Hard Times by Charles Dickens Real people coming to grips with the changes wrought by the industrial revolution. Hard Times is a writer's skeptical examination of a world coming apart at the seams. Brimming with dark humor and sarcasm, Dickens mercilessly shreds the excuses of the sages of the day, leaving one with a sense that man cannot be mechanized without dire consequences. The book, is moreover, eminently plausible today. "The good Samaritan was a bad economist," says Tom Gradgrind. The neoliberals who dominate today would hardly disagree.
Fire on the Mountain by Edward Abbey
Abbey was an environmentalist before before the term existed. At a time when the triumphal march of progress went unquestioned, Abbey attacked the "mad machine" that society had become. In Fire on the Mountain, Abbey tells of the courageous stand of New Mexico rancher John Vogelin against the U.S. government that wished to seize his land for a missile testing range. While a fictionalized account of events that did happen, it provides a clear picture of the fundamental opposition of liberty and the wartime state. For lighter reading, Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang is a highly entertaining story of anarchists fighting to save the southwest. Abbey's philosophy is summed up thusly:
"We can have wilderness without freedom; we can have wilderness without human life at all, but we cannot have freedom without wilderness, we cannot have freedom without leagues of open space beyond the cities, where boys and girls, men and women, can live at least part of their lives under no control but their own desires and abilities, free from any and all direct administration by their fellow men."
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams Long before I read much, I used to listen to audiocassettes on long road trips. All it took was a reading of The Restaurant at the End of the Universe on the way back from Lake Tahoe, and I was hooked. British humor meets outer space, while the universe goes 'foom' as Arthur Dent is forced to leave a soon-to-be demolished earth and becomes embroiled in a quest to find the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything. The original BBC recordings of the story is an added bonus. Although Adams is (sadly) no longer with us, Marvin, Arthur, Ford and Zaphod are just about immortal at this point. And no, I haven't seen the movie yet.
Sonata No. 1 for Flute by J.S. Bach A melody for the ages. While I've repeatedly failed to get it right as an audition piece, I'm sure it will work out eventually.
Requiem by W. Mozart Grim, somber, and angry, it's not a big surprise that Mozart wrote Requiem just before his premature death. Great going-to-sleep music for me.
Symphony No. 9 in D minor by L. von Beethoven Really, there is more to the piece than "Ode to Joy." Nothing against the 'ode' of course, but there are also movements 1-3. Violent, heady music for violent head times.
Pictures at an Exhibition by M. Mussorgsky A suite exploring an art show that a friend of Mussorgsky's put on, the variety of moods in the space of less than an hour is truly incredible. From a market in France to the great gates of Kiev, we travel all across Europe, and the excitement never stops. Who said Russians only write heavy music?
Carmina Burana by Carl Orff Although I missed the first showing at the age of 13, I subsequently heard it on the radio and was hooked. The monks of the 12th and 13th century certainly led an impressive creative life. I'm just wondering if they were as debauched as the lyrics indicate. Who said nothing every happens in Catholic monasteries?
Arrogant Worms Once you get past the unusual name, there's the unusual lyrics. Think of them as They Might Be Giants gone wrong, with great musical results. "Carrot Juice is Murder", "Killer Robots from Venus", "History is Made by Stupid People", "Pirates of Saskatchewan" and "I Pulled my Groin." Further proof that there is hope for us in Canada (as if we needed it after the last election).
Dead Kennedys The quintessential '80s band of protest. "Kill the Poor", "California Uber Alles", "Holiday in Cambodia" and many more. Angry, politicized, and more than a little catchy. Anarchy has rarely sounded so good.
Dropkick Murphys While proposing a softer sort of punk than the Kennedys, the Irish bent of the Murphys yields a peculiar mixture of melody and lyrics, caught somewhere between the traditional and the contemporary (though obviously closer to the latter).
They Might Be Giants It's groups like these that make the 'Alternative' section of iTunes playlist so large. From James K. Polk to one eyed Cyclopes, there's not much they haven't talked about. Oh yes, and the music is good too.
Tom Lehrer Okay, it's debatable how modern he is (his first songs date from the 1950s). But a Harvard PhD in Mathematics was apparently the beginning of a long and illustrious career in music, including such songs as "The MLF Lullaby", "Fight Fiercely Harvard" and "I wanna go back to Dixie." If Lehrer didn't satyrize it, odds are it couldn't have been that important.