Music has always been a huge part of my life. I remember from an early age singing along in back rooms in pubs with my Mum and various other folkies. I went on tour with a band when I was eighteen, a proper length and breadth tour of the UK, five lads in a beaten up Fiesta and all our gear. Sleeping on floors after show or in the car if no floor was forthcoming. Lots of shitty, cheap canned lager and dodgy takeaways. It was the best time. Entertainment consisted of a discman plugged into one of those tape converter things and chatting. Chatting consisted of three threads: Girls we fancied and what (in often graphic detail) we’d like to do to them, pitching a case for your favourite albums and a game called ‘would you rather’.
You may well have played ‘would you rather’ or, at least some derivative of it. Essentially what you have to do is think of two of the most embarrassing, depraved or disgusting propositions possible and ask someone would they rather have one or the other. Notable examples I remember to this day that have set a benchmark include: Would you rather have a dick for a nose or bollocks instead of earlobes? Would you rather shag Anne Widdicombe or suck a pint of cold vomit through a cheesy old sock? Would you rather have flaccid penises for fingers or at some point, every day noisily and uncontrollably shit yourself? (feel free to leave me your answers in the comments below)You get the gist. Not a cerebral game however, aged eighteen, with an almighty hangover and six hours in a cramped car, it passes the time pretty well.
Back to the pitching your favourite albums. You can tell a lot about someone by the music they listen to. I always have a nose through the CD rack at other people’s houses. Often you are surprised, and you can see a chronology to their tastes. Digging through a CD collection is like archaeology, peeling away the layers till you get to the start of it all. This is a pretty elastic list, it changes every time I write them down. This blog post has been open for two weeks on my laptop and has had at least one album scrubbed and subbed every time I look at it, but here we go my top 11 because I couldn’t whittle it down to 10:
John Martyn ‘Solid Air’
A shimmery, almost ethereal at times album that meanders between 70’s folk revivalism, jazz and blues. Martyn’s guitar style is almost as recognisable as his slurry, woozy vocals. His voice really is another instrument, an awful lot like how a sax player might phrase a melody over the top. It still surprises me how fresh this album sounds considering I was recorded in 1972. Best played late at night, it seems to make more sense then.
Tom Waits ‘The Heart Of Saturday Night’
I’ve written about Tom Waits before, I mean, the title of this blog is a corruption of one of his song titles. I don’t have much more to say other than Waits is a master storyteller. A late night smoky bar with a whisky in your hand kind of album. My go to album if I’m a bit too drunk to sleep and need to spin out on the sofa for a bit first, watching the room rotate.
John Williamson ‘Mallee Boy’
In his native Australia John Williamson is a national treasure, outside of it he is almost unknown. This is an album that evokes childhood for me. My Dad used to travel to Australia and New Zealand every 3 months on container ships as an engineer in the late 70’sand early 80’s. Lots of the crew on these boats were Australian, my parents considered relocating there. Jokingly my Dad was taking the piss out of the Chief Engineer, Len Michaels in the Officer’s mess one evening with the standard Aussie bashing jokes about their heritage, culture and lack thereof- ‘ What is the difference between a yoghurt and an Australian?’ The yoghurt has a culture. Len gave my Dad this album in which Williamson sings about the bush, farmers awaiting the rain, dusty sheep drovers and drinkers in lonely mining towns. An album that was a staple on every long car journey in my childhood and to this day I know every little inflection, chord change and every word of every song.
Radiohead Kid A
I bought Ok Computer when it came out and enjoyed it, but it was when Kid A came out that I really started to love Radiohead. This is probably the opposite way round to the way most people came to like them, having liked the intelligent, complex indie rock of The Bends and Ok Computer then finding the sparse, alienating, electronic nature of this album almost unlistenable. For me at least, this album opened the doors to electronic music, it took an awful lot of listens to get there though.
Wild Beasts ‘Smother’
Cor. If there was ever an album to get you hot under the collar, forget D’Angelo’s ‘Voodoo’, listen to this instead, dripping in sexual suggestion and metaphor. I wait until you are woozy/I lay low until you are lame/I take you in my mouth/Like a lion takes his game. Thronbbing,beautiful, haunting, hooky.
Ry Cooder ’Crossroads’ OST
Another tape played to death on long car journeys in my Dad’s grey Granada when I was a kid. It was on a Dolby 90 with Chris Rea’s ‘Auberge’ on the other side. The album itself is the soundtrack to a much underrated film that is a re telling of the Robert Johnson story. A young musical prodigy finds an old guy in a nursing home who sold his soul to the devil to be the best blues harp player ever. They embark on a quest to get the soul returned. It has a great climactic scene in which there is a guitar battle with Steve Vai as the devil. This is the album that opened my young eyes to the Delta blues.
Godspeed You Black Emperor! ‘F#A#∞’
The only vocal on this album is at the very start, a monologue about how a corrupt world has destroyed itself, society has ended, all that is left is a flag fluttering at the top of it’s pole. An apocalyptic intro indeed. The album continues in a similar vein all the way through with strings, drums, guitars and field recordings building to cinematic climaxes only to tumble back down into intense, quiet passages. Danny Boyle has said that it was this album that inspired him during the filming and editing of 28 Days Later, and the film does use snippets of the album.
Calexico ‘Feast of Wire’
Calexico area band whose music meanders between alt-country, folk, jazz and full on, Sergio Leone directed, Enio Morricone soundtracked Spaghetti Western. ‘Black Heart’ is the best song never to have been used as a Bond theme. I love it.
The Streets ‘A Grand Don’t Come For Free’
A tough call between the first album ‘Original Pirate Material’ and this, but I think this just pips it. Essentially a concept album, which always, instantly makes people’s eyes roll ceilingward, but this isn’t a noodly, prog wankathon with keyboard solos. It sits somewhere between hip-hop and UK garage, all two-step beats and unapologetically English rhymes but with melodic, sung choruses. The story follows the main character losing a thousand pounds, the fallout after with a clever plot twist at the end.Ambitious, cheeky, catchy, lyrically clever. The first Streets album broadened my musical horizons, this cemented them.
Fairport Convention ‘Liege and Lief’
This could have equally gone to Steeleye Span’s ‘Below The Salt’ but I could only choose one. This really is 60’s revivalist folk rock at it’s peak. What is even more mind blowing is the age at which some of the band were at the time of recording, Simon Nicol was only 19. I’m still not half the guitarist he was at 19 and I’m 29.
Queens Of The Stone Age’Songs For The Deaf’
Sometimes you need big dumb rock music. When you do, this is the best album to scratch that itch. Still one of the loudest gigs I have been to, and one of the most exciting, Dave Grohl is a sweaty, hairy powerhouse. Nick Oliveri keeps so, so tight with the drums and Josh Homme’s crunchy groove filled guitar and howled vocals are just perfect.
Notable albums that just missed the cut:
The White Stripes ‘White Blood Cells’
Nick Drake ‘Five Leaves Left’
Midlake ‘The Trials Of Van Occupanther’
Stevie Wonder ’Innervisions’
Snoop Dogg ‘Doggystyle’
Kate Bush ‘Hounds of Love’
Jimmy Eat World ‘Bleed American’
REM ‘Automatic For The People’