Back when we were putting out a glut of Top Tens over the Christmas and New Year period, I talked about how Arlo Parks had been the best artist I discovered in 2020. In particular, I mentioned the moment I first heard her. That moment when, while watching YouTube videos at random, I heard the song ‘Hurt’ and instantly knew that I’d found an artist I was going to connect pretty heavily with. A new name for the regular rotation.
This got me thinking about other times when something similar has happened – times when I have heard a song and instantly fallen in love, knowing in that very moment that I would be bigging up this artist or band for many years to come.
So today, I’m sharing those moments with you, bringing you the top ten songs that got me hooked. Many of these are no longer my favourite track by the band or artist but they were the one that first made me sit up and take notice, the first one that made me a fully-fledged fan willing to shell out my money on merchandise and spend hours alone with their music in my ears.
Away we go…
10. ‘Funeral’ – Phoebe Bridgers
I’d been recommended Phoebe Bridgers by that pesky Spotify algorithm that so often gets it wrong but, occasionally, pulls an absolute corker. I stuck on Stranger in the Alps while sitting outside my house in Hebden Bridge and looking out at the hills and listened to the opening two songs thinking that this was definitely good but not being totally grabbed. Then came ‘Funeral’. Starting with some crashing guitars, it soon morphs into a beautiful elegy about a time Phoebe sang at the funeral of ‘a kid a year older than me.’ Firstly, the guitar picking is stunning – but what grabbed me here was the poetry and the honesty, the account of how such a responsibility can affect a person. This was the moment she became one of my favourite artists.
9. ‘Head Rolls Off’ – Frightened Rabbit
As soon as I heard the opening line of ‘Jesus is just a Spanish boy’s name’, roared in Scott Hutchison’s signature Scottish drawl, I knew I was going to love this man and his band. And I was right. One of my most enduring musical obsessions started while I was watching some obscure BBC show about the ‘Acts to look forward to in 2008’. This would lead me to their album A Midnight Organ Fight, and a fair few songs that I now love even more than ‘Head Rolls Off’. But I’ll always hold a special place in my heart for that song because it was the first one I heard by them, and because the line ‘while I’m alive/I’m make tiny changes to earth’ has become something of a mantra for the man who wrote it. R.I.P. Mr Hutchison – your words live on.
8. ‘Boss’ – Little Simz
We covered Little Simz’s Grey Area on Episode 20 of the Picky Bastards podcast, and the first time I heard it I was trying to wake myself up as I walked to get the train to work. I couldn’t have chosen a better album. As opening track ‘Offence’ rolled into the rumbled bass of ‘Boss’ and the screamed chorus of ‘I’m a boss in a fucking dress’ rattled around in my skull, I totally forgot the hectic day I was heading for and found myself engrossed by one of the most exciting artists on the planet today. There are few MCs that can match her flow on this track.
7. ‘The Gardener’ – The Tallest Man On Earth
Despite endless articles I’d read, and the recommendation by several of my favourite artists, I had avoided listening to The Tallest Man On Earth for a long time. Why? To be honest, I thought it was a stupid name and I wasn’t willing to let him off that easily. Eventually I caved, though. And thank fuck for that. I listened to ‘The Gardener’ and found that his furious finger picking, his lyrical prowess, and his growled vocal tone was absolutely everything I looked for in an artist and I was instantly in love. 13 years later he is still one of my favourite people on the planet, and if you want to know more about why you can listen to me bang on about him in the very first episode of our podcast.
6. ‘Shark Smile’ – Big Thief
I don’t like to give my fellow Picky Bastards credit, so you know how serious I am about a band when I do. I have to thank Matt Paul for introducing me to Big Thief in Episode 10. It was the whole of Capacity that grabbed me if I’m being honest, but the first hint that I was about to start annoying my girlfriend by playing another band on repeat for months came when Adrianne Lenker sang the bridge of ‘ooh, baby, take me, and I said ooh, baby, take me too.’ There is something so mesmerising about her delivery of these lines and I would, of course, find out that this delivery was one of the things that make the band so special as a whole. It would be remiss of me not to mention that gorgeous guitar tone that appears on the second chorus, too. What a song.
5. ‘Europe is Lost’ – Kae Tempest
In my opinion, this is the best song of the 2010s. I had been aware of Kae Tempest for a while when I first heard this, but knew them more as a performance poet and a writer rather than a musician. I heard a couple of songs from Everybody Down and didn’t feel any immediate connection. But then came ‘Europe Is Lost’. The very first time I heard this song I was awash with emotion, blown away by listening to a young artist articulating so many of my own beliefs and feelings over a furious and hypnotic beat. I suppose I have to thank another Picky Bastard for finally forcing me to listen to this one. Cheers, Mr Parker.
4. ‘I Could Give You All That You Don’t Want’ – The Twilight Sad
Firstly, there is no need to address my love of a Scottish singing voice. It isn’t a fetish. Leave it alone. That said, it was undoubtedly the drawl of singer James Graham that really got me in the gut the first time I heard this one. It’s just so powerful. I was listening to the band because they were on the lineup of a festival I was going to, not expecting much, no idea that I was about to embark on a journey that would see me following the band around the country on their next tour, spending stupid amounts on LPs and T-shirts, making friends across the globe, and interviewing James on this very site. None of that would have happened if the crashing guitars and the searing vocals of ‘I Could Give You All That You Don’t Want’ hadn’t raised the hairs on my neck from the very first listen.
3. ‘Slow Show’ – The National
I have written (and spoken) about how The National’s ‘Fake Empire’ was my first experience of the band on several occasions. And it was. When I heard that song I was instantly on board and it would definitely fit the criteria for this top ten. But it was five songs further into my first listen of Boxer when I knew that I was not only going to be a fan of The National, but they were likely to have an impact on my life in a way that very few bands have and would change my tastes forever. I’d never heard anything like this before. The poetry, the delivery, the crescendo caused by the percussion, the soul-crushingly beautiful bridge of ‘you know I dreamed about you/for 29 years before I saw you/you know I dreamed about you/I missed you for 29 years.’ That was it, I was sold. And now everyone I know is bored of hearing me talk about this majestic band. You better all get used to it.
2. ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ – Radiohead
Nowadays, it probably wouldn’t even make my top twenty songs by Radiohead and is only my second favourite on The Bends. Back then, though – fuck me! What was this ethereal, otherworldly, emotional piece of magic and how could I funnel more and more of it into my earholes? This was way before the days of Spotify, my friends, and I can’t even imagine how the rewind button on my cassette player coped with the amount of times I pressed it to get back to the start of this one. It wasn’t the first Radiohead song I heard. I had loved ‘Creep’ and some of the other songs from Pablo Honey, but ‘Fake Plastic Trees ‘ was simply on another plane and was the most heart wrenching and emotional song I’d heard at that time in my life.
1. ‘Changes’ – 2Pac
This makes my number one spot because it didn’t only introduce me to one of my favourite artists of all time, but also opened me to a genre in a way that no other song has since. A school friend bought me this on CD single. They told me they thought it was something I would love, but even to this day I have no clue whether they just imagined I would enjoy the beat and the flow or whether they had some insight into how 2Pac’s diatribe on structural racism would open me up to things I had never thought about before and help me come to terms with some of the issues I’d faced growing up as the only brown person in a very white village. I imagine they just thought I’d like the beats. But as I listened to this in a room full of people at my birthday party I had to hold in my thoughts and feelings and wait until I could listen to it again. And again. And again and again and again. This was the ultimate moment of music discovery for me, going from a general dismissiveness of hip-hop to a discovery of an artist I adore, a genre that changed my worldview, and an understanding of the power of music to be political and fight for change. For more 2Pac ramblings, get Episode 22 of the podcast in your ears.
Words by Fran Slater