Musicians, writers and their obsessions

They're not the best songs. They might not even be good ones. But they become the tracks we play again and again. Here, musicians and writers share their obsessions

Ian Rankin (novelist)

Van Morrison, Hard Nose the Highway (1973 LP)

1989. I'd been living in London for three years. Unemployed at first, then eventually answering an ad in the Guardian to become a hi-fi journalist. But London was getting to me, as was my continuing lack of success as a novelist. I started having panic attacks and a doctor told me to get out of town. I grabbed some clothes, my Walkman and a bunch of tapes that had just arrived from Polydor Records. They were reissuing Van Morrison's back catalogue. I had never really given the guy a fair listen. I ended up in Scarborough. It was autumn and the town was blustery, near-empty. I did a lot of walking on the beach, clambering over the rocks with headphones on, listening to Hard Nose the Highway. Music as therapy. That voice, the poetry of the lyrics, the arrangements. It all seemed to make sense, and I felt myself unknotting. When times are bad, I still play Hard Nose. I have it on CD, vinyl, and on my MP3 player. Plus, I still have the tape. It's going in my coffin with me.


Billie Holiday, Strange Fruit (1939 single)

When I was about six my nan used to play this. My mum had died, and my nan used to say, "You look like your mam," and it was almost like I was my mum's ghost, so with all that, Billie Holiday became more than just a singer. Her voice is so haunting, it's like there's something not of this Earth about her. When I was 15 I worked out what the lyrics were about. Mind-blowing. It was a dangerous time for her to be singing about stuff like [lynching]; you can hear the pain in her voice. A few years ago I was lucky enough to do a remix of it, so I had her vocal by itself: just me and her voice in a studio in New Orleans. It was surreal.

Joe Elliott (Def Leppard)

T.Rex, Get It On (1971 single)

Get It On wasn't the first single I ever bought – it was the first one I knew was going to be in my life for the rest of my life. People used to think I was a bit weird because I'd spend all my dinner money on records. Marc Bolan was the first superstar who resonated with me. His guitar, his hair, the women's shoes, the fact he looked out of this world – godly, if you like. I remember taking it to the end-of-term party and I was scared stiff because I wanted to share it with people but I didn't want it to be snapped in half. On regular occasions I'd get a smack around the head in the toilets from Slade fans for liking T.Rex: "Yeah, Slade's a real band. Marc Bolan's a poof." I don't remember the 90s but I can tell you the catalogue number of something from 1971. Little things in life just stick with you forever.

Ana Matronic (Scissor Sisters)

Ministry, Stigmata (1988 single)

I was 15 and had just started going to an all-ages club called the Confetti Club. There wasn't a lot to do in Portland, Oregon so it was a great place to go and look at cute boys with long fringes. When Stigmata came on it filled me with joy. I was living in a suburb which had a very small-town mentality. There was something I connected with in that music that made me feel like I was setting myself apart from the banal, country and western, Wrangler-wearing kids. I really love aggressive, hard, punishing dance music. Not enough people use evenings out as an opportunity for catharsis.

Chris Packham (Naturalist, TV presenter)

The Jesus & Mary Chain, Psychocandy (1985 LP)

I was 26 going on 16. I'd just started working on The Really Wild Show in Bristol for the BBC but prior to that I'd been a very angry and antisocial young man. I remember sitting on the train in winter, looking out at grey days, scuttling up the tracks to Bristol, and listening to the Mary Chain and feeling that it really did reflect my entire outlook. Not only the damaged, vicious, uncomfortable lyrics but the sound that went with them – that wailing wall of feedback – and the whole Mary Chain persona: insular violence. Doing Springwatch last year I mentioned the Mary Chain, and Jim Reid sent me three T-shirts with a little note. To get a letter out of Jim Reid was a high point of my life.

Tracey Thorn (Everything But the Girl)

Patti Smith, Horses (1975 LP)

I'd only got into punk from the British stuff. This guy who knew the American stuff lent it to me. I remember putting it on and thinking, I've never heard anything like this in my life. I was astonished. It's not like a lot of other things I liked at the time but maybe that's why I loved it. And as much as it's a radical, smack-you-in-the-face record, a lot of it is very beautiful. I'm sure I could still sing a lot of it – well, rant a lot of it.

Peter Hook (New Order/Freebass)

The Staples Singers, Respect Yourself (1971 single)

When I was about 14 I had to play this song whenever I came home or before I went out. It was almost superstition. They were church singers, and something about the way they layered the vocals was very powerful. I was a skinhead – bit of a hardnut, not very popular. Where I lived in Salford you couldn't display any signs of weakness. The skinhead culture was all about pop-reggae and pop-soul, and Respect Yourself is one of those pump-yourself-up records. I'd put that on and go out to face the world.

James Murphy (LCD Soundsystem)

The Sweet, Love Is Like Oxygen (1978 single)

I counted that as my favourite song from my childhood into my teens. I remember hearing it on the radio and not being able to get it out of my head. It came from the ELO school of production – all those layered vocals – but I still can't put my finger on what entranced me about it. I don't think you ever can analyse those things forensically; it's just a feeling. But I never owned it. I would call into stations to request it instead, just to recreate that feeling I'd had when I first heard it. I finally bought it recently on a best-of CD and it felt, at long last, like the right thing to do.

Louise Wener (Sleeper/novelist)

Ultravox, Vienna (1981 single)

When I was 14 I'd sit in my parents' front room listening to this over and over on the headphones in the dark. I'd dance around to the moody intro then lie on my back and howl along to the chorus, and ponder the cruel injustice of Midge Ure and those sideburns being kept from No 1 by Shaddap You Face. It was the brooding darkness that drew me to it, even though I had no idea what it was about. In retrospect, Vienna encapsulates the hormonal attack of early adolescence. If I listen to it now I can see the flashing lights on my dad's stereo and smell the Clearasil.

Professor Green

The Notorious BIG, Ready to Die (1994 LP)

When I was growing up everyone in my area was a rollerskater. I heard the remix of One More Chance at Walthamstow roller arena. Before that I'd been into jungle, but this album got me into rap. It's pretty heavy stuff for an 11-year-old but, looking back, I was drawn to the darker side of music. Like everyone, I had family issues. I was brought up by my grandmother. My dad was the person I most looked up to but he wasn't around [after committing suicide], which did my head in. I don't think I was more psychologically troubled than anyone else. I mean, I wasn't killing kittens.

Vito de Luca (Aeroplane)

Lucio Battisti, Ancora Tu (1976 single)

My mum's Sicilian and at home she listened to the big Italian stars. Lucio Battisti was like the Italian Paul McCartney. Then all my youth I forgot about it, but when I came back to him I realised how amazing he really was. Everything is moving, nothing is synced properly, he doesn't have a great voice, but the songwriting is crazy and it all works so well. I'm still trying to figure out what the guitar riff is. I know I'm not playing it right yet.

Tim Smith (Midlake)

Jimmie Spheeris, Isle of View (1971 LP)

I found it at a thrift store six years ago and I picked it up just because of the cover art. It's kind of otherworldly. I mean, there are a lot of singer-songwriters who play mellow folk-rock, but there's something about this. I've since given copies to friends, but I don't think it hits anyone like it hits me. It's beyond my favourite album. Even now it's the only CD we have in the car. My wife's not sick of it and I'm not sick of it either.

Simon Armitage (poet)

Prefab Sprout, Steve McQueen (1985 LP)

I was on the dole, listening to post-punk. Normally, I wouldn't have listened to anything with such a silky production, but Prefab Sprout's indie background made them credible. Steve McQueen was almost a guilty pleasure. I had my first car, a hand-me-down Lada. Driving it was like being behind a ship's wheel, but this album sounded great on the cassette player. I think of it as a flawless album: witty and ornate lyricism in a pop format. Every song sounds better than the last; there's that sense of incremental brilliance. It's very close-miked; it feels like he's singing to you. I think Paddy McAloon always wanted to sound like Gershwin or something, and this was just as far in that direction as I wanted him to go. I saw an interview with him last year, and he had a big beard and a boating jacket. I didn't recognise him at all.

Tinie Tempah

So Solid Crew, They Don't Know (2001 LP)

I was about 12 and I was going to Nigeria for a family holiday but the flight got delayed and as compensation they gave us loads of tokens. I remember begging my mum to get this album. We were in Nigeria for three weeks, and that was the only thing I listened to. Prior to that a lot of rap music was from far away – Eminem would be rapping about growing up in a trailer park and I couldn't relate to that. But that's when I realised it was possible to be heard even though you were British. I memorised every word. That was the blueprint for me; I felt like it was teaching me how to rap.

Jamie Reynolds (Klaxons)

The Smiths, … Best II (1992 LP)

I was 16 and my first girlfriend gave me this on cassette. She was five years older and she was this oracle to me. I was quite an early developer musically, but that was the first time an album was actually speaking to me. I was getting the train to college every day from Bournemouth so it was mostly on trains I remember listening to it. I thought that it held the secret to what I was going through – my rite of passage into adulthood. I felt that the lyrics could tell me what was coming around the corner.

John Bramwell (I Am Kloot)

The Beatles, The Beatles (aka the White Album, 1968 LP)

When I was four I thought the Beatles was a country, and that this was the music. Rocky Raccoon was the first song I learned to play on my sister's guitar, aged six. When I was 14, I became obsessed with trying to play Blackbird; I still do it in encores. I got well into the "Paul is dead" conspiracy theories. If you look at the White Album poster, there's a spectral hand reaching out to McCartney, formed by creases in the photograph. When you're 13 this is serious.

Mark Ronson

Pete Rock and CL Smooth, Mecca and the Soul Brother (1992 LP)

I was 16 and it was the beginning of the summer break. As far as hip-hop went, I only knew commercial things like Run-DMC and the Beasties. The drummer in my band turned me on to this. I would sleep over at his house after gigs and put that record on. Pete Rock's drum programming had a really natural feel, like jazz; it sounds elegant but tough. TROY [They Reminisce Over You] was the first hip-hop record I ever cried to, obviously because it's about a friend who died, but there's also something so moving in that saxophone sample. The first time I discovered the record it sampled [Today by Tom Scott] I was on acid in my dorm room at university and I didn't realise I'd listened to it for five hours in a row.


Aerosmith, Rocks (1976 LP)

When I was 15 there was this sought-after girl who wouldn't give me the time of day. Then suddenly she warmed to me, inviting me over to her apartment when her parents were out of town. We started making out and she got up and put on Rocks. When the album finished I turned it over to play it again. I was completely oblivious to her. After an hour-plus of this, she decided: "You know what, it's time for you to go home." I rode my bike home as fast as I could with the same feeling you get from having just fucked a girl. The moment Back in the Saddle kicks into Last Child represents something I don't think any other band has come close to. From that moment on, I didn't just want to be a guitar player: I wanted to be in a band.

Ed Harcourt

Elbow, Asleep in the Back (2001 LP) and Lift to Experience, The Texas- Jerusalem Crossroads (2001 LP)

Everyone dreams about their first American tour being like the Beatles getting off the plane, but it didn't really happen for me. When EMI hired a limo I tumbled out in torn jeans. I was a very young 23, very nervous. I had two CDs and played them back to back. The Lift album was the work of a mad genius, a conceptual record about Texas being the rock of the world when the apocalypse comes; Elbow's was personal, deeply moving and hopeful. Lift's was perfect when up in the clouds, half asleep; the Elbow album was more suited to sitting around empty airports.

Karl Hyde (Underworld)

2001: A Space Odyssey: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1968 LP)

When I was 11 I locked myself in a wardrobe for two weeks with a record player and the soundtrack to 2001. I took dad's torch to be alone reliving the sensations I'd experienced in the Kidderminster Odeon. It was György Ligeti's work that I felt instant empathy with. It gave me my first insight into the beauty concealed in the union of discordant harmonies. Images of virtual spaces and conceptual rooms floated through my 11-year-old head, rewiring a provincial imagination. The road to a life beyond Worcestershire slowly opened. Thirty-eight years later, working on the score to Danny Boyle's Sunshine, I was shaking, excited, eager to reignite a memory. It felt like coming home, drawing on the experience of that first encounter with a soundtrack that altered the entire course of my life.

Derek Miller (Sleigh Bells)

Various artists, Heaven Must Have Sent You: The Holland/Dozier/Holland Story (2005 LP)

I grew up with those songs, then when I was leaving home I think I heard them on a jukebox in a bar and thought, holy shit! and actively started listening again. I love how they're equal parts tough and vulnerable. I think that's such a rare quality – Kurt Cobain's another example. Over the last decade they've become my favourite recordings of all time.

Marc Riley (6 Music DJ)

Rufus Wainwright, Want One (2003 LP)

The more time I spend listening to one LP, the less time I have to listen to new releases for my radio programme, so I try to keep level-headed. I sometimes fail. I heard a tune on Gideon Coe's programme on 6 Music. I marvelled at its ambition and brilliance. The song was The One You Love (actually off Want Two) so I got hold of both Want albums and got lost in them for a good 12 months. I felt it my duty to tell everyone I met that their life would be so much better if they owned Want One. I purposely left my unconvinced wife in the car with the album playing for 20 minutes when I had to whip into work. When I came out she looked at me and said, "I just got it." Wainwright's music can be like one of those Magic Eye pictures. You can focus on it for a long time and get nothing, until one day – ping! – it jumps out at you and you're amazed.

Janelle Monáe

Stevie Wonder, With a Song in My Heart (1963 LP)

He recreated some standards and I was in love with his voice so much that I listened to it on repeat about four years ago. His version of Smile inspired mine. I don't tell people about it because I don't want anybody else listening to it but it moves me. His voice! It's like, man, he was singing like this when he was 11 or 12?

Alejandra Deheza (School of Seven Bells)

Mario feat. Gucci Mane and Sean Garrett, Break Up (2009 single)

This came on the radio while we were touring. It's one of the weirdest R&B songs I've ever heard. It sounds like someone grabbing on to a million passing thoughts and making them into a song. It looks like gibberish, but it's a perfect example of how music can be completely intuitive. It's in 50 different keys and sounds amazing: this weird, beautiful, graceful Frankenstein's monster.

Kristin Hersh

Vic Chesnutt, About to Choke (1996 LP)

In 1998, I left LA with my husband and three children and moved to the Mojave desert near Joshua Tree with nothing but the moon and coyotes to keep us company. My children were enchanted but confused, and really, so was I. The first things I unpacked were a stereo and About to Choke, which Vic had given me a few months prior. I stuck Vic's tape on and listened while I unpacked boxes. It was a perfect soundtrack for the quiet violence of the desert landscape. Vic's gutsy squealing on Degenerate helped me understand the need for breaking down that year – the year I lost my band, Throwing Muses. Vic was always good at gently terrifying me. It's very difficult for me to listen to this record now that he's gone [Chesnutt died last year], but the terrain of grief is very similar to that spooky yet peaceful desert.

Michel Faber (novelist)

Home editing

I limit the number of times I play a piece of music so I don't get too familiar with it. My obsession is in compiling cassette or CD-R recordings of selections from albums that I don't rate highly enough to keep. This involves very tricky edits: removing instrumental solos or crap vocal passages. Basically I'm acting as a producer, creating a version that I can live with. It's not uncommon for me to have 20 or 30 goes before I'm satisfied. If I detect a tiny flaw – a click or something – I'll start again. Clearly this is insane, dysfunctional behaviour and suggests my relationship with music is deplorably control-freaky. But it's the way I am.


Interviews by Dorian Lynskey, Dave Simpson and Jude Rogers

The GuardianTramp

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