Here’s a Spotify playlist to listen to as you read:
Mike left “perfect” intentionally undefined, so I defined “perfect” as “album I will play start-to-finish without skipping tracks.” I set two other constraints: had to be a record I owned on physical media, and I tried not to repeat anybody else’s posting. (This was the hardest part, especially once we crossed, oh, 500 posts or so. See the bottom of this post for a whole crate of 31+ alternate picks.)
1. Sam Cooke, Live at the Harlem Square Club
It’s impossible for me not to be happy when this is on.
2. Rod Stewart, Every Picture Tells A Story
Lester Bangs once wrote, “In the history of rock n’ roll, no artist has squandered his talent so completely as Rod Stewart.” For proof, put on Every Picture Tells A Story. “Now Austin,” you say, “How can you lead off with Sam Cooke and follow up with Rod Stewart?” Well, friend, who do you think Rod was stealing from? (He’d also later steal from Sam’s protégé, Bobby Womack.) If you’re unconvinced, skip straight to the Faces’ blistering cover of The Temptations’ “(I Know) I’m Losing You” on side two, which is even better than side one.
3. Cocteau Twins, Heaven or Las Vegas
Sometimes I play a record over and over on book tour and it gets ruined for me, because every time I play it, it takes me back to being sad and on a plane. But this one has survived. (Note that the title does not have a question mark at the end.) Who the heck knows what they’re singing? “Jericho” or “Cherry Coke”? Little Richard taught us it doesn’t matter: “A wop-bop-a-lu-bop!” Only later did I discover that this record is deeply tied to motherhood and familial struggles in a way I’ll let you discover for your own, if you’re curious. Otherwise, forget all that, put this on the headphones, and bliss out.
4. Ray Price, Night Life
This is the sound of 3AM. Bleary and lonely and probably a little drunk. (It’s basically the honky-tonk equivalent of Sinatra’s In The Wee Small Hours, another great record.) Amazing spoken word intro to a track written by Willie Nelson. I once listened to this while driving through the Rocky Mountains many hours before dawn, on my way to the airport, and it was one of a handful of perfect listening experiences in my life thus far. (Thanks to my pal @christy__carroll for introducing me to this record many years ago…)
5. The Pogues, Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash
And now a different kind of drunkenness. Released 35 years ago. Produced by Elvis Costello, who said he just wanted to get their sound down before somebody ruined them. Purchased for $1.99 at Half Price Books In 2005.
6. Bob Dylan, Blood on the Tracks
“In the end, the plague touched us all.” So begins Pete Hamill in his liner notes for Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. (Hamill died on August 6th.) I could have picked five other perfect Dylan albums, by the way, and I feel it worth noting that here is a musical artist who has released good records in each of the past *six* decades. As the man himself sings in “Idiot Wind”: “I can’t help it if I’m lucky.”
7. The Rolling Stones, Some Girls
The Stones’ answer to punk and disco, and my personal favorite of theirs. This is my uncle Steve’s copy — I love to imagine him buying it new from a K-Mart in Southern Ohio in 1978.
8. Toots & the Maytals, Funky Kingston
“Time tough / everything is out of sight / so hard,” Frederick “Toots” Hibbert sings on the opening track. (The highlight comes on side two: the Maytals’ reworking of John Denver’s “Country Roads,” replacing “West Virginia” for “West Jamaica.”) This is the perfect Saturday morning album. It is survival on the upbeat.
9. Al Green, Call Me
The Reverend Al Green made four perfect albums in a row with Willie Mitchell in the early 1970s. This is the deepest, the smoothest, the ultimate. That voice! Those Memphis Horns! That sound! Covers of Hank Williams and Willie Nelson! This is a perfect Sunday night record.
10. The Flaming Lips, The Soft Bulletin
“Is it getting heavy? Well, I thought it was already as heavy as can be.” I hadn’t listened to this record in probably 10 years, and I can’t get over how good it sounds . Wayne’s broken but hopeful voice, the slide guitars and cheesy orchestra synths juxtaposed with those downright massive drums, “Too heavy for even Superman to lift.” This is the perfect album for a Monday morning in a world that’s looking bleak.
11. Grimes, Visions
Recorded during a 3-week burst in her Montreal bedroom, with a synthesizer, a sampler, some effects pedals, and Garageband. Weird. Catchy. Beautiful. A case for constraints and, well, vision. A perfect record for thinking about the world you could create without leaving your house.
12. Augustus Pablo, King Tubbys Meets Rockers Uptown
It took me a while to understand what the hell was going on in dub. I used to think remixing was a matter of adding things to the mix — dowsing everything in echo and reverb and special effects to make it sound spacey and cool. In fact, it’s as much about subtraction as addition — slicing and dicing parts and dropping instruments in and out of the mix. King Tubbys Meets Rockers Uptown is a perfect record to write and daydream and zone out to, but it also teaches us a great sonic lesson: Creativity isn’t just what you choose to put in, it’s what you choose to leave out.
13. Danger Mouse, The Grey Album
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Today, I am enjoying the nostalgic click of the scroll wheel and the hum of the hard drive in my first iPod, a time capsule of music, much of which I haven’t thought about in over a decade. Wheeling through this morning, I discovered Danger Mouse’s THE GREY ALBUM, his mashup of Jay-Z’s THE BLACK ALBUM and The Beatles’ WHITE ALBUM. This dropped in February of 2004. I was living in Cambridge, England, and my friend Dave told me about it. I’m not even sure I ever listened to the thing all the way through — like much conceptual art, it’s just as good to know about it as to experience it — but it launched the producer’s career and set off the mashup craze. (Girl Talk’s NIGHT RIPPER came two years later.) This is the perfect album to stumble across on a 16-year-old iPod. (And probably forget about for another decade or so.) #perfect31 [ironically, my original posting of this got blocked due to a copyright claim]
14. Clinic, Internal Wrangler
Despite the promise of the weekend, there’s a bit of menace to a Friday morning. You never know what’s going to come across your desk at the last minute, what kind of shit your boss or the government will pull before quitting time. One moment wild and unhinged, the next laid back and dreamy, this is the perfect album to ride out that uneasy Friday feeling. Barely 31 minutes long. A get in get out before you wear out your welcome debut. (Bonus points to Clinic for predicting our fashion future by wearing surgical masks onstage two decades ago.)
15. Cate le Bon, Reward
How much do we want to know about a piece of art before we first experience it? Preferably next-to-nothing, which is how I first came to this record, maybe two dozen listens ago. I know a lot about it, now, after a morning spent reading — who Cate Le Bon is, how and where she wrote the record, what it represents to her career, etc. — and it’s all illuminating and deepens my appreciation, but I don’t want to pass it on here. This is the perfect record for going in cold, knowing nothing. (Thanks to @kellianderson for introducing me to it.)
16. Smog, Supper
“You spend half the morning / just trying to wake up / half the evening just trying to calm down.” There are better Smog/Bill Callahan records, maybe, and records of his that mean more to me, but this is the one I’ve reached for the most over the years. He called it Supper, but I like to listen to it at breakfast. A perfect Sunday morning coming down record.
17. Fela Kuti, Gentleman
“Africa hot / I like am so / I know what to wear / but my friend don’t know / him put him socks / him put him shoe / him put him pant… him be gentleman / him go sweat all over… me I be no gentleman like that.” It’s Monday in Texas in the dog days of August and it’s hot and I don’t want to wear clothes or do business or any of this fake shit I just want to dance around while cleaning my office and this is the perfect record for when you feel like that.
18. Gary Numan, The Pleasure Principle
Anybody who says, “Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery” has never been copied. David Bowie was so annoyed by Gary Numan that he wrote the song “Teenage Wildlife” about him: “You push your luck.” But for some of us, pushing our luck is the best we can do. Herman Melville said, “Better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation,” but he never got to hear The Pleasure Principle. Bill Callahan had it down in a humblebrag: “I’ll never be a Bowie, I’ll never be an Eno, I’ll only ever be a Gary Numan.” This is the perfect record for those of us who will be lucky to be half as good as our heroes, but know that half as good as them is still great.
19. The White Stripes, White Blood Cells
To quote the University of Rochester’s Health Encyclopedia: “White blood cells protect you against illness and disease. Think of white blood cells as your immunity cells. In a sense they are always at war. They flow through your bloodstream to fight viruses, bacteria, and other foreign invaders that threaten your health.” Nothing threatens an artist’s health more than fame. It is very hard to survive, and if it is knocking on your door, you have to decide whether to open the door and venture out into it in search of fortune or adventure or glory or whatever, and hope your white blood cells do their work. If your white blood cells fail you, there’s another kind of cell: a “Little Room,” that, in the case of a prison, keeps you out of the world, but in the sense of a convent, keeps the world out of you. “Well, you’re in your little room / and you’re working on something good / but if it’s really good / you’re gonna need a bigger room / and when you’re in the bigger room / you might not know what to do / you might have to think of / how you got started / sitting in your little room.” This is not a headphones record — this is a record that must be turned up as loud as you can stand in your little cell. It is the perfect record to put on when you’re at a fork in the road, when you have too many choices to make, when you’re angry and confused and a little tender. The White Stripes will remind you of the power of constraint — just a canvas, a brush, and a few colors in your palette or a guitar, some drums, and a shout — the only rules you set are your own, and those rules will set you free.
20. Loretta Lynn, Van Lear Rose
The liner notes for White Blood Cells end with: “The White Stripes would like to dedicate this album to Loretta Lynn.” (They also recorded her song, “Rated X,” as a B-side.) Word got back around to Lynn, who invited The Stripes out to Nashville to meet up. Lynn, who was 72 at the time, had been out of the spotlight for a while taking care of her dying husband, and had released one comeback album to little notice. She agreed to let the 28-year-old Jack White produce her next record. White flew down a pedal steel player from Detroit, recruited the rhythm section from The Greenhornes, and they recorded Van Lear Rose, the first album Lynn ever made consisting only of her own songs. The resulting sound is bursting with a unique energy, an alchemy of youthful swagger and hard-earned experience. This is the perfect record for thinking about how people can reach out across generations and bring out the very best in each other.
21. D’Angelo, Black Messiah
It took D’Angelo 5 years after his debut, Brown Sugar, to follow up with Voodoo, a critical and commercial success that also made him a (somewhat reluctant) sex symbol. After touring that album, he told his friend Questlove, “I’m going to go in the woods, drink some hooch, grow a beard and get fat.” 14 years later, he released Black Messiah. “I been wondering if I can ever again / So if you’re wondering / about the shape I’m in / I hope it ain’t my abdomen / that you’re referring to.” This is a record that sounded amazing on the day it dropped half a decade ago and gets better every time I listen to it. (Secret weapon, IMHO: Pino Palladino on bass.) You have to go away so you can come back, and this is the perfect record to put on to let that lesson sink in. “Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!” Melville wrote. Give D’Angelo the first three, Lord, and give us the fourth until he returns.
22. James Carr, You Got My Mind Messed Up
It is a rare rainy morning in Texas, and this is the perfect record for it: songs that are soaked — completely drenched! — in tears, from the opening cut “Pouring Water On A Drowning Man” to “These Ain’t Raindrops,” to Carr’s masterpiece, “Dark End of the Street,” probably the greatest song about adultery ever written. This music stirs something deep in me. “These ain’t raindrops in my eyes,” y’all, “they’re tears.” Carr battled depression his whole life, but on this record, he triumphed. Even this absolutely garbage pressing (GW 3001 — avoid!) cannot muddy my love for this music.
23. The Magnetic Fields, The Charm of the Highway Strip
Who feels like a Sunday drive? I have spent a lot of time “on the road,” and nothing captures the sublime loneliness of travel for me like this record, the title of which comes from the writer J.B. Jackson, who wrote, “Let us hope that the merits and charm of the highway strip are not so obscure but that they will be accepted by a wider public.” It features one of my favorite all-time covers, designed by Stephin Merritt himself, who also signed my copy in silver Sharpie after I interviewed him at Bookpeople during a book tour of his in 2014. On my last book tour, I listened to this album on a loop while sitting on the observation deck of the Coast Starlight Amtrak, traveling south from Seattle to San Francisco. As we ascended the snowy mountains, and the sun was going down, Stephin sang, “I was a traveling salesman…” One of the most perfect listening experiences of my life, and one of my most cherished records.
24. Rick James, Street Songs
There’s a scene in the movie Moonstruck where Loretta and Ronny are looking at a painting by Marc Chagall. “As you can see, he was a very great artist,” Ronny says. “It’s kind of gaudy, don’t you think?” Loretta replies. “Well,” Ronny grins, “he was having some fun!” Now, just imagine that exact conversation, except it’s me, in the car, playing my wife Rick James’ Street Songs. Here is an album that absolutely GOES for it. (A warning from the liner notes: “This record may be hazardous to your feet.”) James’ previous album was good, but it was, well, subtler, and it didn’t sell how the record company wanted it to. It’s like James just said, “OK, watch THIS, you motherf***ers!” There’s the in-your-face hits, what James called “punk funk,” like “Superfreak,” “Ghetto Life,” and, my personal favorite, “Give It To Me Baby,” but there’s also tracks like “Fire and Desire” and “Make Love To Me,” which have a real sweetness to them. The band sounds fantastic, the horn arrangements are dynamite, The Temptations appear on backing vocals, and Stevie Wonder even drops in on harmonica. To someone in my demographic, Rick James is best known as a punchline from Dave Chappelle’s TV show, but Street Songs is no joke. It’s the perfect record to put on when you don’t mind feeling a little gaudy and you’re ready to have some fun.
25. B.B. King, Live in Cook County Jail
I barely remember their lessons, but I can remember the musical tastes of my math teachers: Ms. W loved Genesis, Ms. M loved R.E.M., and Mr. H loved the blues, specifically B.B. King, whose lyrics he once quoted to me in geometry class: “I gave you a brand new Ford / But you said, ’I want a Cadillac’ / I bought you a ten dollar dinner / And you said, ’Thanks for the snack’ / I let you live in my penthouse / You said it just a shack /I gave you seven children / And now you wanna give them back!” It took me years to get my hands on a copy of B.B. King’s Live in Cook County Jail, but every time I listen to it, I think about Mr. H, and teaching, and the Jim Henson line: “Kids don’t remember what you’re trying to teach them. They remember who you are.” Let’s face it: No matter how decent it is, being in school can sometimes feel like being in jail. God bless everybody who helps the inmates do the time.
26. Kraftwerk, Radio-Activity
I played Kraftwerk’s “The Robots” for my son Owen when he was 4 years old, and he became completely obsessed with the band. Kraftwerk, it turns out, is perfect music for little kids: they wrote simple, beautiful melodies to repetitive, exciting beats and they sang about real things that kids can understand, things like roads, radios, trains, robots, computers, and bicycles. For a while, Owen and I were going to the record store every week to buy a new Kraftwerk album. Owen never wanted vinyl, he only wanted CDs: He could handle them in his little fingers, and he could skip the tracks easily. Radio-Activity a record that often gets overlooked, but shows Kraftwerk, in some ways, at their most pure: it was their first fully electronic record and it’s a record built conceptually around their weird humor and love of wordplay. (For example, on their previous record, Autobahn: “Fahr’n Fahr’n Fahr’n auf der autobahn” is a pun on The Beach Boys’ “Fun, Fun, Fun”: “fahr’n” means “driving.”) Most concept records fall apart after a few songs, but Radio-Activity holds together the whole way through, from “Radioactivity” (“Radioactivity / is in the air for you and me”) to “Airwaves,” which has surf-rock vibes (“when airwaves swing / distant voices sing”) to my favorite track, “Antenna” (“I’m the antenna / catching vibration / you’re the transmitter / give information”). Several of the song titles are puns: “Radio Stars,” for example, sounds like a song about fame, but it’s actually about pulsars and quasars. And that’s the genius of Kraftwerk: simple enough for a kid to get into, but deep enough for any age. (Of all the bummers of COVID-19, missing Kraftwerk play in Texas this summer is high up there.) Kraftwerk made at least five perfect records, but this is one that deserves and rewards more listens.
27. The Budapest String Quartet, Ravel and Debussy Quartets
Many of my favorite records take advantage of the “A” and “B” sides of vinyl, and the fact that you have to get up and flip the record half-way through the album. I’m thinking of David Bowie’s Low or Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love, or the Pixies’ Doolittle, all of which have the poppier songs on side A, and the more complex/darker/instrumental stuff on side B. Then there’s Bob Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home, which has his new electric sound on side A and the older acoustic sound on side B. These albums lose just a teensy tiny something on streaming or CD, because you don’t get that break the musicians knew they were sequencing for. On the other hand, I kind of hate the trend of newer, longer albums which I originally experienced on CD or streaming being issued on $40 2xLPs. (Don’t get me started on 2xLP 45rpm reissues.) Great records like Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or D’Angelo’s Voodoo or the new Fiona Apple almost get too fragmented for me on 2xLP: I’d prefer to just hear the album all the way through. Same for classical music, which seems nonsensical on vinyl, not for sonic reasons, but because who the hell wants to have to get up and switch records to hear the last 1/3 of Beethoven’s 9th? (In fact, when Sony and Philips were negotiating the length of CDs, there was pressure to make them long enough to hold a complete performance of the 9th, which, even at the fastest of tempos, clocks in at over an hour.) But here is a perfect classical record, with a classic mid-century cover: on one side is Debussy’s Quartet in G Minor and on the other side is Ravel’s Quartet in F Major. These are the only string quartets that either composed — Debussy wrote his in 1893 when he was 31 years old, and Ravel wrote his 10 years later, at the age of 28, modeling it on Debussy’s. You’ll recognize the second movements of each if you watch a lot of movies: parts of Debussy’s second movement were inserted into PT Anderson’s Phantom Thread (which has a perfect score by Jonny Greenwood) and Ravel’s second movement is played over the intro credits of Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums. Two sides, two composers, four movements a piece, played by four musicians. Symmetry!
28. Curtis Mayfield, Curtis/Live!
Something I don’t think gets said enough about Curtis Mayfield is what a terrific guitar player he was. He taught himself to play in high school, tuning the strings to the black keys on his mom’s piano: F# – A# – C# – F# – A# – F#. This not only affected his playing style, but his songwriting. (It strikes me that another great soul songwriter, Bobby Womack, played his guitar literally upside down: he was left-handed, and never bothered to re-string his guitar. “Your shit is fucked up!” Jimi Hendrix said to him. “Look at your strings!” Womack said he could tell what Jimi was playing, but Jimi couldn’t tell what he was playing. Hendrix stole from Womack and Mayfield: listen to “Castles Made of Sand,” for example, and you’ll hear Curtis Mayfield.) Anyways, I love this set because it’s stripped down, and you can really hear the playing of the quintet — 2 guitars, bass, drums, and bongos/congas/tumbas (“We don’t need no music / we got conga!”) and you can hear that magical voice, right up front, singing or speaking (The interludes are labeled as “Rap”!) and the audience shouting back at him. The highlight, for me, is side two: a gorgeous, revelatory cover of The Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun” followed by Mayfield’s masterpiece, “People Get Ready.” This is simply one of the greatest live recordings of all time.
29. Jonathan Richman, I, Jonathan
I was just flipping through my notebook and found this note: “Every weekend is nostalgia: You’re trying to get back to who you were last weekend, or maybe the weekend before that.” Jonathan Richman’s I, Jonathan, is a record that fully embraces nostalgia. “Hi, everybody! I’m from the ’60s, the time of ‘Louie Louie’ and ‘Little Latin Lupe Lu,” Richman sings. “And I know we can’t have those times back again/ But we can have parties / like there were back then.” We DO, indeed, need more “Parties in the U.S.A.,” but we can’t have them right now, “so people are staying home more / not having fun” and “a cold, cold era has begun.” (The cops are still shouting, “Go home! Go home!”) Recorded in a basement studio during a sweltering summer in the early 90s, this is the perfect Saturday in August record, when you want to feel “That summer feeling / When there’s things to do / not because you gotta.” You’re stuck inside and you’re lonely and you’re sad, but you can listen to Velvet Underground records and you can dance like you’re at a lesbian bar, and you can know that there were parties before and there will be parties again.
30. Future Islands, On The Water
A love affair often begins with the question, “Who is that?” and a musical affair often begins with the question, “What is this?” It was March 2012, and I was 28 years old, and it was the first time I’d ever seen the Pacific Ocean, and @jedsundwall was driving my wife and I around San Diego, and this music comes on that sounds like New Order with some impish vampire singing over it. What is this? I asked. It was @FutureIslands’ On The Water. It’s a record that was recorded on the opposite coast, but every time I put it on, it conjures the Pacific for me, not the joy of being there, but the melancholy of not being there, on the water. I live in the middle of Texas, but I dream of living on the Pacific Ocean. I dream of walking it every day before the sun rises over the mountains and walking it every evening before the sun sets over the water. Sometimes I think it’s best I don’t live there, so it’s never ruined for me, so it can stay a dream and I can stay in love with it. It’s like this record, and the reason I don’t read the lyrics sheet: I don’t want to know what exactly Sam is singing, I just want to feel it washing over me, like waves from the tide. This is a world that wants everything explained, even your dreams. I try these days to hold on to any mystery I can get.
31. Parquet Courts, Wide Awake!
When he was six years old, my son Owen didn’t want to hear any music with a guitar in it. “Ugh—boring!” When you think about it, your average rock group setup — 2 guitars, bass, drums, vocals – has been around for over six decades. How much more can be done with it? And yet, every once in a while some punks get up on stage and remind you how exciting it can be. I saw Parquet Courts with my friend @DrewDernavich at SXSW in 2013, and I loved them, and loved their debut, Light Up Gold, but I wouldn’t have necessarily put any money on their ability to go much further with their sound. Then they kept making good records, and half a decade later, they dropped Wide Awake!, a record that’s angry and punky and joyful and funky and political and silly and just great. Their best yet. In tiny letters on the cover are two lines from the song “Total Football,” a kind of key to the whole album: “Q. ARE YOU QUITE DONE NOW? A: NOT AT ALL!” It may feel like it, but nothing is over yet. If you ain’t dead, you ain’t done. Keep going.
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What this became over the course of a month was a really cool kind of daily blogging exercise. My posts got deeper (and longer) as the month went on and I started using the albums just as an excuse to write about whatever they made me think about when they were playing.
Here are 31 alternate picks:
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Here are 31 personal favorites that have already been posted by others for #perfect31. An alternate lineup, if you will. It’s fun to see what different people say about the same record, but I’m enjoying like digging into my collection and finding other stuff to write about. #kleonvinyl
And here’s a batch of CDs I also considered:
Best of all, this challenge inspired me to move my turntable into my office, so now I’m listening to records all the time again!