Best album of all time; a tournament!

Here at Picky Bastards, we are often arguing about music. Obviously. Sometimes it’s the merits of Radiohead, other times it’s the importance of bands like The Beatles and Led Zeppelin, often it’s about the tiniest detail on a song or album, and sometimes it’s even about which is the best song with brackets in the title.

But there’s one particular argument that we return to again and again and again. What is the best album of all time? So we’ve decided to settle it once and for all in that tried and tested scientific method known as a Twitter tournament. We’re so scientific.

So for the next couple of weeks, we’ll be pitting our writers’ favourite albums against each other until one comes out victorious and will subsequently be known as the best album of all time. And to make it even more scientific, we’ll be offering a prize of one £50 Record Token to a Twitter follower who retweets and votes during the tournament. The winner will be chosen at random when the tournament ends, so the more times you vote and retweet the more chances you’ll have to take home the token. Head to our Twitter now.

Here’s the updated bracket and, below, why we picked the albums we did:

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Tom Burrows: Radiohead – In Rainbows (2007)I remember discovering Radiohead. It was Christmas 2005, I’d unwrapped Q Magazine’s ‘100 Greatest Albums’ issue, and Radiohead occupied three of the top ten places on the (with hindsight, very white, male-dominated, alternative rock) list. Being in the joyful midst of teenage music discovery, I immediately began to bring myself up to date with this fascinating band. At this point we were two and a half years removed from previous effort Hail to the Thief, and much of Q’s (and others’) discourse focused on 1) how long we’d have to wait until the next record, and 2) whether they’d return to guitar-driven rock music.

Thankfully the band ignored both of these questions, taking their time to craft a ten-track masterwork that embraced both further experimentalism and gorgeous melodies. Much of the conversation around In Rainbows at the time of its release concerned the radical pay-what-you-want release model, but after a few days of listening to the album this was forgotten. From the skittish rhythms of ‘15 Step’, to the incredible vocals of ‘Reckoner’, to my favourite ever song of theirs, the years-in-the-making wonder ‘Nude’, it’s the most straightforwardly enjoyable Radiohead album. Other albums of theirs make grander, more important statements, but when I think of my favourite albums, I think of the unadulterated joy of a great music listening experience – In Rainbows is a prime example of this. 

Check out James’s first impressions of In Rainbows in this Blind Taste Test.

Pete Wild: Nick Drake – Pink Moon (1972) – You’ll never know the agonies this has put me through. There are albums that I love, ferociously, with the glassy eyed stare of a zealot, albums I’d defend to the death, albums I’d kill for, albums that were there for me, man, albums that are like children to me, albums I am so personally involved with that sharing their titles with you would feel like a betrayal – especially when I think you might not understand, you might not get it, you might dismiss them with a wave and… well, it would all get ugly is what I’m saying.

So. After much in the way of candle burning and soul searching I’m going to say Pink Moon by Nick Drake. It’s my perennial Sunday morning record. It’s a perfect collection of songs. It’s stood the test of time. It’s Nick Drake’s most sustained collection. It soothes me, it calms me, it cheers me up. It’s like an old friend. It’s also indisputably worthy of a place on any list of best albums of all time. You can keep your Pet Sounds and your Revolvers and your 36 Chambers or whatever else you think warrants the top spot. Pink Moon, baby. Pink. Moon. Classic.

James Spearing: Portishead – Dummy (1994) – 1994 was a pretty strong year for albums. With Britpop peaking, Blur, Oasis, Pulp, and Suede had big hitters. Green Day, Jeff Buckley, the Manics, and Nirvana all released classics too. But one album stood out from the rest. That album was Dummy by Portishead.

Looking back, this was the first album I can remember hearing that wasn’t from a group set up as a classic guitar band. Sure there were plenty of pop singles that didn’t fit this mould, but albums?

At nine years old I’m sure I had no idea what a sample was, but neither did I care. I enjoy this album still now, as much, if not more than I did then. My tastes have matured and changed over the years but Dummy has stood the test of time. What it has in common with the year’s other illustrious albums, is that it was very much of its time. The trip-hop label it was given couldn’t be more mid-90s. The difference with Dummy is that it doesn’t sound of its time. There are noises in there that could surely be patented. I’ve heard nothing like it since. The music and lyrics also capture a persistent, desperate sadness, peaking in the strings and descending bassline of ‘Roads’.

In Dummy, Portishead cooked up a perfect recipe of enduring moods and sounds. If you ask me next week, I’ll give you a different answer, but right now, this is the best album ever.

Nick Parker: PJ Harvey – White Chalk (2007) – I love albums of grand scale and complex ideas. It’s the albums with that great arc of movement from one track to another that I find compel me to come back again and again. It’s a little confusing to me, then, that when pushed to pick a favourite album of all time, I couldn’t deny that it’s PJ Harvey’s 2007 album of piano ballads, White Chalk. On this album we are privileged to join Harvey as she shows us her life with unparalleled lyrical dexterity. Take the last few lines of the title track as one of a hundred examples:

‘Dorset’s cliffs meet at the sea/Where I walked our unborn child in me/White chalk, gorse-scattered land/Scratched my palms, there’s blood on my hands/’

What an elegant play between rendering the outside world, the emotional grounding of the context, and then the touching threat of “blood”. The bravery in the songwriting is underlined by Harvey’s decision to start from scratch on the piano too, an instrument she had very little experience with until then.

As you can tell, I could obviously go on all day, so I’ll just say that White Chalk is the most exquisite, delicate, moving, intimate, and melodically subtle album I’ve ever heard.

Listen to Nick talk about his love of PJ Harvey in an early episode of the podcast.

Fran Slater: The National – Boxer (2007) – As I was putting this whole article together, it was me who received the replies from all our writers telling me how hard a question I was asking of them. It wasn’t hard for me. There are so many important factors that go into creating a great album, but for me the one that always wins my heart is the emotional pull. Boxer has that in spades.

It is a particularly emotional album for me, because I clearly remember the day in 2007 when it came into my life and began to totally alter my musical tastes. It was a burnt CD passed to me by a friend, no artist or album name on its front, and I had heard the album a full seven or eight times before I even knew who it was by (more of this on an early episode of the podcast).

But I was also already in love with their intricate lyricism by this point, Matt Berninger’s droll tone had me hooked before I even knew his name, I had shed tears and felt goosebumps before I even knew who I was crying about. ‘Fake Empire’ opened my eyes to a new kind of beauty, ‘Mistaken for Strangers’ got me up on my feet, ‘Slow Show’ broke my heart, and then ‘Apartment Story’ and ‘Ada’ put it back together again.

It was music that immediately spoke to me, and no music has spoken to me as powerfully before or since that moment. Boxer is the ultimate album.

Sam Atkins: Björk – Homogenic (1997)I nearly went for the album that I chose for my Album of the Decade here, but I’ve written enough about that Laura Marling album on this website to last until 2030. Homogenic was the obvious other choice for me, an album that sounds like it could be from 30 years ago, or 30 years in the future. Opener ‘Hunter’ contains a bass-line and snare drum line so crisp and clear in the mix that it’s astounding to this day. ‘I thought I could organise freedom, how Scandinavian of me’ is pure Björk genius here.

Songs like ‘All Neon Like’, ‘5 Years’, ‘All Is Full Of Love’ and ‘Unravel’ take electronic music to heights it had never been to before, the way Björk uses her voice as another layer to the sound, not fighting against but breathing through these electronic sounds is incredible. It’s on the strings of ‘Bachelorette’ and all time classic ‘Joga’ that I was instantly sold though. These two songs are so packed with emotion and drama and truly mark the greatest moment for one of music’s most remarkable creators. An album so good I have the record on the wall at home; Björk’s greatest album is one that I find new life in every time I hear it. Homogenic surely has to be one of the greatest albums of all time.

Fliss Clarke: Beyonce – Lemonade (2016) – I was fairly tortured over the question of the best album of all time, in large part feeling the weight of received wisdom on this topic. Surely, I thought, the best album of all time is an old classic. I revisited many of my most beloved albums of decades gone by, yet in my heart kept circling back to Lemonade, which I chose as my best album of the 2010s. How can I choose a pop album of four years ago as the best album of all time? Because I feel it is. The songs, words, film, narrative, politics, emotions – it is objectively a total masterpiece that changed the game. Beyonce slays with innovation, vocal and musical artistry, courage, vulnerability, and power. Personally, this album saved me during a time of abject despair: I drank it up like medicine and was soothed, revived and empowered by its healing properties. More broadly, Lemonade’s layers of magnificence go deep into history and will stand strong way into the future. Forced to choose, as we are here, I believe it’s the greatest album of all time. Vote Lemonade.  

Listen to the Picky Bastards team discuss Lemonade in their Album of the Decade podcast.

Nirmal Trivedi: Neutral Milk Hotel – In An Aeroplane Over The Sea (1998)To call Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea music is to diminish it. It is an event: a sonic, transformative, surreal experience that forces you to wonder why and how frontman Jeff Mangnum could write a love letter to Anne Frank from the point-of-view of a child and the wisdom of a Holocaust survivor.

‘And one day we will die and our ashes will fly from the aeroplane over the sea,’ Mangum sings, as a saw (a saw!) soars and shakes above the trees and we, the listeners, are floating through memories of childhood, playgrounds, or perhaps your mother’s face smiling warmly through the sun’s shimmer. By the end, we’ve drifted through the world Neutral Milk has created with a ‘two-headed boy’ at your side, bewildered and in awe of who you’ve become, reconciled to what is suggested: ‘for now we are young, let us lay in the sun, and count every beautiful thing we can see.’

Listen to Nirmal discuss his love of Neutral Milk Hotel in an early episode of the podcast.

Kim Fernley: Interpol – Turn On the Bright Lights (2002)What a big ask. Favourite album ever?! I struggle to choose a favourite chocolate bar. But luckily this Picky Bastard’s music taste is as narrow as Britain First’s taste in race, so it actually wasn’t too difficult. I’m going with an album that I love listening to no matter what mood I’m in. Interpol’s debut album Turn On the Bright Lights has been in my life for 18 years. It’s been with me through the dark times and the blissful times. It was definitely my coming of age album, yet I can still relate to it as a supposed grown-up. Each individual track is incredible, but I think the album is best listened to as a whole, preferably whilst lying down in a dark room (I’m aware that sounds even more pretentious than some of their lyrics, but it’s true).

The songs have been ordered perfectly, switching between gentle and atmospheric, to frenzied. I hang off of every word, every beat and every string. It’s sharp and hypnotic, from the cryptic lyrics to Carlos D’s basslines. There’s a sound in ‘Untitled’ that makes me visualise a giant raindrop bouncing slo-mo into a puddle every time I hear it. When Paul Banks sings ‘turn on the bright lights’ in ‘NYC’, it actually sounds shimmery and lighter.

Something they do brilliantly in several of the tracks is the endings. ‘PDA’ and ‘The New’ are obvious examples of this. ‘The New’ lures you in with its initial sweetness. Then it slows, until it starts to turn almost sinister, before the guitars suddenly attack in a raging Pixies-esque fashion. You think it’s going to end but then it returns just as aggressive and beautiful. Here’s to many more happy years of hammering drums, monotone vocals, and being mesmerised by the same chord being played for what feels like fucking ages.

Matt Paul – The xx – xx (2009)I remember being introduced to The xx in the small tent at Reading. It sounded almost alien. Spacious and stylised pop evolved out of this perfect blend of electro and R&B mixed with some gothic new wave.

Other artists I saw that weekend were being branded as indie landfill. The xx, instead, were actually innovative and had created a true classic.

These days the sound is not so alien. This album has left such a big thumbprint on the subsequent decade of music. Artists across genres fuse these styles together in similar ways. From the more obvious influences of James Blake and Bon Iver, to larger acts like Rihanna who straight up sampled the album. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that after this album pop music took a step forward into being the creative and artistic force it is now.

Ultimately this album pretty much represents a close to perfect distillation of my musical taste. And therefore has to the best album ever. At least for me.

Joe Shervin: The Band – The Band (1969)Surely if you’re debating the best album of all time, a pretty good starting point is the best band of all time. And that’s what I’m doing here.

But not just any band. The band. The bands’ band. I’m talking Levon Helm on drums, Rick Danko on bass, Garth Hudson on the organ (and much more), Richard Manuel on piano and vocals, and Robbie Robertson on guitar. The band that backed Dylan when he went electric. The band revered by critics in the late 60s, early 70s.

The Band.

And the best album by the best band? You guessed it: ‘The Band’. Otherwise known as the Brown Album, ‘The Band’ was the group’s second album and, in my opinion, not only their greatest, but anyone’s. Five incredible musicians, all equal, all bringing their skill, passion, heart, and soul.

Recorded at a pool house owned by Sammy Davis Jr (and before him, Judy Garland) in the Hollywood Hills, the record was released in 1969 and conjures up not only images of that fascinating time and place, but of the people, places and traditions of a much older America.

I’ve become obsessed with The Band in recent years, and I like to think their music reflects my own outlook: wonder, optimism, remembering the past to better understand today.

And, let’s not forget, having a grand old time. Isn’t that what the best music’s all about?

Kirsten Loach: Lauryn Hill – The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998) – I was twelve years old when Miseducation came out. Listening to the album on my Walkman for the very first time having made the long journey to the nearest Virgin Megastore, I could easily relate to the absent Lauryn as the school register is called out on the intro.  I doubt the complicated relationships and messy emotions explored on later tracks would’ve been quite so comprehensible, but I do remember feeling like I was being given a glimpse into a world of grown-up relationships that seemed far more thrilling and intense than any fluffy rom-com or pop ballad had previously shown me.

Twenty-two years later and having now navigated my own fair share of tumultuous relationships and painful break-ups, I perhaps have a little more experience than the kids in the classroom being asked ‘What is love?’, but my ability to explain those feelings certainly remains much closer to theirs than to anything that is achieved on this album. Miseducation may explore the age-old theme of love and love lost, but it does so in a way that feels so raw and immediate that I don’t know how anyone couldn’t be completely captivated by it.

Incidentally, for anyone who got involved in Sam Atkins’ best song with brackets debate, this album has the inarguable winner in Doo Wop (That Thing).

Mike Hull: Arab Strap – Philophobia (1998) –I first heard Arab Strap at a time when I was living in some sordid little bed sit in the Midlands. The song I heard was ‘Here We Go’, nestled within some mixtape or the other.  It fucking blew me away. I’d sit drinking cheap whiskey, listening to that one song repeatedly, like a teenybopper.

‘Here We Go’ is from 98’s Philophobia. It’s a record with such an alluring sound. The hungover post-rock landscape is created with guitars, percussion and organs, and intermittent trumpets, violins and cellos, with offerings from a host of friends, including members of Belle and Sebastian, and Sons and Daughters.  With beautiful, sparing arrangements, a glorious amount of atmosphere and feeling is injected into each track in a way that only such a lo-fi record could do.  I have always been a fan of Malcolm Middleton’s guitar style.  Here we see a much more rudimentary, stripped back version of it, where he is incredibly effective in creating quiet but powerful, and almost hypnotic hooks throughout the album.

Lyrically, Philophobia is a loosely conceptual album, of which its key theme is sex. Or more precisely, all the horrible neurosis and the (often terrible) actions surrounding the act of sex – not excluding the doubt, the lies, the cheating, the lust, the paranoia, the jealousy and the regret. Often crude, with a sexual urgency and seediness, almost like Falkirk’s answer to Jarvis Cocker, Aidan Moffat’s slurred, largely spoken-word delivery is witty, and piercingly honest. This provides a wonderful antidote to the impossible promises laid down by of conventional pop music.

Ultimately, Philophobia is an intimate and affectionate picture of young relationships, wherein the romantic highs are weighed out equally with the crippling comedowns. It’s an album that holds two fingers up to the glossy and pristine modern love song, whilst simultaneously holding every drop of romance, yearning, and ultimately sorrow in conveying modern love.

To this day, Arab Strap have remained a generally low-key and underrated band.  Despite an impressive catalogue of decent records, for me it was Philophobia that showcased the band at their greatest.  It’s an album so beautiful and so vital, if not only to boys drinking cheap whiskey in dirty bedsits.

Yasmin Duggal – Arctic Monkeys – AM (2013) – Named as NME’s greatest album of the 2010s, AM is unequivocally – putting aside the albums of the 70s which helped shape some of my favourite records – the pinnacle of my sixth form years, of festivals, of lukewarm tinnies, of Alex Turner hip action, of unwarranted Brylcreem and of dreamy LP listening.

The band has taken us from the streets of High Green to a hotel and casino complex on the moon, wowed us with a debut and divided us with a concept album, but the lads’ finest body of work has to be these 12 sublime inches of oozy rock’n’roll. It doesn’t play by any rules; the first unmistakable twang of bassline in ‘Do I Wanna Know?’ triggers a poetic accomplishment, reinforced by the end-of-night melancholy of ‘No. 1 Party Anthem’ and the vacuum-cleaner absurdity of John Cooper Clarke’s ‘I Wanna Be Yours’.

Then come the hits. ‘R U Mine?’, ‘Arabella’, ‘’Call Me When You’re High’, ‘Snap Out Of It’ – all spectacular in their own right and microcosms of the wonderful world of Turner and the fantasy, heartbreak, wild nights, and narratives that come with it.

Laaaaaaaaaaaaadies. It’s unquestionably 11/10.

Fat Roland: Orbital – Orbital 2 – In the early 1990s, rave bands didn’t know how to make albums. They could churn out roof-rattling anthems, but albums were difficult. The long-play format required musical depth that was elusive for ravers whose mid-week studio sessions consisted of ecstasy come-downs akin to an elephant sitting on their face. Depth and meaning were largely the wheelhouses of ambient artists and fledgling IDM: The Orb and Aphex Twin could have simply farted and they would have produced a 12-track magnum opus. Which is why Orbital’s untitled second album, commonly known as the brown album, was so remarkable. It married thematic heft with danceable tunes – ‘Lush’, ‘Impact’, ‘Halcyon’ – that still had me bogling on the coffee table.

Two thirds of the album was glued together in a non-stop kinetic mix of tumbling beats and head-rush techno, starting with the Withnail and I-sampling moodiness of ‘Planet Of The Shapes’ and culminating in the pulsating acid of their Meat Beat Manifesto-mangling ‘Remind’. In the history of techno albums, few half-hours have matched this breath-taking sequence. I first learned about this album whilst up a tree having an existential crisis: on that branch, I read an NME review that described the sounds so vividly, I nearly fell into a hedge. I bought it, played it, internalised it for life. The brown album gave new meaning to beat-driven electronic music LPs, forging the way for satisfyingly complete albums by Goldie, the Chemical Brothers and a darker, harder Prodigy. Rave came of age with Orbital 2. Best album ever.

Wildcard: Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly – Back in December, we ran an Album of the Decade podcast episode in which we pitted each of our writer’s favourite albums of the 2010s against each other looking for one winner. But we didn’t get one.

After all the votes were in, Laura Marling’s Once I Was An Eagle surprised us all by keeping pace with the early favourite from Kendrick Lamar. Apparently whatever was going to win, it was going to have a name of a creature that flies in its title.

But there was only room for one wildcard in our tournament to decide the Greatest Album of All Time, and after minimal debate it was decided that To Pimp A Butterfly would be the one. It may have (slightly) divided opinion among our editors, but there can be no doubting its cultural impact over the last decade. It deserves its spot in the fight for the ultimate Picky Bastards crown.

Now get over to Twitter and get your vote on.

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