Today is the very first National Album Day, whereby the nation is invited at precisely 3:33pm to sit back and listen to their favourite album in full. As such we decided to take an indulging, retrospective trip into our favourite albums, which on the whole has an air of nostalgia.
Houses of the Holy, Led Zeppelin‘s fifth LP release, certainly did not go unnoticed back in 1973 with several number 1 spots in several countries, but it brought a more refined sound to the band’s repertoire, tapping on other genres than the blues rock Led Zeppelin were renowned for. And with that sleeve, how could you forget that sleeve? It certainly was the first thing that brought the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland to my attention, and such an iconic piece of artwork, one which occurs to me as soon as you utter the words Led Zeppelin.
This album was a stylistic turning point for the band, the composition and production used on the album set a precedence for further releases. According to the band’s biographer Dave Lewis, “while the barnstorming effect of the early era was now levelling off, and though devoid of the electricity of Zeppelin I and II, the sheer diversity of the third album, and lacking the classic status of the fourth, Houses of the Holy nevertheless found its rightful niche.” Reggae and psychedelic music along with pop ballads and funk were all to be found on this record, which made the entire product wonderfully diverse.
The Rain Song hits me with it’s sheer poignancy, The Song Remains The Same is punchy and contemplative simultaneously, Over The Hills And Far Away brushes more with folk-music whereas The Crunge has more soulful elements to it. And yet, you still have the likes of Dancing Days if you are craving what we all know they are good at and No Quarter for their more psychedelic, hazey instrumental. In fact, it is hardly surprising this album climbed so far up the charts, there is much to appeal to a vast crowd, as well as their fans. This LP never tires with age, if anything else, I discover something I had not previous, the music rich, layered and eclectic.
Although my taste in music changes hourly and often classic albums I used to love mean nothing years later there are a handful I’d classify as favourites. One of these is Alice In Chains’ Dirt: A haunting, miserable yet infinitely beautiful record.
I remember when it came out and while my peers were still riding the Seattle grunge-wave of Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and NIrvana I fell in love with Dirt. Alice In Chains were a complex beast – well, their lead singer Layne Staley was a complex beast. His tragic, yet inevitable, tale is etched into the band like Ritchie of the Manics, or Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots (Purple, by the way, would also make a list of my favourite albums).
Lyrically Alice in Chains were drenched in despair with Layne’s drug use and obsession with death the forefront of every song. Self critical but defiant. At the time I was a teenager and also going through a heavy depression, I remember when I fell in love with the album. It’s on the second verse of Dirt where he sings “I want to taste dirty, a stinging pistol in my mouth, on my tongue. I want you to scrape me from the walls, and go crazy. Like you’ve made me.” The deliberate cruelty of using his death as a weapon to hurt someone else really captured my imagination. As a selfish teenager I thought being so spiteful was brilliant.
Still though, amongst all of this the music is beautiful. The vocal harmonies is where Alice in Chains excel, lifting the songs so they don’t sound miserable. Layne’s voice is a revelation on each track with a particular highlight being how he warbles his voice on God Smack.
Every moment of Dirt is a masterpiece yet it is also a sign of how it would all end.
Daniela Orvin is a classically-trained musician and lens-based artist with dual heritage between Germany and Israel. She’s made work for the Jewish museum in Berlin and founded artist-run photography spaces as well as working with children on community arts projects. This album, Home, is released on Seasides on Postcards, which Orvin is instrumental in. The label released the accomplished dub techno release from M.Rahn, Paradise is Closed, and whilst Orvin’s is a piano-based release, it too sails through a dubby mist.
It begins like a documentary recording of piano practice before falling quickly into piano-dub as the verité moments dissolve. There’s the lulling of rich, well produced synthscapes over two tracks which refine a four chord sequence into bare bass tones. It seems welcoming to begin with this soft hypnogogic entrée. What follows is a nice union of repetition with development on a journey into an emotive sci-fi landscape with warm and nostalgic shades, a little 1980s Eastern European film score here. ?It’s tender music of warmth and empathy – and I don’t think it’s too much of a leap to state the feeling of ‘self-care’ arises.
As this sequence draws to a close, some ASMR-like elements and delicate electronics flirt with the stereo field, which bookend this first movement of the record, as if winding up this particular window on the studio.Through spikier shards of top-end piano and decisive chords, alongside complimentary insect-like jittering, female vocals emerge, presumably Orivin’s, which remind me a little of Jóhan Jóhannsson’s Arrival score, and I can hear the sea or perhaps white noise being filtered and cut off. Silence.
And then we are dramatically above the clouds as the dubscapes return. We haven’t left. This track For Now, is the standout moment for me. A gentle clock ticks across my speakers while plaintive vocal loops circle and dance. And it keeps going, developing nicely into a beautiful well thought-out work that, at the end, wouldn’t sound of out place on a Sigur Ros release and certainly Jónsi and Alex releases. Next, we move into Science of Sea territory next, if you can remember Jürgen Müller’s release a few years back with what sounds like a little analogue modelling going on, resonant of Luke Abbot’s early modular work.
Here now, Orvin deftly plays the piano is if it were a harp. Her piano may be electronic, but it’s a capable sound and suits the electronics and treatment surrounding it, which is polished and human from the fast dancing fingering here and it’s the last lively movement on the CD. The final two tracks return to a little field recording, here, of city rain, with a composition which would sit very comfortably on an Erased Tapes release. It’s called 18:00 on My Balcony. It also reminded me a little of Michael Nyman’s slower music from End of The Affair which also has a rain theme. Or it could be influenced perhaps by the achingly sad Nyman piece Molly from the score of Wonderland – or none of these elements of course!
The last track on the album is very much it’s own thing, and begins as if John Carpenter made Assault of Precinct 13 as a love story without darkness, and it builds into a sonorous mix of euphoric synthwork blasting away anything that has happened before.We’ve arrived very much at the end of the film where it’s less about fitting into a particular genre, and more about orchestrating and elevating the day above the minutiae of it. What is more it’s nice to hear electronic music with a heart and dare I say it, a bit of kindness and this definitely has both. A lovely release.
People always scoff when I suggest that never has band evolved its sound so radically and repeatedly as Simple Minds in their first few years. None since and perhaps only the Beatles previously. As prolific as they were creative, no more than two and a half years elapsed between the band’s debut and their fourth album, Sons and Fascination (and fifth if we include its ‘sibling’ Sister Feelings Call).
Their first offering for Virgin, it also proved to be the last to feature the original line up. Having recently signed to the record label, they were holed up in a flat in Edinburgh’s New Town where songs were sketched out prior to being recorded down South.
With increased success and a growing budget, Steve Hillage of Gong was afforded for production. Notably he has audibly imparted on Charlie Burchill his signature guitar loop sound prevalent throughout the album as is a Krautrock train beat on Brian McGee’s last outing for the band. By now Simple Minds had toured Europe extensively as apparent by the album’s influences, already heralded by its predecessor Empires and Dance.
Starting with Derek Forbes’ muscular bassline, In Trance as Mission ushers us into a journey throughout cold metallic soundscapes which build momentum and shift in tempo. Lead singles Love Song and Sweat in Bullet (along with The American from Sisters) may have flirted with the fringes of the Top fifty but 70 Cities as Love Brings the Fall is the tour de force. Mick MacNeil’s multi-layered synth is woven so ornately as to be tricky to discern its melodies’ overlapping progress.
Jim Kerr’s vocal style conveys more confidence than earlier recordings and carries a sense of stateliness or even foreboding. Lyrics which sound profound while meaning little, poetry preferred to the politics which would soon dominate the band’s manifesto over the remainder of their career. Seeing out the Angel sees out the album although, Sisters continues the story and complements it beautifully.
The powerful dynamic theme of this pair of albums is reflected throughout the sleeves’ artwork of stark abstract squares and stylistic photographs. Ghostly images of the band and designer’s Malcolm Garret’s own collection of American automobiles are backdropped by the distinctive roofline of New Covent Garden flower market, still visible from the train out of Vauxhall. Ambition in motion.
This may be the best album you’ve never heard of. Martin Grech’s 2002 album, Open Heart Zoo, is a towering cathedral of sound blending almost operatic vocals, thrash guitar and sweet melodies. But don’t let that put you off. It is a lush, unsettling, angry and moving record overflowing with ideas and gear changes (encapsulated in the stunning track Penicillin). I go back to OHZ regularly and always find something new – surely the mark of a great album, a true masterpiece.
In July 1992, as an eager teen, I went to Alton Towers to watch an ebullient James celebrate achieving peak “Madchester” by bounding through the catalogue of air-punching baggy anthems they’d laid down to that date such as Born of Frustration, Come Home and, inevitably, Sit Down. I’ll unashamedly admit that the aforementioned eager teen was utterly delighted with the whole thing.
Just a year later, the band’s next full-length release, Laid, was startling in the stark sonic contrast it presented to what we’d heard during that grand day out at the theme park. Gone were the chiming power-chords, shuffling Amen breaks and acrobatic yodelling, to be replaced with a shadowy, crepuscular and altogether more introspective affair.
A palpable sense of the dark warmly envelopes this album, illuminated only by opaque pools of acoustic candlelight. Shimmering, barely-there guitar refrains intertwine with creeping brushed percussion, frequently evoking a restrained – but only just – feeling of quiet menace. Vocalist Tim Booth rarely stretches his renowned six-octave range to its extremes, choosing instead to ease himself comfortably into a subdued and reedy tenor.
Brian Eno is famously given the album’s production credit, but he effectively joined the band for these sessions, lending both musicianship and backing vocals as he led his new cohorts into a dimly-lit recording studio at midnight to capture them improvising long, somnambulistic jam sessions – allowing the tapes to roll continuously into the small hours – extracting the most promising passages from the tapes as they emerged and asking the musicians to join him one-by-one in an adjoining studio to fashion them into finished songs.
For a long time afterwards, Eno would state that his favourite of all the recording projects he’d ever been involved in was this one.
And the producer’s enthusiasm for this work is well-placed, reflected in the glassy, trembling undulations of Dream Thrum, the heightening malevolence that builds throughout Five-O, and the translucent, reverberating layers of strings and slide guitars of P. S.
There are missteps. The title track, despite in itself being a brilliantly saucy pop single that quickly became a bona-fide indie club classic, harks back to the James of that Alton Towers show, and jars awkwardly with the tone of the rest of the album. As does Low Low Low; inserted under protest only after the record label demanded one more upbeat track. It was knocked off in a hurry, and sounds like it.
Those tracks, though, can easily be skipped, leaving a suite of varying shades of somberness that leads the listener on a hypnotic journey through an enigmatic and caliginous sensual landscape, and which set one particularly eager teenager, who a year earlier had been partying gleefully in that crowd at Alton Towers, on a path toward appreciating ever more experimental, nuanced and accomplished music.
Before he went all MAGA and Samaritans started raising an eyebrow or two, Kanye West was the enfant terrible of rap. He probably even described himself as such, pretentious douche that he is. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is undoubtedly his finest effort, and will be long after he’s the broke Dancing With The Stars contestant who used to be married to a woman who wouldn’t be famous if OJ Simpson didn’t have rage issues. This showcases everything that made him the genius he once was: the huge sound, the stream-of-consciousness flows about everything from being in love, to Obama, to being the biggest d**k in the room – that is an innuendo as well as a description of Runaway – and his ability to be a sly chronicler of how fame corrupts (“She told the director she trying to get into school/He said ‘take them glasses off and get in the pool'”) whilst also being the biggest example of such. Before Masseduction and A Deeper Understanding, this is the last album I can remember feeling excited about, the feints towards high art that came with the opulent thirty minute promo video piquing my interest, and sure enough the songs were and are incredible to listen to. All Of The Lights, for example, isn’t content with sounding like a fireworks display and roping in Rihanna, Alicia Keys, Fergie, Elly Jackson, Drake, John Legend and Kid Cudi: it then adds to a production so committed to maximalism that Elton John shows up, presumably because the sound of an actual kitchen sink being thrown into the studio would have been odd. Add in a supporting cast of Jay-Z, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, Chris Rock and – in the unexpected high watermark of the album – an eviscerating Nicki Minaj, and anyone exploring this album for the first time has got a sublime and wonderfully eccentric listen ahead of them.
Unfortunately, his music since has been wan and self-obsessed, a far cry from the introspective final track here – although as that track samples Gil Scott-Heron’s Comment No. 1, a spoken word piece about the experience of African-Americans alienated from their own culture, perhaps it was also a warning of exactly how divisive Yeezy would become.
Released on their frontman’s 29th birthday in October 1979, Damn the Torpedoes proved to be Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ breakthrough album and, for many years, was considered to be the masterpiece of their back catalogue. Known for featuring their hit songs Refugee, Here Comes My Girl, Even the Losers and Don’t Do Me Like That, it reached number 2 in the Billboard Album chart and remained in the same spot for seven weeks, only being kept off the top spot by Pink Floyd’s The Wall. It would remain their biggest album until 2014’s Hypnotic Eye, which reached the top spot, and also proved to be the band’s swansong following Petty’s sudden death in 2017. But, for all its accolades, Damn the Torpedoes almost never saw the light of day following a number of legal troubles.
The band had signed to Shelter Records in 1976, and their first two albums – their eponymous debut and sophomore effort You’re Gonna Get It! – were both released on that label. However, in 1979 Shelter was bought over by MCA Records, along with its artist roster. Petty tried to get out of the deal, which led to MCA suing him, and him ultimately being forced to file for bankruptcy to get his way. To compromise, MCA signed the band to Backstreet Records, one of their subsidiary labels, and Damn the Torpedoes was released to critical acclaim, eventually going triple platinum. It was also the first of four albums by the band to be produced by Jimmy Iovine, who had previously worked with Bruce Springsteen, Meatloaf and Patti Smith, and later founded Interscope Records.
The album has a solid opener in Refugee, with then-drummer Stan Lynch’s crashing percussive lead-in before the rest of the band – pianist Benmont Tench, lead guitarist Mike Campbell and bassist Ron Blair – kick off the opening riff, with the song being topped off by the nasal snarl of Petty’s lead vocals. It only gets better from here on in – as well as the aforementioned hit singles, deep cuts such as Shadow of a Doubt (A Complex Kid), What Are You Doin’ In My Life? and closer Louisiana Rain help to flesh out a classic album. On a personal level, it’s an absolute favourite of mine and has been since I was a teenager. Even considering it’s almost forty years old at the time of writing it still sounds as raw and fresh as ever.
At the intersection of my favourite albums and the ones I think are objectively ‘best’ sits an elite few. The Cure’s Disintegration, for one. Tom Waits’s Rain Dogs, too. Idlewild’s The Remote Part sways too close to the former to be picked, even though seeing it performed in its entirety last year was a religious experience.
So it’s the maddening, abrasive, seductive, hopeless The Downward Spiral (TDS).
Following on from the synthpop Pretty Hate Machine – via the Broken EP teaser – TDS is a personal and existential confusion, encapsulating the nihilism of the early 90s without sacrificing timelessness; it still sounds like a crisis of confidence gone too far in 2018.
Generation X were simultaneously privileged and lost, benefitting from a booming economy while overstimulated by MTV and the American Dream. Trent Reznor’s star was rising, and rather than wait for audiences to dictate the fall, he descended into an introspective, drug-fuelled mania. From Mr. Self Destruct to Hurt, TDS charts cynicism through aggression and sex and drugs to a tragic end.
Which ultimately makes it cathartic. The world is still on fire, and our mental healths are tortured by social media and an ill-equipped health service. TDS is an eternal flame of kinetic emotion, unforgiving but understanding of its listeners. It could easily have become impenetrable, but Reznor takes you with him on his journey, permitting Nine Inch Nails fans to let it all out.
Turmoil rules the world, socially, politically, mentally. TDS allows us to stop trying to make sense of it and indulge in some unbridled ecstasy of decadence. When there is so much hate, I thank Reznor for something that dispels my negative emotions by letting them breathe and letting them go.
For more on National Album Day click here.