Continuing our series in which Guardian and Observer writers pick their favourite albums ? with a view that you might do the same ? Tony Naylor has a riot with this Billy Bragg classic
It may seem perverse ? when asked to choose my favourite album ? to pick a record with seven songs that lasts for just 16 minutes, but you can't rewrite history. Of all the albums I had on repeat as a teenager, Billy Bragg's Life's a Riot With Spy Vs Spy was, undoubtedly, the one. It was the record that first demonstrated to me just how powerful music could be. It set me off on a journey of musical discovery.
No matter how much I might, at the moment, love Perc's Wicker & Steel or Motor City Drum Ensembles' DJ Kicks mix, I can't ever see Life's a Riot being surpassed in my affections. This isn't mere nostalgia. Play it today and it still crackles with an immediate, righteous energy. It's a record that in its brute, frustrated attempt to craft something beautiful from limited resources encapsulates the struggle that often gives great music its contagious humanity.
Ugliness is truth, the truth ugly. That was the message from Billy Bragg. It's a message as true of life as it is of music, and as important and resonant as any of the overt political statements Bragg made.
I sucked up the politics too. Life's a Riot played a huge part in forging my worldview. Twenty-eight years later, I can only find minor philosophical faults in Bragg's lyrics. In fact, it's eerie ? depressing even ? that so little of what he was hollering about in 1983 has changed. The cast may be different ? Angela Rippon is no longer a fashion icon ? but key Life's a Riot tracks, like To Have and Have Not (unemployment; myths peddled about education) and The Busy Girl Buys Beauty (celebrity culture), are bizarrely prescient. Bragg's socio-political analysis is timelessly lean, keen and poignant.
It helps, of course, that unusually for a polemicist, Bragg was always much more attuned to the mysteries of the human heart than he was versed in political theory. To some critics the love songs made him seem sentimental, but he openly embraced the natural conflict between political and personal on one of the greatest pop songs every written, A New England, and, elsewhere, was able to craft songs of such stark, self-lacerating beauty that they seemed to brook no argument. As he used to joke at gigs, The Man in the Iron Mask was the song that his fiercest, angriest, Trotskyist critics would ask him to play, on the sly.
In 2011, the idea of Bragg as a divisive figure may be difficult to comprehend. With his cups of tea, country and western inflections and interest in patriotism and PR, middle-aged Bragg is a genial figure. A national institution. A father figure to the left. The Bragg of Life's a Riot, however, sounds utterly distinct. I remember first seeing him on a Tube all-nighter on Channel 4. He looked, not just like a scruffy, big-nosed indictment of the programme, but of the 80s itself. Was this what it was like when Billy Bragg first saw the Clash? I went out that week, aged 12, and bought the Between the Wars EP and, shortly after, Life's a Riot.
His foghorn voice ? as soulful in its own way as Levi Stubbs's ? was distinctive, but equally the guitars on Life's a Riot still kill me. When Bragg played that bashed-about, solid-bodied wooden guitar, it was like someone thrashing you with barbed wire. In its tinny, fizzling, trebly way it was bolt of electricity, a threatening weapon, the sonic manifestation of furious emotional energy. Strip out everything else, and Life's a Riot is still compelling.
Or you could simply star rate it, or add it to one of your album lists. There are more than 3m new pages for you to explore as well as 600,000-plus artists' pages ? so if, for example, you think Billy Bragg's Talking With the Taxman About Poetry was a better album, or think the new guard of political folkies are more informed (Get Cape Wear Cape Fly's eponymous album, say), then find their albums and get to work!