November 26: Cardigans, Stevie Wonder, Underworld, Big Star, Soft Machine, Eric Clapton, Alice Cooper

This week, as a one-off, we’re going to go numerically through some of the albums on the list which have a number in their title! Choosing a theme each week is a bit of a free for all as we get this deep into the project, and there aren’t even any records by 5ive! Let’s get down to it.

The Cardigans, ‘First Band on the Moon’ (link)

I always thought ‘Gran Turismo’ was their big album – certainly it had two of their big hits, ‘My Favourite Game’ and ‘Erase/Rewind’ – but the one on the list is this one, which features their breakthrough, ‘Lovefool’. It kind of feels like it’s a product of its era, that point in the 1990s which was heavily influenced by the 1960s. It’s okay, but struggled to resonate with me.

Stevie Wonder, ‘Fulfilingness’ First Finale’ (link)

Following ‘Innervisions’, this awkwardly-titled album contains none of the big hits, and feels like much the same things that I’ve come to expect from Stevie: keyboard-led funk with the occasional saccharine ballad. The best song, despite its name, is ‘Boogie On Reggae Woman’, where Wonder’s own synth bass and drumming replicates an up-tempo funk jam band. It’s refined and surprisingly concise but can’t match ‘Innervisions’. Just one more of his albums on the list.

Underworld, ‘Second Toughest in the Infants’ (link)

Apparently named from one of the band’s nephews boasting, this album came out around the same time as Underworld’s biggest hit, ‘Born Slippy.NUXX’, which doesn’t feature here. It’s a collection of lengthy electronic tracks, pausing occasionally for guitar interludes, and topped with Karl Hyde’s muttered vocals. ‘Pearl’s Girl’ is the closest thing to a banger here, so it’s no surprise that it was chosen as the single. This is fine. I think, however, that my favourite song of Underworld’s other than the ‘Trainspotting’ one is ‘Shudder/King of Snake’, a kind of merging of ‘Born Slippy.NUXX’ and Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’.

Big Star, ‘Third/Sister Lovers’ (link)

Singing about ‘Cool Jerk’ while the drummer bangs a saucepan, doing a wet version of ‘Femme Fatale’ with his girlfriend on vocals, playing a slow-motion piano dirge and calling it ‘Holocaust’… Alex Chilton had some strange ideas at this point in his career. As a rock album, this is all over the place, but as a document of Chilton’s apparent disintegration, it’s compelling. A Big Star album in name only – only two of them even appear on the album and it was originally recorded either under Chilton’s name or as Sister Lovers (Chilton and Jody Stephens’s girlfriends were sisters).

Soft Machine, ‘Third’ (link)

Never the most imaginative when it came to naming their albums, Soft Machine save their wild ideas for their music, which here mark their transition from prog rock to free jazz. Wait, come back! This does start with their most objectionable song, ‘Facelift’, all random doodlings and Miles Davis parping. The second disc, with Robert Wyatt’s ‘Moon in June’ and the closer ‘Out-Bloody-Rageous’, feels more cohesive and coherent, and feels pretty palatable. This is the band’s only appearance on the list.

Eric Clapton, ‘461 Ocean Boulevard’ (link)

I was kind of dreading listening to Clapton – bluesy old guy rock, whose previous appearance here was in the Blues Breakers – but I found myself enjoying the heck out of this. Clapton’s first album after three years of heroin addiction, he sounds like he has a point to prove, and sounds as though he’s found some musicians he’s having fun with. Good harmonies and good songs here, although we learn nothing new about Marley’s ‘I Shot The Sheriff’.

Alice Cooper, ‘Billion Dollar Babies’ (link)

Suddenly huge after the success of their triumphant ‘School’s Out’, the Alice Cooper band were both bewildered by their fame and attempting to equal it. Commercially, this was a triumph which essentially codified heavy metal and shock rock: songs about necrophilia with a cheesy stage show. Artistically, though, I’m not sure it has a consistent motif in the same way as ‘School’s Out’ does: ‘Hello Hooray’ is a great bit of Ziggy Stardust peacocking, but the dallying with glam and proto-metal doesn’t quite gel with me in the same way as ‘School’s Out’ does.

Next week: back to the live albums! *audience cheers*

Progress update: 700 listened to (70%), 301 remain.

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June 7 – 50 Cent, The Adverts, Aerosmith, Big Star, Missy Elliott, The Kinks, Kraftwerk, Neil Young

50 Cent, ‘Get Rich or Die Tryin”.

This was on my ‘if I must’ pile due to repetitive singles ‘In Da Club’ and ‘P.I.M.P.’ and the dreaded tinge of Eminem producing, which usually guarantees tinny guitars and cheap synths. I blame Mike Elizondo, in-house musician for the Dre stable. Surprisingly, however, the album is generally an improvement on its two key singles. There’s an “everyone hates me, don’t care” defiance that you might expect from someone who’s been shot, but tinged with a metaphysical dread, while the Dre/Mathers production sounds motivated. Some gripes: the album tails off towards the end, and the haphazard sequencing makes it sound more like a home-made compliation than a coherent album (unusually for a rap album of its time, it’s light on skits and segues).

The Adverts, ‘Crossing the Red Sea with the Adverts’.

I didn’t know much about this album going in, having forgotten ‘Gary Gilmore’s Eyes’. Unusually, I warmed to this album as it went on, perhaps because it feels like the band’s playing and writing improves as it goes on (the early songs, including giveaway ‘One Chord Wonders’, betray the band’s punkish lack of musical chops). It doesn’t feel essential though.

Aerosmith, ‘Pump’.

A couple of great early songs and that’s it. You wouldn’t have thought that the same album would have ‘Love in an Elevator’ and a didgeridoo interlude, yet here we are (the album has three pointless interludes on unlikely instruments). The great, expensive-sounding production explains why this sold in such high volumes.

Big Star, ‘#1 Record’.

I listened to this a few weeks ago and forgot to add it to any other reviews. Sort of a predecessor to Weezer in its power-pop feel, this is occasionally quite lovely and occasionally quite sloppy, dependent on which of the two singers’ songs are being performed.

Missy ‘Misdemeanour’ Elliott, ‘Supa Dupa Fly’.

Producer Timbaland was the man in the early years of the century, and his childhood pal Missy his most charismatic foil. This album is fun enough but I think Elliott’s more immediate spoils (i.e. the hits) are on her later albums, none of which, alas, are on the list.

The Kinks, ‘The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society’.

In which the wonky pop act have a stab at Qualuudes-and-cuppa psychedelia, referencing steam trains and cricket as well as the titular village green. The album’s rarely dull and, as well as the obvious influence it had on Blur, you can see the shadow cast over early Of Montreal and (on the Mellotron-and-vocal track) Eels. Good.

Kraftwerk, ‘Autobahn’.

The first Kraftwerk album that sounded like Kraftwerk, even though the two drummer robots were yet to be assembled (sorry I meant “recruited”). ‘Autobahn’ is a delightful combination of synths’n’rhythm machine grooves interspersed with organic instruments (there’s an acoustic track on this album!). REAL MUSIC YEAH

Neil Young, ‘Harvest’.

Another album I came to with some reticience given the threat of harmonica, typically an instrument that serves as an avatar for a certain strain of dreary music (rootsy, ‘real’, male). However, there are seven of this guy’s albums on this list so in I went. Turns out I liked this album despite myself: the songwriting and his voice are strong enough to overpower the stench of authenticity in the arrangements. ‘Out on the Weekend’, ‘Heart of Gold’ and ‘Old Man’ are all familiar, but not in a way that feels cliche. Plus there’s a live track? What is this, ‘It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back’?