An Introduction

I first became interested in 4AD, a UK independent record label founded in 1980, towards the end of the '80's. I was falling in love with the music of Dead Can Dance, Clan of Xymox, Pixies, Bauhaus and The Birthday Party and was surprised when the 4AD label sampler "Lonely Is An Eyesore" came out in 1987 that all these bands were from the same label.

After visiting a Pre-Raphaelite exhibition of some American's collection of art, I came to thinking of all this musical art that 4AD have released that may one day drift into obscurity unless someone shows it as art. So now I'm on a crusade, to collect the first ten years of 4AD's releases and exhibit the collection on 4AD's 50th anniversary in 2030. This is a big task which will have some interesting twists and turns along the way.

Friday, 23 September 2011

A Lifetime of Music in Ten Albums

The hardest thing for any serious music fan to do, is to give any sort of favourite band, song, album etc. But it’s also loads of fun. So I decided to compile what is one of the hardest things to compile, a top ten album list.

Of course, this list is likely to change on a daily basis. But I’ve tried to be as subjective as possible. So this is a list of albums that I have always thought to be sheer brilliance. Also, I have included only albums where there isn’t a single track that lets the whole album down. With one exception. The only order they are in is by release year.

And the relevance to this blog I hear you ask? Well, two out of the ten are 4AD. That may not seem much, but out of hundreds of albums that have been the soundtrack to my life, it is quite incredible that two are from the same independent label.

Budgie - Never Turn Your Back on a Friend

Apart from the Roger Dean gatefold cover, this was is an incredible album. A clean and crisp recording, the whole album is like a set of sessions rather than an over produced set of layered tracks. All the songs seam natural on this album. The song lengths reflect where they should go and for how long they should go on for and not a second too long or short. So it has a mix of quick hard rock anthems and thoughtful journeys that don’t over indulge. They never did it again as good as this.

Mike Oldfield - Ommadawn

This is the one exception to the rule. A perfect album, with an awful twist at the end. A vocal track about about the joys of riding your horse. Apart from this terrible little ditty, the album is magical. The album has two tracks, where as usual Mr Oldfield plays thousands of instruments. The magic though is in the play of styles that runs through the songs. This is a mixture of classical, folk, medieval, tribal, all rolled together seamlessly as though he’s asking “how else would it sound?”. It’s also modest and not loud and brash. It takes genius to get that balance.

Joy Division - Closer

I was listening to this album quite a lot before I knew of it’s significant back story. One of the most Gothic albums ever made, but don’t dare ever say that. I love the schizophrenic element to this album, one minute up, the next minute right down to the very bottom. The depth this album reaches is beautiful in it’s darkness and yet manages it without any pretension, just sincerity. Then when you think you have understood the gravity of it’s aura and go on to discover the back story to this album, an even greater depth that you thought wasn’t possible is added.

Shock Therapy - Shock Therapy

An early “Industrial” pop album from the US, it’s raw, honest and at first you don’t notice the depth of the lyrical content. The music mixes the styles of Killing Joke, Alien Sex Fiend and Death Rock with a synthpop edge which would be more akin to the industrial pop bands of the 90’s. Filled with a satisfying mix of catchy riffs and mental conflict, it has a surprising depth which is given an added dimension with the unfortunate circumstances of it’s lead man, Gregory ‘Itchy’ McCormick who died in 2008 aged 44.

Clan of Xymox - Medusa

Not every band are completely original, but some perfect their genre. Clan of Xymox were great in the UK if you were elitist in your musical tastes. The music is very accessible, but by the late 80’s and early 90’s were not in the “it” crowd’s repertoire of music. I was shouting to every DJ in the early 90’s about how good this band were and no-one took me seriously. Now they are the darlings of the underground Goth movement when their music has become dull and predictable. Pieter Nooten is the shining star on the album and Clan of Xymox are the lesser for his absence. Mixes Joy Division, The Cure and Depeche Mode together with almost progressive changes and switches, that stop the songs becoming typically pop structured. Medusa is filled with emotion without going too deep, but deep enough.

The Cure - Disintegration

This was the second in what was to become a trilogy of albums. (Pornography, Disintegration, Bloodflowers). This is a perfect album and considered by many to be The Cure’s best. Very serious, purposefully depressive and fueled by Robert Smith’s drug of choice, it’s glimpse into what may have become of Joy Division in another world of what if. Disintegration also has a rare quality, of making the user slightly annoyed at the more upbeat tracks, but they help unhinge the listener before knocking you straight back down again.

Dead Can Dance - Aion

Dead Can Dance have led an interesting musical journey, from Post Punk debut to almost African jingly janglies on the final album. Aion was the halfway point which perfected a sound before quickly moving on to other styles. Even though it mixes classical, tribal, medieval and rock, it mixes in just the right amounts. Brendan Perry still gets plenty of great bass lines in, and the percussion moves you in a primeval way. Lisa Gerrard’s vocals are not classical, but unique to...well, herself. Many bands have tried to imitate this album but have fallen well short. It’s a fine line to walk to achieve an album like Aion succesfully. Many imitators are either too far on the rock end to be interesting, or too far on the cheesy end of attempting classical music and failing miserably. Dead Can Dance are genius.

Spock’s Beard - Beware of Darkness

Progressive rock is not to everyone’s taste. Some of it is way too over indulgent and on the other end of the spectrum, too boring, rigid and afraid of itself. Since the seventies turned on prog, it was very uncool to do anything other than 4 minute pop or rock songs. During the 90’s, the tide turned and now in the new century most types of music are at least tolerated. Spock’s Beard were not afraid to be out and out prog rock. But they also learned the lessons of the seventies. Although Beware of Darkness is typical of Yes and Gentle Giant, it has little to no pretension and has tongue firmly placed in cheek. It’s a fun album, but incredibly genius and clever and yet remains very accessible. Unfortunately, Spock’s Beard never did it again.

Tea Party - Transmission

It’s all been done before. The Tea Party picked up in the 90’s where Led Zeppelin stopped in 1980. The Tea Party have always leaned heavily on Led Zeppelin, especially with the hint of Indian and middle eastern percussion and strings. But this album has a depth I’m afraid Led Zeppelin never had. A depth even the lead singer Jeff Martin has said he never wants to go back to. The lyrics on Transmission making reference to Huxley, Orwell and Zamyatin, about death and the afterlife, have such depth and power, that you get completely lost in it’s dark waters. While still holding on to the Tea Party blues and the eastern influences, Transmission also mixes in industrial and plenty of keyboards.

The Girl & The Robot - The Beauty of Decay

I try to steer clear of newer albums making a top list, as time does change things when it comes to music. And a list like this usually has longevity as a proof of reckoning. But two recent albums were in close running. The one that didn’t make it was an album called R.E.T.R.O by a band called Mind in a Box. But pipped to the post is this Swedish duo under the moniker of The Girl & The Robot. Synthpop duos have been around for thirty years now. But the female fronted synthpop duo is a difficult variation to master. Eurythmics managed it with the Sweet Dreams album. But it’s rare to get the level of warm vocals mixed with cold minimal synths. The Beauty of Decay is a wonderful album. Dark enough to keep you gripped, warm enough to fall in love with and cold enough to make you shiver. A rare treat and I’m ready for a new album from them!!!

So that’s my top ten albums of all time.

It’s about time some of you readers added some comments. Get a google account and stop me talking rubbish, otherwise I’m likely to think that everyone agrees with every scrap of rubbish I come out with. I would love to read some of your top ten albums.

1 comment:

  1. The female fronted synthpop duo is a difficult variation to master, you're right. I'd say Yazoo were a better example of this as they stayed true to synth roots (ok, they were only together for 18 months so didn't really have time to develop musically), whereas Eurythmics eventually veered off into guitar-based stuff ('Thorn In My Side' etc) - it's interesting to think what Yazoo would have turned into if they'd have carried on - how they would have approached the musical playing field of '84 and '85. Some people would say Erasure and that Andy Bell is just a butch Alison Moyet (!) in disguise; I'm not so sure. I think Moyet would have stuck her oar in and that's not necessarily to mean we would have got 'Love Resurrection' out of Vince Clarke.

    As for my Top 10 albums - I've honestly failed to find 10 albums that I think, "Yep, that is perfection" - there's always a fly in the ointment, usually, as you say, spoiled by an utterly bewildering track at the end about unicorns or broken umbrellas.
    "Hoodoo" by Alison Moyet (ah yes, that's where I was going with this) is a triumph because it's a variation of different styles without being completely disparate. Plus it was written, recorded and produced in 1991 after a hiatus of four years in which she underwent a radical visual transformation from Smash Hits cover girl singing the insipid 'Love Letters' to the 'black hair dye and bomber jacket banshee' screaming about throwing things at the wall, narrowly missing your head and the let-up is only for timeless ballads not antiquated by dated instrumentation. Not a Linn drum in earshot. It really is quite marvellous. Obviously commercial acclaim faltered as people in record shop aisles muttered to their friends "Is that THE Alison Moyet?" - but at least it did get nominated for a Grammy. It is the album I measure all others by. I'm still waiting!