August 20: Alice in Chains, Dinosaur Jr, Jane’s Addiction, Minor Threat, Mudhoney, Soundgarden, Sugar

This week’s 1001 Albums takes us to late 80s/early 90s America, and the variety of new sub-genres that came out of that era. I’ve heard a few of the definitive albums of the time – the Nirvana ones, ‘Ten’ by Pearl Jam – but I’ve always thought the era didn’t offer a lot that I’d be interested in. Let’s find out whether that’s true.

Alice in Chains, ‘Dirt’

Reading this band’s biography, with two of the band succumbing to addiction-related deaths, is a depressing read, and the band don’t offer many more cheers on this, their only appearance on the list. Mainly focusing on personal issues: anxiety and depression (‘Rain When I Die’, ‘Down With A Hole’) together with drug problems (‘God Smack’, ‘Junkhead’), the pervading gloom and heroin tempo make for a sombre listen. I’ve never been a fan of the vocal style Layne adopts here, and the band’s grunge/metal sound combines two of the genres I’m least interested in. Pretty dull stuff.

Dinosaur Jr, ‘Bug’

As with many of the albums this week, this was made while the band were falling apart, this time due to tensions between guitarist J Mascis and bassist Lou Barlow. A Sonic Youth-ish combination of distorted guitars and poppy melodies, sung variously in a Thurston Moore-ish half-assed drawl and a Neil Young tremelo, this reminds me most of Urusei Yatsura, on whom DJ were doubtless an influence. The album peaks early with ‘Freak Scene’, but mostly sounds pretty good. Heavy Barlow-sung ‘Don’t’ feels like it should have been the closer, but tacked-on whiny jangle ‘Keep the Glove’ actually finishes up.

Jane’s Addiction, ‘Nothing’s Shocking’

A rocky desert landscape is attacked by a massive, screeching pterodactyl, barking destruction through an echo pedal. Jane’s legacy involved influencing several of the bands here, but they feel like they have more to offer: their production is weirdly dark and foreboding, and the bass-heavy riffs put me more in mind of Killing Joke than Soundgarden. ‘Ted, Just Admit It…’, meanwhile, sounds like an aggressive take on Siouxsie’s ‘Join Hands’ album. ‘Nothing’s Shocking’ is best remembered for ‘Jane Says’, a terrible single with a steel drum outro of all things, but it deserves better.

Minor Threat, ‘Out of Step’

Kind of a cheat as this came out earlier than the rest (1983), ‘Out of Step’ gets out of the way after a mere 21 minutes: there’s not a second to lose. Full of energy and vitriol, the album is open to DIY aesthetics (there are crudely-played bass solos), gags, and laying out the sXc manifesto in the 80-second title track. On one listen, this album’s tracks do kind of blur together; that doesn’t mean that it’s not worth checking out.

Mudhoney, ‘Superfuzz Bigmuff’

There seem to be a few versions of this floating around: the list actually refers to the original 1988 EP (surely a cheat), there was a full-length 1990 album, and the Spotify version is a deluxe, million-track version from 2008; all three have a different running order. I listened to the first 14 tracks of the Spotify version (the rest are demos and other guff). Anyway: this record rules. If the effects pedals give the band their distinctive sound (a scruffy, damaged-cassette sound), then what gives them their hook are the cool riffs and sleazy groove: stuff like ‘In and Out of Grace’ sounds like a Death From Above 1979 template. The band’s dumb, cynical approach prevents things getting too heavy, and even with a seven-minute Sonic Youth cover this doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Soundgarden, ‘Superunknown’

I was kind of dreading getting to this album, as it’s always felt like the most macho rock album ever: Led Zeppelin-influenced rock with wailing geezer and no jokes or sex. Perhaps aware of the potential for sonic monotony, Michael Beinhorn and the band do try to broaden the aural palette: Eastern wailing from the bassist on ‘Half’, that is-it-a-guitar-or-piano melody on ‘Black Hole Sun’ and, of course, spoons on ‘Spoonman’. The inherent Soundgardening brings it down though, and the band’s failure to edit anything off the album means that it’s a patience-thinning 70 minutes long. This probably isn’t the most monochrome album on the list, but it’s subjectively among the least interesting albums I’ve listened to.

Sugar, ‘Copper Blue’

Having left Hüsker Dü, Bob Mould’s debut with this group varies dynamically from many of this week’s selections as it eschews low, heavy riffs in favour of trebly REM-like strumming and melodies. It sounds okay, if very much a product of its era and perhaps a bit dated as a result. The closer sounds like an early Smashing Pumpkins album, albeit with malfunctioning organ track. Sugar don’t feature again; Mould’s remaining contributions to the list are just one Hüsker Dü album, so nothing from his solo career, ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’ cameos or run in the doomed WCW creative team.

Next week: things are getting cleaned up a bit as we return to the 1980s to look at the best synth-pop of the era.

Status update: 602 listened to (60%), 399 remain

August 13: Xtina, Fatboy, Madonna, Britney, Justin, TLC, Amy Winehouse

It’s time for another week of 1001 Albums, and this one’s a special anniversary as we’re celebrating one year of the blog being on WordPress! Thanks to everyone who reads and supports this project; I probably would have lost interest without you babes keeping me going.

This week, we’re looking at some of the finest 90s/00s pop cuts. Of course, classical and opera fans would say they’re all pop albums, but you know what I mean. Let’s see what’s on the plate.

Christina Aguilera, ‘Stripped’

Initially I was resistant to the Xtina character and the tacky sexy gimmickry, but the big three singles off this album were all really good (‘Fighter’, ‘Beautiful’, ‘Dirrty’), which shows promise. The album starts off strong with Christina and her collaborators turning their hands to a variety of genres and segueing them together with intros which elevate the importance of the early tracks, and give Christina plenty of space for her powerful melisma. It runs out of steam long before we get to the Linda Perry songs (‘Beautiful’ and a weird version of Sugababes’ ‘Overload’ called ‘Makeover’), and eventually just feels like overkill. It’s 77 minutes long; needed a more disciplined edit.

Fatboy Slim, ‘You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby’

Pretty much the definitive album of 1998, Fatboy seemed to have the Midas touch at the time: everything off this album went top 10, his Cornershop remix went to Number One, ‘Renegade Master’ went to Number Three… This album is as good as the hooks, meaning that the singles all sound ace while dross like ‘Kalifornia’ and ‘Fucking In Heaven’ does not. Twenty years removed from its omnipresence, the big beat everything-in-blender sound does sound pretty cool, and it makes a convincing argument for sampler as lead instrument.

Madonna, ‘Music’

Madonna’s ‘Ray of Light’ was one of the best albums of 1998, and on the follow-up she continues to work with that album’s key collaborator William Orbit, while adding French techno producer Mirwais. Unsurprisingly, it follows a similar path to ‘Ray of Light’, with the exception of the Mr Oizo-ish title track, but adds acoustic guitar and vocoder. ‘Don’t Tell Me’ particularly sounds pretty good, with its cut up acoustic guitar attached to a rhythm that would probably be described as a trap beat now. The album’s good; it benefits from a brevity that a lot of this week’s albums lack.

Britney Spears, ‘…Baby One More Time’

Britney came to international attention with the great title track, a classic pop song written by ace Swedish composer Max Martin. ‘Baby One More Time’ is the opener here, setting a standard that the rest of the album inevitably struggles to reach. It vacillates between good power-pop (‘Crazy’, the surprisingly strong ‘Born To Make You Happy’), wet ballads (‘Sometimes’) and fluff (‘Soda Pop’ and so on). The album finishes with its two weirdest tracks: a naff “40 year old men try and write about what’s cool” ballad called ‘E-mail My Heart’ and a straight cover of The All Seeing I’s ‘The Beat Goes On’ produced by, uh, The All Seeing I. Britney’s fantastic singles catalogue is always worth a listen but this album goes out of your head as soon as it stops.

Justin Timberlake, ‘Justified’

On the other side of the Britney’n’Justin relationship is this album, which turned heads at the time for its spiteful break-up song ‘Cry Me A River’. The singles were mostly lent their personality by the vocal ad-libs, mumbling and vocal percussion: the album’s most distinctive feature. Otherwise it mostly sounds like an album by the producers rather than the performer: at the time the world’s hottest producers, the Neptunes and Timbaland just create their usual tracks (also the album’s three songs too long, another Neptunian habit). A respectable move into adult pop, the album was so well received that the curly-haired moppet from N-Sync seemed like a different person.

TLC, ‘CrazySexyCool’

TLC’s breakthrough album features two of their best known singles: ‘Waterfalls’ and ‘Creep’, and is a killer combination of soul, R&B and pop, largely produced by Puff Daddy (who stays out of the way for the most part) and includes some fluid rapping from Left Eye (all too rarely around due to rehab). A template for later girl groups like All Saints to adapt, the album’s only failing is the forgettable material on the second half, which not even a spirited cameo by Busta Rhymes can elevate.

Amy Winehouse, ‘Frank’

Almost certainly replaced in later editions of the 1001 book by ‘Back to Black’, Winehouse’s charismatic sound fuses jazz-infused melodies and chords with a cool urban attitude and lyrical stance which feels authentic in a way almost unique to her. The most interesting songs on here come when she mixes that sound with breakbeats (‘Help Yourself’, ‘In My Bed’): a lot of the rest of the album is sparsely arranged around just her voice and (her own?) electric guitar. Winehouse’s turbulent personal life occupied the headlines for almost the entirety of her life, but it was her talent that got her there in the first place; that talent is amply demonstrated here.

Next week: Going back slightly further in time, we’ll take a look at some of the top American rock albums of the late 80s/early 90s. Don’t call it a grunge week.

Status update: 595 listened to (59%), 406 remain

August 6: Jeff Beck, Kate Bush, Killing Joke, Todd Rundgren, Steely Dan, Suede, X

Welcome back to another installment of the 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die! It’s been a busy week: I’ve also had a review of Indietracks festival published here, as well as signing up to a couple of gigs with my own band. Still listened to seven albums as ever, though, with this week’s selection picked out of the many albums I was looking forward to hearing.

As always, feel free to start the discussion in the comments or on the social media platform of yr choice.

Jeff Beck, ‘Truth’

One of the best things about ‘Roger the Engineer‘ was Jeff Beck’s unpredictable soloing, and his solo album goes into further unusual directions, featuring blues, proto-metal, folk rock, weird riffing, psychedelic noise, bagpipes, and a version of ‘Greensleeves’, because why not eh? There’s a Who’s Who of 60s rock royalty accompanying Beck (some of which are actually The Who, but I’ll refrain from doing the Abbot & Costello bit): Keith Moon, Ronnie Wood, Rod Stewart, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones all show up. It’s mostly pretty interesting, although the final two songs let the side down a bit, being unremarkable blues songs with a combined running time of 12 minutes.

Kate Bush, ‘The Dreaming’

Recorded with no apparent thoughts about commercial potential or live performance, ‘The Dreaming’ features two singles optimistically extracted by Bush’s label, who gave up releasing further singles after neither of those two went anywhere. No wonder: this might be the weirdest album I’ve listened to on the list. A patchwork quilt of fragments, oddly-processed vocals, samples, didgeridoo and choirboys, with some Art of Noise style collaging and some Cardiacs-style quirk-pop, this album is freakishly unusual in a way that Emilie Autumn wishes she could achieve. All the hits are on ‘Hounds of Love‘, but this peculiar work is well worth a listen.

Killing Joke, ‘Killing Joke’ (1980)

There are two eponymous Killing Joke albums, but the one on the list is their debut from 1980. KJ’s interests on this album are all groove and riff, rather than necessarily adhering to a verse/chorus format: it’s mostly flange-y guitars, tribal drumming and singer Jaz yelling (although in a less hoarse, aggressive way than on, say, ‘Pandemonium’), with some similarities to contemporaries like Siouxsie and the Banshees and Public Image Ltd. An interesting debut, with tracks like ‘Requiem’ giving hints towards heavier, more violent albums in their future.

Todd Rundgren, ‘Something/Anything?’

Rundgren’s brain-nuking acid trip ‘A Wizard, A True Star‘ is one of the stand-out discoveries from this project, but before he got there, he sprawled his experimentation over a double album, with a different vibe on each side of vinyl. The first side is essentially poppy soft rock, the second a ‘cerebral’ set of weirdness, the third a patchy collection of heavy rocker and the fourth a loose, ramshackle collection of semi-improvised jams with a under-rehearsed squad of hacks. There’s too much of it, and listening to all 90 minutes is probably for diehards only. Still, it’s full of offbeat personality, and juidicious skipping means there’s some fun here (‘I Saw The Light’, ‘Breathless’, ‘Couldn’t I Just Tell You’, ‘Hello It’s Me’, ‘Slut’).

Steely Dan, ‘Pretzel Logic’

The band’s last album while they were still both a touring and recording proposition (they moved exclusively into the studio after this), ‘Pretzel Logic’ retains the two guitarists from previous albums, but is mostly Becker and Fagen working with a bunch of session musicians to create the polished sound they were after. Poor Jim Hodder, the band’s drummer, doesn’t play drums on the album at all! Unsurprisingly it’s highly competent and musically cohesive, with horns taking a more central role than on the other album I’ve heard (‘Can’t Buy A Thrill‘), but perhaps without the quirkly intrigue of that album. Still, unusually for a 70s rock album, it’s unshowy: a mere 34 minutes with no instrumental jams, virtuoso guitar trickery or vocal flashiness.

Suede, ‘Suede’

By the time I got into music, Suede had already had a line-up shuffle and the hype around them from the music press had long since faded, even if ‘Coming Up’ was a commercial and critical success. In 1993, though, the NME were so high on Suede that there was a lot of expectation riding on their debut album, expectation which they mostly lived up to. Starting with ‘So Young’ and ‘Animal Nitrate’, ‘Suede’ shows a band who’ve done their homework: there’s something of Echo’s swoon, Smiths croon, the Spiders from Mars’s sass, that Husker Du-ish processed fuzz tone on the guitar, and a kind of “smart guys lost on the London bedsit scene” vibe that they share with the Pet Shop Boys. Yeah, this is a good album. ‘Dog Man Star’ is also on the list, but I’ve heard it already.

X, ‘Wild Gift’

The shortest band name on the list (no appearances for A), X were mainly driven by twin vocalists/husband and wife John Doe and Exene, whose shared harmonies and interplay gives the album a cohesiveness and unity of purpose. The music behind it is punk rock with a 50s rock’n’roll or country shuffle, which is a style that you still hear all the time among the double bass and sideburns crowd. Yet there’s a yearning and urgency about cuts like ‘Universal Corner’ that separates X from Z. Pretty decent.

Next week: we’ll be looking at some of the best pop music from the 90s and 00s (according to the 1001 curators anyway).

Status update: 588 heard (59%), 413 remain.

July 30: ‘Call of the Valley’, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Ananda Shankar, Ravi Shankar, Talvin Singh, that’s it

This week on 1001 we’re looking to the East for some of the Asian entries on the list. We’re looking at the Near East for this week: not that it matters, as there’s no representation at all from the Middle East or Far East (not even Shonen Knife, Cornelius or Pizzicato Five). There’s no doubt that such a large area, containing billions of diverse people, will have a wide variety of fascinating music – there is, for example, an Iranian metal band. Yet Indian classical music especially, with its unusual scales and microtones and with its drones and ragas, can be a challenge for the uninitiated Western listener such as your humble hack. No surprise then that, even if we extend our invitation to include British born musicians of Asian descent, we’re short on numbers this week. We already covered RD Burman, MIA, Nitin Sawhney and Queen in previous editions, and I’d already heard (and own) Cornershop’s ‘When I Was Born For The Seventh Time’, so that only leaves us with five. Let’s have it.

Hariprasad Chaurasia, Brij Bhushan Kabra, and Shivkumar Sharma, ‘Call of the Valley’

A concept album from the 60s with a guitarist, a flautist and a santoor player: just another week in 1001 Albums, right? Guitarist Kabra feels like the most interesting character here, having to promise his family that he’d only play Hindustani classical music when he chose the distinctly untraditional guitar as his weapon of choice. Against all odds he manages it, adding sitar-ish drone strings and raga-ish bends as well as slipping slide guitar sounds in. Sharma’s santoor is a sort-of Iranian hammered dulcimer deal, which he plays dextrously. The sound is certainly evocative: you can imagine the sunrise over the Kashmiri mountains at the start of the day. There’s also some sophisticated interplay between the trio which is doubtless lost on a cloth-eared ignoramus like me.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Party, ‘Devotional Songs’

Khan was a Pakistani singer who, along with his family (the Party credited), performed Qawwali music, a Sufi style based around chanting, harmonium and tablas and focused on, well, devotional songs. Khan is the most famous Qawwali singer, at least to a Western audience, and his fans included Jeff Buckley and Peter Gabriel. As my first listen to the genre, never mind the singer, it’s difficult to appraise the album from an informed standpoint. The bandleader’s powerful multi-octave voice is the most distinctive feature of the record, dominating proceedings as if in a religious ecstasy. Maybe he is. The songs on the album seem long (7-9 minutes), but I shouldn’t complain too much, as a standard Qawwali is 15-30 minutes and some of Khan’s back catalogue has single songs that last over an hour.

Ananda Shankar, ‘Ananda Shankar’

This album doesn’t seem too popular with purists, and I guess I can see why Shankar wielding his sitar and fronting a Western rock band with Moog synths might feel like a dumbing down of classical tradition, a DJ Otzification of Hindustani music. But I think this sounds great, opening with a twanging sitar-and-choir-and-synth jam version of ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ that sounds iconoclastic and containing an equally quirky, space cadet take on ‘Light My Fire’. Clearly Shankar playing tit-for-tat with those acts’s co-opting of raga sounds, it’s an audacious pair of covers that sound hilariously awesome. Sanity prevails on the B-side, where Shankar proves his classical sitar chops on a 13-minute song (‘Sagar: The Ocean’) before finishing with a folk-rock take on an Indian classical piece called ‘Raghupati’. The peaks on this one are must-hear.

Ravi Shankar, ‘The Sounds of India’

Ananda’s uncle and, believe it or not, Norah Jones’s father is one of the most famous Indian musicians of all time, thanks to his association with George Harrison. Clearly an album aimed at a Western audience, Ravi does his best to explain Hindustani music to the uneducated ear with spoken-word intros, warning the audience not to expect harmony and counterpoint and to think of it more like Hindu jazz. I probably should have listened to this one first this week, in hindsight. Anyway, Shankar’s virtuosic playing showcases the sitar to its utmost while his rhythm section (a tamboura and a tabla player) keep up, the jams last over ten minutes and I still can’t find a handle on it despite his best efforts.

Talvin Singh, ‘OK’

It’s OK.

Alright, thanks for coming everyone!

Well, I suppose I should write some more about this. The surprise winner of the 1999 Mercury Music Prize fuses traditional Indian sounds (sitar, vocals and of course his own tablas) with breakbeats and electronica without ever getting into the territory of being particularly gripping or engaging. The fusion seemed like a big deal at the time but now, it just feels like the sort of thing you’d’ve heard anyone do in the 90s: put some world music together with a breakbeat. Even Geri Halliwell did it! My favourite Singh appearance is as a guest: playing tablas and singing on Siouxsie and the Banshees’ immaculate late-career single ‘Kiss Them For Me’.

Next week: I’ll be drawing seven of the albums I’m most excited to listen to from the pile. Which will it be? Stay tuned!

Status update: 581 listened to (58%), 420 remain

 

July 23: Dizzee Rascal, Missy Elliott, Eminem, Jungle Brothers, Jurassic 5, Run-DMC, A Tribe Called Quest

This week, we’ll be spitting some fly rhymes over some dope-ass beats as it’s time for another selection of the rap albums on the list.

Dizzee Rascal, ‘Boy In Da Corner’

As Dizzee is the elder statesman of grime these days, but his own cuts are shamelessly intended at the mainstream audience, it’s strange to go back to 2003 when he was just 19 and releasing this compromise-free cut. ‘Boy In Da Corner’ mostly dispenses with hooks and even rhythm, his beats being juddering, skittering and harsh. An introspective album, acknowledging the outside world only when it’s lashing out at it, it sounds pretty timeless even in the wake of Stormzy and Skepta.

Missy Elliott, ‘Under Construction’

One of only two female rappers to front an album on the 1001, Missy doesn’t feel daunted by rapping about her sexuality (“pussy don’t fail me now”) or her body (“my attitude is heavy ‘coz my period is heavy”). Teaming up once again with Timbaland, the album once again contains Tim’s familiar brand of bass synths, hypnotic loops and stop-start rhythm, occasionally interrupted by Missy explaining her motivations for the previous song as if it was an Alexei Sayle sketch. Method Man, Jay-Z, Ludacris and Beyonce all show up, but none steal the limelight away from Miss E herself. This is a good album.

Eminem, ‘The Marshall Mathers LP’

Who even uses the term ‘LP’ anymore? Released in 2000, this echoes the then-mainstream taste for OTT cartoon violence (nu-metal, WWF, Jerry Springer: fin de siecle tension everywhere) while simultaneously picking up beefs, lashing out at haters and addressing his mercurial rise to fame over a whopping 77 minutes. As with the Slim Shady album, Em seems conflicted, simultaneously craving attention with his Shady persona and being narked at the attention when he gets it: this album contains both murder fantasy ‘Kim’ and “I was just joking about that murder fantasy lol” take ‘Stan’. It still sounds pretty palatable musically, but it’s very much a time capsule from 2000 in other ways: references to Limp Bizkit, Columbine, Carson Daly, and, well… the album is also unmistakably homophobic, whether or not the author is. It’s one thing to offer the excuse “that word was thrown around so much, you know, “faggot” was like thrown around constantly to each other, like in battling,” but what about the skit where he imagines Insane Clown Posse giving him oral sex, or the line in ‘Marshall Mathers’ where his mom’s attorney is “just aggravated I won’t ejaculate in his ass”? This was a very well-regarded album at the time, but it feels like it’s best left in the past.

Jungle Brothers, ‘Done By The Forces of Nature’

Sixteen tracks over an hour with no skits or resting, the Jungle Brothers offer a similar line of colourful samples (funk, rock, jazz, swing) and surreal rhyming to associates De La Soul (themselves referenced in the first song and featured on the fifteenth). They’re as interested in black culture as Public Enemy, but while PE are interested in combating oppression and misrepresentation, the Brothers focus on love and history. It’s a long album but, appealing to the feet and the brain, this is worth checking out.

Jurassic 5, ‘Power In Numbers’

The LA sextet (yes, sextet) were always interested in going back to the old school, so must be delighted that, now that their debut album is nearly 20 years old, they themselves are eligible for the honorific ‘old school’. I had ‘Jurassic 5’ but didn’t feel like I particularly needed any other albums by the posse, a feeling which listening to ‘Power In Numbers’ doesn’t completely eliminate. There is some good stuff on here: the Tarantino twang of ‘A Day At The Races’ sounds great, while ‘After School Special’ at least has an amusing punchline when the kid rappers angling for a verse in the intro get put on the track and flap it. But then something like ‘Thin Line’, a Minnie Riperton-sampling song about friendzoning with Nelly Furtado, feels like an obvious attempt at a big hit: and it wasn’t even a single! More funky and lyrically focused than ‘Jurassic 5’ but probably 20 minutes too long.

Run-DMC, ‘Raising Hell’

‘Raising Hell’ was a big deal at the time, featuring as it does ‘Walk This Way’, the gateway drug for MTV to start playing rap, and other famous singles ‘It’s Tricky’ and ‘My Adidas’. But like Grandmaster Flash, these historical landmarks don’t necessarily translate to an album that still sounds compelling this century: it retains the minimalism and adds kooky samples, but it feels like it’s lost some of the unique feel that ‘Run-DMC‘ has. It was a big influence on people like LL Cool J, yet the trio’s best trick – the word-swapping exchanges between the two rappers – only really influenced the Beastie Boys.

A Tribe Called Quest, ‘People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm’

An album almost as long as that title at 62 minutes, Q-Tip’s production apprenticeship during the De La Soul recording sessions is conspicuous in Tribe’s day-glo sample-and-scratch combination. There’s some familiar stuff going into the Akai: ‘Can U Kick It?’ is of course based around a Lou Reed track, ‘Bonita Applebum’ uses the same sitar twang as the Fugees’ ‘Killing Me Softly’, and ‘Push It Along’ features a rare Beatles sample (from ‘All You Need is Love’). As I listened to this in the same week as the Jungle Brothers, it felt like familiar territory: the jazz influences and live bass of ‘The Low End Theory’ is a more distinctive take on the genre.

Next week: We’ll be delving into unfamiliar territory by looking at the Asian albums on the list! I’m sure there’s plenty.

Status update: 576 listened to (58%), 425 remaining

July 16: Ryan Adams, Frank Black, Blue Nile, Deep Purple, Massive Attack,Orange Juice, REM

This week, we’ll be looking at one of our flimsiest categories yet, as this week’s septet are included because either the band name or album name features a colour! What will be joining Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, ‘Kind of Blue’ and the White Stripes in the 1001 canon? Read on.

Ryan Adams, ‘Gold’

This album’s title confuses the heck out of music shop staff, as this album and Cat Power’s ‘The Greatest’ are frequently found lumped in with Best Of collections. In fact, it’s just Adams’s second solo album after leaving Whiskeytown. It’s a bewilderingly uninspiring 70 minutes of country rock, the sound of someone aiming to be nominated for multiple Grammys, taking his cues from Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young yet learning nothing about their urgency or intensity. Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, whose own work is arranged starkly, turn up for a brace of writing credits, but even their songs are smothered in uninspiring full band line-ups. The album’s highlight is CC White’s ‘Gimme Shelter’ impression on ‘Tina Toledo’s Street Walking Blues’, but it’s just an album.

Frank Black, ‘Teenager of the Year’

The former Pixie and one-time Teenager of the Year clearly had a lot to say on his second solo album, flexing his songwriting muscles over a whopping 22 songs in 62 minutes. With former Beefheart/Pere Ubu bassist Eric Drew Feldman at the helm, the songs are more sonically diverse than Pixies, with synths and pianos prominent and one song pausing for a dub reggae breakdown. The album’s fine, but some editorial control would have helped: it felt as though I was listening to one of Spotify’s extended editions.

Blue Nile, ‘A Walk Across the Rooftops’

Recorded in the 80s and put out on a record label owned by drum machine manufacturers Linn, ‘A Walk Across the Rooftops’ is sophisti-pop in a Scotch brogue, mostly based around piano and synth, topped lightly with ‘Baba O’Riley’ ARP drizzle, but lacking essential ingredients like melody or hook. Too often, the album receded into the background, partially due to its gentle subtlety, but generally due to meandering instrumental sections with no obvious value. This was not very good.

Deep Purple, ‘Deep Purple in Rock’

Our second visit to the organ-driven hard-rockers is a lot like the first: heavy riffs, lengthy solos, falsetto, and the tempo-shifting quasi-prog ‘Child in Time’. Ritchie Blackmore and Jon Lord give the band its distinctive flavour: the former adding screeching histronics whenever he lets loose, the latter plugging his organ into whatever amplifier was available, with unique results. An album which codified hard rock early, and feels like it has all the essential components of Purple’s style. Beware though: contains drum solo.

Massive Attack, ‘Blue Lines’

Like Harlow’s theory of bonding in developmental child psychology, I think there was probably a crucial period in which I could have got into Massive Attack, but once that had passed, I’d never be able to do it. The end of that period was probably 1999, after which their context and significance receded into the past. ‘Blue Lines’ came out in 1991, a bit before I got into music, and by the time I caught up, all its parts had been looted for other works: trip-hop, Warp electronica, Bjork, BBC muzak. At the time, though, this downtempo collection’s fusion of Herbie Hancock, Lee Perry, house music and hip-hop must have sounded astonishing. To the modern listener, it’s mostly better when Shara Nelson is on vocals, rather than the boys rapping inexactly and doing Topol impressions. This does, of course, have the immaculate ‘Unfinished Sympathy’, which turns up mid-album but just about avoids overshadowing everything else on it.

Orange Juice, ‘Rip It Up’

The band are best remembered for the title track here, a Franz Ferdinand template which also named Simon Reynolds’s exhaustive post-punk study. The band’s second album in less than 12 months, the line-up only retained Edwyn Collins and bassist David McClymont from the first, adding Zimbabwean drummer Zeke Manyika and songwriting guitarist Malcolm Ross here. The diversity of the sound kind of positions them as a Scottish Talking Heads: most of the tracks sound distinct from one another, from African rhythms to reggae to Wedding Present-ish lo-fi indie, while maintaining a coherency. Pretty good.

REM, ‘Green’

There are a few more REM albums on the list, and I already did ‘Automatic for the People‘, so this is probably their best-known album on the list. It bounces between jangly, if introverted, 80s guitar pop and acoustic, mandolin-heavy numbers, with Mike Mills occasionally contributing keyboards as well as bass. The album’s biggest song is also consistent with this week’s theme: ‘Orange Crush’. It’s very listenable, but I suspect the albums of REM’s I’m most interested in are not on the list (‘Out of Time’, ‘Monster’, ‘New Adventures in Hi-Fi’).

Next week: we’ll be bringing the beat back with another rap week!

Status update: 569 listened to (57%), 432 remaining

 

July 9: Blues – four Jo(h)ns (Lee Hooker, Mayall, Spencer and Dr), BB King, Muddy Waters, The Yardbirds

Woke up this morning, checked out the news, I had to listen to seven albums in the style of the blues.

I said, I woke up this morning, now baby don’t you cry, it’s blues week on 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.

Dr John, ‘Gris Gris’

I selected this week’s albums knowing little about them, but my understanding of the Night Tripper was that he was a blues pianist, kind of like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (who isn’t on the list at all). This album, however, has little piano and bears only the dimmest resemblance to blues – or anything else. ‘Dance Kalimba Ya Boom’ has some Arabian flavourings, ‘Dance Fambeaux’ a 60s psychedelia workout with disembodied female vocals and church bell percussion, and ‘Croker Courtbullion’ engages a call-and-response flute/harpsichord/Moog section. This was John’s debut album, released on an Atlantic subsidary, so who knows what possessed him to adopt this persona and record this album (New Orleans voodoo loas perhaps). What a great gimmick, though, and what a great record. In it, you can see the origins of Tom Waits, Nick Cave and no doubt a million other swampy weirdos of his type.

John Lee Hooker, ‘The Healer’

Hooker’s only appearance on the list doesn’t get off to a promising start: the artwork is reminiscent of the poster for ‘The Human Centipede: First Sequence’, and the first song is an awful Santana collaboration driven mostly by cheap electric piano. Once Carlos and his mob are out of the way, though, the rest of the first half is mostly energetic electric blues, collaborating with Bonnie Raitt, Los Lobos and others. The second half, where Hooker is mostly solo, is generally a bit more meandering and undistinguished. Tracks 2-6 are very good, though. This album was recorded when Hooker was 78, making him almost certainly the oldest performer on the list. It sold well enough to enable him to live in comfort for the rest of his life. Boom boom.

John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, ‘Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton’

Aside from a solo on the White Album, this is Eric Clapton’s first (but not last) appearance on the blog. Here, it’s 1966 and in the same year as ‘Blonde on Blonde’, ‘Revolver’ and ‘Good Vibrations’, four white English guys were trying to sound like a 50s Beale Street jam band. Although none of the tracks here exceed the five-minute mark, they contain plenty of my musical Room 101s: there’s a drum solo, loads of harmonica and a whole motorway of jams. My partner suggested this album’s credited artist would be better named “Boring Dude and the White Men”. Not, as you might have guessed, one I’ll be coming back to.

Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, ‘Now I Got Worry’

A lot of Johns and Jons this week, eh? Not the only album this week to have been released after punk broke (my heart) but the only one to acknowledge it, JSBX take some of the staples of blues – bottleneck slide, Bo Diddley riffs – and incorporate punkish raucousness, dub and DJ Shadow-ish cut-up sounds, then record everything on what sounds like a four-track Tascam. It’s thrillingly unpredictable and experimental, the rough production very effective on such loose, edgy music. If I have a gripe, it’s that there’s too many tracks, making it feel long: trimming four of its sixteen tracks out would have taken the running time under 40 minutes, but the dynamic impact would have been more effective.

BB King, ‘Live at the Regal’

Initially, I thought this album by the Blues Boy was too smooth – probably after the Blues Explosion – but I warmed to the album as it went on. Perhaps it’s the overjoyed audience, or the way the band play continuously, even as King introduces the next song with an instruction (to listen to the lyrics, for example) or an anecdote. The audience seem to get tired in the second set, as their reception is muted, and the album ends oddly abruptly without a big finale or a swelling ovation from the crowd. It’s easy to be charmed by this one.

Muddy Waters, ‘At Newport 1960’

Another live album, this starts with the endless, ickily-titled ‘I Got My Brand On You’, which isn’t a promising start. Muddy and his band seem to be on cruise control for the first few tracks, but please the audience by picking up the tempo on ‘Tiger in my Tank’ and ‘I Feel So Good’. Yes, a blues song called ‘I Feel So Good’. Taken out of context nearly sixty years after its recording, this album doesn’t seem like a particularly big deal, but it played an important part in popularising blues among a white European audience. Still, as a listener, I prefer Waters’ later album ‘Hard Again‘.

The Yardbirds, ‘The Yardbirds’

The Yardbirds had something of a revolving door when it came to lead guitarists: at this point, they were post-Clapton but pre-Jimmy Page. Stepping up to the plate, Jeff Beck, all white noise and Ravi Shankar influences. I was kind of expecting all the tracks to sound like mid-B-side instrumental 12-bar frittering ‘Jeff’s Boogie’. Instead, the band constantly keep me guessing, whether it’s tangential wanderings off the track on ‘Lost Woman’ and ‘The Nazz Are Blue’,  monastic vocal breaks, or the kitchen-sink percussive approach (guiro and wobble board both show up). As much as the band feel like they’re anchored to their blues-rock template, every track on this album threw up something unusual or unexpected. I’d recommend this one, and while all the credit can’t go to Beck here, I’m looking forward to hearing his solo record ‘Truth’ later on the list.

Next week: This week, we did blues, so next week, let’s have a look at some of the other colours on the list!

Progress update: 562 listened to (56%), 439 remain