Monday, 12 March 2018

Ten for today

In my Facebook feed a couple of weeks back: "The challenge - post the covers of 10 albums (one a day) that are among your favourites. No explanations."

Social media is, of course, full-to-bursting with quiz/game/list memes like this, and I'm sure many of you will have seen or taken part in this one, or at least a variation of it. Whether or not I dive in seems to depend almost solely on my mood at the time, but I do find a musical list very hard to resist.

The trouble for the enthusiast/obsessive/maniac is narrowing the selection down to 10. I don't have 10 'favourite albums', or, if I do, it's a different 10 albums every day. For every one I picked, there was an imaginary pile of records that could easily have taken its place. Torture.

Even looking back over the choices I just made, I've left out entire genres that I love, let alone individual titles. I wonder if this is because there's something subconscious that makes one desperate for people to like their selections. For example, without even realising it along the way, I haven't included any of the scary jazz or extreme metal that I love - this can only be a kind of accidental self-editing, an acknowledgement that you wouldn't necessarily press your more 'out there' favourites into the hands of others. For now, I can only promise myself that another time, I'll go a bit more 'in your face'.

Also, the 'no explanations' bit was hard to stick to. Here, however, it's my party* (*blog) and I'll cry** (**blather on) if I want to - so for posterity, here is my choice of 10 superb albums, with a few words of rationale and a sample track for each in the playlist at the end.. Hope you enjoy them. (Maybe I should do this again in six months' time - I wonder if the list would be entirely transformed...?)


Roxy Music: 'Stranded'

One of my very favourite bands. The aptly-named 'Stranded' seems to occupy a limbo between the 'Eno years' strangeness of the first two albums and the no less brilliant rock sophistication that was to follow. Transitional, and all the better for it: 'Mother of Pearl' alone sounds like it was made by two different groups simultaneously.

Mekons: 'Journey to the End of the Night'

There is no other band like the Mekons. From art-punk beginnings in 1977 Leeds, they relocated to Chicago and expanded their sound into a glorious mesh of rock and roll, folk and especially Americana. Still going strong to this day, they glory in a number of fine vocalists - in particular, the heart-melting tones of Sally Timms. This album from 2000 is gritty, yet somehow delightful - encapsulating the band themselves.

Emmylou Harris: 'Wrecking Ball'

Everything about this record clicked. The singer - already recognised as one of modern music's finest voices - ready to move outside her comfort zone. A producer whose signature sound was the aural equivalent of a wide open landscape. And a set of songs that seemed to find a home together for the first time. One listen and this record seems to take you in its arms.

Talking Heads: 'More Songs about Buildings and Food'

Another group I felt could do no wrong - so hard to pick just one album. But this record - their second - foreshadows the rhythmic triumphs that would come later, without losing that distinctive, wiry nerviness.

Ian Bostridge, Julius Drake: 'Songs by Schubert (Wigmore Hall Live)'

To me, this is the exact classical equivalent of one of those rare live albums in rock music that succeeds in conveying the excitement of being there. Two absolute specialists, with a brilliant rapport, bringing an incredible level of energy to these lieder - Bostridge always sings like he's living every word, and Drake spurs him on.

Kate Bush: 'The Sensual World'

Perhaps an unusual choice for one's favourite Kate Bush album. Following on from the massive 'Hounds of Love' (plus the compilation released in its wake, 'The Whole Story'), it mght feel a little low-key, self-contained. I love it - the can take their time to seep into your consciousness but once there, they stay put. To this day, the title track makes me a little, er, 'distracted', and elsewhere some luxury piano playing, sinister electronic vocals and the divine participation of the Trio Bulgarka lend the record classic status.

Keith Jarrett: 'Vienna Concert'

I still remember my university room-mate telling me, 'I'm not kidding you. This is what he does - nothing fully prepared. He just sits in front of the piano, and plays.' Then he put on the Vienna concert. Part one is some 40 minutes of unbroken sound, such melody, energy and facility, seemingly out of nowhere. As soon as I could, I went out and bought my own copy.

Billy Bragg: 'Workers Playtime'

Billy Bragg may have sung 'There is Power in a Union', but however well known he is for politics and protest, it's possibly the union - or lack of it - between lovers that brings out his best writing. I have always loved this album so dearly: for its ability to examine relationships with unsentimental tenderness; for its generosity in giving me songs I could pick out, play and sing.

The Handsome Family: 'Through the Trees'

20 years young, this bold, inventive record is still among the band's best - if not THE best - but that's a hard thing to judge with such a fine catalogue. Husband-and-wife team Rennie and Brett Sparks represent a meeting of two very distinct hearts and minds: she is responsible for the lyrics - which are really finely-turned, eerie short stories, as if Shirley Jackson had joined a folk band. He sets them to stately, catchily sinister tunes. From the unforgettable imagery of the opening song - as deranged Indians drag burning wood through a forest - the album's explorations of ordinary and extraordinary madness grip from first minute to last.

Anna Calvi: 'Anna Calvi'

A relatively recent choice, representing the acts that from time to time - after all my immersion in classical music, opera, jazz and so on - bring me crashing back into indie fandom as I fall in love all over again with a Proper Star. How thrilling it is when someone arrives, seemingly fully-formed: an incredible voice, an unusual and alluring sound (a trio of spine-tingling electric guitar, harmonium and drums), an indelible image - and above all, a sense of 'I was born to do this and NOTHING ELSE' drama.