Like this? Check out FACT’s rundowns of the 100 Best Albums of the 1990s and the 100 Best Albums of the 1980s.
“Ah”, said a wise old former FACT staffer about this list, “possibly the best decade of them all?”
Looking at the evidence, it’s hard to argue: this is the decade that brought us fusion’s high noon, ten summers of disco, the rise of the dub cosmonauts, ambient’s first stirrings, and the viperous bite of punk. Electronic music left the academies and the novelty charts and started to infect rock and pop wholesale. Prog gazed upwards, New Age looked inwards, metal plumbed the depths – and the Germans released a lot of great records.
More than anything, though, this was popular music’s Cambrian period: a melting pot from which vital new forms (hip-hop, house, post-punk) would already be emerging by the end of the decade. It’s a decade of strange combinations, of unlikely correspondences and (to reference one album on the rundown) chance meetings – some disastrous, some very auspicious indeed.
As with previous lists, we’ve sought to represent the period in all its diversity. As ever, this is not some hoary retelling of The Canon™, nor is it a beardier-than-thou list for contrarians and Discogs gollums. Rather, these are 100 records we simply couldn’t live without – records that have shaped our collections, our favourite artists’ collections and, in ways big and small, the development of popular music in the late 20th century.
We’ll be counting down the list all this week – twenty per day, finishing up on Friday.
To accompany the list, our team have curated and recorded five mixes, featuring material from all the records on the rundown. We’ll be unveiling these day-by-day in tandem with the list:
100. Anna Lockwood
The Glass World of Anna Lockwood
Amongst a particular cadre of experimental musicians and field recordists, Anna – or, as she was subsequently credited, Annea – Lockwood’s glass concerts of the late 1960s and early 1970s are the stuff of legend. Installed in dark rooms with a modest light display in tow, the New Zealander rubbed and struck an array of different glass vessels (bottles, jars, tubes) and panels, extracting coos and yelps from these inanimate objects – a sort of double-glazed siren song. The Glass World of Anna Lockwood presents compositions in a similar vein: the results are gorgeous and otherworldly, and herald a decade characterised by curiosity and miscegenation. Not sure what she’d make of Justice Yeldham, though.
Goblin might (quite rightly) get most of the attention when the conversation zeroes in on Italian horror soundtracks, but there are plenty more gems out there if you care to take a closer look. Libra’s proggy accompaniment to Mario Bava’s Schock is one of the best of ‘em, and it probably won’t come as a surprise to hear that the band were actually only a degree of separation away from Goblin. Drummer Walter Martino had performed with the Italian horror heavyweights in 1975, and while he’s uncredited on the album’s liner notes, long-standing Goblin keyboardist Maurizio Guarani actually drops a few of his signature stabs too.
While Bava undoubtedly wanted to repeat Dario Argento’s winning formula, tracks such as the discordant ‘La Cantina’ might be even more eerie than anything you’d find bothering the Profondo Rosso OST. In fact, it’s those peculiar avant-garde synth touches that give Schock such a unique set of fingerprints, and with gorgeous, spooked-up tracks like ‘L’Incubo’ and ‘Transfert IV’, it’s well worthy of re-appraisal.
Spencer Hickman (Death Waltz Recordings): “Perfect companion piece to Suspiria, with Libra not surprisingly sharing member Maurizio Guarini. Huge , overly pompous prog rock littered with scattershot synth effects , disco flourishes and absolutely mental breakdowns which give way to almost folksy ambient segments – this record sums up all of the excesses of the italian giallio genre and is all the better for it. You don’t just listen to this record you experience it”
98. Gary Wilson
You Think You Really Know Me
Prime contender for the Least Appropriate Babymaker on this list, You Think You Really Know Me is a bug-eyed collection of traumatised kitsch and spooky boogie-woogie. Inspired by a childhood meeting with John Cage, this New York outcast set out to become “a teen idol in front of a Cage performance, singing love songs but being avant-garde.” Wilson’s sad-sack persona is the main draw, but the compositions (the twitchy ‘When You Walk Into My Dreams’; apocalyptic sex jam ‘6.4 = Makeout’) have serious clout too. Now recognised as an outsider pop classic, it still creeps and thrills – a blue-eyed soul album made by a water-damaged droid.
(United Artist Records, 1972)
Forget worthies like Stephen Malkmus and Thurston Moore and Beck and Kanye West giving their regal nods to this album – it doesn’t need any of them. All you need to know its greatness is to see a halfway decent DJ drop ‘Vitamin C’ in a club, and see how gloriously the groove abides. That one moment is enough to realise that krautrock is not about collectors and catalogues and worthiness: as much as anything it’s about the primacy of the present moment and the cavorting foolishness of funk. Ege Bamyasi isn’t afraid to get dark – nightmarish, even, in the second half of the ten minute ‘Soup’ – but when Jaki Liebzeit gets rolling and everything else locks into step with him, Can are every inch the multidimensional interstellar groove machine that Parliament/Funkadelic, for example, ever were.
96. Talking Heads
Fear Of Music
77 and More Songs About Buildings and Food are great – really, really great in parts, and well ahead of the curve – but listening back now, they were too easily imitable, and seem a little of a part with the US new wave that followed. Fear of Music, though, is the one where the band left all the others around them behind, and become completely Talking Heads, impossible to copy despite all the attempts that continue to this day. And from this through until True Stories in 1986, taking in five studio and two live albums, they never put a single foot wrong. So there’s definitely an extra retrospective frisson in knowing exactly what wonders this was the beginning of, the thrill of a band standing on the threshold of true greatness – but even taken on its own merits it’s an absolute marvel. It’s got a heart of ice, the hot guts of funk, and a brain full of bats and butterflies. What else could you need?
95. Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band
Lick My Decals Off, Baby
Okay, so Trout Mask Replica might be the established pick when it comes to Beefheart’s “classic” run, but those with an open mind and a keen ear might notice that its follow-up Lick My Decals Off, Baby (which came only a year later, in 1970), while notably less batshit eccentric, might be even more successful. It’s certainly more succinct, and ditches some of its predecessor’s boss-eyed indulgence, instead hitting on a seam of radio-length, jagged experimental pop.
Tight and inventively produced, Don Van Vliet had more autonomy over these recordings than ever before, and it shows. Zappa’s influence was certainly still present, but with Van Vliet at the helm there’s a coherence here that was never again matched. It’s hard to believe that the bizarre collection of songs actually nicked the UK top 20, but that’s what two thumbs up from John Peel would do.
94. Bruce Haack
The Electric Lucifer
On the evidence of The Electric Lucifer, Bruce Haack might reasonably be called early electronic music’s William Blake – a marginalised, self-publishing savant making gnomic work about the grand metaphysical tussle between good and evil. Using home-built synthesisers and vocoders, Haack follows his loopy run of children’s albums with this deep-fried collection of synthesised acid rock. With one foot in the novelty Moog records of the late 1960s, Haack tilts between Biblical cant, psychedelic pop, robo-ballads, and whirlers-gone-wrong bleep fare. Nutty as anything, but, in its own shoddy way, years ahead of its time.
93. Charlemagne Palestine
Like Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Phill Niblock, Charlemagne Palestine dines at minimalism’s high (and, presumably, Bjursta) table. Performed on a Bösendorfer grand piano with the sustain pedal depressed, this 52-minute recording sees Palestine hammering out gradually shifting note patterns. Like some holy trick of the light, overtones gradually accrue, meld and blur, creating a great shimmering nimbus of sound. Strumming Music has real physical heft – it’s essentially Palestine whacking seven shades out of a piano for an hour – but the result is spectral and gorgeous. In contrast with his eccentric presentational approach (he performs in garish outfits, surrounded by stuffed toys) Strumming Music is pure as driven snow – piano strings braided into a rope to heaven.
Q. Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!
(Warner Bros, 1978)
Of all the sideways-thinking iconoclasts clearing the rubble after punk’s big bang, Devo were perhaps the least comprehensible, and most apparently sui generis of them all. A pop group wrapped in a surrealist art troupe inside a gang of synth-wielding, terraced headgear-sporting maniac philosophers from Akron, Ohio (of all places), the five-piece offered a blunt rejection of the previous decade’s tired rock and roll cliches on their debut album, an idiotically catchy collection of stilted rhythms, barked vocals and childlike imagery that roundly rejected the slop and mess of guitar rawk (a tactic that reaches its acme on their gloriously bananas, totally de-sexed redo of the Stones’ ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’). Thoroughly postmodern in their mingling of highbrow satire and lowbrow artifice, it’s little wonder Brian Eno elbowed his way to the front of the queue to act as producer on Q: Are We Not Men?.
91. Bridget St. John
Thank You For…
One of the lovelier dispatches from the tail-end of the late 1960s British folk explosion, Bridget St. John’s third solo album – released on John Peel’s Dandelion imprint – is all honey, dog-rose and optimism. Less plugged into the traditional English folk idiom than other landmark albums from the period (Sandy Denny’s Denny, Silly Sisters’ 1976 LP), these are pretty songs stunningly performed, with some surprisingly opulent production touches – less Birnam Wood, more Lee Hazlewood. The lovelier moments (‘Happy Day’, the title track) show that, even with the Summer Of Love long departed, the winsome optimism of the 1960s was still quietly intact.
90. Ghédalia Tazartès
French outsider artist Tarzatés doesn’t just operate in a field of one – he’s the solitary occupant of his own continent, one where marshland fringes jungle and the weather changes on a dime. His 1979 debut sounds like nothing else – a thrilling collection of meanie devotionals, snafu song and fevered goatherd music. Stitched together from tape loops, Diasporas is a babel of spoken word, industrial grind, musique concrète and throat singing, topped off by Tarzatès distinctive/distressing heckled-by-a-goblin vocal delivery. Faint-hearted? Best give this one a miss, fraidy-cat.
89. Curtis Mayfield
Curtis / Live!
Did anyone in the seventies have a run of albums to match Curtis’? Including soundtracks, he made EIGHTEEN in the decade – all good, all self-produced – and really, out of those, any of Curtis, Superfly, Curtis in Chicago, Sweet Exorcist or There’s No Place Like America Today are easily deserving in a place of this list. You could argue for years about which is better, but what you can’t argue against is the absolute joy of this one. The live recording is pristine and shows all the fine detail of the band’s intricate chamber funk just so. The social conscience, the wry humour, the superfly swagger, the extraordinary gentleness and nobility of Curtis’s approach are all displayed to their very best advantage, and more to the point it sounds like a laid-back but swinging party you’re very happy to be invited to.
Magma’s output is punk Kryptonite – prog largesse at its most self-serious, complete with Hubbardian mythology, invented languages, and enough choirs to fill Carmarthenshire twice over. It’s also, obviously, often as brilliant as it is unwieldy, and nowhere more so than on the French outfit’s fifth studio LP Köhntarkösz. Less consciously ker-ker-krazy than 1973’s Mëkanïk Dëstruktïẁ Kömmandöh, Köhntarkösz is a triumph of pomp and pyro, sometimes hushed and sinister (the title suite’s opening moments), sometimes jagged and abrasive (‘Ork Alarm’), and off its rocker from end to end. Zeuhl lives!
87. Robbie Basho
Visions of the Country
(Windham Hill Records, 1978)
Quavering troubleman music sung straight from the gut. Part of the same axis as John Fahey and Leo Kottke, Basho’s whale-throated take on the American blues tradition (with some added Eastern influence to boot) still has the power to shake listeners to the core. Visions of the Country – Basho’s tenth solo LP – strikes a wonderful balance between chops and chutzpah: Basho’s spasmodic fingerpicking is technically brilliant, but his foghorn vocal takes have all the guilelessness and raw feeling of the amateur. Many prefer the quiet mystique of his instrumental albums, but Visions of the Country is disarmingly open-hearted; only the sociopathic or the blockheaded will be able to get through it without goosebumps.
(Salsoul Records, 1978)
Compulsory Salsoul… and this is a very silly record. The Star Wars ‘Cantina Band’ cover tips it over the edge, but everywhere there’s foolishness – the orgasming alien seductress voices in ‘Interstellar Love Affair’, the fact ‘The Force’ sounds like the most preposterous Seventies cop show theme, the fact the sinister tomtom-rolling intro of ‘Indian Gaz’ gives way to voices that spend the rest of the song jauntily going “shoop-shoop-shoop-shoobie-dowahhh”, the title of ‘Synth He Sized Her’, and the fact that everywhere you turn there’s an infernally catchy parping horn riff or a trippily happy little synth gurgle. But that’s the whole point. Only raging bores edit the silliness out of disco – this is shot through with a combination of wide-eyed innocence and drug-mangled wig-outs that still feels very alive. A glorious folly.
Look, for a moment, at the list of personnel we have on Deluxe – apart from the core trio of Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius (of Cluster) and Neu! axe fondler Michael Rother, legendary German producer Conny Plank is behind the boards, and Guru Guru drummer Mani Neumeier helps out on percussion. It’s hardly surprising, then, that the record is one of the finest to emerge from the krautrock era, and almost four decades later it still sounds unmatched.
Fusing the motorik throb of Neu! and the kosmiche warmth of Cluster was an idea the band only touched upon on their (also excellent) debut Musik von Harmonia. Deluxe was the point where everything just fell into place – a collection of real songs blessed with the depth of then divergently modern soundscapes and ideas that would soon fall into normality.
84. Billy Cobham
Drummer with The Mahavishnu Orchestra and a Miles Davis sideman, Cobham is fusion royalty. Debut solo LP Spectrum was knocked out quickly – 10 days of recording on a minuscule $20,000 budget – but it still sounds hugely assured; where some fusion records are strange, muddled stews, Spectrum brings funk, jazz and rock chops into productive coalition. Unlike The Inner Mountain Flame, say, Spectrum sees Cobham in total service of the groove, with his cephalopod playing carrying the best tracks here: highlights include the car-chase rock’n’roll on ‘Quadrant 4’, and the muscular ‘Stratus’, later plundered for Massive Attack’s ‘Safe From Harm’. And, the gluten intolerant listener will be pleased to hear, there’s barely a noodle in sight. Big seller, too.
83. Kevin Coyne
A sprawling double album of earthy, shattered blues by an enduringly under-the-radar figure, Marjory Razorblade might be imagined as the troubled distant cousin of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, with Kevin Coyne’s similarly scuffed, nicotine-stained wails directed not at misty memories of days gone by but subjects more firmly rooted to the ground – ‘Eastbourne Ladies’ with powdered faces, lonely ‘Jacky’ mourning his long-gone Edna, and the ‘House On The Hill’ and its forgotten residents, inspired by his own experiences working in psychiatric wards. Almost as essential, yet utterly different, to his solo opus is Babble, a 1979 collaboration with avant-rock icon Dagmar Krause depicting a troubled relationship in intimate, harrowing detail.
Stations of the Crass
(Crass Records, 1979)
Forget Beckham in a Crass t-shirt – what has kept Crass relevant, through dance, metal, skate culture and beyond, isn’t their iconography, good though it is. And it’s not their politics which were, to be charitable, pretty basic. No, it’s the fact that their music is really great. Exactly as punk was supposed to be, it’s completely unschooled but super-tight, transmitted direct from the nervous system, and also as intensely weird as a band with a deep hippie background should be, with smearings of free jazz and tape experimentation.
When they kick up their wiry rhythms, all of the ranting – which taken alone manages to be both sneery and earnest at the same time – becomes less of a lecture and more of a heartfelt outpouring, especially when combined with the more overtly nonsensical stuff like endless repetitions of “YOU’VE GOT BIG HANDS!”. Those rhythms and that shamanic weirdness are why Soft Pink Truth turning anarcho-punk into house worked so well: it was already tripped-out dance music. Together with Hawkwind, who form the opposite pole in the crusty-festy axis, Crass’s music forms a vital current in the British underground and beyond. But records like this stand up on their own, regardless of “significance”.
Mumdance: “I used to listen to this album on rotation when I was younger & heavily into BMX & skateboarding, so it reminds me of a lot of good times every time I hear it. Steve Ignorant has one of the best and most archetypal vocals in punk in my opinion & he shines on this album. I really like how it’s quite shambolic and all over the place, but at the same time fiercely intelligent and experimental in some places. You can hear echoes of this album not only in subsequent punk albums, but further afield too.”
81. Jon Lucien
(RCA Victor, 1973)
Seventies borderline-mainstream weirdness at its best. According to Jon Lucien himself, “the record company was attempting to package me as a sort of ‘black Sinatra’. Once the white women started to swoon at my performances, their attitudes quickly changed.” Realistically, the Virgin Islands-born American singer was unlikely to ever be a Sinatra, though, thanks mainly to his over-egged “stop all war, let the children be free, man” rhetoric and penchant for massed Brazilian harmonies. The emoting and cheese take a minute to get past on this album, but once you let the Hollywood levels of lavishness in the arrangements wash over you and the omnipresent tropicalia shimmy get into your bones, it’s extraordinarily addictive. Proper silk sheets, big moustache, Seventies playboy seduction music.
80. Sex Pistols
Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols
It was bound to happen. In 1977, the rock landscape was liberally spotted with beardy “progressive” explorations of avant jazz, classical music and traditional folk. It was quite normal for a band to belch out a gatefold sleeved concept album blessed with the kind of wretched fantasy artwork that wouldn’t have even looked cool when you still had pale blue Y-fronts in your underwear drawer, and for quite obvious reasons, it had to stop.
Punk was the answer, and whatever you think about Never Mind the Bollocks and its head-on collision of snot, fashion and total disregard for “the system” as it was, 1977 needed it, desperately. The style was, in many ways, more important than the substance, but even now it’s hard to hear ‘Pretty Vacant’ or ‘Bodies’ and not want to chuck a brick through someone’s window. Wizard costumes out, safety pins in.
79. Don Cherry
Organic Music Society
An ambitious album to say the least, Organic Music Society, as the title suggests, is a scented pot-pourri of sounds drawn from across the globe, created long before anyone concocted the expression “world music”. A large ensemble session, featuring exotic percussion instruments and Afro-Brazilian grooves, it’s a jarring listen – in part due to the way different recordings were fused together by Cherry, drawing from studio jam sessions, one-mic demos and field recordings. Highlights include great versions of Pharoah Sanders’ ‘The Creator Has A Masterplan’, Dollar Brand’s ‘Bra Joe From Kilimanjaro’ and two Terry Riley compositions as well, which should give you a sense of just how heady and pan-continental a cocktail this is. Despite the eccentric sequencing, it remains a powerful and electrifying listen, with Cherry’s trumpet tone ranging from deafening foghorn to folkish whimsy in the same breath.
78. Judee Sill
You can turn over a new leaf, but the blots show through. Sill’s backstory – itinerant former heroin addict and, for a time, bank robber – might not initially square up with the sunkissed SoCal rock of her debut album, but her lyrics, full of dark mysticism, cosmic disorder and fire-eyed beasts, make Judee Sill a much more ambiguous – not to mention ambitious – proposition. The lyric sheet might sometimes read like a passion play, but Sill’s not as hectoring as your average pulpiter; there’s more complex, meaningful cosmology packed into ‘Crayon Angel’ than plenty of callow prog acts mustered in their entire careers. Overshadowed on Geffen’s release schedule by two biggies, Jackson Browne and Eagles, it’s now recognised for the achievement it is: a triumph of gimlet-eye arrangements and third eye vision, and breathtakingly gorgeous with it.
Sanae Yamada (Moon Duo): “What I feel when I listen to Judee Sill is what I felt in the small patch of woods behind my childhood home, where I would go to press my hands against the trunks of trees whenever I was upset. It is a sense of primal contact, an inarticulable calming, a window on the mystery. There is an Earth-bound plaintiveness, soulfulness, and utter lack of calculation in her voice that make it seem more like the emanation of an unidentified natural element – a shimmering connective tissue, vibrating somewhere between wood and water, rock and air.”
77. Prince Far I
Under Heavy Manners
(Joe Gibbs Music, 1976)
In 1976, Jamaica was in economic and political disarray, with Prime Minister Michael Manley declaring a state of emergency. Cue this LP of socially engaged chanting from one of the great Jamaican deejays, delivered in an orotund baritone that penetrates straight to the foramen magnum. Heavy’s the operative word: mighty bass, serious subject matter and Far I’s million-fags-a-day voice. Under Heavy Manners collects impassioned devotionals (‘You I Love And Not Another’), stern finger-wags (’Young Generation’), and fire’n’brimstone preaching (‘Shadow’), all with a none-too-subtle political streak. Joe Gibbs and Errol Thompson’s swampy production augments the end-is-nigh feel. And is there a better opening three-and-a-half minutes on this list than ‘Rain A Fall’ – Far I’s ode to rumbling bellies and rattling sternums? More weight!
76. Guru Guru
Germany was a hotbed of innovation in the ’70s, and while Guru Guru didn’t have the showy rhythmic smarts of Neu! or the grand axe gestures of Amon Düül II, they had plenty to offer on their noisy, irreverent debut UFO. Compared to some of their peers, their sound was bordering on the inept – crunchy waves of guitar, falling in and out of discernible tune and often covered with a bleak blanket of white noise. It is, however, music that can truly bear up to the description “psychedelic” – the kind of mind-altering material that you can only begin to pick apart after a serious session of self-medication.
75. Bernard Parmegiani
De Natura Sonorum
The landmark electroacoustic album of the decade, De Natura Sonorom trades the snap cuts and sharp edges of much musique concrète for something much more fluent, beguiling, authored. Working from a vast catalogue of sound sources, De Natura Sonorum is a creole of organic sounds and electronic textures. The tracklisting might read like a PhD appendix (‘Natures Éphémères’, ‘Matières Induites’), and Parmegiani’s process might seem off-puttingly forensic (“I placed the sounds as you do letters, one after the other, so as to create forms and sequences”). But the results – a multi-part symphony, composed from bubbles, balloons and blinking metal boxes – shimmer and beguile. Easily the most out-there record in this rundown, and the one most likely to change the way you listen.
Miles Whitaker (Demdike Stare): “Given the rather heavyweight task of writing about such an ‘academic’ record, never mind such a difficult one, is weighing upon me. So, like my own background, I’ll refute the academic side and keep it simple, and I’ll just tell you why you shouldn’t listen to this record. Basically, you’re not ready for it.
“Ten years ago when I first heard it, I wasn’t ready. I said so at the time, it made no sense; I hadn’t immersed myself enough in the whole spectrum of music enough to understand it, nor did I pay any heed to the context of the record, musical theory or musical evolution for that matter. I hadn’t yet taken the steps that helped make sense of it, sonically, not academically. SoIi left it alone.
“Fast forward to 2012, when my partner in music, Sean Canty, who has done so much to drag me out of the gutters of music, into the world of sonic wonder, forced me to buy an original copy of it, he told me I was ready. He was right, I was ready to hear it, finally, but I wasn’t ready for the feeling of inadequacy that it brought.
“Without fear of upsetting, or cheapening, a lot of musicians working today and in the past, there are more amazing sounds in this one record than in most people’s careers. I mean that wholeheartedly, and sincerely, and I also include myself in that statement. I’ll also state, this is probably the best recorded, excruciatingly exact record you will ever hear in your life.
“There are lots of words bandied around when people are writing or describing music or musicians, especially new music, and those words are now thrift store descriptions, normalised to the point of uselessness, they carry no more weight than normal descriptive terminology. Such terms as genius, amazing, experimental, next-level, astonishing, are all used week in week out to hype, or illuminate another new record or artist. Well, I apologise for most of those reviews, and to the reviewers who’ve used these terms, (and the artists on the receiving end) but those kind of descriptions should be reserved for the very few artists who deserve the actual term artist. Someone who propels their craft far beyond the boundaries most of us never test. To simplify, I’ll steal a line from a comedian I heard in Berlin, talking about Berlin, (though I’m sure it’s been said before elsewhere), “So many artists, so little art”.
“Well, when you hear De Natura Sonorum in the right context, at the right time, it makes everyone else seem fake. Rightfully so, because it is a work of utter genius. I remember phoning Sean the week I digested De Natura Sonorum, all I could say was that it made half of my record collection redundant, there was no going back in some ways.
“There are so many astonishing noises, that you’ve NEVER heard in your life, until you hear Parmegiani. The sounds and execution are alien, in the very sense of the word, it is the best outsider music there ever will be. Every moment is crafted, in the real sense, cut, edited and placed just so. The pieces are sculpted to the nth degree, yet contain so much art and content as to make me feel completely inadequate as a music producer. In some ways, I wish I’d never heard Monsieur Parmegiani, though of course my life is richer for it.
“I hold it as one of the most special records I’ve ever heard, as it has been made by a true master of the craft. Though you shouldn’t take my word for it, remember it won’t make sense, because you’re not ready for it.”
74. Richard Hell & The Voidoids
“I was saying let me outta here before I was even born – it’s such a gamble when you get a face!” He’ll go down in history as the guy whose safety-pinned shirts and shock of spiked hair invented the punk look (later “borrowed” by Malcolm McLaren to dress the Sex Pistols), but Richard Hell remains strangely underrated compared to his CBGB peers, chiefly known for just one song – the epochal ‘Blank Generation’. Never much of a player (though he was briefly a member of Television with co-conspirator and fellow teen runaway Tom Verlaine), Hell was the consummate punk rock star; what he lacked in chops he made up for in charisma and spittle, elastic yelps and seedy street poetry – although the secret weapon in the Voidoids’ line-up was the mighty Robert Quine, whose erratic, sinewy guitar lines are a like match to Hell’s gunpowder on highlights like the flawless ‘Love Comes In Spurts’.
73. Annette Peacock
I’m The One
(RCA Victor, 1972)
Moving in the same professional circles as Albert Ayler, Paul Bley and Salvador Dali, jazz composer/vocalist Annette Peacock threw her lot in with fusion songcraft on I’m The One. Most tracks follow a similar formula, but it’s a good one: treacly grooves topped with wibbling oscillators and Peacock’s histrionic vocals. For much of the record, her voice is squeezed through filters or bitcrushed to buggery; elsewhere, she’s eerily reminiscent of Bowie in full Ziggy Stardust flight (Bowie, incidentally, was a paid-up fan). Exhilarating cosmic funk, and even after a couple of reissues, still dismally under-appreciated.
72. Fleetwood Mac
(Warner Bros, 1977)
You’d think that by now Rumours would be swallowed up by its Behind The Music-sized mythology — all the trauma and drama of the bacchanal-fueled sessions, the disintegrating romantic relationships, or even the damaged tapes — but you’d be wrong. This is the Mac at the height of their powers, perfecting a bend-not-break formula for rock excess (that would eventually fail on Tusk). Each of the five heads of the chimera have their moment, but this is sum-greater-than-parts material, and more lovesick than ‘Don’t Stop’ would suggest (and even that is about running from the pain of the past). After its 40 minutes, you’re left just like the band: beaten and battered, tossed around and discarded; haunted by loneliness with nothing to show for it but shattered illusions of love and a silver coke spoon.
Brad Rose (Digitalis): “I can’t count how many parties I’ve been to where someone stupidly puts on Rumours. Sure, it’s a pop record, but it’s so visceral and emotionally draining that I can’t imagine anyone hearing the repetitive chorus of the album’s first song, Lindsey Buckingham wailing “I’m just second hand news,” and wanting to have a good time. It’s a therapy session that’s sold millions-upon-millions of copies.
“Rumours is the sound of marriages and friendships being put into the grinder and disintegrating right in front of you. As a soap opera it’s interesting, but as an exquisitely-crafted pop album it’s endlessly compelling and unavoidable. That raw fragility, though, is where Rumours thrives. Sonically, Fleetwood Mac are so totally dialed-in that the songs are stripped bare until only the most important elements remain. Stevie Nicks’ voice is impossible to ignore, cementing her place on the Mt. Rushmore of rock vocalists. Captivating arrangements bolster the earworm melodies from Buckingham, Nicks, and Christine McVie, making a lyrically-brutal tune like ‘Go Your Own Way’ into a sing-a-long anthem.
“Their personal lives may have been wrecked, but it was the fuel that pushed Fleetwood Mac from just another pretty good ’70s rock band into the pantheon. Rumours is simply timeless.”
71. Art Ensemble Of Chicago
Les Stances à Sophie
(Universal Sound, 1970)
Inspired by a sojourn in hip and happenin’ ’70s Paris, Les Stances A Sophie finds the Art Ensemble Of Chicago in an unusually charming and chipper mood. “Your fanny’s like two sperm whales / Floating down the Seine”, howls Fontella Bass, peppering the funky breakbeats and clattering brass of enduring anthem ‘Theme De Yoyo’ with unparalleled sass and soulful sensuality. Unique to their catalogue, the album is striking in its marriage – or perhaps more accurately, shotgun wedding – of free jazz and fusion funk grooves, proving that order and chaos really can compliment each other beautifully, if the players are sensitive and skilful enough to pull it off.
70. The Residents
The Third Reich ’n Roll
What do you need to know? It’s two side-long mash-ups of mid-century pop cultural references, from ‘Yummy Yummy Yummy I’ve Got Love In My Tummy’ to ‘Hey Jude’, sung in deranged cartoon voices by synth-prodding lunatics with eyeballs and skulls on their heads, with absolute virtuosity blurring with deliberately hamfisted changes, and a constant maniacally-realised military/Nazi theme overlaid on it all. It’s the precursor for everything from The KLF to Matmos, The Church of the SubGenius to The Fall. If, knowing all this, you need to question why it’s on the list, you’re in the wrong place.
69. Sun Ra
Space Is The Place
(Blue Thumb, 1973)
Sun Ra’s quirky brand of afro-futurism was never really going to conquer the mainstream, but this 1973 album, tied into a trippy blaxploitation film of the same name, was his boldest and best shot at evangelising his outer-space ideology wider than the freaks and dropouts of the jazz underground. Objectively speaking, it’s neither his most challenging nor his most satifying work, but remains enduringly popular – largely down to the hypnotic, spiralling 21 minute long title track, certainly one of the most blistering versions of the song the Arkestra ever committed to record. Flip it over to float along with the astro-nautical travelogue ‘Sea Of Sound’, and finally blast off the cosmic chanting of ‘Rocket Number 9’.
Luke Abbott: “The deity know as Sun Ra was a messenger from another dimension sent to us to teach the lessons of freedom. “Space is the place,” he said; think further away, and let yourself be free to celebrate the majesty of the universe. This isn’t his most abstract work; it sort of drifts in and out of ‘correct’ jazz. Sometimes it’s like a slightly wonky big band is playing almost functional music, and at other times it seems to be totally free from any tradition or rules. It doesn’t really care though, as it would rather explore than stop to contemplate, and does so in a mockingly humorous way. If you’re the kind of person who prefers an interesting question to a sensible answer, then this record will speak to you.”
No New York
Connected by location and association more than any musical similarities, the four bands on the seminal No New York compilation – sax-based punk-funker James Chance and his Contortions, Lydia Lunch’s Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, abstract noisemongers Mars and tightly-wound trio D.N.A. – represent a schism with the self-consciously trendy new wave set, rejecting the poppy immediacy perfected by Talking Heads, Ramones, Blondie et al in favour of abstraction, negative space, dismantled structures and downright tunelessness. The resulting coinage ‘no wave’ further defines their anti-style; a nihilistic yelp emanating from a trash-ridden Downtown still years away from yuppification. Compiled by Brian Eno (yet another appearance on our list by the former Roxy Music shape-shifter), the album is both a snapshot of a short-lived scene and a blueprint for the next decade of fringe music, from John Zorn and Bill Laswell to Sonic Youth and Swans.
67. Gil Scott Heron
The Revolution Will Not Be Televised
(Flying Dutchman, 1974)
An early career compilation with lasting influence, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised set the table for hip-hop with the proto-rap lyricism of the title track’s anti-media screed and the ratatat refrain on ‘No Knock’, and inspired neo-soul a generation later with a classic blend of soul, funk and jazz. Scott-Heron made up for what he lacked in range with a voice so rich and lyrics so resonant that the barbs still sting through the speakers today. He could do punchy (‘Lady Day and John Coltrane’), or laidback (‘Save The Children’), or mask his social commentary with whimsy and a sneer (‘Sex Education, Ghetto Style’, ‘Whitey On The Moon’), or aim his rhetorical cannon at his own community (‘Brother’). But his most poignant target was himself: “did you ever try to turn your sick soul inside out,” he moans on ‘Home Is Where The Hatred Is’, “so that the world…can watch you die?”
66. Basil Kirchin
Worlds Within Worlds
(Columbia, 1971 / Island, 1974)
Son of Hull, Kirchin had sizeable commercial success with his travelling big band The Kirchin Band in the mid 1950s, before turning his hand to frazzled film and TV scores. Worlds Within Worlds is his magnum opus, a pioneering collection of evocative electronic mood pieces, released in two instalments. 1971’s package hews closer to free jazz ,with contributions from the likes of Evan Parker and Derek Bailey blending with Kirchin’s electronic tinkering. 1974’s second instalment is the tripper affair – saturnine chamber music, blended with tweaked found sound (grunting gorillas, wittering children, jet engines) and pushed to the outer-limits. Kirchin has been sniffy about these works in retrospect, claiming the label forced him to water them down, but these muggy, murky compositions still sound thoroughly off-road. Head music for curious souls, and the best introduction to a composer who’s had to wait far too long to get his dues.
65. Shuggie Otis
A late bloomer, this one – marginalised in the 1970s, and finally given some spotlight time in the 2000s with a keynote reissue on David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label. With the likes of ‘Inspiration Information’ and ‘Strawberry Letter 23’ (from Freedom Flight) now Coke advert / wedding dance fodder, it’s strange to think that Otis’ fourth and best album was left to gather cobwebs for decades. It’s a wonderfully drowsy collection of self-produced psychedelic soul, full of neat flourishes: see the blinding-light funk of ‘Happy House’, the offbeat drum machine shuffle of ‘XL-30’ and ambient waltztime interlude ‘Pling!’. And then there’s the small matter of ‘Aht Uh Mi Head’, which manages to sound lush and dozy
64. Lou Reed
Live: Take No Prisoners
Berlin may be his masterpiece, and Transformer the gateway drug, but no record sums up Lou Reed’s 1970s output better than Take No Prisoners, a live album recorded at New York’s Bottom Line in 1978. At this point, Reed was a veteran on his eighth album, but still sharp-as-a-pin and thoroughly in love with his own barbaric persona and acid tongue. Opening with a sprawling ‘Sweet Jane’ and skronking sax-enhanced ‘I Wanna Be Black’, the rock’n’roll animal is on unstoppable form in the ad lib department, delivering virtually every line with a quick-witted addendum or off-the-cuff aphorism, taking particular delight in laying into critics and celebrities (Robert Christgau gets it in the neck, as does Barbra Streisand). By the second half things are delirious to the point of absurd, with ‘Street Hassle”s junkie death spoken word section delivered like a healing hands sermon – and that’s before the quarter-hour version of ‘Walk On The Wild Side’. “It’s not only the smartest thing I’ve done, it’s also as close to Lou Reed as you’re probably going to get, for better or for worse,” as he told Rolling Stone that year.
63. Caetano Veloso
Or, wallow with Caetano. As the biggest name in the Tropicalismo movement of the late 1960s, Veloso became something of a national talisman to a Brazil struggling under military rule. Recorded during his forced exile in London, Caetano Veloso – known as A Little More Blue to distinguish it from his other self-titled albums – is a stark contrast with the swingin’ burlesque of his 1968 debut and its more nuanced 1969 follow-up. Instead, it’s a downbeat exploration of marginalisation – explicitly Veloso’s disconnect from his homeland, but one with equal resonance for the heartbroken or the downtrodden.
Touches of the quirkiness of old are present – UFOs, Faustian pacts, the glossolalia solos on ‘Maria Bethânia’ and ‘Asa Branca’ – but this is Veloso at his most restrained and plaintive. That voice, sweet as nectarine but loaded with sorrow, carries some gorgeous originals (‘A Little More Blue’, ‘London, London’). We nearly plumped for Veloso’s wildly experimental 1972 LP Araçá Azul, but, in the end, we couldn’t deny Veloso’s most affecting record – 35 minutes of wistfulness on wax.
62. David Bowie
The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars
(RCA Victor, 1972)
Davie Jones had to become Ziggy Stardust before he truly became David Bowie. The distillation of his hard rock turn on The Man Who Sold The World and the artfulness, androgyny and ambiguity of Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust was Bowie cribbing from his inspirational contemporaries (Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Marc Bolan) and creating something entirely new: a meta examination of The Rock Star itself. The album’s lasting influence can’t be understated: anyone exploring alienation, dystopia, messianic salvation and the nature of celebrity owes their livelihood to Bowie, from Prince and Marilyn Manson to Lady Gaga and Lana Del Rey. Musically and stylistically, Ziggy Stardust would influence punk and hair metal, the New Romantics and the New Wavers, and — in a strange feedback loop — would inspire some of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed’s greatest music.
61. Conrad Schnitzler
Conrad Schnitzler had his fingers in a lot of pies – an original member of both Tangerine Dream (with Klaus Schulze and Edgar Froese) and Kluster (with Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius), he found himself at the center of German electronic music in the 1970s, whether he liked it or not. You see he never regarded himself as a musician, rather as an artist in the grander sense, who just happened to work in a variety of different disciplines.
Rot was his first solo album, and saw him ditch the quirky sound-art of his prior work (with Kluster, especially) in favour of two extended compositions for the EMS Synthi. These pioneering pieces set a high water mark for electronic music – seemingly formless and improvised, careful listening reveals overlays of rhythm, harmony and even melody. It’s hardly easy listening, but Rot’s alienating synthetic tones are fascinating and even, at times, beautiful.
60. Flower Travellin’ Band
Ecstatic Japrock crunch, and easily one of the most underrated hard rock records of the early 1970s. The Flower Travellin’ Band started life as a covers act in the late 1960s, spreading the gospel of Cream and Jefferson Airplane around Tokyo. Five odd years later, they’d made Satori – an album which out-wigs many of their forbears, and stands toe-to-toe with Sabbath and Led Zep. Hideki Ishima’s feverish guitar-playing is full of clever psychedelic flourishes, but, really, this is all muscle – an impressive exercise in heavy rock flexion. The word “satori” refers to a moment of catharsis, and vocalist Joe Yamanaka sounds like he’s having a couple per track (we’ll take his banshee wail over Robert Plant’s double-barrelled cringe assault any day, incidentally).
59. The Modern Lovers
(Beserkley Records, 1977)
Jonathan Richman may not have been the decade’s most influential act, but he’s one of the few to have been influential not once but twice – first, with the Modern Lovers’ early punk recordings (‘Roadrunner’, a stand-out from belatedly released demo collection The Modern Lovers, was a Sex Pistols favourite), and then with the naive, gentle rock that he pursued in the second half of the ’70s.
The Modern Lovers 2.0 favoured intimacy over intensity, celebrating the subtleties of suburban life and using childish imagery to evoke nostalgia, and they’re never captured with more charm than on their live recordings. ‘Live’, tellingly, has been reissued more than plenty of the group’s studio albums, with the Lovers’ most-loved songs stretched out into something between Jackanory and a call-and-response game, peaking on the ludicrous eight-minute version of ‘Ice Cream Man’ that closes Side A and a heart-warming rendition of ‘Morning of our Lives’ on the flip.
58. Ar & Machines
Now there’s a title that does what it says on the tin. Having fronted The Rattles, Germany’s premiere cheeky-chappie beat combo, in the mid-1960s, Achim Reichel somehow found his way to this long, heady, benthic-zone-deep album of early space-rock. AR’s genius is to slather everything in echo – what might have been a perfectly serviceable collection of prog jams becomes something much more exotic and amphibian. ‘Einladung’ prefigures Ariel Pink and Gary War’s hispter swampsong; ‘Das Echo Der Vergangenheit’ collapses into a mess of spoken word, then emerges from the chaos, phoenix-like, as an ambient drone piece. Four decades on, it’s achieved a second life as something of a chill-out staple. Saddle up thy beanbag, traveller…
57. Stiff Little Fingers
Striking, iconic and just the right amount of ragged – and that’s just the album art. Like Inflammable Material‘s cover, Stiff Little Fingers’ debut album sports a balance between sleek and scruffy that’s somewhere between the US and the UK: yes, the group were from Belfast and mostly wrote about Belfast issues, but the twang of ‘Here We Are Nowhere’ and ‘Barbed Wire Love’ sits neatly alongside both the Stateside punk of the ’70s and later groups like Minutemen. The best of both worlds, then, though try telling that to the councillor who got them banned them from playing Newcastle after hearing – and completely misinterpreting – ‘White Noise’.
56. Harold Budd
The Pavilion Of Dreams
(Editions EG, 1978)
Harold Budd’s crowning achievement, The Pavilion of Dreams represents a milestone in what many like to call “new age” music. In fact, it’s anything but – Budd himself notoriously despises the term and it’s not hard to hear why. His compositions are light and airy, but complex and decidedly well-realised, and while The Pavilion of Dreams wasn’t necessarily a huge commercial success, its set of weightless compositions remain incredibly influential.
The Cocteau Twins, for example, were so fascinated with the album’s centerpiece ‘Madrigals of the Rose Angel’ that, after requesting the rights to record a cover version, they embarked on a long and fruitful collaboration – Robin Guthrie and Budd are still composing together today. Ambient music (if you could even label it that), never sounded quite the same again.
The Faust Tapes
Still most notorious for being sold at the price of a single (50p – those were the days), The Faust Tapes confused almost everyone who purchased it, which unbelievably was a good 50,000 shoppers. Fans of the band struggled to get to grips with the fact that they’d dropped the chunky krautrock elements of their earlier records, and new listeners (which, let’s be honest, made up most of the sales) were appalled to hear what they regarded as non-music.
40 years later, it still sounds bonkers, and that’s really the charm. Part of the reason it sounds the way it does is down to the process. To mark the band’s Virgin record deal, one of the label’s technicians put together a series of tracks culled from the band’s private recording sessions, and engineered it into a quirky audio collage. What resulted was one of the oddest records to invade the homes of the British listening public, and while plenty of the LPs were no doubt returned to the store (or dumped in a charity shop) after a single play, the seeds of a sound that was truly anarchic and defiant were certainly sown.
Dread In A Babylon
Oh god, there’s nothing worse than discussions of classic reggae that are full of sniggering spliff gags, but there’s no other way to approach U-Roy: this man, especially on this album, is simply a personification of marijuana. The way his voice swerves back and forth from rough to smooth, from bark to croon to delicate scatting, is almost enough to give you a contact high in itself – and the way love, sex, anger, belligerence, tenderness, revolution and spiritual pronouncements blur together in his lyrics into a heady stew of bleary obsession without boundaries can make your head spin. It’s utterly befuddled and befuddling but delivered with such unfaltering rudeboy certainty, and held together by such solid dubwise production, that it feels like it should make sense. It doesn’t, though, but that’s its beauty.
Heldon 6 / Interface
One of the grand-pères of experimental French rock, Richard Pinhas put out seven albums of electronically assisted prog with Heldon from 1974-1977. It’s a wildly varied little run, ranging from Robert Fripp-besotted dreaminess (Heldon II) to opaque where’s-the-Moog-manual electronics (Heldon V). As per the title, Interface is the point where Pinhas’ various interests meet most happily – navel-gazing is kept to a minimum, and the electronic engine room is working at a fierce lick. At its best (the galloping electronic squelch of the ‘Soupcoupes Volantes’ tracks; knuckle-dragger ‘Interface, Pt. 2’) Interface is genuinely exhilarating. File alongside another French electro-rock bruiser from the same year, Zed’s Visions Of Dune.
52. Stevie Wonder
The decade’s most influential and important pop musician, it’s tough to pick just one of the albums from Stevie Wonder’s unparalleled classic period. But Innervisions is a sweeping artistic statement: personal and political, solemn and celebratory, and an all-killer no-filler album where he (almost literally) does everything. There are polemics against drugs and Nixon, kaleidoscopic ballads and somber lullabies, and where do you start with the singles? ‘Living for the Golden City’ is a seven-plus epic where he played every instrument and sang with throat-burning intensity about race relations in America; the salsa-flavored ‘Don’t You Worry ’bout a Thing’ foreshadowed game-spitting rap skits; and the irresistible ‘Higher Ground’ is so uplifting that it helped break through the coma that he fell into just days after the album’s release. Pure genius.
51. Nurse With Wound
Chance Meeting on a Dissecting Table of a Sewing Machine and an Umbrella
(United Dairies, 1979)
Fun as all the cool context is with NWW – their scholarship of the avant-garde, the album title derived from proto-surrealist poet Isidore-Lucien Ducasse aka Comte de Lautréamont, the off-kinky artwork – you crucially don’t need any of it, or any background knowledge at all, to get weirded out by the music. The guitar screeches, drones, games with scale and reverb, it’s all so perfectly abstracted, it needs no reference points at all – it’s really closer to a drug than any accepted form of music really, so directly does it fuck you up, and so difficult is it to relate to any kind of quotidian experience. If you ever find yourself in a state of disenchantment with genres and scenes, if ever you feel jaded, snowblind or glutted with music, this is exactly the refresher you need: go back to this uniquely powerful brain-scourer of an album, and you’ll find your tastes rejuvenated.
50. The Specials
(2-Tone Records, 1979)
Coventry’s finest export had impeccable timing. Arriving at an explosive moment in British social history, with far-right oiks on the rise and barging their way into punk with their moronic terrace anthems and Sham 69 patches and bloodlust, The Specials ran on an explicitly anti-racist, anti-Thatcher ticket, introducing their beloved Jamaican ska into the punk milieu and rallying an entire subculture under the 2 Tone banner.
Many of the tracks on their debut are perky, brass-filled covers (including ‘Monkey Man’, ‘Too Hot’ and ‘A Message To You Rudy’, given the seal of approval by guest trombonist Rico Rodriguez of the Skatalites), but their self-penned songs provide a vital undercurrent of seething anger, documenting the dour, beans-for-tea-and-a-punch-up-for-afters world of late ’70s England, as on ‘Stupid Marriage’ (“He thinks that she’ll be happy when she’s hanging out the nappies”) and ‘Nite Klub’ (“I won’t dance in a club like this / All the girls are slags and the beer tastes just like piss”). (The distrust of women and their bodily functions is depressingly palpable.) Meanwhile, first-time producer Elvis Costello wisely takes a light-touch approach at the controls, preserving the raucous energy of a band who were first and foremost a live proposition.
49. Tangerine Dream
Tangerine Dream’s earlier albums might have been more experimental, but Phaedra marked a point in the German band’s career that would see them influence multiple generations of wide-eyed synthesizer obsessives. It was the inclusion of Christopher Franke’s Moog sequencer that pulled Tangerine Dream in such a different direction, and the hypnotic, repeating patterns it created caused not only a shift in the band’s own sound, but in electronic music in general.
On Phaedra we can hear a band straddling their experimental tendencies and their desire for more commercial acknowledgement – and for many fans it represented the beginning of the end. The albums that followed (Rubycon, especially) are also worth grabbing, but the band never again nailed such a perfect collision of harmony and dissonance.
48. Joni Mitchell
The Hissing of Summer Lawns
There’s a price of entry to this one. You have to accept jazz fusion, and you have to accept ultra-dense literary-reflective ’70s lyricism, and these are not easy things to do, especially if you like music to be immediate in its impact. But then, somehow, once you do finally break that glossy surface, paradoxically you realise that this IS an immediate album, and also that it’s actually worlds away from any standard fusion noodle or me-generation introspection. And of course the reason for this is that Joni is one of the most powerful personalities in all of post-60s-counterculture music, not to mention strongest songwriters. Dylan? Neil Young? Bollocks – Joni eats them all for breakfast. And once you let yourself get inside Hissing, you realise it’s not just her masterpiece, but one of the masterpieces of a whole generation. It’s got folk, jazz, soul, Broadway; it’s a painting, it’s a poem, it’s a Great American Novel, its a musical… and it’s a really, really good album.
Oren Ambarchi: “I love that feeling when a pop record slowly reveals its beauty and hidden depths to the listener. For me, it usually takes a few intense listens for it to sink in, but once it does I become completely and utterly infatuated. This is definitely one of those records that I have played the shit out of. Friends always go on to me about Court & Spark but when it comes to Joni, this is THE ONE for me. Worth it alone for the haunting masterpiece ‘Edith & the Kingpin’ – but believe you me, this is a sublime, rich and hypnotic opus with dark observational lyrics that have to be some of the greatest in pop, with deceptively simple playing and arrangements that are completely seductive – I could listen to the outro of the title track forever. ”
47. La Düsseldorf
Famously touted as “the soundtrack of the eighties” by Bowie, La Düsseldorf were one of krautrock’s most accessible and most successful acts. Originally formed as a Neu! side project by brothers Klaus and Thomas Dinger, La Düsseldorf became their focus after Neu! broke down beyond repair in 1975 (several tracks on the group’s last album are actually performed as Neu!-La Düsseldorf). Klaus dropped his drums to hone his guitar – by his own admission, pushing for for a popper sound in the process – and often it’s his guitar-playing that sets La Düsseldorf apart, squealing and soaring over a reliable motorik beat on the album’s first half, and drifting in and out of focus on ‘Silver Cloud’. Closing track ‘Time’, meanwhile, combines guile and grandeur in ways that Pink Floyd could only dream of.
Fuck ‘Free Bird’: wouldn’t the world be a better place if concert knuckleheads requested ‘Maggot Brain’ instead? As the legend goes, during a typically acid-fueled recording session, George Clinton instructed Eddie Hazel to imagine he had been told his mother had died, but then told that she was alive. Apocryphal or not, as the solo’s melancholy and devastating loss give way to mind-melting fuzz frenzy, it’s impossible not to chalk it up to a stroke of George Clinton’s singular genius. While the title track is worth the price of admission alone, Funkadelic didn’t stop there, reworking the Parliaments’ R&B break-up song ‘What You Been Growing’ into the blown-out, gospel-influenced ‘Can You Get To That’, laying down a classic funk-rock anthem in ‘Hit It And Quit It’, and invoking the spirit of Hendrix on ‘Super Stupid’. Obviously never ones to shy away from the weird, black folk rhymes found new life on the low-lidded groove of the increasingly warped ‘You And Your Folks, Me And My Folks’, the feel-good ‘Back In Our Minds’ toyed with an elastic jaw harp, and ‘Wars of Armageddon’ takes on the sexual revolution and civil rights with a chaotic found-sound bonanza.
James Ginzburg: “To stumble upon your brother’s brain leaking from his fractured inert skull, long-dead, maggot infested, would create ripples of consequence for any man or woman, and whether myth or not, it is a powerfully disturbing image upon which, plinth-like, George Clinton placed the ten minute title track of Funkadelic’s third album, Maggot Brain.
Despite owning the album for ten years, I have listened to the other tracks on the LP at most five times, in contrast to the thousands of hours that I have spent listening to the instrumentation accompanying Eddie Hazel’s heart stabbing guitar solo appear and disappear, as if the other musicians had walked into their living room and found their parents yelling, at each other’s throats, drowning in hatred, sorrow and love, the consequence of infidelity or perhaps the unbearable loss of a loved one – and then quietly, so as not to be heard, crept away to a safe distance so that they could hear only the muted tone of painful screamed words, the precise meaning lost somewhere in an opaque sea of a melancholy and beautiful uncertainty. ”
45. New York Dolls
New York Dolls
The New York Dolls were a motley crew of outer-borough troublemakers that made Manhattan their playground, and they tore down the studious bloat of progressive rock with a sloppy kiss and a knowing wink. The Dolls swallowed influences like a handful of pills: rehashed rock’n’roll riffs a la Chuck Berry and The Stones, metallic proto-punk overdrive from MC5 and The Stooges, the androgynous glam of Lou Reed, lower Manhattan drag queen ferocity, girl group pop melodies… everything all the time, pushed to the breaking point. The job of harnessing the band for their self-titled debut fell to the somewhat-unlikely Todd Rundgren, who somehow managed to hold it all together, capturing their hot transvestite mess of a stage show on tape.
Johnny Thunders and Sylvain Sylvain’s guitars still sounded like lawnmowers (as an infamous review maintained), Jerry Nolan and Arthur Kane managed to ride the rails and David Johansen is particularly unhinged, prowling like a street-walking cheetah with a hide full of napalm: “And you’re a prima ballerina on a spring afternoon,” he sneers on signature tune ‘Personality Crisis’, “Change on into the wolfman howlin’ at the moon, ohwooo.” The Mercer Arts Center where the Dolls made their name would collapse a week after the album’s release, and the band themselves would implode after the next album, but the damage was already done.
44. John Carpenter
Assault on Precinct 13
(film released 1976)
John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 soundtrack might have only been available as a bootleg until the mid-’00s, but its influence and reach went far beyond its availability. Carpenter’s sparse, minimal score was partly that way because of the limitations of the complicated technology, but it not only worked well in context with his eerie thriller, but also on its own, where the theme slowly began to take on a life of its own.
Not only did it end up being sampled by Afrika Bambaataa (on ’86’s ‘Bambaataa’s Theme’), but Bomb the Bass used it as the framework for their 1988 hit ‘Megablast’. This in turn ended up being used as the theme for ’89 Commodore Amiga game Xenon 2, and soon a generation of children would know Carpenter’s theme well enough to hum the lead synth line, but still couldn’t go out and purchase the soundtrack legally.
Lasse Marhaug: “This album shouldn’t be on this list. Why? Because the full album of John Carpenter’s seriously amazing 1976 synth score to his seriously amazing High Noon-remake wasn’t available to buy until 2003. And that was just CD – the vinyl didn’t arrive until 2013. (That’s last year). But, history books are written by internet losers like us, and this recorded-in-three-days score is so good we’ll just pretend it came out back in the mid-’70s until it becomes the truth.
“I was born in 1974, so I don’t remember much of those days anyway, but when I play the Assault on Precinct 13 2003 Compact Disc (as I do pretty much every day of life), I’m reminded of not just how grim/nihilistic/sexy the 1970s were, but also that if John Carpenter had flopped with Halloween two years later, he could’ve had a glorious career as a composer. Mandatory listening, kids. Really, mandatory.”
43. Robert Ashley
(1979, Lovely Music)
Influenced by his own problems with a mild form of Tourette’s Syndrome, avant garde composer Ashley decided to compose a piece of music that would act as an exploration of involuntary speech, and it took him five years of experimentation to do it. While his Tourette’s would break up his speech regularly, his attempts at recording it kept failing – he felt as if he had too much control, and was actually simply faking the outbursts rather than allowing them to happen normally. To achieve a proper recording, he eventually decided to perform the session in Summer, when Mills College (where he worked) would be empty, and Automatic Writing was born.
It’s a recording that, while bearing many of the hallmarks of Brian Eno’s ambient recordings, is anything but background music. Instead it is various recordings of background music mixed together, guided by the barely-intelligible voice of Ashley himself. It sounds almost alien, like a series of distant transmissions blended into a harmonic soup, and its allure is unavoidable.
Pete Swanson: “Automatic Writing was Robert Ashley’s attempt to document his own mild form of Tourette’s syndrome, which generally manifested in his muttering to himself in unintelligible language. He wanted to not only document his own spontaneous vocalizations, but he wanted to produce a work that reflected both the unpredictability of his illness, but also his work in opera. He assigned four voices to the recording, which included recordings of his own voice, a woman’s voice translating and repeating his utterings in French, a self-switching synthesizer, and a track of an unknown organist rehearsal recorded from a few rooms away.
“Each voice (aside from the translation) operates outside of the influence of the other voices, but there is an odd synchronicity and balance throughout the recording. Different voices weave in and out of each other…elements fade away…your attention drifts. You forget you’re listening to music. You wonder what the recording is that your neighbors are playing…or if the sound of the street has been amplified somehow… It starts to feel like sound is seeping through the floorboards and slowly penetrating your DNA. Nothing about this piece makes sense and it subliminally projects a soft and inviting kind of madness that no other artist has ever even come close to documenting.”
42. The Slits
The Slits were veterans by punk standards when their debut album finally arrived, having supported The Clash on their 1977 White Riot tour and delivering two exhilaratingly slapdash Peel Sessions which the great man deemed “magical”. By the time they pitched up at a farm in Surrey to record Cut, they’d lost a member (Palmolive, who went off to join The Raincoats and was replaced by future Banshees drummer Budgie) and gained a vital guiding hand in the shape of producer Dennis Bovell, whose dub and reggae expertise chimed with their tastes and helped cultivate Cut‘s masterful balancing act between febrile, metronomic energy and slippery, spacious grooves. Teen singer Ari Up cements the no-fucks-given DIY attitude with her crooked trills and yelps, her strange German-Jamaican-English voice exhorting us to “do a runner!” after stealing from a “Babylonian” (‘Shoplifting’) or mocking girls’ obsessions with “spots, fat and natural smells” (‘Typical Girls’). Playful and savage, confrontational and contradictory, Cut still sounds as wild and untamed as the mud-caked cavewomen staring us down on the sleeve.
41. Ornette Coleman
The title is perfect here. Even more than Sun Ra – where the sci-fi imagery is scrambled together with the mythic, the cosmic and the ancient – Ornette Coleman’s skronk sounds futuristic. The precision and complexity of each of the constructions on this album is absolutely mind-frazzling, the rhythms seeming humanly impossible, and the tightness with which they’re locked together doubly so. This is jazz that feels as close to Autechre as it does to Louis Armstrong. Yet it’s freakishly listenable too, with every track its own distinctive world, that playing precision matched by song structures, and a willingness to incorporate populist and recognisable sounds too – so there’s the electric-Miles filtered funk underpinning ‘Rock the Clock’, the abstracted soul of vocal tracks ‘What Reason Could I Give’ and ‘All my Life’, and the disoncertingly straight bebop of ‘Law Years’ all incorporated into the sci-fi narrative.
Pink Flag came out in the same year as The Clash’s first single. It’s a chronological quirk that seems to confuse the album’s standing as a quintessential post-punk record, but the art-schooled Wire were always running on a different clock. Older and more ambitious than the snotty kids in safety pins around them, they compensated for their own lack of musical training with an academically enriched take on rock and roll, making them perhaps the most consciously avant-garde of Britain’s late ’70s punk set. Their debut contains 21 ideas across 21 rapidfire songbursts, each one stretched, poked, toyed with and discarded as soon as it’s deemed exhausted – a process that usually takes less than two minutes. But Wire’s dry methodology never stood in the way of a razor-sharp riff or an air-punching hook, and Pink Flag’s marriage of beret-wearing intellectualism and taut, sinewy pop simplicity marked it out as unique among its lumpen kin and helped lay the foundations for the next generation of punk and hardcore.
Peace And Love – Wadadasow
(Wild Flower, 1974)
This is great for a couple of reasons. First and most obviously, the four long pieces based around Niyabinghi chanting and percussion – the same sound that so inspired London band Cymande, and later the mighty African Headcharge – are pure, heartfelt devotional music. And like the best devotional music, whether that be gospel, ragas, qawwali or a Bach mass, you don’t need to share a belief system or even be remotely “spiritual” to absorb and appreciate the hypnotic/meditational and profound feel-good qualities of the sound. Also though, this is a brilliant indicator of the diversity of early 1970s Jamaican music. Lloyd Charmers, the producer who gives the whole record a warm glow and dubwise sense of superhuman scale, was as happy working on soul-infused pop songs (including some that will appear higher up this chart), or his own deeply saucy songs, as on these deep and intense Rasta reflections; the various threads were not so very far apart at all.
Cerrone 3: Supernature
Aside from its cover being the most gloriously disturbing glitterball-addled bare-chested French disco sleaze ever, this album is about as good an illustration as any of the high art of disco. ‘Give Me Love’ and ‘Love is the Answer’ are stunningly structured, with real strings and blaringly artificial synth sounds playing off each other as though they’d been dancing partners all their lives, and the steady changes taking their own sweet time to reach dance floor lift-off. ‘In the Smoke’ is a dreamy synthscape, while ‘Love is Here’ and ‘Sweet Drums’ are stomping two-minute teases. It’s the title track, though, which lifts it into true greatness – 10 minutes of high camp, all-synthetic delirium that just never gets tired – but there’s not a weak moment on the whole record.
Selling England By The Pound
Much is made of British eccentricity (and the pride that surrounds it), and rarely has it been so well realised as on Genesis’s sprawling masterpiece Selling England By The Pound. The album surprised many listeners who expected a continuation of Foxtrot’s rock direction rather than a return to the beardy folk of its predecessors, but the band’s willingness to confound expectations resulted in their most coherent and enjoyable collection of songs. Fairy tales, Tolkien, English folklore and the futility of modern life are all targets for Peter Gabriel as he jams wordy phrases into every nook and cranny, but it’s then-drummer Phil Collins (who we would soon take Gabriel’s place as vocalist) who gets to shine, taking the lead on standout track ‘More Fool Me’. Add in Tony Banks’ unforgettable synthesizer and Mellotron parts and you’ve got yourself a classic.
Let’s face it, even if this was only a 12” consisting of ‘Hallogallo’ and ‘Negativland’ we’d have been trying to bend the rules to get it in. Those two tracks are the motherlode of krautrock, both of them sounding as pristine and modernist now as they ever did. ‘Hallogallo’ in particular is just one of those grooves that could almost make you believe it exists outside of time. Like ‘Acid Tracks’ or ‘Energy Flash’, it’s just a perfect fusion of riff and rhythm that you could happily listen to modulating away for hours. The fact that the rest of NEU! is made up of basically awesome abstract alien planet gurglescapes, with the strange smacky instrumental ballad ‘Weissensee’ plonked in the middle, is just the icing on the cake.
Powell: “Feck, where do you start with this? I wasn’t there when it came out — I was somewhere deep in my father’s scrotum — but I think it goes to show how powerful this record is that it still has the kind of impact on people today that it definitely didn’t get at the time of its release. That’s often the way: truly great records get overlooked at first and then become influential many years later. And this record has famously influenced everyone from the biggest arena acts to basement noise freaks.
“‘Negativland’ is just the perfect tune: it’s super aggressive in places, but that groove just keeps coming back for more. You can’t shake it off. That was the thing that struck me with Neu! — the dead-eyed drive that just keeps on giving. Even the tempo changes and blasts of distortion can’t hold it back. It’s loop heaven. It’s worth saying, too, that Klaus Dinger has one of the rudest names in music, and the artwork is second-to-none. You know a Neu! record when you see a Neu! record because it says, well, Neu!. Talk about iconic. Just brilliant.”
35. Steve Reich
Music For 18 Musicians
Steve Reich had already proven his worth long before Music for 18 Musicians hit the shelves in 1978. His pioneering early composition It’s Gonna Rain – two tape loops of a preacher’s voice going in and out of phase – was the inspiration Brian Eno needed to explore new techniques in ambient music; Pendulum Music was a favorite in weirdo circles (and was eventually covered by Sonic Youth); Drumming was a percussionist’s dream; and his series of phase experiments (Reed Phase, Piano Phase and Violin Phase) were massively influential. What Reich hadn’t managed though, was wider success outside of the bespectacled academic and avant-garde circles.
Music for 18 Musicians was, then, his attempt at a pop album, and from the first flurry of notes it’s clear that Reich is working in a very different mode. There’s the skeleton of Drumming’s complex percussion, but it’s decorated with a sequence of 11 disarming chords, which twist and turn throughout the album’s 55-minute duration. Reich’s influence in dance and electronic music has been canonized at this point, and while it might be his later Electric Counterpoint that would inadvertently position itself the soundtrack to ’90s chill-out rooms, it’s Music for 18 Musicians that stands as his most crucial, and most complete effort.
34. The Last Poets
The Last Poets
On more than one occasion, The Last Poets has been anointed as the record that begat hip-hop – the first LP to set black nationalist poetry and street patter over spiralling, percussion-driven loops. Whether it’s the rap game Lucy or not, though, is ultimately incidental. Once heard, this collection of supercharged political commentary and soapbox sermonising remains seared on the memory. Over skittering drum tattoos, the Harlem outfit shake clenched fists at fairweather activists (‘Niggers Are Scared Of Revolution’), the Big Apple myth (‘New York, New York’) and sex-as-escape (‘Black Thighs’). This could never be legitimately be called ‘spoken word’, though – Nilaja Obabi’s percussion backdrops liberate the ass so the mind can follow, and the vocal delivery is louder and prouder than better known contemporaries. Propulsive, funky, somatic – and fizzing with righteous anger.
Singles Going Steady
You can sugar-coat Singles Going Steady all you like: a document of the decade’s shift from a singles age to an album age, the importance of the singles format in punk manifested as an full-length classic, the definitive statement of the band who straddled the line between post-punk and pop-punk like no other… it’s all of these things and more. But really, what it boils down to is this: hit, after hit, after brilliant, inventive, so-simple-it-hurts, clever, dumb, sing-along hit. Singles’ first side blasts through eight songs in around 18 minutes, and every single one is untouchable. Sure, ‘Ever Fallen In Love’ was sacrificed to the international sync machine long ago, to be filed alongside ‘Everybody Hurts’ and ‘Beautiful Day’ in a vault for phone adverts and Sky montages, but it matters little: on Singles Going Steady, every shorty’s a 10.
Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee
(Warner Bros Records, 1973)
A 1973 psychedelic album based on the massacre of Native Americans at Wounded Knee in 1868 doesn’t sound like it’s going to be an easy ride, and it’s not – but it’s far from the grizzled leftist call-to-arms you might be expecting. At this stage, Gila was, for all intents and purposes, a solo outing for Popol Vuh’s Conny Viet – and for Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee he managed to convince Vuh mastermind Florian Fricke to help out on keys and their percussionist Daniel Fichelscher to handle drums. It stands to reason that at times the album is almost indistinguishable from Vuh’s mid-70s run – twinkling keys offset with jangling occidental guitars and earnest vocals – but there’s more to Gila than that. It’s Viet’s gorgeous songs that make Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee stand out so resolutely, and Viet’s then-girlfriend Sabine Merbach’s vocal parts are an outstanding addition to the sound, pushing the songs into almost (dare we say it) commercial territory. Think of it as a very European take on an American protest rock record, and you’ll start to get the idea.
31. Pere Ubu
The Modern Dance
They arrived during punk and were aligned with it – but there was something older, deeper and weirder about Pere Ubu that meant they’d never really be part of a Movement. They’re part of the Weird America that goes back to all kinds of freaky backwoodsmen, erupts in Captain Beefheart, and feeds forward into everyone from the Butthole Surfers to John Zorn to Mike Patton to Kid 606 and Matmos. What’s great about their debut is actually how un-punk it really is: despite ‘Non Alignment Pact’ and the maniacal ‘Life Stinks’, this is really a record of slow freakouts, of unravellings, of a complete meltdown of rock’n’roll to reveal the worms seething beneath the skin. And it was all done with humour. A twisted, desperate humour, maybe, to match David Thomas’s deranged wail, but definitely funny in a sick way. Like life is.
30. Linda Perhacs
Parallellograms spent three decades as a proper buried treasure – a barely-heard psych-folk album by a dental hygienist who wouldn’t make another record for 44 years. A series of bootlegs and a keynote release in 2005 changed all that; in (admittedly small) folky circles, Perhacs was swiftly elevated to grande dame status. Parallelograms has two modes – breezy West Coast singer-songwriter fare (‘Sandy Toes, ‘Paper Mountain Man’), and mystic folk (the title track, ‘Dolphin’). The highlights are simply stunning: see the gut-tugging harmonies on ‘Chimacum Rain’; rustic devotional ‘Dolphin’; and ‘Parallelograms” star-struck geometrics. Vashti Bunyan’s roughly contemporaneous Just Another Diamond Day is an oft-cited point of comparison, but Perhacs’ release is the richer – and certainly the sassier – of the two.
29. Cabaret Voltaire
(Rough Trade, 1979)
Sheffield’s reputation as the crucible of electronic music in Britain starts here, with the dyspeptic debut from industrial innovators Cabaret Voltaire. While their synth-tinkering peers on the continent (Cluster/Harmonia, Can, Neu! et al) were sending their blissful loops into orbit, the Cabs’ debut is determinedly terrestrial, a grim echo of the racket and thrum that reverberated day and night through the Steel City. The dirt, the metal, the white noise and the relentless repetition of industry are conjured through an innovative set-up of rudimentary electronics, tape manipulation and traditional instruments played as if they were alien debris. White noise and angle grinders spark at the peripheries as the bleak, growled vocals (“No escape! No escape!”) and dour spoken word sections become irruptions of human pain and fallibility into the uncaring machines. It’s bleak stuff for sure, but Mix-Up’s confluence of Cage, Stockhausen and Can with the period’s raw punk aesthetic was an essential signpost towards the next wave of experimental electronics.
Ekoplekz: “I first heard Mix-Up in the mid-80s, having back-tracked from the Cabs’ then current Virgin/Some Bizarre output. It was my introduction to the crepuscular world of lo-fi DIY electronica from the previous decade and I was instantly hooked, fascinated and sonically radicalised by what I heard. From there I discovered the work of other ‘industrial’, dissident artists like Throbbing Gristle, SPK, Robert Rental, etc. I still think it represents a high watermark in one of the most important periods in British music during the post-punk era and it’s definitely a fixed point of reference for my work today.”
28. Fern Kinney
This album is lighter than air. It’s easy to miss the quality at first because of this – the big single from it, ‘Together we are Beautiful’, is such a wisp of disco gossamer it’s barely there*, and there are tracks that border on the Eurovision, so shameless is their synthetic cheese-whizz. But start with the title track and ‘Baby Let Me Kiss You’: both also delicate and tasteful, but built on really odd fusions of slowed-down Moroder and pop reggae that groove on and on until you submit to them. ‘Groove Me’ in particular takes a bit of puzzling out, being a cover of King Floyd’s fantastically dirty bit of 1971 Atlantic funk, yet delivered with sleek lines, computerised rhythms that Kraftwerk could be happy with and a pop-soul topping. Once you get your head round the finesse of these two tracks, though, the whole album comes alive (yes, even the woman’s-burden country ballad ‘Sun, Moon & Rain’). Suddenly you realise that “lightweight” isn’t a pejorative term – not when it’s applied to a construction as exquisite as this.
*(though track down Samantha Rose’s lovers’ rock cover for a bit more weight)
27. Steve Hillage
Rainbow Dome Musick
(Blue Plate, 1979)
Canterbury scene stalwart Steve Hillage had a hand in a range of releases across the 1970s: slinky prog LP Space Shanty with Khan; Gong’s restless Radio Gnome Invisible trilogy; and a rash of solo albums across the second half of the decade. The best, Rainbow Dome Musick, arrived right at the fag-end of the ’70s, and it’s a stunning collection of nascent ambient electronica, produced with longtime partner Miquette Giraudy.
Wibbling electronic textures had trickled through Hillage’s output for years (Fish Rising’s ‘Solar Music Suite’, Angel Egg’s ‘Castle In The Clouds’, Green’s ‘Ether Ships’, loads more), but here they become the centrepiece. ‘Garden Of Paradise’ is pure coruscating brilliance – all synth washes and analogue trills, spiralling as far as the skyline. ‘For Ever Rainbow’ is the darker and proggier of the two, bringing notes of discordance into the Dome. Rainbow Dome Musick has since become something of an ambient techno touchstone, its flinking tones reappearing on releases by The Black Dog and The Orb (whose Dr. Alex Paterson, incidentally, would go on to collaborate with Hillage in System 7).
Luke Younger, AKA Helm: “My first exposure to Steve Hillage was at the age of 13 through the Orb’s UFORB, an album that I found so offensive at the time, I actually wrote a letter to the record company (on the recommendation of my mother) to tell them how much I hated it. Since developing an appreciation for progressive rock, Steve Hillage reentered my life with this record and 1982’s And Not Or (which is worth a listen as well). On first listen you could mistakenly think of Rainbow Dome Musick as a Games Workshop version of Manuel Gottsching, but there’s enough going on within the dense and expansive swirls of guitar and electronics that you can quite easily lose yourself in these two sides for hours.”
(Janus Records, 1972)
It’s slightly weird that a band who could only really have formed in Britain ended up being bigger in America than at home. Still, their blend of ultra-roots pre-reggae Rasta chanting, African elements and lashings of blaxploitation funk (particularly Curtis Mayfield) with a particularly English melancholy has eventually gained at least a bit of the recognition it deserves thanks to the attention of DJs and samplists. In their initial existence, they issued three albums in the three years 1972-4, all close to faultless, but this one pips it, if only for ‘Bra’ and ‘The Message’ – yes, the ones you’ll recognise from samples and soundtracks.
Cymande specialised in everything that anyone who hates jazz-funk loathes most – it’s flutes, bongos and meaningful lyrics all the way here – but even the most noodle-averse find it hard to resist these songs, most of all because absolutely everything in every track is a hook. Steve Scipio’s bassline melodies especially make it practically the lead instrument, but really every single part of the intricate grooves is designed with military precision to grab you and not let you go.
FaltyDL: “Every generation has their Spike Lee film with this playing during some classic Brooklyn scene. Surely contributed to some babies being made.”
25. Patti Smith
“People like to look at me as this tough, punky shit-kicker,” Patti Smith told Crawdaddy in 1975. “Well, I am like that… but I’m also very fragile.” That dichotomy is on display throughout Horses, the album that introduced Smith to the world. The Godmother of Punk contains multitudes on her debut album: shouting, spitting, and spilling her poetry over stripped-down rock instrumentation that was produced by John Cale (she compared the contentious process to Rimbaud’s surreal A Season In Hell). Amid a punk embellishment of Van Morrison’s ‘Gloria’ and comparatively poppier turns like ‘Redondo Beach’ and ‘Kimberly’ are ambitious tentpoles that defy modern-day expectations of wham-bam punk. On ‘Birdland’, her intergalactic fever dream poetry unravels over a distorted jazz crescendo, while ‘Land’ turns Chris Kenner’s ‘Land of 1,000 Dances’ into a punk meltdown; both pass the nine-minute mark. New York’s legendary ‘70s scene is alive on Horses, from Robert Mapplethorpe’s iconic cover photo of Smith’s austere androgyne beauty, to ‘Free Money’ — a glimpse of the artists-in-poverty who congregated at the Chelsea — to ‘Break It Up’, featuring the live-wire guitar of Television’s Tom Verlaine. The latter is a tribute to Jim Morrison, while ‘Elegie’ was inspired by Jimi Hendrix; with the pair, Smith rightly anointed herself as their heir.
24. Brian Eno
(Editions EG, 1975)
Legend has it that a car accident was responsible for Brian Eno’s interest in what he would come to describe as “ambient music”. Bed-ridden in hospital, he was passed a record of 18th century harp music, and after spending all his available energy just trying to get the record to play (there were no iPhones in the 1970s, sadly), he didn’t have any left to actually turn the amplifier’s volume up. This forced the producer to start thinking about music in a different manner – he described it as a “new way of hearing music” where “the sound of the rain” was a crucial part of the actual listening experience.
Discreet Music was the first of Eno’s fully-fledged ambient experiments, and remains his most uncluttered. He used a technique he’d first attempted with Robert Fripp on their influential No Pussyfooting collaboration, whereby they would record two tape loops of the same sequence of notes and let the loops fall in and out of phase. This was partly influenced by Steve Reich’s ‘It’s Gonna Rain’, but where Reich used voices, Eno used a digitally programmed synthesizer pattern, allowing, in basic terms, the music to generate itself.
Eno would attempt generative music many more times, but there’s something charmingly naive about Discreet Music. There are no airs and graces – just a sequence of synthesizer sounds drifting and falling for 30 minutes. The flipside is equally enthralling – a series of reinterpretations of Johann Pachalbel’s ‘Canon in D Major’ which Eno worked on with Gavin Bryars, where the players involved would attempt to mimic the tape process.
Despite what you might read (and what Eno might want you to believe), Discreet Music wasn’t the birth of ambient music. It was certainly a turning point for Eno, but claiming this album as the genre’s Genesis would write out many other far more inventive (but less vocal) musicians. In fact it was a palatable and well-marketed experiment, which just happened to introduce a legion of young listeners to a sound that’s still going strong to this day – and it still sounds absolutely sublime.
23. Sly & The Family Stone
There’s A Riot Goin’ On
After a string of albums of effervescent fusion and open-hearted positivity, Sly Stone and his (increasingly depleted) band of followers crash-land on There’s A Riot Goin’ On. For all its high critical standing, it’s easy to forget that this is a fantastically weird album – mal de mer soul with a sinister rictus grin, and the sort of thing that makes modern noir’n’b (we’re looking at you, Tesfaye) look positively chipper. The sprightlier tracks of the bunch (‘Family Affair’, ‘Just like A Baby’) are shot through with threat; the surlier cuts are sludgy as mud, carried by mumbles, whispers, gurgles, and throttled yelps. An inspired bummer, and surely one of the strangest albums to blag its way into the canon.
According to Greek mythology, Comus is the god of festivity and revelry – so it’s no surprise that this fantastically warped folk album privileges excess over delicacy, spectacle over sentiment. Based in Kent, Comus specialised in ingenious hokum: squawking tales of torture, pagan worship, zephyrs and psychotics. Unsurprisingly, they barely made a commercial ripple (something they, hilariously, blamed on an ill-timed postal strike), but from the twanging fiddles and eldritch voices of ‘Diana’ onwards, First Utterance is both unapologetically weird and commendably self-assured. It’s extremely – and sometimes off-puttingly – mannered, but if you’re looking for the square root of the mid-2000s freak-folk explosion, this is it.
They had to be German. Who else would write a side-long track dedicated to a bloody motorway? Not just any motorway, either, Germany’s very first – the road between Cologne and Bonn. Still, no matter how batty the idea might seem now, it turned around the fortunes of Kraftwerk, who until Autobahn had been considered a strictly niche, experimental act.
To their surprise, and the surprise of the Vertigo imprint, people actually wanted to buy Autobahn, and it’s futuristic, synthesizer-laced sound and comical lyrical chant made it their most successful track. It forced the public to think differently about what does and doesn’t constitute music, and while Kraftwerk might not have been a fully electronic act at this point (there’s violin, flute, piano and guitar) they were damned close. It was the first time many listeners had heard these sounds used in popular music, and the musical landscape was changed for good – electro, rap, techno – it all started here.
Hannes Norrvide (Lust For Youth): “Even though it was not their first album it was the first ‘Kraftwerk-sounding’ one. A sound and feel that was completely original and would come to influence most great artists we love. Their aesthetics are very minimal and precise and helped defining a new European style.”
20. The Saints
Unfairly footnoted in conventional UK/US-centric punk histories, Brisbane scruffballs The Saints actually pipped the Pistols and the Buzzcocks et al to the post, putting out keynote single ‘(I’m) Stranded’ in 1976. And it’s not the only sense in which they gave the poms a run for their money: 1977’s (I’m) Stranded is easily one of the best – and probably the noisiest – albums to emerge from punk’s first wave. Essentially a collection of demos hodge-podged together at speed, (I’m) Stranded) is fantastically ragged – a white-hot wall of feedback and full-pelt drumming. But beneath the scuzz, it’s also fiercely melodic: see the fist-pumping title track, ‘No Time’’s antsy shuffle, and best of all, hot-to-trot freakout ‘Erotic Neurotic’. By album number three, they’d softened into a different band entirely – but we’ll always have this blistering first effort.
19. Brötzmann / Bennink
It’s a veritable free-jazz fairytale – German horn player Peter Brötzmann and Dutch percussionist Han Bennink trekked off into the Black Forest (hence the album’s name) for a week in the winter of ’77 to record an album. When they arrived, Brötzmann was shocked to realize that his array of instruments no longer worked correctly. “I had clarinets and saxophones, but it was much too cold to get them really working,” he stated, and subsequently his familiar skronk is rarely heard throughout the record. In place of his beloved woodwind, Brötzmann used birdcalls, banjo, viola and his own voice, howling breathlessly over Bennink’s percussion. And what percussion – the drummer didn’t bother taking his kit, instead choosing to pack only sticks, and hammer on whatever happened to be around him – trees, wood, dirt, and most effectively, water.
The resulting set of recordings are some of the most disarming and peculiar to ever emerge from the free-jazz set, and inexplicably it never sounds contrived or hokey. Brötzmann’s chirps sound almost natural as Bennink pats rhythms out on the forest floor, and it feels as if both players are freed by their odd predicament. On paper it sounds horrible, certainly, but hearing two musicians at the top of their game performing in the cold, in the middle of a forest, on their own – well, there’s something magical about it. It’s music and nature in perfect harmony, and not a blotter in sight.
18. Tom Waits
Schulze, Smith – many of the 1970s’ most important albums are revered because they simply don’t sound like they’re from the 1970s. Blue Valentine, however, is so perfect because it feels like it could have been made in any decade since the ’20s – and it would have comfortably ranked high in a list of any of those decades’ best albums too. With little of the cementary polka and nightmarish skronk that rears its head on his ’80s records, it’s Waits at his most traditional and timeless, as effortlessly cool as it is utterly, utterly heartbreaking. If it was released today, we’d be hailing the last of the great blues singers; as it is, it’s simply America’s best white voice captured at its absolute peak.
(United Artists Records, 1973)
It’s so easy to laugh. For those of us who first heard Hawkwind much later, the swirly-whirly sci-fi trimmings, ominous narration and extended solos always seemed a bit silly in comparison to their stripped-down, more obviously serious offspring like Loop, Spacemen 3, Bark Psychosis and the rest. But once you give them time, you realise Hawkwind eclipse any of these upstarts and are of course one of the greatest rock bands the British Isles has ever produced – and the live (or mostly live; as with every great “live” album there are edits and overdubs going on) Space Ritual is their crowning glory.
The swirly Moog noises, the filtered saxophone, Dave Brock’s unending guitar spirals: the moment you hear this loud enough to break through the hippy-embarassment filter, you realise that all these are the opposite of unnecessary frills. They are all perfectly locked into the relentless, nihilistically powering forward groove; indeed are inseparable parts of that groove. This was a band reducing rock to its base-level function as powerfully as anyone else ever has. Tracks like ‘Born to Go’ and ‘Brainstorm’ are a perfect mid-point between the Stooges in the States and the motorik patterns starting to emerge from Germany, and the climactic ‘Master of the Universe’ is as clear a presaging of punk rock as anything the Stooges, the Dolls, the Velvets or anyone else ever made.
16. Marcia Griffiths
Sweet And Nice
(Wild Flower, 1974)
As reggae expanded into international markets, it faced a lot of pressure to conform to stereotypes and stick to approved rhythms. In particular, with the global rise of Bob Marley, the white rock establishment desperately wanted it to be macho rebel music, or – to use the great phrase coined by Lloyd Bradley in his book Sounds Like London – “to toe the sufferation line”. It was expected to be heavy on the roots and culture: authentic, full of meaning for stoners to unpick and, by extension, unsexy. This was news to a lot of Jamaicans, who as often as not wanted their reggae music to be as fun as anything in ska or rocksteady before, and ideally heavily dosed with the latest US sounds.
Thus Sweet and Nice. And note the original title, as the original Jamaican tracklisting (see Spotify playlist here) is the one: the Trojan version for the UK market ‘Sweet Bitter Love’ and the later massively expanded CD release Play Me Sweet and Nice do no favours to the songs by leading with the obviously reggae ones. The original release kicks off with an absolutely demolishing sequence of tracks based around slow but heavily Motown-accented soul (‘Here I Am (Come and Take Me)’), wah-wah disco (‘Everything I Own’), slow-jam soul again (‘Green Grasshopper’), and sultry funk (‘Children at Play’ – which sounds uncannily like a precursor of Massive Attack).
The playing, the production, the basslines, the vocal harmonies are all unmistakably Jamaican, but this is as far from Eric-fucking-Clapton-approved authenticity as it comes. The rest of the album – including very possibly the best version of ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’ ever – may be more obviously reggae/rocksteady in its structures, but hearing the tracks in their originally intended order contextualises the rest of the album brilliantly as a reminder of just how voracious reggae itself always was in adoption of anything and everything in pursuit of the pleasure principle. Also: heartbreakingly amazing singing.
15. Henry Cow
Henry Cow: masters of the autumnal olio. Unlike the socks adorning the cover of each of their classic first three albums, the Cambridge group don’t fit happily in any particular drawer. Their music, marginalised in the UK but adored on the continent, is fully sui generis: folksy chamber prog, infected with the spirit of free-jazz improvisation, and shot through with a biting surrealist streak. All of their albums are essential, but their second sees the group playing with particular sensitivity.
Henry Cow are often characterised as spiky – fiercely political, they were the main force behind the Rock In Opposition movement – and not without reason: Unrest’s compositions are knotty, labyrinthine and sometimes extremely noisy. But Unrest’s magic lies in its grace and softness. These are tricksy compositions painted in soft autumnal shades – dancing oboes on ‘Half Asleep / Half Awake’, lowing horns on ‘Ruins (Part 2)’, Fred Frith’s birdsong impressions on ‘Torch Fire’. With some seriously top-drawer players (Tim Hodgkinson, Chris Cutler, the unimpeachable Fred Frith), it’s a pamphlet’s width away from muso territory, but always stays just on the right side of indulgent. Not the most immediate album here, for sure, but let Unrest work on you, and you’ll be rewarded many times over.
It would be disparaging to write off Goblin’s Suspiria score simply as a prog rock horror soundtrack. The band were certainly influenced by the genre (their previous incarnation The Cherry Five even more so), but Suspiria marked a point where their adulation for prog dissolved, and something fresh and exciting appeared. Yes, it was a horror soundtrack, and Dario Argento’s artsy, misogynist witch flick undoubtedly adds to the enjoyment, but Goblin’s score stands just as well on its own, and don’t believe anyone who tries to tell you different. It’s here where the band began to experiment a little more with their established form – voices and chants were layered over Middle Eastern instrumentation, bizarre clattering percussion and the band’s familiar synthesizer sounds to create a genuinely tense, frightening mood. Even without Argento’s claustrophobic imagery, it’s hard not to appreciate the eerie narrative in Goblin’s brief, economic selection of cues.
The title track itself is almost as canonized as Mike Oldfield’s similarly eerie ‘Tubular Bells’ (which itself served as the backdrop for The Exorcist) and for damn good reason. The chiming melody, creepy whispers and shouts of “witch!” all build into an explosive, synth-led blast that is powerful enough to lead a proper album, let alone a movie. Simply put, it’s one of the finest film soundtracks ever created, horror or otherwise, and all you have to do is take a look at the band’s acolytes – from Mr. Bungle to Mogwai – to understand its unquestionable influence.
Dominick Fernow: “The best medieval funk track ever… !”
Spencer Hickman (Death Waltz Recordings): “For me, both Argento and Goblin’s masterpiece – a perfect ammalgamation of sound and imagery. Suspiria is unlike any score before or since – it’s primal, otherworldly and actually terrifying in it’s own right. Wailing, whispering vocals mix with ominous synths and almost tribal rhythms to create a cacophonous noise that, when listened to too loudly, makes your head feel like that time you had it smashed in on the school playground when you were 13.”
(Spalax Music, 1974)
Zuckerzeit means “Sugartime” in German, and that’s more important than you might think. Before this album, Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius had been working in a markedly different mode. As Kluster, they had explored the outer reaches of improvised experimental sound with the late, great Conrad Schnitzler, and when they lost a member and rebooted as Cluster, their first pair of albums were brilliant but gloomy affairs, exploring gritty, industrial sounds. It was a shock to the system then when Zuckerzeit appeared, kicking off with ‘Hollywood’, a chirpy electronic nursery rhyme not a million miles from what you might have expected to hear from Kraftwerk or even Neu! (whose co-founder Michael Rother acted as co-producer).
It was the band’s attempt at a pop album, and the duo appropriated the omnipresent krautrock sound to fit their needs, occasionally opting to strap on a churning, motorik beat (‘Caramel’), or even adding guitar when it suited them (‘James’). Don’t for a moment assume that Zuckerzeit is a more straightforward listening experience than its predecessors, though – it’s pop through Moebius and Roedelius’s cracked lens and brings with it all the weirdness that should entail. Drum machine cycles are reworked into stuttering, hiccuping breaths and whooshes, synthesizer melodies are pushed around like elastic and songs erupt and dissipate seemingly without rhyme or reason.
It was one of those albums, though, whose influence was worth far more than its sales, and despite a big push from superfan Brian Eno (if you want to know why Another Green World sounds the way it does, listen to Zuckerzeit), Cluster never managed to achieve the popularity that they so clearly deserved.
(Red Star Records, 1977)
It’s difficult to overstate how completely off-the-wall Suicide must have sounded to a pair of uncorrupted ears way back in the early ’70s, when Alan Vega and Martin Rev were carrying out their first public art-hazings in downtown NYC (“shows” doesn’t seem like the right word), with Vega whipping a motorcycle chain around while Rev manned his tatty Farfisa and primitive drum machine. Even the New York Dolls, one of the few outfits who could truly be considered peers of Suicide, seem terminally retro in comparison, with their big riffs and backcombed hair and, y’know, choruses.
By the time Suicide entered the studio with punk producers Craig Leon (also of Nommos cult fame) and Marty Thau, the zeitgeist had almost caught up with them, but the resulting material – seven spun-out fever dreams from the torn psyche of post-war America – still sounded like nothing and no one else. Vega and Rev pick over the burnt-out debris of rock’n’roll, the spectres of Gene Vincent and Elvis Presley haunting Vega’s tremorous whispers. Songs are stripped to their sinew until there’s barely anything left but repetition; a steady beat, no fills, no hooks, and words boiled down to bone (“I love you, oh baby”, “Ghost rider, ghost rider”, “oh girl, oh girl”). It’s the same story told seven ways, with the pulsing erotica of ‘Cheree’ and ‘Girl’ juxtaposed against the bitter, hardened sheen of ‘Rocket USA’ and the once-heard-never-forgotten horror of ‘Frankie Teardrop’, possibly the most harrowing 10 minutes of music ever committed to tape. Still ageless 37 years on, Suicide will outlast everything.
Andreas Tilliander: “The debut album by Suicide was conceived in 1977 and so was I. It wasn’t until we were in our late teens that we met, and while I’m not really sure how we did meet, I assume that Panasonic introduced us. They were hugely influenced by Suicide and I was hugely influenced by them. Pure minimalism mixed with scary repetition and spooky fx – it is one of maybe five albums that I never get tired of. It’s absolute proof that good tunes have absolutely nothing to do with expensive gear. Suicide had a drum box, an organ and more or less nothing else and what they did 37 years ago is still magical.
When I was 22 years old I released an album on Raster-Noton, and had to shoot my first promo picture. I look so cute on that picture wearing my Suicide t-shirt. Some years later I released a track called ‘Ghost Glider’ on my 2004 album FFT POP (as Mokira). ‘Ghost Rider’ was the first track by Suicide that really got to me, probably because it’s the most poppy song on their not-so-poppy debut album.”
11. Miles Davis
On The Corner
You’ll never hear jazz fans wax lyrical about On The Corner the way they often do about Kind Of Blue or Bitches Brew, and that myopic world view also extends to the album’s critical reception at the time. From the opening bars, which tumble out of nowhere as though falling down a flight of stairs, the record refuses to let up its funky sonic assault, a self-consciously oblique listen due to the way producer Teo Macero assembled the tracks from different sections of tape, cutting against the grain. This wasn’t the first time Miles and Teo had experimented with loops and evolving, dubbed-out grooves – 1969’s In A Silent Way based itself around a central Rhodes piano vamp, extended and re-edited in the studio to form a sprawling ambient collage. But the twinkling subtleties of the ’60s are nowhere to be found here, clearly a distant memory for Davis in the wake of the harder-edged jazz-funk and rock fusions he had brought about with Bitches Brew.
Miles viewed On The Corner as as his attempt to push the frame even further, and engage with a younger, hipper audience – this was joyful, radical, Afrocentric street music. Sadly it proved to be his first and most regrettable commercial failure, which seems bizarre, given that some of key voices heard performing here – Herbie Hancock, Bennie Maupin, Mtume among others – would go on to define the tougher, dance floor funk and boogie sounds that dominated the following two decades of jazz. There are seeds of those fledgling ideas all over this session – a frenetic and punky record, radical in its use of studio technology. The debt that the modern dance floor owes the pounding abstractions of On The Corner has yet to be fully understood.
Stephen O’Malley: “When FACT came at me with the request I immediately thought of Miles’ Get Up With It, which is a personal favorite of the entire canon of music… a dark, filthy, toxic and dangerous album filled with heat, obscurantism and sexuality… but curiously this was not present on the list. GUWI material was actually culled from (and released several years later) the period which ultimately was distilled into it’s clearly more refined and accessible masterwork, On The Corner. If OTC is summer afternoons in northern Manhattan streets filled with color and vibrancy, GUWI is its opiate-fueled neighbor with undercurrents of occult criminality and danger. Luckily we have the entire breadth and family of this brilliant period of Miles Davis compositions collected in the essential Complete On The Corner Sessions (the Miles Davis Complete Sessions series is one of the greater, responsible ideas in recent music marketing), a collection of incredible music that feels as fresh and immediate, and enjoyable, as ever. The line-up on these recordings is a true pantheon. If we can access an ounce of the creative nectar within this music then we are going to be close to encountering god.”
By 1970, the enigmatic Nico had long shaken her image as the tambourine-wielding, Mitteleuropäische chanteuse brought in to lighten up the VU’s leather boots and whips routine. Turned out she was the darkest horse of them all, and after 1967’s whimsical Chelsea Girl, Nico dyed her hair black and never looked back, returning a year later with The Marble Index, an album of spooky, freeform folk ballads influenced by the doomy romanticism of her lover Jim Morrison. Desertshore is certainly a close sibling of that record, with John Cale reprising his role as producer and arranger; his hiccuping viola drones and staccato piano provide steady scaffolding for Nico’s queasily hypnotic harmonium and that unique voice – booming yet vulnerable, thickly Teutonic and allergic to melisma. Yet compared to the bleak, windswept intensity of The Marble Index, Desertshore offers a few breaks in the clouds, offsetting the murky, modal moods of ‘Janitor of Lunacy’ and ‘Abschied’ with the Velvets-in-the-East shimmer of ‘All That Is My Own’ and the gentle lullaby of ‘Afraid’.
Cosey Fanni Tutti: “As a teenager I was really into Nico and the Velvet Underground, John Cale – amongst many others. But my love of Nico has stayed with me. The whole Desertshore album cut very deep. Its honesty and the emotional effect of her deep voice and delivery alongside the unusual musical ‘accompaniment’ had a huge impact on my teenage self. [TG member] Sleazy felt the same way, hence his wanting to do the project [X-TG’s Desertshore, finally released in 2012 after Sleazy’s unexpected death in 2010]. I dare say her unequivocal personal emotional outpouring compounded by the music had some influence on my approach to subsequent works. It was rather sad meeting her. At one of the meetings she wasn’t in a good place at all. Struggling to pull things together. It would have been great to work with her but it wasn’t to be in then and I think X-TG’s Desertshore was our best musical tribute to both her and Sleazy. It was the underlying deep sense of emotional impact that Sleazy wanted to use as the main focus on the reimagining of Desertshore. When he died we were in the process of finally getting the project done. The concept was his idea and we left him to mull over it and feedback his thoughts to us and what he needed from us. I sent him my vocal recordings a long time before he died. It was very much a labour of love and he wanted it to be right. Choosing the right vocalists, with the appropriate life force if you like. We were lucky that discussions were ongoing so we had a lot of material, musical sketches, ideas and notes to work from to fulfil the project for him according to his specific wishes.
Marc Richter, AKA Black To Comm: “Even though there’s certainly nothing wrong with the Velvet Underground, I always felt more attracted to Nico’s bleak and distinctively European anti-rock’n’roll. Nico’s voice on Desertshore is both empathic and lethargic, while John Cale’s brilliant arrangements are simultaneously caressing and penetrating Christa Päffgen’s songwriting and reed organ. Any contemporary so-called neo-classical music just seems ridiculous and weak in comparison. And at just about 30 minutes Desertshore is the perfect length. A lot of people in Germany hate Nico for reinterpreting the national anthem including the first two illicit verses (and furthermore dedicating it to Red Army Faction terrorist Andreas Baader during concerts). Her lifestyle was a massive “Fuck you!” towards any preconceptions people might have had of her and that has to be admired.”
09. Serge Gainsbourg
Histoire De Melody Nelson
Histoire De Melody Nelson begins with a crash – a Rolls Royce Silver Ghost smashing into a teenager’s bicycle. Which is fitting, because Gainsbourg’s career was characterised by short sharp shocks – the unexpected barbs on his earliest chanson material; nested blowie gags in ‘Les Sucettes’, written for an unwitting France Gall; infamous smut-stunt ‘Je T’aime (Moi Non Plus)’; or the moment you realise, yes, he’s actually gone and made a jaunty concept album about Nazis. Histoire, though, is his biggest suckerpunch – a 28-minute concept album without a picometer of slack.
Gainsbourg’s immortal 1971 tale of mutt-meets-puppy love was recorded in two bursts: a 1970 stint with session musicians in London, and a second session with arranger Jean-Claude Vannier in Paris the following year. Gainsbourg’s “histoire”, presented in a conspiratorial whisper, is simple: after a traffic collision, the narrator seduces – or claims to seduce – a 15-year old English exchange student, who abruptly croaks in a plane crash that may or may not be his doing.
Musically, though, it’s a diverse platter. Gainsbourg might have the aspect of a lounge lizard, but he was one of the great chameleons of his time, variously turning a heavy-lidded eye to yé-yé, chanson, cheese-pop and reggae – assimilating, subverting, moving on. Histoire, correspondingly, deals in bluff funk (‘Melody’), burlesque (‘Valse De Melody’), and, er, frenzied fuck-rock (‘En Melody’). Some will blanche at the album’s sexual politics (as anyone who’s read a UK newspaper in 2014 will know, “it was different in the 1970s” doesn’t really wash like it used to), but Histoire De Melody Nelson firmly feels like an heir to Lolita – a troubled exploration of late-in-life lust. Gainsburg is no puffed-up loverman – like the rest of us, he’s variously randy, soppy and crippled by regret.
Without Histoire, Beck would be more boring, Air simply wouldn’t exist and the 1970s would be about 30% less debonair. It’s perfectly pitched – a triumph of regulated bombast, and the undisputed highlight of Gainsbourg’s famously spotty perv-oeuvre.
Badbadnotgood: “Histoire de Melody Nelson represents both the pinnacle in Gainsbourg’s creativity and a complete anomaly in his musical canon. Consisting of a 28-minute suite played by some of the most bad-ass session musicians to have ever lived (despite going completely uncredited), and accompanied by Jean-Claude Vannier’s lush string arrangements and Gainsbourg’s prose, this record creates a vibe from the very first tom fill that completely transports you to another world. The understated production, quiet-almost-sensual playing and Gainsbourg’s perverse lyrics all work together to create a record so cinematic that no movie could ever be worthy of its score. Gainsbourg’s knack has always been in curating a vibe, and listening to Melody Nelson is a lesson in taste, artfulness, and atmosphere that no musician should go without.”
08. Gavin Bryars
The Sinking of the Titanic
The Sinking of the Titanic is essentially deathporn. The concept – that it’s a representation of the sound of the orchestra on the SS Titanic reverberating through the ocean as the ship sunk – is really quite silly, and seems like an excuse to indulge in the most titillating drowning dreams since the Pre-Raphaelites more than anything else. No matter how much data and sound recordings relating to the actual Titanic Bryars has woven into various performances and recordings over the years, it’s not really about the ship, it’s an extended idealised depiction of a slow drift into death’s sweet embrace. After the fact, you can read into it all sorts of stuff about the fading of cultural memory, the hubris of man’s technology, etc, but really, in the listening, it’s about nothing but gentle obliteration.
Massive doses of dissociative anaesthetics have been proven to mimic the brain’s behaviour as it approaches shutdown – the often blissful near-death experience – and deep immersion in this piece can have much the same effect. All of the merging orchestral melodies (‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘Abide With Me’) conjure nothing so much as the blurring edged of consciousness, a tranquilised drift into the void. And it’s very, very beautiful, which is why its reputation has only grown over the years. This is not just a curio or academic footnote, but a lush and lovely piece of music.
The flipside ‘Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet’ exists similarly on the border of life and death, contemplation and oblivion. Its looped sample of a tramp’s gentle singing, complete with tubercular wheeze between notes, is all about fragility, hope and constructive self-delusion in the face of inevitable doom – and the orchestral parts and close-mic’ed guitar melodies that rise up around it over its 30 minutes of repetition make that inevitable doom seem like a seductive, even desirable thing. Like ‘…Titanic’, it’s an extended dream of a peaceful death: fantastical, perhaps, but speaking to something very deep inside the collective psyche.
As a record, with just these two dreamily deathly drones, one on each side, it’s a fantastic artefact, and Eno played it perfectly for the launch of Obscure Records with the packaging and ultra-limited pressing, creating an instant collector’s item. The release also represents a key rupture in the cultural fabric: this was the underground claiming modern, conceptual, high-art composition as its own. Eno was at the top of his game vis-a-vis bringing the avant-garde into the mainstream, and just about to start work with Bowie on Station to Station – and Obscure would quickly develop to record the likes of John Cage without any need for reference to or approval from academia or the classical concert hall.
In doing this, Titanic set the template for the kind of music that really is only now being explored on a grander scale. All the “post-classical” stuff coming from Jóhann Jóhannsson, Efterklang, Sigur Rós, things like the ReComposed series, huge swathes of drone, noise and immersive ambient: they all start here. Eno’s own ambient albums might have had a bigger and broader effect in the short term, but this was the album that set the stage for them, and in fact its impact seems to have been perhaps deeper and certainly every bit as long-lasting. An ode to death it might be, but its own life has been long and vital.
07. The Upsetters
Upsetters 14 Dub Blackboard Jungle
Seriously, now: critically speaking, is there a more unfairly neglected 1970s specimen than the dub album? Beyond some perfunctory hat-tipping (“no Scratch, no Skream”, etc.), rundowns of this ilk tend to toss in a token Congos LP at #73 and call it a day. To do so is to drastically underplay dub’s enormous cultural impact – on the development of bass-led music, on the emergence of the MC, on the notion of studio as instrument, and on the development of sound system (and, by extension, contemporary club) culture. But more importantly, it’s also to deny these records their status as albums – as coherent, canonical pieces of work. Anyone who pleads that dub is a “singles medium” needs a biff on the ear: compare the number of end-to-end excellent dub LPs with, say, actually good punk albums from the period, and the Jamaicans will boss it every time.
1973 was the year when the dub album – as opposed to the instrumental reggae album, which had already had some success – emerged as a viable force. Herman Chin Loy’s taut, bare-bones Aquarius Dub, and Clive Chin’s eerie Java Java Java Java are two killer early examples. But no first-wave dub album hits the peaks of Upsetters 14 Dub Blackboard Jungle (or, as it eventually became known through various represses, Blackboard Jungle Dub). It’s a remarkable showcase of dub’s modus operandi – ripping the guts out of rhythm tracks, then reconstituting the remains into monstrous new forms. And it’s got serious pedigree – the album where dub’s greatest auteur, King Tubby, joined forces with its most colourful practitioner, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry.
By the album’s limited release (only 300 copies were pressed), Tubby’s reputation as a dub innovator was already sealed, and Perry had already had success with instrumental versions (notably ‘Return To Django’ and his Soul Revolution II ). It’s no surprise, then, that so much of the vocabulary of dub is formalised on this album – skittering rim-shots, friable horn sounds that crumble like dirt, scratchy guitars that tickle the eardrums. Then there’s Perry’s unique array of tricks: muffled gurgles, creaking doors, guppy noises and incantations from the other side. There are stand-out tracks – ‘Black Panta’, the sing-song ‘Dub Organizer’ – but for the most part, the whole album blurs into one long punch-drunk skank. Forget the space-rockers and prog peddlers – this might just be the most authentically psychedelic music ever recorded.
06. Millie Jackson
(Spring Records, 1974)
The sexiest, coolest, most heart-breaking and breast-beating album of the decade. On Caught Up, Millie Jackson was more sultry than Serge, more funky than Curtis, and didn’t only beat the boys lower down this list at their own game – she often killed them on their own songs, too. The album climaxes on a pair of covers – Bobby Womack’s ‘I’m Through Trying to Prove My Love to You’ and Bobby Goldsboro’s ‘Summer’ – that Jackson doesn’t just make her own, but slips them so brilliantly into Caught Up’s narrative arc that it’s impossible to think of them in any other context.
Millie’s often cited for her sauciness, and Caught Up is dripping with the stuff: the confrontation with her lover’s wife that opens ‘All I Want Is a Fighting Chance’, running down the pluses and minuses of having it off with a married man on ‘The Rap’ (“you don’t have to wash nobody’s fuckin’ drawers but your own, and I like it like that”), and the “listen to the clock on the wall!” refrain that closes the album’s opening act. What’s most impressive about this album isn’t the fire and brimstone of its first half, though – as Millie puts it, “it was easy leaving you, baby”. It’s the examination of love and relationships that dominates Caught Up’s second half that really sets it apart, and defines it as not just a classic break-up album, but a scripture for the recovery process that follows.
A concept album that starts with an affair, peaks on heartbreak and closes with redemption, Caught Up remains a overlooked record, but an overlooked record that you can play to anybody – muso or civilian – and watch them fall more in love with each song. Those familiar speak of it in hushed tones, like it’s not just a cult classic but a glorious secret they share.
05. Popol Vuh
In Den Gärten Pharaos
While there’s certainly a damn good argument for Popol Vuh’s debut album Affenstunde being on the list, it’s In Den Gärten Pharaos, their second, that pips its predecessor to the post. The album finds Florian Fricke in a period of transition, and while he was initially fascinated with the (then very new) Moog’s ability to create unattributed, seemingly alien sounds, he quickly grew tired of its limitations. In Den Gärten Pharaos is markedly less electronic than Affenstunde, but he hadn’t ditched the unmistakable warble of his “big Moog” quite yet. Instead the sparse electronic sounds float eerily over Holger Trülzsch’s incredible African and Turkish percussion, giving opening side ‘In Den Gärten Pharaos’ an abstract, otherworldly, devotional quality. The dreaded ‘world music’ tag would be inaccurate – Fricke instead melts his palette of influences together confidently and without prejudice, and emerges with something absolutely out of time.
The album’s flipside is equally rewarding, but operates in an entirely different sphere. Entitled ‘Vuh’, the 20-minute long monster finds Fricke exploring ecclesiastic forms, experimenting with pipe organ and choir. Those wormy synths are still just about audible though, and as the colossal organ blasts subside and dip beneath Trülzsch’s splattershot drumming we finally make out Fricke’s Moog pulsing away as if it were the track’s beating electronic heart. It’s about as close as we can get to a religious experience on wax, and feels powerful enough to shatter stained glass.
04. Black Sabbath
Master of Reality
Heavy metal could only have come from Birmingham: a gloom-and-doom response to dead-end, industrial bleakness. Native sons Black Sabbath had established the template for metal on their first two albums — distorted blues-rock, bad-trip psychedelia, heavy doses of occult mythology, tales of drug-borne psychosis — but Master of Reality is the album where Tony Iommi’s infamous factory accident would lead him to detune his guitar even further than before: a fateful development that, again, could only happen in Birmingham.
The footprint of Master of Reality is impressive, even beyond the doom metal they continued to pioneer. Iommi’s detuned riffs and the syrupy grooves of ‘Lord of This World’ and the first half of ‘Into The Void’ are directly responsible for sludge metal, while weed anthem ‘Sweet Leaf’ planted the seeds for stoner rock. This is the Sabbath album that inspired grunge heavyweights Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins and Soundgarden; even Geezer Butler’s religious lyrics on ‘After Forever’ inspired a swath of Christian rockers (and black metallers like Venom who didn’t think Sabbath were true to the cause).
Those lyrics aside, Master of Reality is peak Sabbath. The monstrous ‘Children of the Grave’ is a rallying cry against the military-industrial complex, and even Ozzy describes it as “the most kick-ass song we’d ever recorded.” Despite being firmly in the pocket, Sabbath was not afraid to experiment outside of the doom metal sandbox: while they had toyed with spaced-out psych on the mellow ‘Planet Caravan’, the pastoral instrumentals ‘Embryo’ and ‘Orchid’ and the somber ‘Solitude’ find the band challenging expectations and developing as album artists. In a span of under a year and a half, not only did Black Sabbath birth heavy metal as we know it, but they also set the stage for the panoply of sub-genres and off-shoots that would define metal and hard rock for the next four decades. While it doesn’t have the shock-of-the-new of Black Sabbath or the legendary singles of Paranoid, Master of Reality is the album where Black Sabbath broke open heavy metal like an axe to the skull.
03. Alice Coltrane
Cosmic, spiritual, transcendent – there are many ways to describe Alice Coltrane’s towering fifth album, but they all boil down to the same thing. It’s the sheer energy of the recording that allows it to penetrate so perfectly, and in jazz – never mind what passes for world music – that’s incredibly rare. Universal Consciousness is the culmination of many of Coltrane’s ideas, and her ability to stitch together Indian music, free jazz and classical music still has the power to astound today.
Part of the album’s success is undoubtedly down to Coltrane’s smart choice of collaborators from bassist (and famed Coltrane collaborator) Jimmy Garrison to percussionists Rashied Ali, Jack DeJohnette and Clifford Jarvis. It’s a set of performers who all manage to transport themselves to the same cosmic plane as Coltrane, and while her harp and organ lead the recordings with vigorous virtuosity, each supporting sound appears to mirror her energy and unbridled passion.
It’s hard to believe that the album was Coltrane’s debut as an organist – her performance throughout is spiky, confident and incredibly influential. Coltrane was using devotion – to whichever god – as the basis of her performance, and it seeps out of her at every moment. ‘Oh Allah’ is the perfect example, and as the fractured bursts of organ slip between haunting Indian-influenced strings and Jack DeJohnette’s jaw-dropping pockets of rhythm, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed. The entire record plays like a prayer, and feels as if it’s been gifted to us from a place most would struggle ever to reach. You just can’t say that about most music, however “canon” it might be.
Eli Keszler: “I came across Alice Coltrane’s record Universal Consciousness in high school while sifting through my town’s public library collection. The library seemed to have gone on some kind of jazz reissue and avant-garde buying frenzy in the ’90s, and I completely immersed myself in it. At the time I was checking out some of John Coltrane’s collaborators at Impulse – artists such as Pharaoh Sanders, Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler among many others. Immediately, I noticed a huge difference between Alice Coltrane’s work and that of the other artists in the scene. She managed to merge the zeitgeist into one swelling ball of energy – fusing modal jazz, ecstatic rituals, electronics, eastern influence, multi-directional rhythms and studio experimentation with avant-garde western classical.
“Even as a young listener hearing Universal Consciousness for the first time, I remember thinking how energized and convincing her approach felt. Perhaps most remarkably on this record is Coltrane’s incorporation of Indian music. She does not cheapen eastern styles into a dated utopian ritual, but exalts the music as a hard-edged and disciplined practice – a massively important distinction. The sonic palate on this record is lush and arresting, grimy and raw. Two drummers rapidly shift and sputter around while Coltrane plays an electronic organ configured with sitar-influenced stops and settings, mixing her sustains and angular runs with harp coloration. In a stunning collaboration with Ornette Coleman, the strings are soaked in a beautiful and natural reverberant haze. Her sound is flexible and morphing, existing as one fluid structure that adheres to its own logic, an idiom onto itself. Hierarchies between instruments and ensemble are broken down, and the rigid stylistic constraints present even in avant-garde jazz are non-existent in her work. It all flows.
“In 2005 I interviewed Alice Coltrane during a panel discussion organized by Ran Blake. I asked if she felt her work and ideas had been an influence on her husband John Coltrane, noting the stylistic shift when she joined the Coltrane Quartet. She explained (as she often did) that it was a communal process and a collective intuition that led the quartet toward its music. She wasn’t willing to emphasize herself in anyway. I have to wonder about this still, but you can hear this reflective attitude expressed in her work. Universal Consciousness is one of my favorite records, and one of the most importance influences on my music. Please listen slowly.”
02. Klaus Schulze
It’s hard to imagine what was running through Klaus Schulze’s head when he decided to put together Moondawn. There wasn’t a precedent for this music, by any means – Schulze was an outsider, and along with the rest of the Berlin school of electronic musicians (Tangerine Dream, Manuel Göttsching and others) he manufactured a sound to fit his particular set of needs and interests. It just so happens that he inadvertently sowed the seeds for what we now regard as mainstream electronic music.
His previous record Timewind was a cosmic, heady affair, steeped in references to Richard Wagner, and not a million miles from Tangerine Dream’s Phaedra. On Moondawn however, he began to build on these rich, textural experiments and produce music that was simply incomparable to anything else at the time. ’Floating’ starts off innocently enough, and the twinkles of Schulze’s analogue armoury shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with his earlier records, but as soon as rhythmic elements start to emerge – drumming from Harald Grosskopf and a pounding trance-inducing synth sequence – it transforms into something not a million miles from what we now might recognize as techno.
This was a few years before Göttsching would produce established proto-techno tome E2-E4, and while Grosskopf’s drumming is a little more elaborate than, say, the repetitive boom of a TR-808 kick, there’s a definite 4/4 beat (unlike E2-E4, which if you listen closely, is missing the four). It would take Detroit a good decade to discover these sounds again (and popularize them), but the groundwork is all laid out here, and produced with no lack of charm and expertise. Each side might clock in at almost half-an-hour long, but Schulze’s productions don’t drag – they sparkle with the imagination of a genre that was still desperately new, and totally free of prejudice. Schulze had no idea of exactly how his sounds would inform a generation of producers, and that only makes it more rewarding to hear now, regardless of how many copyists have attempted to reclaim his sound.
01. Throbbing Gristle
20 Jazz Funk Greats
Read Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti on the story behind on 20 Jazz Funk Greats in our specially commissioned Q&A.
This album is a rupture. It’s an open crack into the unpronounceable dimensions into which tumble important streams of 20th century pop, art and underground culture, to seethe around each other, mingling, festering, sprouting new and unpredictable forms which in turn would ooze out to infest vast sections of what comes after. Dada, expressionism, abstraction, futurism, psychedelia, feminism and gay rights, the sexual revolution, technology, disco, squat culture, fascism, anarchism, religion, science fiction, primitivism, S&M, paedophilia, the Situationists, punk, kosmische, academic electronic music, pleasure, pain, fearsome dedication, absolute non-fuck-giving, chaos, order and everything in between all blur and flicker through the grooves here, wrong-footing you at every turn yet somehow making a coherent whole.
The first ever show by Throbbing Gristle’s precursor collective COUM Transmissions was in support of Hawkwind, and consisted – as a satire of indulgent rock bands with too much kit – of roadies bringing drum kits on and setting them up until the stage was entirely full. And from that moment, everything they did as COUM or TG, whether it involved bloodletting, hiding from the audience behind a brick wall or holocaust chic, was about negation, about alienation, about refusing to be part of the production of music for pleasure.
Of course, in certain senses, this was just a ruse: a barrier erected to make sure that only the dedicated would get into it, and perhaps to ensure that by having this dedication required of them, audiences would actually achieve more profound pleasures and transformative effects from the sounds they made. Because whether they willed it or not, TG were capable of making deeply pleasurable sounds, and as they developed together as a unit, became increasingly more so until they reached the pinnacle of 20 Jazz Funk Greats. This was the point where anti-band became band in a burst of impossibility, and that rupture opened.
Sonically, in fact, the album is still stunning. Obviously ‘Hot on the Heels of Love’, with its uncanny proto-acid house beat and bassline and mindfucking vocoder swoops – which any electronic dance producer would be cockahoop to come up with in 2014 – leaps out for its narcotic sparkle and tingle. The arpeggios of ‘Walkabout’ have that immediacy too: like ‘HotHoL’, they gesture forwards to the ecstasies that Chris & Cosey would explore post-TG, and also gleam with the thrill of connecting machine and bodily response.
But the more wilfully lo-fi, abusive and abrasive-seeming tracks retain their immediate power to excite too: the detuned no-wave-sounding roar of ‘Six Six Sixties’, the piled-up echoes and feedback screeches of ‘Still Walking’, the fucked robot lurch of ‘What a Day’ or most of all the sporadic bonks and screeches of ‘Persuasion’. These still sound like nothing else: abstracted and solid-feeling, ancient and futuristic, ugly and beautiful all at once. When the ecstatic and the offensive come together, as on the title track where ‘Ring My Bell’-style disco drum machines collide with sick electronics and Cosey’s wailing cornet, the result is ultimate discombobulation.
Through it all burbles Genesis P-Orridge: madman, genius, orator and fool all rolled together, tunelessly extemporising on and (mostly) off the beat, wheedling and sneering with every bit of the vehemence John Lydon ever mustered despite his consummate deadpan. Whether playing cradle-snatching pornographer in ‘Persuasion’, gibbering abstractions (‘Convincing People’) or wheezing and roaring mundanities (‘What a Day’), he sounds both utterly distanced and utterly convinced – the perfect perfomer/anti-performer for this ultimate band/anti-band.
It couldn’t go any further after this. When band and anti-band meet they annihilate, and though TG continued for another year and a bit, they had made their statement: their mission needed to be terminated. Of course the annihilation itself was an explosion of creativity, with Chris & Cosey, Psychic TV and eventually Coil coming out of the wreckage, and of course aftershocks when TG reunited in 2004 to consolidate their legacy. And their influence on experimental, electronic and even mainstream musicians for years to come is well documented. But even if they’d only made this one disgustingly compelling pit of mouldering creativity, this inexplicable dirty wound in the body of culture, their place in history would still be guaranteed.
Zola Jesus: “One of the strangest parts about growing up, is that you think you know the world, and then one day you hear Throbbing Gristle’s 20 Jazz Funk Greats for the first time, and anything you have come to know about what it means to be a human, an artist, or a 13-year-old girl is completely shattered. Throbbing Gristle taught me the fine art of artlessness, and the freeing power in transgression. 20 Jazz Funk Greats will always be their magnum opus in my eyes. Challenging but direct in its efforts, it feels like the truest incarnation of a band that turned itself inside out trying to fight the definition of a band.”
Chris Carter: “As with most of TG’s recorded output, it was both spontaneous and considered and holistic. Because we had our own studio we were often in there recording… spontaneous jam sessions, actual recording sessions, sampling and resampling, improvising, trying out new rhythms, recording new song ideas and so on. Before we began recording the 20 Jazz Funk Greats LP we spent time constructing a vague outline, a brief that the album would try to adhere to. There were certain parameters and vague notions of certain ‘styles’ that some tracks would emulate or allude to. I guess this approach is more obvious in tracks like ‘Exotica’, ‘Hot On The Heels of Love’ and the ’20 Jazz Funk Greats’ track itself.”
Read more from Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti on 20 Jazz Funk Greats in our Q&A.