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Baker's Dozen

Bon Appétit: James Acaster's Favourite Albums
Emma Garland , February 9th, 2022 10:36

From the tiny emo scene of noughties Kettering to a love of underground hip-hop and the undying appeal of a cult classic, comedian James Acaster takes Emma Garland through the albums that have defined his life


Joanna Newsom – Ys

Joanna Newsom is one of the best… Well, she’s just one of the best.

Ys and Have One On Me I think are the best of four perfect releases, pretty much. When you get the full perspective of her back catalogue, it’s easy to look at her debut The Milk-Eyed Mender and think it sounds a bit scrappy by comparison. But I remember when it first came out and hearing ‘Peach, Plum, Pear’ and being like ‘fuck, what is this?!’ It felt so special. There were one or two songs that I could skip, but it was still one of my favourite albums that came out around that time so I was really excited about her doing another. Then remember Ys coming out, and seeing that it was only five songs, and seeing how long the songs were, and being like… fucking hell, come on. Then the first song started and it was like, ‘she’s not singing in that voice anymore! I liked that voice!’ and being quite annoyed about it. I remember getting to the end of it and thinking, okay, this is clearly good. But it wasn’t what I wanted, so I was a bit shaken.

Talking about overwhelming earlier, I think this is the most overwhelming album I’ve talked about. The beauty is overwhelming; there’s heavy emotions all the way through; you feel quite smothered by it and it gets very on top of you because the scale of it feels so huge. All the strings by Van Dyke Parks are so well married with all the songs. It’s not like a folk artist getting someone to do strings and the strings are kind of covering up a bad album, or they’re just doing whatever. You really get the impression she’s had input on that as well, like ‘this is how I want it to be and how I’d like it to sound and the mood that I want from it’ and just the feelings that those strings conjure up when they feel like they’re fluttering and flying through stuff.

Maybe more than any artist, I just don’t know where she gets any of it from. The melodies from one section to the next all sound like these perfect folk tunes, and the amount of lyrics on this album – she’s not really repeating herself for most of it. She’ll do the same verse a few times but the lyrics are always completely different. The chorus is usually completely different. She’s telling stories a lot of the time, there’s so much striking visual stuff in there that really sticks in your head. Spiders soaked in the sink, baby birds smacking into the glass window, her and that guy from Smog taking them through the woods and the dogs are trying to get the birds. Just really clear storytelling. Sad, but she’s got that optimism throughout all of her songs where she tries to see the good and everything even though we live in a sad world. She doesn't ignore that.

‘Only Skin’ is my favourite song on the album. It's also the longest, and sometimes I have in the past said to people ‘You’ve got to go listen to this song’ and sat there with them for the duration.

Just, like, staring at them?

You can’t afford to do that. You have to make a decision early doors – I'm looking at my phone or the floor or out the window. I have to let them have this to themselves.

I would happily have all of her albums be certified as classics. I don't think she's made an album that isn't worthy of that. I think Divers gets overlooked because it’s the most recent one and because it doesn't have a kind of… I don’t want to say a gimmick, but it doesn't have that thing to hang it on. It isn’t a triple album, or a five song epic, or her debut. Divers is just a normal album of songs of a respectable length, but she’s still managing to find new, timeless melodies and continuing to knock it out the park.

But Ys, to me, is the most special. I don’t think anyone has ever made an album that makes me feel like this one does. I won’t listen to it all the time, just every now and then whenever the mood strikes, but every time I do it feels like sitting with a really old friend who always understands you even if you haven't seen each other for a long time. I’ll never not love it. I think I’ll probably be an old man listening to this and it’ll be one of the albums that makes me start crying.