Clash Essential 50 – 42-39

Part three and we're seeing some number one acts...

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 three, and we break into the 30s. Find part one (50-47) HERE and part two (46-43) HERE.

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Amy Winehouse, ‘Back To Black’
(2006; Island)

Honestly, what more could we add to the millions of column inches dedicated not only to the amazing success of this album – five Grammy wins, an Ivor Novello for the single ‘Rehab’, number one in the UK and across Europe, 11 million copies sold – but also the soap opera life and times of its maker, a 25-year-old Londoner with a voice to stop traffic?

Nothing. Nothing at all. It’s all out there; it’s all been said. But ignore, please, the tabloid shit-stirring, the titillating gossip that sticks so easily to the seemingly always somehow bruised Amy; instead, slip ‘Back To Black’ on and remind yourself of how she became a household name in the first place.

And if you still need help: the answer’s by making brilliant, soulful, emotionally naked pop music that affects individuals across age ranges, across languages, across the world. ‘Back To Black’ is a bona-fide smash hit, and one where clever marketing and timely placements tell only half the story. Unlike, for example, Duffy’s catalogue of work, there’s nothing here that smells artificial, that sounds like an imitation of glories already witnessed, repackaged for a fresh batch of suckers.

No. There’s none of that. Authenticity: that’s what you get. And a riveting thing it is, too, once you listen beyond the background chatter of bullshit that follows the singer around.

Amy Winehouse – ‘Back To Black’ (live, Somerset House)

– – –

Santogold, ‘Santogold’ / Santigold, ‘Santigold’
(2008; Atlantic)

Brooklynite Santi White was known widely as Santogold until recently, when she changed to Santigold following the (alleged) threat of legal action from either: a jewellery retailer called Santo Gold, or a mad rapper called Santo Gold, depending on which internet source you choose to believe. Her debut album, also called ‘Santogold’, has thus also been re-titled as ‘Santigold’. It might sound like a problematic re-brand, especially after the commercial success of a standout debut album, but it’s probably water off a duck’s back to Santi. After all, she’s been struggling to shake off the ‘New M.I.A.’ tag for much longer.

It seems difficult for journalists to write about Santigold without mentioning M.I.A. – and I’m predictably going to take the same route, at least to explain the differences. M.I.A. is the globetrotting slum-robber of pounding bailie funk beats; Santigold is the industry-insider writer-producer and former punk band member who turned her attention to the world of bass-heavy production only after a late-developing interest. Santi’s starting point was from the punk side of things. She was in a ska-punk band called Stiffed before ditching her A&R career and striking out as a serious musical proposition in her own right.

The influences remain though. Take ‘You’ll Find a Way’: the track has two different versions on the album. The second is a crunching Switch & Sinden remix – a futurist bass trip that is predictably slow, squelchy and over-the-top – while the original is a mod/punk track with a pleasant ‘Mirror In The Bathroom’ feel to it. It rises into almost a No Doubt chorus in the middle – evidence of pop potential – before dropping out into a half-speed dub middle eight. ‘Lights Out’, the other great rock/pop song on the album, is a similarly simple little number, embellished in the studio, but not really needing it to sound fantastic. It could be played by a three-piece in the backroom of a pub without losing its appeal.

Ska-punk segues very nicely into the darker, dirtier progressive dub and bass tracks on the album that have been produced by an impressive set of urban production talents. It’s Switch and FreQ Nasty’s tweaking that makes ‘Creator’ the best track on the record. A faintly exotic, rippling drum break is suddenly over cut by a screeching monkey voice while the boys in the background have a great time fiddling with the bass wobble effect and what sounds like a submarine sonar sample.

What’s pleasing about ‘Santigold’ is that it’s not just a producers’ record, it’s also a band record. Listen to it a few times and you’ll realise everything fits together, mostly through the choice of some very proficient production talent; people who’ve adapted around Santi’s vision enough to leave the guitar tracks intact. A career spent in music comes through in the maturity and depth of what is, still, pop gold, but pop of the most significant nature.

Words: Jonny Ensell

Santigold – ‘L.E.S. Artistes’

– – –

Late Of The Pier, ‘Fantasy Black Channel’
(2008; Parlophone)

With British music seemingly dominated by northern lads keen to tell the world about their humdrum existence, the thought of a group from these fair isles reinventing themselves as a kaleidoscopic explosion of electro and rock was a distant prospect before ‘Fantasy Black Channel’. A jaw-dropping, senses-scrambling album, it raised the bar for British rock music at a time when most bands thought the bar was where you bought a shandy.

Hailing from Castle Donington, a few limited-edition singles had set tongues wagging before Late Of The Pier began to fully emerge. Re-recording that material, and creating sparkling new songs, with dancefloor guru Erol Alkan, the band’s debut album arrived surrounded by a beatific neon light.

‘The Bears Are Coming’ was a stunning first blast of a single, driven by homemade percussion and squelching synths. However, the album contained much more than mere standalone tracks to please the gurning rave-goer in us all; it was bound by a true, sincere coherency. ‘Space And The Woods’ is an expert Gary Numan pastiche, which grows from glitch-core ramblings, its deadpan vocal matched by the ear-bursting pounding of the drums. While the group fits alongside the hip electro styles of the Kitsune stable, they are really too damn demented to share a stage with continental would-be peers: utterly British, songs such as ‘Mad Dogs And Englishmen’ combine a savvy awareness of their musical heritage with a disregard for its importance.

The breathtaking abandon of the music is matched by Samuel Dust’s often melancholy-soaked lyrics. “Suicide is in my blood,” he intones on ‘Space And The Woods’, whilst ‘Broken’ opens with the line “Couldn’t sleep last night… Couldn’t calm down”. This mixture of startlingly different music with heart-on-sleeve emotions reaches it pinnacle in ‘Focker’. As Dust shrieks “I want to be your friend”, all manner of hell opens up through the synths, as if a virus has wreaked havoc with Daft Punk’s helmets.

Only a year old, it is difficult to assess the impact ‘Fantasy Black Channel’ has had. Certainly, one listen reveals the absolute pointlessness of ‘realist’ indie – detailing a grey landscape when the point is to transcend it. Brimming with ideas, ‘Fantasy Black Channel’ could be the point where British rock turns from black and white into brilliant colour.

Words: Robin Murray

Late Of The Pier – ‘Focker’

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Sigur Rós, ‘Takk…’
(2005; EMI)

Now a dinner party staple thanks to ‘Hoppípolla”s unlikely status as television’s stock ‘triumphant montage’ soundtrack (a slot now claimed by
Elbow’s ‘One Day Like This’), ‘Takk…’ remains a high point of Sigur Rós’ ongoing journey.

By album number four the Icelandic quartet had firmly set out their stall to surprising success. Surprising because, if you pause and consider the facts, this is a quartet of experimental musicians whose music skirts the awkward (at least certainly not mainstream) post-rock genre with lyrics sung in their native tongue or, to further up the ante, a made-up language of vocalist Jón Þór Birgisson’s own construction, ‘Hopelandic’.

Of course, to the discerning music fan these are intriguing positives that’d charmed many by the time of ‘Takk…”s 2005 release. Coming after the dark and particularly awkward ‘( )’ – an album with no song titles and brackets for a title which was rumoured to be a reaction to the band’s boredom with their breakthrough ‘Ágætis byrjun’ release, one which was followed by months of touring and featured elaborate string arrangements which, by the end of its promotional life, the band were dismissing as overly Disney.

Seemingly relaxing a bit, the band found a middle ground for the ‘Takk…’ sessions, tempering the strings (arranged by the band’s classically trained multi-instrumentalist Kjartan Sveinsson) with some hard-rocking sections and Múm-esque chiming clockwork prettiness. For sure, anyone drawn to the album by the media exposure given to ‘Hoppípolla’ was in for a shock. It begins with a two-minute ambient intro before reaching the gentle slope of ‘Glósóli’, the summit recalling Mogwai at their heaviest. Elsewhere, there are tracks boasting unravelling, extended codas deconstructing their existence slowly and wheezingly.

In retrospect, ‘Takk…’ is the perfect calling card for Sigur Rós, neatly showcasing their disparate musical urges into a crisp, gothic saga running the gamut from pretty acoustic electronica (the focus of the band’s latest studio offering ‘Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust’) to some seriously heavy freakouts (a side of the band which was always clear to anyone who caught their spine-tingling live show).

Containing an astounding depth within its eleven ambitious tracks, which still offer up a satisfying listen five years after its release, the bottom line is that ‘Takk…’ is all that makes Sigur Rós an essential proposition.

Words: Nick Annan

Sigur Rós – ‘Hoppípolla’

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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…’

Coming tomorrow: numbers 38 to 35.

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