March 12: AC/DC, Bon Jovi, Boston, Dire Straits, The Eagles, Led Zeppelin, Pearl Jam

This week, we’ll be looking at some of the biggest-selling albums of all time, according to the RIAA and Wikipedia. A lot of the best-selling albums ever are Best Of collections (e.g. the Eagles and the Beatles) or popular country albums that don’t make the list (Garth Brooks, Shania Twain). There are also plenty of mega-selling albums that I own (‘The Wall’, ‘Thriller’) or at least have already heard (‘Jagged Little Pill’). Strangely, a lot of the biggest-selling albums are not necessarily the most critically-acclaimed albums ever. Is this deserved? Let’s find out.

AC/DC, ‘Back in Black’

The first album following vocalist Bon Scott’s untimely death on tour, ‘Back in Black”s title track is of course a tribute to Scott. Brian Johnson takes over the shrill vocal slot while the brothers Young keep the riffs steady and producer ‘Mutt’ Lange demands the best from the band. If you’ve heard ‘Back in Black’ or ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’ – and of course you have – then nothing here will surprise you. The ghastly single entendres (‘Given the Dog a Bone’, ‘Let Me Put My Love In You’) compound the atrocity.

Bon Jovi, ‘Slippery When Wet’

Commercial hard rock sold in massive quantities in the 1980s, clearly. This incredibly popular album – the band’s only entry on the list – features all their signature tunes: ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’, ‘Wanted Dead or Alive’, ‘You Give Love A Bad Name’. With its huge choruses, massive guitars and group vocals, it’s designed for stadiums. It’s almost unlistenable though: all the best hooks come from the Desmond Child songs and penultimate track ‘Never Say Goodbye’ is one of the worst songs I’ve heard during this project.

Boston, ‘Boston’

Boston’s record label insisted that they should record in a studio rather than rely on home recording, booking time in an opulent studio for the band to do so. While pretending that they were making the record there, Boston were in fact back at home recording the majority of this record in the guitarist’s basement. The hard rock formula sounds familiar and dated, but it’s not entirely textbook: there are some nice organ flourishes (e.g. on ‘Foreplay’) and classical guitar parts. You can tell it was produced by the guitarist though i.e. the vocals are too quiet and the guitars are too loud.

Dire Straits, ‘Brothers in Arms’

Confusingly, Dire Straits were originally formed by a pair of brothers, but David Knopfler had left the band before this album, despite its name. This is the one with the blue cover with the dobro on the front and is best known for ‘Money For Nothing’ (and did you know it uses the word “faggot” three times?) and ‘Walk of Life’ (Springsteen re-writes ‘A Town Called Malice’). The 80s production sounds great of course but the Synclavier sounds ancient and the second half is mostly tedious guitar rambling. ‘Why Worry?’ and perhaps ‘The Man’s Too Strong’ are the highlights.

Eagles, ‘Hotel California’

The Eagles were an enormous band in the USA – their greatest hits also sold like hotcakes – but the title track here was the band’s only big hit in the UK. ‘Hotel California’ itself sounds pretty good: a combination of gentle 12-strings, meticulous soloing and an almost reggae lilt. ‘New Kid in Town’ also sounds good: a gentle bit of cokey soft-rock. It sags dramatically after that, but recovers in time for the last three tracks. Decent enough, and you can see why it was so popular, but I can’t see that I’ll listen to this all the way through again.

Led Zeppelin, ‘Physical Graffiti’

Zep are a familiar face here on 1001, but this album – their sixth – is the biggest-selling and their longest: a double album lasting over 80 minutes. This is the most eclectic and far-out of the albums this week: there’s acoustic instrumentals, funk Clavinet noodles and Oriental strings on ‘Kashmir’. After four albums, I doubt I’ll ever come to love Robert Plant’s bluesy wail or Jimmy Page’s multi-layered guitars, but this feels like more of a John Paul Jones album anyway with the prominent keyboard and bass parts. In places, this is a lot of fun.

Pearl Jam, ‘Ten’

The second album this week to have a misleading name – ‘Ten’ is neither the band’s tenth album nor does it contain ten tracks – ‘Ten’ was one of the biggest-selling grunge albums. The production has dated a bit, particularly the reverb-heavy 90s guitars, and the second half is a bit weak. However, I enjoyed this more than I was expecting: the singles sound strong and the timpani-based ‘Oceans’ is pleasant. The idea of an entirely grunge week doesn’t seem as daunting as it might have done previously.

Next week: I’ll be going to the opposite extreme and listening to some of the weirdest records on the list.

Progress report: 443 listened to (44%), 558 remain.


September 25: Australia special – AC/DC, The Bee Gees, The Birthday Party, The Go-Betweens, The Saints, The Triffids, The Vines

This week I’ll be looking at the Australian albums on the list at the suggestions of William. I’ve restricted myself to one Nick Cave-associated album though so he didn’t take up the entire list…

AC/DC, ‘Highway To Hell’.

These guys were in my If I Must list, but perhaps I was being unfair as this is a perfectly cromulent hard-rock album. Produced by Robert ‘Mutt’ Lange, Shania Twain’s future husband, this album has no frills – no synths, strings or didgeridoo solos – preferring instead to stay heavy on the riffs and economical on the solos. It’s also refreshing to hear a heavy album which doesn’t directly reference blues, unlike Led Zep and even Black Sabbath to an extent. I’m not sure I’d necessarily listen to this again but it’s a fine example of its style.

The Bee Gees, ‘Odessa’.

An Australian lead guitarist and drummer – full-time band members at the time – make them eligible for inclusion. This album is a double album loosely based around a concept of a ship travelling to America: little did they know this ship would be the one that washed them up, as the poor reviews and sales left them in the wilderness until the ‘Saturday Night Fever’ career revival years later. The album goes from gloomy, cello-heavy opener to orchestral credits sequence, stopping off at 60s pop and, oddly, a hoedown. It’s too long, of course, but it’s held up well.

The Birthday Party, ‘Junkyard’.

We’ll be visiting Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds many times throughout this project so let’s stop off at his earlier band today. This is a collection of chaotic riffs and freakouts with Cave’s baritone yelling over the top. Within that template, however, the palette is varied, moving from Cramps-ish riffs to country rhythms, among other things. The full tilt of the album means I’m not too likely to come back to this, although it does contain their best-known track ‘Release the Bats’.

The Go-Betweens, ’16 Lovers’ Lane’.

This album contains a curious artistic paradox: one half of the band had just ended their relationship while the other half had just started theirs. The band were making an album with a producer they hated, yet they had just moved to Australia (from the UK). Whatever the contrasting emotions at its core, ’16 Lovers’ Lane’ is a sunny pop album with a cheerier disposition than its predecessor (the gloomy ‘Tallulah’). Amanda Brown provides most of the lyrical inspiration but also supplies oboe and violin which lends the record a pastoral sound. This is a really nice album.

The Saints, ‘Eternally Yours’.

What an opener ‘Know Your Product’ is: an invigorating combination of Lou Reed snarls, Fred Smith guitars and Stax horns. You can imagine Julian Casablancas is familiar with the vocal delivery on this record. The rest of the album is also good, with ‘No, Your Product’ almost as good as its homonymous brother. It sags in the second half (apart from ridiculous closer ‘International Robots’) but this is worth a listen.

The Triffids, ‘Calenture’.

Like The Go-Betweens, this album was recorded under fairly fraught circumstances, with the rest of the band essentially relegated to Sleeperblokes in favour of frontman David McComb. There are plenty of tricks and gizmos on display: stop-start rhythms, string arrangements, synths and machines. There’s something about the melodies that doesn’t quite stick though; it comes across like a less urgent Echo and the Bunnymen.

The Vines, ‘Highly Evolved’.

This was a band around at the same time as the Hives and Jet and parts of the album sound as though the label had asked for a similar sound: for example, boring single ‘Outtathaway’. The other half of the album sounds like psychedelic Beatles-influenced indie-pop, particularly the ‘O-bla-di, O-bla-da’ copy ‘Factory’. The album ultimately sounds like two competing sounds, kind of like the Dandy Warhols album. Will the real Vines please stand up?

Next week, it’ll be editor’s choice, so expect a grabbag of albums I’ve been looking forward to hearing.

Status update: 284 heard (28%), 717 to go.