Well here it is. What the world has definitely not been waiting for. The third and final instalment of my top 20 albums. The final five. These are all quite different albums, but every one of them is an absolute gem. So here we go.
5. Biffy Clyro “Puzzle” (2007)
It’s really a toss-up between Biffy Clyro and Teenage Fanclub for the not-remotely-coveted title of Kirsty’s favourite band. I have loved Teenage Fanclub for over twenty years, buying all their albums as they have been released since their second Bandwagonesque back in 1992. By contrast, I have only discovered their fellow Scots Biffy Clyro relatively recently, with the release of their fifth album Only Revolutions in 2009. Although they have released just one other album since them (2013’s double CD set Opposites), I have gone through their back catalogue right back to their first Blackened Sky from 2002 and fallen in love with each album in turn. If I hadn’t had the self-imposed “one album per artist” rule for this chart, I suspect there would be five Biffy albums in the top twenty. They are that good.
This hirsute Scottish trio consists of singer/songwriter/guitarist Simon Neil with a rhythm section of twin brothers Ben and James Johnstone on drums and bass respectively. The music that they play, that’s not so easy to describe. It’s tempting to just call it heavy rock, but it’s not. They are so much more complex than that. Unusual arrangements, changing time signatures (one track on Opposites includes 4/4, 7/4 and 9/4 in the same song) and unconventional song structures mean they veer towards prog territory. But that is a retro title, and the music they make isn’t retro. “Prog” as a genre is often taken to refer to acts like Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, Yes and even my own number 9 album-holders Marillion. Biffy Clyro are not like these bands. They mix complex, unconventional songs like “Now I’m Everyone” with three-minute pseudo-punk like “Semi-Mental” on the same album. And they make music that simultaneously moves me to tears and makes me bounce around the room like an idiot.
But anyway, six fabulous albums, why have I picked Puzzle as their finest album and my number five all time choice? Quite simply, this record has made me weep. Several times. And may do so again without warning. Now this may not happen to anyone else, but the album hugely resonates with me. You see, it was the first Biffy album to be recorded following the death of songwriter Simon Neil’s mother when he was just 23. Many of the songs on the album refer either implicitly or explicitly to his struggle to come to terms with her loss. The resonance for me is that I also lost my own mother at the same age. So much of what Simon writes about describes my own feelings, my own experiences, my own circumstances. The key songs here are the opener “Living Is A Problem Because Everything Dies” and “Folding Stars”. “Living Is A Problem…” is a fairly heavy rocker, “Folding Stars” more of a U2-style anthem. But in both cases, Simon’s mother Eleanor is the subject of the song, her memory, his reaction. It all could be me at that time. The overarching feeling is of his feeling that he hasn’t had enough time with her
I pray to God that you’re right before my eyes / Bathed in white light / With haloes in your eyes / Don’t want to waste no more time / Time’s what we don’t have
but the line that chokes me up repeatedly is the chorus from “Folding Stars”
Eleanor, Eleanor, I would do anything for another minute with you
And then “Folding Stars” ends and leads into the amazing “9/15ths” with its repeated refrain of “We’re on a hell slide, help us, help us”. Harrowing.
That makes it sound like the whole album is one long misery. It’s not. “Who’s Got A Match?” is a great rock song, “The Conversation Is” is 80% poppy and 20% heavy, mixing the two up in the right proportions by halving the tempo and upping the guitars at just the right moment. “Now I’m Everyone” has an incredible uplifting 5/4 tempo coda, and closing track “Machines” is a plaintive joy. And if there’s one lesson to be learned from the lyrics of this album, it is in the unfortunately-titled “Get Fucked Stud”
You have to believe yourself to be happy / you can’t rely on someone else to be happy
4. Arctic Monkeys “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not” (2006)
Arctic Monkeys came seemingly out of nowhere to have what was at the time the fastest selling debut album in UK music history. So that means this is a pile of commercial crap doesn’t it? No indeed. Check those prejudices at the door, this is a masterpiece of slightly shambolic indie rock, with some of the most magnificent lyrics I have ever heard coming from the mouth of a teenager. Arctic Monkeys gathered a local following in their home town of Sheffield, South Yorkshire, but that following expanded via MySpace (remember MySpace?) to such a huge proportion that their first single “I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor” went straight in to the UK charts at No 1. Suddenly everyone was talking about this band. But why did they capture the imagination so much?
I’m just going to turn the clock back to the mid to late 1990’s. In the US, grunge was giving way to nu-metal as the in-vogue genre of American rock music. Ugly bands making ugly music, bands like Korn and Slipknot, thirtysomething multimillionaires screaming about teenage angst. Then through into the early noughties that mutated into crap punk, with bands like Good Charlotte, Sum 41 and Bowling For Soup who might have developed a sense of humour, but their music was hugely simplistic three-chord fodder with no innovation whatsoever. So American rock was in a state. But the thing is, British “rock” music was in an even worse state. In the mid-90’s we had the atrocious Britpop scene. Anyone remember Echobelly and Menswear? Me neither. Forgettable, interchangeable bands with no aspiration other than to be famous, get on Top Of The Pops and get photographed falling out of the Groucho Club with a model on each arm. Basically, they wanted to be Blur, but had none of the talent. Britpop then mutated into just dull music. Coldplay. Zzzzzzzz. Keane. Double Zzzzzzz. I mean, they could write songs a bit but they were just so boring. So when four 19-year-old Sheffield lads came along with a collection of spiky tales of teenage life in the North of England, everyone was so relieved to have a bit of excitement in rock music that they went out and bought this album in unprecedented numbers. And for once, the hype if anything didn’t do justice to the music. And the lyrics. Lyrically, this is my favourite album on the list. And there’s a Bob Dylan album coming up next (spoilers!)
Wonderful songs with exciting, sparkling arrangements all held together with Matt Helders’ virtuoso drumming, these guys can play in a manner that belies their years. But as I stress so many times in these mini-reviews, the musicianship is always in service of the songs. Solos are rare, but they are there when it’s appropriate, most notably used as an outro at the end of “Perhaps Vampires Is A Bit Strong, But…” and “A Certain Romance”. But it’s the lyrics delivered in Alex Turner’s sardonic Sheffield drawl that make this album such a memorable experience. Slices of life from youth culture, in fact often centred around the band’s experiences going to the pubs and clubs of Sheffield. Songs about the fear the day after a night out when you’ve drunk-texted your ex at 3am (“The View From The Afternoon”), the experience of being “on the pull” in a nightclub (“You Probably Couldn’t See For The Lights But You Were Staring Straight At Me”), and “Red Lights Indicate Doors Are Secure” will be familiar to anyone who has ever tried to hail a cab after closing time.
It’s not all pubs and clubs though. “Mardy Bum” is about a relationship where the magic has worn off and degenerated into a series of arguments, “Fake Tales Of San Francisco” shows the band’s disdain for others who try to pretend they are something they’re not, and “When The Sun Goes Down” tells of a prostitute and her pimp in a bleak and brutal tale that even nine years later is hard to believe was a UK no1 single.
Who’s that girl there? / I wonder what went wrong so that she had to roam the streets
But for me it’s the closing track “A Certain Romance” that is the key to this album. A romantic soul looking at the harsh and soulless world he inhabits and despairing that “There in’t no romance around here”, despairing that he can’t do anything about it;
Here’s the truth though / that they can’t see / they’d probably like to throw a punch at me / and if you could only see them then you would agree / agree that there in’t no romance around here
Of course he did do something about it. He wrote this Mercury Prize-winning album. The problem is, those songs are based upon experiences that are closed off to famous and successful rock musicians. So the gritty, down-to-earth lyrical subject matter only features on that first album. And that’s what makes it so special. The second Arctic Monkeys album Favourite Worst Nightmare is almost this one’s equal musically, but lyrically it just lacks the spark. The third and fourth albums (Humbug and Suck It And See) have moments of glory but are pretty hit-and-miss, and while their most recent album AM has been hugely popular, returning them to the to top of Brit rock once again, I don’t like it at all. In fact, it’s exactly the type of dull, lumpen sludge-rock that Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not was such a blessed relief from. But I can still dig this album out and listen to it any time, and the magic is still there. And for that, it should be cherished.
3. Bob Dylan “Highway 61 Revisited” (1965)
During my mini-review of Revolver by the Beatles at number 6, I mentioned in passing that my older siblings were big fans of Bob Dylan. By contrast, in childhood and the first half of my teenage years, I truly hated his music. Whiny flipping harmonica-blowing hippy who couldn’t bleeding sing to save his life. Awful protest singer. Old-fashioned nonsense. Yet nowadays I consider myself a huge fan of his Bobness. Highway 61 Revisited is the record that changed my mind. But it had to be foisted upon me in a slightly underhand manner…
Back in the mid-80s when I was still in the full grip of Dylan-hating, my eldest brother gave me a cassette. A C90. Remember those? An album on each side. Well I had asked him to copy me an album of his. I can’t even remember who it was, probably John Prine or the Eagles. And I listened to the cassette and all was well. But the other side of the cassette wasn’t, as I had assumed, blank. I had one of those “auto reverse” cassette decks, which reversed the direction of play at the end of one side and played the other side without you having to actually remove the cassette and turn it over. So when the album I wanted ended, the C90 auto-reversed on to the other side, and I heard that snare drum kick off “Like A Rolling Stone”. I had never heard it before, and it was a real “Road to Damascus” moment for me. It sounded so sparky, so fresh, like it had been recorded the previous week and not twenty years earlier. And then the singing began and the penny dropped. Oh. My. God. It’s Bob Dylan. And it’s amazing. But maybe it’s just a one-off. Even a stopped clock gives the right time twice a day, so even Bob Dylan can make one decent song. Next up, “Tombstone Blues”. Again, full of life, exciting rock and roll with intriguing lyrics. All the way through the album, every single track, time after time I was being dazzled and amazed by the music coming from my speakers. I was so wrong about Bob Dylan. By the time the cassette cut out halfway through “Desolation Row” (the album is longer than 45 minutes!) I was a convert. Highway 61 Revisited very quickly became my all-time favourite album, at least until it was overtaken by the final two records on this list around 7 or 8 years later.
I now count myself as a huge Dylan fan, having been to see him live in concert nine or ten times (I have lost count) in the last 25 years. As a live act, he is almost peerless, constantly reinventing his songs, making them work in new ways. He is defnitely not a greatest hits jukebox, he is still at the age of 74 an evolving artist, even if his artistry now is at least as much in re-interpreting his older songs as coming up with new ones.
What I also realised in time was that far from being a hippy, Dylan’s attitude in the 60s was much closer to punk, sticking two fingers up to the establishment and brazenly defying expectations. His famous slot at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival springs to mind, when he infuriated folk music fans by turning up with The Hawks (soon to be renamed The Band) to play loud, electric rock & roll. Or a few years later, when The Beatles and The Rolling Stones are coming up with increasingly intricate and overblown magnum opuses, prog rock is starting to explode everywhere and in the middle of all this Dylan releases the stripped-back and low-key John Wesley Harding album, then follows it up with the country-influenced Nashville Skyline! He is basically a lifelong contrarian.
There are many Dylan albums with many things to recommend them. Even his more recent albums are well worth a listen, particularly 1997’s Time Out Of Mind and 2012’s Tempest. But the core of his body of work is contained in what I consider two trilogies of albums. The mid-60s trilogy of Bringing It All Back Home / Highway 61 Revisited / Blonde on Blonde and the mid-70s trilogy of Blood On The Tracks / Desire / Street Legal. Listen to those if you want to appreciate his genius. But out of all of them, listen to Highway 61.
Unfortunately Sony Music have pulled all videos from YouTube containing their original music, including all the ones they put there themselves! So you’ll just have to take my word on how amazing Highway 61 Revisited is.
2. My Bloody Valentine “Loveless” (1991)
Now we’re really getting to the sharp end, and it was a fairly tough decision to choose between this and the record an the top of the chart. In the end it was a question of scope over perfection, which is to say that Loveless is as close to musical perfection as I have ever encountered. So why is it not my number one? Well, it’s perfection within a very narrow band.
My Bloody Valentine formed in Dublin in the early 80s by childhood friends Kevin Shields (guitar) and Colm O’Ciosoig (Drums), fronted by singer Dave Conway and something of a revolving door of other members. After attracting very little attention despite relocating around Europe and ending up in London, Conway left to pursue a career as a writer and a stable foursome formed with Kevin Shields taking up vocal duties in addition to guitar, Colm O’Ciosoig still on drums, supported by Londoners Bilinda Butcher (vocals/guitar) and Debbie Googe (bass). They attracted widespread attention with the raucous single “You Made Me Realise” (my ringtone on my work phone, much to the chagrin of my boss) followed up with the album Isn’t Anything in 1988. These set the template of loud fuzzy guitars and dreamy ethereal vocals often featuring both Shields and Butcher singing together, which inspired a whole swathe of bands in the next two or three years. By the time MBV re-emerged in 1991, they had assumed legendary status, a Velvet Underground of the 1980s. What they did next would make that whole generation of bands almost redundant. Those bands were collectively known as “Shoegaze”, because the bands used so many guitar effects pedals that they looked like they spent their entire concerts staring at their shoes. The effects pedals were to try to mimic what MBV had managed to do with barely any effect pedals. Just some very clever ways of playing guitar like nobody had ever done before, with lashings of feedback and distortion.
Snippets of Loveless had been heard on EP releases prior to the album’s release. The dance-influenced “Soon” featured on the Glider EP in 1990, and the more delicate “To Here Knows When” appeared on the follow-up Tremolo EP in early 1991. In fact, the names of those two EPs hint at the unusual guitar-playing technique employed by Kevin Shields. He calls it “Glide Guitar”, and it basically involves using the tremolo arm to bring chords in and out of focus. When you depress the tremolo arm, it causes the strings to detune, but the different strings detune at different rates, so when he plays a chord with the tremolo arm depressed, it strikes a discordant tone. Then he slowly releases the tremolo arm with the result that the chord comes slowly into focus. I know of nobody else who plays guitar in this way, and it puts Kevin Shields in that category along with a few others already mentioned of being a guitarist whose style is immediately recognisable. Bilinda Butcher also plays in this way, but let there be no doubt it is Shields’ technique. Probably the best illustration of Glide Guitar is on the track “Several Girls Galore” from Isn’t Anything.
I’m keen to stress that this guitar-playing technique is something that Kevin Shields came up with because really, while Isn’t Anything is a My Bloody Valentine album, Loveless is a Kevin Shields album. All the guitars are played by him. All the drums apart from two tracks are played (or programmed) by him. Colm O’Ciosoig drums on one track, and created one track on his own (the bizarre instrumental “Touched”, which sounds like Walt Disney having an acid flashback), Bilinda Butcher sings on several tracks and has her voice sampled and turned into an instrument on the remarkable “Blown A Wish”. Debbie Googe isn’t on the album at all. This is the Kevin Shields show. And what a show it is.
It’s actually hard to describe the music on Loveless without coming over with a dose of synaesthesia. Imagine it’s early morning and your alarm clock goes off. You feel warm and snug in bed, and desperately don’t want to have to get up. You reach over to turn off the alarm and remember that it’s Saturday and you don’t have to get up. You turn over, half awake, half asleep, contented, neither fully conscious nor dreaming. This is what Loveless sounds like. Yes, I know that’s probably not a great guide, but it’s the best that I can do. I know of nothing else by anyone else that sounds like it. It creates a world all of its own and wraps the listener up in its warm fuzzy embrace. It manages to be achingly delicate and blisteringly loud at the same time. It is a magnificent, era-defining, almost unrepeatable achievement.
I should also say that when I first heard it I didn’t like it. The vocals are so low in the mix as to be frequently inaudible. The drums often drop to little more than a heartbeat. The glide guitar technique is so odd on first listen that a track like “Blown A Wish” made me think that my record player had gone wonky. And it was so different from anything else I had ever heard before that I just didn’t get it. The critical reception was broadly positive, but as the months went on, its reputation grew. Bands that I respect (and in particular Bob Mould of Sugar and Hüsker Dü) called it a monumental achievement, and in Mould’s case the greatest album he had ever heard. So I persevered and gave it another chance. On and off, over maybe six months, I slowly grew to love this record. It is a thing of singular beauty and I adore it.
It should be noted that the pressure to follow up such a legendary album became too much for the band to live up to. They split in 1996 never having recorded another album. But Kevin Shields kept on working, on and off. They got back together in 2007 for a reunion tour, and continued to tour intermittently over the next 6 years, occasionally dropping a new song into the set. Then, with literally less than 24 hours’ notice via Twitter, My Bloody Valentine released their third album MBV in 2013 exclusively from their own website. It didn’t disappoint. I can safely say that even if Loveless had never been made, MBV would be in my top 10.
1. The Boo Radleys “Giant Steps” (1993)
So here we are. After what seems like an eternity we arrive at my top choice. The greatest album I have ever heard in my life. And it’s 1990’s Liverpudlian underachievers The Boo Radleys who top my bill.
I have a theory. Every music fan has a “Giant Steps”. By “music fan” I mean someone for whom music is or was an obsession. And something has to feed that obsession. Nothing has fed that obsession like Giant Steps. I said it was a tough choice between Loveless and Giant Steps, and it was. However the key difference is that Loveless is very much of a particular genre, even if it is in a genre of its own, whereas Giant Steps is an eclectic mix of multiple genres, mixing and matching in a smorgasbord of musical delights. Everything I love about music is contained in this one album. Seventeen songs, sixty-four minutes of utter delight, Giant Steps was the album that made me sit up and think “Wow. So that’s what you can do with music.” It changed my expectations of what music should be.
The Boo Radleys emerged from the “shoegazing” scene which My Bloody Valentine had largely inspired. Their first album Ichabod and I was pure shoegaze, the second album Everything’s Alright Forever tried to expand upon that imprint with a wider sonic palette, but ultimately was little more than a very good shoegaze album. Disappointed that this album had failed to expand their sound to their satisfaction, guitarist/songwriter Martin Carr and bassist Tim Brown rebranded themselves as Boo! Productions and set themselves the task of creating the next Boo Radleys album. I bought Giant Steps on double vinyl on the strength of having enjoyed Everything’s Alright Forever plus some very enthusiastic reviews of the new one. Almost from the first second I put the needle in the groove my expectations of music were transformed.
From those first waves of “ooo”s accompanied by keyboard noises, backwards masked heartbeats and a voice proclaiming that “all tones on this tape are recorded on Ampex Operating Level 700Hz”, out of the murk appears Rob Cieka’s drums, then Martin Carr’s squally guitar kicks in and suddenly we’re in the midst of “I Hang Suspended”. It’s probably not that different from their previous work, but much more sparky and alive, with a great mid-chorus key change. I can clearly remember listening to this album for the first time and exclaiming in the middle of the first chorus “They’ve got better!”, and I already liked them to begin with. Then we’re off on a journey round the best of music.
Second track “Upon 9th and Fairchild” is a dub reggae bass and drum combination overlaid with lashings of guitar feedback and a distorted ice-cold vocal from Sice Rowbottom. Even after two tracks, I had no idea where this was going next. Next was, in fact, the jingle jangle indie pop of “Wish I Was Skinny”. When that came on my turntable, I literally burst out laughing at the joy and audacity of all this. Never before or since has an album grabbed my attention so much on the first listen, never before or since have I instantly known that what I was hearing was something that was going to stick with me forever.
I’m not going to do a full track-by-track listing, suffice to say that multiple genres are covered. Not necessarily in exactly the way they would be covered by musicians completely fluent in the genre, but the slant put on it by four indie kids from Liverpool is what gives it the magic. Floaty psychedelic pop ending with a bumblebee guitar solo on “Butterfly McQueen”, the mechanised rhythms of “Rodney King (Song for Lenny Bruce)”, even a touch of jazz on “Thinking of Ways”. I haven’t even got off side two of four.
It’s side three that is the killer. Starting off with the deeply unsettling “Spun Around”, which sounds like cold turkey from some unspecified drug, segueing beautifully into “If You Want It, Take It”, probably the most straightforward rock song on the album, we then have the dreamy laid-back sixties-style pop of “Best Lose The Fear”, “Take The Time Around” which could have been an outtake from a lost My Bloody Valentine album and then we get to “Lazarus”. The centrepiece of the album, “Lazarus” had already had a single release in advance of Giant Steps hitting the record shops. However the single release omitted the minute-long introduction, the deep, woofer-stretching dub bass gradually morphing into the trumpet-led hook and finally the acoustic and paintive verses beginning
I, I must be losing my mind.
Listening to Giant Steps, I know exactly how they feel. And that’s without side four’s completed bizarre “Run My Way Runway”, which sound like being strapped to a jet engine at takeoff. It is one of the most out-there tracks I have ever heard, and for months I thought it was just a noise. I couldn’t get it, even while the other sixteen tracks were all in their own way works of genius. All I could think was that the trumpet reminded me of Scotland The Brave. But now, I could listen to that track till the cows come home. There is literally nothing else like it. I honestly cannot conceive of how anyone could even think to make a track like that, never mind understand that it is in fact amazing. And that’s what it is.
It is hard to convey the sheer scope and raw ambition of this album. There is nothing else in my music collection that remotely compares to it, even the other Boo Radleys albums. It is a remarkable achievement, and I think the fact that the band named it “Giant Steps” signifies that they were very much aware just what a remarkable leap forward it was when compared to their prior work.
The Boo Radleys’ career post-Giant Steps is an abject lesson in the importance of credibility. Despite widespread critical acclaim for Giant Steps both from the music press and fans, their singles repeatedly failed to crack the top 40. So their first single after Giant Steps was, depending upon your point of view, a work of pop genius or a cynical attempt to go commercial. “Wake Up Boo!” was and remains the band’s only top 10 hit in the UK, and it completely destroyed their credibility. Almost overnight they went from genre-defying musical magpies to cynical chart-bothering britpop embarrassments. It was a travesty. The next album Wake Up was perfectly enjoyable, even if it did feature a few too many cheesy pop tunes. Fifth album C’Mon Kids was much heavier, as if trying to jettison the pop fans who joined at Wake Up. The sixth and final album Kingsize returned to more of the genre-hopping displayed in Giant Steps, and is well worth a listen. In fact, just about the only genre missing from Giant Steps is dance music, and the Boo Radleys finally managed to hit that genre bang on point with their final single “Free Huey” from Kingsize, which sounded like the glorious lovechild of The Prodigy and a tune.
But Giant Steps is the Boo Radleys album to which I keep going back. It is a joyous, wide-eyed, ridiculously ambitious album that hits just about every mark in what I love about music. In a bit of random googling before writing this mini-review I found a few other articles written relatively recently about this album, so I’m going to borrow a few quotations.
- “The album flows as one breathtaking piece – a stoned, psychedelic mixtape, not so much genre-hopping as genre-mashing through its many rooms-within-rooms.”
- “To those who love it, (Giant Steps) was that decade’s White Album – a kaleidoscopic hopscotch of styles new and old, an honest, confessional pop album, and a much more deserving successor of the Beatles’ maverick experimentation than the much-touted straight-ahead rock & roll of their Creation labelmates, Oasis.”
- “There are albums, there are great albums, and then there’s Giant Steps”
- “An incredible work of genius”
- “Giant Steps remains an unimpeachable legacy, a genuine modern masterpiece in times when the word is overused and abused. For 64 minutes in 1993 The Boo Radleys revolutionised The Beatles and out Smiled The Beach Boys. For 64 minutes they were the greatest band on the planet.”
For me I will just say this: Giant Steps is the greatest 64 minutes of music I have ever heard. It is sometimes a challenging listen, in fact tracks like “Spun Around” and “Run My Way Runway” are about as far from easy listening as I can imagine, but my goodness is it rewarding. Best. Album. Ever.