So, I was challenged to post on Facebook ten albums that have significance, in no particular order. Albums that really made an impact and are still on my rotation list. Post the cover, no need to explain.
Well, I can’t resist this kind of thing. But I do want to explain. So here they are.
NB these are not the ten best albums I’ve ever heard. Not my ten favourite albums. Just ten albums that have somehow or other stayed with me, that I’m always delighted to hear, that led me on to other things, or took me back to somewhere special.
- Steely Dan – Pretzel Logic (1974)
Marshall Hall student residences, Sheffield City College of Education, 1975-77. My first encounter with the Dan, pretty much. And still my favourite ever Dan album. Infused with jazz, explicitly in the Ellington cover, ‘East St Louis Toodle-oo’, and ‘Parker’s Band’, less overtly in the Horace Silver bass pattern on ‘Ricki Don’t Lose that Number’. At the same time, superlative pop/rock, ‘complete musical statements within the narrow borders of the three-minute pop-song format’, according to Rolling Stone. Impenetrable, ambiguous lyrics, which still deliver a hell of a kick. Fave track? ‘Any Major Dude‘.
Any major dude with half a heart surely will tell you my friend
Any minor world that breaks apart falls together again
When the demon is at your door
In the morning it won’t be there no more
Any major dude will tell you
2. Osibisa (1971)
Criss-cross rhythms that explode with happiness. For me, hearing this some time in the early 70s was connecting with part of my own past, my childhood in West Africa. Living pretty much on the campus of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science & Technology, where my father taught, we heard the highlife music wafting over from the student residences. A blend of Latin and African sounds, made for dancing, it was infectious stuff. But I’d forgotten those sounds until Osibisa. They weren’t all Ghanaians but their roots were in a highlife band, The Star Gazers, featuring Teddy Osei (sax), Sol Amarfio (drums) and Mac Tontoh (trumpet) who went on to form Osibisa in London in 1969. Joining them were band members from Grenada, Trinidad, Antigua, Nigeria, and another couple of Ghanaians. It wasn’t ‘authentic’ but then neither was highlife. Music can’t be kept pristine and pure, it is promiscuous, one form instinctively bonding with another to create something new. And it’s portable – the music of Africa crossed the Atlantic on the slave ships and interacted with the music that it found there. Osibisa brought the music of Ghana back to me and today, all these years later, one track especially brings back not just those early years but our family home in Nottinghamshire. Our house was called Akwaaba – ‘welcome’, in Twi which is the official dialect of Kumasi, the capital of the Ashanti region of Ghana.
3. Kirsty MacColl – Kite (1989)
Whenever I post anything about Kirsty I get such an outpouring of love in the comments. From people I knew adored her, and people I had no idea would feel that way. It’s more than the music – we respond to a sense of who she was, that she wasn’t and couldn’t be ‘plastic’. Before Kite I’d heard, obviously, ‘Chip Shop’ and her cover of ‘Days’ and although I’d liked her voice, I wasn’t expecting something this powerful from her. Apart from ‘Days’, there aren’t any covers here, it’s all her. She managed to attract brilliant musicians to work with her – and everyone who did seems to have loved her to bits. Even Morrissey, in all of his petulant and quarrelsome – and lengthy – autobiography doesn’t have a bad word for her. I always loved the story of her making music with Keith Richards and telling him he was playing something wrong. She was tough and vulnerable at the same time, her voice was sweet and strong, her words were funny and heartbreaking. If I have to pick one track from this, it will always be ‘Free World‘.
4. King Crimson – Red (1974)
This is seriously heavy. It’s said to be one of Kurt Cobain’s favourite albums, which kind of makes sense. Whilst Crimson are obviously prog, they transcend the stereotypes of the genre, and this album in particular is grungy, particularly on One More Red Nightmare. Crimson was a constantly mutating ensemble, in which the only constant was Robert Fripp. This particular band comprised Fripp on guitar and mellotron, Bill Bruford on drums and Jon Wetton on bass and vocals, plus Crimson alumni David Cross (violin), Mel Collins (soprano sax) and Ian McDonald (alto sax). This was to be the last Crimson album for seven years. Next up was Discipline in 1981, with Fripp (obv) and Bruford plus Adrian Belew and Tony Levin. Top track – ‘Starless‘. It’s bleak and beautiful and kind of terrifying.
5. Motown Chartbusters Volume 3
I bought this for pennies from someone in my class at school. A great big hefty slice of vinyl, already a bit crackly. Packed with classic Motown tunes, by their greatest songwriters (HDH, Whitfield & Strong, Smokey, Marvin, Stevie, Ashford & Simpson amongst others) and their finest artists (Temps, Four Tops, Marvin, Smokey, Stevie, Supremes, Isleys and more). I know and love every note on this album and always will. But in the end there’s one that just floors me every time, Diana Ross & the Supremes – Love Child. This is a classic story song, a story not so far from the real lives of many of the Motown stars, poverty, single parenthood, and the shame of being both poor and illegitimate. Diana may not have been the best singer on Motown’s roster but her voice could burn and yearn nonetheless. Where I lose it is the coda. Diana soars with ‘I will always love you’, whilst the backing singers (apparently not Cindy and Mary on the recording) provide an urgent counterpoint with ‘wait/wait won’t you wait now/hold on/wait/just a little bit longer.’ It’s pretty much damn perfect.
6. Flobots – Fight with Tools (2007)
The first thing I heard from the Flobots was ‘Handlebars’. I can still remember how it affected me, the lyrics and the instrumentation – not just the usual guitar, bass and drums, but viola, cello and trumpet. It gave me goosebumps. In the years when I was running regularly, Flobots were my ideal soundtrack. No matter how tired I was, how daunted by the distance still to go and the steepness of the hill ahead of me, the combination of passionately political lyrics and tight urgent rhythms powered me onwards. There’s always a sense of hope in the words of their songs, a sense that however crappy things are (and lord knows they’ve got crappier since 2007) there is and always will be resistance, people who will man the barricades, who will refuse to shut up.
We are building up a new world
Do not sit idly by
Do not remain neutral
Do not rely on this broadcast, alone
We are only as strong as our signal
There is a war going on for your mind
If you are thinking, you are winning
I’m picking ‘Anne Braden‘. This epitomises their politics, I think. It celebrates a white woman, from the Deep South, who always knew that there was something wrong, and who threw in her lot not with her ‘own people’, but with the oppressed. She was tirelessly active in the civil rights movement and anti-racist politics throughout her life, facing arrest and the constant threat of violence. She believed that there was ‘another America’, and we have to hang on to the belief that she was right.
7. Le Mystere des voix Bulgares (1975)
This was originally released in 1975 on a small record label, and might well have been forgotten, had Ivo Watts of 4AD not heard an audio cassette of the recording and tracked it down. It was re-released in 1986 and had a tremendous impact. From the Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir, who contributed the most to the album, the Trio Bulgarka emerged, and worked with Kate Bush on her Sensual World album in 1989. She said that ‘it was something strange to feel this very strong female energy in the studio. It was interesting to see the way the men in the studio reacted… Instead of just one female, there was a very strong female presence.’ What struck me so forcibly when I first heard it was the harmonies. A cappella vocals can always tingle my spine whether it’s The Sixteen doing Allegri’s ‘Misereri’ or The Four Freshmen doing ‘Their Hearts were full of Spring’, but these are not just spinetingling but weird and unsettling. Especially “Sableyalo Mi Agontze” (Заблеяло ми агънце) [The Bleating Lamb].
8. Songhoy Blues – Soubour
I’ve written often about my love for the music of Mali. It’s the birthplace of the blues, and its music never fails to move me, emotionally and physically. These young musicians grew up not only with the astonishing legacy of Malian music – the genius of Salif Keita, Toumani Diabate, Ali Farka Toure – but also the music that had emerged across the Atlantic, Muddy Waters and Jimi Hendrix, inheritors and interpreters of the sounds that generations of Africans had taken with them on the slave ships. Their music has also been shaped by the threat posed by IS affiliates to that incredibly rich culture – see the documentary They will have to kill us first, and Abderrahmane Sissako’s 2014 film, Timbuktu. Hard to pick one track, but for today at least, I’ll pick ‘Petit metier‘.
9. Alice Cooper – School’s Out (1972)
Summer of ’72, my French penfriend, Catherine, was visiting. She brought with her the sound of Claude Francois and Michel Sardou, and went home with singles from Hawkwind and Alice Cooper. I’m somewhat surprised I was allowed over to see her the following year… Not everything that I loved back in the summer of ’72 has stood the test of time, but this one has. And particularly Alice’s appropriation of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story in ‘Gutter Cat vs the Jets‘. The Alice image never appealed to me especially, but the music did and does. If I was asked to pick ten musicians Alice would never make the cut (soz Alice) but every time I hear this album I’m reminded of how it galvanised me back then. It also reminds me of the polarisation of music back then. Of my school friends, most listened to Motown, Northern Soul, Ska and reggae. Others listened to Deep Purple, Zep and Alice. I never quite got the hang of which gang I was supposed to be in, because I loved all of the above. Still do.
10. David Bowie – Aladdin Sane (1973)
Well, obviously there would be Bowie. I could have picked ten albums just from his lifetime’s output. But them’s the rules. Aladdin Sane is an album that surprises me every time I hear it, there are details that I didn’t recall from so many previous listenings. And there’s Mike Garson’s fabulous piano on the title track, amongst others. When Bowie died I reminisced about ‘Time’, and how when we played this album at home we had to ensure we were within arm’s reach of the volume control in case of sudden parental proximity when Bowie got to the v v rude bit of the lyrics. Tough to pick just one track from this album, but I’ve settled on ‘Lady Grinning Soul‘, which is another that features Garson.
Ten albums, from the thousands that have found their way on to our record player/CD player/cassette deck over the years. They’re weighted towards the 1970s, which I guess is inevitable. My teenage years, when my musical tastes were forming, freeing themselves both from parental influence and from the tribalism of my peers, trying things out and finding out what moved my feet, my hips, my mind and my heart. That process has never stopped, but it was at its most intense then. I carry with me the earliest music I heard – a kind of mash-up of the Goldberg Variations with E T Mensah & The Tempos, probably – and there was a gradual immersion in the world of pop and rock when we returned home from West Africa in the late 60s. All of those sounds are still part of my listening world, and I’ve added music from all around the world, and ‘classical’ music that my parents weren’t into (late 20th century stuff, and opera), and jazz and, well, a bit of everything really. And there’s a world of music out there that I don’t know, and that I might love if I get the chance to listen. So ten albums is daft and arbitrary but if you made it 100 albums it still wouldn’t be adequate.
“The world without music? It would be like a prison, right?” (Garba Touré, Songhoy Blues)