Fact OCTOBER 2, 2009 - by Kiran Sande



It goes without saying that Brian Eno's career is impossible to boil down to ten essential releases, but that's my present task, and try I must. To make the task more manageable, however, I've restricted myself to albums where Eno's name features on the cover - that means none of the albums by Talking Heads or Bowie (Fear Of Music, Remain In Light, Low, "Heroes"), not to mention Laraaji and U2, that Eno produced and strongly influenced. Also, I'm skipping over Eno's first two studio albums - but that doesn't mean you should. His debut in particular, Here Come The Warm Jets, is worth your time; a suite of experimental glam-pop that spawned the spiky Baby's On Fire and Needle In The Camel's Eye, it's not particularly representative of Eno's musical output at large, but it's still a ravishing listen, and is better than virtually anything ever made by Eno's former band, Roxy Music.

Our story begins with 1975's Another Green World - which, like every album in this list, is available to listen to in full on Spotify. When it comes to 'best of the 20th' century lists, Another Green World is the one Eno album that always crops up, and rightly so: it's a terrific record, right down to its wonderful sleeve art, which combines the bucolic with the starkly geometric and sets the tone for the technologically enhanced pastorals contained within. Recorded over the summer of 1975 at Island studios, this album is perhaps the most famous product of Eno and Peter Schmidt's Oblique Strategies cards, a deck of often opaque commands (e.g. 'Try faking it!, 'What would your closest friend do?' or most famously 'Honour the error as a hidden intention'. Increasingly smitten with systematic approaches to music-making, Eno took additional conceptual cues from business management guru Stafford Beer, and clearly delights in the role of "managing" a crack team of guest musicians numbering violist John Cale (yes, that John Cale), drummer Phil Collins (yes, that Phil Collins) and guitarist Robert Fripp.

The first side of the album consists of oneiric, unusually structured pop miniatures. The skronky art-funk opener Sky Saw is something of a red herring; St. Elmo's Fire and the thinking chap's stoner anthem Golden Hours show just how confidently Eno has mastered "traditional" song-writing by this stage in career; the melodies are comparable with the best of Bowie, and the lyrics and arrangements, not to mention the vocal delivery, wisely avoid the baroque excesses of 1977's Before And After Science. Things get really interesting with the instrumentals: In Dark Trees is almost proto-techno in its pulsating, train-like forward momentum, but manages also to sound incredibly swampy, while The Big Ship is just unbelievably moving, the closest I believe any artist working in the pop idiom has ever come to rendering a feeling of, well, total redemption. Becalmed is a gorgeous synth fantasia and the cryptic Zawinul/Lava shows that quiet music can can also be highly dramatic. Another Green World isn't Eno's most radical album, but it's arguably his most ambitious, surely his most organic, and undoubtedly among his most exquisitely realised.


Discreet Music is commonly cited as the birthplace of ambient, so one can forgive that it sounds a little rough around the edges. It finds Eno furthering his experiments with systems music, bringing to fruition ideas of musical "process" theorised by Steve Reich a decade earlier. Ever the stylist as well as the thinker, Eno's sleeve notes begin with a brilliant aesthete's observation: "Since I have always preferred making plans to executing them, I have gravitated towards situations and systems that, once set into motion, could create music with little or no intervention on my part..."

Eno realises his ambition of non-intervention in two very different ways. For the long title track, Discreet Music, the system deployed is a mechanical one: as depicted in the de-mystifying "operational diagram" printed on the record's sleeve, here Eno uses a synthesizer with a digital recall, a graphic equaliser, echo unit and Revox tape delays to create a hypnotic, sweetly saturated loop pattern.

According to the sleeve-notes, the idea for the second side of Discreet Music and Eno's second order of systematic approach came earlier in the summer of '75, when he suffered an accident and was confined to bed "in a stiff and static position". His visiting friend Judy Nylon brought him a record of eighteenth century harp music, which he duly put on. Only when he had returned to his bed did Eno realise that the amp level was too low, and he lacked the energy to rise again to turn the volume up. So the music continued to play at an almost inaudible level, providing Eno with his eureka moment: "This presented what was for me a new way of hearing music - as part of the ambience of the environment just as the colour of the light and the sound of the rain were parts of that ambience."

Side Two is given over to Three Variations On The Canon In D Major By Johann Pachelbel. The system is a group of performers with a set of instructions, and the input is the fragment of Pachelbel. Each player starts at a different point in the piece, and systematic adjustments to tempo and sequence are made, so that the parts "overlay each other in ways not suggested by the original score". The results are beguiling; they re-animate and destabilise the original score in ways that Pachelbel can never have imagined, and most importantly, they sound overwhelmingly, elegiacally beautiful. At the risk of sounding like a dick, it's as if the music is disintegrating and then reforming before one's very ears, prising free some deeper musical truth in the process. It's impossible to imagine the modern-day looping, hauntological excursions of William Basinski and particularly The Caretaker were it not for Discreet Music. Robert Fripp claims Eno knocked out the record while they were having tea in his kitchen, and you wouldn't put it past him, clever bastard.


Fripp & Eno might sound like some spurious Starbucks caffeine cocktail, but of course it is in fact one of twentieth century music's most dynamic and fruitful partnerships. King Crimson founder and virtuoso guitarist Robert Fripp was one of Eno's most important collaborators during the '70s, and they've continued to make records together other the years. Not only did they strongly influence each other's work, they also both contributed to Bowie's Low and "Heroes" (it's Fripp who plays the impossibly plangent, wailing lead on "Heroes"). Fripp came from a prog-rock background, but by 1975 he was beginning to learn to enjoy life solo, as what he Eno-istically called "a mobile intelligent unit". Fripp and Eno's 1973 hook-up No Pussyfooting is rightly celebrated, but for me it's confidently pipped by our present choice, Evening Star. Here Eno's gauzy synths are at the fore, and the rippling ambience wrought out of Fripp's FX-heavy guitar-playing is about as far away from "rock" as it's possible for that instrument to get. The opening Wind And Water is a veritable symphony of gentle undulations, and couldn't be more aptly named; Evensong is like a blusesier, less austere cousin of Bowie's Art Decade, but it's the epic, twenty-nine-minute, whole-side-hogging An Index of Metals that steals the show. For reasons that my mortal brain can't quite explain, Evening Star seems to mess with the fabric of time; true to Eno's aspirations, it opens up a whole new contemplative space for the listener.


This is really Brian Eno's farewell to pop: the last album where his vocals and traditional song-craft figure prominently. He certainly goes out with a bang: it's an album flamboyant and florid enough to put Bowie to shame. Beginning with the twinkling, restrained piano blues of By This River, it doesn't take long for Brian to go postal: via the fantastic No One Receiving (which sounds so Low it's unreal) he delivers a bawdy, elaborately-worded sea shanty called Backwater - it's camp as hell, shot through with unashamedly glammy chords and the hilarious refrain of "Ooh, what to do / in a tiny canoe?". The second half of the album - the "after science" part if you will - finds Eno welcoming his ambient sensibility back in, resulting in tracks like the red-eyed, almost Celtically dreamy ballad Spider And I and languid instrumental closer Through Hollow Lands. If you want an album that represents Eno as both po-faced avant-gardist and playful pop poseur, then this is your one-stop shop.


This isn't Eno's best ambient record, but it's certainly the most, er, airy. The attention-grabbing title is one of the reasons it's so well-known; in 1978 "ambient" was not a widely comprehended concept, and the idea of music aspiring to the condition of muzak was still one that baffled a lot of people (has anything really changed?). I suppose Music For Airports is the most minimalist, the most barely-there that Eno's music got before it became completely abstracted (as on On Land and the first few tracks of Apollo). Quivering piano melodies and heavily treated, wordless vocal harmonies - kind of like a feminine, sci-fi take on Gregorian chant - gleam from the midst of gaseous synth layers (check 2/1 above), giving the record considerable, well, humanity. Yet Eno's rigorous studio treatments imbue proceedings with a real chilliness; in content as in concept this album seems to be less about utopia and more about "post-utopian" capitalism: the airport, a strange new liminal space that combines the metaphysical and the mercantile, the miraculous and the prosaic, is a most potent symbol of this.

If you can listen to this album and stay awake - I mean it as a compliment to say that Eno's best instrumental ambient brings out the happy narcoleptic in us all - it will profoundly alter your perception of time and space. In Eno's hands past and future dissolve into a gently humming, faintly melancholic ever-present; nowhere more so than on Music For Airports.


Eno has always been fascinated by musical forms and traditions outside of western rock orthodoxy. This was something he had in common with British trumpeter Jon Hassell, with whom he collaborated on 1980's breathtaking Fourth World Volume 1: Possible Musics. Rather than adding to the burgeoning number of crudely positivist appropriations of "world" music, this album creates its own peculiar context and otherness - that of the "fourth world", where primitivism and futurism are bound in a creative and expressive dynamic (a dynamic that resonates in jungle, dubstep, house and techno to this day).

Possible Musics is a far more complex and troubled work than much of the "ethno-tronic" garbage that it would spawn; there's something wonderfully queasy and strung-out about Hassell's digitally treated trumpet lines, which are almost entirely unmoored from their jazz origins and sunk beautifully into Eno's misty, murky synths. The dubbed-out, gamelan-esque percussion prefigures the trip-hop of Tricky and Protection-era Massive Attack; the album was also clearly a marked influence on the Balearic chill-out movement of the '90s and, rather more palatably, the psycho-tropic techno of Villalobos and Shackleton's desert-dried Skull Disco creations.


This is perhaps one of the more overrated albums in the twentieth century canon, but still, fuck me - it's incredible, and its legacy massive. Named after Amos Tutuola's 1954 eco-existentialist novel, the album was recorded between the release of Talking Heads' Fear Of Music (1979) and the recording of Remain In Light (1980) - both of which were overseen by Eno. It's one of the very first sample-based albums, combining densely layered rhythms with voice recordings of - among other things - preacher Paul Morton, Lebanese mountain singer Dunya Yusin and, most memorably, an "unidentified exorcist" on The Jezebel Spirit. A big influence on the more exploratory strains of punk-funk - from A Certain Ratio on to LCD Soundystem - and even hip-hop, My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts is pop-art at its most questing.


Eno has always had flair when it comes to titles: from the flamboyant to the functional, this is a man well attuned to how much a title can influence our perception of a piece of music. There's a powerful sense of place to On Land, the track-list littered with geographical references: from the rather lyrical Lizard Point and Lantern Marsh to the more precise Dunwich Beach, Autumn, 1960. Here ambient music is presented not simply as a supplement to, or extension of, the listener's immediate surroundings, but rather something which helps the listener access other places, other times, other worlds - it's dream music, first and foremost. I haven't the foggiest what or where Lantern Marsh is in the real world, but when I listen to the track, I feel as if I'm there. The final part of Eno's Ambient tetralogy, On Land is a more explicitly electronic album than its predecessors; fanatically detailed, it's really the beginning of ambient as we think of it today, a tissue of drones and tones that laid the groundwork for Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works Vol.2 (probably the only album in history that beats Eno at his own game). Like Saw II, On Land is as infinite as your imagination; it will never tire.


This pristine record is one of the best examples of the more electronic, Daniel Lanois-enabled sound that would come to characterise Eno's work for the rest of the '80s. Is there a track ever made that's more suggestive of alien contact than Signals? An Ending (Ascent) is the most straightforwardly euphoric ambient work that Eno ever sculpted (though typically there's an undertow of melancholy), its irresistible rising chords still rinsed to death by movie and TV soundtrackers looking to connote resolution and redemption, and frequently strapped to dirt-cheap 4/4 beats by two-bit trance producers. Deep Blue Day is the stand-out track: a curious combination of space-age synths and down-home slide guitar, perfectly dramatizing the old-fashioned frontierist mentality at the heart of the NASA space programme.


Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant recently cited this as his favourite ever album, for the reason that it achieves exactly what it sets out to do. One of several collaborations between Eno and pianist/composer Harold Budd, it was released in 1984, and if you compare it to the duo's 1980 hook-up Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror, it's startlingly evident how far studio technology and technique had advanced in the space of four years. Whereas much ambient is characteristically foggy and indistinct, what's striking about The Pearl is its intense clarity - for which we must credit co-producer Daniel Lanois, who seems to bring a supernatural brightness and cinematic sheen to all his work with Eno (Apollo and U2's The Joshua Tree, for instance). It's really a dub album: Budd's minimalist but powerfully lyrical keyboard lines subjected to all manner of delay and reverb tactics by Eno. As well as being one of Eno's most electronic ventures, there's also a pronounced but nuanced use of field recordings; all these elements combine to sublimely haunting effect, most spectacularly on A Stream With Bright Fish, which is as gleaming and alive as its title suggests. A bottomless, magisterial record, this for me is Eno's purest masterpiece and it deserves to be much better known than it is. Beg, buy, steal or borrow it: it will change your life.