchy pop tunes into a brilliant composition of complex songwriting. Plus, the cover is pretty awesome and stuff.
7. Smashing Pumpkins, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness: In a way, this album had to make it onto this list, if only because it’s a two-discer and so I’d get twice as much music for the album. But this is vintage Smashing Pumpkins, and songs like “Tonight, Tonight,” “Galapogos,” “Porcelina of the Vast Oceans,” and “Thru the Eyes of Ruby” are why I will always love the Pumpkins despite Billy Corgan’s nerve-grating vocals. More than moody sad-core anthems, they’re brilliant songs that strike the right balance between power and emotion. And while the album delivers its fair share of songs to rock out to, it’s those slower, more deliberate songs that make this album so memorable for me. So by the time the album is bidding its final farewell with “By Starlight” and “Farewell and Goodnight,” I feel like I’ve just experienced a thin slice of heavenly perfection.
8. White Rabbits, Fort Nightly: I’m guessing most of you don’t know who the White Rabbits are. Up until a few years ago, neither did I. But I stumbled across Fort Nightly through Amazon, and it quickly made its way into many of my “Top This, Top That” lists. Another one of those albums that just seems to flow from start to finish, I think of this album as one big road trip. At least, that’s the sensation I get from listening to it, with songs that kick things off in fast gear like “Kid on My Shoulders” and musical interludes in middle-of-nowhere audio gas stations with songs like “Navy Wives” and “I Used to Complain Now I Don’t.” By the time the title track comes on, you feel you’re in the last leg of a very long and surreal journey. “Tourist Trap,” the last song, of course wraps things up with a sort of tropical-getaway-gone-weird fantasy that just feels right. By the end of this album, I feel like I’ve been transported halfway around a world to find something very unexpected. On a final note, I’m a heavy user of the star rating system on iTunes. I don’t bother with 1- or 2-star ratings. But any song that I think is good gets an automatic 3-star rating to more easily separate the good from the not-so-good. The really good songs that play over 70 times get a 4-star rating. The coveted “Desert Island” songs are those that get 5 stars, and there are only 120 such songs in my entire library. Well, on this album, every song except one gets a 3-star rating or above, and “Tourist Trap” not only gets the prestigious 5-star rating, but it’s also in my playlist entitled “Top 10 Songs of All Time.”
9. Rage, Secrets In a Weird World: This album almost didn’t make it onto the list because it actually seems to go against some of the criteria on my list. Some of the songs I almost have to skip over. From a songwriting standpoint, Rage has never been known for their complex songwriting or even good lyrics. And yet, for a young metalhead who was discovering that he not only loved thrash metal but actual melody, Rage was the bomb. I mean, the first time I heard a Rage album, I could hardly believe it: a German thrash metal band that managed to make speed metal sound almost…danceable?? But there it was. A year after I got into them, Rage released Secrets in a Weird World. Again, so-so on the lyrics and album names, but great on the music. Songs like “Invisible Horizons” and “Light Into the Darkness” became instant favorites, and the epic “Without a Trace” was a three-part story of the Bermuda Triangle, Atlantis, and UFOs. And the fact that this album has stood the test of time and remained at the top of my lists—and certainly near the top of my Best Metal Albums list—I think it’s fair to say that this album belongs on my desert island.
10. Dark Angel, Leave Scars: This is the shocker. The upset. The “throwing my hands into the air, are you serious” moment of this list. This album pushed The Replacements’ Don’t Tell a Soul off this list. The irony? I’ve only been listening to this album for about two months. So why and how does an album that has barely been on my radar beat out an album that I’ve held near and dear to my heart since college? Well, because it’s damn good. Leave Scars represents what 80s thrash metal was supposed to be all about. Raw, unrelenting power. There is nothing polished or fancy about this album. Hell, in some respects, it’s kind of sloppy. But that’s what made good thrash metal so amazing. It was unapologetic and true to form, an expression of unyielding aggression and anger that made you want to bang your head, pump your fist, and mosh like a crazy person. Thrash metal made you want to lose control. And Leave Scars does that in spades. From the start, it’s fast, powerful, and unrelenting, like a freight train that’s about to crash into a wall and not the least bit interested in slowing down because it knows the wall doesn’t stand a chance. With songs like “The Death of Innocence,” “No One Answers,” and “Leave Scars,” this album never really lets up on the hard, memorable riffs, the blazing drum work, or the sense that it’s going down in a blaze of glory. Had I given Dark Angel more of a chance back in the day, maybe this album would have been on my list a long time ago. But it’s never too late to say, “Wow, I was wrong, these guys really are amazing,” and decide that an album you’ve been listening to nonstop for two months deserves to be on your desert island.
So congrats, My Bloody Valentine, Radiohead, Deceased, Belle and Sebastian, M83, MGMT, Smashing Pumpkins, White Rabbits, Rage, and Dark Angel. You’re coming with me to the desert island because you each created a perfect album that I’d want with me for the rest of my life. And there’s nothing you can do about it.
So these are the albums I’d take with me on a desert island. What albums would you take?