Let us waste little time in getting on with the top 20. I’d just like to take a moment to thank people for all the feedback I’ve had since starting embarking on this journey in June 2016, whether through direct messages, social media, or various forums. Most of that feedback has been positive, and I’ve been delighted to see people exploring some of the stuff I’ve talked about. Of all the things I’ve had flak for the McCartney placement seems to have generated the hottest feelings – hey, maybe I underestimated the extent to which people dig solo Paul. I also got brought to task over on RYM for complaining in my initial introduction about albums that seem to lack reviews on there, and someone pointed out that in ten years of being a member I’ve written precisely zero reviews – ha ha, fair cop. I’ve seen reactions from people who hadn’t heard of most of the artists to others who have condemned the list for being “100% mainstream”, lacking diversity, or for being too Anglo-centric. My only guiding principle in writing this has been honesty. I don’t really care about what is and isn’t mainstream, or about ensuring that every genre, race, colour and creed are represented. This is my top 100 music artists list, not the United Nations. My hope is that those who have been reading from the start will have a chance to discover new things, or to see things they already know in a different way. Of course, this is the internet so the reaction of 99% of readers will be tl;dr, maybe a quick scroll to look at the pictures, but I get that. Anyway, let’s get on, previous parts are here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.
The List – Part 5: 20-16
20. Robert Johnson
Genre: Delta blues
Five to start you off: “Cross Road Blues”, “Walkin’ Blues”, “Preachin’ Blues (Up Jumped the Devil)”, “Hell Hound on My Trail”, “Me and the Devil Blues”
Comment: I think most people who have been paying attention knew that Johnson was coming, the question was “how high”. Of all the legendary bluesmen, Johnson is the most legendary. His mythology the most … mythological. You surely know it: a young Johnson living in rural Mississippi had dreams of being the best bluesman around, so he was told to take his guitar to the crossroads at midnight, where he met a shadowy figure who took the guitar and tuned it. He played a few songs on the guitar and handed it back to Johnson who then attained his super-human mastery of the instrument. The figure was the Devil with whom Johnson had signed a Faustian pact. Now even if this story is apocryphal, as it surely is, when you actually listen to Johnson it’s not difficult to see why the legend got going in the first place. First of all, he sings about the devil, a LOT. Second, his guitar skills are unreal. Third, his voice is an otherworldly cry.
Before I talk through some of that music, there are two technical matters to discuss: what’s the best collection to get now? And do I believe Jon Wilde’s theory that all his recordings have been wrongly speeded up? I can answer both fairly quickly: the best remaster job currently available to my knowledge is The Centennial Collection (2011), which has everything and there is no reason not to start there. I am in the camp that thinks that the recordings have always been played at the correct speed: the evidence is simple, just listen to the slowed-down versions and it’s obvious they are slowed down and sound wrong; the guitar vibrato especially sounds unnatural. Not only that, guys like Son House, Johnny Shines or Robert Lockwood Jr. who knew Johnson personally, never once mentioned that the recordings don’t sound like him. All of the sources I trust on this issue say that the story is B.S., and I’m inclined to go with them.
So why is Johnson here at #20, above all of the other blues guys? I can reveal now that he’s the top rated of them. Well there are a few reasons. I don’t think any of the others could have recorded something like “Preachin’ Blues (Up Jumped The Devil)”, which remains one of the most amazing things I’ve ever heard. He’s on another planet when it comes to the acoustic guitar: the guitar stabs on “Walkin’ Blues”, those high and jaunty notes on “Last Fair Deal Gone Down”.
There’s also a real sense of poetry and darkness to the way he writes his lyrics. If there was ever a metaphysical bluesman, it was Johnson. Here’s “Hell Hound on My Trail”:
I got to keep moving, I got to keep moving
Blues falling down like hail, blues falling down like hail
I think the idea of the blues made physically manifest as hail is quite powerful. He also has a little bit of urban wit in there, consider this from “Me and the Devil Blues”:
You may bury my body, woooo
Down by the highway side
So my old evil spirit
Can get a Greyhound bus and ride
There’s a distinct tonal shift, from the register of old spirits and highways to that Greyhound bus locating us firmly in the twentieth century. He can also register a sense of horror, desperation and isolation that one would usually have to go to Samuel Beckett to find:
Lord, that I’m standin’ at the crossroad, babe
I believe I’m sinkin’ down
He’s intense, raw, haunted, sometimes scary, always genuinely brilliant. I do think there’s a reason he’s been called the “King of the Delta Blues Singers” for as long as he has.
19. Kate Bush
Genre: Art pop
Five to start you off: “Babooshka”, “Sat in Your Lap”, “Night of the Swallow”, “Hounds of Love”, “Cloudbusting”
Comment: I’ve always valued highly distinctive artists, and Kate Bush is a true original. She also did something that very few artists ever manage: namely, making fantastic pop records with enough depth and artistry to keep one come back for more than just the catchy tunes. The Kick Inside (1978) is one of the most explosive debuts of all time. Forget about her age, look at the date. Fearless vision and bravery isn’t releasing a post-punk album in 1978, it’s coming out with a record that sounds like that, with that video for “Wuthering Heights”. Her first album is a work of neo-classical genius. Contender for best album of 1978, Let’s skip over Lionheart (1978) to get to her next masterpiece Never for Ever (1980). “Babooshka”, a song about a woman testing her husband’s faithfulness by tricking him into seducing … herself … was a top 10 single. It’s not just the ability to tell that story in 3 minutes and 28 seconds that stands Bush apart, it’s her ability to do it with all the giddy excitement of an English literature undergraduate who love nineteenth-century fiction. The final stretch of four songs on that album is a great run of top tracks all in a row. Contender for best album of 1980. The Dreaming (1982) ramps up the big 80s snare drums, and features another all-time great opener from her: “Sat in Your Lap”. It’s also a third shift in creative direction for Bush in as many albums. The title track is bonkers as is “Get Out of my House”. “Night of the Swallow” is amazing. Just teeming wall-to-wall with ideas: ideas that bounce up, down and around those walls, as if the whole thing is struggling to contain the genius within. Contender for best album of 1982. Hounds of Love (1985): “… It’s in the trees, it’s coming …” Several brilliant pop songs on this: title track, “Running Up that Hill”, “Cloudbusting”. Contender for best album of the 1980s. That might be seen as her peak, but she keeps going and there is no dip as far as I can see. There are arguments to be made that The Sensual World (1989) is a fourth stone-cold masterpiece. Not as immediately accessible perhaps, but a great work in its own right: don’t compare it to Hounds of Love. The Red Shoes (1993) is marred by production that now sounds dated, but if that’s her worst album it says something about the rest of her catalogue. I dug the two late career albums: Aerial (2005) (see “King of the Mountain”) and 50 Words of Snow (2011) (see “Snowflake”), especially the latter for its sheer levels of melancholy. Not classics but some good stuff. If you are a Bush newcomer though, start with the 80s run.
Genre: Alt Rock
Five to start you off: “Caribou”, “Bone Machine”, “Debaser”, Mr. Grieves”, “Allison”
Comment: I wasn’t aware of any comeback Pixies until just now, so for the purposes of this list, they only made four albums: Surfer Rosa (1988), Doolittle (1989), Bossanova (1990), and Trompe le Monde (1991). This makes them probably the highest rated act here with the slimmest body of work. If we’re talking about contenders for albums of the decade, they made at least two of them. Bossanova and Trompe le Monde are just a shade below the others, but still utterly essential. Don’t sleep on their between-album stuff either: you need to grab the Come On Pilgrim (1987) EP for “Caribou” alone, but everything on it is also essential. In fact with eight tracks that one might as well be an album, bona-fide “five star”.
I think the Pixies form a spiritual link between American post-punk stuff like Minutemen and the 90s, somehow at once pointing towards grunge like Nirvana and towards Radiohead. You can hear the echoes of Minutemen on something like “Vamos”, you can hear Nirvana coming out of something like “Cactus”, and you can hear the Radiohead coming out of the aforementioned “Caribou”. And all through it, they somehow managed consistently to write big bouncy pop songs with catchy hooks.
It’s hard to know where to start here. I honestly don’t think there’s a weak track on any of the first three albums and picking out highlights somehow seems odd. On Surfer Rosa, who can’t love the “stop” right before “Where Is My Mind?” When I first got Doolittle, I think I listened to “Debaser” about 100 times in in a week, now it seems to take me back to the period around 2002 during which my friend Avant-Garde Ed and I were gleefully watching stuff like Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou. I still unapologetically love “Mr. Grieves”: “What’s that floating in the water? / Ol’ Neptuna’s only daughter”. Bossanova has always felt a bit sludgier to me: more lethargy and less energy, but it’s still packed with great pop songs. Also, for some reason I’ve always imagined Frank Black is screaming “shamone” in the Michael Jackson manner on “Rock Music”. “Allison” feels like They Might Be Giants as reimagined by the Pixies. As with so many works that follow grand-slam classics, it is best to treat it on its own terms and not constantly to compare it to Doolittle. For me it’s at least a 4.5 / 4.75 on its own terms. Trompe le Monde seems to rock out a bit more than Bossanova, I’d call it the spiritual sequel to Surfer Rosa, a return to a rawer sound, feels like a return from stadiums to sweaty little indie venues. They seem to be channelling the Stooges. All-time great band.
17. Patti Smith
Genre: Art Rock, Garage Rock, Punk
Five to start you off: “Piss Factory”, “Gloria”, “Redondo Beach”, “Birdland”, “Rock n Roll Nigger”
Comment: I really struggled with the “genre” bit here. I always see Smith described as “punk”, but then you listen to something like “Piss Factory” with its well-played jazzy piano and lovely sound and you think “this doesn’t sound much like punk”. It’s more about the lyrics, look, and attitude, I guess, but to me the label somewhat undersells her: let’s not get caught up in the labels, she’s just a fantastic songwriter, and lyricist especially. In the phrasing and delivery, there seems to be a lot of Bob Dylan in there to me.
Horses (1975) is surely a “best of all-time” album contender, and I can’t think of anyone with a stronger debut album. Talk about a killer opening verse too, “Gloria” starts like this:
Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine
Meltin’ in a pot of thieves
Wild card up my sleeve
Thick heart of stone
My sins my own
They belong to me, me
I was recently arguing about this passage with an English professor of some eminence. I thought going through the exchange might be of some interest. I said this:
It is at once an audacious rejection of faith and a statement of cultural and moral relativism. The narrator rejects Christian salvation, while at the same time acknowledging its possibility for believers. The verse ends with an assertion of property rights: “My sins my own / They belong to me, me”. Insomuch as one would expect an urbane and educated Westerner from the late-twentieth century to believe that there is neither an absolute, universal morality nor an original, collective sin, Smith’s narrator is undeniably a product of her time and place. The repetition of “me” is marked and suggests an individualistic and subjective moral system defined mainly by the self: my sin, therefore my values, and my ethical code. It is a modern, self-centred view of ethics that has come to typify the so-called “Me” Generation to which Smith belongs (and indeed its children). In such a moral system, the primacy of self-determination outstrips any sense of social responsibility. As another of its popular voices sang a decade earlier: “I’m free to do what I want any old time”. A modern, Western individual is far more likely to rankle at the feeling of their own value system being judged than to feel a sense of shame for their “sins” (as externally defined by, for example, traditional Christian ethics), which – as in Smith’s song – can be worn almost as badges of pride. There is a general distaste for the “old” values such as respect for and trust in authority or the idea that we should avoid sensual pleasures because they are ‘sinful’, and a corresponding valorising of individual liberty and expression, and, indeed, pleasure-seeking without apparent guilt or consequence.
I won’t repeat the professor’s comments verbatim but he thought I was giving Smith short shrift with this reading, going as far as to say that it is “knee jerk”, and a “serious blunder” that fails to give the song any sort of justice. He pointed out that she was brought up as a Catholic in a small town in Southern New Jersey and that the lines have a deep personal depth for her and pointed towards her books Just Kids and M Train. Obviously, I stand by the reading, but don’t think it necessarily runs her down. But the fact that the song can lend itself to such exchanges at all says something about Smith as a lyricist. Every song on Horses could get this sort of treatment. “Birdland” is fantastic. Smith’s voice is pretty underrated if you ask me.
Radio Ethiopia (1976) has a slightly harder sound, although somehow at the same time a more commercial sheen. “Ask the Angels” could easily be played on the radio. As I seem to keep saying, it’s best not to compare it to its predecessor, it’s a good album in its own right. Easter (1978) contains the remarkable “Rock n Roll Nigger” and another one of her great songs, “Because the Night”, but around this time there’s a lot of Smith stuff that sounds “of its time” to me. It’s mainly a production and sound issue. To me the more vital album is the overlooked Wave (1979), which feels less dated on the in-between the great tracks. She has great swagger on tracks like “Citizen Ship”. Then she disappears for a good while to concentrate on her family.
The Dream of Life (1988) is a random album separated by almost a decade either side, and her only one of the 80s. She sounds incredibly like a female Dylan on this one, listen to the phrasing on “People Have the Power”, it’s uncanny at times. She comes back on Gone Again (1996) and makes the Dylan influence more explicit with a cover of “The Wicked Messenger”, not a bad one either. Title track is worth a listen. Peace and Noise (1997) is probably the stronger album though: I think I like Patti best when the piano is high up in the mix (as on “Waiting Underground”), it suits her. “Spell” is a great late-era Smith track to seek out.
In fact, her last four albums – Gung Ho (2000), Trampin’ (2004), Twelve (2007), and Banga (2012) – repeat this holding pattern of being very solid, with a few standout tracks. Banga is probably the best of them. So if you’ve been keeping track, I’d only give one Smith album – Horses – five stars, what gives? Why’s she at number 17 when so many others have had more? Well, it’s not just about five-star albums, it’s also about being an interesting artist, which Smith is even on her worst stuff. One our greatest lyricists, and someone with a unique perspective on things.
16. Captain Beefheart
Genre: Art Rock, Blues Rock
Five to start you off: “Sure Nuff ‘n’ Yes I Do”, “Big-Eyed Beans from Venus”, “Owned T’ Alex”, “Ashtray Heart”, “Ice Cream for Crow”
Comment: I’d like to see someone try to say that Beefheart is “mainstream” with a straight face. You’ve probably heard of him, but there’s no planet in the universe in which the good Captain can be considered anything other than bonkers. There was culture, counter culture, counter-counter culture, and then there was Beefheart. I also think he’s a rare case in which his most famous album, Trout Mask Replica (1969), doesn’t give you a great entry point into his back catalogue. We can argue about whether it’s his best (I don’t think so), but its sprawling weirdness has undoubtedly meant that a lot of music fans end their Beefheart journey right there. Maybe they saw Trout Mask Replica listed on a top 100 albums list, gave it a whirl, found it too much and gave up. You wouldn’t be the first or the last. But it’s perfectly possible to love Beefheart without loving that album, as I don’t particularly. He only made 12 albums before retiring in 1982 to become a painter, and remarkably staying retired and not making any new music at all until his death in 2010.
I’ve had a go at offering my personal rankings for his entire output. And had a lovely chat about it with other Beefheart fans over on the Steve Hoffman Music Forums. I’ll reproduce that list here, with some additional comments:
#1 Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (1979) – no one can say this is a mainstream album, but it somehow all clicks, being both supremely interesting and accessible. The manic laughter on “Owned T’ Alex” is amazing, “Floppy Boot Stomp” and “Tropical Hot Dog Night” are both awesome and kick things off with a great one-two. “Bat Chain Puller” is (in)famously based on the rhythm of his windscreen wipers. “You Know You’re a Man” is a great sleaze number. I find myself coming back to this one the most.
#2 Doc at the Radar Station (1980) – close call between this and Shiny Beast, and on any given day I could flip them. He was on absolute fire around this period. Again, everything just clicks. This is, of course, weird, but it’s also still somehow really listenable and stomping. Just kicks all sorts of ass. Cap’s voice has gone a bit here so it’s more scratchy and gnarled (and interesting). Swampy, stompy awesome stuff all down the line. He keeps the tradition of the fantastic one-two opening tracks going with “Hot Head” and “Ashtray Heart”. Here, any 60s pretentions towards something idealistic, something grander, something more profound as sound on Trout Mask Replica are long gone. As on Shiny Beast, we’re in a much more fallen world in which Beefheart has dropped any political or idealistic visions and is now kinda just slumming around with various dangerous women. The vision of Trout Mask Repilica is big, and grand; it gestures towards such things as “humanity”, it feels more like a John Steinbeck novel or something like that. The vision of Doc at the Radar Station is much grimier, and dirtier: you can see the hotel rooms, the cheap lays, the cigarette stains. It’s a sleazier world set in some decaying city somewhere directed by Wong Kar-Wai. Witness the awesomeness of “Dirty Blue Gene”:
She’s not bad
She’s just genetically mean
She’s not bad
She’s just genetically mean
Don’t you wish you never met her?
Don’t you wish you never met her?
Don’t. You. Wish. You. Never. Met. Her?
These sorts of vivid character portaraits are what Beefheart does best. The world feels like a dangerous place on a song like “The Sheriff of Hong Kong”. Stone-cold masterpiece.
#3 Clear Spot (1972) – his cleanest “most commercial” sounding album but my god does it kick ass! This is some alternative Else Worlds universe in which Beefheart was a blues-y soul singer. In fact, if you are the sort of listener who completely gave up on Trout Mask Replica, this is a pretty good place to start. If the Captain is still too weird for you, there’s no hope. This album has a towering highlight, another Beefheart one-two special: “Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles” – which some people might know from The Big Lebowski – into “Big-Eyed Beans From Venus”, which is just a big slab of awesome. “Mister Zoot Horn Rollo hit that long, lunar note and let it float” … the moment Beefheart starts the next verse is one of my all-time favourite moments in music. “Sun Zoom Spark” and “Low Yo Yo Stuff” are also both stand outs. This is another five-star for me.
#4 Lick My Decals Off, Baby (1970) – A bit more economic and tight than Trout Mask Replica – shorn of some of the Zappa wankery – though just as weird and daring. And yet strangely I’ve found myself humming “I Love You, You Big Dummy” before now. He also seems to invent Tom Waits somewhere in the middle of this. Another five-star.
#5 Safe as Milk (1967) – One of the best blues-rock albums ever made. “Sure ‘Nuff’n Yes, I Do” is an all-time wonderful sleazy stomper. “Electricity” is a big old slice of savagery. And here is one of my favourite RYM reviews ever from some chap called telephone_junkie writing back in 2010:
“Autumn’s Child” is like having acid thrown in your face, except in a universe where having acid thrown in your face feels roughly like falling in love in the springtime in a sea of wobbling white clover whipped about you by sad sighing wind and an enormous and cratered moon and wondering if you’ll ever feel like this again and wondering why some clever-clever artist hasn’t thought to capture this feeling in a four minute psych-pop song and put it at the end of an album filled with almost-but-not-quite-as-good songs, and that’s because you don’t live in a universe with Captain Beefheart in it now GET BACK TO SMOOCHIN’!
It takes something to engender a response like that.
#6 Ice Cream for Crow (1982) – this is not quite as amazing as the two previous records, but Cap still went out with a bang. The title track is awesome, and I strangely seem to remember the video featuring on MTV and VH1 quite a lot back in the day.
#7 Trout Mask Replica (1969) – so this is where I’d put it. And as you might have been able to tell already, it’s not my favourite. It has some great moments, but it’s very very baggy, despite the Captain’s legendary totalitarianism. It is annoying in places too – annoying in a way that Zappa frequently manages to be, but which Beefheart seldom is outside of the confines of this album. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad album, but I wouldn’t recommend starting here, it’s a slog – you risk missing out on too much awesome if you do.
#8 Strictly Personal (1968) – I really like “Son of Mirror Man”, but the production effects are a disaster on this.
#9 The Spotlight Kid (1972) – just nowhere near as enjoyable as Clear Spot. Almost like he needed a whole album to get that particular balance right. The front cover is hilarious though.
#10 Mirror Man (1971) – I have limited patience generally with long, rambling jam tracks. This album is a trip, but one of the Cap’s albums I return to the least. Some people love this one, I was never going to be one of them.
#11 Bluejeans and Moonbeams (1974) – at best mediocre, at worse crap
#12 Unconditionally Guaranteed (1974) – as above
I think that’ll do: over 1,200 words on Beefheart and probably all I’ll get is some wanker on twitter saying that he’s a mainstream pick. I not bothered, honest. In all seriousness, he’s not going to be for everyone, and it will take some time to click with an artist like him. But once you get attuned to his rhythms, once you accept yourself in his world, he’s one of the best.
Next time: 85 down, only 15 to go. But who will they be? Only one way, etc.