Part two of our birthday countdown...

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 two sees us edge further into our list; find part one (50-47) HERE.

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Vampire Weekend, ‘Vampire Weekend’
(2008; XL Recordings)

Back in late 2007, as British folk waded through the neon seas of nu-rave with the first crunch of a comedown starting to bite, you’d have been forgiven for wondering: “Hell’s teeth, man, where on earth has all the jaunty jingle-jangle guitar-pop gone?”

Happily for fans of airy unpretentious indie, preppy lyrics and string arrangements that sound like the Ski Sunday theme tune, Vampire Weekend were just across the pond in New York, getting set to release their debut album. The self-titled release dropped in 2008, and sounded as fresh as the smell of cut grass on campus lawns. The effortlessly breezy songwriting and spacious, African-influenced rhythms made ‘Vampire Weekend’ a record you wanted to live with: an endlessly enjoyable and replayable indie joint that challenged you not to engage with it. Thanks to the musical talents of the group, particularly Rostam Batmanglij, the record is richly textured, with classicist keyboard arpeggios, swooning strings and just the right amount of percussion.

Although the tracks are often simply arranged - second single ‘Oxford Comma’ rides four stabbed guitar chords, a restrained beat and the occasional piping organ swell – they never feel empty. Lead singer Ezra Koenig gets much of the credit for keeping things moving along. His wry, observational lyrics pull off the neat trick of locating the band firmly in the Ivy League’s moneyed milieu while giving him enough distance to observe and report. There’s even space for some poetic magic: the frankly gorgeous ‘Bryn’, a tale of college-holiday separation from a campus love, drops similes and metaphors as artfully as you’d expect from a lyricist beefed up on Eng-Lit courses. When Koenig says: “Eyes like a seagull/ No Kansa palm beetle/ Could ever come close to that free”, he nails the cultural divide between coastal and interior Americans – and undermines it with his slyly critical choice of symbolic animals.

This is an album overflowing with these lovely little moments, which means it repays repeat listens in spades. Even if the thought of sun-kissed indie-pop made by benevolent characters from a Bret Easton-Ellis story makes you sick, you’ll find yourself seduced by ‘Vampire Weekend’.

Words: Nick Tebbutt

Vampire Weekend – ‘Oxford Comma’

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MGMT, ‘Oracular Spectacular’
(2008; Sony)

The New Yorkers’ major label debut arrived in a splash of pop-psychedelic colour, dazzling us with its unfettered sense of joy and wide-eyed wonderment. The zesty ambience of the Dave Fridmann-produced record was matched by an abundance of limpet-like pop melodies, songs such as ‘Electric Feel’ and ‘Kids’ quickly bedding down in the brain and pleading squatter’s rights.

The duo, Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser, described themselves as “psychic pilgrims”. In reality they were space cadets on a cosmic voyage, ‘Oracular Spectacular’ their vehicle as they slipped the tethers of genre and embarked on an odyssey that would find them exploring the acid-addled sounds of the 1960s, the glam posturing of Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie and the disco inferno that was Studio 54.

They initially called their holy union of influences “Future ‘70s”, stating that it sounded either like people in the ‘70s making futuristic music, or like people in the future making music that sounded like it was from the ‘70s. Whatever. In 2008, there was nothing else quite like it. Getting us giddy on its SodaStream synth, the opening ‘Time To Pretend’ set the tone, its lyric popping the bubble of the rock star dream: “I'll move to Paris, shoot some heroin, and fuck with the stars / You man the island and the cocaine and the elegant cars,” they sang, but they were only kidding.

These adventurers derived stimulation from altogether less obvious sources, Goldwasser claiming that “aliens, the future, stars and dinosaurs… anything cool” were sources of inspiration. Not surprisingly there are times when ‘Oracular Spectacular’ gets vaguely experimental – how could it not? This after all is the same duo who used to play elongated jams on the Ghost Busters theme at college gigs – but, for the most part, their excursions to the outer limits of wigged-out psychedelia are no more than day trips and MGMT always ensure that the melody-craved are left fully satiated.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the album was that it allowed us to look at and hear the world anew, as VanWyngarden and Goldwasser saw it, bereft of cynicism, brimming with enthusiasm.

Words: Francis Jones

MGMT – ‘Time To Pretend’ (live, Jools Holland)

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Portishead, ‘Third’
(2008; Island)

The Portishead trio of Geoff Barrow, Beth Gibbons and Adrian Utley have long been lumped in with the Bristol trip-hop scene that grew up around Massive Attack and Tricky in the early ‘90s. But only location, and a similar use of low-key, down-tempo beats, have kept this strained association going.

Portishead showed in spectacular fashion, on their 2008 comeback ‘Third’, that they have a more expansive vision than just morose beats and vocals. The album is staggering, coming across like the perfect musical adaptation of a classic dystopian novel. It’s full of half-remembered samples and guitar hooks, little ditties, funk breaks and ‘70s nostalgia, all buried below the persistent electronic hum of modernity.

It’s visceral in the extreme. Harsh synths and percussive stabs sweep in to cut through the emotional tone like metal through flesh, the only respite being Beth Gibbons’ vocals that keep the human element part of the overall mechanical melee. But her voice, too, is kept locked somewhere within the cavernous metal box of this album’s sound. She surfaces sometimes to deliver typical, pained sentiments on love and loss, but it’s like a whisper within the context of so much incredible range and variation through samples, instrumentation and electronics.

The whole thing pulsates as one whole, even from doo-wop influenced number ‘Dark Water’, to the sad, PJ Harvey-esque ‘Small’ and the undulating, ‘Kid A’-evoking, synth build up of ‘The Rip’: it all fits together as part of a grand scheme to create a razor-sharp sense of modernity; the present as controlled by slices of the past and visions of the future. ‘Machine Gun’ is an impressive standout. Eight bars of pounding electric ear-destruction, repeated over and over and tweaked out to Aphex Twin proportions, with Beth Gibbons’ voice sounding no more heart wrenching.

‘Third’ took 11 years to come out, after 1997’s self-titled album ‘Portishead’, but for once there is no disappointment with this comeback. Along with debut ‘Dummy’, ‘Third’ will go down one of the great UK albums of an era from an act that have never really slipped from the peak of their powers.

Words: Jonny Ensall

Portishead – ‘Machine Gun’ (live, Jools Holland)

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Elbow, ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’
(2008; Fiction)

Well versed in hard knocks, Bury boys Elbow reacted the only way they could following V2’s decision to drop them in 2006. Closing ranks, they regrouped to their Salford rehearsal base to record the album of their lives; scooping a deal with Fiction, winning the Nationwide Mercury Prize and a Brit Award along the way. Following the label split (their second after being discarded by Island at the end of the ‘90s), Elbow emerged battered and bruised; a band of ordinary northern blokes singing for the troublesome British Isles.

‘Starlings’ opens their fourth album with orchestral flourishes and ear splitting brass; “I'm stubborn, selfish and too old,” moans Guy Garvey, asking his spurning lover: “Darling, is this love?” ‘The Bones of You’ follows with percussive acoustic strums and Garvey lamenting work, deadlines and lost love: “I can work ‘til I break,” he coos, before a lone saxophone ends the track (a fragment of jazz composer George Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’).

The gorgeous ‘Mirrorball’ holds delicate guitar melodies, while aching strings breathe for air. Garvey surveys modern Manchester with loved-up wonderment: “The street's an empty stage / The city sirens, violins”. We’d rate ‘Grounds for Divorce’ as of the best modern comeback singles – Elbow at their most direct, rock ’n’ roll and brimming with power.

‘Weather To Fly’ sees Garvey trace the relationship roots between his own band members: “We'd sing in the doorways / Or bicker and row / Just figuring how we were wired inside”. ‘The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver’ is a real life story of man’s social and mental detachment, working alone in the clouds. Fellow Northern wordsmith Richard Hawley turns up on the betting yarn ‘The Fix’, while ‘One Day Like This’ is fabulous, heart-warming pop. In contrast, ‘Some Riot’ and ‘Friend of Ours’ - touching tributes to Bryan Glancy, a close friend who died while the album was being planned - are spine tingling in their emotive qualities.

Garvey’s oblique lyrics aren’t immediately clear underneath his croaky singing voice, but unravel delicately with repeated listens. The rest of the group deserve high praise for producing precise textures and sophisticated arrangements, all of which combine to make ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’ the best and most accessible record of Elbow’s career.

Words: Alistair Beech

Read an interview with Guy Garvey about this album HERE

Elbow – ‘One Day Like This’ (live at Glastonbury)

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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’

Tomorrow: numbers 42 to 39.


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