I saw a meme recently asking for albums that have no bad or mediocre songs, in other words, the albums you often play from start to finish without skipping any tracks. I’m going to allow myself the leeway of a single bad or mediocre track in order to get a top ten list, otherwise I could probably only list half that amount. Even the best albums usually have a couple tracks that I’ll skip or omit from playlists. But not the following. These I often listen to from start to finish.
1. Achtung Baby, U2, 1992. When U2 reinvented themselves by “burning down the Joshua Tree”, they exceeded their ambitions with a masterpiece completely devoid of mediocrity. Its theme is lethal relationships, played to the tune of distorted vocals and guitars. “Zoo Station” takes the lead with this industrial edge. “Even Better Than the Real Thing” is as addictive today as it was in ’91. “One”, like the Police’s “Every Breath You Take”, remains widely loved and used at weddings, its bleak message thoroughly misunderstood. “Until the End of the World” is the brilliant conversation between Judas and Jesus; “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” a love-hate song that demands to be loved; “So Cruel” a just-as-good sequel. Then comes “The Fly”, showcasing the Edge’s finest guitar work ever. “Mysterious Ways” captures the bliss of physical love, and “Trying to Throw Your Arms Around the World” is the next-day guilt trip that renews promises of faithfulness. Then “Ultraviolet”, which is the album’s absolute best. “Acrobat” is just sublime, and “Love is Blindness” caps off the album in haunting melodies of mystery. An album like Achtung Baby comes once in a lifetime.
2. Up, Peter Gabriel, 2002. Gabriel’s least accessible album is a raw and wildly imaginative series of meditations on death and grief, and is among the best music I’ve ever heard. “The Barry Williams Show” is a satirical piece that doesn’t belong, but aside from that one misfire, everything is excellent. “Darkness” is the raw opener, a prog piece with abrasive verses meshing with smooth refrains. “Growing Up” is the closest thing to a radio score, but still a bit cerebral for the Billboard charts. The rhythms of “Sky Blue” are as miraculous as those of “Red Rain” from So, and what a coup to use the Blind Boys of Alabama at the end. “No Way Out” is another precious gift and a prequel of sorts to “I Grieve”, the musing on death that Gabriel nails so perfectly. “My Head Sounds Like That” and “More Than This” put us on the road to some measure of recovery. “Signal To Noise” serves as the incredible climax, with haunting melodies, exotic percussion, and guest vocalist Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, rolling into an orchestra/percussion combo that builds to a raging crescendo. And finally, “The Drop” leaves us serenely pondering the mystery of death. There are days I call Up my favorite album of all time (if I’m in the mood to pretend Achtung Baby was never made), and aside from poor Barry Williams, I never skip a track.
3. God’s Own Medicine, The Mission UK, 1986. Talk about every track pulling its weight. The opening “Wasteland” broils with conflict between a strict religious upbringing and libertine freedom; in some ways it’s the quintessential Mission UK song. “Bridges Burning” has a hellish chorus screaming in torment; another gem. “Garden of Delight” is a deep sonorous piece set to a chamber orchestra, without guitar and drums, and a strong favorite of mine. “Stay With Me” is a top-40 sounding waltz that somehow doesn’t belong, and yet is nevertheless quite good. “Blood Brother” cries out in a raging homage to The Cult. “Let Sleeping Dogs Die” is infectiously dismal. “Sacrilege” celebrates that without any subtlety, to a racing beat. “Dance on Glass” casts a hideous spell of fever dreams. “And the Dance Goes On” is another great track. “Severina” has the haunting guest vocals of Julianne Regan, and is a beautiful ode to pagan ritual. “Love Me to Death” is a wonderfully oversexed trashy gothic ballad, and “Island in a Stream” cries out in the end for a vain rescue. I’m sure I’ve listened to God’s Own Medicine from start to finish over a thousand times.
4. Screen Violence, Chvrches, 2021. Still a new album as I write this, Screen Violence is the album of the fucking year, unquestionably Chvrches’ best, with not a single track cheating the listener. “Asking for a Friend” is a slow-builder about regret, and develops some of the most haunting textures I’ve heard in a song. “He Said She Said” is the popular screed against misogyny, with thick bass and perfect timings of beat drops in the chorus. “California” explores the dark side of living in that state, and people with crushed dreams; it has an incredibly dreamy chorus. With “Violent Delights”, it’s all the drums. “How Not to Drown” is the treat featuring Robert Smith of The Cure, with a macabre piano and synth. “Final Girl” taps into horror-movie tropes in a crowd-pleaser that evokes New Order. “Good Girls” blasts cancel culture (good for you, Lauren) through slow and persuasive rhythms. “Lullabies” is disarmingly lovely, and “Nightmares” rails about the challenge of forgiveness around futuristic sound effects. “Better If You Don’t” is the only track that sounds mediocre on a first listen, but it has grown on me considerably. This is about as perfect as albums get.
5. Automatic for the People, R.E.M., 1992. I’m not the strongest R.E.M. fan, but Murmur, Document, and Out of Time are solid albums, and Automatic for the People is a stupendous masterpiece. It’s the band’s darkest and most subdued and transcendent effort, and “Drive” announces this unexpected approach at the outset. Every track that follows delves deeper into the darkness: “Try Not to Breathe”, “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite”, “Everybody Hurts”, “Sweetness Follows”, “Monty Got a Raw Deal”, “Ignoreland”, “Star Me Kitten”, “Man on the Moon”, “Nightswimming” (which seems to blend the attempts of “You Are the Everything” and “Hairshirt” from Green, this time getting it right), and “Find the River”. All these songs are terrific and made R.E.M. one of the biggest bands on the planet. It remains a curiosity to me that the world was so receptive to these quiet brooding tracks that deal so heavily with death and departure. It was released while I was living in Africa, and a friend sent the cassette tape to me; I will forever associate Automatic for the People with living on my mountain in Lesotho, listening to every single song on the walkman while pondering depressing things.
6. Red, Taylor Swift, 2012. Don’t laugh. If you ignore her early country efforts, Taylor Swift is a major talent, and Red is a 21st-century masterpiece. “State of Grace” is the opening mind-blower that carries Swift way out of her own reach; I’m amazed that anyone (let alone a hitherto country-singer like Swift) could write this piece of excellence. “Red” is a song that keeps growing on you with shrewd vocal manipulations and understated rhythms. “Treacherous” is melodically sublime in its whispers. “I Knew You Were Trouble” is the classic rock track of the album. “All Too Well” is judged by many to be Swift’s best song of all time, though I say second best after “State of Grace”. “22” is something I want to get up and dance to every time I hear it. “We Are Never Getting Back Together Again” is the top-40 earworm that, surprisingly, never wears out its welcome (unlike her later smashes like “Shake It off” and “Blank Space”). “I Almost Do” is a throw-back to Swift’s country days but not bad at all. “Stay Stay Stay” has no right to sound as good as it does, with its giddy upbeat mandolin and handclaps, but damn, it’s compulsive. “The Last Time” is the only weak spot on the album, a duet that falls rather flat. “Holy Ground” is an awesome ripper that ends way too soon. “Sad Beautiful Tragic” is a heartbreaking waltz. “The Lucky One” laments the curse of fame in solid melodies. “Everything Has Changed” is a duet that gels perfectly (unlike “The Last Time”). “Starlight” fuses her old country sound with the new pop to pleasing effect. And the the closing song “Begin Again” is almost as strong as “All Too Well”. What can I say? I listen to Red quite often, from start to finish with no apologies.
7. And Then There Were Three, Genesis, 1978. Genesis was at their best with Peter Gabriel at the helm, and the band’s unquestionable high points are Nursery Cryme, Foxtrot, Selling England by the Pound, and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Even so, those albums have tracks that I sometimes skip over. And Then There Were Three is the one Genesis album I play from start to finish every time. There’s not a single note of banality and every track makes me feel like I’m living inside an epic. It kicks off with the powerhouse of “Down and Out”, segues into the beautiful “Undertow”, then to the western-themed “Ballad of Big”, and then to another soft piece (like “Undertow”) “Snowbound”. The longest track is “Burning Rope” and is one of the best. “Deep in the Motherlode” is my favorite track and another western (“Go west young man”), and “Many Too Many” is pure melancholy. “Scenes from a Night’s Dream” picks up the pace with a fun narrative, and “Say It’s Alright Joe” and “The Lady Lies” hark back to the band’s prog years. The final song points forward, with the first Genesis hit to crack the top-40 charts, “Follow You Follow Me”. Jesus, the ’70s were the days that crowd pleasers were tacked on at the end, not front-loaded to hook the lowest common pedestrian. I adore every track on this album in the way a top-40 junkie adores Miley Cyrus.
8. Made of Rain, The Psychedelic Furs, 2020. Remember these guys? This is their long-awaited comeback, after 30 years of silence. “The Boy Who Invented Rock & Roll” opens with aggressive atmosphere, and makes us realize how much we’ve missed the band. “Don’t Believe” has droning addictive synths, “You’ll Be Mine” is a strong favorite, and “Wrong Train” asks how we all get life so wrong. “This I’ll Never Be Like Love” is a wonderful slow-piece, the calm before the storm-trilogy of “Ash Wednesday”, “Come All Ye Faithful”, and “No One” — the best tracks on the album aside from “You’ll Be Mine”. Moody dark stuff. “Tiny Hands” is the only weak track, but it’s not really bad and I often listen to it anyway. “Hide the Medicine” resumes the compulsive beats and lyrics, and “Turn Your Back on Me” and “Stars” add up to nice exit points. Now that’s all worth a 30-year wait, when every bloody song pays off.
9. Hold Your Fire, Rush, 1987. To call this the best Rush album would be a grievous heresy (though I do say it’s the band’s fourth best, which many consider heresy enough). But it is the one Rush album I play start to finish without skipping anything. Yes, even “Tai Shan”. They’re all good, Rush fans be damned. It leads with “Force Ten”, a suitable opener with its heavy bass and distinguishing percussions. Then the ephemeral “Time Stands Still” which everyone loves, even if they can’t admit it. Third is the oxymoronic “Open Secrets”, with great guitar action, followed the come-down ballad “Second Nature”. “Prime Mover” is my favorite (it should have been a single), a rocking piece about an unmoved mover setting everything in motion, after which “anything can happen”. “Lock and Key” is a close second favorite, the album’s darkest piece, about the killer instincts in all of us, to a killer tune. “Mission” is simply gorgeous. “Turn the Page” is fast-paced with great guitars. “Tai-Shan” is a slow-moving spiritual song, beckoning us up the sacred Chinese mountain; ignore the haters, it’s a great song. And “High Water” ends on our mystical connection to the ocean. I love each and every one of these tracks, and won’t hold my fire against the naysayers.
10. Battle Born, The Killers, 2012. Hot Fuss is the best Killers’ album hands down, but there are tracks on it that I sometimes skip over. Battle Born I savor from start to finish. It opens with the forceful “Flesh and Bone”, then to the smash hit “Runaways”. The next two hit unexpected emotional highs, “The Way it Was” and “Here With Me”. Then the urgently satisfying “A Matter of Time”. “Deadlines and Commitments” is a favorite of mine, followed by an even stronger favorite, “Miss Atomic Bomb”. “Rising Tide” channels the Hot Fuss era, while “Heart of a Girl” comes down subdued and graceful. “From Here on Out” is a fun quick-hitting piece, and then come the last two gems: the incredibly moving “Be Still”, and the title-rack that goes out guns blazing. Battle Born is a severely underrated album; I love the entire thing.