Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Gratuitous Lists: Seven Great Albums

There's a thing going round asking people to list their seven favourite/most important albums of all time (to them). So here's mine:

Automatic for the People

Tracklisting: Drive • Try Not to Breathe • The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite • Everybody Hurts • New Orleans Instrumental No. 1 • Sweetness Follows • Monty Got a Raw Deal • Ignoreland • Star Me Kitten • Man on the Moon • Nightswimming • Find the River

Although they'd been knocking around since 1981, ceaselessly touring and releasing multiple critically-acclaimed albums, it was REM's seventh LP, Out of Time, that finally catapulted them to superstardom. Fronted by the monster hits "Losing My Religion" and "Shiny Happy People", the record propelled the band to ubiquitous status, to both the band's pleasure but discomfort. Although grateful for the financial security afforded by their success, the band were wary of becoming "radio-friendly unit-shifters" and low-key rebelled. They refused to tour Out of Time and went straight back into the studio to rush-record a follow up.

Drummer Bill Berry insisted that the record had to rock hard and the rest of the band initially agreed, but both music and lyrics instead went very stripped-back, bare and acoustic. After the expansive Out of Time, Automatic for the People (named after the motto of a local restaurant, Weaver D's Delicious Fine Foods: "It's automatic, people!") was introverted, moody and - mostly - quiet. The band were confident that they'd made an album that would not repeat the monster success of its forebear, especially in a music industry now dominated by grunge (Michael Stipe gladly handing over the "spokesman of a generation" mantle to his friend Kurt Cobain).

Instead, the record utterly eclipsed it (to the tune of just under 20 million copies sold by itself). "Everybody Hurts" became the melancholic anthem of the year and the album generated a further five singles, although frankly every song on the album could be a single bar the instrumental. It's kind of cool now to disdain Automatic a little and instead opt for Murmur, Document or New Adventures in Hi-Fi as REM's top album, but that ignores the album's irrepressible atmosphere which mixes hope and melancholy, love and hate, and politics and emotion.


Depeche Mode

Tracklisting: Barrel of a Gun • The Love Thieves • Home • It's No Good • Uselink • Useless • Sister of Night • Jazz Thieves • Freestate • The Bottom Line • Insight

By 1996 Depeche Mode had been through the wars. Over a decade of near-constant touring and recording had left them broken and battered. Lead singer Dave Gahan had undergone a lengthy spell of heroin addiction resulting in a near-death experience. Songwriter Martin Gore had faced a battle with alcoholism. Keyboardist Andy Fletcher had bowed out of half the tour for their previous album, Songs of Faith and Devotion (1993), citing depression and mental and emotional issues (resulting in part from his bandmates' struggles).

It was all too much for the band's second songwriter and underrated musical creative force, Alan Wilder. Feeling he'd carried the band through the previous album and tour (often showing up alone to soundcheck as his bands were dealing with their demons elsewhere), as well as feeling he'd not been credited properly for his role in developing the band's sound - most notably in turning "Enjoy the Silence" from a slow-paced acoustic number into the monster, band-defining hit it became - he quit in 1995. It was therefore a bruised band that reconvened to record their next album.

Despite the problems, they had at least given the band some much-needed time off. Their ninth album, produced by Tim "Bomb the Bass" Simenon, therefore saw a surprisingly refreshed band reuniting and, for the first time in many years, enjoyed themselves in the studio. Martin Gore, now responsible for 100% of the album's musical and lyrical direction for the first time since their second album, rose to the occasion by penning songs that mixed the rock influence of their previous record (in lead single "Barrel of a Gun") with a stripped back, almost melancholic air. The album also generated the band's biggest hit since "Enjoy the Silence" with "It's No Good", a critical appraisal of people who can't let go of a lost love, as well as giving occasional-singer Martin Gore his biggest lead track with "Home".

Although no-one could argue that Ultra is the Mode's best album (a title more properly contested by Black Celebration and Violator), it was the first electronic album I ever heard in its entirety or bought.

New Order
Get Ready

Tracklisting: Crystal • 60 Miles an Hour • Turn My Way • Vicious Streak • Primitive Notion • Slow Jam • Rock the Shack • Someone Like You • Close Range • Run Wild

By 1993, electronic legends New Order had spent a decade and a half touring, recording and selling their souls for Factory Records. Unfortunately, a dubious financial deal, constant battles with the taxman and the band's decision to financially contribute to Factory's custom-built Manchester superclub, the Hacienda, resulted in near-constant financial stress. This was mirrored by problems developing in the band's internal dynamic between its two primary creative forces: guitarist/keyboardist/singer Bernard Sumner and bassist Peter Hook. Sumner had been pushing the band in a more electronic direction, but Hook had tried to keep them in touch with their post-punk rock roots as Joy Division. The tensions between the two had exploded on the 1993 album Republic, where Sumner arrived late and rewrote the entire album after Hook and their other bandmates (drummer Stephen Morris and keyboardist Gillian Gilbert, now also husband and wife) had completed the demos.

The band very nearly disintegrated, but the rise of Britpop provided them with different creative outlets: Sumner worked with the Pet Shop Boys' Neil Tennant and the Smiths' Johnny Marr on a supergroup, Electronic, whilst Hook founded a rockier band, Monaco, which scored several hit singles in 1997. The band did a couple of festivals and tours where they found themselves warmly welcomed as elder statesmen of UK music. The constant praise heaped on them by younger bands like the Manic Street Preachers and Oasis also helped. The band finally reconvened in 2000 to record a new album.

Compared to the fraught sessions for their previous few records, Get Ready came together surprisingly well. Hook and Sumner found themselves more in tune than almost at any time since Joy Division. The sessions were long and involved multiple producers, but Sumner and Hook maintained an excellent working relationship. The result was an album that may be their rockiest, but also includes plenty of synths and electronic moments.

The album was warmly received as a return to their best form. The pounding basslines and synths saw the album become beloved by ad agencies and TV producers (just about every track on the album has backed a Top Gear feature at one time or another). It was also influential in an unexpected way: lead single "Crystal" was accompanied by a performance video, but the band felt that the kids didn't want to see a bunch of old guys jumping around so drafted in a group of actors and called them "The Killers". A year later, an American would-be songwriter named Brandon Flowers took note and named his own nascent band after the fake band in the video, and they went on to become (for a while) the biggest band in the world. For New Order the future was less happy: the next album, Waiting for the Siren's Call (2005), was a painful, divisive record to make and the band split up in its aftermath. They then reconvened, controversially without informing Peter Hook, leading to years of legal action and acrimony.

The Bends

Tracklisting: Planet Telex • The Bends • High and Dry • Fake Plastic Trees • Bones • (Nice Dream) • Just • My Iron Lung • Bullet Proof...I Wish I Was • Black Star • Sulk • Street Spirit (Fade Out)

British rock band Radiohead had been building a following quietly for several years before they released their first album, Pablo Honey (1993). What would have gone down as a solid-but-unspectacular debut was transformed into a rock behemoth by the unexpected success of the lead single, "Creep". This made them huge in the United States and put pressure on the quiet Oxford quintet to produce an even bigger follow-up.

Instead, unconsciously following the path of their friends and idols R.E.M., the band retreated into melancholia, producing an album of songs focused on themes of alienation, sorrow and the darker side of life. This resulted in the expected commercial decline, but also a massive critical reappraisal. Q Magazine called the record a "powerful, bruised, majestically desperate record of frighteningly good songs", which is hard to argue with. In a year dominated by a three-way between Oasis, Blur and Pulp for popularity and dominance of the British charts, Radiohead emerged with the greatest critical acclaim.

The Bends also set the band's future direction: engineer Nigel Godrich was promoted to full producer for their next album (and all the ones since) and the band became obsessed with the mix of melody and darkness on album closer "Street Spirit (Fade Out)". This set the tone for their next record, the majestic world-bestriding colossus of OK Computer (1997), and for all that followed.

Manic Street Preachers
The Holy Bible

Tracklisting: Yes • Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayit'sworldwouldfallapart • Of Walking Abortion • She is Suffering • Archives of Pain • Revol • 4st 7lb • Mausoleum • Faster • This is Yesterday • Die in the Summertime • The Intense Humming of Evil • P.C.P.

The Manic Street Preachers had always been a band out of step with time. Growing up against the backdrop of a post-Miner's Strike Wales, with booming unemployment and growing despair at a lack of jobs and opportunities, the Manics rebelled against the macho culture of the valleys by embracing glam rock, big hair and leopardskin. Lyricists Nicky Wire and Richey Edwards imbued their songs with literary and political references ranging from the obvious to the bizarrely obscure, and Edwards in particular seemed to enjoy challenging the band's musical wing (guitarist/singer James Dean Bradfield and drummer Sean Moore) with wall-of-text lyrics that read more as strange tone poems.

The band's first album, Generation Terrorists (1992), nodded at glam rock and Guns n' Roses just as those forms of music had gone completely out of fashion; Gold Against the Soul (1993) sought to fuse Madchester beats to grunge just as those forms of music started to wane. Perhaps stung by criticisms that the Manics had not walked the walk and had occasionally put the aesthetic before the art, the band reconvened to make an album that was utterly uncompromising.

Recorded in Cardiff, with the band commuting into work, the album was primarily the work of Richey Edwards, who contributed about 75% of the lyrics (Nicky only contributed the song "This is Yesterday", a few lines to other songs and massaged the lyrics of the rest). Richey had been gripped by depression and alcoholism, and had been badly affected by trips to Holocaust museums in eastern Europe, watching a Channel 4 documentary on prostitution in LA as well as encountering eating disorders and reading a lot of J.G. Ballard. For his part, James Dean Bradfield was determined to make an album with a cohesive sound of harsh guitars, rejecting the largess of the record company that had, to his mind, made the previous album sound too produced and safe. The result was a harsh, alienating and bewildering record which, in Sean Moore's view, "would not be played at parties".

The Holy Bible is the UK's answer to In Utero (1993), a harsh album about the darker side of humanity, except that The Holy Bible goes much deeper into the abyss. Anorexia study "4st 7lb" is named after the weight at which the adult human being is no longer expected to survive, whilst "Mausoleum" is a trip into the Holocaust that is pretty bleak. "Yes" is a disconcerting look at prostitution and the behaviour of the men who indulge in it, whilst "P.C.P." muses on drug addiction (whilst cheekily suggesting the title actually refers to the Portuguese Communist Party). But even this trip to the dark side couldn't fully repress the Manics' natural tendency towards melody: angry rocky "Faster" remains a mainstay of their live set to this day and "This is Yesterday" is an unexpected flower in the desert, a beautiful paen to nostalgia and childhood.

The album received rave reviews and blanket critical acclaim, and saw the band invited to tour America for the first time. But on the eve of the tour, lyricist Richey Edwards disappeared. His car was later found near the Severn Bridge on the Wales/England border. The other bandmembers, shellshocked, regrouped and came back in 1996 with Everything Must Go, their other masterpiece. But The Holy Bible remains their figurehead, an album of dark intensity and artistic integrity unmatched in their canon (except for Everything Must Go and maybe 2009's Journal for Plague Lovers, which saw the band using the other lyrics left behind by Richey before his disappearance).

Just don't put it on at parties.

The xx

Tracklisting: Intro • VCR • Crystalised • Islands • Heart Skipped a Beat • Fantasy • Shelter • Basic Space • Infinity • Night Time • Stars

Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim met at school, became friends and formed a band together, with Croft singing and playing guitar with Smith playing bass. They were quickly joined by two other schoolmates: Baria Qureshi on guitar and Jamie Smith on keyboards. Taking the name "The xx", this line-up began performing together in 2006. Things came together relatively quickly: they were snapped up by record label Young Turks and recorded their first album.

Released in 2009, xx is an album of astonishing power, forming elaborate soundscapes out of a stripped-back, bare guitar and bass sound, occasionally backed up by Jame Smith's sparse keyboards. It's a record of formidable tunes, given added power through Croft's heartbreaking vocals. Accessible and artistic in equal measure, it's a far more confident, accomplished and powerful record than any album written by teenagers has any right being.

They followed up their debut by winning the Mercury Music Prize, firing Qureshi and making the excellent Coexist (2012) and the more middling I See You (2017), which hints at the band taking a more mainstream direction. But their debut that remains exceptional.

Joy Division
Unknown Pleasures

Tracklisting: Disorder • Day of the Lords • Candidate • Insight • New Dawn Fades • She's Lost Control • Shadowplay • Wilderness • Interzone • I Remember Nothing

Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook were school friends whose lives - and the future course of musical history - was irrevocably changed when they saw the Sex Pistols performing live in Manchester in 1976. Despite not having played music before, the duo decided on the spot to form a band: Sumner picked up the electric guitar and Hook bought a cheap bass and monitor. Unable to hear himself playing due to the crappy sound quality, he switched to playing high, immediately coining himself a signature "sound". Drummer Stephen Morris and singer Ian Curtis completed the lineup.

Sumner and Hook experimented with writing lyrics, but happily surrendered that job to Curtis. Inspired by literature and history, Curtis had wide-ranging interests and took these ideas into his lyrics, which rapidly became far more literary than most of their contemporaries. The band's songs started off as punk-alikes but soon grew more sophisticated, helped by the fact that Sumner and Hook both turned out to be pretty good musicians constantly hunting for new ideas (unlike many of their punk friends), Curtis was a phenomenal lyricist and even introduced technology into his vocal performance, and Morris was an amazing drummer. The biggest problem the band had was finding a name: their initial choice of the Stiff Kittens was soon abandoned as being ridiculous. They played as Warsaw for a while, until they received a cease-and-desist demand from an angry London collective known as the Warsaw Pakt (who had achieved a very minor and long-forgotten hit single a year or two earlier). Curtis suggested "Joy Division", a named he'd found in a history book that sounded quite distinctive to him. It turned out this book was one about World War II, with the "joy division" being a German euphemism for Jewish women who'd sold themselves into prostitution to avoid being killed in the gas chambers. This name led to the band being angrily denounced as Nazi supporters, something the band fiercely rejected but, out of sheer Manchester bloody-mindedness, refused to change their name.

The band became the vanguard of Factory Records, a new, local outfit spearheaded by smooth-talking, charismatic TV host Tony Wilson. To record the band's first album, Tony hired Martin Hannett, a visionary who'd bought the first digital delay kit to be shipped to the United Kingdom. Hannett was also a workaholic, drug addict and alcoholic whose obsessive quest for perfectionism had a tendency to drive people insane, but also resulted in records that didn't quite sound like anything else on the planet. Coupled with the incredibly simple cover design from Peter Saville - a representation of radio waves from the pulsar PSR B1919+21, located 1,000 light-years from Earth in the constellation Vulpecula, which now adorns millions of T-shirts worldwide - it made for a record that looked and sounded unlike anything else out there.

Joy Division's later story - Ian Curtis's suicide and the band's metamorphosis into New Order - is well-known. But it's this record that introduced them to the wider world and sealed their place in musical history. As one critic put it, this album embodies "beauty in the dark."

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Anonymous said...

"the quiet Cambridge quintet..."

Radiohead hail from Oxford.

Joseph E. said...

Worthy picks each and every one of these.

The only album (and band) here I'm not very familiar with is Manic Street Preachers. I know them in a general sense, but they never made much of a splash over here in the U.S. Based on how much I like all of your other picks, I'll probably like them. I'll make it my mission to dig into them over the next few days.

My 7 would probably be the following (although ask me again next week and I might have a slightly different list).

Toad The Wet Sprocket - Fear
Crowded House - Together Alone
R.E.M. - Automatic for the People
U2 - Achtung Baby
Depeche Mode - Songs of Faith and Devotion
Midnight Oil - Blue Sky Mining
Travis - The Man Who

Ugh! There are so many great albums being left off! I seriously hope my life never depends on my actually deciding once and for all on my seven favorites.

Unknown said...

The Holy Bible is the best album on this list in my opinion. However, as Adam said, it’s very dark, I can only listen to it if I know it’s not gonna send me into a spiral.