2. Cocteau Twins, Blue Bell Knoll
Most of the albums on this list are imprinted on me deeply enough to hold a deluge worth of water, sitting as they were in the various tiers of the new music rotation when I was first becoming acquainted with the joys of serving the public interest, convenience, and necessity as a college radio deejay. Even those that didn’t eventually get an honored place in my personal music collection stir a heady nostalgia in me, placing me right back in that square studio that served as my most dependable on-campus home during my undergraduate years. That’s why it’s so odd to me that Blue Bell Knoll is an album I don’t remember one bit from my first semester at the station. It’s in the runner-up position on this chart, and yet I can’t testify with certainty that it was even part of my station’s record library. Cocteau Twins aren’t exactly a band that I would have gravitated to back then (I was averse to anything that sounded too soft, too lush to my ears that craved buzzing, crashing guitars), but it’s almost inconceivable to me that an album could have been this popular during that fall without becoming part of my resonant soundtrack. I’d like to think the album was one of those that vanished from the studio, absconded away by a deejay with sticky fingers and not enough money to buy every album they burned to possess. Even though the mere thought of theft from the station sets my teeth to grinding in anger, even twenty-six years after the crime, it’s preferable to believing that I could have been so closed-minded to a music that didn’t immediately speak to me.
I could have maybe been forgiven for missing one of the earlier four albums released by Cocteau Twins. The Scottish band may have inspired a devoted cult following, but they had trouble getting their albums distributed in the United States. For Blue Bell Knoll, things were different. It was their first album released under a stateside agreement with major label Capitol Records, and they were the beneficiaries of a reasonably generous promotional push. There was even a splendid lead U.S. single, “Carolyn’s Fingers,” that slightly reshapes the band’s trademark sonic eddies with a bright pop beauty, punctuated by attention-getting heavy trills across Elizabeth Fraser’s lead vocals. The more I think about it, the album seems downright unmissable.
And there are plenty of other pleasures to be found on the album. The title cut is an ideal opening track, quietly explosive in its swirl of ethereal sounds. Or there’s “A Kissed Out Red Floatboat,” which takes the Cocteau Twins formula and speckles it with multi-colored sugar. The record is immersive and forthright in its intoxicating splendor, pushing into the same realms of heavy atmospherics that would eventually engage my fandom when traveled by the likes of Ride and My Bloody Valentine using darker, droning guitars. There are moments on the album that still leave me a little chilly — as one example, “Spooning Good Singing Gum” sometimes sounds too much like a lullaby sung by a seductress reeling from a overly hefty dose of absinthe — and Fraser’s tendency to deliver the lyrics as if they’ve been translated into an impenetrable, otherworld language can make the whole landscape of the album recede into the background. Still, listening to it now is enough to convince me that I should have listened to it then.
–19: End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues
–16: Ghost Stories
–15: 2 Steps from the Middle Ages
–13: Short Sharp Shocked
–11: Rattle and Hum
–10: Nothing Wrong
–9: Big Time
–8: Invisible Lantern
–7: Every Dog Has His Day
–6: Truth and Soul
–5: Workers Playtime
–3: Nothing’s Shocking