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.


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 onĀ  ‘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.

May 25 – ‘If I Must’ List #1: Beck, Morrissey, Royksopp, Travis, ‘The Joshua Tree’

The thing with the 1001 Albums You Must Hear project is that, as well as a lot of albums I’m intrigued to check out, there’s a fair amount of albums I’m reluctant to listen to. Rather than put them off any longer, it’s time I covered some of them.

Beck, ‘Odelay’.

I’m sure my dislike for Beck is a surprise for some, given I like Eels and the Beta Band, both of whom did similar blues-n-sampler kitchen-sink records. Unlike those two, though, Beck always struck me as all-surface-no-feeling: the ironic detachment is at the cost of relatable content or melodic impetus. He couldn’t even get ‘Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime’ right! As for ‘Odelay’: the musical palette is always varied, but it’s a record to admire rather than love.

Morrissey, ‘You are the Quarry’.

There are four of Stephen Patrick’s solo albums on this list: perhaps more than even Moz fans would consider essential. ‘Quarry’ was preceded by killer single ‘Irish Blood, English Heart’, where the most dramatic chord sequence on the record is augmented/completely ruined by Morrissey’s tainted patriotism schtick: lyrics which leave a bitter taste when matched against later “I’m not xenophobic but immigrants” speeches. The most evocative lyrical image on the album is “you have never been in love/until you’ve seen the stars/reflected in the reservoir”, from second single ‘First of the Gang to Die’ (which sounds better here than it did as a single). The other bulbous salutations on this album are bogged down by leaden arrangements or titles like ‘All the Lazy Dykes’.

Royksopp, ‘Melody AM’.

Royksopp are another band who sounded on paper like a band I’d like (I like Air and Bent) but who never impressed me: despite the album title, ‘Eple’ and ‘So Easy’ have no tunes. The album is more palatable than I expected as background muzak, but it’s not exactly an attention-grabber.

Travis, ‘The Man Who’.

It’s hard to understand how this album qualified for this list given its obvious debt to other albums on the list (Jeff Buckley, Radiohead): in fact the album’s producer is ‘OK Computer”s Nigel Godrich, bringing along the same bag of tricks he used for that album. When they aren’t ripping off Thom, they can’t resist pointing out their sources (“what’s a wonderwall anyway?” indeed). The best song is the Ziggy-for-dummies ‘She’s So Strange’ but there is nothing essential here. This was a band whose previous album featured a song called ‘All I Want To Do Is Rock’: on this evidence, clearly not.

U2, ‘The Joshua Tree’.

Later efforts like Apple malware ‘Songs of Innocence’ and ego-driven political campaigns have soured people to U2, but here on ‘The Joshua Tree’, hit after hit are augmented by great Brian Eno production and top drawer musicianship. It’s easy to mock The Edge’s minimalist style, but it sounds refreshingly spacious compared to his five-note-per-second contemporaries. Dare I say it: this is a good album.