Making a list of the ten best albums of all time has its merits, but tends to involve a series of redundant debates about impossible comparisons, as if it were possible to rate Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back against The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, or Rhythm and Sound’s eponymous dub techno debut against the works of Miles Davis. Also, always chasing the very best can itself be a pointless pursuit – I’m not always in the mood to eat in a four star restaurant, or to watch Citizen Kane.
Which isn’t to say that these selections aren’t masterpieces, most of them would end up on any list of my favorite albums of all time. More than anything, these are the albums that have made a strong impression on me, making life on Earth more enjoyable, and which I would regard as integral to any burgeoning record collector’s list of essential LPs.
Pre-Earthquake Anthem would have a prominent position on a list of albums that have defined the city of Vancouver if this was the sort of city inclined to generate such a list. Maybe the ultimate definition of an artist from Vancouver is to create music in your hometown, then have it realized in London before moving to Berlin.
With echoes of Douglas Copeland, Circlesquare’s full-length debut finds its elusive theme in a quietly anarchistic image of a city comprised of glass buildings standing vulnerable on a fault line. And if the earthquake that threatens to bring these buildings down isn’t literal, the eruption would come from the unbridled youth angst that simmers under the city’s pristine surface, as predicted in graffiti scrawled on skatepark surfaces.
Falling musically between Mezzanine-era Massive Attack and a downbeat David Bowie, with production flourishes that evoke Akufen at his most tasteful wrought by producer Konrad Black, the album remains largely unknown due partly to the label on which is was offered - Trevor Jackson’s Output imprint was arguably better at finding acts on the cutting edge than they were at finding those artists a global audience.
Since embraced by the world as a resonant conceptual artist, Jeremy Shaw was possibly a few years ahead of his time not just artistically, but by emerging just before the internet would have provided a level of exposure that a well-meaning indie label could not. I had a friend call me recently complaining about a neighbour playing music way too loud and way too late, but she was conflicted because they were playing Circlesquare. I suggested that she let it slide.
I didn’t deliberately choose a second release from Trevor Jackson’s Output label, this similarly undersung release organically came up when I turned my mind towards recommendable albums. Like the previous selection, Pre-Release was quite demonstrably ahead of its time. Just a few years later, popular acts like The Rapture and LCD Soundsystem would define a post punk revival that didn’t even acknowledge these founding fathers as a footnote.
It could also be argued that the album’s success was limited by the fact that they obviously didn’t give a fuck whether you liked it or not. Where James Murphy quite naturally made acts like Liquid Liquid and Public Image Ltd more palatable, Gramme kind of went the other way. While they deliver as many hooks as anything on DFA, the production is so loud and coarse that you almost feel like you’re not supposed to be listening to it - like your parents are about to yell at you to turn it down. You almost feel like something might break.
One of my first nights in London after moving there on a whim, me and my version of Withnail walked the city from end to end, arriving at a record store in Central London sometime before midnight. I don’t know exactly what prompted me to grab this four part retrospective from the city’s premier punk and indie label, my interest in the sound was at the time fairly limited, but it would become my soundtrack to the city for the next couple of years, to a point where I would time my journey to emerge from the Notting Hill tube station just as Stereolab played in my headphones, or ensure that the Buzzcocks scored my punk rock walk through Camden.
The mostly chronological order casts the selection perhaps more as an educational tool as a functional playlist, and while there are of course a handful of tracks I can live without, I don’t remember another compilation that became the source of so many of my favorite songs, including Buzzcocks’ ‘Boredom’, Joy Division’s ‘Transmission’, The Television Personalities’ ‘Part Time Punks’, The Smiths’ ‘Hand In Glove’, Scritti Politti’s ‘The Sweetest Girl’, Mudhoney’s ‘Touch Me I’m Sick’, Robert Wyatt’s ‘Shipbuilding’, Talking Heads’ ‘Road To Nowhere’, the Sugarcubes’ ‘Birthday’, and Cornershop’s ‘6am Jullandar Shere’. This was also the first release of Peaches “Fuck the Pain Away”, which has since permeated the culture, but sounded like the hottest underground record at the time.
Maybe music can’t change you, but it can facilitate change. If your job or marriage isn’t going well, you might want to try leaving your life behind and just walking the streets of London listening to this music. Your life will probably get pretty dark in about five years, but you’ll feel so fucking alive in the interim.
Growing up as the only openly gay student at his school wasn’t just difficult for Mike Hadreas, it was close to impossibile. Even the ineffectual school administration was indifferent to the death threats he received, and Hadreas ended up dropping out during his senior year of high school, only to be assaulted in his neighborhood shortly after.
His first two albums as Perfume Genius were comprised largely of introverted examinations of identity and belonging, and while these themes continue on this third release, also emerging is a newly extroverted side that reflects someone who is not only starting to feel like they belong, but is starting to feel empowered.
Hadreas describes a shift where the “macho dudes” who were once his tormentors now seemed ultimately frightened by his proudly queer persona, and we feel the artist come to terms with this new balance of power. His most audacious flex in that regard is the single “Queen”, which is exhilarating and triumphant in a way that could only ever have been realized so authentically by someone who had to fight so hard to get there.
Raised in the UK by a family of musicians in a house that regularly hosted rock, ska, and jazz jam sessions, Archey Marshall’s sophomore release as King Krule is similarly impossible to classify, with traces of trip hop, psych, dub, indie, and jazz coursing through its veins. Whether he owes more to Scott Walker than to Mos Def is actually an argument here, and I can name no other album in which that is the case.
The result is a mass of contradictions; it feels like every drug you’ve ever taken and every genre of music you’ve ever heard. It feels like a throwback, and it also feels brand new. The album is as depressing as it is aspirational, and it will be with me until the end of time.
Owing just as much to easy listening composers like Serge Gainsbourg and Burt Baccarat as to hip hop producers like Pete Rock and Prince Paul, the fact that trip hop on the whole didn’t age especially well makes the existence of this timeless masterpiece only more special.
References to marijuana in the album's title and cover art aren’t just branding. Smokers Delight is easily in the conversation for being the best stoner album of all time, with dusty soul samples and a rich lazy sound that asks nothing more of the listener than to lay back.
This year saw an impressive 25th anniversary release featuring a couple of new songs, an alternative mix of ‘Dreddoverboard’, and a live version of ‘Nights Introlude’ recorded at the Concord Music Hall in Chicago. This vinyl issue includes two LPs on brightly colored red and green discs packed in a mirrored gatefold sleeve, with a sheet of joint filters, expanded liner notes, and a download code for the digital release.
If conventional wisdom regards Three Feet High and Rising to be their career highlight, this warranted praise tends to overshadow the strength of De La Soul’s more challenging follow-up.
On first listen, the album sounds as cheery as its predecessor, with Prince Paul juggling his signature blend of obscure samples and comic interludes, but this sophomore release soon exposes the group’s newly emerging sense of cynicism, like soldiers who have returned victorious from war only to question the motives of those who sent them there.
From industry leeches and romantic relationships built on indifference, to a tale about a highschool girl named Millie who murders a well-liked teacher who abused her while he is working in a mall dressed up as Santa Clause, the carefree nature of their debut seemed to come crashing down like the potted daisy on the sophomore sleeve. This isn’t to say that the album is at all morbid; it would be difficult to find a collection of songs more full of joy and adolescent wit. The strengths of De La Soul is Dead reside in the progression of a group thrown into stardom only to emerge with a new level of emotional depth, and the creative range that entails.
I completely understand why some people don’t like reggae, but I would never totally trust someone who didn’t like this album. My own relationship with the genre is less of a committed relationship and more like an ideal love affair in that it never gets serious enough to be complicated, we just dip into each other's lives when the time feels right and the result is always joyful.
Introduced to me by my former writing partner whose encyclopedic music knowledge seldom cited reggae, this 1976 release from Trojan Records is the most reliable source of said joy. This unobtrusive selection is delicate and soulful - while operating with fairly standard dub riddim patterns, the vocals and instrumentation are driven by a wonderful sense of melody, all of which quietly serves a political plea for a spiritual revolution.
Sometimes the best way to avoid being crushed by expectations is to ignore them. Having released her last full length album in 2010, Badu went on hiatus for the first half of the decade, spending much of that time in Africa exploring new music. Fans waited with baited breath for an album that never came.
This silence was eventually broken by an unlikely offering in the form of an original mixtape. This wasn’t the polished masterpiece her fans were expecting, it was a short concept album made in less than two weeks with a relatively unknown producer who she met on MySpace.
The fact that this was rushed and not labored over is a large part of its charm. The choices she makes are so unselfconscious, even playful, and the production is left a little raw. In many ways, this is the album D’angelo should have made. As arguably Badu’s closest contemporary, D’angelo always seemed somewhat debilitated by a pursuit of perfection, which partly explains why he has only released three albums in twenty five years. As much as I appreciate the albums he fussed over for so long, it’s possible that I would be just as happy to hear him bang out a session in a matter of weeks instead of years, aware that funk often finds itself in its flaws.
Like the last selection, this 2017 release is presented as a mixtape of original music created by an artist coming off of an extended hiatus. With eight years since his previous release, thinking person’s dance music favorite Alexander Geiger reemerged onto the scene under a new moniker as Fahrland.
The fact that the record came out on Berlin's lauded Kompakt label only sort of makes sense. While Gieger’s resume makes that seem like an obvious choice, Mixtape Vol 1 is left rougher around the edges than the imprint’s usual impeccably produced fare. It’s a little less self conscious and a little more fun. The selection is also impervious to genre classification, combining electro, synth-pop, house, and techno, while maintaining a purely cohesive sound. The digital version of the album features individual tracks that can be played separately, or a continuous mix to maintain the titular theme.