January 28: Gene Clark, Holger Czukay, Donald Fagen, Gorillaz, Paul McCartney & Wings, Rocket From The Crypt, Tom Tom Club

Spin-offs aren’t always great, are they. For every ‘Frasier’ there’s a Joey, for every ‘Mork and Mindy’ there’s a ‘Joanie Loves Chachi’. The same is true of music: side-projects and offshoots are rarely remembered as fondly as the originals, whether that’s Ringo Starr’s solo albums or Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds. Still, there are some exceptions. This week we look at artists whose second career yielded some commercial and critical acclaim.

Gene Clark, ‘White Light’ (link)

The first album from the Byrds’ main songwriter credited to him alone (there had been three collaborative albums before it), this is an okay but not especially varied collection of country-ish songs built predominantly around the acoustic guitar and harmonica. Perhaps Clark was playing it safe, perhaps just finding his feet, but either way the more diverse sounds of ‘No Other‘ feel more interesting to me.

Holger Czukay, ‘Movies’ (link)

Oddly titled ‘Movie’ on Spotify, this is a predictably eccentric album from the former Can bassist/tape operator, who expands his role here to play keyboards and guitar and sing in a reedy, accented falsetto. It combines arty rock with samples of dialogue and other sounds: a 70s Avalanches, perhaps. It’s interesting to hear once at least. Czukay worked with Brian Eno on a 1977 track, but it’s odd that they didn’t collaborate beyond that: they seem like they’d have been kindred spirits. Sadly, we lost Czukay last year, aged 79.

Donald Fagen, ‘The Nightfly’ (link)

Fagen’s first solo album and only solo appearance on the list came after the split of Steely Dan but features many of the same musicians and engineers they’d been working with. ‘The Nightfly’ is apparently popular with audiophiles: it’s got the sort of clarity of production that you’d want from a speaker system demonstration, but it’s also been made by soft-rock musicians in the early 1980s and it shows. Predominantly based around electric piano, synth and harmonies, there’s something anodyne about it, rarely suggesting it’ll throw up any challenges or threats.

Gorillaz, ‘Gorillaz’ (link)

Recorded in 19/2000… wait, in 1998-2000, this unsurprisingly doesn’t sound too far removed from the post-‘The Great Escape’ era of Blur; in fact, with the grab bag of world music influences, melodica, simple acoustic guitar and fairground organ, it’s immediately recognisable as Damon Albarn even before he starts yelping “she turned my dad on!” over the top of it. Despite being a Blur fan, I never completely warmed to Gorillaz (I’ve heard ‘Plastic Beach’ and ‘Humanz’ too): alas, I haven’t been won over here. The cartoon characters play no part on the record (no skits or anything).

Paul McCartney & Wings, ‘Band on the Run’ (link)

The band the Beatles could’ve been only feature on the list once (there’s a McCartney solo record too). Recorded during turbulent sessions in Nigeria – two of the band left before they even got there, the studio was no good, the McCartneys were robbed at knifepoint, Fela Kuti turned up to confront the band about cultural appropriation – there’s little evidence of the troubles on the record, which mostly sounds upbeat. The best thing here is the many shifting sections of the title track; much of the rest is undone by McCartney’s tendencies to write blandly nice songs and/or his self-conscious attempts to push against that.

Rocket From The Crypt, ‘Scream, Dracula, Scream!’ (link)

RFTC’s appearances on British TV plugging dumb genius lead off single ‘On A Rope’ occupy a space in my mind somewhere between Andrew WK’s ‘Party Hard’ and the Glam Metal Detectives’ ‘Everybody Up!’ (by the way the latter, a novelty song from a BBC2 sketch show, is a lot worse than I remembered).  The feeling that they were at the very least a semi-ironic take on Alice Cooper’s 70s stuff isn’t completely dissipated by the album, although it’s good fun and at least it doesn’t sound like Goldblade. RFTC only just count as a spin-off; slightly preceded by Swami/Speedo’s Drive Like Jehu, the bands mostly existed simultaneously and he treated them equally.

Tom Tom Club, ‘Tom Tom Club’ (link)

While David Byrne occupied himself with ‘My Life in the Bush of Ghosts’, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth found themselves at a loose end, which they resolved by working on a side-project of their own. It’s an unusual combination of Afrobeat, dance music and the wayward guitar of future King Crimson and Nine Inch Nails guitarist Adrian Belew, who adds an unpredictable edge. It feels like a breath of fresh air 37 years later; it must have sounded great in 1981.

Next week: we’ll be looking at some of the best artists in the animal kingdom!

Status update: 749 listened to (74%), 252 remaining.


January 21: Fugees, Ice T, Jay-Z, LL Cool J, Outkast, The Pharcyde, MC Solaar

As we head into the last 250 albums on the list, it’s time for a week dedicated to hip-hop and rap for the final time (although there are still a few other rap albums on the list). Let’s see what treats are on the ghetto blaster this week.

Fugees, ‘The Score’

Erratic public behaviour from Lauryn Hill and Wyclef Jean has possibly cheapened the long-term appeal of the Haitian/American trio, and the comeback was notoriously disastrous, leaving ‘The Score’  – only the band’s second album, but their final – responsible for almost the entirety of their legacy. It’s the one with all the hits (although ‘Killing Me Softly’ drenches Hill’s vocals with reverb and adds unnecessary studio backchat). There’s a difference between populist and popular though, of course, and while you can see hints of Jean’s future pandering to the former (‘No Woman No Cry’ is inessential), the album feels quite sparsely arranged – a hit in spite of itself maybe. ‘Ready Or Not’ is probably the best thing here, however much you might feel it owes its debt to that Enya sample.

Ice-T, ‘OG: Original Gangster’

The fourth album from Ice initially sounds like it won’t offer too many surprises as he raps in a matter of fact way about bodybags, new jack hustlers and the like over a familiar recipe of samples and breakbeats BUT THEN, more than halfway through the album, he announces that he’s been working on another project and introduces a cut from it – and it’s Body Count, his aggressive but preposterous metal band, doing their eponymous track with that ridiculous drum solo. He also finds time to sample the ‘Hallowe’en’ theme tune on the last proper song, ‘The Tower’. Would benefit from 20 minutes shaving off: the album is over 70 minutes long with 24 tracks.

Jay-Z, ‘The Blueprint’

Generally regarded as Hova’s masterpiece, it sounds fantastic, that’s for sure: lush, with masterfully manipulated samples by producers Bink and Kanye West, allowing space for the rap mogul to lay down his unhurried bragging. Even a visit to Eminem’s house, with its typical tinny synth sound, isn’t as difficult as it normally is. I’m not sure that this tops ‘The Black Album’, though: for all its massive success, it doesn’t have a hit the size of ’99 Problems’ or ‘Empire State of Mind’ and the hooks aren’t quite as captivating. This is our sole visit to Jay-Z, though; presumably later editions of the book redress this a bit.

LL Cool J, ‘Mama Said Knock You Out’

Our only visit to LL’s output is his most highly-regarded, with the title track being his most famous single, and a song called ‘Mr Good Bar’ presumably referencing the Diane Keaton shocker from the 70s. Cool James rarely invites his friends to join in, but he’s such an assured presence on vocals that it doesn’t really matter, going on extended riffs and flows while sampling contemporaries like Public Enemy and Digital Underground.

MC Solaar, ‘Qui seme le vent recolte le tempo’ 

I believe this is our only French language rapper and the novelty of hearing hip-hop 1991 style rapped in a louche French drawl means this one stands out, although he’s not above English-language puns (with the closer being ‘Funky Dreamer’). It mostly sounds pretty good, with West Coast style beats and Solaar varying between seductive, laidback rhyming and triple-time flows.

Outkast, ‘Speakerboxxx/The Love Below’

One of the longest albums on the list and essentially an Outkast album in name only, as it comprises two solo albums on which the members only occasionally interact. Big Boi’s ‘Speakerboxxx’ is a Southern hip-hop album which is perfectly fine, hanging out with Ludacris and Lil Jon on an album which flies by. The real interesting stuff is on Andre 3000’s ‘The Love Below’, though, with two huge hits (‘Roses’ and ‘Hey Ya’), a weird harpsichord song with Kelis called ‘Dracula’s Wedding’ and a strings-and-breakbeats cover of ‘My Favourite Things’. At two hours, this is too long for repeated whole-album listens but I think I’ll go back to Andre’s disc.

The Pharcyde, ‘Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde’

The band’s first album and one they subsequently struggled to follow up, this features four goofballs teaming up with a jazz piano/bass player who leads them through jazzy soundscapes similar to later Tribe Called Quest or Roots albums. It sounds totally different to the Golden Age or West Coast stuff that was coming out at the time, so no wonder it got such acclaim: in 2018 it sounded okay but it feels like their template was refined and perfected by others later on.

Next week: Another look at some of the second careers – it’s a follow-on projects week!

Progress update: 742 listened to (74%), 259 remain.

January 14: Basement Jaxx, Beastie Boys, Dr Octagon, The Gun Club, The Police, Spacemen 3, Spirit

This week on the 1001, we’re looking at albums or artists whose names link to emergencies: be those crimes, fires or medical emergencies. So dial 999, 911, 000 or your country’s respective code, and let’s see whether any of these albums are as crucial.

Basement Jaxx, ‘Remedy’ (link)

I know, already reaching conceptually here but you’d need a remedy from a hospital right? The Jaxx song I always think of is the hard-to-like ‘Where’s Your Head At’, but this one, their breakthrough, features perhaps their more fondly-remembered hits ‘Red Alert’ and ‘Rendez-vu’ [sic]. Twenty years later, both sound pretty good, but the album they’re wrapped in meanders: perhaps better designed for playing at a party than for home listening.

Beastie Boys, ‘Ill Communication’ (link)

The album with ‘Sabotage’ on, this moves around thrash punk, shouty rap, lounge-y jazz and funk. Sometimes it’s the Beastie Boys themselves on instruments, sometimes it’s samples and drum machines. A lot going on here then: oddly what renders it consistent is the production from Mario Caldato Jr, even if that production means everything sounds like it was recorded in a dumpster (especially the band’s vocals). It sounds pretty good overall, with ‘Sure Shot’ the best track, and even finds time for a trailer for a spin-off record: closer ‘Transmissions’ runs like a preview of keyboardist Money Mark’s album ‘Push the Button’. One more Beasties album on the list to come.

Dr Octagon, ‘Dr Octagonecologyst’ (link)

That’s ‘Dr Octagon, Gynecologist’ rather than ‘Dr Octagon, Ecologist’. This is this week’s underground hip-hop concept album after we met Digital Underground last week: here, Kool Keith imagines himself as a Jovian surgeon, gynecologist and general curator of a surreal nightmarish hospital where unlikely (and mostly unsuccessful) operations take place. Dan The Automator, Kutmasta Kurt and DJ Qbert hold shit down in the background, creating a vaguely Wu-Tang sound with knackered vinyl, spooky samples, wah-wah pedal scratching and live instruments (Keith on bass, Dan on violin). Like ‘Sex Packets’, Keith focuses more on world-building than clear plot, but he gets away with it: this record still seems fresh 22 years later.

The Gun Club, ‘Fire of Love’ (link)

Kind of reminding me of ‘Wild Gift’ by X, this is a sort-of early rockabilly album released in 1981 which introduced Delta blues sounds to punk. It’s not as urgent as ‘Wild Gift’, adding a layer of goofy and possibly improvised sexuality to the lyrics (as well as lyrics like ‘She’s Like Heroin To Me’: a big statement for Jeffrey Lee Pierce, an opiates abuser). It’s fine but I doubt I’ll come back to it. The band’s stop-start career was terminated permanently in 1996 when Pierce died of a brain hemorrhage at just 37.

The Police, ‘Reggatta de Blanc’ (link)

With its fusion of reggae grooves and scratchy dub into pop-rock songwriting structures, this is along vaguely similar lines to the Slits’ ‘Cut’, but adding a commercial gloss and by necessity taking out the St Trinians camaraderie. Often, it sounds like a very tight rhythm section promoted to full band: Andy Summers rarely plays solos and the title track doesn’t even have words. The best thing on the record is opener and megahit ‘Message in a Bottle’, but ‘Bring on the Night’ feels like the sort of thing hipsters would go wild for if, say, Animal Collective put it out. Less accomplished when demonstrating inexpert skills on the piano, but the album mostly sounds pretty good.

Spacemen 3, ‘Playing With Fire’ (no official link available)

The only appearance for the Rugby member-fluid group often features no percussion at all and often submerges the vocals of J Spaceman and Sonic Boom under guitars and swooping effects. Mostly blissed-out and trebly, but sometimes heavy and distorted, this was a lot less tiresome than I was expecting given the band’s reputation as a drone act. Some of it does have the monotonous hypnotism of Krautrock, while Spaceman’s few-and-far-between contributions hint at his future with Spiritualized: closer ‘Lord, Can You Hear Me?’ featured on one of that band’s album’s too. This might have sounded mimsy and shoegaze-y with a full band, but by kicking out the stability that that arrangement might have offered, the band instead produce something more arresting and vital.

Spirit, ‘Twelve Dreams of Dr Sardonicus’ (link)

It’s probably not Spirit’s fault, but this far into the project, this is the sort of album I’m getting weary of: competently played, vaguely psychedelic 60s rock (although actually released in 1970 juxtaposing rough-edged country with tinges of jazz, occasional piano interludes and wandering psychedelic noodles. I was kind of expecting this would be a concept album, but if there is a concept it’s not immediately obvious. Spirit don’t appear on the list again so no further opportunity to familiarise myself with their career; this album was mostly penned by the excellently-named Randy California (a pseudonym, although his real name is even better: Randy Wolfe).

Next week: For the final time, we’ll be doing an all-rap week.

Status update: 735 albums listened to (73%), 266 remaining.

January 7: Digital Underground, Fishbone, Giant Sand, Nanci Griffith, Ute Lemper, The Young Gods, The Young Rascals,

Welcome back to 1001! Hope everyone had a nice Christmas and New Year. This week, we’re covering off seven albums about which I knew nothing whatsoever: even from the artist’s name I couldn’t figure out what it might sound like. Cloth-eared ignorance on my part, no doubt. None of these artists are on the list more than once, either. Let’s start.

Digital Underground, ‘Sex Packets’ (link)

They sound like a techno band with that name but in fact Digital Underground were an early 90s rap collective who briefly featured a young Tupac Shakur. This album revolves around a complicated, non-linear plot in which drug dealers come into possession of ‘sex packets’ – a sort of aphrodisiac hallucinogenic which makes the user believe they are having fabulous sex with someone of their choice – and the spiral into hedonism and decadence that follows (I say “follows”: all the songs on that subject precede the introduction of the sex packets). There’s no conclusion to the narrative, but it sustains the often long, imaginative songs, which sometimes sound like Arrested Development backed by the Bomb Squad, sometimes sound like chart-friendly novelty hip-hop, and sometimes pause for a lengthy jazz piano improvisation. I liked this.

Fishbone, ‘Truth and Soul’ (link)

Depending on where you put Faith No More, I’m fairly confident in saying that 80s funk-rock is a branch of music which hasn’t yielded a single album I like. Fishbone don’t do a whole lot to sway my stance, running through an unpleasant-sounding Curtis Mayfield cover, a song called ‘Mighty Long Way’ which sounds like Phil Collins, an acapella spot, a reggae song and a 90-second thrash in the first six tracks alone. It’s all produced in that echoey, trebly 80s way which… well, it hasn’t aged well, and most of the material is written in some of my all-time least favourite styles. The most interesting note about Fishbone is that, a few years after this album came out, guitarist Kendall Jones (whose overdriven Kidd Funkadelic impression here grates) left the band and joined his father’s religious group. Bassist Norwood Fisher, accompanied by Jones’s brothers, went to get him out of the group, only to then be arrested for kidnapping! Fisher, who was acquitted, still tours with Fishbone today.

Giant Sand, ‘Chore of Enchantment’ (link)

The Spotify version describes itself as the “25th anniversary edition” even though the album came out in 1999; the band have been around since 1985 so it’s possible that all their stuff was reissued simultaneously in 2010? This reminded me of the albums Eels were putting out around the same time, slouching between grizzled ballad and Tom Waits-goes-hip hop percussive jams (the album features John Parish, Eels’ key collaborator on ‘Souljacker’), while Howe Gelb’s low-volume mutterings put me in mind of Mt Eerie. It’s okay but not tremendously arresting when there are superior versions of the same album on the commercial fringes. As for the title: it seems to refer to the formality of getting married, a bit of tiresome administration amid the wonder of love.

Nanci Griffith, ‘Last of the True Believers’ (link)


Just to date this album a bit, the cover sees Nanci posed outside a Woolworth’s. Griffith recovered from an early, Shangri-Las-ish tragedy when her boyfriend took her to the high school prom only to then die in a motorcycle accident. She went on to make country music of a folksy hue. This, her fourth album, is very accomplished, but I have a kind of blind spot with country: given the similarities I’m not really seeing what the list benefits from having this and not another Dolly Parton album.

Ute Lemper, ‘Punishing Kiss’

I vaguely expected this to sound like the Dagmar Krause album, and there are some superficial similarities (German, likes Brecht and Weill). Lemper’s album, recorded in 1999, is less abrasive than Krause’s, as she pairs up with The Divine Comedy to cover songs by Elvis Costello, Tom Waits and the Divine Comedy themselves. You wonder if Shirley Bassey could have performed exactly the same album given the John Barry orchestrations. Sometimes it’s a bit clumsy: Hannon’s vocal contributions especially don’t really work, particularly on ‘Tango Ballad’ where the two singers have to cram lyrics in like James Dean Bradfield to ensure syncopation to the 4/4 drum machine. All the David Arnold machines-and-orchestra stuff, though, appears to be a trap: once your defences are lowered, Lemper finishes the album with one of Scott Walker’s 11-minute avant-garde tracks, ‘Scope J’. It’s the only instance of Walker’s later career on the list, and the most startling thing here.

The Young Gods, ‘L’Eau Rouge’ (link)

These were a Swiss industrial band who, as well as influencing big names like Nine Inch Nails and Devin Townsend, were also apparently the first industrial band that David Bowie heard. Listening to this album, it’s a wonder that Bowie bothered to continue to explore industrial music, as the combination of accordion and string samples, clattering drums and continental barking is a mix that doesn’t entirely work. The album’s whiplash moods – one minute they’re Leonard Cohen, the next they’re Ministry – are pretty disjointed too. Whatever the influence that the band had, I kind of feel like the template was refined and improved by later acts – KMFDM perhaps, or just Rammstein.

The Young Rascals, ‘Groovin” (link)

This could have sounded like anything and come out at any time from the 1950s onwards with that name, so all bets were off. It is, however, a 1967 album from a kind of blue eyed soul band. I was surprised to find that I knew two of the songs: the laidback title track, and ‘How Can I Be Sure’ (later a hit for Dusty Springfield). Perfectly acceptable music: I wouldn’t list it in the top 10 or even 20 for the decade, but there were so many great albums in the 60s that that’s no disgrace.

Next week: Someone please call 911 (not the boyband). In another gimmicky theme week, we’re looking at albums where emergency services feature in their name or artist name. Will The Police feature? TUNE IN TO FIND OUT!

Status update: 728 albums listened to (72%), 273 remain.

December 31: The KLF, Le Tigre, Manic Street Preachers, My Bloody Valentine, Portishead, The Smashing Pumpkins, The Velvet Underground

In our final update of 2017 we’ll be looking at another septet of my favourites from the list, all of which I’d heard prior to embarking on this project. Back to normal from January 7. I’m expecting to have heard all 1001 by October 2018.

The KLF, ‘The White Room’

I’d have put the band’s proto-ambient, vaguely conceptual ‘Chill Out’ on the list too, but this is Drummond and Cauty’s only appearance on the list. Originally conceived as a Pet Shop Boys-ish soundtrack to a film that was never finished, the failure of the single ‘Kylie Said To Jason’ caused a change in direction, leading to some dramatically different reworkings of songs and the complete abandoning of others. The version that was released features the best known versions of ‘What Time Is Love?’ and ‘3AM Eternal’, while the Arista version replaces the original downtempo ‘Last Train to Trancentral’ with the awesome stadium house nonsense of the single. Subsequent reworkings of ‘Justified and Ancient’ and ‘What Time Is Love?’ were hits, but it wasn’t enough for the restless duo, who deleted their back catalogue, burnt all their royalties and embarked on an idiosyncratic career as artists and authors. It’s easy to see the KLF as a band more interesting to talk about than to listen to, and the singles here are the best tracks by some margin. It still sounds pretty good though: the breakbeats and sax of ‘Make It Rain’, the Twin Peaks pedal steel of ‘Build A Fire’ and the dimly-visible, mysterious concept that unifies the album.

Le Tigre, ‘Le Tigre’ (link)

Originally formed to act as the live band for Kathleen Hanna’s fitfully brilliant ‘Julie Ruin’ album, Le Tigre’s (and Hanna’s) lone appearance on the list is a collection of scratchy, political pop songs, kind of sounding like Phil Spector armed only with a knackered sampler and an overdriven guitar. While this didn’t single-handedly invent the genre or anything, what it did do is demonstrate that three women with a drum machine making danceable chant songs could be just as punk, and just as cool, as anything that the Warped Tour was putting out. Opener ‘Deceptacon’, a put-down of Fat Wreck fuckboys, is the best-known song on here, but my favourite is ‘Eau D’Bedroom Dancing’, advocating Stay Home Club and with one of the better guitar lines on any of Kathleen’s output. This is the only full album to feature Sadie Benning: replaced with the effervescent JD Samson from the second album on, poor Benning wasn’t even mentioned in the Hanna biopic ‘The Punk Singer’.

Manic Street Preachers, ‘The Holy Bible’ (link)

The only Manics album I really engaged with is also their toughest and least compromising. For a few seconds, it sounds unremarkable: the quiet/loud dynamic of ‘Yes’ seems initially unassuming, but a glance at the lyric sheet explodes its radio-friendly sound (the word ‘cunt’ four words in, the prostitution theme, the ‘hurt myself to get pain out’ line: not ‘Top of the Pops’ fare, this). Lyricists Richey James and Nicky Wire cover a lot of ground here: lyrics about the Holocaust, capital punishment, anorexia, desire, ageing and suffering crammed in so densely that singer/composer James Dean Bradfield has to jam words in at machine-gun tempo (one song opens “images of perfection, suntan and napalm/Grenada, Haiti, Poland, Nicaragua”). Bradfield and Moore, meanwhile, ditch the American hard rock and metal influences of the first two albums with music that sounds somewhere between Gang Of Four-ish post-punk and Killing Joke-esque industrial; musically, it’s the only Richey-era album which doesn’t sound dated. Plumbing the depths of human misery and finding no solutions or remorse, it’s no wonder that Richey couldn’t find his way back: six months after this album came out, he vanished from his hotel and was never seen again.

My Bloody Valentine, ‘Loveless’ (link)

The most vague music ever to have sold in such large quantities? ‘Loveless’ is best understood in the context of the era: it’s mostly based around the same Akai sampler that the KLF were using, while songs like ‘When You Sleep’ sound roughly akin to Dinosaur Jr, albeit a heavily-processed version. The album’s combination of trebly flute samples and dense, overdriven guitars make it both heavy and blissed-out at the same time – a lovely dream while suffering from a migraine, perhaps – while vocalists Bilinda Butcher and/or Kevin Shields mumble over the top, usually so low in the mix that the lyrics are indecipherable. Nevertheless, Shields creates an album with a virtually unique ambience, an album with its own musical universe which has been imitated infinite times in the last 25 years, but rarely with the success achieved here.

Portishead, ‘Dummy’ (link)

Being the contrarian that I am, I think I prefer ‘Portishead’, the band’s second album, but as it isn’t on here we’ll talk about ‘Dummy’. Sort of sounding like Billie Holiday collaborating with Massive Attack, the Bristol-based duo/trio/whatever combine creaky spy movie soundtrack samples with turntables and the Rhodes electric piano, usually sounding warm but here as cold and ghostly as a Wu Tang Clan sample. The variety of textures attempted here sometimes means the album doesn’t flow evenly: ‘Glory Box’ especially feels tacked on, as it fades in and out. The songs themselves are great though: the aching sadness of ‘Roads’ (built around the, uh, Rhodes), the rattling longing of ‘Sour Times’, the spookshow Theremin of ‘Mysterons’. The Spotify version adds the excellent ‘It’s A Fire’, cut late from the UK version of the album, but it renders the album weirdly overlong and lumpy.

The Smashing Pumpkins, ‘Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness’ (link)

It must have been strange to the ‘Siamese Dream’ audience to see the Chicago quartet suddenly dressing like John Tenniel characters, turning to Edward Lear artwork and recording a double album with disc titles like ‘Twilight to Starlight’, but I’d never heard of the band before ‘Tonight, Tonight’ so just assumed that’s how they always looked. Anyway, this loosely conceptual album moves from the psych-grunge of ‘Siamese Dream’ into an album which is simultaneously heavier (‘XYU’, ‘Zero’) and lighter (‘Galapagos’, ‘Take Me Down’), apparently aimed at teenagers and seemingly about the intensity of first love. A whopping two hours long, I’ve always thought it flatlines at ‘We Only Come Out At Night’, but that’s still a pretty solid run of 25 songs without much downtime, and my favourite song on it is nearly ten minutes long: ‘Porcelina of the Vast Oceans’. The ersatz Pumpkins are still going, with some talk of the original line-up returning in 2018.

The Velvet Underground, ‘The Velvet Underground and Nico’ (link)

Celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year, it’s inevitable that age is catching up with the groundbreakingly weird album: ‘Run Run Run’ and ‘European Son (to Delmore Schwartz)’ both revolve around 50s riffs that sound like museum pieces, even if the former has an ear-splitting guitar solo and the latter disintegrates into pre-Sonic Youth chaos. The album fluctuates between moments of louche cool (‘There She Goes Again’, ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’), avant-garde racket (‘Venus In Furs’, ‘The Black Angel’s Death Song’) and oddly delicate lightness which shows even Factory scene kids have hearts (‘Sunday Morning’, ‘Femme Fatale’). You’ve all heard this album already so I’m not going to bring anything new to the table in this review: I loved it when I was 16 and I still love it now. All the first three Velvets albums are great, although I lose interest circa ‘Loaded’ and I’ve never dared listen to ‘Squeeze’ (a Doug Yule solo album in all but name).

That’s it for 2017. Time for a quick look at my favourite five albums I’ve heard in this project in 2017:

Todd Rundgren, ‘A Wizard, A True Star’

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, ‘Architecture and Morality’

Fairport Convention, ‘Unhalfbricking

Otis Redding, ‘Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul

Jerry Lee Lewis, ‘Live at the Star Club, Hamburg

Next week: Seven albums I know literally nothing about – it’s a What The Hell Is This? week!

December 24: Arcade Fire, The Beach Boys, Blur, David Bowie, Brian Eno, Goldfrapp, Madonna

This week and next week, we’ll be looking at some of my favourite albums which are on the list, but which I’d already heard before starting this project. I’d heard 149 of the albums on the list before I started doing this; in time I’ll write about all of them.

Arcade Fire, ‘Funeral’

This year’s ‘Everything Now’ got mixed reviews in the music press, mainly because of the variable quality of the tracks (‘Creature Comfort’ good, ‘Chemistry’ disastrous), but they could do no wrong in critics’ eyes up until at least the third album, ‘The Suburbs’. This is the band’s only appearance on the list, and many fans’ favourites. It’s the massed, orchestral heartfelt passion of tracks like ‘Wake Up’ and ‘Crown of Love’ that appeals: there’s something genuine, in an adolescent way, about Win Butler’s clumsy earnestness. The album’s about love and family and how to convey your emotions (a theme Arcade Fire never abandoned) but of course it ends in heartbreak and bereavement with Regine Chassagne’s ‘In The Backseat’.

The Beach Boys, ‘Pet Sounds’

I’ve been listening to the Beach Boys fervently this year, thanks to an impulse decision to listen to ‘Wild Honey’ and a subsequent obsession with ‘The Smile Sessions’, an album miraculously salvaging Brian’s doomed masterpiece and finishing it. The album I knew and owned of theirs prior to 2017, though, is their acknowledged masterwork ‘Pet Sounds’. Even if the album only had three good songs (‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’, ‘Sloop John B’ and ‘God Only Knows’) it would still be light years ahead of most albums. The combination of peculiar baroque instrumentation, great vocals and introverted melancholia is pretty much perfect throughout, though, even if the band themselves had mixed opinions towards it at the time (it’s quite the departure from the surf stuff). The Wilsons appear on the list a couple more times with ‘Today!’ and ‘Surf’s Up’, but it’s hard to argue with the critical view that this is the band at their apex.

Blur, ‘Parklife’

Blur’s gorblimey lads-on-tour singles ‘Parklife’ and ‘Girls and Boys’ turned them from back-end-of-Top-20 proposition to Top 5 regulars, although I don’t think it tells the whole story. The album perhaps seems less of a peculiar mix if you’ve heard the styles they’re aping: there’s a Cardiacs one (‘Bank Holiday’), a Kinks one (‘Badhead’), a Kurt Weil one (‘The Debt Collector’) and a Syd Barrett one (‘Far Out’) in the same area of the album. What elevates the album from mere pomo pastiches, though, is the way it taps into a particular isolation and futility prevalent in the late 90s: it’s a theme explored throughout their work (‘For Tomorrow’, ‘Best Days’) but feels most successfully accomplished here: even if the album is probably 15 minutes too long.

David Bowie, ‘Aladdin Sane’

The album its creator referred to as Ziggy Does America is more raunchy and heavy than its predecessor, dealing in glammy stompers like ‘Cracked Actor’, ‘The Jean Genie’ and ‘Panic in Detroit’. But it’s also got an eye on Hollywood showstoppers (‘Lady Grinning Soul’) and full-on avant-garde weirdness from ace pianist and new recruit Mike Garson. For all the space-age cosmic dancing of ‘Ziggy Stardust’, I think this is the best of the glam era Bowie.

Brian Eno, ‘Here Come the Warm Jets’

Skipping Roxy Music due to disagreements with Bryan Ferry and boredom with the rock star life, Eno’s solo debut operates in broadly the same sphere as Roxy – glammy art-rock. Yet I’ve always found ‘Here Come The Warm Jets’ a warmer, more personable record than any he made with the band, perhaps due to the eccentric lyrics (“and she tells me/they’re selling up their maisonettes/left the Hotpoints/to rot in the kitchenettes”), the masterful playing (Phil Manzanera, Robert Fripp and Chris Spedding make appearances) or the unpredictable arrangements (the title track has the warm jet guitars drowning out all the other instruments to begin with; they only gradually fade back into the mix). Pretty much all of Eno’s 70s albums are great, including ‘Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)’, which is not on the list.

Goldfrapp, ‘Felt Mountain’

Trading in a cinematic brand of electronica not entirely dissimilar to Portishead’s, Goldfrapp occupy a far weirder space: if Portishead are soundtracking old spy movies, Goldfrapp are scoring twisted versions of Hansel and Gretel. Their key instrument on this album is Alison’s vocal manipulated through the Korg MS20: featuring on both ‘Lovely Head’ and ‘Pilots’, it’s a deeply unusual sound, like a Theremin weeping. Elsewhere, the band trade in Add N To (X)-ish abstractions, Shirley Bassey soundalikes and twilight mysteries repeatedly obscured by the enigmatic, stream-of-consciousness lyrics. The band still release albums, of course, but the only really essential ones are this and ‘Black Cherry’.

Madonna, ‘Ray of Light’

After a run of great singles in the 1980s, the early 90s saw Madge’s shows and lyrics become more and more explicit, the ‘Sex’ book and ‘Erotica’ album being the culmination. ‘Bedtime Stories’ and ‘Evita’ dialled those elements back down, but ‘Ray of Light’ was the first (and final) time I was impressed enough with the singles to buy a Madonna album. The album has almost ambient textures in places, a production that still sounds pretty good: instruments wander and burble and vanish, while the melodies and vocal delivery carry it. Reinventing herself as a sort of mystic Kabbalistic earth goddess, Madonna contributes some of her best vocals (‘Ray of Light’ itself) and melodies (‘Drowned World/Substitute For Love’, as good as anything in 1998), and only the flat house track ‘Nothing Really Matters’ feels dated in 2017.

Next week: More of my favourites from the list.

December 17: David Ackles, American Music Club, Chicago, Drive Like Jehu, Curtis Mayfield, Gil Scott-Heron, United States Of America

Because the USA is such a vast, sprawling place, incorporating a whole plethora of different cultures and dynamics and philosophies, and yet at the same time sharing a generally distinctive identity with codified mythology, it inspires many artists to try and reflect that in their music. This week, we’re looking at seven artists who feature America in either their band name or their album title. No Spotify links this week as weirdly half of these albums weren’t on Spotify.

David Ackles, ‘American Gothic’

This guy was a singer-songwriter who was a big influence on Elton John (among others), but his records were completely ignored at the time and even now, less than 5% of the Listchallenges.com community had listened to this album. It’s a sort of theatrical vaudeville heavy on Americana and Brechtian oompah, somewhere between Scott Walker and Nick Cave, between Rufus Wainwright and Danny Elfman. Ackles, who looked kind of like a 70s cop show actor, was already in his mid-30s when he released this, his third and penultimate album. It’s an album that’s easier to appreciate as a fellow architect than as an aesthete: I can admire the craft but the songs didn’t draw me in.

American Music Club, ‘California’

American Music Club are a Mark Eitzel band who recorded in the 80s and 90s and who are often associated with sadcore: this album is mostly slow, melancholy, vaguely country-ish alt.rock. There’s a pedal steel on a couple of the tracks to augment the Nashville tinge, but the album didn’t yield many surprises apart from the Stooges-and-harmonica mis-step of ‘Bad Liquor’.

Chicago, ‘Chicago Transit Authority’

Recorded in 1969, this is the band’s debut album and, much to the delight of their skeptical record label, a double. It is an eclectic yet coherent combination of brassy jazz-rock, Supertramp-ian ballads, Hendrix noodling and politically-charged anti-Vietnam material. Gets a bit boring in the middle with the lengthy guitar digressions. Amazingly, the band are still going, having released over 30 albums, albeit without guitarist Terry Kath, who died in 1978 by accidentally shooting himself in the head.

Drive Like Jehu, ‘Yank Crime’

I’d never previously heard of DLJ before they were stiffed on the All Tomorrow’s Parties that they were curating, but I was mildly familiar with guitarist John Reis’s chart-troubling later band Rocket From The Crypt. This is my first listen to them. Recorded in 1994, this album still sounds incredibly fresh, mainly because of the genres it deals in: it’s an album of complicated, lengthy, aggressively mathcore-ish emo which sounds like it came out in the last ten years, not 23 years ago. There’s only nine songs over 53 minutes here, and the band’s legacy is apparent in later bands like Rival Schools, Hundred Reasons and no doubt many others. Drummer Mark Trombino went on to helm records by Jimmy Eat World and Blink-182 and presumably made millions of dollars out of emo. Good on him.

Curtis Mayfield, ‘There’s No Place Like America Today’

Another one that few of the Listchallenges community had heard, and Mayfield’s final appearance on the list. Characterised by Curtis’s wah-wah guitar and falsetto, this lushly-orchestrated album is a cool place to hang out for 40 minutes. It creates a consistent atmosphere, stabilised by a lack of tempo shifting, even if the melodies rarely grip. I think my favourite album by this guy is his first, ‘Curtis’, which features ‘Move On Up’.

Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson, ‘Winter in America’

GSH is seen as a big influence to early hip-hop, although like fellow pioneers The Last Poets, the stuff that inspired rappers is more easily understood as post-Beat: spoken word poetry over jazzy keyboards. Here, GSH alternates between poetry and soulful singing, while Jackson contributes 4am jazz club motifs on acoustic and electric pianos and a rhythm section gently accompanies. Okay, but more an album that sounds cool rather than lovable. Confusingly, the song ‘Winter in America’ is on the next album.

The United States of America, ‘The United States of America’

“Reality is temporary,” Dorothy Moskovitz sings halfway through an album apparently dedicated to proving it. This was a trio of weird Commies who got some knackered science lab equipment to make spacey ‘Blake’s 7’ noises and recruited a rhythm section to try and ground the music on planet Earth. Every so often, some olde calliopes play excerpts from Sousa or whatever before someone makes some sci-fi effects on an electric violin or a ring modulator or something. The band’s name is apt: they celebrate the past of American music while violently trying to wrestle it forwards into the atomic age. Sadly, though, their efforts were abortive: this is their only album before they disintegrated.

For the next two weeks, we’re on Christmas break, so the updates will be a round-up of some of the best albums on the list that I’d already heard when I started this project. (Eventually, all the albums will be on the blog).

Status update: 721 listened to (72%), 280 remain.