Quarantining or self-isolating during COVID-19 can feel a bit like being on a desert island at times. Once your basic needs of food and shelter have been met, and you’re surviving pretty well, life starts to get, well, boring. There’s nowhere to go, no one to talk to (at least in person), and only so much you can do in the same square footage every day.
I saw a challenge on Facebook last week that involved posting album covers of your favorite albums. That got me to thinking about my own “desert island” albums—what music would I take with me if I were to be exiled to a desert island (aside from Rush’s complete discography)?
So, after a little thought and reminiscing, I came up with a list. These are albums I go back to again and again. Many of them will be forever tied to an exact moment in time and space. Most are older than I am. But they all continue to amaze and inspire me.
10. Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd (1975)
The album I would argue to be Pink Floyd’s second-best, Wish You Were Here is a musical masterpiece (LSD not required). It’s a sort of tribute to former member Syd Barrett, who by that time in the band’s career was in very poor health.
Side A of the album is five parts of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” (Barrett being the crazy diamond in question), followed by the dystopian, mechanical “Welcome to the Machine”. Side B features “Have a Cigar”, a critique of the music business and the only Pink Floyd song to feature a non-member (Roy Harper) on lead vocals. After that is the title track “Wish You Were Here”, and then a final four parts of “Shine On”.
Fun fact: The album reached number one and sold so well that EMI was unable to keep up with demand. It’s estimated to have sold 13 million copies to this day.
9. Welcome to the Real World by Mr. Mister (1985)
Mr. Mister was a “blink and you missed them” kind of band. Though they only released a handful of albums, Welcome to the Real World has lived on through the hits “Kyrie”, “Broken Wings”, and—to a lesser extent—”Is It Love”.
My brother Daniel turned me on to this album during our adventure across the southwestern United States. We listened to it at least three or four times driving down lonely roads in Utah and Arizona, playing it all the way through and appreciating the less-known songs as much (or in my case, even more than) the hits.
Musically, Mr. Mister was on top of their game. The parts are so good on their own but complement and enhance each other when put together. It’s quintessential 80’s pop rock, but not superficial like most 80’s pop rock.
Fun fact: Despite not having as stellar a career as other contemporary bands, Mr. Mister earned the top spot on the Billboard 200 with Welcome to the Real World.
8. Boston by Boston (1976)
Talk about being ahead of its time. Boston not only had a sound like nothing before it (and nothing after, either), but it is one of those rare records that gets all its songs played on the radio. And for good reason—all its songs stand up on their own. Not only that—it’s a debut album!
This is another album tied to a trip: Durango, Colorado in 2009. I had loaded the MP3s from this CD and others onto my music player for the long road trip, just so I’d have plenty to listen to if I got bored. Truth be told, during the whole trip I don’t think I listened to anything else.
Then, when I got home from the trip and started playing guitar a few months later, guess which songs I started learning first? “More Than a Feeling”, “Peace of Mind”, and “Foreplay/Long Time”.
Fun fact: The album was more or less the creation of guitarist Tom Scholz, who wrote and recorded all the parts in his home studio—then assembled the band at the behest of the record label.
7. Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd by Lynyrd Skynyrd (1973)
This is an album I hadn’t listened to entirely until a couple years ago. My dad grew up in Georgia listening to southern rock bands like Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers, so naturally I got exposed to a fair amount of music from those wild-eyed southern boys (and then went back for a second helping—ha ha).
This album is up there with Boston as one of the best debut records ever. There’s not a bad song to be had on it. I mean, it’s got “Tuesday’s Gone”, “Simple Man”, and “Free Bird” on it—what more needs to be said?
Aside from those rock classics, my favorite tracks are “I Ain’t the One” (with its opening backwards-tracked drumbeat) and “Poison Whiskey” (“it’ll kill you dead”). I also appreciate the fact that, for a band with seven main members, one can hear all the individual parts on the record. Again, that’s all pretty darn good for a first album.
Fun fact: The band derived its name from the name of their high-school gym teacher, Leonard Skinner, whom they initially despised but later developed a friendship with.
6. Clockwork Angels by Rush (2012)
The final album from one of the most amazing bands to ever grace the earth. Having evolved their sound over forty years, this is the end result—an approachable concept album about a young man who “can’t stop thinking big” living in a clockwork universe where everything is predetermined. With the fastidious Watchmaker trying to maintain ultimate order and the ignoble Anarchist just trying to cause chaos, the album explores the order-chaos dichotomy, the courage it takes to set out after a dream, and—ultimately—what it all means at the end of the day.
Whether Rush intended it to be or not, the album is a perfect swan song. It combines all their best elements from the nineteen previous albums and distills them down into musical alchemy. The songwriting, the musicianship, and the mixing are all on point. I don’t know how they could have made it any better.
It’s an album that’s hard to cherry-pick from, though there are some songs that stand out, namely “Caravan”, “The Anarchist”, “The Wreckers”, and “Headlong Flight” (in my opinion). The swan song within the swan song, “The Garden”, is the best send-off or farewell song I know—and it’s a bit of a tear-jerker in light of drummer Neil Peart’s passing, because he was that song.
So, do yourself a favor and pop this one on for a steampunk adventure with the geeks of rock.
Fun fact: The clock time on the album cover reads 9:12, which in 24-hour time is 21:12, a reference to the band’s seminal album 2112 (1976).
5. Signals by Rush (1982)
I have no regrets about placing two Rush albums side-by-side on this list. Signals marked a turning point in the band’s sound, as they moved away from mainstream progressive rock (something they somehow made work) and into more of the New Wave movement. The songs started sounding a bit poppier, a bit reggae-r, and—much to guitarist Alex Lifeson’s dismay—featured more synthesizers.
The opening track, “Subdivisions”, is an ode to every teenager who has felt out-of-place growing up in the suburbs and going to school. It resonated with so many people then and still does to this day—myself included. (“Conform or be cast out… be cool or be cast out” is what the song says; the irony is that many of the former outcasts now employ the former cool kids.)
Other songs that I listen to over and over again are “The Analog Kid” (about a boy torn between life in the city and life in the country, between following his dreams and “the fawn-eyed girl with sun-browned legs”), “Digital Man” (the counterpart to the former analog kid; a man who is more calculating and logical “with the answers, but no clue”), and “Countdown” (about the space shuttle Columbia‘s first mission).
And then there’s “Losing It”, another tear-jerker about the loss of skill with age. Drummer and lyricist Neil Peart wrote the second verse about Ernest Hemingway, who started losing his ability to write as he aged—to the point that he could not even type out a reply to his invitation to President Kennedy’s inauguration. Having seen some loved ones in my life “lose it,” not to mention the tragic irony of Peart losing his battle with brain cancer, this song carries a lot of deep meaning.
Fun fact: The band was invited to watch the first flight of Columbia from a VIP area at Cape Canaveral. The song “Countdown” features clips of radio communications between the astronauts and ground control.
4. Duke by Genesis (1980)
Arguably the first 80’s album in the sense that it ushered in the 80’s pop sound, Duke is another turning-point album as Genesis moved away from longer, more obscure progressive rock tracks and into mainstream album-oriented rock (AOR). And it worked—the album reached the top of the UK charts and is now certified platinum in both the UK and the US.
The album is much more approachable to non-prog fans than Genesis’ previous work, but still retains prog elements like instrumental sections and stories branching across songs. The first three tracks seem to tell of the rise and fall of a woman’s career in music (from initial popularity to becoming old hat). Others seem to loosely tell the story of a man (Duke?) who lives alone and yet vicariously through shows on the TV and the radio. Some of the others came out of singer and drummer Phil Collins’s terrible divorce, a theme that he also wrote about on his solo album Face Value.
“Misunderstanding” is one of my favorite songs of all time, telling the story of a man who waits “in the rain for hours” for his girlfriend but then later discovers that she’s been seeing someone else. It’s a relatively short song but very powerful—the mood just fits somehow. Musically, the main riff in D dorian was lifted from the Sly and the Family Stone song “Hot Fun in the Summertime”. (You should go listen to both right now!)
Fun fact: The song “Duchess” was the first song in which Phil Collins employed a drum machine for the beat. (And, I would argue, only a drummer as good as Phil Collins should be allowed to use a drum machine. Master the real thing and then employ the toys!)
3. Leftoverture by Kansas (1976)
Yes, this is the album with “Carry On Wayward Son”. But it’s got so many other great songs on it!
This is another album I didn’t fully listen to and appreciate until recently. Like many budding guitarists, “Carry On Wayward Son” was one of the first songs I learned to play. And for a long time, that was the extent of my knowledge of Kansas.
Leftoverture features the “leftovers” of the previous recording sessions, all tidied up and packaged together as the band’s fourth album. There’s nothing else like it—progressive Midwest rock? That’s what I’d call it. You just have to listen to it to understand it.
My favorite tracks are “Miracles Out of Nowhere”, “Cheyenne Anthem”, and the epic “Magnum Opus” that closes out the album. “Miracles” features a Bach-inspired fugue in the middle part and an epic guitar solo at the end, not to mention some great lyrics about life, love, and—well—miracles.
Do yourself a favor and check this one out.
Fun fact: “Carry On Wayward Son” was written at the last minute to round out the album.
2. The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd (1973)
This is it. Pink Floyd’s (first) masterpiece. Also their best, in my humble opinion.
Musically and sonically, the album was lightyears ahead of its time, and still stands the test of time today. This is one you really should listen to through a hi-fi stereo for the best impression. (And as with Wish You Were Here, LSD is not required nor recommended.) From tracks and effects panning across the stereo spectrum to multi-layered parts, David Gilmour’s brilliant guitar work coupled with Roger Waters’s emphatic bass, Rick Wright’s wall of synthesizers and Nick Mason’s steady drums… this album is hard to beat.
Conceptually, the album covers a gamut of topics: time, money, class divisions, and sanity (or the lack thereof), to name a few from memory. The lyrics to songs like “Time” make one stop and think:
Tired of lying in the sunshine, staying home to watch the rain
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today.
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you.
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.
Wow. That’s deep, man.
It sounds like a cliché, but you really have to listen to this album all the way through in one sitting to appreciate it. And then you have to listen to it a second time. And a third. And dozens of times after that, because chances are you’ll appreciate something new on every repeat.
The Dark Side of the Moon has been ranked as one of the best-selling albums of all time. It was only number one in the US for a week, but remained on the Billboard charts for 741 weeks—from 1973 to 1988. It’s been certified 15x Platinum in the US—that’s 15 million album sales in the US alone.
I have a personal story about this album too: My brother and I drove up to the Kansas City area for the 2017 American Solar Eclipse. While camping out by the lake, trying to go to sleep along with hundreds of other eclipse-seekers, we heard the opening chords to “Speak to Me/Breathe” float along the warm night air from several campgrounds away. We both laughed and smiled—it was the most appropriate album to play when, the next day, we were going to see (or rather, not see) a dark side of the moon.
Fun fact: The record version of the album has a groove at the end of the B side which, if the record is left playing after the end of “Brain Damage/Eclipse”, will play a human heartbeat on infinite loop.
1. Moving Pictures by Rush (1981)
Anyone who knows me well knew this one was coming. This album changed the concept of music as I knew it.
My exposure to Rush was gradual: In junior high, I heard “The Spirit of Radio” and thought it was pretty neat, and maybe a few other songs, but I hadn’t really listened to them extensively (as an aspiring guitarist, I was more into Led Zeppelin). We had a Rush record, Caress of Steel, in our house, but I’d never heard it (and I later learned that Caress is considered to be one of Rush’s less-good albums, haha).
One evening on the way to guitar lessons, riding with Dad in his ’99 Outback (the one with the weather radio), we were listening to classic rock radio and “Tom Sawyer” came on the airwaves. I think I’d heard it before, but I’d never listened to it. I was amazed—the middle part where the time signature switches to 7/8 blew my mind. I realized I couldn’t tap one-two-three-four with my foot anymore. “They’re not counting in four, Dad!” (Dad didn’t really know what that meant, but that’s okay—he was excited that I was excited.)
By the time we reached guitar lessons, nothing else mattered: I wanted to learn how to play “Tom Sawyer”. So Brian, my ever-positive, ever-encouraging instructor, downloaded the tab and we went to work.
It wasn’t long before I listened to all of Moving Pictures, then expanded my knowledge of Rush by going back in time to their early prog stuff, then forward through the 80’s New Wave-infused sound and into the 90’s and 00’s with the more straight-forward rock vibes. I found a guitar hero in Alex Lifeson, later found a bass hero in Geddy Lee, and found a life hero in Neil Peart.
And I always go back to Moving Pictures as the definitive Rush album.
There’s something magical about it—maybe it was the mixing, the passion and energy the guys put into the music, the lyrics, or all of the above—but pound for pound, this album really has no rival amongst the rest of Rush’s discography. As with many other albums on my list, every single song is good. Every song on Side A still gets radio airplay: “Tom Sawyer” (about freedom of thought), “Red Barchetta” (a sci-fi tale of fast cars in a dystopia), “YYZ” (a tribute to Toronto Pearson International Airport, and a representation of the exciting and hectic nature of all air travel), and “Limelight” (profound thoughts on being famous and how it affects your views of the world).
I could go on… but I’d rather you pop the album on yourself and listen to it. Suffice it to say—musically, lyrically, philosophically—Moving Pictures is my favorite album, bar none, and arguably one of the best out there.
Fun fact: The cover is one of the best puns I’ve ever seen on an album. It’s men who are quite literally moving pictures. And if you have a vinyl copy or a CD, you can see on the back cover that what’s actually going on: A camera crew is shooting a moving picture of men moving pictures. Genius!
So, you’ve read to the end! What did you think? What are your opinions on these albums? What 10 albums would you take to a desert island (or listen to in quarantine)?
Thanks for reading, and remember to listen to good music. It’ll do a lot to help you get through times like these.