This week, we bring the last instalment of our ‘Top 3 Albums’, with Hermione’s list of personal favourites.
Let me start with an important point. The three albums I have listed below would not necessarily be seen in a copy of the Rolling Stone magazine under the title ‘The Greatest Albums ever made’ because for most, they’re probably not that ‘great’. ‘Greatness’ constitutes to a long lasting eminence in the world, whereas my personal favourite albums have a long lasting eminence in my own heart.
Though that’s not to say my music taste puts the middle finger up to ‘the greats’. Of course like anyone and everyone I understand the importance of the Beatles, the revolutionary quality of the Velvet Underground, the soul of Aretha Franklin and the catchy exuberance of Abba. And also, like everyone, when asked what my favourite three albums are, I naturally pull the safety cover of ‘greatness’ over my face and immediately write down Nevermind, Transformer and Rubber Soul.
Yet, I have to be honest with myself. The Beatles are great for a long car journey, but I wouldn’t say that they’re placed highly in my own heart because you see; they’re placed highly in everybody else’s heart.
So, my three favourite albums are my ‘top three albums at this moment, and if you don’t love them then that’s all right’. Firstly, the order I have presented them isn’t significant. Secondly, it is likely that the list will be different if you ask me again next week. Lastly, these albums are here because no matter how many times I listen to them they never fail to move me in the way they did when I first heard them and that’s pretty great if you ask me.
The Libertines- The Libertines (2004)
“I lived my dream today, I lived it yesterday / and I’ll be living yours tomorrow.”
Back in 2007, I went shopping with my mum. It was the time when ‘Somerfield’ was still a supermarket chain and people still brought CDs from bargain buckets.
As a 10 year old I always went to either the magazine section or the CD section in the supermarket and Somerfields had a pretty good CD section I remember. After all I did find The Libertines at the bottom of a bargain bucket for about three quid. I remember tactically placing it in my Mum’s shopping trolley hoping that she wouldn’t notice. Thankfully, she didn’t.
Looking back, that was a big moment because I went home and listened to this album and for the first time I fell in love with a band that I could call my own. Back when your 10 years old, you only come into contact with the music your parents listen to (which was mostly Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison and Prince) or what’s playing on the radio and so, The Libertines was an album that exposed me to a new kind of music that I had never really heard before – punk-rock – and in that way it was delightfully dangerous.
Back in the early noughties the Libertines were not critically successful, often being dubbed as the poor man’s version of the Strokes. It also didn’t really help their situation that they were more known for their drug use as well as the rocky relationship between the two front men – Carl Barat and Peter Doherty.
It’s not until recently that I have found out about all of this drama and dirt. Back in 2007, 10 year-old me didn’t consider ‘Music When The Lights Go Out’ to be a song depicting Carl and Peter’s thwart relationship, but simply a beautiful ballad with woozy guitars and lyrics that tugged at your heart strings– “all the memories of the fights and the nights and the blue lights and the kites we flew together, I thought they’d fly forever…”. Neither did I really see the obvious connection that the Libertines were born out of the rock n’ roll revivalism of the noughties, which received (and still receives) heaps of critical snobbery. I was 10 years old and I didn’t care. I still don’t.
Saying that, Up The Bracket, the Libertines’ debut album, is definitely their best, but The Libertines is my favourite not just because of the giddy, dream-like yearning that all the songs seem to grasp at (and then destroy) but also the fact that from the first time I heard it up till now it still seems to be unapologetically truthful and really, really exciting.
It begins with ‘Can’t Stand Me Now’, a song that opens in the middle of something: “an ending fitting for the start/ You twist and tore our love apart” and then continues with a razor sharp argument between two people – “You can’t take me anywhere (I can’t take you anywhere)”. Yes, its obviously a song about Doherty and Barat, but for me, it’s also a song about someone who has the entire world against them – “Cornered the boy kicked out at the world/ The world kicked back a lot fuckin’ harder now”.
I still haven’t found my favourite song of the album. ‘The Ha Ha Wall’ always comes close just because I love that opening line about getting “strung out all day with your lovers and clowns” and the unashamed, bedraggled guitar solo that is introduced by a cry of “speak my love”. Then again, ‘The Man Who Would Be King’ is also a hazy masterpiece of playful ‘la la la’s’ and haunting trumpets (a great production choice by The Clash’s Mick Jones).
The Libertines is not just a record about an intimate relationship and the tide of despair that it brings, but also it’s about dreams and their dark underbellies. So thank you to the Libertines for being so beautifully messed up.
D’Angelo – Voodoo (2000)
“I dwell within a land that’s meant/ Meant for many men not my tone.”
Unlike the Libertines, D’Angelo received commercial and critical success for his second album, the Grammy award winning Voodoo. This album holds strong ties to the rhythm of jazz, the subject matter of 90s hip-hop and the funk/soul music of the 1970s, but then it also takes these genres to new places. If you want to see where Frank Ocean gets his genius from, look no further than Voodoo.
I discovered D’Angelo during my early teens when I had an odd obsession with Eric Clapton’s music. After finding and watching a YouTube clip of D’Angelo and a live band (which included Clapton) covering Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Use Me’, I immediately had a new obsession: D’Angelo or more specifically, D’Angelo’s voice.
On every track of Voodoo, it is D’Angelo’s voice that is so striking. In the track, ‘Send It On’, it swaggers and meanders with cool self-assurance over the horn riff sampled from Kool & the Gang’s ‘Sea of Tranquility’. In ‘The Line’, the paranoia is the made all the more intense with D’s tormented sighs of ‘I’m for real’.
Though this album is not all just about the vocals. Voodoo was recorded and mixed on analogue, which meant there was no overdubbing – it was all done live and in the moment (except with the Roberta Flack cover, ‘Feel like Makin’ Love’). This causes the whole album to adopt a pre-digital attitude. This is a brave choice for an album that arrived in 2000 – a time where R&B was becoming clubbier by the second.
Ironically though, I refuse to see D’Angelo as a traditionalist. How can he be when this album is so minimalistic and fresh in its production choices? ‘One Mo’Gin’ opens with only a lumbering bass lick, which continues for most of the song until, like a dog escaping from its lead, it falls into another world of upbeat drums and funk guitars. This song always makes me realise how great this album is because you realise that Voodoo is a record about the journey, not the destination.
Nas – Illmatic (1994)
“I never sleep ‘cause sleep is the cousin of death.”
The first hip-hop album I ever owned was Illmatic and it’s is also one of the few albums I own on vinyl. I first heard Nas on Andrea Arnold’s spectacular coming of age drama, Fish Tank (2009), which has an early performance from Michael Fassbender at his creepy but vulnerable best. The film is about a teenage girl’s life on a council estate in Essex. Throughout the film, she comes into conflict with her Mother until the end, where, in a touching scene they both dance to Nas’s ‘Life’s a Bitch’ – a moment of reconciliation as well as a veiled good bye.
Arnold’s use of Nas is very clever because ‘Life’s a Bitch’ holds similar themes to the film itself. It’s a song about dreams – “I’m destined to live the dream for all my peeps who never made it” – and growing up – “I switched my motto, instead of saying fuck tomorrow/ That buck that bought a bottle, could have struck the lotto”.
Yet, Illmatic is not just about innocent dreams but living in an environment where dreams are lost. When recording Illmatic, Nas wanted to show “what the streets felt like”, because New York was full of “dudes […] waiting to rob you” and “crazy cops”. Opening with the rumble of a New York subway train, Illmatic immediately places you in 90s New York, or more specially, Queens Bridge Housing project – the housing estate Nas grew up on. In the stomping ‘N.Y. State of Mind’, Nas calls us to consider the reality of nighttime New York, speaking rhymes that come “straight out the fuckin’ dungeons of rap”. There may be a few self-compliments – “The smooth criminal on beat breaks/ Never put me in your box if your shit eats tapes” – but this Nas asserts that this is as real as it gets – “Beyond the walls of intelligence, life is defined”.
The distinctiveness of the voice (‘Half Time’), the rhythm (‘It Ain’t Hard to Tell’) and the flow (‘The World is Yours) within Illmatic is what makes the record so special and it’s why I love it so much. The antithesis of the brutal inner city life and poetry is cinematic and a story which I will always come back to.