Since 1942, the BBC’s Desert Island Discs program has invited guests (known as “castaways”) to divulge which eight recordings they would take, were they stranded on a desert island. Though the BBC program has never asked members of Kansas State University’s English Department, we are nonetheless offering our answers — starting with Philip Nel, University Distinguished Professor and Track Head of the M.A. in Children’s Literature.
I love this question because it compels you to think about which music is most important to you, and is impossible to answer definitively — my answers change over time. A quick perusal of the BBC’s website indicates that people must choose individual songs (or tracks) rather than full albums. So, I’m following that example — and including a bonus list of albums.
Listed in chronological order (by date of recording), here are my top eight tracks, assembled in a Spotify playlist (below) and with brief commentary after that. Enjoy!
- The Mills Brothers: “Funiculi Funicula” (1938). I love the joyful emphasis on “fun and frolic” and the Mills Brothers’ harmonies. If you listen to this song, you will feel happier.
- Fats Waller, “The Jitterbug Waltz” (1942). An original Waller composition that makes me wonder what other music he would have created had not died the following year (at the age of 39). I think that, after Waller’s early famous work (“Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Honeysuckle Rose”), “The Jitterbug Waltz” must be one of his most-performed songs.
- Ella Fitzgerald, “Flying Home” (1945). A master class in scat-singing from one of the greatest interpreters of popular music. Ella Fitzgerald’s version of the tune co-written by Benny Goodman, Eddie DeLange, & Lionel Hampton.
- The Clash: “Lost in the Supermarket” (1979), in which Mick Jones sings lyrics by Joe Strummer that imagine Jones’ childhood. The verses combine a critique of consumer culture with a bittersweet, reflective nostalgia — creating a song that is both sad and yet buoyant. From London Calling, the band’s greatest album — I would argue. (My colleague Tim Dayton prefers the Clash’s debut. Why not listen to both and decide for yourself?)
- Richard Goode: Beethoven’s “Sonata no. 30 in E major, op.109: Tema; Molto cantabile & espressivo; Variazioni I-VI” (recorded 1988; written by Ludwig van Beethoven, 1820/1821). Like my colleague Kim Smith, I’m a devotee of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, and especially fond of the late sonatas. Somewhere in (I think) The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera calls the late sonatas variations on the sonata form itself. Richard Goode’s light touch makes his recordings (for me) the definitive versions — even though, of course, there are many versions and none can claim definitiveness. (Wouldn’t a truly definitive version be performed on a piano forte? The type of piano that Goode plays did not exist in 1820.)
- They Might Be Giants: “Birdhouse in Your Soul” (1990). My favorite band has created — and continues to create — so many great songs that it’s hard to choose just one. Sung from the perspective of a blue nightlight shaped like a canary, this song changes key 18 times in its 3 minutes and 20 seconds, and includes such advice as “filibuster vigilantly.” (For more on the magnificence of this song, see Philip Sandifer and S. Alexander Reed’s small book on They Might Be Giants’ Flood — or this article, which is excerpted from the book.)
- Mavis Staples: “99 and 1/2” (2007). From the exquisite We’ll Never Turn Back, which is my favorite Mavis Staples album — a record both that hearkens back to her earlier work (as one of the Staple Singers) in the fight for Civil Rights and that pulls that message into the present and the future. The urgency, the activism, and her powerful voice.
- Metric: “Now or Never Now” (2018). My favorite song from last year. I love its early New Order sound. Its lyrics convey doubt, reflection, and find vocalist Emily Haines poised at a moment of decision — which, by the song’s conclusion, seem to resolve towards action. It arrives at a qualified optimism that its early verses don’t anticipate. Now or never now? Now.
And departing from the rules a bit, here are nine favorite LPs:
- Chet Baker, Best of Chet Baker Sings (1989; recorded 1953-1956)
- Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong, Ella & Louis Again (1957)
- Aretha Franklin, 30 Greatest Hits (1985; recorded 1967-1974)
- The Beatles, The Beatles [White Album] (1968)
- The Clash, London Calling (1979)
- Richard Goode, Beethoven: The Late Sonatas (1988)
- Mavis Staples, We’ll Never Turn Back (2007)
- They Might Be Giants, Flood (1990)
- Jóhann Jóhannsson, Orphée (2016)
— Philip Nel, Professor