1. Paul Simon- Graceland
The album that introduced me to the concept of “an album” in the musical sense. The family record player was gathering dust in a cupboard along with the LP collection and I don’t remember my parents listening to much music- until my dad started buying cassettes suddenly. The first few were “best of” compilations. Then this came along. For a long time I thought it only had three songs on it, I had conflated so many of them together in my mind. I was assured it had many more, and I came to realise very few albums have only three songs on them. And when this is the case they are usually called “pieces”, not songs. What do I think of “Graceland”? I liked it then, and though I’ve since had my differences with the earnest-to-the-point-of-humourless Mr. Simon, I still like it today.
Favourite cut: probably Boy in the Bubble
2. Pet Shop Boys- Actually.
One Christmas, my brother and I got given our own cassettes for the first time. I got a rock-‘n’-roll compilation with Chuck Berry and co., and my brother got this, because he had asked for it. I was at first dubious, because I was and remained for some years sceptical of chart pop music. But I eventually became jealous of my brother for getting such a clearly brilliant album, and I think I asked for a different pet shop boys album of my own for my next birthday. The pet shop boys became not only my favourite pop band, but the only pop band (as opposed to MOR rock) I liked for a long time. I would add that, good though “actually” is, both “Please” and “Behaviour” are better, and the dynamic duo are still making brilliant music today.
Favourite cut: What have I done to deserve this?- Two of my favourite ever acts (PSB and Dusty Springfield) together on one masterpiece.
3. Bob Dylan- Blonde on Blonde
At some point I lost my phobia of those huge scary-looking LPs in the cupboard and the dusty old phonograph with the faulty volume knob, and got them out, spread them about in my room, and checked out the records my parents listened to in their youth. I think I scratched most of them. This was my favourite, and Dylan became my musical hero, even though I have no idea what most of the lyrics on this acid-fuelled opus signify. But still, dig that “liquid mercury” sound. Also in this period I thrilled to the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night”, LP, but I’m leaving that out to make room for more unusual choices.
Favourite cut: (Sooner or later) one of us must know
4. The Cure- Wish
This would be on the list anyway due to the effect it had on my teenage psyche, and the fact that I listened to it to death, never noticing that the songs were each about twice as long as normal songs. However it’s main significance as it marked a turning point in my musical inferiority complex vis-à-vis my brother. Previously he always took the lead. He would buy an album, say by REM, I would disparage it then eventually come it admit that it was actually very good and end up buying REM albums myself. I would try to strike out and buy an album, say by Bryan Adams, my brother would disparage it and eventually I would come to agree with him that it was a bit poor. It always worked out that way, he always won, and I was fed up with it. Finally I bought “Wish”, and my brother disparaged it about as much as he ever disparaged any album either before or since, but I knew he was wrong, and ceased to care anymore what he said. I proceeded to shut myself in my room with it for days on end, buy all their other albums, and cover my walls with Cure posters. And my brother could go to blazes. And yet, listening to “Wish” now- and it may be that I’ve simply worn it out from playing it too much- I can’t help wondering if maybr my brother was right after all.
Favourite cut: Trust
5. Dexys Midnight Runners Too-Rye-Aye
This was the other most significant discovery in my parents’ vinyl racks because it destroyed my belief in my parents’ musical judgement, and not before time. I know this process usually happens in front of the TV, with the latest trend in pop blaring out and the grown-ups wailing “it’s just noise!” “You can’t understand the words!” and so on, But in my case it occurred with an album that had come out when I was 4. My mum had apparently read a review of it and bought it as a present for my dad without having heard it. Neither of them liked it a bit and henceforth there it sat, a cuckoo in the nest of the collection, practically the only post-1975 record they had. I was warned it was rubbish, and therefore hesitated to play it for awhile, then when I did I wondered how it was possible for anyone to be so wrong about anything. It reminded me of The Cure, my favourite band at the time, but with their own angle on tuneful fully-orchestrated, lustily wailed pop songs. Of course, the Cure records it most resembled (e.g. “Why Can’t I Be You?) didn't appear until much later in the 1980s. In 1982 this mix of celtic folk and brassy soul music was thoroughly fresh, I imagine. So the spell of parental infallibility was broken at last, and I only had peer pressure to overcome to finally be able to call my soul my own.
Incidentally, most hardcore Dexys fans will tell you this is their worst album, and that “Don’t stand me down” is their masterpiece. In my humble opinion, it’s the other way round. “Lets make this precious” and “Till I believe in my soul” in particular are their finest moments.
Favourite cut: Till I believe in my soul
6. Cocteau Twins- Four-calendar café
Nowadays I can see the Cocteau twins in their historical context and see how they related musically to other new wave and indie bands of the early eighties. But when I first heard them, at the height of their mellow, refined rarified nineties style, I felt like I’d never heard anything like them before, and that getting this album was a bold step in broadening my horizons. This album proves they make good music on Mars, too. I got it for Christmas 1993 and for a long time whenever I played it it reminded me of Christmas and the taste of chocolate coins. The sleeve makes a cameo appearance on my GCSE art exam piece.
Favourite cut: Bluebeard
7. Pulp- His ‘n’ Hers
Another breakthrough in the musical war of wills against my brother, because for the first time I bought an album by an artist new to our house, and he liked it! Ever since we have more or less respected each others’ tastes, and have exchanged many a compilation with goodwill on both sides. I fist noticed Pulp when “Lipgloss” got played a lot on Mark Radcliffe and the Evening Session, both Radio 1 shows. However, in those days one never risked buying a tape on the strength of one song, so I waited till the other two singles had come out before I took the plunge. Pulp succeeded The Cure as my new favourite band, in a glorious reign lasting from 1994-1996. My favourite memory of this album is getting home from my first school disco and listening to it under the bedcovers, volume turned to minimum, speaker pressed against my ear, and almost subliminally absorbing the inaudible bittersweet strains of “David’s Last Summer”.
Favourite cut: David’s last summer
8. Boo Radleys- C’mon Kids
The Boo Radleys took over the favourite band mantle from Pulp for 1996-8, on the strength of this flabbergasting masterpiece, which I listened to every day for weeks. I had been a big fan of theirs since “Giant Steps”. I also remained loyal to them when “Wake Up” came out (indeed, I preferred it), in spite of its deeply divisive first single which lost them a lot of fans, and won them a lot of new fans who turned out to be even more unfaithful. Because of this, and because it had no obvious singles except for a couple of hard-rocking ones which were quite unrepresentative, “C’mon Kids” became a commercial failure. Well, OK, maybe it was because it was pretty uncommercial, too. But it really is incredible, from the complete unpredictability of its wild free-form song-structures, to the poignancy and pain of the actual content. Even when I knew the album off by heart, and it no longer took me on a thrilling roller-coaster ride because I knew what was coming next, the lyrics and tunes still continued to move me.
On the other hand, I later became more aware of true experimental music. In comparison with which, to a purist, this indie-pop band’s meddling with madness undoubtedly would seem small beer, old hat, what you will. But I hate purists (and I’m none too impressed by much experimental music) so who cares.
Favourite cut; Four saints
9. Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers- “Jonathan Sings”
Enter my guiding light. Well, in fact I had been aware of Jonathan for a while, through the Mark Radcliffe show and through seeing him at a festival. But this was the first time I heard a whole album of his (courtesy of the Leeds University Student Union Record Library, and- whisper- I taped it). Initially I thrilled to the original and best version on “That Summer Feeling”, and the minimalist rock n roll manifesto “This Kind Of Music”, which is the cut on here that really changed the way I think about rock ‘n’ roll. Other songs impressed me less at first, the ones that sounded a little too middle-of-the-road and country-ish. But as the years passed, I have come to love all of it. It is often criticised, especially by Jonathan Richman himself, for being too slick and overproduced, but it doesn’t sound so to me. Perhaps because when I taped it there was some distortion from playing it too loud, or lots of surface crackle due to fluff on the needle. Perhaps I have on this worn old home-taped cassette a unique ”mix” of the album as it should have sounded!
Favourite cut: This kind of music
10. The Beach Boys- Wild Honey
I used to read music historians, critics and indeed other musicians talk about the Beach Boys in such a worshipful manner that I wondered: why such hyperbole? I had “Pet Sounds”, like everyone else, and knew a fair selection of their singles, and was aware they almost made some very experimental album that never saw the light of day, but… all this just seemed to add up to them being an above average sixties pop group. I just couldn’t see what the fuss was about.
Then I heard “Cabinessence” on the local college radio station, and- after taking a year or two to persuade myself I had really heard what I thought I heard, I started to collect their other albums, and realised that there was far, far more to them than I thought, that they had in fact made loads of classic albums, not just one, full of untold and varied wonders, and that in fact what I had thought was those writers’ hyperbole was in fact understatement. The Beach Boys may even have ruined my enjoyment of most pop music I’ve heard since by setting a standard almost impossible to follow. The greatest pop group ever. (OK, well MAYBE the Beatles but they don't need any props from me)
(Even though I’ve never really got over my discovery that the college radio station that fateful day had segued Cabinessence into another record, an ever crazier record (its identity lost to history), and I mistakenly thought it was all one single, mindblowing piece.)
“Wild Honey” I have chosen arbitrarily as probably the one where I really started to “get it”.
Favourite cut: Darlin’
11. Jeffrey Lewis – It’s the ones who’ve cracked that the light shines through
Since Jonathan Richman there had really been no other singer to greatly expand my concept of what a song could achieve, what a singer could be, until Jeffrey Lewis, the Bob Dylan of our times. There had been many live performers who had influenced me in that time in terms of what a live performance could be, and Jeffrey Lewis, with the masterstroke of his “lo-fi videos” alone, did this too. In fact I tried to emulate this in my first ever gig with the Seven Inches, though I didn’t finish the drawings in the end, and abandoned the plan. At this point I had never even heard Jeffrey Lewis’s music, I had only read a review of one of his shows in the NME, which had been enough to inspire me. I forgot his name and didn’t expect to come across it again until by chance I later finally saw and heard Lewis, and discovered the incredible variety of his songs, with their amazing, lovingly crafted lyrics, often experimenting with existing songwriting and storytelling techniques in a marvellous manner. Whether describing a terrifying dream, making a trenchant political point, telling a hilarious story, going deep into the details of his own life and feelings, or simply indulging in hilarious nonsense wordplay, he was and is a master of his Art. However, his more “produced” records often don’t sound as good as they should somehow, or else they contain too many of his weaker songs, or neglect to include any of his songs at all (see “12 crass songs”). This is his only flawless album, but what a masterpiece it is. Rivalled only by Bjork’s “Vespertine” as my favourite album of the noughties.
Favourite cut: Back when I was 4 or Alphabet
12. Hefner- Breaking God’s Heart
Just as The Cure, Pulp, and The Boo Radleys all had two-year reign as my favourite band, here came Hefner to take on the mantle for 1998-2000. I’m not sure I didn’t buy this album purely for the pop-art sleeve (particularly alluring on the vinyl edition, which is what I bought) and the press endorsements on the attached sticker. Rarely have I so bought an album sound-unheard with such confidence that I would like it. The first side I played I loved so much I had to listen to it over and over before I could tear myself away from it to eventually play the other side, which was just as good.
I loved the rawness of the sound, seeming to convey very hungry feelings in a simple manner, delivering the wonderful, wonderful tunes in their purest form, in the most heightened emotion. The lyrics too were refreshing. Having got used to Britpop banalities it was somehow nice to hear all this sixth form poetry, with its obsession with sex and liberal use of religious imagery. And let’s not forget that there was a healthy dose of wit and self-knowledge in there too.
Favourite cut: The Librarian, or The Sweetness Lies Within
13. The Singing Detective (soundtrack album volume one)
Though Dennis Potter is to be applauded for his excellent TV writing, (actually I've only seen "Pennies From Heaven" and "The Singing Detective" itself) I principally thank him for opening my eyes to the wonders of pre-rock-'n'-roll popular music, especially of the 1930s and 1940s. Starting with my first hearing of this amazing platter. Since I heard this, I have sought out this kind of music: mostly dance orchestras before the (shudder) jazz set in too much. Bandleaders such as Lew Stone, Bert Ambrose and Harry Roy, singers such as Al Bowlly, the Inkspots, the Mills Brothers, Marlene Dietrich, and Sam Browne. This opened the floodgates for me to broaden my horizons much further. Nowadays I am less prejudiced towards post-1956 western pop/rock. I am open to all genres (though still very suspicious of jazz and it's relations.) Now I listen to classical, world and folk music on the radio as much as pop/rock, and simply judge music as music on its own merits, regardless of genre or age. This is in fact what I always tried to do, and I haven't actually quite got there yet even now, but the insanely unpredictable, raging version of "Limehouse Blues" here (by Ambrose) was a major staging post in the battle to acquiring this catholic mindstate.
Favourite cut: Limehouse Blues
This was going to be a list of fifteen (inspired by that "15 books" meme), but I couldn't decide on the other two out of this lot:
The Beatles: A hard day's night
Gorky's Zygotic Mynci- Bwyd Time
Tindersticks- second album
The Make Up- Destination Love: "live" at Cold Rice
Vivian Stanshall- Teddy Boys Don't Knit
Moldy Peaches- Moldy Peaches
Kimya Dawson- My Sweet Fiend Princess
Prince and the Revolution: Around the World In A Day
Four Tops: Greatest Hits (1967)
Kevin Blechdom- Eat my heart out
Helen Love- Radio Hits 1
American Roots (box set)
Folk songs of Britain: Songs of Courtship (field recordings collection)