Al’s Top 30 Albums Of All Time – No. 2

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Number 2 – Scott Walker – Tilt

I am well aware that very few of the people who read this article will have heard this album, and even fewer will like it. It is infamously one of, if not the, most difficult album ever released by a major artist, but before I tell you how good it is, a bit of context.

The Walker Brothers, in 1964, were the biggest band in the world. Bigger than The Beatles. Belting out magnificently rich and melancholy ballads, they were rabidly pursued by teenage girls who were confused by their hormones, wherever they went. As one story went, they were once surrounded by a legion of screaming harpees in their getaway car after a show, and they were so tenacious in their desire to gain contact with these impossibly handsome stars, that these sex-craved harridans actually managed to tip the car onto its roof, where underneath Messrs Engel, Maus and Leeds (none of them were actually called Walker) all sustained serious injuries. Noel Engle, who had been the bass player, and had played the part of Scott Walker, had been forced to the front of the band when a song called Love Her had called for a deeper voice. He was the best-looking member of the band, and after providing lead vocals on mega-hits The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore and Make It Easy On Yourself, retreated into himself, desperate to maintain his artistic integrity, terrified by the trappings of fame and fortune. In one interview, which is possibly the single coolest moment in the history of humanity, while his bandmates yapped away about on camera about how great it was to be making money and pulling endless broads, Scott lounged in the corner of the dressing room, his face masked by enormous shades and his shoulders wrapped in a shawl, a bottle of beer dangling from his fingers, and drawled, “I’m in it for different things…” you can see it at 13:49 in this clip. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FB8NKS17U98

Scott became increasing arty and obscure, crafting intricate, gloomy operettas and covering songs by sweaty Belgian cabaret singer Jacques Brel. In particular he performed an incredibly morose ballad entitled My Death on his Saturday tea-time TV show. It is often said that George Michael was the first pop star to eschew commercial success for artistic credibility; nah, Scott Walker got there first. His solo albums continued to top the hit parade, due to the sky-scraping beauty of his own compositions, his impossible good-looks and bravado, and the manner, similar to The Smiths and early Suede, in which the listener could live in his songs. He was a star on his own terms. Then, something strange happened. After the top three success of Scott 1, Scott 2, and Scott 3, Scott 4, his most accomplished album to that point and one which would take the number 31 spot on this list, was released in the midst of the hippy revolution in 1969. And it bombed. Not as in, it failed to crack the top ten; it failed to chart at all.

Nobody quite knows why this happened, and the album was deleted soon after. Walker was deeply scarred by the snub, and after releasing a couple of lacklustre albums comprised mainly of MOR cover versions, he disappeared for a few years and descended into drink. A comeback with the Walker Brothers came in 1975, by way of the hugely popular break-up song No Regrets, and with one album left on the deal, Nite Flights was released in 1978, a twelve-track album on which each member composed four songs. The compositions of Gary and John were perfectly serviceable, but Scott’s tracks were so far ahead it was almost embarrassing. The Shutout, Fat Mama Kick and Nite Flights were pounding, visionary pieces, reminisecent of Station To Station-era Bowie and later Joy Division, but his final track on the album, The Electrician, was astonishing; cold, suspenseful and spiralling; as if they’d put a torch song on the Eraserhead soundtrack. It was almost note for note ripped off by Ultravox for Vienna, and the aforementioned David Bowie calls it the best song ever written. This was the direction he would pursue on his next album, Climate Of Hunter (1984), and in the age of Bon Jovi and Dire Straits, this brittle and fascinating album would shift less than a thousand copies and is said to be Virgin’s worst-selling record ever.

And then… silence.

Eleven year’s worth of silence, to be precise. Tilt would be released in 1995, apparently having taken six years to record. It sounds like the work of a man who had not spoken to another human being in a decade. From the cover art to the bizarre lyrics, it is the most starkly self-possessed record ever made.
When I was about nineteen, I bought this album, with the view to completing my Scott catalogue. I’d snapped up the first four, and everything else was unavailable on CD. Nothing could have prepared me for the stylistic chasm between Scott 4 and Tilt. The first track, Farmer In The City, is something that has no parallel in this far reaching medium of popular music. There is a road about six miles away from where I live, which acts as a bypass between the local villages of Dunswell and Beverley. There are no streetlights down this road, no houses for miles and if you travel down there after dark, only the headlamps of traffic will cast any sort of illumination. About halfway down, on the left, is a derelict barn about five hundred yards from the road, which will be lit fleetingly when a lone car drives past. In my imagination, Farmer In The City was recorded there.

This song must be listened to in the dark, alone, preferably on headphones. It is simply the heaviest piece of music ever written. I don’t mean in the way that silly bands like Metallica and Slipknot are heavy; I mean in the sense that when you listen to it, it weighs on your shoulders, it drags your senses down. It starts with a faraway tinkle of a triangle, then the deepest, most gravity-laden pull of double bass you’ll ever hear. A few plucked acoustic guitar notes and then Walker starts singing. And it’s different. That soaring baritone of thirty years earlier is now smothered in chloroform, hopeless, abandoned, like the voice of an oncologist who finds himself singing on his way home from work. Strings lurch to and fro behind him and the relentless procession of ugly-beautiful noise illuminates the intensely surreal lyrics that this loneliest of all men wails. Seemingly obscure literary references and snapshots of half-remembered dreams, the words to Farmer In The City are apparently about Italian film director Pier Paolo Passolini, who was murdered at the premiere of his hugely controversial and quite frankly revolting movie Salo, which was considered blasphemous by a bunch of hardline Catholic nutcases. The repeated “Do I hear 21?” refrain is possibly about the age of military conscription in Mussolini’s regime, and the passage from 4:42 to 5:46, where he howls of how he “Used to be a citizen” as the string section carry this twenty ton weight to the heavens on a other-worldy crescendo is absolutely incomparable, the most dramatic moment in the history of recorded music. The last line, almost an afterthought: “Paolo, take me with you.”

Anyhow, that’s the first track. Six and a half minutes long, and offering a wider scope than most artists manage in entire careers. The second track, The Cockfighter, begins with a bizarre, near-silent montage of wails, distant gusts of wind and odd scratching noises that you have to strain to hear until a terrifying moment after about a minute and a half when an industrial cacophony slams through the speakers at full volume as Walker howls “It’s a beautiful night, yeah.” After a while the track settles into a Joy Division-esque pounding rhythm and multi-layered voices intone lyrics that again, make absolutely no sense. It also features an instrumental break that sounds like someone beating a cow to death with a guitar. In Bouncer See Bouncer, we start with the sound (honestly) of scuttling and chirping locusts, which is laid over a relentless thump of a bass drum, whilst the mantra “Spared, I’ve been spared” is repeated, along with other deeply esoteric lines. It is staggeringly bleak, bringing to mind scenes of men in death camps marching to their end. After four minutes of this nightmare, the black clouds break and a ray of the most exquisite sunshine shines through in the form of harp and pipe organ as he sings beautifully of how much he loves this season, before the death march starts again.

Elsewhere, Manhattan features an enormous, slashing chorus of organ and ravaged guitar, along with lyrics such as “Scalper in the lampglow/scalper on a chair/stick wiped shirt?/and his arm somewhere” No, I don’t know either. Rosary is a simple piece for voice and reverbed electric guitar, and was performed live on Jools Holland in 1995 on condition that he would only take the stage after the studio audience had all left. The title track is arguably the most accessible track on the album, and the only piece here that could be played by a conventional rock band, even though it does feature guitars that seem simple yet are somehow disorientating, in the same way that you can inexplicably lose your balance in a hall of mirrors.

The two tracks at the heart of the record, Bolivia ’95 and Patriot (A Single) are vast, deeply layered compositions, cinematic in their scope, both featuring operatic structure and amazingly intense vocals. It is a testament to how far this man retreated into himself that a line as seemingly innocuous as “I brought nylons from New York/Some had butterflies, some had flecks.” can sound as like an incantation of death for the whole world. The chorus line to Bolivia ’95 is “Lemon bloody cola.” and he sings it has if he’s just heard that his mother has died. It is dense to the point of being impenetrable.

Tilt is the bravest record ever made by a major artist. It is far beyond the realms of pop music, and far beyond the realms of rock. It is heavier than anything by Nine Inch Nails or Einstürzende Neubauten and it’s more intricate in its make-up than the works of the electric Miles Davis or even Rite Of Spring-era Igor Stravinsky. The only album in mainstream rock’s cannon it would compare to would be Bowie’s Low, but only then in terms of the soundscaping and introspection. It is not a record for the MP3 generation, as it is to be consumed as a whole, and the artwork and the format of the lyric sheet are very much part of the package. It is not a record to be enjoyed, rather it is to be appreciated, and I’m well aware that the majority of people who will check it out on the strength of this review will absolutely loathe it. It is a record completely without precedent, it has influenced precisely no-one and will never appear on Top 100 Albums Ever lists. It is, however, a staggering artistic achievement, and it will haunt you for a long time after you hear it, much in the same way that you can’t shake the image of Brad Pitt’s face in the last scene of Seven. If you are interested in any way in what can be achieved in the medium of recorded sound, how one man can interpret the sounds in the darkest corridors of his mind in the most extreme way possible, then you should listen to Tilt. It is a terrifying, punishing, but deeply rewarding experience, and in my opinion there has only been one album ever made that is better than this one.

The lyrics don’t make any sense.

Best Tracks: Farmer In The City, Bolivia ’95, Patriot (A Single)

Best Moment: The afore mentioned passage from 4:42 in Farmer In The City. Listen to it on headphones, loud, in the dark, with your eyes shut. Your body will start to vibrate.

Like this? Try: It’s a tough one, but I’ll go with Up by Peter Gabriel (2002)

profile b and wAllen Miles is 33 years old and lives in Hull. He is married and has a 3 year-old daughter who thinks she’s Elsa from Disney’s Frozen. He is a staunch supporter of Sheffield Wednesday FC and drinks far too much wine. He spends most of his spare time watching old football videos on youtube and watching 1940s film noir. He is the author of This Is How You Disappear, which is widely recognized to be the best book ever written. It is available here. http://tinyurl.com/disappear2014

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Al’s Top 30 Albums Of All Time: Number 3

No 3. My Bloody Valentine – Loveless

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Let’s start with a sweeping statement, yet one that I genuinely believe.

There is no other album like this in the vast catalogue of rock music. It is the most innovative album since the sixties, and one that, if you’ve never heard it before, will truly break down your ideas of how guitar music can be created.

1991 was a freak of a year for classic albums. For the rock fan there was Nevermind or Achtung Baby, for the dance enthusiast there was Screamadelica or The White Room, for the beard-stroker there was Blue Lines, and for the weirdo there was Spiderland. If you fancied some jangly g chords there were superb albums from REM, Teenage Fanclub and Crowded House and the deeply unfashionable but actually great Stars by Simply Red would sell 4 million copies.

Then came the one that was conceived by a musical genius who’s like hadn’t been known since the days of pantaloons and powdered wigs, a ground-breaking kaleidoscope of noise with smeared edges, distorted melodies and sleep-talked vocals.

Loveless was the album that famously, or infamously, took Creation records to the brink of bankruptcy, it was alleged to have cost a quarter of a million pounds to record, which for a scottish indie label in the late-eighties/early-nineties was absolutely absurd and would necessitate the signing of some bolshie rock ‘n’ rollers from Burnage two years later to save the label. Kevin Shields, the maestro, conductor and virtuoso of all the madness, told Creation boss Alan McGee that he could record the album in five days. In actuality he spent two years holed up in the studio getting stoned and playing pool, and it wasn’t until goggle-eyed waif rhythm guitarist Belinda Butcher joined the recording process that things got done.

It was worth it. This is some of the greatest music ever made. I first received this record as a Christmas present from my step-sister, and played it not knowing what the hell to expect. The opener, Only Shallow, is one of the most shocking opening tracks in all of rock. It starts with four sharp snare hits, the only distinctive sound on the entire record, then a noise that I would describe as… let me think… imagine being stood about fifteen foot from a Boeing 747’s engine as it took off, whilst two blue whales whistled at each other a few hundred yards away, and every half second a nearby tower block is detonated. This attempt to describe a track on an album shows me up for the hack that I am, but I defy anyone to describe it themselves. This unholy yet sickly sweet cacophony is then pulled round into a blissful post-coital, or post-narcotic haze-like verse, with murmured, barely comprehensible vocals about druggy sex or sexy drugs, before the row kicks in again. If My Bloody Valentine had only ever released this one song, their place in history would have been assured.

The fact that they went on to craft another ten tracks in a similar vein is nothing short of a miracle. For those of you who understand how the sound of a guitar can be distorted, it is astonishing to think that this music was made without the use of a single effects pedal, rather Shields swears it was all done with tone shifters and graphic equalisers, and repeated, ground-breaking use of the tremolo arm. Not since the early work of Lou Reed had a musician utterly corrupted his instrument to achieve the sound he was looking for. To Here Knows When, which was staggeringly the lead single, is a piece of music that defies any sort of convention. It consists of looping feedback, and, at least from what I can pick out, seven droning guitar tracks, a flute, a shuffly drumbeat and a vocal on which it is impossible to distinguish a single word. It is allegedly the track on which Shields, proving himself to be the musical equivalent of Stanley Kubrick, spent three weeks recording a tambourine part. It sounds like having your ear nailed to the wall while your neighbour is hoovering while singing along to the radio.

The fact that it is followed by When You Sleep, arguably the most conventional track here, is typical of this album’s contrasts. A great, needling, gliding riff compliments a lovely choppy chord sequence and a vocal of which you can actually recognize words, even though they don’t actually mean much: “When I look at you… oh…. (incoherent mumuring)”

It is not really necessary to remember song titles on this album, as all the tracks flow together into one neon-lit, belly-warming suite, and it is individual moments of the swirling symphony that stand out rather than whole songs. Where once, on the previous album, Isn’t Anything, the songs were aggressive, and in the case of No More Sorry, downright disturbing, here they are utterly blissful; the colossal swinging to-and-fro of the lead riff of I Only Said, the vocal refrain on Blown A Wish, where you have absolutely no idea what she is singing, but for some reason you just feel like hugging the nearest object to you; the sheer sonic pleasure of Come In Alone and What You Want, and the mind-boggling innovation of Soon, during which you realise that New Order had spent ten years looking for a sound that someone else achieved at a stroke.

And then, track eight, Sometimes. If my mother, wife, daughter or Martyn reads this article, please bear in mind that I want this song played at my funeral. Never has a human being extracted such emotion out of his chosen medium as Shields did in the latter half of this song. Just listen to it. Alone.

Best Tracks: Only Shallow, Come In Alone, Sometimes

Best Moment: 3:21-onwards in Sometimes: The most beautiful passage of guitar music ever committed to tape.

Like this? Try: There isn’t one.

profile b and wAllen Miles is 32 years old and lives in Hull. He is married and has a 3 year-old daughter who is into Queens Of The Stone Age. He is a staunch supporter of Sheffield Wednesday FC and drinks far too much wine. He spends most of his spare time watching old football videos on youtube and watching 1940s film noir. He’s got a new book out. It’s really good. http://www.tinyurl.com/disappear2014

Al’s Top 30 Albums Of All Time – No. 5

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No. 5 – The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967)

I’m a huge fan of the cinematic genre Film Noir. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, movies of this category usually involve seedy bars, private detectives, poisonous women and hundreds and hundreds of cigarettes. The classic phase of noir is thought to have started in 1941 with The Maltese Falcon and ended in 1958 with A Touch Of Evil. As befits the time, there was no explicit sex or violence in these films, everything was implied. The gravitas in these movies came from the shadowy, angular camera work and the colossal charisma of the likes of Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre. Except for one seldom seen picture from 1950 called Kiss Me Deadly. The first scene features a screaming woman, naked under a trenchcoat, desperately trying to thumb a lift on a unlit back road. The intro titles somewhat disconcertingly roll down rather than up the screen, and there are scenes of genuinely brutal violence. The underlying premise is of an underground government plot to conduct nuclear experiments and there is a particularly sinister scene in which the protagonist effectively pimps out his own girlfriend in order to gain information. Pretty heavy for 1950, I’m sure you’ll agree. Fast forward eighteen years, and while over here the likes of The Beatles, The Small Faces and The Rolling Stones were performing minor drug-induced miracles with the music they were making, they weren’t really ramming what they were doing down people’s throats. Over on the west coast of America, it was all about the peace and love and hippiness, morons in kaftans and leather headbands proclaiming that everyone should have a hug a day and idiotically trying to convince people that The Jimi Hendrix Experience were a great band. In New York, meanwhile, a smell as toxic as that of Kiss Me Deadly could be inhaled.

The Velvet Underground are the single most influential band of all time and the coolest band of all time. There is a very famous quote from Brian Eno that I could insert here but I won’t because he’s a very boring man who makes terrible records. Quite apart from The Beatles and Bob Dylan’s nods and winks towards their drug use, The Velvet Underground were the first band ever to say “Yep, there’s lots of people taking drugs, we know cos we take drugs. Yep, there’s lots of people indulging in extreme sexual practices, and we’re writing songs about it. Yep, this guitar can make sounds other than E, A and D.” They are by a distance America’s greatest ever band and begat two of the all time greats, John Cale and the late Lou Reed.

Obviously, no-one bought this record. They were utterly terrified of it. Andy Warhol, knowing controversy when he saw it, made them the centrepiece of his arts collective The Exploding Plastic Inevitable, which consisted of mime artists, beat poets and one young lady who waded into the audience wearing a leather bustier and screaming at couples “Are you happy with him? Does he fuck you good?” The band would play a set of four or five songs, each lasting between seven and twenty minutes and garner no applause at all. Warhol funded the album and put his own name on the cover, along with an certain iconic piece of fruit. So, where The Beatles were singing “All you need is love”, The Velvets were slurring “Taste the whip, now bleed for me.” The guitars were drenched in repulsive feedback and an uncommonly beautiful woman had been transplanted into the middle of this cacophony to drone away in the same manner as the band.

It would all amount to nothing without the songs. But they had the songs. They tried to smother them with the racket, but they had the songs. The album begins with the ultimate hangover ballad, Sunday Morning, with its soft echo vocal, xylophone and hopeless refrain of “It’s nothing at all”. It is the sound of being happy to be in pain. The relentless chug chug chug of Waiting For The Man follows, the narrative of a junkie desperate for the arrival of his dealer, truly seismic for 1968. They had full-on rockabilly belters (distorted beyond measure, obviously) in Run Run Run and European Son, and sweet sweet doo-wop in Femme Fatale and I’ll Be Your Mirror, both “sung” by the teutonic chanteuse Nico. The latter was played at the wedding of my colleague Dr Barnes, and when I heard about this she instantly flew into the top five of my cool list.

The true core of the album lies with the genuine experiments, though. Venus In Furs is one of the most explicitly lascivious songs ever written, a candle-wax slow grind about the joys of sado-masochism with screeching viola and the most reptilian groove of all time. Listen to it now and your pelvis will automatically start to move. Heroin is obviously the spindle of the album, a song designed to simulate the rush of shooting up, a slow build spiralling into an unrestrained row where all thought of musical structure is completely abandoned as Reed chuckles and gasps and sings “It’s my life, and it’s my wife.” This song didn’t get on the radio.

The other two tracks are why I love this album so much. I went to an exhibition of underground rock art at the Tate Modern in 2005 entirely by chance and a one of the exhibits was a video of The Velvet Underground performing All Tomorrows Parties and The Black Angel’s Death Song, sometime in 1967. I’d bought the album about six years before that and instantly adored it, but after I’d toddled into this tiny booth all by myself and seen, at the age of twenty three, these five weirdos all clad in black, looking so aloof yet so threatening, I realised you could scare people with art. You could hurt them with words, you could offend them with music. The two songs in question were complete opposites; one a crushing glacial dirge and the other a howling spiralling din of feedback and atonal strings while Lou scats all those amazing lines of the most visceral imagery, and seeing them on that screen had pinned me to the wall.

Of all the white rock acts that have emerged since this album was released, arguably only Van Morrison and Rod Stewart have escaped its influence, which is probably a good thing, as no-one wants to see them in leather jackets singing about bondage, but I think the single biggest pointer I could give to the huge legacy this record gave to the world was from an exchange I had on Facebook about two years ago. I had acquired a fantastic boxset comprised of records from the late fifties and early sixties entitled The Best Of The Girl Groups. As my status update I put something like “Just listened to The Best Of The Girl Groups. Wasn’t everything sweet and innocent before The Velvet Underground turned everyone into perverts?” and a friend of mine replied “Yes, but thank God they did.”

And I agree Kelly, thank God they did.

Best Tracks: Venus In Furs, All Tomorrow’s Parties, The Black Angel’s Death Song

Best Moment: The gorgeous backing vocals in There She Goes Again, the song that Johnny Marr would rip off for There Is A Light That Never Goes Out.

Like this? Try: Psychocandy by The Jesus And Mary Chain, 1985

profile b and wAllen Miles is 33 years old and lives in Hull. He is married and has a 3 year-old daughter who thinks she’s Elsa from Disney’s Frozen. He is a staunch supporter of Sheffield Wednesday FC and drinks far too much wine. He spends most of his spare time watching old football videos on youtube and watching 1940s film noir. He is the author of This Is How You Disappear, which is widely recognized to be the best book ever written. It is available here. http://tinyurl.com/disappear2014

Al’s Top 30 Albums Of All Time – No. 9

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Number 9: Television – Marquee Moon (1976)

American punk was, for the most part, vastly different to British punk. It’s widely acknowledged that the Ramones debut is the first recognised punk record, but ten years earlier, the likes of The Stooges and The MC5 were making music so aggressive that it would make Black Flag look like a bunch of fannies, but that’s merely my opinion (To further extend my opinion, I believe that the first punk record was Bob Dylan Live 1966. Discuss.) The U.S. punk scene was arty and spiky, a reaction against the horrific boredom of records made by slurs on the music industry such as Chicago, The Eagles and Supertramp. A venue in New York became famous, you can buy T-Shirts with its logo on in fucking Top Shop. It was called CBGB’s.

The biggest stars of American punk and new wave would play there, Blondie, Talking Heads, Patti Smith, Suicide, The Ramones themselves, and of course Television, the most iconic of them all and possibly the most surreptitiously influential band of the era. Everything about them was perfect, from the skinny angular image to the neat, well-chosen name. Marquee Moon could well be the most musically accomplished album ever made that isn’t a jazz or classical album. It is a punk record that doesn’t contain a single strummed chord. It is a record that plays to the head rather than the heart, the astoundingly visceral lyrics (“My eyes are like telescopes,” “I recall lightning struck itself”) matched so potently by the guitar work of two musicians who were at the absolute peak of their craft. Verlaine and Lloyd’s lines weave together like a scientific diagram of DNA, creating a intricate yet rugged tapestry which is often difficult to take in all at once.

The opening track, See No Evil, is a song that The Strokes have made an entire career out of ripping off, a terse, circular guitar riff which blooms magnificently into a solo after the second chorus. It is the only conventional song on the album. Venus de Milo and Friction both feature guitar work that is the sonic equivalent of watching thousands of fireworks cascading to the ground in perfect time, and Torn Curtain is the soundtrack to a film noir that was never written. To say that Marquee Moon plays to the head is true, but there is warmth and humour here as well, mainly found in Guiding Light, with it’s lighters-aloft guitar break and the line “Never the rose, without the prick.” Elevation, for my money the best track on the album, has the most gripping sense of physical movement of any song ever written, and a heart-stopping change of time signature over the refrain. And one of the best, if not the best, guitar solo of all time. And then there’s the title track. Oh, good lord, the title track.

Your average punk single lasted about two and a half minutes. Admittedly, Marque Moon the song was released across two sides of 7″ vinyl, but it was still breaking ground in the most obscene way. This is a song based on a jazz scale invented in 1958 by Miles Davis, it is ten minutes and forty-two seconds long, it is sung by a man, whose voice, by any conventional measure, is terrible. It has no business being released as a single. It is a masterpiece, and an essential listen to anyone who has an interest in post-war music.

The NME made their 10/10 review of Marquee Moon the front page headline, the only time that has ever happened. The band themselves succumbed to the pressure of being The Best Thing In The History Of The World, and their second album, Adventure, got absolutely slated in the music press, simply for not being as good as their first one. So after playing in front of rabid punk crowds for a couple of years, they ended up supporting Peter Gabriel in sit-down venues to endless booing. A band that featured a really bad singer whose vocals perfectly suited the music, a group of musicians with an almost telepathic understanding, and one of the greatest ever debuts followed by a record that couldn’t possibly live up to the hype. Hmmmm… Mart… have we got one of those?

Best Tracks: Venus de Milo, Marquee Moon, Elevation

Best Moment: 2:43 into Guiding Light. For the most-part, this is a pretty cold album, but this bit is lovely.

Like this? Try: Horses by Patti Smith, 1976

profile b and wAllen Miles is 33 years old and lives in Hull. He is married and has a 3 year-old daughter who thinks she’s Elsa from Disney’s Frozen. He is a staunch supporter of Sheffield Wednesday FC and drinks far too much wine. He spends most of his spare time watching old football videos on youtube and watching 1940s film noir. He is the author of This Is How You Disappear, which is widely recognized to be the best book ever written. It is available here. http://tinyurl.com/disappear2014

Al’s Top 30 Albums Of All Time – No. 12

No. 12 – Joy Division – Closer (1980)

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Punk was all over by 1977. The Pistols had imploded and The Clash had developed their sound far beyond three chords and snarling, but in its slipstream a genre emerged that came to be called new-wave, and in 1979 three ground-breaking, visionary albums by British bands would leave a slow burning legacy that would infiltrate not just the UK, but America as well.

The first was Metal Box by Public Image Ltd, John Lydon’s big fuck-you to the punk scene, drawing heavily from dub reggae and krautrock and featuring some of the most bizarre vocals ever groaned and screeched; the second was 154 by Wire, an incredibly bleak experimental tour de force of dense guitars and conceptual lyrics; and the third was Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division, by turns ferocious and spectral, with striking minimalist artwork and a singer who did this on stage. Joy Division sounded like no other band before or since.

Closer, (their second album, pronounced cloz-er) was my introduction to Joy Division. It took me a long time to buy it, as it’s terrifying reputation went before it. It was like buying Schindler’s List on DVD; am I willing to sit down and deliberately make myself feel bad for the duration of this work? I bought it, and the artwork alone is enough to put you in a seriously sombre mood; the nine tracks on the disc however, form a granite monument of complete and utter misery.

The first track, Atrocity Exhibition, is a genuine contender for ugliest song of all time. The sound is so fractured and spiky and generally unpleasant that it is truly difficult to listen to, but some primeval force keeps you hooked. From what I can gather from the cryptic lyric moaned over the military drum beat and needling sheets of guitar, it is a song about bull fighting, although its entirely possible that Curtis is using that as a metaphor for God knows what, the repeated mantra “This is the way, step inside,” putting in place the voyeuristic element that permeates the whole album.

Curtis as a lyricist is unparalleled as one who looks into himself so deeply. No-one else has ever lived and died, quite literally, by his words as much as he did. Yet the flipside is very difficult to admire. Its obvious to all who’ve read up on him that he was a petulant, self-obsessed, narcissistic, ego-maniacal, morally-contemptuous little boy who lived his life like a play. In the Eternal, nine months after his wife gave birth to their child, he sings “Cry like a child, these tears make me older, With children my time is so wastefully spent, Burden to keep… Accept like a curse, An unlucky deal.” Imagine being his daughter, who will now be roughly my age and hearing those lyrics knowing that your dad has written them. How terrible.

Elsewhere, Isolation shows that the seeds of New Order were already in their embryonic phase, yet New Order never had a song that contained the lyric “Mother I’ve tried please believe me, I’m doing the best that I can, I’m ashamed of the things I’ve been put through, I’m ashamed of the person I am.” Heart and Soul and the skull-crushingly intense Twenty-Four Hours are absolutely petrifying pieces of music and also showcase the fact that Peter Hook was becoming a very, very good bass player. The Eternal and Decades are songs that sound like they’re being sung from a medieval crypt, under a foggy cemetery, and we can only stand at the top of the spiral staircase and listen to the pain that drifts up, not quite daring to descend. The lyrics are unbelievable. This man was twenty-two years old when this was recorded. These are biblical, statuesque images that can rival anything in The Divine Comedy or Paradise Lost, and only Leonard Cohen has written anything like them in the field of popular music. “Just for one moment I heard somebody call, look beyond the day in hand, there’s nothing there at all.” “Here are the young men, a weight on their shoulders…. We knocked on the door of Hell’s darker chambers, pushed to the limits we dragged ourselves in.”

Ian Curtis hung himself in 1980 at the age of twenty three. Twenty fucking three.

Best Tracks: Twenty Four Hours, The Eternal, Decades

Best Moment: 0:50 into The Eternal; the piano just adds to the weight of a song that is already too much to bare.

Like this? Try:
Spiderland by Slint, 1991

profile b and wAllen Miles is 33 years old and lives in Hull. He is married and has a 3 year-old daughter who thinks she’s Elsa from Disney’s Frozen. He is a staunch supporter of Sheffield Wednesday FC and drinks far too much wine. He spends most of his spare time watching old football videos on youtube and watching 1940s film noir. He is the author of This Is How You Disappear, which is widely recognized to be the best book ever written. It is available here. http://tinyurl.com/disappear2014

Al’s Top 30 Albums Of All Time – No. 13

No 13. REM – Automatic For The People. (1992)

automatic-for-the-people-by-rem

Football analogy #327: in the first weekend of the 1987-88 season, Kenny Dalglish’s Liverpool, arguably the greatest team ever to play in the English Football League, eviscerated Newcastle United 4-1 at Anfield. One of the Liverpool players scored a hat-trick, but it was not John Aldridge, John Barnes or Peter Beardsley, their immensely prolific three way strike force, but Steve Nicol, the right back. An example of when the collective is so strong, amazing feats come from the most unlikely of sources, like when Bill Berry, REM’s drummer, sat down and wrote Everybody Hurts, one of the world’s finest ever lullabies.

Sad without being morose, tuneful without being twee, Automatic is the musical equivalent of a reassuring hug from a loved one at a funeral. Eleven string-drenched folk-rock songs and one instrumental. Along with Oasis’s Morning Glory, it is the most ubiquitous album of my generation. Everybody had it. The songs are so sweet and gentle, and the musical palette so rich and resonant, it’s not hard to see why this album appealed to so many millions of people.

Michael Stipe, REM’s singer and to this day the best frontman I’ve ever seen live, was disturbingly thin and pallid during the promos of this album and it was heavily rumoured at the time that he had AIDS, and songs about death, suicide and uncertainty did little to dispel the talk. He didn’t have AIDS, obviously, but the subject matter of the songs, for example Try Not To Breathe’s story of an old man preparing to die with his favourite memories in his mind, is clearly a rumination on mortality. Everybody Hurts, surely now a song that everybody under the age of sixty knows off by heart, is a lyric of hope written after a sharp rise in suicide levels in the U.S, and they also manage to sneak a little political diatribe in with Ignoreland (1980, 84, 88, 92 were election years in America.)

Elsewhere, in a High Fidelity-style survey, pretty much everyone is naming Drive as one of their “Top 5 Side One, Track Ones,” and Sweetness Follows and Nightswimming emit the kind of comforting melancholy as the last scene from Lost In Translation. I’ve had conversations about this album with complete strangers in chip shops and round at my closest friends houses. It is language, it is currency; everyone has find a favourite here, whether it’s The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight with its strange, twangy vocal in the chorus (he’s singing “Call me when you try to wake her up,” in case you didn’t know) or their glorious homage to Tim Buckley, Find The River. If you’re one of the fifteen people on the planet who doesn’t own this album, do yourself a favour…

Best Tracks: Drive, Sweetness Follows, Find The River

Best Moment: 3:50 into Everybody Hurts, after the pause, the impossibly sad “soooometimes…”

Like this? Try: Deserter’s Songs by Mercury Rev, 1998

profile b and wAllen Miles is 33 years old and lives in Hull. He is married and has a 3 year-old daughter who thinks she’s Elsa from Disney’s Frozen. He is a staunch supporter of Sheffield Wednesday FC and drinks far too much wine. He spends most of his spare time watching old football videos on youtube and watching 1940s film noir. He is the author of This Is How You Disappear, which is widely recognized to be the best book ever written. It is available here. http://tinyurl.com/disappear2014

Al’s 30 Greatest Albums Of All Time – No. 29

Tom Waits – Swordfishtrombones (1983)

220px-TomWaitsSwordfishtrombones

Back in the dark days of the year 2000, when the biggest band in Britain were Travis and something called Limp Bizkit were moving across the Atlantic like an airborne disease and encouraging 19 year-olds to be comfortable with their disgusting obesity, Radiohead released an album called Kid A. The furore in the music press was unbelievable. They claimed that such a radical about-face from a major artist had never happened before and it was commercial suicide. Radiohead went on to become the biggest band in the world and in hindsight the change of direction they took was probably less radical than that between Suede and Dog Man Star or The Great Escape and Blur. And definitely less so than the stylistic leap between One From The Heart and Swordfishtrombones.

Radiohead were indeed a major artist, merely developing the ideas they had chucked out on Fitter Happier and a few B-Sides. No matter what happened, they would not get dropped by their label because regardless of the reviews, people would buy the record. In the end eight million people bought the record. With Swordfishtrombones, Tom Waits, not a major artist, ran the risk of never selling another record again.

Never has such a record ever polarised an artist’s work in the way that this record has. Effectively we look at Waits’ catalogue as pre and post Swordfishtrombones. On his previous few albums he had been leaning towards the guitar-blues sound, but the immediate precursor to this, the gorgeous country-jazz soundtrack to the disastrous Francis Ford Coppolla film One From The Heart couldn’t have been further away from the squat Russian horns and glass-throated screaming of Underground, the first track on this album.

The first Tom Waits album I bought was The Asylum Years; a compilation of his best tracks from his days as a blues-jazz scatter and crooner, which contain some of his best ever songs. Fair enough, by the last track his vocals sound like they’re coming from a cheese-grater but there are very definite melodies. On this record, very few of the tracks could even be classed as songs.

It is one of the most bizarre albums ever made, yet therein lies its genius; no-one had heard anything like this before. Shore Leave is, in my opinion, the best track on the album, and it comprises a spoken-word narrative of a sailor lost in a Blade Runner-esque cityscape consorting with midgets and eating cold chow-mein while the main instruments playing are a marimba and the sampled sound of a chair being scraped along a floor. If you can find me a more atmospheric piece of music, I’ll give you a quid.

The ballads stand out as well, obviously, as they are Waits’ raison d’etre, and Soldiers’ Things is up there with anything he’s ever done, but for those of you who are Waits virgins and want to hear a type of music that you have genuinely never heard before…

Best Tracks: Shore Leave, Town With No Cheer, Soldier’s Things

Best Moment: The sheer shock at the vocal on Underground, when you realise this man is probably smoking eighty cigarettes a day.

Like This? Try: Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, 1969