Join Wales Arts Review every week over the next ten weeks as we count down the one hundred greatest Welsh albums of all time, as chosen by the Wales Arts Review team and friends of the Review. We start with 100-91 (what better place to start?!), and with some of the biggest names in Welsh music.
We Are Doomed, We Are Beautiful
(2008, Wichita Recordings)
The second album can often be the most difficult for an artist. Following up a debut that included indie singalong soon-to-be-classics like ‘You! Me! Dancing!’ is an even more daunting prospect. Yet, merely eight months after their debut album Hold on Now, Youngster… arrived in early 2008, the Cardiff-based outfit returned with a remarkably cohesive, well-rounded and mature follow-up that capitalised on that early success and paved the way for Los Campesinos! to be renowned as one of the most exciting young bands around at the time. Where their debut sat neatly in with the twee-indie-pop fashionable then, We Are Beautiful… saw the band strip off the polish for a cathartic 32-minute tear-through that aligns more with the grittier, noisier sounds of bands in the Pacific Northwest (where the album was recorded). That knack for catchy head-bobbing choruses wasn’t left behind, however, it was just scuzzed up with more biting lyricisms from lead vocalist Gareth Campesinos. A beautifully angsty, exasperated yet faithfully tongue-in-cheek concoction.
Ring the Changes
(2014, Libertino Records)
Sometimes you get the feeling the boys from KEYS would like nothing more than just to set up in a garage or basement and jam on some dependable seventies riffs until the sun comes up, but on Ring the Changes the songs take centre stage. There’s more focus on it, more discipline. It’s an album that wears its influences up front, and they do very good impersonations of The Beach Boys, Moby Grape, Buffalo Springfield, Arthur Lee’s Love, The Crystals, and that energy of early Beatles records. But emerging from the songwriting – more than the sound perhaps – is a band firmly comfortable in its own skin (it had been a while, after all, since KEYS stopped being Murry the Hump). “Wade in the Water” is a great song, and “Ghost” is quite the journey considering it comes in at under four minutes. There are foot-tapping moments, as well as some dark psychedelic spirals. Frontman Matthew Evans has never sounded more assured, and guitarist Gwion Rowlands never more at ease. Ring the Changes is one of those lush records; full and indulgent.
This album from his hip-swinging heyday may have the worst album title of any on the list, and the album itself may have none of those bangers you might hear bellowed out by stag dos, hen dos, rugby gatherings, and people who only know one Welsh song, but it is, at its core, the finest of all Tom’s early records. It improves on the thin sound of Along Came Tom Jones (1965) and has better songs, overall, than What’s New, Pussycat? (1966). The fact it was rushed out to capitalise on the megahit of the title track of that second album meant Jones has some more interesting songs to work with. Everything is big and pounding, and the punctuation of the brass section is often right up in the red. It’s a bluesy album, and Tom is in his element. His gospel take on “It’s Been a Long Time Coming” is one of his finest vocal performances – measured, impassioned and ready to blow at any moment. “Dr Love” sums up what made Jones so popular during the mid-sixties. The song is fast, sexy, and his voice could move mountains. The record label knew what they had by this point, but may still have been guilty of overdoing it on the marketing. The album cover has Tom in full performance stance – that iconic silhouette – in front of an atomic mushroom cloud. The cover was changed for the US release, understandably given their fear of nuclear annihilation just four years after the Cuban Missile Crisis. The US release also front-loaded the album with Tom’s two film soundtrack hits, “Thunderball” and “Promise Her Anything”, but this ultimately throws off the shape and that gritty sound of the album. The UK version is better without them. Tom Jones has never been much of an “album artist” but this is a big bold kicker of a record.
Manic Street Preachers
Gold Against the Soul
(1993, Sony Music)
When your stated intention of selling 16 million records with your debut – and idealistically, only – album has been dashed upon the jagged rocks of reality, where do you go from here? When your dreams of playing Madison Square Garden rub up against a UK tour that takes in the Salisbury College of Technology, what are you left with – either artistically or reputationally? Still flush with Sony cash, the seemingly chastised Manic Street Preachers of 1993 opted to eschew a big-name producer and plunge themselves into the creation of a strangely apolitical hard rock album drenched in radio-friendly production. One that continues to divide and confound both critics and fans alike. Boasting a fistful of rollicking hit singles, it also contains some of the band’s most wilfully dumbo moments, while at the same time signposting lyrical themes and sonic exploration that would ultimately act as the rickety bridge towards The Holy Bible. Notably, it opens with the notorious ‘Sleepflower’; a beloved fan-fave frustrated by the Manics’ long-time refusal to play it in a live setting. Retrospectively embraced by the band in recent years, it is suitably emblematic of the album itself. An aspirational Hollywood blockbuster whose resultant cult status still has the capacity to pull in the next generation of punters. Almost three decades have passed since its release, yet Gold Against the Soul still cannot be killed by conventional weapons.
The Art of Losing
The Art of Losing, the second album from Catherine Davies’s The Anchoress, accomplishes a huge feat. The Anchoress owns her music and her words, and by extension her experiences and her stories. It’s sonically ethereal, but the lyrics are deeply rooted in reality and the ugliness of grief. No difficult topics are evaded, no feelings are left unexplored; she invites to not only hear what she’s saying, but to feel it, too. Davies’s lyrics are as unapologetic as they are truthful and raw. In ‘5AM’, a song about rape, her lingering voice is accompanied by an elegant piano melody as she depicts dripping blood and the inability to speak. In moments like this, The Art of Losing is transfixing – Davies describes a disgusting ordeal in such a compelling way that, despite its horror, we must keep listening. It’s here that her work as a producer really shines, too, the music invoking a cold understanding that elevates the lyrics and imbues them with heightened emotional poignancy. Musically, Davies makes the most of a keen ear for classical instrumentalism with layered string sections and looped cellos scattered throughout. The result is exquisite.
(1998, Warner Music)
This album might be remembered for its parade of dance floor fillers of Indy clubs from coast to coast in the 90s, but the reason for it being on this list is not just a fistful of good tunes; no, it’s here because this is Cerys Matthews’ peak vocal performance. She is unrelentingly charismatic, raw and in-your-face one minute, coiled and coquettish the next. Matthews is not just a great frontwoman on this album, she represents something, something that very much needed representing in the late 90s. When laddism was being codified, it was women like Matthews and Courtney Love and Louise Werner who were stamping something authoritatively, unapologetically “woman” on the stage. The female performer was not to be something fetishised or even seen through the prism of a man’s world. Matthews is electric, and songs like “Mulder and Scully”, “Road Rage”, “Strange Glue”, and the title track – fine songs – would be so much less without her. Lyrically, International Velvet manages to be timeless and timely, which isn’t so easy. Proudly, powerfully Welsh, sexy, melodic, ferocious, it’s an album with a sting in its tail that will have you dancing in your kitchen, not to mention your soul.
Strange Lights Over Garth Mountain
(2021, Tompkins Square)
Strange Lights develops ‘American Primitive’, characterised by folksy melodies and fast fingerpicking techniques, into a style that thematically expresses her Welsh roots. Raymond herself has suggested that Wales played a greater role in the construction of this album than her previous works, particularly the evocative childhood images which inspired its title. Her description of the album as ‘Welsh primitive’ is reflected in melodies that suggest small communities, vast landscapes and a sense of nostalgia that can be both soothing and sinister. Creepy might not be the most sophisticated word to describe its overall tone, but it is certainly one of the most accurate. Raymond’s lingering, taut tunes evoke continual tension and menace, while many of the titles (‘Hell for Certain’, ‘Gwaed am Gwaed’) suggest a persistent engagement with the supernatural and the occult. Strange Lights Over Garth Mountain ultimately proves to be something both familiar and novel – a clear contribution to the ‘folk horror’ subgenre but which infuses its ethereal acoustics with a decidedly Welsh sensibility.
(2021, Bard Picasso)
2021 has seen two albums from Cardiff rapper and long-time member of the Hellionz collective, Rollo. One of them, Malevolence, is a smart, high energy solo rap record that sees cameos from other Hellionz members like Dick Dastardly, and from members of Rollo’s other group, Flow of Thought, like Smithy Blade, add some rich depth. As an urban rap record of the here and now, Malevolence delivers. But the unexpected surprise of the year is just how good Rollo’s other record of 2021 is. Ethereal is an immersive ambient suite delivered with all the confidence and sturdiness of a seasoned ambient composer; it has a full and lushly realised electronic soundscape, with melodic turns and subtly effective beat loops. It’s an extremely well-produced record – the sound is crisp and clean – and although sometimes moments can feel like backing tracks without the rap overlaid, Ethereal never fails to also stand on its own terms as a thoughtful collection of instrumental compositions. It showcases an artist who understands implicitly what an album should be; the journey it should take the listener on, the craft it should entail. It has all of the sonic peaks and troughs you might encounter on an Eno or Tim Riley record, and although the feel of the album is very much of the modern R&B vibe, the guitar and synth work on tracks like “Blue” and “Snow Tracks” bring to mind Eno’s Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks (1983), and grooves that underpin tracks like “Run” and “Stroll in the Park” bring to mind Future Days (1973) and Tago Mago (1971)-era Can. Ethereal is a beautiful, brilliant album that seems to have come out of nowhere.
Skull Orchard Revisited
(2010, Verse Chorus Press)
Newport’s Jon Langford has had a rich and sprawling career. From back as a founding member of post-punk big band The Mekons, up through his work with The Sadies, good luck to anyone who wants to collate all his side projects, guest appearances, collaborations and solo works. Nowadays, his back catalogue is heavy with his love for Americana, from bluegrass to country (he’s lived in Chicago for decades, now), but this album from 2010 is laced with tributes to his hometown and showcases just what a great songwriter Langford is. The album channels the ghost of Joe Strummer, and the backing band has more than a hint of the Mescaleros to them – it is, from one angle, an epic concept album about the south Wales working class experience. “Tubby Brothers” sets the tone, a raucous garage rock number that speeds through Newport with all the grit of those original rock n roll numbers that sped across the American landscape. It sits very comfortably with the great opening tracks of any album you care to mention. “Verdun” is a beautiful reggae lament of the fallen of the Great War and returning from the horrors back to “the shop floor”. “Pill Sailor” is a rousing shanty-esque tribute to Newport’s docklands. When somebody finally comes to write the great cultural history of Newport, it will be this album that forms the soundtrack.
Ten years in the making, the debut album from Bangor producer Lewis Roberts made good on his early promise as an artist’s artist. After working with the likes of Sampha, SBTRKT & FKA Twigs while maintaining a healthy reputation amongst club scenes, Agor shied away from the dancefloor in favour of an immaculately produced, heady electronic album that is endlessly fascinating as it unravels. Agor – Welsh for ‘Open’ – is as advertised: a horizon-spanning record that excels in its most grandiose moments, but structures sound design in a way that rewards those who listen through the many layers that clash and glide across each other with a chrome sheen. Between each peak is a valley of cut and chopped samples that segues with such grace that the journey is often as delightful, if not more, than the large awe-inspiring climaxes. A stark, impeccably designed record that could easily have soundtracked a blockbuster, galaxy explorative sci-fi classic movie, yet also excels when brought to ground level for its more delicate moments.
Join us next week for 90-81 in the Wales Arts Review 100 Greatest Welsh Albums of All Time.
List compiled by Wales Arts Review and friends of the Review. Words by Cath Holland, Tilly Foulkes, Caragh Medlicott, Gray Taylor, Craig Austin, Jude Rogers, Jack Boyce, Gareth Smith, Tomos Williams, and Gary Raymond.
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