One Album to Rule Them All!

At my dayjob office there’s a whiteboard and bulletin board back near the break room. After a few years, one of our administrative folks has found its best use – asking questions of the staff about the important questions in life. Things like “what’s your favorite ice cream flavor?” or “if you could wake up one morning an expert in anything, what would it be?” Now, she’s come up with a question that, as she correctly warned me, is a real stumper:

If you could only listen to one album for the next year, what would it be?

Between my musical geekiness and my penchant for over thinking things, my mind’s been working overtime since the question came up. I think I’ve come up with a decent answer – here’s how I got to it.

It quickly occurred to me that there are two questions you have to ask before you start evaluating answers for a question like this. It has to do with getting the most out of whatever you select.

The first is, do you go for something that’s a stone cold favorite or something more mysterious? The case for the favorite is obvious – you want to listen to something you like, if it’s all you’ve got for a year. But there’s also a risk – would listening to any favorite album for a year cause you to sour on it? Get so sick of it you’d never want to hear it again? Something less familiar, or more dense, might be more rewarding over multiple listens.

I didn’t let this issue detain me very much. While I toyed with the idea of choosing something like Brian Eno’s Music for Airports (Ambient 1), as its details would surely be sharpened by lots of repeated listening, ultimately I decided that if I have to listen to only one thing for a year, I want it to be something I really love. A lot of my favorite albums I’ve known for years, if not decades, and I’m not yet tired of them. It’s a risk I’m willing to take.

The second, and more difficult question, is one of quality versus quantity. Favorite albums might not be very long, might not provide the best bang for your buck, so to speak. But longer ones might not be as good. The best example of this in my collection, probably, comes from Zappa. My favorite Zappa album is probably Roxy & Elsewhere. While originally a 2-LP release, we’re talking about Frank’s 1970s stuff, so the sides are short and it sits comfortably on a single CD. Läther, on the other hand, is a 3-CD release of what was originally intended to be an 8-sided album. It’s crammed full of music, full of variety and skill, even if it’s not my favorite. Which to pick?

In the end, I decided to go with the “more is more” philosophy, at least to an extent. It was made easier by the fact that bands in the 1970s would produce fairly short (by standards of the CD era I grew up in, at least) studio albums, and then release multi-disc live albums. Those albums often cover a lot of ground and sometimes do it with versions that improve on the original studio recordings. With that in mind, it came down to two choices.

The first was Yessongs, the first live Yes album.

This is one of those “if you only own one album by a band, buy this one” kind of albums. Originally three LPs (it fits on two CDs) and recorded after Close to the Edge, it really captures the band at its prime. It includes all three songs from that album, as well as most everything important from Fragile and The Yes Album. More than that, lots of the live versions of those songs are bangers. What’s not to love? Well, a couple of things. First, it doesn’t touch at all on either of the band’s first two albums, which have some gems. Second, the main thing missing from Fragile is “South Side of the Sky,” which is my favorite track on that album. Finally, there’s a lack of Bill Bruford on this release. Drummer Bruford left Yes after Close to the Edge to join King Crimson and he’s only on a couple of tracks. His replacement, Alan White, took over the drum stool for good (having worked with some nobody named John Lennon previously), which is saying something for a band whose membership rivals Spinal Tap (or King Crimson!) for turnover. He’s a great player, but I like Bill better and these are “his” tunes.

The other contender was another live album (originally a double LP, still a double CD), Seconds Out by Genesis.

As you might expect from the title, this is the second live album from Genesis and is the swan song of the prog era. Peter Gabriel was already gone and Steve Hackett was on his way out the door and the band was about to reshuffle into the pop/prog trio that conquered the world in the 1980s and 1990s. It focuses on the albums released since Live, but that’s still prime real estate – Selling England by the Pound, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, A Trick of the Tail, and Wind and Wuthering. It also dips into the further past for the main oversight of Live – the side-long epic “Supper’s Ready.” That starts off disc two with a bang that never lets up – side four of the original LP release contains the definitive versions of “Cinema Show” and “Dance on a Volcano/Los Endos.” That whole disc is one of my very favorites. Down sides? Well, there’s only one track from Wind and Wuthering, which is odd since it was the newest album at the time. And, although it’s apocryphal to say that Hackett was “mixed out” since he was leaving the band, it’s not the strongest of his albums with the band.

In the end, there was only one solid choice – Seconds Out. Much as I love Yes, Genesis may be my all time favorite band (certainly during the Gabriel/Hackett years) and if I could only listen to one thing for a year, wouldn’t that be it?

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