Monday, October 26, 2009

The Story of My Top Ten List, Part I


A few weeks ago, I posted the article I wrote for Penguin Eggs Magazine about Pete Seeger. When I submitted my article, the editor also asked me to send them a list of my top ten folk/roots albums of all time for inclusion in the front of the magazine. (Each issue of Penguin Eggs includes a top ten list from someone who is featured in that issue.)

My first reaction? You've got to be kidding! How would I boil it down to ten? And are we talking about my current favourites? The albums that influenced me most? The ones that I think are the most important? The ones that everyone else will think are cool? Each of those lists would be completely different. And, as someone with pretty broad taste, the thought of trying to represent that taste in a tiny list of ten CDs seemed completely impossible.

Not only that, but you don't get to write any explanation. They just print the list -- no context, nothing! At least if I could explain why I made my choices, I might be able to live with it. But noooo, I had to just send them the list in alphabetical order.

Of course, that's what blogs are for. So without further ado, here is the story of my top ten list, split in two parts for easier digestion.

After I foolishly said yes to Penguin Eggs, I began a week of feverish list-making. I started, off the top of my head, listing artists and albums who might be included on the list. The lists went on and on-- forty, fifty artists with no end in sight. I despaired at ever being able to boil it down.

So I started strategizing. First, I realized that I could kill many birds with one stone by including the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music. It's kind of cheating because it's a three-CD boxed set. But it's an amazing collection of recordings and musicians that have remained touchstones through the years: The Carter Family, Mississippi John Hurt, Gus Cannon's Jug Stompers, Charlie Poole. So onto the list it went.


One down, nine to go.

I started thinking about albums that have stuck with me over time. Albums that I first listened to as a kid or a teenager and that I still love when I hear them now. That quickly generated a long list of albums. I looked at that list and thought about the different things they represented. Some were songwriters, some were singers and interpreters who left an indelible mark, some represented a particular style of music. So out of that list I picked five representative albums:


We listened to this album so much when I was growing up that I feel like it's in my genes. The band included a young Maria Muldaur (then Maria D'Amato), and her partner Geoff Muldaur, two musicians who are still amongst my absolute favourites.


Unfortunately I never got to hear Stan Rogers sing before he was tragically killed in 1983. Since then I've heard his songs sung by many, many other people, but for my money there's nothing like hearing him straight up, in a live situation, which is what you hear on this album.


I remember hearing Kate and Anna McGarrigle for the first time and being entranced by their mixing of musical styles, their unique harmonies, and their incredible way with words. This album still sounds completely fresh to me every time I listen to it.


My mom had several Hazel and Alice albums in our house, and it's probably because of them that I learned to love old-time music. It's not always "pretty" music. But their voices are haunting, and the music gets you right in the gut.

Sweet Honey in the Rock taught me the transcendent power of human voices raised in song. Although I believe the best way to appreciate them is in a live concert situation, the next best thing is their live concert album, "Good News."

That ended my list of albums that I've listened to since I was young. Six down, four to go.

Tune into my next post to see how the list ends...

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