Legendary DJ John Peel Makes a List of His 20 Favorite Albums

Image by Zetkin, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Before there were influ­encers, there was John Peel. The BBC radio DJ and jour­ney­man music writer’s tastes helped define lis­ten­ing habits for gen­er­a­tions — from his ear­ly cham­pi­oning of Pink Floyd and Cap­tain Beef­heart to his ear­ly cham­pi­oning of The Smiths and Nir­vana, to… well, most every­thing he played, wrote about and record­ed in his leg­endary John Peel ses­sions from the 1960s until his death in 2004.

For some­one with such influ­ence, Peel had a sin­gu­lar­ly hum­ble atti­tude about his own impor­tance and that of music tastemak­ers gen­er­al­ly. In a 1970 inter­view for Radio Times, “Peel plays down the role of DJs as celebri­ties,” notes the John Peel Wiki, “and is quot­ed as say­ing among oth­er things, ‘Some disc jock­eys don’t realise the essen­tial insignif­i­cance of their role.’”

His was an atti­tude shared by few in the music busi­ness. One per­son who comes to mind, pro­duc­er and musi­cian Steve Albi­ni — an ear­ly cham­pi­on of too many bands to name — likes to sim­i­lar­ly exempt him­self from the process, treat­ing his opin­ions about music as inci­den­tal to the vital expe­ri­ence of mak­ing music itself. In an inter­view the year after Peel’s death, Albi­ni rumi­nat­ed on this qual­i­ty in Peel:

Before he died, John Peel said some­thing that I thought was real­ly pro­found. He said when he gets a record from some­body and he does­n’t like it, he assumes that it’s his prob­lem and that the band would not have made that record if there was­n’t some­thing valu­able about it.

Of course, John Peel had his opin­ions about music — once say­ing in 1978, for exam­ple, that he wished the Rolling Stones had bro­ken up in 1965. He even had his opin­ions about Steve Albi­ni, whose bru­tal three-piece 80s band Big Black ranked at num­ber 15 for their Songs About Fuc&ing on a list Peel made of his 20 favorite albums. The list, below, should be read with all kinds of caveats.

In no way would Peel ever assert that these 20 records are the “20 best” of any­thing. These are the albums that rose to the top for him, for rea­sons he declined to spec­i­fy, at a par­tic­u­lar point in time 1997 when The Guardian asked him for his opin­ion. Peel him­self found these exer­cis­es “ter­ri­bly self-indul­gent” notes Jon Den­nis in brief com­men­tary on each album on the list. Nar­row­ing down one’s favorites was a par­tic­u­lar­ly painful expe­ri­ence for some­one who lis­tened to so much music, and Peel did­n’t val­ue his own tastes over those of his lis­ten­ers.

For exam­ple, in his “Fes­tive 50,” a fifty-song roundup of his lis­ten­ers’ top three songs of the year each Christ­mas, Peel resist­ed the urge to insert his picks and coun­ter­bal­ance what he saw as an over­abun­dance of “white boys with gui­tars.” (Peel was a big pro­mot­er of reg­gae bands like Misty in Roots, who come in at num­ber 5 below, as well as var­i­ous oth­er world musics on his radio show.) He admit­ted that com­ing up with his three top songs in any giv­en year was close to impos­si­ble: “I could­n’t get any few­er than a list of 250.”

1. Cap­tain Beef­heart & The Mag­ic Band: Trout Mask Repli­ca (1969)
2. Vel­vet Under­ground: The Vel­vet Under­ground and Nico (1967)
3. Ramones: The Ramones (1976)
4. Pulp: Dif­fer­ent Class (1995)
5. Misty In Roots: Live At Counter Euro­vi­sion 79 (1979)
6. Nir­vana: Nev­er­mind (1991)
7. Smiths: The Smiths (1984)
8. Neil Young: Arc Weld (1991)
9. Jimi Hen­drix Expe­ri­ence: Are You Expe­ri­enced? (1967)
10. Wawali Bonané: Enzen­zé
11. Pink Floyd: Piper At The Gates Of Dawn (1967)
12. Dread­zone: Sec­ond Light (1995)
13. Four Broth­ers: Mako­roko­to (1988)
14. Dave Clarke: Dave Archive One (1996)
15. Big Black: Songs About Fuck­ing (1987)
16. PJ Har­vey: Dry (1992)
17. Richard & Lin­da Thomp­son: I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight (1974)
18. Elas­ti­ca: Elas­ti­ca (1995)
19. Hole: Live Through This (1994)
20. Rolling Stones: The Rolling Stones (1964)

Relat­ed Con­tent:

An Archive of 1,000 “Peel Ses­sions” Avail­able Online: Hear David Bowie, Bob Mar­ley, Elvis Costel­lo & Oth­ers Play in the Stu­dio of Leg­endary BBC DJ John Peel

Hear a 9‑Hour Trib­ute to John Peel: A Col­lec­tion of His Best “Peel Ses­sions”

Stream 935 Songs That Appeared in “The John Peel Fes­tive 50” from 1976 to 2004: The Best Songs of the Year, as Select­ed by the Beloved DJ’s Lis­ten­ers

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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