July 29: Beastie Boys, Big Black, Terence Trent D’Arby, Steve Earle, George Michael, Cyndi Lauper, U2

This week’s 1001 continues our journey through the decades as we stop in the 1980s. While I usually think of synth-pop and New Romantic music when I think of the 80s, the reality is, of course, more complicated and diverse than that. This week’s seven give us a fairly broad picture of the era, I think. Let’s dive in.

Beastie Boys, ‘Paul’s Boutique’

Our final visit to the Beasties’ oeuvre is also the best entry of theirs on the list. It’s almost entirely comprised of samples, a move which actually gives the music a greater range and depth, and finally frees them from sounding like they’ve been recorded on a boombox. It also makes them sound like they were ahead of their time: there’s ‘That Lady’ by the Isley Brothers being sampled decades before Kendrick Lamar, and isn’t that the bassline from ‘Block Rockin’ Beats’ four minutes into ‘B-Boy Bouillabaisse’?

Big Black, ‘Atomiser’

The only one of Steve Albini’s performance credits to make the list, Big Black were two guitarists and a bassist who made abrasive post-punk over a drum machine, over which Albini supplies unflinching lyrics about child abuse, police brutality and other grisly subjects. It sounds like a kind of lo-fi industrial, abrasive but surprisingly catchy. Either it runs out of steam or it becomes too much to stomach in one sitting by side B, but worth a spin nonetheless.

Terence Trent D’Arby, ‘Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby’

Like contemporaries Prince or Lenny Kravitz, D’Arby is a musician with no shortage of ego – he believed this album was as important as ‘Sgt Pepper’ – but also no shortage of talent, playing the majority of instruments on this album. He delivers a mix of soul, funk and gospel where he’s sometimes funky like Stevie, sometimes ripping loose like Michael Bolton. The smooth single ‘Sign Your Name’ is the only song I recognised, but the best thing is probably the Smokey Robinson cover ‘Who’s Loving You’. Much of this is dated now, but opener ‘If You Get To Heaven’ sounds like a modern piece by a Plan B or similar.

Steve Earle, ‘Guitar Town’

‘Hillbilly Highway’, ‘Good Ol’ Boy (Gettin’ Tough)’, ‘My Old Friend The Blues’… it’s fair to say that I came to this with a fair bit of trepidation, particularly after the last 80s country album I heard was the Dwight Yoakam debacle. Yet while it doesn’t overcome its Nashville trappings, the straightforward recording and eschewing of contemporary production cliches means that this has aged pretty well. Sounded okay, I will never come back to it.

Cyndi Lauper, ‘She’s So Unusual’

Lauper had released an album as part of a band with no success, and was paired for this album with a band called The Hooters, who’d also had no success. The outcome? A whole bunch of hits (‘Time After Time’, ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’). Funny how things work out. If you’ve heard the singles – and who hasn’t – you’ve got an idea of the helium-voiced new-wave that characterises the album. I’m not sure I’m as fond of it as many people seem to be, but it sounded decent enough.

George Michael, ‘Faith’

The first solo album from George symbolically starts with a cathedral organ performance on Wham!’s ‘Freedom’, before going into the Bo Diddley rhythm of the title track. It’s a pop album, so it’s front-loaded with hits before going into okay-but-not-as-good bits. However, the diversity is pleasing, from the Prince-y R&B jam ‘I Want Your Sex’ to the Harry Connick Jr-ish ‘Kissing a Fool’.

U2, ‘War’

Our last of four U2 albums on the list is front-loaded with Partridge favourite ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ and ‘New Year’s Day’, the latter of which sounds like Echo and the Bunnymen, or The Cult or something. In fact, this is probably the album of U2’s that sounds most like its contemporaries, rather than their own combination of windswept sincerity and delay-pedal guitar. We’ve had at least two classics from the band over the 1001 project, but I was largely unmoved by this one.

Next week: of course, we get into the 90s.

Status update: 931 listened to (93%), 70 remain.

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January 14: Basement Jaxx, Beastie Boys, Dr Octagon, The Gun Club, The Police, Spacemen 3, Spirit

This week on the 1001, we’re looking at albums or artists whose names link to emergencies: be those crimes, fires or medical emergencies. So dial 999, 911, 000 or your country’s respective code, and let’s see whether any of these albums are as crucial.

Basement Jaxx, ‘Remedy’ (link)

I know, already reaching conceptually here but you’d need a remedy from a hospital right? The Jaxx song I always think of is the hard-to-like ‘Where’s Your Head At’, but this one, their breakthrough, features perhaps their more fondly-remembered hits ‘Red Alert’ and ‘Rendez-vu’ [sic]. Twenty years later, both sound pretty good, but the album they’re wrapped in meanders: perhaps better designed for playing at a party than for home listening.

Beastie Boys, ‘Ill Communication’ (link)

The album with ‘Sabotage’ on, this moves around thrash punk, shouty rap, lounge-y jazz and funk. Sometimes it’s the Beastie Boys themselves on instruments, sometimes it’s samples and drum machines. A lot going on here then: oddly what renders it consistent is the production from Mario Caldato Jr, even if that production means everything sounds like it was recorded in a dumpster (especially the band’s vocals). It sounds pretty good overall, with ‘Sure Shot’ the best track, and even finds time for a trailer for a spin-off record: closer ‘Transmissions’ runs like a preview of keyboardist Money Mark’s album ‘Push the Button’. One more Beasties album on the list to come.

Dr Octagon, ‘Dr Octagonecologyst’ (link)

That’s ‘Dr Octagon, Gynecologist’ rather than ‘Dr Octagon, Ecologist’. This is this week’s underground hip-hop concept album after we met Digital Underground last week: here, Kool Keith imagines himself as a Jovian surgeon, gynecologist and general curator of a surreal nightmarish hospital where unlikely (and mostly unsuccessful) operations take place. Dan The Automator, Kutmasta Kurt and DJ Qbert hold shit down in the background, creating a vaguely Wu-Tang sound with knackered vinyl, spooky samples, wah-wah pedal scratching and live instruments (Keith on bass, Dan on violin). Like ‘Sex Packets’, Keith focuses more on world-building than clear plot, but he gets away with it: this record still seems fresh 22 years later.

The Gun Club, ‘Fire of Love’ (link)

Kind of reminding me of ‘Wild Gift’ by X, this is a sort-of early rockabilly album released in 1981 which introduced Delta blues sounds to punk. It’s not as urgent as ‘Wild Gift’, adding a layer of goofy and possibly improvised sexuality to the lyrics (as well as lyrics like ‘She’s Like Heroin To Me’: a big statement for Jeffrey Lee Pierce, an opiates abuser). It’s fine but I doubt I’ll come back to it. The band’s stop-start career was terminated permanently in 1996 when Pierce died of a brain hemorrhage at just 37.

The Police, ‘Reggatta de Blanc’ (link)

With its fusion of reggae grooves and scratchy dub into pop-rock songwriting structures, this is along vaguely similar lines to the Slits’ ‘Cut’, but adding a commercial gloss and by necessity taking out the St Trinians camaraderie. Often, it sounds like a very tight rhythm section promoted to full band: Andy Summers rarely plays solos and the title track doesn’t even have words. The best thing on the record is opener and megahit ‘Message in a Bottle’, but ‘Bring on the Night’ feels like the sort of thing hipsters would go wild for if, say, Animal Collective put it out. Less accomplished when demonstrating inexpert skills on the piano, but the album mostly sounds pretty good.

Spacemen 3, ‘Playing With Fire’ (no official link available)

The only appearance for the Rugby member-fluid group often features no percussion at all and often submerges the vocals of J Spaceman and Sonic Boom under guitars and swooping effects. Mostly blissed-out and trebly, but sometimes heavy and distorted, this was a lot less tiresome than I was expecting given the band’s reputation as a drone act. Some of it does have the monotonous hypnotism of Krautrock, while Spaceman’s few-and-far-between contributions hint at his future with Spiritualized: closer ‘Lord, Can You Hear Me?’ featured on one of that band’s album’s too. This might have sounded mimsy and shoegaze-y with a full band, but by kicking out the stability that that arrangement might have offered, the band instead produce something more arresting and vital.

Spirit, ‘Twelve Dreams of Dr Sardonicus’ (link)

It’s probably not Spirit’s fault, but this far into the project, this is the sort of album I’m getting weary of: competently played, vaguely psychedelic 60s rock (although actually released in 1970 juxtaposing rough-edged country with tinges of jazz, occasional piano interludes and wandering psychedelic noodles. I was kind of expecting this would be a concept album, but if there is a concept it’s not immediately obvious. Spirit don’t appear on the list again so no further opportunity to familiarise myself with their career; this album was mostly penned by the excellently-named Randy California (a pseudonym, although his real name is even better: Randy Wolfe).

Next week: For the final time, we’ll be doing an all-rap week.

Status update: 735 albums listened to (73%), 266 remaining.

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.