February 18: Leonard Cohen, Derek and the Dominos, G Love and Special Sauce, Jimi Hendrix, Lenny Kravitz, The Magnetic Fields, The Modern Lovers

It was Valentine’s Day on Wednesday so in celebration I’ve brought you flowers, chocolates, and seven of the albums on the list with ‘love’ in the name. They may not actually be romantic albums but hey, at least it’s thematically consistent. Let’s roll.

Leonard Cohen, ‘Songs of Love and Hate’ (link)

It doesn’t feature any of Cohen’s most famous tracks, but this album feels closest to how I imagined him to sound when I started this project: singing in barely one note, minimal accompaniment, generally downbeat. There’s a mere eight tracks this time, the majority of which sprawl over six minutes, although more to get all the lyrics done: musically, ‘This Year’s Man’ barely changes at all. Joan of Arc features on two different songs: odd that the list would have two albums where that’s the case (OMD’s ‘Architecture and Morality’ is the other). This is our final of four visits to Len’s oeuvre; alas, the project has not converted me.

Derek and the Dominos, ‘Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs’ (link)

The legacy of this album is driven, of course, by the title track, whose riff immediately puts you in mind of three-disc “The Best Driving Anthems in the World…Ever!” adverts around Father’s Day (see also ‘Smoke on the Water’, ‘Born to be Wild’, etc). As everyone’s no doubt aware, ‘Layla’ also has a wild backstory: it’s a love song to George Harrison’s wife, who Clapton fell in love with while she was married to Harrison. Clapton made an advance that was rebuffed, and sank into heroin addiction. Then Patti ended up leaving Harrison (because Harrison was having an affair with Ringo Starr’s wife!) and marrying Clapton, but that didn’t last either. Romance, eh? It sucks. ‘Layla’ shows up late on this double album, which largely sounds like upbeat blues rock made out of the joy of playing together. Duane Allman shows up on virtually every track playing bottleneck slide guitar, and there’s a version of ‘Little Wing’ which is perhaps the second best song on the record. Guess what: it’s too long. And yes it is “dominos” rather than “dominoes”.

G Love and Special Sauce, ‘G Love and Special Sauce’ (link)

G Love is the name of the singer, guitarist and harmonica player, and Special Sauce are presumably the rhythm section. This is a ramshackle and not especially to my taste album from the late 90s in a peculiar position somewhere between Roots and The White Stripes: it’s semi-acoustic, sloppily-played blues which has a vague flavour of alternative rap. Initially it sounds pretty cool but it doesn’t last all the way through the 57-minute running time: I was tired of it before it finished.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience, ‘Axis: Bold as Love’ (link)

The bassist gets a song (‘She’s So Fine’, sounding like The Who covering ‘Tomorrow Never Knows) and the drummer’s voice is the first one you hear on the album, but this is still Hendrix’s world really, dominating the songwriting and the arrangements even while putting more emphasis on songwriting and less on guitar chicanery. The best song is ‘Little Wing’ (a rare week where the same song appears on two different albums), the best guitar bit is the backwards solo on ‘Castles in the Sand’, and the UFO radio interview turned quadrophonic panning experiment of ‘EXP’ is the most sonically exciting thing here. ‘Are You Experienced?’ feels like the one with all the memorable hooks and tunes on, though.

Lenny Kravitz, ‘Let Love Rule’ (link)

Something of a surprise entrant on the list, the ‘Hunger Games’ star and old flame of Nicole Kidman is best remembered for ‘Are You Gonna Go My Way?’ and ‘Fly Away’, neither of which appear on this, his debut album. Picking up most of the instrumental tracks as well as the vocals, Len goes for a sound part Hendrix, part Funkadelic, part Prince: which is fine, but it’s difficult to replicate the jam band energy of the former two when it’s just you jamming with yourself, and he certainly doesn’t have the eccentric charms of the latter. Many of the songs here are just one four-chord riff stretched over five or even six minutes. Not recommended.

The Magnetic Fields, ’69 Love Songs’ (link)

I’d been putting it off because of how long it is, but this is finally the week I do this one: the only triple album on the list and, I think, the second longest album (beaten only by the quintuple-disc Ella Fitzgerald one and even then only by 20 minutes). Originally a synth-pop band, the Fields cover a huge range of styles here: acoustic folk, 30s musical ballads, experimental sound collages, anemic punk, accordion jazz played by Lemony Snicket… It starts to feel like a series of pastiches, but who can begrudge such an exhaustive commitment to making every song sound different to the one that precedes it, or the talent required to carry it off? Highlights include the banjo jangle of ‘All My Little Words’, the 60s girl group song ‘When My Boy Walks Down The Street’ (which sounds like Hunx and his Punx) and the murder ballad ‘Yeah! Oh Yeah!’. Really good.

The Modern Lovers, ‘The Modern Lovers’ (link)

This is an album recorded in 1972 (it’s referenced on ‘Here Come The Warm Jets’: “I heard the lovers/the Modern Lovers/they sounded very good/they sounded as they should”), but only released in 1976, confusingly a mere three weeks after ‘Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers’, a different album by the same singer/songwriter but with a different backing band. Richman’s solo career is the sort that’s critically acclaimed but in a way which doesn’t feature him making any more appearances on the list, but the Lovers are where it’s at. They’re from Massachusetts but sound as New York as Television, primarily through distilling the sound of the Velvet Underground and giving it a polish that makes it glisten without completely obscuring the scuzzy energy or abstract artsiness. Probably that’s due to their choice of producer; having written ‘Roadrunner’ – almost a cover version of the VU’s ‘Sister Ray’ – and a near-one-note song called ‘Pablo Picasso’, they compounded the joke by roping in John Cale to produce. I loved this album: the songs are great and the production is great. Well worth a listen.

Next week: it’s editor’s choice, so prepare for some random assortment of weirdness.

Status update: 770 listened to (77%), 231 remain.

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February 11: Ryan Adams, Coldplay, Deep Purple, Flaming Groovies, The Lemonheads, The Mamas and the Papas, Small Faces

Welcome back to 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, where this week we’ll be looking at albums whose titles reference a body part. Yes, it’s another one of those tenuous theme weeks! Let’s dive in.

Ryan Adams, ‘Heartbreaker’

I wasn’t thrilled by ‘Gold‘, which felt stifled by over-production in its attempt to reach the mainstream. So this solo debut, justly heralded for its simplicity, was refreshing. Gillian Welch and David Rawlings appear here, as they do on ‘Gold’, and perhaps Adams was taking cues from them, or wanted to do something direct and stripped down following his band Whiskeytown’s last album. Whatever, it feels relaxed and the songs hit home.

Coldplay, ‘A Rush of Blood to the Head’

Derided for diluting Radiohead’s sound in order to shortcut their way into the mainstream – not that translating Radiohead’s oblique style is necessarily a bad thing – Coldplay do have the occasional banger in them: had slow-burning anthem ‘The Scientist’ been recorded by Sigur Ros, it’d probably have been heralded as a masterpiece. Much of the musicianship here is a tastefully restrained arrangement staying out of the way of the melody: it’s unfussy but sometimes you wish for a burst of virtuosity, or at least something unexpected, to add some colour and prevent the album disappearing into the background.

Deep Purple, ‘Machine Head’

Not to be confused with the dreary thrash act who later took the album title for a band name, this is our final visit to Purple’s output. Perhaps I’m just desensitized to their style now but it feels pretty tame compared to the other albums: ‘Smoke on the Water’ lacks the crackling energy it has on ‘Made in Japan’, for example. While it doesn’t contain any drum solos, for which we should be thankful (although it does find time for a bass solo), I’d say ‘Machine Head’ is the weakest of the three albums on the list. As usual, the artwork is atrocious.

Flaming Groovies, ‘Teenage Head’

You can probably guess what this sounds like from the band name alone, but if not, this is a proficient if not terribly exciting take on rockabilly played at a thousand miles an hour and with slide guitar all over it. Sometimes it sounds unacceptably retro (the album came out in 1968 and has tendencies towards sounding like 1958), sometimes it sounds like proto-Sex Pistols. The Spotify version bolts on a load of covers of 50s hits such as ‘Shakin’ All Over’.

The Lemonheads, ‘It’s A Shame About Ray’

The only appearance on the list from this band is also Juliana Hatfield’s sole album as Lemonheads bassist; the band were already on their fourth drummer by this point; they are only a trio. It’s trebly, disengaged-sounding music from a band that sound like insolent slackers: ‘Bit Part’, half-a-dozen songs in, is the first one that sounds like there’s any passion involved, and the most pleasant texture is the pedal steel-ish slide guitar from guest Jeffrey ‘Skunk’ Baxter. It probably took loads of effort to sound this effortless, I know, but I prefer my music a bit more passionate.

The Mamas and the Papas, ‘If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears’

themamasandthepapas-ifyoucanbelieveyoureyesandears

Never mind the toilet, the real aberration on the cover is the grocer shop punctuation (‘The Mama’s and the Papa’s’ indeed). Anyway, while this starts off with ‘Monday Monday’, the most dramatic song on the first half is closer ‘Go Where You Wanna Go’. On the stream, we get Side B opener ‘California Dreamin” straight after that: quite the one-two. The folky, vaguely psychedelic pop is a charming listen, as you’d probably have guessed.

Small Faces, ‘Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake’

A fairly early concept album, the first half is a selection of psychedelic rock workouts interspersed with gorblimey Cockernee knees-ups including ‘Lazy Sunday’, a sort of 1960s ‘Parklife’. The B-side is where the concept kicks in, as comedian Stanley Unwin tells a wittering story in his weird argot which doesn’t make a great deal of sense even in ordinary English, and in the pauses, the band play songs connected to the theme. It essentially reduces Small Faces down to Unwin’s backing band, and the songs aren’t great. This was a real disappointment: it just feels like a pissabout.

Next week: it’s Valentine’s Day, so let’s do a week of love-themed albums.

Status update: 763 heard (76%), 238 remain.

February 4: The Black Crowes, Country Joe and the Fish, Def Leppard, Dinosaur Jr, The Eagles, The Monkees, The Penguin Cafe Orchestra

This week in 1001 we’ll be adventuring in the animal kingdom with some of the people on the list named after other species. Lots of bands name themselves after wildlife, of course: as well as the seven here we’ve also got Byrds, Super Furry Animals, Snoop Dogg and many more. This also marks the point where we’re three quarters of the way through, as we pass #750. Let’s roll.

The Black Crowes, ‘Shake Your Money Maker’ (link)

As unpretentious as you’d expect with that title. Aiming for the stadiums but still smelling of the stale beer of the saloon bar, the Crowes sound sort of like an updated 90s version of ZZ Top (with whom they unsuccessfully toured). Here, they adopt a maximalist approach but lack any sort of unique qualities. Impressions that come to mind: stetson and shades. Leather jacket. Confederate flag? Guitar-shaped swimming pools. I’m over this sort of album.

Country Joe and the Fish, ‘Electric Music for the Mind and Body’ (link)

Country Joe is the singer, The Fish is the guitarist and there’s a drummer called Chicken (there’s an organist and a bassist too). Together, this debut record from 1967 bounces between psychedelic rock workouts and blues-rock. The psyche is slightly more interesting than the blues but it makes me wonder whether there are psychedelic albums I haven’t yet heard which will capture my imagination.

Def Leppard, ‘Pyromania’ (link)

Less bubblegum than ‘Hysteria‘, ‘Pyromania’ features similar ingredients: screechy lead vocals, gang backing vocals, occasional keyboards on loan from Prince’s ‘1999’. Feels like a transition towards ‘Hysteria’ but without the excessive polish of that record: they spend a lot of time talking about how they’ll rock you hard and occasionally (like on ‘Too Late For Love’), actually deliver on the premise. Despite having a song called ‘Die Hard the Hunter’ and what appears to be the Nakatomi Plaza on the front, this album came out in 1982, six years before the movie.

Dinosaur Jr, ‘You’re Living All Over Me’ (link)

In a way it kind of all sounds the same: the trebly guitars, the louche vocals. But dynamic variations come to light: ‘Little Fury Things’ sounds like shoegaze, ‘Sludgefeast’ sounds like My Vitriol, ‘Lose’ sounds like Sonic Youth. It sounds like everyone because it influenced everyone. Officially it ends with Lou Barlow’s ‘Poledo’, a weird mix of lo-fi ukulele and tape noise, but re-releases occasionally tack on their hilarious cover of ‘Just Like Heaven’, which suddenly ends mid-chorus (apparently because they ran out of tape and decided to just leave it like that).

The Eagles, ‘The Eagles’ (link)

The first album from the all-singing quintet comes before they’d completely decided on their sound: half the band wanted to sound country, the other half wanted to go harder. The side pushing for country make the more persuasive argument on this album: the most ear-catching things are the banjo on ‘Take it Easy’ and ‘Earlybird’. Most of the harder stuff sounds like a pub band in a Southern saloon in a film. The harmonies all sound great, whatever the setting: obviously a theme for avian-named bands of the era.

The Monkees, ‘Headquarters’ (link)

The TV band’s lone appearance on the list comes when they finally wrested creative control and wrote and performed the majority of this album themselves: all the members contribute songwriting and lead vocals. Mike Nesmith’s songs are the strongest – or at least, the ones performed with the most gusto – but this is an album full of charming personality, even when (or maybe because of) there are experimental duds like the dead-end ‘Band 6’ or the acapella ‘Zilch’. Opener ‘You Told Me’ is obviously just the Beatles’ ‘Dr Robert’ working locum.

Penguin Cafe Orchestra, ‘Music from the Penguin Cafe’ (link)

These were named after a poem that main man Simon Jeffes imagined during a food poisoning-enforced fever dream, and the music is as idiosyncratic as that might sound. More than half the tracks are performed by Zopf, a group with the same line-up plus a couple of auxiliary members. It’s a kind of avant-garde, experimental version of instrumental folk, occasionally taking on world music influences and rambling on for 11 minutes at a time. The violins are pleasant, but the tendency to ramble means it’s mostly doodling in the background. You’d think this would be the sort of thing the Sex Pistols would be dying to kill off, and yet when Sid Vicious did ‘My Way’, who was orchestrating the strings if not Simon Jeffes himself?

Next week: Another in a trilogy of daft themes, we’ll be looking at albums written on the body. Not as in “instead of written on the guitar”; I mean ones which reference the head, heart, arms and so on in the title. You get it.

Progress update: 756 listened to, 245 remain.

 

January 28: Gene Clark, Holger Czukay, Donald Fagen, Gorillaz, Paul McCartney & Wings, Rocket From The Crypt, Tom Tom Club

Spin-offs aren’t always great, are they. For every ‘Frasier’ there’s a Joey, for every ‘Mork and Mindy’ there’s a ‘Joanie Loves Chachi’. The same is true of music: side-projects and offshoots are rarely remembered as fondly as the originals, whether that’s Ringo Starr’s solo albums or Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds. Still, there are some exceptions. This week we look at artists whose second career yielded some commercial and critical acclaim.

Gene Clark, ‘White Light’ (link)

The first album from the Byrds’ main songwriter credited to him alone (there had been three collaborative albums before it), this is an okay but not especially varied collection of country-ish songs built predominantly around the acoustic guitar and harmonica. Perhaps Clark was playing it safe, perhaps just finding his feet, but either way the more diverse sounds of ‘No Other‘ feel more interesting to me.

Holger Czukay, ‘Movies’ (link)

Oddly titled ‘Movie’ on Spotify, this is a predictably eccentric album from the former Can bassist/tape operator, who expands his role here to play keyboards and guitar and sing in a reedy, accented falsetto. It combines arty rock with samples of dialogue and other sounds: a 70s Avalanches, perhaps. It’s interesting to hear once at least. Czukay worked with Brian Eno on a 1977 track, but it’s odd that they didn’t collaborate beyond that: they seem like they’d have been kindred spirits. Sadly, we lost Czukay last year, aged 79.

Donald Fagen, ‘The Nightfly’ (link)

Fagen’s first solo album and only solo appearance on the list came after the split of Steely Dan but features many of the same musicians and engineers they’d been working with. ‘The Nightfly’ is apparently popular with audiophiles: it’s got the sort of clarity of production that you’d want from a speaker system demonstration, but it’s also been made by soft-rock musicians in the early 1980s and it shows. Predominantly based around electric piano, synth and harmonies, there’s something anodyne about it, rarely suggesting it’ll throw up any challenges or threats.

Gorillaz, ‘Gorillaz’ (link)

Recorded in 19/2000… wait, in 1998-2000, this unsurprisingly doesn’t sound too far removed from the post-‘The Great Escape’ era of Blur; in fact, with the grab bag of world music influences, melodica, simple acoustic guitar and fairground organ, it’s immediately recognisable as Damon Albarn even before he starts yelping “she turned my dad on!” over the top of it. Despite being a Blur fan, I never completely warmed to Gorillaz (I’ve heard ‘Plastic Beach’ and ‘Humanz’ too): alas, I haven’t been won over here. The cartoon characters play no part on the record (no skits or anything).

Paul McCartney & Wings, ‘Band on the Run’ (link)

The band the Beatles could’ve been only feature on the list once (there’s a McCartney solo record too). Recorded during turbulent sessions in Nigeria – two of the band left before they even got there, the studio was no good, the McCartneys were robbed at knifepoint, Fela Kuti turned up to confront the band about cultural appropriation – there’s little evidence of the troubles on the record, which mostly sounds upbeat. The best thing here is the many shifting sections of the title track; much of the rest is undone by McCartney’s tendencies to write blandly nice songs and/or his self-conscious attempts to push against that.

Rocket From The Crypt, ‘Scream, Dracula, Scream!’ (link)

RFTC’s appearances on British TV plugging dumb genius lead off single ‘On A Rope’ occupy a space in my mind somewhere between Andrew WK’s ‘Party Hard’ and the Glam Metal Detectives’ ‘Everybody Up!’ (by the way the latter, a novelty song from a BBC2 sketch show, is a lot worse than I remembered).  The feeling that they were at the very least a semi-ironic take on Alice Cooper’s 70s stuff isn’t completely dissipated by the album, although it’s good fun and at least it doesn’t sound like Goldblade. RFTC only just count as a spin-off; slightly preceded by Swami/Speedo’s Drive Like Jehu, the bands mostly existed simultaneously and he treated them equally.

Tom Tom Club, ‘Tom Tom Club’ (link)

While David Byrne occupied himself with ‘My Life in the Bush of Ghosts’, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth found themselves at a loose end, which they resolved by working on a side-project of their own. It’s an unusual combination of Afrobeat, dance music and the wayward guitar of future King Crimson and Nine Inch Nails guitarist Adrian Belew, who adds an unpredictable edge. It feels like a breath of fresh air 37 years later; it must have sounded great in 1981.

Next week: we’ll be looking at some of the best artists in the animal kingdom!

Status update: 749 listened to (74%), 252 remaining.

January 21: Fugees, Ice T, Jay-Z, LL Cool J, Outkast, The Pharcyde, MC Solaar

As we head into the last 250 albums on the list, it’s time for a week dedicated to hip-hop and rap for the final time (although there are still a few other rap albums on the list). Let’s see what treats are on the ghetto blaster this week.

Fugees, ‘The Score’

Erratic public behaviour from Lauryn Hill and Wyclef Jean has possibly cheapened the long-term appeal of the Haitian/American trio, and the comeback was notoriously disastrous, leaving ‘The Score’  – only the band’s second album, but their final – responsible for almost the entirety of their legacy. It’s the one with all the hits (although ‘Killing Me Softly’ drenches Hill’s vocals with reverb and adds unnecessary studio backchat). There’s a difference between populist and popular though, of course, and while you can see hints of Jean’s future pandering to the former (‘No Woman No Cry’ is inessential), the album feels quite sparsely arranged – a hit in spite of itself maybe. ‘Ready Or Not’ is probably the best thing here, however much you might feel it owes its debt to that Enya sample.

Ice-T, ‘OG: Original Gangster’

The fourth album from Ice initially sounds like it won’t offer too many surprises as he raps in a matter of fact way about bodybags, new jack hustlers and the like over a familiar recipe of samples and breakbeats BUT THEN, more than halfway through the album, he announces that he’s been working on another project and introduces a cut from it – and it’s Body Count, his aggressive but preposterous metal band, doing their eponymous track with that ridiculous drum solo. He also finds time to sample the ‘Hallowe’en’ theme tune on the last proper song, ‘The Tower’. Would benefit from 20 minutes shaving off: the album is over 70 minutes long with 24 tracks.

Jay-Z, ‘The Blueprint’

Generally regarded as Hova’s masterpiece, it sounds fantastic, that’s for sure: lush, with masterfully manipulated samples by producers Bink and Kanye West, allowing space for the rap mogul to lay down his unhurried bragging. Even a visit to Eminem’s house, with its typical tinny synth sound, isn’t as difficult as it normally is. I’m not sure that this tops ‘The Black Album’, though: for all its massive success, it doesn’t have a hit the size of ’99 Problems’ or ‘Empire State of Mind’ and the hooks aren’t quite as captivating. This is our sole visit to Jay-Z, though; presumably later editions of the book redress this a bit.

LL Cool J, ‘Mama Said Knock You Out’

Our only visit to LL’s output is his most highly-regarded, with the title track being his most famous single, and a song called ‘Mr Good Bar’ presumably referencing the Diane Keaton shocker from the 70s. Cool James rarely invites his friends to join in, but he’s such an assured presence on vocals that it doesn’t really matter, going on extended riffs and flows while sampling contemporaries like Public Enemy and Digital Underground.

MC Solaar, ‘Qui seme le vent recolte le tempo’ 

I believe this is our only French language rapper and the novelty of hearing hip-hop 1991 style rapped in a louche French drawl means this one stands out, although he’s not above English-language puns (with the closer being ‘Funky Dreamer’). It mostly sounds pretty good, with West Coast style beats and Solaar varying between seductive, laidback rhyming and triple-time flows.

Outkast, ‘Speakerboxxx/The Love Below’

One of the longest albums on the list and essentially an Outkast album in name only, as it comprises two solo albums on which the members only occasionally interact. Big Boi’s ‘Speakerboxxx’ is a Southern hip-hop album which is perfectly fine, hanging out with Ludacris and Lil Jon on an album which flies by. The real interesting stuff is on Andre 3000’s ‘The Love Below’, though, with two huge hits (‘Roses’ and ‘Hey Ya’), a weird harpsichord song with Kelis called ‘Dracula’s Wedding’ and a strings-and-breakbeats cover of ‘My Favourite Things’. At two hours, this is too long for repeated whole-album listens but I think I’ll go back to Andre’s disc.

The Pharcyde, ‘Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde’

The band’s first album and one they subsequently struggled to follow up, this features four goofballs teaming up with a jazz piano/bass player who leads them through jazzy soundscapes similar to later Tribe Called Quest or Roots albums. It sounds totally different to the Golden Age or West Coast stuff that was coming out at the time, so no wonder it got such acclaim: in 2018 it sounded okay but it feels like their template was refined and perfected by others later on.

Next week: Another look at some of the second careers – it’s a follow-on projects week!

Progress update: 742 listened to (74%), 259 remain.

January 14: Basement Jaxx, Beastie Boys, Dr Octagon, The Gun Club, The Police, Spacemen 3, Spirit

This week on the 1001, we’re looking at albums or artists whose names link to emergencies: be those crimes, fires or medical emergencies. So dial 999, 911, 000 or your country’s respective code, and let’s see whether any of these albums are as crucial.

Basement Jaxx, ‘Remedy’ (link)

I know, already reaching conceptually here but you’d need a remedy from a hospital right? The Jaxx song I always think of is the hard-to-like ‘Where’s Your Head At’, but this one, their breakthrough, features perhaps their more fondly-remembered hits ‘Red Alert’ and ‘Rendez-vu’ [sic]. Twenty years later, both sound pretty good, but the album they’re wrapped in meanders: perhaps better designed for playing at a party than for home listening.

Beastie Boys, ‘Ill Communication’ (link)

The album with ‘Sabotage’ on, this moves around thrash punk, shouty rap, lounge-y jazz and funk. Sometimes it’s the Beastie Boys themselves on instruments, sometimes it’s samples and drum machines. A lot going on here then: oddly what renders it consistent is the production from Mario Caldato Jr, even if that production means everything sounds like it was recorded in a dumpster (especially the band’s vocals). It sounds pretty good overall, with ‘Sure Shot’ the best track, and even finds time for a trailer for a spin-off record: closer ‘Transmissions’ runs like a preview of keyboardist Money Mark’s album ‘Push the Button’. One more Beasties album on the list to come.

Dr Octagon, ‘Dr Octagonecologyst’ (link)

That’s ‘Dr Octagon, Gynecologist’ rather than ‘Dr Octagon, Ecologist’. This is this week’s underground hip-hop concept album after we met Digital Underground last week: here, Kool Keith imagines himself as a Jovian surgeon, gynecologist and general curator of a surreal nightmarish hospital where unlikely (and mostly unsuccessful) operations take place. Dan The Automator, Kutmasta Kurt and DJ Qbert hold shit down in the background, creating a vaguely Wu-Tang sound with knackered vinyl, spooky samples, wah-wah pedal scratching and live instruments (Keith on bass, Dan on violin). Like ‘Sex Packets’, Keith focuses more on world-building than clear plot, but he gets away with it: this record still seems fresh 22 years later.

The Gun Club, ‘Fire of Love’ (link)

Kind of reminding me of ‘Wild Gift’ by X, this is a sort-of early rockabilly album released in 1981 which introduced Delta blues sounds to punk. It’s not as urgent as ‘Wild Gift’, adding a layer of goofy and possibly improvised sexuality to the lyrics (as well as lyrics like ‘She’s Like Heroin To Me’: a big statement for Jeffrey Lee Pierce, an opiates abuser). It’s fine but I doubt I’ll come back to it. The band’s stop-start career was terminated permanently in 1996 when Pierce died of a brain hemorrhage at just 37.

The Police, ‘Reggatta de Blanc’ (link)

With its fusion of reggae grooves and scratchy dub into pop-rock songwriting structures, this is along vaguely similar lines to the Slits’ ‘Cut’, but adding a commercial gloss and by necessity taking out the St Trinians camaraderie. Often, it sounds like a very tight rhythm section promoted to full band: Andy Summers rarely plays solos and the title track doesn’t even have words. The best thing on the record is opener and megahit ‘Message in a Bottle’, but ‘Bring on the Night’ feels like the sort of thing hipsters would go wild for if, say, Animal Collective put it out. Less accomplished when demonstrating inexpert skills on the piano, but the album mostly sounds pretty good.

Spacemen 3, ‘Playing With Fire’ (no official link available)

The only appearance for the Rugby member-fluid group often features no percussion at all and often submerges the vocals of J Spaceman and Sonic Boom under guitars and swooping effects. Mostly blissed-out and trebly, but sometimes heavy and distorted, this was a lot less tiresome than I was expecting given the band’s reputation as a drone act. Some of it does have the monotonous hypnotism of Krautrock, while Spaceman’s few-and-far-between contributions hint at his future with Spiritualized: closer ‘Lord, Can You Hear Me?’ featured on one of that band’s album’s too. This might have sounded mimsy and shoegaze-y with a full band, but by kicking out the stability that that arrangement might have offered, the band instead produce something more arresting and vital.

Spirit, ‘Twelve Dreams of Dr Sardonicus’ (link)

It’s probably not Spirit’s fault, but this far into the project, this is the sort of album I’m getting weary of: competently played, vaguely psychedelic 60s rock (although actually released in 1970 juxtaposing rough-edged country with tinges of jazz, occasional piano interludes and wandering psychedelic noodles. I was kind of expecting this would be a concept album, but if there is a concept it’s not immediately obvious. Spirit don’t appear on the list again so no further opportunity to familiarise myself with their career; this album was mostly penned by the excellently-named Randy California (a pseudonym, although his real name is even better: Randy Wolfe).

Next week: For the final time, we’ll be doing an all-rap week.

Status update: 735 albums listened to (73%), 266 remaining.

January 7: Digital Underground, Fishbone, Giant Sand, Nanci Griffith, Ute Lemper, The Young Gods, The Young Rascals,

Welcome back to 1001! Hope everyone had a nice Christmas and New Year. This week, we’re covering off seven albums about which I knew nothing whatsoever: even from the artist’s name I couldn’t figure out what it might sound like. Cloth-eared ignorance on my part, no doubt. None of these artists are on the list more than once, either. Let’s start.

Digital Underground, ‘Sex Packets’ (link)

They sound like a techno band with that name but in fact Digital Underground were an early 90s rap collective who briefly featured a young Tupac Shakur. This album revolves around a complicated, non-linear plot in which drug dealers come into possession of ‘sex packets’ – a sort of aphrodisiac hallucinogenic which makes the user believe they are having fabulous sex with someone of their choice – and the spiral into hedonism and decadence that follows (I say “follows”: all the songs on that subject precede the introduction of the sex packets). There’s no conclusion to the narrative, but it sustains the often long, imaginative songs, which sometimes sound like Arrested Development backed by the Bomb Squad, sometimes sound like chart-friendly novelty hip-hop, and sometimes pause for a lengthy jazz piano improvisation. I liked this.

Fishbone, ‘Truth and Soul’ (link)

Depending on where you put Faith No More, I’m fairly confident in saying that 80s funk-rock is a branch of music which hasn’t yielded a single album I like. Fishbone don’t do a whole lot to sway my stance, running through an unpleasant-sounding Curtis Mayfield cover, a song called ‘Mighty Long Way’ which sounds like Phil Collins, an acapella spot, a reggae song and a 90-second thrash in the first six tracks alone. It’s all produced in that echoey, trebly 80s way which… well, it hasn’t aged well, and most of the material is written in some of my all-time least favourite styles. The most interesting note about Fishbone is that, a few years after this album came out, guitarist Kendall Jones (whose overdriven Kidd Funkadelic impression here grates) left the band and joined his father’s religious group. Bassist Norwood Fisher, accompanied by Jones’s brothers, went to get him out of the group, only to then be arrested for kidnapping! Fisher, who was acquitted, still tours with Fishbone today.

Giant Sand, ‘Chore of Enchantment’ (link)

The Spotify version describes itself as the “25th anniversary edition” even though the album came out in 1999; the band have been around since 1985 so it’s possible that all their stuff was reissued simultaneously in 2010? This reminded me of the albums Eels were putting out around the same time, slouching between grizzled ballad and Tom Waits-goes-hip hop percussive jams (the album features John Parish, Eels’ key collaborator on ‘Souljacker’), while Howe Gelb’s low-volume mutterings put me in mind of Mt Eerie. It’s okay but not tremendously arresting when there are superior versions of the same album on the commercial fringes. As for the title: it seems to refer to the formality of getting married, a bit of tiresome administration amid the wonder of love.

Nanci Griffith, ‘Last of the True Believers’ (link)

griffith

Just to date this album a bit, the cover sees Nanci posed outside a Woolworth’s. Griffith recovered from an early, Shangri-Las-ish tragedy when her boyfriend took her to the high school prom only to then die in a motorcycle accident. She went on to make country music of a folksy hue. This, her fourth album, is very accomplished, but I have a kind of blind spot with country: given the similarities I’m not really seeing what the list benefits from having this and not another Dolly Parton album.

Ute Lemper, ‘Punishing Kiss’

I vaguely expected this to sound like the Dagmar Krause album, and there are some superficial similarities (German, likes Brecht and Weill). Lemper’s album, recorded in 1999, is less abrasive than Krause’s, as she pairs up with The Divine Comedy to cover songs by Elvis Costello, Tom Waits and the Divine Comedy themselves. You wonder if Shirley Bassey could have performed exactly the same album given the John Barry orchestrations. Sometimes it’s a bit clumsy: Hannon’s vocal contributions especially don’t really work, particularly on ‘Tango Ballad’ where the two singers have to cram lyrics in like James Dean Bradfield to ensure syncopation to the 4/4 drum machine. All the David Arnold machines-and-orchestra stuff, though, appears to be a trap: once your defences are lowered, Lemper finishes the album with one of Scott Walker’s 11-minute avant-garde tracks, ‘Scope J’. It’s the only instance of Walker’s later career on the list, and the most startling thing here.

The Young Gods, ‘L’Eau Rouge’ (link)

These were a Swiss industrial band who, as well as influencing big names like Nine Inch Nails and Devin Townsend, were also apparently the first industrial band that David Bowie heard. Listening to this album, it’s a wonder that Bowie bothered to continue to explore industrial music, as the combination of accordion and string samples, clattering drums and continental barking is a mix that doesn’t entirely work. The album’s whiplash moods – one minute they’re Leonard Cohen, the next they’re Ministry – are pretty disjointed too. Whatever the influence that the band had, I kind of feel like the template was refined and improved by later acts – KMFDM perhaps, or just Rammstein.

The Young Rascals, ‘Groovin” (link)

This could have sounded like anything and come out at any time from the 1950s onwards with that name, so all bets were off. It is, however, a 1967 album from a kind of blue eyed soul band. I was surprised to find that I knew two of the songs: the laidback title track, and ‘How Can I Be Sure’ (later a hit for Dusty Springfield). Perfectly acceptable music: I wouldn’t list it in the top 10 or even 20 for the decade, but there were so many great albums in the 60s that that’s no disgrace.

Next week: Someone please call 911 (not the boyband). In another gimmicky theme week, we’re looking at albums where emergency services feature in their name or artist name. Will The Police feature? TUNE IN TO FIND OUT!

Status update: 728 albums listened to (72%), 273 remain.