To me, 4AD are more than a label. They’ve been responsible for so many defining moments throughout the course of my lifetime that they’re closer to a sepia-tinted, soft-focus memory which slowly sharpens across the years as it blossoms into colour. Originally I was asked to write about my ten standout albums from across the 4AD discography. This proved to be too difficult. As I work better within limitations I decided I’d go even further and select my ten standout tracks instead. Here they are, in chronological order.
Ooze Out And Away, Onehow (from The Moon And The Melodies by Elizabeth Fraser, Harold Budd, Robin Guthrie, and Simon Raymonde, 1986)
This song starts as a flicker; an echo from somewhere just out of reach, suddenly returning like a boomerang at around two and half minutes, dramatically regaining full form. There’s something strangely comforting about the fact it’s not possible to discern what Elizabeth Fraser is singing. Like Mark Hollis from my beloved Talk Talk, the voice is another instrument in a sea of textures. I’ve no doubt that the words would affect me deeply if I found out what they were but, to be honest, I prefer not to know.
Ulysses (from The Serpent’s Egg by Dead Can Dance, 1988)
If the previous song was a flicker, then this one is a stutter. A spider running up a glass staircase before being displaced by a beautiful flood of water. Brendan Perry sounds like he’s delivering the Sermon on the Mount. His voice is so incredibly rich. Arrangement-wise there are so many parts to fall in love with in this song, so much complexity. You could listen fifty times and always find something new.
Hey (from Doolittle by Pixies, 1989)
What a fucking song. Everything about this is unrepeatable. No other band could have produced anything like this song. A sinewy bass has a conversation with a scrawny, angry guitar. It surprises me that Frank Black comes from Boston, as the vocals have an unmistakeable Southern drawl. The way he sings ‘If you go I will surely die’… Goosebumps.
Mistress (Piano Version) (from Red House Painters (Rollercoaster) by Red House Painters, 1993)
Red House Painters were one of my first loves. I discovered them around the same time as Talk Talk and they have probably made as much of an impact on me in the time since. It’s difficult to choose only one but, as my first choice (their cover of The Cars’ All Mixed Up) was released by Island, I think I’ll have to go for the piano version of Mistress. This is one of the first instances I heard a song completely re-imagined by the writer. It’s breathtaking in its starkness. Mark Kozelek is such a visual writer. His lyrics are so descriptive you can almost see the room he describes.
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Re: Stacks (from For Emma, Forever Ago by Bon Iver, 2007)
This truly is one of the most beautiful songs ever written. Just put it on and see how it makes you feel.
Nothing Ever Happened (from Microcastle by Deerhunter, 2008)
It’s already a perfect piece of songwriting across an initial two and half minutes but it’s what it becomes that cements this track as a one of the best from across the entire 4AD catalogue. A reverb and distortion-drenched wig out underpinned by the hypnotic repetition of masterfully restrained drums, before the bass line subtly shifts the whole thing into the stratosphere. One by one by one, everything else follows.
In Ear Park (from In Ear Park by Department Of Eagles, 2008)
Daniel Rossen is, in my opinion, one of the most talented songwriters in the United States today. He writes songs with such a tremulous beauty. So careful and measured. Although it’s a demonstration of shifting moods, no aspect ever outstays its welcome. This song is the sound of trees and reeds and sunlight. Of the rising and falling of a chest before it bursts into song.
Round And Round (from Before Today by Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, 2010)
There’s something wonderfully seedy about the music of Ariel Pink which, in this song, is perfectly offset by the unfettered joy of the chorus. And what a chorus it is! In an alternate universe this song topped the charts for a record-breaking number of weeks. The perfect song for the onset of the summer.
The Place (from No World by Inc., 2013)
Alluring alt-R&B by two brothers from LA.The production is impeccable and features a gorgeous muted guitar solo that comes in just after the two-minute mark. This is the sort of song that you put on at four am, where everything is still and the sky is just beginning to turn blue to mark the return of the sun.
As Much As Possible (from No Home Of The Mind by Bing & Ruth, 2017)
The sound of a sigh from heaven itself.
**The Last Dinosaur’s new album The Nothing is available now via Naim Records. They will play their first full-band gig in two years in London on the 17th November. **