The first half of the countdown of my twenty favourite albums seemed to go down a lot better than I had expected, so with renewed enthusiasm, here’s the next part. I was initially going to write about the top 10, but I ended up having so much to say about these records that I need to break the top 10 up into two sections. So without further ado, here are albums 10-6, with the top 5 to come next time.
10. The Smiths “The Queen Is Dead” (1986)
The Smiths had already been on the go for three or four years when this, their third studio album, was released. I had been aware of their existence and knew a few of the songs, but they never really gelled with me before now. If anything, I went along with the prevailing view that they were just Manchester miserabilists, but what “The Queen Is Dead” showed me was that Morrissey was actually in possession of fully functioning and rather well developed senses of humour and of the absurd. The single “The Boy With The Thorn In His Side” had been released well in advance of the album, and at the time it was the first Smiths single that I actively liked. But what pushed me into buying the album on release was their performance on (The Old Grey) Whistle Test playing the second single “Bigmouth Strikes Again” (sense of humour alert) and album track “Vicar In A Tutu” (sense of the absurd alert). I was in.
Like everything in the top 10, this is an album that was played relentlessly for weeks, even months after purchase, and that I will still go back to from time to time. Johnny Marr is a unique guitarist. Like U2’s The Edge, or Jimi Hendrix, he defines a style of playing, one of those select band of musicians where you can identify the player just from the sound they make. And his outstanding musicianship is always in service of the song, and never ever flash and showy. Solos are almost unheard of in the Smiths back catalogue, but Marr’s guitar work is so intricate and expert that to call him merely a rhythm guitarist would be to do him a huge disservice. The other Smithsonian musicians back him up well, with Mike Joyce’s unfussy drums and Andy Rourke’s clear and slightly trebly bass giving the band their trademark sound.
But I suppose it’s Morrissey that everyone remembers, and his miserable lyrics. Actually, not miserable all the time by any means. The aforementioned “Vicar In A Tutu” and its cod-rockabilly is of particular relevance to girls like us (“He’s not strange, he just wants to live his life this way”). “Frankly Mr Shankly” is a piece of fantasy about someone stuck in a boring 9 to 5 job desperate to live a fulfilling bohemian life, telling their boss exactly what they think of him (“Frankly Mr Shankly since you ask, you are a flatulent pain in the arse”), and the blistering title track which features another cross-dressing reference (“Charles, don’t you ever crave to appear on the front of the Daily Mail dressed in your mother’s bridal veil?”), plus my all-time funniest lyric in a serious song (“So I broke into the palace / with a sponge and a rusty spanner / she said ‘eh I know you and you cannot sing’ / I said ‘that’s nothing, you should hear me play piano'”)
The Smiths split in 1987, and thankfully seem highly unlikely to reform for the near-obligatory money-spinning reunion tour. Instead, here is “Bigmouth Strikes Again” from the Whistle Test session, Derek Jarman’s film/video for the title track and my standout track from the album, “Cemetry Gates”.
9. Marillion “Misplaced Childhood” (1985)
I would say this is the most atypical album on my list. Even though there are a couple coming up that date from before I was born (hello, spoilers!) this is the one that seems out of place. Marillion in the 80’s were carving their own niche as prog-rockers fifteen years too late. They had had a few minor hits from earlier albums prior to this, but none really registered with me other than to note the existence of this band. Even the first single from this album, “Kayleigh”, did nothing for me. It just sounded like a reasonably pleasant soft-rock ballad. Not really my thing. However, my best friend at the time thought it was one of the best singles he had ever heard. Not only did he buy the single, but he went out and bought the album on release. A few weeks later I was round in his house and he played me the album. I bought my own copy within the week. I love it.
“Misplaced Childhood” is a concept album. And not just a concept as in a collection of songs based around a vague theme, it is a whole work in and of itself. A 45-minute song, if you like. There are named tracks, but they are more akin to movements within a symphony than to actual songs like you would normally recognise. There is only one gap between tracks on the CD, and that’s where you would have had to turn the vinyl LP over to side two. Lyrical and musical motifs appear, disappear and reappear in slightly altered arrangements and time signatures throughout the album. Even “Kayleigh” makes much more sense when put into context although it does still feel like it doesn’t really belong.
Lyrically, singer Fish (it might be a daft name, but his real name is Derek Dick, so I think I’d go with Fish too) can be pretty damn obscure and this is no exception. “The mist crawls from the canal like some primordial phantom of romance” indeed! Sex Pistols this is not. The whole thing opens up with “Pseudo Silk Kimono” a kind of introduction for the whole album, where “the spirit of a misplaced childhood” appears to Fish like Marley’s ghost, prefacing a series of visions of growing up in 1960’s and 70’s Scotland, family life, first loves, broken hearts, running wild with a bunch of yobs and finally breaking out into adulthood.
I have listened to this album so many times I know every word, every sound, every note. Sometimes when people can’t sleep they count sheep. I replay “Misplaced Childhood” in my head. I know it that well. And that friend who introduced me to it? He feels exactly the same way. On several occasions we have got drunk, put on Misplaced Childhood, and sung the whole thing together like a pair of fools.
It seems unfair to pick out tracks from an album that doesn’t really have tracks, but here’s the single edit of “Heart of Lothian”, which I think is much more representative of the album than the earlier singles, and my own favourite “Childhood’s End?”.
8. The Stone Roses “The Stone Roses” (1989)
I knew the name of the The Stone Roses and I knew some of their music before I ever linked the two together in my head. When I was a student at Lancaster University in the late 80’s / early 90’s (not a particularly happy time, see here for the background) The Stone Roses were in their pomp. They were the latest saviours of rock music, coming out of Manchester with a definite Smiths influence in some of their material, but with a new, positive, hedonistic outlook and an identification with the acid house scene that was arising at the time. The dance music influence is at it’s most noticeable on their single “Fools Gold” which is not on this album, but it’s there in places on the album too. That’s not to say they abandon their rock roots either, but the two genres are merged together in a new way, which takes in influences from The Byrds to Jimi Hendrix to Sly and the Family Stone (or the Family Stone Roses).
I had heard of the band for quite a few months as the proverbial next big thing, but it was only when I finally got hold of a copy of the album that I realised that I knew a couple of the tracks without knowing it was The Stone Roses. The single “Made Of Stone” was a student disco classic, and I was fond of throwing a few shapes on the dancefloor to this song by an unnamed band. I thought it was called “Sometimes I fantasise”. But as I sat in my room in the halls of residence with my Walkman headphones on listening to The Stone Roses for the first time, I knew this was something very special. All the way through, it was the perfect amalgamation of many of the things that I loved in music. But right at the very end, that’s when it went into the stratosphere. The final track, “I Am The Resurrection”, for four minutes sounds like a bouncy indie-pop tune. Perfectly fine for what it is. That’s all I expected it to be. Then instead of ending, it takes a most unexpected turn into a rock/funk/fusion hybrid instrumental that was so unlike anything I had ever heard before that I literally burst out laughing with the joy of what I was hearing.
I had found a band that mattered. A band that inspired people. A band that created a movement. The Beatles were a Band That Mattered. The Rolling Stones (although I don’t particularly like them) were a Band That Mattered, the Sex Pistols were a Band That Mattered. The Smiths were a Band That Mattered. And now, The Stone Roses were a Band That Mattered. Other bands can be good, great even, but the Stone Roses mattered.
Their Mancunian contemporaries and near-equals in popularity at the time, Happy Mondays, just didn’t matter in the same way. Their biggest album “Pills ‘n’ Thrills And Bellyaches” feels very dated now. “The Stone Roses” still sounds fresh, because it eschews fancy production techniques and the latest in-vogue sound effects. Instead, it has a basic rock format of guitar/bass/drums played by three very talented musicians (John Squire, Gary “Mani” Mounfield and Alan “Reni” Wren) and a fairly rubbish but very charismatic singer in Ian Brown.
I saw them live at their first outdoor headlining gig at Spike Island, Widnes, in 1990, billed as being a Woodstock for the nineties. It wasn’t that great to be honest, the sound quality was poor and we seemed to be waiting an awfully long time for the band to come on, but the gig has passed into rock folklore now. There’s even a movie about it. And for once, I am proud to be able to say “I was there”. I even bought the T-shirt.
7. Sugar “Copper Blue” (1992)
And Kirsty is late to the party again. The main man in Sugar, Bob Mould, was also one-third of one of the most critically-lauded American alt-rock bands of the 80s, Hüsker Dü. Along with Sonic Youth and REM, Hüsker Dü formed a holy trinity of what was termed at the time College Rock, very much in opposition to the spandex-clad poodle-haired embarrassments that proliferated in mainstream US rock at the time. Sonic Youth and REM carried on right up into the 21st century, but Hüsker Dü fell apart in the late 80’s amid Mould’s battles with alcoholism and depression, and drummer/songwriter Grant Hart’s heroin addiction. Bob Mould was also unusual at the time in being one of very few openly gay men in rock music. The only other example I can think of is Rob Halford of Judas Priest – all that leather and studs, who’d have thought he was gay? Anyway, when Hüsker Dü split, I had never heard any of their material. Mould then made a couple of solo albums (the mainly acoustic “Workbook” and much louder “Black Sheets Of Rain”, which in retrospect sounds like a missing Sugar album) before forming another three-piece band with drummer Malcolm Travis and ex-Mercyland bassist David Barbe, but really Sugar was little more than a consistent vehicle for playing Mould’s songs without the need for session musicians.
Probably more than the other two bands in that holy trinity, Hüsker Dü were the inspiration for Pixies, who in turn were the inspiration for Nirvana. In my humble opinion, were it not for what Mould and Hüsker Dü were doing in the 80’s, grunge would never have been a thing. Or at the very least, it would have been a wildly different thing. So if inspiring a major shift in the rock mainstream when grunge basically killed off the poodle rockers weren’t enough, Bob Mould then returned to the fold at the height of grunge explosion with a new band and a new album which was better than anything else out there. Yes, better than Nevermind. There, I’ve said it. It was as if Iggy Pop had formed a different band after the Stooges, and launched them in 1978 with an album better than anything the Pistols, Clash or Buzzcocks could manage between them.
I had heard the first couple of singles off “Copper Blue” on The Chart Show on ITV. Remember The Chart Show? Those singles were “Changes” and “A Good Idea”, the latter being the only one that sounds like Mould had been listening to the grunge bands and taking back some of their ideas. Anyway, I liked those songs well enough, but you don’t get the full effect from a 1990’s TV speaker. I actually first heard the album proper on a listening post in the old Belfast Virgin Megastore, where they had sets of headphones dotted around the shop with a range of different CDs you could choose to hear. I put on the first track “The Act We Act” and as someone who dabbles in guitar I just thought “That’s it!”, if I was talented enough that’s what I would want my guitar to sound like. Somewhere between Roger McGuinn, Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix, with a fabulous lack of discipline in the playing. He sounds like he’s winging it, but he sounds glorious. Bob Mould instantly became, and remains, my favourite guitar player. Like Johnny Marr, not flash, just exciting. Probably the best showcase for his musicianship is JC Auto from the second Sugar album “Beaster”, but we’ll not dwell on that much further other than to say that “Beaster” is very much the equal of “Copper Blue” and a damn sight heavier, but only has six tracks which is why “Copper Blue” got the nod.
As for the individual songs, they are all special in their own way. “If I Can’t Change Your Mind” and “Helpless” are two great pop songs by any standards, “Fortune Teller” is a burst of pure energy, there’s the darkness of “The Slim” where Mould howls out the marriage vows with a voice of kerosene as the climax of a tale of relationship breakdown, and then there’s “Hoover Dam”, a surprisingly bouncy tune with the thoughts of someone deciding whether or not to throw themselves off said barrage.
After three albums Sugar split amiably, and Mould re-embarked on a solo career that continues to this day, interrupted by a bout as a scriptwriter (really!) for WWE. I bet you never knew that wrestlers have scripts, did you?
6. The Beatles “Revolver” (1966)
I grew up with the Beatles, although they split a few months before I was born. As I have probably said before, I am the youngest of five children, in fact very much the youngest. My older siblings had a collection of singles from the 60s which I played often as a young child, at least until I started to gather my own record collection from the early 80s onwards. In that collection of singles were quite a few Beatles singles, but all early Beatles. With the exception of Get Back, all the Beatles singles in the house were from 1965 and earlier; She Loves You, We Can Work It Out, Day Tripper, Ticket To Ride, PS I Love You. You get the picture. What was missing from our household record collection was later-period Beatles. When my siblings started buying albums, it wasn’t Beatles albums, it was Bob Dylan (who I hated), Eagles, Jackson Browne, John Prine and things of that ilk. Almost exclusively American music. As it turns out, I seem to prefer British music. Eight of my top ten albums are from artists originating on this side of the Atlantic. I don’t know why that is, but there you have it. My other sister, by the way, is into Cliff Richard and Joe Dolan. She is also the only one out of the five of us who can’t play any musical instrument at all. If it wasn’t for the fact that she looks like the rest of us I’d think she were adopted.
Back to the Beatles. My knowledge of the Beatles growing up was limited to the early, poppy singles. I was never exposed to their albums, and particularly not the later ones after they had abandoned touring and concentrated on recording. No Strawberry Fields Forever, no I Am The Walrus, no Here Comes The Sun, no A Day In The Life. I discovered these songs as an adult.
Which brings us to Revolver. Voted the greatest British album of the 20th Century by readers of Q Magazine (beating Radiohead’s “OK Computer” into second place), I heard it for the first time in about 2006. It’s one of those moments that I remember clearly. I didn’t know many of the songs on it, but its reputation preceded it to such an extent that when it got a remastered rerelease I just bought it, thinking “It’s the Beatles, how bad can it be?”. Not remotely bad. “Revolver” is the point at which the two versions of the Beatles collide for the perfect summary of their entire oevre. Wonderful bouncy joyous pop songs like “And Your Bird Can Sing” alongside a psychedelic masterpiece such as “Tomorrow Never Knows” and the beautiful, plaintive “For No One” and George Harrison’s protest song “Taxman”. So although this album was released in 1966, for me it’s a 2006 album, and sounds as fresh and alive now as it must have done 49 years ago. But really, if it sounds remarkable to me now, I can’t even imagine what it must have been like hearing it for the first time back in 1966.
I think that with the Beatles, familiarity breeds if not exactly contempt, then perhaps complacency. Take something like “Eleanor Rigby” for example. We’ve all heard it countless times but how often do we really listen to it? This tale of a lonely life, of a woman living and dying while never letting the world see the heartache inside her, is devastating. But for most of the time we hear it, it’s just a pleasant tune with some strings. It’s so much more and so much darker than that. But the whole album is like that in macrocosm, the arrangements, the melodies, the lyrics, they all have subtle depth. Even when they appear simple to the casual listener, the surface simplicity is the hook on the line that reels you in to something altogether deeper, more imaginative and more rewarding than 99% of music made before or since.
Utterly utterly essential listening.
And with that, it’ll be the top 5 next time. Can you guess what will be my number 1? I bet you can’t!