I thought for my first post I’d write about the five albums that have affected me the most. These might not be the my favourite albums, and they certainly aren’t necessarily the ones I listen to most, but these are the ones that have the most personal signficance. If you’ve not heard any of them before, I hope one day that they mean something to you too.
1. Love – Forever Changes (1967)
I first heard Forever Changes when I was about 15. I was immediately hugely impressed. It was really the date of the recording that grabbed me at first. At that time I’d just began a love affair with psychedelia, only consuming music, film and literature made between the years of 1967 and 1972. After I’d listened to it carefully, I felt a peculiar affinity with the colourful music. It affected my mind with vivid visions and quickly became one of the records I had on a very heavy rotation.
As a teenager I often indulged in escapism, and it was Forever Changes that took me out of dreary Scotland and dropped me off in 60s San Francisco in the most convincing way.
Arthur Lee, as well as being known as Love’s lead singer and songwriter, also went down in Rock n’ Roll history as the man who convinced Electra Records to sign an obscure band called The Doors. Jim Morrison and Lee became friends, and Morrison conducted a vigil outside Lee’s door when he locked himself away and disappeared from the scene completely in 1967. Lee had chosen to hide from the world, paralysed with an irrational fear that he would soon die. The songs on Forever Changes came out of this debilitating terror. The lyrics are in stark contrast to the joyful music, disussing a death which Lee thought was impending.
In reality, Arthur Lee didn’t die until 2006. Luckily for me that was after I got the chance to see the band live. Lee had long since lost his singing voice, and the atmosphere at the gig was disappointing. Even so, it was a fantastic experience to see the man who crafted these beautiful songs performing them in front of me.
I don’t listen to Forever Changes much these days. I overplayed it. But when I do listen to it I feel a more personally nostalgic sense of escapism. It takes me back to the bedroom of my teenage years, which I was so keen to get away from at the time.
2. The Kingsbury Manx – The Fast Rise and Fall of the South (2005)
The Kingsbury Manx, like many other great bands, come from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. This part of the world is indisputably a warm climate, which makes it all the more impressive that The Fast Rise and Fall of The South can be so evocative of winter. These songs make me feel like I can see my breath.
I’m not sure whether this frosty thematic was a deliberate effort on the part of the band, or if it’s something to do with my personal associations with this album. I first heard it in the winter, and I listened to it a lot as I walked around in the cold. Either way it’s quite special that an album with this alt-country vibe can be wintery, when other bands in the genre have such a hot southern heat.
But just because this album has a cold and wintery tone, it doesn’t mean it’s emotionless. A rich thread of genuine feeling runs through every song on this album. It’s evocative of all of life’s moments: both the severe and the benign. The songs can take you back to past relationships: the good times, and then the bad, and back again. They could remind you of the death of a loved one, or something as simple as sitting round a fire with your friends as a teenager. When I listen to this album, my mind wraps the music neatly around my past. It’s a testament to the beauty and simplicity of the songs that it seems to fit very well indeed.
3. cLOUDDEAD – cLOUDDEAD (2001)
cLOUDDEAD is an unconventional album that defies categorisation. If I had to choose a genre, I’d reluctantly place it in the “abstract hip-hop” pile. However this doesn’t come close to defining the sound. Albums this pioneering are generally totally unlistenable, but cLOUDDEAD defies that convention. Although perhaps a little inaccessible, it’s undeniably pleasant.
cLOUDDEAD isn’t just significant to due to the countless hours I’ve spent listening to it. It was also somewhat of a gateway drug. It was through listening to cLOUDDEAD that I discovered that hip-hop is the musical genre where the most stark and innovative creativity is displayed today, even though it’s not necessarily just a hip-hop album. It has rapping, but this is rapping as you’ve never heard it before. The gentle, dreamy electronic compositions are overlaid with tight rhymes overflowing with
Ginsburgian symbolism. There is no bling or bitches here. It couldn’t be any further away from that prevailing hip hop archetype. That is why it was so instrumental in enlightening me to the possibilities of not only hip-hop but other styles of music my mind had been closed to. This is an album that can open your eyes.
cLOUDDEAD is the only album in this list that is not evocative of a particular period of my life, and that’s because I just can’t stop listening to it. It’s always there, and never feels tired. Every time I listen to it I discover something new, whether it’s newly unfolding symbolism in the complex lyrics, or previously unobserved elements of the labyrinthine instrumentation.
This album also has the dubious honour of being the only piece of music I know where a kitchen blender is used as an instrument. While this sounds insufferably pretentious, it actually works exceptionally well! Listen and find out for yourself.
4. Belle and Sebastian – Dear Catastrophe Waitress (2003)
Belle and Sebastian will always be one of my favourite bands, and here’s why:
When I was young, I hated where I was from. I still do today. Now, while some armchair psychologists might see this as indicative some kind of some kind of self loathing, I assure you that you’d understand completely if you went there. It’s just a bit of a shithole. It’s a small village about 10 miles north of Glasgow that is in terminal decline. It seems to get worse every year. Despite being set in some of the most beautiful countryside that you can imagine, it’s the most staid and mundane place I have ever been.
But luckily it had one good quality: it was within easy reach of Glasgow, a city with a vibrant and exciting culture. Though some may disagree, I found the centre of that culture lay in the west end of the city. For those of you who have never been to Glasgow, the west end is dominated by the university and is home to a reasonably dynamic community of artists of various kinds. Some call the west end pretentious but (as you can see by the nature of this blog) that’s never been something that’s particularly bothered me. Whether pretentious or not, it had an energy that captured my imagination when I was younger. It forged an idea of the type of life I’d like to have as an adult, and if I wasn’t in London that’s where I’d be.
This is where Belle and Sebastian were formed, and for me they are indisputably the soundtrack to that particular area. You can hear the west end in their music and for me that’s enough to earn them a place on this list.
5. Big Star – #1 Record (1972)
Big Star are possibly the most underrated band in musical history. Considering their vast influence on popular bands such as REM, The Replacements, Teenage Fanclub, Wilco and countless others, it is remarkable they have remained so obscure. They are somewhat a casualty of the music industry, their records having been crippled at the time of release by inefficient marketing and distribution. They also probably suffered from being ahead of their time, inventing a power pop sound that didn’t become popular for another 20 years.
Despite their influential back catalogue, the bands front man and songwriter Alex Chilton had a lack of confidence in their abilities. He once said that “people say Big Star made some of the best rock ‘n roll albums ever. And I say they’re wrong.” Well, I say that they’re spot on.
The influence that Big Star, and #1 Record in particular, has had on my life is far too personal to document fully in such a public forum. This is an album that has been a shining light in some of the darkest days I have ever had. It’s not hyperbole to say I have been given the kind of comfort from these songs that religious people often attribute to their faith in God.
Alex Chilton died in March this year, and I was distraught. I’ve never felt such grief over the death of a man who I have never met. His songs touched my life, through happy times and sad. One of my greatest regrets is that I never got to see Big Star play live.