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.

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August 14: Abba, Nick Cave, Frank Sinatra, Tom Waits, Zombies

Abba, ‘Arrival’.

In many ways this is a typical pure pop album: great singles (five of them) dotted among bad album tracks. The all-treble production has dated, though, and with its low-in-mix drum machine and invisible bass, ‘Dancing Queen’ must be the least rhythm-driven song to have the word ‘dancing’ in its title. It doesn’t even have a tambourine! It’s unusual for a band whose songs were generally composed by a guitarist and a keyboardist to steer away from solos, too, so when one does turn up on ‘Happy Hawaii’ it’s a surprise.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘Murder Ballads’.

One of many Cave albums on the list, this one has the big hit, ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’, with Kylie Minogue. Cave has a penchant for vaudevillian ham but his output is generally more enjoyable on the tracks where that’s curtailed. Overall, this imaginative combination of traditional songs and original songs is a fully realised world, concluding with a Dylan cover, ‘Death is Not the End’.

Frank Sinatra, ‘In The Wee Small Hours’.

I’ve always been suspicious of the reverence afforded to the Rat Pack: there’s something a bit self-satisfied about the whole thing, with the smug lyrics of, say, ‘That’s Amore’ being just one example. Trotting out teenagers on X-Factor to do ‘Mack the Knife’ in suits as if they’ve accidentally applied for ‘Stars in their Eyes’ is such a ridiculous concept that you might as well have them come out and sing madrigals. Anyway, this is the oldest album on the list and features Ol’ Blue Eyes being, well, blue. The melancholy air of the selections is informed by Sinatra’s divorce and if the pace never rises above somnolent then bear in mind the intended listening time of 2am. I doubt I’ll necessarily listen to this again but it certainly captured a mood.

Tom Waits, ‘Swordfishtrombones’.

The Beefheart-ish album title name and Waits’ eccentric turns on Sparklehorse and Eels albums made me think that this would be an obtuse listen but, although very unusual, this quirky not-quite-jazz was surprisingly easy on the ears, perhaps due to its sympathetic production and playing, allowing Waits to go wild over the top. A good album.

Zombies, ‘Odessey and Oracle’.

By the time this album came out the band itself was a zombie, long dead but still releasing the album anyway. I imagined this would be sort of Animals-ish R&B but instead it’s a day-glo 60s pop album evoking swinging Carnaby Street cliches. Pretty groovy.