I am a muso to the core. I cannot go through a single day without either listening to, thinking about, writing about, playing or feeling music. Music gives me emotional context in my life, both in a nostalgic sense and in an ‘of the moment’ zen sense. It can magnify, inhibit, or completely change my mood, and to me is the greatest blessing in an unfathomable, wondrous and occasionally cruel existence. Music is all about emotion. The idea that a sound can speak to the soul is a fantastic one, and the music of melancholy provides the listener with some of the most profound and intimate experiences. Here is a list of ten albums, that I believe are the greatest collections of melancholic and moody music available in our modern age, in reverse order of magnificence.
10) Biosphere – N-Plants (2011)
There is not a massive amount of electronic music on this list, but ‘N-Plants’ deserves a mention here. I have already discussed the merits of this fantastic piece of work (link) and as a testament to how great an album it is, I can only look at the evidence of how many times I have listened to this album. It places the listener into an addictively dark environment. The incredible story behind the prophetic nature of this album is also quite staggering. That Geir Jennsen completed this troubling concept album exploring the uncomfortable reliance between society and nuclear power by exploring Japanese nuclear power plants, just weeks before the Fukushima disaster is quite amazing. The ‘in-utero’ atmosphere is simultaneously cathartic and sinister. Many other electronic albums feature tracks that blow one away and feature great works of technical achievement, but often, weaker tracks fill out such albums before they reach a terminus. With ‘N-Plants’, all the pieces fit together well. Beyond electronic music, it’s probably the greatest concept album ever written.
9) The Bends – Radiohead (1995)
With their first album, ‘Pablo Honey’, Radiohead revealed themselves to be a promising indie act, but it was ‘The Bends’ that showed that they were a band that were truly something special. I was in a band myself at the time (Noisegate), and this album was constantly looped in the band household. This was partly due to the vocalist’s obsession with the album. It was a genuine relief to some in the house when ‘OK Computer’ was released in 1997. It meant that we would at least have an alternative audio option. ‘The Bends’ starts strongly, features no weak tracks and ends with the haunting ‘Street Spirit’, which is in some respects the melancholy exiled cousin of ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’, with a moody arpeggio driving the emotion in the track. ‘Street Spirit’ was also the last track that Radiohead released before ‘OK Computer’ was released, the album that saw Radiohead bloom into an experimental confidence that defied the commercial expectations of mainstream music and saw Radiohead at home with a unique electronic-guitar cross-over sound. The album made number 2 in Virgin’s top 1000 albums of all time. But as the top album was ‘Revolver’ by the Beatles (who I can’t stand), I think we can give it to top spot there!
8) Rain Dogs (1985) – Tom Waits
Waits emerged onto the Jazz scene in 1972. A pianist, singer and raconteur with a charming demeanour, growling poetry and prose about the rusty, smoky, grease-smeared, bourbon-stained, tapestry of American urban subculture. ‘Rain Dogs’ saw Tom complete the move away from his more jazzy homeland that he started with ‘Swordfishtrombones’, into a new, experimental and exotic style. The instrumentation is more diverse, with double bass’s, gongs, bottles, saws and accordions linking up together. Even Keith Richards gets a cameo role with some sharp and wonky guitar moments. The songs and poems on board tell diverse stories about Jewish heritage, such as ‘Cemetery Polka’, seedy urban life, the traditional Americana sound, and even piratesque maritime fantasy with the fantastic opening track, ‘Singapore’. The album is culturally rich, eclectic and entirely satisfying and for me was a great entry album into the body of work of one of America’s greatest and most legendary musicians.
7) LA Woman (1971) – The Doors
‘LA Woman’ is both the story of a man in crisis, and the backdrop of a golden era of spirituality fracturing into ruin. The album marked the end of Jim Morrison’s active involvement with ‘The Doors’ and with popular culture, before his self-prophesised looming death cut his strings in a hotel room in Paris, 1971, just three months after the album release. Morrison, whose poetry has been both admired and mocked, managed to bring his surreal and dark rhetoric to the masses by wrapping it neatly in metaphorical pop tunes and droning, psychedelic ballads. The album is an incredible mixture of modern era blues mixed with psychedelic music with a distinctive Eastern sensibility, much down to the keys laid by the virtuoso keyboardist, Ray Manzarek, on his Fender Rhodes. There are four twelve bar blues songs. Possibly the most impressive being a rendition of Howling Wolf’s ‘Crawling King Snake’. Morrison was notoriously obsessed with snakes, giving himself the alterego of ‘Lizard King’. The most striking and haunting track is its finalé in ‘Riders On The Storm’. A timeless song, which possibly represents the finest moment that The Doors had as a musical unit. The album exists as an oasis of profound togetherness for a band that was ripping itself apart with the excesses of alcohol, sex and drugs.
6) Grace (1994) – Jeff Buckley
This album stands testament to the phenomenal talent that was Jeff Buckley. Buckley, son of musician Tim Buckley, was an artist that started to gain attention playing the café scene in Manhattan. With an incredible vocal range of four octaves, he was able to get low tenor notes, whilst being able to access unbelievably high notes with a confident falsetto that gave his voice an occasional feminine quality. This is highly evident on the album through tracks such as ‘Corpus Christi Carol’. A cover version of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ is a real highlight on the album. When cynical pop entrepreneur, Simon Cowell decided to go for the UK Christmas number one single slot, with an over-produced saccharin-sweet version of ‘Hallelujah’ in 2008, a public backlash campaign prompted a rerelease of Buckley’s superior version. However, in an event that made me lose any kind of faith in mainstream taste, Burke managed to win out.
Buckley’s genius as both a composer and performer is on clear display in ‘Grace’, the album that turned out to be his only complete studio album before he died in a tragic swimming accident at the age of 30 in 1997.
5) The Trinity Session (1988) – Cowboy Junkies
This album is simply haunting and beautiful. The members of Cowboy Junkies arrived at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Toronto on 27th Novemeber 1987, and recorded an album of covers and original material. Instead of the typical studio processing that one hears on nearly all musical recordings, all we hear is the pure sound of a band playing in a church, and a capture of the natural ambience of the building itself. The lead single from the album was a cover version of ‘Sweet Jane’ by The Velvet Underground. The track was featured on the movie ‘Natural Born Killers’, and Cowboy Junkies went viral from there on in. There is some stunning work on the album. I was lucky enough to watch Cowboy Junkies perform a 20 year anniversary performance of this album, and to witness it was quite spine-chilling. The album reminds me of my daily drive home over freezing Cheshire country roads to Manchester, in the days when I first discovered it. Stunningly atmospheric and nostalgic. This album is a pure must-have.
4) Fleet Foxes (2009) – Fleet Foxes
The NME dismissed Fleet Foxes after this album was released, tagging them as “hippies who sing acapella”. As a raw description, this is partly what Fleet Foxes appear to be, but in no way is this necessarily a criticism. There is a nostalgic, baroque sensitivity to their song-writing style. One that is culturally aware of America’s heritage in folk music through acts like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. There is also a nod to the folk music of historical England. It is this remarkable song-crafting style, coupled with the pure and simple vocal talents of Robin Pecknold that make this new and young musical act a genuine delight to listen to. I’m not really the sort of bloke that is familiar with the activity of crying, but after having listened to this album, I genuinely sensed teary eyes as I started to listen to the ‘Sun Giant’ EP that followed the album’s release. Fleet Foxes are something special. A blast from the past in an era of autotune, dance routines and pouting popstars living the high life. The band have spoken about the confusing spat with the NME. Pecknold said “Being interviewed by the NME is like being interrogated for a crime you didn’t commit.”, after an interview in which the NME angled entrapping questions at the band concerning their thoughts on downloading music. The NME continue to vent their irrational spleen over Fleet Foxes, as is evident in the 4 out of 10 review of their latest album (link). But seems more a case of a bunch of naive rookie hacks having an office joke about a band that probably don’t wear enough makeup or have trendy enough hairstyles to fit in with their wanky Shoreditch hipster inspired ideas of the zeitgeist in music.
3) Dummy (1994) – Portishead
‘Dummy’ won the Mercury prize in 1995, and is probably one of the most deserved winners in the history of the award. The band consisting of Geoff Barrow, Beth Gibbons and Adrian Utley were no rookies when they put together this project. Rather, they were experienced professionals with a deep understanding of music production, and with great musical taste. They emerged from the Bristol trip-hop scene of the 1990’s with a sound that paid hommage to the grandiose drama present in the music of John Barry, together with a feel for 1980’s hip-hop beats. ‘Dummy’ has a running time of just over 45 minutes. However, a listen to the album seems to be over in a much shorter period, as the songs work through one by one, sumptuously transitioning from one dark place to the next. ‘Dummy’ is an absolute timeless classic and masterpiece. Incredible that this album is almost twenty years old, although it already sounded like an old classic when it was first released. That a band could draw together so many genres and different groups of people to one album, with such a sensitive and sensual sound, probably helped give it it’s unofficial title of ‘the best bedroom album of all time’. It manages to blend soul, old r+b, hip hop, electro, jazz and old movie music. And check out the video for ‘Glory Box’. Extremely surreal!
2) She Hangs Brightly (1990) – Mazzy Star
‘She Hangs Brightly’ was my favourite album for a long time. Probably till I discovered my number one choice below! Mazzy Star are not a band that have garnered much attention in the UK, but instead have amassed a fiercely loyal cult following. The heart-breakingly charming vocal tones of the Hispanic-American singer, Hope Sandoval have claimed the devotion of many, as can be seen from the fan website, Mazzy Star Boulevard. Sandoval worked with guitarist, David Roback on this, the first of three studio albums, before the fading of his romantic relationship with Sandoval prompted a hiatus, that was not broken for twelve years. During which time, the artists worked on other projects. Sandoval toured and recorded with former My Bloody Valentine drummer, Colm Ó Cíosóig as the band, Warm Inventions. Sandoval has continued her incredible Americana-infused dream pop sound now over five albums, three from Mazzy Star and two with The Warm Inventions, and it all started here. Instantly, from the bat, ‘Halah’ introduces the listener to the quintessential sound that is a natural and easy mixture of melancholy and optimism. There’s a bluesy influence going on in many of the songs, and a cover of ‘Sailin’ written by the old school blues musician, Memphis Minnie. Possibly, my favourite track on the album is ‘Blue Flower’. It’s a simple rock ‘n’ roll sound, and it’s sexy as hell. Giving that a close run for the money though is the title track of the album which points more towards Mazzy Star’s influences in the psychedelic heritage of what was then their Californian base. ‘She Hangs Brightly’ could easily be a lost Doors track, and it’s a song that gives me the shivers. Any time I listen to this album, I’m always impressed and cannot get away from how wonderful it is.
1) Anna Calvi (2011) – Anna Calvi
From the first listen to Anna Calvi’s debut album, I was instantly hooked. Calvi’s introduction guitar instrumental whisks the listener into a vintage Americano fantasy world. Calvi is a gifted guitarist, with a style that combines flamenco technique with the sensibilities of 1950’s American rock ‘n’ roll. Further more, to bolster her great talent is the striking sound of her remarkable voice, as the instrumental opening track, ‘Rider To The Sea’ ends, leading to ‘No More Words’. A warm and sultry voice with a haunting vibrato, in combination with that killer vintage guitar sound and used within an array of songs that each have their own identity, but sit together well as a collection. This is indeed another album like ‘Dummy’ and ‘She Hangs Brightly’, that runs through seamlessly, and despite its 40 minute running time, seems to conclude in a much shorter time period. Calvi is greatly talented, and this album points to a career that will no doubt provide fans of her music with many more dark, elaborate and sophisticated moments. The album was nominated for the Mercury prize, but lost out to PJ Harvey’s second Mercury win with ‘Let England Shake’. Indeed, Calvi is sometimes reminiscent of PJ Harvey, as is evident in songs like ‘The Devil’. How Calvi was not recognised by the top Mercury award and how Ed Sheeran managed to beat her to the Brit Awards title of best newcomer is more an indication of musical trends rather than any real objective appreciation of the most exciting musicians of the moment. You need this album in your life! (Buy it now!)