Rewind: Danny Elfman is the composer of one of the most familiar tunes in America: the opening theme to The Simpsons. He's also a three-time Academy Award nominee who has scored more than 60 movies (12 of them for Tim Burton, including Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory).
Fast-Forward: In the past year, Elfman created the music for five films (current Oscar® hopeful Milk and Errol Morris's lauded documentary Standard Operating Procedure among them), plus a Twyla Tharp ballet. What's he doing next? "I'm writing a Broadway musical about the life of Harry Houdini," he reports.
Play it again: "Whatever I'm working on gets stuck in my head," Elfman says. "So when I listen to music for pleasure, it's to untangle the knots in my brain; it gets really messy in there." Here are his picks for a good mental housecleaning.
The Quintessential Billie Holiday (Sony): "This is an amazing nine-CD series. Her voice and her approach to a song instantly grab hold of me. 'Solitude' and 'They Can't Take That Away from Me' bring me to another place—a smoky, dark, calm place."
Khalifa Ould Eide & Dimi Mint Abba, Moorish Music from Mauritania (World Circuit): "I first heard Dimi Mint Abba—who performs with her husband, Khalifa Ould Eide—at a party in Rome in the '90s. I couldn't figure out if the voice belonged to a woman or a boy, and I couldn't get it out of my head. On 'Hassaniya Love Poem,' she has an almost inhuman control over the notes, doing quick turns with her vocal chords."
Taraf de Haïdouks (Nonesuch): "This is a group of Romanian Roma musicians. They have a song called 'Spune Spune Mos Batrîn,' and oh, man—I can't not move when I hear this. It makes you smile, makes you want to grab a glass of wine and dance with it."
Goran Bregović, Underground soundtrack (Mercury): "He's a musician from Sarajevo; the music is similar to Taraf de Haïdouks. 'The Wedding' is the most joyous music in the world. I've never had a birthday party without it—if I want to celebrate, out it comes."