Regular readers may have noticed an embarrassing lacuna in this column. Having urged you to come up with your top ten albums of all time, to which you responded in such numbers, and with such entertaining and illuminating results, the sadist who set you the task has so far failed to deliver a selection of his own.
This isn’t a matter of cowardice or mere idleness on my part, I promise. For months now I have been cogitating on it, agonising about it, tearing up the list and starting all over again. But it’s been fun, too, listening to much-loved albums that had somehow been allowed to gather dust on my shelves, trying to separate the excellent from the absolutely essential, and to find room for as wide a variety of music as possible. So here it is at last, the Spencer all-time Top Ten as finally decided in the summer of 2010. By the autumn I’m sure it will have shifted again but then that of course is part of the pleasure. If you really love music, it is impossible to remain static in your tastes. In time-honoured tradition I’m presenting the list in reverse order, like Top of the Pops.
10. Kate and Anna McGarrigle. The eponymous first album by the folky Canadian sisters ranges from exuberant happiness to utter desolation, and such songs as ‘Kiss and Say Goodbye’, a celebration of love and desire, and ‘Heart Like a Wheel’, a lament for their death, deserve to be far better known than they are.
9. Rolled Gold, the Rolling Stones. Terrific compilation of the Stones in their first decade, ranging from the early rhythm and blues, through the psychedelia that many mock but I adore, to the classic years in the late Sixties and early Seventies when they really were the greatest rock-and-roll band in the world.
8. Astral Weeks, Van Morrison. I’ve always thought that one of the reasons Van Morrison is so grumpy is that deep in his heart he knows he has never bettered this extraordinary early effort that combines jazz, folk, mystery and mysticism to such haunting and emotionally devastating effect. A work of genius that I suspect even its creator can’t quite understand.
7. Six London Symphonies, Haydn; Sir Colin Davis, Concertgebouw Orchestra. Old-fashioned, big-band Haydn comes no better than these recordings of the great late symphonies, full of wit, invention and the composer’s splendidly sane and genial humanity. Some may prefer leaner, period-instrument versions, but not this listener.
6. Platinum Soul Legends 1960–75. Sixty-two prime cuts of classic soul on this wonderful three-CD box set that casts an admirably wide net over both labels and artists. Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Al Green and countless others are all present, correct and absolutely at the top of their game.
5. Aladdin Sane, David Bowie. My favourite Bowie album, released during my gap year in 1973, and conjuring up golden memories of first love and new friendships with extraordinary potency and a style that never seems to date.
4. The Great Piano Concertos, vol. 1, Mozart; Alfred Brendel, Academy of St Martin in the Fields, Neville Marriner. The great Brendel is on top form with the most sympathetic of conductors and some of the most glorious music even Mozart ever wrote, including my particular favourite, No. 20 in D minor, in which sunlight is glimpsed through dark turbulent clouds.
3. Super 70s Rock. This naff-looking compilation with an ‘As advertised on TV’ sticker is not something you will want your cooler friends to see, but its survey of the Seventies pop scene is peerless, ranging from prog to punk and from glam rock to heavy metal.
2. Malcolm Laycock Presents the Golden Age of Swing. Superb five-CD box set compiled by the much-missed Radio 2 broadcaster that is the perfect introduction to jazz for newcomers, and a desert island collection for those who have loved it for years. All the big names — Ellington, Basie, Armstrong, Holiday and Fitzgerald, and countless others — are represented on five themed albums, which include the greatest hits of the big-band era, mellow late-night numbers, a selection of the period’s greatest singers, a disc devoted to Frank Sinatra’s early recordings with Tommy Dorsey and a jump-jive disc.
1. Late Beethoven String Quartets; Takacs Quartet. Ranging from the tempestuous to the serene, and from the ugly to the sublimely beautiful, these extraordinary late works, in which Beethoven seems to grapple with his own troubled soul and rage against the dying of the light (and his own loss of hearing), are masterpieces which never lose their power to move and amaze. I’ve chosen the recent Takacs recordings but the Busch, Hollywood, Vegh, Italian, Talich and Lindsay Quartets all offer special insights of their own. This is inexhaustible music to last a lifetime.
Charles Spencer is theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph. All recordings are available from Amazon.