Required Listening: Great Music Albums You May Be Missing From Your Favorite Genre

by Randy Murray on January 4, 2012

Are you an educated listener? Or are you like one of those picky eaters, someone who can and will only eat hot dogs and mac and cheese? Educated listeners and music lovers, even those with very narrow musical interests, can know and  appreciate the definitive classics in their favorite genre. If you don’t explore, it’s possible that you’re missing out on a lot of terrific music.

That’s the theme of this new series: recommendations from educated listeners about the classic and important albums in specific musical genres that will help you to become a better educated music listener, and hopefully, to discover some great music.

Here’s my first recommendation for the listener of classical music (and frankly, any music lover): Glenn Gould’s recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

If you’re not a fan or listener to classical music, this is a place to start, an entry point. This is music you really can listen to. It’s not background music. It’s at first simple, just a piano. Then it’s exciting, then overwhelming, and once again peaceful. It’s music that both thrills and changes you. And, if you do listen, it will make you curious, hungry for more. It is a piece of music that can demonstrate that classical music isn’t just an archeological exercise. This is vital, exciting, interesting music.

Bach’s Goldberg Variations are a series of pieces, variations on a simple theme, originally written for the harpsichord. As with most of Bach, there are frightening levels of depth in the music. But the purity of a single instrument offers the possibility of access. That’s what Gould does using the piano and a furious interpretation of the music. Before Gould very few performers played it in public or used it for anything other than musical exercise or practice. Since Gould’s initial recording of it, it has become one of the most important and recognizable pieces of classical music.

This is music to listen to with headphones. I find listening to Gould play this music to be literally dizzying, so sit down. My heart beats faster. You can hear him, humming and singing, too. For some, it’s distracting. But for me it reminds me that I’m listening to a performance, not an anonymous recording. I can hear Gould play. He’s there in the studio, not just someone, anyone at the piano. Gould is there, thinking, playing, and yes, humming. It makes the act of listening an immediate and present thing. I’m there, with Gould. That in itself is thrilling.

There are two basic Gould recordings of this work: his first recording made in 1955 and another recorded shortly before he passed in 1982. I’d recommend the later recording to start with, but if you fall in love with it, you’ll want the first recording as well. Here’s the iTunes link to the 1981 version.

Or you can get them both in A State of Wonder – The Complete Goldberg Variations 1955 & 1982.


I’m inviting you and others to contribute to this series. The idea itself comes from Patrick Rhone and he’ll be contributing soon. You’ll hear more from me, of course, and also from my editor, Penny.

What album do you feel is essential, required listening?

 More Required Listening

The Required Listening: Great Music Albums You May Be Missing From Your Favorite Genre by Randy Murray, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Cooper Ottum January 4, 2012 at 1:23 pm

Nice inaugural choice of an album; Gould’s work is indeed great, and the Goldberg Variations are sort of the jewel in his crown.

But does the series have to be “classic and important albums in specific musical genres?”

I think that calling this album a definitive “classical” release is both misleading and generally unhelpful for your stated cause (“help you to become a better educated music listener”). As a *genre*, “classical” means almost nothing at all, and places unneccesary cultural stigma on Gould’s work (or anybody’s work, for that matter) while failing to define what the music “is” or where it “belongs” in our imagination.

I don’t mean to be negative. I think this is a fantastic sounding initiative, and I look forward to future posts. But maybe it should just be “this is a great album you should check out because it might be something you haven’t heard and I think it’s pretty great” rather than a needlessly compartmentalizing the greatness into genres that, so often, lead to casual and unfortunate dismissal.


Randy Murray January 4, 2012 at 2:19 pm

Good point. I don’t want there to be any confusion between “classical” and “classic.” Perhaps, as you suggest, it’s not classic that I’m talking about.

What I am talking about is this: if you like a particular form of music, there are usually many formative and really great albums that helped shape that form. That’s what I’m hoping that this series can be.

Stay tuned for next week’s post from Patrick Rhone when he give a list of “transformative” albums.


Bob Baxley January 4, 2012 at 7:20 pm

What a terrific first pick. Without question the single CD I would take with me to that proverbial desert island. The only piece of music that has consistently held my attention for a full hour across hundreds of listens over a span of decades. Nice job.


Randy Murray January 5, 2012 at 7:28 am


Here’s another recommendation that I love, but probably won’t make this series, Keith Jarrett’s recording of Dimitri Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues (op. 87)


jimbo January 11, 2012 at 3:42 pm

I love that work by Shostakovich, but I would recommend Tatiana Nikolayeva or the recent recording by Aleksandr Melnikov over Jarrett’s interpretation.


Randy Murray January 12, 2012 at 3:35 pm

The original Nikolayeva is interesting, but flawed, I think. She was not at the top of her powers with this recording. The Ashkenazy recording is more somber than Jarrett’s, but powerful.


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