“Music is my first love…..”
I could get all “John Miles” on your asses, but apart from the sentiment of the first line (Music is indeed, my first love), I detest that song. But it is true. As much as I love beer, I adore music even more. From distant memories of Mum playing Jim Reeves or the Beatles, Big Sis spinning Tamla 7″s and Big Brother air guitaring to the like of Sabbath and Zeppelin, I’ve always felt that music just…… mattered.
It certainly matters to me.
It rouses my passions like little else can. No IPA can take me to the places that “Johnny Was” or “The Light Pours Out Of Me” or “Stay” can. Nor can any Imperial Stout pull at my heart’s strings like “Song To The Siren” or “Tank Park Salute” or “Neon Lights”. Music keeps me going, in the way that little else – other than the love of family – can.
Just like Rob Gordon, I’ve had mental “Top 5s and 10s” running around in my head for years. But there are 2 lists I’ve striven for, a Top 10 albums and Top 3 Funeral Songs (only a music obsessive could fret over the latter!) and now, I think, finally, I’m there. It will take something unexpectedly monumental in scope and execution to shift something from the lists detailed below.
This is intensely personal. Choices like these always are. And like anything else I write about, this isn’t a technical exercise. It’s about the soul of something. Feeling. How it moves me. It could never be anything else.
Top 10 albums (with only the Top 3 ranked)
10. What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye.
There is an undeniable romance to this album. Not in a “Baby I love you” sense, but in the fact that it was born of multiple struggles. With the record company, with his back catalogue….
This was Marvin coming out of the cocoon that was the Motown Hit Factory and showing his beautifully coloured wings to the world.
Vietnam colours the whole album. But never had (or has) the fist of a protest song been clad in SUCH a silky smooth glove as on the title track.
Historically important, it’s strange that of all people to raise their head above the political parapet, it was Marvin. The Motown pop soul puppet.
Probably the first truly great Soul album – released a mere 6 months before the Sly & The Family Stone classic “There’s A Riot Goin’ On” – there is no filler. No weakness. And 3 stone cold classic singles in “What’s Going On”, “Mercy Mercy Me” & “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” (Although I prefer the grittier Gil Scott-Heron cover)
Berry Gordy hated it. Refused to release it. He was wrong. It sold millions. And remains in the all-time lists.
9. A Walk Across The Rooftops – The Blue Nile
Is it REALLY 33 years since I bought this album?
One of the few pieces of music that I bought in 3 formats and an album that rewards more with every listen. Many rate the eventual follow up “Hats” more highly – it was certainly more successful commercially – but, at pulling my heart strings, you always go back to the first love.
From the moment I first played the 12″ single of “Stay” (bought for 35p from the bargain basket at the much lamented Vibes in Bury back in 1984, it was love. A patient kind of love – they released albums at a rate of 1 every 7 years.
There’s a minimalism and yet a dolorous grandeur to this album, from the synthetic horn and tinkling metallic clanging that starts the title track. The Glaswegian Funk of “Tinseltown In The Rain”, the aching loneliness of “Rags to Riches” the rolling sadness of “Heatwave” (The sonic antithesis of its Martha Reeves & The Vandellas namesake).
And if you can’t fall in love with the beauty of “Stay”, then I’m afraid we’re done. (“Stay. And I will understand you….”) Still cuts like the sharpest of knives….
Easter Parade & Automobile Noise complete an album which only twice speeds up above crawling pace – and, if I’m brutally honest, I prefer the instrumental version of “Noise” called “Saddle The Horses” – the whole album is a thing of fragile beauty.
Am I selling it? Maybe not that well. But this album and band have provided me with so much. The concerts – separated by decades it seemed – were the nearest I got to a religious spectacle. They were worshipped.
Like sad Gods. Sad Gods from Glasgow
8. The Crane Wife – The Decemberists
This album was my introduction to The Decemberists. And it simply blew me away.
I’d fallen out of love with UK originating guitar based music. No originality, no soul, passion or intelligence. Not to me anyway. Then I discovered e-Music, a subscription service that changed my life – if only in a musical sense.
But this album. Being my introduction to the old soul that is Colin Meloy, just astounded me. I mean, an album with – at its core – songs based on a Japanese folk tale about a wounded bird and Shakespeare’s “The Tempest? (The Crane Wife cycle & The Island)
I’ve just been in floods of tears on the train listening “Crane Wife 1&2”. It is SUCH a thing of beauty and so sad a tale – shit that I’m particularly vulnerable to at the moment – a thing so delicately realised, beautifully played. It moves me.
To hear a song based on a subject so horrifically evil as The Shankill Butchers. I mean who the fuck? Romeo & Juliet (Oh Valencia), The Siege of Leningrad (When The War Came). American Civil War (Yankee Bayonet)
Meloy uses language and phraseology that nobody else does. This album captivated me like nothing had for years before it. And none have since.
I adore this album. And they are the best live act I’ve seen in many a year.
7. Pieces of a Man – Gil Scott-Heron
“You will not be able to stay home brother. You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out. You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and skip out for beer during commercials, because the revolution will not be televised”
Incendiary. Incendiary and – in parts – stunningly beautiful.
I could have stopped with “The Revolution….” but this album is so much more than the naked anger against prejudice. It tells stories in Funk and Jazz tones of everyday hardships in the US.
Drug addiction “A junkie walking through the twilight. I’m on my way home…..”, physical abuse, prejudice. A man battling his life long demons.
And a man capable of writing something so astonishingly beautiful as “I Think I’ll Call It Morning”.
This album is a classic. Helped along in no small part by the stunning arrangements and flute of Brian Jackson, Gil’s long time musical partner.
I came to Gil through a tune not on this album – but very much of a piece with it – the dance floor classic “The Bottle”. A tune that I’ve wobbled to at The Hacienda, at Northern Soul weekenders and all-nighters. A top 10 of all-time song.
But not my favourite by Gil. That song is on this album and is one of the “Three” in the list below.
Treat yourself to this album. Do your ears a favour.
6. Man Machine – Kraftwerk
The Robots. Spacelab. Metropolis. The Model. Neon Lights. Man Machine.
To be honest, I could start and finish with Neon Lights. That would be enough.
For me, the best track on the best album by the most influential band of all time.
Don’t give me The Beatles. Please. I’ll give you Chuck Berry, Ike Turner, The Isley Brothers.
Kraftwerk had no precedent. And for all the imitators, there has been nobody come within a continent of being as good.
Of all the tracks on this album, if there was a weak link, it would be The Model. And that was a #1 single. And was originally the B side to Neon Lights. I still remember spinning the 12″ fluorescent vinyl at my big brothers’ house.
I wasn’t there to look after the cat. I was there to spin that 12″ single.
Go Spotify. Late. Put the cans on. And drift.
5. Cross – Justice
Call it EDM. Call it a techno/rock hybrid. I simply couldn’t care less.
This is immense.
From that intro to (the opening track) ‘Genesis’. Portentious. Doom laden, but promising something else. Then my head starts to nod. The legs to twitch. The feet to tap. Furiously.
If not the eponymous “Daft Punk” album, if not “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix” by Phoenix, this album PROVES that French music can rock. Can move you.
In this case, it’s a visceral thrill. The machines rock.
Football fans who used to watch C4 coverage of Italian football in the 00s will remember Phantom Pt 2 as the theme tune, as melodic a piece of electronic rock as you’ll find anywhere.
The album isn’t one paced. Isn’t all “four to the floor”. “Tthhee Ppaarrttyy” ft Uffie’s aloof mocking vocals is a joy. Quirky, fun. Girls clubbing. On the lash. Totally “don’t fuck with us” attitude.
D. A. N. C. E. with its singalong chorus (again Uffie)
The aural assault of ‘Waters of Nazareth’ & ‘Stress’ leading towards the slowdown of closer ‘Minute to Midnight’ the album is a French homage to clubbing.
Following on from their reworking of ‘We Are Your Friends’ by Simian (simply brilliant) and preceding their repositioning of ‘Electric Feel‘ by MGMT, this is – for me – their Everest. Everything else being mere foothills.
But it’s one HELL of a peak.
4. Futurama – Be Bop Deluxe
One of the first albums I bought. And I bought it twice.
The album that made me realise that guitars could make the most amazing sounds. I mean, I always thought that the seagull sounds at the end of Sister Seagull actually WAS a recording of seagulls! That’s Bill Nelson for you.
Recorded as a three-piece – the only album they would as a trio (Nelson, Simon Fox – drums & Charlie Tumahai – bass) as Andrew Clark joined after the recording for the subsequent tour.
In some ways over complex (lead single “Between The Worlds” was pulled by EMI for that very reason!), but in turns, rock, soulful, almost music hall at times. There is neither rhyme nor reason as to when an album grabs you. But….
The singles “Maid In Heaven” and the aforementioned “Sister Seagull” should have been huge. Especially “Maid”. At the height of Glam Rock, this was as glam as it gets. But with virtuoso playing. Like an early morning Espresso.
Short. Sharp. Intense. A rush.
The whole album just rushes by. From the adrenaline rush of “Stage Whispers”, the more sedate yet beautiful “Love With The Madman” all the way to the closing “Swan Song”. The album doesn’t flag.
It hit me. Hard. And made Bill Nelson my favourite guitarist. An under acknowledged genius.
And a Northerner.
3. Real Life – Magazine
Was this where ‘Post-Punk”started? Certainly – for me – the ‘genre’ hit its peak early. With this.
Barry Adamson. John McGeoch, John Doyle, Dave Formula. And the former Howard Trafford. Now Devoto. Flexing his lyrical muscles following his (all too) brief spell fronting Manchester’s mighty Buzzcocks. Releasing possibly the single most important EP in the history of pop music, Spiral Scratch.
But from the opening strains of ‘Definitive Gaze’. F**k was this different!
They (more likely the record company) had possibly been very clever – and certainly disingenuous – when they released the first Magazine single, ‘Shot By Both Sides’. A perfectly – and darkly – melodic slice of Punk. And TOTALLY out of sync with anything else on the album.
Intriguingly, I recently discovered that the lead single and the greatest track on the album ‘The Light Pours Out Of Me’ – for me – were written whilst writing with Buzzcocks partner Pete (McNeish) Shelley.
But I digress.
The phrase “All Killer…” applies here. Possibly the first album following the musical scouring that was UK Punk in 1976 that this works for. This album led. Others followed. 6 months later, Lydon issued “First Edition”, preceded by the similarly out of place ‘Public Image’ single.
Listen to “The Light Pours Out Of Me”, “Motorcade”, “Definitive Gaze”, “Parade”. Tell me I’m wrong.
2. Station To Station – David Bowie
To some, this is a contest in itself. What is the greatest Bowie album? For me, the most perfect side of an album – ANY album – of all time, is Low. Side 1 of Low is popular music at its finest. Let down by the pretentiousness of side 2.
For me – as a whole – that leaves the album that preceded Low. The album that, in some ways, was the bridge between the blue-eyed soul of Young Americans and the hallowed Berlin Trilogy.
The title track itself is a thing of wonder. Who else would even THINK of encompassing Krautrock, soul, funk and rock music in a single track?
The album only consists of 6 tracks. Each one a stone cold classic. Golden Years could have shone on Young Americans – perfect blue-eyed soul. Word On A Wing – a thing of beauty. A mystical love song. TVC15 simply a bonkers slice of oddball pop fused with a funk/soul sensibility.
And then we get to Stay. A single which – on its own – would be in my Top 10 singles. My top 10 songs even. Cuts me to the bone. Lifts me up. Makes me soar.
And as for Earl Slick’s soloing. F**k.
1. Inflammable Material – Stiff Little Fingers
This stems from a conversation in The Lough & Quay pub in Warrenpoint with a young music loving fella named Conor O’Hare. Conor was – at that time – a local music promoter and very passionate about it too.
During the conversation (and following a few lovely Mourne Mountains beers), Conor mentioned how great he thought “Never Mind The Bollocks” was.
I spontaneously combusted.
Outraged that somebody from Ulster didn’t see what was under his own nose. I then launched into a diatribe on the greatness of the SLF debut album.
You see, it’s been my thinking for 25 years or more that the greatness of the Sex Pistols wasn’t the music – pretty much amped up glam rock – but what they inspired. And one of the things that followed was Inflammable Material.
An album written at the height of “The Troubles” with songs like Suspect Device, Alternative Ulster, Wasted Life, Barbed Wire Love, pissing off the Paramilitaries (on both sides of the sectarian divide) and occupational forces equally. An album lived, written and performed in the most violent of places, where (grudging) tolerance was still 35 years away.
The song that grabs me most though. The one that I scream along too, scouring my vocal cords with the effort, is a cover version. In my opinion, the greatest cover version I’ve ever heard. Bob Marley’s “Johnny Was”.
Visceral, raw, emotionally raging against injustice, totally taking the song and wringing every last drop. It just wrenches my heart like no other song does.
And it’s the fact of time & place, the anger, the defiance, the sadness – never sinking to despair – that makes this album truly great.
OK. It isn’t perfect. It has “Closed Groove”, which is undeniably shit. But that just goes to prove the greatness of the rest.
An album I go back to again and again. And a track that I use – these days – like a drug. To fire me up, to lift the weight from me each day. Helps me keep moving.
That’s power. Right there.
Those generous (and unfortunate) souls who helped in the run up to #ISBF4 may think of me as something of a control freak, someone who can’t let go, can’t relinquish the tiny details.
They may have a point.
Whilst I’m not morbid by nature, recent events in my family would make many think differently, think that life is indeed short. That a modicum of planning is necessary in case the proverbial bus appears out of nowhere….
I want the music to be just right. I’ll have a humanist service and I want 3 songs to pitch that balance of sadness and hope – I toyed with including “I’m On My Way” by Dean Parrish, but the intended levity might have got lost in translation – I want it to be right.
And I think I’ve found three tunes that mean loads to me. And strike the right note. In order, they are….
Song To The Siren – This Mortal Coil
“Hear me sing, ‘Swim to me, swim to me, let me enfold you.’ Here I am, here I am, waiting to hold you”
Just. You know. I’ve loved this from the moment I bought the 12″ single, way back when.
Infinitely preferable (to me) to the Tim Buckley original, elegiac, beautiful. The saddest of love songs that also plays to my love of Greek mythology.
The Gold At The End Of My Rainbow – Be Bop Deluxe
From the album I immediately bought on cassette when Dad bought me my first personal stereo. “Modern Music”. Maybe the first album I ever bought for myself actually!
Again, another love song and one that can be read in many ways – loss does that to you. Presumably written for his then wife, Jan, it starts with trademark Bill Nelson backwards guitar and has an almost acoustic, personal feel. Like he’s singing directly to you.
As I said, it’s all about feeling.
I Think I’ll Call It Morning – Gil Scott-Heron
“I’m gonna take myself a piece of sunshine and paint it all over my sky. Be no rain…… I’m gonna take the song from every bird and make them sing it just for me.”
A candidate for my favourite song of all time. And a perfect finale to walk out to. Hope. A little lightness.
I can’t really explain this one. Apart from it just pulled from the first moment I heard it.
A massively self-indulgent post. But, if you know that feeling that there’s just that “something” you have to get off your chest? Then that.
Be kind to one another. Jx