January is rarely an exciting musical month new-release-wise, which is a shame; the New Year should be all about fresh, new things, after all. But this year I've found musical refreshment from a less obvious source: the latest edition of Tom Moon's 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die. The title is fairly self-explanatory, and there are plenty other best-ever-record-list books out there, but this really is a superior example of the genre.
First of all, it is impressively eclectic, taking in genres such as classical, folk, and blues next to the standard rock/pop mix. And it's organized alphabetically by artist, which means lots of fun collisions such as Public Enemy being held back by millions from Puccini's La Bohème, and the Sex Pistols neglecting to mind their bollocks next to Shakira. Sure there is plenty in here that's predictable, not least the fact that it starts with Abba and ends with ZZ Top. But 1,000 is a big number and there is plenty of space left among the more pedestrian choices (Bach, Beach Boys, Beatles, Beethoven, Bowie) for lots of surprises (The Bulgarian Women's National Radio and Television Chorus, anyone?).
Danger Mouse's Grey Album is in there, as well as the Jay-Z/Beatles discs that inspired it. The inclusion of Johnny Mathis, Neil Diamond, and the orginal cast recording of Jesus Christ Superstar are all evidence of a refreshing lack of snobbery. The comprehensive index lists more than 150 titles in its lengthy "world music" section. And no apology is made (or needed) for the inclusion of various compilations, movie soundtrack albums, or singles of note.
And then there's the fact that the entries are wonderfully written. Despite the daunting scale of his undertaking, Moon's capable prose makes each and every recording come alive on the page. He describes Kind of Blue as the sound of musicians, "listening closely, playing less, and saying more;" talks about "the endless accolades that have attached, like barnacles," to Sgt. Pepper's; and points out, quite reasonably, that "Björk is an island." Indeed, the best thing you can say about Moon's writing is that you will rarely be able to read it for long: after just a few paragraphs you are itching to put the book down to listen to whatever you've just had described to you.
Which isn't to say 1,000 Recordings is perfect; no list like it will ever be. Everyone will find some omissions or inclusions to take issue with (which is, paradoxically, part of the fun). But in these economically troubled times, buying this book may end up achieving something far more useful: saving you money. Moon's recommendations will encourage you to revisit and rediscover the charms of neglected classics hiding in your record collection. And, even if you find yourself heading to your local record store to buy albums you may have missed or lost over the years, you are likely to be able to find them available at budget back-catalog or used prices.