The business end of this proposition. It’s all a wee bit personal; records lived to, loved to, cried along with (although I’m not admitting to the latter). It’s actually difficult to write about much of the below (or at least do so concisely); these discs are love affairs – complex, sometimes painful, always passionate. People write books about less.
Thanks to @StaggerLee30 for curating the various débuts things flying about on Twitter, and @girloon for twisting my arm for my own 50 (as well as introducing me to the record at #2, one hot summer evening in the dim and distant). Also, cheers you lot for all the comments and tweets – but mostly, thanks for just for being you.
#10 DJ Shadow / Entroducing “Ask the NoCal turntable nerds, the trip-hoppers, the frat boys, the hippies or the ravers stoned on the beach at sunrise: Endtroducing… is deeply spiritual. Not in the conventional sense, but in the spirituality of the soul that lives in your chest and got there from the ether and returns to the collective unconscious– the one you feel when you feel things. That’s the spirit that saves us from being fleeting and disposable: If I necked with that one girl that one sunset, with Endtroducing on the car stereo, then no matter who else did the same thing, I’m me and that moment’s still mine.
Endtroducing taps that inner-whatever better than most of the albums of its day, and it swims so easily that it established an entire genre of instrumental hip-hop– count how many records come out every month and are dubbed “Shadowesque.” Building the album from samples of lost funk classics and bad horror soundtracks, Shadow crossed the real with the ethereal, laying heavy, sure-handed beats under drifting, staticky textures, friendly ghost voices, and chords whose sustain evokes the vast hereafter. Even the “look at me” cuts like “The Number Song” didn’t break the mood; the album was so perfect and the technique, so awesome that it’s still definitive today, and Shadow has yet to top it.” – Chris Dahlen, Pitchfork
#9 Joy Division / Unknown Pleasures Should certain records be difficult to write about, others are a challenge to simply listen to. Unknown Pleasures is not recommended accompaniment to a little light housework. For children’s birthday parties I’d suggest something a little lighter, a shade more frivolous…
This is all about the production. Okay, not all about the production – there was a rather fine band in the studio, too – but what Martin Hannett achieved was to sculpt their sound, condensing the shockwaves to the point where they became emancipating. An icy liberation, perhaps, but liberation all the same.
I’ll let Pitchfork’s Joshua Klein continue the tale, as it’s in a similar vein to my thought processes, but so much more elegantly put.
“It’s one of the most perfect pairings of artist and producer in rock history, but that shouldn’t undersell the band’s input. Joy Division, like many of their Manchester peers, were inspired by the DIY anti-ethos of the Sex Pistols; they just didn’t know what to do with it at first. So, shaped and prodded by notorious provocateur Hannett (who would turn the heat in the studio down low enough for everyone to see their breath), the group embraced space, ambience, and an imposing austerity. It’s noteworthy how many songs on Unknown Pleasures fade in like something emerging from the shadows. It’s also worth noting how heavy songs such as ‘Day of the Lords’, ‘New Dawn Fades’, ‘Shadowplay’, and ‘Interzone’ are, while sinewy anthem ‘Disorder’ and the discordant anti-funk of ‘She’s Lost Control’ are glorious anomalies in both their precision and concision.”
Essential, in other words.
#8 The Auteurs / New Wave Hyped furiously on release by a music press long given over to irrelevance, New Wave rapidly transcended such self-congratulatory navel-gazing (as if doing so with a louche shrug of the shoulders). Luke Haines may be a contrary bastard, one eye permanently fixed on the scuttling of any traditional career curve, yet even when wired up to a self-destructive initiative the sophistication of his songwriting can’t help but shine through. That the début Auteurs album isn’t some Situationist-shaped stunt means that there’s zero distraction – you get to focus intimately upon the endearing, sepia-tinged cynicism of the lyrics (‘Showgirl’; ‘American Guitars’), the pared-back components of instrumentation in which the cello is shaded light and dark (‘Bailed Out’), that unshakable sense of impending anger as the album grows into its junk shop clothes – a causticity of timbre that grows in noticeable patterns. An album that instead of feeling intrinsically of its era, flaunts its charms like Norma Desmond – I’m ready for my close-up now.
#7 The Jesus And Mary Chain / Psychocandy “Sometimes people tell you that a 20-year-old album “sounded like nothing else,” but when you listen with today’s ears, it seems rather quaint and unsurprising. Psychocandy is not one of those albums. Its noise isn’t the thick, tactile noise of the new millennium: It’s thin, trebly, and drowned in indistinct reverb, such that this record still sounds like it’s being played in the apartment across the street at staggering volume while someone intermittently runs glass through a table saw. The music stumbles its way from stoned, lazy beauty (‘Just Like Honey’) to speed-freak noise (‘Never Understand’) to almost-bouncy pop (‘Taste of Cindy’). Jim Reid chants his melodies in the selfish, mostly monosyllabic vocabulary of rock’n’roll (“I’m in love with myself,” “I don’t want you to need me,” “oh yeah,”). And just about every song comes out ideal: You’d think they’d sound like jerks, or toughs, and yet it all comes off so vulnerable, so pretty.
A band that doesn’t seem to give a fuck about much, including pleasing its own audience, and thus lets that audience live out its own (sensibly unfulfilled) fantasies of alienated non-fuck-giving and antisocial moping. Psychocandy remains a perfect record for states of feeling so bratty, depressed, or disgusted that you actually start to enjoy it.” – Nitsuh Abebe, Pitchfork
#6 The Human League / Reproduction I still remember first hearing this LP. Was round at an ex-girlfriend’s place; she was a punk in the late ’70’s, much older than me, possessing a fascinating vinyl stash – Throbbing Gristle, X-Mal Deutschland, Public Image Limited – and because I didn’t have a) record-obsessed parents, or b) an elder sibling to provide a musical education, a rather young me looked up to this woman probably more than he should have. So this record is her fault; my pre-existing crush on The Human League was based entirely on pop. On Dare. On and ‘Mirror Man’, ‘Open Your Heart’. ‘Heart Like A Wheel’, even. That there was some evil reverse image to such school disco apparel was a revelation.
Reproduction is the sound of the maths faculty on the wrong drugs. It’s JG Ballard in musical form. A stark, tight album that pushes the listener’s imagination to do the legwork, a pop music aesthetic refracted through the wires. ‘Empire State Human’ dances on its tiptoes. ‘Circus Of Death’ sounds as if it’s lost in space. And then there’s ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin; Feelin”; it’s an incredibly brave move to dissemble then rebuild such a track in the first place, but to have it segue from the delicate frigidity of ‘Morale’ – Phil Oakey’s vocals dispossessed, chilling – is a master-stroke. Should you ever doubt the power of the analogue synth to stun, you know in which direction I’ll point you.
#5 Dawn Of The Replicants / One Head, Two Arms, Two Legs Pretty much ignored by critics and public alike on release. Fifteen tracks of perfectly-crafted sci-fi geekiness. Nonsense lyrics that come across as exotically profound and necessary. Unorthodox chord changes, divorced harmonies, unsettling nuggets of sound and texture embedded across each track (‘Ten Sea Birds’ is a song of such immense, otherworldly presence that a good proportion of these words have been written with this on constant repeat). Paul Vickers has such a distinctive vocal style, it’s as if he’s a precise component of both the orchestration – a cor anglias, perhaps, or some slightly smoke-damaged retro synth – and the general, glorious sense of clutter on display ripples. Messy records have a habit of being – well, somewhat on the messy side. What One Head, Two Arms, Two Legs manages to pull off is mess as a liberating construct. The track titles provide a clue as to state of mind; ‘Cocaine On The Catwalk’; ‘Windy Miller’; ‘Let Them Eat Coal’. Yet this isn’t weirdness for it’s own sake; rather, the surreal thought patterns have a delightfully soft, playful touch (“Start communicating with the radar in your room”, as Vickers sings on ‘Radars’; I’ve wanted a radar in my room ever since).
This is an album that’s constantly intelligent, eternally interesting, I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that One Head, Two Arms, Two Legs is sentient, and once I’ve gone to bed (or passed out of an evening), it enjoys weird Czechoslovakian animation from 1971, and scans the skies for signs of extraterrestrial radio signals. Lovely.
#4 The Velvet Underground / The Velvet Underground & Nico The obvious (and safe) nomination. Despite the contrivance. Despite featuring some of the worst production values ever assigned to posterity. Despite Nico’s voice carrying the scuttled burr of broken flowers – too many sleeping pills on the S-Bahn. It’s an album that’s intrinsically New York whilst simultaneously lacking homeland – not otherworldly as much as displaced, an outsider sensibility on manifold levels. And whilst the world hardly needs any more words spent upon this record – there’s quite enough already – it should never be forgotten that at least half of the entries on this list wouldn’t have existed without it.
#3 The Smiths / The Smiths “One word sums up the début Smiths album; desperation. The desperation to impress, with a willing but also weary world waiting to see if they were the real deal. The desperation in Morrissey’s voice as he tries to get across the sheer scale of horror and humour of a human life on hold, squirming and squealing that the world isn’t fair and needs to be put to rights. The desperation in those tunes, beautiful, intricate as we would come to expect but here given a harder, harsher edge through the desperate playing of the 3 principle musicians. Finally the desperation in not getting the production right but, oh, those songs.” – Mark Stephenson, The Guardian
#2 Broadcast / The Noise Made By People An album that – late at night, behind closed doors – can make me cry. It’s such an incredibly beautiful experience; tender, enveloping, each rhythm, every buzz and bleep delivered in graceful, sonic packages. This is electronica as something hyper-nuanced; deeply melancholic in places, unsettling in others (particularly the instrumental ‘Minus One’), and all of it framed with a retro, cinematic feel that lingers long after we’ve hit the run-out groove.
This is a record in which all its the elements are complementary – the sparse production, the 60′s references, the live percussion. And then that voice. It’s been a couple of years since the world lost Trish Keenan; I don’t usually get into that whole eulogising shtick when it comes to passed-away musicians, but in this case I’m genuinely saddened every time I remember that we’ll never hear her sing again. A voice of such understated elegance, such channelled and restrained emotion. It’s a voice that belies so many hidden complexities. Yeah, I miss her.
An opening track as statement of intent, something that pulls you into its tender arms; this is what ‘Long Was The Year’ does. The intro, fading in, confirmation that this is to be a highly cinematic record. Think arthouse pacing, oblique camera angles, a young woman – delicate features, pretty frock – climbing a grand, spiral staircase; it’ll be 1967 or ’69, she’ll be French, and madly in love with her literature professor or something. And then the vocal kicks in, Trish lovely, far away. The hint of fragility, of detachment, of a sadness. Like all the best Broadcast songs, it floats above the music, an exercise in equilibrium. I’ve been thinking of words to describe their sound; a phrase such as Betamax Parisian Soundscape is regrettably clunky, but it exudes the sense of atmosphere that I’m searching for.
A poignant album, then; influenced by intelligent electronica, The United States of America, La Nouvelle Vague. The first non-exclusively electronic act to sign to iconic label Warp, the sound grew sparser (but no less interesting) as the 2000s played out, partly as a result of the reduction from a five piece to a duo of Trish and James Cargill. Keenan’s death stripped the planet of a fascinating and detailed aesthetic, but the haunting undertones of Broadcast’s canon remain just as striking. The Noise Made By People is an album as statement – complex, brooding, strangely animated and decidedly beguiling.
(Also, yes; I’m aware that Work And Non Work arrived three years before The Noise Made By People, but as it’s a compilation of early singles, I’d at least like to pretend I’m on safe ground with the above).
#1 Prolapse / Pointless Walks To Dismal Places As previously hinted, normal people, well – they’d be writing about Searching For The Young Soul Rebels round about now. Me – I get to squawk about a bunch of noisy, scruffy herberts with a shared love of John Osborne, krautrock and Mark E Smith records, who one day in the bar at the Leicester Polytechnic Student Union came up with the wheeze of channelling the Hungarian Suicide Song via discordant celebration.
The result was just about as perfect as pop can be; a début album full of non sequitur lyrics, hacking guitars, slanted melody, caustic narrative. The rhythm section throbs and pulses. Those twin guitars are radioactive – at turns dissonant, spicy, provocative; these elements alone would be enough to entrap a boy’s attention (the outro to ‘Headless In A Beat Motel’ is a riotous mind-blower, amplifiers howling, as if for mercy). What however carries Pointless Walks To Dismal Places beyond any “ooh – this is a shiny record” and straight to favourite début territory is the theatricality of girl verses boy vocals – underwritten by a twist of sexual tension and embellished with improvised, nonsensical wordplay – and how such vox interplays with the backing to create something very special indeed. It’s difficult not to believe that Linda Steelyard (with her aura of being slightly bored, somewhat above all this) and Mick Derrick (all brash, abrasive Glaswegian with a wink about his personage) were in competition with one another; they shout over each other, interject, mumble, simultaneously sing different songs, bounce off the guitars (yes, them again)…
Also: urgency. “All aboard the Ark Royal” shouts Scottish Mick on fucked-up travelogue ‘Doorstop Rhythmic Bloc’, and clambering aboard said boat instantly becomes the most important thing in the world. ‘Surreal Madrid’ – subject matter former Atlético Madrid owner and well known crook Jesús Gil – includes his direct quotations. Opening track ‘Serpico’ is five and half minutes of free-form rant that sounds like Ivor Cutler on amphetamines. It’s the whole package behind Prolapse that makes this so invigorating; their wit, their verve, their cutting (and for bonus points: the sad, post-rock instrumental titled ‘Hungarian Suicide Song’; touches like that can win a boy’s heart).
And the highlight: closer ‘Tina, This Is Matthew Stone’; seven plus minutes of abrasive, feedback-heavy hooks above which Linda goads Mick into a full-on fight. “Why don’t you shut your mouth and let someone with something good to say speak?” by stages descend into screams of “Your mother’s a whore”, “When I think of you I think of a little piece of shit”, and finally: all out fisticuffs. It’s glorious – I’m having it played at my funeral.
Dawn Of The Replicants / Ten Sea Birds
Prolapse / Tina, This Is Matthew Stone