Join Wales Arts Review every Friday 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’re over halfway there! Week four sees us count down from 50-41 of the greatest Welsh albums, taking in art-pop, psychedelic folk, alt-rock, hip-hop and soul.
Born to Sing the Blues
Her first album, and it shines with the purity of youth. At twenty years of age Bassey was an experienced performer, but captured here is that raw passion for the American roots music, particularly for jazz pioneers like Spencer Williams and “father of the blues” W.C. Handy. In an era of confident chiffon-y women singers, Bassey stands out for her charismatic edge, for the intimacy of her delivery in these early recordings, but there’s also much credit to be given to arranger and conductor Wally Stott, the professional name of Angela Morely, one of the most successful English radio band leaders of the time. Born to Sing the Blues, then, is a record dominated by the vision of the two women at the helm. This isn’t Bassey tentatively feeling her way into the business, this is Bassey laying down a statement of intent that would come to define her singular career.
(1988, Anhrefn Records)
When Wyau came out IVF was becoming more commonplace, stories abounded in the press about multiple births. This first Datblygu LP title (Wyau translates as “eggs”) works on many levels – it can be listened to as social commentary, and the possibility of new beginnings. The eighteen urgent songs use a minimal framing of Pat Morgan’s bass guitar, T. Wyn Davies’ keyboards and samples. The songs are built around David R. Edwards’ recitations, his lyrics mainly chanted or spoken. When released the iconoclastic nature of Wyau was immediate to any listener. ‘Dafydd Iwan yn y Glaw’ makes us think about how oppositional and revolutionary figures becoming reified over time. However the song offers a complex empathy to Iwan as a folk hero and the expectations placed upon him by his audience. The anthemic ‘Gwlad ar fy Nghefn’ draws upon the difficulties of being a Welsh speaker and alienated from Welsh mainstream culture. The Eisteddfod became a recurrent source of material for many Datblygu songs. Throughout Wyau, Edwards’ absurdist lens elicits wry humour rather than despair. Though given little airplay in Wales at the time of its release, Wyau shines with its love of language and playful delight in puncturing 1980s Welsh celebrity culture.
Goldie Lookin’ Chain
Kings of Caerleon
(2013, 1983 Records)
The best album from Newport’s comedy hip hop outfit (who have now been going for more than twenty years) could have just as easily been titled Kings of Inconvenience, such has been the stick in the maw for a Welsh music scene that often takes itself very seriously. At one time, The Goldie Lookin’ Chain were almost definitely channeling the Beastie Boys with their schtick, but much of their output now brings to mind more of a pythonesque take on urban music, bringing a surreal gutter humour to a musical backdrop that varies in sophistication. But when they are good – which means when their hearts are in it – the group shows themselves to be a sharp-witted, musically very intelligent, and really very good rappers. It all comes together on Kings of Caerleon, the GLC’s only sustained statement of how great they can be. It’s hilariously funny, but break away from what they’re saying and you still have an excellent record that houses a depth of sound and a structural experimentalism. There is a marriage here of confidence (they were never short of that) and ability, and the result is less manic and a more mature feel to the sound. It’s also arguably the GLC’s finest line up, with some new faces adding some freshness and the original ones hitting their peak. Kings of Caerleon is one of the best musical statements about the life of any city anywhere, and Newport shines through all the backhanded affection.
Super Furry Animals
(2000, Domino Recording Co)
Following youthful albums which were excitable, bombastic and a little manic, Super Furry Animals went on a ‘pop strike’. By moving away from what was perceived as their trademark sound, they inadvertently redefined it as something more diverse and nuanced. Mwng incorporated acoustic tracks in a deliberate contrast with their previous work, but its understated style produced one of their most popular albums. Several of the tracks are numbered among the very best that the band had to offer; ‘Ymaelodi Â’r Ymylon’ makes novel use of the harmonium to uplift its narrative of defiant non-conformity while ‘Dacw Hi’ is a personal portrait of a childhood teacher with nostalgic humour and a haunting chorus. Mwng was recorded entirely in Welsh – a consciously defiant (and risky) move by SFA to assert their roots in a music industry that often pigeonholed them by nationality. Combining the melodies of early American pop with the rhythms of the Welsh language was both novel and musically rewarding and invests each song with the appropriate emotional depth regardless of whether the listener can understand the words. While earlier albums feature Super Furry Animals at their most exuberant, conjuring images of their infamous festival hijinks, Mwng is a subdued alternative that substitutes production values for a richness in vocals, melodies and, most importantly, language.
Now! (In a Minute)
(2018, Heavenly Recordings)
Shoutout to the Welshest album title in the top one hundred. Audiobooks is the electrifying electro coming together of super producer David Wrench (who has award-winning albums for the likes of Arlo Parks, Frank Ocean, FKA Twigs, and Goldfrapp, among others), and Goldsmith’s arts graduate and fashion model, Evangeline Ling. In one regard, Now! (In a Minute) is a fifty minute love letter to the synthesiser, a deep delving into the smooth textures of the radiophonic workshop pushing them up against hard edges and craggy corners. Wrench, it could be argued, is letting loose, free to fulfill his own visions and play around with all the knobs and twizzles, without the restraints of anybody else’s desires or requirements. Ling, as vocalist, is largely under Wrench’s spell, and she’s tied up and spun around to great effect. She is a spectral presence on much of the album, drifting in and out of focus, but when she’s called upon to stomp around front and centre, like with “Holt Salt” she threatens promise of being a bright shining star who could come into your house party and burn the place down. This is a debut album that takes the listener to so many different places it’s difficult to give an impression of it, but the important thing is it always feels unified; there is a vision behind it, a feel to the thing as a whole. But it is also an album that makes you yearn for whatever might come next now this duo have found their feet. By the end of the album you have an idea they now get it. Ling’s storytelling has the literary power to be a thing of real might, and Wrench has an uncanny ability to match groove with melody.
(2016, Proper Music Publishing)
Singer songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Georgia Ruth’s Welsh Music Prize-winning debut album Week of Pines (2015) reflected her folk and harp origins like a mirror and whilst they are certainly still present on Fossil Scale we see a wider ambition on a number of levels. She swapped the harp as her typical writing instrument in favour of the piano. Fossil Scale is co-produced by Marta Salogni – more recently know for revolutionising The Orielles sound by making them see way outside the box – and Week of Pines producer David Wrench (one half of Audiobooks). Georgia’s increasingly sophisticated song writing and cool beguiling voice are the leading lights on Fossil Scale. Personal favourites “When I Was Blue” subtly harmonized by Meilyr Jones is both melancholic and haunting (“You don’t come around/ half as often as you used to” gets us right in the feels at each listen); “The Doldrums” reassures that maybe being sad for a while isn’t too bad a thing, y’know. “Cloudbroke” sees a foray into low key r ‘n’ b, and the cover of Meic Stevens’ “Sylvia”, sung in Welsh, wonderfully understated.
They Are Nothing Without Us
(2013, Strangetown Records)
They Are Nothing Without Us has been called Cian Ciaran’s protest album in some circles, but there is so much more going on in there than that. The Super Furry Animals’ keyboardist really lets himself go on this album. ‘Sewn Up’ is a classic slice of Super Furry Animal pop and could have effortlessly sat on Fuzzy Logic; ‘1/7/89’ reminds us of The Cure at their very best, with a lovely, wistful indie spiral of a vocal; ‘Sleepless Nights’ is beautiful but with its sarcastic, biting lyric revealing the singer’s pissed off intentions. For my money, ‘No More’ is a slow meditation of pure classic songwriting that could be re-imagined in any form and it would still be a great song. With added vocals by Vanity Johnson, it is an uplifting downbeat track (if that makes any sense!). The second half of the album is just as great, if a bit more introspective, with Ciaran’s vocals sometimes part of the ambience, sometimes exploding into a chorus like on ‘Shape Control’. It is very easy to hear where a lot of those classic Super Furry harmonies originate from listening to this album. It is also worth noting that They Are Nothing Without Us is mostly the sound of one man. (Truly a one-man bloody band – talented sod!)
(2007, Rough Trade Records)
Candylion (2007) starts as it means to go on with a retro and deliberately unintelligible synth-heavy intro: the most coherent snippet tells us that: ‘this isn’t a song – this is just the beginning’. Despite being the second solo album from the Super Furry Animals frontman – following Yr Atal Genhedlaeth in 2004 – this sophomore attempt proves a more reliable indicator of where Gruff Rhys’s career would go next. It combined an indebtedness to (and nostalgia for) a musically experimental and psychedelic past with a cynical eye on the contemporary. This sense of looking both backwards and forwards is evident across all twelve tracks; the influence of 1960s pop, in both its folksy and alternative forms, is evident in the likes of ‘The Court of King Arthur’ and the obligatory presence of the sitar in ‘Cycle of Violence’. It also points ahead to the genres that Rhys would return to in his solo career. Beacon in the Darkness’ hints at the country-inspired Babelsberg (2018) while the high-concept and narrative-rich construction of final track ‘Skylon’ is a precursor to Seeking New Gods (2021). It is a landmark album in Rhys’s oeuvre, using the familiar to push into creative and eclectic new directions in a manner that continues to define his career.
Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci
How I Long To Feel That Summer in My Heart
(2001, Mantra Recordings)
On Gorky’s seventh studio album, a taste for the psychedelic is smoothed out – though not banished entirely – by a tilt into serenity. It’s a testament to the harmony of this record that, despite a gentle and ebbing tempo, it manages to maintain both interest and intrigue; its complex and intricate arrangements harmonising into warm sonic pastures. Inspirations are broad and varied – from the omnipresence of Simon and Garfunkel to lyrical hints of the Beautiful South. Like a tea-stained letter, there is a well-curated, aged authenticity to these melodic tracks; its mellow psych-folk exterior the manifestation of the musical intelligence sourced from a band of experienced multi-instrumentalists. Twenty years on, How I Long to Feel… is still just as warm and tranquil as it ever was, like the sun on your face – it’s a feeling which is always welcome.
(2020, Mr Phormula)
Welsh language rap has been around for a while – ever since Llwybr Llaethog and Ty Gwydr started rapping in the 1980s, followed by Y Tystion, Pep Le Pew and others in the 90s and 00s. From Pep Le Pew sprang Mr Phormula. A World Champ beat-boxer from Llanfrothen, in the rugged hills of Snowdonia he’s rapped alongside KRS-ONE and many other global hip-hop stars. Tiwns was released in the middle of the lockdown and is Mr Phormula’s greatest statement to date. It’s both old-skool (“Mynd yn Ôl”) and current (“Normal Newydd” featuring Lleuwen), while also incorporating new Welsh rap voices (“We Know” featuring Luke RV and “One Man” featuring Craze the Jack). It’s almost as if Mr Phormula has embraced his role as the elder statetesman of Welsh rap (in both languages) and just released an album comprising of banger after banger. He stretches vocal flex on “Y Wyddoriwr” demonstrating his verbal dexterity as he works his way through the Welsh alphabet while on ‘Dyddiau’ he remembers his time driving around North Wales and the A55 in his youth with his mates and is a wonderful Welsh flipside to Kendrick Lamarr’s “The Art of Peer Pressure”. A hip-hop album for the ages.
Join us next week for 40-31 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, Nerys Williams, Craig Austin, Jude Rogers, Jack Boyce, Gareth Smith, Tomos Williams, and Gary Raymond.