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.
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.
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.
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.
Altered Images – Happy Birthday (Portrait Records)
Claire Grogan. Mmmm.
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.
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.
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.
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.