Recently, BBC4 showed a series called Danny Baker’s Great Album Showdown, in which the veteran broadcaster (fresh from arguably the most awesome on-air resignation in the history of radio) discussed great albums from the genres of rock, pop and R&B. I enjoyed the programmes, although I didn’t watch the R&B one, and I thought they might have made slightly more sense as radio shows: that way, they could have played some of the actual music, instead of just talking about it. If you want to see the programmes yourself, they seem to be available on YouTube (or you can just wait until the BBC repeat them: I mean, it’s a BBC4 series, there won’t be long to wait, whenever you’re reading this…).
I didn’t buy into everything to do with the programmes. For example, I don’t share the contributors’ collective veneration – fetishisation, almost – of the physical object of the Long Playing vinyl record. My earliest experiences of listening to music involved vinyl records – as I guess they did for most people my age – but personally I was glad when it became possible to enjoy music without having to be near a large piece of furniture. (I know there were ‘portable’ record players, but ‘portable’ just meant that you didn’t need a team of navvies and a removals van to shift them, not that they were actually easy to carry – and, anyway, there’s no way my parents would have been able to afford anything that expensive.) Personally, I experienced it as a liberation when it became possible to listen to music in a genuinely portable format – something I experienced first in the form of my crappy little Saisho ‘personal stereo’ (which was actually a personal mono), and to this day I still mainly listen to music when I’m out and about, using my (ancient, pre-iPod) MP3 player.
I also found myself disagreeing with the idea that the golden age of the album was coextensive with the LP – that the era of the album ended when the LP fell from favour in the 80s, and that it will never rise again in the digital age. For a start, it seems to me inevitable that it will rise again, at least to some extent – the art of crafting a cycle of songs that work as a sequence is different to the art of crafting a standalone song, and some bands and artists of the future will inevitably want to try their hands at it. And secondly, in the process of thinking about my own favourite albums I realised that many of them come from the post-LP era but for all that are still very definitely albums – collections of songs that were designed to be listened to together, rather than just a bunch of singles interspersed with filler material.
As with those of the supposed ‘golden era’, on my favourite albums it’s clear that the same amount of work has gone into songs that remained as album tracks as songs that were released as singles, and it’s also clear that attention has been paid to sequencing – to ensuring the songs appear in a sequence that allows them to complement each other, rather than jamming all the hits together at the beginning. The only thing that differentiates some of these albums from those of the LP era is that they are not conceived with the idea of ‘Side A’ and ‘Side B’ uppermost in their creators’ minds – because most people would listen to the album on a format that allows uninterrupted listening, their creators sometimes took advantage of the freedom not to structure the record around an enforced break halfway through (although some still did).
Anyway, as a consequence of all this I’ve dug out some of my favourite albums and given them a listen, and I’ve been pleased to discover that they are as good as I remember them to be, if not better. And doing that also gave me the idea for a blogpost or, rather, a series of blogposts: a countdown of my seven favourite albums, in order, with a brief summary of what I think makes them great. So that’s exactly what I have planned for the next week – a fresh post each day, starting tomorrow with my seventh-favourite album of all time and then building, day by day, towards my all-time favourite.
Naturally, I don’t want to shatter the ‘suspense’ (yeah, right…) by announcing the albums in advance, but I should probably drop a few teasing hints to try and drum up a little interest. So I’ll note that, although some of the entries won’t come as a surprise, the majority of bands in the list I haven’t blogged about previously, including two of the top three. And I guess I can also let you know that all seven records made it into the top 30 of the main UK album chart when they were first released, which I guess makes them moderately mainstream. On the other hand, I’ve only seen one of them included in another ‘best albums’ list (although I don’t obsessively scan such things, so I might have missed others), which suggests they’re not so mainstream as to be entirely predictable. Oh, and all but one of them was released in the 1990s. I should probably also mention in passing that I’m surprised by some of the bands that aren’t on the list – some of my favourite artists (including those who recorded some of my favourite individual songs) are excluded because, despite their brilliance, they never recorded a great album. To qualify for my list, an album has to be consistently great, not made up of a few gems scattered among dross.
Anyway, that’s enough prattling for now – meet me back here tomorrow for the start of Aethelread’s Great Album Countdown…