What ten albums do you listen to most?

Cover of In The Court Of The Crimson King by King CrimsonCover of Fragile by YesCover of 76:14 by Global Communication

A few weeks ago I ran across a video called “The ten albums I listen to most” and that led me down a YouTube rabbit hole. For an hour or two I watched dozens of videos where people talk about the ten albums they listen to more than any others. A lot were by people who clearly have substantial collections and ranges of genres they enjoy. Others were by people whose listening habits were very clearly confined to a specific genre, or a specific decade or in a few cases, a specific collection of artists.

I thought about this for a few weeks – “What are the albums I play the most often?” It proved trickier to ferret out than I expected. My first list consisted of my favorite albums, but I noticed quickly that while they were favorites, in many cases I didn’t listen to them that often. Or while it was a favorite album by a favorite artist, I actually listened to other albums by that artist more regularly. There were also albums that I realized I put on to hear specific songs; a list of the songs I listen to the most often would generate a wildly different collection of albums and artists. There were a few artists who I would put in my top ten that didn’t show up at all. What I came to realize as the list started to develop was that these are “go to” albums when I need to feel something. They all generate strong triggers that I can count on to make me feel deep emotions, and those make me feel good (even if they are not fully happy albums.)

A few other things I discovered….

Several of the albums are singular in the sense that I only have one album by that artist. Several of the artists wouldn’t make a list of my two dozen favorite artists of all time. Chronologically they span thirty years but none of them are from later than 1997. More than half of them are from before 1980, when I graduated from high school. Two are albums I didn’t give much attention to until the last decade, twenty years after they were released. Three are progressive rock, four are what I would call art rock, one is a pop album, one a sorta-country rock album, and one ambient/electronic.

The fact that many of them come from before I was 21 fits with the commonly held belief that your musical preferences are pretty much galvanized in your teen years. And it’s true that those six artists are people I still listen to frequently fifty years later.  I did a “what are the next ten albums I listen to the most often” and that widened the field a lot, bringing in a lot more of the artists who would show up on my “favorite artists of all time” list. And for people that know me, that second list contained a lot more of the artists they would associate me with… the first list not as much as a number of the artists/albums are somewhat obscure.

The albums I listen to most often:

In The Court Of The Crimson King by King Crimson (1969). I own an absurd number of copies of this album: the original vinyl, the remixed vinyl, a boxed set that contains a 5.1 mix, and two copies on 8-track tape. It’s a moody, often bombastic, but just as often subtle and lovely. This is an example where it’s one of my favorite artists but not necessarily my favorite album by that artist (that would either be Starless and Bible Black (1974) or Red (1974).

Fragile by Yes (1971). This is the oldest album on the list in the sense that it’s the one I’ve owned the longest and heard the earliest. It’s disjointed – the four main pieces are interspersed with “solo” pieces by each member of the band – but the four longer pieces are each spectacular and surprisingly moody, like the King Crimson. This might be the album I listen to most of all on this list.

Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy by Brian Eno (1974). For me this is a psychedelic masterpiece. It’s Eno’s showpiece for what Oblique Strategies can do in a creative process as it takes all sorts of loopy and unexpected twists and turns. But with all that going on, it’s remarkably catchy and absurdly hum-able.

Feels Good To Me by Bill Bruford (1978). The ex-King Crimson and ex-Yes drummer’s first solo album is not what I was expecting at the time it came out as it sounds like neither of those bands. It’s got a lot of fusion mixed with the progressive rock. Annette Peacock sings on the best tracks and her voice is mesmerizing. This is one of the best albums by a drummer as band leader/songwriter.

fenetiks by Jules and the Polar Bears (1979). Maybe the smartest pop album ever made. The band only made two albums in their original run (a third was shit-canned until the 90’s). I saw them open for Peter Gabriel the year before this came out and they blew me away. Jules Shear, for those in the know, is one of the great songwriters of our generation and this is for me one of his strongest collections of songs. It’s chock full of great playing, great songs and very clever lyrics that still impress me.

Lodger by David Bowie (1979). While I expected three other Bowie albums to show up here, this turns out to be the one I play the most often. It’s less dark and atmospheric than the previous two albums, Low and ‘Heroes’, and like Tiger Mountain, full of quirky songs and arrangements. It seems like it would have been a fun album to make.

Blast Of Silence (I axed my baby for a nickle…) by The Golden Palominos (1986). The Golden Palominos at this point were a collection of who’s who in the NYC Downtown and alt-rock community led by the great drummer Anton Fier. This is a very strong collection of songs, with a kinda country vibe that somehow hangs together given the fact that nearly every song is a different collection of instruments. The songs by and with Peter Blegvad stand out for me. Syd Straw’s vocals are, like Annette Peacock’s, mesmerizing. This is probably the second most listened to on this list after Fragile.

Loveless by My Bloody Valentine (1991). I didn’t really listen to this much until the last ten years or so. I’m not sure why because I’m a huge fan of thick walls of texture, of which this is the masterclass. There’s not really another album that does this sort of super saturated timbre as well as this one does.

76:14 by Global Communication (1994). I can’t remember why I picked this up originally. At the time it came out I wasn’t listening to a whole lot of electronic music, though this led me back into that world. It’s the quintessential ambient/chill record and shows up on all the lists. One of the tracks sounds like Tangerine Dream and I later found out they started out as a cover of  “Love On A Real Train”. It’s a beautiful record.

OK Computer by Radiohead (1997). A friend excitedly loaned me this when it came out and I was totally unimpressed by it. Ten years later I gave it another listen – I can’t really remember why because I had written it off as one of those “everyone loves this but me” things. Like many of the above, it’s an album of textures, unusual sounds and musical arrangements. I think reassessing this album, and finding that I was totally wrong about it, started me on a path of reassessing a lot of music I had written off. Which has been a great journey into discovering music I love but stupidly (ignorantly? arrogantly?) ignored (apologies to The Doors, Steely Dan, and Roxy Music.)

The next ten, if it’s of interest, would be:

Roxy and Elsewhere by Frank Zappa and the Mothers (1973), Propaganda by Sparks (1974), Agents of Fortune by Blue Oyster Cult (1976), i (aka The Story of i) by Patrick Moraz (1976), Exposure by Robert Fripp (1979), Skylarking by XTC (1986), The Sky Moves Sideways by Porcupine Tree (1994), Deliverance by Opeth (2002), Peeping Tom by Peeping Tom (aka Mike Patton) (2006) and With Teeth by Nine Inch Nails (2006).

This was an enlightening experience and I highly recommend any music lover to sit down and consider your own list.