November 13: If I Must – The Band, Everything But The Girl, David Gray, The Happy Mondays, Kid Rock, The La’s, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Verve

This week is another of the popular If I Must series, in which I pick out some albums I don’t want to listen to on the 1,001 and put myself through them. I got so excited to do this that I ended up doing eight: here they are.

The Band, ‘The Band’

‘Music From Big Pink’ was a one-pace slog filled with Dylanisms, so it was with some reluctance that I came back to The Band. On ‘The Band’ it seems that the, uh, band remembered that they could play in more than one tempo and, without Dylan around, indulged their interest in Southern US influences, moving into a more country flavour and pushing Levon Helm’s unusual alto voice closer to the foreground. The stop-start of ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ and the clavinet wah of ‘Up on Cripple Creek’ add dynamic variety, while ‘Whispering Pines’ is an obvious influence on Mercury Rev. I’m still not totally sold on Americana – a sort of rootsy rock version at invoking ‘Huckleberry Finn’ vibes – but I feel more positively towards The Band.

Everything But The Girl, ‘Walking Wounded’

Ben’n’Tracey were megastars at the time as a result of the omnipresent Todd Terry version of ‘Missing’, which pushed a folksy band on the fringes of the top 30 into a Top 5 presence. I was unenthusiastic to listen to a whole album of their stuff as I always thought their singles were pretty bland lite electro-sad and, for all this album’s interest in jungle and techno, it does little to disabuse me of that notion. Its monochromatic mood and pace are inoffensive at Brand New Heavies frequencies and while it’s not outstandingly bad, there’s nothing on here that would be too aggressive for a Dido album.

David Gray, ‘White Ladder’

Before there was Adele, there was David Gray, whose wobbly-headed singing and flappy-brushed drummer clogged up the charts for what seemed like an eternity with an album that, like ’21’, is bland but mystifyingly mega-selling. If you lived through the dark reign of Gray, you’ll recall the sound of this album: folky acoustic guitar and gently tapped drums in a sphere nominally called folktronica but mostly created with organic instruments. There are no surprises here apart from the forced wackiness of ‘We’re Not Right’, and the overall effect is dullness that even a Soft Cell cover (‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’: sadly no David Gray covers of ‘Sex Dwarf’ exist) fails to redeem.

The Happy Mondays, ‘Pills’n’Thrills And Bellyaches’

This dreadfully-named album contains the Mondays’ biggest hits, ‘Step On’ and ‘Kinky Afro’, add at least one new member (singer Rozalla) and sees Paul Oakenfold on the faders and tape deck. It’s surprisingly eclectic, as the band’s 60s and 70s influences are visible, but not so much that they’re blind to the contemporary scene around them. It’s a plausibly comprehensive snapshot of Manchester in the late 80s/early 90s. It doesn’t entirely hang together, though, at least not for me. Why? Probably the melodies, which are often weak or completely absent when left to Shaun Ryder, who couldn’t be described as a great or good or even average singer.

Kid Rock, ‘Devil Without A Cause’

The cowboy and singer in black was an early proponent of rap-metal, meaning that in some places, this album sounds like a fresh mix of metal riffs and rapping; in some places, however, it sounds about as edgy as 5ive. The main problem with the album, as with most albums, is the personality at the front: whether it’s moaning about his record label, uncharitably referring to his son’s mother as a ‘slut’ or not writing enough ideas for a song (‘Bawitdaba’, just ‘Rappers Delight’ with metal guitars), he’s pretty constantly obnoxious. Still, his interests are rap-metal, being a redneck, and misogyny: probably an insurmountable combination for me.

The La’s, ‘The La’s’

Like ‘Apocalypse Now’, or ‘Loveless’, the mythos surrounding The La’s doomed album has elevated it to almost mythical status: rumour has it that Lee Mavers didn’t want the band to dust their guitars, thought they sounded best recorded on dictaphone and rejected a mixing desk because it didn’t have authentic 60s dust on it, to the point where the exasperated label ended up stealing the master tapes just so they could finally put out the record. To what extent this is all apocryphal is another question, but what is definitely true is that the band disowned the record on its release and Mavers pulled a Neutral Milk Hotel and never released another album. Are we missing much by not having more La’s material? On this evidence, no. The first two songs are as innovative as Jet, the third is literally called ‘Timeless Melody’ and the fourth has whistling. Then the album finishes with a nine-minute song. “But JT, the album celebrates Liverpool’s past while looking forward to later Scouse bands like The Coral and The Zutons.” Well, exactly.

Red Hot Chili Peppers, ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’

‘Californication’ is a strong contender for Most Boring Album I’ve Listened To, but this album isn’t quite as monotonous. John Frusciante is the stand-out performer as he works his way through a variety of styles from John McGeoch to Michael Hampton, while Chad Smith is also louder in the mix. Additional texture is brought by mellotron, celeste and trash-heap percussion. The boisterous performances put Anthony Kiedis lower in the balance, but he still stamps his mark: one of the more interesting songs has the bloody awful title ‘Sir Psycho Sexy’. This would be a pretty good 40-minute album: it runs a near-intolerable 73 minutes.

The Verve, ‘A Northern Soul’.

One of two Verve records on the list, but luckily for me I’d already heard the good singles/crap rest ‘Urban Hymns’. Here we have a lot of cokey guff – the first two tracks sound like one long song (and one is called ‘This Is Music’, presumably unironically knowing Richard Ashcroft). Gentle third song ‘On Your Own’ and the string-drenched ‘History’ poke their heads above the parapet of sprawling, overlong, blustering trudge and if it seems like I’m indicating that only the singles are any good here, then it at least suggests they had good choices of singles. The e-bow and feedback instrumental ‘(Reprise)’ makes for a pleasant closer: I wonder whether Nick McCabe might have been better suited leading a post-rock band like Mogwai rather than spending a decade playing second fiddle to Ashcroft and his ego.

Next week, in tribute to one of the country’s most notable singers, Leonard Cohen, passing away this week, I’ll be listening to some of the best Canadian albums on the list. Obviously Laughing Len will be featured.

Progress update: 338 listened to (34%), 663 remain

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November 6: Requests edition: Grant Lee Buffalo, Guided by Voices, Hawkwind, Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, The Monks, Beth Orton, Pere Ubu

This week’s edition is a requests edition, which means that these seven albums, which have nothing immediately pigeonholing them, all get a spin. So let’s see what’s in the requests bag shall we?

Grant Lee Buffalo, ‘Fuzzy’

I was only aware of this band because of nearly-eponymous singer Grant Lee Phillips appearing on a couple of Eels albums in the 90s. This album, from 1993, is somewhere between Husker Du and REM, meaning that it’s American alt-rock which is both wrenching & heartfelt and scuzzy & noisy (although it does stop at piano-based soul for ‘Dixie Drug Store’). Its 48-minute run time seems to fly by; this is worth your time.

Guided by Voices, ‘Alien Lanes’

Like Car Seat Headrest, GBV were a solo home recording project who suddenly found themselves on a major label. While CSH took the opportunity to expand their line-up and songwriting, GBV seem to have remained wilfully obscure, rushing through 28 songs in just 41 minutes (what are they, Napalm Death?) and often using the everything-on-treble production of the lowest of lo-fi. The album occasionally peaks, clips and hisses as if advertising its Tascam roots. There’s echoes of contemporaries The Mountain Goats (who do not appear on the list), and clearly Times New Viking are among those who’ve heard this. If the songs are too short to get much of a grip on – some are under 30 seconds long – the cumulative effect is enjoyable. An act doing what the hell they want.

Hawkwind, ‘Space Ritual’

The live sets that this album is taken from sound like the sort of thing that would have punks rolling their eyes until they went dizzy: an 86-minute concept about space and the music of the spheres, with dancing girls, lasers and Michael Moorcock reading poetry. Mind you, the album has Lemmy on bass, and Johnny Rotten liked Van der Graaf Generator right? So who knows? Anyway the live show sounds amazing and the album finds itself in the unique position of sounding the same all the way through, yet not sounding like anything else: a scuffed-up, distorted take on psychedelia with spacey effects (from an “audio generator”) and saxophone at the front. Lemmy’s presence is most notable on ‘Orgone Generator’, a ten-minute track using the old Bo Diddley/’Jean Genie’ riff. Who knows what the hell is going on here but it’s pretty wonderful.

Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, ‘Rattlesnakes’

Cole was a Glasgow university student who got the Commotions together for this (and two later albums). The album’s most notable factor is its lyrics: references to Simone de Beauvoir, ‘On the Waterfront’ and drafted-in references from Cole’s studies. The music is perfectly fine 80s indie-pop with some similarities to The Go-Betweens: presumably similar influences. ‘Are You Ready to be Heartbroken?’ is a fine outro (of course Spotify glues on superfluous bonus tracks); it also triggered a rare good answer song in Camera Obscura’s ‘Lloyd, I’m Ready to be Heartbroken’.

The Monks, ‘Black Monk Time’

WHY DO YOU KILL ALL THOSE KIDS OVER THERE IN VIETNAM? Like The Cramps if they’d been around ten years earlier, The Monks is an unusually aggressive take on psychedelia, twangy surf and 50s shuffle. They sound almost as if they attempted to write the pop music of their contemporaries, but were on all the bad trips, turning their work into an Arkham Asylum rendering. You know like in ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ where the Hallowe’en band try to play ‘Jingle Bells’? Even their love song ‘That’s My Girl’ comes over creepily possessive! Of course the album’s peculiar rattle, distorted organ and freak-out vocals were an influence on punk, Krautrock and similar weirdos. Worth a listen!

Beth Orton, ‘Central Reservation’

The perpetual Brit Awards nominee and sometime Chemical Brothers collaborator is probably best known for this album, which was highly critically-acclaimed, even if the sales weren’t quite up to it. This late-90s release is very much of its time, and is pleasant enough without being desperately engaging: Orton lacks the distinctive weirdness of a Bjork or a Tori, and this album can feel somewhat anonymous. Opener ‘Stolen Car’ is the highlight.

Pere Ubu, ‘The Modern Dance’

Somewhere between Public Image Ltd and The Cardiacs, ‘The Modern Dance’ oscillates between swishy art punk, boogie piano, avant sax squealing and yelping vocals from David Thomas. As with much post-punk, it’s an album that engages the brain and the feet but perhaps not necessarily the heart; but who cares when the tightness and the cool sound mean that the album flies by, running a mere 36 minutes (although it does slow to a crawl on no-tune atonal dirge ‘Sentimental Journey’). The album came out on Blank, but Chrysalis picked them up for their next album. Nowadays a record as uncompromising as this would stand no chance of attracting a major: the 2016 Pere Ubus would be marooned on Soundcloud and Bandcamp. We will get to hear their major label debut, ‘Dub Housing’, at a later date, as it’s also among the 1001.

Next week, good news for sadists, as it’s time for one of the popular If I Must weeks! Feel free to request anything you know will irritate me, but don’t worry too much as there’s still plenty of material for these weeks.

Progress: 330 of 1001 (33%), 671 remain.

October 30: Jazz special – John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Stan Getz/Charlie Byrd, Keith Jarrett, Charles Mingus, Thelonius Monk

Jazz is kind of the final frontier in non-classical music. It was the genre all the hip cats loved in the 1950s (Kerouac vividly describes how exciting he found it in ‘On The Road’), but in my lifetime, it’s been either a staple of TV backing music or a fringe genre of avant-garde experimentation. I know little about the genre and own none of it (unless you count Fela Kuti) so time to learn some more about it.

John Coltrane, ‘A Love Supreme’

Coltrane was Miles Davis’s sax player before becoming a band leader in his own right. Here, him and his quartet play a suite which is essentially just one long song, characterised by discordant piano, clattering drums and soloing from Coltrane. The best part of the album is the opening of ‘Acknowledgement’, where the main riff climbs out of a swarm of cymbals only to be submerged by a chaotic sax line. Mike Garson (among many others) was taking notes on the piano style here, but it’s a deliberately obscure piece. While it’s certainly a striking album, it wasn’t one that I feel compelled to revisit.

Miles Davis, ‘Kind of Blue’

‘Bitches Brew’, which I listened to at the very start of the project, was pretty much unfathomable to me, so time to try and approach him from a different angle. ‘Kind of Blue’ is more accessible, essentially allowing Davis and Coltrane to solo over Satie-ish piano rumblings and rhythm section. It’s an easy introduction to the modal jazz style which Davis lost interest in later in his career.

Duke Ellington, ‘At Newport 1956’

Ellington and his band were on their downers at this point, reduced to playing ice-rinks, but turned their career around with this exciting live album. Well, I say “live album”: 40% of this album does indeed come from the live performance, the rest was clandestine studio fixing and counterfeiting. Hey, look at the big fat phoney! Anyway, big band style jazz like this must have been incredibly exciting to the audience who were there (or who weren’t there as the case may be), as much as it doesn’t seem desperately thrilling now. Some of the atonal trumpet squeals sound like something off a Public Enemy backing track: I was surprised to learn the Bomb Squad hadn’t sampled them.

Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd, ‘Jazz Samba’

This does-what-it-says-on-the-tin album launched a bossa nova craze in the early 1960s United States, and features saxophonist Getz and guitarist Byrd recording Brazilian standards with two bassists and two drummers as if they were a stadium rock band. The augmented rhythm section doesn’t overpower the set, though, as this is led by Getz’s husky tenor sax. It’s easy enough on the ear, which explains this style of music’s later devolution into muzak: Getz would later record ‘The Girl From Ipanema’, practically the dictionary definition of lift music. Best track here is a melancholy cut unsurprisingly named ‘Samba Triste’.

Keith Jarrett, ‘Koln Concert’

The second of two live albums on today’s list, this one is a recording of a concert of solo piano improvisations played on a knackered piano (due to a venue flub). This doesn’t exactly sound like the most exciting thing ever, right? Yet I found this album pretty charming. It has jazzy and bluesy sections, of course, but there’s also flavours of classical (shades of Rachmaninoff) and almost new age. Surprisingly, as much as it’s non-confrontational, this is one of the albums I enjoyed most this week.

Charles Mingus, ‘The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady’

While many jazz albums have the band leader front and centre, this is less the case with Mingus, a double bass player and occasional pianist who leads from the back, meaning that the solos are democractically split between sax, trumpet, guitar and piano. Partially composed as a ballet (!) and recorded as an octet, this album features horn section cacophonies, whiplash transitions of themes and mood and a raunchy strip-joint vibe throughout characterised by the wah-wah trombones. This is a bizarre album which is not for the faint of heart, so of course I loved it. I also checked out ‘Mingus Ah Um’ but while good it lacks this album’s unpredictable weirdness.

Thelonius Monk, ‘Brilliant Corners’.

Monk was a pianist whose tricky compositions were a pain for his band to perform and record: the title track here took 20+ takes for the poor musicians. The complexity of that track is the most interesting thing here, followed by the celeste on ‘Pannonica’. It’s hard to judge this on its own merits given the ubiquity of hard bop, though.

Next week will be REQUESTS WEEK so if you’d like me to enjoy (or ‘enjoy’) an album of your choosing, pick from the list here

Progress update: 323 listened to (32%), 678 remain

October 23: Beck, Kings of Leon, MIA, The Streets, Rufus Wainwright, The White Stripes, The Zutons

This week, I’ll be looking at the newest albums on the 2006 list: not exactly “up to date” but as close as we’ll come in this project. Annoyingly, more than one of these albums had disappeared from the list in later editions. Were the compilers right to remove them? Let’s find out!

Beck – Guero

I’d already listened to one of Beck’s recks for this project, ‘Odelay’, and found it easy to admire but hard to love due to the measured ironic posturing. This album brings back the same producers, the Dust Brothers, and the same kitchen-sink approach, but feels easier to connect to than ‘Odelay’. Perhaps this is because it feels less mannered and self-conscious, perhaps because the influences are easier for me to engage with. Distorted bass lines inform ‘E Pro’ and ‘Rental Car’, while the gruff baritone Hansen adopts on¬† ‘Emergency Exit’ reminds me of fellow junk-shop eclectist Eels. There is yet another Beck on the list, ‘Sea Change’: I’m slightly keener now to check it out than I was. This one is good.

Kings of Leon – Aha Shake Heartbreak

Before their unexpected rise to stadium rock band, the Followills had a sort-of Southern blues take on the Strokes template which they were still using on this, their second album. The album’s lead single was its best track, ‘The Bucket’, a killer single which remains the band’s best song. So this isn’t the disaster I thought, right, I hear you ask. Well, no, and yet it’s a difficult album to love, with Caleb’s slurry mumble rendering most of the lyrics impenetrable. The second half of the album adds some more imaginative flourishes onto their standard sound, but it’s an inessential listen. This isn’t even the only KoL album on the list!!

M.I.A. – Arular

M.I.A.’s minimalist template goes beyond drum’n’bass and expunges the bass as well, leaving only the vocals and the drums as the dominant instruments (with low-in-mix synths here and there). Largely written on a Roland 505 previously owned by Elastica’s Justine Frischmann, the obvious debts to Missy and Peaches are largely written off by an artist furrowing her own path. Okay, if largely a triumph of sass over substance, ‘Arular’ pre-dates her best-known songs (‘Paper Planes’, say) and I would be surprised if there weren’t better albums later in her career.

The Streets – A Grand Don’t Come For Free

This was in the If I Must pile thanks to the bloody awful singles (‘Dry Your Eyes’ was a slog) and it’s mildly surprising to see this on the list instead of ‘Original Pirate Material’. Despite my reticence to listen to it, though, the album has a sort of scrappy DIY feel to it which should have come as an inspiration to young rappers in the same way as, say, Bratmobile inspired punk grrls. Here we have a rapper delivering rhymes in a stilted, hesitant fashion over beats he recorded at home, calling it ‘Fit But You Know It’ and having top 5 hits. As much as I hate to use these words there’s something that feels authentic and genuine about the experiences Skinner describes, couched in the language he’s comfortable with, which is charming despite some seriously ropey material (‘It Was Supposed To Be So Easy’ for example) and despite the fact that Skinner’s singing on the choruses rivals D-12’s ‘My Band’ for Worst Vocal Delivery On A Rap Song.

Rufus Wainwright – Want Two

Given the wealth of uninspiring choices this week I perhaps reacted more favourably to Rufus than I might have done normally, even if all he’s doing here is a selection of camp theatrical pop songs performed with his celeb mates (mother Kate McGarrigle, sister Martha, Anhoni Hegarty, Levon Helm from The Band etc). Patrick Wolf (who is not on the list) did a similar thing in a more aggressive style with thunderous beats, of course, and ‘Want Two’ doesn’t quite maintain interest all the way through. There is, though, a lot to like about Wainwright’s songs and arrangements, which take in solo piano, Eastern-sounding violin, Van Dyke Parks orchestrations and more.

The White Stripes – Get Behind Me Satan

I’d been a White Stripes fan at the same time as everyone else had, but I got off at this stop due to lacklustre singles ‘Blue Orchid’ and ‘The Denial Twist’ (and because I was bored of Jack White’s fetishisation of ancient equipment) so never heard this album. This album appeared on 2006’s list but was hastily removed in the 2007 edition, indicating that posterity hadn’t been kind to it: and so it proves. The previous albums had been most effective when White was either going in hard with riotous rock-outs or going in soft with sweet Paul McCartney ballads; this album mostly expunges both. The album mostly focuses on piano or marimba, and poor Meg is often sidelined or absent. Unlike the previous two albums in their career, you don’t need to own this.

The Zutons – Who Killed The Zutons?

Back when I was at university I was seeing a girl who went to university in Liverpool and we’d see the Zutons semi-often at tiny venues like Le Bateau. This was in 2002, where they sounded very like The Coral and their sound diversified only on the tracks Abi Harding featured on saxophone. By 2004, they’d become monsters with moronic geezalongs like ‘Don’t Ever Think (Too Much)’ and ‘You Will, You Won’t’ scaring me off pursuing their career any further. The concentrated horror of ‘You Will, You Won’t’ is, thankfully, an anomaly that isn’t sustained throughtout the album, and they’d largely purged their Coral-alike elements by this point, yet there’s little here that hadn’t been done before; in some cases, 30 or 40 years before.

Next week, I’ll be checking out some more of the jazz on the list. Jazz is not a genre I know almost anything about. Will that change by next week? We’ll find out!

The week after will be REQUESTS WEEK so feel free to pick an album for me to enjoy (or not enjoy if you’re a sadist) – full list here

STATUS: 315 albums listened to (31.5%), 686 remain.

October 16: Black Sabbath, Guns ‘n’ Roses, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Metallica, Napalm Death, Slayer

This week’s installment of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die is, by weight, the heaviest yet, as it’s time for a METAL SPECIAL! Metal is amply represented on the list, with a broad range of thrash, nu-metal, “classic” 80s cheese and even black metal making the 1001, so it was tough to narrow it down to seven for this week. In the end, I picked seven that are generally regarded as classics, but which I’d never checked out before. Let’s begin.

Black Sabbath, ‘Black Sabbath’.

I’ve picked the remastered version of Sabbath’s debut album, which sounds great: all the parts are clear and prominent. It opens with the title/signature track, which is a template for doom metal in its slow minor-key stylings and generally delivers at a high level on the A-side (with ‘NIB’ also bringing the goods). The B-side isn’t quite as good, with two covers and an instrumental, although it does feature the most sinister use of jew’s harp I can remember hearing, plus a possessed-sounding unaccompanied guitar freakout from Tony Iommi in the middle of ‘Warning’. Recommended.

Guns ‘n’ Roses, ‘Appetite For Destruction’.

This album sold a gazillion copies around the world and everyone knows its big singles, so imagine my surprise to learn that this was their debut album. Not for the only time this week, or indeed any week, I’m listening to this album for the first time after thirty years of the singles being played to death to the point that they now sound cheesy, which makes it difficult to imagine the impact at the time of release. There’s certainly places where they deviate from the template to the benefit of the record – the tempo switches in ‘My Michelle’ and ‘Paradise City’, the opening bass solo/guitar riff duet on album highlight ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ – but their formula of hard riffs, lyrical sleaze and Axl’s yowl is a hard one to like.

Iron Maiden, ‘The Number of the Beast’.

Speaking of albums whose singles now have the overpowering flavour of cheese… Maiden’s first album with Bruce Dickinson contains songs about ‘Village of the Damned’ and ‘The Prisoner’, complex structures including time signature changes and, of course, the trademark galloping drums and stereo guitar solos. It’s obviously technically good, and features its biggest hits (the title track and ‘Run to the Hills’) consecutively, but coming to it in the post-ironic era makes it hard to take an objective stance. Not the worst album I’ve heard this week but not one I’m likely to play twice.

Judas Priest, ‘Destroyer’.

One of the first metal albums of the 1980s – it came out in 1980 – this was clearly Priest’s attempt to play to the stadiums: every song has a chorus you can sing along with and/or a drumbeat you can clap, as well as catchy melodies delivered precisely by Rob Halford. With the exception of the vaguely angular ‘The Rage’, the rhythm section mostly cede the spotlight to guitarists KK Downing and Glen Tipton. The album contains notable Priest tracks ‘Breaking the Law’ and ‘Living After Midnight’ (the latter apparently inspired by Rob Halford’s early bedtime being disrupted by the band practising downstairs: heavy metal). I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this quite as much as I did.

Metallica, ‘Master of Puppets’.

One of the first Metallica albums to gain a mainstream audience, this was also bassist Cliff Burton’s final record with the band before he was killed in a tour bus crash. The album’s production and playing are both on point: the production is clear, allowing each instrument to stand out (unlike its follow-up ‘And Justice For All’, which mixes Burton replacement Jason Newsted into inaudibility), but captures the energy, momentum and raw power you’d expect from a thrash outfit. Notable points include the lyrics, which cover drug abuse, H.P. Lovecraft and ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ and the album starting with the sound of a flamenco-style acoustic guitar, of all things. Good stuff here.

Napalm Death, ‘Scum’.

Never known for making long records, the Midlands gang’s first album crams 28 tracks into just 33 minutes, including famous 1-second song ‘You Suffer’. To add to the fun, the line-up is almost completely different on the A and B sides, with only drummer Mick Harris appearing on all the tracks. Essentially it’s two bands called Napalm Death doing a split album. The second side is probably the more extreme, with Harris’s blastbeats and Lee Dorrian contributing an almost black metal screech over 20-second long songs, but the first side has highlights ‘Instinct of Survival’ and ‘Scum’. Essentially Motorhead’s “play really fast” template taken to its most extreme conclusion. Pretty remarkable.

Slayer, ‘Reign in Blood’.

When I was at university and going to Rock Society nights pretty much weekly, the most frequently-played artists were, or seemed to be, Machine Head and Slayer. Alas this did not make me a lifelong convert of thrash: I don’t know whether it’s because it’s so fast that it’s hard to grasp the mood or sentiment of the piece, or whether it’s just because it all sounds the same, but it’s simultaneously brutal and boring. Book-ended by their two best-known tracks (‘Angel of Death’ and the homophonic ‘Raining Blood’), this one is over in just 28 minutes, but still feels more like a slog than a thrill. It’s connected to last week’s entry via Rick Rubin, who produced this at the same time as ‘Licensed to Ill’ by the Beastie Boys. Kerry King popped in for a quick cameo on the Beasties’ record, but sadly the favour is not returned here.

Next week, I’ll be blasting into the present day (well, kind of) as I review seven of the newest albums on the list!

Status: 308 albums heard (31%), 693 remain. This project will run and run! Expected conclusion: 7th October 2018

October 9: Rap special – Beastie Boys, Eminem, Nas, NWA, Outkast, A Tribe Called Quest, Kanye West

This week’s update is a selection of the hip-hop/rap albums on the list. The genre is well-represented on the list: nearly 30 albums, including some I’d already heard (Public Enemy, Wu-Tang Clan). Let’s have a look at some of the others.

The Beastie Boys, ‘Licensed to Ill’.

The first offering from the hoarse trio was the first rap album to top the Billboard 100 and also the first by an all-white trio: surely a coincidence. Recorded before Mixmaster Mike and Money Mark joined the group, the album can often be pretty stripped down, based mainly around 808 rhythms and samples that come and go. In the same way that early hip-hop took inspiration from the music of their past by sampling classic soul and funk, the Beasties do the same thing by sampling Led Zeppelin and War. The riffs suit being rapped over. There’s also something charming in the way the guys alternate words as well as lines, finishing each other’s sentences in a way which suggests infallible solidarity. Given this album has ‘Fight For Your Right’ and ‘No Sleep Til Brooklyn’ (one after the other!), this is probably the dumbest and simplest of the Beasties’ albums. Later albums (there are two more on the list) probably add more nuance and complexity. This is a fine party album.

Eminem, ‘The Slim Shady LP’.

1999 was such an aggressive time for music: with nu-metal plaguing the charts, we also saw the arrival of Slim Shady asking “do you like violence? Want to see me push nine inch nails through each one of my eyelids?”. The cartoon depictions of murder, rape and other violence, through a prism of moral ambiguity, predictably caused outrage among parents and huge sales among kids and teenagers. For an album with songs called ‘Just Don’t Give A Fuck’ and ‘Still Don’t Give A Fuck’, it’s clear that this is phony defiance, as Mathers’ self-loathing and doubt creeps in, bleeding through the Shady persona to the gradual detriment of the album. By the next album, of course (with ‘The Way I Am’ etc) and later on (with thin-skinned songs about Triumph the Insult Comic Dog), he was fooling nobody. This album would have been improved with fewer songs and more Dre: Doctor Andre presides over the two big singles ‘My Name Is’ and ‘Guilty Conscience’ but hands over the reins after that.

Nas, ‘The Illmatic’.

Nas’s first and most highly-regarded album clocks in at a mere 39 minutes, apparently in order to prevent further bootlegging of an album leaking in more places than the Titanic, yet this brevity is to the benefit of the album. The production hints at the sort of sound RZA would later expand upon with the Wu-Tang: dusty-sounding beats, samples either obscure or obscured (a sample of Michael Jackson’s ‘Human Nature’ is almost buried in the mix). It convincingly paints a picture of the hood life that Nas was aiming to depict. Light on the guests, it’s almost entirely Nas front and centre, which makes the quality of his delivery – mid-line rhyming, polysyllabic delivery – even more crucial. The best album this week.

NWA, ‘Straight Outta Compton’.

The pivotal album from Compton’s finest is probably the most front-loaded album ever: classics ‘Straight Outta Compton’ and ‘Fuck Tha Police’ are tracks 1&2. No surprise that the rest of the album (a mix of solo tracks, full-group collaborations and space-filling remixes) doesn’t quite sustain that momentum, despite the best efforts of Ice Cube and MC Ren on lyrics and Dr Dre on beats. Surprisingly, my favourite track is the Dr Dre solo cover of ‘Express Yourself’, even if it does contain the astonishing sound of Dre claiming “I don’t smoke weed”. Clearly a stance he would come to revise by the time of his solo album, ‘The Chronic’.

Outkast, ‘Stankonia’.

Well, it’s about time I reviewed an album that came out this century. Everybody with a casual interest in hip-hop in 2001 named Dre and Outkast as favourites; this album gives some indication as to why. Typically for hip-hop albums of the era, the running time is one of the weak points of ‘Stankonia’ (over an hour), yet the group fill this time with sprawling eclecticism and, for once, skits that are actually good! ‘Spaghetti Junction’ and ‘BOB’ are among the highlights on the album, which is best known for single and mega-hit ‘Ms Jackson’.

A Tribe Called Quest, ‘The Low End Theory’.

The second album from Q-Tip and the gang features a live bassist, but it’s the sampled breaks that feel like the significant instrument here: perhaps because they’re higher in the mix, perhaps because of the judicious sampling of jazz fills. There’s also an appearance from Busta Rhymes (possibly his only appearance on the list) on closing track ‘Scenario’, which feels like it came from a different album. For all its qualities, this perhaps didn’t sound like the crucial album I was expecting, although there is another Tribe album on the list so perhaps I can still come round on them.

Kanye West, ‘The College Dropout’.

Yeezus has kind of gone from cause celebre to bete noire among hipsters, presumably because of his increasingly narcissistic pronouncements, conspicuous consumption and preposterous interviews. Maybe this year’s ‘The Life of Pablo’ didn’t go very far in redressing the balance, but he has usually proven capable of putting out at least one quality jam per album (‘Stronger’, ‘Black Skinhead’ etc). Anyway at the point of ‘The College Dropout’ he was still seen as the bright young thing of rap, underpinned by wonderful standouts ‘Jesus Walks’ and ‘All Falls Down’. The album is too long (although¬† 12-minute closer ‘Last Call’, in which West rambles about how he got signed, mysteriously held my interest), and all the big hits are on later albums. I’d say this album is okay.

Next week, I’ll be true to my Midlands location as I check out some of the metal albums on the list. There are, surprisingly, quite a lot! Which ones will I pick? Tune in to find out!

Status update: 301 out of 1001 (30%), 700 remain.

October 2: Bauhaus, Billie Holiday, King Crimson, MC5, Pink Floyd, Talking Heads, Neil Young

This week’s edition of the 1001 is an editor’s choice, meaning I’m drawing from some of the albums I’ve been looking forward to hearing. The best thing about a list like this is that there’s quite a lot that I want to hear – there’s at least 100 I’m keen to check out. Here’s seven of them…

Bauhaus, ‘Mask’.

The melancholy quartet’s second of three albums, all of which have their attractions. On this one, the template is tight, dubby rhythm section, howling John McGeoch-ish guitar and plaintive vocals, but this stretches to accommodate funk, vibraphone and sax, which creates a feel closer to PiL-style post-punk than to goth. On opener ‘Hair of the Dog’, the sound even approximates the sort of desolate industrial that Nine Inch Nails would later create on ‘The Downward Spiral’. An album with a lot of personality.

Billie Holiday, ‘Lady in Satin’.

I wasn’t awfully familiar with Holiday aside from the Hungarian death song ‘Gloomy Sunday’ so time to rectify that. Perhaps, however, this wasn’t the best place to start: recorded in 1958, Holiday was already in the twilight of a career that was at its apex in the 1930s, before charts or LPs were much of a thing. Recorded with an orchestra, ‘Lady in Satin’ makes room for Holiday’s unusual voice and phrasing, allows for the occasional pleasant trumpet solo, and completely fails to change BPM at any point. Surely not every song in the Great American Songbook is exactly the same tempo? Having said that, even if all the songs sound basically the same, the album flies by.

King Crimson, ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’.

Robert Fripp’s screechy guitar contributions to Eno and Bowie albums had made me interested in checking out his main project, but it turns out that in his own kingdom, Fripp is a tyrant, enforcing his power of copyright with an iron fist and sending a Spanish Inquisition of lawyers out to the pirate galleons of Spotify and Last.fm. This made exploring KC difficult, but luckily the help of friends got me a copy of their debut and here we are. This is heralded as one of the first prog albums and contains a lot of the trappings that would later become cheesy cliche – the lyrics especially (e.g. there is a song called ‘Moonchild’) but also the seemingly endless noodling sections (‘Moonchild’ is nearly ten minutes of it). It’s quite easy, however, to dig the Black Sabbath-ish heaviness of ’21st Century Schizoid Man’ or the lovely flute-driven ‘I Talk To The Wind’. Woodwind/keyboard player Ian McDonald drives a lot of the best music here, so of course he was gone by the band’s next album. Worth checking out if you can do so without invoking the wrath of Fripp.

MC5, ‘Kick Out The Jams’.

RIGHT NOW, RIGHT NOW, RIGHT NOW IT’S TIME TO KICK OUT THE JAMS, MOTHERFUCKERS!! There aren’t many more exciting openings to a song than the title track here, which would make it a shoo-in for best Side A, Track 1 ever if it actually was (it’s the second song, weirdly). The Detroit proto-punks’ album appears to be mostly recorded live, and while it captures the exhiliration of the band’s live energy, it doesn’t quite succeed in sweeping you along with it (the production isn’t quite up to it). Also, the album’s called ‘Kick Out The Jams’ but the closing song is eight minutes long? What a title track though, eh.

Pink Floyd, ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’.

Floyd are, of course, most famous for their super-serious stadium prog fare of the 70s and 80s, but we’re a million miles away from that here, on their debut album. For example, track 2, ‘Lucifer Sam’, is pretty much a surf song: not a style that you’d hear on ‘The Wall’. PATGOD features some of Floyd’s best-known songs from this era – ‘Astronomy Domine’ and ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ – yet it feels as though there’s a lot of directionless messing around and not enough in the way of actual songs. ‘Chapter 24’ and ‘Bike’ are the most coherent songs on the album; perhaps English psychedelia just doesn’t move me.

Talking Heads, ‘More Songs About Buildings and Food’.

Another album on the list with Eno associations, this time recruiting the effete Roxy Music synthist on production and occasional performance. I wasn’t too bothered about ’77’, but by giving more room to keyboardist Jerry Harrison and adding some more flavours (soul, scratchy funk), this one ups the ante a bit. We’re still a while away from the Afrobeat/Latin dabblings they’d arrive at by the time of ‘Stop Making Sense’, and the album has just one single on it. Imitators in recent years mean this still holds up though: in fact it sounds as if it could have come out in the last year or two.

Neil Young, ‘After the Gold Rush’.

There’s something so cracked and vulnerable about Young’s falsetto at this point in his career that it overcomes any of the dull roots trappings or lumpen piano or harmonica arrangement, and this album feels heartbreaking even despite the elliptical lyrics of most of the songs. The title track and ‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down’ are as good as anything I’ve heard on this project so far, while the two minute-long fillers that close each side make you regret that they’re not longer. All in all Young does the sort of thing that Van Morrison or Bruce Springsteen are generally regarded as doing, yet has the ability to move me whereas those two (so far at least), can’t. Pretty much perfect.

Next week, I’ll be looking at some of the finest albums in hip-hop. There’s 21 albums on the list that I’ve not heard yet: time to bring that number down a bit.

Status update: 294 out of 1001 (29%), 707 remain (I’d forgotten to properly update the list last week, hence the sudden jump).