The Devin Townsend Band – Deadhead
Almost everything I love about my favourite artists/albums/songs can be summed up by this song. The fact that it is by a man whose entire musical output I hold in very high regard (Strapping Young Lad right up to the present Devin Townsend Project) certainly helps, but my unending love for this song in particular comes down to two threads. The first is the emotional aspect; the raw emotional power of Devin’s voice through every note and every scream is unparalleled, and the simple and chord-heavy music behind him is simply perfect. The second strand is the monumentally huge sound; the production on this entire album is so beautiful and aurally massive that it is truly something to get lost in. I can trace the influence of this track into my present-day loves of monolithic doom metal, sonically overwhelming post metal, emotionally crushing atmospheric black metal even particularly potent pop music.
Mouse Outfit – Sit Back
It took me many years of typically teenage metal elitism before I finally gave hip-hop a proper chance. I started with the old school East-Coast US sound; A Tribe Called Quest were my first love in this area and are still an all-time favourite act. I had a couple of friends into modern UK hip-hop, but it wasn’t until I stumbled across Mouse Outfit at a festival that the joys of the genre really opened up to me. This track sums up the chilled, jazzy vibe I love, which is in some ways a modernisation (as well as Anglicisation) of that East-Coast tradition. From here I got deep into the various UK sounds via the Manchester scene (including some surprisingly grimy ones which my 14-year-old-self would hate me for). Truthos Mufasa’s verbal playfulness on this track also placed him immediately as my favourite MC.
Radiohead – Everything in its Right Place
My dad has a collection of 750+ CDs, and has a really cool compulsion to try and keep up with what’s going on in interesting modern music, whilst retaining his more typical ‘dad’ favourites from the prog rock and classical words (which I also love, thanks to him). When he first played me Radiohead when I was deep in metal entrenchment, I wasn’t that interested, but when I became a more reasonable and open music fan at age 17 or so, I went back to this landmark band in my dad’s collection and immediately wondered what the hell I was thinking the first time round. All their albums are great, but Kid A is undeniably experimental and ground breaking, and the warm but unsettling vibe of this track just really gets to me.
Machine Head – Halo
Had you asked me my favourite band any time between the ages of about 16 and 21 and I would have said I had two: Dream Theater and Machine Head. Within the world of metal, they couldn’t be much further apart, I know. Whilst the former appealed to me intellectually, the groovy heaviness of the latter gripped me. I was too young to really be aware of them during their dodgy early 2000s period and only got into them in their righteous comeback, and although it’s not the kind of music I ever look for now, The Blackening is a front-to-back classic album with no bad songs, and Halo in particular is absolutely everything a modern heavy metal track should be.
The Darkness – Love on the Rocks with No Ice
Chronologically, this should go at the top of the list. Permission to Land was the first album I ever owned, believe it or not, really put me on the road to heaviness. People only tend to remember it for ‘I Believe in a Thing Called Love’, but it’s a much heavier guitar album than you think, and honestly just one of my favourite albums of all time. This is something I get ridiculed for quite often. The marriage of fun and riffs has never been done so well, and this track sticks out because it not only has all the iconic vocals and singable killer guitar solos I love about the band, but it just has big, heavy, brilliant riffs (strangely pretty much the same combination of things I love about Machine Head, too). The gift of a Linkin Park album followed soon after for me, and my future was decided.
Ne Obliviscaris – And Plague Flowers the Kaleidoscope
One of the many perks of being part of (and ultimately president of) the University of Sheffield Rock Society as a student was drawing from the pool of recommendations and music collections of the varied membership. One of the most impactful discoveries from this route for me was the first Ne Obliviscaris album, Portal Of I, and particularly this track. I generally find super technical extreme metal quite boring (with notable exceptions), but NeO have such powerful melodies and genuinely worthwhile songwriting alongside the unbelievable technicality that they floored me on my first listen, and many since. They are also the best metal band at using a classical instrument (violin) in a meaningful, front-and-centre way, as opposed to as a gimmick or as background texture.
Dimmu Borgir – Progenies of the Great Apocalypse
This was another early one in my musical journey. Although nowadays I generally like my black metal atmospheric, post-rock inspired and/or horribly depressing, this track was very important for me and I still hold Dimmu close to my heart in a nostalgic way. I think I was recommended them at about age 15, by a friend whose older brother was into them. I remember watching the hilariously over the top video for this bombastic, Star Wars take on symphonic black metal, having very little experience with properly ‘extreme’ metal beforehand, and being really scared that I liked a black metal band. I had only fairly recently started to accept bands with harsh vocals at all, and now I liked a song by corpse-paint-wearing Satan lovers. Clearly, this was just the start of the descent.
James Blake – Lindisfarne
At about the same time I got into hip-hop, I got seriously into many variants of electronic music, making up for the time lost to teenage metal elitism (now I would estimate I listen to 50% metal and 50% ‘not metal’). Although quite a recent and ‘cool’ artist, James Blake’s self titled debut was really where it started, its experimental edge and unashamed minimalist take on the pop form (typified by this two-part track) immediately giving me what I wanted. From here I went in many directions; the minimal and weird techno took me to Boards of Canada, Max Cooper and their ilk; the grooves took me to the trip-hop of Portishead and Massive Attack; the boundary pushing experimentation led me to Aphex Twin, Fennesz and Grimes; the pop sensibilities took me dream pop visionaries like Purity Ring and The xx, as well as a handful of cool singer-songwriters. Basically, James Blake and this album and track opened up what is now a huge part of my musical life.
Daft Punk – Crescendolls
Also around the same time, Daft Punk entered my life in a massive way. Of course I knew the name, but I had ignored them for my entire life up until this point (around age 20). This was a time when all the shattering of musical conceptions and boundaries I’ve mentioned here were going off at once, simultaneous to a lot of life changes, and liking Daft Punk was a surprising revelation to me not dissimilar to my discovery of Dimmu Borgir (!). Discovery is a full-blown, mainstream pop/house album and I loved every joyous, danceable second of it from the very first listen. Crescendolls crystallizes what I think they, and all good house artists, are best at, which is making one very simple musical idea interesting and dynamic enough to be worth repeating for a song’s duration – probably harder than writing a 10min progressive epic. Conveniently, Random Access Memories came out only a few months after I got into Daft Punk, and by that time I was totally okay with liking disco music and I loved it.
Primitive Man – Scorn
Like an unconscious reaction to my widening musical tastes, during those same latter University years, I started drilling down to the most depraved corners of metal music, taking the sounds I knew I liked and trying to see how far they could go. I became focussed mainly on the super-heavy and slow end of things and, buoyed by some fantastic live experiences, I got exactly where I wanted. During this time, Pallbearer taught me about the crucial emotional edge of doom metal I needed, Conan taught me about making your riffs sound overwhelmingly huge, Cult of Luna combined both of these and made the best and most dynamic textures I’d heard, but the most affecting of all was Primitive Man, who got right to the business of being abjectly horrible. Listening on a whim after a 9/10 review of the album in Metal Hammer, the disgustingly heavy, feedback-loaded riffs and nihilistic, inhuman and despairing vocals shook me to the core, and I loved it. From here I was led to bands like Amenra, Coffinworm, Indian and ultimately fell victim to the call of drone via Sunn O))) – and then, I was fortuitous enough to be able to join Ba’al. Primitive Man, though, remain the pinnacle of the nastiness that I adore.
BONUS – Tchaikovsky – Symphony No. 5
Not a ‘song’, but criminal to ignore. Before all else, I was and still am a classical musician. My dad’s music was influential on me in many ways, but initially it was his classical training in violin, viola and piano that got me playing well before the days of any of my bands or my own original music. I started playing violin and viola in primary school and was quickly in orchestras, as viola players are generally quite rare. It was only about two years ago I stopped playing in orchestras regularly (simply because I don’t have the time), so the classical element has always underpinned and gone alongside everything else. Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony was both the first and last piece I played in my several-year stint in the fantastic West Sussex County Youth Orchestra, so it is important as a landmark as much as a musical experience. Much of what I’ve said about everything else here rings true of this symphony – emotions run high, dynamics are varied and powerful and it all comes together as an overwhelming and excellent whole.