Part one 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.

So, without further ado…

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The Killers, ‘Hot Fuss’
(2004; Lizard King/Mercury)

While the Brandon Flowers-fronted Las Vegas foursome have gone on to headline venues packing more people into their innards than tubby types do pastries, around the release of their 2004 debut album the band was something of an unknown. Of course, a brace of scintillating radio-conquering singles soon changed that.

‘Somebody Told Me’ hit three on the UK singles chart, with ‘Mr Brightside’ also cracking the top ten (and ‘Smile Like You Mean It’ falling just one place short), and the band’s commercial reach was finally measured in terms of amazing, surely unexpected sales. After all, a glossily produced, ostensibly ‘80s-sounding synth-rock band led by a Mormon married to his long-term girlfriend isn’t exactly the making of rock ‘n’ roll mythology.

But Flowers nevertheless found himself an indie pin-up before long, a poster boy for a new breed of mainstream-breaking bands with pop hooks to match their sharp sense of style, and impeccable commercial timing. Soft-of-edge enough to capture the Keane and Coldplay crowd, but also upbeat to the point where Saturday-night-out gals can shake some prior to hitting whatever awful chain bar they purchase their alcopops at, ‘Hot Fuss’ ticked boxes across the board. And, of course, Flowers wasn’t exactly an ugger up the front, which smoothed the band’s passage of acceptance into the vital teen market.

A UK number one, ‘Hot Fuss’ is certified four times platinum on these shores – no slight achievement for a debut album, whatever the marketing weight behind it. Strip away all the money thrown at The Killers during their first flurry of activity in Britain, and still the songs shine through, standing up to cynicism from most corners. Yeah, there will always be doubters, but listen again and you’ll hear quality runs in rich seams throughout this… ahem… killer debut.

The Killers - 'Mr Brightside' (live at T In The Park)

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Kasabian, ‘Kasabian’
(2004; Arista)

Honestly, how this ended up here comes strictly down to a single individual in the Clash ranks, who will not hear a bad word said against this self-titled debut album from the gobby Midlanders.

He argues his case well enough – there are plus points to Kasabian’s swagger-rock that rise above the hyperbolic nonsense that has been known to stream from members’ mouths. Attitude is an easy thing to manufacture in the presentation of a band, a simple aesthetic quality to fake for the sake of a few cameras, but these four definitely believe they’re worth every ounce of praise they lay heavily atop their fists-aloft anthems. And that’s an intoxicating trait when delivered with such blinkered sincerity.

By fusing elements commonly associated with psychedelia-hued recordings with their bare-knuckle rope-a-dope rock, Kasabian successfully courted critics as easily as they did a huge audience, both live and in terms of album sales. This eponymous release might have charted high at four, but come second album ‘Empire’ the band would actually hit the albums chart top spot; thus, it can be seen as the foundations, necessary and sturdy, for everything that’s followed since.

Plus, a handful of corking singles never hurt, and in ‘Club Foot’, ‘Processed Beat’s and top ten effort ‘Cutt Off’, this album certainly packs a fair few of those in between the more standard-issue, fairly forgettable filler cuts. Which, it should be said, comprise sketch-like compositions that ultimately serve as testing grounds for the band’s as-yet unrealized ambition. What we’ve heard of album three only implies they’re getting more and more ‘out there’, and here is where it all began.

Although, again, quite how ‘Kasabian’ lands here with so many other great releases missing the Essential 50 cut… you’ll just have to ask Our Man. Unless, of course, you completely agree…?

Kasabian - 'Club Foot' (live, David Letterman)

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Deerhunter, ‘Microcastle’
(2008, 4AD/Kranky)

The third album from Deerhunter is a dreamcatcher of a record with strange, unsettling and beautiful ideas tangled up in the net of its creators’ imaginations.

On previous albums the Atlanta, Georgia act had harnessed reverb-drenched drones and blessed-out, ambient noise. Here they foregrounded their hitherto mostly hidden, admittedly jagged, pop sensibilities. “I’m only interested in creating pop music,” asserted band lynchpin Bradford Cox on the eve of the album’s release. “That has always been my goal. I am interested in experimental styles, but only insofar as they can be incorporated into the pop format.” It’s pop then, but with the edges blurred, like viewing life through the reflection of funfair mirrors.

As ever, Cox is very much the driving force, but ‘Microcastle’ is by far the most democratic work that Deerhunter have produced, Lockett Lundt providing some vocals and lyrics and bassist Josh Fauver contributing significantly to songs such as ‘Nothing Ever Happened’. What’s more, whereas its predecessor, ‘Cryptograms’, was borne of a tortuous recording process, the making of ‘Microcastle’ was an altogether smoother affair. Cox suggested this was because the band had “stopped chasing things that are out of reach”.

This more acutely concentrated focus enabled Deerhunter to create a record that was less distracted and disorientating than their previous albums. Some suggested that it was also less challenging than their earlier work. However, the fact that ‘Microcastle’ was more instantly gratifying didn’t mean it was any less interesting. Rather, this is a record that rewards the time given to it, yielding its abundance of secrets slowly, reluctantly.

Despite its themes of alienation, surrealist episodes and reflections upon often disconcerting subject matter, ‘Microcastle’ is a remarkably alluring record, lulling us with heavy, narcotic sounds. ‘Cover Me Slowly’ fairly entices the listener into the cocoon, before ‘Agoraphobia’ swaddles us in gauzy washes of sound and Pundt sweetly coos, “Cover me, come for me, comfort me”.

Cox asserted that ‘Microcastle’ was Deerhunter “embracing pop”, but, as the closing notes of ‘Twilight At Carbon Lake’ softly ebb away, you can’t help thinking it’s less an embrace than a subversion of the genre.

Words: Francis Jones

Deerhunter - 'Nothing Ever Happened' (live)

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Bat For Lashes, ‘Fur and Gold’
(2006; Echo)

Sensual, brooding and thick with the murkiness of the past, Bat For Lashes’ 2006 debut, ‘Fur and Gold’, achieves a unique mystical atmosphere. It skips lightly through a number of ancient worlds – wizards’ caves, the courts of Queens and the forests of yore – summoning a gothic feel and using the same, ambiguous storytelling effects as Kate Bush on ‘Hounds of Love’.

The spooky innocence of Natasha Khan’s vocals leads the way throughout. She is the fragile protagonist along this journey into the dark heart of romance and the numinous sensations of the past. All in all it’s quite a ride.

The album begins with ‘Horse And I’, the prelude to Khan’s medieval vision quest. The song relies on just a harpsichord, a military snare, some rising strings and Khan’s voice leading her equine companion on towards their shared destiny like an art-school Joan of Arc. ‘What’s a Girl To Do’ addresses another age-old situation – “When you love so long, / that the thrill is gone / and your kisses at night / are replaced with tears”. The song sounds like a fermented, ‘60s soul classic that has matured and darkened over time.

‘Prescilla’, the album’s highlight, is sped along by catchy, hand-clapping percussion. Its narrative is that of another well-known story, the trapped woman searching for domestic bliss in a barren country. It’s straight from the mid-west film set, complete with enough loneliness and feel for the road to match any director’s vision. If anything, ‘Fur and Gold’ demonstrates a great sensitivity to genre, and a feeling for those movie set-ups, and enduringly spooky literary narratives, that resonate so well with all of us. For a girl from Brighton, who taught at a nursery while writing the album’s material, it shows a scope that few UK artists can achieve. We do gritty and down to earth very well, but for atmosphere and soaring musical highs we usually look to Scandinavia.

However, Natasha Khan is much more than the British Björk: she’s an artist with ambition and a strange world all of her own, of which this album is a thrilling exponent.

Words: Jonny Ensall

Bat For Lashes - 'What's A Girl To Do?'

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Tomorrow: numbers 46 to 43, and then four per day for the rest of this week as we head towards the middle of the Clash Essential 50.

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