How would you like to spend an hour browsing through the record collection of an artist with the imagination and taste of Lucinda Williams ... or the history and influence of Ray Charles ... or the mystery and magic of the Rolling Stones?
Hear Music’s “Artist’s Choice” CD series gives us a chance to approximate that experience -- a rare example in the record business of an idea that works as well in practice as it does in theory.
In putting together the series, representatives of the Seattle record label and retail store chain (which is owned by Starbucks) ask artists for 16 or so recordings that inspired or touched them. The answers are then put on discs.
Besides CDs devoted to the choices of Williams, the Rolling Stones and Charles, there are discs showcasing the favorites of Sheryl Crow and Yo-Yo Ma. A Tony Bennett disc is due this week and a Johnny Cash edition in the fall.
Not only are the discs interesting on their own, but they also offer an enticing peek into the psyches of the artists making the selections. Williams’ choices, for instance, lean to singer-songwriters who combine a strong sense of craft with an original and penetrating viewpoint. The music ranges from Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” and Ryan Adams’ “Sylvia Plath” to Chet Baker’s “My Funny Valentine” and Paul Westerberg’s “Good Day.”
There are moments in the album -- especially Patty Griffin’s “Mary” and Yo La Tengo’s “Tears Are in Your Eyes” -- when the music’s mood is so raw and revealing that it’s easy to forget that you are listening to Williams’ selections and not to Williams herself.
You can almost sense in the beauty of Ron Sexsmith’s “April After All” a point where that song intersects with Williams’ own “Blue,” from her 2001 album “Essence.” (Sexsmith: “But there’ll be other days/And things will turn our way/The rain has got to fall/It’s April after all.” Williams: “So you go to confession/Whatever gets you through/You can count your blessings/I’ll just count on blue.”) Although both writers can dazzle you with complex narratives, these songs touch on heartache and depression with images as compact as they are sophisticated.
There is also a sense of the artists’ enthusiasm in the discs, some of which are sold in Starbucks and all of which are available on the Hear Music Web site (www.hearmusic.com) or at the store, 1429 Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica. Listening to Charles’ choices, you can picture the marvelous soul singer’s excitement at first hearing such vocals as Nat King Cole’s immaculately phrased “Sweet Lorraine” or the stylish gospel of the Swan Silvertones’ “Mary Don’t You Weep.”
It’s interesting to see some choices overlap -- both Charles and Crow pick tunes by Aretha Franklin and Willie Nelson, while Williams and Crow both cite Adams.
On the Stones’ disc, the surprise is that there’s no Chuck Berry, because the rock pioneer was in many ways the architect of the Stones’ guitar-heavy blues-rock approach.
Don MacKinnon, president of Hear Music, says that each Stone contributed four selections to the album. When he pointed out to Jagger that no one had included Berry, Jagger said that everyone knew the Stones loved Berry and that he’d rather use the disc to point to other favorites. The biggest eye-opener: Jagger choice of Sade’s “By Your Side.”
“The great thing for me was seeing how seriously everyone took their lists,” MacKinnon says. “When we sat down with Lucinda, she had 100 selections on her list, so she had to narrow it down.”
MacKinnon said he had experienced similar dedication in earlier lists he’s put together for earlier Hear Music projects.
“When Tom Waits showed up in connection with another project our company has done, he walked in with a stack of records,” he recalls. I couldn’t believe he brought all those records, and then he said -- in that gruff voice of his -- ‘Actually, if you can help me out, I have the rest in the truck.’
“We went outside and he had three more crates of CDs and two crates of albums.”
Robert Hilburn, The Times’ pop music critic, can be reached at email@example.com.