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17 December 2017

Ali Smith on her favourite albums: “Trying to choose one ended in mutiny”

From the Long Players series: writers on their most cherished albums.

By Ali Smith

Trying to choose one album about which to write this piece has made a week-long mutiny happen inside my head: now that I sit down to write it, Court and Spark and Blue by Joni Mitchell are already swinging boho punches at each other about which matters more; Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s first album is giving me a sidelong witty French-Canadian look and surround-sounding the gorgeous unearthly harmony of the end of “Heart Like a Wheel” at me so I’ll know I couldn’t ever choose to leave it on a sideline; then Elvis Costello’s My Aim Is True, pointing right at me and shouting my name; Rickie Lee Jones’s first album turning away shrugging like it always knew it was too cool for me anyway; and look at my young self waiting to see what her older self’ll say about what Cat Stevens’s Tea for the Tillerman and Teaser and the Firecat have come to mean in the shifts of time.

And, on my way home to write this, I pass a busker on the street playing “I Am a Rock” and in come Simon and Garfunkel, all tragedy and adolescence, pure, raw Sounds of Silence. Then there’s Nina Simone’s Black Gold and my older brothers and sisters all coming up the stairs to hear what I was playing; and Pillows & Prayers, the Cherry Red compilation that meant I first heard Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt and ordered their solo albums at The Other Record Shop in a state of real excitement, and what about the excitement of hearing they’d teamed up? Eden, all cool horns and keys and undercurrents, a new kind of cosmopolitan, the sound of young adulthood, alongside Orange Juice’s You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever. This is the sound of happiness. And now, look up, Nick Drake’s Pink Moon looming, melancholy, true. Which will you go for? Which will you love the best?

They’re all playing at once. Turn the tables. Thanks, New Statesman. That’s my whole week gone, and the best part of four decades lost and found, going round and round. 

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This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special