February 19: A-ha, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Heaven 17, The Human League, Japan, Prefab Sprout, Scritti Politti

This week I’ll be looking at 80s synth-pop and sophisti-pop, an era of music covered extensively in Simon Reynolds’ very good book. ‘Pop’ seems to be a dirty word for ‘serious’ musicians from the 90s onwards, but back in the 80s you could make credible pop albums without much censure. Let’s have a look at some of the acts that did. (Of course I’ve already listened to the critics’ favourite album of this sort, ABC’s ‘Lexicon of Love‘).

A-ha, ‘Hunting High and Low’

A-ha were a Norweigan band best known for the opener here, ‘Take on Me’, a hit at the third time of asking thanks to an imaginative video style. I didn’t think I knew anything else on this, but ‘The Sun Always Shines on TV’ was also a big hit. The album hasn’t dated fantastically well, whether that’s the synth and drum patches, or whether it’s the vaulting emotive drama that Morten Harket’s vocals invoke. The title track is a particularly OTT piece of musical theatre.

Frankie Goes to Hollywood, ‘Welcome to the Pleasuredome’

Holly Johnson had emerged from Big in Japan, a Liverpool punk group also featuring Bill Drummond, Ian Broudie and future Slits/Banshees drummer Budgie, but made a Faustian pact with ZTT Records. ZTT got Frankie three consecutive Number Ones, but the band’s own playing was regularly replaced by ZTT regulars like The Art of Noise and they were trapped in an impenetrable contract. In a lot of ways this is the archetypal ZTT album: it’s named after a line from ‘Xanadu‘, mostly revolves around the Fairlight, has a few great hits, and is too long and overblown (it’s a double album!). The album also contains an entire side of awful covers (‘Ferry Cross the Mersey’, ‘Born to Run’, ‘Do You Know The Way To San Jose?’), a 13-minute title track, and Chris Barrie doing ‘Spitting Image’ impressions. It’s not really like anything else on the list, but it’s also excessively bloated.

Heaven 17, ‘Penthouse and Pavement’

Two of H17 were in The Human League before an acrimonious split, after which both bands had pretty successful runs. H17 are maybe best known for ‘Temptation’, which would come later, but this album is full of unusual song titles: ‘Let’s All Make A Bomb’, ‘We’re Going To Live For A Long Time’ and of course ‘(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang’. Less harsh than, e.g., Soft Cell, but not as smooth as ABC due to the gated reverb vocals and synth patches, they kind of fall between two stools here.

The Human League, ‘Dare’

Meanwhile the Human League, an uncommercial synth band whose early tracks included ‘Being Boiled’, were down to just a singer and a projectionist plus two dancers they’d found in a nightclub. They were on the ropes, but amazingly managed to turn it around with the addition of a session keyboardist and the Rezillos’ guitarist. The soaring melodies and synth sweeps are great and there’s two killer tracks at the end: ‘Love Action’ and a tossed-off duet called ‘Don’t You Want Me’, which of course sealed their legacy.

Japan, ‘Quiet Life’

The second best album this week is from a band who started as a glam-rock band but gradually replaced the guitars with synths (their biggest hit, ‘Ghosts’, is entirely synths and weird noises but still went Top 5!). Here, they appear to be imagining Bowie’s ‘Low’ as a collaboration between Eno and Giorgio Moroder: the ace title track has pulsating Moroder synths, but ‘Despair’ has the same drum machine as ‘Art Decade’ and the tolling chords of ‘Warszawa’. Elsewhere, there’s a playful Krautrock-ish cover of the Velvets’ ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ and some elastic proto-New Romantic bass playing from Mick Karn.

Prefab Sprout, ‘Steve McQueen’ (or ‘Two Wheels Good‘)

With that cumbersome sobriquet I imagined the band had had a past life as an artsy post-punk group but apparently not. Sprout’s main man Paddy McAloon fancied himself as a songwriter in the Cole Porter tradition, it seems, but these songs are most successful when the jazzy pop songs are anchored to producer Thomas Dolby’s then-contemporary 80s sheen. The album drastically sags at track 7 with two ghastly stabs at Great American Songbook writing in the Gershwin mould, but the first half is strong. Enough to perhaps suggest that the band’s legacy – known only for a silly novelty song about someone who’s known only for a silly novelty song (the hot dog-jumping frog ‘I’m The King of Rock’n’Roll’) – deserves better.

Scritti Politti, ‘Cupid & Psyche 85’

Unlike Prefab, Scritti did start as an angular Marxist quartet who toured with Gang of Four and did Peel sessions, but by 1985 had downsized their personnel (just singer Green Gartside) but upsized their ambition to make Prince-style pop records. It’s amazing that the same act’s back catalogue contains abrasive Albini-ish cut ‘Skank Bloc Bologna’ and ‘Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin)’, in which Gartside’s helium voice nestles on a bed of soft Fairlight. Not that I particularly enjoyed the transition to the latter: there’s something anonymous about the enterprise, as though the songs could have been performed by Color Me Badd or Matt Bianco or someone equally epheremal.

We’ll probably return to synth-pop at a later date as there’s plenty more on the list.

Next week: Back to the ghetto as we’ll be listening to seven of the rap albums on the list.

Progress update: 422 listened to (42%), 579 remain.


February 12: If I Must – Beck, The Coral, Don McLean, Morrissey, Primal Scream, The Ramones, Scissor Sisters

This week it’s time for another If I Must special, comprising of albums I was not looking forward to hearing at the start of the project. Will any of them surprise me? Let’s find out.

Beck, ‘Sea Change’

The last Beck album we’ll be covering off after I wrote about ‘Odelay‘ and ‘Guero‘ in previous editions. Here, everyone’s favourite Scientologist and ironic eclectist is blighted by heartbreak: he learned that his fiancee, who he’d been with for nine years, was cheating on him with someone from an LA band called Whisky Biscuit. He had to be convinced that writing about his feelings wasn’t self-indulgent, and recorded these songs with his usual band. The circumstances account for the sombre mood and the Nick Drake feel of tracks like ‘Round the Bend’, while the rest combines desert psychedelia, acoustic guitars and Sean O’Hagan-ish string arrangements from Beck’s dad. By dropping the mask and being more directly emotional, Beck’s probably done his best album here or at least my favourite of his.

The Coral, ‘The Coral’

Indie was running on fumes by the time these perky Liverpudlians came along, and mining 60s sounds was getting very close to being passe. The Coral weren’t the last band to do this and still have hits – after all, they brought along mini-mes The Zutons – but they were among the last. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this, being as it is full of energy and enthusiasm, and glueing together a whole bunch of influences in the same way that a big beat record might. It’s perhaps a bit light on compelling melodic hooks (except the singles), and aside from a thrillingly Of Montreal-ish funk sample collage at the end of ‘Skeleton Key’ there’s little indication that this was made in the 21st Century. Yes, they’ve listened to a lot of good albums, but the point of a project like this is to listen to those albums, meaning that on its own merits, this one is superfluous.

Don McLean, ‘American Pie’

This album is of course most famous for its opener and title track, a song so big and long that it threatens to swallow the rest of the album. I was reticent to come to this album because of that song, full of good ol’ boys and “wasn’t it better in the old days” sentiments and rambling. The rest of the record, though, doesn’t try and replicate the formula, being instead a mostly pleasant late 60s/early 70s folk-pop album. Surprisingly it does have one other fairly famous song in the gentle solo acoustic track ‘Vincent’, although I prefer the Car Seat Headrest song of the same title and subject.

Morrissey, ‘Viva Hate’

Moz had barely closed the door on The Smiths before this album came out: a mere six months had gone by. Here, he retains Smiths producer Stephen Street and promotes him to co-writer, bassist and rhythm guitarist. Street’s no Johnny Marr though, and the album’s a bit pedestrian in parts. Although this has ‘Everyday Is Like Sunday’ and ‘Suedehead’, its best three songs are, unusually, its last three: the uptempo ‘I Don’t Mind If You Forget Me’, the acidic ‘Dial A Cliche’ and the backwards chords and flamenco style of anti-Thatch fantasy ‘Margaret on the Guillotine’. If it makes a difference, I listened to the remastered Spotify version of this, where Moz’s meddling involved a song being removed and another added, and another song being truncated (to Street’s displeasure). Two more Morrissey albums and three more Smiths ones on the list.

Primal Scream, ‘Vanishing Point’

The singles from this album felt weak in isolation but work better in context: ‘Kowalski’ sits in the middle of a mostly instrumental, groove-heavy section of the album and ‘Star’ sounds like an expansive piece of dub (Augustus Pablo even turns up on melodica). The album is probably best understood and appreciated as an experimental big beat album, even if the makers are nominally a guitar band; the album’s strong points are its groove, samples and melting pot of styles, whereas its weak points are the melodies, lyrics and vocals. Less of a boring slog than I was anticipating. I’ve already heard ‘Screamadelica’ so there are no more of the band’s albums left to hear: mysteriously ‘XTRMNTR’, considered an essential Scream cut, is absent from the list.

The Ramones, ‘The Ramones’

Joey and the gang influenced millions of people with their breakneck three-note punk, but I’ve never felt that their stuff was anything I desperately needed to hear. For a start, it all sounds the same (there aren’t any other Ramones albums on this list). This one blasts through 14 tracks in just 28 minutes, features ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ and a lot of songs about horror movies (plus a Velvet Underground-ish lyric about a male prostitute turning tricks but then murdering the john to prove he’s not gay). Aside from the Blondie-ish ‘I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend’ and a hilarious cover of ‘Let’s Dance’, this is very repetitive.

Scissor Sisters, ‘Scissor Sisters’

The Sisters first came to prominence in the UK with their cover of ‘Comfortably Numb’, which they bragged about having modernised. Sounded like it’d be a good idea: yet the cover sounds like it came out in 1977, whereas the original came out in 1979. (If anything, it’s less of an update and more of a recontextualisation: from “prog singer ODs before a stadium show” to “kid has ketamine freakout in a gay bar”.) The album too is something I should like – a male singer and a female singer doing camp songs and occasionally putting the feather boa down to sing from the heart – but which instead bored me pretty quickly. ‘Laura’ is catchy, ‘Tits on the Radio’ at least mixes things up by giving female singer Ana Matronic something to do – she is almost absent from most of the songs – and ‘Return to Oz’ is a bit of fairytale prog, but the rest is pretty uninspiring.

Next week: we’ll be looking at what happened in the 1980s when post-punk gadabouts tried to make sophisticated pop music instead. Yes there’s a lot of New Romantic stuff in the next episode.

Status update: 415 listened to (41%), 586 remain.

February 5: ABBA, George Michael, Orchestral Manoeuvres, Queen, Santana, Rod Stewart, Teardrop Explodes

It’s my dad’s birthday today so this week on 1001 Albums You Must Hear, I’m listening to seven albums from my parents’ favourites. Of course there are plenty of albums we have in common already (‘Diamond Dogs’, ‘Harvest’, ‘Paranoid’) and plenty I’ve already heard, but here’s seven I never got around to.

ABBA, ‘The Visitors’

I can’t imagine ABBA was ever a cool band to listen to but they definitely weren’t by the time my dad went to uni. Their final album came out while he was there, 1981’s ‘The Visitors’, recorded at a time when all the members were divorced and they were pretty much done with working with one another. As you might imagine, the album’s pretty melancholy and laden with synth textures, although ‘When All Is Said and Done’ rouses itself into the ‘classic’ ABBA sound. There’s bombastic musical theatre and political dread, and Bjorn even contributes a couple of guitar solos. The album has no hits – the singles did very little in the UK – which is a shame as it’s a pretty interesting record.

George Michael, ‘Listen Without Prejudice Volume 1’

My mum’s favourite album is ‘Older’ but that’s not on the list and anyway I’ve already heard it, so let’s look at this. George had already had loads of hits at this point with Wham!, and had already done one solo album, ‘Faith’, but wanted to be taken seriously as a singer and songwriter. The transition was so successful that I came into this album expecting a series of mature adult contemporary hits, while the audience of the day would have probably expected more daft pop music. The album is mostly accomplished mature songwriting, with Michael playing most of the instruments as well as the fine voice, but the serious mood means that there’s not much fun here. Incidentally Volume 2 never came out, although it seems tracks were recorded for it.

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, ‘Architecture and Morality’

My dad had loads of synthy albums like this, although oddly no Kraftwerk (at least not on vinyl). The synth-prodders had had a massive hit with ‘Enola Gay’, to their own bemusement, and weren’t sure whether they wanted to embrace or retreat from their new pop fame. They settled for this, in which their artsy side (‘Sealand’, ‘Joan of Arc (Maid of Orleans)’) squared off against their pop side (‘Souvenir’, another song called ‘Joan of Arc’), held together by booming percussion and Andy McCluskey’s Cure-ish yelp. The melodies, especially on the singles, are beautiful, although their backing is a lot harsher and weirder than you might expect from a synthpop album. This is a spectacular record.

Queen, ‘Sheer Heart Attack’

Both my parents really liked Queen and saw them at Knebworth (which is also where my grandparents live!). Transitioning between the hard rock of ‘Queen’ and ‘Queen II’ (at least they came up with an album title this time) and the camp flutters of ‘A Night at the Opera’, this album features the majority of Queen’s hallmark flavours. They could do it all, of course, so if I told you this album was a versatile combination of harmonies, multi-track guitar virtuosity, hard rock, solo piano tracks and skiffle – a dazzling range for most albums – you’d probably think this is just standard fare for Freddie and the boys.

Santana, ‘Abraxas’

An album my mum kept recommending to me. Santana were almost unknown before transforming their career with an exotic performance at Woodstock in 1969 and capitalised with this 1970 album. Although it’s best known for ‘Black Magic Woman’, this is mostly instrumental and all the better for it: I enjoyed the run of Side A songs where the instrumental tracks kind of blurred into each other, with Carlos adding bluesy solos over Latin percussion and Tito Puente covers. The vocal tracks are less convincing, with Gregg Rolie’s rawk voice an odd fit. Still, at just 37 minutes this is an easy listen. We were still, of course, a few years away from the band’s career highlight and music’s apex.

Rod Stewart, ‘Gasoline Alley’

Rod was still a member of the Faces at this stage, and years from his dabbling with disco, so this features most of the Faces as backing band and, unsurprisingly, doesn’t sound like too much of a departure for him. It’s a bit uneven though: most of the record sort of sounds like a British Neil Young, but then there’s a Womack & Womack cover and a few ropey hard rock numbers. One of those albums that is perfectly acceptable, but which I can’t imagine revisiting. My mum’s favourite is ‘Atlantic Crossing’ but alas that’s not on this list.

The Teardrop Explodes, ‘Kilimanjaro’

I found out very recently that this album was a favourite of my dad’s at uni, which was maybe a surprise as it’s co-produced by Bill Drummond, a favourite of mine from The KLF. It’s sort of a missing link between post-punk and New Romantic, with Julian Cope’s cynical lyrics and angular rhythms mixing it up with reverby rhythm guitar and synth strings. The overall sound is compatible with, perhaps, the Psychedelic Furs. I love the Furs so unsurprisingly I enjoyed this one too. The version I listened to was the original track listing and therefore does not contain ace single ‘Reward’, tacked onto a re-released edition once that song became a hit.

Next week: It’s time for another IF I MUST week!

Status update: 408 heard (41%), 593 remain.

January 29: Reggae special – Burning Spear, Bob Marley, The Specials, Peter Tosh, UB40, that’s it

Hello and welcome back to 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. I’m your host, JT Wilson, and this week we’re looking at the reggae and ska portion of the list.

Ska, rocksteady and reggae have a long, storied history beginning in the late 1950s and there have been loads of critically acclaimed and commercially successful acts who play this style. We’ve already covered one Bob Marley album, the hits-stuffed ‘Exodus‘, but that shouldn’t mean we’re out of reggae albums to cover… right?

Bob Marley and the Wailers, ‘Catch a Fire’

The earliest Wailers album on the list and the first on Island (after four early albums, one confusingly called ‘The Best of the Wailers’), ‘Catch a Fire’ has more needless Spotify obscuring as it originally plays the “original Jamaican” version. Anyhow, if the album sounds like standard reggae, it’s probably due to the influence the band had in codifying the genre to a non-Jamaican audience. Yet the sonic palette expands beyond the usual forms: the first track has a funky clavinet, Peter Tosh leads on organ on ‘Kinky Reggae’, and Alabaman guitarist Wayne Perkins (previously unfamiliar with reggae) adds bluesy bottleneck guitar on ‘Baby We’ve Got A Date’ and wah-pedal soloing on ‘Stir It Up’ (a song which also features a Moog). It doesn’t seem as good as ‘Exodus’, mind, given the songs tend to rely on endless chorus repetitions.

Bob Marley and the Wailers, ‘Natty Dread’

I wouldn’t normally review two albums by the same artist in the same week as I forget which is which and get bored, but we’re a bit short of material this week so here we are. By this point, original members Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingstone had left, leaving Marley to reform with three female backing vocalists and a regular backing band. On this album, contract disputes with his publishing company resulted in most of the songs being credited to other people (his wife, childhood friends), which charitably ensured financial stability for them. Little caught my attention on this one, with ‘Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)’ and ‘Rebel Music (3 O’Clock Roadblock’ the standouts lyrically and musically; the latter features Bob being pulled over by police purely for being a radical political artist.

Burning Spear, ‘Marcus Garvey’

Confusingly there is also a Burning Spear greatest hits called ‘Marcus Garvey’ on Spotify and the original album isn’t there, so search cautiously. Marcus Garvey himself was a black nationalist and pan-African living in the early 20th Century, you can read about him here. This was the first album released on the legendary Island Records and is rife with political concern, minor-key atmospherics, horns and wheezing organs. It sounds like an album perfect for a dub plate, and sure enough a dub remix called ‘Garvey’s Ghost’ followed four months later. Both the original and the dub plate are worth your time.

Peter Tosh, ‘Legalize It’

Surprisingly, the former Wailer does not mean gay marriage. Released in 1976 after his departure from the band he founded with Bob Marley, but featuring old bandmate Bunny Livingstone and Bob’s wife Rita Marley, the album unsurprisingly plows the same mid-tempo reggae skank furrow as the Wailers. Some of the guitar sounds are familiar from contemporary rock albums: a similar hazy wah sound, and even a bluesy solo on ‘Til Your Well Runs Dry’.

Well, there aren’t any other Jamaican reggae albums on the list: no King Tubby, Lee Perry, Scientist, Toots and the Maytals, Prince Buster, Desmond Dekker or Skatalites. It seems that it’s more important that I listen to Travis, ‘Butterfly‘ or Finley Quaye. Luckily, in the 1970s and 1980s, disaffected working-class Midlanders in the UK got into reggae and made some more albums that made the list.

The Specials, ‘The Specials’

As a Coventrian by adopted hometown it made sense that the 400th album I listened to was a Specials album; sadly there’s no Hazel O’Connor, Billie Myers or Selecter albums on the list. Anyway, this is a ska album with one of the Skatalites on trombone and is peppered with covers or reworkings of original Jamaican ska, even if the band’s full of white guys and Elvis Costello (who’s as black as a Milkybar) is at the controls. Of course it’s catchy and fun, designed for the dancefloor rather than home listening, even if the combination of punk and skank are more familiar now post-Reel Big Fish, Rancid etc than it would have been at the time. Oddly, ‘Too Much Too Young’ is slowed to half-speed and crawls along for six minutes, although it does allow focus on the lyrics being about cheese on toast and watching TV: a charming reflection of the working-class British sensibilities that this music was being filtered through.

UB40, ‘Signing Off’

Garbage singles like ‘Red, Red Wine’ and Can’t Help Falling In Love With You’ had solidified the Brum octet as the most odious type of Heart FM fare in my mind, so it blew my mind to find that their first album is a moody, politically conscious dub album with unpredictable stop-starts (on opener ‘Tyler’) and shifting tempos (on ‘Burden of Shame’) among the standard dub tropes of atonal reverb noise and spooky clattering percussion. I really enjoyed this combination of Thatcher-era dole-scum desperation and Jamaican dub, with the only wrong moves being a lousy Randy Newman cover and some cheap keyboard patches. The bonus tracks, mostly seven or more minutes of virtually vocal-free dub grooves including an unrecognisable version of ‘Strange Fruit’, are even better.

That’s all the reggae and ska, guys, with the exception of another Specials album. There’s a Madness album too, but although I might be splitting hairs, I don’t think the album with ‘Our House’ quite qualifies as ska. Given the amount of nondescript indie dross on the list it’s incredible to see reggae getting such short shrift here: there are only slightly more ska and reggae albums than Elvis Costello albums, most of which have at least one of the Wailers involved, and one of which is produced by Elvis Costello!

You can read about more reggae and dub choices here.

Next week: as it’s my dad’s birthday I’ll be writing about some of the albums that my parents liked, but which I never bothered listening to.

Status update: 401 of 1001 (40%), 600 remain.

January 22: Tim Buckley, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, Peter Gabriel, Roxy Music, Simon and Garfunkel, Yes

Welcome back to 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die! This week, I’ll be looking at seven artists who each have three albums on the list, but which I’d never heard.

Tim Buckley, ‘Goodbye and Hello’

I had Jeff’s dad down as a gloomy folky, so it was something of a surprise to hear him being so direct and engaged with a full band complementing him. Released in 1967, the album is far out even by the standards of the decade: ‘Pleasant Street’ twists Buckley’s androgynous falsetto into a wail of despair while ‘Hallucinations’ has a disarmingly cacophonic arrangement. The only wrong move is the title track: a preposterous, overloaded pomp-folk wander nearly nine minutes long. Some of the arrangements would have benefitted from some restraint (the choir on ‘Morning Glory’, say) but this is a pretty wonderful album.

Creedence Clearwater Revival, ‘Bayou Country’

Even though Creedence were from California, you can imagine boating through the Louisana swamps with this album playing, imagery supported of course by the titles. The best-known track on this album, and in CCR’s repetoire, is ‘Proud Mary’, which is also the song least concerned with heavy blues riffs, sludgy harmonica and Robert Plant wailing. I don’t generally care for this sort of sound, but some of the songs are good examples of the genre, such as ‘Born on the Bayou’. Other songs sound half-finished: ‘Keep on Chooglin” for example.

Dexy’s Midnight Runners, ‘Searching for the Young Soul Rebels’

All three Dexys albums from their original run appear on the list (none from their comeback). This is the first, which symbolically starts with a radio being tuned away from Deep Purple and the Sex Pistols. Like me, you probably think of Dexys in dungarees playing violins. We’ll come to that era later: on their debut, they’re all about brassy soul with organs and, of course, that Kevin Rowland yelp, surprisingly listenable over the course of an album. While the B-side can’t match the A-side (the A-side has ‘Geno’, for one), I really enjoyed this.

Peter Gabriel, ‘Peter Gabriel’ (I/’Car’)

Gabriel’s solo debut and the first of four self-titled albums, this album is unusually hard to find online, which is possibly the influence of anti-streaming Crimson King Robert Fripp, the album’s guitarist. While Fripp’s contributions here are among his most unremarkable of the decade, Gabriel himself has an abundance of ideas: ‘Down the Dolce Vita’ goes straight from orchestral bombast to clavinet funk, ‘Excuse Me’ features a barbershop quartet and the second track’s ‘Solsbury Hill’ was a legit hit. Nothing struck me as demanding multiple listens here, but it’s clearly the work of an imaginative songwriter. I look forward to hearing more Gabriel.

Roxy Music, ‘Roxy Music’

Brian Eno is on the list about a million times in some form. Of course he started off in Roxy, and this album sees him mostly in the background, manipulating the other instruments and adding spacey VCS3 effects. The sound is unusual enough already, blending artsy experimentalism with sexy glam rock and regularly using an oboe, an instrument rarely used in rock music. I’m not sure I was entirely convinced by this. Still, the good one is meant to be ‘For Your Pleasure’, which we’ll come to later.

Simon and Garfunkel, ‘Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme’

Would it surprise you if I told you this album starts with ‘Scarborough Fair’? The duo’s third album was recorded with 60s regulars The Wrecking Crew (‘Pet Sounds’, ‘Forever Changes’ and so on) and is a pretty enjoyable folk-pop album. As you might imagine, it’s a very 1966 album: one song has the subtitle ‘Feelin’ Groovy’ and another is a cover of ‘Silent Night’ with Vietnam war footage played underneath it. The major bummer is ‘A Simple Desultory Phillipic’, an awful Dylan pastiche.

Yes, ‘The Yes Album’

When I was growing up, Yes had a kind of reputation for unbearable pomposity, probably thanks to fifth album ‘Tales from Topographic Oceans’, an 81-minute, four track double album. Posterity has been kinder to ‘The Yes Album’, however, insofar as it sounds pretty damn good to these ears. Refreshingly free of excess despite the long song length, the album combines McCartney-style melodies, long solo guitar instrumentals, three-way harmonies and fuzzy organs and at 41 minutes it’s a concise introduction to the band.

Next week: I’ll be checking out all the reggae on the list. I’m sure there’s plenty!

Status update: 395 heard (39%), 606 remain

January 15: RD Burman, Mike Ladd, Baaba Maal and Mansour Seck, Finley Quaye, Red Snapper, Shack, The Shamen

This week, I’m looking again at the least-heard albums on the list, according to survey respondents on Listchallenges.com. The most heard albums on the list are white rock classics like ‘Nevermind’ and ‘Revolver’, so you’d assume that the least familiar albums on the list are also the most exotic. Yet you’d be surprised. Delve in…

Rahul Dev Burman, ‘Shalimar OST’

This is a soundtrack for a English-language Hindi movie about jewel thieves which featured Rex Harrison alongside big 70s Bollywood stars. Although the singers are a rotating cast (including Burman’s wife Asha Bhosle), Burman’s hand is on the rudder as composer. As ‘Shalimar’ was intended for a Western audience, the soundtrack mashes classical Indian instruments (sitar, tablas etc) and Eastern tonalities with groovy 60s rhythms, filmic strings and smoky jazz. On ‘Countess’ Caper/Shalimar’, he combines Badalamenti flutes, French accordions and Mariachi trumpets. The best album this week.

Mike Ladd, ‘Welcome to the Afterfuture’

Having never heard of Ladd I had no idea what I was getting into here. Turns out that Ladd was a turn-of-century rapper and producer and that this is a largely instrumental hip-hop album. While it has ‘Illmatic”s smoky beats, and shares an apocalyptic futurism with the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, it also pauses for a ten-minute drum’n’bass jam (‘To the Moon’s Contractor’) and has a dreadful Nine Inch Nails/Miles Davis clusterfuck called ‘Starship Nigga’. Oddly, the two most upbeat songs are the final two, despite having the Public Enemy-ish titles ‘Wipe Out on the Wave of Armageddon’ and ‘Feb 4 ’99 (For All Those Killed By Cops)’. I guess Ladd was hoping for a new dawn in the new millennium. Wish not granted. This is okay but I’m not sure I’ll ever come back to it.

Baaba Maal and Mansour Seck, ‘Djam Leeli’

So Maal’s family expected him to become a farmhand and/or fisherman (sources vary), following his father’s footsteps, but hadn’t counted on the family griot Mansour Seck steering him in the direction of music. When Maal got a scholarship to Beaux-Arts in Paris, Seck came with him. This album, recorded in the late 1980s, is traditional Senegalese music, with Maal and Seck on vocals and acoustic guitar. Additional pleasant textures are added later on with electric guitar and idiophone. I won’t pretend to be an expert on this type of music; it seems quite charming, if too long.

Finley Quaye, ‘Maverick A Strike’

Fucking hell. Alright, let’s get through it. Quaye’s reputation, now tarnished due to recent erratic behaviour, is pretty much exclusively down to this album. Some of it sounds pretty good – the Bob Marley-sampling reggae-lite of ‘Sunday Shining’ is an undiluted version of Bruno Mars’s usual schtick, and ‘Even After All’ has at least dated well, even if it sounds like Gabrielle. There are too few songs though: most of the album is padded out with uncertain experiments in dancehall and dub which are melodically deficient, and Quaye’s Wyclef Jean-ish voice grates. Plus, of course, the commercial success of the awful ‘Your Love Gets Sweeter’ can be pinpointed as the rise to power of Jack Johnson: unforgivable.

Red Snapper, ‘Our Aim is to Satisfy’

These were a Warp Records act at the same time as Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada and Autechre, but while those dabbled in electronic soundscapes, Red Snapper were an aggressive guitar/bass/drums trio, occasionally augmented by rappers, who specialised in trip-hop and acid-jazz. While organically replicating breakbeats would have made for an exciting live experience, the wallpaper textures of the genres cause the album to fade into the background. In the late 90s I had a lot of time for Warp, particularly the compilation ‘We Are Reasonable People’, but their appearances on this list have been unremarkable.

Shack, ‘HMS Fable’

I remember this album being heralded as quite a big deal in the NME and Melody Maker when it came out in 1999, but this was a time in which British indie music was basically on its arse, leading to the rise of rap-metal initially and New York Television fans like The Strokes in 2000. ‘HMS Fable’ doesn’t sound much different to anything The Thrills were doing; it’s a Bluetones record with an orchestra. It’s not so much uninspired as uninspiring; there are creative steps here, such as the echo-chamber breakdown of ‘I Want You’, the “no! stop!” interruption on the otherwise-insipid ‘Beautiful’, or the tape-running-out sudden stop of ‘Streets of Kenny’ (albeit a direct copy of ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’). And ‘The Captain’s Table’ sounds so much like Super Furry Animals’ 2002 cut ‘The Piccolo Snare’ that it’s a wonder SFA got away with such brazen theft. But mostly it’s the same stuff that the Go-Betweens, The Triffids or Lloyd Cole did: just a pleasant guitar pop album.

The Shamen, ‘En-Tact’

Yes, amazing as it might sound, the geezers by the name of Ebenezer appear on the 1001 Albums, and it’s even the album with ‘Move Any Mountain’. The final album before Mr C joined and took them to Number One, ‘En-Tact’ still bears traces of the band’s original psychedelic rock incarnation: guitar breaks, cosmic lyrics. This is most prevalent in ‘Make it Mine’, which shares the honours for best track with the opener ‘Move Any Mountain’. Otherwise it’s largely instrumental rave which sounds like 808 State, which is fine, but why not just listen to 808 State? I don’t give ratings on here but if I did, the album would certainly lose points for the deluge of space-filling remixes tacked on at the end. I listened to the 1992 version; the 1991 version had different mixes.

Well, this wasn’t a great week. Thanks for joining us!

Next week: there are lots of bands on the list who have three albums, none of which I’ve heard. I’ll be rectifying some of that next week.

Status update: 388 listened to (39%), 613 remain.

January 8: Nick Drake, Aretha Franklin, George Harrison, Fela Kuti, Love, Lou Reed, Dusty Springfield

Happy New Year everyone! Since the last update, there’s been a new version of the 1001 Albums book released, adding ‘Blackstar’, FKA Twigs and The War on Drugs among others but finding no room for ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’: the full list from that version is here. I’m going to persevere with the list I’ve been working from, rather than drive myself insane by trying to combine or reconcile the lists. We’re still likely to have a late 2018 finish date for this project, by which point there’ll probably be another revision!

This week, we’re easing back into it with some of the albums I’ve been looking forward to hearing. Excitingly, we’re far enough through the project that this includes artists I hadn’t heard before I started doing this, such as our first artist…

Nick Drake, ‘Pink Moon’

While ‘Bryter Layter‘ had seen Drake working with a full band for pretty, John Cale-ish arrangements, it was only under sufferance from the minimalist guitarist, and he stripped his sound back to basics for ‘Pink Moon’: the album is just him, accompanied by his acoustic guitar. The record is alarmingly intimate as a result: on ‘Things Behind the Sun’, for example, the tempo wobbles, a string is mishit, there’s a split-second of hesitation. You can almost hear his fingers against the soundboard. The starkness would be about as exciting as a bare wall painted magnolia, but Drake is such a good singer, writer and guitarist that it overcomes the austerity. Just three albums into his career, this was it for Drake: he never recorded anything else and died of an overdose two years later. His whole canon is on the list.

Aretha Franklin, ‘Lady Soul’

The First Lady of Soul was a prolific recording artist: this is her fourteenth album, and features a dozen musicians, including her sisters and Whitney Houston’s mum on backing vocals. It has two of Aretha’s best-known songs, ‘Chain of Fools’ and Carole King’s ‘You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman’, but almost anything on this album could have been a single. Her passionate delivery – sometimes delivering sassy put-downs, sometimes full of romantic yearning – sets her apart from the pack, but she’s also matched by raunchy horns and soulful keyboards from the backing band. It’s Franklin being good, what a surprise.

George Harrison, ‘All Things Must Pass’

My goodness, but this album is long. A treble album recorded with Ringo, Badfinger and Clapton among many others, this first post-Beatles collection features Harrison compiling a selection of songs rejected by the Beatles or about them and adding some new jams on top (literally: the third album is an interminable series of jams). I love Harrison’s Beatles contributions – the cool Indian elements, the blistering solos, the dour compositions – but he was never a strong lead singer and that’s made more clear when faced with producer Phil Spector’s “just add everything” approach, which swallows the songs whole. The album’s distinguishing feature is Harrison’s slide guitar, which rises above the overegged pudding, but overkill is a pretty good summary of the record generally.

Fela Kuti & Africa 70 & Ginger Baker, ‘Live!’

Burned out from touring and partying, Cream drummer Ginger Baker fled to Nigeria for a change of scene, where he spent his time getting high with Fela Kuti. While Kuti had a very good drummer of his own in Tony Allen, Baker appeared on a couple of albums including this one. His appearances on the B-side are dynamic percussion-heavy grooves, while the rest of the album is a fun, loose, fluid collection, as you’d probably expect given the live setting.

Love, ‘Da Capo’

Forever Changes‘ is in the pantheon but I think I prefer ‘Da Capo’, a more ragged, weird offering which offers harpsichord solos and (on ‘Seven and Seven Is’) pre-thrash rock. Unsurprisingly it sounds very much like a mid-60s record, as with ‘Forever Changes’, but it keeps you guessing more frequently. It ends on a bummer though, with the deathless ‘Revelation’, where guitars and saxes wail away for nearly twenty minutes. Like most 18-minute jams, it’s best enjoyed by avoiding it altogether. The good news, of course, is that it’s the last track and you can always press ‘stop’ before you get there.

Lou Reed, ‘Berlin’

The Velvet Underground are one of my favourite bands but Reed’s solo work has always felt patchy to me: even when he was vibing with the Spiders from Mars on ‘Transformer’, the songwriting was rarely good enough for a full album. Reed was still riding the commercial crest of ‘Transformer’ on this, his follow-up, so in a typical move he decided to make it one of the most depressing records ever. The album’s overly upbeat first half isn’t much to shout about but, when the band cut out 60% of the way through ‘Oh Jim’, the stark grimness of the mostly-acoustic second half becomes a compelling Mike Leigh nightmare as the heroine Caroline’s life spirals into the vortex. Nice to see the Velvets’ prettiest song, ‘Stephanie Says’, brought back to life here, although renamed ‘Caroline Says II’, it’s a brutally damaged version telling of Caroline’s domestic abuse and isolation.

Dusty Springfield, ‘A Girl Named Dusty’

Springfield’s first solo album is mostly a collection of classy pop songs written by the likes of Kander/Ebb, Bacharach/David, Carole King (her second appearance this week) and Holland/Dozier/Holland that were more famously sung by others: ‘My Colouring Book’, ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’ and ’24 Hours From Tulsa’ (!) feature. It’s not as if you can argue with Dame Dusty, one of the all-time great vocalists, but this album serves more as a look at what fantastic songs were doing the rounds in the early 60s, rather than as a statement of Dusty’s individual greatness. Her own definitive canon was still to come.

Next week: I’ll be looking at some of the albums which, according to Listchallenges.com, are the least-heard on the list.

Status update: 381 heard (38%), 620 remaining.