My editors at Backbeat Books asked me to do this for a weekly NewYorkTimes.com “Living with Music” series. Each week, musically-illiterate writers contribute their own Top Ten. Mine was summarily rejected. Since there is a constant soundtrack in my mind, my playlist of the week might include a few records most folks don’t know about:
1. Borsalino, Claude Bolling (Paramount, 1968)
Soundtrack to the Jean-Paul Belmondo/Alain Delon gangster film of the same name. French composer Claude Bolling’s upright jangly piano delivers the best take on American jazz to ever come out of France. I was instantly struck by the record when I entered an art house movie theater as a boy, where it jauntily played over the P.A.
2. “Theme From A Summer Place” and “Mr. Lucky”
The two greatest muzak singles ever produced do a lot more than enhance elevator travel. Both instantly transport me back to Bonwit Teller in 1960, holding my mother’s hand as she leads me through ladies’ haberdashery. “A Summer Place,” composed by Max Steiner, recorded by Percy Faith, far transcended the inferior movie of same. Henry Mancini’s “Mr. Lucky,” now categorized under “crime jazz,” contains such high-calorie orchestration and Hammond B-3, it feels like a mainline shot of dope.
3. Climbing!, Mountain (Windfall, 1970)
The second album from Mountain, featuring Leslie West, Felix Pappalardi and Corky Laing. You know “Mississippi Queen,” but every track is brilliant. West’s Les Paul Jr. tone and vibrato was the best live sound I ever heard. The late Pappalardi, who produced Cream and The Youngbloods (“Get Together”), constitutes the most glaring omission from The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (along with Al Kooper). My all-time favorite hard-rock album since the moment it arrived.
4. Ahead Rings Out, Blodwyn Pig (A&M, 1969)
The best hard rock of the era is left out of the highly restricted classic-rock radio canon (which covers less than 500 songs). Guitarist Mick Abrahams left the original Jethro Tull to form this unique sax ’n’ guitar onslaught. And never did sax and guitar groove so forcefully in this jazzy direction, before or since.
5. Monkey Beat!, Ronnie Dawson (No Hit Records (UK), 1994)
The late Ronnie Dawson, from Dallas, wrote contemporary rockabilly material that sounded like it really was written in the ’50s. Virtually all other such songs sound like takes on the ’50s, and I can usually pinpoint the difference. Besides, Dawson was there, an authentic 16-year-old rockabilly, scoring heavy Texas airplay in the ’50s.
6. Reflections, Chet Atkins & Doc Watson (RCA, 1980)
Both guitarists grew up on opposite sides of the Great Smoky Mountains. It took one day to knock out this effortless masterpiece, adapting rags, waltzes and folk songs of their youth. Chet’s nylon-string runs enhance Doc’s flatpicking, and both sound like angels playing harps of gold.
7. The Best of Marshall Crenshaw (Warner/Rhino, 2000)
We’ll never know what melodies Buddy Holly might have written, had he lived beyond the age of 22. But I suspect Crenshaw comes close, synchronicity-wise, to dreaming up something Holly might have. One of a few original melodic songwriters left on earth, Crenshaw has written a dozen woulda-been hits, had he recorded two decades earlier.
8. Dr. John Plays Mac Rebennack (Clean Cuts, 1981)
The first in a two-part series, here is the history of stride, barrelhouse and boogie-woogie piano, performed with the mightiest left-hand rhythm I’ve ever heard.
9. Mommy, Gimme a Drinka Water, Danny Kaye (Capitol, 1959)
The only record I wore out, before Meet The Beatles (which I wore out twice). Music & lyrics by Milton Schafer (who followed with two short-lived Broadway musicals, Drat! The Cat! and Bravo Giovanni) and orchestrations by Gordon Jenkins. Possibly the greatest children’s album ever produced; criminally out of print for decades.
10. Second Winter, Johnny Winter (Columbia, 1969)
My all-time favorite blues-rock album, which pushed blues into a whole new envelope in 1969. The only three-sided album ever released (side 4 was left blank), during the brief period when Johnny Winter was a genius. Another example of the best being left out of the classic rock radio canon.