Well folks, welcome to the end of our list of our 100 Favorite Albums of 1986-2016. We were originally going to finish the roll out in a year, but of course a million things came up and a million more changed, so here we are, rolling out our list’s #1 way behind schedule. Please do look back at the rest of your list as a reminder, or if you haven’t checked it out yet, and thanks for reading and listening along with us.
001 | My Bloody Valentine | Loveless
[Creation Records, 1991]
BF: I was a junior in high school in 1992 when I first heard My Bloody Valentine. In Southern California, there was a public access channel on TV, Channel 56, or KDOC, which is now probably most famous for hosting The Wally George Show. Wally George, who, incidentally, is the father of actress Rebecca DeMornay, essentially spawned the conservative talk show movement with his crazy show. He hosted a call-in show in which most of the callers made fun of him or requested Cure videos. Why? Because the show that aired after his was Request Video. Unlike MTV, which only aired “alternative” videos after midnight on the weekends on a show called 120 Minutes, Request Video aired weekdays in the afternoons around the time school got out. That show is where I first heard Skinny Puppy, Ministry, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Soundgarden, Nine Inch Nails, and even the Sex Pistols. One day after school, this crazy, visually unintelligible video anchored by snowy-TV blasts of noise and a solid hook. It was the opener off My Bloody Valentine’s then-recent album Loveless. Since I was discovering so much new music at that young age, it was something I filed away in my mind, as I didn’t see that video again for over a decade. A few years later, when I was a freshman in college, a girl I had a crush on mentioned MBV, meaning I had to immediately fly down to the local Music Plus or Blockbuster Music to score a (used) copy of Loveless. At first glance, I was quite impressed with it. However, after a couple of listens, I soured on it, owing to what I perceived a lack of dynamism and an overwhelming amount of repetition in the structure of the songs. To top that all off, I was at the point where “dance” music didn’t yet resonate with me in any way, so the closer “Soon” turned me off. As a result, the CD languished in my collection for a few years before I returned to it. At that point, in the later half of the 1990s, Loveless finally clicked with me, and the intensity of my obsession with that album was quite acute. From that point forward, it has remained one of my all-time favorite recordings.
JB: Sadly, I don’t have much of a story about how I came to My Bloody Valentine or Loveless. I think I came to it my sophomore year of college, in late 1999. At that point, the album was starting to show up on “best albums” lists, and lovers of excellent music evangelized for it with the passion and intensity of Brother Jed, the asshole who was a regular on Bowling Green’s campus—a bible thumper who travelled from campus to campus shouting harsh slurs at students and promising them afterlives of damnation and hell fire for their immoral promiscuous ways. Before I heard the album, I remember thinking My Bloody Valentine was probably some sort of horrorcore punk or metal band, because all I really knew was their name. The more I read about them, though, the more I began to think that maybe they were something else, and I should check them out. Then, on a December trip to Ann Arbor to visit my favorite record stores, I found a copy of Loveless for ten bucks and bought it. I remember liking it when I first listened to it, but not fully falling in love with it until I stayed up most of the night a few weeks later, right before finals week, and listened to it around five in the morning while lying in bed, drifting in and out of sleep. I remember sinking into the fuzz of “To Here Knows When,” and then thinking that “I Only Said” lasted forever because I kept waking up during it. I thought maybe there was a lock groove on my record that I hadn’t noticed. Something about that experience made Loveless stick for me, and maybe, in a way, that’s the perfect way to experience Loveless, not quite conscious so the sounds just wash over you and rattle the windows in your dreams. I love this album, and I know that it’s an important album, but that all being said, it’s not my personal number one. Might not even be a top ten for me. But I’m glad it was negotiated to the top of this list nonetheless. So tell me, Brian—what is it about Loveless that it deserves this honor?
BF: The album’s combination of sonic inventiveness, aesthetic grandeur, and the prophetic nature of the sounds that emanate from it are all great reasons for Loveless to land the #1 spot on our list. I don’t know if it “deserves” that spot (aside: my friend Joe would argue that Faith No More’s Angel Dust deserves that crown, but until I stop thinking of FNM as a group of football players who got accepted into art school just after losing the championship game in high school, I will continue to agree to disagree with him), but I have few if any reservations about it belonging there. The initial gut-punch of the bah-bah-bah-squeeeeee that begins the album (on the opener “Only Shallow”) initially suggests combativeness, thanks in part to Colm Ó Cíosóig’s assertive drumming. Moments later, it becomes positively inviting, as Bilinda Butcher’s multi-multi-multi-tracked vocals sing-swoon inaudible, soothing gibberishes into the microphone. The guitars, courtesy of mastermind Kevin Shields, seemingly play multiple melodies and harmonies simultaneously, resulting in a weird marriage of styles, from Brian Wilson’s 1965-1967 output, Sonic Youth, and the harsher moments from Dinosaur Jr.’s You’re Living All Over Me and Bug. But also the “ambient” music inherited from Brian Eno. But also elements of the Ecstasy-fueled Madchester acts like Primal Scream, Happy Mondays, and Spacemen 3. The use of samples to, in effect, sample one’s self, one’s own sonic detritus as “guitar solo”—or whatever is supposed to be in those places on a traditional pop-rock song—is disorienting and oddly comforting at the same time. What I had once identified as a negative repetitiveness about the music I now perceive as a rather hypnotic quality, which is validated by your anecdote regarding the experience of listening to “To Here Knows When” and “I Only Said” in a dream-like state. I think in that anecdote you’ve pinpointed the oneiric quality of Loveless, a quality that resonates through many of my favorite films as well. The fact that the album luxuriates in tremolo, doesn’t care if you can’t understand the lyrics, and makes feedback both harsh and lovely at the same all contribute to my love and admiration of Loveless: in other words, the very in-betweenness of it all. Why do you think it should top our list, James?
JB: Well, like I said, on my own list Loveless doesn’t land quite this high—for me, it’s a solid 10-15 album, brilliant and bold, fascinating and mysterious, challenging and absorbing, but in a way that always keeps me at an arm’s length. I just want to be clear about that—this album never quite connected with me the way that an Automatic For the People, or a Sound of Silver, or a Bee Thousand, or a My Dark Beautiful Twisted Fantasy, or a Born to Run, or a To Pimp a Butterfly, or a Pet Sounds, or a Blonde on Blonde, or a Revolver—you get the idea. But while Loveless was never quite able to land for me the way those other albums did, I’m fully aware that inscrutability and obfuscation is part of what makes the album so special. I mean, Brian Eno, himself, in described the song “Soon,” the version off the band’s Glider EP as “The vaguest piece of music ever to become a hit.” And while, had Eno also not said of the song “It's really set a new standard actually for pop music,” the previous quote might have a whiff of damning with faint praise to it, I think that the vagueness upon which Eno was commenting is a huge part of what makes Loveless such a powerful album that sounds so timeless (it’s one of but a few classic shoegaze albums that’s significantly grown in reputation in the decades since its release) and helps it remain an easy album for listeners to get lost in, or better, to be engulfed by. And those are all testaments to the album’s greatness—why it deserves top or close-to-the-top spots on ALL OF THE LISTS!!!!!!!!! Shields is a genius, hands down, and Loveless is the epitome of a weirdo masterpiece that constructs an entire universe of sound. But that universe is, in a way, somewhat self-contained. And this leads me to another question for you, Brian. One word I always here in relation to My Bloody Valentine and Loveless is important. Critics say it’s important, which with music, maybe a little more than with film, tends to mean influential, especially when the work shies away from significant or overt political or social causes. Now, as much as I love Loveless, I’ve never quite been able to trace a significant thread of influence out of it (Note: I don’t want to work on the assumption that albums must be important/influential to be on lists like these, but I do think it’s an interesting idea to follow the idea of importance/influence in an instance like this, even if it doesn’t change the esteem with which we hold the album). I can maybe see the 1990 version of “Soon” influencing the production of U2’s 1991 classic Achtung Baby, and I don’t think it’s hard to find Loveless’s influence on the Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream, but beyond that, it seems the album’s biggest influence has been on bands like M83 and Mogwai, maybe the first half of Deerhunter’s career, but it just doesn’t seem like it spawned a movement the way albums like, say, The Velvet Underground and Nico or Marquee Moon. Or maybe I’m being too literal, maybe it wasn’t the sound so much as an ethos that was important? Help me out here, Brian. Who did this album influence? Why is it still considered important.
BF: I agree that there aren’t too many albums that sound quite like Loveless. In recent years, acts like DIIV and Tamaryn have incorporated Kevin Shields’ tremolo-heavy approach to guitar playing in some of their songs. You ask if “maybe it wasn’t the sound so much as an ethos that was important?” Herein lies the power of Loveless. When we think of musically influential albums there tend to be two strands of thinking. The first strand follows this line of thinking: you know an album is influential if it spawned a bunch of terrible imitators. I might sound like I’m joking, but think of all the dull-as-fuck concept albums and bad prog rock music that followed in the wake of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967); think of all the bad faux-”grunge” rock that came out after Nirvana’s Nevermind (1991)—I’m talking about your Candlebox, Bush, Silverchair, and Nickelback; or, all the flimsy acts in the tradition of Radiohead’s OK Computer (1997), like Coldplay, Travis, or Keane. Let’s also not forget about Arcade Fire’s Funeral (2004) and all that Fanfarlo and Lumineers crap that followed. The second strand consists of “inimitable” albums. This includes records like Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band’s Trout Mask Replica (1969), Miles Davis’ On the Corner (1972), Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs (1985), My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, or Sleater-Kinney’s Dig Me Out (1996), records that have no real “imitators.” The artists who claim to be influenced by these types of albums are channeling their desire for a distinct musical vision, one that is profoundly insular, perfectionist, intuitive, daunting. As such, you can “feel” Loveless’s influence everywhere today more so than hear it. One could argue that all of Radiohead’s post-OK Computer albums, Portishead, Animal Collective, Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002) and A Ghost is Born (2004), Sigur Ros, Bon Iver’s 22, A Million (2016), and even hip-hop acts like Madvillain, Kanye West (particularly his last three albums), and El-P have been singly inspired by Loveless’s defamiliarizing of the guitar and the sample and of the sound of popular music more generally. This is why I think the album is still important. We also cannot overlook the myths and legends surrounding the album’s recording and MBV’s subsequent inability to produce anything resembling a “follow-up.” (Note: a follow-up, titled m b v, finally appeared in 2013 to general but far from overwhelming acclaim.) We can’t overlook these narratives.
So, James, we’ve collectively discussed 100 albums from the period of 1986-2016 that we find excellent, compelling, beautiful, ugly, honest, and downright fallacious! How many of them do you think we’ll still be talking about when we are in our 70s?
JB: I think we’ll still be talking about most of them. Looking back over the list, there are already a few I’m questioning. Sure, some of those questions are because of Kanye’s latest shenanigans—I’ve genuinely not been able to queue up a Kanye song since he started circling the block with right turn after right turn, and I used to listen to A LOT of his music—but I also wonder about Siamese Dream, and Benji, and even I See a Darkness. All albums I love, and which I’m fairly confident I’ll be listening to in thirty years (if I’m lucky)—but who knows if anyone else will care about them. On the flip side, I’m already regretting the low placement of A Seat at the Table. And, of course, we started making this list in 2016, and started running it more than a year ago in 2017, and our thirty-year window was pretty arbitrary, designed, mostly, to keep this from being a list of beloved classic rock albums with a few newer titles mixed in. So where would albums from last year and this year fit in? Would CTRL or Damn. make the list? What about one of those gut wrenching Mount Eerie albums from 2017 and 2018? I’d maybe even consider pushing for Guided By Voices’ latest, Space Gun to at least be in the conversation as its one of Pollard’s finest albums in twenty years, but something tells me that such a push would probably get me laughed out of the room.
In the end, though, I’m proud of this list. I like the way the list balances personal favorites with “importance.” When I look over it, it feels a little less formal and stodgy than some of the big publications’ lists, but without bucking cultural and social forces at play. We hope you all have enjoyed this long, slow roll out, and we hope you all found something new to enjoy on this list, or were inspired to revisit an old favorite. I know both happened for me. Happy listening!