One man's top thousand
Tom Moon isn't afraid of a challenge. Otherwise he'd never have taken on a project as daunting as 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, an ambitious attempt to catalog the most essential albums in history, from Bach to Beck, Marian Anderson to Iggy Pop.
Tom Moon isn't afraid of a challenge.
Otherwise he'd never have taken on a project as daunting as 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, an ambitious attempt to catalog the most essential albums in history, from Bach to Beck, Marian Anderson to Iggy Pop.
"It's almost impossible to find a checklist that applies to opera and blues and hip-hop," says the longtime music writer. "I was looking for stuff that was a peak, that described a state of emotion or a state of being that nothing else did quite as well."
One of the challenges of the book, copies of which Moon will be signing at Borders in Bryn Mawr today, was remaining objective.
"I couldn't impose my 1,000 favorites on an unsuspecting reader," says Moon, 48, formerly an Inquirer critic, during an alfresco chat along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. "The rap on music critics is that they only like obscure stuff, stuff that is an acquired taste, that takes a while to appreciate. And that's true."
Inevitably, his personal tastes influenced the lineup.
"I think the book's a teensy bit heavy on Latin dance music and crossover music from the Caribbean and South America," he concedes.
The most represented: the Beatles and Beethoven (six albums each), Miles Davis (five), and Bob Dylan (four).
"I don't think you can cage-match these at all," Moon says. "You can't say, 'All right, Mozart vs. the Beatles. Who wins?' There was a point where [the publisher] said 'One entry per artist,' and that fell apart quickly because, Dylan - what do you with Dylan? How do you possibly get him" with one record?
It's not surprising that, since the book came out, people have been taking issue with his selections, both in print and at www.1000recordings.com.
"The minute you put down what looks to be a canon, it looks like you're saying, 'This is what's good for you. Ignore everything else,' " he says. "The minute you do that you put a target on your back."
Some of the choices cry out for dispute. Does Alice Cooper really belong? Chicago? Rick James? But each of the records in the book is accompanied by a compelling argument for its worth.
Some classical critics have accused him of "picking all the obvious pieces and the most obvious performances of those pieces," he points out. "And I'm like, 'Yeah! Guilty as charged.' And why not? At no point do I say I'm a specialist in any of this."
He sought out the opinions of experts in many genres.
"I had a big blind spot where Celtic music is concerned," he says. "Hate it. Never got it. People said, 'Oh, you've got to hear the Bothy Band.' And I heard this record called Old Hag You Have Killed Me and I'm like, 'This is great. I have to have this just for the title.' "
He's already second-guessing some of his selections.
For the Rolling Stones, Moon opted for Exile on Main Street and Singles Collection: The London Years.
"When I looked back and thought about it, I said, 'All right, shouldn't there be one of the following: Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, or Sticky Fingers?' " he says. "One of those three records should be in the book. If I get a chance to update it, they will be."
Simply listening was the most time-consuming part of the project, which took Moon 31/2 years. His Ahab-like pursuit of music's most sublime artifacts nearly drove his wife, Kim, and his daughter, Savannah, crazy.
"Every time we got in the car, I would come with whatever was on my pile to hear next," he says. "I can remember one trip where in amongst the mix was the complete opera of Porgy and Bess. I thought, 'This will be great, to turn my daughter on to Porgy and Bess.' And she very quickly made it apparent that this was not going to be a happy car ride."
Still he assumed that his efforts would at least give his daughter, 10, an extraordinary musical grounding.
"Now she likes Miley Cyrus," he says, sheepishly.
Panning for gold, Moon found some precious nuggets.
"Elis Regina is a Brazilian singer who is hardly known in this country," he says. "She's one of the great singers of the 20th century. Up there with Sinatra as far as I'm concerned."
Other records he regarded as no-brainers did not hold up to scutiny.
"Billy Joel's The Stranger. That's like a canonic record, rubber-stamped from the beginning," he says. "Yet when I went back to that, I was like, this is five great songs and five songs that Billy Joel just phoned in.
"I can't do that when I've just written about Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, which is genius from start to finish."
Time after time, the choice was excruciating - picking, for instance, between Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here. (He went with the former.)
"That's one of those wrenching, pull-your-hair-out kind of decisions," he says.
The book was originally organized by genre, but Moon settled on an alphabetical sequence. "It's more fun for paging through," he says. "You have Ernest Tubb the country pioneer on one page and Tupac Shakur on the facing page. How great is that?"
Isn't it a tad quaint to be enshrining albums in the age of singles, when iTunes rules?
"I completely realize it's not the way people listen," he says. "But I came to believe that the single track download as a unit of measure is very good for dipping a toe in but it's terrible for listening. To me, it's made very facile listeners out of most of us."
In the end, 1,000 Recordings is one man's attempt to foster a richer appreciation for music, especially among the uninitiated.
"It's not for hipsters. It's not for people that have deep collections," he says, "and it's really not the kind of book that will necessarily find any love in the media.
"The intended reader here is someone who is just beginning an exploration. All I'm trying to be is the tour guide with the flashlight."