The Zaw Towers Top 10 Albums of All Time
Well folks, this took some doing, but this list is probably at this moment in time my current top 10 albums of all time. Considering the vast CD and vinyl collection I have and also considering the amount of music I've listened to, this was not a very easy choice. At all. However these ten are the ones that for me have stood out more than others and been played the most on my trusty setup through the years. If you haven't got some of them, do check them out if you can.
1 - Doolittle - Pixies (4AD CAD905CD, 1989)
Tracks: Debaser / Tame / Wave of Multilation / I Bleed / Here Comes Your Man / Dead / Monkey Gone to Heaven / Mr.Grieves / Crackity Jones / La La Love You / No. 13 Baby / There Goes My Gun / Hey / Silver / Gouge Away
There are very few and rare occasions when you can listen to an album and none of the tracks are filler. This, thankfully is a perfect example. Many fellow musicians such as David Bowie, U2 and Radiohead cite this album as superb, and they are not wrong. From the effortless shimmering horror of "Debaser", a song that would get many indie kids on to the dancefloor screaming along a la Black Francis, the almost surreal yet short "Wave of Multilation" through to the singles "Here Comes Your Man" and the classic "Monkey Gone To Heaven", one of the first really alternative environmental songs that actually made sense once you listened to it, and that's only up to track seven. Then you have the little tales of "Mr. Grieves" and the manic "Crackity Jones" which sears on the almost insane as Francis belts out "Crack! Crack! Crackity Jones" at around the 200 miles an hour mark. After all that, perfect timing comes in "La La Love You", which seems so effortless, with David Lovering the band's drummer taking centre stage singing a simplistic sweet melody. But that's only a pause for the apocalyptic likes of "There Goes My Gun" and to end things off perfectly "Gouge Away" which actually does get better with every listen, even now. The whole album is sparse and dense at the same time, and really does sound (as did their previous album Surfer Rosa) as if the band are there with you playing the thing live. Also, the definite qualities of the band are there, their almost-patented quiet verse bit really loud shouty chorus bit in most songs, the variety of styles and lyrics in the songwriting, and the sheer genius that you feel throughout the whole album. You feel drained by the end physically, but emotionally it works so bloody well that you just want to press the repeat button on the CD player and play the whole damn thing again. I lost my voice for two days after seeing them live, it was that intense. Simply, perfection inside forty minutes.
2 - Weight - Rollins Band (Imago 72787 21034 2, 1994)
Tracks: Disconnect / Fool / Icon / Civilized / Divine Object of Hatred / Liar / Step Back / Wrong Man / Volume 4 / Tired / Alien Blueprint / Shine
For years Rollins had made good albums with Black Flag and his band, but this clearly was a pinnacle he reached. Again, what makes this stands out from other rock albums is not just the production makes it sound like there's more going on in the background than there actually is, with the drums sounding very in your face (especially during the later parts of "Disconnect") and Rollins' thoughful but insightful lyrics straight at you. "Disconnect" is a perfect example of the sparsity, and that relentless pace just hits you with "Fool", "Icon" and then after the almost self-loathing "Divine Onject of Hatred", the piece de resistance, "Liar". Taking similar steps like the Pixies, the quiet bit, then the really loud screamy bit is to the fore. Rollins is almost storyteller as he explains the whole relationship, and then he explains in the chorus "I am a liar! I'll tear your mind out! I'll burn your soul", and near the end he tries to plea he'll never lie again, only to go "Ha ha! Sucker". A bit mean maybe, but also a reflection of how relationships can turn out, and the finger is on the pulse, and that's what makes it mean a lot for me. "Step Back" is brutal, and while "Volume 4" seems quiet, underneath there's a definite sense of unease which makes it slightly vulnerable at the same time. Two full on Rollins rockers end the whole thing with "Alien Blueprint" and the excellent almost funk-metal "Shine" which is infectiously catchy. The dynamics of Chris Haskett's guitar and Sim Cain's bass really add depth and dimension to the whole feeling, and If you've seen Rollins's shows and have wondered about him as a recording artist, then this album is a great place to start and understand just why he is the mixed media alternative hero that many people see in him.
3 - Hips and Makers - Kristin Hersh (4AD CAD4002CD, 1994)
Tracks: Your Ghost / Beestung / Teeth / Sundrops / Sparky / Houdini Blues / A Loon / Velvet Days / Close Your Eyes / Me and My Charms / Tuesday Night / The Letter / Lurch / Cuckoo / Hips and Makers
Doing a solo album after so many years of being in a band is pretty daunting stuff. However, the divine Kristin Hersh abandoned the gutsy electricism that made Throwing Muses pretty individual and went for the more acoustic route, resulting in a perfect dark-folky album that simply has to be listened late at night for best effect. Even without vocals from REM's Michael Stipe, "Your Ghost" is haunting and melodic, Jane Scarpantoni's cellos adding to the atmosphere of late night and being alone. "Beestung" is so luscious, with pianos leading the way in a beautifully simply melody that envelops the cello and violin so nicely. "Sundrops" is fast, acoustic, and always seems to be intimately associated with Kristin's wordplay due to its intensity. "A Loon" is a song of two parts, an almost angry Kristin in the first part, giving way to a soft acoustic melody in the second. "Velvet Days" is one of the most beautiful songs you'll ever hear from an acoustic guitar with its soft vocals, "Close Your Eyes" is raw emotion, and half way through when she sings "Stop! You ruined all my memories" you can feel the lump in the throat almost developing, her voice almost giving out as she sings that she can't breathe. "The Letter" is complex and describes a letter in intimate detail, you can almost feel her rolling about on the floor giving out her emotions as the song builds, and ends in that awful teenage style, which is a witty clever touch. Add to that a little traditional reworking of "Cuckoo" ending with the title track sounding like a brass band despite there being none there, it's really intimate. The whole album is full of raw emotions, melodies and songs that are intelligent, thoughful and really place you in a picture inside Kristin's complex lyrics.
4 - Unknown Pleasures - Joy Division (Factory FACT10, 1979)
Tracks: Disorder / Day of the Lords / Candidate / Insight / New Dawn Fades / She's Lost Control / Shadowplay / Wilderness / Interzone / I Remember Nothing
It goes to show how much of an influence Joy Division had on the whole Manchester music scene when many of today's contemporaries have felt inspired by them in some way. Even today, New Order still play some of their former band's songs live, a testimony to their greatness. For me, this is the best debut album of all time, no question and the whole essence of alternative music can be summed up in many of the tracks here. Although it sometimes feels uncomfortable listening, there's always the comfortable inside at the same time. On the original vinyl, there's the outside and the inside, and in many ways this adds to the aura of mystique. From the dark mysterious opener of "Disorder" you know you're listening to genius, with textures of cleverly worked synthesizer over the top of guitars. "Day of the Lords" is a slow, brooding epic, broken only by Ian Curtis' almost emotional sense in the lyrics. "New Dawn Fades" is pure excellence at work, with the introduction giving way to a moody Peter Hook guitar that even then sounded trademarked throughout. Once the song gets going, you can feel the raw emotion and the whole sense of desparate late 70s Britain in there, puncutated by the rawness of Curtis. Then, the almost synth like death disco of "She's Lost Control", an almost self-exorcism of Curtis' epileptic condition done in such a tense and raw way, the clever use of electronics giving that sense of ambience of being at a party or a club, with the lead line throughout sounding so desparate. And "Shadowplay" is again deep, dark and tense at the same time, and often played by Moby now in between songs to tune up his bass (fact). But nothing can prepare you for the sheer perfection of the album closer, "I Remember Nothing", the almost ambient beginning brought to a halt by the sound of breaking glass, with the smell of suspense and death coming through as the lyrics make their way through. An album of pure greatness, and one that has stood the test of time as a true bona fide classic.
5 - The Queen Is Dead - The Smiths (Rough Trade ROUGHCD96, 1986)
Tracks: The Queen Is Dead / Frankly Mr. Shankly / I Know It's Over / Never Had No One Ever / Cemetry Gates / Bigmouth Strikes Again / The Boy With The Thorn In His Side / Vicar In A Tutu / There Is A Light That Never Goes Out / Some Girls Are Biggers Than Others
It's hard to pick one Smiths album above another, indeed Meat Is Murder came close if only for the title track, but for consistency throughout, this just about shades it. Morrissey and Marr never sounded better together, and after the intro part of "Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty", being a music hall song, breaks away to the shimmering beauty of the guitars and Morrissey's vocals in the title track, clearly shows the intelligence and throughfulness, almost describing the isolation the Royal family really have. The insight of "I Know It's Over" was for many a song to play when they broke up with their partner, as "I climb into an empty bed, oh well, enough said" being succinct but to the point. And yet there's hope in the fact he sings "It takes guts to be gentle and kind" something many of us should take note and remember. "Cemetry Gates" is almost fasincation with the literary dead greats but also something shared by those who have an interest in who they were, what they were about, and it's almost perfect pop over the top. "Bigmouth Strikes Again" is absolute genius surely showing that sometimes one wrong sentence of a few words can be so costly. "Now I know how Joan of Arc felt", he sung, "I've got no right to take my place in the human race" clearly showing the desparation inside. "Vicar In A Tutu" mentions the Holy Name Church, which does exist (for those who live in Manchester, look across from the road from Manchester Academy, it's there) and the beautiful sentiments that are contained within "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out" are perfection itself, "If a double decker bus crashes into us, tonight by your side is such a heavenly way to die", showing how much you can love someone and what you'd do for them, cleverly juxtpoased by the clever intimate wordplay of Morrissey. "Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others" is all the song is about, really. Really intelligent thoughtful pop music that shows you don't have to drop your wit to make great songs.
6 - Green - R.E.M. (Warner Brothers 925 795 -2, 1988)
Tracks: Pop Song 89 / Get Up / You Are The Everything / Stand / World Leader Pretend / The Wrong Child / Orange Crush / Turn You Inside Out / Hairshirt / I Remember California / (The Eleventh Untitled Song)
For me, REM peaked at their best with this album, as it still maintained their more moodier darker element present from earlier albums, but also at the same time had a pop and rock edge that even today they haven't managed to surpass. "Pop Song 89" is a great pop song, with effective lyrics and gentle melody being succinct and perfection in just three minutes, "Hi!" being the key word. "You Are The Everything" has a night feel to it, especially with the humming of birds throughout, with the gentle mandolin and acoustics that echo throughout, it adds depth to the song. "Stand" is one of those songs that every indie disco should play, it's infectiously catchy and makes you just want to jump along to the song (remember folks, your head is there to move you around!), followed by the almost damning "World Leader Pretend" being almost like leader of the world but also confessional into making mistakes, knocking down walls etc. "Orange Crush" refers to Vietnam or any other form of warfare, with clever use of helicopters in the background, as the conscience is thrown overseas. "Turn You Inside Out" has often by referred to as another environmental anthem, with Stipe in his live shows stating about how much he hates Exxon Corporation in reference. "I Remember California" is almost desparate sounding, and really harks back to the darker side of REM I wish we'd hear more of, how California used to be, and how history is made to seem unfair. This almost dark desparation then gives way to the final track. Eh? It's not listed on the back of the CD cover. Ah, this is the serene beauty of "(The Eleventh Untitled Song)" which after all the desparation turns into hope and joy and although it seems such a simple melody there's oodles of optimism and warmth and feeling, keeping you strong as the song says. A perfect end to their best album.
7 - This Is The Day, This Is The Hour, This Is This! - Pop Will Eat Itself (RCA PD74106, 1989)
Tracks: PWEI Is A Four Letter Word / Preaching to the Perverted / Wise Up! Sucker / Sixteen Different Flavours of Hell / Inject Me / Can U Dig It? / The Fuses Have Been Lit / Poison to the Mind / Def Con One / Radio PWEI / Shortwave Transmission on "Up To The Minuteman Nine" / Satellite Ecstatica / Not Now James, We're Busy / Wake Up! Time To Die / Wise Up! Sucker 12" Youth Mix (CD only)
This album really almost defines genre classification. Was it grebo? Was it rap? Was it dance? Actually, a very clever combination of the three, with themes throughout of spoken word lyrics, occasional guitars, beats, loops and samples. And yet despite this collage, it all works perfectly, segued together and sounding most professional. From the shortness of "PWEI is a Four Letter Word" to the self-depreciating humour of "Preaching to the Perverted", follows the killer - "Wise Up! Sucker", three words through a megaphone, belted out with furious pace and bpm to match almost contrasted by one of the lyrics being the next song title, churning out funky rhythms. "Inject Me" is almost an anti-drug song in content, but beaten together by a sampled beat. Can U Dig It is pure pop excellence, with the basis of the song on whom PWEI dig to be hip and trendy, with hints of their comic book childhood, film favourites and musical friends in there. "Def Con One", remixed from their 1988 single, sounds more tight but has that beat throughout along with a massive chunk of samples from the theme to "The Twilight Zone" (hence the fact Lalo Schifrin is duly credited with songwriting credits) and a guitar riff reminscent of "I Wanna Be Your Dog" by the Stooges during the chorus. "Satellite Ecstatica" and "Wake Up! Time To Die" almost deal with cyber-culture in a way, looking into the future, with Wake Up! Time to Die almost dealing in homelessness and alcoholism at the same time. Sandwiched in between is "Not Now James, We're Busy" which samples James Brown and in the song has him on the run from the police, completely insane but dealt with at a furious pace. Ironic that years later, OJ Simpson's car chase would be eerily close to the lyrics in this one. You won't hear an album like this ever again, on the pulse and at the same time a clever collage of genres.
8 - The Fragile - Nine Inch Nails (Island CIDD8091/halo fourteen, 1999)
Tracks: Somewhat Damaged / The Day The Whole World Went Away / The Frail / The Wretched / We're In This Together / The Fragile / Just Like You Imagined / Even Deeper / Pilgrimage / No You Don't / La Mer / The Great Below / The Way Out Is Through / Into The Void / Where Is Everybody? / The Mark Has Been Made / Please / Starfuckers Inc. / Complication / I'm Looking Forward To Joining You Finally / The Big Come Down / Underneath It All / Ripe (With Decay)
Two CDs or three LPs might seem a monolith of an album, and you're not wrong. However, all that's truly great about Nine Inch Nails simply come together in this dense, sprawling, broody, almost desparate and self-confessional epic. Epic is the only real word you can use for 100 minutes plus of moodiness. The whole album is almost one long story too, with the "left" side being an intriguing opening with the loudness of "Somewhat Damaged" offset by "The Day The World Went Away". In a way this is almost development of the quiet bit loud bit Pixies ethic, but more grandiose. "The Frail"'s weakness gives way to "The Wretched"'s industrial darkness, offset by a wonderfully melodic piano which although seems wrong is so right too. "We're In This Together" is so dark, so dense, but also a sense of optimism and hope and really emotional - Trent Reznor's best song. Later on "Pilgrimage" sounds just like something from Quake III on the PC, the beauty of "La Mer" gives way to the dark drum beat that eventually envelopes the whole instrumnetal, leading to the broody moodiness of "The Great Below" that concludes the left side. The right side starts where the left left off, "Into The Void" borrowing chunks from "La Mer" and then developing some beats and Industrialism as the tune progresses. "Where Is Everybody?" is pure 1989 "Pretty Hate Machine" Nine Inch Nails and is so dense electonically, and later we get to "Starfuckers Inc." which is pure 1994 "The Downward Spiral"-esque, almost self-descriptive about Marilyn Manson at that time, but the chorus belted out by Trent and choir (including Clint Mansell from PWEI above) really shows the depth of feeling. And then, almost more self-confessional stuff as in "I'm Looking Forward To Joining You, Finally" he speaks with forthrightness about death, and that seems to echo itself in "Underneath It All", almost self-loathing, giving way to the dark, edgy end of "Ripe (With Decay)". At times tough, at times self-descriptive, and at times emotional, it's one of those overlooked albums. And you have to listen to it all for it to make sense, which is its beauty despite some saying that was its downfall.
9 - Stormcock - Roy Harper (Harvest SHVL 789, 1971)
Tracks: Hors D'Ouevres / The Same Old Rock / One Man Rock and Roll Band / Me and My Woman
Many people say this album was Roy's finest, and I have to agree.
There are only four lengthy tracks on the whole album, but in those four
tracks are insight, melody and above all else excellent use of acoustic
guitars for the most part. "Hors D'Ouevres" is really simple,
the long verses are just one or two bars of acoustics perfectly blended
with Roy's vocals, criticising the whole judge and critic system in
a way. You can of course lead a horse to water, but never make him drink,
he states, later explaining the critic rubs his arse, strains, farts etc.
Really deep stuff, followed by The Same Old Rock. What seems a simple acoustic
exercise builds up into an absolute epic, added in depth by the guest musician
S.Flavius Mercurius, actually Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin in disguise, especially
during the last two minutes as the song brings forth to a dramatic climax.
One Man Rock and Roll Band is thus, with Roy even punctuating the end with
a single low piano note which echoes throughout the final minute, with the
whole song based on a singer who has come back from the war, returns to
his old playing spot, but in terms of emotional and mentality, everyone
seems deadened by the whole war experience. Deep thoughts throughout which
gives way to the thirteen minute Me and My Woman. Although basically seemingly
a love song, the intimate use of strings orchestrated by David Bedford surely
sense of depth and atmosphere. Although on the vinyl you can go to any of the five parts as such, the whole thing sounds better listening to the whole thing, going through the whole sense of emotion and yet despair at the same time as it develops into a moody serene finale. For that alone, it's worth checking out just to see how really to carry an acoustic song with strings and make it sound innovative. Superb.
10 - Violent Femmes - Violent Femmes (Slash SLMP15, 1983)
Tracks: Blister in the Sun / Kiss Off / Please Do Not Go / Add It Up / Confessions / Prove My Love / Promise / To The Kill / Gone Daddy Gone / Good Feeling
Many an 80s student will have been born and raised on this album, and the really blissful yet warm melodic sense throughout. What makes it wonderful though is the clever use of wordplay along with the almost immediacy of the whole record. "Blister in the Sun" is clearly a most dark metaphor about masturbation, not exactly a politically correct subject back in 1983 but dealt with so cleverly it's not obvious on first listen. "Please Do Not Go" is such lovely simple acoustics blended nicely into a little love song about how you don't want your lover to leave for someone else, and you're almost crying as you plead "please, please please do not go" in the chorus. "Add It Up", a true indie dancefloor classic, is deserved status, especially when you consider that once it gets going, the whole thing deals with frustration and how you can't get just one kiss, just one screw, just one fuck and at the same time "Something won't let me make love to you". And later on it details the gentle drama building up to the almost panicky "Don't shoot that thing at me" lyric. The whole thing sounds like it was recorded in the bedroom and that just adds to the immediacy. Sublime. "Prove My Love" is just immediate with even the bands' humour in there, third verse, same as the first, they proclaim, so you can happily sing along, it has that sort of quality. "Gone Daddy Gone" is bittersweet, with the best use of xylophone on a record ever, almost taking the lead as the desparation of the love going away heightens throughout, especially during the middle part. Perfect. And to end things on a lovely note, "Good Feeling" which simply for me describes that happy feeling we sometimes aspire to, and how we wish it'd stay with us, especially for those of who've had long distance relationships. Late night student listening - essential.