Ranking my favorite Brian Eno vocal albums

I considered a general Eno poll, but ranking my beloved Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks — a favorite accompaniment to night writing since the early 2000s, including to dozens of these posts — alongside Wrong Way Up or Here Come the Warm Jets looked churlish.

1. Here Come the Warm Jets (1974)

The first one’s still the special case — the album from which six or seven different directions for rock music could have sprung. Because only, I don’t know, a couple have, we’re left with “Needles in the Camel’s Eye,” “Some of Them Are Old,” and the jet engine roar of the title track. Open to dialectic tension, Eno overdubs genderfucked harmonies and Phil Manzanera a phased guitar on “Cindy Tells Me” that complicate the chic detachment with which he observes the consequences of feminism as experienced by a sheltered young Englishman — this after Fripp has set the lean-to on fire with his work on “Baby’s on Fire.” Few albums retain their power to startle

2. Before and After Science (1977)

Thanks to Rhett Davies, the mix allows for quiet spaces, a result that might’ve come from several years of experiments with ambient music. “Spider and I” has the we’ve-reached-the-summit quiet exhilaration that the title track to Taking Tiger Mountain fails to evoke; because I love poetry, it’s also the best musical equivalent to Wallace Stevens’ great autumnal “A Clear Day and No Memories“; the Cluster and Fred Frith collaborations are limpid prefatory statements. Elsewhere, Phil Collins’ frenzied fills on “No One Receiving” still astonishes younger fans who know him for “Sussudio,” and Eno himself plays guitar on “King’s Lead Hat” like a deejay scratching a vinyl record.

3. Another Green World (1975)

Purchased in the cutout bin of a Peaches strip mall store in Kendall, my copy of Eno’s beloved third album boasted — audiophiles would argue is plagued by — a sustained hiss, a consequence of poor reproduction for cassette technology. Eno might’ve loved it, though — “it’s bliss! Turn up that hiss!” he reportedly said at a U2 session. The album’s unacknowledged MVP is Percy Jones, whose fretless bass creates a sense of cross-talk on “Over Fire Island”; it’s like eavesdropping on sea grapes gossiping. I once listened to Another Green World shivering with a fever; when I awoke, my clothes sweat-soaked, I realized the album had played in a continuous loop, and the fever had broken. The hothouse atmospherics of “Sombre Reptiles” had had their effect.

4. Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) (1974)

An armistice between Proper Songs (“Burning Airlines Give You So Much More,” “The Fat Lay of Limbourg”) and freakouts with Phil Manzanera (“Third Uncle” and “Mother Whale Eyeless”). All that stops me from embracing Taking Tiger Mountain is my petulant indifference to the hooks: “Back in Judy’s Jungle” and “The Great Pretender” annoy me. On “China My China” so much depends on its squelchy sound effects and a prominent electric rhythm strum — ends in themselves, sure, but most of Tiger plays like fabulous titles in search of worthwhile melodies. But, boy, “Third Uncle.”

5. Eno/Cale – Wrong Way Up (1990)

I’ve written often about this termite of temptation, Eno’s return to the microphone and Cale’s embrace of a Go-Betweens-level of melodic sunniness. Programming every keyboard and drum in sight, this pair — uneasy collaborators — assemble cuckoo clocks of sound: dependent on the smallest parts to function, molded with love. Mark McGrath flaunted his knowledge of college rock’s most obscure recesses by having Sugar Ray cover “Spinning Away” in the late nineties for The Beach. In 2004 for Stylus Magazine, I wrote, “Eno once said that nothing gave him greater pleasure (that word again) than providing harmonies. ‘One Word’ is the gem, a track on which Eno and Cale’s double and triple-tracked vocals complement, conflict and interweave like two second-graders singing the Velvet Underground’s ‘Murder Mystery.’ Its narrative is unclear, signified by the repeated line ‘we were miles and miles away’—a distance Eno and Cale’s voices attempt to bridge.”

6. Another Day on Earth (2005)

A wee thing, at the time welcome for rescuing “Under” from the aborted 1992 My Squelchy Life album (excerpts appear on 1993’s Vocal, a box set worth a king’s ransom). Opening track “This” is a stuttering little wonder.

5 thoughts on “Ranking my favorite Brian Eno vocal albums

  1. Joel Rizzo

    Mother Whale Eyeless a “freakout”?! Are you sure about that? It’s a perfectly executed pop song, for heavens sake. A bit longer than the norm perhaps. But aside from a few seconds here and there
    where things get a little hectic, it never approaches “freak out” imho.

  2. Pingback: Ranking my favorite John Cale albums | Humanizing The Vacuum

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