1981

Kraftwerk – Computer World (Kling Klang)

Even by 1981 Kraftwerk’s influence was assured but Computer World saw them further embedded into consciousness of virtually everything that would follow it.  The themes of technological advancement, supremacy and isolation are prominent throughout, which begs the question as to whether Hutter et al where psychic or whether nothing has changed in the intervening 30 years.  Away from lyrical concerns their compact approach to electronic music has become a filter that all music is now heard through, every keyboard, drum machine or sequencer that is ever used evolved from their work, whether it is stylistically or technological, all dance, synth-pop and electronic is here but it is this album’s influence on hip-hop that makes it singular. Effortless, innovative, profound and fun, it is not only a part of the canon but a work that impacted on all its subsequent members.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mN5UfJA2evY

Brian Eno & David Byrne – My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (Sire)

Perhaps Kraftwerk’s only ommission was not to fully predict, pre-empt and define sampling culture, thankfully Eno & Byrne decided to take time out after ‘Remain in Light’ and record future music.  Rhythm tracks and layered improvisation was then topped with found vocal sounds in lieu of ‘actual’ singing, while Byrne’s vocals had recently been taking Talking Heads to new heights here his voice is silent, instead the altered voices of politicians handling criticism or loops of an exorcism take the centre ground.  The result is an intense eerie space of cold funk, as rhythmic as it is ambient, still as fresh and unparalleled today as it must have been 30 years ago.  I once read that this was Terminator X’s favourite album and to be honest if the words ‘David Byrne’, ‘Brian Eno’ and ‘Terminator X’ in that context don’t get you excited then you should go and use Google to find something else to read as this blog may not be of use to you.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8NWtm3LE-x4

ABBA – The Visitors (Polar)

To dislike ABBA is to wilfully dislike joy, their ability to fuse the radical and familiar in a hummable form and be HUGE may not have been seen since, and they also seem to have been the first to do so, since The Beatles.  While their last album may only feature one track that made an appearance on the omnipresent uber-work that is ABBA Gold this has no shortage of genuine hooks found in surprising places.  While The Beatles saw out their time under that trading name in increasingly separate spaces ABBA stayed ABBA.  Recording on ‘The Visitors’ started only weeks after Benny and Frida’s divorce in a mist of synths, an air of introspection and melancholy which has none of the euphoric disco of their earlier works, instead the weave of arpeggiated keys and singing in the round instil a sense of loss and longing that cannot help but draw attention to the circumstances that went into its creation.  Evidently as emotionally as they are musically mature, this is a dignified and precise detailing of heartbreak.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ec2dCvoext0

Duran Duran – Duran Duran (EMI)

Some years ago another writer from this blog had drag me away from a young man who had dared to suggest that fashion was more important than politics. I stand by that (although I may have made a better job of expressing myself at the time) however it is sad that today’s pop music has nothing that can even hold a candle to DD. Aside from the Scissor Sisters, think of a modern pop act that has gained any modicum of success off its own back without being manufactured in some way? You can’t can you. Positive, well made, middle class popular music is dead.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gudEttJlw3s

Altered Images – Happy Birthday (Portrait Records)

Claire Grogan. Mmmm.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=40K2S0-5Xo0

Soft Cell – Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret (Some Bizzare)

From the opening rhythm of the syth that builds like a toy steam engine revving up, Soft Cell’s cover of Tainted Love remains a pure joy and as with Duran Duran’s overtly middle class preening it’s hard to see any modern pop band getting away with releasing an album with such overtly homo-erotic content (Scissor Sisters excepted). The final track Say Hello Wave Goodbye proves that electronic music can be both humorous and heartbreaking at the same time; Marc Almond’s half spoken vocals somehow managing to simultaneously convey feelings of hope and remorse.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AbEOgfq3CNc

The Clash – Sandinista! (Epic)

‘Sandinista!’ is a glorious failure, arguably the worst of the first five proper albums The Clash and for all that maybe the most intriguing for it. The grand folly of the double album is something which has plagued the plagued every credible ‘artist’ since The Beatles unleashed the ever so slightly self-indulgent nonsense of ‘The White Album’, but The Clash’s decision to trump their relatively focused ‘London Calling’ with a triple beast showed such scant regard for quality control, that the brainstorm of ideas that swamped its audience deserved attention for its sheer ambition and desire to play with genres about a million miles away from the easily dismissed ‘garage band’ of five years previous. The reggae and dub influences of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Mikey Dread are to the forefront of the album with levels of echo only previously embraced in straight rock songs during the week that Phil Spector had a particularly nasty bout of tinnitus, while the fledgling genre of rap is heard through ‘The Magnificent Seven’ and ‘Lightning Strikes (Not Once But Twice)’, predating Blondie’s ‘Rapture’ by six months and making real claims to be the first white rap record, which considering much of what followed is in itself quite a dubious claim to fame. The album cemented mainstream success in America while drawing disapproving looks at home its self-indulgence and UK critics did of course have a point, but for glorious ambition and a desire to share every grand design with their public, ‘Sandinista!’ must be applauded at least as a catalyst for the experimentation with world music that followed.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ijiazWlawUY

Elvis Costello and the Attractions – Trust (F-Beat)

Like all great artists of a certain age, Elvis Costello has been working hard for many a year to piss away his legacy with sentimental tosh punctuated with a brief glimpses of what made him great in the first place, prompting earnest declarations of that most terrifying phrase, namely the ‘return to form.’ Back in 1981, Costello’s fifth album and one of two that year with the country covers album ‘Almost Blue’ following it, ‘Trust’ was Declan McManus at the peak of his game, with spiky new wave melodies branching out into blue eyed soul and cataloguing tensions within his marriage and band. ‘Clubland’ has all the urgency of earlier works, while ‘You’ll Never Be A Man’ evokes The Pretenders and ‘From a Whisper to a Scream’, a duet with Squeeze’s Chris Difford provides a joyous contrast between Costello’s rasp and Difford’s poppy croon. Ironically, the album was a relative commercial flop in comparison with the covers which followed, but this was Costello at his poetic best and an undervalued gem amongst more revered albums of this Nick Lowe produced period.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kbasuu1gCDs

Adam and the Ants – Prince Charming (Epic)

It’s a fine line between clever and stupid, which is true of most things in life, but absolutely true when it comes to pop music. Adam Ant and Marco Pirroni almost certainly didn’t change the world musically, but they did have enough ludicrous vision to present an utterly grand a ridiculous view of the world which has been ideologically imitated but never bettered with regards to creating a grand, fanciful design. When examined closely, the title track, replete with an aging Diana Dors in the video exclaiming ‘Don’t you ever stop being dandy, showing me you’re handsome’ to a tango seems such improbable number one single material, but there it is as much a triumph of style as anything the Sex Pistols ever managed. Will we ever see a better single about a highwayman than ‘Stand and Deliver’? I think not. Can you refrain from singing and at least partially dancing along? Almost certainly not. ‘Ant Rap’, which was the final single to be taken from the album is, in retrospect, utter tosh, but in the context of rap’s first fledgling steps, it strangely has the album ham-fistedly surfing the zeitgeist. Aside from the singles, ‘Picasso Visita El Planeta De Los Simios’ has quirky new wave charm and even the faintly ludicrous ‘S.E.X’ foresees Damon Albarn’s attempts at capturing a very British sensuality. The album is far from a masterpiece, but it seems nigh on impossible that mainstream pop music could be quite so willingly dandy ever again and the world is poorer for it.

PJ Harvey- Let England Shake

We are legally obliged to include this album in any list.

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The Go-Betweens – Spring Hill Fair (Sire – 1984)

That the great Forster/McLennan song writing axis emerged from Brisbane, a city hardly renowned for its musical magnificence, seems noteworthy enough, but that their third album, 1984’s Spring Hill Fair was released on Sire Records just two months before the same label spawned the all-conquering pop behemoth of Madonna’s Like A Virgin, seems all the more remarkable. While Madonna was morphing from the club sensation resplendent in fishnets, capri pants, lace and what would later seem like an arch use of the Crucifix, to a cultural icon; the fey post-punk Rough Trade world that The Go-Betweens inhabited, had in places the same immediacy and songwriting craft that could have sold a similar 21 million copies worldwide, but lacked that Nile Rodgers production sheen and was hamstrung with enough wilfully difficult moments that would forever resign them to a well-loved cult.

The brutal, yet accessible honesty of the songwriting, the type that could have easily have been successfully adapted for Madonna, is typified in Grant McLennan’s album opener ‘Bachelor Kisses’, with its lovelorn melancholic pre-chorus intoning ‘Don’t believe what you’ve heard/Faithful’s not a bad word’, in a way that could’ve melted a million teenage hearts, but instead remained the preserve of the select few. The elegiac jangle which told tales of a desperate yearning for snatched glimpses of forbidden love of soul standard ‘The Dark End of the Street’, while hinting at an unstereotypically sensitive masculine soul. But while these fragile gasps of snatched glimpses of seeing how ‘the rain surrenders to the town’ melted hearts, the more angular stomp of songs like ‘Five Words’, ‘The Old Way Out’ and in particular ‘River of Money’, were about as far removed as you could get from what Kurt Cobain would later sarcastically bemoan as being a ‘Radio Friendly Unit Shifter.’ This was not the angularity and wilful obscurity of The Fall or Sonic Youth, but the post-punk non-linear guitars that were some way from ever troubling mainstream radio, although clearly no worse for it.

Arguably the album’s most famous song, Forster’s ‘Part Company’, is a work of sheer open heart surgery, that one a first listen one presumes that they could not have conceivably have lived this long without hearing it. Forster’s delivery, especially in the verses, verges on such dry, near spoken word fractures that reveal the conflict of having been wronged by a lover: ‘And what will I miss? Her cruelty, her unfaithfulness/ Her fun, her love, her kiss, part company.’ The ability to remain honest while without descending into self-pity or a parody of indie emotional bloodletting is key to the song’s success and it seems unlikely that there isn’t a fan of The Go-Betweens who hasn’t instinctively reached for it when compiling a compilation tape for the object of their affections.

While it certainly isn’t true of the rest of their output, Forster’s louche cool dominates the album, with the embittered tale of rejection by pampered self-importance in ‘Draining The Pool For You’ and the urgent, without ever becoming knowingly overpowering ‘Man O’Sand To Girl O’Sea’. Indeed the latter, which closes the album, manages to combine a sense of drama and pace like contemporaries The Smiths would at a similar stage of their career, without ever descending into the portentous clouds of pretention that the likes of humourless Scouse The Doors fanatics Echo and the Bunnymen would pedal with much greater commercial and immediate critical success. But this was not a band with an agenda of gothic self-loathing or overtly attempting to appeal to a disenfranchised youth, merely classic songwriting, as massive Dylan and Creedence Clearwater Revival fans Forster and McLennan would have attested.

The album was, for a label the size of Sire, a commercial flop and the band were promptly dropped, with the follow-up and arguably their career high ‘Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express’ arriving on Beggars Banquet in 1986, with the indie label being a much more natural fit for such relatively idiosyncratic talents. ‘Spring Hill Fair’ may not be a faultless record and Foster and McLennan certainly matured as songwriters in the years that followed, but it remains a much overlooked gem from a much maligned or stereotyped period of music. Certainly, there are times when the production values force the listener to blanche at a testament of just how not to record drums, but as a study in how to be simultaneously urgent, emotionally vulnerable and eccentrically joyous, few albums will be bettered.

James Tiernan