Saturday, September 23, 2006

Rare Perfect Albums

Once in a while I find another "rare perfect album," a CD that is perfect in every way (songwriting, musicianship, production), wonderful from beginning to end (no songs that must be skipped), and timeless (I can listen to it over and over again without it ever losing its magic).

I've decided to post my list of "rare perfect albums," partly so I can look back at it eventually in shock and horror, but also as my small part of promoting brilliance. Please note: compilations, singles, and live albums do not count!
  • Natacha Atlas, "Halim" (1997) - Natacha can be pretty much hit or miss, but this album is more focussed than the rest. Dark, with fewer western influences, covering moments of ecstacy and agony, always somewhat ambiguous and distant.
  • Adrian Belew, "Mr. Music Head" (1989) - He's a brilliant musician but he needs to relax and enjoy life more. When he does, he writes songs like the ones on this album: all different, all unique, most of them joyous. He still gets a bit goofy now and then, but never enough to screw it all up.
  • Kate Bush, "The Dreaming" (1982) - An evil album, Kate's first moment of total control over the production desk. Every song is about longing and loss, many of them are about violence and death. She screams, grunts, and impersonates a donkey. A commercial flop (surprise!) but definitely a fan favourite.
  • Dana International, "Maganona" (1996) - Oh, you've just GOT to hear it! Dana is at her absolute wackiest, and Ofer Nissim's programming and production sound as good as they'll ever sound: complex, surprising, soaring. An album that could best be described as "frolicsome," but with some sharper songs as well ("Yesh bo Esh," "Cinquemilla").
  • Thomas Dolby, "The Golden Age of Wireless" (1982) - An album that little kids in farm schools can cry to. Full of hooks from the sublime ("Airwaves") to the spooky ("Windpower") to the ridiculous ("She Blinded Me With Science"), this is solid. The perfect marriage of fat analog synths and acoustic instruments.
  • Elton John, "Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy" (1975) - Before the days of his thoughtless pop schlock, Elton John and Bernie Taupin made really challenging albums. This is a particularly weird one, lots of high-falutin' concept stuff, with that great '70s "big drum" sound.
  • Electric Light Orchestra, "Time" (1981) - Maligned by fans as the point when ELO ditched their orchestra and embraced their keyboards (and one of Jeff Lynn's least favourites as well), I just love love LOVE it! The buzzy keyboards, power drums, vocoders, overpowering production, catchy songs!
  • The Fall, "The Infotainment Scan" (1993) - A concept album about the "look-back bores," full of "techno shit" and the sound of "machines falling apart," this is a solid, dense, perfectly-crafted that totally shambolic Fall way. "A Past Gone Mad" is the highlight and brings it all to conclusion.
  • Klaatu, "Hope" (1977) - Another concept album, this one by Torontonians "we are not actually the Beatles" Klaatu. Prog rock meets George Harrison, a civilization is destroyed, finishing with the title track, one of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard.
  • Jane Siberry, "The Walking" (1987) - A strange woman gets famous and embarks on a VERY strange album, using state-of-the-art digital editing to create long songs that always threaten to fall apart...but never do. The album doesn't sell and the record label is angry. This is similar to Kate Bush's "The Dreaming," a very personal vision that is recorded in an uncompromising way. Sad and angry. Beautiful. Forgotten.
  • Talk Talk, "The Colour of Spring" (1986) - Their transitional album as they began to eschew pop music and move more into jazzy improvisation. So you've got the best of both worlds here: catchy hooks AND wild instrumentals. Tim Friese-Greene's production is deep and crisp and even. Vocalist Mark Hollis sounds like he really means it.
  • Pink Floyd, "Wish You Were Here" (1975) - First off: great cover art. Secondly: long, noodly, plaintive songs showcasing the talents of all four members, not to mention the rocker "Have a Cigar" and the analog synth wet dream of "Welcome to the Machine." I used to stare at this one and listen for hours and hours.
  • Mike Oldfield, "Ommadawn" (1975) - Oldfield's third album, combining the "rock" of the first with the "orchestra" of the second, then adding an African drum influence. Everything gels together perfectly in two long songs, ending with the beautifully hippy-dippy "On Horseback" ("Big brown beastie, big brown face / I'd rather be with you than flying through space") that, instead of bringing the whole album down, elevates it to final greatness.
  • Stan Ridgway, "The Big Heat" (1986) - Ridgway left Wall of Voodoo and came out with this ecclecitc monster, full of film noir stylings and quirky instrumentation. A collection of producers help, not hinder, the songs.
  • Poe, "Haunted" (2000) - Without a doubt my favourite one on this list. A collection of meticulously recorded and produced pop songs, with an added layer of tribute to her father, and ANOTHER layer of references to her brother's book "House of Leaves." So you've got a lot of influences here, but that can't disguise her impeccable taste in melody and her willingness to do something totally unexpected. She is the perfect songwriter.
  • Whale, "We Care" (1995) - They DIDN'T care -- they were already famous and they were just fooling around -- and that's what makes his album so GOOD. They're just having fun, and it doesn't hurt that the musicianship is top-notch and that Cia Soro has a "certain something" to her voice. Try "That's Where It's At" for an example of a song that should have been huge...but wasn't.


Eli said...

Ah, but which Wireless? I always preferred the vinyl version, with the more 'rock' version of "Radio Silence". (Heck, I'm enough of a nerd that I hacked around the album in my MP3 collection to reinstate it, along with "Urges" and "Leipzig".) I may have to post my own list now... Dolby would certainly get a spot on it.

As for the rest, I gotta check out a lot more of these. I know embarrassingly few of them.

Muffy St. Bernard said...

I grew up with the "pseudo-American" version of "Wireless," without "Urges" or "Leipzig" but WITH the (much better) rock version of "Radio Silence." But I also had the "Blinded" EP with the extended versions of the songs.

I'd be very interested in your list! Mine is pretty "pop-ish," but I guess those are the albums that I can listen to over and over again. The more abrasive noisy stuff can't be listened to in every mood.

I highly recommend "Infotainment Scan" as something you might like.

Eli said...

Yep, I like The Infotainment Scan too, though I don't have a copy of my own. Definitely one of their more listenable ones, which is a plus (though I've been known to worry friends by chanting the words to things like "Eat Y'self Fitter")...

List is underway - mine doesn't have a lot of really well-known stuff, but it's not that outlandish. A lot of tough calls to make, though!

Muffy St. Bernard said...

Gosh, if you REALLY want to disturb your friends, make them watch the VIDEO for "Eat Y'Self Fitter" (which was on YouTube last I checked).

I've only recently been exploring The Fall. In University I knew somebody who raved about the fall, but he was so obnoxious that he scared me away. Now I'm realizing how much I missed out on...I haven't heard a bad album yet (though there are bound to be some).

I think it's time for you to cover "My New House" from "This Nation's Saving Grace."

Can't wait for your list...I know it's hard to leave off those albums that you love to death but contain one or two bad songs!

PS: Are you aware of "And What Have You Done With My Body, God", the 4CD expansion of "(Who's Afraid Of) The Art of Noise!" Wow, if you love that album you'll REALLY love this: pretty much every experiment they tried on their way to the final release. It gives you a good sense of how they developed the songs (and how little Trevor Horn and Paul Morley had to do with it all).

Eli said...

Say, "My New House" would be cool... I actually did a cover of "New Face In Hell" once - weirdly enough, it was around the time we were about to move out of our house at the time because the landlord was selling, and the real estate people sent someone in to basically level the charming wild garden that we'd lovingly neglected out back... so the recording became something of a catharsis. Very raw and undisciplined. I only wish I didn't sound so squeaky and silly when I go over-the-top vocally. :D

And no, I hadn't heard about that Art of Noise album. Wow! Must find!

Muffy St. Bernard said...

Don't feel bad...I sound squeaky and silly even when I'm NOT going over-the-top!

Have you ever let anyone hear "New Face In Hell?" Maybe it could be a single?

As for the Art of Noise box set, it IS wonderful, but keep in mind it's essentially the same six songs over and over again. But they're recognizably different versions.

Apparently they tended to record the songs with conventional keyboard sounds at first, then go back and re-record them with unconventional sounds. So you get to hear versions of "Moments In Love" that sound unsettlingly New Romantic, for instance. You also get to hear recording sessions with "Camilla," the young lady now immortalized by "HEY!" and "Can I say something?" and "BOOM!"

Eli said...

No one's hearing that particular recording! But I found this - a demo I did of "Radio Silence" a while back. I arranged it to be (mostly) playable by Flickershow, if we have someone to play the lead guitar part. We've never actually gotten around to performing it, but perhaps when we get our drummer back...

Muffy St. Bernard said...

Ahh, that beautiful bass! I'm also in love with the drum programming.

I'll try my hands at a Dolby cover. Not "Airhead," though.