An album that’s genuinely perfect from start to finish is rarer than a Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombat. The common garden album worth listening to usually has two to three good tracks, the rest you skip over. On the next level, you’ve got a record with a couple of doozys (‘Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite!’, anyone?) and perhaps a tedious skit (see most hip-hop albums). But glistening there in the upper echelons, you’ve got that wonderful thing: an album crafted so masterfully that you can’t fault it. Elliott Smith’s ‘Either/Or’, Stevie Wonder’s ‘Songs In The Key Of Life’, Portishead’s ‘Dummy’, Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’, Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’, Lauryn Hill’s ‘Miseducation..’ and Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’ spring to my mind. The consistency of ‘Purple Rain’ particularly stands out. According to the director of the film of the same name Albert Magnoli, Prince had a hefty bank of 100 songs originally and whittled them to nine. From Prince’s call to arms – “Dearly beloved / We are gathered here today / To get through this thing called “life” / Electric word, life / It means forever and that’s a mighty long time…” – in ‘Let’s Go Crazy’, the quality remains high-octane right to the 8.41-minute title-track epic finale.
Here, NME writers pick all-killer no-filler albums. Leave your suggestions in the comments below.
Bon Iver, ‘Bon Iver’
Whether you agree this is a perfect album comes down to your stomach for saxophones and lush 80s Brat Pack rock. Mine’s cast-iron. Justin Vernon’s second Bon Iver effort abandons the acoustic gloom of ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ in favour of a synth-washed Magic FM sound that makes something beautiful out of deeply unfashionable tools and, crucially, hangs together. ‘Beth/Rest’ is the closer that could be Mark Knopfler joining Chicago with improbably brilliant results, but ‘Calgary’ is the one that creeps up your spine, its impenetrable lyrics – “Joy, it’s all founded/Pincher with the skin inside” – all nonsense and reverie like ‘Astral Weeks’. Actually, ‘Astral Weeks’ – there’s another perfect album.
At The Drive-In – ‘Relationship Of Command’
Widely regarded as the Texan band’s best – and certainly their most critically lauded – 2000’s ‘Relationship Of Command’ is one of those exceptionally rare albums. Not only is it perfect, but it’s also, almost, entirely unrelenting, from the demonic maraca shaking of the opening bars of ‘Arc Arsenal’ through to the final violent strains of ‘Catacombs’, where it sounds like all the studio speakers have blown. In the 36 minutes in between lives some of the most confrontational, yet melodic, rock you’re ever likely to hear. The band imploded shortly after its release (they reformed briefly last year), but ‘ROC’ remains a spectacular tombstone from a once-in-a-generation band.
The Strokes – ‘Is This It?’
The notion of a perfect album is best defined by the idea that its creators could not have conceivably made anything better in that moment if they had forever to try. With that in mind, it is hard to argue that The Strokes’ 2001 debut is anything but the perfect album. Arriving at just the right time to save us all from boring middle-England boys with acoustic guitars (thank god they never made a return) the New Yorkers’ first album still sounds as good today as it did back when it first came out. From ‘The Modern Age’ to ‘Take It Or Leave it’, the thrills and excitement wrapped up in Julian Casablancas’ slurred words and Albert Hammond Jr’s spring-tight guitars remain as effervescent and life-changing as when I first heard them as a teenager knee deep in a musical education revolving around Limp Bizkit and Korn. ‘Last Night’, ‘New York City Cops’, ‘Hard To Explain’… I could go on, but I think ‘Is This It?’ speaks for itself.
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Janet Jackson – ‘The Velvet Rope’
Rihanna’s provocative career would suggest that the task of being honest about your emotional trauma and dysfunctional relationships while making music in the pop landscape will never be taken at face value. The world is keen to make judgment calls on what’s appropriate and where the lines must be drawn. Many lessons can be learned from Janet Jackson’s sixth album, one that followed a Greatest Hits record and broke with the American sweetheart of past LPs. On 1993’s ‘Janet’, the youngest Jackson had already begun pushing the boundaries of sexually explicit pop but it’s ‘The Velvet Rope’ that cemented her as a free, liberal voice for experimentation. A concept album, it’s overlooked as a rare moment when a global superstar breaks away from the idea of pretense, looks inwards and explores every one of her personal insecurities at the height of fame. Her long-time collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis blended new electro and trip-hop with Janet’s traditional R&B – tracks such as the very pop ‘Together Again’ melding seamlessly alongside the Joni Mitchell sampling hip-hop of ‘Got ‘Til It’s Gone’ and deeply candid ballad ‘I Get So Lonely’. Most envelope-pushing of all, however, was ‘What About’: “What about the times you hit my face / What about the times you kept on when I said no more please / What about the time you said you didn’t fuck her she only gave you head.” No need to lick a sledgehammer when you’ve actually got a reason to say something.
Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds, ‘Murder Ballads’
Nick Cave’s 1996 masterpiece ‘Murder Ballads’ has a bodycount higher than a Tarantino marathon and enough fire in its belly to ignite a city, but yet it stands out because of Cave’s perfectly realised artistic vision. It’s not just that this record doesn’t have a bad track on it, but that each track adds, reflects and expands on what has gone before. Like Van Morrison’s ‘Astral Weeks’, the songs here work as a cycle, but unlike Van’s mystic cycle of life and rebirth here Cave presents us with a cycle of death and feral animal pleasures. It comes with a terrifying coda: the closing track, a cover of Dylan’s ‘Death Is Not The End’, is the only track on which a death does not occur. However, as the likes of Kylie Minogue, PJ Harvey and Shane McGowan sing, the promise seems to be not that the afterlife will redeem us, but that it will be just as blood-thirsty and miserable as what’s gone before.
Kevin EG Perry
Dusty Springfield – ‘Dusty In Memphis’
‘Dusty In Memphis’ features top-notch songs from the likes of Randy Newman, Bacharach and Hal David, and Goffin and King, as well as playing from one of the finest session bands of the ’60s, the Memphis Cats. But what makes it a perfect album is Dusty Springfield’s singing: flawless, packed with emotion and yet utterly economical, like a single tear falling down the cheek of a beautiful woman. Incredibly, she didn’t want to hear the sound of her own voice during recording, telling producer Jerry Wexler to “bring up the track” in her headphones so loud that he described the volume as “agonising”.
Nirvana – ‘In Utero’
Sure, ‘Nevermind’ was a bigger album for Nirvana than ‘In Utero’ because of the cultural impact it had on the world and the way it turned the trio into megastars. But – be honest now – when was the last time you actually listened to the track ‘Stay Away’ all the way through? It’s skippable and, therefore, ‘Nevermind’ isn’t perfect. But its follow-up is. Nothing on ‘In Utero’ is flippant or silly. Even the deliberately throwaway 95 seconds of ‘Tourette’s’ is full of spite and malevolence aimed at the illegal bootlegging of Nirvana’s music. It’s the only album Cobain wrote where every track means something.