Polls, polls, polls: the Brits seem to be into them even more than we are. The Observer has come up with the 100 Greatest British Albums of all time. They have taken this thing seriously, even publishing their methodology here (they list the 100 wankers – “critics, industry figures and pop stars” – who did the voting).
The pretentiously unpretentious intro by Paul Morley is here:
- Lists. Don’t you just hate them. And yet, don’t you just love them. Hate them because they’re all wrong, they’re biased, they’re fixed, they miss too much out, they’re in the wrong order, they’re utterly arbitrary, they try to cage musical beasts that should be allowed to run free in our imaginations without the indignity of being branded with numbers. And whatever comes top is usually going to knock you speechless.
You also love them because whatever comes top is going to knock you speechless. And because without them we wouldn’t really know where the Gordon Ramsay we were. They’re not complete maps of anything, they’re the edge of a map that features the entrance to a universe that is so vast and complicated that in the end you have to make your own way through it. The list helps you begin. It’s not the Complete Book of Anything, it’s like the contents page. It’s the start of something, in the ridiculous but necessary disguise of being definitive.
It is the definitive nature of the list that always unnerves me. The idea that the list is stating once and for all, this is it. But lists keep coming, ordering music in specialist sections, in time, in genre, in space, lists that sometimes support previous lists, as if there really is any kind of rock music canon, lists that often undermine previous lists, as if to say rock is always on the move and cannot ever be pinned down. The story is always changing.
Lists in one sense, the boring sense, try and make things safe and organised. Ultimately, in a good sense, they keep breaking things up, they keep reminding us that behind and beyond the obvious, the regulars, the usual suspects, there is more and more to discover. It is in a way what is outside the list, music that is just beginning to make its way into the list, and indeed up the list, as well as the music that is slipping away, that makes them so fascinating. In this list, guaranteed, as the best lists are, to send you bananas, to get you reworking them in your own image, the Clash are joining the Beatles on the saintly stage, Public Image Ltd nibble at the Stones in the bad boy tent. Massive Attack trip past Floyd, Oasis have left Blur for Britdead. Elsewhere Nick Drake, Robert Wyatt, John Martyn and Vashti Bunyan drift in from the outside, inscrutably repre senting all that music yet to be discovered. Richard Thompson, Peter Hammill, Kevin Coyne, Roy Harper …
One of the things that makes a list like this even more interesting is the idea that certain albums represent music that is on the edges of impinging upon the collective imagination – Wyatt reminds us of Soft Machine and Matching Mole albums that are missing, Yes makes us wonder about King Crimson, Black Sabbath about heavy metal in general, Brian Eno of all the other Brian Eno albums that are missing. Joy Division of the lack of Throbbing Gristle, Wire, Cabaret Voltaire, Magazine. TheHuman League of the lack of Depeche Mode. The lack of anything by Aphex Twin, Underworld or Leftfield reminds you of the lack of anything by Matthew Herbert or Four Tet. Consider the beginning of the alphabet, and imagine a list topped by the Auteurs, the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and Clinic.
In a way though, it’s all there, shadowing the list, in the gaps, behind the scenes. As I said, this is just the way in, into a very British terrain that owes a lot to mythical America, to a mixed-up world, but in some ways owes nothing. It’s not necessarily something to be patriotic about, but it’s definitely something to be intrigued by. All this, and more, from our little set of islands inside about 40 years.
David Bowie, who goes up and down these lists, is currently on the up. Radiohead are falling away, because they might after all be Gentle Giant. The Kinks are klinging on, hinting at a future Sixties invasion. Roxy Music are in the perfect position to launch an assault on the top 10. Five albums from the much maligned Eighties lurk suspiciously at the bottom, perhaps on the verge of poignantly disappearing for ever, perhaps bravely fighting back into favour. They tenderly surround the newest kid on the block Dizzee Rascal, who in 10 years might have climbed alongside Roxy and the Smiths, or have gone wherever those Eighties albums will go.
You shouldn’t read anything into lists but you can’t help yourself. They end up as a combination of great music that gets you worked up because they come in an order that makes a kind of sense, but which lacks statistical, historical and aesthetic integrity. It’s just a snapshot developed out of the tastes of the people asked, but somehow it contains grains of truth about the shape of things. The Beatles and the Stones remain, however much these lists get revamped and assaulted by new generations of fans and critics. It’s also interesting to use these lists to see when patterns and trends set in motion by these new generations become grains of truth. This list certainly suggests that the Smiths and Joy Division are now grains of truth.
The final thought, apart from considering the end of the alphabet, and imagining a list topped by Wagon Christ, XTC and the Zombies, is how startling it is to note that Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks never charted. Perhaps everyone getting pleasure from this list should go out and buy Astral Weeks, one of those great British albums that ends up in a genre of its own, in a psychic limbo between an imaginary American tradition and a possible British tradition. Astral Weeks is the real thing people are looking for when they buy their Norah Jones, their Corrs, their Joss Stones.
We list not just for comfort and because it’s a nice new parlour game. We list to remember albums such as Astral Weeks, and Five Leaves Left, This Nation’s Saving Grace and Basket of Light, to remember that such albums might have disappeared without lists like this. We list to remember that for every album like those four, there are others as worthy of our attention just out of hearing. Albums and songs waiting to be listed because, like it or not, the list goes on for ever.
- 1: The Stone Roses, The Stone Roses
Amy Raphael hails the work of four lads from Manchester – the finest British album of all time.
‘We had 100 per cent self-belief’
2: Revolver, The Beatles
London swung, England won … and the Fab Four released their masterpiece. John Harris marvels at the perfect timing.
3: London Calling, The Clash
Neil Spencer recalls the day the Last Gang came of age.
4: Astral Weeks, Van Morrison
Sean O’Hagan reveals the mysteries of the Belfast cowboy’s finest hour.
5 & 6: Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band & The White album, The Beatles
Pete Paphides celebrates two watersheds in rock history.
7 & 8: Sticky Fingers & Exile on Main S, The Rolling Stones
Barney Hoskyns pays homage to two storming classics.
9: Blue Lines, Massive Attack
Ben Thompson on the West Country’s finest.
10: Metal box, P.I.L.
Garry Mulholland on how the Sex Pistols’ singer changed everything with a different group altogether.
The Rise & Fall Of Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars, David Bowie | Beggars Banquet, Rolling Stones | The Clash, The Clash | Never Mind The Bollocks, The Sex Pistols
Club Classics vol 1, Soul II Soul | Five Leaves Left, Nick Drake | The Specials, The Specials | Closer, Joy Division | Definitely Maybe, Oasis | Loveless, My Bloody Valentine | The Smiths, The Smiths | Hounds Of Love, Kate Bush | For Your Pleasure, Roxy Music | OK Computer, Radiohead | Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, Pink Floyd | Roxy Music, Roxy Music
27: Unhalfbricking, Fairport Convention
John Harris on a thoroughly English masterpiece.
Abbey Road, The Beatles | Roxy Music, Stranded | Unknown Pleasures, Joy Division | New Boots And Panties!!, Ian Dury And The Blockheads | Rubber Soul, The Beatles | Spirit Of Eden, Talk Talk | Every Picture Tells A Story, Rod Stewart | Bryter Layter, Nick Drake | Rock Bottom, Robert Wyatt | The Queen Is Dead, The Smiths | Ocean Rain, Echo And The Bunnymen | Low, David Bowie | Led Zeppelin II, Led Zeppelin | The Bends, Radiohead
42: Lexicon Of Love, ABC
Tom Cox relives the spirit of the early Eighties.
The La’s, The La’s | Bummed, Happy Mondays | John Lennon And The Plastic Ono Band, John Lennon And The Plastic Ono Band | Solid Air, John Martyn | Hatful Of Hollow, The Smiths | Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin IV | Here Come The Warm Jets, Brian Eno | Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake, Small faces
The Yes Album, Yes | Handsworth Revolution, Steel Pulse | Just Another Diamond Day, Vashti Bunyan | Searching For The Young Soul Rebels, Dexys Midnight Runners | Entertainment, Gang Of Four | All Mod Cons, The Jam | Village Green Preservation Society, The Kinks |
58: Cut, The Slits
Sue Steward recalls the singular brilliance of the first ladies of punk.
Urban Hymns, The Verve | Maxinquaye, Tricky | My Aim Is True, Elvis Costello | Meat Is Murder, The Smiths
Dark Side Of The Moon, Pink Floyd | Aladdin Sane, David Bowie | Power, Corruption and Lies, New Order | Something Else, The Kinks | Moondance, Van Morrison | Screamadelica, Primal Scream
69: Goodbye Yellow Brickroad, Elton John
Paul Flynn hails the piano man’s greatest triumph … before the ostrich feathers took over.
(What’s The Story) Morning Glory, Oasis | The Slider, T. Rex | Grand Prix, Teenage Fanclub | Jailbreak, Thin Lizzy | Quadrophenia, The Who | Original Pirate Material, The Streets | Parklife, Blur
77: Dusty, In Memphis
Peter Robinson on the album that stopped the singer’s career in its tracks, but is now regarded as a classic.
Let it Bleed, Rolling Stones | Penguin Eggs, Nic Jones | Station To Station, David Bowie | Dummy, Portishead | Basket Of Light, Pentangle | My Generation, The Who | Road To Freedom, Young Disciples | Hunky Dory, David Bowie | Don’t Stand Me Down, Dexy’s Midnight Runners | This Nation’s Saving Grace, The Fall | Young Americans, David Bowie | Band On The Run, Wings | Regatta De Blanc, The Police | Physical Graffiti, Led Zeppelin | Paranoid, Black Sabbath | Parachutes, Coldplay | Behaviour, Pet Shop Boys
95: Dizzee Rascal, Boy In Da Corner
Ben Thompson applauds the most recent record on this list.
Dare, The Human League | Heaven Or Las Vegas, The Cocteau Twins | Rattlesnakes, Lloyd Cole And The Commotions | The Holy Bible, Manic Street Preachers | Sweet Dreams, The Eurythmics
Some quick reactions:
Overall, it’s quite an outstanding list.
I love the Stone Roses album from the bottom of my heart, but it is too derivative of British Invasion psychedelia, processed through the E-fueled Madchester rave scene, to be the greatest Brit album of all time. Greatest – to my way of ranking anyway – involves originality and influence, not just exceptional execution, though I have no quarrel whatsoever with the execution of “I Wanna Be Adored” “She Bangs the Drums” “Waterfall” and the extended “Fools Gold” tacked on to the CD version of the album. And while there isn’t a bad or even iffy song on the album, those are the only four that I consider timeless, and the best British album of all time beter have more than four timeless songs on it, or else stand as a holistic statement of near ineffable force (like Astral Weeks), and for all its charms, The Stone Roses is not that.
I like Abbey Road better than Revolver, The White Album or Sgt Pepper’s.
I like Sandanista! better than London Calling (blasphemy!! no one expects the punky inquisition).
I like Moondance better than Astral Weeks.
Sticky Fingers and Let It Bleed are my two fave Stones albums, probably, Exile is third, usually.
Massive Attack doesn’t figure that prominently in my thinking.
“Disappointed” is my fave PIL tune, and 9 probably my fave album, but nothing by PIL touches upon the mad glory that was Never Mind the Bollocks.
Thank God the Brits appreciate Roxy Music and Bowie almost sufficiently, although I would put them both in the top 10.
I don’t like Oasis and top 20 is way too high, but at least the Brits are coming to their senses and aren’t calling them better than the Beatles anymore.
I love the Smiths at their best, but the Brits seem to think the Smiths were always at their best.
I’m happy to see Steel Pulse in there, although I prefer True Democracy to Handsworth.
The La’s album rules with freakish authority that then just disappeared, much like the Stone Roses.
I have never heard of Vashti Bunyan and am only vaguely familiar with Nic Jones.
Muswell Hillbillies is vastly better than Village Green.
My Aim Is True should be much higher than 61, and Armed Forces should be higher than that, and the Who are grossly underrated here.
It’s still a really good list, full of pleasant surprises and few abominations.
Discuss amongst yourselves.