June 18: Can, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Genesis, King Crimson, Supertramp, Tangerine Dream, Yes

Twas on the eighteenth day of the sixth month,

said the wizard to the apprentice

That JT listened to the prog rock albums

With all of the pain of a dentists.

Yea, though every track was long,

Young JT must not cry

For he tries his best to complete his quest

1001 Albums Before You Die.

Yes, this week we’ll be looking at some of the prog albums on the list, with a couple of interlopers from Krautrock. If you’re wondering where Pink Floyd or Rush are, click the links. If you’d like a more Father’s Day kind of list, perhaps this one might suit; if you’d like a list including my own dad’s music taste, one is here.

Can, ‘Future Days’

Tago Mago‘ appeared in the very first post way back in February 2016, so another visit to the abrasive Kraut weirdos was long overdue. Just four songs on this album, including one that takes up an entire side of vinyl, yet even if they completely dispense with conventional song structures or hooks, its burbling, hypnotic drones felt more accessible than ‘Tago Mago’. ‘Future Days’ has something resembling a rhumba beat for the majority, while ‘Bel Air’, this week’s longest track at nearly 20 minutes, goes from floaty e-bow doodles to heavier, darker rock territory. Pretty good.

Emerson, Lake and Palmer, ‘Tarkus’

The first album I listened to this week has a side-long track about a geodisic armadillo born out of a volcano and armed with enough weaponry to have epic battles against other part-machine animals. Oh goody. The best parts of the title track are the contributions from Greg Lake: normally a bassist, his vocals and guitar solos lighten up a track that is mostly organ soloing. On the B-side, there’s an accessible pop song called ‘Jeremy Bender’ which lasts just two minutes and a daft Eddie Cochran jam among more waffle. This was a struggle.

Genesis, ‘Selling England By The Pound’

Here’s your Patrick Bateman reference before we start. One of the final albums with Peter Gabriel as singer and bandleader, this album has a great first half with ‘Dancing With The Moonlit Knight’ shaking off its folky opening with rhythms that wouldn’t sound out of place on an FKA Twigs record, ‘I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)’ mixing psychedelic electric sitar with African-style rhythms and esoteric vocals, and ‘Firth of Fifth’ featuring jousting keyboard and guitar solos. The album comes unstuck on the second half though: Gabriel’s jaunty character studies on ‘The Battle of Epping Forest’ are at odds with the track’s fussy time signature faffing, while the next two songs are dull. ‘Aisle of Plenty’, meanwhile, is a reprise of the opener (with new, supermarket pun lyrics) but its clattering, overlapped tape loops sound like an early attempt at a remix. Pete’s weird sense of humour gives the album its distinctive character, but it also sounds as though it pulls in different directions to the other guys.

King Crimson, ‘Lark’s Tongues In Aspic’

Entering the 70s with a completely new line-up, Crimson here had the unusual line-up of guitar, bass, drums, percussion and violin, while losing both Peter Sinfield and Ian McDonald, the main writer and composer respectively of ‘In The Court of The Crimson King‘. Unfortunately this meant that while all the musicians were interesting sidekicks – Ian Muir particularly bringing toys, thumb pianos and random junk to the percussion rack – nobody seems to be taking the lead with melodies or hooks. The album often falls prey to the pitfalls of ‘Moonchild’, where interesting fragments wither on the vine of endless noodling improvisation. The exceptions are ‘Exiles’ (‘In The Court…’ in summary) and ‘Easy Money’, which sounds like a Dave Gilmour track deflated by Muir’s collection of half-broken toys. Mainly dull to an unforgivable degree, this is also KC’s final appearance on the list: ‘Red’ missing the cut.

Supertramp, ‘Crime of the Century’

Only knowing the hits, I’d assumed these were a sort-of Scouting For Girls 70s soft-rock act, yet Google insists this is a prog album so in we go. The album seems to be almost a compromise between pop and prog – like how the hand and the head are united by the heart in ‘Metropolis’ – with seven-minute songs tempered with choruses and singles. The first half doesn’t quite work, with the dire “work/shirk” rhyme of ‘School’ and the uncertain delivery of the title in ‘Bloody Well Right’ (maybe Mark E Smith could credibly use that phrase in a song, but not Supertramp). The second half works though, with the big hit ‘Dreamer’ and the sober ‘Rudy’. Mainly driven by piano and Wurlitzer, this was better than I was expecting.

Tangerine Dream, ‘Phaedra’

A trio of Germans recording in London with a modular synthesizer that went out of tune every day, Tangerine Dream’s spacey instrumental wanderings must have driven people round the twist in the 70s. Heard in 2017, though, it sounds like a precursor to acts like The Orb, more concerned with changing mood through a switch in modulation or phasing than through a chord change. The title track is nearly twenty minutes of distant electronic burbling, a remote star becoming a supernova, while the following tracks explore the frozen planetary wastelands left in its wake. Maybe I’d developed Stockholm syndrome at this point, but I loved the inscrutable, enigmatic soundscapes here.

Yes, ‘Close to the Edge’

I’d enjoyed ‘The Yes Album’ so let’s see whether Jon and the boys pull it off again here, where there are just three tracks in 37 minutes. The first, the side-long title track, feels unnecessarily cluttered at times thanks to its weird time signature shifts and ostentatious arrangement (there’s a church organ here), but the rock music parts (#2 and #4) are pretty good. On the other side, ‘And You And I’ has a pleasant twelve-string melody, nice synthesizers, a strong melody and less arsing around changing time signature every three bars. ‘Siberian Khatru’ has a headache of an outro: the guitar is playing in one rhythm and time signature and everything else seems to be playing in another. This isn’t as good as ‘The Yes Album’ but it’s certainly listenable. Drummer Bill Bruford left after this because of the sterile, laborious recording the band preferred: listening to the more spontaneous-sounding studio take of ‘Siberian Khatru’ that appears as bonus fluff on Spotify, he might have had a point. (Bruford would go on to join King Crimson for ‘Larks’ Tongues in Aspic’.)

Next week: This week was pretty white lad heavy, so let’s hit the dancefloor next week with some funk!

I’ll also be releasing an EP next week as Year Without A Summer, so feel free to write a pithy review of that from Monday.

Status update: 541 listened to (54%), 460 remain

June 11: The Divine Comedy, Sinead O’Connor, The Pogues, Thin Lizzy, U2, Undertones, Van Morrison

Welcome back to 1001 Albums You Must Hear! This week, we’re looking at some of the Irish acts on the list. It’s been a tight squeeze to fit these in this week, as I’ve been busy playing gigs of my own, but would I let my blog audience down? NEVAH!

The Divine Comedy, ‘Casanova’

Neil Hannon’s Terry-Thomas Lothario impression on his breakthrough hits was so convincing that, as a teenager, I was surprised to learn that he wasn’t English but Irish (at the time I hadn’t joined the dots with the ‘Father Ted’ theme). The hits are piled up at the start, ‘Something For The Weekend’ preceding ‘Becoming More Like Alfie’ in a flawless one-two. While nothing entirely matches the immaculate singles – those two, and ‘The Frog Princess’ later on the album – there’s plenty of wit and invention on display, from Hannon’s fortune teller spiel at the start of ‘Middle Class Heroes’ to the Isaac Hayes parody in the middle of the bitty ‘Charge’ to the muzaky ‘Theme From Casanova’. It’s arch, of course, aside from perhaps ‘Songs of Love’, and is an assured album from a songwriter at his peak.

Sinead O’Connor, ‘I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got’

O’Connor became notorious in the 80s and 90s for her inflammatory position on the Catholic Church, but her legacy as a musician was sealed with her incredible cover of ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ and its video, one of the most famous music promos of all time. ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ shows up mid-album here and is so overwhelmingly intense that nothing else on the album, uh, compares 2 it. Leaving that song aside, though, there’s a lot of really great stuff on here. There’s a Siouxsie-ish feel to her top register, characterised most notably on ‘Jump in the River’, co-written by occasional Banshees guitarist Marco Pirroni and with that band’s verve. The slow-burning strings of the opening tracks and the six minutes of a capella that closes the album are other highlights and, if the second single ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ couldn’t match the high watermarks of its predecessor, it’s a damn fine song in its own right. Recommended.

The Pogues, ‘If I Should Fall From Grace With God’

Much like the inverse of the Divine Comedy, imagine my shock to learn that only two of the Pogues are actually (first-generation) Irish, and neither are the main songwriters or singers! Like ‘Rum, Sodomy and the Lash’, this album is heavily influenced by rowdy Irish folk, although it also branches out to other international styles in the name of the sesh: ‘Turkish Song of the Damned’ effortlessly blends Byzantine guitar patterns into Celtic fiddle and whistle in a way Gogol Bordello can only dream about, while ‘Fiesta’ is an unexpected conga in a Spanish all-inclusive. This is, of course, also the album with ‘Fairytale of New York’, which shows up as track four with no preparation and feels like it’s been beamed in from elsewhere, with a melody so strong that it’s recycled later on the album as ‘The Broad Majestic Shannon’. The new guys to the band contribute two of the highlights: ‘Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six’ covers the Troubles and the Birmingham bombings in four minutes, while ‘Thousands Are Sailing’ is an emotive rock song almost completely removed from the folk-punk roots of the band. This is the last Pogues album on the list: they’ve been an unexpected pleasure.

Thin Lizzy, ‘Live and Dangerous’

The ‘live’ part here is a notorious bone of contention: everyone accepts there was some studio fixing going on, but nobody involved with the album can agree on what extent was studio chicanery. Anyway, ostensibly taken from a series of live performances between 1976-78, then tidied up by Tony Visconti, this has one album of 70s mainstream rock (Gilmour soloing on ‘Still In Love With You’, funk on ‘Johnny The Fox Meets Jimmy The Weed’), and one album with heavier, faster fare featuring twin guitar riffing (this one features ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’ and the vaguely Judas Priest vibe of ‘Are You Ready’). It’s okay, but I think I’m a bit burned out on live double albums from the 70s at the moment.

U2, ‘Achtung Baby’

This was a favourite album of one of my uni friends, but I’m not sure I ever heard it all the way through, so for the avoidance of doubt let’s cover it off. This was the album that started a sort-of trilogy in which the band started writing personal songs and backed them with My Bloody Valentine guitars rather than minimalist clean electric guitar (continued on ‘Zooropa’ and ‘Pop’ before they went back to basics). While some of the early 90s effects sound dated – ‘Mysterious Ways’ sounds like ‘Fool’s Gold’, ‘Ultra Violet’ shares a guitar sound with ‘All Together Now’ – it mostly sounds great. The big hits sound as good as anything they’ve done: ‘The Fly’, ‘Even Better Than The Real Thing’, ‘One’. The rest weirdly reminded me of Smashing Pumpkins, perhaps because they share a fondness for big choruses and weird guitar effects (and of course both appeared on the ‘Batman Forever’ soundtrack). This is another classic from U2; guess I’m coming round on them.

The Undertones, ‘The Undertones’

I have ‘True Confessions’, the band’s sort-of greatest hits, and liked it enough to cover closer ‘I Don’t Wanna See You Again’, but never explored their albums. Another band best known for one song, the Peel staple ‘Teenage Kicks’, welded into the re-release of this album to shift more stock. It’s mostly Ramones-y bubblegum punk rendered endearing by Fergal Sharkey’s helium vibrato, although there’s some knackered-sounding organ brightening the spectrum occasionally and a bizarre Kraftwerk-inspired drone version of ‘True Confessions’. The last song, ‘Casbah Rock’, fades out halfway through what sounds like a demo: as if it was left on the master tape accidentally. It feels like quite a good punk album but I was hoping for a great one. We’ll come to ‘Hypnotised’ later.

Van Morrison, ‘It’s Too Late To Stop Now’

There are two albums of this name – volume 1 and volumes 2-4 – but we must assume it’s volume 1, for the sake of my sanity if nothing else. While his ‘Astral Weeks’ felt like abstract wandering, this double live album is mostly focused blues and jazz with a big, well-rehearsed band, including an unlikely cover of ‘I Just Want To Make Love To You’ and including songs I didn’t know were Van songs (or at least Them songs), like ‘Here Comes The Night’ and ‘Gloria’. It’s pretty ‘Later With Jools Holland’: competent musicians making Memphis-style music, and surprisingly palatable for it. Van himself, who’d recorded ‘Astral Weeks’ sat alone in the vocal booth with a mirror, has blossomed into a confident performer by this point, keeping things on point. I don’t think the time will ever come where I’ll actively seek out this sort of thing but it’s a very good example of its type.

Next week: We’ll be exploring some of the prog and weird albums on the list.

Status update: 534 listened to (53%), 467 remaining.

 

June 4: Elvis Costello, Radiohead, Rolling Stones, Sonic Youth, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Neil Young

This week on 1001 Albums it’s another look at the artists whose back catalogues are most heavily represented on the list (but where I’ve not heard all of it already: the Beatles and Bowie both have seven albums on the list but I’ve heard them all).

Elvis Costello and the Attractions, ‘Armed Forces’

I’ve complained about Costello’s over-representation on the list before, but this is the first time that I’ve thought the list might be onto something: Costello serving as the link between Bruce Springsteen and Abba, and Pulp and Mull Historical Society (or stuff like Scouting For Girls). There’s a clear fusing of his pop sensibilities with unusual song structures (‘Accidents Will Happen’ for example). The album also contains ‘Oliver’s Army’ and ‘What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and Understanding’, the latter of which features an unusually husky vocal take. The only criticism I’d level is that it sometimes feels like a collection of songs rather than a cohesive album, particularly due to the use of the dreaded fade-out, but this is the best album I’ve heard by this Elvis.

Radiohead, ‘Hail to the Thief’

If you think of bands who love using puns in their output, you’d probably reach for Super Furry Animals, Eminem, or a million other bands, before you got to Radiohead, which makes the lame gag in this album title more distressing (“more like ‘Hail to the THIEF’ amirite boys?”). But then they’ve always been an inscrutable act: with ‘Kid A’ and ‘Amnesiac‘ they’d gained a reputation for making almost inpenetrable music but still selling loads, yet this album has a song called ‘A Punchup At A Wedding’ (which appears to be their equivalent of – oh dear – the Stereophonics’ ‘Mr Writer’, written after reading a review they didn’t like). Anyway, this is probably their most accessible album post-‘OK Computer’: ‘2+2=5’ resembles a conventional rock song, the Bat For Lashes-ish toms of ‘There There’ are direct enough to explain the song’s placing as lead single, and the Goldfrapp-y sawtooth synths on ‘Myxomatosis’ serve as a clear hook even if the song’s in a bizarre rhythm and/or time signature. There’s also a dirge called ‘We Suck Young Blood’ that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Portishead’s second album. Definitely an album with more entry routes than normal, even if the band themselves have cooled on it since. This is our last visit to Radiohead’s back catalogue: I’ve heard all their stuff on the list now.

The Rolling Stones, ‘Let It Bleed’

This is the sixth Rolling Stones album I’ve heard and I’ll tell you this: if every song on a Stones album was as good as its opener, we’d be looking at some unbelievable albums. This one kicks off with ‘Gimme Shelter’, an incredible track full of dread and violence and so intense that guest singer Merry Clayton miscarried hours after recording it. Understandably, the album doesn’t sustain that intensity, but it’s frustrating how quickly it’s squandered: the second song is a laidback song with a Ry Cooder mandolin solo and the third is a country version of ‘Honky Tonk Woman’. The best tracks aside from the opener are the two closing tracks: ‘Monkey Man’ sounds like it was designed for a rap sample, while ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ is a preposterous step outside their comfort zone with both a boys choir and Pink Floyd soulstress Diana Troy stopping in.

Sonic Youth, ‘Dirty’

The NY kool katz are in a sour mood on this album (aren’t they always?) which adds a sneering heaviness to their usual sound. More than usual, Kim Gordon steps up to take lead vocals, her hoarse spit most electrifying on the standout ‘Drunken Butterfly’, perhaps the album’s most famous song. Geffen were apparently expecting big things from lead single ‘100%’, but even in the era of Nirvana it’s not clear why: the song has no chorus, and ‘Sugar Kane’ and ‘Youth Against Fascism’ have superceded it as the album’s most famous cuts (other than ‘Drunken Butterfly’). My other favourite on this is the spacey ‘Theresa’s Sound-World’. As always with the Yoof, their abrasive style is exhausting given how long the album is (59 minutes): there’s no obvious duds here, but fifteen fewer minutes might have made for a punchier record.

Bruce Springsteen, ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’

Following on from ‘Born to Run‘, this evocatively-named album scales the arrangements down from ‘Born To Run”s cheesy sound while retaining the same cast (the E Street Band), and as a result is slightly less ridiculous. Highlights include the sombre piano on ‘Racing in the Street’ (not to be confused with ‘Dancing in the Street’, or ‘Dancing in the Dark’, or – y’know what forget it), the dramatic crescendo bridge of ‘Candy’s Room’ and the vaguely Dylan-ish sound of ‘The Promised Land’. Maybe it was just in contrast to the Sonic Youth album, but this album felt really short, despite being 42 minutes: the title track finishes the album while I was settled in for another 10 minutes. Guess it just passes quickly.

Tom Waits, ‘Bone Machine’

Three albums into Waits’s career and I’m starting to feel as though I know what I’m going to get: this alternates between Waits’s two default settings of clattering percussive racket and sombre, drunk-at-2am ballads. (Were the latter designed to appease a spooked label, or does Waits just vacillate between these two moods?) The sonic palette isn’t entirely restricted though: there’s some blaring horns on ‘Dirt in the Ground’, some twangy guitar provided by Keith Richards on ‘That Feel’, and ‘Goin’ Out West’ sounds like a template on which Nick Cave based much of his career. Tom himself contributes some rudimentary, idiosyncratic guitar throughout, too. This one didn’t grab me like previous albums did: ‘Who Are You This Time’ is the most accessible track and that’s a distant cousin of ‘Jersey Girl’, while melodies are in short supply – maybe half-a-dozen over 16 tracks. Still, this won a Grammy so I’m wrong.

Neil Young, ‘On The Beach’

“I’m a barrel of laughs.” ‘Tonight’s The Night‘ is the sound of a shell-shocked party continuing despite one of the partygoers overdosing and being taken to hospital, a frenetic urgency to have a good time because of that. ‘On The Beach’ was recorded around the same time, but came out first, and feels more like the Sunday afterwards where the party’s host wakes up hungover as hell and finds out the guest died at the hospital. Quite the follow-up to ‘Harvest‘. The first half feels more like accessible ‘Harvest’-sequel fare – ‘Walk On’ and ‘See The Sky About To Rain’ introduce the electric piano to Young’s output but are otherwise conventional enough – but the crash happens on the second half, with the word ‘blues’ appearing in three song titles, one of the songs crawling on for seven minutes and the closer ‘Ambulance Blues’ taking nearly nine. It’s good but ultimately gruelling: would not recommend this as an entry point to Young.

Next week: we’re looking at another nation’s output and looking at some of the Irish albums on the list.

Status update: 527 listened to (52%), 474 remain.

May 28: Solomon Burke, D’Angelo, Aretha Franklin, Al Green, Cee-Lo Green, Otis Redding, The Temptations

This week in 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, we’re checking out some of the more soulful numbers from the collection. Of course I’ve already written about some of the all-time great soul singers – Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, James Brown – so let’s see what else this storied genre has to offer us.

Solomon Burke, ‘Rock ‘N Soul’

Presumably named to indicate a fusion of rock’n’roll and soul music, this 1964 cut has a full side of tracks heavily indebted to doo-wop, its 6/8 balladeering the sort that wouldn’t sound out of place on an early Elvis record (regular Presley songwriters Leiber and Stoller contribute a track here). The second half feels more up-tempo, but there’s not much here that leapt off the speakers into my heart. A man I knew nothing about, Burke later became a preacher: not the only reverend on this week’s list.

D’Angelo, ‘Brown Sugar’

Less concerned with getting you to the bedroom than assuming that you’re already there, D’Angelo takes parts from Stevie, Marvin and Luther and blends them with ‘Illmatic’-ish smoky drum samples and electric piano. It’s a superior take on the sort of refined, minimal sound that Boyz II Men or Blackstreet were purveying at the same time (along with also-ran UK acts like Mark Morrison or Conor Reeves).  Not unduly concerned with changing tempo, D’Angelo does nonetheless incorporate some Santana-ish guitar on both ‘Me And Those Dreaming Eyes of Mine’ and (not that one) ‘Smooth’,  while this is surely the only shag album to have a track about being cuckolded (he doesn’t take it well: it’s called ‘Shit, Damn, Motherfucker’).

Aretha Franklin, ‘I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You’

Last time we met Aretha it was on the sassy ‘Lady Soul‘. This album, a couple earlier in her career, opens with ‘Respect’ but generally is heavier on the piano and more restrained in nature, with a smaller-sounding band adding to the intimacy. There’s some swelling Hammond on ‘A Change is Gonna Come’, some rock guitar on ‘Save Me’ and some waltz-time electric piano on ‘Soul Serenade’. I preferred ‘Lady Soul’ but the time flew by on this one too.

Al Green, ‘Let’s Stay Together’

Of course the title track, which opens the album, is one of the all-time great soul songs, with unshowy musicianship and a beautiful voice. It sets the tone for the album’s tales of love and heartbreak, with a laidback, brassy feel that was ideal for the sunny Sunday evening I listened to it on. The second half highlight is Bee Gees cover ‘How Can You Mend a Broken Heart’. This is Al’s only appearance on the list: none of his secular or religious stuff otherwise features. There is another Green on the list though…

Cee-Lo Green, ‘…Is The Soul Machine’

“I can sing, I can rap, I can act”, boasts the Totoro lookalike and muumuu wearer on an album that features far too little of the singing and much too much of the rapping. Green’s flow and verbosity suits rap fine, but his Macy Gray falsetto just doesn’t sound right spitting bars, particularly when he has such a great singing voice (as seen on ‘Crazy’, ‘Fuck You’ and so on). Indeed the Soul Machine seems like an informed attribute rather than a demonstrated one, as the music is mostly unremarkable turn-of-century rap fare produced by usual suspects like Timbaland and the Neptunes. There’s even a turn by Ludacris. A good audition for Oogy Boogy in a ‘Nightmare Before Christmas’ remake but not an essential album.

Otis Redding, ‘Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul’

I only really knew Redding for ‘Sittin’ On the Dock of the Bay’, the mainstream soul sound of which doesn’t demonstrate any of Redding’s funk, energy or passion. This album, on the other hand, covers all of those. ‘Respect’ also shows up here – turns out it’s a Redding original, and who knew? – as does ‘My Girl’, another song I only knew from its more famous Temptations version. There’s plenty of lust and urge in these songs, ably backed by a band featuring Booker T and the MGs on rhythm and brass and Isaac Hayes on piano. Probably my favourite album this week.

The Temptations, ‘Cloud Nine’

Early on in ‘Cloud Nine’, we get a clumsy version of ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’, which seems to have been around a few Motown acts before Marvin Gaye’s definitive version. That’s nothing compared to the madness of ‘Runaway Child, Runnin’ Wild’, which stretches funk clavinet, country guitar picking and a child crying for his mother over nine minutes. The label must have found out what they were up to in the studio after that, though, as the second half of the album is more conventional fare. The overall effect is kind of forgettable, although perhaps it was a bigger deal in context and did kick off a quartet of psychedelic soul albums released by the band, influenced by Sly Stone (the first track especially).

Next week: It’s time for another look at the most common artists on the list.

Status update: 520 of 1001 (52%), 481 remaining.

 

 

May 21: Calexico, Common, The Flaming Lips, Norah Jones, The Libertines, The Strokes, The Thrills

This week we’ll be looking at a few of the albums on the list that came out this century. I’m using the 2005 edition of the list, so there isn’t a huge amount of scope, but still plenty to talk about. Let’s begin.

Calexico, ‘Feast of Wire’

Calexico were an indie rhythm section for hire who became a full band and have released nine albums over a 20-year career. This is their fifth, which oscillates between gloomy Will Oldham-ish folk (‘Black Heart’), mariachi (‘Pepita’, ‘Across the Wire’) and even Warp-ish dance experiments (‘Attack El Robot! Attack!’). The album is about 50% instrumental, which makes me wonder whether Joey Burns was still becoming comfortable with being a singer. The album feels more like smart guys with eclectic record collections showing off their taste: a triumph of the brain over the heart.

Common, ‘Like Water For Chocolate’

Common is a socially-conscious rapper whose records generally featured his dad doing spoken word on the final track (before his father passed away a few years ago). This one features Femi Kuti playing sax on a tribute to his dad and MC Lyte on a song about what a bad pimp Common would be. Produced by the Roots, this album’s jazzy rap played on organic instruments should be familiar to Roots fans, and sounds like the sort of thing Kendrick Lamar pursued on ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’. As with that album, ‘Like Water For Chocolate’ feels too long, but repeated listens might bring the album into focus.

The Flaming Lips, ‘Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots’

Wayne and the gang had broken through with their previous album ‘The Soft Bulletin’ and this album even features UK Top 20 hits. If you know the title track, the overall sound of the album isn’t much of a surprise: frazzled psychedelia played on acoustic guitar and clattering electronic noises. The other big hit, ‘Do You Realise??’, saunters in late, acting as a kind of climax to the album. It feels familiar: along similar lines to Sparklehorse or old pals Mercury Rev. It’s good: from the heart despite its layers of surreal mystery.

Norah Jones, ‘Come Away With Me’

Jazzy standards with country arrangements, performed with all the verve, energy and danger of a hungover lunchtime set at a coffee bar, Jones’s sleepy voice driving the restrained, dusty air. Surprisingly, the album is oddly expressive with feminine desire: two of the tracks are called ‘Turn Me On’ and ‘I’ve Got To See You Again’ (she is not talking about a doctor’s appointment). Yet despite the eroticism, there’s nothing here that would be too edgy for a John Lewis advert. That’s Jones’s legacy, of course: a million mumbling Katie Meluas follow in her tracks, ‘Come Away With Me’ in one hand and ‘Songbird’ in the other. Thanks Norah. Shivaree were doing this whole jazzy Americana sleepy mumble thing too, but in a quirkier, more vibrant way. Listen to them instead.

The Libertines, ‘Up The Bracket’

I guess if I could point at the time when I was last hip, when I knew all the bands that were out and followed the weekly music magazines, it was 2004-05. I wasn’t always good at backing the right horses, though, and when the UK indie revival happened, the band that most moved me were Dogs. Dogs had a couple of Top 30 hits and then were pretty much finished, but they were beautiful and had big choruses and this amazing guitarist called Rikki. What, then, could the Libertines offer me? They wore Chelsea pensioner jackets and were always in the papers and music rags for their internecine squabbling: even in the ‘Up The Bracket’ era, Pete Docherty was robbing Carl Barat’s flat. They had a good single, ‘Time For Heroes’, where the stop-start rhythm makes it sound like the song needs to pause for a line of coke mid-verse just to get to the chorus.  They always came across as talented but sloppy, fumbling their way through their career, doing gigs with AWOL members or cancelling constantly. I like my bands a bit more robust, and I certainly like my albums a bit less half-assed than ‘Up The Bracket’. There’s maybe five good songs in the morass of end-of-night mumbling and three of those are the final three. ‘Up The Bracket’ captures a time when you’re trying to articulate yourself but you’re too shitfaced to do it properly. Ironically, though, if you were in that condition, you’d be singing songs with bigger choruses, clearer hooks. Dogs could offer all that and still nobody listened to them. So there’s my review of ‘Up The Bracket’, which I listened to because the list I’m working off mysteriously says ‘The Libertines (1st Album)’, and yet when I check I realise that the list is mistaken, it’s been copied down wrong, and the album on the list is actually the second album, which is called ‘The Libertines’…

The Libertines, ‘The Libertines’

…and by this point the band were a complete joke, non-existent as an entity, the album essentially serving as a testament to Pete and Carl’s break-up. Yet there are points on this album where the myth that this was ever a functioning band seems almost believable: the first two songs (‘Can’t Stand Me Now’ and ‘Last Post on the Bugle’) are both killers, even if both songs are co-written by ‘real’ songwriters holding the frontmen’s hands. Pete by this point has devolved into the drunk mate insisting that it’s really important that he tells Carl why he loves him, a persona that he was of course also portraying in real life, such as on the Libertines’ forum. There’s a fumbling, chaotic attempt at an album here: perhaps more refinement and discipline would have led to a slicker record, but it would also have removed some of the charm. Presumably it’s producer Mick Jones hammering the piano on a few tracks here.

The Strokes, ‘Is This It’

Probably the most influential indie album of the century, The Strokes came along at the point where Britpop was basically dead on its arse and ushered in a new wave of NYC cool in the grand tradition of the Velvets and Television (of course Lou Reed was doing a similar sound to The Strokes on his first album). As with the Libertines, the hype completely put me off at the time, and even now I struggle with that sound on Julian Casablancas’s voice: recorded through a Peavey amp, it sounds like it’s being broadcast over a tannoy and removes a layer of intimacy. The metronomic simplicity of the rhythm section annoys me less now, though, perhaps because the album in general isn’t as dumb as its best-known songs (‘Last Nite’, ‘Someday’, ‘New York City Cops’). The best songs here are ‘Hard To Explain’ and ‘The Modern Age’, astutely-composed and simple without being stupid.

The Thrills, ‘So Much For The City’

Look, I’m as surprised as you are that this is on the list and King Tubby, Lee Perry and Neutral Milk Hotel aren’t, but we are where we are, so let’s get on with it. The Thrills are a band who I always knew were objectively pretty rot, but I have a soft spot for ‘Big Sur’ and ‘One Horse Town’, non-threatening indie gently sung by Conor Deasy, which still sounds pretty good now. Like the singles, the album anchors a feeling of wistful melancholia to sunny California arrangements, but none of it sounds like it belongs in the 21st century, least of all duff Dylan pastiche ‘Say It Isn’t So’. The success of this album ushered equally safe acts like Keane and The Feeling into the charts – so thanks The Thrills – but this album had no longevity on the 1001 Albums, being purged on the very next edition (2008) and never returning. So you’re saying I didn’t need to hear this before I died? So much for ‘So Much For The City’.

Next week: We’ll be getting emotional as we climb onboard the soul train!

Status update: 513 listened to (51%), 488 remaining.

May 14: Youssou N’Dour, Khaled, Femi Kuti, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Ali Farka Touré, plus we reach halfway

This week, in the tradition of my all-Australian week and all-Canadian week, I’ll be delving into some of the albums from Africa. Of course, we’ve already met a few African musicians on the list, such as Fela Kuti, Abdullah Ibrahim,  and Baaba Maal. Given the size of the continent and the diversity of the countries, you’d anticipate the music is equally varied. Let’s find out.

Youssou N’Dour, ‘Immigres’

N’Dour is a Senegalese singer best known in the West for his 1994 Neneh Cherry duet ‘Seven Seconds’, and seems to have done loads of things: among his eclectic interests, he owns three media outlets in Senegal and was the country’s Minister of Tourism for a few years at the start of the decade. This album comprises four long jams over its 34-minute running length, combining clattering percussion with the sort of high-necked guitar playing familiar to listeners of Giles Peterson and/or Andy Kershaw. It sounds joyous but I found it oddly difficult to parse melodies or hooks.

Femi Kuti, ‘Femi Kuti’

Kuti is a Nigerian singer and saxophonist whose father Fela Kuti has a couple of albums on the list (both really good). While Fela’s typical approach was to put two 15-20 minute songs on each album, Femi restrains himself to keeping below the 10-minute mark (just), while sprawling over 73 minutes. While the rhythms seem more direct than Fela’s, Femi maintains the groove and political awareness of his father and, on ‘Nawa’, mirrors the Herbie Hancock funk/jazz influences. This album is great, but I would also say it’s too long: 73 minutes is too long to listen to any album in one go really.

Khaled, ‘Kenza’

Khaled is an Algerian folk singer whose sound owes more to Arabian influences than Afrobeat, so here we see him duetting with a Bollywood singer called Amar (singing in Hindi, but from Walsall of all places) and Israeli Eurovision contestant Noa. Khaled’s interested in adopting influences from across the world, though, so ‘Aâlach Tloumouni’ combines Indian strings with a reggae-ish beat, ‘E’Dir E’Seeba’ has a stab at fusing Arabic folk and funky house, and Noa’s apperance is on a terrible cover of Lennon’s ‘Imagine’. There’s some really good stuff on here and, although it’s probably too long and it ends flatly, the peaks are really high.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo, ‘Shaka Zulu’

LBM are possibly this week’s most famous act, best known for their appearance on ‘Graceland’ and, in the UK, for their songs being used on adverts. If you know the name of the group, then this sounds exactly how you’d expect it to sound: it’s entirely a cappella, with the foot-stomping and claps on ‘Wawusho Kubani?’ the only accompaniment. It’s a pleasant enough sound, the vocals are gorgeous and some of the songs are in English rather than Zulu, increasing the accessibility, but I’m not sure I’d listen to this again.

Miriam Makeba, ‘Miriam Makeba’

The debut album from the South African Xhosa singer has a sound indebted to mentor and collaborator Harry Belafonte, but also covers jazzy pop songs, early pop songs and African-influenced chants. There’s a melancholy take on ‘House of the Rising Sun’ and an almost unlistenable version of ‘One More Dance’ where duetter Charles Colman ruins it by giggling all the way through it as if he was too high to be in the studio (although it’s the penultimate track, so you could always press ‘skip’ or ‘stop’). Makeba herself can do anything across a gamut of emotions. Released in 1960, this is an okay album.

Hugh Masekela, ‘Home is Where the Music Is’

Masekela, a South African jazz trumpeter, was briefly Makeba’s husband and one of her compositions, ‘Uhome’, features here.  The lion’s share of the writing goes to Caphius Semenya, who also produces: his tracks are mostly focused Afrobeat-ish jazz songs such as ‘Part of a Whole’ and ‘Maesha’. The star of the show, though, is drummer Makaya Ntshoko: his impatient fills drive ‘Minawa’, while he’s front and centre for ‘Blues For Huey’, with the horns and piano acting as back-up to him. The only song that doesn’t work is ‘Maseru’, a cluttered combination of ‘Brilliant Corners’ rhythm section jumble and ‘Whose Line is it Anyway?’ saxophone. All in all, though, this record is great.

Ali Farka Touré and Ry Cooder, ‘Talking Timbuktu’

Timbuktu is a city in Mali which is both really difficult to get to and very rich in antiquity, which gave it a semi-mythical status as a remote, mysterious place; it most recently made the news when it was invaded by ISIS. Touré is a Malian guitarist, hence the name of the album, while Ry Cooder was on something of a global tour in the 90s (he was also responsible for Buena Vista Social Club). The album is sparsely produced, mostly featuring just the two guitarists, which reminded me of the Baaba Maal and Mansour Seck album. However, this album is more blues-driven, featuring a nine-minute jam called ‘Amandrai’ and a couple of tracks which fuse blues with African traditional instruments. Highlights are the pretty ‘Soukora’ and the hypnotic ‘Lasidan’. The album’s decent without being particularly engaging enough to warrant repeat listens.

Next week: Back to the recent-ish future as we look at the albums on the list that came out this century. It’s the space-age 2000 And Beyond!

Status update: 506 listened to (50%), 495 remaining.

Bonus feature: As we’re now more than halfway through (!), let’s have a look at some of the best and worst so far. Very tough to narrow this down to just five!

Five of my favourites:

Television, ‘Marquee Moon’

Nick Drake, ‘Bryter Layter’

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, ‘Architecture and Morality’

Neil Young, ‘After The Gold Rush’

Charles Mingus, ‘The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady’

Five of my least favourites:

Mariah Carey, ‘Butterfly’

Simply Red, ‘Picture Book’

Finley Quaye, ‘Maverick A Strike’

Dwight Yoakam, ‘Buenas Nochas From A Lonely Room’

Bon Jovi, ‘Slippery When Wet’

 

 

May 7: Bjork, Garbage, PJ Harvey, Magazine, Shuggie Otis, Pixies, Slint

Welcome back to 1001 Albums! Hopefully you’ve had a good week. This week, it was my birthday, so to celebrate this it’s editor’s choice week. There are loads of albums on the list that I’d been looking forwards to listening to, so let’s check some of them out.

Bjork, ‘Debut’

I’ve got Bjork’s Greatest Hits, and have listened to it about a million times, but for some reason I’ve never explored her albums. Prior to her solo career, Bjork had played in ace punk band Tappi Tikkaras and art-rock combinations KUKL and Sugarcubes. On her inaugural solo effort, she eschews her guitar background for something more akin to contemporary dance music: some of the house beats serve as a clue to the album’s 1993 origin. Not that she sticks to any genre: there’s some gloomy jazz on ‘Aeroplane’, some Bollywood strings on ‘Venus as a Boy’ and, on ‘There is More to Life Than This’, an average dance saunter is interrupted when Bjork apparently goes outside and takes the song with her, the backing track still leaking ineffectually through a wall. Bjork’s magpie invention and her astounding voice carry the record, and killer opening and closing tracks (the timpani funk of ‘Human Behaviour’ and the Timbaland synths of ‘Play Dead’) are enough for a recommendation on their own.

Garbage, ‘Garbage’

Another one that I really should have heard at the time, this is essentially a pop take on the sounds explored by trip-hop and industrial, although it’s a pop album with an unusually sour, glum outlook: they’re only happy when it rains, after all. While ‘Garbage’ definitely sounds like an album of the 1990s, it’s aged pretty well: the up-tempo singles all sound good and even brooding closer ‘Milk’ sounds easier on the ears than it did as a single (although it’s not the version with Tricky whispering over the top). This is the band’s only entry: no ‘Version 2.0’ or ‘Beautifulgarbage’ alas.

PJ Harvey, ‘Dry’

Peej was a perennial Brit Award and Mercury Music Prize nominee for a career of pretty solid work, but her albums often meander or veer into abrasive, difficult territory that can make them a slog. Not so on ‘Dry’, her first album, made under the assumption it would be her last. Apart from some dissonant strings on ‘Plants and Rags’, this is mostly an accessible listen: perhaps the world has caught up to her, as you can see the roots of the Duke Spirit and The Kills in this music. The 40 minutes of this album are a breeze. PJ is on the list a couple more times, but I’ve already heard (and own) her other two appearances (‘Rid of Me’ and ‘Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea’).

Magazine, ‘Real Life’

Magazine were a post-punk quintet featuring ex-Buzzcock Howard Devoto, future Banshee John McGeoch and future solo artist Barry Adamson, and influenced artists including Blur, Mansun and Desperate Journalist. The album includes fantastic single ‘Shot By Both Sides’ (vibrant with Buzzcocks energy), the stop-start ‘Motorcade’ and plenty of keyboard-heavy punk-ish sounds. There’s plenty of imagination and weirdness here and, when it recedes into the background, it usually pushes itself back to the foreground with an abrupt change or wonky solo.

Shuggie Otis, ‘Inspiration Information’

Shuggie was only a teenager when he recorded his best-known song ‘Strawberry Letter 23’, but by the time he’d finished tinkering with this follow-up album, he’d reached his 20s. This is half an album of oddly constructed but lush songs like the title track or psychedelic drum machine tinker ‘Aht Uh Mi Hed’, and half an album of instrumental doodling on organ and guitar. I enjoyed it, although would have preferred a full album of vocal tracks.

Pixies, ‘Doolittle’

As I’ve mentioned before, I couldn’t remember which, if any, Pixies albums I’d heard, so played it safe and logged them all as To Be Listened. It seems incredible that I’d not come to the Pixies, but you know how it is: nobody plays you the record as they assume you know it already, and there’s always other stuff to hear first. Like, say, Pulp’s ‘Different Class’, this is so full of familiar tracks that it feels like a greatest hits: student disco classics like ‘Monkey’s Gone To Heaven’, ‘Debaser’, ‘Wave of Mutilation’, ‘Gouge Away’ and ‘Here Comes Your Man’ all feature. At their best, they mix abrasive elements – the distorted screeching, the screaming – with major chord 4/4 pop sensibilities, which make both the former and the latter more palatable. The second half is less fun, with more ‘Surfer Rosa’-ish noise and fewer melodies, but at least the songs are only like two minutes and it closes with the minimalist ‘Gouge Away’ (did they edit half the lyrics out?). This is essential.

Slint, ‘Spiderland’

In the last couple of weeks this album seems to have come up in conversation repeatedly, so time to get it covered. Slint were a bunch of teenagers who made tangled, slow-burning lo-fi whose influence you can see in Shellac, Idlewild and Mogwai. I think this is an album I admired more than I particularly liked: the intricate diminished-chord arpeggios and spoken mutterings are okay but I guess post-rock has conditioned me to expect a loud part as pay-off. Instead, you’re waiting for the beat to kick in, but it never does.

Next week, I’ll be looking at some of the African music on the list, and reaching the halfway mark on the project! Exciting!

Status update: 499 listened to (49.9%), 502 remain