10//Nevermind – Nirvana
One thing I’ll never quite understand about Nirvana is why fans of them seem to grow increasingly ambivalent towards Smells Like Teen Spirit the more they listen to them. It’s the greatest grunge song of all time, one of the greatest songs of the 90s and just generally one of the greatest songs ever. The ‘oh, it’s overplayed’ argument is one I’ll simply never understand, or accept. It’s played a lot because it’s damn good, like everything else on Nevermind. To be honest I subscribed to that weird trend for a while too, along with the general move away from Nevermind as a whole that people seem to make, and so I kind of left it, and Nirvana, for a while. Quite a while to be honest.
When I returned I was sucked right back in, possibly more than ever (and I was goddamn obsessed with them when I was younger), and it was those opening chords of Smells Like Teen Spirit that did it. I don’t know if any other album has an opening trio as powerful as Nevermind. Smells Like Teen Spirit, In Bloom and Come As You Are are the band at their very best – simple yet brilliant guitar work, absolutely furious drumming, rumbling bass and Kurt Cobain howling lyrics that enthralled a generation; as well as pretty much every generation of teenagers since.
Less pointedly ‘alternative’ and anti-mainstream than In Utero, and less rough than Bleach, Nevermind captures a band who don’t have a point to prove to anyone and are just making whatever the hell kind of noises they want. Fortunately they’re noises that pretty much rescued rock from descending into some kind of Motley Crue filled toxic musical apocalypse. They’re noises that blended the fury of Led Zeppelin and metal with the weirdness and quiet-loud dynamic of The Pixies, threw in an ear for melody drawn straight from soft-rock 60s and The Vaselines, and then dropped Kurt Cobain’s sincerity and magnetism on top of it all. I think it’s time we admit that Nevermind, overplayed as it is, remains the high-bar for hard rock .
9//Scary Monsters and Super Creeps – David Bowie
We bought Scary Monsters on an ill-fated day trip to Andorra on our holidays when I was like 11. We’d forgotten it was siesta so the entire town, which for a while we thought constituted the entire principality of Andorra, was in lockdown. Nothing was open and no one was around. We found out later that it was the bit of Andorra on the other side of some mountain that was the tourist hub. We were visiting the weird cousin. We felt we needed some kind of souvenir so we went into a supermarket and, as is only logical when commemorating a trip to Andorra, bought a David Bowie album. It was the first David Bowie album I’d ever heard and I was blown away. Not in a good way, more in a ‘Holy shit this can’t be real’ kinda way. An opening song that consists of stilted guitars, tone-deaf singing and some Japanese woman wailing in a foreign language was not what I had expected from a supposedly legendary artist. It was one of the most hilariously shocking things I’ve ever heard in my life. We thought we’d been duped by those damn crafty Andorrans into buying some of their crappy, broken music.
Flash forward and It’s No Game Part 1 is one of my favourite Bowie songs precisely because it is weird and completely mental, much like the rest of the album.
An incredibly strange piece of work, it’s all the same both Bowie’s most consistent album and his most inventive. I mean, just listen to the end of Ashes to Ashes. Or all of Ashes to Ashes, but especially the end. Wave after wave after wave of synths as the whole song completely changes in tone to this incredible, ominous sci-fi wonderland whilst Bowie sinisterly warns ‘My momma says to get things done you better not mess with Major Tom’. A crash of dystopian sounding synths is possibly my favourite thing to hear in music and I can trace it right back to this. I used to listen to just the end of that song on repeat and at the highest volume to stretch it out.
Bowie has always walked a tightrope between the arty and the pop – here he absolutely nails it. Funky, poppy and almost kitschy, as well as liable to become looped in your head for about a week, it then throws on top of that some wailing, all over the place vocals from Bowie that capture his mad brilliance without exposing too harshly the fact he can’t really sing; some absolutely brutal, crunching guitars from Carlos Alomar that are arguably the best in Bowie’s canon; and trademark melodrama that Bowie manages to restrain from bleeding over into excess the way it so often does. The result is the pinnacle of both art-pop and Bowie.
8//Funeral – Arcade Fire
The Suburbs may not have completely won me over, but Arcade Fire will always come back to me the moment I put on Funeral and hear Neighbourhood 1 and that piano, that ragged, distorted guitar and those eerie, haunting lyrics that are at once apocalyptic and comforting. Seriously, those lyrics are just incredible. Lines like:
“Then, we tried to name our babies
But we forgot all the names that
The names we used to know
But sometimes, we remember bedrooms
And our parents bedrooms
And the bedrooms of our friends
Then we think of our parents
Well, whatever happened to them?”
Are just so incredibly, brilliantly evocative and emotive it hurts. It’s undeniably the best song they’ve ever made, which makes it somewhat unfortunatethat it’s the first song on their first album – so essentially they’ve been playing catch up ever since. They’re lucky then that the rest of the album is right on its tail, not least Rebellion which runs it about as close as it can get, and that they never let that mix of the beautiful and the rough get away from them. If I had any problem with Neon Bible, and Suburbs too, it’s that it was too clean and polished.
The roughness of Funeral gives it an edge and harshness that brings out the raw emotion of the band and that weird, haunting beauty. It also masks that Wim’s voice isn’t exactly spectacular.
It’s become pretty much accepted at this stage that Is This It is probably the most influential indie rock album of the 21st century; but Funeral manages to just about pip it in the overall stakes. Where Is This It changed things up by keeping them simple, functional and precise, songs like Power Out on Funeral stand out for how they cut loose and just go wild. It’s invigorating and infectiously energetic whilst at the same time remaining totally sincere and absolutely serious.
Funeral represents a double sweep for Arcade Fire – not only did they make arguably the finest song of the decade in Neighbourhood 1(Tunnels), they then had the bravado to go ahead and drop it on probably the finest album of the whole decade. Now just make a fourth album already.
7//Merriweather Post Pavilion – Animal Collective
It’s really incredible that this album is here – truly truly incredible. For years I don’t think there was another band or album that I hated more passionately than Animal Collective and their overrated noise fart Merriweather Post Pavilion. It was as if they had no understanding of what music was supposed to sound like, what a tune was, what a melody was or what people actually enjoy listening to. It was repetitive, brash, whiny and seemed to be obsessed with how ‘alternative’ it was. It was the worst.
It’s safe to say I’ve changed my mind on that one. I had always quite liked In the Flowers and Lion in a Coma, but that was about it. And even then I only liked the second half of In the Flowers when it goes crazy. I still hold pretty much the same opinion about them – they’re pretty good but not enough to justify the hype around the album. Every other song has undergone a total reversal.
My Girls, once the song where all my rage was focused in to one screaming explosion, is now probably my favourite song on the album. In fact it’s probably one of my favourite songs of the decade. I don’t even know how I didn’t like it; it’s so ridiculously, infectiously catchy and the lyrics are just so damn good that it doesn’t even matter that they just kind of loop for 5 minutes. It’s probably better that they loop, it makes it like some weird chanted mantra or something. Also Frightened, once a total nothing song, is now the one that runs My Girls closest, and what’s weirdest about that is that what I love is the vocals. I used to hate that voice so much. Now, when I hear him bellow:
“When influence is threatened
Maybe I should let them
Well maybe we should let them
And I have a question
Are you also frightened?”
Rather than complaining about how whiny and nasal he is, I’m just kind of touched by lyrics about being terrified of becoming a parent. And as for those tuneless noises? Turns out they’re actually densely packed bubbles of synth soaked joy.
So, 5 years after it came out, Merriweather Post Pavilion has gone from being the epitome of all I hate to, erm, my favourite album of the decade. Weird.
6//The Stone Roses – The Stone Roses
Sigh. I Wanna Be Adored. Longer sigh. That’s just about the only way I can describe the opener to The Stone Roses eponymous debut album. Long, wistful sighs of absolute contentment. Now I hear it I almost regret not putting it in my Top 10 songs. It’s just heavenly. Everything about it. Ian Brown with functional vocal cords, Mani and Reni operating in absolute harmony as always, John Squire(Ah, I was convinced he was literally the greatest human being of all time for years) pulling out perhaps the quintessential Stone Roses riff – all jangles and hooks and quiet, meandering noodling – , and that atmosphere. Dear Lord the atmosphere on that song is some kind of perfect. And what’s this, She Bangs The Drums? Is that some emphatic, playful indie-pop racing off and pulling me in? And now, is that Waterfall? It’s glorious, that guitar! It sounds like being 13! Fuck it, I’m skipping straight to I Am The Resurrection. No, wait, Made of Stone first! No, This Is The One! Oh, Fools Gold!
That’s the journey of joyous rediscovery I make every time I listen to The Stone Roses debut album again. I’m almost glad I stopped listening to it for so long – it just makes nostalgic return trips that much more fun and meaningful. This is the best indie album ever recorded, the template from which pretty much everything else takes flight, the most influential British album of the past 25 years and probably the greatest debut ever.
It’s so many things, but mostly it’s just fun. Incredibly fun. Fun, innocent, tongue-in-cheek and endlessly listenable thanks to an insanely brilliant balance between pop so light it was almost pastiche and a blues-rock crunch that kept things grounded, all always driven along by some of the greatest drumming ever committed to record. I mean, just listen to Fools Gold and the absolute madness that is its drumming. It’s an album I’ll always associate with road trips and the car CD player, which for about a year was essentially where it lived since it was played that often.
I almost forgot about putting this in, which is crazy since for the first 16 years of my life it wasn’t just a solid pick – it was embedded in concrete within the very foundation of my Top 10. Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten them quite yet.
5//Loveless – My Bloody Valentine
It’s not often that something blows your entire face clean off your skull, but Loveless is one of the few things that does. It does it within seconds too, starting off with possibly the greatest opening to any album ever. The first two seconds, four drumbeats and single
explosion of noise that starts off Only Shallow is a shock and awe opening that goes unmatched. Plenty of people have tried to copy the airy, dreamy quality of Loveless and Kevin Shields guitar work, but none have ever captured its raw, fuzzed up power.
When I first heard Only Shallow it was accompanied by a slow-motion video of balloons popping and glasses breaking and stuff filmed in black and white, and it was weirdly totally perfect. At the time it was the end that sold me; when the song proper ends and the closing 40 seconds turn into some weird Aphex Twin on guitar atmospherics, accompanied in the video by all that broken stuff flying back together.
It was tangible in some weird way; the noises were so thick and textured that you felt you could almost touch them. It’s probably the most wonderfully textured album ever and it’s a sensation that still defines Loveless for me. It’s some weird form of music all on its own that you usually can barely even describe as a song. At times it’s just pure, structureless noise that just happens to be weirdly kind of beautiful. Of course, that’s provided you listen to it quiet. At that volume it’s dreamy and weirdly calming. Loud, it’s a whole other beast. It’s explosive, rough and will absolutely drown you in how much it has going on. Also, I’m going to get the phrase ‘achingly beautiful’ out of the way here in reference to Sometimes. I’m pretty sure I could use it to describe every single album here.
If this all sounds incredibly pretentious that’s probably because it is. I don’t know how to talk about noises this ‘out there’ without retracting into my own ass a bit. Sorry.
4//In the Aeroplane Over the Sea – Neutral Milk Hotel
The Diary of Anne Frank is possibly my favourite book of all time, so it makes sense that an album driven by a guy who’s obsessed with her ranks highly for me. Jeff Mangum probably references her in every single song and a couple, like single Holland 1945 and the whole end of Oh, Comely, are fairly explicitly about her. It does not make for good listening whilst reading Anne Frank and getting all sad at everyone dying. It makes terrible, depressing listening. It’s hugely emotive, sure, but mostly just really, horribly, soul-assaultingly depressing.
Otherwise, it’s almost fun sometimes. Take those crazy bagpipes on Untitled, or the furious drumming on The King of Carrot Flowers Part 2&3, or the driving beat of Ghost.
The slower stuff? Harder to get into but more rewarding. It took me forever to finally get into Oh, Comely – now I’d consider it their second best song, and that’s pretty much entirely on the back of Mangum’s endlessly strange lyrics and technically kinda crap but somehow sorta good vocals. The top one, title track In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, already featured as one of my top 5 songs ever. So it’s pretty good too. All in all an incredibly strange, incredibly powerful and incredibly incredible album that has a quietly brilliant end to top it all off.
3//OK Computer – Radiohead
I was a total Radiohead fanboy when I was about 15. I was obsessed. Absolutely and utterly obsessed. I thought Jonny Greenwood was the single coolest human being on earth and I thought Thom Yorke’s voice almost made up for how pretentious and physically repulsive he was. I didn’t think Ok Computer was the greatest album of all time, but only because my conviction in it was too instinctive to necessitate any kind of consideration. I’m pretty sure I wrote the words to the final verse and coda of Exit Music For a Film in one of my files in school. As a reminder, these are the lyrics:
“You can laugh a spineless laugh
We hope your rules and wisdom choke you
Now we are one in everlasting peace
We hope that you choke, that you choke
We hope that you choke, that you choke
We hope that you choke, that you choke”
OK Computer had an incredible ability to surprise me every single time with just how good it was, and that remains undiminished. Now though it’s more of a ‘God, I haven’t listened to this in forever, I forgot how incredible every single thing about it is’. Only Pet Sounds is more consistently brilliant than this, and that’s partly because it’s got God Only Knows to make up for Caroline No and OK Computer only has, hmm, actually, now that I think about it, it’s so consistently brilliant that I don’t even know what the best song is. Fitter Happier is the dud, obviously, but everything else is on a level plain of absolutely stellar. Every single song is either great all the way through or has one jaw-dropping moment.
When I drop into a Manic Street Preachers or Nirvana or Neutral Milk Hotel kinda mood I often wonder whether they made the greatest album of the 90s. Then I put this on, rediscover my inner 15 year old, attempt to sing along and match Thom Yorke’s falsetto, fail painfully and then remind myself that they ain’t got nothing on this.
2//SMiLE – The Beach Boys
This won’t make any sense but bear with me anyway. Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys is perfection. SMiLE by The Beach Boys is not, but I think it might be better anyway. And I don’t mean that in a ‘It’s beyond perfect’ way, I mean it in a ‘It’s flawed in parts but yet somehow balances out as something better than something that’s perfect’ way. I find this paradox so confusing that I found I couldn’t justify putting SMiLE above Pet Sounds; and a tie would have just looked indecisive, anticlimactic and thoroughly shit.
So here it is, perfectly mimicking my Top Songs list by being a Pet Sounds, SMiLe one-two. So, rather than indecisive and shit, you get slavish fan-boyism and shit. I’m sorry I couldn’t make it more interesting but, really, I’d just be lying if Beach Boys didn’t totally dominate.
I can’t help it that, the first time I heard Heroes and Villains, I was so stunned I just put in on again a couple of times and sat staring vacantly on a couch, numb to the fact I was in a horribly uncomfortable seating position. And it’s really not my fault that the harmonising on Do You Like Worms and Cabin Essence is so incredible it barely even seems possible. And to criticise someone for considering the closing minute of Surf’s Up as no less than an act of God is just unfair.
SMiLE will always hold a place in my heart for being a) amazing, and b) making me realise just how incredible The Beach Boys were.
1//Pet Sounds – The Beach Boys
How totally unexpected.
It has my favourite song of all time, it’s by my favourite band of all time and it’s completely perfect; what else was it ever gonna be?
This is an album that’s perfect in a thousand ways, from track listing to track length and right back round to overall length. I consider 35 – 50 minutes to be the ideal length for an album, and lean to the lower end of that spectrum. Pet Sounds is 38 minutes long. That is perfect. It’s incredibly produced, but not to the point of being soulless. The fact that, during Here Today, one of the guys comes in early on the chorus and starts laughing and then comes in extra loud when it actually happens, that makes me smile every damn time. Brian Wilson wanted to create ‘pocket orchestras’ on the album, but you never lose the feeling that this is just a bunch of Californinan wannabe surfers singing and having fun.
Other acts on this list like Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel load up on the surreal, abstract imagery and lyrics, Radiohead go all serious and verge on pretentiousness and My Bloody Valentine just sort of mumble nothing-y innuendo most of the time. The Beach Boys on Pet Sounds are so simple it’s almost stupid. They’re so ridiculously sincere and innocent they almost come right back round to insincere parody. Instead they’re just endearing; and that’s partly because, for an album that consists almost entirely of love songs, they’re all pretty broken romantically. They aren’t the dull, mawkish ‘It’s so swell that you’re my gal’ kinda stuff they produced earlier. They’re earnest, affectingly forthright and usually doomed. The whole album’s actually sorta bleak really. It’s all not fitting in, watching love die slowly and dealing with crappiness. I mean, just listen to Don’t Talk. The opening to that is:
“I can hear so much in your sighs
And I can see so much in your eyes
There are words we both could say
But don’t talk, put your head on my shoulder”
And that’s accompanied by the saddest, prettiest strings in the world. The only song that doesn’t win me over on lyrics, or generally, is I Know There’s An Answer. And that’s only because there’s an original, alternate version (Hang On To Your Ego) that’s infinitely better.
Everything’s so perfect and wonderful in that easy, innocent kinda way that I find that I just can’t listen to one song off this anymore; one quick listen quickly turns into a marathon cycle of about 6 whole playthroughs. And, really, that’s because once I’m started there’s just nothing I’d rather listen to. What can compete? What can give me that same sense of comfort and total joy?
God only knows what I’d be without this.