When Tom Moon, author of the new 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, makes a personal appearance, as he does 7 p.m. Nov. 12 at Joseph-Beth Booksellers, he expects people to come to argue.
“It’s most fun when people come loaded for bear — ‘Why isn’t Billy Joel on your list!’ ” he says, by way of example, during a telephone interview from his Philadelphia home. “These end up being great discussions even when people come with attitude.”
So, OK, why isn’t Billy Joel represented, since Moon brought him up?
“The basic answer is I love him as a songwriter but couldn’t find one album where the writing all the way through is at the level of his best writing,” he says. “People tell me The Stranger, but it falls off after track six.”
Fair enough. (Many people would heartily agree, by the way, that life could easily be lived without ever hearing another Billy Joel song.) But Moon, 47, long a music journalist for The Philadelphia Inquirer and NPR, nevertheless had a daunting task narrowing his field.
There is room for both Wagner’s Gotterdammerung, as performed by the Vienna Philharmonic, and the soundtrack to Trainspotting; Benny Goodman’s Complete 1938 Carnegie Hall Concert and the Mars Volta’s recent The Bedlam in Goliath. Not to mention Arvo Part, Dolly Parton, Pavement, Johnny Paycheck, Steve Reich, Pere Ubu, Art Pepper, Public Enemy, Puccini and Propellerheads — just a sampling of the “P”s in his book. (Entries are listed alphabetically by artist.)
Moon spent three years working on this book. It is, in a sense, a follow-up to Patricia Schultz’s trend-setting 1,000 Places to See Before You Die books and calendars.
“The idea of coming up with a list that takes in any kind of human endeavor — music, painting, books, or places to see — from the perspective of ‘there may not be much time left so choose wisely’ is compelling to me,” Moon says. “I like to think there’s a broad audience of curious people who want to use their time wisely. I also think the idea of ‘curated experience’ is appealing.”
There have been plenty of other musical lists — not just books like Dave Marsh’s The Heart of Rock & Roll but seemingly in every other issue of Rolling Stone, Blender and the British music magazines. But Moon’s approach differs in having no boundaries — Classical rubs shoulders with Slayer’s Reign in Blood, Miles Davis with Tuvan throat singers, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music with the Carter Family.
“I really believe the more you love music, the more music you love,” he says. “It would be a disservice to a huge part of the audience, which I call the blank-slate listener or new listener, to not represent the full range of the music-listening experience. The whole idea of the book is to facilitate more exploration.”
Moon set high standards for inclusion. He had to believe that the recording — mostly albums, but some singles like Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” — had to be a “peak experience” containing “incandescent life-changing energy.”
It also had to capture an artist at his, her or their very best — it is not meant as a chart of career milestones of Pop superstars. As a result, Elvis Presley has only two entries, Elvis at Sun and his 1967 Gospel album How Great Thou Art. The Rolling Stones, too, have but two; Michael Jackson just Thriller and the Jackson Five’s debut single “I Want You Back”; Bruce Springsteen only Born to Run. Even Bob Dylan has only four entries for his hugely influential 45 -year career, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, Blood on the Tracks and Love and Theft.
That gives them rough parity in Moon’s book with far less-heralded acts, like The Sir Douglas Quintet (Mendocino), Black Flag (Damaged), Michelle Shocked (Short Sharp Shocked), Rufus Wainwright (Want One) and obscure R&B act Baby Huey and the Babysitters.
Thus it is all the more noteworthy that Moon selected six Beatles albums — the same number as ones by Beethoven — as essential listening experiences. After all, the quartet only recorded for one decade.
“Early on as writers, John Lennon and Paul McCartney together and separately were one of the few Rock acts who understood the discipline of popular songwriting,” Moon says. “And then, the kind of arrayed harmonies The Beatles got to explore and develop in their music are still singular. As many times as they’ve been echoed by other artists, you still hear the original and say, ‘That’s phenomenal.’ So many things about them end up being significant.”
TOM MOON reads from and signs his book at 7 p.m. Nov. 12 at Joseph-Beth Booksellers. Get details and find nearby bars and restaurants here.