Part ten (!), and we're almost there...

The Clash Essential 50, in a nutshell: the 50 greatest, most significant, downright brilliant albums of Clash’s lifetime. We need them, which means you, too, most probably need them.

Why? Clash celebrates its fifth birthday in April. It’s not an anniversary to make too much of a fuss about – we’ll save that for our tenth, thank you very much – but worth marking all the same. And what better way to look forward to the next few years of Clash than a look back at some of our ‘greatest hits’.

The Clash Essential 50 was compiled by the core Clash editorial team – should you disagree with any of our selections, which will be counted down throughout April, you know where to go to have your own opinion heard.

Part ten – you’re looking at it – collects the last of our entries prior to diving into the Top Ten for some serious business-end malarkey.


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Franz Ferdinand, ‘Franz Ferdinand’
(2004; Domino)

Franz Ferdinand have had no small effect on modern, British guitar music.

Their emergence in 2004, with the release of their self-titled debut on Domino, was an art rock epiphany. It showed that music could be dance-y, tuneful and irreverent and still proudly wear all its art school credentials on its sleeve. The insanely catchy choruses and verses of this album goaded the listener into enjoying the cheap kicks of the dancefloor (or the dark of the matinée), But the lyrics and guitar hooks were too simple; they reminded the beard-stroking community that they were listening to pop, to be treated with a certain degree of distanced irony, though no small amount of enjoyment.

A lot to pack into 38 minutes, then. Things kick off with ‘Jacqueline’, initially a sensitive, almost spoken word piece for Alex Kapranos’ knowing, crooning voice. Forty-five seconds in, however, and the real intentions of the album are revealed. A thumbed bass note, joined by a spiky guitar riff and some muted drums, build together into a devastatingly tight song structure. Immediately the background becomes clear. Wire, The Clash and Duran Duran, even, are all part of the sound. It’s art rock that makes the best use of the best of ‘80s pop and new wave, not just the anguished post-punk of PiL and Gang of Four.

The deserving hit of the album is ‘Take Me Out’. It pitches up halfway through, jumping from its noisy, uninspiring opening into the main thrust of a slow speed, thumping anthem. Take a disco rhythm section, overlay with plenty of squealing guitars and add in lyrics to rival ‘Come On Eileen’ in their sing-along-ability and you’ve got a long-standing indie club night anthem. No wonder the album has sold 3.6 million copies worldwide.

Franz may have dropped off as indie innovators after their last two albums followed roughly the same formula, but it would have been too much to ask for the band to keep up the infectious energy and freshness of this debut. Let’s settle with what we’ve got: 11 tracks, 11 incredible guitar hooks, 11 great choruses. That’s all you can ask of a record, surely.

Words: Jonny Ensall

Franz Ferdinand, ‘Take Me Out’ (live, Glastonbury)

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Joanna Newsom, ‘Ys’
(2006; Drag City)

Originally lumped in with the psych-folk movement - that loose and ragged band which numbered Devandra Banhart, Vetiver and Bonny ‘Prince’ Billy among its number - Joanna Newsom made a mark with the intricate harp playing and squeaky, self-consciously weird vocals of her debut album, ‘The Milk-Eyed Mender’. Good as that was, it didn’t even hint at the wide-open prairies and reed-bound riverbanks her follow-up would cover. Made up of five lengthy, richly orchestrated songs, ‘Ys’ was the most individual record of 2006, bar none.

By turns gothic, folksy and otherworldly, ‘Ys’ is more like a quintet of Appalachian sagas set to music. There’s an epic quality to Newsom’s songs, with the sweeping vistas of Midwestern folklore permeating both music and lyrics. They’re tales of grief and love wrapped up in the symbols of folklore.

This is exemplified in ‘Monkey and Bear’, a morality play of gender politics that has more in common with Angela Carter’s post-modern fairytales than it does with any indie album you care to name. When Bear escapes human captivity with her lover Monkey, he sweet-talks her into continuing to work as a dancing bear in order to support him, first saying, “we must unlearn this / allegiance to a life of service” before encouraging her to “bear a little longer to wear that leash”.

Without delving too deeply into the feminist message about patriarchy, it’s enough to say it doesn’t end well – Bear walks into the sea and vanishes in the waves. It’s heartbreaking stuff, with the music following and emphasising the pace and tone of the action, from rhythmic caesuras as Monkey pitches his “But…” to fast-plucked melodies as Bear swims out to her end.

This link between the music and the lyrical content is consistently powerful throughout the album thanks to the stunning orchestration of Van Dyke Parks. It’s so rich in detail that you’ll still unearth nuances years after your first listen. Like the soundtrack of a great musical, the arrangements propel and colour the stories perfectly.

‘Ys’ is ambitious on a grand scale. Even if you come away from it perplexed, you have to admire its scope. It’s simply a unique piece of art. Listen to it now, you damned philistine.

Words: Nick Tebbutt

Joanna Newsom – ‘Cosmia’ (live)

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Modeselektor, ‘Hello Mom!’
(2005; Bpitch Control)

Sneaky bastards. When Modeselektor first started peppering our record boxes with their early releases on Bpitch Control, such as ‘In Loving Memory’ and ‘Death Medley’, they were just jostling in the pack of German producers that Ellen Allien decided to release with her icy intent. No big deal. Nothing to rave about.

Unless you had been living in Berlin and seen this odd couple destroy clubs then you’d have had no idea what was coming. ‘Hello Mom!’, rather than an album, felt more like a refreshing tidal wave, a sonic watershed in clubland. Its very release was a line on the dancefloor: things came before it had an excuse, anything after had a big job to compete.

Their production work felt like a backlash against everything else going on in their city. They took rap, dancehall, IDM, dub and techno. They installed sounds into the wrong tempos and turned the last ten years of club culture on its head. Modeselektor effortlessly doled out accelerated dancehall techno (‘Silikon’), hysterical rap that mutates into jump-up ghetto bass (‘Dancingbox’) and IDM that seemed half speed but grooved more than anything else around (‘Tetrispack’). They dismembered genres and stigmas and rebuilt them in their own image, whilst dutifully adding in straight-edged techno that unarguably was the best anyone had heard in years (‘Kill Bill Volume 4’). They had an answer for every notion and then a fresh set of ideas on top.

One of their subtlest tricks however was born from grafting the dancehall-structured beat into European dance music formats. Though still operating at a gentle 110bpm, the same as hip-hop and many other down-tempo forms, this skippy, extra-weighted percussive map added urgency, an illusion of increased speed but mainly a refreshing new sound to the clubs and pods that for so long had been crammed with the same conventions. Modeselektor certainly didn’t invent dancehall rhythms, nor did they pioneer their insertion into house and techno, yet I defy anyone to unearth a group that do it better or more creatively.

Their other trick was rearranging all their little revolutions in sound and genre and presenting them in a DJ-friendly format, meaning ripples became airborne and before long their cult of unashamedly butchering and chopping together so many different ideas was a virus which is still doing the rounds. ‘Hello Mom!’ (and their second album ‘Happy Birthday’, which may be just as good too) smelts down genres into one deliciously opposed album that doesn’t so much veer about as swerve deliberately across every lane of convention, ecstatically joyriding and laughing at every smash. It’s often fun yet heard through big sound system induces moshpits more likely seen at heavy metal gigs.

They are the current masters of the alternative dance scene, and it’s a daily battle not to keep lauding, hoarding and referencing them.

Words: Matthew Bennett

Modeselektor – ‘Dancingbox’ feat TTC (audio only)

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Bloc Party, ‘Silent Alarm’
(2005; Wichita)

No question about it: Bloc Party have become something of a divisive outfit to say the least, the foursome’s last two long-players met with an equal share of reverence and reservation, cynicism and acclaim. But back in 2005, the Londoners levelled all sceptics with a debut album so sharp-edged of instrumentation and bursting with attitude and energy that it’s left everything they’ve done since somehow less-assured by comparison.

‘Silent Alarm’ didn’t just make the band household names – it was a pivotal post-millennium release, effectively securing the reputation of its producer Paul Epworth and serving as a blueprint for domestic indie acts to follow: you can wear your heart on your sleeve while delivering punchy, pop-savvy rock music that appealed to radio heads and dancefloor doyens alike, and that bridged the commercial-critical divide brilliantly. To date ‘Silent Alarm’ has sold over a million copies, but it’s also widely revered as one of the best records of its year of release, hence its inclusion this high up our Essential 50 countdown.

The formula seems a simple one (though no doubt it took time to polish), and one repeated across the course of thirteen tracks (we’ll overlook the shimmer-drone instrumental ‘extra’ after the closer of ‘Compliments’): spiky riffs and yelped lead vocals buoyed by almost chanted back-ups, prickly percussion that skitters all over the mix, and underpinning basslines that keep each piece on track ‘til its eventual collapse – see the “so fucking useless” moment on ‘Positive Tension’ for an example of this build-to-spill approach. It's stirringly effective, time after time. In frontman Kele Okereke Bloc Party had – still have – a mouthpiece to be proud of, whose lyricism is rarely masked too thickly with analogy to hide the heart at the core of each song; his often naked exposure of a soul undergoing the trials of everyday existence engaged a wide audience with ease, as many a man could relate to tales of, ostensibly, love and loss. Typical inspirational material perhaps, but never delivered with cliché and always told straight and sincerely.

Understandably, ‘Silent Alarm’ was nominated for the 2005 Mercury Prize; it lost out to ‘I Am A Bird Now’, but listening to both records today it’s clear which has stood the test of time – both are heavy on emotion, on bearing oneself as vital catharsis, but it’s the former that’s proved the influential release, with many an act aping Bloc Party’s rewiring of the post-punk sound typified by Gang Of Four and their ilk to this day. And ‘Silent Alarm’ isn’t all blustering arrangements that get the limbs twitching whether they like it or not: the likes of ‘She’s Hearing Voices’ and ‘Price Of Gasoline’ are balanced by comparatively tender efforts like ‘This Modern Love’ and the most achingly beautiful track here, ‘So Here We Are’.

Neatly sequenced, measured so that one side of the band never dominates the other, ‘Silent Alarm’ stands as one of the very best debut albums of Clash’s lifetime, and one of the best UK albums of this decade to boot. Through stretching themselves creatively, embracing ambition regardless of the risk of fan alienation, Bloc Party have flown far from this original source; but perhaps their distancing is for the best, as any attempt to match the potency of this collection with more of the perceived same would almost certainly fall short.

Bloc Party – ‘So Here We Are’

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The Clash Essential 50 so far…

50: The Killers, ‘Hot Fuss’
49: Kasabian, ‘Kasabian’
48: Deerhunter, ‘Microcastle’
47: Bat For Lashes, ‘Fur and Gold’
46: Vampire Weekend, ‘Vampire Weekend’
45: MGMT, ‘Oracular Spectacular’
44: Portishead, ‘Third’
43: Elbow, ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’
42: Amy Winehouse, ‘Back To Black’
41: Santigold, ‘Santigold’
40: Late Of The Pier, ‘Fantasy Black Channel’
39: Sigur Rós, ‘Takk…’
38: Efterklang, ‘Parades’
37: Liars, ‘Drum’s Not Dead’
36: The White Stripes, ‘Get Behind Me Satan’
35: Hot Chip, ‘The Warning’
34: Fleet Foxes, ‘Fleet Foxes’
33: Benga, ‘Diary Of An Afro Warrior’
32: Feist, ‘The Reminder’
31: Broadcast, ‘Tender Buttons’
30: Battles, ‘Mirrored’
29: Klaxons, ‘Myths Of The Near Future’
28: Tunng, ‘Mother’s Daughter And Other Songs’
27: The Libertines, ‘The Libertines’
26: Kanye West, ‘The College Dropout’
25: Apparat, ‘Walls’
24: Burial, ‘Burial’
23: Gallows, ‘Orchestra Of Wolves’
22: Caribou, ‘The Milk Of Human Kindness’
21: Broken Social Scene, ‘Broken Social Scene’
20: Sufjan Stevens, ‘Illinois’
19: Soulwax, ‘Nite Versions’
18: The Bug, ‘London Zoo’
17: Brian Wilson, ‘SMiLE’
16: Isolée, ‘We Are Monster’
15: My Morning Jacket, ‘Z’
14: Franz Ferdinand, ‘Franz Ferdinand’
13: Joanna Newsom, ‘Ys’
12: Modeselektor, ‘Hello Mom!’
11: Bloc Party, ‘Silent Alarm’

Coming later this week: we break into the top ten. Excited? Give over, course you are.

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