April 30: Emmylou Harris, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Gillian Welch, Lucinda Williams, Dwight Yoakam

This week’s entry has been a difficult one to write. See, I’ve been feeling real lonesome since my old woman left me, and when I found that she’d found happiness in the arms of another, I had to shoot that guy for stealing my woman. I can’t go back to that prison though, no sir, so I gotta hit that dusty trail again and find myself a new town in which to lay low. Does this sound like an unlikely chain of events? Well, it happens constantly in this week’s genre, country music. Dust off your dobros, fix up that fiddle, and let’s see what this week’s septet has to offer…

Emmylou Harris, ‘Pieces of the Sky’

We first met Emmylou as part of a trio with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt; this is one of two of her solo albums on the list. Released in 1975, ‘Pieces of the Sky’ alternates between cheesy country music tropes (‘Bottle Let Me Down’) and gentle, largely acoustic soft-rock without the bluegrass trimmings (‘Before Believing’). The album is predominantly covers, but the choice is broad: Dolly’s ‘Coat of Many Colours’ appears, Harris does a version of a track by fire-and-brimstone Appalachians The Louvin Brothers, and there’s even a cover of Lennon and McCartney’s ‘For No One’. When the album goes light on the cheese, it’s pretty good.

Merle Haggard and the Strangers, ‘I’m A Lonesome Fugitive’

Haggard was a small-time bootlegger who’d been in prison several times before being scared straight when a couple of his pals hit Death Row. One of Johnny Cash’s prison gigs inspired him to join the prison’s country band, and once he was out of the clink he never looked back. A couple of tracks hint at his background: the title track and ‘Life in Prison’. The album’s most pleasant features are twangy guitar from Glen ‘Wichita Lineman’ Campbell, and the harmony vocals, and just as it threatens to get dull, the album ends.

Willie Nelson, ‘Stardust’

Nelson’s run of successful outlaw country albums gave him the right to do whatever he wanted, and apparently what he wanted in the late 70s was to exchange stetson for tuxedo with a series of cheesy standards, arranged as if he was performing on a cruise ship. Dipping into crooner regulars by the likes of Hoagy Carmichael, Willie produced an album of interpretations that was highly regarded both critically and commercially, but which now sounds like hoary old guff. I guess this is what Rod Stewart was aiming for with his Great American Songbook albums, but this is an astoundingly tedious record.

Dolly Parton, ‘Coat of Many Colours’

Not many singers would write one song in which their mother stitches them a coat out of rags, then follow it with another where she’s a rebellious teen who falls in love with a travelling man only to find her mother is already dating him, and manage to pull both off with aplomb: Dolly Parton, however, can do both effortlessly. Some of the songs here sound almost like psychedelic folk (‘Early Morning Breeze’) while she dabbles unsatisfyingly with theology in ‘The Mystery of the Mystery’. This album is Dolly’s only solo entry on the list, and it’s great: the harmonies and arrangements are all shimmeringly beautiful.

Gillian Welch, ‘Time (The Revelator)’

Welch is the only 21st century country album on the list (at least this edition). Her speciality is minimalist acoustic material, performed with a co-conspirator called David Rawlings. The Nina Nastasia-style sparseness prevents any corn from getting in, particularly on the opening ‘The Revelator’ that slow-burns seven minutes away, and the fifteen-minute closer ‘I Dream A Highway’ that miraculously fails to get monotonous despite its endless length. Only the live cut ‘I Want To Sing That Rock and Roll’ feels like a misfire. This is another album suitable for fragile 2am listens (see also Cowboy Junkies).

Lucinda Williams, ‘Car Wheels on a Gravel Road’

One of the most recent albums this week – a mere 19 years old – ‘Car Wheels on a Gravel Road’ features an appearance from prolific collaborator Emmylou Harris. Williams makes a sort of roots rock that is presumably influenced by Neil Young (and ZZ Top, who are referenced by name on this album), but which also reminds me of her contemporary Sheryl Crow. Where additional colour needs adding, she uses an accordion rather than a pedal steel or a fiddle. This was an easy listen: ‘Drunken Angel’ was the most arresting cut. I was disappointed, though, that ‘2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten’ did not live up to its Sonic Youth/Prince title (also as if it’s not ‘2 Kool 2B 4-Gotten’).

Dwight Yoakam, ‘Buenas Nochas From A Lonely Room’

With that name I was expecting a Tex-Mex border album from the 60s, but Yoakam was in fact an 80s singer who cut his teeth doing support slots for Husker Du before aiming for the top of the country charts with commercial fare like this. Country music in 1988, it seems, meant ugly-sounding drum machines under the fiddle and twanging, akin to Billy Ray Cyrus, Garth Brooks and other acts who liked to tuck their white shirt into their jeans. It’s competently played, the album certainly achieves its objectives, and the last track is pleasant enough, but this sort of music is pretty much my idea of hell. Music to line-dance to.

This week was kind of short of albums I really liked, but next week, it’s editor’s choice! There’s no theme other than “I would really like to hear this album”! Hopefully we’ll find seven great albums lurking in the pile for next Sunday’s update.

Status update: 492 listened to (49%), 509 remain.

April 22: Live – Allman Brothers Band, James Brown, Johnny Cash, Cheap Trick, Deep Purple, Bob Dylan, Peter Frampton

This week we’re coming to you LIVE from the hallowed fields of Coventry UK, in front of 20,000 screaming fans, for seven choice cuts from the 1001 Albums!

*audience screams*

The theme this week is LIVE ALBUMS. I’ve always lumped live albums into the same category as compilations, “unreleased material” and remix albums: i.e., inessential fluff padding out an artist’s catalogue and making some easy bucks from marks. This is, of course, mainly because of 90s bands treating the live album as bonus material or as a contractual obligation (Pulp and Marilyn Manson respectively come to mind). Yet back in the 60s and 70s – prior, of course, to VHS and DVD – the live album was a big deal. Are you ready to hear some?

*YEAAAHHH*

I can’t hear you, are you ready to hear some REVIEWS OF LIVE ALBUUUUUMS?

*YAAAAAAAASSSSSS*

The Allman Brothers Band, ‘At Fillmore East’

Initially, this sounds like a boring blues-rock album, except with two drummers (one is the fabulously-named Butch Trucks) and two lead guitarists. However, the album finds its groove in massively extended jams: one lasts 19 minutes, another lasts 23 minutes. It’s not just extended guitar soloing (well, not entirely…): the latter, ‘Whipping Post’, has some of the most interesting sections, while there is dramatically eerie organ and timpani concluding ‘Hot ‘Lanta’. It’s the sort of record where all the ingredients are among my least favourites – long jams, blues, jazz, drum solos – but I can see why this is so fondly regarded. The Allmans had barely put this one out when lead guitarist Duane Allman died, aged just 24.

James Brown, ‘Live at the Apollo (1963)’

The Godfather of Funk only appears on the list once, believe it or not: most of his best-known work was only released as singles. In 1963, he was part of the Famous Flames and still a soul singer, wowing a crowd of screaming teenage girls. The frenzied audience are the most distinctive feature of the album, but the band are on point: my favourite track here was ‘Think’, but the ten-minute ‘Lost Someone’, with well-timed call and response interplay with the crowd, shows a consummate performer with the audience in the palm of his hand. With great songs performed masterfully, this album flew by.

Johnny Cash, ‘At San Quentin’

I enjoyed ‘At Folsom Prison‘, and here Cash is in another prison, composing a song for the inmates which they enjoy so much that Cash and his band play it twice in a row. As with James Brown, the real pleasure here is in Cash’s rapport with his audience: his choice of songs and his between-song conversation keeps the inmates engaged throughout. Do you need both this and its very similar older brother ‘At Folsom Prison’, though? They’re both really good, but if I had to choose, it’d be the earlier album: this one ends with a boring Carter Family duet (‘There’ll Be Peace in the Valley’) and a version of ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ which is cut off after barely 60 seconds. Short on time, I listened to the original version, rather than the multi-disc legacy edition.

Cheap Trick, ‘At Budokan’

I knew hardly anything about Cheap Trick, but it seems that they were a power-pop/hard-rock quartet who performed cuts from their two previous albums in front of a hysterical Japanese audience for this album (although Robert Christgau reckons it was recorded on a soundstage with the audience track dubbed in). The first half is pretty routine hard rock, made to seem like a bigger deal by the ecstatic spectators. The second half varies the pace with a Fats Domino cover, a poppy hit of their own called ‘I Want You To Want Me’, and an almost all-chorus song called ‘Surrender’.  I don’t think this is essential but I can believe it’s the best Cheap Trick album.

Deep Purple, ‘Made in Japan’

Reluctantly persuaded to make a live album by their Japanese record company, Richie and the gang recorded this over three nights. The album’s a mixed bag. There is a great version of ‘Child in Time’ and an unbelievable version of ‘Smoke in the Water’. Then a song with a six-minute drum solo followed by a song where Ian Gillan is singing falsetto harmonies with Richie Blackmore’s guitar: both of these really test one’s patience. There’s only seven songs in 78 minutes, with an awful lot of soloing (guitar, organ and drums all get involved: sometimes the organist starts playing ‘Louie Louie’ or ‘Jerusalem’ instead). I think there’s probably a lot that I’d enjoy about Deep Purple, a favourite band of my dad’s, but this was almost certainly the wrong place to start.

Bob Dylan, ‘Live 1966 “The Royal Albert Hall Concert” The Bootleg Sessions Vol 4’

“Judas!” “I don’t believe you! You’re a liar!” This is a double album which starts off well for Dylan as he plays unaccompanied acoustic versions of tracks from incredible albums ‘Highway ’61 Revisited’ and ‘Blonde on Blonde’. The audience, however, are less keen on his second set, because it is, of course, the tour where Dylan went electric for the first time. For whatever reason, the Spotify version of the album edits out the particularly abrasive interactions with the audience (including the “Judas!” shout), but you can hear something’s off. The hostile delivery is most notable on a sour version of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’. An interesting recording of Dylan’s artistic peak, one of the most famous musical shifts in history, and how the audience reacted.

Alright, that’s all the albums this week…

*WE WANT MORE! WE WANT MORE*

(comes back out to review another album)

Peter Frampton, ‘Frampton Comes Alive’

Frampton was a very good-looking singer and guitarist with distinguished musical chops. By 1976, he’d made four largely-ignored albums, but this double live album proved to be the point where his career, um, came alive. It’s kind of hard to see what all the fuss was about: there’s an occasional interesting chord sequence, and the Sparky’s Magic Piano talkbox thing sounds fresh on its first appearance, but beyond that, it must have dated badly. First half is mostly anonymous soft rock, including ‘Baby I Love Your Way’. Second half is interminable solos (particularly on ‘Do You Feel Like I Do’ for thirteen minutes) and an atrocious Rolling Stones cover. It felt like I was listening to this forever (it’s 90 minutes long): I can’t see myself coming back to it.

There are loads more live albums on the list – this is just a sample (and of course I’ve already heard some, such as Nirvana’s ‘Unplugged in New York’).

Next week: Are you ready for the country? Well either way, we’ll be back listening to some of the finest albums in that genre.

Progress update: 485 listened to (48%), 516 remaining.

April 16: If I Must – The Darkness, Def Leppard, Everything But The Girl, Iron Maiden, Megadeth, Morrissey, U2

Happy Easter everyone who celebrates it; to everyone who doesn’t, happy Sunday! This week, it’s time for another of everyone’s favourites, the If I Must week. Fortunately for me, but sadly for you, this will probably be the last of these: I’ve pretty much listened to all of the real horrors on the list now, so while there are still some that I’m dreading, there aren’t quite enough for more of these weeks. Luckily, that still leaves me with over 100 albums that I’m looking forwards to hearing, so there’ll be plenty of good stuff as we head towards the second half of the project. Seven of the ones I least wanted to hear first though: let’s get to it.

The Darkness, ‘Permission to Land’

Although their second album ‘One Way Ticket to Hell… and Back’ went platinum, The Darkness’s commercial and critical peak was their debut album. At the time, they were massive, but the fact that their jokey take on 70s and 80s hard rock was going Top 10 at a time when less retro British rock bands were completely absent from the Top 20 was a worrying sign for the genre. Anyway, this is front-loaded, with catchy singles ‘Growing On Me’, ‘Get Your Hands Off My Woman’ and ‘I Believe In A Thing Called Love’ all in the opening four tracks. The novelty’s worn off by the fifth track though: Justin Hawkins hasn’t got anything in his arsenal other than falsetto, at least one of the songs is nearly six minutes long, and given that the list already contains all the acts that The Darkness are aping (AC/DC, Queen, Aerosmith, Bon Jovi), you don’t need this.

Def Leppard, ‘Hysteria’

And indeed here are one of the bands that The Darkness are likely imitating. ‘Hysteria’ recorded over the course of a year packed with incident, including two of the band being involved in motor accidents: one, of course, cost drummer Rick Allen his arm. Consequently, there’s a fair bit of Fairlight jiggery-pokery involved with the drum tracks here. ‘Gods of War’ and ‘Love and Affection’ are probably the best songs here, but they all sound the same anyway: commercial 80s hard rock with massed backing vocals, helium lead vocals and synths. It seems mean to lambast such good-natured music too much: it’s okay, but this will be my last listen to it.

Everything But The Girl, ‘Idlewild’

Not to be confused with the Scottish band who did ‘When I Argue I See Shapes’, or the 2006 Outkast album, ‘Idlewild’ was the fourth album from EBTG, released in 1988. When we last looked at Tracy ‘n’ Ben, it was in their mid-90s dance incarnation, but before that they were making a sort of light coffee-table take on sophisticated pop, which I guess would have been popular with people who also liked The Beautiful South and Level 42. It starts with the band’s cover of Crazy Horse’s ‘I Don’t Want to Talk About It’, but it quickly recedes into background music: it’s so tasteful and restrained that it becomes a struggle to resist turning it off and listening to something more interesting. The dated production doesn’t help – tenor saxes and fretless bass everywhere – any more than the lyrics, where “they call you Jimmy, they call you James” is regarded as a good enough lyric for a repeated refrain. ‘The Night I Heard Caruso Sing’ is probably the best song here, vaguely like Slow Club’s last album; as a two-piece who trade vocals, Slow Club should see EBTG as a warning from history.

Iron Maiden, ‘Iron Maiden’

The line-up on the first Maiden album is different to their later ‘classic’ line-up: here we have Paul Di’Anno on vocals, Clive Burr on drums and Dennis Stratton on guitar, so no high-pitched extended notes from Dickinson and not much twin guitar riffing. The band don’t like the production on this (which they mostly did themselves) but I think the raw sound suits them: on ‘Prowler’ and ‘Running Free’, they sound sort of like ‘Destroyer’-era Judas Priest rather than the polished cheese (an Edam wheel?) of their later material. The album only sags at the midway point, with the instrumental ‘Transylvania’ and the waltz-time downer ‘Strange World’ both moves into areas the band don’t sound at home in. It finishes strongly, though, and overall this one is pretty good.

Megadeth, ‘Peace Sells, But Who’s Buying?’

This was Megadeth’s breakthrough album and is one of the big three as far as thrash is concerned (together with ‘Master of Puppets’ and ‘Reign in Blood‘). Dave Mustaine, the former Metallica guitarist, focuses here on political and global concerns rather than the Lovecraftian omens of his old band, giving the lyrics a then-topical feel. I’ve always found thrash a bit tedious though: no wonder nu-metal eschewed the multi-section, solo-heavy, five-minute-or-more template for something blunter, punkier and funkier. You can’t fault the instrumental skill, particularly on the guitar lines, but the style seems old hat now.

Morrissey, ‘Vauxhall and I’

Our fourth visit to Moz’s back catalogue, we meet him here in 1994, at a time when he’d stopped wanting to plough the same furrow he did with The Smiths but before he started making off-colour remarks about immigration, the Chinese and so on. I’m starting to think that perhaps his solo career is best regarded as having a great singles catalogue, rather than any crucial albums: here, the best song is the elegaic ‘The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get’, which even Boz Boorer’s mid-90s Noel Gallagher lead guitar can’t spoil. Elsewhere there’s a cinematic closer called ‘Speedway’ and what sounds like a clarinet section, but nothing that quite matches the single.

U2, ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind’

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed ‘The Joshua Tree‘ and remember quite liking U2’s mid-90s output, or finding it interesting at least, but the release of the band’s 1980-1990 Best Of seemed to cause them to re-evaluate their output, hence abandoning the My Bloody Valentine and Nine Inch Nails experimentation and reverting to Soaring Anthem U2. Commercially it was a big success, but critically? Early on Bono feels like the weak point, both lyrically and vocally, while sequencing ‘Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of’ as track 2 is a mistake, as the song piles on instrument after instrument in a vain attempt to bring a dull melody to life. Elsewhere, ‘Beautiful Day’ borrows its middle eight from A-ha, ‘In A Little While’ sounds like Eels with its arpeggios and drum machine, ‘Wild Honey’ sounds like Van Morrison, and I’m sure you know what the rest of this album sounds like.  Pretty dull.

Next week: a type of album I’ve never generally been hot on – the live album! There are at least a dozen on the list; hit me up in the comments if you have any favourites.

Progress update: 478 listened to (48%), 523 remain. Nearly halfway!

April 9: John Cale, Gene Clark, Julian Cope, Foo Fighters, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Dennis Wilson

This week, we’ll be looking at what happens when people in critically-acclaimed bands go on to make albums with new musicians. Of course we’ve covered a few already: George Harrison, Brian Wilson and so on. Here’s seven more of the most prominent on the list.

John Cale, ‘Paris 1919’

Cale’s contributions in the Velvet Underground were most notable for their abrasive qualities – the screeching viola in ‘The Black Angel’s Death Song’ or ‘Venus in Furs’ come to mind – and much of his solo work is experimental dabbling along the lines of his almost-namesake John Cage. Here, though, he tempers his aggressive avant-garde tendencies for a more palatable, orchestra-heavy pop-rock sound, of the sort that Rufus Wainwright commonly deploys. The only obvious misstep is the gross Jools Holland boogie of ‘Macbeth’; elsewhere, Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci were obviously among those paying attention to ‘Andalucia’ (also covered by Yo La Tengo). The album’s title (and some of its themes) is a reference to the Paris Peace Conference. Widely regarded as Cale’s best album, this one gets a recommendation.

Gene Clark, ‘No Other’

Coming off the back of a Byrds reunion album which showcased Clark’s talents prominently, ‘No Other’ was his fourth album, which he believed to be his masterpiece (unfortunately the public disagreed and ignored it). The first half of the album is something of a curate’s egg, mixing massed female vocals, country-rock and a stab at Sly Stone funk (on the title track). The second half of the album reverts to Neil Young-style folk-pop, which Clark seems more comfortable doing. I’m not sure I’ve made my mind up about this album overall: I suspect repeated listens will help it.

Julian Cope, ‘Peggy Suicide’

Cope had been done with The Teardrop Explodes for years before this, but the 1001 only has space for one of his solo albums, this cut from 1991. A relatively unheard album – only 5% of the Listchallenges.com community had heard it – ‘Peggy Suicide’ has stabs at frazzled acoustic tracks of the sort the Flaming Lips specialise in these days, incredibly dated-sounding baggy-ish indie, and diversions into funk, squally brass-heavy jazz and melancholy piano. Its downfall is its length: 18 tracks over 67 minutes, which would have benefitted from a more judicious editor. Top cuts are opener ‘Pristeen’ and the eight-minute ‘Safesurfer’, released as a single by someone with no interest in radio play.

Foo Fighters, ‘Foo Fighters’

Dave Grohl’s grizzling about kids not wanting to play rock music anymore despite contributing to the decline of guitar music with a series of mediocre records feels like the griping of an old man who thinks young kids just play noise. Twenty years ago though (twenty years!!), he was trying to find his place in rock music after Kurt Cobain’s suicide. Unsure that he wanted to play drums in another band, he made this album alone and put it out with a couple of musicians later recruited to tour it. This is a pretty good album: as well as ‘This is a Call’, there’s a song in 6/8, some lo-fi Sebadoh-ish songs, a bit of hard rock and the occasional acoustic break. Later albums were diminishing variations on this theme.

John Lennon, ‘John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band’

I hadn’t liked anything from Lennon’s solo career: for example, the ‘Imagine’ album is pretty awful (the cheek of putting ‘Imagine’ on the same record as ‘How Do You Sleep’), but lo and behold, this is a good album! Stripped down to a minimalist trio with very little in the way of overdubs, it’s raw and intense, with more direct soul-baring than Lennon had customarily done in his sardonic Beatles contributions. There are no hits on this: so much the better.

Paul McCartney, ‘McCartney’

Meanwhile, McCartney had made a solo record before dissolving the Beatles, but its release accompanied the announcement of the Beatles splitting up. Blaming McCartney for the split, nobody bought this record (curiously the same fate also befell the ace ‘Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band’, as people blamed her for the Beatles split). The recording of this kind of reminds me of Graham Coxon: recorded alone in his home with some of the tracks barely graduating beyond sketches (many are instrumental). The actual sound mostly sounds like ‘Abbey Road’ – unsurprisingly – with McCartney’s clumping drumming approach instead of Starr, and it’s mostly pleasantly diverting without being particularly essential.

Dennis Wilson, ‘Pacific Ocean Blue’

The Beach Boys’ drummer kept trying to contribute his songs to the band, but were rejected for being too melancholy, so he recorded them and put them out on an album without them. The sombre tone of a lot of the songs here would seem like odd fits on Beach Boys records (even ‘Surf’s Up’): perhaps the band had a point. Wilson’s husky, heroin-shot vocals over orchestral arrangements reminded me a lot of mid-era Eels. There are occasional shifts in the wrong direction – lumpen thudding on ‘Time’, a clumsy Stevie Wonder parody called ‘You and I’ – but the majority is good. Recommended tracks include the title track, ‘Farewell My Friend’ and opener ‘River Song’.

Next week: it’s another (and one of the last) If I Must weeks!

Status update: 471 listened to (47%), 530 remaining.

April 2: Blue Cheer, Kiss, Metallica, Motorhead, Rush, Van Halen, Venom

After last week’s folk outings, this week will be another look at some of the metal and hard rock on the list. Our previous visit to these quarters brought in such unlikely characters as Napalm Death and Slayer. What’s in store this week?

Blue Cheer, ‘Vincebus Eruptum’

Blue Cheer were a psychedelic proto-metal band from the 60s who fused thunderous bass and drums with loads of distortion and wild guitar soloing. The album starts with their annihilation of ‘Summertime Blues’, the old Eddie Cochrane song, before taking the same approach to their own material. Guitarist Leigh Stephens’ solos are collisions of noise, blues scales and pick-up switch hammering. It’s all pretty great. Sadly their follow-up ‘Outsideinside’ is neither on the list nor on Spotify.

Kiss, ‘Destroyer’

The second album on the list with this title (Judas Priest used it four years later). I listened to ‘Greatest Kiss’ as a teenager but never explored any of their albums; Last.fm users seem to listen to Kiss kompilations a lot more than any of the actual records, too. Here, Bob Ezrin has the thankless task of getting the band – to his dismay, all untrained musicians – into chartbusting shape. He uses his normal tricks: children yelling (see ‘Berlin‘), orchestras (see ‘The Wall’), and whatever he does to justify writing credits on almost every song. He adds some colour, from the boys’ choir on ‘Great Expectations’ to the tubular bells on ‘Do You Love Me’ to the tyres squealing on ‘Detroit Rock City’ but, well, it’s not that good. The band are responsible, with pedestrian lyrics, hooks and performances making the album feel flat.

Metallica, ‘…And Justice For All’

After breaking through with ‘Master of Puppets’, Metallica were forced to regroup when bassist Cliff Burton was killed in a tour bus crash. With Jason Newsted replacing him, the band returned to the studio and came up with this. While I’ve enjoyed several Metallica albums, this one contains a lot of my usual reservations about the band – the albums are too long, the songs drag on – and add some wrinkles unique to this album, such as inaudible bass, weird, awkward transitions between parts and lots of riffs without many hooks. ‘One’ is an acknowledged classic but otherwise this isn’t desperately exciting.

Motörhead, ‘Ace of Spades’

Of course, everyone loves the title track, which opens the album: it is the song on which Motörhead’s legacy rests, and rightly so. The rest of their output, however, is less well-known. You probably know how this album sounds without having to listen to it: fast thrash with Lemmy’s uniquely hoarse voice over the top. This didn’t do a whole lot for me, alas. It’s a shame because ‘Fast’ Eddie Clarke, Philthy Animal Taylor and Lemmy looked so badass on the cover that I wanted to like it.

Rush, ‘Moving Pictures’

I enjoyed ‘2112‘, Rush’s other entry in the list, and this one follows a similar template: synthy, progressive hard rock with Geddy Lee’s helium vocals over the top (what’s the deal with Geddy Lee, how’d he get his voice so high?). It’s not quite as good as the highlights of ‘2112’: the opener cuts to the solos almost straight away, ‘YYZ’ is a dull, fussy instrumental and the closer is unremarkable. There is some pretty good stuff here though: ‘Red Barchetta’ is a standard on US rock radio and is there on merit, while ‘The Camera Eye’ held my attention despite its 11-minute running time.

Van Halen, ‘Van Halen’

The opening four tracks on this album are surprisingly excellent, with a ridiculous cover of ‘You Really Got Me’, an instrumental called ‘Eruption’ and two great riff-heavy tracks. Then the fifth has a barbershop quartet! It sags in the middle with a couple of drab 80s Sabbath takes, but finishes strongly with two more metal thrashes and an absurd acoustic blues cover. I guess this threw me as I wasn’t expecting it to be so much fun, or for Eddie’s oft-copied guitar virtuosity to still sound so good. It doesn’t outstay its welcome either: it lasts just 35 minutes. I liked this.

Venom, ‘Black Metal’

Despite its name, this is most musically compatible with thrash, but the lyrical focus on being buried alive, Elizabeth Bathory and so on is also a staple of tr00 kvlt black metulz. ‘Black Metal’ sounds pretty corny now: the shock darkside lyrics are dated, the sound has aged badly and there’s a “get your tits out for the lads” interlude on ‘Teacher’s Pet’. I guess it must have seemed a big deal at the time. It ends with a preview of their next album, ‘At War With Satan’, but fans were kept waiting two years for that.

Next week: when someone leaves a highly-regarded band, what happens next? We’ll explore some follow-on projects.

Status update: 464 albums listened to (46%), 537 to go.

March 26: Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Fairport Convention, Bert Jansch, Jethro Tull, The Pogues, Cat Stevens, Richard & Linda Thompson

After last week’s dabbles in the eccentric, we return to more traditional fare this week in the 1001. What is more traditional than folk music? There’s a reasonable amount of albums that fall under the definition of folk, although some are more folk than others.

Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, ‘I See A Darkness’

Kind of a cheat but the most recent folk-infused album on the list. 1999 was something of a downbeat time for music: a lot of the albums of the era were filled with disconsolate brooding or moody lashing out. Will Oldham’s only appearance on the list is of the same ilk: song titles include ‘Death to Everyone’, ‘Another Day Full of Dread’ and ‘Today I Was An Evil One’. Oldham clings on to some hope that things will improve throughout the album, but it’s still a record to soundtrack 2am horrors.

Fairport Convention, ‘Unhalfbricking’

Wikipedia tells me that this was the album where they started stepping away from American influences, although with three songs written by Bob Dylan and another song called ‘Cajun Woman’, it wasn’t a massive departure. The lovely voice of Sandy Denny is the best feature here, and her songs ‘Autopsy’ and ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes?’ are the best songs (although the last two songs, both by Dylan, are both good). There’s also an eleven-minute drone called ‘A Sailor’s Life’ which amazingly holds the interest as it sprawls out like a Led Zep song. Some tracks felt kind of weak: the French-language Dylan cover is a dud. Still, the highlights are strong and the naff songs are the shortest ones.

Bert Jansch, ‘Bert Jansch’

Like many of this week’s candidates, Jansch only makes one appearance on the list. Recorded on a reel-to-reel tape, Bert’s debut sees him accompanied only by his guitar or banjo throughout. The minimalism strips the songs away from the cliched arrangements you might associate with folk music (fiddles and accordions and so on), leaving the heavy lifting to the fingerpicking. He’s more interesting when he’s steering clear of Applachian sounds: the banjo songs are dull but the weird chords and finger-picking is pleasant. Jansch was still recording up to his death, hanging out with talent like Johnny Marr.

Jethro Tull, ‘Aqualung’

I’m cheating here a little as this album is more like a rock album with folk influences, but I only realised this when I started playing it. It starts off promisingly with the title track and a series of recurring characters but, despite the wide variety of styles and instruments deployed, the melodies didn’t hold my interest throughout. The flute is perhaps the most pleasing touch here, perhaps because it’s such an unconventional instrument to hear featured so prominently in a rock band. Alas, no room on the 1001 for ‘Thick as a Brick’, the band’s spoof concept album.

The Pogues, ‘Rum, Sodomy and the Lash’

Shane and the gang are best known for Kirsty MacColl duet ‘Fairytale of New York’ but years before that, this was their crowning achievement. Of course, as their background was in punk (MacGowan had come from a band called The Nipple Erectors), this is a lot more raucous than most of the folk albums this week, laying the foundations for acts like Gogol Bordello. Among the accordion and tin whistle knees-up atmosphere, we have a ballad sung by the bassist, an instrumental, a Monty Python old woman voice and a version of ‘Waltzing Matilda’ accompanied by a brass band. Shane MacGowan’s drunken slur sounds at home here. This is a good album.

Cat Stevens, ‘Tea for the Tillerman’

The future Yusuf Islam’s lone appearance on the 1001 features two of his best known songs in ‘Wild World’ and ‘Father and Son’, although both are arguably most famous for covers (by Jimmy Cliff and Boyzone respectively). The album’s quite pleasant, with Cat switching up the tempo and instrumentation to ensure that monotony doesn’t kick in. An easy way of spending 40 minutes, even if I don’t think I’ll return to it.

Richard and Linda Thompson, ‘I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight’

In which the former Fairport guitarist and his wife start touring and making records themselves. Overall, this is the best album of the week: the medieval stuff is cornball but the melodies are the strongest, the musical pallette the broadest (it’s as comfortable with an electric guitar as with a crumhorn) and the singing from the duo is flawless. Clearly an influence on Kate Rusby: she’s even covered ‘Withered and Died’.

Next week: we’ll be going to the opposite extreme and checking out some of the metal on the list.

Status update: 457 heard (46%), 544 remain.

March 19: Syd Barrett, Captain Beefheart, Dagmar Krause, Laibach, The Residents, Todd Rundgren, Skip Spence

After we looked at the biggest-selling albums in history last week, it’s time to take the opposite tack and look at some of the most leftfield albums on the list. Excitingly, there are a few weird albums on the list, so let’s dive in.

Syd Barrett, ‘The Madcap Laughs’

I’d heard Barrett’s sole album as undisputed frontman of Pink Floyd and not been blown away, but I was looking forward to seeing what he could do solo. The album was recorded in a couple of incomplete attempts, occasionally with Canterbury scene hands like Mike Ratledge and Robert Wyatt, before Barrett’s old bandmates Roger Waters and Dave Gilmour lost patience and stepped in to ensure Syd actually finished his record. Waters and Gilmour’s production has the feel of a stitch-up: on one song, Barrett blows a number of takes, mumbling excuses, before finally finishing the song, not singing a note in tune. Not that Barrett’s writing does him any favours: even on the full band tracks, the arrangements meander around trying to keep up with Barrett’s compositions, which twist and roam with all the agility of a run-on sentence. This rarely feels like a competent album made by a professional musician: a wasted opportunity, much like Syd’s career generally. Syd only did one more album (and a brief run in a band called Stars): it is not on the list.

Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, ‘Safe as Milk’

I’d heard freak landmark ‘Trout Mask Replica’ already, of course, although have always found the story of the recording more interesting than the music itself. ‘Safe as Milk’ was recorded with a completely different, pseudonym-free incarnation of the Magic Band (no Mascara Snake or Zoot Horn Rollo here) including Ry Cooder on guitar. It’s a lot less abrasive than ‘Trout Mask Replica’: it’s essentially a bluesy 60s rock album with an aggressive vocalist and a willingness to experiment with time signatures and instruments (the marimba and the theremin appear). Pretty good.

Dagmar Krause, ‘Tank Battles’

Krause was a singer in a couple of avant-garde bands before starting a solo career. Here, she fronts an album of covers of Hanns Eisler songs, most of which have Berlot Brecht lyrics. There are a whopping 26 tracks here, some of which last scarcely a minute. The clattering percussion intro of ‘You Have To Pay’ and the creeping clarinets of ‘Mothern Beimlein’ are early oddities, while ‘The Perhaps Song’ could be a soaring ballad with a different arrangement (here it sounds like an Expressionist nightmare). On the second side, ‘Ballad of (Bourgeoise) Welfare’ and ‘The Wise Woman and the Soldier’ are the most explicable songs. This stuff can’t possibly have had much of an audience in 1988, but Krause never seems to have taken the easy route.

Laibach, ‘Opus Dei’

Laibach are a rotating cast of pseudonymous artists/musicians (always the same pseudonyms) from Slovenia whose specialty is bombastic Teutonic pop. With their baritone vocals and overwrought backing, they sound like a kind of proto-Rammstein from the 1980s, and indeed Rammstein acknowledge the influence. It’s difficult to know how to rate this objectively, as their hilarious cover of ‘One Vision’ is great and yet I’m unlikely to listen to this album non-ironically. It’s an amusingly weird addition to the list though and an unpredictable deviation from the norm. Laibach also did a cover of the Beatles’ ‘Let it Be’ album: some of their versions are improvements (‘Across the Universe’ for example).

The Residents, ‘Duck Stab!/Buster & Glen’

The fascinating mythology around the Residents has secured their legendary cult status: their anonymity, their benevolent (malevolent?) management The Cryptic Corporation, their many onstage looks (the tuxedo/giant eye look most famously). Their music has always felt a bit like an endurance test, mind. This album is a pair of EPs glued together – although ‘Buster & Glen’ was previously unreleased – and features relatively accessible pop melodies submerged by bizarre vocals, cacophonic distorted organ stabs, and kids’ music lesson arrangements. ‘Duck Stab!’ is more childlike, ‘Buster & Glen’ grim and sinister, both sides oddly tuneful despite the sabotage attempts.

Todd Rundgren, ‘A Wizard, A True Star’

Given Todd’s association with Meat Loaf, and his prog rock band Utopia, I’d assumed his records would be hard rock. However, Uncut rated this as the weirdest album of all time last month, which triggered my curiosity. It kind of sounds like what would have happened if Rufus Wainwright had tried to do Of Montreal’s ‘Skeletal Lamping’ in 1973: it hurtles through acid-drenched fragments, including ridiculous covers, kids’ songs, showtunes and anything else that came to mind. The first seven tracks have a combined running time of just ten minutes. It reminded me of all the things I loved as a teenager: mid-90s Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, early-00s Devin Townsend, and plenty of Elephant Six/Polyvinyl stuff from the mid-00s (Tame Impala are fans). God knows what the audience in 1973 thought, but this album is incredible.

Alexander ‘Skip’ Spence, ‘Oar’

The backstory here is probably more interesting than the music: Spence drummed in Jefferson Airplane and played guitar in Moby Grape before drugs and mental health issues got on top of him. Completely losing it, Spence attacked his bandmates with an axe and was sectioned. While in a mental hospital, he accumulated tons of songs, and was left to his own devices in a recording studio in Nashville to get them on tape. He assumed that they would be orchestrated later: they weren’t. If you don’t know the background, though, you probably wouldn’t detect it until the final song, ‘Grey/Afro’, which is nearly ten minutes of despair. The rest are fairly standard, if particularly morbid and colourless, psychedelic country-pop, with Spence’s only-just-intelligible vocal being the most notable feature. The bonus tracks added onto the 1996 reissue give the game away a bit more, being mainly grim bass-and-drums workouts in the model of ‘Grey/Afro’ with false starts and half-complete takes reminiscient of ‘The Madcap Laughs’.

Unsurprisingly, this was quite an interesting week!

Next week: I’ll be exploring another genre I know almost nothing about: folk.

Progress report: 450 albums listened to (45%), 551 remain.