The public dissemination of musical tastes does not always bring out the best of human nature. It’s hard to overestimate the possibility of being snobbish, competitive, critical, boastful (humble or otherwise) and a long list of other little vices. This is partly why politicians, for example, are so worried about calibrating their Disks of the Deserted Island selections. And also why exercise is often so fun.
The ground rules set by Tom Gatti in this anthology of 50 writers on 49 albums (Ali Smith, slightly exciting, refused to stick to the rules), asks writers not for a better album, but a “darling” who is, or was, important to them. As Ian Rankin, adapting Jean Brodie, explains about his love for John Martyn Solid air: “Give me an album at a certain age and it’s mine for life.”
There is a sufficiently decent sample size that the reader can engage in a rough calculation of numbers. The oldest albums are from 1956 – Duke Ellington at the Newport Jazz Festival, chosen by the late Clive James, and Mozart by Clara Haskil Piano Concerto, chosen by Neel Mukherjee – most recent is Daisy Johnson’s choice for Lizzo’s 2019 Because I love you. Between them, the bulk of the albums are either from the 1970s or the 90s. Depending on how you categorize these things, there are three jazz albums, two classics and two folk. But most of the picks fit into a loosely defined traditional tradition of modern pop, with Joni Mitchell and David Bowie the only artists to have been nominated twice.
Unsurprisingly, it turns out, perhaps, that writers tend to value literary effects and skills and draw literary comparisons. Deborah Levy, who chose Ziggy stardust, calls Bowie a “great writer” who influenced her “more than Tolstoy ever will”. Sarah Hall compares Radiohead OK Computer to “a great collection of short stories” and Musa Okwonga loves Outkast’s Aquemini because he loves “Kurt Vonnegut’s collected short stories – every time I go back to both works, I find a new way of looking at the human condition.” In less festive fashion, Daljit Nagra connects Morrissey – “reluctantly” via the Smiths Meat is murder and the ’80s thugs who smashed the windows of his parents’ stores and painted the shutters with racist slurs – to Philip Larkin. “Like Larkin, I would like Morrissey to leave the limelight, so that I can enjoy the best work before he breaks the storefront of his own great tenderness.”
Entries may be only a few hundred words long – some of them started as a column in The New Statesman where Gatti is associate editor – but contain very disparate autobiographical vignettes. In the mid-1980s, teenager David Mitchell, who “had never been in love, let alone fell in love with it,” first heard Joni Mitchell’s “raw autobiography” of Californian grief, Blue, on his Walkman while wandering around his hometown of Malvern. Her encounter with the big, dark Christmas breakup song “River” came on a June day “halfway across the golf course.” Around the same time, Will Self was in a cavernous apartment off Cromwell Road, West London, “with a needle stuck in my arm, the barrel of the syringe full of blood.” Astral weeks “Scratched the cords of his heart.” Poet Will Harris remembers how his father made him “attend the eight-minute album version of Donna Summer’s” I Feel Love “” which, very indirectly, led him to Warren G. Regulate … G Funk Era.
For all star-on-star formats, there are relatively few encounters between writer and musician. Esi Edugyan, who chose Maxinquaye by Tricky, had an awkward interview with the artist in Vancouver, and Clive James once “traded smiles” with Ellington after a gig. Most poignant is Rankin’s near absence of “the whiskey-soaked angel” Martyn. Solid air had been Rankin’s companion in school and college, marriage and children, even through punk. Years later, having become famous himself, he had lunch before continuing Disks of the Deserted Island where he had to declare “the only song I can’t live without is”Solid air‘”. And there was Martyn,” with a few mates at a bottle-strewn table nearby. And I can’t go talk to her. My one and only chance and I miss it.
Some albums are aids in self-realization. As a young girl in New York City, now adopted Briton Erica Wagner knew only English folk of Steeleye Span All around my hat “Runs in my blood”. And some are self-help resources, like with Marlon James, 25 and strapped for “Answers to Life’s Big Questions” capital. by Björk To post didn’t respond directly, “Instead, he gave answers to some shit I didn’t even ask for.” Funniest play features 12-year-old Joe Dunthorne discovering Black sunday by Cypress Hill and his production that made “even the most upright listener – the prepubescent boy playing Warhammer – feel high”. The award for It’s So Not Cool It’s Cool goes to George Saunders for the transcendent sincerity of his response to Brittle by Yes.
Taken as a whole, the collection’s many observations and angles constitute an instant, richly textured artist’s inquiry into art. And at their best, the plays reveal something useful about the writer, the music, the world in general, and the world at that time. For Linda Grant, Joni Mitchell’s Hegira clearly exposed “the great paradox of feminism of the 1970s”, the desire for independence from men and also for “lasting love”. It also crystallizes the strange and powerful relationship between listener and artist: “I have never seen it perform live. I do not want. I have no interest in sharing her with complete strangers because none of it is about her, it’s me.