Final week: Overall learnings, list musings and lists of lists

Any sort of list is just one version of the truth, an attempt to wrangle order from chaos, a coherent narrative out of a jumble of stuff that all happens at the same time. Such is the case with the 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, which even at its size – the largest list of Greatest Albums Ever – is prone to certain exclusions, bias and perplexing entries. Its contradictions define it, to an extent: it’s broad and sprawling, finding room for such peculiarities as Throbbing Gristle, John Zorn and Napalm Death, but it’s written with an eye on the dad market who’ll buy it, and therefore has a fairly heavy slant on the middle of the road. Though it’s written by committee, to a set of criteria, it still reflects some of the personal tastes of its authors.

On the other end, of course, it rubs up against the tastes of its listeners. It’s unlikely that one person would like all 1001 albums on the list, even if they could see the argument for including all 1001. But it’s not really meant as a conclusive, final list of every album you must listen to. For a start, new music keeps being made, meaning that the list is revised every couple of years (usually removing albums added on the previous revision which haven’t held up to the test of time). Secondly, though, even if you don’t like every album on the list, it offers enough in-roads for further study.

Here’s some things I learned from the project.

I really like some artists I wasn’t expecting to.

I’d never really heard Neil Young, one of the most represented artists on the list, and always imagined him playing a sort of rustic Americana that I’d find tedious. Young does indeed play a sort of rock tinged with folk and country, but there’s a fragility and a roughness to his stuff that I really liked. Nick Drake was another that I thought would probably not be my thing, but in fact I found his albums – especially ‘Bryter Layter’ really charming. So the lesson here is: try something that might not be within your comfort zone.

Some artists I’d written off can pull off some great records too.

U2, UB40, Primal Scream, The Boo Radleys – plenty of artists turned out to punch above their weight when you were expecting a slog. This is probably the most rewarding thing, as albums you enter with low expectations turn out to be classics. Of course not every record by U2, for example, is good, but it’s also easy to write off an artist’s entire back catalogue on the strength of a lousy record.

There are still some genres I can’t get into.

Country music has yielded some gold on this project but I wouldn’t call myself a convert to the genre. I was more suspectible to albums tenuously tagged – Wilco, Lambchop – and one of the country albums is among the worst of the list. Funk metal also sounded mostly awful, with the trebly guitar and everything-on-full drums production style of the 1980s causing problems throughout. Still, I tried.

The list really doesn’t like some genres.

World music is represented in spades but when you break it down into specific genres, it’s less present. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and the Buena Vista Social Club don’t really have anything in common, and their respective genres only get an entry level placing. Reggae seems to be the least favourite genre of the list: a mere half-dozen entries, most of which are by Bob Marley, Peter Tosh or both.

And it really likes some others.

Despite its deviations into a variety of different sounds and genres, if I had to describe what the list basically sounded like, it would be a Steely Dan album. There’s a lot of late 60s and 70s rock drawing from soul, blues, jazz or all three; there’s a lot of albums at Fillmore West or East with lengthy solos. Much of this sounds alright but by the end of the list it was feeling like I’d been around these blocks many times before. Singer-songwriters are represented in spades with multiple placements for Dylan, Joni, Randy Newman and others; the most obvious example is Elvis Costello, whose six entries on the list mean he has more entries than almost anyone else on the list despite his relative lack of commercial and critical success.

Problematic artists can do great music.

Not too much of a surprise that somebody having lousy personal politics, or otherwise being a garbage human, doesn’t prevent them being able to make great art. Apart from obvious examples (Randy Newman’s ‘Rednecks’ and Eminem’s ‘Ken Kaniff’), people’s degrees of tolerance regarding the actual content vary from person to person, and I’m wary of mentioning specific examples in case I’m overlooking others. Most artists’ fractious personal lives aren’t always obvious from their music and again, it’s hard to mention specific examples without excluding others, but for example Jerry Lee Lewis, Dr Dre, John Lennon and The Fall all made music that sounded good to me. Separating the art from the artist was necessary in order to do the list at all – although it doesn’t mean that you have to, dear reader.

There are loads of great records on the list.

The long and the short of it is that there’s a reason most of these albums are on the list and that’s because they’re all at least pretty good examples of their genre. By my reckoning, there are 225 great albums on the list, which means that one in every five albums is worth listening to; given I was listening to one a day, that means that there were about six great albums every month. It’s that hit rate that kept me going: even when momentum was flagging during the end of the project, there were still records like the Pretenders’ first and the Replacements’ ‘Let It Be’ that made it worthwhile. Plus, it meant that I became familiar with some artists who I then explored separately, and found even more great albums by.

Here are some lists that cover some of the most frequently asked questions about this project.

Best albums I’ve heard as a result of this project:

  1. Television, ‘Marquee Moon’
  2. Todd Rundgren, ‘A Wizard, A True Star’
  3. The Modern Lovers, ‘The Modern Lovers’
  4. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, ‘Architecture and Morality’
  5. Herbie Hancock, ‘Head Hunters’
  6. Pavement, ‘Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain’
  7. Neil Young, ‘After the Gold Rush’
  8. Nick Drake, ‘Bryter Layter’
  9. Charles Mingus, ‘The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady’
  10. Dr Octagon, ‘Dr Octagonecologyst’

The albums I least enjoyed listening to:

  1. Mariah Carey, ‘Butterfly’
  2. Dwight Yoakam, ‘Buenos Nochas From A Lonely Room’
  3. Jamiroquai, ‘Emergency on Planet Earth’
  4. Simply Red, ‘Picture Book’
  5. The Cult, ‘Electric’
  6. Os Mutantes, ‘Os Mutantes’

Pleasant surprises:

  1. UB40, ‘Signing Off’
  2. U2, ‘The Joshua Tree’
  3. Van Halen, ‘Van Halen’
  4. Judas Priest, ‘British Steel’
  5. Fats Domino, ‘This is Fats’
  6. Boo Radleys, ‘Giant Steps’

Albums I wish had been included:

  1. Neutral Milk Hotel, ‘In the Aeroplane Over The Sea’
  2. King Tubby and Augustus Pablo, ‘King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown’
  3. The Ronettes, ‘The Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica’
  4. Minnie Riperton, ‘Come to My Garden’
  5. The Upsetters, ‘Super Ape’
  6. Ornette Coleman, ‘The Shape of Jazz To Come’

That, I think, rounds up the list. Thanks to everyone who’s read it, supported it and shown an interest in the last two years. It’s been an adventure, I’ve listened to some of the best albums I’ve ever heard (as well as some of the worst), and I’ve enjoyed it thoroughly. You can enjoy my own music herehere and here and follow my writing here.

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October 7: The Sonics, Soul II Soul, Steely Dan, Stereo MCs, Talk Talk, Turbonegro, ZZ Top

Today’s seven is our final seven of the project, as we reach 1001/1001. It’s been a long journey, so thanks for reading and following my 30-month voyage through the list! Next week will be a more in-depth look at the best and worst of the adventure, so let’s get to the final albums on the list…

The Sonics, ‘Here Are The Sonics!!!’

The earliest of the albums regarded as proto-punk (it came out in 1964), this is essentially rock and roll standards played very fast, in a raw and aggressive way. It reminds me of the Jerry Lee Lewis album from the same year, with everything played at a billion miles an hour. There’s perhaps not enough momentum or variety for an entire album, but then it’s only 29 minutes long anyway. The Sonics were so young that when they disintegrated two years after this, it was because some members went to university. Feted by The Cramps and The Fall among others, The Sonics eventually reformed and are still touring now, albeit with only one original member.

Soul II Soul, ‘Club Classics Vol. One’

Nominally the Soul II Soul album with the hits on, although ‘Back To Life’ is only there on a technicality (it’s an a capella cut which was extensively reworked into the single version). It’s a smooth, classy version of 808-heavy soul music which is palatable if not exactly exciting. The worst thing about it is Jazzie B’s rapping: he rhymes like Des’ree and flows like Murray Head. Unfortunately, his vocals are so prominent that it’s difficult to take this album seriously; whenever someone else has the mic, the album’s quality improves dramatically.

Steely Dan, ‘Aja’

The final of four Steely Dan albums on the list, this one is almost a solo album by Donald Fagen, with Walter Becker mainly contributing guitar solos. As the band get smoother, they retain the quirky, sarcastic lyrics but lose the hooks and musical peculiarity that informs my favourite of theirs, ‘Can’t Buy A Thrill’. ‘Aja’ comprises of jazz-informed pop, with songs sprawling for seven or eight minutes. The best-known song here is perhaps ‘Deacon Blues’, the title of which named the Scottish 80s act.

Stereo MCs, ‘Connected’

I’d been putting this one off because it didn’t feel like it would be very good, and managed to successfully defer it until the very end. ‘Connected’ contains the band’s best known songs – the title track and ‘Step It Up’ – and it sort of sounds like a Golden Age of Hip-Hop record but in nonchalant British accents. It’s too long – it lasts nearly an hour – but better than I was expecting. Still, though, you don’t need this when there are other Golden Age albums on the list (De La Soul, Jungle Bros etc). The Stereo MCs couldn’t follow it up: burned out after touring this album from 1992 to 1994, they withdrew from performing for six years, eventually coming back in 2001 with the unlovely ‘Deep Down & Dirty’.

Talk Talk, ‘Colour of Spring’

I didn’t really know anything about Talk Talk before this album but it turns out that, at least here, they’re a sophisticated art-pop act with occasional experiments with piercing guitar lines that Mansun’s Chad was probably listening to. Considering some of the rough edges that get brought in – children’s choir on ‘Happiness is Easy’, amateur-hour recorder section on ‘Time It’s Time’ – it’s surprising that it sounds so smooth. Large swathes of it don’t demand attention, however.

Turbonegro, ‘Apocalypse Dudes’

With song titles like ‘Rendezvous With Anus’ and ‘Don’t Say Motherfucker, Motherfucker’ you can probably understand what this sounds like without having to listen to it. In case there’s any doubt, it’s a glammy punk record played at a frantic pace (they call it ‘deathpunk’). The tongue-in-cheek Swedish quintet foreshadowed the advent of compatriots The Hives and British mayflies The Darkness; much like them, the album is samey. It’s also weirdly trebly, either by accident or design.

ZZ Top, ‘Tres Hombres’

And of course, the final album is ZZ Top, the band at the end of the alphabet (although there is a Dutch rock duo called zZz). I’ve reviewed them before and wasn’t impressed at the phony trappings of ‘Eliminator‘. Here, we’re earlier in the band’s career – they didn’t even have the massive beards – and as you’d expect from the title, it’s a more authentic record of the trio playing together. It often sounds like a well-produced blues album: specifically, the John Lee Hooker influences are strong on ‘La Grange’, although there’s also a harmonies-laden waltz called ‘Hot, Blue and Righteous’. Not bad; certainly not a low point to go out on. I listened to the 2006 remaster, which was a salvage job restoring the original mix; the version that was issued on CD in the mid-80s (and from then on) was a much-loathed digital remix.

Next week: I’ll be rounding up some of the highlights and lowlights of the project, and my views on the list in general. This will probably contain a lot of lists, because I like lists of albums (can you tell?)

Status update: 1001 OF 1001 LISTENED TO (100%), 0 remain. 

September 30: The Pretty Things, R.E.M., The Replacements, Saint Etienne, The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, Simple Minds, Soft Boys

For the last few weeks, we’ve been finishing off the list alphabetically, which we’re continuing here with letters P-S.

The Pretty Things, ‘S.F. Sorrow’

Preceding The Who’s ‘Tommy’, this is generally considered to be the first rock opera. With nothing to compare it to, the kinks hadn’t been ironed out yet: much of the story was told through liner text in the sleeve. It didn’t succeed commercially either, which is often attributed to the pessimistic plot. With recording technology having become more sophisticated since then, this doesn’t sound very good to the 2018 ears. In fact it sounds awful: barely above the standard of a four-track demo, with guitar solos about three times louder than anything else.

R.E.M., ‘Murmur’

Our last visit to the haphazard collection of R.E.M. albums on the list (no ‘Out of Time’ or ‘Up’) goes right back to the start, with this low-key debut album. The lyrics are often as oblique as the Cocteau Twins, putting the focus on the melodies. There are some hints to future work: ‘Perfect Circle’ is sort of a precursor to future piano-based songs like ‘Nightswimming’, for example. It’s fine, but I’m struggling to think of new things to say about them.

The Replacements, ‘Let It Be’

The only album on the list called ‘Let It Be’: take that, The Beatles! The Replacements were a hardcore band who, on this album, transitioned into something more melodic while retaining the hard edge to their sound. It’s kind of a jumble, with switches into REM jangling (Peter Buck appears on one solo) among the heavier stuff. Often, they make the pieces fit: ‘Sixteen Blue’ is a late standout with its John Hughes melancholia, and ‘Unsatisfied’ is the best song I’ve heard this week, a Pixies-ish slice of frustration.

Saint Etienne, ‘Foxbase Alpha’

‘He’s on the Phone’ was one of the first singles I bought, but I never explored the band’s back catalogue beyond that. The first real song on this record is ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’, a cover of the Neil Young song done in a Beats International style. The album is mostly defined by the tension between their tastes in 90s house music and their affection for 60s pop music, making it one of the more interesting albums in the house genre. The lack of a regular vocalist means the album meanders in the second half, and it’s no surprise they brought in Sarah Cracknell full-time after this (she’s a guest performer here).

The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, ‘Next’

The band’s second album, logically enough from the title. This was a kind-of glam band founded by a singer who’d already had one fairly unsuccessful career in the 50s and 60s playing blues and rock & roll, and was already in his mid-thirties when he formed the band. While the backing is often bleedin’ awful pub rock, there’s something interesting here, whether it’s the fighter jet guitar of ‘Swampsnake’, the burlesque tango of ‘Next’ or the presumed irony of the jumbled ‘Last of the Teenage Idols (parts 1-3)’. Harvey’s affected yelps elevate this above the average but I think this is a curio rather than a must-hear.

Simple Minds, ‘New Gold Dream (81/82/83/84)’

Much like U2, Simple Minds veered more towards the stadiums as the 80s went on, and became more bombastic at the expense of their intensity. Like U2, however, they had a yearning to some of their material that puts me in mind of Zoo’s stuff (Teardrop, Bunnymen). Somewhere between Joy Division and ABC (‘Promised You A Miracle’ is pure New Romantic), this album manages to sum up what music had sounded like in the late 70s, what it sounded like in 1982, and what it might sound like for the rest of the decade. That means that some of it has definitely dated, but it mostly sounded fine.

The Soft Boys, ‘Underwater Moonlight’

The only appearance on the list from Robyn Hitchcock is the Soft Boys’ second and final album, recorded on the cheap and released in 1980. It’s a mix of punk, Canterbury psychedelia and Byrds albums: ‘Old Pervert’ is a hungover Television, ‘Queen of Eyes’ is the son of ‘Younger than Yesterday’, and ‘Insanely Jealous of  You’ frames Hitchcock’s vocals and lyrics over a slow burn of ‘European Son’ rhythms. A clutter but a captivating one. This is also, I think, the only album with a UK Eurovision winner on it: guitarist Kimberley Rew wrote Katrina and the Waves’ ‘Love Shine A Light’.

Next week: we complete the 1001, going from S-Z with the last seven. After that, I’ll probably do a mop-up week of some sort and then… what would you like, dear readers? Obvious choices are:

  • All the albums on the list which I’d already listened to before the project (121);
  • All the albums that have appeared on the list since (68, although I’ve listened to 20 of those already)
  • Both?
  • Neither?

Let me know!

Status update: 994 listened to (99%), 7 remaining.

September 23: Isley Brothers, Living Colour, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Madness, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, The Pretenders

We’re in the last three weeks of 1001 now, so here’s the last-but-two installment. All of these acts are making their only appearances on the list, but as you can see, there’s a few big hitters we haven’t previously met.

Isley Brothers, ‘3 + 3’

So named because the group had officially expanded from a trio to a sextet, ‘3 + 3’ features two of the band’s best known songs, ‘That Lady’ and ‘Summer Breeze’. Both songs pass the five-minute mark but I wouldn’t have had too many objections to them running longer still. Ernie Isley’s Hendrix/Santana impressions are the difference maker here, although I don’t know if I’ll come back to the deep cuts on this funk/soul combo.

Leftfield, ‘Leftism’

Described awkwardly as a progressive house album on its release, ‘Leftism’ is more like a precursor to the sort of sprawling, celebrity guest-filled, electronic bass electronica that defined a lot of the 90s, if not so much in terms of chart positions as backing music on TV and radio. At 70 minutes, there’s plenty of meandering here, although as a child of the 90s, I felt more at home here than I might have in any other generation. The collaborations come to the forefront, of course: John Lydon refreshing his career again with ‘Open Up’, Earl Sixteen on opener ‘Release the Pressure’, and Curve’s Toni Halliday (own career sorely missed on the 1001) adding her proto-Garbage flavour to ‘Original’.

Living Colour, ‘Vivid’

Released in 1988, this album has similar production to funk-metal contemporaries like Faith No More or Bad Brains, and like those acts, they’re open to a wide variety of influences: this must be the only album to feature both Mick Jagger and Flavor Flav. They also try out ska, There’s a good, diverse album trying to get out here, in spite of Corey Glover’s voice (interchangeable with most grunge or funk-metal voices of the era) and the muddy, drum-heavy production.

Lynyrd Skynyrd, ‘(Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd)’

It’s a bit ‘Best Dad Anthems’ isn’t it, seven-minute Confederate flag and whisky, stetsons at Woodstock, faded band T-shirts from 1970s tours on top of jeans with a bird skull belt buckle, greying beard, we could see the festival for free then, it’s all too corporate these days. Containing one of their big hits, ‘Free Bird’, this also notably sees them invent grunge twenty years early with ‘Simple Man’, along with some more familiar sounding boogies, filtering blues, country and other rootsy sounds through 60s/70s rock. This must have blown the minds of weed-addled teenage guys in the early 1970s, but coming to them after I’ve heard the effects of their legacy – Pearl Jam, Guns ‘n’ Roses – makes it hard to enjoy.

Madness, ‘The Rise and Fall’

I did consider including Madness earlier, in the reggae week, but rejected it on the grounds that they weren’t sufficiently ska, and besides having The Specials was pushing it. Probably the right decision, as ‘The Rise and Fall’ sounds less Marley and Tubby and more Blur and Cardiacs (though of course both those bands came later). It’s predominantly piano led, with horns and staccato rhythms present and correct. Because many of the songs are about childhood, there’s a feeling of vanished nostalgia about this record, crystallised in the big hit, ‘Our House’.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken?’

In which the 60s hippies gradually approached famous bluegrass and country singers from decades earlier and somehow ended up with a full cast of 40s, 50s and 60s legends, recorded in a rough-and-ready one-or-two-take style which often opens with members of the extended cast discussing how to play the songs. The studio chatter gives the whole venture a weird feel, like the whole record is a Spotify bonus track. It goes on forever: it’s 105 minutes long, which makes it one of the longest records on the list. Its appearance on here is partially symbolic: it covers the entire breadth of pre-1960s country without having to fill up the list with obscure 78rpms, and gives Merle Travis, Maybelle Carter, Earl Scruggs and others an appearance. But it’s also here on merit: the harmonies, playing and execution is often superb, especially on ‘Nashville Blues’. How much you enjoy it depends on your tolerance for fiddles and getaway music banjos, but it sounded good to me. Interestingly this is the second week in a row we’ve had a version of ‘Nine Pound Hammer’, although the Beau Brummels version is more to my taste even though this one has the original author Merle Travis on it.

The Pretenders, ‘The Pretenders’

One of the best things about this project is that you hear artists or albums you’ve previously dismissed and find that they’re more to your taste than you’d expect. I’ve always thought of Chrissie and the boys as being pretty dull, a kind of diluted, sanitised spin on the NYC punk scene. So it’s with pleasure I can report that this album is a lot more gritty, dynamically varied and, well, good than I was expecting. ‘Brass in Pocket’, one of their big singles, turns up late, by which time we’ve already had , for example, the Patti/Ramones opener ‘Precious’, the cluttered chorus of ‘Phone Call’ and the angular rhythms of ‘Space Invader’, and still have the killer Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Marquee Moon weep of ‘Lovers of Today’. Well worth a listen. The last great find of the list? Hopefully not, as we still have two weeks!

Next week: has the Performing Rights Society been called, because we’ll have P, R and S (there are a lot of S bands).

Status update: 987 listened to (99%), 14 remain.

September 16: The Beau Brummels, Big Brother & Holding Company, The Boo Radleys, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Cream, The Cult, Deee-Lite

We’re down to the last four weeks of the 1001, so we’re going through the remainder alphabetically. Weird to think there’s so little time remaining. Here’s our first septet for your delectation.

The Beau Brummels, ‘Triangle’

Coincidentally there are two very different psychedelic albums on this week’s list, of which this is the first. The Beaus were a San Francisco band who’d recorded with Sly Stone, and who’d been reduced to a trio due to members leaving (not always of their own volition: national service forced drummer Don Irving out). This was their fourth album, although the first they’d written themselves. Mostly driven by the acoustic guitar, with fairytale lyrics, the album sounds pretty good. The absolute killer, though, is a cover of a Merle Travis song: their take on ‘Nine Pound Hammer’ a masterclass in build. Worth a listen.

Big Brother & Holding Company, ‘Cheap Thrills’

The second Big Brother album is the last to feature singer Janis Joplin; it is also our second and final visit to Joplin’s catalogue. Masquerading as a live album (it isn’t), ‘Cheap Thrills’ does sound like a raucous Fillmore West gig, featuring rough-round-the-edges takes on Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’ and Big Mama Thornton’s ‘Ball and Chain’ as well as their own compositions. The essential track here, of course, is the stirring version of ‘Piece of My Heart’, one of the crucial recordings of the decade. You get the impression that another coat of polish would have asphyxiated the band: the looseness captures their energy and vitality.

The Boo Radleys, ‘Giant Steps’

Like Lush, the Radleys were a noisy shoegaze band who started to have unforeseen hits through the advent of Britpop and their switching styles to accommodate. Also like Lush, the one with the hits is the one to skip: it was like the Boos had become big with their ‘Please Please Me’ when they’d just recorded their ‘Sgt Pepper’. Sharing a name with a John Coltrane album, ‘Giant Steps’ is a combination of shoegaze screeching, pop melodies, psychedelia, harmonies and dub reggae. Somehow it all hangs together. With 17 tracks over 64 minutes, it could probably have done with some pruning, but the dynamic variety and unusual passages add up to a satisfying whole.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus’

A double album which is the longest of the four Cave albums on the list, and perhaps his longest overall, clocking in at 82 minutes. Our encounters with Cave have met him in two different modes: a Southern preacher telling us parables outside a fairground, and a vampire brooding elegiacally on a windswept moor. Here, he separates these two parts so that the violence is all on one disc (‘Abattoir Blues’) and the sombre moodiness on the other (‘The Lyre of Orpheus’). With its gospel choir and full-on bombast, the first disc sounds a bit extra – ‘Nature Boy’, reminiscent of Leonard Cohen, is the exception. I got on better with the second disc, which apparently got the album’s entire allocation of restraint; when the gospel choir finally returns late on the disc, they’re in a mellower and more powerful position (such as in ‘O Children’). I guess this album acts as a summary of the Bad Seeds’ output; I prefer them when they’re not being so OTT, but then if you take away the violence, it’s not the Bad Seeds.

Cream, ‘Disraeli Gears’

I kind of think of ‘Nuggets’-type electric psychedelia as primarily an American brand – the 13th Floor Elevators, the Electric Prunes – and English psychedelia being based around acoustic guitars or harpsichords. Yet this week we have a San Franciscan band playing acoustic guitars and a noisy electric trio from London, so what do I know, huh? Containing their best known song, ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ (sort of ‘In A Gadda Da Vida’ without the organs and with 15 minutes shaved off), and the single ‘SWLABR’ (‘She Was Like A Bearded Rainbow’, oddly reduced to acronym), ‘Disraeli Gears’ doesn’t rock quite as hard as I was expecting, often threatening to kick in without delivering. Maybe it’s the effect of 50 years of increasingly sophisticated production, or perhaps it’s an album that sounds better on vinyl, but it sounds oddly sparse on Spotify. Still, with 11 tracks over 33 minutes, it doesn’t outstay its welcome, although perhaps I’d have pruned ‘Mother’s Lament’.

The Cult, ‘Electric’

The Cult are probably best known for their rippling 1985 hit ‘She Sells Sanctuary’, a kind of stadium take on Echo and the Bunnymen. Returning to the studio with Rick Rubin, they decided to jettison the gothy long raincoat elements of their sound and go down a more typically hard rock route, cementing the move with a cover of ‘Born to be Wild’. With tracks called things like ‘Aphrodisiac Jacket’ and ‘Memphis Hip Shake’, it doesn’t sound very good on paper, but sounds even worse on record: imagine if U2 had decided to make a hard rock album and you’ve got the basic idea here. Designed for the stadiums which they were filling, but pretty unpleasant to these ears.

Deee-Lite, ‘World Clique’

Deee-Lite’s mayfly career is mainly remembered for near-Number One ‘Groove is in the Heart’, which appears here. With its elastic bass, chaotic noise and frenetic 808, the single sounds mostly like a Golden Age of Hip-Hop cut, yet the album’s key musical cues come from house music: ‘Good Beat’ or ‘Power of Love’ could be 808 State. It definitely sounds like an album recorded in 1990, although perhaps it’s fresher than you’d expect under those circumstances.

Next week: we carry on through the alphabet, going through I-P.

Status update: 980 listened to (98%), 21 remain.

September 9: Buck Owens, Gram Parsons, Liz Phair, Sade, Tina Turner, Suzanne Vega, Jah Wobble

In this week’s 1001 Albums, we’ll be rounding up the last seven albums credited to a solo artist.

Buck Owens and his Buckaroos, ‘I’ve Got A Tiger by the Tail’

Unsurprisingly given the name of the backing band and the cover (Buck resplendent in a white rhinestone jacket), this is a country record, released in the mid-60s. It just sounds like old country music now given the amount of influence it exerted over acts like the Byrds. At the time, though, the aggressive Telecaster twanging and lack of ornate orchestration was a big departure from what Nashville was doing. 14 tracks over just 32 minutes here: perfectly charming.

Gram Parsons, ‘Grievous Angel’

Speaking of acts influenced by Buck and the Bakersfield sound, here we have Gram’s second and final solo album before his death (and the subsequent amazing adventures of his corpse). I think this album will probably be a grower, although it felt a bit hit and miss: sometimes (like ‘I Can’t Dance’, like the opener) it felt dull, other times (like ‘Hearts of Fire’, like ‘Brass Buttons’) it grabbed at my heartstrings. Even with Al Perkins’ pedal steel weeping in the background, the real highlight is the harmonies of Gram and Emmylou Harris. Indeed the album was originally meant to be credited to ‘Gram Parsons With Emmylou Harris’ before Parsons’ widow scuppered it.

Liz Phair, ‘Exile in Guyville’

Phair’s first and best-known album features a pretty direct guitar and drums set up, over which she delivers lyrics as if she’s casually tossing them out for the first time. It’s a no-frills approach which clearly caught the ears of later slackers like Courtney Barnett, and which means that the album – 18 tracks over 55 minutes – flies by. Now 25 years old, it’s dated well: worth exploring Phair further.

Sade, ‘Diamond Life’

Astonishing to see Sade make the list, especially when Wikipedia tells us that the success of this album unlocked a Pandora’s box of pure evil: Brand New Heavies, Jamiroquai, Simply Red… Yet there are a couple of songs on ‘Diamond Life’ worth the trouble: both ‘Cherry Pie’ and ‘Why Can’t We Live Together’ are dark brooders worthy of the genre name ‘quiet storm’.

Tina Turner, ‘Private Dancer’

As well as the title track, this contains some of Turner’s biggest hits, ‘What’s Love Got To Do With It’ (which was, of course, the name of the biopic) and her cover of Al Green’s ‘Let’s Stay Together’. Odd that you’d give Turner a song like ‘Let’s Stay Together’ given her personal history, I suppose, but it suits her voice, much more than the Heaven 17-driven cover of Bowie’s ‘1984’. Turner gives her all, but this hasn’t dated especially well.

Suzanne Vega, ‘Suzanne Vega’

A sparsely-arranged collection of folk-y tracks most conventionally organised in closer ‘Neighbourhood Girls’ (full rhythm section and slide guitar) and most familiar-sounding in ‘Marlene on the Wall’, a Joni Mitchell-ish ramble which was Vega’s highest-charting song in the UK. My favourite track was the ghostly ‘Small Blue Thing’, with its synths and guitar harmonics, but these slow burns were all pleasant to listen to.

Jah Wobble’s Invaders of the Heart, ‘Rising Above Bedlam’

I had this on my list as being purely Wobble, so maybe a bit of a cheat having the Invaders of the Heart on the solo artists week. Whatever the credits, this is a roam around the world, trying on various sounds from Latin America, Africa and (expectedly for Wobble) dub reggae, grounded by the geezer-y Cockney vocals from Jah and his bandmates. What dates the record is the then-contemporary influences from acid house: the 808s and synths date the record more than the melting pot of Andy Kershaw influences. Not a great record, and too long, although at least it revived Wobble’s career.

Next week: We’re down to the last 28, so let’s hit them alphabetically. Next week we’ll see artists beginning with B-D.

Status update: 973 listened to (97%), 28 remain.

September 2: Tracy Chapman, Elvis Costello, Aimee Mann, Morrissey, Harry Nilsson, Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor

We’re into the last five weeks of the project now and the remaining albums are getting fewer and fewer. This week, we’re looking at seven of the solo artists on the list. A couple of familiar faces here but most of this week’s collection are making their debut on the blog. Let’s get to work.

Tracy Chapman, ‘Tracy Chapman’

Chapman’s debut contains all her big hits: ‘Fast Car’, ‘Talkin’ Bout a Revolution’ and ‘Baby Can I Hold You’, the latter a hit for Boyzone years later. It’s heavily focused on acoustic guitar and social commentary, unfashionable things in 1988 but which nonetheless sold millions of copies when a label finally took a chance. Charming, of course, especially when it’s not victim of 80s production cliches (big drums on ‘Why’ for example).

Elvis Costello, ‘Imperial Bedroom’

The final Costello on the list might be one of the most interesting in its extravagant ornamentation. Something of a baroque pop record, there’s a jazzy piano and accordion piece (‘The Long Honeymoon’) and some Sgt Pepper orchestration (‘…And in Every Home’), as well as increased emphasis on the piano even on more recognisably Costello songs. I’ve not been as big a fan of Elvis as the list seems to be, and I’m not sure I’d come back to any of his stuff, but this was the most intriguing.

Aimee Mann, ‘Whatever’

Released in the early 1990s with Jon Brion on the controls, this is somewhere between a less rootsy Sheryl Crow and a less quirky Fiona Apple: a breezy, summery alt-lite album often interrupted by ragtime, New Orleans funeral bands and calliopes as if it’s the United States of America album. We might assume the weirdness is Brion’s influence given his body of work, and the untroubled songwriting is all that of Mann. It sounds fine if perhaps unremarkable when compared to her peers and successors.

Morrissey, ‘Your Arsenal’

The majority of the Moz albums on the list have been dreary slogs enlivened by the occasional great single but hampered by pedestrian writing and musicians. Here, with Mick Ronson at the controls, we see Morrissey fronting a glam band. There’s some familiar sounds here – ‘Glamorous Glue’ sounds like ‘The Jean Genie’, and ‘I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday’ is so like Bowie that it was covered on ‘Black Tie, White Noise’. This is, though, also the most agreeable he’s sounded in his solo career, with things like ‘We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful’ and ‘We’ll Let You Know’ among his best work. This is also the last time in which he could do a song like ‘The National Front Disco’ and it be a sarcastic putdown of the far-right rather than a gig announcement. If you have to listen to any of his solo stuff, make it this album.

Harry Nilsson, ‘Nilsson Schmilsson’

Harry is best known for his big power ballad ‘Without You’, covered by Mariah Carey and notoriously bowdlerized as ‘Ken Lee‘ on Bulgaria’s Music Idol. Nothing else on this album even approaches the bombast of that song. In fact, this album is quite a mixed bag. For every good idea Harry has (promising ELO-ish opener ‘Gotta Get Up’), he undoes himself with a terrible one (the cod-Jamaican accent he adopts on one-note gag ‘Coconut’ is deeply problematic). Reasonable but not essential. Nilsson’s 70s was mostly occupied with being John Lennon’s drinking partner, sometime housemate and collaborator; Lennon’s death in 1980 led to Nilsson’s hiatus, and he only recorded sporadically afterwards.

Bonnie Raitt, ‘Nick of Time’

Raitt’s commercial breakthrough, her 10th album features David Crosby, Don Was, Herbie Hancock, ex-Beach Boy Ricky Fataar and other familiar musicians: so even if people hadn’t been buying her records up until now, plenty of notable musicians were paying attention. It’s a combination of blues, country and rock elements turned into fairly straightforward 80s pop. The closer to her roots she gets (i.e. the further from the contemporary pop sound), the more enjoyable the record is, but I doubt I’ll listen to this again.

James Taylor, ‘Sweet Baby James’

Recorded in 1969 but released in 1971, ‘Sweet Baby James’ is very much an album of that era, often starting with Taylor accompanying himself on acoustic guitar before bringing in the band. There’s a folksy sound to many of the songs here, with the occasional deviation into country (especially on the title track with its pedal steel and dogies) or blues (‘Steamroller’). This is often very pretty, and goes by in a mere 31 minutes: very much a demonstration of less being more.

Next week: Seven more solo albums are on the list, so let’s cover those off.

Status update: 966 listened to (96%), 35 remain.

August 26: Ice Cube, Spiritualized, Rod Stewart, Stephen Stills, The Temptations, The The, Traffic

Continuing on from last week, here’s the last of the artists who’ve got two albums on the list. Something of a mixed bag of artists who otherwise don’t have much in common, as we’ll see.

Ice Cube, ‘The Predator’

As topical as you could want, Cube takes his title partially from ‘Predator 2’, takes his lyrics partially from the LA riots (which had finished just six months earlier), and joins the album together with interludes in which Cube attempts to contextualize the riots and his own music’s impact on the events. It feels urgent. In its use of samples, it also feels like an attempt to cover all rap music up to that point: it’s full of the standard Parliament and Isley Brothers samples, but there’s also room for Public Enemy, NWA, Beastie Boys, Malcolm X and Richard Pryor. This must have seemed essential at the time and still sounds pretty good now.

Spiritualized, ‘Lazer Guided Melodies’

The first Spiritualized album following the collapse of Spacemen 3, there’s a similar sort of shoegazey drone as you hear on ‘Playing with Fire‘, with obvious influences from Neu and The Velvet Underground (presumably Lou Reed was compensated for the liberal use of his choruses in ‘Run’). There’s some hints, though, of the later orchestra-and-gospel direction that the band would go in: there’s keyboards throughout and brass, strings and reeds emerge out of the mix as the album goes on. I’ve often found Jason easy to admire but hard to love; I could see myself loving this, though. ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space’ is also on the list (of course), but I’ve already listened to that (I think I still own a copy).

Rod Stewart, ‘Every Picture Tells A Story’

It feels hard to take the first half of this album particularly seriously: Rod seems worn out during the title track/opener (luckily Long John Baldry and Maggie Bell add some oomph on backing vocals), and there are Stones-ish slide guitar versions of ‘That’s Alright Mama’ and, uh, ‘Amazing Grace’. The second half behaves itself a bit better, with certified banger ‘Maggie May’ and a very long but very pleasant song called ‘Mandolin Wind’ (more slide guitar, but the promised mandolin does eventually show up). It lives and dies, I guess, on whether you can take Stewart’s voice seriously as an artist after decades of ‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?’ and so forth.

Stephen Stills, ‘Manassas’

The book credits it as Stills, the original concept was that Manassas was the band, so who knows whether this really merits its position in this week’s list, but here we are anyway. Released at the same time as ‘Harvest’ and a Crosby/Nash collaboration, this is a double album with one disc of bluesy jams and another of more esoteric material. Joe Lala’s Latin percussion gives a fresh texture to even the most routine stuff on the first record, but I got on better with the second; ‘It Doesn’t Matter’ is the sort of harmony-driven soft rock that Steely Dan would make their trademark, ‘Move Around’ sees Stills on the synth, and ‘The Love Gangster’ sounds like Hendrix. Pretty good.

The Temptations, ‘All Directions’

Another of Norman Whitfield’s weird productions for the band, the most notable stuff on this record is in its first half: ‘Funky Music Sho Nuff Turns Me On’ could have been a gangster rap staple sample if it wasn’t a live recording, ‘Run Charlie Run’ has an alarming hook and a staccato brass riff, and ‘Papa Was A Rolling Stone’ extends the Undisputed Truth song to 12 minutes. As with the other Temptations album on the list, relatively normal service resumes on the second half; who knows what would have happened if they’d held their nerve.

The The, ‘Infected’

The The are such a strange band: they’re somewhere between industrial and sophisti-pop, and I’m not sure if that’s a combination I like. It means that some of the stuff here sounds ahead of its time (the drums on opener/title track, for example), and some sounds very dated (the production on ‘Heartland’, for example). There’s plenty of interesting sounds on this record but the band’s output is more intellectually stimulating than emotionally moving. The album also has a film, of sorts: as with the music, it’s more interesting to read about than to actually consume directly, particularly given some of the bizarre events during filming.

Traffic, ‘John Barleycorn Must Die’

Traffic were kind of a blues-rock band with jazz elements who had abruptly disbanded in 1968, but who reformed equally abruptly in 1970 for this album. The long instrumental jams feel familiar – a lot of the 1001 sounds like this, to be honest – but the band’s repetoire expands with their ‘Wicker Man’ cover of the title track, a folk song of obscure origins about booze. Not bad, just overfamiliar. The band continued collaborating on and off for the next four years, with a brief mid-90s return.

Next week: We’ll be looking at some of the solo artists remaining on the list.

Status update: 959 listened to (96%), 42 remain.


August 19: Belle and Sebastian, Depeche Mode, Dire Straits, The Jam, Elton John, Randy Newman, New Order

It’s another week of 1001, hope you’ve all had a nice week since last we met. This week and next, we’ll be looking at the artists on the list who have two albums making the cut. I’ve written about all seven previously – check out the tags for more.

Belle and Sebastian, ‘If You’re Feeling Sinister’

Both of B&S’s first two albums appear on the list, but nothing afterwards, which suggests that the list’s compilers were more interested in the act when they were an insular university project rather than when they became a proper band with singles and stuff. This one does sound a lot like ‘Tigermilk’ – similar arrangements, similar production, everyone playing rhythm and nobody playing lead. Yet while that album sounded like the work of insufferable wets and weeds, there are a few good songs here. ‘Stars of Track and Field’ has a dramatic chord change in the chorus, ‘Get Me Away From Here’ is a jaunty this-band-is-killing-us deal, and the title track at least has a compelling lyric. There’s also a ‘Telstar’ stylophone solo on ‘Mayfly’, which varies the arrangements a bit. Pretty good.

Depeche Mode, ‘Violator’

They’re from Essex, but there’s something faintly Manchester about this album: the New Order pulses and bass solos of ‘Enjoy the Silence’, the Morrissey echoes of the vocals in ‘Policy of Truth’ and others. This is the one with the hits – the bottleneck guitars of ‘Personal Jesus’ also appear, and it was the big DM album in the States. It’s fine, capably executed, but perhaps a bit heavy on songs at the same tempo.

Dire Straits, ‘Dire Straits’

Last time we looked at Dire Straits was ‘Brothers in Arms‘, a commercially successful album with a feeling of taking the money and running. On their debut album, things feel a bit more organic than the Fairlight-heavy ‘Brothers in Arms’, and there’s some interest in contemporary music: a Marley-ish jam (‘In The Gallery’) and a funk cut (‘Southbound Again’). Like John Martyn, Mark Knopfler’s gruff mutter is an acquired taste of a voice, and I think it’s the most offputting element of this album. Otherwise, there’s a quality to this album that indicates how they became dadrock staples.

The Jam, ‘Sound Affects’

Two big hits back-to-back here, both owing a debt to ‘Revolver’: ‘Start!’ (which appears here as *squints at notes* track 5) makes liberal use of the bassline from ‘Taxman’, and ‘That’s Entertainment’, which uses the backwards guitars from ‘I’m Only Sleeping’. Beatles lifts aside, the album’s energetic first half is full of urgency and vigour: ‘Pretty Green’, for example, sounds more like Blur than Ocean Colour Scene, while ‘Set The House Ablaze’ sounds like the template for Bloc Party. The second half’s meandering is less essential. I’ve come reluctantly to The Jam after being uninspired by Weller’s post-Jam career, but I’ve found their stuff a lot more enjoyable than I was expecting.

Elton John, ‘Madman Across the Water’

If you know – and who doesn’t know – ‘Tiny Dancer’, then you’ve got the idea of how this album sounds: a sort of ‘Ziggy Stardust’-ish piano-based glam, using many of the same musicians as Bowie (Wakeman, Herbie Flowers). Arrangement-wise, the most dynamic departure is the acoustic guitar-driven ‘Holiday Inn’ (inexplicably omitted from any of the chain’s advertising), which also features a sitar solo and ‘Dark Side of the Moon’-style soul backing vocals. The album is fine, but kind of felt like it was the same all the way through, especially in tempo.

New Order, ‘Technique’

Decamping to Ibiza during the late 1980s, ‘Technique’ is an odd mix of trebly guitar songs like ‘Love Less’ (no relation to MBV) and Pet Shop Boys-ish synth-and-sequencer cuts like ‘Round and Round’ – in consecutive songs. The overall effect suits Bernard’s wan vocals more than ‘Low Life’, and the songwriting on, say, ‘Vanishing Point’ is also an improvement. If you’re prepared to overlook some dated synth patches, this is pretty good.

Randy Newman, ‘Good Old Boys’

Newman’s first big album features the template he’s best known for: piano, strings and reeds backing up his Muppety voice and wry lyrics. Unlike ‘Sail Away’, there is some interesting stuff on this record: ‘Guilty’, for example, has the reeds playing dissonant notes which add diminished sevenths or something to the piano chords. If you’re a fan of Eels, you’ll probably get on with stuff like ‘Marie’, which sounds like the source for many of Everett’s more mellow pieces. How well you get along with this album, though, depends on your take on opener ‘Rednecks’, a sarcastic in-character song about institutionalised racism which nonetheless drops the n-bomb more often than an Ice Cube track. It’s very clever but it’s deeply uncomfortable hearing a white guy sing that word so often. Perhaps the intended effect?

Next week: Another round-up of the acts who appear on the list twice, after which we’re more or less into acts who only show up once.

Status update: 952 listened to (95%), 49 remain.

August 12: Badly Drawn Boy, Erykah Badu, Bjork, Elliott Smith, Lightning Bolt, TV on the Radio, Wilco

In our final sweep of the decades we come to the 2000s, the decade in which this version of the list ends (the list I’m using came out in 2006). You might think that this decade and the last sort of bled together and everything has sounded the same since about 2001, but I’m not so sure: a lot of these records sound like they’re from a different decade.

Erykah Badu, ‘Mama’s Gun’

Surprisingly, Badu’s best-known album ‘Baduizm’ is absent from the list but this one makes it in; my reckoning is that there’s a Roots fan on the selection committee as Questlove appears on the writing, production and drumming credits here. The material here is the sort of early 2000s soul played on live instruments that could veer into hip-hop or jazz without sounding awkward, while ‘Green Eyes’ even starts sounding like a Billie Holiday 78rpm. Sounded fine, didn’t sound crucial.

Badly Drawn Boy, ‘The Hour of Bewilderbeast’

BDB was breathlessly hyped by the music press long before his first album came out, comparisons with Beck and The Beta Band being common and an appearance on the NME Cool List after a mere 1 EP. Presumably the combination of being a talented songwriter on record and an inability to get shit together live rendered him cool, but whatever, his best-known and most loved record is this one. More than Beck or the Betas, though, it’s a English surrealist take on the Elliot Smith records, some of which sounds like the same sort of thing Gorky’s were doing, some of which sounds like Doves (the entire lineup of the latter band feature). Okay but only occasionally diverting, the record would probably be improved if not for Gough’s no-effort vocals.

Bjork, ‘Medulla’

From an album with no time spent on the vocals to one entirely based on them, this curio is Bjork’s a capella album, exploring the possibilities of the human voice and getting singers from a range of vocal disciplines to support (there’s two choirs, two beatboxers, an Inuit throat singer, a ‘human trombone’ and Mike Patton). Because much of the record involves a choir, or perhaps because of the cerebral concept, there’s something formal about the album, like a modern classical album. Odd that an album based on the expressiveness of the voice could seem so serious. It’s most alive on ‘Triumph of the Heart’, with its house beats and meowy rhythm track.

Lightning Bolt, ‘Wonderful Rainbow’

One of many heavy bands to have two guys with the same name (Winnebago Deal are another), Brian and Brian make aggressive bass-and-drums music in the same vein as Death From Above but without the sex or the white supremacist links. Sort of in the same vein as noise acts like Boredoms or Battles, there’s also a John Zorn-ish aggressive free jazz aspect to this pair. Stuff like this is more palatable in small doses – a nuclear bomb rather than a sustained bombing campaign – and this album has the good manners to finish up after 41 minutes.

Elliott Smith, ‘Figure 8’

Knowing how the story ended – this is the last album he released in his lifetime – it’s difficult to listen to this album’s lyrics without seeing some foreshadowing, even in its supposed lighter moments. Smith’s unusual George Harrison voice and melancholia is often wrapped in REM-style production which threatens to swallow the fragility of the voice, but just about avoids going all the way into kitsch. But in the same way that filters on Photoshop can’t lighten a black hole, the darkness at the heart of this album is never truly coloured by the arrangements.

TV on the Radio, ‘Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes’

I’d listened to some of this album but this is the first time I’d listened to it in full. Ostensibly a rock album, this is more like post-punk as imagined by Portishead or something: soundscaping using loops and Yeah Yeah Yeahs-ish guitar (the Yeahs’ producer, David Sitek, is in TVOTR). An interesting attempt to scope out the future rather than tying themselves to the present, it’s no wonder they got a rhythm section after this: the songs never truly kick in.

Wilco, ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’

Wilco have three entries on the list (including the Billy Bragg one), this being their last and most fondly regarded. Recorded during a time of turmoil – they changed record label and band members during this album’s recording, and conflicts over production led to another member leaving afterwards – this is quite the departure from the country, or folk, that they were doing. It’s a diverse, sprawling, noise-friendly album which throws the kitchen sink but never gratuitously. Probably the best album of the week.

Next week: We’re down to 56 now, so we’ll look at any artist with 2 albums on the list.

Status update: 945 listened to (94%), 56 remain.