Aretha Franklin, best-ever albums, Bizarro, Closer, David Byrne, Dione Warwick, Fear of Music, Granadaland, Joy Division, Kate Bush The Hounds of Love, Kennedy, Neil Hannon, Smokey Robinson, Soul Mining, Talking Heads, The Divine Comedy, the Ninth Wave, the Righteous Brothers, The The, The Wedding Present, Top Albums, Unknown Pleasures
After a week of delivering art to galleries, I had an evening free to indulge myself and listen to some music -pure and simple. With time on my hands I rifled through the collection and mused on what might constitute my six all-time perfect albums.
Only two criteria were imposed:
1] they would comprise original material from beginning to end -no covers.
2] they would have to be studio albums -no compilations allowed.
I could have gone for six albums from just one artist. Early Dylan might have had a shout, but there always seems to be a throwaway track somewhere, or, in the case of “The Times”, the title is just too familiar now [am I the only one immune to ‘standards’?]
There may be albums which have almighty tracks; Floyd’s ‘Money’, Levi Stubbs Tears” and “Between the Wars” by Bragg, Stevie Wonder’s “I Believe…”, “Forest Fire” by Lloyd Cole, “Vapour Trail” by Ride, but this is not a survey where tracks carry the day. Indeed, my four all-time favourite singles do not appear on my perfect albums. In no particular order, they are:
“Tracks of my Tears” Smokey Robinson
“Walk on By” Dionne Warwick
“Say a Liitle Prayer” Aretha Franklin
“You’ve lost that Loving Feeling” The Righteous Brothers
Some albums came so close; “Green”, “Troutmask Replica” , “Who’s Next”, “Meat is Murder”, “Tour de France”, “Loveless” -but you get nothing for being seventh…[Though already, I am beginning to regret excluding Magazine’s “Correct use of Soap” from my list… ‘Seven of the Best’, perhaps?]
I have most of the recorded material from the artists whose albums I have chosen, and in several cases, there was a severe pull between two or more albums. This is where the ‘original material only’ clause helped. It meant that between “More Songs about Buildings and Food” and “Fear of Music” I had to plump for the latter. “Take me to the River” is wonderful and far better than the Reverend Al’s original, but is nevertheless a cover. [“I Zimbra “, which opens FOM was adapted from lyrics by Hugo Ball, but the music is Byrne/Eno; not a cover in the true sense of the term.]
So here are my six of the Best. These are presented neither as countdown or order of preference. They are:
a] Kate Bush: “The Hounds of Love” A towering achievement; not only are we offered a side of memorable and varied tracks -most of which eventually saw release into the singles chart, but Bush uses side two to present a multi-layered narrative in seven parts. The‘Rock Concept album’ is a notoriously dodgy genre; in the hands of a majestic talent, it is a high risk strategy which repays in full here.
b] Joy Division: “Unknown Pleasures” Sadly, only two albums to choose from. Both could have made the cut;. Today this one came out on top. Next week I might just as easily choose “Closer”. Lyrics by Ian Curtis; no more need be said. A nihilist manifesto for the eighties, which sadly, few other bands signed up for.
c] The Wedding Present: “Bizarro” is probably the choice made for personal reasons. David Gedge provided a soundtrack to a most pleasurable part of my life, both on the deck and in concert. In 1989, Leeds’ finest provided me with three of the best gigs I have EVER attended. One of these presented their foray into Ukrainian music; an unforgettable gig complete with ukranian tumblers and dancers. Punters who arrived late would have missed the support act -The Wedding Present playing a “Full English” set! Listen to “Kennedy” and “Granadaland” several times and I defy you to navigate the same aural passageway through their complex guitar mesh twice. And if there is a better song about the heartbreak of clearing one’s possessions from a shared flat at the end of a love affair than “Why Didn’t you just say No?”, I have yet to hear it. High energy heartbreak and longing. What could be better?
d] The The: “Soul Mining” I am disregarding the CD version in favour of the original vinyl release, because the bonus track tacked insensitively on to the end of the laser format, “Perfect”, pleasant though it may be, severely undercuts the mood created by “Giant”, which must be one of the best tracks ever laid down to end an album. SM squeezes in because, quite simply, there is not a single note out of place up to the end of this mesmeric, percussive chant [unless your copy is, like mine, scratched with overplaying].
e] Talking Heads: “Fear of Music”. My copy of the “Rough Guide to Rock” describes the Head’s third studio product as strong contender for ‘Album of the Decade’. There will be no arguments from me. Opening with a DaDa poem set to African beats, this is going to open you up to the idea of cultural crossover [and clash-into] like nothing in rock before. A soundscape where an electric guitar is tried before a court of law and is found guilty of crimes against the state. Where animals are feared for being hairy and for being able to see in the dark and are castigated for “laughing at us”. Where air can hurt you too and break your heart. Evocative locations abound; “..some gravesites, out by the highway, a place where nobody knows..” ” A dry ice factory -good place to get some thinking done.” “Hard to imagine that nothing at all could be so exciting, could be this much fun.” Indeed.
f] The Divine Comedy: “Promenade” Neil Hannon is in my humble opinion, and let’s face it, mine is the only one which counts here -the finest songwriter we have today, -quite possibly the finest ever produced within the British Isles. Witty and erudite, his work can have me laughing out loud one second, tugging at my heart the next. In the 40’s and fifties, recording stars like Day, Sinatra, Martin, Darin et al, would have killed their agents and Grandmothers for this kind of material. Why “Promenade”? I could have just as easily selected another great album from TDC and as I hold that thought, three friends, one ‘absent’, one ‘mutual’ and the other ’imaginary’, are calling to me,”why not us?”. This album’s predecessor, “Liberation”, also shouts loudly for consideration. I find it difficult to resist a record where a cheeky Irishman imposes a musical collaboration on Wordsworth. [Incidentally, Liberation was not Hannon’s debut offering. Received wisdom holds that the rare ‘Fanfare for the Comic Muse” is not worth the search, but if it didn’t have to withstand comparison with the superiority of subsequent material, it would reward thirty minutes of anybody’s listening time and is well worth tracking down, Hannon’s own disavowals notwithstanding].
Perhaps it is something in their shared nationality, but “Promenade” reminds me of Joyce’s “Ulysses”. The events take place over a day in which the protagonists negotiate a series of fairly humdrum events. Ablutions and a bicycle journey [with literary musings hovering overhead like a thought bubble] precede a rendezvous. After a seafood lunch the couple are soaked by a sudden downpour. They dry out and take in a vertigo-inducing and God-encountering Ferris wheel ride, followed by a french movie. Thoughts leading back to a shared childhood precede a boozy gathering where the tipsy girl is rescued from drowning and brought back to the heart of the revelries. [“Neptune’s Daughter was initially the slowest of burners, but its haunting musical, kelp-like swayings, now provides me with the highlight of the entire record.] A reverie countdown to finding love precedes the final rush of joyous, youthful energy in flight; a reading of the first half of Dryden’s “Happy the Man” [this doesn’t count as a ‘cover’] provides a coda exhorting carpe diem; for we are here but once, and for too short a short time.
I envy anyone who has never heard this album before; if that is you, you have an unforgettable treat in store. The world does divide between B.P. and A.P. As I would say to my honorary grandson, “What an album, Nathan; what an album…”