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

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

Elvis Costello and the Attractions, ‘Armed Forces’

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

Radiohead, ‘Hail to the Thief’

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

The Rolling Stones, ‘Let It Bleed’

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

Sonic Youth, ‘Dirty’

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

Bruce Springsteen, ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’

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

Tom Waits, ‘Bone Machine’

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

Neil Young, ‘On The Beach’

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

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

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

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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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