The List – Part 1: 100-76
100. Art Brut
Years active: 2000s-10s
Five to start you off: “Formed a Band”, “My Little Brother”, “Bang Bang Rock and Roll”, “DC Comics and Chocolate Milkshake”, “The Replacements”
Comment: During the 00s, it felt like indie bands came in two forms: pseudo-post-punk / new wave a la The Strokes or Franz Ferdinand and pseudo-psychedelic a la Arcade Fire or The Flaming Lips. Both varieties felt decidedy limp-wristed to me: castrated music for the millennials to drink milk to. Of all of them, Art Brut are the ones who have left a lasting impression. It feels like it punctures through the BS of a scene that was never that far away from tripping over its own shoelaces. Bang, Bang Rock and Roll (2005) sets the basic template: fairly straight-forward post-punk numbers undercut by Eddie Argos’s stubbornly English, always tongue-in-cheek, half-sung, half-spoken vocals. Art Brut delightfully make a mockery of attempts to be cool in that 00s indie scene, and remind me a little bit of Jilted John, who did much the same thing in 1978 with the glorious and much-underrated True Love Stories. Also, “I’ve seen her naked … TWICE!” is one of the great one-liners.
99. Girl Talk
Genre: Mash-up, Hip-hop
Five to start you off: “Hold Up”, “Smash Your Head”, “Play Your Part (Part 1)”, “What’s It All About?”, “Oh No”
Comment: Hey, who said this list couldn’t be fun? This might seem a strange pick considering the number of huge artists I’ve left off, but Girl Talk makes the mash-up into a true art form and this is my “cheat” way of including a lot of them all at the same time. For someone heavily into both hip-hop and rock, it’s fun to identify and recognise all the eclectic samples in Girl Talk’s oeuvre, and you’ve got to admit, the seamlessness of it all is pretty cool. Night Ripper (2006) and Feed the Animals (2008) are both masterpieces. Plus, who would ever think of layering Puff Daddy over the Pixies? Wu-Tang over Argent? Jay-Z over Radiohead? How about Notorious BIG over Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer”? The key skill of Girl Talk is not that he makes these things work, it’s that he makes you think that you are hearing them for the first time in their most fully realised state – it’s a strange sensation akin to stumbling on a “discovered check” in a game of chess.
98. Al Bowlly
Genre: Vocal Jazz
Five to start you off: “My Woman”, “Blue Moon”, “My Melancholy Baby”, “”Goodnight Sweetheart”, “Guilty”
Comment: I first discovered Al Bowlly when I found out that one of my favourite songs of the 1990s, White Town’s “Your Woman”, took its infectious sample line (which sounds not unlike the Imperial March theme from Star Wars) and derived its title from Bowlly’s “My Woman”. Head from today’s vantage point, Bowlly truly sounds like a voice from long by-gone era. But what a voice it is: like melting caramel. The music is strongly evocative of that period between the wars: a hint of hedonism, and an ominous hint of sadness. It can be haunting, as demonstrated by Stanley Kubrick when he used Bowlly’s “Midnight, The Stars and You” in that unsettling ballroom scene in The Shining. Picture the close-up on Jack Nicholson’s face in the photo from the 1930s. Some of the most atmospheric music ever made.
97. Vashti Bunyan
Five to start you off: “Train Song”, “Just Another Diamond Day”, “Rainbow River”, “Here Before”, “Wayward”, “
Comment: Of all the internet memes that really irritate me, one of my least favourite is the “[X TV show / video game / whatever] brought me here” meme on YouTube comments. But if I was some internet kid, I’d go onto “Just Another Diamond Day” and type “That T-Mobile advert from 2006 brought me here”. For years Vashti Bunyan had just one almost mythical album, Just Another Diamond Day (1970). It’s an amazing album, however, notable for Bunyan’s airy, fragile voice and its themes of near-total remoteness from modern urban life. It’s an ode to a rural paradise that can’t possibly exist –too twee, too precious, too saccharine, but once you realize that’s the point you can allow yourself to go there. When the album sank without a trace in 1970, so did Vashti retreat from public life until the 00s nu-folk scene unearthed her. She got back into the studio for two more albums: Lookaftering (2005) and Heartleap (2014), which both contain moments of real tenderness. “Wayward”, for example, is an achingly beautiful song about watching one’s life slip away in supposed domestic bliss: her understatedness is heart-breaking. FatCat Records also released a compilation of singles and demos from the 1960s showcasing her output prior to Diamond Day – same fragility, but with the merest gesture towards pop sensibility – some hidden gems there too. Vashti Bunyan is completely unlike anyone else.
96. Louie Prima
Five to start you off: “Just a Gigolo / I Ain’t Got Nobody”, “The Lip”, “Jump, Jive an’ Wail”, “When You’re Smiling / The Sheik of Araby”, “The Pump Song”
Comment: Louis Prima was King Louie from The Jungle Book, or rather “The King of the Swingers” was modelled exactly after the “King of Swing”, does anything else need to be said? Well, alright, he has other things going for him. For example, in that picture to the left he bears a passing resemblance to Louie the Lilac, a personal hero of mine, from the 1960s Adam West Batman. Can you see it? Anyway, The Wildest! (1956) holds the distinction of being one of the few jazz records I really love – it just knocks your socks off from start to finish. As “Just a Gigolo”, which starts so smoothly, crashes into the increasingly manic “I Ain’t Got Nobody”, you realise that you are in for a trip. One of the things I dislike about jazz – even the likes of Louis Armstrong – are the extended instrumental solos on trumpet or sax, but Prima seems to be able to keep such masturbatory warblings to a minimum and mostly has the decency to ensure that they mostly played over a frantically rhythmic backdrop, and for that I’m grateful. Outside of that great album, there are some other essential tunes too, especially his up-tempo big band numbers like “When You’re Smiling / The Sheik of Araby”, “Paul Revere” or “The Pump Song”. Naturally, I’m less keen on his traditional Italian stuff.
95. The Meters
Five to start you off: “Cissy Strut”, “Ease Back”, “Chicken Strut”, “Cabbage Alley”, “Fire on the Bayou”
Comment: One word for these guys: BASS! Well, I mean there’s an organ, a drum and a guitar too, but that deep, deep bassline is the signature of their sound. This is the sort of music you can stick on in the background while you are doing something else, it’s chilled out, cool grooves that are always funky. I don’t believe there can be anyone alive who doesn’t dig “Cissy Strut”. Later on they add vocals to the mix, but you can’t go wrong with the first two albums The Meters (1969) and Look-Ka Py Py (1970). Nuff said.
94. They Might Be Giants
Genre: Alt Rock
Five to start you off: “Don’t Lets Start”, “Ana Ng”, “Birdhouse in Your Soul”, “Particle Man”, “Fingertips”
Comment: Talk about from the sublime to the ridiculous! I agonised about putting an act as uncool as these guys on my list. I could have picked Weezer to be down with the kids, or just bitten the bullet and picked Ben Folds or something … whatever and ever, amen. But no, when it comes to nerdy college rock sung by total wieners who sound like they should spend their entire lives getting their heads flushed down the toilet, you might as well go the full hog. What are they doing here? Well, they can write tunes that get stuck in your head for days and even weeks and months. Has there ever been a more annoying ear worm than “Birdhouse in Your Soul”? Maybe “Dr. Worm”? But more than that, I do think they are more creative than their peers in blending extremely diverse influences from every genre conceivable. They are also the first of several what I’d call “pop scholars” on this list – where you can see them working through their influences and genres almost as a formalist exercise. But that can make for some good stuff. Once you get past the urge to give them wedgies, their first four albums – They Might Be Giants (1985), Lincoln (1988), Flood (1990) and Apollo 18 (1992) – are all rather good. They are also weirder than one might imagine. If you take them seriously, They Might Be Giants could be seen as the inheritors of acts as diverse as Talking Heads, The Residents, Devo, Sparks, The B52, Violent Femmes, Frank Zappa, Elvis Costello, The Ramones, The Replacements, and The Buggles – they certainly borrow ideas liberally enough from all of them.
93. The Monks
Genre: Garage Rock, Art Rock
Five to start you off: “Monk Time”, “I Hate You”, “Complication”, “Higgle-dy, Piggle-dy”, “Cuckoo”
Comment: Five American GIs stationed in Germany form a band. They only recorded one album, Black Monk Time (1966). But, man, what an album it is: rocks as hard as any of the best trash garage bands, a completely unhinged lead singer (Gary Burger), lyrics that are angry to the point of being unnerving, drenched in electric organ, and utterly bonkers. These self-styled “anti-Beatles” were a revelation to me when I first heard them (like a lot of people it was through the fantastic Nuggets comp). Some will call this punk before punk, but I think that does it a disservice: it’s more like … post-punk before post-punk. They are also one of the few acts that perceptibly influenced The Fall.
92. Kurt Vile
Genre: Folk Rock
Five to start you off: “Baby’s Arms”, “Puppet to the Man”, “Runner Ups”, “Walking on a Pretty Day”, “Pretty Pimpin’”
Comment: One of the more recent artists on this list, and I have little idea of how Vile is thought about “out there” in the real world. I don’t know if he’s loved, hated, pimped, derided, seen as a cliché or anything like that. I suspect he might be a Pitchfork favourite, he seems like he would be. To be honest, I have zero conception of whether the average reader will have heard of him or not: I stopped caring about stuff like that a long time ago. Within the confines of my own head, he’s one of the best singer-songwriters currently plying his trade. Yes, there’s a bit of Dylan in there, a bit of Neil Young, a bit of Nick Drake, and even a hint of the shoe-gazing “noise pop” of, say, Jesus and The Mary Chain, but I don’t think Vile is really like any of them. He manages to be distinctive in a genre in which the weight of comparison often threatens to sink promising young artists before they can ever get a foothold. Smoke Ring for My Halo (2011) is the definition of a “grower” – an album that doesn’t really hit you until the fifth or even sixth time through, but it’s one of the very best of the past five or six years. There is a haziness to it all, Vile seems disaffected, lackadaisical, sort of dejected but never quite mopey or depressed. What it comes down to most though is just strong song-writing, tunes that get buried in your mind and come up for surface when you least expect it, and some great lyrics too. The next two albums Walking on a Pretty Daze (2013) and b’lieve i’m going down … (2015) build on the basic Smoke Ring template, both in terms of the sound and the writing. While less consistent, his first three albums – all defiantly lo-fi – all have their moments too. I didn’t know what Vile actually looks like until writing this article, basically Neil from The Young Ones. Come on, Kurt, sort it out, at least go and buy some conditioner. He probably wins the all-time award for “person I’d least like to have a Pepsi Max with”. Great music, terrible look.
91. Violent Femmes
Genre: Alt Rock, Post-Punk
Five to start you off: “Blister in the Sun”, “Gone Daddy Gone”, “Country Death Song”, “Black Girls”, “Issues”
Comment: Has any song ever embodied petulant and whiny teenage entitlement more than “Gimme the Car”? In a nutshell, that is what the Violent Femmes excel at: adolescent petulance. With its blend of folk, punk and pop, their eponymous debut album (1983) was apparently the soundtrack to many an American college frat party in the 80s. What makes these guys stand out from some of the peers is that it’s often very difficult to know how to take them, especially their lead vocalist, Gordan Gano who at times just seems like such a vile human being that you think it has to be tongue-in-cheek. But when you look for clues of self-awareness, I’m not sure that they are there. They seem to at once embody and comment upon exactly what they are: whiny, privileged white guys seemingly suffering a crisis of masculinity – of which they may or may not be aware. The creepiness and desperation of some of the sex songs is borderline sinister. Or take a song like “Black Girls”: is it racist? What’s it even trying to say?
I dig the black girls, oh, so much more than the white girls
I was so pleased to learn they were faster
Kiss, kiss, kiss, kiss, kiss, oooh and after
Along comes a faggot white boy
Said look, look, look for some kind of joy
They come around so queer and quiet
But inside rebel and riot
Well, who knows? That song, from their excellent second album, Hallowed Ground (1984), is nuts and shows the group at their daring best. The material past that second album is mixed, but I did enjoy their recent comeback record, We Can Do Anything (2016) more than the critics seemed to. “Issues” is one of their best songs, and as petulant and immature as ever: the difference is that now Gano is in his mid-50s, not his 20s. He’s a walking Peter-Pan syndrome refusing life’s responsibilities while blaming everyone else for it.
90. Peggy Lee
Genre: Vocal Jazz, Pop
Five to start you off: “Why Don’t You Do Right”, “Fever”, “Black Coffee”, “I’m a Woman”, “Riders in the Sky”.
Comment: You’ll know “Fever”, but there’s a lot more to Peggy Lee, a huge amount more. She had a long career stretching across six decades. Of course, she’s known for noir-tinged too-cool-to-be-possible sultry jazz – and Black Coffee with Peggy Lee (1953) is perhaps the definitive statement in that style – but there’s almost nothing that Peggy Lee couldn’t do. She could turn her voice to virtually any style: old folk or blues standards, bubblegum pop songs, cabaret and show tunes, comedy songs, fast songs, and slow songs. She didn’t just cover standards either, she could write. Miss Peggy Lee’s back catalogue is vast, and some of it is hard to get a hold of now. But she has some great performances and is able to conjure many different moods. I’ll give you three songs – and not ones listed above – “Gold Earrings”, “Manana”, and “Just One of Those Things”. There aren’t many artists who can hit that many different registers. I guess that eclecticism could also be a drawback because the picture one gets of Lee through compilations is a bit muddled. From what I can discern, her career had three distinct peaks: first, in the 1940s as the lead vocalist for Benny Goodman’s big band. “Why Don’t You Do Right” (1943) is a great sassy song later re-recorded on Rendezvous with Peggy Lee (1948). Lee married a guitarist from Goodman’s band called Dave Barbour, and Goodman promptly kicked them out of the band, so she started cutting solo records with songs co-written by her husband. But Barbour was an alcoholic and they split in 1951, which triggered Lee’s “second peak”, with the recording of Black Coffee and later her most famous song “Fever”. And then, third, in the early 1960s, she stayed relevant with a more R&B-orientated sound on I’m a Woman (1963), a great whimsical album that has a real “let’s just knock this out and see how it goes” feel; the title track is awesome. She also has at least one very good late album: the sombre and reflective Mirrors (1975) – check out the front cover, by the way, it’s bloody terrifying!