Recently, it feels like the roof of the world is falling in. With a new crisis rearing its head almost every other day, it’s tough to stay positive. Music is always a great escape route. Like old friends, my favourite albums never fail to pick me up when I’m feeling down.
8. Foreign Affair — Tina Turner
I was introduced to Tina Turner at age 8 by my Dad. He had recorded a concert from the Foreign Affair tour on the old VCR and I was bored so I came to watch it with him and his friend. While they enjoyed the show, I was experiencing a quiet amorous epiphany. Within seconds, I had fallen head-over-heels in love with the lady on stage. Her skimpy, bum-skimming silver metallic dress was an real jaw-to-the-floor job, setting those famous legs off to perfection. What energy and charisma she had! And so, SO sexy. How could she be over 50 years old? I loved Tina then, I love her now — and this is the album I like to listen to best.
Top track: The standout track by far on this album is the first one, Steamy Windows. Considering the subject matter of it, you might ask yourself whether I should really have been listening to this when I was so young. Oh well — too late now! The song has one of the best opening sequences for any album. Those guitars! 10 seconds in and you know you’re not going anywhere until the final bar fades out.
7. (What’s the Story) Morning Glory — Oasis
The mid- to late 90s was a great time to be young in Great Britain. The brash optimism of New Labour was here and along with it the promise of positive change.
I was too young and inexperienced to really understand the political consequences of their policies and 9/11, the Iraq war and the financial crises were still years away. Why worry? Right now, there was great music, great art, an unquestioning optimism about the future…and the pleasingly patriotic feeling that Britain was the place to be.
No other sound brings this time back to me like Oasis. Two working class brothers from Manchester were providing the soundtrack to our teenage years — in our own northern accent and with some of the best lyrics since the Beatles. It felt revolutionary.
We original Oasis fans might be in our 40s now, getting grey hair and achy knees…Liam Gallagher needs a hip replacement for goodness’ sake! But all I have to do is play this CD and some of that old bravado comes back.
Top track: Some Might Say
6. California Dreamin’ — The Greatest Hits of The Mamas and The Papas
I absorbed the music of The Mamas and The Papas at home — right along with Abba, John Denver, Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers and the Shadows. Like the Everly Brothers, The Mamas and The Papas sang in beautiful harmonies and evoked the feeling of the carefree California of the 1960s. Mama Cass’s legendary vocals soaring over everything took that good music and made it truly great.
If I’m feeling exuberant and like my neighbours won’t mind, this is the music I’ll have a little solo kitchen karaoke to when I’m making dinner.
Top track: So hard to choose! Dancing in the Street, Straight Shooter and Twelve Thirty are all cracking songs. But Creeque Alley, telling the story of the band, holds some very special memories for me, so it gets the top rating.
5. Exile in Guyville — Liz Phair
Originally released back in 1993 to critical acclaim, this album made No. 56 in Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
Not that I knew about any of that when I picked the album up in the Virgin Megastore on Oxford Street in 2001 while I was studying law in London. I just knew that this music struck a chord with me (no pun intended).
By turns poppy, dark, daring and definitely not beautiful — Exile in Guyville was the perfect offering for someone who had just moved out of home into the big wide world and was overwhelmed by all the possibilities and available identities. Not to mention by the city of London itself — I’d listen to it on my headphones in my student dorm, watching the traffic lights outside change and feel briefly shielded from it all.
Everybody I have ever recommended this album to has absolutely hated it. Which has made it feel even more like my own.
Top tracks: Help Me Mary, Never Said
4. Tango in the Night — Fleetwood Mac
This was our classic family car drive album. It was our constant and reliable companion through marathon drives up to Scotland or down to the south of France on holiday. The opening bars always brought a sigh of relief: the promise of an hour of good music with no bad bits or dud songs to sit through.
Top track: Seven Wonders. Pure 80s. All hail Stevie Nicks.
3. Little Earthquakes — Tori Amos
I only properly discovered this album in the late 90s, but I do recall Tori Amos exploding onto the music scene with this, her debut album, in 1992. I remember thinking how great it was that she had brought the piano back into mainstream pop. At that time, it seemed either confined to the classical or to Elton John, who was several furlongs away from fashionable.
The raw power of her “girl turned inside out” confessional style, singing the full scope of a female life — up to and including the experience of being raped — instantly captured my attention and imagination. The album’s own popularity and landmark status have meant that it has become clichéd in the meantime — derided as the album that every girl of a certain, overwrought kind was obsessing to in the 90s. I don’t suppose Amos cares too much. When you invented the phenomenon on which the cliché is based, you don’t have to.
Top track: Precious Things. No other track on the album encapsulates Amos’ furious, piano-as-a-weapon style like this.
2. To Bring You My Love — pj harvey
The first time I played this album in the early 2000s, I regretted having bought it. It was too wild, too strange, too angry, too difficult to listen to. So, for a number of years, the CD sat in its case, gathering dust.
Until I got it out again in about 2010. It was only then that I realised the power of pj harvey’s music: it is difficult, but THAT IS THE POINT. It is art: specific enough to tell a story, yet ambiguous enough to allow the listener to derive their own meanings from it. 10 years older, I no longer heard anger in the music — it was PRIDE. Unadulterated, female SWAGGER. It’s music that you go on a journey with and in which you discover new things every time you listen.
Top track: The best song by far is No. 6, Long Snake Moan — which also happens to be one of my favourite songs of all time. The tiny, coy “mm-hmm” in the first second before a wall of sound washes over you — this is a song you have no choice but to surrender to.
Polly Jean is here and she is going to have her wicked and wonderful way with you! And believe me — it is a pleasure every single time.
1. Ray of Light — Madonna
Like lots of other little girls who grew up in the 80s and 90s, I worshipped Madonna. She might have sacrificed her role model status now by resisting the effects of ageing too strenuously— but it is hard to underestimate the effect she had on those of us who grew up listening to her songs and watching her videos. I remember watching the “Like a Prayer” video with its religious iconography and black Jesus and thinking “WOW”. I could practically feel the Pope sweating from my living room in northern England.
The message to us was: BEHOLD — I AM MADONNA. I can LOOK how I want and DO what I want: up to and including wearing a conical bra on stage! By implication, the message was that we could do anything too. Subtle it was not, but to my childish mind, this was female empowerment writ large. I wanted that too! (The empowerment — not necessarily a conical bra.)
The ultimate reinvention
The Ray of Light album took Madonna’s career and my admiration for her to a whole other level. We were already used to her ability to switch fluidly from one look and style to another — but this time the change was as dazzling as it was comprehensive.
Thanks to the voice training she undertook to play Eva Peron in the film Evita, the nasal pop princess vocals had gone— replaced by a much more mature and smooth sound, matched to William Orbit’s spacy electronica sound. Out went the Evita look…Ray of Light brought in a veritable kaleidoscope of cultural influences, from Japanese geisha style to Indian fabrics and yoga-inspired dance moves.
Madonna was quite simply at the height of her creative powers, and Ray of Light was definitive for her career.
Top track: Sky Fits Heaven. Layered electronica beats, structured and thoughtful lyrics…and I’ve always been a fan of random, unexpected drums in the middle of songs.
My favourite albums: the honourable mentions…
Annie Lennox — Diva
An accomplished album by one of Britain’s most talented artists. 30 years on and it still sounds commanding and relevant. The best song is Little Bird.
Juli — Es ist Juli
As I have written in a different piece, the music of the German group Juli represented a significant watershed for me: the moment when I really started to fully understand and “feel” the German language. This album was hugely popular around the time I moved to Austria and the songs on it trigger all kinds of memories from that special time. Of all the tracks on there, “Regen und Meer” is my clear favourite.
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