December 23: Air, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Pulp, Sleater-Kinney, Phil Spector, Super Furry Animals

This week I’m going to write about some of my favourite albums which are on the list. Of course I’d already listened to these before starting this project, so there’ll be no increase in the number I’ve heard.

Air, ‘Moon Safari’

Released in 1998 and preceded by upbeat singles ‘Sexy Boy’ and ‘Kelly Watch The Stars’, ‘Moon Safari’ has gained a reputation as a kind of fastidiously polite muzak album, a precursor to the chillout genre which yielded Royksopp, Zero 7 and so on and was as prolific as a supervirus epidemic in 1999-2001. It’s certainly true that Air, an electronic act from France, had little in common with other synth-prodders of the time: their influences were the ‘White Album’ and Serge Gainsbourg rather than the Chemical Brothers or Orbital, while third single ‘All I Need’ is an almost-acoustic track featuring gossamer vocals from barely-known singer Beth Hirsch. I always thought there was something more potent and immediate about ‘Moon Safari’ than about chill-out, though: whether it was the ear for melody which informs the singles and the vocoder/distorted drum machine stomp of ‘Remember’, or their tendency to stick burbling MS20 riffs onto keyboard jam ‘La Femme d’Argent’ or ‘All I Need’. Air never really matched ‘Moon Safari’: the next album was their inevitably downbeat soundtrack to ‘The Virgin Suicides’ and the one after that was the patchy ‘10,000khZ Legend’, which just demonstrated that they were better suited to sounding like 1979 than 1999.

David Bowie, ‘Low’

Bowie appears on the list seven times (eight in later editions, with solid but unspectacular late career entry ‘The Next Day’ the eighth). Choosing a favourite is tricky, although with ‘Diamond Dogs’ missing from the list (?!), I think ‘Low’ has to take the accolade. It’s got none of the regular Best Of Bowie cuts – wonderful single ‘Sound and Vision’ is the best-known song here – and half the album is moody instrumental fare. What I love about it is how weird and futuristic it sounds: the songwriting is frenetic, hysterical stuff, sometimes abruptly fading out after scarcely a verse (‘Breaking Glass’), sometimes waiting for half the song to cue the vocals (‘Sound and Vision’) and sometimes never cueing them at all (‘Speed of Life’). While the band hold shit down – albeit in a processed, echoey way – Eno and Bowie splatter synthesizers and abstract mumbling over the top. On the second half, the band are dispensed with altogether, leaving the album floating in dark, ethereal wastelands populated by drum machines, vibraphones, wordless voices and sparse synth melodies. ‘Low’ is simultaneously a product of its time (i.e. Bowie and Eno’s Krautrock tastes) and sounds 20 years ahead of its time.

Pink Floyd, ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’

This was, I think, the first album I bought without having previously heard anything off it. It would have been 1997. I was impressed by how contemporary it sounded, despite having been released nearly quarter of a century earlier: the electronic burbling of ‘On the Run’ sounded like the Orb, while ‘Us and Them’ could have been made by a particularly classy indie band of the late 90s. Twenty years later, and with more of an idea of its context, it sounds more like a 70s album: after all, this is the album with a song called ‘The Great Gig in the Sky’. The lyrics are still relevant to this era as much as they were in 1973, though: Roger Waters managed the rare trick of writing lyrics that state the universal in a clear, simple way without being trite or cliched. Plus, this was still a democratic era of Floyd, so the album often showcases Richard Wright and David Gilmour more than Waters. A lot of the discussion of Dark Side is about the sound effects and the interview fragments: these add an overall coherency to the album, although they also prove themselves capable of being moving moments in their own right. My favourite is the unconvincingly defiant “I never said I was frightened of dying” on ‘The Great Gig in the Sky’.

Pulp, ‘This is Hardcore’

Pulp had gone from a decade of under-achievement to a sudden breakthrough with hit-packed albums ‘His and Hers’ and ‘Different Class’, rendering the misshapes as outcasts no longer. Thanks to their mega-hits ‘Common People’ and ‘Disco 2000’, and a famous run-in with Michael Jackson at the Brits, Pulp were one of the biggest bands in the country. It was having a strange effect: Sparks lookalike guitarist Russel Senior had left, while Jarvis seemed to be becoming distracted by porn and cocaine. ‘This is Hardcore’ is a paranoid freak-out of an album, “the sound of someone losing the plot”. It’s an album which has no problem getting laid (as both the title track and Barry White pastiche ‘Seductive Barry’ prove), but longs for an intimate connection (‘Sylvia’, ‘Dishes’, ‘A Little Soul’). Of course, it didn’t sell very well and by the time of their next album ‘We Love Life’, nobody cared, but I think the darkness on this album makes it more seductive than any other Pulp record.

Sleater-Kinney, ‘Dig Me Out’

The Portland riot-grrls had an exemplary run of high-quality albums in the late 90s but it’s only reflected by ‘Dig Me Out’ on the list. That’s fine though, as ‘Dig Me Out’ is one of my very favourite albums. The band’s first two albums, ‘Sleater-Kinney’ and ‘Call the Doctor’, were very intense riot-grrl recorded in a week, predominantly sung by Corin Tucker, and with Lora Macfarlane on drums (and sometimes vocals and/or guitar). ‘Dig Me Out’ was their breakthrough album and established their most familiar traits: Corin and Carrie Brownstein’s interlocking vocals and guitar and Janet Weiss’s muscular drumming. The album steps up the complexity of the band’s sound without compromising the intensity. ‘Dig Me Out’ and ‘Turn it On’ are two of the band’s most urgent recordings, while ‘One More Hour”s tragedy is centered around Corin’s heartbreak and Carrie in the role of consoling friend – even though the song is about Corin and Carrie breaking up with each other. The drumless ‘Buy Her Candy’ and the closing ‘Jenny’ (four minutes, almost a sprawl by this album’s standards) seem like the band reaching into territory that would have been beyond them even a year earlier. They would do more complicated, more melancholy and more heavy stuff, but they would rarely combine all the elements in such a compelling way as this.

Phil Spector and Artists, ‘A Christmas Gift for You’

Of course this album has to feature this week. Most of Spector’s best-known work was on singles – there are no Ronettes albums on the 1001 for example – or on 70s albums after his power had faded, yet this album remains immaculate as an example of his style. It’s crammed full of instruments, of course, with at least 18 musicians on board, and Spector and Jack Nitschze arrange the songs by playing them faster and giving them a 60s swing (compare ‘White Christmas’ here to the sonambulistic Bing Crosby version). It sounds a bit Mark Ronson but it works a treat. The real stars are the vocalists though, particularly Darlene Love, who sings ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’ and ‘Marshmallow World’ with a brassy passion unparalleled on other versions. Even the naff version of ‘Silent Night’ where Spector himself thanks the listener for buying the record is oddly sweet. This is an album I unironically adore.

Super Furry Animals, ‘Fuzzy Logic’

In 1996, mainstream indie was typically warmed-up 60s riffs with tone-deaf blokes or birds yelling over the top in order to appeal to parka-sporting ladz. Then in came Super Furry Animals, riding in on a tank, blasting out techno and seeming like nothing else on Earth. There’s no Kinks, Beatles or Rolling Stones influences apparent here: its primary interests seem to be 70s rock, The Beach Boys and Electric Light Orchestra, while they augment their sound with strings, flutes, horns and balalaikas. Accustomed to writing in Welsh, Gruff Rhys hadn’t really nailed English-language lyrics yet – a lot of his stuff here is stream-of-consciousness abstraction and/or flamin’ awful puns (“a big fax and a portion of lies/washed down with a dire choke”) – but the references to alien abductees, hamsters as electric dynamos, frisbee competitions, Howard Marks, etc were an early sign that this wasn’t your ordinary band. I saw the band do this album in full earlier in the month, and felt that its most striking feature compared to the band’s other material is how little keyboardist Cian Ciaran has to do: the songs are mostly driven by guitar riffs and solos rather than the electronic influence that drives a lot of later material. Critics seem to prefer ‘Radiator’ and ‘Guerrilla’, but this is the one that I’ve always been fondest of: the singles are all perfect and even half-finished duds like ‘Long Gone’ have a certain charm to them. Almost definitely my favourite album of the 1001.

Next week: more rambling on about my favourite records.

 

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Author: JT Wilson

Listening to all of the albums in the '1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die' book (2006 edition).

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