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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


Songs: Ohia – The Magnolia Electric Co.

Too much to say about this, really. I only discovered it when Jason Molina died. I didn’t know who he was, but when he died a friend texted me asking if I’d ever heard his stuff, then sent me The Magnolia Electric Co. It’s that perfect mix of country and rock music and indie all the way through. It’s quite a stirring album. There’s not a song on it that doesn't make me feel quite emotional, but it definitely makes you feel the happier end of melancholy.

‘Farewell Transmission’ is such a good opening track – it’s long, but you don’t really want it to end. He manages to find certain moods to his songs that you want to stay in forever. You don’t care how long the song lasts, because you would happily hear him do that verse with that melody and that guitar feel over and over again, because he's hitting such a sweet spot with it. He can just do that a million times, changing the lyrics each time, and it builds and builds.

Songs like ‘Just Be Simple’ are really universal lyrics [about] when you’re kind of longing for things to be back how they were when you were younger, or how they were in the early stages of a relationship. There’s a song called ‘Hold On Magnolia’ at the end of the album, which seems to be about the death of a pet, maybe? I don't know if the owl on the front cover has anything to do with it. I don’t know if he ever had an owl. I don’t know why it feels like a pet. Maybe it is about a person, I haven’t looked into it, but in my head it always reminds me of all those childhood pets I had that died and how I would feel when I knew they were going to die. That sadness to it, and wanting them to hold on and wanting them to stay.

His voice is incredible. All the guest vocalists on the album are perfect as well. I got into some of Scout Niblett’s stuff off the back of this. Lawrence Peters, who sings on ‘Old Black Hen’, which is my favourite song on the album, weirdly, since Jason Molina’s not singing on it. But the waltzy feel to it, the violin, and his pristine clear voice – the deep tones that he manages to reach – he’s really amazing on it. I don’t know who’s singing with him on the choruses but the female vocalist harmonises really beautifully with him.

Jason Molina is painted as having quite a tragic life. I’m always careful saying that about people I don’t know, but the story that gets told about him is sad and he has some albums that are unbearably sad. I think his follow-up to this was a solo album called Pyramid Electric Co., and it’s just him and an electric guitar doing droney, dirgey stuff with no discernible melody to his vocals. It’s like he’s gone, ‘I’m not doing The Magnolia Electric Co. again because I’m not going to be able to replicate that immediately, so I’m going to do the opposite’. It’s such a depressing sound. I think his whole discography is really fascinating and amazing.

After this album, he formed a band called Magnolia Electric Co, so that’s confusing, but he did great songs with that band. With Songs: Ohia he has some really amazing albums that lean more towards the rock side of things, while Magnolia Electric Co. leans more towards country. The Magnolia Electric Co is the exact middle point. I think once you get into it it’s really rewarding to go through his whole back catalogue, but this remains my favourite. I could make a compilation of all the other individual songs throughout his career that I love and listen to that playlist and get as much joy as I do listening to this album, but for me this will always be his best work, even though it can be quite heavy.

When I discovered this it had been a while since I discovered a favourite album that I had played on loop and always wanted to go back to over and over again. So it was nice to find another album like that. Actually the first thing my girlfriend ever said to me was ‘What band is this?’. She used to work at a venue that I did gigs at, and she was working one night that I was playing and this was the album I was playing as people were walking in. Someone behind me said, ‘What band is this?’ and I turned around and it was her. So that's my first memory of my girlfriend, this album.

Do you feel like you like to be overwhelmed, in one way or another, by music? All these albums either have loads of mad genre splicing going on, or the feelings are really intense, so I wonder if that’s a sensation you look for.

In terms of stuff that I love, I think so. There’s stuff that I really like that isn't really overwhelming, but I think anything that I love, there has to be something that’s present. I was listening to an interview with Javier Bardem yesterday and he was saying that all the best art, if it’s truly a work of genius, represents life and sums up life. And I guess all these albums feel, like, life affirming. Like, I’m glad to be alive while listening to this album; the fact that I got to listen to it means that it’s worth it just to be alive for a little bit. All of them feel that special. Some are linked to certain parts of life, like The Magnolia Electric Co isn’t linked to anything in particular – my friend David recommended it to me, so it doesn’t remind me of a girlfriend or anything – it just really hit home for whatever reason at that point, and it hasn’t stopped feeling like that.