Everyone has their own Top 100 Albums list, but this is ours based on our love of alternative and independent music over the years. There are some albums here that you will have seen on many lists before but we’ve also opted for some obscurities with the aim of highlighting some different music for you to seek out.
Also, for more great albums visit our Classic Albums section
70. Smog – Knock Knock
Bill Callahan, AKA Smog, has been releasing melancholic dead pan songs since 1992. Knock Knock, his seventh album, added instrumental texture and a new sense of optimism to the Smog palette, it even included a bona fide pop single in the shape of ‘Cold Blooded Old Times’. The move towards more uptempo numbers is only part of the story, the quite introspective side is still in evidence, and the children’s choir on ‘Hit The Ground Running’ is a surprising touch. Knock Knock sits pretty much smack in the middle of the Smog discography and is the best place to start.
69. Billy Bragg – Talking With The Tax Man About Poetry
The cover bares the self deprecating message about this being Bragg’s “difficult third album.” The reality is that it may just be his best. Expanding the musicianship markedly compared to earlier work the songs retain Bragg’s passionate, political and emotional lyrics but musically this is a far broader album. From standout single ‘Levi Stubbs Tears’, to the folk blues influenced ‘Train Train’, the jaunty ‘Greetings to the New Brunette’, the gorgeous horn section on ‘The Marriage’ to the traditional ‘There Is A Power in a Union’, this 1986 album is packed with fine tracks from one of the UK’s most accomplished folk artists.
68. Stereolab – Emperor Tomato Ketchup
Stereolab’s take on art-pop, synth-pop and 60s lounge music made them popular with other bands and critics alike, but never lead to a mainstream breakthrough. Their music can seem cold and clinical, their experimental side often overshadowing the quality of the songs. Emperor Tomato Ketchup is the album where all their elements came together perfectly. Opening number ‘Metronomic Underground’ exemplifies why this album works so well, the bleeps, squelches and monotonous repetition offset my smooth organic sounding bass, guitar and organ. This is followed by ‘Cybele’s Reverie’ Anglo-French art pop softened with Sean O’Hagan’s lush string arrangements and mid-way through the album they drop ‘The Noise of Carpet’, a perfect fuzzy guitar pop single. Their most varied and satisfying release.
67. Portishead – Dummy
Back in 1994 this debut by Bristol band Portishead was just about everywhere. Massive in the US, massive in the UK, its mix of trip hop, experimental rock and jazz made it a staple album of rich, poor, young and old alike. Through its standouts such as ‘Sour Times’ and ‘Numb’ it perfectly encapsulates a sense of doom within the UK at the time. It was a time when the economy was still reeling from Black Wednesday and the greyest PM of all time John Major was in charge. We can’t listen to this without thinking of an ’80s rich stock broker contemplating the millions he’s lost from his balcony in 1994 and dreading the nightmare to come. This was rightly seen as a critical success as well at the time, winning the 1995 Mercury Music Prize. Their self titled follow up failed to replicate this stunning debut and it was not until 2008 with the release of Third that they would reach such dizzy heights of industrial melancholy again.
66. Prefab Sprout – Steve McQueen
Paddy McAloon is a songwriter on a par with anyone that came out of the 1980s and Steve McQueen (renamed Two Wheels Good for its US release) is as good as any romantic pop record to come out of the era. ‘When Love Breaks Down’ gave the band their first big hit, and it is a special record, but it is just one of many classic pop gems on the album. ‘Faron Young’, ‘Appetite’, ‘Hallelujah’, ‘Goodbye Lucille #1’ and pretty much anything from the record could be picked for a “Best of the 80s” compilation. It is a sophisticated record, McAloon was aiming to be Cole Porter as much as Paul McCartney, but it is an accessible and fun record as well. Thomas Dolby’s excellent production does firmly date it in the mid 1980s, but that is no bad thing, it stands as a pretty perfect artifact of that era.
65. The Wedding Present – Bizarro
When The Wedding Present signed to RCA in 1989, two years after their stunning debut George Best, there were accusations in the music press that they had sold out. What was ignored by some critics was that their contract ensured they retained control over single releases and producer. Their RCA debut, a mini-album in Ukranian, and this, their second album proper, prove their major label owners were true to their word, allowing the band’s independent zeal and credibility to grow. While retaining George Best’s trademark fast paced guitars and the melancholy lyrics of frontman David Gedge the tracks on Bizarro are somehow bolder and bigger, with singles like ‘Brassneck’ signaling a career peak for a band that continue to produce fine music to this day.
64. Hefner – We Love The City
Darren Hayman is a firm favourite here at Neon Filler and our love for his songs started in the late 19990s when he was the front man of Hefner. Hefner wisely called it a day after just four albums, not because they weren’t still producing good music, but because it means that they stand as a rare example of an act that never released a bad album. We Love The City just about shades the top spot thanks to having the usual range of witty, soul searching melodic tracks and having two classic singles in the mix as well. ‘Good Fruit’ and ‘The Greedy Ugly People’ are as good as anything that came out of British indie pop in the era, genuinely stirring and touching. The whole album has a great feel to it and the instrumentation feels fuller and clearer than on their earlier albums. The expanded 2009 edition added b-sides, alternate versions and session tracks and is well worth seeking out.
63. Sun Kil Moon – Ghosts Of The Great Highway
This 2003 debut features some of former Red House Painter Mark Kozelek’s best work under the Sun Kil Moon name. Here Kozelek uses the music as much as lyrics to tell the stories of a variety of tragic characters, most notably boxers . The Neil Young-esque guitar on ‘ Salvador Sanchez’ perfectly matches the story of boxer Sanchez, who died in a car accident aged just 25. Another of boxing’s great tragic figures ‘Duk-Koo Kim’, who died following a fight, gets a whopping 14 minute track to himself. The time floats by though. Other highlights include the beautifully layered guitar instrumental ‘Si, paloma’.
62. They Might Be Giants – Lincoln
New York performance art pop duo They Might Be Giants will probably always be known in this country as a novelty act due to the hit success of ‘Birdhouse In Your Soul’. Anyone prepared to delve deeper will find much to love on any of their first three albums released between 1986 and 1990. Lincoln, the second LP, is the best of all finding the perfect balance between their quirkier side and their ability to write great catchy pop records. Read more on this excellent album in our Classic Albums section here.
61. Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures
Martin Hannett, who produced 1979’s Unknown Pleasure, was the fifth member of Joy division in all but name. On this debut by the Salford band he stripped back the energy of their live shows to create space and atmosphere. It was a risky move that left bassist Peter Hook gobsmacked at the time. But it was a risk worth taking with tracks such as ‘Shadowplay’ and’ She’s Lost Control’ transformed through Hannett’s cleaner, stripped back sound. One of the best debut albums of all time with even Hook now conceding that Hannett “did a good job on it.”
by Joe Lepper and Dorian Rogers