Few artists in the modern era have covered as much ground as Nick Cave. Dig Daniel Dylan Wray, dig!
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds are an unusual band in that they don’t have one essential classic album that defines them. Or even a classic period. There is no one must-buy album of theirs that jumps out above all overs. Instead, what they have created is an eclectic yet coherent body of work that is almost unfathomably consistent in its greatness, innovation and sense of evolution. 2003’s Nocturama is perhaps the only album that could be deemed a dud (absent here for that reason), but The Bad Seeds have managed to stay on track for over 35 years now. In fact, the band are more popular than ever, playing the biggest venues of their career – and on the back of two albums of slow, sombre, often strange, experimental music. Their trajectory is a rare and refreshing one, in which a lack of compromise and a determined sense of vision has paid off in terms of tangible success. Their discography reflects this, too.
Across a 40-year period – if you include Cave’s earlier bands, The Birthday Party and the Boys Next Door, who feature here too, you see a sense of growth and change but also a tone, personality and presence that remains distinct. The Bad Seeds have been a band that have weathered the storms of many trends, fashions and fads – from grunge to Britpop to rave – yet their refusal to change who they fundamentally are has resulted in their longevity and consistency across the decades. There’s no iffy album to be found in this list, with the must-have sound or recording technique of the time stamped all over it; despite perpetually changing, growing and mutating, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds have always sounded very much like Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. Imitated by many, but never the imitators.
1. MURDER BALLADS (MUTE, 1996)
Probably one of the most returned albums of the 1990s. After the Kylie Minogue-featuring Where The Wild Roses Grow did well and made people run out to buy the record (it remains the band’s most successful to date), they were greeted with something much different. A brilliant, bloody, violent, angry and eruptive album of literal murder ballads that sees the band seesaw between screeching noise and death-filled vignettes.
2. THE BOATMAN’S CALL (MUTE, 1997)
Often credited unfairly as being an ostensible Nick Cave solo record. This album of largely piano ballads written in the wake of Cave’s break-up from PJ Harvey is one of the finest Bad Seeds records. The band’s contribution is deft, considered and thoughtful and it’s a reminder they can be just as powerful in stripped-back, tender mode as they can in full-throttle assault. A masterpiece.
3. LET LOVE IN (MUTE, 1994)
A solid recommendation if you want to start someone on their Bad Seeds journey with one album. It encompasses their career to date tonally, marrying ferocious noise with tender hooks, via that inescapable Bad Seeds sound that seems to radiate notably here. Red Right Hand gave the band something of a mini hit from this album, but there’s much more to explore.
4. MUTINY EP (MUTE, 1983)
The Birthday Party’s final moments, crippled by drug use, inner-band tensions and the gnawing feeling that time was up for them. However, what they managed to cough up as their farewell is, alongside The Bad Seed EP, their finest offering. The sound of a dying band put to record just before their implosion.
5. ABATTOIR BLUES/THE LYRE OF ORPHEUS (MUTE, 2004)
A double album that touches upon gospel, blues, rock and even pop. Blixa Bargeld’s departure left the band open to explore territories that perhaps they couldn’t have with him. Double albums are notorious for filler, but this truly is an exceptional example in which the slightly rockier Abattoir Blues, and the more restrained The Lyre of Orpheus combine to form a perfect double hit.
6. PUSH THE SKY AWAY (BAD SEED, 2013)
A real turning point for the band. Their first without long-time record label Mute and the one that would begin their ascent to arena status. Which is unusual because it contains some delightfully slow, woozy and tender songs that on paper don’t lend themselves to such an environment. However, the songwriting is some of Cave’s finest, as the band move into a more synth-and soundscape-heavy world.
7 HENRY’S DREAM (MUTE, )1992
An album that the band themselves had a problem with due to the finished production by Neil Young’s go-to guy David Briggs. It’s certainly a record that highlights the acoustic side of the band, but the result is a forceful one and Henry’s Dream bristles with momentum and punch. The first half of the album, in particular, is as neat a run as you’ll find anywhere on a Bad Seeds album.
8. THE BAD SEED EP (4AD, 1983)
After The Birthday Party kicked out their drummer Phill Calvert, they became a more focused and ferocious unit. Mick Harvey moved onto drums with urgency and Rowland S Howard’s guitar work was allowed room to stun and electrify. A new sense of vivacity and punch was captured in the band here, as well as offering an early indication of Cave’s blues tendencies.
9. TENDER PREY (MUTE, 1988)
An album that captured the band at a tense juncture, shortly before Cave spent time in Brazil. He recalled the making of it as a nightmare and a fractured experience, but it gave birth to classics such as The Mercy Seat, Deanna and Up Jumped The Devil. It also marked the end of earlyperiod Bad Seeds in a way.
10. THE MERCY SEAT (MUTE, 1988)
Cave’s tale of a man on death row awaiting execution has been a staple in the band’s set since its release. It’s a beautiful marriage of Cave’s narrative form and the music, with Mick Harvey’s acoustic guitar the backbone. It takes on incredible steam, rising until the final key lyrical change that flips the song on its head.
11. INTO MY ARMS (MUTE, 1997)
One of Cave’s most beloved and well known songs. It’s unlikely a Bad Seeds show will take place without its inclusion, and it’s some of Cave’s finest writing. Staggeringly beautiful, it plunges so much deeper than a simple piano ballad – the lyrical refrain of the chorus is so effective that it mirrors the embrace of the words.
12. I HAD A DREAM, JOE (MUTE, 1992)
The almost gospel opening, with vocal harmonies coalescing, gives way to a rapid blues-rock rhythm. Propelled by Mick Harvey’s driving acoustic guitar and drums that clatter like an earthquake, it allows Cave to develop steam lyrically – making it sound unfathomable to spit so many words into a track without losing momentum.
13. STRAIGHT TO YOU/JACK THE RIPPER (MUTE, 1992)
A track that some may feel veers a little close to pop territory for the prince of darkness, but a great one nonetheless. Cave’s voice is in almost uplifting form here as organs glide, guitars strum in a sprightly skip, and the subtly rising melody results in a track that feels like a radio-friendly accessible moment whilst remaining within the band’s unique sonic domain. Slapped on with the rollicking Jack The Ripper for extra oomph.
14. JUNKYARD (4AD, 1982)
A big, brash, often daft album that captures The Birthday Party in full-throttle mode. Cave screams, howls and wails over electrifying guitar, gutchurning bass and drums that sound like they were recorded in a dungeon. It’s the band having fun as much as it is them being bordering on terrifying.
15. SKELETON TREE (BAD SEED, 2016)
Despite being written mostly before the event, this is an album that took on a note of tragedy when it coincided with the death of Cave’s son. The making of it also was captured in the documentary One More Time With Feeling, and it remains one of the most devastating and special Bad Seeds albums.
16. NO PUSSY BLUES (MUTE, 2007)
This ode to not getting any romp was the first track from Cave’s side-project and remains one of the most exhilarating songs from their output. The opening typewriter key rattle is soon joined by gut-wobbling bass and squealing guitar, with eruptive blasts of noise peppering the song, as the protagonist lists all the ways in which he is not having any luck.
17. BREATHLESS/THERE SHE GOES, MY BEAUTIFUL WORLD (MUTE, 2004)
The opening flutters of a flute are not a common occurrence in the world of The Bad Seeds, but Breathless is not typical in their canon. Unashamedly buoyant, its light and skippy percussive beat adds a sprightly step to a song that’s an all-encompassing ode to love. The chorus doubles down on this lightness as it bursts into a sunshine-laden hook that results in one of the most conventionally pretty Bad Seeds tracks. On the flipside is one of the purest, most euphoric songs The Bad Seeds made, with some inspiration from Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel.
18. GHOSTEEN (GHOSTEEN, 2019)
Ghosteen is perhaps the most thematic and conceptual of all Bad Seeds records. Despite its clear two-part structure, in many ways our 2019 album of the year is like one big mood piece. There are no drums and little in the way of traditional structure, instead just ghostly synths and haunting atmospheres as Cave explores death, love and loss with immense beauty.
19. GET READY FOR LOVE (MUTE, 2005)
A sparky number that combines screeching guitar with huge backing vocals from a choir to result in a sort of gospel blues rock that seemed to capture a new-found sound and rejuvenation to the band. A track that neatly marries some of the band’s underlying pop leanings with their noisy art-rock default setting.
20 GRINDERMAN (MUTE, 2007)
A side project containing some of The Bad Seeds, that seemed to come from nowhere. Midlife crisis or middle-age rebirth? Perhaps a touch of both, but the result was a thrilling one. A raw, raucous, grubby album with little production value, recorded on the quick, it seemed to inject new life into The Bad Seeds as a result.
21. FROM HER TO ETERNITY (MUTE, 1984)
The debut album from The Bad Seeds captures a real turning point for Cave. The wild abandon and visceral snarl of The Birthday Party is still present, but it’s more contained and focused. The title track of the album remains a staple in the band’s set today and is one of their greatest songs, one that seems to grow, unfold and unravel even further over time.
22. KICKING AGAINST THE PRICKS (MUTE, 1986)
A covers album that seemed to go intentionally out of its way to shake off the band’s reputation as kings of the goth scene. It was an unusual choice for a third album, but it paid off. The arrangements reflect a broader palette, touching upon blues and country as the band take on tracks by everyone from The Velvet Underground to The Sensational Alex Harvey Band.
23. PALACES OF MONTEZUMA (MUTE, 2011)
Grinderman mellowed somewhat with age, but what they lost in raw jagged edge from the first album they gained in honed craft on their second. This could be a Bad Seeds song in many ways, something heard around the Abattoir Blues/Lyre of Orpheus era, with its gently skipping groove. However, removed from the pressures of that band there is a looseness and freeness to this song. It’s a number that sounds as fun as it does beautiful.
24. YOUR FUNERAL… MY TRIAL (MUTE, 1986)
An album steeped in darkness in many ways. Cave’s heroin addiction had really taken hold and the tone of the music reflects this. However, it’s also home to some of the band’s most potent songs (Stranger Than Kindness, The Carny, Hard On For Love) and so a great deal of beauty and marvel was plucked from an otherwise low point in Cave’s life.
25. TUPELO (MUTE, 1985)
Opening with Barry Adamson’s deep-thronged basslines, this song imagines the birth of Elvis during a storm in Tupelo, Mississippi. Peppering the track with biblical imagery, The Bad Seeds manage to make music that sounds as heavy and unrelenting as the rainfall captured on tape. A song that remains a staple in the band’s live repertoire.
26. DO YOU LOVE ME? (MUTE, 1994)
A track with two different takes that bookend the album Let Love In. It shares a similar sonic palette to the more ubiquitous Red Right Hand, yet this track stays closer to the groove, favouring quiet eruptions and a simple hook above cacophonous explosions. The interplay between the tumbling piano lines and Blixa Bargeld’s ever-subtle guitar playing adds a deeply textural and atmospheric edge to the track.
27. THE FIRSTBORN IS DEAD (MUTE, 1985)
Cave at his most biblical and Elvis obsessed – the album’s name is even a reference to Elvis’ stillborn identical twin Jesse. A dark and brooding record that touches heavily upon blues and gothic rock, moving further away from the savage and feral post-punk sound that as The Birthday Party they had come to define.
28. RELEASE THE BATS (4AD, 1981)
The song that spawned a thousand rip-offs, most of whom missed the point. It was this screeching, howling, hilarious number that wrongly positioned The Birthday Party as a goth outfit. However, the feral intensity and wild abandon were never matched, and despite being a comedic play on their goth image, the song remains a firecracker.
29. RED RIGHT HAND (MUTE, 1994)
Perhaps the most famous Bad Seeds song due to its inclusion on numerous soundtracks, from Wes Craven’s Scream to the Wire-pastiche approach of using various covers for Peaky Blinders. Its wonky rhythm and manic blasts of demented organ that explode and tear away from the unshakable groove ensure it remains an unavoidable highlight in the band’s catalogue.
30. THE GOOD SON (MUTE, 1990)
The album that came after Cave had relocated to Brazil. As a result, the dark, dank sounds of the previous Bad Seeds albums gave way to something lighter with sunshine and a new-found love in Cave’s life. It’s also a notable turning point as the moment softer piano ballads enter into the band’s repertoire.
31. GRINDERMAN 2 (MUTE, 2010)
The follow-up to the garage-rock side band of The Bad Seeds was less of a raw and primal affair. A more polished, honed and crafted album, it intermingles psych, rock, garage and blues. Warren Ellis himself described it as: “like stoner rock meets Sly Stone via Amon Düül.”
32. HEE HAW (MISSING LINK/VIRGIN AUS, 1989)
A release that captures early Birthday Party material and even some stretching back to the Boys Next Door days. Perhaps the most notable inclusion is The Friend Catcher, which captures a pivotal moment in Cave and co’s musical trajectory as they begin to embrace the dark, chaotic and angsty. Cave howls and wails over guitars that weave quiet menace and screeching assault. It’s arguably the song that became the template for The Birthday Party.
33. NO MORE SHALL WE PART (MUTE, 2001)
After something of a hiatus with Cave getting off heroin, the band reconvened for another piano-led album after The Boatman’s Call. Perhaps the album’s greatest achievement may well be the video that came from the single Fifteen Feet Of Pure White Snow, which features The Bad Seeds dancing alongside Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker and, err, Jason Donovan.
34. THE SHIP SONG (MUTE, 1990)
One of Cave’s most beloved and frequently played piano ballads. It retains a balance between tender and introspective, while also being quietly euphoric and with a big bursting sing-along chorus. In essence a love song, but also one that captures the downside of love via all-night arguments and their physical toll. Arguably a major turning point in the output of The Bad Seeds that would see many more piano ballads appear in the following years.
35. DEANNA (MUTE, 1988)
Quite close to a pop song for Bad Seeds territory. The melody and vocal harmonies intertwine as Cave repeats the refrain about an old love, before veering into territory that preoccupied a lot of his lyrics back then: murder. There’s an infectious, almost danceable skip to the song, that adds a buoyancy and bounce. A beautiful wrestle between the dark and the light, you could say.
36. THE SINGER (MUTE, 1986)
Also known as ‘The Folksinger’, this Johnny Cash number featured on the band’s third album, one comprised of covers, Kicking Against The Pricks. The cowboy ballad lets Cave’s voice hang low and slow as spaghetti western licks drop around him. Years later, Cash would return the favour and cover Cave’s The Mercy Seat.
37. DIG, LAZARUS, DIG!!! (MUTE, 2008)
Fresh off the back of Cave’s garage-rock side project Grinderman, this album carried with it some of that primal rock ’n’ roll edge, with Cave even having a rare stint playing guitar. It’s actually the slower and moodier material (Jesus Of The Moon, More News From Nowhere) that shines brightest on this album.
38. LOVELY CREATURES (MUTE 2017)
A best-of compilation may seem like a lame pick, but they often serve a purpose and this collection was nicely put together as a triple-gatefold release a few years back. 21 tracks, curated by Nick Cave and Mick Harvey, spanning the career of the band, makes for a pretty solid and well-rounded introduction.
39. THE WEEPING SONG (MUTE, 1990)
A nursery rhyme-like song between father and son (Blixa Bargeld and Nick Cave). It possesses a woozy, wonky rhythm, with a strange seasickness to its refrain, but blooms into something with a surprisingly catchy chorus. It’s a playful song that celebrates the power of tears.
40. DOOR, DOOR (MUSHROOM, 1979)
One from Cave’s Pre-Birthday Party band, The Boys Next Door. With slightly more polished and new wave tendencies, this captures Cave and co. in their real infancy. There’s the odd moment of rugged charm, but really the entire album is captured by Shivers, a ballad written by a 16-year-old Rowland S Howard that still resonates movingly today.