Culture shame: five landmark albums you should listen to this year
I feel it’s a matter of some accomplishment that I managed to get through university without listening to Bob Dylan. I knew the bare bones of him, of course, the songs written down in the marrow of us, but while literate songwriting is very much my domain (I was raised on Van Morrison and Leonard Cohen), I had a long-held and entirely unfounded suspicion of Dylan.
He was a trickster, I thought, and to fall for him would be to fall victim to some terrible hustle. So while my peers sat up late debating the merits of Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks, I stayed mute. It was in my 20s I conceded I was wrong, and began my stealthy education. I started with Nashville Skyline, and in Lay Lady Lay and Girl From the North Country I swiftly found a love that to my mind gained a purity and sweetness for its late flowering. In the same vein…
Kind of Blue, Miles Davis, 1959
Recorded in a New York church, Kind of Blue is simply one of the most innovative and influential records of all time, its force extending to hip-hop, rock, soul and beyond. In the late 1950s, the jazz world was in thrall to bebop, but Davis, already an esteemed trumpet player, felt increasingly hemmed in by the strictures of its complex chord progressions. He was interested in developing a modal form of jazz that would allow players to improvise within a certain scale rather than follow a chord sequence and, he believed, bring ‘a return to melody’. Davis gathered a handful of musicians, including pianist Bill Evans and saxophonist John Coltrane, and recorded something sublime and otherworldly, 46 minutes of melancholic late-night elegance.
Horses, Patti Smith, 1975
As the New York punk scene emerged in the 1970s, Patti Smith was a key figure – a poet, painter and performer who turned her extraordinary talents to music on Horses, her debut album. With guitar by Lenny Kaye and production by the Velvet Underground’s John Cale, it married garage, punk, reggae and jazz, covered Them’s hit Gloria, stole a little of Chris Kenner’s Land of a Thousand Dances, and weaved in references to William Burroughs, Rimbaud, Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, and Jim Morrison. Smith called it ‘three-chord rock merged with the power of the word’, and she was not wrong.
Astral Weeks, Van Morrison, 1968
This song cycle of memory and desire was the second solo album by the Northern Irish songwriter, and upon its release it perplexed many who knew him for charming pop songs like Brown Eyed Girl, or for his garage rock days with Them. Astral Weeks was a poetic stream of consciousness — meditative, mystical, deeply romantic and richly nostalgic. In the studio, its music evolved in an impressionistic and jam-based style, fusing folk, soul and jazz. As well as guitar, percussion and Richard Davis’s phenomenal bass, Morrison brought in strings, saxophone and flute. The two songs at its heart – Cyprus Avenue and Madame George, both set in Morrison’s Belfast – show him at his best: a peerless lyricist, with a soul-stirring voice.
Darkness on the Edge of Town, Bruce Springsteen, 1978
Springsteen has enjoyed quite a revival in recent years, but if you still associate him with bombast and braggadocio, Darkness is the record to reveal an artist of great subtlety and emotional complexity. Released three years after the breakthrough success of Born to Run, it showed a sombre maturity to his songwriting, a desire to pursue greatness over fame. The characters that famously populate his songs find depth here: ordinary men, their lives restricted by circumstance, longing for escape, good fortune or deliverance. Springsteen was obsessive about this album’s making, its lyrics, its production, its instrumentation – and boy, does it show.
The Modern Lovers, The Modern Lovers, 1976
The best way to describe the Modern Lovers is to take the music of the Velvet Underground and turn it upside down. They share a similarity of sound – a kind of scuzzy protopunk – but instead of the Velvets’ beautiful nihilism, Jonathan Richman’s songs are infused with joy and wonder. This is their debut album, recorded across 1971-2, and largely produced by John Cale. Notably it includes Roadrunner. Though in essence this is little more than a track about driving a suburban ring road outside Boston, at night, with the radio on, it’s also one of the most magical rock‘n’roll songs in existence, conveying all that it means to be young and alive and filled with possibility.
Laura Barton is a features writer for The Guardian