We could have done the tasteful route. The cute set of coffee table records, polished into shape by consensus . A world in which Searching For The Young Soul Rebels is the pinnacle of long-player appreciation. Yet this would be phoney; not that there’s anything wrong with Young Soul Rebels – I might even be double bluffing, and you’ll find the Dexy début taking pride of place when I reveal my top ten – but there needs to be a connection. Adrenalin; the fundamental thrill that underpins each listen. It’s a something that I’ve been writing about on these pages for years without ever coming close to truly defining. There’ll be an expression for it in German, with no direct translation.
#20 The Long Blondes / Someone To Drive You Home Whilst records that bathe in the glare of hype are a reflexive, tiresome turn-off, there are just a few that – once extricated from media attention or the strife of remaining a going concern (rather sad circumstances behind the end of this band, by the way) – sound as fresh and important as when released. Yes, I know that Kate Jackson’s look, pout and lyrical positioning consciously target the (male) indie hipster crowd – she’s sassy and sultry and bitchy and just that little bit saucy – but that’s only one angle of the appeal. Because Jackson doesn’t so much act as a focal point for the band’s sound as allow the waves of music to flow through and around her vocals. A framing device, in other words, and whilst the aesthetic is tinged (but never smothered) by a spiky, poppy, new-wave relevance, its charm lay it how it glamorises yet never patronises the emotions of early adulthood.
The narratives behind Someone To Drive You Home – its viewpoint deliciously twenty-something – operate within a never nostalgic, never patronising skein of realism. One in which mistakes are made because we’re human, and that’s what we do. Where if there’s anything to be learned, it’s to be yourself. Oh – and great songs, too. Energy, melody, indie pop guitars. I can’t fail to get swept up in tracks such as ‘Weekend Without Makeup’ or ‘Giddy Stratospheres’. And then there’s the majestic, art school jealousy of ‘You Could Have Both’. a song about boy meets girl from a deliciously dark and slanted angle, all of it propelled by fierce instrumental energy and a fine jangly guitar. It subverts its subject matter (“I don’t kid myself about happy endings, I’m too old for that now”), facing up to the fact that matters of the heart are predisposed to complexity and atavism with panache, with an endearing form of elegance.
#19 PJ Harvey / Dry Polly’s début simply ripples. Stark, tight, powerful, the guitar prowling, the percussion driven. As a record it says so much about femininity, the awareness of femininity, a framed degree of polarity, a young woman sure of herself in a place and time that’s still distinctly unsure and uncertain. A album whose themes are framed elegantly, exploratory, intense and personal yet crafted, the use of cello unorthodox, the higher strings discordant, coarsely brushing against the rhythm section. Sparse instrumentation, spiky intonation, an intelligent album that slotted neatly into the vocabulary.
Stand out = ‘Sheela-Na-Gig’; an opening whisper, the delicate, measured wail of barely-tuned guitar (one level of attraction behind all this pivots upon the raw, caustic verisimilitude of the production). Then, in the space left behind: “I’ve been trying to tell you, over and over…”
When the guitar re-starts it does so with a prowling edge to it, as if the fretwork belongs to one of Billy Bragg’s angrier one-man shows. And a half-beat after that, the vocal; “Look at these, my child-bearing hips / Look at these, my ruby red, ruby lips.” It’s a powerful rhyming couplet; dramatic when contextualised by the arrangement, by the route this particular track takes as it coils itself around both narrative and thematic deposition. A wonderful record.
#18 Suede / Suede The posturing, the dodgy lyrics and car crash interviews, the fact that, when the magic (and Bernard Butler) left them in the middle of the night, their refusal to simply go away was stubborn (and in retrospect, not the wisest decision). Yet regardless of the reams of hype thrown at this at the time, or the worry that Matt Osman’s bass is a little too low in the mix, this is a record that’s instantly and instinctively evocative, filtered through a lens of sleaze and ball-breakingly gorgeous guitar hooks.
I like Suede, very much. The themes it foster slink and scuttle across the half-light. “She’s fucking with a slip of a man whilst the engine ran” (‘She’s Not Dead’). “Whilst tough kids sing about tough kids she just skins the world” (‘Moving’). But principally I like Suede as a precursor to something richer, which (of course) never fully materialised. We could label it a fascinating (if flawed) début that works in tandem with some quite astonishing b-sides – compiled and released as Sci-Fi Lullabies – which saw their pennant hoisted in rich and fertile musical territory. Only, that promise was never delivered upon, Butler (with justification) flouncing off into the arms of David McAlmont, leaving the band’s second line-up more akin to a mannequin version of Suede.
#17 The Stooges / The Stooges What Rolling Stone magazine thought back in 1969:
“The Stooges, formerly the Psychedelic Stooges, hail from Ann Arbor, Michigan, where, in case you’ve never been told, they do things high-powered — high-powered music, high-powered doping, high-powered fucking, high-powered hyping. The picture on the cover of the album shows the Stooges to be four nice middleclass-kids-gone-wrong wearing brand-new synthetic leather jackets and pouting at the camera in a kind of snot-nosed defiance. They don’t look at all that bright, although they may be college dropouts, and I’m sure that all the high school kids in the area dig the hell out of them. Three of them play guitar, bass, and drums, while picturesque Iggy sings in a blatantly poor imitation early Jagger style. The instrumentalists sound like they’ve been playing their axes for two months and playing together for one month at most, and they just love wah-wah and fuzz just like most rank amateur groups. The lyrics are sub-literate, as might be inferred by the titles: “No Fun,’ ‘Not Right,’ ‘Little Doll,’ and ‘Real Cool Time.’ This last is the monument of the Stooges’ artistry: “Can-uh Ah come ovuh/To-gnat-uh?/We will have a real cool tam-uh/We will have a real cool tam-uh …” Their music is loud, boring, tasteless, unimaginative and childish. I kind of like it.” – Edmund O. Ward
#16 Laurie Anderson / Big Science An admission; certain elements of Big Science appeared on a previous LP; a split spoken-word album titled You’re The Guy I Want To Share My Money With, alongside John Giorno and William S Burroughs. Hence consider me suitably admonished should you disagree that my #16 is a début – no refunds, however. Also, you can take performance poetry and go and drown it the canal for the most part; Big Science’s sly electronica, wry experimentation and Anderson’s magnetic presence carry this far beyond any need for a wet death in the Grand Union. With its enigmatic statement and minimalistic structure, this is a record that constantly and knowingly takes on the listener; the disconnected air of ‘O Superman’, the hypnotic menace of ‘Born, Never Asked’ (later covered by Spiritualized), the bagpipe-throttling ‘Sweaters’. The more I listen to Big Science the more I understand that I don’t possess the vocabulary to describe it – it really is that striking.
#15 Fuel / The Back Of This Beyond The facts: 1987, Scottish musician Hamish Mackintosh and an album called The Back Of This Beyond, released under his Fuel moniker. Vinyl-only. Perhaps an unfortunate name to record under, considering the later (and very much uninteresting) American rock act, who sat down one miserable afternoon and picked a band name already taken, forever despoiling a casual Googling in the process.
It’s also a record that I can’t help but repeatedly turn to; I love the way in that album opener ‘Age And Present Past’ dares to lead with its jangly guitar hook, only to subvert notions of the late-eighties indie aesthetic by venturing off-kilter, refracting the sound, layering the sound, using hackneyed effects such as soft-peddled vocal and backwards taping in new and interesting patterns. I love how the album never resorts to the disposable lyric, and how it positions its dreamy inclinations against the musical firmament delicately, so that you’re never certain if you’re listening to Echo And the Bunnymen, Vini Reilly, Win, anything released on 4AD, or all of the aforementioned simultaneously. Hamish has one of those voices – vaguely reminiscent of a lower register Billy MacKenzie – that’s full of expression (however low in the mix or bounced about with on the mixing desk), and when taken as a whole, the LP exudes a warm, enfolding eeriness. A late at night listen, with wine, and wind at the windows.
(This is also fucking obscure. A real shame – here’s a stream).
#14 Soft Cell / Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret Recycling the dark experimentation of underground electronica for the Top Of The Pops audience. Ignore ‘Tainted Love’; the black Weimar Republik of Soft Cell’s Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret drips with sleaze, a soundtrack for dubious basements, velvet-scented peepshows, neon-lit rainscapes. It’s a record that perhaps sounds a little contrived to our modern, sophisticated ear – Marc Almond’s torch-singer-gone-to-seed posturings backlit by Dave Ball’s broad synth brush strokes – but I’ve always admired the glint in this disc’s eyes, that sense of strut and flicker.
#13 Young Marble Giants / Colossal Youth “Even at the height of their success, when their one and only album Colossal Youth briefly became the second-biggest seller for their label Rough Trade, unassuming was rather the Young Marble Giants’ thing. They never looked like a rock band: singer Alison Statton’s plimsolls, print dresses and ponytail give her the look of a wholesome village schoolteacher. Their rhythms came from a drum machine that they made themselves by following diagrams in Practical Wireless magazine; onstage, even this proved too flashily high-tech, and was replaced by a portable cassette recorder. Amid the tick-tocking of the drum machine and oblique lyrics about robots, failed romance and train crashes, there is a sound that manages to be both stark and serpentine: a lone twanging guitar or organ and bass, the parts wrapping around each other “like knitting”, as Stuart Moxham put it. It’s a suitably un-rock’n’roll simile for music that sounds like nothing else in rock’n’roll. Even more striking is how the songs pull so much variety out of such basic ingredients. ‘Salad Days’ is wistful and pastoral; instrumental ‘The Taxi’ conjures up nameless urban crepuscular fear; ‘Wurlitzer Jukebox’s’ dazzling bass slips between limber funk and mechanical precision. It’s spellbinding; an unassuming triumph, but a triumph nonetheless”. – Alexis Petridis, The Guardian
#12 The Pastels / Up For A Bit With The Pastels Scruffy, scuzzy, out of focus. Entire passages where the band sound like they’ve forgotten to tune the guitars. Others where no-one’s quite sure what key they’re supposed to be playing in. And then there’s Stephen’s bus stop vocals. Fey, urgent, vulnerable, all over the place. Also, Up For A Bit is the most endearing record I’ve ever heard. Joyous, affirming, fizzing – it’s both delightfully messy and wonderfully produced – and in ‘Baby Honey’, still the band’s set closer even now, there’s a song that makes you stand back with “wow” smeared all across your chops.
#11 Jackson C Frank / Jackson C Frank A musician who released but a solitary album, who qualified as obscure well before his untimely death, but whose influence continues to be wide-reaching, underpinning a significant cross-section of folk-tinged guitar music; the list of musicians who’ve covered his songs is impressive; Sandy Denny, Nick Drake, Simon & Garfunkle, Marianne Faithfull, Bert Jansch, Malcolm Middleton… even Counting Crows – a band not noted for visits to the LGM stereo – feature in the roll-call.
Frank’s is a tale defined by the mechanics of talent, a suite of songs carried by a delicate, introspective elegance, heavily influenced by the Greenwich Village folk scene but – unlike the contemporary vogue – far more personal and introverted. It’s a beguiling record. Measured, relatively simple in construction, but rich in gentle beauty and backdropped against deceptively intricate guitar work. You can hear this album’s influence all over the place, and it’s easy to hear why – these are songs that enchant, draw you in, and although this was released in 1965 it’s a record that still sounds fresh, relevant.