89. Tim Buckley
Five to start you off: “Song for Janie”, “Phantasmagoria in Two”, “Song to the Siren”, “Get on Top”, “Look at the Fool”
Comment: You might know “Hallelujah” by his son, Jeff. Tim Buckley is just one of many artists on this list who I first discovered through a friend from school: fellow Dylan obsessive, Andrew; he would probably classify as a “musicologist” these days. When my hard drive, which had tons and tons of music on it went kaput a few years back, even though I hadn’t seen him in years, Andrew immediately understood what needed to be done and the folder “Andrew’s Discs”, which he sent me, still maintains a key place on the replacement HDD. A dude on RYM described Buckley very well: “a white man with the voice of a black woman”. There’s more to him though: he was that rarest of birds, the experimental folkster. Where the likes of Dave von Ronk would spend forty years seeking out old standards and playing them standardly, Buckley wasn’t from that Greenwich Village scene and embraced many different styles. His career only lasted a decade before he died of an overdose in 1975. I’m in the strange position of putting him on this list despite not particularly caring for his some of his most heralded work – especially on Happy Sad (1969), Lorca (1970) and Starsailor (1970) – at times it all just gets much too “jazz club” for me complete with long and meandering tracks; I’ve never been one to reward experimentation if the results aren’t enjoyable. Jazz avant-garde folk fusion? Give me a break, come on! My hatred of wanky excess and indulgence has only intensified as I’ve gotten older. While I’ve been critical of Robert Christgau before now, his review of Starsailor is hilarious: “In which a man who was renowned for his Odetta impressions on Jac Holzman’s folkie label switches to Frank Zappa’s art-rock label, presumably so he can do Nico impressions. C-“. But this is not enough to write him off, because buried in all of that he has some great stuff. I much prefer him working in a straighter folk-rock mode singing shorter songs that rely on great song-writing: Tim Buckley (1966), Goodbye and Hello (1967), Blue Afternoon (1969) – all three are great albums. There are also some stunning songs on Happy Sad and Starsailor, “Song to the Siren”, for example. After that: Greetings from LA (1972), basically an S & M blues-rock record, is one of his best and most enjoyable. Then in his late career, he has an unexpected turn to funky (and sexy) White Plastic Soul on Sefronia (1973) and Look at the Fool (1974): music apparently made when he was on a low ebb, drugged out, and almost penniless. He can be a “difficult” artist in the worst possible sense, but at his best he can be really powerful and haunting. His music is often melancholy, and sad – “downer” music you might say. He’s also another one who maxes out my “distinctiveness” category, unique in the sense that no one sounds like him.
88. Reverend Charlie Jackson
Genre: Blues, Gospel
Five to start you off: “God’s Got It”, “Fix It Jesus”, “Wrapped Up and Tangled Up in Jesus”, “Testimony of Rev. Charlie Jackson”, “What a Time”
Comment: I’m not a religious man, but I have felt the power of the lord: one hollering preacher, one electric guitar, hand claps, a few gospel backing singers, and enough conviction and passion that I’ll admit that I was once moved to tears listening to “Fix It Jesus”. And man does the good Reverend have some conviction! Even if I’m probably destined never to have any myself at this point, the power of faith cannot be denied. Jackson’s recordings are raw as hell – only Satan has zero chance against the aural hurricane. The acoustics of the church create echo and a little reverb on the guitar which give everything a real spine-chilling, tingling sort of feel. There are also moments where he shows his vulnerability, even if it is to confirm his submission to God, such as at the start of “Testimony of Rev. Charlie Jackson”, when he shares with the congregation that he had a stroke last year and couldn’t speak. This is music so pure and true that it can break your heart just to hear it. You’ll not find many electric blues artists on my list – the B.B. Kings and John Lee Hookers – they were all a bit too cleaned-up, smooth and showbiz for my tastes. But if you asked me to recommend my favourite electric blues record, I’d probably give you the comp God’s Got It (2003). If he’d recorded another disc’s worth of material as good as those 18 tracks, he’d probably go another 30 places or so higher.
87. George Formby
Genre: Music Hall
Five to start you off: “When I’m Cleaning Windows”, “Why Don’t Women Like Me?”, “Biceps, Muscle and Brawn”, “Happy Go Lucky Me”, “It Serves You Right”
Comment: I’m deadly serious here! In America there was vaudeville, in this country there was music hall. Formby is probably the only music hall act anyone has heard of these days. But he’s a fascinating figure. His act was ostensibly a novelty: a gormless, buck-toothed man with a ukulele playing light-hearted comedy songs with a nod and a wink. But if you listen to him, there are hidden depths to Formby. He seems aware of his awkwardness, and even though it’s all done with that permanent cheese-eating grin, it comes across on a songs like “Why Don’t Women Like Me?” (“I know I’m not handsome”) and “Biceps, Muscle and Brawn” (“I know I’m not athletic and look a bit pathetic”); even on something like “Happy Go Lucky Me” you get the impression that the laughing is forced and masking the now-clichéd tears of a clown. His persona is sort of one of life’s losers who has made it good against all odds. At times, there’s this uncanny sense in which he’s parodying some of the attitudes he’s appropriating (see something like “It Serves You Right”). From what I’ve read, Formby had a strange personal life because he was almost completely dominated by his wife Beryl. Formby couldn’t read or write, and Beryl acted as his trainer, manager, keeper, and confident all in one, but it came at the price of her controlling him with some fierceness. But she drove him to be a massive star and undoubtedly he would not have made it without her. Formby was one of the biggest celebrities of his day, had his own TV show, and more than 150,000 people attended his funeral. Unfortunately, he’s mostly treated as a joke these days – as a hopelessly outdated comedy act that isn’t funny anymore – but I think it’s the wrong way to think about him. He’s a not only a gateway back into a lost world, he’s also a tortured man struggling to bear his soul through the limits of post-card humour. And he was a bloody brilliant banjo player.
Five to start you off: “My Girl”, “Baggy Trousers”, “Our House”, “It Must Be Love”, “Shut Up”
Comment: Of course the answer you are meant to give here is The Specials, but I’m more socially than politically minded, and, well, I feel like Madness speak to real life more than The Specials do. They are also just way more fun, have catchier tunes, and capture *something* about the nature of nostalgia in a way that none of the other ska bands manage. They also capture something of a theme with which I’ve been obsessed for a good while: school life and social dynamics. Some acts are about the albums, and some are about the singles – Madness without doubt are in the latter category. You can probably get away with just the greatest hits, especially since frequently the singles aren’t on the albums. That said, Absolutely (1980) is a really good album – slightly more mature than their debut, and I like the tighter sound and focus. An argument can be made, I think, that Madness are the greatest British post-Beatles singles act. I’m not sure if I’d sign-up to that, but I’d put them in the argument and it would be a close run thing.
85. Busta Rhymes
Five to start you off: “Rhymes Galore”, “Gimme Some More”, “Fire”, “Why Stop Now?”, “Thank You”
Comment: The sight of Busta Rhymes might raise a few eyebrows here, I mean his back catalogue is littered with enough horrible commercial hip-hop to foster resentment. But, bear me out, two things:
In terms of flow and technique, Busta Rhymes has been one of the best rappers on the planet for about 20 years. The adrenaline rush of Busta ripping FAST over a sick beat is not much rivalled, still. Check any of my selections above or his verse on Chris Brown’s “Look At Me Now” from 2011, and tell me who else can rap like that.
Here is a list of just some of the albums and singles he’s appeared on as a featured artist: Tribe Called Quest, Low End Theory (1991) and Midnight Marauders (1993), Craig Mack, “Flava in Ya Ear (Remix)”, Big Pun, Capital Punishment (1998), Norega, O.R.E. (1998), Mos Def, Black on Both Sides (1999), Wu-Tang Clan, The W (2000), J Dilla, The Shining (2006), Raekwon, Only Built for Cuban Linx II (2009) … it reads like its own history of great moments in hip-hop. Busta was an almost constant presence.
One thing that does plague his back catalogue, like all rappers of the late 90s, is the obsession at the time of filling every last corner of space on a CD which led to overlong albums and tiresome skits. But take out a couple of said skits and When Disaster Strikes (1997) is a nigh-on five-star album. One of the quirks of really getting into Busta Rhymes, however, is learning to look past the commercial sheen of his singles to get at the stuff he aims at the hip-hop underground. When he hits, he hits hard. Look at “Fire” from Anarchy (2000), for example, it was released as a single I think, but it didn’t touch the charts. He is at his best rapping over driving, incessant, relentless beats that compliment that sick flow. There are also hidden gems on mixtapes – he’s great on the J Dilla tribute Mixtape Dillagence (2007), where freed from commercial obligations, he gives us some of his best stuff in years (I like “Takin’ What’s Mine”). The Abstract and The Dragon (2013) with Tribe’s Q-Tip also has some great moments, especially the posse cut “Renaissance Rap (Remix)”.
84. Ian Dury and the Blockheads
Genre: New Wave
Five to start you off: “My Old Man”, “Dance of the Screamers”, “What a Waste”, “Sex & Drugs & Rock n Roll”, “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick”
Comment: Of all the lyricists to come out of the late 70s British punk scene, Ian Dury was probably the most poetic, wry, and socially conscious. A real “geezer”, he’s got that sort of pub literacy and wisdom which is as quintessentially British as the Kinks, even though it’s from a different side of life. One of the great storytellers (see “Razzle in My Pocket”), he also has moments of real poignancy (see “My Old Man”) and some witty humour too (see “There Ain’t Half Been Some Clever Bastards”). Also, when they want to get down and funky – as on “Dance of the Screams”, “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick” and “Reasons to Be Cheerful, Part 3” – the Blockheads can really go. As an aside, I still find it mental that Tribe Called Quest sampled “What a Waste” on “Can I Kick It?”.
83. The Troggs
Genre: Garage Rock
Five to start you off: “Wild Thing”, “I Just Sing”, “Lover”, “Feels Like a Woman”, “Strange Movie”
Comment: You’ll know “Wild Thing”, but there’s a lot more to The Troggs … Of all the scuzzy 60s garage band the Troggs were the most garage-y – of course “the correct” answer here is The Sonics, but I echo my thoughts on Madness vs. The Specials here. The Troggs essentially had three modes: atavistic fuzzy rawer-than-raw stomping rockers (e.g. “I Want You”), bubble-gum pop novelty numbers (e.g. “The Kitty Cat Song”), and cheesy saccharine ballads which are surely piss-takes (e.g. “Love is All Around You”, later covered, of course, by the insipid Wet Wet Wet for the Four Weddings and a Funeral soundtrack). In all three modes they are equally sleazy, primal, and braindead, but it’s the first mode in which The Troggs truly excel: when everyone else was doing concept albums and embracing psychedelia man, The Troggs stuck to the rougher sound of the early British invasion (think “Louie Louie”), and arguably the perfected it and took it to its logical end point. Lead singer Reg Presley is probably the most menacing sexual presence ever recorded (the BBC even banned a few Troggs songs for crossing the line). Where Gano from the Violent Femmes sounds like a spoiled teenager begging for a lay, Presley is just raw red-blooded balls-out “come on and get them off before I take them off!” To underpin that energy, Ronnie Bond is one of those truly animalistic tub-thumping drummers, surely one of the most underrated ever. And that’s the word I’d use for The Troggs in general. From Nowhere (1966) is one of the quintessential 60s albums that not only epitomises the period, but also shows off The Troggs at their very best as they switch between a stomper like “I Just Sing” to a song that could be on the soundtrack of a kids film like “Hi Hi Hazel”. But they have more in their locker on generally un-appreciated later works, especially from the early 1970s. Listen to them basically invent The White Stripes on the amazing “Feels Like a Woman” from 1972 (Jack White basically owes them his career), or from a year later, “Strange Movie” a song that seems to be about jacking off to a porn film. I’ve been trying to put my finger on why The Troggs aren’t as heralded as they deserve to be, and I put it down to two things: too raw to be palatable to the mainstream tastes of the general public, and too meat-headed for the critics looking for the next Bob Dylan. But go and grab a copy of the two-disc comp Archaeology (1966-1976) (1992) and tell me that those guys didn’t rock the fuck out. And, yes, one of many 60s bands that I rate above The Who.
82. Stephen Duffy / The Lilac Time
Genre: New Wave, Folk-Rock, Pop
Five to start you off: “Rockland”, “The Lost Girl in the Midnight Sun,” “The Girl who Waves at the Trains”, “Something Good”, “17”.
Comment: Poor old Stephen Duffy, he made some bad choices early on: he left Duran Duran, a band he co-founded, just before they got huge, and then turned down the chance to write for Madonna just before she became even huger. He then had one hit as Tin Tin – “Kiss Me” – a cheesy 80s synth number, and was seen as a one-hit wonder. It’s pretty tragic because Duffy just happens to be, arguably, the best songwriter of his generation and he’s seldom if ever got the breaks, audience or recognition he deserves. His songs can be spell-binding, a master of both perfect sophisticated pop and the nakedly raw auto-confessional mode. With The Lilac Time, he made one of the best albums of the 80s, Paradise Circus (1989), just a sublime record, and solo he made one of the best albums of the 90s, I Love My Friends (1997), which is by turns heart-warming and heart breaking – I’d describe it as nostalgia that doesn’t feel safe, reminiscence with a sting, almost like Samuel Beckett’s play Krapp’s Last Tape as a Britpop album. For some reason it makes me feel slightly disconcerted about thinking about my own past: past life, past relationships. A song like “Something Good” sounds so full of hope and youthful energy, but you know the darkness and pain around the corner. “Twenty Three” and “The Postcard” are beautiful and haunting. “17” makes me tear up. It’s music made by someone who can’t quite let go. I think I’ve never been able to quite let go of my childhood and teenage years, either: I Love My Friends is difficult for me to listen to. He does have a lot of other good stuff too, but let’s leave it there before I can’t see through my own tears.
Genre: Post-Punk, New Wave
Five to start you off: “Three Girl Rhumba”, “I Am the Fly”, “From the Nursery”, “Mr. Marx’s Table”, “Nice Streets Above”
Comment: Wire are set apart from some of their post-punk contemporaries such as Pere Ubu, Gang of Four, or Public Image Ltd. by the fact that they don’t just have one or two essential albums, but four – and arguably at least that many again in the “very good” category. Wire’s back catalogue is also a bit like a trot through musical history from the late 70s onwards. Pink Flag (1977) is more punk than post-punk, and sounds a bit like The Sex Pistols. Chairs Missing (1978) is truly “post-punk” and more or less invented the sound to which bands like Art Brut would later pay homage / satirise. 154 (1979) is poppier and more Bowie-ish. Then they seemed to follow trends rather than lead them: they properly embraced new wave synth in the 1980s (with mixed results), and then did some techno- and house- influenced stuff in the early 90s (with embarrassing results). But then, as their imitators started to gain a grip on the indie scene in the 00s, they rediscovered their post-punk roots and knocked out a series of albums starting with the amazing Send (2003) – probably my favourite album of theirs – that is as good a “late comeback” run as any I can think of. The four albums I named there are all-time classics in my view. Wire are also set apart by their coldness. Their music has an angular, metallic quality. Most bands rock out on emotion, Wire often feel like punk music produced by mathematical patterns and mechanical repetition. At their best, it can have an infectious and almost hypnotic effect. For example, check out something like “Comet” from Send with its incessant refrain “And the chorus goes / And the chorus goes / Ba-ba-ba-ba-bang / Then a whimper”: it rocks hard, but it’s cold as ice; it’s clearly not commercial music, but it will get stuck in your head for days on end. “Metal machine music”, as Lou Reed might say, only it’s actually listenable.
80. of Montreal
Genre: Psychedelic, Art Pop
Five to start you off: “Lysergic Bliss”, “Wraith Pinned To The Mist & Other Games”, “Gronlandic Edit”, “A Sentence Of Sorts In Kongsvinger”, “Bunny Ain’t No Kind Of Rider”
Comment: Unlike Kurt Vile, I do have some idea about how Kevin Barnes’s pop scholastics are viewed “out there”. He seems to hailed by fans as one of the greatest living songwriters. I’m not sure where I stand entirely, but I do think that Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? (2007) is one of the very best albums of the 00s, and a contender for the best. The trouble is that they took a long time to get there. The first five albums – Cherry Peel (1997), The Bedside Drama: A Petite Tragedy (1998), The Gay Parade (1999), and Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies: A Variety of Whimsical Verse (2001), Aldhils Arboretum (2002) – are obsessed with the sound of Sgt. Pepper and perhaps also Harry Nillsson’s Aerial Ballet and some late 60s Beach Boys too – perhaps by way of Sparks and XTC, and the occasional hint of Something/Anything?-era Todd Rundgren, especially the bits where he stops and talks to show off studio trickery. See, I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence: this is what writing about music does to people! Trust me: I hate myself more than you hate me. The trouble with all five of those albums is that, while there are some very pretty tunes there, they are maddeningly, nauseatingly, twee to the point of being really irritating. Sometimes I think that’s the intention: to bug the shit out of you. But it can get very wearisome. You feel like giving him a good smack in the face: “come on, snap out of it Kevin, you fucking ponce!” The thing is, I like pretty pop songs, even cutesy ones, but there’s got to be some bite there, and early of Montreal try my patience a little too often. Even the “acid trip” bits on Coquelicot seem like an overly post-modern pastiche of such things – and it was a little passe when the aforementioned Todd Rundgren was doing it. Don’t get me wrong: a one or even two-disc compilation of those first five albums would be packed full of great, catchy songs, but sitting through any one album over the course of an hour can be a chore. Now some people argue that a couple of those albums are masterpieces (especially The Gay Parade and Coqielicot), and I do feel like I’m underselling them – because there are some great songs there – but I’m also being honest. In fact, so as not to do them a disservice I’ve tried to come up with my own 12-track comp of their first five albums. Let’s see:
1) Everything Disappears When You Come Around (Cherry Peel)
2) Tim I Wish You Were Born A Girl (Cherry Peel) [incidentally probably the gayest song ever written!]
3) Happy Yellow Bumblebee (The Bedside Drama)
4) Panda Bear (The Bedside Drama)
5) The Miniature Philosopher (The Gay Parade)
6) Advice From A Divorced Gentleman To His Bachelor Friend Considering Marriage (The Gay Parade)
7) A Man’s Life Flashing Before His Eyes While He And His Wife Drive Off A Cliff Into The Ocean (The Gay Parade)
8) Good Morning Mr. Edminton (Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies)
9) Rose Robert (Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies)
10) Go Call You Mine (Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies)
11) We Are Destroying the Song (Aldhils Arboretum)
12) An Ode to the Nocturnal Muse (Aldhils Arboretum)
You might easily make a second disc that could hold up to that, but I’ve spent long enough on this now! With Satanic Panic in the Attic (2004) they started to really hit their stride. That’s a very good album. The sound becomes a tiny bit fuzzier and somehow more sun-drenched and swirling, early 70s Beach Boys rather than late 60s psychedelia. This continues on The Sunlandic Twins (2005), not quite as strong, but then they came back with the all-time classic Hissing Fauna – one of those rare albums with not a single bad track or wrong step. I honestly went through periods of having every single track as my favourite at different times, which is the true sign of “five star”. Skeletal Lamping (2008) and False Priest (2010) both have more of a funk edge, but still some great songs. Less essential stuff follows.