I love albums.
Here are ten of my favourite in no particular order, and why I like them.
I've also listed 5 that very nearly made the list, and might have done if I'd written this during a different week.
The only rule was that I was only allowed one album per artist, for the sake of variety.
The Beatles - Abbey Road
Not as obviously influential as some of their earlier works, but features some of their best performances, captured very well. It also very much influenced my idea of what an album could be, not just because of the remarkable run of song fragments on Side 2, but the sequencing of the whole thing. Especially that cutoff at the end of I Want You (She's So Heavy), followed by Here Comes The Sun, the perfect musical picture of sun breaking through the clouds. Not bad, for a group that half the time could barely stand to be in the same room together, by this point.
Favourite Tracks: I Want You (She's So Heavy); Oh! Darling; Because
Elliott Smith - Figure 8
A bigger sound than on most of Elliott Smith's previous albums, but I don't think the songwriting suffers at all because of it. There's barely a wasted moment here, with high points dotted all along the way. Full of harmonic and melodic sophistication, nevertheless this isn't ostensibly the most surprising or unusual album on my list. But sometimes just being an outstanding and cohesive collection of songs is enough, and it is in this case. I'm unsurprised to learn that it was partly recorded at Abbey Road; there are moments where this sounds like an album that The Beatles never released.
Favourite Tracks: Wouldn't Mama Be Proud; Son of Sam; Stupidity Tries
Deerhoof - The Runners Four
It was actually very difficult to decide which album to pick between this Offend Maggie or Friend Opportunity. In the end I decided that out of all the bands on this list, Deerhoof probably fits the description of 'live band' best. I love their albums, but seeing a show is something else. The Runners Four is, in my opinion, the best approximation of seeing them live that they've recorded. There are some remarkable guitar and drum performances here that sound as if they were caught in the moment rather than meticulously planned. Yet it doesn't simply sound like a setlist - it retains a level of musical cohesion that I'd associate with the best albums out there, for all of its rawness and noise.
Favourite Tracks: Wrong Time Capsule; You Can See; Siriustar
Radiohead - Kid A
For some people this was the album where Radiohead went off the rails. Yet many, me included, still regard this as a high point in the band's career, and not just to appear intellectual for 'getting it'. Indeed, I think their subsequent albums have so far been less successful attempts to go down a similar road, with the exception of In Rainbows. Kid A feels very immediate to me. OK Computer is an easier listen and beautiful in its own right, but Kid A takes me to more interesting places. What the two have in common is that they both feel as if they were recorded in a very specific time and place. That might sound like nonsense - and perhaps it is. Nevertheless I think some of their albums feel sterile, as if recorded in a vacuum (yes, I know that doesn't work). This has an atmosphere. Don't ask me to explain the difference!
Favourite Tracks: How to Disappear Completely; In Limbo; The National Anthem
Blur - 13
A lot of people in the UK know Blur for a collection of jangly, often tongue-in-cheek britpop hits in the mid 1990s. In the US they're mainly known for Song 2 and nothing else. But like many good bands they're respected by music fans for constantly evolving and playing with their sound, and that shows up best on their albums. 13 is one of the wilder experiments. There's a lot of variety on offer here, from the opening gospel-tinged twang of Tender through the meditative swirl of chords on 1992, to the grungy chords of Trimm Trabb. But it never fails to feel like part of the same work, partly thanks to light use of connecting musical passages between songs. Like almost all of my favourite albums, no matter how interesting things get sonically, there is a strong emphasis on melody at work here, that helps ground the work and make it feel more immediate.
Favourite Tracks: 1992; Trimm Trabb; Caramel
Andrew Bird - The Mysterious Production of Eggs
I enjoy Andrew Bird's work in general, but the period from The Swimming Hour to The Mysterious Production of Eggs represents, to my ears, his best compromise between simply having fun and trying to create work of a more substantial quality. The excellent Swimming Hour possibly errs closer to fun, and my choice here a little more towards invention. I find myself listening to either depending on whether I'm after something more playful or something more interesting. Mysterious Production almost completely ditches the old-timeyness of some of his older records for a more modern folk-pop-rock sound, but never at the expense of sounding interesting. It's a lovely little sound world full of melodies, nice production touches, moments of playfulness followed by great beauty.
Favourite Tracks: A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left; Opposite Day; Skin Is, My
Broadcast - The Noise Made By People
I never understood why the concensus rates follow-ups Haha Sound and Tender Buttons higher than The Noise Made by people. They're certainly sonically more adventurous, but as always I like my adventurousness rooted in melodicism, and it's in this aspect that I think The Noise Made By People wins out every time. It's hardly the only one on my list to hark back to the 1960s, but it's perhaps the most immediately accessible. Songs like Come On Lets Go, Papercuts, Look Outside and City in Progress are such perfect pop gems that they sound like they've always existed, and the quieter moments of the album complement them very well.
Favourite Tracks: Come On, Let's Go; Papercuts; Look Outside
The Olivia Tremor Control - Black Foliage: Animation Music
Intuitively, I'm always a little wary of bands which try to emulate a particular era of music, because there's something that feels a little insincere about that as an idea. But who am I kidding? I have Andrew Bird, Elliott Smith, Broadcast on this list, all bands known to dabble in pastiche to a greater or lesser extent. And here we have The Olivia Tremor control with a piece of unmistakeably 1960s pschedelic pop, released in 1999. This isn't an easy listen. There are a lot of hard-to-penetrate instrumental and sound-collage sections but it rewards a patient listener as this earthy bed is seeded throughout with catchy pop tunes of outstanding quality. Give it a few tries.
Favourite Tracks: Hideaway; I Have Been Floated; A Place We Have Been To
The Fiery Furnaces - Blueberry Boat
This was the first Fiery Furnaces album that I heard, and I was very excited to hear more afterwards. Sadly, in this case, I feel their other work doesn't even nearly match. Not that it's bad - just that none of it fired my imagination in the same way. This album seems to skip effortlessly between pitch perfect pop to noisy, rough-sounding stuff and everywhere in between (sometimes in the space of a single song). Yet it's one of those magic albums that, like a few others on this list, magically still comes off sounding like it's all pulling in the same direction. Not without elements of pastiche, nevertheless this feels like a much more modern take on psychedelic pop, in contrast with my previous choice. And a very successful take, at that.
Favourite Tracks: Chris Michaels; Blueberry Boat; Mason City
Cardiacs - Sing To God
It's hard to get away from the fact that Cardiacs are weird. Complex but at the same time often very raw sounding, intricate while still very melodically focused, and with the tendency to write songs about things like rearranging dogs to give them parts from various other animals. So it's not easy listening. But it's also not just weird for weirdness' sake. There's a level of craft here that is rare, an embarrassment of musical ideas in this double album that is utterly irresistable once the ear becomes adjusted to the idiosyncracies. It's catchy without being trite, it's complex without being impenetrable, and it's one of the most exciting things I've ever heard.
Favourite Tracks: Manhoo; Dog Like Sparky; Dirty Boy
Five albums that could easily have made this list:
Belle and Sebastian - If You're Feeling Sinister
Decemberists - Picaresque
The New Pornographers - Electric Version
Tortoise - TNT
Pixies - Doolitle