The old adage about everything old being new again is sometimes proven true. For instance, I guess you knew they’re making record albums again? That’s right; those flat, black discs that provided the soundtrack for much of our lives are enjoying a comeback.
It seems somebody finally figured out that music sounds purer and crisper when pulled from grooves cut into vinyl and delivered through a diamond-sharp stylus. So lots of artists and producers are taking a giant step backwards after determining that maybe something that was supposedly fixed hadn’t been broken in the first place. It reminds me of something an engineer friend told me happened once at NASA. It seems they spent a caboodle of taxpayers’ dollars trying to perfect a ballpoint pen that would work in zero gravity before finally just sending up pencils.
This news about records got me thinking. If I had to pick my five favorite albums of all time, what would they be? I’m not talking about individual songs, but collections of a dozen or so tunes by one artist or band on one long-playing record. I figured it would be a quick and easy task, and that the five would be obvious. And for two of them that was the case. But, let me tell you, coming up with the other three was a chore.
A large part of the problem, you see, was that such a grouping is an entirely personal matter. And whatever was going on in my life when a particular album provided comfort or solace or joy had to be factored in. My selections won’t be yours, so no complaining please. I invite you to share yours as well, and I won’t find fault either.
I’ll start with a few that are worthy contenders, but they didn’t make the final cut. Leaving out Rod Stewart’s “Great American Songbook”, with such treasures as “The Way You Look Tonight” and “You Go to My Head”, was tough. The same was true for “Johnny Horton’s Greatest Hits”, which I spun so often in high school on my portable Zenith HiFi that “North to Alaska” and “Whispering Pines” were finally reduced to scratchy static. Dionne Warwick’s “Gold” almost made it too; her “Anyone Who Had a Heart”, and “Walk on By” are downright haunting.
The 3rd, 4th, and 5th slots were the problem, because I had to do some real soul searching and hard picking. In no particular order, here they are.
The Carpenters’ “Now and Then” was a theme record, weaving some of the best 1950s and 60s standards into more recent songs like “Yesterday Once More”. For my money, Karen Carpenter had the smoothest singing voice ever, and it was at its most pure and mellow in the selections on this album, especially “Our Day Will Come”, “Johnny Angel”, and “One Fine Day”.
My next choice was cut in 1958, several years before I acquired that aforementioned HiFi, but when I finally discovered it I had a new favorite. “Fancy Meeting You Here” is a collection of travel motif tunes performed by Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney, all arranged by conductor Billy May and sprinkled with witty adlibs from the two singers. The songs are great – “Brazil”, “It Happened in Monterey”, and “Slow Boat to China” among them – but it’s the musical phrasing and snappy banter between these two seasoned crooners that make this collection golden and timeless.
Then there’s Johnny Mathis, who I consider to be one of the very best balladeers to ever step up to a microphone. There’s a steamer trunk in my house that contains well over a hundred old LPs, and probably twenty or more are by this one artist. He had a voice that could start high and somehow go magically higher, or delve deep and wander around. One of his signature songs was called “Wonderful, Wonderful”, and that title describes his entire canon of work. My favorite of all his albums is “Heavenly”, featuring gems like “Misty”, “A Lovely Way to Spend an Evening”, and “Moonlight Becomes You”.
And now – drum roll, please – my two absolute favorite albums.
Neil Diamond’s “Hot August Night” was recorded live at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles in 1972 while I was in boot camp several hundred miles north at Fort Ord. I bought my copy at a PX in Germany the following January, and cuts like “Solitary Man”, “Red, Red Wine”, and “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show” saw me through more than a few quiet homesick nights and some loud barracks sing-alongs.
And all I have to say about Mr. Willie Nelson’s “Stardust” is that it just might be as perfect an assemblage of songs perfectly delivered ever recorded. As a writer, I’ve found several of those ballads Willie warbles on that record to be master classes, in both the lyrics and his phrasing of them, in how to effectively tell a story .
If you want to rediscover the feelings you went through, good or bad, in certain times in your life here’s a suggestion. Dig out the records you listened to at the time and dust off your record player.