Presented here, for purely self-indulgent reasons, are my top 10 albums of all time.
Now, these aren’t supposed to be the albums that I think have made the greatest impact on popular culture or anything like that – they’re simply the ten that I seem to find myself coming back to more than any others.
If you’re interested enough to want to hear them, I’ve added Spotify links to each album below and created a Spotify playlist of the standout tracks from each of the albums. You can listen to that here, using one of those funny embeds that requires Spotify to be installed on your device in order to listen to it:
Beck – Mutations
Beck had to be on this list somewhere. He’s the top artist on my Last.fm profile and I’ve been a fan ever since a girl from school let me listen to his breakthrough Mellow Gold album on the coach on a French exchange trip in the spring of 1995.
Personal highlight songs in Beck’s repertoire include Beercan, High 5 (Rock The Catskills) and Cellphone’s Dead but I’ve chosen one of his more stripped-down acoustic-focused albums to include on this list, simply because the songwriting’s so good. I remember buying this in my second year at university and holing up in my squalid room to listen to it on repeat for most of the evening.
Standout tracks: Cold Brains, We Live Again, Diamond Bollocks
Pulp – His ‘n’ Hers
Different Class may have been Pulp’s mainstream breakthrough but for most fans, His ‘n’ Hers holds more magic. When I was in my teens, the treble-heavy mix on the album felt a rough on my ears but in time I grew to love the album’s tales of suburban youth and behind-the-net-curtains sex.
The version of the album available now (like many big albums from my teens) has been enriched with extra tracks from b-sides and radio sessions of the period. These include my three favourite Pulp tracks of all time. The Sisters EP featured Your Sister’s Clothes, Seconds and His ‘n’ Hers (a non-album track, strangely). These three, for me, capture the beauty of Pulp perfectly and should not be missed.
Standout tracks: Acrylic Afternoons, Do You Remember the First Time?, Seconds (deluxe album only)
The Fiery Furnaces – Widow City
I was torn between Bitter Tea and Widow City as to which Fiery Furnaces album to include, but I reckon Widow City wins by a nose. The brother/sister duo of Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger has produced some of the most inventive pop music of the 21st Century so far. While some feel that they can stray too far into self-indulgent territory (and it’s true that their albums tend to be about 4 songs too long), I can’t get enough of them.
Widow City features perhaps the best balance of experimentalism and pure songwriting in the Fiery Furnaces’ back catalogue. Meanwhile, the instrumentation – dominated by bombastic, complex drum patterns and the tape-based samples of the amazing-sounding Chamberlin M1 keyboard make this sound like no other record ever made.
Standout tracks: My Egyptian Grammar, Ex-Guru, Uncle Charlie
Matthew Friedberger – Holy Ghost Language School / Winter Women
The Fiery Furnaces’ Matthew Friedberger features twice on this list – three times if you count both halves of this excellent double album, which saw him explore his pop and experimental tendencies in equal measure. Squelchy Moog basslines, chaotic drums, coarse bursts of electric guitar and washes of synthesised strings abound here.
Winter Women is as close to a pop album as Friedberger has ever got, while Holy Ghost Language School is a concept album about a man who falls asleep while driving on a highway and dreams of setting up a Chinese language school for English-speaking businesspeople. As you do. Both are rich with the same kind of intricate, location-filled lyrics you’ll find in much of the Fiery Furnaces’ work, with lines like “It’s always foggy when I’m in Roppongi / I’d gotten off the plane at Narita with 26 yen in my pocket and 3,600 dollars in my coat.”
This double album isn’t for everyone, but for those willing to give it the time, you’ll find a treasure trove of inventiveness that you can keep coming back to, discovering more each time.
Standout tracks: The Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company Resignation Letter, Her Chinese Typewriter, Seventh Loop Highway
The Knife – Silent Shout
Few albums can sustain an atmosphere as consistent as The Knife’s 2006 classic, Silent Shout. While they’re best known for the single Heartbeats, taken from their previous album, Silent Shout eschews standout hits for a collection of songs that combine soulful electropop with a deliciously dark, looming sense of dread.
That’s not to say there aren’t pop moments here – One Hit recalls the stomp and pomp of glam rock, while We Share Our Mother’s Health can fill dancefloors at the right kinds of clubnight. This isn’t an album to listen to for feelgood vibes, but if you want to enter a cold, synthetic world that manages to balance human emotion with digital precision, this is for you.
Standout tracks: We Share Our Mother’s Heath, Marble House, Like A Pen
New Order – Substance
I’ve never been a fan of New Order’s albums; they were principally a singles band for me. That’s why I’ve chosen Substance, an collection of the 12-inch extended mixes of all the band’s singles from 1981 to 1987.
I discovered New Order when I was 11 years old and World In Motion encapsulated Enlgand’s 1990 World Cup dreams, but it wasn’t until I was 15 and my parents (finally!) invested in a CD player that I bought ‘(The Best of) New Order’ and started diving into their back catalogue. As a compilation, Substance better represents the band at their finest though.
The album tells the story of the band’s evolution from being a slightly happier version of Joy Division to masters of the art of electronic pop. Sadly (in the UK, at least) Spotify is lacking the brilliant full version of Bizarre Love Triangle included here.
Standout tracks: Confusion, Thieves Like Us, The Perfect Kiss,
Super Furry Animals – Rings Around The World
Were I not limiting this to albums available on Spotify, I’d have been tempted to put the Super Furry Animals’ Welsh language album, Mwng on here instead. That said, Rings Around The World demonstrates a band at its peak, melding beautiful pop with imagination and experimentation (a theme running through lots of the choices on this 10-album list).
I remember when my brother got this album and listened to it for the first time. I was in the next room and as I heard No Sympathy build from mellow ballad into a mental 303-laced acid workout through the wall, I was smitten.
Standout tracks: (Drawing) Rings Around The World, Receptacle for the Respectable, No Sympathy
Aphex Twin – Drukqs
Aphex Twin had been one of those acts I’d been meaning to get into. I’d loved the singles Come To Daddy and Windowlicker that were impossible to avoid in the mid/late 90s, but it was only when Drukqs arrived in 2001 that I really became a proper fan.
The variety displayed in this double album is unmatched on any other Aphex Twin release. From mellow, acoustic prepared piano compositions through analogue synth-heavy ambient tunes to almighty avalanches of acid house, Drukqs always keeps you guessing as to what’s coming next. And the drums. Seriously, I have no idea how he composed those patterns – they’re unbelievable. It turns out that it is possible to play at least some of them live though.
Standout tracks: Vordhosbn, Cock/ver10, Taking Control
Belle & Sebastian – Push Barman to Open Old Wounds
Another example of choosing a compilation over a ‘proper’ album, but while Belle & Sebastian’s albums are all worthwhile listens (and arguably got better over time, at least until the excellence of 2003’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress), it was their first few EPs that really set the stage for what they would become, and they’re what Push Barman to Open Old Wounds chronicles.
Although undoubtedly twee, Belle & Sebastian’s early work did wordy teenage outsider angst better than anyone since The Smiths.
Standout tracks: The State I Am In, Lazy Line Painter Jane, Photo Jenny
Radiohead – OK Computer
I actually listened to this for the first time in ages last week, and I was reminded why I used to keep coming back to it. Hardly a word needs saying about this album – it’s on pretty much every rock critic’s ‘best albums of the 90s’ list.
When it came out in 1997 it made such an impact on my life. I listened to it every day for weeks or months, the band I was in with my friends covered No Surprises (badly, probably) and I bought all the CD singles for the b-sides, which were in many cases just as good as the album (see also Oasis and Pulp for examples of bands of the time that had so many good songs that their singles were must-buys even if you owned the albums). Luckily, the version of the album now on Spotify has all those b-sides, too.
Standout tracks: Paranoid Android, Exit Music (For a Film), Electioneering
Bonus not-on-Spotify selection: The Beatles – Revolver
A bit a cliché, this one but I don’t care. I bought Revolver on cassette in a record shop in Ehfurt, Germany in 1992 when on a trip to a European youth drama festival that saw me forget my lines and mouth a swear word at a fellow child actor. The director was far from impressed and I was surprised – I didn’t think Germans would know English swear words,
This was a time when I was going through a year, aged 12/13, when I listened to almost nothing but the Beatles. Revolver was as far back in the catalogue as I’d go. I was far more interested in their experimental output than what I saw as the ‘boring’ Beatlemania years. Back then, the White Album was my favourite (or maybe The Magical Mystery Tour – the soundtrack was much better than the film). Nowadays, it’s Revolver that I keep coming back to.
Oh and because The Beatles are still in the same alternate universe to the rest of the music industry that saw their albums cost twice as much as any other CDs, of course you can’t listen to it on Spotify.
Standout tracks: Taxman, And Your Bird Can Sing, Tomorrow Never Knows