This is a book for those of us who have the Beatles next to Beethoven on our CD shelves, maybe with Sidney Bechet and Beck in between.
Tom Moon made his name as a pop music critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Rolling Stone, NPR and other outlets. But his new book, 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, reveals the mind of a pure music fan who likes anything, as long as it’s good.
That’s a profile a lot of music fans like to have. But most of us have some holes in our passion, often “I hate country” or “that rap crap.”
With Moon, it is hard to find any holes.
Modern classical music?
There’s Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, along with discs of Elliott Carter, Charles Ives and others.
He’s got yer Bill Monroe, along with yer Flatt & Scruggs and deeper cuts.
Maybe the most impressive thing about Moon’s selections is his command of a wide swath of world music, pulling in favorites from around the globe.
But what really makes the book indispensable is the writing. Moon is a critic at the top of his game, intricately exploring what makes these greats great.
Talking about Glenn Gould’s interpretations of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, he writes that Gould took the intentionally sleepy composition and found “singing flourishes within Bach’s transitional melodies. He makes the connective tissue that links major themes float along,” and then Moon goes on to explain how Gould made that happen by decoding Bach.
I recently moved, and most of my CDs are still in a box, but with Moon’s clear thoughts in my head, I’m digging out that Gould CD, along with Michael Jackson’s Thriller, which finds Moon explaining why we loved it and came to loathe Jackson.
“Jackson turns every selection into high drama, punctuating his lines with fitful sighs and grunts and that squeaky ‘whee-hee’ that soon grew irritating. Heck, he soon grew irritating. But before he crossed that line, before he was the king of anything, he made a record you wanted to hear again, and again and again.”
Part of the fun in Moon’s writing is that he crosses genres even in his reviews.
He drops an Aaron Copland quote in the beginning of an endorsement of the 10cc single I’m Not in Love: “If all music has expressive value, then the composer must become conscious of the expressive value of his theme."
Often, Moon will use a single selection from a group to give a quick history. He takes the unorthodox turn of picking The Pretenders’ Learning to Crawl over the group’s acclaimed debut, but he then explains it with a swift retelling of the group’s tragic history.
Many of the universally acclaimed greats are there, such as Tapestry, Sgt. Pepper and the Pavarotti La Bohème. The best American page of the book is the one that has Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 “From the New World” facing Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited.
But Moon frequently veers off the road most traveled — selecting, for instance, conductor David Zinman’s interpretation of Ludwig van Beethoven’s nine symphonies over better-known collections by more famous conductors.
Each review concludes with a note directing readers to other stuff they should listen to if they like that selection.
It’s just what you’d expect from a music lover, and in his thoughtful selections and clear writing, Moon has created an essential guide you can take to your grave.