So another week goes past and life rolls on without too much of any significance happening. Having said that, I do have something that I want to write about, and it’s nothing to do with gender at all. It’s to do with music, and it’s all Michelle’s fault. A couple of weeks ago, apropos of nothing Michelle sent an email to Ruth, Val and me suggesting that just for fun we each compile a list of our twenty favourite albums for comparison and discussion. This ended up getting completely out of hand and for me at least, compiling my list and fine-tuning it because something of an obsession. In fact, by the time I had got my twenty albums in order there was far too much that I wanted to say about each one to include in a circular email around four friends. So here I am. A blog post about my favourite music. I know that this isn’t what readers might be expecting me to write about, but it’s my blog and I’ll write about what I want. If this doesn’t interest you , just hang back for a couple of posts and the more usual gender-related agonising will return in due course, but for now, I’m going to do a “Top Of The Pops”-style countdown of my favourite 20 albums. 20 to 11 in this post, 10 to 1 next time.
A few ground rules before we get started. No compliations. No live albums. Only one album per artist. And with that said, let’s begin.
20. ∆ “An Awesome Wave” (2012)
I only discovered this album earlier this year, but hearing it for the first time renewed my faith in music’s power to surprise me. Even in my mid-40’s, I can still encounter music unlike anything I have encountered before. Laid-back, intricate, claustrophobic r&b-influenced art-rock, with singer Joe Newman’s very unusual vocal style complementing the instrumentation perfectly. “An Awesome Wave” won the 2012 Mercury Prize (for best British album of the year), and the follow-up, 2014’s “This Is All Yours” went on to be a UK No1 album. The band is officially called ∆ but this is usually rendered as Alt-J, being the keyboard combination used on a Mac computer to produce the ∆ symbol.
19. Gomez “Bring It On” (1998)
Another Mercury Prize winner, Gomez’s first album is a swamp-blues-rock-indie-psychedelia thing all held together by Ben Ottewell’s stunning voice. I discovered this band on “Later With Jools Holland”, performing the track “Get Miles”. It began with a slow shuffling loping blues sound, then suddenly this bloke, who looked like he had just nipped up from IT support to fix Jools’ PC, opened his mouth and I thought “what was THAT?!”. There are actually three singers in the band (as evidenced on the charmingly-titled “78 Stone Wobble”) but it’s when Ben is singing that the goosebumps come. A little ideosyncracy shared with another album coming a little later in my list is that the title track “Bring It On” isn’t on this album. It’s on their second album “Liquid Skin”. Tracks I have included here are those performances of “Get Miles” and “78 Stone Wobble” from Later with Jools that I first saw them on, and a more recent performance of “Free To Run” showing that Ben’s stunning voice has improved with the passage of time.
18. Billy Bragg “Life’s A Riot With Spy Vs Spy” (1983)
It’s hard to appreciate now what a breath of fresh air Billy Bragg was back in 1983. This was the era of Adam And The Ants, Duran Duran, Soft Cell, Wham! etc. Even the more alternative bands were the likes of the raincoat-wearing gloom of Echo and The Bunnymen, or the madness of The Teardrop Explodes. Meanwhile, out of Barking comes a big-nosed geezer with a rudimentary vocal style singing short, punchy songs of love and politics, but mostly love, with only a Chad Valley electric guitar for accompaniment. After being in a late-to-the-party punk band called Riff Raff, Bragg began playing gigs on his own under the name “Spy Vs Spy”, which gave his short, 7-track first album its name. I played this album to death at the time, listening carefully until I could manage note-perfect renditions of all the songs on guitar. I would then hold my own Billy Bragg concerts in my bedroom. Yes, I was that sad.
The best-known track on the album is probably “A New England”, which was subsequently taken into the UK Top 10 by Kirsty MacColl (great name!) including an extra verse that Bragg had written specifically for her. MacColl would subsequently provide backing vocals on “Greetings To The New Brunette” a couple of Bragg albums down the line, with guitar by Johnny Marr from the Smiths under the assumed name of Duane Tremolo.
Bragg was also an accomplished if occasionally unsubtle lyricist. Looking back now, there is one verse in particular which resonates, from “The Busy Girl Buys Beauty”
“The busy girl buys beauty
The pretty girl buys style
And the simple girl buys what she’s told to buy”
Considering the then-nascent celebrity culture that was just beginning to take hold, he goes on to dissect it in terms we would recognise today, all wrapped up with the killer rejoinder
“What will you do when you wake up one morning to find that God’s made you plain in a beautiful person’s world?”
References to Anna Ford and Angela Rippon definitely date the song a bit, but substitute in Kim Kardashian and Katie Price and it could have been written last week.
Bragg would go on to repeat the trick in his next album, “Brewing Up With Billy Bragg”, but with the partial introduction of a backing band on his third album “Talking With The Taxman About Poetry” the magic would begin to evaporate.
17. PJ Harvey “Dry” (1992)
Well who’da thunk it? The only woman on the list! Actually there are three female members split between two bands further up the list, but that’s slightly different. Although Polly Harvey isn’t so much a woman as a WOMAN!!! Stridently, almost confrontationally female in her lyrics, she was something of a shock to the system. This first album caught my imagination in a big way from I first heard “Sheela-na-gig” on the John Peel show way back when. Just that first line “Look at these, my child-bearing hips”, well it’s not the type of opening line that you get in your average pop song is it? Although these songs are all well-crafted and tuneful, there is a brooding menace about everything on here. Even the slow quiet ones sound like they are secretly about to pummel you into submission.
There are so many great songs on here, although a case could be made that Harvey’s fourth album “Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea” (another Mercury Prize winner) is even better. But it was “Dry” that had the greater impact on me and so it’s the one that makes it to the list. I bought this on release day and walked about 2 miles from work to Belfast’s only “Chain With No Name” independent record store and 2 miles back again during my lunch hour just so I could get it on limited edition numbered vinyl with an extra LP containing 4-track demos of all the songs.
The videos I have included here are “Sheela-Na-Gig”, the first song of hers that I heard; “Dress”, about the absurdity of women’s fashion (somehow appropriate); and “Plants And Rags”, which manages to make a cello sound heavier than Black Sabbath.
And like the Gomez album, the song “Dry” features on PJ Harvey’s second album, “Rid of Me”.
16. The La’s “The La’s” (1990)
If the main creative force behind this album had his way, it would never have seen the light of day. Lee Mavers was the singer, songwriter and guitarist in Liverpool band The La’s, who are nowadays best remembered for their one big hit “There She Goes”, but there was more to them than that. Raw, 60s-influenced rock and roll with an almost pathological disdain for keyboards and synthesizers. Mavers was a classic tortured genius, constantly frustrated by his inability to turn the sounds in his head into reality. Eventually his record company Go! Discs lost patience with him and released this album, a collection of singles and demos culled from abandoned sessions with producer Steve Lillywhite, none of which measured up to Mavers’ exacting standards. He then immediately tried to undermine the album’s release by doing a series of interviews in the music press in which he described his own album as “crap”. You don’t get that much now do you?
Eventually the La’s fell apart over Mavers’ inability to find a recording he was happy with, and bassist John Power went on to form his own band, the multi-platinum selling Cast, leaving Mavers tilting at his own musical windmills. The rumours were that Mavers ended up with a serious drug problem, and in fact one reading of the lyrics to There She Goes are that it is a love song to heroin (“racing round my brain”, “pulsing through my veins” etc). But whatever his problems, and despite his protestations, The La’s one and only album is a joy from start to finish.
15. Radiohead “In Rainbows” (2007)
A case could be made for any number of Radiohead albums to be in any number of “best of” lists. I bought their first album “Pablo Honey” on the strength of their first big hit “Creep”, but it’s pretty rubbish as an album. So when the second album “The Bends” received glowing reviews from just about every music publication going, I was very sceptical. It was only after several brilliant singles had come out that I decided to give Radiohead a second chance. Wow. “The Bends” is a bona fide classic. And you know what? I think it’s only their fourth best album. Next was 1997’s “OK Computer”, many people’s favourite and occupier of second position in Q magazine’s listing of the best British albums of the 20th century (behind another which is a little further up my list). Their next album, 2000’s “Kid A” was a complete left-turn into electronica, but none the worse for that. Radiohead are constantly evolving and experimenting, and Kid A was an at times challenging but rewarding listen. 2001’s “Amnesiac” was more stuff from the Kid A sessions, and 2003’s “Hail To The Thief” was probably their first disappointment since the first album. It also marked the end of their record deal with Parlophone. All went quiet for the next four years, then…
… with very little notice or fanfare, Radiohead announced that their new studio album “In Rainbows” would be released in a matter of days. It would be released exclusively through their own website and there would be no physical release, at least initially. And the price? Whatever you want to pay. Yes, that’s right, pay what you want. A penny, one hundred pounds, whatever you thought it was worth. I think I paid a fiver, but the average was about £1. I’m a great believer that you don’t value what you don’t have to pay for, so given the optional nature of payments for this album, I wasn’t expecting a lot. But what I got was a thing of warmth and beauty, a combination of the band’s indie/prog/rock first three albums with the more avant-garde stylings of latter ones, and it worked beautifully. Truly the best of both sides of the band. Just from the first track “15 Step” I knew this was something very special, unusual 5/4 time signature and all. The gorgeous “Nude” is a song that had been kicking round since the “OK Computer” days without the band ever finding an arrangement they were happy with. Now they did. On we go, “Weird Fishes / Arpeggi” and “Faust Arp” as well as being two of the more bizarrely-titled songs one will encouter, both wrap you up in their warm embrace and for me the finest point on the album is “Jigsaw Falling Into Place”, a great tune, with everything falling into place half way through when Thom Yorke’s vocal shifts up into a higher register. Just a wonderful wonderful collection of songs in beautiful sympathetic arrangements that sounds like nobody but Radiohead.
14. U2 “Achtung Baby” (1991)
I have a confession to make. It’s not easy to say this in public these days, and there is a lot of uncalled for discrimination against people like me because of this characteristic that I share with many others. Coming out is difficult and can lose you friends, but I need to be strong and state the truth. I am a U2 fan. I have been a U2 fan for over thirty years. There, I’ve said it.
I first got into U2 with their fourth album “The Unforgettable Fire” in 1984, when I was 14. By the time “The Joshua Tree” came out in 1987, I knew their entire back catalogue inside out and the release of their biggest album was a massive event for me. However over the next four years and with the release of 1988’s “Rattle And Hum” their reverence for rootsy Americana and penchant for the wearing of cowboy hats meant they drifted further and further away from the zeitgeist. In fact, in an era of The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays, U2 were a bit of an embarrassment. Then came Achtung Baby.
Moving away from their traditional recording environment of Windmill Lane studios in Dublin, the band recamped to Hansa Ton in the newly undivided Berlin for the recording of Achtung Baby – the name of the album is an intra-band joke from their time in the city – and it changed their sound for the next decade. More than that, it proved that the band could evolve, could reinvent themselves and move away from the dead end that Rattle And Hum proved to be. In fact, I would contest that without Achtung Baby U2 would have very quickly become a self-parody that people only went to see to hear Joshua Tree songs. Instead we got a collection of sleek, cool songs, with the rhythm section brought more to the fore than previously. And that first line from the opening track “Zoo Station” – “I’m ready for the laughing gas” – well, you never heard anything like that on the previous albums.
While Achtung Baby contains what is probably U2’s most-covered and most enduring track, “One”, I think that the key track is first single “The Fly”. It was such a culture shock to go from their previous single (“All I Want Is You” from “Rattle & Hum”) to this, it really marked this out as new territory for the band, and I played it endlessly awaiting the release of the album.
One more thing – the closing track “Love Is Blindness” contains what I think is my favourite ever guitar solo. It’s short, and it only has one note, but that one note is in such a perfect sound, and is played with such incredible emotion, it is remarkable. I have never been an adherent to the theory that the ability to move one’s fingers very quickly makes one an expert musician. This is proof positive of that. One perfectly deployed note trumps one hundred superfast pointless ones every time. It starts at 2:16 in the video.
So many great tracks on here – “Even Better Than The Real Thing”, “Until The End Of The World”, “Acrobat”, “Ultra Violet (Light My Way)”. Unfortunately it’s also got that awful dirge “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses?” but that’s what the skip button is for.
As for that embarrassment factor I was writing about, during the years 1988-95 I was an avid reader of the New Musical Express (NME). Around 89-90, any new band that came along playing vaguely anthemic rock music would be billed as “the U2 it’s ok to like”. I clearly remember in a concert review following the release of Achtung Baby, they wrote “it appears that U2 are now the U2 it’s ok to like”. I never doubted them for a minute.
13. Sonic Youth “Dirty” (1993)
The New York guitar manglers were already alt-rock legends by the time they teamed up with producer Butch Vig to record this double album. Vig was just about the hottest producer in rock at the time, having come fresh from making “Nevermind” with Nirvana. He brings a big rock sheen to this album, while never shying away from the band’s more avant-garde excursions.
I had never previously been a fan of Sonic Youth’s output, but for me everything just gelled with this album. Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo are responsible for some of the most unusual and esoteric noises ever to be coaxed from guitars, but at the same time I’m not convinced that either of them can play in any remotely conventional sense. Similarly, Kim Gordon’s bass can sometimes sound more like a low rumble of thunder than any real musical counterpoint, particularly on Ranaldo’s “Wish Fulfillment”. There can be no arguing however with Steve Shelley’s magnificent drums, which sound like they were recorded in a cave.
If I had to single out one track here as a “must listen” then it would be “JC”. Kim Gordon’s half spoken / half rapped lyric musing on the murder of the band’s friend Joe Cole set over some of the most remarkable guitar noises I have ever heard, somehow all managing to be almost relaxing, like a twisted chill-out.
12. Young Knives “Sick Octave” (2013)
The Young Knives (they dropped the “The” after the second album) were something of an archetypal indie band for their first three albums. I like that sort of thing, it’s not a problem. Short, punchy punk-influenced songs with big catchy pop choruses. I liked it well enough that I bought all three of those albums – “Voices of Animals and Men”, “Superabundance” and “Ornaments From The Silver Arcade”. All fine indie pop albums. However it appears I may have been among an increasingly select band of people who bought the third album, because amid falling sales Young Knives were dropped by their record label.
Undeterred, the band took to the crowd-funding site Kickstarter to raise the money to make their fourth album. They told potential investors (basically pre-purchasing an as-yet-unrecorded album) that it would be pure and undiluted Young Knives, free from any record company interference or expectation. The album that they wanted to make. And they delivered.
Upon first listen to this, I just thought “What the f*** was that?” I was initially bemused and a little disappointed. Where had the indie band with a nice line in big choruses and ironic humour gone? And who were these imposters? I suppose the cover gives a good cue as to the content, echoing as it does the Beatles’ infamous deleted cover of “Yesterday and Today”.
After three or four listens I began to think that maybe it wasn’t a complete disappointment. After ten listens I was convinced it was a work of barking mad genius. I haven’t really changed my mind on that since. How to explain what this album is like? I know of nothing to compare it to. It is a thing in and of itself. There is one full-on pop song (the utterly gorgeous “We Could Be Blood”), another vaguely conventional song written from the perspective of an obsessive stalker (“Maureen”) and the rest of it is bonkers. Musically all over the place, lyrically dense, this is in a genre of its own. How many other bands would write a song referring to “a plastic model of Obi-Wan Kenobi that’s been melted and disfigured” alongside another about the disintegration of a person suffering from dementia, told from the perspective of the sufferer?
11. Teenage Fanclub “Songs From Northern Britain” (1997)
I love this band. They are vying for the prestigious title of Kirsty’s Favourite Band along with the occupiers of the fifth spot on the list. And both bands are Scottish. I wonder if that is significant? Teenage Fanclub write gorgous laid-back rock songs drenched in sunshine harmonies with a little bit of Scottish wit. Think Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Big Star and pre-Gram Parsons Byrds. Teenage Fanclub are really three Glaswegian singer/songwriters (Norman Blake, Gerry Love and Ray McGinley) who have been releasing albums since 1991 with a variety of drummers, although Francis MacDonald has been the occupant of the drummer’s chair since 2000. They write such beautiful tunes. At a wedding reception, it’s traditional for the newlyweds to select a song that means a lot to them as their first dance. Mrs K selected our first dance, which was “Private Universe” by Crowded House. A fine tune. I selected the second dance, for which the best man and matron of honour joined us on the dancefloor. It was “Planets” by Teenage Fanclub, the fifth track on this album. And it’s not even the best track here.
So a band which is one of my top two don’t even make it into my top ten albums. Why not? Well it’s like this. They have a filler problem. When all the elements come together into a great TFC song, nobody can touch them. But they have always had a bit of a problem stretching the brilliance out to a full album’s worth. If I had to produce a playlist of the best twenty songs from all the artists on this list, Teenage Fanclub’s would be the best. But the songs would be culled from 8 different albums over 20 years. That’s not to say the albums aren’t very good, but I think it’s fair to say that they are a songs band rather than an albums band.
“Songs From Northern Britain” is Teenage Fanclub’s fifth album. A good case could be made for their second, “Bandwagonesque” or their fourth, “Grand Prix” being objectively superior albums, but this one has a special place in my heart. I had an advance copy, and it was the soundtrack to Mrs K’s and my first holiday together – in fact she wasn’t even Mrs K then, she was just Bob’s girlfriend. A friend of mine, also a fan of the Fanclub, was in Belfast’s famous Good Vibrations record shop during Spring 1997 when he heard what sounded like Teenage Fanclub playing, but not any song he was familiar with. He approached the man at the counter, who was none other than the legendary Terri Hooley (yes, that one, the one with the film about him, the one who discovered The Undertones) who confirmed that the shop had been given a cassette of the new Teenage Fanclub album several months in advance of its release. Hooley then sold the cassette to my friend for £5, and I proceeded to copy it off him. A few days later, Mrs K and I set off for two weeks driving around France, with this album playing all the way round. I still bought the CD on the day of release in September the same year.
And if you’re still with me after all that, there’s 10 more to go next time!