Parts seven and eight, in one! Sorry...

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.

Apologies for no entry yesterday – we were supping tea with E from Eels, among other things. Ah, the life of the music journo – a million things to do, only three or four records a month worth giving a shit about. Anyway, here’s a double installment to make up for our no show 24 hours ago.


- - -

Kanye West, ‘The College Dropout’
(2004; Roc-A-Fella)

In 2004, mainstream hip-hop was populated by characters of supreme confidence, its leading players knowing what they wanted and invariably getting it; they were indomitable, seemingly indestructible. But, what’s truly braver: projecting the image of a superman, or being unafraid to show that, hey, you’re only human after all? Ambivalence, imperfection and vulnerability, these were Kanye West’s strengths.

On ‘The College Dropout’, braggadocio is undermined by insecurity, Kanye lusts after women and material goods whilst wanting to walk with Jesus. In truth, that one person can incorporate such conflicted characteristics isn’t really remarkable. What is remarkable is that this persona was so accepted by such a huge and diverse audience, and that the buttoned-up, preppy and often unsure figure of Kanye West became a hip-hop superstar.

However, his difference from the hip-hop norm was not West’s only defining characteristic. It wasn’t simply the image he was selling, but how he sold it that was so compelling. Wit, intelligence, self-deprecating humour and gold-minted beats are the fuel powering ‘The College Dropout’, as Kanye tackles issues such as race, class and education.

West’s schooling at Roc-A-Feller, where he had become in-house producer extraordinaire, ensured that the album dazzled in all the right places; it not only got your brain ticking, but got your limbs twitching too. From the latter-day Stevie Wonder stylings of ‘Spaceship’ to the thumping tattoo beats of ‘Jesus Walks’, through the languid funk breakdown of ‘Slow Jamz’ onto the brash, brush with mortality referencing ‘Through The Wire’, it’s a record chock full of certifiable tunes. Okay, the skits began to tire after the umpteenth play, but the use of samples was exemplary, the myriad guest appearances thrilling.

It’s aspirational and inspirational; it is conscious of its conceits and constantly pricks them; it is a record of conscience. What’s more, though, ‘The College Dropout’ is not simply a fine example of the form, but, like all classic albums, it actually extended the vocabulary of its medium.

Words: Francis Jones

Kanye West – ‘Through The Wire’

- - -

Apparat, ‘Walls’
(2007; Shitkatapult)

Time and Space. (Here we go, I hear you say…) Yet Sasha Ring a.k.a. Apparat’s stance at the European crux of Berlin in 2007 saw him standing at a point where the city’s dwellers and ‘techno tourists’ started giving up unconditional love for overly mechanised techno. Sasha’s subtle and more sensitive approach to dance music is a microcosm of this digital shift in itself. Having broken his name in linear techno, Apparat soon spurned convention in favour of relenting ambience, the lure of IDM and flirtations with the dancehall rhythm. Alongside Modeselektor, Sasha was one of a handful of artists playing IDM in a city brimming full of belligerence and relying on a deep history of utilising often generic dance music to socially unite both sides of a divided city once the Berlin Wall came down at the close of the ‘80s

This patriotism of a new scene saw Apparat embody the gentle second wave of backlash that was always inevitable against the behemoth of the global movement of nosebleed techno. After Basic Channel (the two reclusive record shop owners of Hardwax Records) had slowed the techno down in the ‘90s, Apparat then followed suit a decade later, yet on his own terms. ‘Walls’ covets this backlash by effortlessly moving through electronic styles whilst retaining its own vivid flavour. Sasha flavoured his revolution with icy flourish; a distant warmth of melodies like the sun through a winter mist and a layered approach which moved distinctly away from a ruling and ever-present 808 kick drum.

Not shy to level his own voice onto listeners’ ears, alongside a shimmy of glacial breaks and ephemeral percussive structures, this is a nourishing record that is best devoured as a whole. Dubbed out production sees it quietly follow The Orb and Global Communication’s early ambient paths, yet it references its own historical space via the drums and the unashamed vocal treatments. As Berlin acts increasingly as a creative sieve, the city has been spitting out bastard dancehall rhythms as new artists pop up all over the place, consistently melting sounds and collapsing barriers in genre. The city is often seen as Europe’s perpetual techno discothèque, but its sounds are changing thanks to the likes of Jahcoozi, Modeselektor and Phon.o’s, whose reinterpretation of rhythms have mutated into Jamaican territory: here their fingerprints can be found in Sasha’s programming of his beats, again driving a firm flag into the ground fluttering the denomination of 2007 proudly.

‘Walls’ is an essential artefact that boldly charts the refreshed path of a city which had for too long been dominated by one sound: a historical junction borne from existing at the European crux of electronic music.

Words: Matthew Bennett

Apparat – ‘Arcadia’

- - -

Burial, ‘Burial’
(2006; Hyperdub)

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of being lost in thought as you ride the top deck of a London night bus, rain refracting orange and white streetlights through the window and blurring your view, you already know exactly what listening to ‘Burial’ is like. This is urban music in greyscale, the cartoon noir scribbles of grime and the Technicolor headspace of dub reconstituted to fit forgotten Zone 3 estates. It’s despairing and hopeful in equal measures: unusually for dubstep, it’s music with soul.

As dubstep began to step out of the shadows in 2005, the emphasis was purely on dirty low end designed to rearrange organs in the club. Skream’s fantastic ‘Midnight Request Line’ had taken the uncompromisingly dark aesthetic of grime, slowed it and warped it into something weirder and more introspective and pushed the new sound into the public consciousness with an unlikely crossover club tune.

As it solidified around producers like Skream, Benga and Kode9 and labels like Tempa and Hyperdub, the scene began to blossom more fully. The unexpected flower was Burial. Unlike his peers, he hadn’t released a string of 12”s before dropping his eponymous debut. The secretive producer came out of nowhere with ‘Burial’, an album which walked the tightrope between the underground and the mainstream.

Eschewing club sound-systems for headphones, the album focuses on subtle inflections of mood rather than up-front dancefloor killers. The fast-moving drums are constructed of field recordings, including the click of Burial’s brother’s Zippo, making the sound sources as ephemeral as the skittering two-step rhythms which underpin the music. The wash of distant synths and manipulated vocal lines that drift around the densely programmed beats replace dancehall dread with genuine emotion.

Like DJ Shadow on ‘Pre-emptive Strike’, Burial mastered and reworked a genre in a way that appealed not just to headknock aficionados but to casual punters too. Some will argue that Burial produced better work on his follow-up, the Mercury Prize-nominated ‘Untrue’, but listen to the North African drones and restless, searching beat of ‘U Hurt Me’ or the Basic Channel pulse of ‘Prayer’ and the noble failures melt away in the face of its derelict beauty.

Words: Nick Tebbutt

Burial – ‘Gutted’

- - -

Gallows, ‘Orchestra Of Woves’
(2006; In At The Deep End / 2007; Warner Bros.)

“To be honest, this sort of blew up out of the blue. Nobody can expect us to say that we thought ‘Orchestra Of Wolves’ would be massive, blah blah blah, because we never expected it. I was writing about Watford, for fucks sake, and Slough, and nobody can expect that to do well in the charts.”

So says Gallows’ lead screamer and most-tattooed member Frank Carter of the unexpected success of this, the Hertfordshire hardcore quintet’s debut album. And he wasn’t the only one surprised by the impact made by ‘Orchestra Of Wolves’, recorded in spurts on a shoestring budget and initially released in September 2006 via small Nottingham indie label In At The Deep End – while critics went crazy for the album, few could have foreseen a million-squids deal with Warner Bros., who handle release duties for the anticipated follow-up, ‘Grey Britain’, out next month (preview HERE).

But blow up the band certainly did; partly due to their incredible live performances, where nary a semblance of compromise was offered whatever the venue (or weather, if you ever saw them playing a festival in torrential rain), but primarily because of the expert songcraft exhibited across ‘Orchestra Of Wolves’, a heavy record that doesn’t hide its pop heart. Sure, the riffs are brutal, and the breakdowns savage, and Frank hollers himself into a bloody frenzy throughout, but thousands were able to get into it because never were superstructures so violent that kids couldn’t follow the addictive melodies within. The band might not recognise it, but ‘Orchestra Of Wolves’ is as much a pop album as, say, the latest U2 record – verse, chorus, verse, and so on. The execution is very, very different, of course… thank fuck… but a formula is followed, and followed closely.

Which makes ‘Grey Britain’ all the more spectacular – had its release date been a few months earlier, no doubt it would sit here in place of its predecessor – as Gallows have taken the upfront aggression of this release and mixed it with some truly ambitious adventures in sound. Not that we’re knocking ‘Orchestra Of Wolves’ in any way, mind; even in its rawer, IATDE-released guise, it packs a fucking incredible punch, and also opened doors for a host of other talented hardcore bands in the UK to have their music heard by a wider audience. It this respect, this is a more important album that its follow-up – it set a standard of quality within its field that few had previously delivered, and few have matched since. It was also distinctly British – never have Gallows strived for commercial gains by peddling cuts echoing their US peers, and never does Frank adopt a fake American twang in pursuit of a few sales.

Bad Religion’s Brett Gurewitz has called ‘Orchestra Of Wolves’ the finest album of its kind since Refused’s ‘The Shape Of Punk To Come’, and Black Flag’s Keith Morris is a fan of the band – that they attract such compliments from legends of the hardcore world should tell you all you need to know about the quality on show. Sure, there’s the odd slice of immaturity in the lyrics, in so much as the analogies can be paper thin, but this is the sound of a band finding its feet via trial and error… and triumphing. Its irresistible energy, crackling passion and fully invested heart and soul ensures this album remains an arresting listen to this day. Seriously – put it on now and pretend you can’t feel its electricity. You’ll be rumbled in a second.

Rocket science it ain’t, but play ‘Orchestra Of Wolves’ at maximum volume and you’ll certainly feel like a rocket’s gone off inside your skull.

Gallows – ‘In The Belly Of A Shark’

- - -

Caribou, ‘The Milk Of Human Kindness’
(2005; Leaf/Domino)

Often a change is as good as a rest. In the early Noughties musician Dan Snaith was blazing a folkie path across our hearts as Manitoba. Things were looking pretty dandy. Early releases such as ‘People Eating Fruit’ and London-penned second album ‘Up in Flames’ brokered him to ears as an incredible new talent splicing electronic and acoustic polarities with a delightfully frazzled flourish. Then came the bad man.

‘Handsome Dick’ Manitoba, a NYC punk happily milling around doing fuck all as part of The Dictators, unleashed his US lawyers on Dan’s ass. Apparently an album recorded 15 years ago under a pseudonym of ‘Manitoba’s Wild Kingdom’ just wasn’t cricket to the aging anarchist.

Dan wasn’t best pleased at the writ. The world had turned to face him and now he was forced to run away. Fucking punks. Yet he fought back on higher ground by transforming himself into Caribou, the most noble of elks, and released ‘The Milk Of Human Kindness’, a obsessively pieced together canvas of wooded, organic and swirling tracks that encompassed trip-hop, proto electro and folk, though at no point subsiding enough into any of these grounds to be over-definable.

It’s an album of two halves. From mid-album track ‘Bees’, a sublime if rough bass glide across euphoria, the record rounds on the hearts. By the time closer ‘Barnowl’ has finished with your ears the level of scuzzed and fucked-up beauty will have taken its toll. Vivid in the colours and images it conjures, Snaith’s ability to climb inside his melodic vehicle and inject near states of synaesthesia into conventional minds marks this album in our hearts.

Using a trick similarly found on Four Tet’s ‘Rounds’ album, Snaith juxtaposes the innocence of simply played acoustic melodies with freaked-out electronics that infect the listener, and the flow of the record, like a virus before disorientating and collapsing the tracks through numerous unique and unconventional structures, breaking into a journey that is hard to find anywhere else. Nudging the mid-decade era’s propensity to label records like this as ‘folktronica’, again the music wins the long race past niche into immortality by retaining the jostle on the iPod, the office stereo and its irresistible call that defies all seasons.

Words: Matthew Bennett

Caribou – ‘Yeti’

- - -

Broken Social Scene, ‘Broken Social Scene’
(2005; City Slang/Arts & Crafts)

The Canadian collective’s third proper full-length – and their last, with members only releasing ‘BSS Presents…’ albums since 2005 – the self-titled album from Broken Social Scene is the sound of unbridled joy captured and distilled, a celebration of collaboration and teamwork set to the backbeat of insistent percussion and multi-layered guitar-scapes.

While the record may have lacked some of the tight cohesiveness of its predecessor, 2002’s ‘You Forgot It In People’, its many voices combined to present an overall tone far more accessible than anything the group had previously produced, and it subsequently earned recognition in its home country by winning at the 2006 Juno Awards. Indeed, any criticism levelled at its many cooks approach could be laughed off as improper – after all, you try harnessing the individual talents of some nineteen people without losing some of their particular flair.

Led by the singles ‘Fire Eye’d Boy’ and ‘7/4 (Shoreline)’, ‘Broken Social Scene’ took complex influential cornerstones and condensed the myriad mindsets of its cast into focussed-enough indie-pop for the masses. And at times the record surpassed the dancefloor and aimed square for the heart, with a handful of cuts as tuned to the bittersweet tone of heartbreak as they were the thinking gal’s crush on a weirdie-beardie across the bar. Longing and lust, mistakes and regrets: all are present and accounted for.

But while base emotions acted as anchors for much of the content on ‘Broken Social Scene’, the band’s innate understanding of melody ensured that the record breezed in and made an instant impression, its summery instrumental feel enhanced by plenty of brass and harmonised back-up vocals. Plus, male-female duets (like ‘7/4 (Shoreline)’) lent the whole a narrative edge that seemed to play out like an engrossing drama serial, the odd dash of comedy picking up the shattered pieces of a fractured soul when rock bottom was reached, every tumble followed by a friendly hand to help you up again.

Yeah. In short: a great modern pop album full of depth and quite probably yet to reveal every treasure it has to offer, unless you’ve had it on repeat since day dot (and I know a few like you, if so).

Broken Social Scene – ‘Fire Eye’d Boy’

- - -

Sufjan Stevens, ‘Illinois’
(2005; Asthmatic Kitty)

Sufjan Stevens is a special one, touched by the almighty to make albums of the most tender, most deeply felt emotion using his unique multi-instrumental and compositional command. From an academic perspective, the young man doesn’t shy away from doing his research either. ‘Illinois’ was released in 2005 and is the second album in the highly ambitious States series after 2003’s ‘Michigan’. No further states have since been covered, yet it was to be anticipated that after ‘Illinois’ Stevens would struggle to mine as many nuances, biblical allusions, short stories and emotional narratives out of another location. If the journey ends here we’ve already seen a lot.

You might need the local history books to work out the album's references, but before that, there's a lot of musical beauty to appreciate, sustained over 73 minutes of heartbreakingly bittersweet songs. To take one prime example, the song ‘John Wayne Gacy Jr.’ is a stunningly sensitive effort at understanding one of the States’ most notorious serial killers. Simple strumming and a few cursory piano notes prop up a daring lyrical attempt to describe the thoughts and fury of a psychopath and the public difficulties in coming to terms with his crimes. God and the Bible are as much a recurrent theme on the album as the people and places of the state of Illinois and it’s in keeping with the constant motif of Christian redemption that Gacy is, somehow, absolved by Stevens’ own feelings of empathy at the end of the song.

It’s a dark point to dwell on, considering that the rest of the album alludes in more upbeat fashion to a host of more popular Illinois figures. “Stephen A. Douglas was a great debater, / but Abraham Lincoln was the great emancipator,” Stevens sings on twanging guitar ditty, ‘Decatur’. ‘Chicago’ is the emotional high point of the album. It still refers to “crying in my van” (he’s a sensitive soul) but its complex string arrangement holds the musical power to uplift you every time you hear it. Such sensitivity to the world often exposes darkness on Sufjan’s Steven’s albums, but optimism, whether God is with you or not, is always the final thought.

Words: Jonny Ensall

Sufjan Stevens – ‘John Wayne Gacy Jr.’

- - -

Soulwax, ‘Nite Versions’
(2005; PIAS)

Soulwax’s route to making exceptional music was a roundabout one. The duo, brothers from Ghent in Belgium, had been releasing records as rock outfit Soulwax since 1996. However their breakthrough was 2003’s ‘As Heard On Radio Soulwax Pt. 2’, a massively original DJ mix that featured 145 tracks crammed into one hour of such epic scope and tight construction that the album helped spawn a whole new genre of dance production and DJing: the mash up.

‘Mash up’ isn’t such a pleasant phrase nowadays, not after anyone with Ableton started making them in order to flood Hype Machine with dross. But cast these negative examples from your mind lest we forget that when Soulwax did it, they did it fucking well. Even better, following their ‘Radio Soulwax’ success they put their production accomplishments to use on the ‘Nite Versions’ album.

‘Nite Versions’ is a collection of re-edits of tracks from another Soulwax album, ‘Any Minute Now’, with a cover of Daft Punk’s ‘Teachers’ thrown in. Put simply, it demonstrates the pinnacle of indie/electronic production. It’s the perfect meeting point between the attitude and rough edges of indie-rock and the driving insistence of dance. You feel, after listening to the full force of the album’s 11 tracks, all the energy of a live rock show but distilled through a dark world of electronics.

It couldn’t have been achieved without the absolute technical skill of the Soulwax boys. Every track is tweaked to perfection, though there are standouts. The nightmare bass of ‘E-Talking’ thunders along over the tight snap of a real snare sound (ah, real sounds, how we miss them) while ‘NY Lipps’ is an upbeat re-work of ‘Funkytown’, repackaged as a modern classic to last another 20 years. Collaborative effort with DFA, ‘No Excuses’ is a last track par excellence, taking us on a final eight-minute journey of depth, interest and intensity to rival the rest of the album taken as a whole.

You can sit down and admire ‘Nite Versions’ from start to finish, or you can have a stupidly good time dancing to it. Any way you experience this phenomenon, it’s always mind blowing.

Words: Jonny Ensall

Soulwax – ‘E-Talking’

- - -

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’

Coming tomorrow: numbers 18 to 15. Assuming we find the time!

A load of ol’ toss or the most amazing list you’ve ever seen (that’s only collecting together albums of the past five years, that is)? CLICK HERE to register and get commenting on our Clash Essential 50. If you're already part of the gang, just add your words below...


Join us on VERO

Join the Clash mailing list for up to the minute music, fashion and film news.

Follow Clash: