Top Ten EPs
f there’s anything better than a great single with a great b-side, then it’s a great EP—why? Because they’re essentially four brilliant b-sides all put together, and what could possibly be better than that?
More than that rather conceited claim though, EPs actually offer a very useful creative medium for artists. They’re great showcases for new bands who perhaps haven’t got a fully-fledged album in their system yet (witness Bloc Party recently, and countless early EPs by indie bands in the late 80s and early 90s), and for more established artists they can be great stylistic bridges between albums, spaces for the band to develop ideas and experiment a bit more on where they want to move in the future.
But beyond those very valid reasons, an EP of four songs, lasting anywhere between 10 and 20 minutes, is simply a nice length, a satisfying size, for the consumption of music. Too often albums are flawed by over-ambition or lack of quality control; a good, focused, consistent EP bypasses those problems by delivering exactly what we want. Quality, not quantity, is what counts.
Here are ten of my favourites.
Embrace - Fireworks
I’m unabashedly sticking this at number 1 because, eight years on, I still love every second of the sixteen minutes that this EP runs for, from the opening radio static (“I know for instance that here in the Netherlands” imparts a woman before a hellish fuzz of guitars engulf her) to the piano and drum decay. The whole EP essentially pulls the same trick as every individual Pixies tune did (apocryphally at least) only backwards—loud then quiet, loud then quiet. “Blind” is a thumping barrage of guitars like MBV with an actual chorus, “Now You’re Nobody” a delicate swoop across the countryside with tears in your eyes. I love the cover; I love the fact that the title track is last; I love the disc’s shade of blue.
My Bloody Valentine - Tremolo
Glider and You Made Me Realise may get more common props due to the sheer attack that they both offer, but the MBV EP I revisit most often is Tremolo, tempted back by its alluring waft. You can barely touch it, barely hear it, each tune drifting out of itself and into some kind of feedback breeze before another zephyr plants a melody deep inside you. The strange, dappled light-points of “Swallow”… delicious.
Disco Inferno - Second Language
I could, of course, have picked almost any of Disco Inferno’s string of five legendary EPs for this list, except that only two of them actually had four songs, and the other one of those (The Last Dance) has thus far evaded my greedy little eBay-scouring mitts. Which leaves me with the Godless pointillism of Second Language, how distressing. From the opening, echoed guitars of the title track, painted in the margins with camera shutters, through that sky-busting solo, the clammy juxtapositions of “The Atheist’s Burden” and the final, exhausted salvage that is “A Little Something,” the entire EP is a bizarre, beautiful pleasure. 11 years on and no one’s even dared to try and follow it.
Orbital - Times Fly
Slotting between the twin peaks of Snivilisation and In Sides isn’t an easy thing to do, but Times Fly manages to do it, and does it beautifully. You could describe it as a foray into the then-emerging territories of drum’n’bass but that would underplay the sheer quality of the tunes on offer here—it’s not a gimmick, not an experiment, not a makeweight or scene-chaser. It’s just great, even though 50% of the EP is comprised of “mere” reinterpretations of older tunes (including the lead-off track on the EP itself). Such was Orbital’s massive capacity for exploration, variation and reinvention that Times Fly stands tall in an already awe-inspiring catalogue of work.
Boards Of Canada - In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country The microscopic sinisterisms of Boards Of Canada are often too weighty to be consumed in bulk, ex-temporal nostalgia sometimes best taken in small doses to avoid loss of ego and resultant existential dissolution into some kind of synthetic soup of melancholy. Also, they can be fucking boring over the course of a whole album, so In A Beautiful Place… works perfectly, the gorgeous, dappled melodic shifts of “Kid For Today” as lovely as anything they’ve ever recorded, “Amo Bishop Roden” as alluringly disconcerting. Less is more in this case.
At The Drive-In - Vaya
Disputable EP status notwithstanding (Vaya has seven tracks and most would probably consider it a mini-album, but what the hell, this is my list so I’ll do as I please), this is At The Drive-In’s best release. Never mind the Ross Robinson-produced shiny bulk-bomb of Relationship Of Command which broke them both commercially and artistically (if you think The Mars Volta is a forward step then, um, you’re wrong), El Paso’s finest have never sounded sharper, more taut, or more ready than they do here. In/Casino/Out had lifted them from being tuneless, directionless post-hardcore kids with chips on shoulders, given them some subtlety, some melody. But Vaya blasted them into the future, gave them a sonic edge alongside their muscle and polemic
The Beta Band - Los Amigos Del Beta Bandidos
The fuss might get made over “Dry The Rain” and “She’s The One” a lot more often, but the four tracks on Los Amigos… demonstrate The Beta Band’s diversity and beauty far better for me. From the plaintive, restrained roll of “Push It Out” and the multi-sectioned, second-hand piano and xylophone distress of “Dr Baker,” to the ultimate rural calm and redemption of “Needles In My Eyes,” they stepped far beyond the shuffling indie stoner template so many had wanted to drop them neatly into. Whether they got any better than this EP in the future is up for debate, but it’s probably my single favourite thing they did.
Aphex Twin - Come To Daddy
Oh it’s a nasty mess and there are 8 tracks because it was originally 2 CDs (or have I imagined that?), but you get the title track (OH MY WORD), the childlike melodic beauty of “Flim,” the utter, speaker-baffling madness of “Bucephalus Bouncing Ball,” and the spooky charms of “Funny Little Man” and “IZ-US.” It’s practically as long as Richard D James Album and no one ever refers to it as an EP, but… I don’t care.
Guillemots - I Saw Such Things In My Sleep
It’s very recent and its charms may fade over time, I realise, but this debut EP by winsome jazz-poppers Guillemots really is fantastic, and seeing them live in a room above a Bristol pub the other week, honking clarinet and trumpet, double bass, scarily sweaty guitarist, drummer in a dress and unhealthily winsome singer all, has to be one of my musical highlights of 2005.
Primal Scream - Dixie Narco
Caught between a rock and a hard place, Dixie Narco is the comedown after Screamadelica, things nowhere near as desperate as they were by Give Out But Don’t Give Up, but they’re on the way. The Scream make some kind of spectral soul to sit alongside “Movin’ On Up” for the second and third tracks, but it’s the ten-minute flashback of “Screamadelica” that gets me, dodgy diva vocals and all (who, apart from a very high person, would even dream of singing the titular word?).
Honourable mentions go to Six.By Seven’s Two And A Half Days In Love With You, Ghostmutt by Lo Fidelity Allstars, Chemical Beats by The Chemical Brothers, Plaid’s P Brane, Spiral Scratch by The Buzzcocks and From The Bench At Belvedere by The Boo Radleys. And any others you care to accuse me of neglecting or forgetting—this is my top ten after all; do your bloody own if you’re so bothered.