Three years ago I thought about my Desert Island Discs. Now, in the post-Christmas, pre-Funeral lull, I turn my thoughts to the whole album which has meant so much to me, the LPs which I would wade into the surf to rescue…
You can tell a lot about people from their all-time top albums: not least how old they are.
The most important thing to remember as you draw judgement on my crass and sentimental list of favourite albums is that these are not the best albums ever made in my life, but the five that meant the most to me – records which got me through it all, which provided the soundtrack to my life and which were worn out my incessant playing (because all of these were vinyl, with the notable exception of One Trick Pony which was on cassette tape). It might have easily been just Bowie albums, but I have limited it to one per artist and with a couple of notable exceptions none are compilations (the Stevie Wonder album was made up of older hits, but he re-recorded them so wonderfully, it is a work of art in its own right). When I starting thinking about this list, it was a top 5, but I couldn’t stop there…
In (as they say) no particular order, the soundtrack of my life:
David Bowie – “Heroes”
Why this and no other? Why not the sublime Low or Lodger? Could I not have all three as an indivisible trilogy? No. This was the best of the Berlin albums made by Bowie/Eno. From the anthemic title track (in full, in English, for many years he started at the second verse, and it missed a lot of the melancholy as a result), to the bleak Neukoln or Sense of Doubt to my all-time favourite – the Secret Life of Arabia, this album was the quintessential Bowie. Reduced to tears in the rain one night listening to the bleak second side whilst waiting for my girlfriend, this incredible piece of music summed up being 17. My Bowie obsession was cemented with this album and it continues to this day. The fact that The Next Day features that iconic photo all but blocked out makes me very happy indeed. Bowie is back. Hail Bowie.
Update: Bowie never went away. His death in 2016 was momentous, and following what would possibly be his best album ever: Blackstar was just awesome, and made me revisit every album, every single, every bootleg I own (and believe me, that’s a lot.) but no, Heroes it is. Heroes it shall ever be. My absolute favourite album of all time, of all artists.
Paul Simon – One Trick Pony
You probably weren’t expecting this from me… surely something hipper, something more seminal or important; well, to me, this beautifully written, wonderfully played soundtrack album is unhesitatingly in this list. Its slightly wistful air and chokey rhythms moved me so at the time and still do. Late in the Evening still gets my heart racing with its latin beat and the best ever song to finish the day with is the closer It’s been a long, long day. You can look down on me if you want to, but we all have to look up to the best American poet, ever.
Led Zeppelin – II
Riffs forged on tour, stolen from great bluesmen from the past (and even stealing their writing credits), laid down with maximum effect. Yes, we all know Whole Lotta Love, but it is Ramble On, What is and what should never be and of course my favourite, the obscene Lemon Song which makes this album. Played late at night on rubbish headphones to maximise the very rudimentary stereo, this is my early music obsession. There were better, later albums from Led Zep, but this one was the breakthrough for me – about the second or third album I ever bought and I still love it. If I could peep through the bedroom door now, and spy on the 12 year old, standing in front of the mirror pretending to be (alternately) Jimmy Page or Robert Plant (or in his own mind a strange hybrid multitalented version of the two), I wonder what I would think: embarrassed? proud? bemused? Probably all three – bless ‘im, if only he realised he’d only ever learn 4 chords on a real guitar.
Various Artists – Pillows and Prayers
“Pay no more than 99p” this sampler from Indie label (when Indie labels were real labels making music independently and not just self-indulgent fronts for big business) did what it said on the tin and introduced me to bands and artists I had never heard of, to music which enthralled me and many of whom subsequently sank without trace. Yes, Everything but the Girl were there as well as Ben and Tracy in solo form, a wonderful bon mot from Quentin Crisp and a poem by Attila the Stockbroker that even now I can recite by heart (which shows that Slam Poetry is fundamentally a punk thing). It was balanced, it was beautiful and I must have snogged a dozen girls with this playing in the background. Best 99p ever spent, I reckon.
Stevie Wonder – Original Musicquarium
The best songs he ever wrote (before all that schmaltzy rubbish about calling to say he loved you and happy birthday and so on). This is how a Greatest Hits should be – a complete re-recording of your hits, with new insights, new orchestrations, latest production values, and wonderful songs: Boogie On Reggae Woman, Living in the City and many many more. Sublime.
Van Morrison – Astral Weeks
I have a particular weakness for albums and songs which are coiled tight with emotion: Led Zep’s Lemon Song, Alanis Morrisette’s You Oughta Know and Van Morrison’s Sweet Thing are classic examples of these. This whole album is tighter than my son’s wallet, with beautiful songs of love and loss which could go on forever. Indeed, once I was listening to a CD of it and during the exqusite Madam George it kept skipping, but here’s the thing – I didn’t notice! The same riff and line kept playing over and over again, and I was still happily listening to it about 20 mins later. I will always love this record.
Rolf Harris – Sun Arise
Yeah, I know. Operation Yewtree and all that… Well, firstly innocent until proven guilty and secondly, what I thought as a five-year-old in 1972 was very different to now. This is a wonderful 1962 comedy album, with songs which I still perform at Church cabaret evenings. Simply and cheaply made, this is mid-60s musical comedy at its best. It makes me laugh and both I and my children know every single word on it. Nick O’Teen and Al K. Hall is a masterpiece. People seem to conveniently forget what Eric Gill was like and concentrate on his fonts and engravings, maybe we should do that for Rolf…
UPDATE: This was written in 2013, before his conviction. I have had to drop performances from my cabaret routine. However, I’m not deleting my comments or my inclusion of this album because, like Eric Gill, a person is more complex than that. I don’t listen to it anymore, but it was at the time very important to me.
Delirious? – King of Fools
The only clearly Christian album in this list, and without doubt the best from Delirious? They were desperate to make the mainstream and never quite did, tried to be a bit too hip when they were a bit too old, but this album catches them at their zenith: beautiful songs, catchy rhythms and at its heart the articulation of one who has come to know Jesus. It spoke to me so loudly when I first heard it.
Magazine – Secondhand Daylight
Overplayed. Over-obscure. Rhythm of your Cruelty is possibly the best song ever written. Ever. The sparse production reminded me of Bowie. The fact you could play it to girls who’d never heard of it and then spend hours trying to understand what on earth Howard Devoto was trying to mean… I loved it. Whenever this comes round around on the random playlist I am filled with nostalgia and excitement. I will never be 16 again, but this whole album brings me right back to the Permafrost…
What? No Joy Division? No Paddy Roberts? No REM? No … thing after 1997? Yeah, there are lots of great albums out there, lots of things worth listening to, lots of better songs and better production values. However, these are the ones that I loved and like the purpose of Desert Island Discs, aren’t there to show how hip or connected you are, but what has had a musical impact on your life. I am currently playing to death the latest Lorde album Pure Heroine, and keep coming back to Bowie’s 2013 comeback The Next Day but these (even Bowie tbh) will never make the classic canon of music which moved my soul: from one place to another.
This list isn’t hip… it’s just me.