Few discographies are as daunting for the beginner as that of English post-punk mavericks The Fall. Even at their most accessible, the band —essentially irascible frontman Mark E. Smith and anyone he can stand to be around/who can stand to be around him— are eternally abstruse; their albums all strange song-titles, abstract music, and self-sustained logic. They're not always easy listening, and there's lots of them to boot. Faced with such a confusing mass of recordings, neophytes often ask: what are the best Fall albums? And where's the best place to start? Here, then, are some pretty good answers to those questions.
By 1981, The Fall were a guitar band; making a noisy, distorted, vicious brand of post-punk that was both straight-forward —it rocked— and strange. Slates was dreamed as a kind of conceptual perversion; its six-song, 24-minute run-time landing it in a no-man's-land between EP and LP, ineligible to chart and seemingly not fit to win people's hearts. Few will discuss Slates as a classic Fall album b'cause of its swiftness, but Slates is great. Whilst the guitars fuzz out in a wailing wall of scratch, Smith is in astonishing poetic form; the lyrics to "Prole Art Threat" —a Joyce-esque character exercise in which various characters plot an overthrow of Thatcherite capitalism— are some of the most complex and bizarre ever committed to rocksong.
Conjecture reigns eternal when Fall fans debate their favorites, but, over time, there's been a slow-growing critical consensus anointing Hex Enduction Hour as their finest. The Fall's fifth album found the "two drummers era" line-up in prime, razor-sharp, ultra-tight form. One of Smith's defining ideals is his tendency to sabotage the band anytime things are going too well; true to such fashion, he though that this was going to be the final ever Fall album. Three decades later, he's been proved comically wrong, but maybe it was this sense of imminent demise that makes Hex the definitive Fall LP: Smith straining for greatness; the band playing as one giant, heaving mass, hurtling desperately forward in hopes of keeping from falling apart.
The eighth Fall album comes divided: Side A is Frightening, Side B is Wonderful. The songwriting, too, is split two ways; Mark E. Smith, once a solitary voice spitting on his lonesome, now splitting authorship duties with wife Brix. Brix's melodic sensibilities and fondness for structure ran counter to Mark's love of chaos; and this original odd couple came together to make beautiful music together. Whilst the band's figurehead still sounds somewhere between bemused, furious, and drunk, and there are still explosion of white-noise guitar, producer John Leckie otherwise marshals the newly-melodic Fall into radio-ready form, leading the title ringing half ironic. It's a wonderful album, sure, but The Fall were no longer frightening anyone.
If a Fall fanatic wants to argue that Hex Enduction Hour isn't the band's high-point, usually the conversation will turn to the one other record in their catalogue that has unimpeachable classic status: This Nation's Saving Grace. A rambunctious, rollicking mass of gnarled, tangled hooks, it's the band's brashest hour; Smith swaggering like a cocksure preacher over a band that sounds like they're reinventing rockabilly riffs by flaying the fretboards with fistsful of nails. At one point, Smith yelps "Bastard! Idiot! Feel the wrath of my bombast!" It may possibly be the defining moment of his career; if not, it's a suitable epitaph for a band showing no signs of dying yet.
It'd been a long time since a Fall album —and, trust me, there had been a lot of them— grabbed listeners quite like the brazenly titled The Real New Fall LP. Where plenty of '90s Fall albums —like 1997's drum'n'bass-dabbling Levitate— seemed happy with merely being funny/annoying, here Smith sounded like he hadn't in so many years: utterly, unstoppably, righteously angry. The ol' geezer's rage stemmed from the fact that he didn't like much of the playing and the final mixes on the mooted 24th Fall LP. So, he hijacked the project: rewriting, rerecording, and reworking things into a new version of Country on the Click uncompromising and, noticeably, angrier than the original version. And when Smith's pissed off, he's at his best.
It feels cheating putting a singles compilation in a 'Best Albums' rundown, especially given that, for those weighing up a dive into The Fall's sprawling discography, it's obviously the easiest place to start. But the amusingly-titled 50,000 Fall Fans Can't Be Wrong (a mocking knock-off of the ol' chestnut 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong) collects a host of lost, scattered singles that, in many cases, are uncollected elsewhere. Sure, there are songs pulled from most of the LPs above —making this a well-measured sampling of a quarter of a century of The Fall— but there's also killer early cuts like "How I Wrote (Elastic Man)," "The Man Whose Head Expanded," and "Kicker Conspiracy" that you won't find elsewhere.
Iconic British radio DJ John Peel was The Fall's most famous, most vocal, most persistent supporter. He called them "the band against which all others are judged." Peel invited Smith and co. to perform live —as part of his eternal Peel Sessions— so often that the complete collected recordings add up to a seven hour, six disc box-set. Perfectly symbolizing the Smith oeuvre, there's not a single double-up across the 97 songs; The Complete Peel Sessions spanning over 25 years of tightly-wound post-punk, dissonant guitars, and ad-hoc poetry. It's, in many ways, the perfect entry point for listeners heading into the world of The Fall; even if its hefty price-tag makes it an unlikely purchase for those not sure of what they're getting in for.