I enjoyed The Guardian’s ‘Favourite Album’ series a great deal and, now that it has ended, I thought I’d chip in with my own contribution. As tends to be the case with these things, it’s hugely difficult to pick one album as my ‘favourite’. There are many which would have a strong claim on the title and, perhaps in a different context, I would find myself picking one of them. The Holy Bible by Manic Street Preachers was a hugely important record to me and I continue to be awe-struck by its ferocity and intelligence. I am periodically drawn to the majestic, downbeat beauty of Goodbye by The Czars, Long Gone Before Daylight by The Cardigans, Electro-Shock Blues by eels and The First Days of Spring by Noah and the Whale (I think I have a thing for albums where people sound like they’re falling apart). More Adventurous by Rilo Kiley, Funeral by Arcade Fire and Set Yourself on Fire by Stars are albums I become obsessed with at least once a year, and I think I Speak Because I Can by Laura Marling can safely be added to that list. Rated R by Rihanna, Overpowered by Roisin Murphy and Stripped by Christina Aguilera are modern pop albums that display the intelligence, bravery and (most importantly) fantastic tunes of direct predecessors like Madonna (I’d go for Music and Like a Prayer), Michael Jackson (Thriller) and Prince (Purple Rain and Lovesexy). I am blown away by the prodigious talent shown on Taylor Swift’s Speak Now. The first ‘classic’ rock record I can recall falling in love with is Elton John’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, the vinyl of which I found in a pile in my parents’ cupboard and which I was drawn to by its dazzling cover art. As a gay man I found that Vauxhall and I by Morrissey, The Queen is Dead by The Smiths and Behaviour by Pet Shop Boys spoke to me and my experiences in a profound way (though this is, of course, not specifically tied to my sexuality). Only in the past week I have fallen in love all over again with the dark beauty of Achtung Baby by U2. Every time I listen to Elbow’s The Seldom Seen Kid or Wolves by My Latest NovelI am overwhelmed by the warmth and humanity of the records. Both Sides Now by Joni Mitchell almost makes me want to experience another break-up just so that I can wallow in it for weeks, while R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People and Radiohead’s OK Computer are clichéd choices, but deserved ones.
If I was to go with my gut instinct, however, there is one record which is always the first to pop into my head when I am asked what my favourite album is: Diamond Dogs by David Bowie. It’s an odd choice, certainly – it’s not generally seen as one of Bowie’s great records and I imagine most people haven’t even heard of it. I have previously written about how Bowie’s 1.Outside was the album which blew my teenage mind and alerted me to the magnificent possibilities which lay beyond music in the top ten. That, of course, led to my devouring of Bowie’s back catalogue and finding this, a record which I have loved since the moment I heard it. It is 1.Outside but in a perfect form: both are concept albums which describe twisted, dystopian worlds and are self-consciously erudite (Diamond Dogs actually began as Bowie’s attempt to write a musical based on Orwell’s 1984, until Orwell’s estate refused him permission – the link is very obvious with songs titled ‘1984’ and ‘Big Brother’). Unlike 1.Outside, however, Diamond Dogs is not a remotely difficult listen. Bowie was at the peak of his powers here and he marries the dark literary themes of the record with soaring melodies and peerless, addictive pop songs like the legendary ‘Rebel Rebel’ (the one track from the album which everyone will have heard) and ‘1984’, which sounds not a million miles away from ‘Theme from ‘Shaft’’ and points the way to Bowie’s next incarnation as a ‘plastic soul’ singer on Young Americans. The centrepiece of the album is an 11-minute song suite entitled ‘Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (reprised)’. It is criminally neglected, utterly genius and possibly Bowie’s greatest ‘song’. He used his now-infamous cut-up technique (borrowed from Burroughs) to fashion the lyrics, lending them a darkly surreal quality which places them amongst the most poetic he has ever written. His vocals are yearning, erotic, often malevolent. He begins in an almost-comedic baritone before soaring, desperately pleading ‘can’t you see that I’m scared and I’m lonely?’ and then plunging into the assured netherworld of ‘Candidate’ where he sounds not unlike Alistair Campbell as scripted by David Lynch: “I’ll make you a deal, like any other candidate – we’ll pretend we’re walking home ‘cause your future’s at stake…I’m having so much fun with the poisonous people, spreading rumours and lies and stories they made up’. Truly, it is a song to lose yourself in, to return to year after year and pick apart the way students dissect Yeats. There is nothing else quite like it in his entire catalogue or, indeed, in the catalogue of most other artists. That it is not only bookended but sounds like it belongs between the intelligent glam confections of ‘Diamond Dogs’ and ‘Rebel Rebel’ makes it all the more remarkable. The whole album displays this balancing act, with songs which wouldn’t sound out of place on X Factor leading into disturbing and eerie darkness (such as when such as the enormous ballad ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me’ is followed by ‘We Are the Dead’, a title I don’t need to elaborate on.) The album ends with a two-minute demonic jig called ‘Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family’, finally resting on a repeated ‘bruh/bruh/bruh’ sound (the first syllable of Bowie singing ‘Brother’) which, on the vinyl version, apparently played until the listener lifted the needle. As an experience in addictive uneasiness, the album cannot be beaten.
1.Outside opened my mind and Diamond Dogs barged through the doors and set up home. Here was music that was unashamedly commercial and enjoyable but also unashamedly ambitious, intelligent and political. It’s also unafraid to make demands on the listener, something which seems to have become rarer and rarer in commercial music. It’s almost impossible to listen to this album in a wholly passive way. You wouldn’t put it on while you’re doing the housework or reading a book. Instead it asks that you engage with it and it is structured in a way which is hyper-aware of the listener. This raises it to an entirely new level – by listening to it and engaging with it you feed into its meaning and its power, as the theme of a passive participant in a dystopian society reaching towards awareness and agency reaches out of the speakers and envelopes you. Rolling Stone once called Like a Prayer ‘as close to art as pop music gets’. I’d assume they would categorise Bowie as rock rather than pop, because this is pop-as-high-art.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, this record touched me in a profound way and has shaped my attitude and approach towards popular music ever since. It cemented a lifelong love for David Bowie that has never faded but, more importantly, it saved me from the (ultimate) dead end of a passive, easy pop music-as-chewing gum and plunged me into a frightening, exciting and life-altering world where music really was an art form.