Back in January, I compiled a list of my all-time favourite songs, though the title is a bit of a misnomer in hindsight. My tastes are quite temporal, and I can say that since that piece was originally written at least one of its entries was knocked off the list by another. Keeping with my preferential inconsistency, what follows are my top five favourite albums in this point in time, arranged in alphabetical order. Please enjoy this mindless self-indulgence.
Amnesiac, by Radiohead
Kid A’s release in 2000 completely redefined Radiohead as a band and helped popularize electronica, ambience and, to a degree, Krautrock over the next decade and beyond. Amnesiac, born out of the same recording sessions and for all intents and purposes Kid A’s fraternal twin, was released the following year to similar if noticeably lessened fanfare, and has since been kind of lost in the shuffle between the former album and Radiohead’s return to their rocker roots in 2003’s Hail to the Thief. Compared to the at times icy precision of its twin, Amnesiac is a more freely flowing album that emphasizes Radiohead’s jazz influences in pieces like “Pyramid Song,” “You and Whose Army?” and “Life in a Glasshouse,” the last of which sounds like a strung out house band’s dirge in a bombed-out New Orleans saloon. “I Might Be Wrong,” a harsh, guitar-driven song, straddles the line between intensity and plain old scary, and the ethereal backwards melody of “Like Spinning Plates” is one of the record’s emotional highlights. While Kid A may remain Radiohead’s greatest and most defining album, Amnesiac’s meaty and messy output ensures its constant rotation on my personal playlist.
Hot Rats, by Frank Zappa
Zappa’s second solo record is an almost entirely instrumental affair that wonderfully showcases the man’s skill as a guitarist and arranger. The first instalment in Zappa’s unofficial jazz trilogy, which also includes Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo, Hot Rats is a tight piece of work. Even ignoring the album opener and now jazz fusion standard “Peaches en Regalia,” the record manages to peak with every song, though I’m most pumped up by the nearly 13-minute-long “Gumbo Variations,” which features a lengthy and awesome jazz-rock violin solo by Don “Sugercane” Harris. Beside all of this, Hot Rats is arguably Zappa’s most accessible album and an ideal jumping off point for exploring the late artist’s substantial discography.
Low, by David Bowie
From 1976 to 1980, David Bowie put out five of the best records of his career, four of them with producer Tony Visconti. His first collaboration with Visconti, and the first of his Brian Eno-guided “Berlin trilogy,” was 1977’s Low, whose harsh electronic sound had only been briefly previewed by its predecessor, Station to Station (Bowie’s second best, for the record). Low sticks out even from Bowie’s largely experimental output in this period thanks to a distinctive hollow, processed drum sound created by Visconti for the album. The first half consists of catchy, mostly fast-paced rock-oriented tunes with electronic backing, “Be My Wife” being one of the best songs of Bowie’s career, but Low really takes off with its instrumental and semi-ambient second half, especially the grandiose “Warszawa” and album closer “Subterraneans.” Bowie would reuse this formula later on that year for “Heroes,” albeit lacking Low’s almost purely electronic bite.
So, by Peter Gabriel
You know what I mean by an “’80s sound,” right? Bright, excessive synths? Treble cranked up on the bass? That intangible sense of everything being artificially grafted together? Well Pete Gabe’s 1986 release has all of these unfortunate traits, but exceeds in spite of all of them. With the help of the Prophet-5 synthesizer, the early Fairlight CMI sampler and best bassist ever Tony Levin (among many others, of course), this nine song record not only sports some of the greatest hits of his career—I shouldn’t even half to mention “Sledgehammer” and “In Your Eyes” at this point, but there you go—but some simply sublime compositions. Why “Mercy Street” isn’t heard during every sad TV drama moment is beyond me. Moreover, So is just incredibly listenable from start to finish, the accessible but incredibly detailed nature of its arrangements making it enjoyable whether appreciated casually or attentively.
Still, by Nine Inch Nails
An unusual album on this list, as four of its nine tracks are stripped down re-recordings of older NIN tunes. However, Still feels like a calm after the storm, dotted with short, subdued pieces like “Adrift and at Peace” and “Gone, Still.” This (comparatively) tranquil approach foreshadows some of his work on With Teeth and with How to Destroy Angels, but even on its own it stands toe-to-toe with The Fragile and The Downward Spiral. Still is a rarity but also Trent Reznor at his compositional best.