The Twelve That Travel

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I try not to clutter up social media feeds with anything other than genuinely useful updates on my life. I don’t think you’ll be interested in my dinner choices or my political views or frankly my whereabouts. Many of my friends however, have been interested in my Top 12 album choices and doubtless you’ve seen this circulating, too.

The request is that you list the 12 albums that mean the most to you but you’re not to think too hard and you put a short description of why. The only surprise is that people honestly think I don’t spend my time compiling lists of just such things for requests like these – 5 best Michael Caine films, 10 best basslines, 20 records people think are classics but really shouldn’t…

You get the drift. Best to be prepared, I find.

Actually, the album list is quite easy because I always have a set downloaded ready to go if I’m traveling somewhere. Before I start, I realize there is very little that could be called soul and yet that would dominate my 45s list – so “Innervisions” and “What’s Going On” actually travel but miss the cut here.

Interestingly, four come from 1982 – more of a vintage year than I remember at the time.

So in no particular order…

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My favorite album by my favorite band. Critics always go for “Exile”, which I find still a little too studiedly shambolic or “Let It Bleed” which I like just not as much as “Sticky Fingers” which in turn is not as good as this. “Sympathy For The Devil” still sounds like it was made yesterday and it also has one of the great Stones classics you’ve never heard properly in “Stray Cat Blues”.

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“Every mother’s son’s romantic..” (from “Faron Young”) was the title of another notebook I put together in my late teens (rather pseudishly) of lyrics that meant something to me. However, Prefab Sprout are one of those bands that if you love, you really love and I really love them. Great work followed time after time from really one Britain’s best ever songwriters but this album , for “Moving The River” and the line about “pulling rabbits out of hats when sometimes I’d prefer simply to wear them” alone still takes the prize. Sensitively written and beautifully produced.

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I know people will say I’m just being contrary by putting this in ahead of anything by the Beatles but it is entirely personal rather than in terms of importance. It’s a triple album for goodness sake that should make it a complete turn-off and yet I could happily double it’s size again. George always sounds more plaintive than John or Paul and some of his vocal here is heartbreakingly sincere (“The Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp”). Anyone who doesn’t immediately start smiling on hearing “My Sweet Lord” has no functioning heart while the crescendo of “Wah-Wah” is simply inspirational.

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I know this will be controversial but “Hope And Fears” is one of the most uplifting debut albums ever. For a band, that looked so angelic and were only three in number, they could crank out a heck of a sound. “Everybody’s Changing” and “Bend Or Break” are epic and intimate at the same time while “Bedshaped” and “Sunshine” are incredibly moving. Every song on this album endures and what a voice…

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Everything I love about pop music is on this album. It is at no stage intended to be taken seriously and yet is produced with absolute loving care. You may think you are going to listen to an album that’s terribly dated and yet it isn’t at all, despite the familiarity of “Look Of Love”, “Poison Arrow” et al. It is simply put together with such attention to detail that there is always a little surprise you’d forgotten. Never has anguish sounded quite so much fun.

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I know I have eulogized about this record already but interestingly I remember buying it on the same day as ABC from Boots in Durham. I look back on that as one of my best hit rates per purchase ever. For me, it simply hasn’t dated – your recollections might have – but the music is excellent and the lyrics amazingly thoughtful. Where New Wave and Disco intersected one glorious summer – music was just so shiny (even most surprisingly in Durham).

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I could put so many XTC albums down – not a duffer in there – but I always have a place in my heart for the last release they made on the Virgin label. They really were a band that managed to make experimentation really accessible and this was down to fantastic melodies but also devastating lyrical twists. Some say this album is a little too long and could do with judicious editing but it just captures their angular bite so well. The highlight for me is still “The Disappointed”.

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“Loafing oafs in all-night chemists” – only Morrissey could deliver a quintessentially English line like that. Let me be clear before “The Queen Is Dead” brigade come marching to my door, I love the Smiths (although “Strangeways ” is my favorite) but there is something particularly charming about this album that probably comes from his voice having grander accompaniment and so emphasising all the pathos and irony he wants to give us through his new array of Southern characters “Billy Budd” “Spring Heeled Jim” and the ‘Brighton Rock’ gang. The more you ignore it, the closer it will get, I promise you.

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In the same way that Morrissey was creating his 60s homage so is this by Donald Fagen and it just so accurately captures the world of growing up in America during the period. There’s terror of the cold war, dreams of a brighter future, late-night talk DJs and “spandex jackets for everyone”. It is part-spy caper “The Goodbye Look” and part- imagineering “New Frontier” and “IGY”. It was also the first CD I owned that was DDD – fully digital throughout its recording and production process which explains why it just sounds so pristine still. It was over 10 years before he could get round to following it up so high was its benchmark.

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Again, I’ve set my stall out about my love of this album but it is still so mysterious and beguiling. The instrumental backing is sparse and yet also has a depth and complexity that adds to its other-wordy quality. “Someone Somewhere In Summertime” sets the scene for the glorious obscurity of the whole record and its unreachable themes. It simply doesn’t matter because it is an exquisitely conceived piece.

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I know critics now beatify this record and talk so much more knowingly about it but it, of course, famously was released and never made the charts and Ray Davies never quite got over the disappointment. For me, I feel I can lay claim without being a bandwagon jumper as it is one of the very first albums I bought when I started collecting records – I had no idea what it was but I liked the Kinks and it was in good condition in the junk shop where I found it. Like the Madness albums and XTC recordings, this covers such ground, introduces fascinating characters (“Wicked Arabella” “Phenomenal Cat”) and can bring in pastiches (“Last Of The Steam Powered Trains”) that keep you constantly wondering where it will take you next. A veritable treasure trove of delights… “God bless Fu Manchu, Moriarty and Dracula”.

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Never have I seen a band live that I barely knew that moved me as much as The Waterboys.  Their quest for “The Big Music” reached its zenith here. There is vehement politics in the excellent “Old England”, barely contained raging at the world in “Be My Enemy”  and the environmentalism of “Don’t Bang The Drum” – all of which would be the price of admission alone but then there’s “The Whole Of The Moon”, one of the best singles I have ever heard and therefore one I was ever so slightly upset about on its reissue and subsequent mainstream success. Still I could forgive that song anything. Small wonder, the band had to throw all the bigness away to recover and make a Celtic folk album as a follow-up three years later.