RETROSPECTIVE: Ben's Favourite Albums of All Time
Ben Writes About His Top 20 Records Ever Made
We've asked a number of our writers here at Slow Motion Panic Masters to produce a list of the albums that mean the most to them, ranking their favourite LPs of all time, and first off we've invited editor-in-chief Ben Wheadon to run us through the twenty albums that he holds closest:
- 20 -
Mos Def - Black On Both Sides
I don't think Yasiin Bey gets enough credit in general, but Black On Both Sides should get spoken about a lot more as one of the best hip-hop albums of all time. Regardless of the project's political maturity, the artist formerly known as Mos Def crafted one of the greatest ever "debut" records with Black On Both Sides. Following on from the successes of Black Star with Talib Kweli in 1998, this album was a home run from day one. Just listen to how intro track 'Fear Not of Man' slides seamlessly into 'Hip Hop' to start the album off: insane.
- 19 -
Nick Drake - Pink Moon
This is a very sad album. In fact, this is an album that I can't always even finish; devastated by just how difficult it is to survive Nick Drake's harrowing songwriting. Not unlike the (fantastic) work of Elliot Smith, Pink Moon accesses a side of emotion that only the best singer/songwriters are able to tap into. At under half an hour long, the power of Pink Moon is found in just how efficiently it can tear you apart, and in that I find it to be one of the most mesmerisingly empathetic projects I've ever heard - exhaustingly so.
- 18 -
The Smashing Pumpkins - Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness
Considering my love for Kamasi Washington's The Epic and Joanna Newsom's Have One On Me, I think I must have some kind of pre-disposition for being impressed by albums that are far longer than they have any real need to be. With Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, then, it's probably unsurprising that I think it's The Smashing Pumpkins' finest hour(s). Look: its two hours long, there are 30 songs, and it's all fantastic. '1979', 'Zero', 'Bullet With Butterfly Wings': its all here, and it's still outrageous that I don't think there's a single skippable track on this behemothic LP.
- 17 -
Beach House - Teen Dream
Teen Dream is a soundtrack to whatever you're going through. Extraordinarily subtle, but still capable of pushing through moments that just soar, this is easily Beach House's best record for me. Having fallen in love with the band over the last few years, this album in particular has proved a companion of sorts, filling the space like Arcade Fire and Owen Pallett's sensational Her soundtrack (another personal favourite). This album is a never-ending source of relief, happiness and soft clouds of wonderful dream pop sounds.
- 16 -
The Last Shadow Puppets - The Age of the Understatement
I always find it funny telling people that I heard The Last Shadow Puppets long before I ever knew who (the fuck) Arctic Monkeys were. Constantly playing it in the summer of 2008, Miles Kane and Alex Turner's The Age of the Understatement soon became an album imbued with an immeasurable childhood nostalgia. In its cross-pollination of bombastic orchestral scale and James Bond guitar tremolo, this project arrived as my favourite Alex Turner record; playfully contributing a wholly unique sound to the landscape of mid-2000s indie rock.
- 15 -
Sam Cooke - Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963
Sam Cooke is one of my favourite musicians ever. Undoubtedly one of the most iconic vocalists of all time, his death in 1964 was the loss of yet another supremely gifted individual taken at a very young age. Unfortunately, however, given the conventions of 1960s album releases, Cooke passed with an astonishing stream of great songs, but without a truly great studio album. Thankfully, his recording Live at the Harlem Square Club captures the man at the height of his powers. Built for live performance, Cooke's soul and R&B rips a fire through his audience, and with songs as infallible as 'Chain Gang', 'Cupid' and the unbelievable performance of 'Bring It On Home To Me', this becomes my favourite ever live record by some distance.
- 14 -
Björk - Post
I think Björk is her most Björky on Post. Cycling between the intimidating spirals of 'Army of Me', the inexplicably brilliant cover of Hans Lang's 'It's Oh So Quiet' and the enthralling beauty of 'Isobel', Post is extravagant, committed and weird. Björk's music has such an undeniable personality to it, its hard not to respect how comfortable she is expressing herself unreservedly, and precisely as she sees fit. Post is probably the best introduction to her style, and is essential listening for those trying to see the best of what the 1990s had to offer.
- 13 -
Frank Ocean - Channel Orange
Everyone loves Frank Ocean, and everyone loves Channel Orange. Considering the quality of Nostalgia, Ultra, it shouldn't have been surprising to see Ocean accelerate so rapidly with the support of a full studio album, but his debut captured the cultural zeitgeist like few other albums have ever been capable of. Where Blonde enjoys a more cohesive artistic vision, Channel Orange itself crafts a thematic exploration of youth and uncertainty with the production of an outrageous collection of hits. 'Thinkin Bout You', 'Sweet Life', 'Pyramids', 'Lost', 'Monks', 'Bad Religion' and so on and so on.
P.S. - hidden CD bonus track 'Golden Girl' with Tyler, the Creator? Perfection.
- 12 -
Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
I don't necessarily think that this album is Courtney Barnett's best, given that I think the singer/songwriter made a colossal leap with 2018's Tell Me How You Really Feel, but Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit just has so much creative personality to it. Imaginative songwriting and a fantastic eye for creative humour, Barnett is able to tell stories on this album that sound as if you're catching up with a long time friend. She writes songs about roadkill, gardening, depression and ennui, and all of it is utterly charming and reassuringly self-identifiable.
- 11 -
Charles Mingus - Mingus Ah Um
Picking a favourite 1959 jazz album is like picking a favourite child. In all honesty, any one of Miles Davis's Kind of Blue, Coltrane's Giant Steps or Brubeck's Time Out could've found itself on this list. To me, however, one jazz album stands out above the rest, being Charles Mingus's Mingus Ah Um. Looking beyond its iconic cover art, this is about as diverse as classic jazz albums come, declining smoky moodiness or outlandish experimentation for a tracklist of nine compositions that (in all honesty) barely connect. Generally written around a recognition of influences and a reverence for the past, what buoys Ah Um is its relentless ability to make jazz an expression of joy, and opener 'Better Git It In Your Soul' stands as Mingus, I think, at his best.
- 10 -
Nina Simone - I Put A Spell On You
Nina Simone's music operated with an almost indescribable concoction of pain, humour, sensitivity and confidence. Rooted in an inter-generational resilience against institutional violences against black people, Simone positioned herself as a trailblazing activist, using music for an important political function in the wider fight against injustice. But not only was she an iconic jazz performer and one of the greatest vocalists to ever live, her music held a character incomparable, even now, to anyone else. I Put A Spell On You is Nina Simone at her most essential, and with songs like 'Tomorrow Is My Turn', 'Ne Me Quitte Pas' and the incredible 'Feeling Good', this album is stellar, still.
- 9 -
Daft Punk - Discovery
Unsurprising to anyone that knows me. Daft Punk are one of my favourite bands of all time, and I don't think there will ever be another album that can make me feel as unshakeably optimistic as their 2001 masterpiece Discovery. I wrote about it this March, celebrating Discovery's twenty year anniversary following the sad acceptance of the band's dissolution, and I don't know what more I could say. An enduring classic, the beats are massive and the songs fly with an incredible positivity. A work of genius.
- 8 -
Radiohead - Kid A
It's a bit embarrassing to look back on, but when I first got into Radiohead I looked at Kid A as little more than a quiet Minecraft-soundalike to relax and study to. I loved The Bends more than anything while Kid A gradually became a constant soundtrack to exam revision, but little else. After a few years, I realised how much greater the record really was. I'm firm in saying that this is Radiohead's greatest achievement; shedding their alt-rock status for an exploration of cutting-edge sounds and revolutionary artistry. Together, 'Everything In Its Right Place' and 'Kid A' stand as my favourite ever opening to an album, and with songs as good as 'Motion Picture Soundtrack', 'How To Disappear Completely' and 'Optimistic' Kid A demonstrates the true extent of the band's unsettling technicolour wizardry.
- 7 -
The Jimi Hendrix Experience - Electric Ladyland
As a guitarist, I would eventually grow to love B.B. King as my favourite player, but before discovering his blues perfection there was only one person that remotely mattered. Every hour I dedicated to learning guitar was in service of one insurmountable goal: to sound as much like Jimi Hendrix as I could possibly manage. I wanted to sound like the Jimi Hendrix that set Electric Ladyland alight, and as his final album before passing in 1970, these songs are Hendrix at his unparalleled height.
- 6 -
Joanna Newsom - Ys
For years I had always said that I didn't have the time to start listening to Joanna Newsom. Then, in 2020, for one reason or another I had a lot of time on my hands. I took the plunge, surrounding myself in the weird baroque stylings of a strange folk harpist, and it quickly became my newest obsession. Ys is, in my opinion, a perfect album. Five songs long, it tells stories better than any songwriter I've ever heard, and complemented with the arrangement and production geniuses of Van Dyke Parks and Steve Albini, Newsom's Ys is a must listen for any music fan.
- 5 -
Madvillain - Madvillainy
The passing of MF DOOM was one that I found extraordinarily difficult to process. It's odd. Celebrity deaths had never really affected me, but with DOOM, I felt as though I had truly lost something. I moved to London in 2017 hoping to write about artists like DOOM as great lyricists, level in talent to any of the greatest poets and writers of any time, and through his collaboration with Madlib on 2004's Madvillainy, I was shown exactly what the most incredible lyricists in the world were capable of. Everyone simply must listen to this record, and they should be encouraged to do so as early as possible.
- 4 -
Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp a Butterfly
For me, this is the greatest album ever made, and that's becoming a pretty popular opinion. Kendrick Lamar surrounded himself with an inexhaustible roster of phenomenal musicians in the creation of one of the most brilliantly realised concept albums ever devised, immediately elevating the standards to which all future releases, both within and beyond hip-hop, will be compared to. To Pimp a Butterfly is a narrative masterpiece, but it's also just really, really good. Every song on this album could've been the best song on most artist's best LP. It has no downtime, no weak links. It is the very definition of a 10/10, and the only reason it isn't higher for me is purely down to nostalgia and personal biases. If you haven't heard this album yet, you need to.
- 3 -
The Beatles - Abbey Road
It seems like a lot of music lovers identify their listening life like I do. There was a time before I listened to The Beatles, and then there was a time after. Now, everyone has heard The Beatles, but when you sit down and truly listen - something happens. I know so many people that share a similar story with finding The Beatles' music as me, having overlooked their unassailable cultural position for so long before really understanding the scale of their achievements, but the second you realise what The Beatles have to offer, the next few weeks become ones of revelatory discovery. Abbey Road started me on my journey of appreciating this group, and immediately became one of my favourite albums of all time in the process.
- 2 -
Bombay Bicycle Club - I Had The Blues But I Shook Them Loose
"The whole is greater than the sum of its parts." With Bombay Bicycle Club's I Had The Blues But I Shook Them Loose, its not like I'll claim that each of these songs are masterpieces ('Always Like This' removed), but instead its an album that flows together perfectly, and elevates each of its songs into a fantastically cohesive project. It took an inventive approach to indie rock, using imaginative chord harmonies, sampled melodies and an unbelievably under-appreciated drum performance from Suren de Saram in the service of an essential LP from the UK's indie rock peak. The transition from 'Emergency Contraception Blues' into 'Lamplight', crashing into 'Evening/Morning' - all of it just sings. Then, past the wonderful inclusions of 'Cancel on Me', 'The Hill' and 'What If', closer 'The Giantess' wraps back around and satisfies a thematic circle right back to the album's first song. It's a masterful debut, and one reflective of just how much the group's creative lead Jack Steadman had to offer from the moment that he arrived.
- 1 -
Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes
This album was made with a time machine and a Brian Wilson greatest hits compilation. There are no other explanations. Built with a ghostly sound pulled from Neil Young and medieval harmonies, Fleet Foxes' 2008 debut is still a remarkable album. It's no secret that Fleet Foxes are my favourite band of all time, and that love is owed almost entirely to this record. Helplessness Blues and Crack-Up are amazing albums, but for the innocent simplicity that propelled indie folk forwards in the late 2000s with Bon Iver (and several much worse artists), Fleet Foxes was incomparable in its success. 'White Winter Hymnal', 'Ragged Wood', 'Quiet Houses', 'Blue Ridge Mountains'... its all fantastic, and when paired with its partner record in the Sun Giant EP, you have a collection of utterly perfect folk songwriting, and my favourite album of all time.
Thanks for reading! Slow Motion Panic Masters is a music, arts and culture website created and co-edited by Ben Wheadon, a literature student and musician based at the University of Oxford. He is also a Fleet Foxes shill.
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