The Nature of All-Time Best Albums (And My Own)

Music is organic in my family. It’s like keeping healthy. Medical updates come with the latest musical obsessions. Mixes are as vital as conversation.

I believe it was this past summer or the one before when I was talking to my sister about the near-forgotten, still-warm brilliance of U2’s ACHTUNG BABY. How it is a flood of melodies and synth. How every track is an event. However you feel about Bono or U2 these days, 1991 saw genius with the release of that record. “It’s my favorite album of all time,” my sister said, and it made sense. It deserves the title.

What else does? The nature of an all-time record is one that does not adhere to a phase, but something that transcends trends. Everyone has their desert island album, right? Or hell, maybe not anymore, since albums seem nearly irrevelant. Playlists reign. Shuffle has album stature. Songs parade around by themselves with no heed to a set list.

Not for me. Never. An album will always be an opus—a novel, a Sistine Chapel ceiling, an airborne flying machine of songetry. I’ve loved my share. I’ve gone through phases of muscial euphoria and made a viable ‘best album’ shortlist, over the years—X Japan’s DAHLIA, Tool’s ÆNIMA, Pierrot’s HEAVEN, and D’espairsRay’s MIRROR among them. But to choose one, I needed criteria. Some contextual modifier. Bullet points.

  1. Versatility. An artist’s genius only goes as far as their ability to switch gears spontaneously and manage to keep their cool. Multi-genre albums are my favorites. Music takes many forms.
  2. Unskipability. A great album should not only strive to have great tracks on it, but to make every track so vital to the experience that skipping ahead seems pointless. This includes intros, segues, ballads, and instrumentals. Nothing gets crossed out.
  3. Scope. A story ought to be told. Not a concrete narrative, necessarily, but a themed set of messages that not only mesh together but also move across musical time like a piece on a Monopoly board. Advance forward 3 spaces. Collecting experiences that get more and more intense as the game goes on. By the time it ends, it all makes sense. The inevitability of development.

I learned long ago that favorite bands and favorite albums don’t have to mirror each other. X Japan have my musical heart, but while their great songs are truly great, their mediocre songs are… mediocre. DAHLIA has skipability, despite its iconic tracks; ÆNIMA moves with grace, but the versatility suffers, and I can’t reward metal’s narrow vision in this case.

What does that leave me with? What is fully realized, crazy with variety, consistently excellent, and thematically killer?

PSYENCE is the second solo record released by the late Hideto ‘hide’ Matsumoto, Japanese guitarist extraordinaire, heretofore known as ‘hide’ (pronounced hee-day).


I suppose I could link to song samples in order to further my argument. But I am a wordsmith. Language is my business, and my tool.

PSYENCE opens with jazz—a four-minute, brass-heavy big band piece like something out of the credits of James Bond. It’s an instrumental firecracker that could easily serve as the soundtrack to classic film espionage. There is no singing in this title track. There is none needed.

Bang. The horns blow out, and a series of crazed guitar chords sputter spastically into hide’s opening howl: “OWOOOOOO!” No time wasted here. Snark reigns—the song, ERASE, is about people with too many regrets, and how it renders their lives worthless.

There is barely a break before 限界破裂 (Genkai Haretsu) begins, a straightforward rocker with some of the most twisted lyrics this side of Gwar. “Take you any way you want,” hide croons, content in the debased nature of the song. “You are just my therapy.” And soon, away DAMAGE goes: a true bastion of smack-metal, angry and heavy and completely nasty. “You took the best parts of my life!” hide screams over the headbang-worthy chords.

By now you might think you know what to expect… except that along comes LEMONED I SCREAM, a cracktastic ditty that only makes sense as a song about getting as high as humanly possible. It’s so bizarre that the effect is something like They Might Be Giants guest starring on a Danzig album. In short—what the fuck? Drugs. But I dare you not to sing along.

HI-HO is the most mainstream track here, skipping around like a Hawaiian sunfest of dwarven joy, bass lines bouncing like beach balls. But are you listening to the lyrics? In the midst of all this cavorting, hide is making fun of simple folks who only enjoy happy, sunshiney songs. He is calling you an idiot.

FLAME is what you might call a first ending. Its plaintive chords could accompany a slow dance with an asterisk attached: sorrow is your dance partner, as lovely as the movement is. It’s all about accepting sadness… until BEAUTY & STUPID starts, which is a hide trademark and a theme song for the playfully promiscuous. It is, in essence, a song about not taking sex too seriously. “I just wanna make love. I don’t wanna fall in love. Haaaahahaha…” Razor-sharp, edgy, and yet imminently danceable—hide at his best.

As we move into the second half of the record, OEDO COWBOYS shoos us along, the snarky equivalent of a Jeopardy theme. It’s like listening to a Three Stooges routine without the visual accompaniment—ridiculous, fluffy, and serving to prep you for BACTERIA, which opens with dialogue out of a horror movie: “Seems like a kind of…bacteria…” What follows is a concrete brick of a song that stings sharply the way a scrape against the wall would. The vocals are so distorted they sound like guitar chords in themselves; the refrain is so full of vitriol it could dissolve the microphone; the conviction makes no literal sense but will still cause you to look twice at any ‘anti-bacterial’ soap. (It’s anti….BACTERRRIAAAAL, BACTERRIAAAL!)

And so it goes that the most metal song on the album is followed by the acoustic ballad, GOODBYE, which could be cheesy but for its relative understatement. hide happens to be singing about how music saves us. I suppose a normal band might end the album like this, leaving the listener to muse quietly and contemplate melancholy.

But hide isn’t finished.

Following an ingenius segue track entitled CAFÉ LE PSYENCE—which is, appropriately enough, just a piano-and-bass version of the title melody with indecipherable noise and silverware clinking in the background—hide lets rip with LASSIE, proving that no song needs to have deep meaning, or even be about human beings, to rock. It’s pure punk, complete with barking noises and a circus-music interlude that feels clownish enough to feature a honking red nose and gigantic, awkward shoes. Total silliness. Light enough to precede the two closers—first, POSE, which is the only truly industrial track on this record, and hide at his most angry and honest. (Plus, it starts with ping-pong sound effects. How awesome is that?) It’s a track about, well, everyone who pretends to be something they’re not. “Everybody wants to be somebody!” snarls hide, uncompromising.

And you believe him. Because POSE is followed by the final proper album track, MISERY, which is a song so contradictory that must be heard to be believed. Its surf guitar, major chords, and chorus of cheerful “Hallelujah”s belie its message—that is, that suffering is necessary to a normal life, and emotional highs and lows (such as hide’s own rumored manic depression) must be loved as part of one’s own self. “Kiss your misery,” he sings. Indeed.

ATOMIC M.O.M. is an outro that plays the opening title track backwards and results in hysterical, maniacal, computerized laughter, as if to say… Oh, honey. You really took all that stuff seriously? I am so, so sorry.

Musical journey achieved.

hide thanks you for your time. (So feminine, and yet he sang like a rapper.)

What is YOUR all-time favorite record?


6 thoughts on “The Nature of All-Time Best Albums (And My Own)

  1. My favorite all-time “record”? Hmmm…It’s, of course, going to be a toss-up. Here’s what comes to mind right away: X-Japan “Dahlia”, Smashing Pumpkins “Siamese Dream”, Peter Gabriel “Up”, and definitely “Psyence.” Forever ageless.

  2. Although I love all my favorite music without judgement, I also have always held to the same criteria you mentioned at the beginning of the article when musing over my music library. Versatility speaks to me because I have found as my musical tastes have grown over the years, I have a hard time with the concept of “genre”. A lot of my favorite music, even if credited with defining a genre, seldom stays within the boundaries of said genre. Even specific genres like “shoegaze” seem to limit the understanding of what a band is capable of. Yet, I still find myself using genres to explaina band to someone who hasnt heard them because that is how we communicate musical style. Skipibility often comes into play since I find many albums being a single piece of work that cannot be interrupted, even if I have the desire to play some other song or I find myself with limited time to listen to my music, I struggle with interrupting the album. And, well, I guess I just covered scope just now too. But yes, very well written, Holly. This article spoke to my soul!

  3. Ahhh Holly – I’ve never heard of any of those bands! I’ve grown into such a wuss as an adult, I used to listen to hardcore punk (I looked the part too, spikes, then I had a chelsea cut – I know – who would have thought?) but now I can’t take anything too hard.

    It’s SO hard to choose an all-time favorite record, BUT I really love these ones:
    – BAT FOR LASHES: “Two Suns”
    – THE CLASH “Combat Rock”
    – THE SMITHS “Meat Is Murder”


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