Considering studying music at university? We asked our music lecturers for recommendations on albums to listen to before you start your course. Here are lecturer and songwriter Nick Ryall's choices.
I have filtered this list down from at least 30 to 40 albums that I consider essential listening, and tried to get a variety of different things in here, reflecting on various aspects of what I consider to be the best in popular music.
I suggest in the first instance, that if you can find these on vinyl and listen to them that’s the best option. If not seek out a CD version, and failing that a site such as Spotify.
These are not in any particular order.
‘Close to the Edge’ – Yes
One of the greatest progressive rock bands at their peak. Only three tracks with one taking up one entire side. This album really does define what progressive rock was all about. In particular listen to the interplay between Bill Bruford on drums, and Chris Squire on bass.
‘The Sensual World’ - Kate Bush
Bush followed up her coming of age album ‘The Dreaming’ with this. Her use of studio techniques is now very mature, and the quality and concepts of her songwriting are at an extremely high level. This album also contains her collaboration with Trio Bulgaraka
‘The Hissing of Summer Lawns’ – Joni Mitchell
Another consummate songwriter and arranger at her peak. You should particularly listen to how Mitchell constructs her songs and how she then brings out the messages in the arrangements. Here Mitchell is also demonstrating her in-depth knowledge of jazz, and how to fuse this with her own writing.
‘Live at Leeds’ – The Who
Live albums don’t get much better than this. A rock band on full form, with energetic and totally convincing performances. All four of the band are working as equals throughout the album, with the excerpts from ‘Tommy’ being particular high points. The covers are brilliant as well.
‘Steve McQueen’ – Prefab Sprout
Lightweight? I don’t think so. Paddy McAloon’s song writing is always fascinating, particularly his often obtuse lyrics. The snippets of cultural references are something you should investigate. Also take note of the extremely effective arrangements.
‘The Ghost of Cain’ – New Model Army
One of the great post punk bands spitting fire throughout an entire album, even when acoustic. The opening track ‘The Hunt’ sets out NMA’s aggressive socio-political stance in no uncertain terms. Great singalong ‘yobbo’ choruses to!
‘The Night Watch’ – King Crimson
Another live album which tells you everything you need to know about to King Crimson. It covers a number of albums, and are particularly outstanding track is the whole ‘Talking Drum/ Larks Tounge in Aspic’ medley. Similarly to Yes, listen to the interaction between John Wetton and Bill Bruford. Also read Robert Fripp’s liner notes. ‘Tuning a Mellotron doesn’t’…
‘Black Sabbath’ – Black Sabbath
Some critics deride this album in favour of later Sab LPs. Rubbish! This is a top-notch collection by a band finding their way into uncharted territory. Yes, the blues is still present, but is being morphed by Tony Iommi’s riff power to somewhere else.
‘Never Never Land’ – Pink Fairies
Total anarchic rock by a band not that successful at the time, but brilliant in retrospect. Contains some absolutely beautiful guitar solos by Paul Rudolph. If you can get hold of a vinyl copy, just stare at the cover as you listen to the record, and all will be revealed!
‘Climate of Hunter’ – Scott Walker
Walker’s return after a period in the wilderness. It is on this album when his music is beginning to transition from the experiments of his first four solo albums, to the music he would produce on albums such as ‘Tilt’ and ‘The Drift’. Listen deeply to ’Sleepwalker’s Woman’.
‘Third’ – Portishead
It was on Jools Holland that Portishead performed ‘Machine Gun’. For me, it blew all the other bland dross out of the window. This is a terrifically dark album, for all the right reasons. Haunting and enigmatic, with a highly intelligent use of electronics. I also recommend ‘The Rip’. Beth Gibbons has never sounded so ethereal.
By Nick Ryall
Music lecturer and a composer/songwriter in various genres.