Clash Essential 50 - 34-31

Part five, and we've award winners and dubstep warriors...
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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.

Friday finds us at part five, where we’ve some tidy releases and no mistake…

PART ONE
PART TWO
PART THREE
PART FOUR

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34
Fleet Foxes, ‘Fleet Foxes’
(2008; Bella Union)

When an album starts with a cappella four-part harmonies, an Appalachian melody and the words “Red squirrel in the morning, red squirrel in the evening, red squirrel in the morning, I’m coming to take you home”, you can bet your last bottle of moonshine you’re in for a trip down Americana’s dusty back roads. Fleet Foxes are that rare beast: a band that wears its influences on its sleeve and yet sounds totally individual.

Put simply, their debut album is the most exquisitely written long-player of the last year. The blend of backwoods folk, classic rock and southern Californian pop is often breath taking, creating a musical world that is by turns ecstatic and melancholic. It’s never less than revelatory, though. As the band’s showpiece harmonies weave around the patiently built melodies, the album takes you into a world of pastoral imagery and sepia-toned reverb more evocative of revolutionary-era America than the 21st Century. On ‘Ragged Wood’, lead singer Robin Pecknold exhorts his lost love to “Come down from the mountain” and “Run through the woods” to return to him: it’s nature which provides the albums thematic touchstones, not the city.

The songwriting is stunning throughout, skilfully baiting and switching to provide lots of surprises without ever losing a natural flow. ‘Meadowlarks’ begins with a sparse guitar part and distant vocals, slowly changing key and coming to a delicate crescendo halfway though before ebbing away into a wash of beautiful harmonies and interwoven folksy melodies. The whole album is an example of the musicians’ craft, and it’s lovely to hear.

The whip-smart production, courtesy of Phil Ek, further bolsters the impression that you’re listening to something Henry David Thoreau would have on his iPod. ‘Fleet Foxes’ is clean and crisp, yet the subtle reverb and clever treatment of the complex vocal harmonies makes it sound like a hi-fidelity Herbert Halpert field recording.

‘Fleet Foxes’ would be an astoundingly accomplished album if it had been the work of a band of old hands and grizzled veterans. As a debut release, it’s absolutely amazing. By turns shimmeringly beautiful and starkly haunting, it’s as near to perfection as you’re likely to hear for a long, long time.

Words: Nick Tebbutt

Fleet Foxes – ‘Mykonos’



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33
Benga, ‘Diary Of An Afro Warrior’
(2008; Tempa)

By the mid noughties big glossy dance music was firmly munching on its own rim. Aberrations such as Hed Kandi, endless house compilations all peddling the same exhausted tune and the continued vandalising of former sonic churches such as Ibiza made a grim vision of dance music. Drum and bass had bled to death in the arms of its producers who couldn’t see past their over-stuffed riders to their next gig, let alone innovating their sound. IDM was a wide tableau of underground niche that couldn’t mobilise bodies on a Friday night and any forms of techno continued its linear march into the future, unwavering in its relentless and often predictable path.

Yet in South London and tiny parts of Bristol, garage music - the fast percussive structured urban sound that was ricocheting around the inner city walls - started to slow, groan and mutate into something much deeper. Skunked-up, dubbed-down sub-rattling instrumental music with half-step rhythms became known as dubstep. A new genre? Bloggers were spunking everywhere. In fact it was more a subtle development of garage and drum and bass into something much more visceral and coherent.

Enter Benga, a skipping school scamp who made garage inspired nonsense on his PlayStation before being picked up by a record shop worker and DJ called Hatcha in Big Apple Records store in Croydon, the hub of garage and grime in (near enough) London. Before too long Benga and best mate Skream were nailing bin-busting 12” records that were revolutionising urban music, making up rhythms and their own rules up as they went along. Early vinyl such as ‘Dose’ and his ‘Invasion EP’ raised expectations as techno kids and house boppers equally moshed to his seething bass monsters. The sound breached the confines of just a handful of clubs and pirate radio stations and the beast of a new movement was unleashed alongside a handful of his core peers such as DMZ, Skream and Youngsta.

Molten walls of sub bass, designed exclusively to be played on massive sound systems where the nuance of low frequency can be drawn into colour through contrast, is the essence and interest in dubstep - and Benga is the master. By the time that ‘Diary of An Afro Warrior’ was released on main scene label Tempa Records, tracks like ‘The Cut’ were already burning through clubland. His cross over anthem ‘26 Basslines’ was possibly the most stunning piece of electronic music released in the last two years. Clash’s own professor of sound Alex Hills (from the Royal Academy) referred to it as one of the most rhythmically sophisticated music he’s heard for years.

For any listener wanting an entry point to these progressive sounds then ‘Diary…’ is a perfect start, riddled with club bangers alongside svelte down-tempo rhythmic sirens that will lure you to the dark side of bass music. Breathe in deep: the bass can play havoc with the bottom end.

Words: Matthew Bennett

Benga – ‘26 Basslines’ (audio only)



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32
Feist, ‘The Reminder’
(2007; Polydor)

An award winner in its maker’s native Canada, ‘The Reminder’ is Leslie Feist’s most successful long-player yet, on fronts both critical and commercial.

The best selling album of 2007 on iTunes, this collection of style-skipping songs reached out to a wide audience and was met with a warm reception, propelled no small amount by the placement of the track ‘1234’ on an advertisement for – yup – iTunes. But said effort’s charming slight of foot and cheery vibe isn’t exactly indicative of a parent record that, at times, is so very intimate it’s an almost uncomfortable listen.

Take ‘The Park’ for example, just an acoustic guitar, vocals and a recording of chirping birds: it’s both magic and mightily affecting for its nakedness of soulful emoting. “Why won’t he come back through the park?” asks our protagonist, full of hurt. ‘Honey Honey’ is similarly touching, its slow-motion movements and chimes enveloping in their crystalline beauty.

Of course, the singles drive the record’s chart success: ‘1234’ is a great barn dance of a modern pop cut, rollicking gently to the tones of a plucked banjo. ‘My Moon My Man’ possesses a simplicity of beat-craft that opened it up for remixing by Boys Noize, subsequently introducing Feist to another previously unexplored audience; her hushed tones seem to sit at odds with the powerful (relatively speaking) percussive elements, but if there’s one thing Feist never lacks throughout ‘The Reminder’, it’s confidence in her abilities. Slipping in and out of moods is second nature when one can maintain such a level of quality control.

Rarely bereft of some facet of wonderment, the way ‘The Reminder’ passes from piece to piece is exquisite, its impression immediate but attracting the listener back for repeat visits, as while a cursory taste appeals it certainly doesn’t tell the whole story. In short, a winner that actually warrants its awards, not just for selling in large amounts but also in terms of being a genuinely worthwhile addition to the upper echelons of the modern pop canon.

Feist – ‘My Moon My Man’



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31
Broadcast, ‘Tender Buttons’
(2005; Warp)

‘Tender Buttons’’ inclusion in this list is a triumph for small, difficult albums. It’s not an obvious top 50 pick, but we haven’t put it in for the sake of demonstrating our trendily obscure tastes: ‘Tender Buttons’ has merits that outstrip the rest of Broadcast’s more sonically expansive output around the same period, and heighten it above side-project status.

Broadcast were initially a five-piece from Birmingham signed to Stereolab's Duophonic Super 45s label, though the first album, ‘The Noise Made By People’, was released on Tommy Boy. It was full-bodied, instrumentally deep and cottoned onto a catchy soul/pop trend popularised by Belle & Sebastian. The indie-lounge aesthetic worked nicely for Broadcast, but gradually, the reverb faded out and the rough edges of James Cargill’s synth started to permeate the songs, as on 2003’s ‘Haha Sound’, put out on Warp.

For ‘Tender Buttons’ the group was cut down to just Cargill and vocalist Trish Keenan. In shedding band members, they also shed layers of complexity, producing a new sound that was flatter and more immediate than before. In essence, each track is composed of the same three or four sounds: a synth, a guitar, Keenan’s vocals and a drumbeat. Often these drop in and out, exposing the minimalism of the songs’ compositions, to the extent where the track ‘Minus 3’ is just a set of serialist, alternating, melodic notes.

Oh yeah, I hear you say, and you said this album wasn’t the ‘obscure’ pick. It isn’t I promise; it’s full of catchy tunes. Its cascading hooks are repeated over and over on tracks like ‘Black Cat’, ‘I Found The F’ and ‘Michael A Grammar’. They capture the imagination and seep into your mind. That musical flatness means you can hear everything, there’s nowhere to hide, and every moment stands up to the intensity of the deconstruction that the band employed upon their own sound.

There’s a subtle child-like influence in the interest and simplicity with which Broadcast treat their subject matter – friendship, nights out, the human body, the strangeness of chance and of myth – that makes these short songs more intriguing. You’re peering in, further and further, into this curious world, with every three-minute throw away track that passes by. Suddenly, you realise that you’re hooked.

Words: Jonny Ensall

Broadcast – ‘Tender Buttons’



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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’

Coming next week: numbers 30 to 11.

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