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If you could only choose 5 albums for the rest of your life

What if we were left with only one possible option, as the world we knew it slowly expired around us? That we could choose only five albums that we would have access to for the rest of our lives

Van Morrison at Notodden Blues Festival, Scandinavia, 2013. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

By Sanjoy Narayan

LAST PUBLISHED 13.01.2024  |  04:00 PM IST

When I find it difficult to fall asleep because of a long-haul flight, a bout of stress, or just, plain garden-variety insomnia, I reach for a little pill of melatonin, the hormone that helps your body to naturally regulate your sleep cycle. It helps. My sleep quality improves and I feel refreshed the next morning. But with melatonin-induced sleep also comes a side-effect: vivid and, often, weird dreams. I have read that because melatonin can increase the amount of time you spend in REM sleep, which is the stage of sleep where most dreaming occurs, it could lead to more vivid or intense dreams.

I think because of my rapidly advancing age, some of those dreams that I have are tinged with themes of mortality; and also, increasingly, with elements of dystopia.

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Whatever may be the reasons, last week after a long flight had disturbed my circadian rhythm and I had popped a melatonin pill, I dreamt about the slow expiry of the world as I knew it. In it I was confronted by a strange choice. It was an internet-less world that we were in; my easy access to whatever music I wanted to listen to had gone for good; and we (I and everyone else I knew) were left with only one possible option: we could choose only five albums that we could have access to.

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In that strange dream, I found myself trying to select five albums. With intermittent bouts of fear, paranoia, and despair, I tried to do that. And here’s what I ended up with:

‘Astral Weeks’ by Van Morrison: Released by the legendary singer-songwriter from Northern Ireland in 1968, Astral Weeks will turn 55 this year. Morrison will turn 79 this year and he has released more than 40 studio albums during his career, of which Astral Weeks is his greatest. Morrison is known for his soulful voice and poetic lyrics and on this album he melds folk, jazz, and blues. His unique vocal style, notable for its scratchy soulfulness but also his unusual use of repetition and harmony is unmistakable.

Astral Weeks, an album I can easily listen to over and over again, showcases his style the best. All the eight songs on the album are beautiful but my favourite is Cypress Avenue. It’s about a residential street in his hometown of Belfast where Morrison used to walk and think and dream of a better life and the lyrics are steeped in feelings of nostalgia, yearning, and wonder. It is an infectious song that can invoke nostalgia in listeners as well. I usually think about the streets that I wandered in the city that I grew up in several decades ago with fondness, old memories, and much sadness too.

‘Aqualung’ by Jethro Tull: I heard Aqualung for the first time not very long after the English rock band, Jethro Tull, released it in 1971. Tull, led by singer, flautist, guitarist, and songwriter, Ian Anderson, 76, was among the first rock bands that we discovered as newly-minted teenagers growing up in an Indian city in the early 1970s. Aqualung is a mix of folk, prog rock, and hard rock, with some acoustic ballads and some electric riffs, and its songs explore themes such as homelessness, religion, and society. Yet, according to Anderson, it is not a concept album. My favourite song on it is Locomotive Breath, with its long bluesy piano introduction and a flute solo. The lyrics use the imagery of an impending and unavoidable train wreck as an allegory of a man’s life falling apart. At 15, for reasons I truly am unable to fathom, I loved that song.

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‘Blue’ by Joni Mitchell: It was the first album by Mitchell (now 80) that I heard and it was enthralling. Joni Mitchell’s emotional depth, and her complex harmonies accompanied by unusual guitar tunings, is always distinctive. Blue is the Canadian-American musician’s masterpiece album, released in 1971. My favourite on it is My Old Man, a tender tribute to her lover—a singer, a walker, a dancer, and a source of joy for her. Simple and intimate, it also expresses the loneliness and longing she feels when he is away, and the warmth and comfort she finds when he returns.

‘Bitches Brew’ by Miles Davis: I discovered Bitches Brew almost a decade after it was released in 1970 when a senior in college, who has now passed, introduced me to it. A landmark album that fused jazz with rock and psychedelic influences, it features a very large ensemble of other musicians playing electric guitars, keyboards, drums, and has a complex, textured sound that introduced me to musical improvisation and the appreciation of jazz.

It’s difficult to choose one track out of the seven expansive ones on that album, which is best heard from start to finish continuously but the opener Pharaoh’s Dance stands out. Composed by the keyboardist, Joe Zawinul, it is a multi-layered, multi-textured 20-minute composition that reveals new aspects of itself every time I listen to it, even today.

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‘Death By Chocolate’ by De-Phazz: The last of my five-album list is unusual and it is by a German band that plays a mix of downtempo jazz, blended with turntable manipulations, Latin, and soul music. Founded in the late 1990s by Pit Baumgartner, 65, each of De-Phazz’s albums has a different lineup of musicians. Death By Chocolate, with which a friend tried to coax me towards electronic music, is a tribute to the 1960s, with references to pop culture and art of that era. The songs explore reggae-jazz, latin, and other styles of music and when I heard the album, it pushed me out of my comfort zone and towards genres such as acid jazz, and lounge that I had not explored before. The track I keep going back to is their take on dub, Jump Over—it’s reggae with a twist.

So those are the five albums that I would carry when dystopia hits us. What about you?

The Lounge List

  1. Cypress Avenue by Van Morrison from Astral Weeks 
  2. Locomotive Breath by Jethro Tull from Aqualung 
  3. My Old Man by Joni Mitchell from Blue 
  4. Pharaoh’s Dance by Miles Davis from Bitches Brew 
  5. Jump Over by De-Phazz from Death By Chocolate

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music. He posts @sanjoynarayan