A quick note: making this list was really fun but really difficult. For a tiny island (by American standards, I mean this with love), the good ole UK has produced much of the best music that humanity has to show for itself. For this playlist, I’ve chosen 10 songs by British musicians that stick out in my memory like mile markers on a highway – each tune changed the way I hear the world and altered my approach to making sounds for others to hear. A tiny shot of adrenaline hits me when I hear them. It’s a singular feeling.
For some reason, once I counted to 10 I realized that I had left out some legends (Sir Paul, Richard Thompson, the Late Great David Bowie, Queen), as well as some bygone groups that have broken up with little to no trace left behind (I’m looking at you Pandas and People, get Jokes that Aren’t Jokes on Spotify stat!). Alas, this is the list for now, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
– Julia Steiner of Ratboys
Big Thinks Do Remarkable – And So I Watch You from Afar
I first discovered And So I Watch You from Afar when I was a student in Dublin, Ireland. The joyous, insanely huge-sounding album All Hail Bright Futures – which features this song – came out while I was there in 2013, and I was instantly floored by it’s sonic punch. Seeing the group live is near the top of my bucket list, whether it means making the trek to Belfast or waiting it out until they return to Chicago.
Starship Trooper – Yes
When Yes bassist and founding member Chris Squire passed away last summer, I stopped what I was doing and drove around listening to Yes records into the night. The band’s creativity and cleverness and masterful playing lives on for all time though, thank goodness. I’ll never forget the first time I listened to Yes, when Dave (who plays guitar in Ratboys) handed me The Yes Album on CD and said, ‘You might like this.’ He was right – I like it very much. Squire has signature bass touches and grooves littered throughout Starship Trooper; they glisten in the night.
In My Place – Coldplay
It was a Saturday morning in 2005 – I was up at 7AM for some reason, watching music videos (on television!) quietly in my parents’ room as they slept. The video for In My Place came on, and any miscellaneous creaks or snores around the house hissed into silence as the opening bass drum kicks of the song swallowed up everything. The video was white and shadowy. It was heaven. Recounting this moment feels dramatic now, and that’s because the experience was dramatic. The simplicity of that guitar riff, the subtle strings, the crossing, intuitive harmonies: it was all there, all for me. Looking back, I think this was the moment when I discovered that music is my dearest passion – and also the moment when I promised myself, in hushed confidence, that I would one day write a song as perfect as this one.
Cigarettes and Alcohol – Oasis
Oasis was one of my favorite bands to listen to on the school bus. It felt pretty badass to stick in my earbuds and blast a crusty rock song about substances that I wasn’t allowed to try (and, honestly, didn’t really care to try either). This song holds up though, on the other side of some experimenting and growing up. Noel’s guitar tone is primo and the tambourine playing is blissful. Oasis is a great rock band, and the five or six or however many albums of theirs I own will always have a happy home on my iPod.
Carolyn’s Fingers – Cocteau Twins
Cocteau Twins was another Dublin discovery for me. During the dark, short days of winter, I would often curl up in my room and go on YouTube trips, letting the ‘Related Videos’ bar guide me along the way. I don’t recall how I ended up on the video for Carolyn’s Fingers, but it’s wonderful. The song has that gauzy, ethereal quality with Elizabeth’s operatic wails and triumphant tongue trills floating above the surface like no other instrument I’ve ever heard. When it’s over, I feel like I’ve returned from a voyage to somewhere else, where the sun shines pink and green and the birds harmonize on purpose.
Dancing Days – Led Zeppelin
This past May, as Dave and I drove home from a two-week writing retreat in Petoskey, Michigan, we decided to listen to Led Zeppelin the whole way back. Houses of the Holy is my favorite Led Zeppelin album right now, and this song is the best. It has one of the most rockin’ earworm guitar riffs in existence; the drums rip; it has this psyched-out post-country feel that I find myself craving, like all the best vices. I highly suggest putting on this song in a smoker’s circle – your pals will realize they’d forgotten how much this song rules, and they’ll be distracted enough that you can take an extra rip of whatever’s going around.
Bones – Radiohead
Radiohead might be Britain’s best band. Or at least Britain’s most emotionally honest and visceral and gut-wrenching band. The breadth and trajectory of Radiohead’s discography is astounding, but I’ll always have a special place in my heart for The Bends. It carves out a soundspace that’s totally its own. I feel like this particular jam, Bones, begs a question on behalf of all Radiohead songs: ‘Can’t you feel it in your bones?’ Of course I can, Thom, and so can you. That’s why your music is beyond compare.
Dress Up in You – Belle and Sebastian
I first got into Belle and Sebastian when I was 13 – my friend’s older sister had gifted me The Life Pursuit, and it colored that summer with wide strokes of glee. There are catchy melodies everywhere. It’s almost unbelievable how many catchy melodies they crammed into this record. Memorizing the songs and singing along, even now, is a thrill. Dress Up in You is a slow number featuring fantastic vocal harmonies and one of the best trumpet parts ever. I’m talking EVER, folks. Plus, Stuart Murdoch employs one of my favorite songwriting techniques: sneaking in really f****d up and brutal lyrics via light and pleasant melodies. It creates tension and drama and humor. This song makes me laugh out loud and make me want to cry.
Two in a Million – S Club 7
S Club 7 is the most underrated pop group of the 90s. Holy cow did they have some killer songs. And they had a Saturday-morning TV show! Clearly I soaked up a lot of music on Saturday mornings. And watching the S Club crew fix up a hotel (or whatever it was they did for a job on that show) and struggle to find love and sing about it at the end of the day was immensely satisfying. This is my favorite S Club 7 song – it has a lovely turn in the chorus, heartfelt and kind lyrics, and it allows Jo (the strongest singer of the group by far, let’s be honest) some room to shine. If any member of S Club is reading this, please know that I gotchu. I will defend you from the haters, and we’ll ride off into the sunset together, forever as one.
Plainsong – The Cure
This final song on the playlist comes courtesy of our bassist, Will. The Cure is his favorite band, and when I asked him to select a song I should include, he rattled off four or five before I could pull out my phone to write down the titles. Robert Smith has an instantly recognizable crooning voice that injects emotion between the lines in the most appropriate, delicate, tasteful fashion. Plainsong offers up a lush, anthemic instrumental that builds toward Smith’s singing halfway through. Layers of echoes wash Smith’s lyrics into a swirling blur, but a message sticks out: ‘sometimes you make me feel like I’m living at the edge of the world.’ That’s sort of how it feels to listen to The Cure, like you’re at once removed from everything yet you hold it all in a perfect view. Who knows. Without a doubt, this song is fantastic and reigns as one of the best album-openers out there.