June 4: Elvis Costello, Radiohead, Rolling Stones, Sonic Youth, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Neil Young

This week on 1001 Albums it’s another look at the artists whose back catalogues are most heavily represented on the list (but where I’ve not heard all of it already: the Beatles and Bowie both have seven albums on the list but I’ve heard them all).

Elvis Costello and the Attractions, ‘Armed Forces’

I’ve complained about Costello’s over-representation on the list before, but this is the first time that I’ve thought the list might be onto something: Costello serving as the link between Bruce Springsteen and Abba, and Pulp and Mull Historical Society (or stuff like Scouting For Girls). There’s a clear fusing of his pop sensibilities with unusual song structures (‘Accidents Will Happen’ for example). The album also contains ‘Oliver’s Army’ and ‘What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and Understanding’, the latter of which features an unusually husky vocal take. The only criticism I’d level is that it sometimes feels like a collection of songs rather than a cohesive album, particularly due to the use of the dreaded fade-out, but this is the best album I’ve heard by this Elvis.

Radiohead, ‘Hail to the Thief’

If you think of bands who love using puns in their output, you’d probably reach for Super Furry Animals, Eminem, or a million other bands, before you got to Radiohead, which makes the lame gag in this album title more distressing (“more like ‘Hail to the THIEF’ amirite boys?”). But then they’ve always been an inscrutable act: with ‘Kid A’ and ‘Amnesiac‘ they’d gained a reputation for making almost inpenetrable music but still selling loads, yet this album has a song called ‘A Punchup At A Wedding’ (which appears to be their equivalent of – oh dear – the Stereophonics’ ‘Mr Writer’, written after reading a review they didn’t like). Anyway, this is probably their most accessible album post-‘OK Computer’: ‘2+2=5’ resembles a conventional rock song, the Bat For Lashes-ish toms of ‘There There’ are direct enough to explain the song’s placing as lead single, and the Goldfrapp-y sawtooth synths on ‘Myxomatosis’ serve as a clear hook even if the song’s in a bizarre rhythm and/or time signature. There’s also a dirge called ‘We Suck Young Blood’ that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Portishead’s second album. Definitely an album with more entry routes than normal, even if the band themselves have cooled on it since. This is our last visit to Radiohead’s back catalogue: I’ve heard all their stuff on the list now.

The Rolling Stones, ‘Let It Bleed’

This is the sixth Rolling Stones album I’ve heard and I’ll tell you this: if every song on a Stones album was as good as its opener, we’d be looking at some unbelievable albums. This one kicks off with ‘Gimme Shelter’, an incredible track full of dread and violence and so intense that guest singer Merry Clayton miscarried hours after recording it. Understandably, the album doesn’t sustain that intensity, but it’s frustrating how quickly it’s squandered: the second song is a laidback song with a Ry Cooder mandolin solo and the third is a country version of ‘Honky Tonk Woman’. The best tracks aside from the opener are the two closing tracks: ‘Monkey Man’ sounds like it was designed for a rap sample, while ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ is a preposterous step outside their comfort zone with both a boys choir and Pink Floyd soulstress Diana Troy stopping in.

Sonic Youth, ‘Dirty’

The NY kool katz are in a sour mood on this album (aren’t they always?) which adds a sneering heaviness to their usual sound. More than usual, Kim Gordon steps up to take lead vocals, her hoarse spit most electrifying on the standout ‘Drunken Butterfly’, perhaps the album’s most famous song. Geffen were apparently expecting big things from lead single ‘100%’, but even in the era of Nirvana it’s not clear why: the song has no chorus, and ‘Sugar Kane’ and ‘Youth Against Fascism’ have superceded it as the album’s most famous cuts (other than ‘Drunken Butterfly’). My other favourite on this is the spacey ‘Theresa’s Sound-World’. As always with the Yoof, their abrasive style is exhausting given how long the album is (59 minutes): there’s no obvious duds here, but fifteen fewer minutes might have made for a punchier record.

Bruce Springsteen, ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’

Following on from ‘Born to Run‘, this evocatively-named album scales the arrangements down from ‘Born To Run”s cheesy sound while retaining the same cast (the E Street Band), and as a result is slightly less ridiculous. Highlights include the sombre piano on ‘Racing in the Street’ (not to be confused with ‘Dancing in the Street’, or ‘Dancing in the Dark’, or – y’know what forget it), the dramatic crescendo bridge of ‘Candy’s Room’ and the vaguely Dylan-ish sound of ‘The Promised Land’. Maybe it was just in contrast to the Sonic Youth album, but this album felt really short, despite being 42 minutes: the title track finishes the album while I was settled in for another 10 minutes. Guess it just passes quickly.

Tom Waits, ‘Bone Machine’

Three albums into Waits’s career and I’m starting to feel as though I know what I’m going to get: this alternates between Waits’s two default settings of clattering percussive racket and sombre, drunk-at-2am ballads. (Were the latter designed to appease a spooked label, or does Waits just vacillate between these two moods?) The sonic palette isn’t entirely restricted though: there’s some blaring horns on ‘Dirt in the Ground’, some twangy guitar provided by Keith Richards on ‘That Feel’, and ‘Goin’ Out West’ sounds like a template on which Nick Cave based much of his career. Tom himself contributes some rudimentary, idiosyncratic guitar throughout, too. This one didn’t grab me like previous albums did: ‘Who Are You This Time’ is the most accessible track and that’s a distant cousin of ‘Jersey Girl’, while melodies are in short supply – maybe half-a-dozen over 16 tracks. Still, this won a Grammy so I’m wrong.

Neil Young, ‘On The Beach’

“I’m a barrel of laughs.” ‘Tonight’s The Night‘ is the sound of a shell-shocked party continuing despite one of the partygoers overdosing and being taken to hospital, a frenetic urgency to have a good time because of that. ‘On The Beach’ was recorded around the same time, but came out first, and feels more like the Sunday afterwards where the party’s host wakes up hungover as hell and finds out the guest died at the hospital. Quite the follow-up to ‘Harvest‘. The first half feels more like accessible ‘Harvest’-sequel fare – ‘Walk On’ and ‘See The Sky About To Rain’ introduce the electric piano to Young’s output but are otherwise conventional enough – but the crash happens on the second half, with the word ‘blues’ appearing in three song titles, one of the songs crawling on for seven minutes and the closer ‘Ambulance Blues’ taking nearly nine. It’s good but ultimately gruelling: would not recommend this as an entry point to Young.

Next week: we’re looking at another nation’s output and looking at some of the Irish albums on the list.

Status update: 527 listened to (52%), 474 remain.

September 18: Leonard Cohen, Elvis Costello, Led Zeppelin, Sonic Youth, Bruce Springsteen, Steely Dan, The Who

This week, I’ll be looking at some of the artists who feature on the list most often, but whose output is mostly a mystery to me. It probably won’t surprise you that the artists who have most entries on the list are The Beatles, David Bowie and Neil Young (seven albums each). I’ve already listened to all the Beatles and Bowie, but we will be seeing a lot more of the following artists…

Leonard Cohen, ‘Songs of Leonard Cohen’.

One of four Cohen albums on the list, this one is his debut, which features two of his best-known songs in ‘Suzanne’ and ‘So Long, Marianne’ (like Lou Reed, Cohen liked naming songs after women). Recorded in the late 60s, this album is atypical for its era as it’s often quite stark and stripped-down, whereas a lot of singer-songwriter albums are drenched in strings and horns. Indeed Cohen had to battle with a producer keen to orchestrate his songs. It’s pretty good, but I bet there’s better albums in Cohen’s oeuvre and on this list. Fans of 80s goth will be pleased to know that not only does this album contain the track ‘Sisters of Mercy’ but, in a later track, the line “some girls wander by mistake”, later used by the Sisters for a compilation.

Elvis Costello, ‘This Year’s Model’.

One of a sextet of Costello albums on the list and, look, it’s not like I hate him – I think it’s difficult to do so – but six albums? It’s like having six Weezer albums, or six Squeeze albums. This one features ‘I Don’t Want To Go To Chelsea’ and ‘Night Rally’, both of which trump anything on ‘My Aim Is True’, and the production and playing is clean, but I’m yet to hear anything essential in these albums.

Led Zeppelin, ‘Led Zeppelin II’.

There are five Zep records on the list, of which I’d heard just one (‘IV’). As well as the templated heavy blues, this one has all sorts of dynamic tricks up its sleeve: unexpected noise breaks (in ‘Whole Lotta Love’), drum solos (which could often be extended to 30 minutes live!), false fades and more. Aside from ‘Thank You’ – a sort of grandfather to 80s metal power ballads – this didn’t do a whole lotta exciting me, and has a song called ‘Living Loving Maid (She’s Just A Woman)’: I mean, ugh. Still, although the bluesy squalls aren’t necessarily to my taste, you can’t fault the musicianship, and as far as legacy and impact goes it’s obviously an important album.

Sonic Youth, ‘Sister’.

I’d heard the intermittently-superb ‘EVOL’ so the earliest Sonic Youth album on the list that I’d not heard was its successor, ‘Sister’, which bridges the gap between the noise-rock of ‘EVOL’ and the MTV-bothering tunes-and-weird of ‘Daydream Nation’. Despite the fact that zillions of imitators have recycled the ideas herein, the source material still remains compelling, with Moogs, church bells and ear-splitting noise embellishing a surprisingly coherent album. Like any band this abrasive – Atari Teenage Riot, Melt-Banana – their sound feels more effective in doses less than a full album’s worth, but this is an excellent album.

Bruce Springsteen, ‘Born to Run’.

When Todd Rundgren first heard the ‘Bat Out Of Hell’ demo, he thought it was a hilarious parody of Bruce Springsteen, extending the joke by getting two of the E Street Band in to play on the album when he produced it. Listening to ‘Thunder Road’, it’s easy to see why he might have drawn that conclusion (‘Bat Out Of Hell’ does sound very much like an overwrought version of ‘Thunder Road’). Of course, one of the other stylistic innovations of this album – putting glockenspiel all over the place – has been pilfered by the Arcade Fire and others, meaning the imitators have plundered most of the main tricks here. This is okay, and the second half removes a lot of the elements in the first half that now seem cheesy, but I dunno, the Boss is still yet to show me the magic everyone else sees.

Steely Dan, ‘Can’t Buy A Thrill’.

The band have four albums on this list, starting with this, their debut. It’s an odd choice for a name because Steely Dan were a soft-rock band in the 70s: they knew full well they could buy a thrill in grams or ounces. It’s also a novelty in the band’s back catalogue as it features a different lead singer: David Palmer covers some of the vocals here and live due to Donald Fagen’s concerns about his voice. Anyway, whoever’s on vocals, the music is great, with piano noodles, Latin rhythms, screeching solos and more in the mix. It’s very accomplished coke-y soft-rock: I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this as much as I did.

The Who, ‘The Who Sell Out’.

Five Who records on the list, here’s the second. On this one, the band pay homage to pirate radio with an album segued together with jingles and occasionally writing about products as if they were adverts – although this being The Who, the lyrics have an odd take (‘Odorono’ is about a woman failing to complete a romantic experience because she hadn’t used underarm deodorant). The segues and musical variety make this one a blast, with Moon’s drumming and the vocal harmonies standing out. The best-known song is ‘I Can See For Miles’, but there’s plenty of other treats on this day-glo Pop Art album.

Next time, I’ll be looking at some of the Australian albums on the list. See you then.

Status check: 280 listened to (28%), 721 remain.

 

 

May 10: Buena Vista Social Club, The Doors, ‘Let’s Get It On’, ‘Automatic for the People’, Soft Cell, ‘Born in the USA’

Buena Vista Social Club, ‘Buena Vista Social Club’.

An album of mostly acoustic traditional Cuban music by an American guitarist and some local Cuban musicians. Suited the sunny weather we had for half an hour there; if none of it particularly jumped out to me, it’s probably my lack of familiarity with the genre.

The Doors, ‘Morrison Hotel’.

I’d heard the Doors before, of course, but not knowing any of their albums I picked one arbitrarily from the three (!) on this list. Perhaps the wrong choice: I prefer their brooding ‘Riders on the Storm’ stuff to their “ordinary blues band with jaunty keyboards” setting, and the latter is more prominent here.

Marvin Gaye, ‘Let’s Get It On’.

Gaye’s 70s were up there with Bowie’s in terms of wildly varied highs. Social issues album? Brilliant. Shagging album? Great. Divorce album? Excellent. This one is of course the sex album and is pretty marvellous.

REM, ‘Automatic for the People’.

I’m not sure I’d ever heard an REM album all the way through. This is a hard one to judge objectively as it sounds like a lot of alt.rock did when I was growing up: of course, that’s largely because of the success of this album with all its mega-hits (‘Everybody Hurts’ and ‘The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight’ and ‘Nightswimming’ and etc). Like ‘Psycho’, you can’t experience it for the first time. Pretty good I guess.

Soft Cell, ‘Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret’.

In which a Lytham St Annes schoolboy makes a load of campy songs about sex with a bunch of knackered equipment; sounds familiar. It’s incredible that this stuff sold in the volumes it did, with the hysterical shrieks of opener ‘Frustration’, the atonal chords of Top Five single (!!!) ‘Bedsitter’ and the gauchely-named ghost-train freakout ‘Sex Dwarf’. This oscillates between pretty great (the other two big singles) and dreadful rubbish (anything with a saxophone, but then isn’t that always the way?).

Bruce Springsteen, ‘Born in the USA’.

In these post-Arcade Fire times, the Boss is the hipsters’ choice, but I’ve always wondered if I was listening to a different Springsteen: the rugged American Bloke with those corny 80s synths and that Courtney Cox video and that Bob Clearmountain stadium rock production is the cognoscienti’s favourite? Are you kidding? This is, of course, his most mainstream, with a hit every two tracks, and perhaps repeated listens might reveal more subtlety in his lyrics, and at least there’s no harmonica, but the appeal’s completely lost on me. Luckily there’s another four (!) albums of his on this list. Perhaps Stockholm Syndrome will kick in.

Project update: 199 albums heard (20%) – however, 145 of those I’d heard before I started doing this.