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Like this? You can read FACT’s rundown of the 100 Best Albums of the 1990s here.
Last year, FACT counted down our 100 favourite albums of the 1990s – a years-in-the-making effort that, we thought, was about as tough as undertakings got. We were wrong.
If narrowing the 1990s down to 100 records was a tricky job, doing the same with the 1980s felt like squeezing a horse through a catflap. The birth of hip-hop, US hardcore, techno, house, metal, first wave indie, second wave disco, goth, new wave…it’s a decade which, unsurprisingly, refuses to be pinned down. Still, pints of blood, buckets of sweat and enough tears to fill a bath later, the list is complete – and we’re very proud of the results.
Lists, ultimately, tell a story, and we’ve attempted to make ours as comprehensive as possible – one that does its best to reflect the full patchwork of musical activity going on in the period, and brings some forgotten heroes to light in the process. No fast passes or sacred cows, and no obscurities-for-obscurity’s-sake either – every record here is one that has something important to add to the narrative of the period. Crucially, it’s also very much a story as seen from the vantage point of 2013 – hindsight, critical advances and contemporary tastes have all had a major part to play in shaping the list.
More than anything though, the following is a catalogue of music that we genuinely love – records that have moved us, records that have surprised us, records that have inspired us, records we still come back to today. Gather round: these are the 100 Best Albums of The 1980s. We’ll be counting them down over the course of the week, posting 20 records a day and concluding on Friday.
To accompany the list, our team curated and recorded five downloadable mixes featuring material from all 100 records on the list:
Mix 1 (#100-#81)
Mix 2 (#80-#61)
Mix 3 (#60-#41)
Mix 4 (#40-#21)
Mix 5 (#20-#1)
Use your keyboard’s arrow keys or hit the prev / next arrows on your screen to turn pages (page 1/101)
100. VARIOUS ARTISTS
ULTIMATE BREAKS AND BEATS
(STREET BEAT RECORDS, 1986)
In the late 70s, pioneering DJs scoured record stores across New York City for the breaks that would come to form the foundation of hip-hop. Nick DeKrechewo of Downstairs Records, Stanley Platzer of the Music Factory, and livery driver turned record expert Lenny “Breakbeat Lenny” Roberts would turn this demand into a cottage industry, providing records for artists like Afrika Bambaataa. Roberts and associate Louis “Breakbeat Lou” Flores also bootlegged rare and out-of-print records before going legit in 1986 with the Ultimate Breaks and Beats series. The 25-edition series ran until the early 90s and is a hip-hop Rosetta Stone: from ‘Amen Brother’ to ‘Funky Drummer’, these are the breaks.
99. HANS JOACHIM ROEDELIUS
WENN DER SÜDWIND WEHT
While he’s still best regarded for his work as half of legendary kosmiche music pioneers Cluster, Hans Joachim Roedelius’s solo outings were occasionally just as crucial. At this time especially, the synthesizer was an enabler for talentless noodlers to rebrand their dull meandering compositions as ‘new age’, but this look never really fit with Roedelius: the sounds might indeed be similar, but the mood is Roedelius’s very own, and Wenn der Südwind Weht finds him combining the mystery and roguishness of Cluster with a pastoral, playful sense of whimsy. Wenn der Südwind Weht is electronic music for the countryside, and it doesn’t need any bleating sheep or singing birds to prove it.
Whatever happened to Escape? Whodini’s second LP was one of the first hip-hop LPs to score a platinum tag, but, eclipsed by the antics of the new school, it seems to have tumbled off of most casual fans’ bucket lists. On Escape, the trio manage a set that’s diverting from end to end – something Spoonie G, The Cold Crush Brothers and The Furious Five conspicuously failed to deliver. For all of Escape‘s pop smarts, it’s a chilly collection: ‘Friends’ (later cannibalised by Public Enemy, Nas and MF DOOM) goes in for bug-eyed paranoia, and ‘Freaks Come Out At Night’ sketches a John Hogarth drawing of downtown Brooklyn after hours. And, three decades on, there’s absolutely no messing with electro-boogie nonpareil ‘Five Minutes Of Funk’ – a sinewy goosebump-raiser that’s so good, they couldn’t not include it twice.
Salva: “Although I’m too young to have enjoyed this record at time of release, while I was growing up I had records that sampled tracks from Escape on heavy rotation. (2Pac, Mac Dre, Bone Thugs, Snoop, Nas, KRS One, and the list goes on) Later when I got into my phase of digging for old hip-hop, electro and freestyle, it was hard not to come across this record, and I got to soak in how dope this whole LP is. Before gangsta rap sort of forced this style out of the mainstream, these guys were it. Whodini’s Escape was one of the records that caused me fall in love with drum machines and synthesizers, signified when electro/dance had a heavy presence in hip-hop, and I’d easily qualify this as one of the best rap records of the 80s.”
REEK OF PUTREFACTION
Sure, Reek of Putrefaction might not quite carry the same influence as Napalm Death’s Scum, and there’s been grander grindcore records released since – it’s certainly no The Inalienable Dreamless in the widescreen stakes – but in terms of throwing yourself head-first into a pit of musical slurry, can it be topped? At some points sloppy and shlocky, at others sadistically precise in its razor-sharp dynamic twists, it was Peel’s favourite record of the year, and surely top five for any self-respecting grind bastard.
96. PHILIP GLASS
Koyaanisqatsi was the record that helped minimalist composer Philip Glass transition from being an artist loved by seemingly only an elite few to being a bona fide commercial success. Preceding the immensely popular Glassworks by a year, Koyaanisqatsi was the soundtrack to a wordless film, and demanded the attention of listeners and viewers alike. For many listeners this was the first time they’d heard minimalist composition at all, and Glass’ combination of orchestral flourishes, organ and synthesizer broke a sound that went on to influence countless musicians. The record’s centerpiece ‘The Grid’ is where things really fall into place ,with rapidly panning synthesized arpeggios and synth bass dancing around Glass’s urgent brass and woodwind with a masterful grace. A generation of post-classical experimental types would be lost without this record – Johann Johannsson and Max Richter, we’re looking at you.
Zola Jesus: “Philip Glass’ Koyaanisqatsi feels like a mantra adrift in space. The repetitive motif that circles around and around throughout the record starts to transform like a hazy dream you can’t quite explain. Glass can pull off playing three notes for 6 minutes straight and by the end of it you feel like you’re listening to a completely different song. It is impossible not get lost in this record.”
Benjamin John Power (Blanck Mass/Fuck Buttons): “I remember the first time I saw Koyaanisqatsi and it kind of blew me away. I was quite a bit younger and I don’t think I’d ever seen anything like that, without the use of any actual dialogue. I remember being drawn to it, and I still think it’s great. The idea of a soundtrack really interests me and I think it’s a really amazing example of music accompanying film, quite groundbreaking. I’d like to think that our music is almost like a soundtrack in a sense, but maybe for a set of imagery that’s not pushed upon people – it’s more of an internal thing.”
95. SOUL II SOUL
CLUB CLASSICS VOL. 1
(10 RECORDS, 1989)
Jazzie B’s sound system/musical collective revitalized turn-of-the-decade R&B with a brand of soul music inflected with hip-hop, dance music, and African touches. A refreshing change of pace from the sounds that dominated urban radio, songs like ‘Keep On Moving’ paired lush orchestration with clubwise grooves. The album’s strongest vocal melody, ‘Back To Life (However Do You Want Me)’, is presented as an accapella; ironically, the more familiar single version subs in some of the paint-by-number New Jack swing to which Soul II Soul was the antidote.
BLOOD, WOMEN, ROSES
(PRODUCT, INC, 1987)
He may be the band’s leader and a titan of underground music, but many of Swans’ most haunting moments came not from their figurehead Michael Gira but from Jane Jarboe, whose personal and professional relationship with Gira was further showcased on a pair of non-Swans records under the name Skin – later changed to World of Skin. Blood, Women, Roses is the Jarboe-fronted Skin album (one led by Gira, Shame, Humility, Revenge, came out the next year), and with her vocals and lyrics firmly in focus, it’s perhaps the most beautiful record either of the pair released. Listen to ‘The Man I Love’ and ‘Red Rose’ with the lights off tonight, and get back to us once you’ve picked yourself off the floor.
93. AZTEC CAMERA
HIGH LAND, HARD RAIN
Orange Juice’s You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever and The Bluebells’ Sisters still sound delightful, but, of all the chirpy Scottish indie-pop sets of the period, High Land Hard Rain packs the most perk. Roddy Frame’s unashamedly twee debut isn’t for all occasions – put it on whilst grappling with a tax return and you’ll probably end up braining yourself on the table – but, in the right conditions, it’s genuinely irresitable: lithe, buoyant, and full of goodwill. And there’s no montage committed to film that wouldn’t be enhanced by pie-eyed standout ‘Oblivious’.
92. EINSTURZENDE NEUBAUTEN
There is no better industrial music mission statement than Einsturzende Neubauten’s 1981 debut Kollaps. Comprised of clamorous, metallic percussion and Blixa Bargeld’s heavily processed squeals, this was a far cry from the ordered chaos of the later EBM scene. It even stands alone in Neubauten’s own catalogue, showing the Berlin natives at their most pure and primal, free of mainstream concerns and desires. The tape-blasted noise, gross slap-back delay, atonal guitars and motorik rhythms were met with disdain at the time, but over the years have served as the touchpaper for countless bands.
91. CHARINJIT SINGH
SYNTHESIZING: 10 RAGAS TO A DISCO BEAT
(THE GRAMAPHONE COMPANY OF INDIA LTD., 1983)
Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat is, of course, a cracking story – a no-profile album of acid-house, made three years before the term existed, by a Bollywood composer from Mumbai. Rediscovered in the Noughties, it’s more than just an ‘And finally…’ curiosity, with Singh’s tangled compositions pulling the best out of his TB-303/TR-808/Jupiter 8 set-up. The accidental ürtext for the Chicago sound – until the acid genealogists dig out the next bit of ossified squelch, that is.
Stefan Goldmann: “I still have doubts Mr.Singh really exists, considering Ursula Bogner being Jan Jelinek in drag. He may exist of course, but is that record really what we are supposed to believe? No one having heard of this album before it got “reissued” a couple of years ago makes it suspicious. Could it have stayed unnoticed for so long? (9 Discogs members claim to own it, most of them miraculously joining in the year of the “reissue”). Could it be some fun project by art school students with an affinity for Rush Hour?
Not that it is unlikely being for real. We have been doing a “prototypes” series for Macro and we have stumbled on absolutely unlikely stuff from Patrick Cowley to Pete Namlook. Not to mention what we couldn’t release so far from … well, let’s keep this a secret. Yet it wouldn’t be a problem to pull off the stunt of the “real” Charanjit Singh performing at Berghain a couple of weeks ago (I couldn’t attend), as well as at several other places. Why not have a veteran Indian keyboard virtuoso with a good sense of humor solo over a hefty acid foundation? It is more fun than listening to the next kid re-enacting Adonis.
From all those hyper-realist simulations of classic dance music in all variations we do know it is possible to make believe it’s the real thing. So it wouldn’t be too far off to take this a stage further and produce some alternative historiography? Usually it is perfection that gets in the way of such projects, rather being too good at it than a spoof (the Casio watch on the Roman legionnaire’s wrist) hints at the fake. The one original real thing is always perfect, but there never is a second original. Styles don’t emerge until later, modelled after whatever singled out the prototype. The first materializations, even of the “same” thing, usually show massive variation. That’s lacking here on a beats and bass lines level. And it wouldn’t be too much effort to fake the whole paraphernalia of course: printing fake covers, staging home interviews, matching the expectedly sparse IMDB database history (which is harder to forge), writing up “how I stumbled upon…” liner notes … Circulating photos in what is clearly a modern techno producer’s studio, as well as the immaculately “vintage” recording quality – just compare this to early acid house – as well as the beat patterns matching prototypean Chicago stuff too neatly actually all help the thing seem real again. There’s nothing more fishy than a flawless presentation. With enough flaws we just can’t tell.
What does make it totally likely on the other hand then is it fits very well with my suspicion that anbody who had the specific gear at hand would have invented techno. If you only have a Roland 808 or 909 and a 303 and nothing else, you can do nothing but acid with this. It is the one obvious thing to come out of such a set up – and sure enough it did in Chicago. So why not in Mumbai too? (shall we check Roland’s distribution archives?) This has happened over and over again: there’s an obvious approach to working with some piece of new gear, and sure enough new gear was always followed by the music the designs hinted at. The Fender bass changed bass lines, the broken valve changed the lines a guitarist would play, the 303 spawned acid, the sampler encouraged hip hop… And the opposite is true too: our difficulties to leave the retro loop for the last two decades mirror the halt in innovation on a basic algorithm level. All we have seen is reintegrations of existing synthesis or effect concepts into ever more powerful software environments.
After we have plundered our (and an Afro-American) past sufficiently, the rationale behind 10 Ragas to a Disco Beat is to integrate a wider cultural vocabulary into the repertoire we can revisit to keep our electronic music going. If it happened 30 years ago in Mumbai or in Amsterdam a couple of months before its release doesn’t matter that much then. The possible prank just makes it a bit more exciting.”
90. SCRAPING FOETUS OFF THE WHEEL
(SELF IMMOLATION/SOME BIZARRE, 1985)
Robin Jahdi: 1985 is primarily known to a lot of us as being the year of Back to the Future. But while most folk of the time were rocking safely to Huey Lewis and the News, at least our industrial heroes were bringing the noise, right? Not quite. Trent Reznor would deliver something that sounded oddly like Depeche Mode four years later, and receive plaudits for changing everything. Ministry were still New Romantics. It’d be nearly half a decade before Godflesh would mutilate our ears with the mighty Streetcleaner.
Thank fuck, then, for Jim Thirlwell. Actually, ‘noise’ does him a disservice. In his Scraping Foetus Off The Wheel identity, he released his fourth record, Nail. Nearly three decades on, this album sounds fresh and eclectic. You get the feeling anything is possible (he actually starts shouting ‘I can do anything I want’ on concluding ‘Anything (Viva!)’. Nail opens with a semi-classical prologue that doffs its cap to Wagner, but it’s not long before ‘The Throne of Agony’ throws the frenetic drum machine, surreal sung-shouted lyrics and random ‘Mission Impossible’ interludes into the mix.
Gypsy punk even rears its head in – whisper that chorus – ‘Enter the Exterminator’. You get the feeling this kind of controlled chaos and intellectual snarling is what Dave Mustaine was aiming for with Megadeth, but could never quite reach (great riffs, though). It’d be a stretch to suggest this combination of electro and epic classical is a kindred spirit to the Venetian Snares album Rossz Csillag Alatt Született, which would follow exactly two decades later, as the primary mood is that of fiendish playfulness, rather than mournful paranoia. Nevertheless, both are equally grand and eye-opening.
Thirlwell was in a stunning headspace at this time (akin to peers Michael Gira and Nick Cave), as only the next year, he delivered the magnificent Wiseblood record with Roli Mosimann of Young Gods, which was the brutal younger sibling to Nail. Dante would have been proud of this musical descent into the inferno.
89. JACK THE TAB
ACID TABLETS VOL. 1
It probably seemed vaguely likely at the time; 11 tracks of the then realtively obscure Acid House, packaged in a Jack Trax aping cover, all mostly unknown artists plying tracks that were less classic Chicago and more a mix between piano house, the breaks of Meat Beat Manifesto or Bomb The Bass and heavy on the vocal samples and stabs. Only after the fact did the reveal come – Genesis P Orridge, of Throbbing Gristle and his then new outfit Psychic TV, with Richard Norris (later of The Grid and Beyond The Wizard’s Sleeve) and guest spots from Dave Ball (Soft Cell and The Grid) and acid techno legend of the future Fred Gianelli, all splurging a psychedelic stew of sample collage that gave a very British spin on the burgeoning US acid sound. Slipping the literal acid into the house punch, and giving a glimpse into a different future where Chris and Cosey could take their place alongside Armando and Adonis.
SWEET DREAMS (ARE MADE OF THIS)
It’s hard to fathom just how weird the 80s were sometimes, but a dip into the ‘Mics catalogue gives a sense of it. Sweet Dreams was the album that tipped them into being one of the biggest acts of the planet, but this was a duo who’d just come from working with the likes of Chris & Cosey and Conny Plank – and you can still hear the deep psychedelia of those influences shot through every note. If the incredible icy pop of the title track and ‘Love is a Stranger’ are too tainted by familiarity, immerse yourself in the slow songs, ‘Jennifer’ and ‘This City Never Sleeps’ to get a sense of just how immaculately realised and otherworldly their vision really was.
Tom Vek: “I vividly remember studying the Eurythmics LPs of my parents as a kid, there’s something so aesthetic about their whole package, even the name has that future-optimism that encapsulated forward-thinking 80s bands. I’ve always loved the identifiable continuous harmony vocal, kinda connecting a conceptually calculated idea with human performance.”
87. MAD PROFESSOR & PATO BANTON
MAD PROFESSOR CAPTURES PATO BANTON
Or, if Just William was raised on i-tal and King Tubby. Mad Professor Captures Pato Banton belongs to the same lineage as New Boots And Panties!! and Original Pirate Material – a chipper, relentlessly eccentric pop record that could only have been made on British shores. On the bonkers title track in particular, Brummie toaster Banton is on giddy form, wandering off on aimless trains of thought or making mischievous lyrical pratfalls. The Prof, meanwhile, continually sabotages his lilting riddims from the inside – see the strafing vocal assault that opens ‘King Step’, or the stop-starts that pepper the album. About as effervescent as homegrown dub gets.
UNDER THE SIGN OF THE BLACK MARK
(NEW RENAISSANCE, 1987)
While Mayhem’s Deathcrush was probably more hardcore than black metal, the same couldn’t be said about Swedish Venom-obsessives Bathory’s 1987 classic Under the Sign of the Black Mark. It proved a crucial tome for many Norwegian listeners, and is cited with prompting Darkthrone to abandon death metal and move into blacker territory. It holds up too, and while it sorely misses some of the lo-fidelity grit of Deathcrush, Quorthon’s demonic, hoarse vocals still sound totally singular. These moody synthesizer-led atmospheres paved the way for over twenty-five years of Satan-bothering goodness, and you didn’t even have to play it backwards.
85. VIRGINIA ASTLEY
FROM GARDENS WHERE WE FEEL SECURE
(ROUGH TRADE, 1983)
A veritable celebration of the humdrum charm of the British countryside, Virginia Astley’s From Gardens Where We Feel Secure has to be one of the least pretentious concept albums of all time. Based around her flowery Satie-influenced piano compositions, it’s the album’s production that puts it in a league of its own. Rather than simply taking the obvious route, Astley bundles her short, minimal arrangements up in a blanket of field recordings, taking us from dawn to dusk with the actual sounds of the summer. The simplicity is deceptive; few artists have ever managed to capture this distinct trait of Britishness so succinctly and so perfectly with so little filler. Best served with cucumber sandwiches and lashings and lashings of ginger beer.
84. NAKED CITY
(SHIMMY DISC, 1989)
Arguably John Zorn’s greatest record (the same applies to Boredoms’ Yamatsuka Eye, who takes vocals) and simply one of the hardest, fastest and most haunting records going – still. What more do you want us to say? It’s 27 minutes long – just listen to it.
Patrick Higgins: “It was a record I got into at a very young age – when I was probably 11 or 12. It was the first record I had heard that tried to take a synthesis of genre styles and drive them all through this really frenetic interpersonal lens, and that was a very important record for me at a young age. I can’t say it has very much bearing on how Zs goes about composing its music, but on a personal level, it was very important for me early on in terms of getting into aggressive and dissonant and confusing but controlled music.”
THE DOUBLE ALBUM
Guided by the hand of Italian disco bigwig Celso Valli, Tantra could only go so wrong on this weirdly neglected 2xLP. The Double Album provides a proper platform for 1979 singles ‘The Hills Of Katmandu’ – a labyrinthine 16-minute exercise in camper-than-camp Carry On Up The Khyber histrionics, and the recipient of an essential remix from Patrick Cowley – and the lither, similarly lengthy ‘Wishbone’. The top and tail might be the star attractions, but Valli squeezes a bunch of chirpy short-form originals between the bookends. Breathless, hot-headed, undeniable stuff.
(SIDE EFFECTS, 1986)
The daddy of dark ambient took things deep underground on Paradise Disowned – quite literally, in fact, as much of the album is recorded in underground caves. A record that still stands tall in the catalogue of an artist who’s released plenty since, and a precursor to modern spookhouses like Khanate’s self-titled and Kevin Drumm’s Imperial Distortion.
THE POISON BOYFRIEND
Sexual depravity, nested despair, prurient postcards, mordant tale-telling – Nick Currie’s Creation debut sees him dip a toe in the psychosexual cesspool he’d dive-bomb into on later releases. The Poison Boyfriend confounds as often as it delights – if Private Eye‘s Pseuds Corner concerned itself with the Creation catalogue, Currie would be a regular fixture – but as far as spooked, naughty indie goes, The Poison Boyfriend is in a (top set) class of its own.
CAMINO DEL SOL
(LES DISQUES DU CRÉPUSCULE, 1982)
While it has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance in recent years thanks to a timely Numero reissue, Antena’s massively under-appreciated Camino Del Sol still languishes in near obscurity. Perhaps the band’s odd union of electronic production and Latin rhythms (dubbed “electro-samba”) was a little ‘too future’ for its listeners, but what made it a peculiarity then makes it an enduring delight now. Antena were instrumental in paving the way for Stereolab’s Gallic lounge experiments, and whilst the latter may have achieved more universal acceptance, Antena stand as the connoisseur’s choice.
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If you think Suicide’s second album sounds ahead of its time, imagine copping an earful of Alan Vega and Martin Rev’s searing punk minimalism in 1975, the year they recorded their first demos with a drum machine and two-track recorder. While they didn’t have the immediate impact of fellow electronic pioneers Kraftwerk, the duo’s bloodless and depraved take on rock and roll classicism fertilised multiple generations of underground artists, from ’80s minimal wave to the recent crop of hypnagogic pop. This astonishing album, which simply refuses to age, is the sound of trash blowing across downtown New York, of late-night B-movies on a flickering TV screen, of crumbling windowless factories and peeling billboards. Hear it? It’s the collapse of the American dream.
Ripley Johnson (Wooden Shjips/Moon Duo): “Suicide’s Second Album manages to be both cinematic and claustrophobic at the same time, and you can clearly hear the seeds of 80s electronic pop in its dark textures and rhythms. But it cut a trail that proved hard to follow, despite being produced by pop star super-fan Ric Ocasek. It has the benefit of actually being a product of 70s NYC, but, more importantly, the advantage of Alan Vega’s and Martin Rev’s unique vision and dedication to their art.”
TACKHEAD TAPE TIME
“I am convinced that our time is desperately short!” The doom-mongering voices that introduce this album of hard-edged sampladelia set the tone for a high-speed joyride through the darkest corners of the decade’s collective consciousness, splicing soundbites from downbeat news reports and jabbering televangelists with multi-storey drums and oodles of tape delay, the latter an important clue to the record’s roots in dub and reggae. A collaboration between singer and producer Gary Clail and On-U Sound innovator Adrian Sherwood, with guitar, bass and drums provided by former Sugar Hill Gang members, Tackhead Tape Time manages to be slick yet raw, expertly produced yet visceral and immediate, and brimming over with end-of-the-century dread.
Adrian Sherwood: “Tackhead Tape Time was made from unreleased and exclusive versions of our recordings that were like Dub Plates, unique cuts of tracks but ones that only we could play out. In the studio we would make the “main” version and then would do dub versions that Gary Clail would play before and after the band went on stage for a live show. In this period we recorded everything using analog tape. A lot of the time when setting up the mixes I was running stripped down versions of the tracks and dubbing them up and Gary would be recording cassettes of the session…these sounded to a lot of people better than over produced and cluttered tracks,raw and somewhat mangled but with Keith Le Blanc’s great drumming and programming holding them together. Add the great grooves, the vocal samples that Keith referred to as “news on the beat”, Doug Wimbish’s bass, Skip McDonald’s guitar and keyboards, and my stripped down mixes -plus the fact that a lot of it was mastered straight from the often overloaded cassettes – this record has a great edge to it.”
77. INNER CITY
The persistent and pernicious myth that straight-up dance music doesn’t make for great albums was smashed right at the start of the modern clubbing age by Kevin Saunderson and Paris Grey with this little beauty. Their formula was less Derrick May’s “Kraftwerk and George Clinton” and more “Front 242 and Chic”: outright industrial snares and those trademark mechanical piano chords merging with a disco lightness and Grey’s gutsy, churchy voice to irresistible effect. It is pop and underground, soul and techno, all rolled into one, and extremely listenable still. We don’t really need a crowd to have a party…
Polyrock’s career, like their music, was stylish and abrupt – formed in 1978, the arty NYC outfit bowed out two albums later in 1982. Talking Heads are the obvious parallel for their sparky post-punk, but where that band weren’t afraid to sound messy or melodramatic, Polyrock are furiously on-point, like Devo without the sniggers. Co-produced by Philip Glass, their exquisite debut sticks to a particular (and expensive-sounding) sonic palette: crystalline synth ostinatos, awkward guitar jerk, sibylline female choirs and a relentless motorik heartbeat, all rendered in gorgeous hi-res. The resulting full-length glitters like coral, and boasts more hooks than Leatherface’s larder.
75. RYUICHI SAKAMOTO
MERRY CHRISTMAS, MR LAWRENCE
There’s a school of thought that posits that if the hairs on the back of your neck don’t stand up after listening to Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence’s title track, you’re not actually human. Some say it’s more effective than the Voigt-Kampf device. The instrumental masterpiece was Sakamoto’s fusion of East and West, a musical interpretation of the deeply moving Nagisa Oshima movie it accompanied. As such, Sakamoto’s post-Yellow Magic Orchestra electronics and traditional Japanese themes endeared him to a new legion of fans, not least thanks to his inclusion of David Sylvian on the track’s vocal version ‘Forbidden Colours’. Think of it as a swooning, melancholic counterpart to Vangelis’s brooding Blade Runner soundtrack.
74. DEAD KENNEDYS
FRESH FRUIT FOR ROTTING VEGETABLES
(CHERRY RED, 1980)
Robin Jahdi: Though the mainstream media likes to focus on the English strain, California was a hotbed of excellent punk rock in the late 70s and early 80s, such as the Germs, Flipper, the Weirdos, Fear, X and the Dickies. Set apart from the rest by charismatic frontman Jello Biafra, who went off like a sarcastic car alarm, Dead Kennedys plyed their trade with devastating urgency.
More than perhaps any other punk rock band of the time, DK were comfortable with the idea of their music being a very fast ersion of rock ‘n’ roll (‘Chemical Warfare’). Indeed, Lydia Lunch famously derided punk rock as ‘Chuck Berry on speed’. Intended pejoratively, of course, but is that really such a bad thing? And was he not anyway? Part of this comfort came from the fact hat, underneath the sneering and agitating of ‘I Kill Children’ and ‘Funland at the Beach’, there was a ton of depth to them.
In the work of East Bay Ray, they had a guitarist who combined surf, rockabilly and hardcore – largely inventing the latter – with the ease of the Pixies’ Joey Santiago, while simultaneously having as much influence on thrash metal as Judas Priest, fellow t-shirt icons the Misfits and Black Flag. Nowhere is this attack more pronounced than on highlights (and two utter classics of the 80s) ‘Holiday in Cambodia’ and ‘California Uber Alles’.
Those two songs also epitomise Biafra’s scathing lyrics. Unlike many left wing rockers of the time, who strove for the serious, DK took the piss on an epic scale. As well as the more juvenile baiting of ‘I Kill Children’, more serious subjects were ripped apart. ‘Holiday in Cambodia’ at once satirised the Khmer Rouge and the fledgling orientalist yuppie culture, while ‘California Uber Alles’ looked at the state’s conservative governor Jerry Brown (revised when Arnie seized power) and projected a fascist speculative fiction.
Chaotic political fury, even if thinly veiled in humour, is the order of the day. The cover art is a photo taken during the riots following the murder of openly gay politician Harvey Milk. The vocals and playing sound like they’re on the verge of riot themselves, albeit with poisoned custard pies as weapons. The only slight misstep is a cover of ‘Viva Las Vegas’, presumably done to troll Middle America.
NOIR ET BLANC
(CRAMMED DISCS, 1983)
Plenty of iconic Western records in the 1980s turned their gaze towards the Plateau Continent (Graceland, My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts) but Noir Et Blanc is the decade’s most spirited culture clash. Algerian-born, French-raised composer Hector Zazou – then best known for his work with prim synth duo ZNR – teams up with ebullient Zairean singer Bony Bikaye for a one-of-a-kind collection of wobbly funk and soupy electro. Rather than attempting to politely reconcile Western and African music, Zazou forcefully squishes them together with vigour and flair: ‘Mangungu’ is a Central African reading of Soft Cell, ‘Mama Lenvo’ encourages finger pianos to duel with spiralling arpeggiator lines, and ‘Dju Ya Feza’ sounds like a sun-baked Severed Heads. A fine cast, including Fred Frith and Crammed Discs don Marc Hollander, keep things supple throughout. Delicious jungle gumbo.
HOLE IN THE HEART
(BROKEN FLAG, 1987)
You just can’t talk about experimental music in the 1980s without touching on Gary Mundy’s pioneering Broken Flag imprint. Responsible for breaking Skullflower as well as his own Ramleh recordings, Mundy’s label was a go-to for disillusioned followers of noise and power electronics, and still stands up today as a benchmark of quality. Hole in the Heart is maybe Mundy’s most crucial addition to the catalogue, possibly because it’s a rare chance to hear his vision unimpaired by collaboration. Ramleh had long been a band of sorts, but for one reason or another Hole in the Heart ended up being a Mundy solo record. His loss was our gain, and the recordings here are prescient examples of the saturated, brain-melting sound which would pave a way for the later experiments of Prurient (a confirmed disciple – just check ‘Product of Fear’), Wolf Eyes and others. Regardless of its influence, Hole in the Heart is a confounding, unpredictable and sometimes startling experience laced with the kind of naive experimentation that’s simply impossible to reproduce. Now that’s noise music.
71. FABIO FRIZZI
CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD
(BEAT RECORDS, 1982)
Back in the 70s and 80s, the grindhouse horror industry was a hotbed of musical innovation – and they hardly even knew it. Much of this, of course, came down to budget: production houses were unwilling to shell out for full orchestras or established bands when one guy with a synthesizer would be able to knock something together. Out of all the horror soundtracks of the era, Italian composer Fabio Frizzi’s City of the Living Dead stands out as one of the most crucial and most rewarding. You might expect simple, minimal synth compositions, but this was something else entirely – a glorious collision of drum machines, Mellotron choirs, clunky piano lines and exotica-tinged guitar parts. Frizzi couldn’t have known how much his music would end up influencing a generation of pre-teen VHS horror fans, but when those fans grew up and finally got the money for a synthesizer and a sampler, the music spoke for itself.
RIDS THE WORLD OF THE EVIL CURSE OF THE VAMPIRES
Rob ‘Pinch’ Ellis: In 2010 I released a compilation of original dubstep tracks version-ed by Scientist called Scientist Launches Dubstep Into Outer Space. It was an attempt to reconnect, in an almost cyclic fashion, dub music and its distant offspring, dubstep. Protégé to King Tubby himself and one of my all time favourite dub producers, Hopeton Brown aka Scientist was an obvious man for the job in my mind. Over the course of a year’s worth of phone calls and spending two weeks touring with him to promote the release, I got to know him quite well and enjoyed his company and his (quite often) eccentric perspective on life.
Of all his great dub albums over the years, easily the most famous is Scientist Rids the World of the Evil Curse of the Vampires, which sees Scientist reinterpret rhythm tracks initially provided by the Roots Radics Band in his inimitable style – brim with voodoo tribalism, intergalactic reverbs, sweeping filtered delays and a generally quite demented sense of humour. This is dub music that feels quite detached from the sunny shores of Jamaica! From the very first evil laugh on the opening moments of ‘The Voodoo Curse’, it’s like being taken on a dub-wise ghost train ride, awash with strange unnerving sonics made all the more visual by Tony Mc Dermot’s stylised cover shot. This darker side of dub really appeals to my sensibilities and nobody has championed that idea better than Scientist on this great album. Many have tried to imitate his mixing style and no one has come close.
MGUN: “Scientist takes me to where the ganja grows with this one.”
69. COLIN NEWMAN
With Wire back in action in 1984, Colin Newman saw an opportunity to explore a more open-hearted brand of songwriting, and more extravagant production, in his solo career. Commercial Suicide, released in 1986, was the result. Brian Eno has always exerted a strong influence – conceptual and musical – on Wire’s members, and on Commercial Suicide there are strong tonal echoes of the ambient magus’s Another Green World, with its of mingling of the urbane and the pastoral, the futuristic and the archaic. An unmitigated delight: a complex, consoling, literate pop classic that is long overdue canonisation.
68. GETO BOYS
GRIP IT! ON THAT OTHER LEVEL
(RAP-A-LOT RECORDS, 1989)
The album that put Southern rap on the map, Grip It! On That Other Level lives up to its title: the Geto Boys didn’t do anything that Ice-T or N.W.A. hadn’t done previously — they just took it to new depths of violence and misogyny. Sonically, the samples and breakbeats keep Grip It rooted in the 80s, but ‘Mind of a Lunatic’ would singlehandedly spawn horrorcore — everything from supergroup Gravediggaz to cult favorites ICP to contemporary crew Odd Future (whether they like the designation or not). Always with an eye on headlines, Rick Rubin signed the group and remixed the album into their nearly-banned major label debut.
67. THE MONOCHROME SET
(DIN DISC, 1980)
Somewhere between the period’s arch-ironists (Yeah Yeah Noh, Bogshed) and their seriouser-then-thou counterparts lay the sorely underrated The Monochrome Set: four nebbish chaps from Hornsey making hypnotic guitar pop with a perfectly-judged silly streak. Led by insrutiable vocalist/songwriter Bid, their debut album sets self-reflexive slogans and word puzzles over rattling, angular instrumentals. The wit’s dry; the songwriting’s anything but.
THE LAND OF RAPE AND HONEY
The album where Al Jourgensen picked up his ax and introduced thrash metal to sample-rich EBM. On The Land of Rape and Honey, guitar — or more accurately, the distorted, feedback-drenched, squeals and screeches of a guitar — became another mechanical torture tool at Jourgensen’s disposal. The headbanging trio that opens the album act as a template for the rest of the band’s output, while the midsection stands as some of the most sinister, macabre industrial rock of the era and would pave the way for Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, and more.
65. PUBLIC ENEMY
IT TAKES A NATION OF MILLIONS TO HOLD US BACK
(DEF JAM, 1988)
A cosmic slop of samples, social commentary and neck-snapping drum loops, It Takes A Nation Of Millions to Hold Us Back was unlike anything that had come before. It was a rap record that rock fans could embrace, and, exhibiting a bellowing political conviction not witnessed since the punk era a decade prior, was a call to arms for listeners across the world. Chuck D’s unmistakable bark takes the well-documented lead role, but Hank Shocklee’s wall-of-sound production is just as critical. The layer-upon-layer of soul samples, breakbeats and effects make the record sound just as befuddling now as it did back in 1988, and if there’s been another rap album as damned urgent since, we’ve yet to hear it.
64. DAVID SYLVIAN
SECRETS OF THE BEEHIVE
Jazzy and elegant, Secrets of the Beehive still stands as one of David Sylvian’s most accessible full-lengths. Far from its bizarre half-ambient (and only half-successful) predecessor Gone To Earth, Secrets of the Beehive was Sylvian’s attempt to show his fans that he was still capable of writing proper songs. Aided by Ryuichi Sakamoto, who offered orchestral arrangements, synthesizer and piano, the album is a masterclass in controlled disquiet, punctuated by moments of unabashed beauty. While Sylvian would hit his experimental stride later (with 2005’s near-flawless Blemish) it’s here where the musician perfected his particular brand of highbrow pop music, and along with Talk Talk’s similarly exemplary Spirit of Eden, defined a sound that has endured to this day.
(SHIMMY DISC, 1988)
Where to even start with Bongwater? There’s been nothing like them before or since, though you could maybe put them in a lineage of sardonic American headfuck music that takes in Zappa and Beefheart, Nomeansno and Jello Biafra, Devo and the Butthole Surfers, Fantomas and Matmos. Double Bummer features songs called ‘Lesbians of Russia’ and ‘Decadent Iranian Country Club’, a Gary Glitter cover and Led Zeppelin sung in Cantonese (aka ‘Dazed & Chinese’), lo fi guitar symphonies that All Tomorrow’s Parties type dork bands are still trying and failing to match, and more dizzying depths than you can possibly imagine. Give it a go, but be warned: you won’t be the same afterwards.
STREET SOUNDS UK ELECTRO
The decade had no shortage of scene-making compilations – C86, the Wild Style OST and Deep Six spring to mind – but, on British soil at least, few had quite as profound and enduring an influence as the electrospectives put out by Morgan Khan’s Streetsounds label, a.k.a. the Windrush that brought electro to the UK. Earlier instalments introduced embryo-stage hip-hop to an enthusiastic UK public, but this charming homegrown simulacrum stands out as the quirkiest episode in a hugely important series. Zer-O, Syncbeat, Foreveraction – wherever (and whoever) you are, you are saluted.
SIX AND SIX
(CORWOOD INDUSTRIES, 1981)
For well over two decades, the world wasn’t even sure that the mysterious Jandek was even a real human being, let alone a talented one. Sterling Smith’s jagged outsider musings were more than polarizing – they left most listeners convinced that the music was the product of a deranged mind, or even worse some kind of cruel joke. Still, as is usually the case with music this divisive, a throng of devotees began to crop up slowly but surely, and through pure passion managed to spread the word of Jandek. Six and Six was Smith’s second record but first under the Jandek moniker, and in 1981 its tangled, otherworldly blues was unlike much that had come before. The guitar is out of tune, the vocals strangely disembodied and the recording amateurish at best, but the combined result is like hearing an isolated, art brut reaction to the nascent optimism of post-Vietnam War America. Six and Six won’t win you any friends at a dinner party, but there are few better examples of American folk music at its most visceral, most honest and most heartfelt.
Pete Swanson: “At some point in 1981, I imagine a handful of radio stations and tiny magazines based in the US getting barely identified boxes of containing multiple copies of Six and Six. It was the first Jandek album (Ready For The House initially being credited to The Units), and the second release on Corwood Industries. It’s safe to assume that some people were fascinated by the obliqueness of the message and the music. Contemporary listeners should be aware that there was little context for music like this. Jandek had no apparent association with the art world. There was no apparent ambition for fame. There was no articulated political or social agenda. What followed the skeletal, atonal blues of Six and Six would form an incredibly vast and cohesive body of work marked by mystery and dissonance. Throughout the next few decades, Jandek would never play live (the first Jandek concert being in 2003, 25 years after the first album); he only granted one interview, and he never pushed his work on others. But you see his influence years later articulated in the opacity of the early Siltbreeze catalog, the lo-fi, DIY ethic of contemporary indie rock, and the adoption of the reclusive, anonymous auteur as a marketing strategy.”
60. JOHN FOXX
After leaving Ultravox, synth-pop pioneer John Foxx jumped headfirst into a solo career, and his 1980 debut Metamatic is still his most sophisticated statement. An ice-cold reaction to Gary Numan’s earlier electro-pop tome The Pleasure Principle, Metamatic still retains its distinctly alien air of mystery over three decades later. ‘Underpass’ is its most recognizable track; what with those retching, distorted synth stabs and motorik, clipped CR-78 rhythms, it’s one of the most concise and effective examples of the entire genre. Foxx’s lyrical content isn’t too exciting (he bangs on about cars and roads for a good half of the album’s tracks) but it hardly matters – this is music that revels in its plethora of electronic noises, and Foxx knows exactly what to do to make those sounds sing for themselves.
Adam Lee Miller, ADULT: “I grew up in very small town in Indiana in the mid 80s. We would drive 30 minutes to the ‘alternative’ part of town and record shop, even though that was almost always futile. The ‘most interesting’ stuff you could find was R.E.M. or Camper Van Beethoven. But one day my visits paid off! I found this strange record called Metamatic from someone named John Foxx. The cover was so different, he looked so corporate, and yet there was something so unusual about it. I purchased that record in 1986 I believe, and it has maintained its spot in my All Time Top 5 ever since. This record was more oblique and challenging than most things in my collection at that time, a cold work of art.
I was in a band from 1996-1998 called Le CAR. Our name made reference to Foxx’s song ‘Burning Car’ and we even made a sticker once of our silly clip art Le CAR “logo” that was on fire. I was in the band with another musician named Ian Clark, but we made up a third mystery member named Jack Vulpine. Vulpine means ‘of or resembling a fox.’ My email still says Jack Vulpine.
Le CAR used the CR-78 drum machine heavily, as did John Foxx on Metamatic. On our first ADULT. album, Resuscitation, the song ‘Side-Swiped’ was an homage to Metamatic in many ways. I could go on and on about how influential this record is, but that might get embarrassing.”
BACK TO THE OLD SCHOOL
(FRESH RECORDS, 1986)
Backed by beats by Kurtis Mantronik that still sound phenomenal today, New York’s greatest meat-head throws down the gauntlet. Sure, we could all do without closing track ‘That Girl is a Slut’ going for as long as it does, but would you have been the one to tell Just-Ice to make that cut?
58. NOCTURNAL EMISSIONS
DROWNING IN A SEA OF BLISS
Nigel Ayers’ impact on experimental music might not be obvious at first glance, but look a little closer and it’s pretty clear that without his guiding hand things could have been very different. As boss of Sterile Records, Ayers brought Lustmord, Maurizio Bianchi (aka M.B.) and Coil’s John Balance to the attention of dedicated music fans for the first time, but he wasn’t only a keen listener. As Nocturnal Emissions, Ayers, initially aided by his brother Danny and Caroline K, reinterpreted the wide range of music he heard around him as bone-crunching noise, industrial sound-collage, crunchy, grim electro and queasy drone. Drowning in a Sea of Bliss initially surfaced on vinyl in 1983, but was picked up by the fledgling Touch label in ’86 for a cassette reissue (oh, the 80s) and was a startling example of not only that label’s early dalliances but also of Ayers’ unshakable creativity. Few other records have managed to bolt together this kind of world-map of influences and emerge with such a jaw-dropping and weirdly coherent haze. Though Ayers never achieved the same following as Nurse With Wound, Throbbing Gristle or Coil, it doesn’t make Drowning in a Sea of Bliss any less crucial.
(NOT ON LABEL, 1982)
Not only one of the finest movies of the 1980s, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner sported one of its finest soundtracks (although fans had to subsist on bootlegs and repeat viewings until the OST’s official release in 1994). Vangelis’ blend of traditional European music and proto-electro synth work still influences musicians today, and it’s a rare soundtrack that is just as enjoyable without its visual accompaniment. Sampled to death and serving as the basis for countless records, if you’re into electronic music and you haven’t heard Blade Runner, you’re doing it wrong.
Dylan Ettinger: “It’s no secret that this soundtrack was a major inspiration for my album New Age Outlaws. I remember when I first saw Blade Runner. I immediately hunted down a few different versions of the recordings, including a casette of the disappointing orchestral score. The brilliance of the film is that it presents a completely believable future. There’s nothing pristine about this world, it feels lived in, dirty and full of life. The score echoes that perfectly with a film noir weariness and bleak romanticism that I have always found irresistible. I can’t wait to visit Los Angeles in 2019.”
56. KOOL G RAP & DJ POLO
ROAD TO THE RICHES
(COLD CHILLIN’, 1989)
There’s something comforting and familiar about the unfuckwithable piano and 808 drop combo that carry Road to the Riches’ title track. It’s like an old friend, and the kind of friend you aren’t spending as much time with it as you’d like to. Road to the Riches isn’t the greatest rap album of the 80s, but it comes damn close, and the fusion of this uncharacteristically robust production from Marley Marl and Kool G Rap’s scene-twisting rhymes is hard to fault. Here’s an album that kicks off with its two best tracks, and somehow it manages to sustain the momentum throughout. If you can get away with sampling Gary Numan and Kraftwerk on the same record and still emerge with your street status intact, you’ve got to be onto a good thing.
55. FINAL CUT
DEEP IN 2 THE CUT
(FULL EFFECT RECORDS, 1989)
Before Jeff Mills was exploring space, cutting purposeful loops or even throwing out blistering abrasive square Waveforms, he had a short-lived stint in US industrial group Final Cut. Although they went on to similar sounds to Ministry et al, with Mills’ direction it’s a direct, rave-stab laden techno blitzkreig, paving the way for his early Tresor work and massively signposting his work with UR. Vocal cut-ups, breaks and jackhammer kick drums combine with overdriven movie dialogue and riffy acid – overall, it’s much freer than the austerity he later embraced. There’s a joyful, maximal “anything goes” attitude: samples are chucked around with abandon, and the whole effect comes across like a series of enjoyable experiments, laying the ground for future masterworks.
54. NURSE WITH WOUND
SOLILOQUY FOR LILITH
(IDLE HOLE RECORDS, 1988)
Like his infamous NWW List – the gotta-catch-em-all catalogue that launched a thousand bands – Steven Stapleton’s journey through the 1980s is characterised by sharp chicanes and unexpected swerves: his canon moves from glacial atmospheric rock through brutish noise through throbbing EBM without so much as a by your leave. It’s a remarkable and important run of releases, but Soliloquy For Lilith is Stapleton’s saturnine masterwork – an out-of-nowhere set of abyssal ambient, and the black hole at the heart of his enormous discography.
Aaron Turner (Isis, Hydra Head) “Soliloquy‘s dualistic nature make it one of the most listenable and enduring albums from the vast NWW catalog. It is impenetrable but inviting, soothing but unsettling, abstract yet tangibly musical. The album’s architecture is perfect, the sound is utterly complete in its creepy austerity. Within that realization I recognize a creative ideal that this album embodies – that of a work which hasn’t been crafted by human hands alone, but is actually the sound of a channeled spirit drawn in from an outside realm.”
If you were born in 1985 or 1986 (or any year since, to be honest), you might have been conceived to the smooth, jazz-inflected R&B of Diamond Life. The album is best remembered for ‘Smooth Operator’ and ‘Your Love Is King’, but there’s not an ounce of fat here. Sade’s unparalleled voice — subtle yet affecting — is matched only by her songwriting, from the economic ennui of ‘When Am I Going To Make A Living’ to the proto-trip hop of ‘Sally’. When an artist opts for smokey and soulful over showy and strident, we have Sade to thank.
52. MORBID ANGEL
ALTARS OF MADNESS
Officially Morbid Angel’s debut album – their actual first full-length, Abominations of Desolation, was shelved until the 90s – Altars of Madness is as hard, fast and dirty as metal from the period gets, with Trey Azagthoth and Pete Sandoval untouchable on their respective instruments and David Vincent’s absurd vocals simply adding to the grubby grandeur. For all their chops though, Morbid Angel knew the deal – not one song here descends into wanking over riffs; it’s simply killer after killer.
51. GALAXIE 500
(ROUGH TRADE, 1989)
While all three Galaxie 500 albums, released one a year at the tail-end of the decade, share the same blueprint of jangly guitars and loose-wristed drums, it’s their second that’s the most perfectly realised. Subverting the macho posturing of ’80s rock and roll, Dean Wareham’s fey and fragile voice hovers around but rarely on the notes, reluctantly leading each song to a searing guitar solo over Damon Krukowski’s barely-bothered timekeeping and Naomi Yang’s no-frills bass. In thrall to the private grandeur of post-John Cale Velvets and the stark simplicity of The Modern Lovers, the Harvard-educated trio encapsulated the anti-mainstream ethos of the decade’s indie boom and helped prepare the ground for the slackers and shoegazers to come.
50. MY BLOODY VALENTINE
YOU MADE ME REALISE
My Bloody Valentine’s 80s work is often viewed as a precursor to 1991’s classic Loveless. Sure, 1988’s Isn’t Anything is basically the caterpillar to Loveless‘s butterfly, but it’s records as perfectly-formed as You Made Me Realise – a substantial EP released in the Summer before Isn’t Anything – that make MBV more than just another bonkers band with a classic to their name. The title track is the best that Shields ever wrote, while ‘Cigarette In My Bed’ and ‘Drive It All Over Me’ are still circling the bottom half of heaven’s top 40. Just divine, in every way.
Andreas Tilliander: “For many years I hated rock music. I couldn’t stand the sound of guitars, especially distorted ones. Then I discovered My Bloody Valentine. The funny thing is that what I absolutely love with MBV is the massive guitar walls. Compressed, thick and distorted guitars playing more noise than melodies. The best example might be the fantastic ‘You Made Me Realise’ from 1988. It’s actually a catchy pop tune but somewhere in the middle of the song, it starts to fall apart and turns into a wall of noise.
I’m lucky enough to have experienced MBV live no less than four times playing ‘You Made Me Realise’. The live version of the song is always around fifteen minutes and the highlight is, of course, the noise part. More than ten minutes of one chord guitar walls equals total happiness for this bleep head. The cover art of my Mille Plateaux album Elit from 2002 is actually ripped of from the cover art from You Made Me Realise. Yes, I am a bit obsessed.”
49. THE UNITS
(415 RECORDS, 1980)
Souped-up synth punk from San Francisco, drunk on volts and crackling with life. The music/performance art crew burned brightly from 1979-1983, and they’re at their most irresistible on their 1980 debut – a riotous collection of down’n’dirty electro-rock and sine-wave surf classics. Plug in, and let The Units and their magical machines do the rest.
Paul Dickow (Strategy): “When I discovered The Units, I was completely drawn into the singular world created through their songs, and am still in love with their wonderful contradictions – their mix of deadly serious themes rendered in playful sarcasm, their futuristic and aggressive synth aesthetic and their satire of rock’s basic building blocks. The richness of these contradictions brought me into not only the mindset of the time and the world of “synth punk,” but also into their uniquely Californian, and uniquely San Francisco context. I never tire of their tunes and it was a huge honor to work with the band on their legacy re-release project.”
(POSERCORPSE MUSIC, 1987)
Deathcrush has to be the only black metal album that opens with a Conrad Schnitzler collaboration. This was how Mayhem made themselves known to the world, and fans had to get through those two minutes of manic timpani-led weirdness before they were launched into the primal black metal of the EP’s title track. Deathcrush is Mayhem at their most skeletal, and can be compared with Napalm Death’s massively influential Scum – both records took cues from the wheezing hardcore scene, and both bands were eager to land on a far more extreme sound – they just took different routes to get there. It’s not the band’s most complete offering by any means (that would be De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas), but Deathcrush stands as a collapsing bridge between genres, and a massive fuck you to the hairspray-addled commercial rock music of the era.
Lasse Marhaug: “Nowadays Mayhem are thought of as pioneers of Norwegian black metal, but if you spin their 1987 debut mini-album (yeah, the thing is just 17 minutes) it really doesn’t fit what we today think of as the defined black metal sound. Deathcrush is a hybrid of extreme metal; there’s death, thrash, black and even punk elements. This is why 80s extreme metal was so fucking beautiful – it was just kids bored out of their teenage minds hellbent on pushing metal music to new extremes. My first copy of Deathcrush was a cassette copy that Euronymous made after the first vinyl pressing sold out. It has his hand-writing on the label and I still got it (so when you break into my place you know what to steal). A classic in every sense – and of course any album with a track called ‘Chainsaw Gutsfuck’ deserves to be on list like this.”
47. THE SOFT BOYS
Fist-pumping misanthropy and gleeful douchebaggery reigns supreme on the last proper studio album from Robyn Hitchcock and company. Lyrically, Underwater Moonlight oscillates between creepy self-deprecation and naked aggression; opener ‘I Wanna Destroy You’ is essentially an extended request for the listener to promptly insert their thoughts up their fundament. And yet, and yet – Underwater Moonlight still stands up as one of the most grin-inducing records of its time. The Soft Boys’ impossibly catchy guitar pop, weaned on The Byrds and T. Rex, takes the sting out of Hitchcock’s temper tantrums. Remarkably strong power-pop, spiced with bile.
SIGN O’ THE TIMES
(PAISLEY PARK, 1987)
Dirty Mind? Filthy Prince. 1999? Digital Prince. Purple Rain? Multiplex Prince. Around The World In A Day? Weird Prince. Parade? Weirder Prince. And Sign O’ The Times? Simply, Prince: a dazzling synthesis of a decade’s worth of innovation, consolidation and freaky, freaky business.
Jackmaster: “I actually rarely listened to this album on CD as my Dad had a VHS of the live show, which is an incredible watch – although perhaps overtly sexually charged for a 10 year old kid. That being said, I do have fond memories of memorising all the words from the liner notes of the CD, particularly to that of possibly my favourite Prince track ever, ‘I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man’. It’s an incredible album, but the last 30 seconds or so of that track, when it picks up after the druggy guitar solo, is just pure ecstasy”
45. GARETH WILLIAMS & MARY CURRIE
(NOT ON LABEL, 1985)
After 1980’s scintillating Deceit, This Heat fragmented into a number of different projects: Charles Hayward set sail with nautical rock outfit Camberwell Now; Charles Bullen got freaky and funky as Lifetones; and Gareth Williams – This Heat’s resident non-musician – teamed up with Mary Currie to make this shamanic collection of gimcrack pop and mantric folk. There’s an overabundance of original musical ideas here, but more than anything, Flaming Tunes is a triumph of heart – of quavering, bottomless optimism.
44. ARABIAN PRINCE
Plotted on a quality-vs-reputation graph, Brother Arab is, we’d wager, the most underrated hip-hop LP of the decade. Former N.W.A. member Arabian Prince is a fun if functional lyrical presence, but it’s his impeccable, eclectic production work – electro-boogie in an Egyptian Lover mould on cuckold jam ‘She Got A Big Posse’; dusky groove on ‘Let The Good Time Roll (Nickel Bag)’; steam fair scrimmage on ‘Situation Critical’; paranoid industrial rap on ‘It’s A Dope Thang’ – that makes Brother Arab’s peripheral status all the more absurd. Nobody’s parring that cover art, either.
43. MARC & THE MAMBAS
TORMENT AND TOREROS
(SOME BIZZARE, 1983)
There are two sorts of people on this earth: those who swear by Torment And Toreros, and those who can’t stand it. Marc Almond’s greatest, grandest and gaudiest statement definitely isn’t for everyone, but this collection of heavily-orchestrated melodrama and dark-hearted balladry certainly doesn’t pull any punches. Whether Torment And Toreros has you running to the shops or the hills, it’s undeniably a formidable achievement – the sort of Album As Event that 95% of artists are simply too lily-livered to make.
42. SUZANNE CIANI
There was a time when Seven Waves was just a forgotten New Age LP. Thankfully, it’s been rediscovered in recent years, and unlike scores of other similarly unearthed electronic snoozefests, this one’s actually bloody fantastic. Ciani’s expertise with her exhaustive selection of equipment shows, and the music still sounds somewhat extraterrestrial now, even though we’re far more familiar with Ciani’s sources. It’s Ciani’s touching, restrained romanticism that pushes Seven Waves to the next level, and in just a few tracks she manages to do what dozens of her peers were never able to – give electronic music a rich, beating heart.
41. SONIC YOUTH
(BLAST FIRST, 1987)
Sonic Youth, admittedly, had a great decade, but Sister is the point where the gritty fuzz of their earlier records fused with a pop sensibility and it just worked. There are real songs on here, and the record feels far from the slightly exclusive members-only grind of 1985’s Bad Moon Rising. ‘Catholic Block’ is where it all comes into focus, and if a generation of post rockers had based their oeuvre on this track rather than on the wordless bits of ‘Teen Age Riot’ we might have been in for a much more enjoyable 1990s.
Doldrums: “Sonic Youth’s Sister was the first Sonic Youth album I had. I thought they were completely unknown. I remember listening to it walking through the halls of my high school thinking “fuck, everyone’s so dumb – THIS is whats really happening”. Turned out they had them blasting in their headphones too! Favourite track is ‘Pacific Coast Highway’ for the memory association I have with it – syncing up a playlist to Alien in a movie theatre and we’re all like really stoned or something, and Ripley comes out with the flamethrower and then it’s COME ON BABY GET IN THE CAR.”
40. JUNGLE BROTHERS
STRAIGHT OUT THE JUNGLE
Rap’s hook-up with jazz was a liaison that was bound to happen, and while Jungle Brothers weren’t the artists to take the sound to its zenith (we’ll give a nod to Pete Rock for that), they certainly helped warm listeners up to the idea. Straight Out The Jungle was the first time many rap fans had heard this exact blend: within a few years, the familiar horn breaks and brushed drums were a major component of a flourishing scene. It’s bizarre, then, that ‘I’ll House You’, the best-known cut from Jungle Brothers’ debut album, didn’t crib from jazz at all; rather, it was the very first union of rap and house to happen outside of Chicago, and a cut that eerily predicted the present day rap scene’s obsession with club music. Straight Out The Jungle is a veritable hip-hop memoir – pre-empting the obsessions of the 90s and later, it stands as a crucial historical link between three distinct worlds.
39. RITES OF SPRING
RITES OF SPRING
Emo schmemo – has there ever been a punk record with this many good hooks? At times it’s tiring how thick they come, and although Rites of Spring aren’t quite as important as Minor Threat – whose Ian MacKaye produced this self-titled debut – it’s hard to think of a sadder-sounding record that’s quite such fun to listen to.
38. BIG DADDY KANE
LONG LIVE THE KANE
(COLD CHILLIN’, 1988)
Before Kanye there was Kane, and in 1988 The Juice Crew’s Big Daddy broke free of the underground with the spellbindingly immodest Long Live The Kane. The record was a crystal ball view into rap’s 90s run, with scene-stealing productions from Marley Marl paving the way for DJ Premier and Pete Rock’s era-defining work only a few years later. Still, it’s Kane’s larger-than-life personality that serves as the album’s USP, and while he lacks the unpredictable free association of Kool Keith, the latent threat of KRS-One or Chuck D’s political chops, his unforced skill is frankly undeniable. Kane’s technical prowess and jawdropping wordplay set a high water mark for the Golden Age, and there’s a damn good reason why so many rappers still regard him as the GOAT – just listen to ‘Raw’ or ‘Ain’t No Half-Steppin’.
37. CLEANERS FROM VENUS
ON ANY NORMAL MONDAY
(MAN AT THE OFF LICENCE, 1982)
Rather than playing the label game, colourful indie auteur Martin Newell and his rotating crew of Cleaners put out a string of home-recorded cassette albums throughout the decade. It’s a killer run, but On Any Normal Monday is the self-styled “Greatest Living Englishman”‘s trump card – by turns funky and jaunty, and shot through with the same lo-fi sensibility that’s subsequently rocket-boosted Ariel Pink and John Maus into indie’s big league. Top-notch jangle for the L.I.E.S. kids.
Blank Dogs: “I think the words “charming” and “homespun” are too often used on Martin Newell, though both are completely true. He truly is a DIY innovator but really, it’s all about the songs. I think On Any Normal Monday belongs on this list because the songwriting is truly great and stands up to any contemporaries’ work within the guitar pop idiom. When I listen to Cleaners From Venus I hear a polished songwriter bursting with ideas who needs to get his material out in the world and move on, not labour over them for 3-4 years. You can hear that passion and enthusiasm on the record, despite the fact he knew full well it was being delivered to a tiny audience. To me, that’s always the sign of a brilliant artist, that they do it for self-satisfaction first and let the chips fall where they may.”
36. BERNARD SZAJNER
SOME DEATHS TAKE FOREVER
French polymath Bernard Szajner began his working life as a visual effects co-ordinator, designing laser shows for the likes of Jean-Michel Jarre and Magma, and it shows in screwed electronic fantasia All Deaths Last Forever – a high-wattage exercise in shock, awe and dazzle. Sponsored by Amesty International, Szajner’s greatest concept piece follows a tormented prisoner during his last days on death row. It’s a genuinely unclassifiable record, conceived in line with Zeuhl’s creole spirit: pre-NDW synth spirals contend with guitar freak-outs, and proggy interludes are interrupted by industrial drum tattoos. Still disconcerting, still unparalleled.
Carl Craig: “It’s one of those I stumbled across – I was doing this little radio show on a college station in Windsor, Canada and I think that’s how I came across it. It’s an amazing record but very strange, as well, and I really love it. I think he sent me a fax once, about 15 years ago, and his name just didn’t register…you know, I look at the covers and maybe I know the name, or maybe I know the song titles…so I I think I responded in a very indifferent way, and that was the last thing I heard from him. Sometimes ignorance can be bliss, but other times it can make you look like an asshole.”
GREAT WHITE DEATH
(COME ORGANISATION, 1985)
Whitehouse were never a band for fence-sitters. You either dug their earsplitting Throbbing Gristle fetishism, or you wanted to make sure every copy was safely burned in the same giant furnace that gave Freddy Krueger his unsightly scars. 1985’s Great White Death – at time time of its release, likely William Bennett’s most divisive recording yet – didn’t do much to remedy this. It brought his vocals into shockingly clear focus, pushing lyrics like “I am the Rapemaster/The ultimate evil/That body’s mine/Like a corpse” to the fore. Great White Death gave naysayers a veritable sack of anti-Whitehouse ammunition; fans were delighted.
‘I’m Comin’ Up Your Ass’ is undoubtedly the record’s high point (and a stand-out in the entire Whitehouse canon), finding Bennett’s unmistakable yelps cannily paired with the sort of squealing oscillator drones that made Texas Chainsaw Massacre such a terrifying affair a few years earlier. It isn’t for everyone, but Great White Death is fish ‘n chips for breakfast, dinner and tea for fans of wincingly unpleasant noises and bare-chested men screaming obscenities. Just keep it away from Mum.
CRUMBLING THE ANTISEPTIC BEAUTY
(CHERRY RED, 1982)
Felt were innovators, and while the band’s Brummie mastermind Lawrence Hayward (shortened simply to Lawrence) took a heap of pointers from art-rock legends The Velvet Underground, his interpretation of their ideas is magical even to this day. Crumbling the Antiseptic Beauty isn’t an instrumental record, but there’s a sense that it almost could have been. At its core, it’s a solipsistic answer to the miserable environs of the grey Birmingham suburbs – an attempt to wrench free and to make the best of a poor hand. It was also Lawrence’s shot at creating something genuinely different from the norm – and, pushing his famously stilted guitar playing into bold uncharted territory, he almost managed it. Though Felt never achieved the commercial success he felt they should have, Lawrence’s distinctive style informed a generation of indie hopefuls. Crumbling the Antiseptic Beauty isn’t their best loved album, but it’s maybe their most important, and certainly their most touching.
STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON
There’s a school of thought that Straight Outta Compton is some sort of Backstreet Boys record compared to the rest of the gangsta rap world, but don’t trust anybody who tries to tell you this, even for a second. They don’t like The Chronic either. Sure, Straight falls apart a little bit in its second half, but any A Side containing ‘Fuck Tha Police’, ‘Gangsta Gangsta’, ‘8 Ball’ and that title track is impossible to follow, full-stop. Even the album’s cheesier moments – stand up, ‘Express Yourself’ – should be considered classics.
Nicholas Bullen (Napalm Death, Scorn): “1988 was the year in which the hip-hop album came to fruition. But in a year characterised by solid competition, nothing could quite match the hardened funk and cavalier profanity of NWA’s Straight Outta Compton. A visceral stolen car-chase through a ghetto landscape of capitalism, drugs, misogyny and violence, the album was a boiling point which defined the nascent Gangsta Rap genre for the future.
The cyclic minimalism of Dr. Dre and Yella’s production gave a tip of the snapback to the preceding electro-inflected era but moved ahead with the urgency of the next minute, mixing a heady gumbo from the drive of sampled funk drum breaks and robotic drum machine, and the insistent repetition of funk guitar licks and horn lines. And despite the inconsistency in levels of quality (common to many of the hip-hop and rap albums of the era), the album contained a trinity of standout joints predestined for vehicle sound system rotation.
Opening the first side of the album, ‘Straight Outta Compton’, ‘Fuck tha Police’ and ‘Gangsta Gangsta’ (the distilled expression of the group’s raison-d’etre with its declamations of “”You don’t like how I’m livin’? Well, fuck you!”” and “”Life ain’t nothin’ but bitchez and money””) featured lyrics which escalated both the violence and the profanity, a conservative libertarian antithesis of the liberal rage of Hardcore Punk delivered at a relentless pace and with the direct potency of a cap to the gut by the thug-toned Ice Cube and MC Ren, and the nasal sex maniac Eazy E.
Retaining its power twenty five years after first hearing (via a cassette tape copied from Oakland, CA Anarchist Punks), the album remains the epitome of straight gangstaism.”
A half-hour that paved the way for the next decade of alt-rock. It still sounds alive and vital today, so imagine what it sounded like 25 years ago. Has there ever been a band with equally good instincts for both pop songwriting and unadulterated noise? The vocal interplay between Francis and Deal, the jagged guitars from both Francis and Santiago, Deal’s anchoring basslines, and Lovering’s block-rocking drumming: everyone was at their best. Surfer Rosa is the Pixies at their rawest and most dynamic, and yet it still has time for ‘Gigantic’ and ‘Where Is My Mind?’.
patten: “6, 28, 496, 8128, 33550336, 8589869056, 137438691328, 2305843008139952128, 2658455991569831744654692615953842176”
[ed note: yes, this is patten’s quote. Happy hunting!]
31. HALF JAPANESE
1/2 GENTLEMEN/NOT BEASTS
The most bonkers amateur rock act of the era spread over three discs, taking on ‘Bogus Millionaires’, covering Jonathan Richman and much, much more. Barmy and brilliant.
30. BRIAN ENO
AMBIENT 4: ON LAND
Each of Eno’s ambient albums has its merits, but On Land stands out as his most beguiling achievement. Far more thoughtful than Music For Airports and loaded with far less cotton wool than Apollo, On Land is an incredibly detailed, restrained and tasteful record. Eno’s obsession with Cluster is easy to hear in the chomping, reverberating textures, but the record is anchored by an elegiac, reflective tone that never gets too manipulative. Here, Eno allowed himself to create more than just musical wallpaper – he created chambers and microcosms for his discreet harmonies and melodies.
Lee Bannon: “He was exploring, experimenting, there’s musique concrete and a lot of music theory in what he’s doing – if it was in the 1980s and I was 25, that would probably be my lane. I came across it on blogs – we’re in an age where – people used to dig, but you can dig on the internet now, and discover so much different music, in a way you couldn’t do in the past. In the past you were only exposed to the music that you were around, almost, and maybe, on rare occasions, other music – but with A$AP Rocky having a Southern sound, that shouldn’t be crazy now – we have the internet. The world is a smaller place now, and you’re exposed to all these things. The resonance of it, how it’s mixed – it’s just bold, at least in my eyes. That’s an album that I discovered in the 2000s, so me listening to it in the 2000s I felt it was bold. There’s no drums – the 1980s have a certain sound when it comes to drums, but that album didn’t really go that route. It was oddball, more like a score. ”
DOUBLE NICKELS ON THE DIME
A double-album that works, and how. Across 45 songs, D. Boon and co stuck two fingers up at insular punks by making one of the all-time great American records, blending country, pop, fruity funk and more with only a Corona to hand.
TWO NUNS AND A PACK MULE
(TOUCH & GO, 1988)
An oft-overlooked band starring Steve Albini, The Jesus Lizard’s David Sims and Rey Washam, what’s perhaps most extraordinary about Rapeman is that it wouldn’t even take silver in a podium of Albini’s most offensively titled projects. A precursor to the torn-out rock he’d pursue with Shellac in the 1990s that – whisper it quietly – features better songs than the better-known Big Black, Two Nuns and a Pack Mule remains one of Albini’s greatest moments on the other side of the production desk.
Dominick Fernow (Prurient, Vatican Shadow): “I first heard Rapeman on the B-Side of a dubbed tape from artist Adam Marnie. It was one of the first rock records I ever heard that made me question owning it. It is quite possibly the last dangerous rock album made?”
27. ROBERT WYATT
(ROUGH TRADE, 1985)
Angelo Badalamenti jamming on a barely-functioning Casio keyboard; granddad playing the spoons; drum machines so cheap that you’d feel ashamed to be seen out in public with them. It doesn’t sound like a list of ingredients for one of the best albums of the 1980s, but if anyone can make such a disparate palate of sounds work harmoniously, it’s notorious outsider Robert Wyatt. The Soft Machine drummer had a fairly strange 80s, which Old Rottenhat captures succinctly with its quirky hand of crooked pop. The brittle synthesizer parts are the most instantly noticeable, falling somewhere inbetween the budget-constrained DX-series fetishism of 80s-era BBC Radiophonic Workshop and the haughty New Age ambience of Eno and friends. It’s remarkable that Wyatt ends up unscathed, and even more remarkable that Old Rottenhat has ended up among his most rewarding and underappreciated efforts.
The many-tentacled Bill Laswell: high priest at Celluloid, the broadest church in New York; driving force behind R&B-cum-funk-cum-hardcore chameloens Material; peripatetic producer and session musician for everyone from Herbie Hancock to PiL; and key player in fringe concerns like Gettovetts and Last Exit. Oddly fitting, then, that the decade’s worst procrastinator would hit his high watermark on an album called Killing Time. Centred around Laswell, Henry Cow’s Fred Frith – as any good retrospective will tell you, one of the all-time great British guitarists – and drummer Fred Maher, Massacre nail a furiously addictive brand of semi-improvised, nitro-enhanced instrumental rock – a path Ruins and Battles would duly troop down decades later.
(PERMIS DE CONSTRUIRE, 1987)
15 years after his untimely passing, Bryn Jones’ stew of Middle Eastern sounds, Robert Rich-style dark ambient and frowzy noise is still remarkably singular; it’s difficult to imagine Skull Disco’s spooked dubstep or Vatican Shadow’s artillery assault existing without it. Rougher and readier than other Muslimgauze releases of the period, Coup d’Etat masterfully elaborates and refines James’ sound: those peregrine death-rattles have rarely sounded more compelling.
24. JULEE CRUISE
FLOATING INTO THE NIGHT
(WARNER BROS, 1989)
If you’ve seen David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, you’ve heard Julee Cruise. The sultry singer was Lynch’s obsession for a time, and between his lyrics, Angelo Badalamenti’s peculiar production and Cruise’s own breathy tones the trio forged an album that has become synonymous with Lynch’s own imagery. In a way, it’s the perfect dream-pop statement, but where other bands would simply drown their instruments in effects, Badalamenti carefully blended 50s pop music with his patented cinematic ambience. The result was an unsettling re-framing of Americana, and the perfect accompaniment to Lynch’s under-the-microscope look at the white picket fences of suburbia.
Oneohtrix Point Never: “A collection of extended doo-wop ballads. Badalamenti’s arrangements are my favorite. Every aspect is in full view, allowing you to really sense the distance between things. Your ears can just wander. Very strange music. I love it.”
23. NAPALM DEATH
Napalm Death’s debut LP Scum is a decoder ring for extreme music in the mid-80s. The band was famously formed by Nicholas Bullen and Miles Ratledge when the two were merely fifteen years old, but by the time Napalm were ready to record Scum, Ratledge had left the band and Bullen was rapidly losing patience with its direction. Bullen only ended up penning the album’s opening side (which was admittedly a heroic twelve tracks) and it was just drummer Mick Harris who played on the whole thing, so it’s a miracle that it holds together at all, let alone stands up as one of the finest full-lengths of the era.
Bullen’s fruitful collaboration with guitarist Justin Broadrick (who later went on to form Godflesh) is Scum’s backbone, and the duo’s interest in pushing the hardcore punk sound of Crass into grizzled new territory inadvertently created a new genre: grindcore. While the 1.3-second-long ‘You Suffer’ (which still retains its place in the Guinness Book of Records as the shortest song ever recorded), sounds as if it might be a joke, there’s little humour in the band’s gruesome dissection of capitalism and the despicable Tory-led Britain of the 1980s. Scum is that rarest of beasts- a metal record with a distinct political message. Thank fuck it’s actually good, too.
22. DESMOND SIMMONS
ALONE ON PENGUIN ISLAND
(DOME RECORDS, 1980)
In a decade that saw the rise of the yuppie and the rhetorical dismantling of Society, plenty of albums – The Cure’s Faith and Joy Division’s Closer among them – strained to express the horror of isolation and atomisation. Little sounds lonelier, however, than the Dome-produced Alone On Penguin Island – a troubled, troubling, endlessly compelling document of a quiet fellow slowly cracking up. A dreamlike anthology of frantic shanties, desolate lullabies, instrumental fragments and locked grooves, Alone On Penguin Island locates a productive tension between Wire affiliate Simmons’ quietly furious songwriting and Dome’s outré production choices. If Jan Svankmajer made miserable pop records…
21. BOOGIE DOWN PRODUCTIONS
(B-BOY RECORDS, 1987)
Is there another rap album quite as bare as Criminal Minded? DJ Scott La Rock and KRS-One handled the production, but it’s Ultramagnetic MCs’ Ced Gee who apparently had a big hand in crafting the album’s unique style. Don’t assume it sounds anything like Critical Beatdown, though; Criminal Minded is a stark, menacing trip through the dimly lit streets of the South Bronx, guided by the smart, insistent rhymes of KRS-One. Sporting a heavy reggae influence that set them apart from their peers (just check the massive ‘9mm Goes Bang’) the ripples of BDP’s authority can still be heard today, and the grim piano-led quirk of ‘The Bridge Is Over’ still sounds like nothing else on the planet.
20. THE SMITHS
(ROUGH TRADE, 1984)
Morrissey was famously unhappy with the recording sessions that birthed The Smiths’ debut, and this is possibly why we get to hear the band sounding so uncharacteristically raw. Made up of ten succinct songs, The Smiths was the point where the world started to see that the incendiary combination of distinctive vocalist Morrissey and innovative guitarist Johnny Marr was a once-in-a-lifetime deal. The elements are still unflinchingly effective, from the opening break of ‘Reel Around the Fountain’ to the lilting darkness of (at the time incredibly controversial) closer ‘Suffer Little Children’, and while the band’s literary dirges polarized many listeners, they gave rise to a still-growing movement of imitators that have barely even come close.
19. MR FINGERS
(JACK TRAX, 1989)
Deep house 101. Ammnesia collects Larry Heard’s brace of crucial late-1980s singles – ‘Washing Machine’, ‘Mystery Of Love’, ‘Slam Dance’ et al – in one groovy, humid place. Heard’s vocal-led work with Robert Owens as Fingers Inc might pack more fire, but Ammnesia is the best introduction to Heard’s legend. Then there’s the small matter of ‘Can You Feel It’: arguably the greatest house track of its – or, sod it, anyone’s – time.
18. GLENN BRANCA
(99 RECORDS, 1981)
When is a rock record not a rock record? When it’s The Ascension. Here is a deliriously heavy set that in 1981 defied popular ideas of exactly what that should entail, referencing both the transcendent minimalism of Terry Riley and the gruesome DIY experimentation of the Downtown division. It was a dangerous experiment on Branca’s part, yet he managed to sidestep the awkward petulance and middle-finger-to-the-eardrums schtick of so many of his contemporaries with surprising ease.
Composed as if it were a symphony, Branca arranges his orchestra of guitars, bass and drums and plays the part of the no-wave conductor. Fittingly, the album’s opening collision of atonal guitars and motorik rhythms is labeled ‘Lesson No.2’, and the recording served as an entry point into experimental music for the era’s misanthropic clique of jaded ex-punks. It’s hardly a surprise then that Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo can be found wrestling with his axe on this very recording, or that Thurston Moore was a regular member of the Branca’s ensemble – without The Ascension, it’s difficult to imagine that Daydream Nation would have ever been possible.
17. YOUNG MARBLE GIANTS
(ROUGH TRADE, 1980)
For many, the first time they heard this record was when it was re-issued in 2007, a new generation hooked on its artfully naïve melodies and haunting evocation of a Britain (or Wales, more specifically – the trio came from Cardiff) now long gone. If we’re being honest, Colossal Youth is more like a ’70s record that strayed into the next decade – formed in 1978, Young Marble Giants existed just long enough to put out this album in early 1980 before splitting up months later. Perhaps because of that, it’s a real standalone artefact; a quiet masterpiece with a voice entirely of its own.
16. ULTRAMAGNETIC MCS
(NEXT PLATEAUX, 1988)
Far more than simply a launchpad for manic rapper Kool Keith, Critical Beatdown was a record that showed the world that hip-hop could be weird. In a genre so obsessed with realness, Keith’s abstract street rhymes were a refreshing change from the norm; paired with some of the most forward beats of the 80s, the combination was absolutely untouchable in terms of innovation. While many of its contemporaries have ended up aging pretty poorly, Critical Beatdown somehow managed to avoid many of the tired tropes that would signify the era. As such, the record sounds just as fresh and just as innovative now as it did in 1988. For such a short-lived band, that’s no mean feat.
15. 808 STATE
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Plenty swear by 1989’s more diverse (and more impactful) 90, but 808 State’s bulletproof debut is their best: a ruthlessly effective acid house record without a millimetre of slack or a bum note in sight. Recorded before A Guy Called Gerald jumped ship, Newbuild fuses the Chicago sound with a distinctly British psychedelic sensibility: see broiling acid fondue ‘Sync/Swim’, paranoia piece ‘Flow Coma’, and the phenomenal Trax-meets-Beefheart ‘Compulsion’. One of the most undeniable homegrown house records of all time, and influential too – Aphex Twin’s Rephlex imprint gave the album its maiden reissue in 1999.
14. TOM WAITS
The West Coast’s most gravelly voice followed a spectacular 70s (Nighthawks at the Diner, Small Change, Blue Valentine) with an 80s that was arguably his best decade. Swordfishtrombones and Frank’s Wild Years are, obviously, special albums but it’s Rain Dogs that hits the hardest and lingers the longest – as much for its interludes (we can’t be the only ones that leave ‘9th and Hennepin’ heartbroken on every listen) as bonafide Waits classics like ‘Time’ and ‘Tango Til They’re Sore’.
(FORCE & FORM, 1988)
From black metal to EBM, there’s never been a decade that married heaviness and campness quite like the 1980s, but Horse Rotorvator takes the (soggy) biscuit – the opening track is titled ‘The Anal Staircase’, for Satan’s sake. The crowning moment of some of the decade’s most influential freaks, and an album that still wins new fans today.
Jon Whitney (Brainwashed): “John Balance, as described by Peter Christopherson, was a conductor of energy. Working with him was like witnessing lightning pass through a person and radiate in brilliant directions. Peter Christopherson, on the other hand, was an incredibly focused and talented musician and artist, and could channel energy like no other. Historically he thrived under the direction of wild visionaries whether it was musically, creating album cover artwork, or directing music videos. Coil was always Coil no matter who showed up to the studio. Nothing became Coil until the two said so. Horse Rotorvator had a lot of involvement from numerous others who brought very distinct genre/style expertise to the table, Coil were associated with WaxTrax! But they were never purely “industrial” or “EBM” or whatever the marketing people thought of. Horse Rotorvator was awkward and out of place on first listening. No two songs on the record sound like the same “band.”
Opening with the pounding, pulsing dance rhythms of ‘The Anal Staircase’, through the jazzy Thirlwell-esque ‘Circles of Mania’, the classic ‘Ostia’, to their cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Who By Fire’. ‘Blood from the Air’ is an exceptional anomaly, which could have easily been recorded around the turn of the century amidst the wave of popularity electronic music had in the post post-rock world. Critics, record stores, and distributors had a difficult time deciding where to file the record back in 1986. Due to all of the aforementioned factors, the album has maintained the timeless quality for the decades since.”
12. ALEXANDER ROBOTNICK
CE N’EST QU’UN DEBUT
(MATERIALI SONORI, 1984)
Ladies and gentlemen, the happy accident. At the behest of label Materiali Sonori, jazz-fusion keyboardist Maurizio Dami activated the disco-focused Alexander Robotnick alias in a short-term bid to score some crossover dollar – and, in a neat twist, turned out the finest Italo disco album of the decade, bar none. Spiky opener ‘Problèmes D’Amour’ is The Hit, but it’s hardly the best thing here: ‘Computer Sourire’ is fidgety disco at its best, and towering highlight ‘Dance Boy Dance’ has aged better than Pharrell. Contrary to its title, Ce N’est Qu’un Debut, isn’t so much a beginning as a full stop – a closed, self-contained, perfectly formed set of glitterball music.
Matias Aguayo: “It was already the 90s when I heard it – it reminded me of a lot of the stuff I listened to in the 1980s when I was a kid. I was listening to electronic dance music already – I loved Shannon ‘Let The Music Play’! So, for me, Alexander Robotnick was a later discovery. The story of my Alexander Robotnick record collection has to do with my burned record collection, because in 1989 my whole record collection burned down – I was on holiday, and the flat in Cologne burned down. Nobody was hurt or anything, so it was not so dramatic, but I lost all my records. Then I went to this record store in Cologne that was very good, Formic Records, and they had just found a garage in Italy somewhere filled with Materiali Sonori records, so I got quite a big bunch of them on very beautiful vinyls. And there was obviously that record.
It’s very much my thing in that it’s dance music that can work in very different places. Alexander Robotnick was very helpful for my [BumBumBox] street parties, because [the tracks] are a little bit exaggerated – they have vocals, they have melody and rhythms. That’s something I liked very much about them – they’re friendly. My favourite track is ‘Dance Boy Dance’, where he screams at the end – it’s pop, it’s dance, it’s dark, it has many things that I can relate to.”
11. COCTEAU TWINS
HEAD OVER HEELS
Make sure you slap anyone who tries to tell you Treasure is the best Cocteau Twins album of the ’80s. It’s not – that accolade goes to the band’s second album Head Over Heels. Summing up the Cocteau Twins sound perfectly and succinctly, it does so with barely any acknowledgement of the mainstream. In 1983 critics weren’t so sure what to make of the record – it was tarred with the goth brush, and Guthrie and Fraser were yet to stake out their claim on the then-infant dream pop genre. This isn’t an album of The Cure or Siouxsie Sioux pastiches though; rather, Head Over Heels is a peerless and unique collection of heart-wrenching chamber pop, drenched in more reverb than a cavefull of Sigur Ros records. It’s worth wondering what kind of pop music Scandinavia would have arrived on without it.
Hyetal: “I got into Cocteau Twins about 5 years ago, they’ve been a pretty big influence on my own music. I switch between this record and Garlands as my favourite. It’s probably the most reverb you’ll hear on any album ever, it’s completely drowning in it. I used ‘When Mother Was A Moth’ as a reference for the kind of mixdown I was going for with ‘Ritual’ off my first album, really digital and cavernous. Sonically the album’s really interesting, with a lot of parts blurred together as opposed to each instrument in a traditionally defined separate space. I’m back to using more raw untreated sounds at the moment but that’s still an influence on how I treat vocals and a lot of melody parts.”
10. STEVE ROACH
STRUCTURES FROM SILENCE
Steve Roach’s later work may have taken him into some rather shaky places, but Structures From Silence remains one of the most important ambient albums ever crafted. It isn’t as high profile as similarly poised records from Brian Eno, but its enduring influence has been unmistakably visible in the three decades since its release.
The warming yet alien tones of the album’s title track undoubtedly served as a blueprint for Aphex Twin’s jawdropping double album Selected Ambient Works Vol. II, and the track still sounds removed from time almost thirty years later. ‘Reflections In Suspension’ however is almost upbeat in comparison, bringing to mind early Emeralds or even top-tier soundtrack composer Cliff Martinez with its memorable, emotive synth bass and glimmering pads. Labeling the album as meditative almost does it a disservice – Structures From Silence is a thoughtful, slow-paced study in synthesizer, and it has never been more relevant.
Robert Rich: “Steve is a good friend of mine, and I respect him immensely. He is amazingly single minded and intense in his approach to his music, and I think Structures From Silence was the point where this single-minded approach first coalesced into a natural voice – I think that’s where you first heard his voice in its pure form. It is absolutely indicative of the way he works, which is to live in his sound constantly, and be surrounded by it. I think that’s one reason why it’s such a single minded and pure piece of work.”
09. TOO $HORT
BORN TO MACK
Born To Mack has long earned its stripes: its status as one of the all-time great West Coast classics is beyond dispute, and it introduced the world to one of hip-hop’s most enduring stars. When it comes to list season, though, the album rarely sneaks above the wooden spoon 100-75 quartile – and that’s when it appears at all. Which is curious, because no other major 1980s hip-hop record – not Paid In Full, not Paul’s Boutique, not It Takes A Nation… – sounds quite so consonant with the rap music currently blaring out of car windows or hiding behind DatPiff hyperlinks. For better or for worse (and there’s a particular breed of hip-hop purist that will hastily plump for the latter), Born To Mack is the forbear and the touchstone for hypnotic, hooky, dead-eyed narc-rap – the default mode of hip-hop in 2013. Raider Klan’s occult hip-hop, cloud rap’s blunted stupor, trap’s mechanical chatter (cf ‘You Know What I Mean’s fidgety hi-hats) – it all begins here.
Supported by a fevered regional fanbase, Born To Mack managed to sell over 50,000 copies without radio or label support, eventually earning a major deal in the process (a trajectory not a million miles away from the DIY rise of your garden variety blog rapper). It’s an album that only tries to do one thing – boastful trash-talking over lo-fi beats – but does it absolutely perfectly. The ultra-sparse production, made on a Prophet 5 and TR-808, packs a hefty punch; where Public Enemy’s bombast hasn’t aged brilliantly, these bare bones pieces prove that minimalism never goes out of fashion. The genius, though, lies in the details: see the eerie reverb that turns ‘Freaky Tales’ from frat-boy bragfest into psychosexual breakdown; the machine-gun snare peppering ‘Playboy $hort II’; the head-squidging drone underpinning dizzy freakout ‘Dope Fiend Beat’. And where BDP’s gangster poses sound pretty quaint to modern ears, Born To Mack‘s thug candour and sexual politics are as provocative (and, of course, problematic) as anything 90s gangsta and 00s coke rappers have mustered.
There’s none of Chuck D’s political fury or NWA’s righteous anger; all Born To Mack offers is bottomless nihilism, rendered in Too $hort’s strangled snarl. It’s at once troubling and compelling; like Gucci, Waka and Chief Keef, the sum surpasses the parts. We all live in Born To Mack‘s world – one that’s nasty, brutish and $hort.
Mike Perry, Supreme Cuts: “Born To Mack was truly a forbidden fruit in my life growing up in Northern California. My Mom had a super strict policy in the home when I was a kid about not letting us consume explicit content so there were certain records I had to sneak in to the house. I bought a used copy of Born to Mack from a hesher record store clerk and ran home to listen to it. I remember getting to the classic ‘Freaky Tales’ and fearing for my soul after hearing the line, “My girlfriend’s name was Michelle, I freaked her well/Her pussy got hotter than flames in hell.” (SIDENOTE: My mom confiscated this album from me when I was 14 and must have been mortified when she popped it in to see what her son was listening to) Over time this didn’t phase me as much but regardless of the vulgarity, this has still held up as one of the true Bay landmark classics. I feel like many classics even now, bay or not, wouldn’t be possible without this record.”
(EMI/KLING KLANG, 1981)
Martin Clark: 32 years on, there are probably very few incremental gains to be made in the pursuit of praise for the impact Kraftwerk have had on music and musicians. That their influences included The Beach Boys but their legacy, to name but a few, includes footprints on hip hop, electro, techno and electronica, speaks volumes of how they ushered in a new era of electronic composition.
In this publication, Francois K – himself a dance music legend – recently paid homage to their output, calling it “one of the all-time landmarks for dance music across all genres, as well as the blueprint for much electro and techno music which followed in its footsteps.” He was, specifically, referring to arguably Kraftwerk’s greatest album Computer World.
While it can be easy to be consumed by intense deliberation over the exact canonization of works as seminal as this, it could be easy to ignore the micro in favour of the macro; that is to say, while Computer World changed the musical landscape it was born into, it did so one listener at a time – and that process isn’t yet complete. In fact (sic), if there’s one outcome that makes reflecting on Computer World 32 years after it was released worthwhile, it’s the hope at least one person will read this, discover the album for the very first time and fall for it.
That’s possible not because Computer World is influential, celebrated or overtly conceptual, which it no doubt is, but because it’s also intensely personal in a way that has proven to be, to date, timeless. To demonstrate this, if you only listen to one Kraftwerk track, don’t make it ‘Autobahn’. ‘Tour de France’, ‘The Model’ or ‘Trans Europe Express’ – make it ‘Computer Love’.
Sometimes if you stare at words too hard they begin to seem alien, as if you have never read them before. There is also something alien, or at the very least lightly unfathomable, that emerges if you deliberate too hard about the idea of machine-produced clean sinusoidal sound waves inducing intense, personal human emotions. But that’s exactly what ‘Computer Love’ does, in the most intense, personal, human way.
Even as the title hints at the man/machine divide, and even as Kraftwerk synthetically process the vocal on early ‘Computer Love’ verses to make it more synthetic, it’s actually the final instrumental few minutes of the 7-minute track that are so intoxicating. They spill into the most warm, inebriating melodic tailspin that really only has one parallel: the feeling of falling deeply and unconditionally in love.
Francois K: “At the time this album came out, it was a truly futuristic statement, and if anything this has proven to be one that has endured. The sounds, production as well as the overall concept were all extremely evocative and it was easy to really get enthralled by it. And it really had a coherence to it, [like] different facets of a gemstone but with unity and a thread between each of the songs that had to do with the emergence of computers in everyday life, but in a very poetic sort of way rather than what everyone else was doing at the time. And there was this whole aura of mystery surrounding the band, the way they worked to get these sounds, the gear they used even, that I do not remember feeling ever again.”
07. MINOR THREAT
OUT OF STEP
The greatest fuck-you punk record of all time. Impossibly influential, of course, but also superior to the earlier Minor Threat and more powerful than both the group’s peers and the countless bands that they would inspire throughout the decade. It’s one thing to throw down a blueprint in 21 minutes; it’s another achievement altogether to do it with nine classics that simply haven’t been matched since.
Andrew Field-Pickering (Maxmillion Dunbar/Beautiful Swimmers): “I came to Minor Threat via the classic red discography CD; many a young punk kid from the mid ’90s (and especially DC) caught up with them that way too. When I heard it, I was definitely shaken up in a way that still resonates with me today. I mean c’mon – this shit is still so fierce! And to have this be from the area where I was from was sort of that jolt, that big push that made you wanna make music too.
The Out Of Step songs, along with the In My Eyes EP were my faves from the CD. A lot of hardcore bands killed it with the first record and then got weak, but I dunno, for me, these were always the jams that I went back to. They were like, just that little bit more involved as songs or something, especially ‘Betray’ and the way it breaks down. AHHHHHHHH! I think that’s my fav MT song if I gotta pick…It had a little more ‘rock action’ in the guitars and stuff, but the recording was still so sick and raw.
Lyric-wise, too, Ian seemed like he always found the biggest ideas by accident in writing really simple lyrics about his friends and shit, or even being a goofball with that ‘talking Ian’ voice. Most people can’t get away with that type of earnestness while still inciting people to lose their shit at a show. And, speaking of shows, I’ve always been very happy to note that I was born on the exact same day – June 23rd, 1983 – that they recorded the classic Live VHS show that Dischord put out.”
One of the most important, distinctive albums in electronic music history. Monotonprodukt 07 was created by Austrian artist Konrad Becker and released in 1982; it was the second studio album Becker had created under the Monoton name, following 1980′s stark Monotonprodukt 02. As it happens, Monoton wasn’t even strictly even a musical venture: Becker conceived of it as a cross-media project investigating the psychological implications of sound manifestations (indeed, in the 1990s, Becker subsequently co-founded the Institute For New Culture Technologies, and has continued to work across fields as an artist, researcher and producer). Its limited pressing – 500 copies, which really was a small number in those days – meant that it quickly became a highly collectible item, discussed in reverent tones by record collectors and electronic music aficionados, but heard by few outside these clandestine and inward-looking circles.
We can talk about Monotonprodukt 07, without deviation or repetition, for days: its remarkable command of light and shade; its Mariana Trench bass frequencies; its Teutonic sternness; its hypnotic looping strategies; its ambiguous fusion of man and machine; its blasted heath aura; its microtonal hanky-panky. In terms of assessing its power and influence, we’ll hand over to occasional FACT contributor Matt ‘Woebot’ Ingram, who, with nine words, said it best: “the square root of Basic Channel, Kompakt and Oval.” Utterly transfixing.
Konrad Becker (Monoton): “I think part of the fascination is exactly that it was hardly visible at all; it was kind of an open secret. People like to share secrets. Personally I don’t believe in the myth that a work will surface over time thanks to its inherent qualities. History is not linear and a lot of achievements easily get lost. However, aren’t we all fascinated by Easter eggs and hidden doors in games?”
05. KATE BUSH
THE HOUNDS OF LOVE
“It’s in the trees, it’s coming!” – this snippet of dialogue from 1957 horror movie Night of the Demon is one of the essential signifiers of Kate Bush’s massively influential Hounds of Love. It was the first record that Bush had total creative control over, and it shows; recorded in her home studio she pieced her tracks together from a patchwork of samples thanks to her use of the legendary (and legendarily expensive) Fairlight CMI sampling synthesizer. This defined Bush’s career, and her idea to frame her experimental obsessions as innovative pop music was something that would make Hounds of Love a musical Rosetta Stone for years to come.
Split into two ‘suites’ – Side One being the poppy ‘Hounds of Love’ and side two being the bizarre concept album ‘The Ninth Wave’ – what was unusual then seems, somehow, even weirder now. Pop artists seldom get the opportunity to take risks like this, and that Bush materialized with a record as breathtaking and out-of-time as Hounds of Love is simply astonishing. Rarely is an album so important and diverse so readily enjoyable.
Baths: “I heard about Kate Bush through a bunch of friends who knew I liked Bjork. Friends would say things like, “You need to hear this record Hounds of Love. How have you not heard it yet? You’re Will! This is exactly your thing.” My initial listening experience proved that it was exactly my thing, but it also kind of scared me. It put me back to square one. I was going through the same feeling I had when I heard electronic music for the first time, where there was just so little to compare it to…
A lot of the actual sounds from Hounds of Love may be rooted in the ’80s (which is a cool novelty) but the songwriting, melodies, and weird spirit of experimentalism were more ahead of their time than any of the new releases I was familiar with. Kate Bush’s voice by itself presented so many challenges to pop vocals— Hounds of Love could almost serve as a master’s guide to melodic composition. The whole record is so difficult and thrilling, but somehow still so accessible and so memorable. It’s such a crazy thing to realize it’s like 25 years after the record originally came out. I can hear ‘Cloudbusting’ or ‘The Big Sky’ or ANY track at ANY moment and they feel just as fresh as the first time I heard them.”
Andrew Hung (Fuck Buttons): “It’s those first three songs – I don’t think anything will top those first three songs. That’s what makes that album stick out for me, it’s that power trio at the beginning. But the second half of the album is not what you’d expect from such a massive opening, it’s quite dark actually, and non-commercial. And for me there’s something magical in that she was producing all her stuff herself – she was very forward-thinking, especially with that album.”
04. MANUEL GÖTTSCHING
(INTEAM GMBH, 1984)
The story of E2-E4 lasts the whole of the decade. The album was laid down in a single improvised session in late 1981; it finally filtered into mainstream consciousness when sampled on Ambient House hit ‘Suēno Latino’ in 1989; and it got its official release slap bang in the middle of the 1980s. But it’s also the story of the decade. It’s rooted in long-in-the-tooth Kosmische and psych-rock traditions (proggy wig-outs, the musician as axe-wielding thaumaturge), yet, at the same time, it prefigures the rise of house and techno (club culture’s strategies of repetition and release, the artist as faceless operator) Few albums of the period exert quite such a centripetal pull: all roads seem to lead to E2-E4.
When Manuel Göttsching recorded E2-E4, he was already a Krautrock pin-up through his work with Ash Ra Tempel in the 1970s. 1975’s Inventions For The Electric Guitar and 1976’s New Age Of Earth pointed towards an interest in electronics, but E2-E4 is the record where Göttsching properly lets the machines do the talking. Recorded on-the-fly using synths, sequencers, drum machine and Gottsching’s fierce guitar, the album captures an hour-long improvisation session centred around an oscillating two-chord synthesiser pattern. E2-E4 might be named after the most common opening gambit in chess, but it doesn’t resemble the game at all: there’s no agonising over tactics, no finicky trimming, no sticking to the grid. Instead, it’s an all-enveloping outpouring of feeling; listening is like being swaddled in a velvet duvet.
There’s an awful amount compacted into E2-E4: Terry Riley’s minimalism, Tangerine Dream’s woozy textures and fusion jazz all have a part to play. It’s also hugely prescient: it’s hard to imagine Balearic, chillwave, the fairy-lit grooves of nu-disco or the frillier end of Minimal Techno existing in quite the same way without it (it’s telling that both Carl Craig and Basic Channel have remixed the track). Call E2-E4 what it is: one of dance music’s finest ever book wins.
James Ginzburg (Emptyset): “E2-E4 is subdivided into nine tracks but is best considered in two parts: pre 31:30 and post 31:30, a significant timecode in that Göttsching decides to activate a near 30 minute electric guitar noodle upon its arrival, and while Göttsching’s noodling is world class in tracks like the 1974 classic ‘Echo Wave’s, it reduces what would have been an unequivocal masterpiece of sibylline proto-techno to a somewhat irritatingly guitar solo flawed gem. To address this I repeat the first half twice instead of listening to the whole piece, thereby placing it amongst my favourite albums.”
The daddy. With Napalm Death’s Scum (which featured his guitar work, and occasionally vocals, on its A-Side) still ringing in Birmingham’s ears, Justin Broadrick’s first album with Godflesh upped the intensity through lowering the tempo. On one hand it’s Chinese water torture music – riffs crawl, Broadrick roars, and the drum machine beats, particularly those rigid, straight hi-hats, simply add to the album’s doomed feel – but on the other, few albums from the decade created such transcendent moments through a combination of anger and ambition, and even fewer records this heavy manage to soar quite so high once they’ve left the ground. In terms of both its role in bridging the ’80s (drum machines, industrial) and ’90s (Broadrick would go on to work with everybody from John Zorn, to The Bug’s Kevin Martin, to Main and Loop’s Robert Hampson) and its influence today (just ask Shackleton, below), Streetcleaner is arguably the 1980s’ most important piece of extreme music.
Shackleton: “It meant a lot to me when I was younger and it stands up today in my opinion. I keep hearing about music that is supposed to be like it or influenced by it but sonically and emotionally (for want of a better word) it stands in its own field. It has brutality but it doesn’t feel macho and even though it is tortured on one level, it doesn’t feel like empty posturing or angst-ridden. It feels raw and poignant. There are points where it becomes overwhelming, but for me it is overwhelming because it is beautiful and transcendent just as much as it over-whelming because it is ‘heavy’.”
(RADICAL RECORDS, 1989)
Joe Muggs: I’d love to say that this was all I listened to in 1989, but like most people I’d be lying if I did. At 15 I was still more occupied with Prince and Pop Will Eat Itself, the Sisters Of Mercy and The Inspiral Carpets, and in any case, even in the wider and more cosmopolitan world outside my smalltown life this album was an extraordinarily obscure piece of work that would remain the province of a very select group of house obsessives for some time to come. Even later, once I knew about Heard and Jefferson, Pierre and Knuckles, this barely registered, and it wasn’t until a long time after it’s release that I heard it in its entirety.
This is not (just) self-indulgence – it’s highly relevant to what Virgo is. The majority of fans of the album probably were in a similar position to me, either not cool enough or not old enough (or not even born) when it came out, yet it remains relevant to this day. Not as a “retro” record, not as a signifier of dance music past, but as a perfect encapsulation of the geometries of house. It’s a metaphor I’ve used before, but when you hear something as perfectly designed as this, it’s like getting an amazing chair – one that is comfortable, beautiful, refined and usable every day. When you get something like that, regardless of its age, do you then abandon it or declare it obsolete or decide to attach a fifth leg to it just because your neighbours get a different chair made of some new construction material?
Yes, there are the funk guitars on ‘Do You Know Who you Are’, and electro rhythms on ‘Take Me Higher’, but this album is archetypal house music through and through: it is design as much as it is art, absolutely attuned to the proportions and metabolism of the human body in a technological society. It is so reduced, so beautifully stripped down to what is needed to keep adrenaline flowing yet minds contemplative, that it can seem barely there. But under no circumstances mistake that for it being naïve, over-simple or (despite the tape hiss) “lo fi” – as too many retro fetishisers do. Don’t think, either, that its soulfulness and the spindly stripping down of its production where each part is precisely in its place makes it less powerful than noisier, bassier or thicker music. Listen to these tracks closely, listen to them loud. ‘Virgo’ hits as hard now in an age of dance music abundance as it ever did when only a few hundred die hard fans could hear it.
01. ARTHUR RUSSELL
WORLD OF ECHO
(UPSIDE/ROUGH TRADE, 1986)
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Let’s get one thing straight: nothing else sounds like World of Echo.
There are countless modern day musicians inspired by it – look no further than Dean Blunt’s The Redeemer for an example from the last six months – but if there’s an album that comes close to capturing World of Echo‘s balance between sadness and playfulness; the yin and yang of Arthur Russell’s joyful, innocent experiments and the lonely evenings that inspired them (not that Russell was a full-on loner, of course: he wrote these solo pieces across six years and several relationships, few of them, it’s believed, monogamous), then we’re yet to hear it.
On the surface it’s an impenetrably strange album, but most need only a minute alone with it to be drawn in by its quiet power. The fact that it was made by one of dance music’s most important figures still seems staggering. Sure, there are links to be drawn between World of Echo and the disco records that Russell made his name on; as Peter Shapiro points out in a previous FACT article, “Russell treated all music as pure sound…as fascinated by Abba’s bubblegum melodies as he was Philip Glass’s highbrow minimalism.” Similarly, his disco classics with Dinosaur L and other projects used texture to create sensuality as well as melodies and choruses. But this shouldn’t distract from what an extraordinary curveball World of Echo was. It taps into universal feelings of loneliness, nostalgia, dissatisfaction and taking pleasure in the simplest aspects of life – subjects every bit as accessible as those featured on Russell’s disco records.
It’s commonplace to talk about sequencing when it comes to classic albums, but the positioning of tracks on World of Echo barely matters: with the unassuming intro of opener ‘Tone Bone Kone’, and closing track ‘Let’s Go Swimming’, which despite its magnificence, dissolves rather than climaxes, it feels like an album that you can enter or exit at any point. In this sense, it perhaps reflects Russell better than any of his other records: he was famed for leaving material unfinished, or revisiting songs to the point where they were certainly never finished in his head. World of Echo is an album that feels in stasis and in flux at the same time; a record of songs without clear beginnings or ends that, despite constantly shape-shifting, couldn’t feel calmer.
In 1987, Russell was interviewed by David Toop for The Face. Speaking about the largely drum-less World of Echo, he claimed that “a lot of DJs take the tapes I make and try to make them into something more ordinary. ‘Let’s Go Swimming’ was supposed to be a futuristic summer record. Some DJs said that nobody would ever, ever play that.” “I think eventually that kind of thing will be commonplace”, Russell concluded, but he was wrong: 25 years later, the rest of the world is still catching up.