Michael Ward, Course Director, Leeds School of Arts, Leeds Beckett University
How to pick a favourite album to write about? So many records with so many stories and memories associated with them. In a world of playlists and streaming, the idea of an album can appear increasingly less relevant. But to me whether mastering records or just listening to them for pure enjoyment, it is such an important medium.
An album to me is more than just a collection of songs. It flows, it evolves, it shifts. It immerses the listener until the very end. I’ve decided to pick an album with lasting appeal for me, an album that kept a 13-year-old me company on my paper round and continues to deliver. Perhaps not even a ‘cool’ album to pick, but a genuine pleasure to listen to again and again. Foxtrot by Genesis is my pick.
I can’t remember why I liked this record as a child. It came out a few years before I was born. Perhaps its longer songs and prog pomp acted as a fillip to the drizzle-laden trudge of newspaper delivery. Perhaps it was the sleeve art which on the cassette version just kept unfolding revealing yet more strange imagery. Now, I just sit back and enjoy the playing, the drumming, the sound of the instruments, the intricacies, the shifts and the layers. From the mellotron intro of the ‘Watcher of the Skies’ through the immense ‘Get ‘em out by Friday’ with its lyrical subtexts, the whole record sounds huge and elaborate but without ever feeling overly self-indulgent.
The second side of the album is mostly taken with the 22-minute epic ‘Supper’s Ready’. Over nine ‘movements’ of superb musicianship, the track has a density and scale but with a space for everything and pushes what can physically fit on a vinyl record. A listen to this album usually ends with an exhausted exhalation of disbelief and I’ll usually give myself a minute’s rest before putting anything else on.
Remain in Light (Talking Heads)
Justin Morey, Senior Lecturer, Leeds School of Arts, Leeds Beckett University
Talking Heads' Remain In Light (Sire, 1980) is both a great record and an interesting example of a compositional approach that anticipated digital recording practices.
At the time of making this album, the band was suffering from writer’s block, and initial sessions at Compass Point studios in the Bahamas were essentially jams which were gradually refined down to repetitive looped grooves that the band took some time learning to play live continuously. No doubt encouraged by producer Brian Eno, (who had also been working with Talking Heads' David Byrne on his solo album My Life In The Bush of Ghosts prior to the sessions for this album), a "ground-up" approach was taken to the compositions, with the various recorded grooves and loops being edited into arrangements, after which Byrne worked on vocal melodies and lyrics, before additional musicians provided overdubs, such as King Crimson's Adrian Belew contributing his idiosyncratic guitar stylings to 'Born Under Punches' and ‘The Great Curve'. Such a production process was no mean feat in pre-digital tape-based studios.
The result? Side one contains three great up-tempo groove-based songs, all drawing on African rhythms, with each track more frenetic than the last, and building to a crescendo with Belew's manic guitar solo at the end of 'The Great Curve'. The afrobeat rhythms of Fela Kuti are an especially clear influence, and this side of the record is undoubtedly influential in its own right, with the output of DFA Records in particular coming to mind (compare 'Crosseyed And Painless' with 'Time To Get Away' on LCD Soundsystem's Sound of Silver for example). Using musicians to play repetitive parts repeatedly, rather than simply looping shorter sections, also give the record a very distinct energy and vibrancy.
Side 2 continues the funk/afrofunk with the album's much-sampled hit single 'Once In A Lifetime', after which the grooves start to slow and the rhythms become more minimal, while Byrne's lyrics shift to more narrative-based and contemplative themes. There's a feeling of entropy to side two by the time we reach 'The Listening Wind', but it's not an unwelcome one; side one lifts us up and side two gradually brings us back to earth and then keeps on going.
Production-wise, this is some of Eno's best work with a tight, timeless sound. There are not a lot of records from 1980 that have stood the test of time as well as this one, and it's one I frequently, and gladly return to. If you've never heard it, I can't recommend it enough.
Switched on Bach (Wendy Carlos)
Ken Scott, Senior Lecturer, Leeds School of Arts, Leeds Beckett University
After all the promotional hype for the re-release of the Beatles’ Abbey Road, the record that introduced the synthesizer to many people, my mind turned to a record that really led the way for electronic music to be more than just “experimental music”, often nothing more than a cacophony of strange noises.
This tour de force, Switched On Bach, was recorded and played by one musician, Wendy Carlos. Carlos took on the formidable task of presenting ten of Johann Sebastian Bach’s most famous pieces performed on what at the time was the most modern of electronic instruments, the Moog Synthesizer. A project that even with today’s technology would be daunting, this was done in the technologically prehistoric year of 1968. One player had to become an orchestra and do it facing several challenges, not least of which was that the Moog Synthesizer was monophonic, only one note could be played at a time. Carlos had not only set herself the enormous task of building a full orchestra one note at a time, she had to record it on an 8 track analogue tape machine built by herself. It took her approximately five months and a total of one thousand hours to complete but she finished up with a masterpiece.
Switched On Bach has been hailed as sonically the best recording of Bach’s music ever. World renowned Canadian pianist Glenn Gould said about Switched-On Bach: "The whole record, in fact, is one of the most startling achievements of the recording industry in this generation and certainly one of the great feats in the history of 'keyboard' performance".
It became the first classical album to go platinum in America, remaining at No 1 in the classical album charts for more than three years (peaking at No 10 in the pop charts) and went on to win three Grammys.
For Emma, Forever Ago (Bon Iver)
Carl Flattery, Principal Lecturer, Leeds School of Arts, Leeds Beckett University
Ever since Justin Vernon a.k.a. Bon Iver took himself off into the hills of Wisconsin to write and record the debut Bon Iver album ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’, I’ve been forever lost in those woods. For me the beauty of the album is that it is one big happy accident made up of a collection of happy accidents. He never intended to make this album, at least not like this. Recovering from a combination of illness, broken relationships and lost musical direction he retreated to his father’s hunting cabin where free from the trappings of modern life he was able to reevaluate his approach to songwriting and experiment.
For Emma, Forever Ago is like an unedited artists sketchbook. We are invited into a world where Justin is trying out ideas, seeing what works. These songs were intended as demos, to be worked on later when he returned to civilisation. For example towards the end of The Wolves (Act I and II) we are treated to some chaotic drumming, a sketch as though to say to a future drummer, here’s where there will be some drums, but thankfully it survived in this raw form.
A key feature of the album is the multi-tracking of the vocals and guitars. Again, it’s like a sketchbook of ideas. The parts don’t always match up, even going out of time in key parts of the songs. These things that in a normal recording process would have been scrapped and re-recorded become some of the most engaging elements of the album. The choir of Justin’s were it sounds like some of the choir are still learning their parts just adds to the off kilter nature of the record.
Of course, at the heart of all of this are just beautiful songs, a wonderful voice and an honest performance that makes you feel like you are sat in the cabin with Justin, a place where I could happily live out the rest of my days.
Mezzanine (Massive Attack)
Alex Stevenson, Course Director, Leeds School of Arts, Leeds Beckett University
Massive Attack’s ‘Mezzanine’ came out in April 1998, just after I’d turned 15. My friend had the single ‘Teardrop’ on vinyl, and I vividly remember hearing it as his house and asking ‘who is this?’ mesmerised by the blend of ‘organic’ live instrumental sounds and dark electronic production sounds. Then, feeling down after England being knocked out of the world cup (again!) on my way home in the back of my parents car, the title track ‘Angel’ came on the car radio and it really resonated emotionally with me. This album seemed to be able to bring all the elements of my musical interest, from playing in punk/rock bands, to my newly found interest in hip hop and drum’n’bass, and create a sonic masterpiece, with contrasting light and shade, incredible dynamic mixes (by Mark ‘Spike’ Stent), and something that sounded so ‘of the time’ (late 90s) and ‘place’ (Britain). This album is probably the reason I do what I do now as it changed how I think about music and production. I also think the album has stood the test of time 21 years later.