The thing about this exercise is that you have to think about longevity. If I were to be stuck with only 12 albums to listen to over a too-long period of time, I'd want the ability to choose between them based on mood, genre, and so on.
Herewith, then, my top dozen albums for your deserted island listening pleasure.
The Memphis Record — Elvis Presley
The slim, comeback-y Elvis was my favorite — albeit brief — era for him. Great songwriting on this record (not by him, of course); great arrangements; great, soulful performance. The King at the height of his game.
London Calling — The Clash
My introduction to The Clash, and to Punk, itself. Profound impact.
Exile on Main Street — The Rolling Stones
If forced to choose, I'd have to say I'm more of a Stones guy than a Beatles guy. Several great albums to choose from, but for my money, you can't beat the workman-like churning blues of Exile....
At Folsom Prison — Johnny Cash
I love some of the American Recordings, but too much of it, and I'd probably commit suicide before I got off the island. Instead, I'll take this recording — which, like with Elvis's Memphis Record, bottles Johnny at the peak of his powers.
Born to Run — Bruce Springsteen
Because it's still that good. That's why.
Horses — Patti Smith
Run-D.M.C. — Run-D.M.C.
Old school, with simplistic, now-cheesy drum beats, to be sure, but it takes me back. The bit of rap gold that always slays me is toward the end of Sucker MCs. After two+ minutes of listening to Run's young alto voice, DMC gets his chance with "I'm DMC in the place to be, I go to St. John's University; and since kinde-garten I acquired the knowledge; and after 12th grade I went straight to college" and he just booms.
Soul Station — Hank Mobley
I'll need some jazz. Tough call between this and Somethin' Else, but on an island, and wistful, Hank gets the nod over Cannonball Adderley.
My Aim Is True — Elvis Costello
I can't have Presley without Costello. This album is arguably his best.
Bringing It All Back Home — Bob Dylan
So much Dylan to choose from, but I'll take the creativity and fury of this record over the melancholy of Blood on the Tracks. Classic.
I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got — Sinéad O'Connor
I'll need a lady on the island to both whisper and scold in a way just as angry, but softer, than Patti Smith. I have a nostalgic attachment to this album, but it's an objectively strong one, and I'll listen to it often.
1928 Sessions — Mississippi John Hurt
Because of how he was recorded, who he was, and how he sang and played, these Mississippi John Hurt recordings make you feel like you are his only audience. Some of the most intimate recordings I've ever heard.
And if you're going to bitch about the double albums on here (The Memphis Record, London Calling, and Exile...) you can go screw; I'm stuck on a frickin' deserted island here!
P.S. If we have similar musical tastes, you can follow me over on ThisIsMyJam, for some weekly gems.