Tag: 50 classic albums to listen to before you die

50 classic albums to listen to before you die (5/5)

By Daniel Margrain

Dummy (1994) Portishead
Bristol’s Portishead skillfully create spectral soundscapes and desolate laments against a casual backdrop of electronic music that floats over a disorienting flow of syncopated beats – a style clearly inspired by “junk” culture, cocktail lounge and film noir. The atmosphere is disturbed by small dissonances, wailing electronics, turntable scratching and sampling.

 

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Head Over Heels (1983) Cocteau Twins
This ‘Dream Pop’ masterpiece magically blends celestial singalongs, middle-eastern psalms, majestic spirituals, tingling guitars and neoclassical keyboards. What is created is a sound that is both elegant and lush. The songs exhibit the levity and grace of madrigals but also the gloom and pomp of requiems. Liz Fraser’s emotionally powerful vocals act as an original instrument.

 

Fun House (1970) The Stooges
Iggy and The Stooges were the first to push rock and roll to the extremes and they are in a sense the ultimate antithesis of chic respectability. They are, in other words, the epitome of rock and roll in all of its grim degrading depravity and erotic delusions. Continuing on from where they left off with their seminal debut, Fun House takes their visceral rock dynamite to another level. With this album, the Stooges anticipate the wild voodoobilly ‘swamp’ rhythm as well as punk rock. This album flows at dizzying speeds of distortion without a moment’s pause.

 

The Three EPs (1998)  The Beta Band
While The Beta Band had clearly listened to a back-catalogue of artists like The United States Of America, Kevin Ayers, Can and Pink Floyd for inspiration, The Three EPs is nevertheless an inventive work in its own right. A clever combination of electronica, hip-hop, piano-led ballads, Gregorian chanting, folk and musique concrete, have resulted in a modern psychedelic work of outstanding originality. The collection is mainly built around a succession of infectious shuffling beats, experimental sound collages, gentle whimsically-inflected ballads and languid-style grooves. This album is one of the most mesmerizing psychedelic trips ever produced.

 

I Could Live In Hope (1994) Low
Low create hypnotic psalm-like minimalist music that is way ahead of its time. The languid guitar sound, soft harmonies and radiant melodies are modernist variations of the themes first coined by Nick Drake that also hints at the neurosis and tone of Cowboy Junkies, Neil Young and Galaxie 500.

 

Talking Heads: 77 (1977) Talking Heads
77 is the first of the Talking Heads opening trilogy of masterpieces. David Byrne’s eccentric songs and bizarre stories are underpinned by a brilliant rhythm section that is a hybrid of funk and rock and roll. Although the music on the album is ‘catchy’, it is only superficially so. Fundamentally, Byrne hints at an underlying anxiety that is offset by a cool detachment and alienation. 77 is arguably the most significant albums of the new wave and Talking Heads one of the most important bands of all-time.

 

Daydream Nation (1988) Sonic Youth
Arguably the signature for post-punk, Sonic Youth finely balanced an experimental approach with subtle harmonies to produce a unity of style and arrangement that is detached and cold yet beautiful and hypnotic. The noise is stretched to the limit as the obsessive repetition of chords and insistent percussion create an atmosphere of suspense similar to Neu. The bands best work is contained in this album and, with Eric’s Trip, they produced one of rock music’s all-time classic cuts.

 

The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter (1968) The Incredible String Band
The Incredible String Band’s most imaginative and accomplished record, Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, is a psychedelic-folk classic that integrates a wide variety of traditional music forms and instruments and was one of the key recordings that helped nurture the development of world music.

 

From Her To Eternity (1984) Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds
Located at the intersection where art and life appear to coexist, Nick Cave’s psychotic neurosis expressed with this album is almost like an extension of his own funeral requiem. More to the point, Cave’s masterpiece is a highly original sounding expressionistic odyssey akin to a descent into the depths of hell. At the edge of dissonance, the albums pounding drums, sledgehammer noise and Cave’s grotesque fables are an awesome combination. The images of toiling labour, pirates aboard creaking ships and invocations of US ‘Deep South’ literary traditions, is illustrative of Cave at his visceral best. Sadly, though, many of his subsequent works lack the allegorical story-telling, dramatic brilliance and consistency of this album, and instead tended to slip into the realms of over-indulgence.

 

Yerself Is Steam (1991) Mercury Rev
Yerself Is Steam is a pyrotechnical and extravagant synthesis of anarchic freakouts in the tradition of Red Crayola which collide with contemplative new age music. What emerges is an imaginative modern psychedelic take on the 1960s acid-rock of West coast America. The vision of the album is one of chaos, decadence and neurosis.

50 classic albums to listen to before you die (4/5)

By Daniel Margrain

Neu 2 (1973) Neu
Neu’s intuitive and innovative ‘motorik’ beat of surging rhythmic impulses, obsessive repetition and cosmic futuristic soundscapes, predicted the neurosis of the post-industrial era as exemplified in the work of artists like Pere Ubu, Joy Division and Public Image Limited. The repetitive tribal beats, particularly the melodic element of the music, also anticipated the post-rock of the early 1990s most notably in the work of Stereolab.

 

Naturally (1971) J.J Cale
J.J Cale’s melancholy ‘laid-back’ blues-rock style has become the template for this kind of musical genre.Highly influential and respected among a dedicated following of fans and fellow musicians alike, the independent Cale seemed to be more comfortable writing for other musicians than performing. Dire Straits were to become Cale’s biggest imitators.

 

Disappeared (2000) Spring Heel Jack
The first track on this thrilling ride of a recording, Rachel Point, sets the scene for what is to come. Pounding drums, Miles Davis-style trumpet licks and looping keyboard wails are only the starting point for the mind-blowing Galina, a piece characterized by tribal pow-pow beats, heavy bass lines, organ drones and minimalist piano patterns set against a symphonic backdrop. This is contrasted with the epic trumpet crescendo of Trouble And Luck and the Bacharach-tinged orchestral aria of the dub tinged To Die A Little..

 

Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter (1977) Joni Mitchell
Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter is an album that works on every emotional and intellectual level. The synergy between music and poetry is virtually unsurpassed. The strident symphonic overtones that embellish Paprika Plains is a work of eloquence and restraint – a majestic piece that evokes a place lost in the mists of time. Dream-like abstractions and mysticism is a running theme throughout the album. The Tenth World and Dreamland predicted the ‘world music’ coined by Paul Simon’s Graceland by a decade.

 


The Days of Wine And Roses (1982) The Dream Syndicate
This album is an exceptionally played slice of neurotic postmodern psychedelic rock – a kind of bridge between Television and The Gun Club. The Dream Syndicate were among the most accomplished of the Paisley Underground bands of the early 1980s.

 

Da Capo (1966)  Love
I last saw Love play live at the Benicassim Festival in Spain shortly before the creative force of the band, Arthur Lee, died. It’s now 10 years to the week that the music world suffered one of its greatest losses. The music of Love embraced psychedelic pop melody with baroque arrangements. Da Capo was the album that best showcased one of the most eccentric styles of music from the mid-to-late 1960s which alternated between manic epileptic assaults of garage-rock and soft and melodic songs with flutes and harpsichord. The epic Revelation showcased Arthur Lee’s powerful vocals and brilliant guitar playing that is similar in style to early Neil Young.

 

Carrion Crawler/The Dream (2011)  Thee Oh Sees
This album is a refreshing and vibrant contemporary take on the psyche-garage traditions of the 1960s. The band effortlessly merge a multitude of reference points from the past without sounding derivative. Songs reminiscent of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd combine with 70s new wave, jazz, soul rockabilly and punk. In the age of cynicism, austerity and conformity, this recording sounds like a breath of fresh air.

 

Gris-Gris (1968) Dr. John
What defines the work of Dr John, is the eclecticism of his Jazz and rhythm and blues-based music. Heir to the New Orleans tradition, Dr John’s unique interpretation of the exuberance of Creole folklore that characterizes his work, was formally embraced by the hippie counter-cultural and freak movement of the 1960s. The combination of funky tribal Middle Eastern and African jams, swamp voodoo blues and Mardi Gras-style fanfares, gave a new expression to the soul-funk-rock of the period.

 

Miss America (1988) Mary Margaret O’Hara
Mary Margaret O’Hara is one of the most original and creative artists of all-time. Her quirky voice is an instrument in itself, a super-human fusion of avant garde techniques and gospel/soul styling. Coupled with her sophisticated blues and jazz arrangements, the atmosphere of Miss America is memorably intense. As a performer, O’Hara is like a force of nature.

 


Double Time (1977) Leon Rathbone
Leon Redbone’s eclectic and original take on the ragtime traditions of the past have a kind of postmodern resonance. The trick to Redbone’s art is the brilliant way he injects a satirical freshness into the blues, jazz, folk and vaudeville traditions by the use of a baritone yodeling croon and his use of nostalgic orchestral arrangements. Redbone’s skill is his knack of revealing the precious underbelly of a lost old-style genre and then updating it to a contemporary audience.

50 classic albums to listen to before you die (3/5)

By Daniel Margrain

Scott 4 (1969) Scott Walker
Scott 4, by far Scott Walker’s best album, maintained the Brel influence of his previous three, but now the themes of prostitutes, gangsters and misfits, as well as his operatic vocal style, was all his own. With arrangements that are closer to Morricone than Bacharach or Spector, Walker transcends the up-dated but essentially old fashioned easy-listening sound of the ballad, to something altogether deeper and philosophical.

 

Telepathic Surgery (1989) The Flaming Lips
The art of the Flaming Lips bridge the punk ethos and the hippie burlesque. Their exaggerated guitar surges and maniacal drumming patterns allied with stylistic collages, create an absolutely phenomenal soundscape. Abrasive crescendos crash amid roaring motorcycle engines, tingling piano motifs and thrashing cymbals. The tempo takes Neil Young’s guitar neurosis to a new level of unorthodox psychosis. This sound is taken to its extreme on Hell’s Angel’s Cracker Factory, probably rocks most extraordinary and monumental pieces of all-time.

 

Gallowsbird’s Bark (2003) The Fiery Furnaces
A cross between a deconstructed Rolling Stones, the ramshackle anarchy of The Holy Modal Rounders, The twisted delta blues of the Magic Band and the cabaret of Frank Zappa, The Fiery Furnaces create a multi-faceted style that has few precedents. The lead vocals of Eleonor Friedberger is from the Janis Joplin/Patti Smith shaman-preacher tradition. This album is bursting with chaotic creativity and fresh ideas.

 

Ys (2006) Joanna Newsom
This groundbreaking piece of work merges the stream of consciousness-style of Astral Weeks with the narrative melodrama of Blonde On Blonde-era Dylan. Arguably, the highlights of this extraordinary moving album are Emily, a 12 minute tour de force of brilliant free-form vocals set against a sparse orchestral soundscape, and the spellbinding finale Cosmia. This is an exceptional work of art and one of the key pieces of the new millennium.

 

May I Sing With Me (1992)  Yo La Tengo
This album is a triumph of folk-rock melody and garage-rock guitar noise which skillfully navigates a maniacal violence and a delicate contemplation. The bass that drives Mushroom Cloud Of Hiss is one of rock’s greatest moments. Yo La Tengo are one of the most important groups of the 1990s. May I Sing With Me is their best and most complete album.

 

Our Mother The Mountain (1969) Townes Van Zandt
Borrowing elements from folk, country, blues and tex-mex, Van Zandt’s music is emotionally intense. His gentle acoustic style has a unique desolate quality to it and his stories are simultaneously intimate, tender and universal. Alongside Dylan and Cohen, Townes Van Zandt is one of rocks greatest ever poets. Critical recognition of his work is long overdue. Our Mother The Mountain is a masterpiece.

 

After Bathing At Baxter’s (1967) Jefferson Airplane
Arguably one of the greatest artistic achievement of the psychedelic era, Bathing was one of the first albums to break free from the conventions of the song format and the pop arrangement. The harmonies are convoluted and the melodies complex – both of which are underscored by superb all-round musicianship. The highlights are the instrumental Spare Chaynge which takes you on an embryonic journey, and the ambitious ‘Ulysses’-inspired Rejoyce in which Grace Slick’s majestic vocals overlay a quite brilliant haunting musicality. This album is an example of a group of exceptional individual talents at the peak of their creative powers working in unison. Baxters is a music for the mind of the mind.

 

Suicide (1977) Suicide
This masterpiece conjures up a sonic intensity of stark minimalism that is breathtakingly original and highly influential. With this seminal album, Alan Vega and Martin Rev perfected a sinister rockabilly. The centrepiece of the album is Frankie Teardrop, the ultimate nightmare, a kind of hyper-sinister Sister Ray for the punk generation. This is arguably the most daring and maniacal ten minutes of sustained drama and tension ever translated to rock music. Vega’s final refrain, “We are all Frankie’s lying in hell” is genuinely disturbing.

 

Rickie Lee Jones (1979) Rickie Lee Jones
Arguably the greatest female singer-songwriter album of all-time, Rickie Lee Jones’ erudite depictions of moral decay and alienation within the US urban metropolis resonates with the work of Tom Waits. This is an album that fluctuates between the physical and spiritual as Jones intelligently and emotionally navigates a space which seems to bridge the visionary with the romantic in a way that has probably only ever been matched within the singer-songwriter genre by Joni Mitchell.

 

Paris, Texas (1985) Ry Cooder
Ry Cooder’s slide-guitar work that’s the foundation for the soundscape Paris, Texas is based on Blind Willie Johnson’s Dark Was the Night (Cold Was the Ground). Cooder’s brilliantly arranged and composed theme that formed the soundtrack to the film of the same name, is a haunting and atmospheric piece that reconstitutes definitive eras and styles. The result is a work of profound metaphysical and existential beauty. In the words of one critic“Cooder has a unique talent to internalize the ethnic traditions of other peoples, to turn them into a universal voice discharged through sophisticated arrangements but, to synthesize nostalgic regret and scientific philology. The stamp is his job.”

50 classic albums to listen to before you die (1/5)

By Daniel Margrain

TNT (1998)  Tortoise
Musically and technically as clinically executed as anything produced by the German masters, Can, Tortoise add a modern twist to the classical minimalist/jazz & prog-Canterbury genres. Despite the albums fusing of a multitude of influences – Miles Davis, Soft Machine, Steve Reich, Ennio Morricone – there is enough rhythmic experimentation by way of funk, dub and even Caribbean timbres that give the music on this record a wonderfully flowing and distinct richness.

 

We’re Only In It For The Money (1968) The Mother’s Of Invention
This visionary work (alongside Captain Beefheart and the Velvet Underground), virtually invented what was to become the punk aesthetic. Frank Zappa’s cynicism and cutting wit is evident throughout the album. This, the third masterpiece of his psychedelic trilogy, is similar in structure to his first two, but this is possibly his most accomplished. Here he uses the collage of parody with added brilliant technical expertise. The album is the musical equivalent of a Burroughs novel – each cut-and paste piece while seemingly fragmented, are in fact welded into a seamless narrative continuity.

 

Have A Marijuana (1969) David Peel
David Peel’s contribution to the counter-culture of the 1960s is a significant but under-recognized one. The punk aesthetics of the late 1970s can probably be traced back to the ramshackle street busking-style approach of Peel and his fellow travelling minstrels who utilize folk agit-prop and Fugs-style satire to comment on the social issues of their day. There is a wonderful organic sense of authenticity, albeit simplicity, in Peel’s art. His lyrics are deceptively clever, the spartan hillbilly hoedown nature of the music, story-telling and comedy skits fresh, and his the use of the streets of New York’s Lower East Side, an innovation. Politically and socially, the contemporary occupy movement can arguably be traced back to Peel’s street “happenings”.

 

Incunabula (1993) Autechre
With Incunabula, the Manchester duo Autechre created a distinctive form of postmodern electronic music that was a far more organically sophisticated and carefully calibrated version of the standard techno/chill-out music of the period. The duos rhythms are akin to an intricate and meticulous ‘design in sound’ that skilfully bridge a number of related genres. These include synth-pop, Indian classical music, minimalism, ambient music, the electronic pop sensibilities of Kraftwerk and the transcendental psychedelic explorations of Tangerine Dream.

 

Pink Moon (1972) Nick Drake
Unlike Drake’s previous two releases, the style of Pink Moon is stark, minimal and radical. The album appears to be the result of an increased existential anguish. Drake’s stories are desolate and anchored in refrains of solitude and obsession. The album – a sleight collection of deeply personal songs – consists of a chilling but deeply moving combination of surreal rhymes and apocalyptic ballads. Drake’s songwriting is highly influential and his supreme soft and melancholic style of delivery has a universal and timeless quality to it. Pink Moon is Drake’s masterpiece.

 

The Marble Index (1968)  Nico
This masterpiece was the album that introduced Nico’s unique art to the world. There is no precedent for the chanteuse’s icy gothic, medieval and neo-classical aesthetics – eerie and doom-laden but no less beautiful for that. This is a stunningly original, timeless and erudite work of art that surpasses commercial considerations. As John Cale put it in the liner notes to the record: “The Marble Index is an artefact, not a commodity.”

 

Bufo Alvarius, Amen (1995) Bardo Pond
One of the most musically accomplished bands of their time (and of any time), Bardo Pond produced this brilliant album that comprises a maelstrom of guitar distortions and manic drumming underscored by repetitively brutal, cosmic and supersonic drones. The overall soundscape is one that merges the experimental post-rock of say, Sonic Youth, the acid jam of Grateful Dead, the electrifying powerhouse blues of the Stooges and the serene shoegazing of My Bloody Valentine. This is one of the key albums of the 1990s – it’s reputation grows with the passage of time.

 

Mirror Man (1971) Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band
Mirror Man showcases The Magic Band at it’s most deliberately shambolic and free. Long ‘live’ primordial rambling jams extend the notion of the Blues standard to its limits. Structurally, Beefheart (Don Van Vliet) and his band game-play in the Delta-Blues tradition adding satirical and infantile elements over a creative carpet of complex rhythms and free Blues arrangements. The result is an extraordinary work of pyrotechnical brilliance. With its combination of a bedlam of guitars and tribal percussion, Mirror Man was the first rock album to shape an aesthetic of ‘anti-music’. Beefheart’s revolutionary artistic vision transcends the superficiality of the acid trip by servicing it to the musical theatre of the absurd. As one critic put it:“This music is the most faithful expression of the Freak culture, of its marginalization more than its rebellion, of its inexhaustible creativity, of its academic disgust, of its infantile ferocity of its desecrating vision of the world”

 

Tonight’s The Night (1975) Neil Young
Tonight’s The Night is a solemn meditation on the pessimism of the 1970s that emerged from the idealism of the 1960s. This is a record of immense, but at the same time, subtle beauty borne out of loss and redemption. The warmth, humour and overriding sense of raw humanity and vulnerability depicted by Young’s rich lyricism, quirky vocals and the all-round brilliant but understated musicianship, touches the deep recesses of the psyche in a very profound way. This is arguably Neil Young’s most solidly consistent work from his most creatively fertile ‘Ditch trilogy’ period. This is a recording that will refuse to date because both the themes, raw poetic beauty of the lyrics and the quality of the musicianship are timeless.

 

Astral Weeks (1968) Van Morrison
Recorded over the space of 12 hours, Astral Weeks is a beautifully unifying and ultimately brave work of art that merges jazz-rock elements, poetry and Morrison’s unique stream of consciousness vocal delivery. This, more than any other, is the album that I have been most drawn to over the last 37 years, having first listened to it as a 15 year old in 1977 when most of my friends were obsessing over the contemporary bands of the new wave. The sheer beauty of the music, and the timeless vivid imagery conjured up by the lyrics, are unmatched in the history of rock music. This album, probably more than any other, has been the soundtrack to my life.