January 1: The Beatles, Eels, Michael Jackson, Public Enemy, Sigur Ros, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Velvet Underground

Happy New Year! This week I’ll be looking at more of my favourites before going back to normal next week.

The Beatles, ‘The Beatles’

Sometimes it’s all about the context in which you hear an album. I heard the White Album for the first time when I was 18 and falling in love for the first time. The album is all about new love: John with Yoko, Paul with Linda. I guess I came to it at the right time, which may mean that I’m more forgiving of some of the duds than I would be if I’d heard it for the first time last week. That said, while you could get a brilliant single album out of this, expendable duff tracks like ‘Rocky Raccoon’ or Ringo’s ‘Don’t Pass Me By’ (where he sings and plays piano!) feel too charming to lose, and where would we be without ‘Revolution #9’? This is also the album with ‘Back in the USSR’, ‘Dear Prudence’, ‘Julia’, ‘Blackbird’, ‘Revolution #1’, ‘Helter Skelter’ and ‘Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except For Me and My Monkey’. The canonical highlight of their career is ‘Revolver’ but the diversity of sounds, the range of experimentation and the quantity of highlights mean I’ve always been fonder of this one.

Eels, ‘Beautiful Freak’

Eels are one of my favourite bands and this is hardly my favourite of theirs, but it’s their only appearance on the list. While the group were heavily advertised at the time as a guitar-bass-drums trio, drummer Butch and bassist Tommy rarely feature on the album, and are absent from both ‘Novocaine for the Soul’ and ‘Susan’s House’. It’s all about E and his rotating cast of collaborators, with the resulting sound an unusual mix of cynical, misanthropic Generation X post-grunge and dusty, sample-heavy trip-hop. I prefer the heavy, difficult ‘Electro-Shock Blues’, the vicious ‘Souljacker’ and the defiantly upbeat ‘Wonderful, Glorious’ but, if you’re unfamiliar with Eels, this is about as commercial and accessible as E’s grouchy sound gets.

Michael Jackson, ‘Thriller’

This was probably the last point at which Jacko was unquestionably great without a qualifier of “but a bit weird” or “but this album is way too long” (although ‘Bad’ has its highlights). ‘Thriller’ is pretty much impeccable 80s pop, starting with the electro-funk ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ and taking in Jackson’s best compositions in ‘Beat It’ and ‘Billie Jean’. The album also has three consecutive tracks with collaborators which show the range of his eclectic tastes and flexibility: Paul McCartney (sadly the naff ‘The Girl is Mine’ rather than ‘Say, Say, Say’), Vincent Price (on ‘Thriller’) and Eddie Van Halen (on ‘Beat It’). The last track is dreadful, but you can always press stop before that. ‘Thriller’ has sold an amazing 65 million copies: it’s warranted.

Public Enemy, ‘It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back’

‘Fear of a Black Planet’ is denser and probably more complex but this album’s reputation as PE’s finest hour is well-deserved. The Bomb Squad mash Slayer and the Beastie Boys in with James Brown and Isaac Hayes, Chuck D spits his finest rhymes and Flavor Flav rambles around the margins (generally ‘Yo, Chuck!’, ‘we ain’t goin’ out like dat!’ and/or ‘yeah boyee’). ‘Bring the Noise’ and ‘Don’t Believe the Hype’ are on the album early, but my favourite two tracks are late in the album: the proto-rap-metal of ‘She Watch Channel Zero?!’ and the prison riot anthem ‘Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos’. My favourite rap album of all time.

Sigur Ros, ‘Ágætis Byrjun’

The hype preceding this album was that singer Jonsi sang in his own made-up language, Hopelandic. While the album is, in fact, mostly in Icelandic, what’s certainly true is that Sigur Ros were making up their own language musically. Essentially a post-rock band, the album’s most distinctive features are not common to the genre: the glacial pace, the atmospheric bowed guitar, the orchestral breaks, the soprano vocal parts. It often sounds more like the soundtrack to a ballet than a rock album; there are a lot more piano solos than guitar solos on this album. When I first heard this it seemed so remote from anything that I was doing as a songwriter, or that anyone else was doing. The band became normalised, to an extent, due to repeated use in soundtracks and even had a sort-of hit with ‘Hoppipolla’, but that’s probably inevitable with such beautiful, unfathomable music. The translated song titles are good too: ‘Viðrar vel til loftárása’ translates as ‘Good Weather For Airstrikes’.

Siouxsie and the Banshees, ‘Juju’

Lots of commentators prefer ‘The Scream’, the band’s debut, which also appears on the 1001, but for me the band’s peak was the era where Magazine’s John McGeoch played guitar and Budgie played drums, a line-up that lasted from ‘Kaleidoscope’ to ‘A Kiss in the Dreamhouse’ but which most famously resulted in this album. ‘Juju’ is the most goth of the Banshees’ albums, from the song titles (‘Halloween’, ‘Voodoo Dolly’) to the image to the sound: heavy on the rhythm section with McGeoch playing sustained, screechy atmospherics over the top. It’s concise and tight where other Banshees records ramble, is melodically strong, especially on the singles ‘Spellbound’ and ‘Arabian Nights’, and knows how to keep a groove when it wants (e.g. ‘Monitor’). The Banshees are generally a better singles band than an albums band – they’re one of the all-time great singles bands – but this is an essential album, if just for Siouxsie’s pronounciation of “entranced”.

The Velvet Underground, ‘White Light/White Heat’

Of course the first and third albums are on the 1001, and it’s very difficult to pick my favourite VU record, but their second album often ends up overlooked and it’s time to show it some love. It’s easy to understand why it doesn’t get much press: its oblique, noisy sound doesn’t ooze commercial potential and the length of the tracks makes it hard to extract samples for Greatest Hits. Even the title track, the best known song here, has a clustered sound with virtually inaudible drums. I love this album, though: from the surreal narration of ‘The Gift’ (in which a man posts himself to an uninterested lover) to the dissonant noise of ‘Lady Godiva’s Operation’ to the surprisingly gentle ‘Here She Comes Now’. It is, of course, an album based around loud improvisations: both ‘I Heard Her Call My Name’ and ‘Sister Ray’ are characterised by unpredictable bursts of noise. Not for the faint-hearted, ‘White Light/White Heat’ is a boldly charismatic, uncompromising record.

Next week will be seven of the albums I haven’t heard before, but which I’m looking forward to hearing. Hooray!



Author: JT Wilson

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

One thought on “January 1: The Beatles, Eels, Michael Jackson, Public Enemy, Sigur Ros, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Velvet Underground”

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