Favourite All-Time Albums: #10–6
Here we are, the penultimate part of my final albums list. The blurb is… I really, really need to listen to happier music.
*Links to all other parts found at the bottom of the article.
10. OK Computer — Radiohead
OK Computer is widely regarded as one of the best albums of the 90s, but its power is entirely personal. It’s easily the most formative album of my teenage years, and soundtracked many scenes of foundational wankery: ‘Paranoid Android’ while strolling— hoodied — down Sauchiehall Street thinking I was an anti-consumerist badass: ‘Climbing Up The Walls’ embellished my first drinking sesh with its intoxicating, slithering stranglehold: ardently believing — with my obviously lacerating wit — that ‘Exit Music (For A Film)’ would in fact be a great end credits song for my god-awful screenplay. It was the first record that meant everything to me, that mapped my moods and thoughts, that’s still my compass when I orientate the foggy memories of that time.
When I was sixteen I suffered a profound lethargy; I hesitate to say depression because I’m wary of trivialising its still criminally underpublicised significance, and very few things on this planet matter to me more than mental illness, but yeh I guess you could call it a form of depression in the abstract. When I wasn’t in school I lay in bed not sleeping and not thinking, exhausted but ceaselessly anxious, bottomlessly sad but only with ungraspable notions why. I derived no pleasure from reading or watching films, my two nerdiest hobbies at the time. I had nothing except Radiohead and OK Computer. They’re incessantly, understandably pastiched as depressive melancholics, but fuck me do they speak sense, do they preach sympathy and connection, do they offer escape.
‘Let Down’ was my saviour. Its ambiguity lends itself to break-up songs, unrequited love songs, fundamentally Kafkaesque songs bestowing agency to bugs (you’ll have to listen to it get why ngl); but to me it was a song about fighting lethargy, and coming out better than before you dove in. Listening to ‘Let Down’ five times a day for weeks, I made the decision to commit vehemently to my studies and apply to Oxford. Understandably, you might read that and scoff at it as pretentious and wanky, but it filled me with purpose, with an obsessive drive, with the need to do something. I didn’t get into Oxford, but it tangentially compelled my applying to Durham; where I got in, had the best three years of my life, and met people I know I’ll love and trust as long as I’m still sulking wankerily on this beautiful mess of a planet. You could argue, perfectly reasonably, that it’s tenuous to thank a song or record for pulling me out of the darkest weeks of my life and spurring me onto my best years. But it makes complete sense to me.
Last Summer I relapsed — to an extent — due to external rather than intangible factors. The consumptive lethargy returned — with its more vulgar, prison-toned cousin Regular Panic Attacks — but the absence of purpose did not. I’d been armoured from my experience. I turned to OK Computer and a few salient self-help albums — particularly this list’s #6 — I’ve accrued over time, and felt invigorated by the clarity of purpose, of keeping the sadness at bay with a particularly pointy stick, of chasing that essential dream of being okay. In two months I had a new job, a new house, a renewed fixation with writing; but Radiohead and ‘Let Down’ remain constants.
This section probably translates as self-aggrandising rubbish, and I’m sorry about that, but hopefully it — even if it is only remotely and swimming against the tide of my conceitedness— conveys how imperative music can be. It’s not a trivial hobby or a clandestine artform; it matters more than my inch-shallow pool of language can ever possibly express.
But seriously, thank fuck for music, right?
9. The Devil & God Are Raging Inside Me — Brand New
Phew, well the above was all a bit heavy wasn’t it? Would be nice to have an upbeat intermission eh? Oh what’s this? The most misanthropic emo record of all-time? I mean, yeah, that could work as well, I guess.
They say that through the darkness comes light, but Jesse Lacey understands that that’s sentimental bollocks. The darkness is impenetrable and treacherous, and the plunging arm of miasma is more powerful than the broaching avenue of light.
When writers and PR jingoes squawk about bands wearing their heart on their sleeve, or gutting themselves for authentic expression, or sacrificing their wellbeing for their art, it’s usually a procession of vain platitudes; but Brand New have torn out their hearts — and their minds — and presented them in front of you on a rusted silver platter. In a video interview with an Amsterdam mag, Lacey confirmed the band deliberately absorbed themselves in the deaths of friends and family in order to channel their pain into their music as a form of therapy. I can honestly say, I have never experienced an album so validly naked.
For The Devil & God’s reputation as an antitheistic record, things are rather more complicated. Lacey’s an elapsed Christian, disillusioned and disgusted by the sins of organised religion, yet still a spiritual believer. The devastating internal warfare duopoly of ‘Jesus’ and ‘Degausser’ exhibits Lacey as jockeyed by discord between his secular spirituality and the overbearing weight of his religious guilt, while the purging ‘The Archer’s Bows Have Broken” interrogates God’s authority with blitzing fury. As the title suggests, this is exorcism. You might want to look away.
The razor juxtaposition of the cover art is self-explanatory but quakingly powerful; innocence and contentment is only ever around the corner from agony and misery. I wrote last year about the catharsis of emo music’s relationship with mental illness; but The Devil & God is more polygonal. This isn’t just about definable precepts like depression, suicide and oppressive religious organisations; it’s about the conglomerate of afflicting evils, omnipresent and eternally malevolent, some tangible and beatable, some unknowable and invincible. It’s about your arsehole boss or exploitative boyfriend, and the overwhelming despair that paralyses you and you haven’t the faintest idea why. Ours is a world inherently drowning in darkness and it’s only through natural human optimism and kindness that we can rise above and against. Lacey is someone willing to forego traditional beneficence to perform the infinitely more difficult charity of grappling despair, and providing a voice for those who simply cannot cope.
8. Closer — Joy Division
I like to think of myself as not possessing too many affectations; but my proclivity for wearing band tees unbecoming to the occasion should not only not be ignored, but habitually condemned by all. If you enable my delinquency through inaction you‘re complicit. Silence is compliance. One of the most severe of these calamities was my first night out during my Freshers Week, when I thought I’d establish my edgy credentials by wearing a white Closer tee to the most vanilla nightclub conceivable (now tragically defunct). And you know what? I’d do it again. It’s still a cracking t-shirt.
The album itself is without a shadow of a doubt the best post punk music ever recorded. Its residual inventiveness and apocalyptic austerity echo as poignantly and anarchically as ever, nestling itself in that timelessly cool cultural cachet of being unsettling, experimental and riotous, like David Lynch films and the veryexistence of Helena Bonham Carter. There’s the synth squirts on ‘Isolation’, the unshackable urgency of the bass guitar in ‘Twenty Four Hours’, the shadows that waver in the lamplight of ‘Passover’s’ ghost-story, its snares prolonged like frosted breath. The editorship of infamous Manchester producer Martin Hannett is conspicuous, but the creative influences of this dystopic majesty are manifold.
Despite my gushing over the granite-tasting disturbia of the album’s initial two-thirds, it’s the haunting, closing pair which dawdle in my subconscious; because this is the shutting window into Ian Curtis’s soul. Closer released posthumously for Curtis, but the prefiguring is heartbreakingly realised. While ‘Twenty Four Hours’ posited “Destiny unfolded, I watched it slip away”, ‘The Eternal’ and ‘Decades’ display boundless humanity fatigue. The former drags Joy Division’s claustrophobia to extremes, sepulchral and resigned and elegiacally gorgeous, while the latter trapezes a jaunty synth line while lamenting the innate malice and suffering of our species through war, genocide and disaster exploitation; “We knocked on the doors of Hell’s darker chamber/Pushed to the limit, we dragged ourselves in.”
When people discuss art that is concurrently meaningfully, nihilistically sad and also pristinely beautiful, the conversation ender is Closer. Nothing else comes close.
7. Paul’s Boutique — Beastie Boys
How do you describe the genius of Beastie Boys to someone who knows them by ‘Sabotage’ and/or ‘Fight For Your Right’? Two songs more errantly misappropriated than that Marilyn Monroe quote about being deserved. The uninitiated scoff at the sequestered puzzle pieces; ‘three dweeby white boys from New York’ + ‘a hardcore punk band enigmatically mutating into a hip hop group’ + ‘a shared, nerdy enthusiasm for funky samples and quirky rhyming rather than anything approaching traditional substantive or cool’ cannot separately = one of the categorically best rap acts ever, and the architects of my third favourite hip hop album. It’s fundamentally implausible and borderline impossible. Yet here we are. When the final piece clicks into place that’s what we’re left with.
This is a concept blurb, in that I won’t attempt to encapsulate everything great about Paul’s Boutique in 300 words, but annotate a single song, a process which will hopefully expound why it and its brethren are so extraordinary.
‘Egg Man’ is orchestrated by the bouncing bassline of Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Superfly’ interjected by sporadic bursts of The Commodores and Sly & The Family Stone, but also flurries of the Jaws theme and dialogue from Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle. The fluency of their overlapping and modulating is astonishing, as the most disparate bells and whistles of 70s disco fall for the squealing strings from Psycho’s shower scene as if they’re starry-eyed soulmates. It’s not just that the samples and rhymes dance entwined, it’s that they waltz, flamenco and slutdrop in perfect synchronicity.
The wit and energy of the rhyming is exhilarating, bubbling with puns and images which are irresponsibly funny and clever — don’t go egging people kids, even if the white rappers say it’s cool — “I pulled out the jammy, he thought it was a joke/The trigger I pulled; his face, the yolk”. Our criminal egger reforms his ways, and becomes an eggy vigilante; “You made the mistake you judge a man by his race/You go through life with egg on your face”. There’s allusions to Dr. Seuss, pop-philosophy about the chicken/egg paradox, and a persistent surrealism juxtaposing the highly-strung grooves.
Don’t let the puerility and frippery fool you; this is a spectacularly conceptualised and executed work of art, and one corner of the Sistine Chapel. ‘Egg Man’ is Paul’s Boutique, a piñata of boundless creativity.
6. The Meadowlands — The Wrens
Consider the title, and how it makes you feel. Do you picture the bucolic ideal, with morning dew glistening unmown grass and birdsong penetrating a razor-sharp quiet? Or do you see a dead field, colonised by rusted litter and adjoining a derelict shed?
Linger on the cover art, as pensively as possible. What do you recognise; a suburban dystopia? A bastardised nature? Or the twisted, modernist splendour of human waste, with its indomitably tragic past? I hate to get all American Beauty on y’all, but ugliness and beauty, nature and human consequence, the mist of the past and the insomnia of the present, these all matter in The Meadowlands.
Flaunting a song titled ‘Boys You Won’t Remember’ is jaggedly wry, because that’s what they intently do. It’s all but a eulogy, a biography of agonising, or agonisingly fleeting, moments, decisions and relationships. ‘Happy’ — another of those eyebrow-raised, elbow-nudging sardonicisms — chronicles a fulfilling, healthy relationship dying its death because of the decay of physical attraction, while the garbled hysteria of ‘She Sends Kisses’ despairingly implies that some break-ups are irrecoverable. ‘Hopeless’ is a necessary interval of self-assurance, a swelling, triumphant furnace of anti-love I’m-going-to-be-okayology, and unequivocally one of my favourite rock songs. ‘Everyone Chooses Sides’ purveys the ennui of being in your mid-30s, “rural poor”, deeply dissatisfied, and directionless; and how such petulant malaise illumines Charles Bissell as “the best seventeen year old ever”.
Its most devastating idea unravels on ‘Ex Girl Collection’, a song predicated on calling out the petty romanticism, and indirect misogyny, of guys reflecting on the past through the prism of exes, and how those relationships colour that time, place, and selfhood. The line “It’s just how men mark time[…] why? What else you got?” decimates me.
It’s about the romances that got away, but also that opportunity to move abroad and live a whole new life rather than stay in project management for a marketing firm, and the best friend you fell out with who died years later and the last thing you told him was to fuck off. This is mid-life crisis, existential crisis and moral crisis, stuffed into baggy jeans and a semi-detached two bedroom. There’s a bible of remorse here, engraved in the richest, most sympathetic poetry.
To my mind, if you’ve ever felt the enervating incision of real regret, The Meadowlands is concurrently the most painful and the best healing album of all-time.