My Bloody Valentine - Loveless
The greatest work of art created in the history of mankind. If you ever need a testament to the benefits of relentless perfectionism, look no further: as this masterpiece was created between 1989 and 1991, mainman and visionary Kevin Shields went through eighteen recording engineers and nineteen recording studios, allegedly almost bankrupting his label Creation Records in the process (according to who you believe; Shields strenuously denies this). At the end of it all, Creation label-head Alan McGee vowed never to work with Shields again. Yet the end result was a record of almost alien beauty.
MBV can be seen as part of a lineage of great bands – the Stooges, the Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth, The Jesus and Mary Chain - who revolutionised and redefined guitar music: Shields’ primary innovation was the use of a technique nicknamed ‘glide guitar’, a method of wavering the tremolo bar of the guitar while strumming. This led to a disorientating, hazy effect as the music slipped in and out of tune. The textured, layered sound of the album led many people to believe that the band were using multiple overdubs, when in Shields’ own words “it's actually got less guitar tracks than most people's demo tapes have.”
Loveless seems to simultaneously pulverise the listener with waves of distortion and envelop them in an abstract, dream-like haze. The sense of contrast is heightened by feminine, unintelligible vocals that glide in and out of focus along with the music. It’s rare to find an album that manages to sound so harsh and discordant and yet so soothing at the same time: while on the one hand the record was the cornerstone of some of the loudest live shows in music history, on the other hand tracks like ‘To Here Knows When’ and ‘Blown a Wish’ convey a sense of pure tranquillity and bliss.
Even with the greatest albums, there are often tracks you’re tempted to skip, weak links in otherwise flawless works; but there’s not a single track on Loveless that falls below perfection. The final third of the album in particular - running from the haunting drone of ‘Sometimes’ through the celestial one-two of ‘Blown a Wish’ and ‘What You Want’, and ending with the hypnotic rhythms of ‘Soon’ - is simply the most incredible passage of music ever recorded.
There’s never been a follow-up, but that’s no great mystery: how do you follow perfection?
2 - Whipping Boy - Heartworm
In terms of going against the cultural grain, Heartworm takes some beating. The year was 1995: Britpop was in full swing with all its attendant caricatures and satire; and while Blur and Oasis were going head-to-head at the top of the charts with songs about country houses and rolling with it, the Dublin four-piece released this brutal, uncompromising transmission from the heart of darkness.
An ominous, mournful violin intro sets the tone as opening track ‘Twinkle’ disguises it’s dark subject matter (‘turning tricks just like your mother’)with a seemingly clichéd chorus (‘She’s the only one for me / Now and always’), coming across like a cousin of R.E.M.’s classic anti-love song ‘The One I Love’. Influences like The Cure and Joy Division abound, with Ferghal McKee’s bleak delivery backdropped by violent, churning guitar and occasional stately strings. The subject matter is almost relentlessly dark, dealing with broken relationships and mental turmoil, even touching on domestic abuse on the controversial ‘We Don’t Need Nobody Else’. However, there are some shards of light breaking through the gloom: ‘Personality’ is a perfectly timed mid-album injection of serenity, while the bittersweet ‘When We Were Young’ gave them an unlikely radio hit.
3 - Ash - Intergalactic Sonic 7"s
Including singles collections might be cheating a bit, but not when you're dealing with one of the greatest singles bands of all time. An absolute treasure trove of 3-minute wonders. Where to begin?: the irrepressible punk/pop hooks of 'Burn Baby Burn' and 'Girl From Mars', the Ramones-esque skip of 'Jack Names The Planets', the wistful world-weariness of 'Sometimes'...the glorious 'A Life Less Ordinary', which was about a million and one times better than the film it soundtracked, or the grinding 'Goldfinger', the best song ever written about waiting for your dealer since The Velvet Underground. Pity about them these days, eh?
4 - The Redneck Manifesto - I Am Brazil
The Rednecks' masterpiece; parts of this remind me of 'Rain On Tin'-mode Sonic Youth, which in turn reminds me of 'Marquee Moon' - intricate, interlinking guitar lines creating pure alchemy. Then there's stuff like 'Hibernation Statement', which is almost meditative, and stuff like 'Break Your Fingers Laughing', which is violent and explosive.
5 - Rollerskate Skinny - Horsedrawn Wishes
Rollerskate Skinny emerged in the early 90’s with records that garnered much critical acclaim, and though they packed it in after their second album, Horsedrawn Wishes, they still retain a considerable cult following. Their music is an invigorating, hazy, shape-shifting blend of distorted, MBV-like guitar textures (Kevin Shields’ brother Jimi was a drummer in the band for a period), gliding shoegaze washes and dayglo pop melodies.
‘Swingboat Yawning’ and ‘One Thousand Couples’ utilise quiet-loud dynamics with pulverising, warped guitar assaults; ‘Cradle Burns’ is a joyously disorientating pop song, while all the ingredients come to a glorious climax on ‘Speed To My Side’, surely one of the greatest Irish singles ever recorded. They really don’t make them like this anymore: I’ve often said that no one will ever be able to recapture the magic of MBV’s Loveless, but Rollerskate Skinny came pretty close.
6 - Gemma Hayes - Night On My Side
Debut album Night On My Side marked Gemma Hayes out as a special talent, one that called to mind influences as diverse as My Bloody Valentine, PJ Harvey and Lisa Germano. It’s a captivating record whose strength lies not just in its individual songs but in the impressionistic spell cast by its melancholic atmosphere, discordant guitars and Hayes’ delicate, yearning vocals.
The Tipperary native possesses an extraordinary voice that couldn’t fail to impress if she was singing the contents of a phone book, and the music here ranges from the bleary Americana of ‘Day One’ (as gorgeously understated an opening track as you’re likely to hear anywhere) to the anguished drone of ‘Tear In My Side’ and the churning guitar rhythms of ‘Hanging Around’. The aching minimalism of ‘What a Day’ and the still incredible-sounding ‘Back Of My Hand’ epitomise the edge that she’s been struggling to recapture ever since.
7 - U2 - The Unforgettable Fire
I'll always have a soft spot for U2’s fourth studio album, as it was arguably the last record they released before they became the bombastic entity they are now, for better or worse. Not that it’s necessarily an understated record: the opening two tracks, ‘A Sort Of Homecoming’ and ‘Pride (In The Name Of Love)’, see Bono at his chest-beating best and their music at its most yearning. The former, in particular, remains one of the most underrated songs in their repertoire.
Elsewhere, though, there’s some of the most experimental, ambient music the band have released, obviously informed by collaborator Brian Eno: on ‘Elvis Presley and America’, Bono turns in a restrained, hypnotic vocal performance over a backdrop of warm, chiming atmospherics; in a similar vein, closing track ‘MLK’ is essentially a lullaby, a gentle drone framing the singer’s exhortation to ‘Sleep / Sleep tonight / And may your dreams be realised’. Then there’s the windswept, almost mystical soundscape of the title track; while live favourite ‘Bad’ takes its cue from Joy Division’s ‘Atmosphere’ and creates something similarly transcendental but completely unique. Then there’s tracks like ‘Wire’ and ‘Indian Summer Sky’, which showed that The Edge was still taking plenty of guitar lessons from post-punk acts like Gang Of Four.
8 - Ten Speed Racer - 10SR
Joe Chester has been involved in many a great Irish band, be it on production duties or otherwise (including his own excellent A Murder Of Crows), but as guitarist with Ten Speed Racer this was arguably the finest of them all. The exquisite harmonies and jangly power-pop sound that characterises his solo work is all over this record, but there's also a furious, blistering quality to tracks like 'Your Demon Heart'. 'Overcast' is an exquisite slice of alt-country; 'Bring On The Feeling' a lost pop classic.
9 - Emmet Tinley - Attic Faith
The closest I've heard anyone coming to recapturing the haunted choirboy vibe of Jeff Buckley's Hallelujah. Yes, that's high praise; yes, he deserves it.
10 - Si Schroeder - Coping Mechanisms
Sublime 3-in-the-morning atmospherics and twisted, shadowy electronica.
...and some tunes
Much like The La's 'There She Goes', a lot of the best pop music thrives on the contrast between sunny-sounding melodies and the darkness in between the lines. So it is with The Chalets' 'No Style' which is one of the most underrated pop songs of the last whenever. Every summer gets shorter, we're growing older. Speaking of which, I have to go to work so that's the only song I can write a blurb f0r.