Those missing in action

Alex James
Sunday June 20, 2004
The Observer

Who's not on this list? Five of the albums in my own top 10 for starters - and I wasn't even trying to be too smart-arsed: Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret by Soft Cell and Rio by Duran Duran; Kings of the Wild Frontier by Adam and the Ants and Fantastic by Wham!; Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells. After I'd drawn it up, I suddenly wondered about the Jesus and Mary Chain and the Bee Gees and then Madness and the Cure. But they don't make it either. In fact, plenty of the biggest names in British pop music are missing. Where's Cliff Richard?

It could be that the best British albums don't necessarily represent the best in British music. This list is kind to rock groups - boys with guitars - but hard on pop acts, whose happiest medium is the single. I suspect that black British music is poorly represented for the same reason. When you think of a group like Led Zep, you think of their albums. When it comes to the notion of a reggae album, you think I'll go fetch my coat.

The wider point is that the album is an artificial construct in the first place. The creation of 12-inch vinyl let artists think about grouping their songs to create 'an album' - and record companies exploited the commercial possibilities. The basic unit of currency in the music industry is the album, which must comprise at least 10 songs. Bands are contracted to a record company to produce a certain number of albums over a certain period of time. Changes in technology mean that will go tits up. When people download music rather than buy it on CD, it is individual tracks they are likely to buy. The album will die.

When vinyl went out of fashion it was already the beginning of the end. People can fiddle around with a CD and pick which tracks to listen to. And because the medium allowed it, albums became longer and longer. It's almost impossible to buy a new album now which you can enjoy in one sitting. The new album by the Streets is a brilliant exception. The last Blur album went on and on.

Bands go in and out of fashion and that's why some likely names don't make it on to this list. In five years, this list will be very different. We might even think that making a list of best albums is itself a quaintly archaic notion.

- Alex James plays bass for Blur

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