There’s some sort of meme thing going round about ‘10 important albums’ which I’m choosing to interpret as ‘the 10 albums which I think have had the greatest influence on the music I make (or aspire to make)’.
It’s interesting, writing this, how whilst these albums are ‘significant’ to me, they’re not all my ‘favourite albums’. Some of them I don’t listen to much, and some I view as flawed masterpieces.
In some kind of vaguely chronological order of impact on me, they are these:
Pulp – His N Hers
This was the first album I had on CD. Bought after Common People changed my life, but before Different Class had come out. Common People, of course, remains the consummate pop song. It is the song by which all others are judged. But as we’re talking albums ‘His N Hers’ made more of a mark on me by virtue of being the first set of Cocker songs I absorbed in full. The subject matter – whether it was working class lifestyles, outsiders who feel they can criticise working class lifestyles, the broken innards of relationships, love and lust – always had a serious commentary made palatable and warm by the wit and affection in the writing. There are no goodies and baddies in Pulp songs, just believably flawed human beings. And damn good tunes. As I’ve continued on my ‘musical journey’ I can revisit this album and hear all those influences from Cool Bands that, as a n00b, just blended into magical otherworldly pop. I felt for the first time like music could be ‘meaningful’.
Belle & Sebastian – If You’re Feeling Sinister
I’m not sure this is actually the best B&S album (it’s this or Tigermilk), but again it was the first one I got. It’s the combination of wonderfully unfolding melodies and those very relatable but at the same time utterly obscure lyrics that made me love it. With hindsight I think a lot of it went over my head at the time, I don’t know what I thought the S&M in ‘She was into S&M and Bible studies/not everyone’s cup of tea’ stood for, but I sure didn’t know.
B&S were and still are a large ensemble with every instrument doing something memorable and adding to the song in a way that some bands with only a couple of instruments sometimes fail to do. And yet you could learn to strum your way through these songs in your bedroom and they sounded just as great. Another thing that endeared it to me was the utter anonymity of the band. No pictures, no biographical information (at the time). It felt important to me for a band to be able to make music this excellent without it being about ‘them’.
Aphex Twin – Richard D James album
I don’t think there’s an album on this list which I have continued to listen to over the years as much as this one. Even Pulp get played less often. This is the perfect balance between RDJ’s ability to construct wonderful melodies and mix them with cutting edge production. It was his last album before ‘Drukqs’, where at times he pushed his production a little too far into giddy ridiculousness. For showing that electronic music could be ‘musical’ this album is unparalleled. When one of the preview tracks for ‘Drukqs’ was a solo piano piece, you could absolutely tell that it was the work of the same man through the melody alone. For all the blatter and scrape of Aphex’s drum programming, it’s always been the composition that gives his work the edge. And it’s this record – along with ‘Come to Daddy’ and ‘Windowlicker’ – that first sparked my interest in electronic music.
Godspeed You Black Emperor! – f#a#oo
Quite simply one of the most heart-breakingly beautiful records ever made. One which make a mockery of the other ‘post-rock’ bands around at the time by showing them up as personality free geeks fiddling with toys (or so my teenaged self thought, my adult self is a little kinder in retrospect). Mogwai might have ranted about people selling out, but they would then name a song ‘Kappa’ for money on an album that – side by side with this one (I bought them both on the same day) – suddenly sounded like bland pish. Godspeed were toiling away, (like B&S) in anonymity, somehow imbuing their work with devastating critiques of capitalism and how it breaks people, not with lyrics but with found fragments of the words of others. So again a record I love as much for the idealogy around it as for the actual sounds in the grooves. Vinyl copies came with a penny crushed by the trains that ran (then but now no longer) behind the squat/studio where it was recorded. A tangible physical link between the ‘fan’ and the real world location this music was made. Utterly perfect and intense.
The Velvet Underground and Nico
I’ve often said that if I were to go on Mastermind, The Velvet Undergound would be my specialist subject. This album sits where it does almost peripherally to my deep engagement, as an impressionable youngster, with the individual philosophies and sensibilities of Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucket, Nico, and Andy Warhol, and how they combined in this banana-fronted package. How the avant garde gently but unmistakeably informs ‘I’m Waiting for the Man’ and ‘Venus in Furs’… Lou Reed’s commitment to making pop lyrics something clever and non-banal… and the seismic impact they had on most of the western pop music I’ve loved that came after. Listen closely to ‘Common People’ and there it is – a John Cale-style droning viola throughout the track!
Pavement – Brighten the Corners
In my mind I play the guitar like Stephen Malkmus, but only in my mind. I struggle to pick a favourite Pavement album but tend to plump for this one (I may be the only person who thinks ‘Terror Twilight’ is a contender). ‘Angular’ and ‘slack’ get used a lot to describe Pavement – probably because they’re really good words for them. It isn’t Malkmus’ flash that makes him great it’s how those guitar parts don’t start or end where you expect, and don’t take the obvious route in between… and yet (it always come back to this) it’s a pop record. It’s a record that wants you to enjoy it. Light hearted and upbeat, sounding for all the world like ‘just some guys in a band having fun’. Effortless but unique – a mid-point between Weezer and Captain Beefheart.
Nick Drake – Pink Moon
In my mind I play the guitar like Nick Drake, but only in my mind. ‘Pink Moon’ is my favourite because it dispenses with all the strings and the faint hint of schmaltz that contributors occasionally brought to his first two records. Much is made of his depression around this time but the honest reality is that Drake would never live long enough to develop much character as a lyricist – even the posthumously released ‘Black Eyed Dog’ used a well-worn metaphor to talk about his depression, though it was undoubtedly real. As a singer he was pleasant but hardly intense. Oh but his guitar playing! Is that really only one guitar on ‘Road’? Apparently so. The record was done as live takes, with only the briefest of piano overdubs on the title track. The endless, intricate, tumbling finger picking seems to cram more music than is possible into six strings. Every time I pick up an acoustic guitar this is what I’m aiming for (and maybe a bit of Jim O’Rourke too).
Radiohead – Kid A
I don’t get why people don’t like Radiohead, honestly I don’t. Words like ‘miserable’ and ‘pretentious’ get used by the same people who then enjoy Fellini or David Lynch films. Music shouldn’t be criticised for having ambitions beyond the box marked ‘fun’ – aspiring to poetry and compositional complexity on a par with modern classical music had been part of what Radiohead did ever since ‘The Bends’. But it was Kid A where they really took a risk and changed the game.
Musically… well it begins and ends with ‘Idioteque’ for me. Remember how I loved the Velvet Underground for combining the avant-garde with pop music? Here Radiohead made a huge, high profile step towards doing that with the cutting edge electronica of Warp records and the like. It’s probably only the third or fourth best Radiohead album, but this is the one that made the impact on me. I’m also inclined to think that it was this record that led to the interest in electronica in the decade plus since. It rescued synths from their association with eighties cheese/commercial dance and made them something serious young white men like myself could take an interest in. I’d already started digging into Aphex Twin when this came out, but afterwards it unlocked Autechre, Boards of Canada, Four Tet, and everything after….
As for ‘peripheral stuff’, you might not have liked the strident politicking of Thom Yorke at the time, well I did. I think that listening to what he was saying, and reading the books he plugged around the time this record came out made me a better person. Started me on a path to caring about social justice which now drives my non-musical career and continues to inform the things I write songs about. Is it somehow gauche to be induced to care by admiration for a musician? Perhaps it is, but that’s the young man’s curse to be as impressionable as a warm blob of wax. Importantly, Yorke’s statements in interviews were always blunt and pointed, but his lyrics explored the same themes using abstraction and metaphor – meaning that, whilst the music may still have come across as pretentious – it never came across as clunky or strident in the way that ‘protest singers’ can.
So maybe I’d have picked up a synthesiser and written about politics without this record, maybe others would too, but as it turned out Radiohead did it for me. Other than Pulp, Radiohead are probably the single biggest influence on me, musically and otherwise….
The Fiery Furnaces – Blueberry Boat
Occasionally jarring, but unwavering in its commitment to epic songs with unexpected left turns. What struck me most about this was the ‘song suite’ style. How something like ‘Mason City’ can discard the entire structure and melody halfway through and still feel coherent. Are they the first band to do this? Nope, but they were the one who did it for me. I think you can hear the influence of this all over my stuff for some years after it came out. The big, bright synthesisers and very clean, dry sound also contributed to a lot to how I like things to sound. I much prefer records where the notes are clear and arranged neatly than those that, in my opinion, cop out by burying everything in whoosh and atmosphere. Reverb plugins are cheap.
The Fiery Furnaces are a hard band to be moved by. Their over-reliance on ridiculous lyrical structures, archaic words, and compositional left turns can – in the wrong moments – irritate even a big fan like me. Matthew Friedberger has shown himself more than capable of making some irredeemably unlistenable solo material, whilst his sister Eleanor has gone on to make much more accessible pop records. Here, and for a couple of records after, their sensibilities seemed to strike just the right balance. Individual songs that take as long to get into as some albums mean this isn’t a record I’ve really come back to since playing it to death in 2004, but for showing me how a song can really surprise you this had a big impact.
Field Music – Plumb
Have I stopped being influenced by records? I don’t think so. It was a tough call between this and Neutral Milk Hotel, but honestly other than a melody or two I can’t say I’ve been influenced by them – their work is almost intimidatingly intense and perfect in a way I can’t envisage ever matching. Field Music then… officially the most recent act to graduate to my own personal Rock N Roll Hall of Fame as ‘one of my favourite bands’…
People had been telling me they heard Field Music in my stuff for a while before I listened to them. I tried ‘Measure’ but it was too much music to take in at the time (especially when bought from a cheap download website) and I didn’t listen much. Dipping my toe into the shorter, tighter ‘Plumb’ a year or two later unlocked the rest of their discography. The opening trilogy perfects the sort of multi-part songs that I’ve loved ever since the Fiery Furnaces, but does so more concisely and less jarringly. ‘Plumb’ is an album that works best listened to in one go, and for a while it fit handily into the length of my commute meaning endless repeated listens. The meticulousness of every element from the composition to the recording appeals to the ‘reverb is bad’ side of me. The earworm melodies deliver lyrics which are a humane, accessible critique of life in modern Britain, even as they float over intricate arrangements and the occasional complex rhythm that, even now I can’t quite pin down and fix in my mind. Whatever I do next, you will hear Field Music in there.
Anyone missing? Well having written this away from home I came home to grab the CD’s for the picture and realised I’d overlooked Talking Heads, David Bowie, and Broadcast. Pretty fundamental omissions but perhaps the fact I didn’t think of them means this is more honest. The albums above are perhaps more ‘formative’? (though Bowie should be in there really…)
Perhaps I should also have written about Garbage, another formative band I was obsessed with. And the first band I went to see live. I could have written about Napoleon IIIrd whose work has definitely influenced my own, but I was too embarrassed because he’s my friend. Four Tet nearly made the list, as did Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci. Possibly the Super Furry Animals, Mansun, Low, Slint, Hot Chip, LCD Soundsystem… Bjork’s ‘Homogenic’ gave me a big push in an electronic direction – but probably just in the same way Radiohead did. Bonnie Prince Billy’s ‘I see a darkness’ is maybe in eleventh place.
And really any one of the largely identical mid to late nineties not-quite-successful indie bands I bought endless singles by could be picked as a reference point for the simple joy of a guitar and a tune. Fierce Panda’s double 7” compilation ‘Screecher Comforts’ would be a representative example – Symposium, Snug, Midget, and Inter all on one record.
Music’s great, isn’t it?