Portishead formed in 1991 in Bristol, named after the nearby town of the same name, eight miles west of Bristol. Portishead consists of Geoff Barrow, Beth Gibbons, and Adrian Utley. Their debut album, Dummy, was met with critical acclaim in 1994. Two other studio albums were issued: Portishead in 1997 and Third in 2008. Landon Murray has compiled the top ten of his favourite Portishead tracks. Enjoy!
10. Mysterons, Dummy: Most of this band’s brief but stellar discography can be described as slow, haunting, and vastly creepy. This song is no exception. This song, the first song off their debut album, encompasses all of these things. Beth Gibbons voice, I’m just at a loss. It’s beautiful, quite frankly. Easily one of the most original voices ever, and it’s the beautifulness, and also the vulnerability of her voice that keeps the darkness at bay. She just sounds honest, and that honesty is one of the driving forces behind the band.
9. Threads, Third: A haunted mansion of a song. It’s one of the most unsettling, terrifying songs I’ve ever heard. I just imagine a black and white film, with a girl creeping up a dark hall, wondering what, if anything is waiting for her around the next corner. The background music is the driving force on this one. It’s calm, like a slow predator. Only at the chorus does anything even escalate, then it goes right back to lingering stillness. The end is pure craziness. The music is veering dangerously close to the edge of sanity, and the howling desperation of the vocals fuels the music. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Listen to this on headphones. And make sure every light in the house in on.
8. Wandering Star, Dummy: This song is just awesome. It has a kind of an off-kilter club feel to it. The beat and the use of turntables ultimately prove to be a success. It makes the song a little sexier, and it’s more danceable than nearly everything else in their catalogue. One of the best things about this band is the obvious overtones of their sound. They can try many different things, but even as all of that works, it still sounds like Portishead. They just keep on growing with the music, and more importantly, the skill level at which the play keeps growing. Now, this is still off the debut album, but even twenty years after, there aren’t many bands who have even caught up to them.
7. We Carry On, Third: The production value on this album, and this song in particular, is impeccable. This album came out over a decade after the second release, but they only got better. A lot better. It’s a true test of a great artist when you can make it look easy, and while I haven’t seen them live, the hours I’ve spent watching videos of them online clearly demonstrate that they conquer all and make it look easy. This song is one of the best examples of the complexity of the music and how they manage to perfectly craft all of the intricate elements of the music.
6. Small, Third: The song starts off quietly, but it soon mushrooms into a pretty psychedelic journey. I’m reminded of the Alice in Wonderland story. An innocent person opens a door, not knowing the majesty and occasional horror that it brings with it. The song then spirals into a more beat-driven track. It’s very much in the vein of old Jefferson Airplane, and it sounds like nothing being made at this current moment in time. That’s the brilliance of the band. They managed to take elements from decades of music and blend it up and make it their own. The drumming and the overall mixture of the song wind up in a beautiful, controlled mess, and it makes the tension of the song wrap up in a glorious, albeit, dramatic fashion.
5. Chase the Tear, Chase the Tear: Now most of the time you expect songs done for compilations to be a lazy, throwaway of a track. This is the exception to the rule. The sound is just amazing, and it’s a powerful track. Gibbons vocals are perfect. The sound effects over her voice only serve to enhance the complex number. Geoff Barrow’s beat work here is equally superb. I’m sorry I just don’t know what else to add to this. I’d just rather everyone listen to this excellent song and figure it out for themselves.
4. The Rip, Third: This song to me has a beautiful plot. A lonely, solitary man sitting in a boat. Nothing particularly exciting is happening, but underneath, something hungry is lurking. The slow burn and build of the music only helps to make the unknown more horrible. The man slowly starts to drift down through the depths of the dark, mysterious ocean. Along his way, he sees creatures both beautiful and uncertain. They are not impressed by him. The fact is, they don’t even bother with it. They continue living their life, quietly in the ocean. The ending of the song creeps up to us, and a giant octopus appears to take whatever food he can find. The man is helpless to resist the size and spectacular nature of this mythical beast.
3. Glory Box, Dummy: One of the best opening lines of any song. While not an instrument you can hear often in this band’s music, the guitar, alongside Gibbons’ slow, desperate voice carry the song. At times I’ve wondered if this is a love song, and it may be, but it’s also a breakup song. I feel two strong people pulling for strength and control. Then, out of nowhere, the song takes a turn into the more electronic features of the band, but it’s as gone as quickly as it appeared. Then the song fades into serenity and concludes.
2. Machine Gun, Third: Very much the most aggressive song the band has ever made. It has a forcefulness to it, and the juxtaposition of the music and the vocals help to make this a song worth remembering. The beat doesn’t really evolve, but it doesn’t need to. The beat is simple, and sometimes you don’t need complexity to drive the song. Some things just work, and in this song, the beat, along with the drums that make their presence known, do all that needs to be done. Her voice is just like an added bonus.
1. Roads, Dummy: I suspect anyone reading this might agree that this song is easily the best they’ve ever written. It’s a really sad song, but its pain is also its beauty. The whole feel of the song is dreary, but sometimes those are the songs that can bring the most beauty. Pain and sadness are a part of this world, and understanding that makes the happy moments worth fighting for. To this day the plot, and utter hopelessness of the song, and the pain behind Beth’s voice still bring tears to my eyes. Without sadness and loss, nothing would be special. I’m reminded of listening to this with my grandmother, Audrey. She quite liked this song one time she heard it played in my car, and that always has stayed with me. She left this world, but at least the memory will never escape. That’s the ultimate message I get from this song. Memories last forever.