December 24: Arcade Fire, The Beach Boys, Blur, David Bowie, Brian Eno, Goldfrapp, Madonna

This week and next week, we’ll be looking at some of my favourite albums which are on the list, but which I’d already heard before starting this project. I’d heard 149 of the albums on the list before I started doing this; in time I’ll write about all of them.

Arcade Fire, ‘Funeral’

This year’s ‘Everything Now’ got mixed reviews in the music press, mainly because of the variable quality of the tracks (‘Creature Comfort’ good, ‘Chemistry’ disastrous), but they could do no wrong in critics’ eyes up until at least the third album, ‘The Suburbs’. This is the band’s only appearance on the list, and many fans’ favourites. It’s the massed, orchestral heartfelt passion of tracks like ‘Wake Up’ and ‘Crown of Love’ that appeals: there’s something genuine, in an adolescent way, about Win Butler’s clumsy earnestness. The album’s about love and family and how to convey your emotions (a theme Arcade Fire never abandoned) but of course it ends in heartbreak and bereavement with Regine Chassagne’s ‘In The Backseat’.

The Beach Boys, ‘Pet Sounds’

I’ve been listening to the Beach Boys fervently this year, thanks to an impulse decision to listen to ‘Wild Honey’ and a subsequent obsession with ‘The Smile Sessions’, an album miraculously salvaging Brian’s doomed masterpiece and finishing it. The album I knew and owned of theirs prior to 2017, though, is their acknowledged masterwork ‘Pet Sounds’. Even if the album only had three good songs (‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’, ‘Sloop John B’ and ‘God Only Knows’) it would still be light years ahead of most albums. The combination of peculiar baroque instrumentation, great vocals and introverted melancholia is pretty much perfect throughout, though, even if the band themselves had mixed opinions towards it at the time (it’s quite the departure from the surf stuff). The Wilsons appear on the list a couple more times with ‘Today!’ and ‘Surf’s Up’, but it’s hard to argue with the critical view that this is the band at their apex.

Blur, ‘Parklife’

Blur’s gorblimey lads-on-tour singles ‘Parklife’ and ‘Girls and Boys’ turned them from back-end-of-Top-20 proposition to Top 5 regulars, although I don’t think it tells the whole story. The album perhaps seems less of a peculiar mix if you’ve heard the styles they’re aping: there’s a Cardiacs one (‘Bank Holiday’), a Kinks one (‘Badhead’), a Kurt Weil one (‘The Debt Collector’) and a Syd Barrett one (‘Far Out’) in the same area of the album. What elevates the album from mere pomo pastiches, though, is the way it taps into a particular isolation and futility prevalent in the late 90s: it’s a theme explored throughout their work (‘For Tomorrow’, ‘Best Days’) but feels most successfully accomplished here: even if the album is probably 15 minutes too long.

David Bowie, ‘Aladdin Sane’

The album its creator referred to as Ziggy Does America is more raunchy and heavy than its predecessor, dealing in glammy stompers like ‘Cracked Actor’, ‘The Jean Genie’ and ‘Panic in Detroit’. But it’s also got an eye on Hollywood showstoppers (‘Lady Grinning Soul’) and full-on avant-garde weirdness from ace pianist and new recruit Mike Garson. For all the space-age cosmic dancing of ‘Ziggy Stardust’, I think this is the best of the glam era Bowie.

Brian Eno, ‘Here Come the Warm Jets’

Skipping Roxy Music due to disagreements with Bryan Ferry and boredom with the rock star life, Eno’s solo debut operates in broadly the same sphere as Roxy – glammy art-rock. Yet I’ve always found ‘Here Come The Warm Jets’ a warmer, more personable record than any he made with the band, perhaps due to the eccentric lyrics (“and she tells me/they’re selling up their maisonettes/left the Hotpoints/to rot in the kitchenettes”), the masterful playing (Phil Manzanera, Robert Fripp and Chris Spedding make appearances) or the unpredictable arrangements (the title track has the warm jet guitars drowning out all the other instruments to begin with; they only gradually fade back into the mix). Pretty much all of Eno’s 70s albums are great, including ‘Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)’, which is not on the list.

Goldfrapp, ‘Felt Mountain’

Trading in a cinematic brand of electronica not entirely dissimilar to Portishead’s, Goldfrapp occupy a far weirder space: if Portishead are soundtracking old spy movies, Goldfrapp are scoring twisted versions of Hansel and Gretel. Their key instrument on this album is Alison’s vocal manipulated through the Korg MS20: featuring on both ‘Lovely Head’ and ‘Pilots’, it’s a deeply unusual sound, like a Theremin weeping. Elsewhere, the band trade in Add N To (X)-ish abstractions, Shirley Bassey soundalikes and twilight mysteries repeatedly obscured by the enigmatic, stream-of-consciousness lyrics. The band still release albums, of course, but the only really essential ones are this and ‘Black Cherry’.

Madonna, ‘Ray of Light’

After a run of great singles in the 1980s, the early 90s saw Madge’s shows and lyrics become more and more explicit, the ‘Sex’ book and ‘Erotica’ album being the culmination. ‘Bedtime Stories’ and ‘Evita’ dialled those elements back down, but ‘Ray of Light’ was the first (and final) time I was impressed enough with the singles to buy a Madonna album. The album has almost ambient textures in places, a production that still sounds pretty good: instruments wander and burble and vanish, while the melodies and vocal delivery carry it. Reinventing herself as a sort of mystic Kabbalistic earth goddess, Madonna contributes some of her best vocals (‘Ray of Light’ itself) and melodies (‘Drowned World/Substitute For Love’, as good as anything in 1998), and only the flat house track ‘Nothing Really Matters’ feels dated in 2017.

Next week: More of my favourites from the list.


April 20: The Cramps, Cypress Hill, The Damned, The Divine Comedy, ‘Music for Airports’

The Cramps, ‘Songs the Lord Taught Us’.

The band that launched 1,000 acts that fill the smaller tents at Glastonbury, the Cramps are like if Sun Records’ inhouse producer was Martin Hannett. All twangy 50s guitar and shouting about zombies, but… well… it’s not that good, is it? You know how sometimes people are like “you should meet this person, you’ll love them!” and then you do and you don’t?

Cypress Hill, ‘Cypress Hill’.

I was expecting ‘Black Sunday’ too but no, their first album makes it onto the list instead. I enjoyed this album’s second half more, where they’re rapping in Spanish and rambling about that funky Cypress Hill shit, rather than just blazing 4/20 and killing cops.

The Damned, ‘Machine Gun Etiquette’.

Another of the many albums I should have come to sooner, this record is an incredibly energetic, unpredictable punk album with a ramshackle madcap humour. Darker territory was ahead for the band, but this feels like an act at its apex.

The Divine Comedy, ‘A Short Album About Love’.

I know, I know: I’d never heard any of Hannon’s long-players before. Hannon’s career was going nowhere prior to unlikely breakthrough ‘Casanova’; this, then, was the first album where he had a large audience expecting more hits. It delivers: it starts with the ‘Tomorrow’s World’ theme tune, follows with ‘Everybody Knows (Except You)’ and maintains an arch wit and a willingness to experiment with format for the remainder of the album.

Brian Eno, ‘Ambient 1: Music for Airports’.

Unbelievably boring, but perhaps I’m not doing it justice by properly listening to it; it was designed, after all, as muzak.

February 7: Beatles, Kate Bush, Can, ‘Bitches Brew’, DJ Shadow, Eno, Iggy and the Stooges, Incredible String Band

I’ve been working through the 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. Luckily I had a head start, having listened to 130-odd already, but that still leaves 871 that I hadn’t. While this means I will listen to a lot of good music, there also appears to be some total dreck: I am particularly reluctant to listen to three Def Leppard albums, a Bees record and ‘Slippery When Wet’. Sarah-Beth suggested I write about them, so here are some.

The Beatles – ‘With the Beatles’.

All the famous ones are on the list too but I’d already heard them. This one is from the point where things like ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ covers were still acceptable choices for album tracks. The only famous Fabs song on it is their cover of ‘Money’ (not the Pink Floyd song obv). Okay, not great, still a couple of years away from the real game-changers.

Kate Bush – ‘Hounds of Love’.

Hits on the A-side, dull concept stuff on the B-side. The hits have dated better than the Fairlight jams. Bat for Lashes was taking notes.

Can – ‘Tago Mago’.

Starts off as a normal enough 70s Krautrock album, but changes shape with the 18-minute ‘Halleluwah’, which adds curious sound effects and edits over the funk-trance jam like a King Tubby record or something. Everything on the second disc is abstract experimentation, often without a clear melody line. Pretty good in places.

Miles Davis – ‘Bitches Brew’.

I’d never heard this, but Angelo Badalamenti obviously has – the cumulative discordance and noisy horn blasts often present in his work clearly originate from this album. I’m a total jazz philistine so the wild cacophonies were beyond me; ‘Spanish Key’ is the track that made most sense to me.

DJ Shadow – ‘Entroducing’.

Too long, but still sounds fresh and holds up well even after 20 years or however long it is. I’d heard Shadow’s stuff with UNKLE and Quannum Projects but never his solo work. Good album.

Brian Eno – ‘Before and After Science’.

Eno’s 70s were pretty great all in all. This isn’t as good as ‘Another Green World’ or ‘Here Come the Warm Jets’ but is more of the quirky, off-kilter rock he did that decade. Also surely the only album of the 1001 to use the phrase “not a sausage”.

Iggy and the Stooges – ‘Raw Power’ (Iggy Pop mix).

The album’s always criticised for its mixing and production: Iggy’s mix was so rudimentary that the label insisted Bowie remixed it; there wasn’t much Bowie could do with it though as the recording was so poor. This is, however, the original Iggy mix. The guitar is too loud, Iggy is too loud, the rhythm section is often inaudible. This must have sounded fantastic at the time – it does have melodies and structure, despite initial appearances – but bloody hell.

The Incredible String Band – ‘The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter’.

Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci were always compared to ISB in their day; it’s possible that this was a derogatory reference. The ISB were a weird psych band from Scotland, so are contemporaries of the Canterbury lot. Without a rhythm section, these songs drift around and last forever, often sounding like extended sitar jams. Pretty dull.