December 24: Arcade Fire, The Beach Boys, Blur, David Bowie, Brian Eno, Goldfrapp, Madonna

This week and next week, we’ll be looking at some of my favourite albums which are on the list, but which I’d already heard before starting this project. I’d heard 149 of the albums on the list before I started doing this; in time I’ll write about all of them.

Arcade Fire, ‘Funeral’

This year’s ‘Everything Now’ got mixed reviews in the music press, mainly because of the variable quality of the tracks (‘Creature Comfort’ good, ‘Chemistry’ disastrous), but they could do no wrong in critics’ eyes up until at least the third album, ‘The Suburbs’. This is the band’s only appearance on the list, and many fans’ favourites. It’s the massed, orchestral heartfelt passion of tracks like ‘Wake Up’ and ‘Crown of Love’ that appeals: there’s something genuine, in an adolescent way, about Win Butler’s clumsy earnestness. The album’s about love and family and how to convey your emotions (a theme Arcade Fire never abandoned) but of course it ends in heartbreak and bereavement with Regine Chassagne’s ‘In The Backseat’.

The Beach Boys, ‘Pet Sounds’

I’ve been listening to the Beach Boys fervently this year, thanks to an impulse decision to listen to ‘Wild Honey’ and a subsequent obsession with ‘The Smile Sessions’, an album miraculously salvaging Brian’s doomed masterpiece and finishing it. The album I knew and owned of theirs prior to 2017, though, is their acknowledged masterwork ‘Pet Sounds’. Even if the album only had three good songs (‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’, ‘Sloop John B’ and ‘God Only Knows’) it would still be light years ahead of most albums. The combination of peculiar baroque instrumentation, great vocals and introverted melancholia is pretty much perfect throughout, though, even if the band themselves had mixed opinions towards it at the time (it’s quite the departure from the surf stuff). The Wilsons appear on the list a couple more times with ‘Today!’ and ‘Surf’s Up’, but it’s hard to argue with the critical view that this is the band at their apex.

Blur, ‘Parklife’

Blur’s gorblimey lads-on-tour singles ‘Parklife’ and ‘Girls and Boys’ turned them from back-end-of-Top-20 proposition to Top 5 regulars, although I don’t think it tells the whole story. The album perhaps seems less of a peculiar mix if you’ve heard the styles they’re aping: there’s a Cardiacs one (‘Bank Holiday’), a Kinks one (‘Badhead’), a Kurt Weil one (‘The Debt Collector’) and a Syd Barrett one (‘Far Out’) in the same area of the album. What elevates the album from mere pomo pastiches, though, is the way it taps into a particular isolation and futility prevalent in the late 90s: it’s a theme explored throughout their work (‘For Tomorrow’, ‘Best Days’) but feels most successfully accomplished here: even if the album is probably 15 minutes too long.

David Bowie, ‘Aladdin Sane’

The album its creator referred to as Ziggy Does America is more raunchy and heavy than its predecessor, dealing in glammy stompers like ‘Cracked Actor’, ‘The Jean Genie’ and ‘Panic in Detroit’. But it’s also got an eye on Hollywood showstoppers (‘Lady Grinning Soul’) and full-on avant-garde weirdness from ace pianist and new recruit Mike Garson. For all the space-age cosmic dancing of ‘Ziggy Stardust’, I think this is the best of the glam era Bowie.

Brian Eno, ‘Here Come the Warm Jets’

Skipping Roxy Music due to disagreements with Bryan Ferry and boredom with the rock star life, Eno’s solo debut operates in broadly the same sphere as Roxy – glammy art-rock. Yet I’ve always found ‘Here Come The Warm Jets’ a warmer, more personable record than any he made with the band, perhaps due to the eccentric lyrics (“and she tells me/they’re selling up their maisonettes/left the Hotpoints/to rot in the kitchenettes”), the masterful playing (Phil Manzanera, Robert Fripp and Chris Spedding make appearances) or the unpredictable arrangements (the title track has the warm jet guitars drowning out all the other instruments to begin with; they only gradually fade back into the mix). Pretty much all of Eno’s 70s albums are great, including ‘Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)’, which is not on the list.

Goldfrapp, ‘Felt Mountain’

Trading in a cinematic brand of electronica not entirely dissimilar to Portishead’s, Goldfrapp occupy a far weirder space: if Portishead are soundtracking old spy movies, Goldfrapp are scoring twisted versions of Hansel and Gretel. Their key instrument on this album is Alison’s vocal manipulated through the Korg MS20: featuring on both ‘Lovely Head’ and ‘Pilots’, it’s a deeply unusual sound, like a Theremin weeping. Elsewhere, the band trade in Add N To (X)-ish abstractions, Shirley Bassey soundalikes and twilight mysteries repeatedly obscured by the enigmatic, stream-of-consciousness lyrics. The band still release albums, of course, but the only really essential ones are this and ‘Black Cherry’.

Madonna, ‘Ray of Light’

After a run of great singles in the 1980s, the early 90s saw Madge’s shows and lyrics become more and more explicit, the ‘Sex’ book and ‘Erotica’ album being the culmination. ‘Bedtime Stories’ and ‘Evita’ dialled those elements back down, but ‘Ray of Light’ was the first (and final) time I was impressed enough with the singles to buy a Madonna album. The album has almost ambient textures in places, a production that still sounds pretty good: instruments wander and burble and vanish, while the melodies and vocal delivery carry it. Reinventing herself as a sort of mystic Kabbalistic earth goddess, Madonna contributes some of her best vocals (‘Ray of Light’ itself) and melodies (‘Drowned World/Substitute For Love’, as good as anything in 1998), and only the flat house track ‘Nothing Really Matters’ feels dated in 2017.

Next week: More of my favourites from the list.


March 14: Brian Wilson, Chic, ‘Bryter Layter’

Brian Wilson, ‘Smile’.

The doomed Beach Boys album was the ‘Apocalypse Now’ of music, in that its cursed development became more interesting than the product. Coppolla finished his film, though, whereas the Beach Boys never got ‘Smile’ out. 38 years later, Wilson finally released a version, re-recorded without the rest of the band. The vocals are great and the melodies are strong throughout, but I’m not sure such a bitty album would have held up, even with ‘Heroes and Villains’ at the start and ‘Good Vibrations’ at the end.

Chic, ‘C’est Chic’.

A rare band where the musicians are more famous than the singers, and rightly so: the phenomenal trio of Nile Rogers, Bernard Edwards and Tony Thompson are dream session hands. Their second album revolves around wonderful singles ‘Le Freak’ and ‘I Want Your Love’, has a few cheap-sounding but decent album tracks, and is let down only by the B-side-ruining ‘At Last I Am Free’, which drags one idea out for seven interminable minutes.

Nick Drake, ‘Bryter Layter’.

A copy of this album must have been distributed to every household in Scotland, considering the obvious shadow cast on Belle and Sebastian, The Delgados and others. I hadn’t heard any of Tanworth-In-Arden’s most famous son before, but the melancholy folk is brilliant. Two more albums of his are on the list; in other words his entire discography.