Monday, March 23, 2009

1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die by Tom Moon

I picked up this 2008 book at my local public library, figuring it would suck, but might be worth a giggle. If you're not a bookstore denizen, you might not be aware of the Before You Die series, which looks at various things, like travel destinations, restaurants, brands of saltines, that one should check out before checking out for good. The concept isn't a bad one, but how could a guide possibly incorporate every genre and so much musical history in a complete fashion?

It can't, really. That's because it would have to 100,000 or 1,000,000 recordings to hear before you die, and if that was the case, you'd have to write it at a grade school level, so readers could have even a slim shot at meeting the goal.

But as I started reading the book, I was sucked in. Tom Moon, a writer and NPR contributor, has played in rock and jazz bands. He writes about music with equal amounts of intelligence and enthusiasm. And he's quite intelligent.

Since he's a musician, he can ably describe what's going on in a host of musical styles. Yet he avoids getting too insider-ish and overly technical. For the most part, he does a good job of giving you an idea where each selection is coming from.

I really appreciate this, as his descriptions of jazz, classical and world music recordings are giving me a lot of suggestions that will broaden my horizons. Nowhere is this more true than with classical music. Moon's writing about classical (and for that matter, anything that's not strictly pop) music gets across a critical notion: classical music is just part of a continuum. While not all of the compositional devices from greats like Beethoven and Mozart are part of pop music, they are part of music in general and it seems to me that the ability to appreciate the complexity of Captain Beefheart or the bold ideas of Can should equally apply to classical music.

Of course, complexity isn't the sole criteria for what makes music great, and Moon has enough selections that tout primal punk and inane pop. Speaking of which, if there's one area where I quibble with Moon, it's in some of his pop selections. I'll give you two examples.

First, he includes Tracy Chapman's debut album. Now I'll agree that "Fast Cars" and "Talkin' About a Revolution" are great songs. But the album as a whole is merely good. There are some other selections along these lines.

But Chapman's inclusion is arguably defensible. I can't imagine why Britney Spears merits a spot amongst the thousand. Yes, "Toxic" is one of her few good songs, but I can think of a 100,000 songs that one should listen to before hearing that one.

Which is another way of saying that sometimes Moon tries too hard. This also manifests itself in another aspect of the book. After each mini-review (about eight paragraphs on each entry) he includes recommended work by the artist, and then two other steps one can take afterwards. In the Green Day entry (for American Idiot) the next two steps are the Ramones' debut album (okay, I can see that) and then an album from Godsmack (WTF?).

These sporadic slip ups are more than outweighed by the sheer variety of albums and Moon's mix of criticism, description and music history. Yep, not only do I have a bunch of new things to check out, this book is chock full of cool tidbits. Until today, I wasn't aware of how big of a role Benny Goodman played in integrating jazz. Indeed, according to Moon, rather than put the African-Americans in his band through hell during tours in the Deep South, Goodman decided to skip visiting the South entirely. I like Goodman even more now.

This book has taken predictable criticism for not being inclusive enough or overly so. Moreover, a lot experts in specific fields, especially classical, have not been pleased with Moon's treatment of their fave genres.

I can't agree with that. Even if I don't agree with some of Moon's selections in areas where I have a great deal of knowledge, and within those entries, I might not entirely agree with his criticism, I just see that as a difference in perspective. Moon's writing is consistently good throughout.

This book is now out in paperback, but Moon now has a website which covers the ground of the book and more, which I have just cleverly hyperlinked where it says 'website.' The entries are not as full as those in the book, but they give you the idea. While this isn't perfect, I think it's a worthwhile guide for any music fan who wants to explore new areas.

1 comment:

Matt Berlyant said...

WTF indeed! Godsmack have the distinction of being one of the worst bands I've ever seen in my life, but they were one of the openers for the best band I've ever seen. I'll explain. They (along with S.T.U.N., who I missed because I got there late) opened for The Stooges in August 2003 at Roseland. They were all playing a benefit for LifeBeat, the A.I.D.S. organization. I didn't think that putting Godsmack on that bill (right before The Stooges) was a good idea and I certainly don't think they have anything in common with Green Day or The Ramones. BTW I only really like the 1st 2 Green Day albums and the early singles. I tolerate the later stuff but like many of the original fans, lost track of them after Dookie. I guess that's the difference of perspective you talked about, though.