October 8: Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Marianne Faithfull, Bruce Springsteen, Robert Wyatt, Neil Young

Pop music fans are capricious, meaning that most bands’ careers are shorter than even that of a professional footballer.  It’s generally accepted that artists’ best work is normally done by the fifth album, when the combination of initial passion and musical accomplishment is still at its peak. Beyond that, many artists go on to make albums which are either dignified but play mainly to their core fanbase (Eels, for example), or are derided as embarrassing experiments (Lou Reed is the king of this, but see also Korn’s dubstep album). Even a band like Pulp, whose commercial peak came as late as their fifth album, were all but done by their seventh.

Yet there are some exceptions to this rule. This week’s entries are all artists who released critically regarded albums 15 or more years into their careers. Of course, we’ve met many of these artists before.

Johnny Cash, ‘American IV: The Man Comes Around’ (link)

Pretty much the definition of this week’s list, this album is, of course, best known for his dignified cover of ‘Hurt’. The Nine Inch Nails cover – surprisingly credible, doing justice to both the original song and to Cash’s legacy – serves as a reasonable summary of the album, which mainly features covers or previously-recorded Cash compositions in a stripped down, restrained manner. The best other song is Sting’s ‘I Hurt My Head’, which sounds strong (I don’t know the original). Several singers show up to complement Cash, but with mixed results: on ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, Fiona Apple sounds as if she was singing to a different version of the track, while Don Henley does nothing notable on ‘Desperado’; only Nick Cave adds any value (on ‘I’m So Lonesome I Might Cry’). While this is perhaps a few tracks too long, it serves as a high point to go out on. This is the last of his albums on the list and our final visit.

Leonard Cohen, ‘I’m Your Man’ (link)

Not many artists do their most well-regarded album aged 53, but Cohen was never an ordinary artist; besides, he only started making music in his thirties. One of just two 80s albums from the never-prolific Len, this one backs him with an unusual combination of female hackette backette vocalists, a crummy-sounding synclavier and a bunch of near-Eastern instruments, while Cohen himself rarely expands his vocal range beyond a single note. In an odd symbiosis, his monotone baritone almost sounds as if he’s taken cues from his own acolyte Andrew Eldritch. This is a popular album with Cohen fans and features some of his best known songs, but sounds like an album where the writing is better than the execution, whether due to cheesy arrangements (‘Ain’t no Cure For Love’) or dud playing (the synth solos in ‘Tower of Song’ for example). I’ve not gotten a lot out of Leonard yet; we do however have another (earlier) album of his to explore.

Bob Dylan, ‘Time Out of Mind’ (link)

Dylan’s idiosyncratic later career has seen him doing three albums of standards and a Christmas album, as well as winning a Nobel Prize he scarcely bothered to acknowledge. Before all that, though, he made a 1997 record with Daniel Lanois which was widely acclaimed. In some ways, the shimmering sound makes it as much a Lanois album, but the odd way Bob’s vocals are recorded doesn’t do any favours. Dylan’s contributions, meanwhile, are some of his most direct lyrics, delivered in a guttural semi-croak that became his late-era trademark. ‘Not Dark Yet’ is very good, ‘Can’t Wait’ sounds like a Tom Waits cut, but overall I don’t think this is a contender for Dylan’s top three (with or without the 17-minute blues cut at the end). We’ve covered Bob many times on this blog, but there are still two more of his albums to go.

Marianne Faithfull, ‘Broken English’ (link)

Marianne in 1979 was younger than any of the other artists this week, but she’d spent a lot of time in the wilderness after a fairly prolific 60s and had wrecked her voice with smoking, drugs and laryngitis, so the quality and success of this record was seen as something of a surprise. Re-inventing herself as a new wave artist with the help of Steve Winwood and others, the synth-heavy cuts on this album often sound like Blondie (‘Guilt’, the title track), or are fresh post-punk takes on ominous, brooding folk songs (‘The Ballad of Lucy Jordan’, Lennon’s ‘Working Class Hero’). The album ends with the fantastically crude ‘Why’d Ya Do It?’, an explicit story about sex with the wrong woman strewn with Berlin trilogy guitar which, amazingly, was originally written for Tina Turner (Faithfull astutely realised Turner would reject the track and took it for herself).

Bruce Springsteen, ‘The Rising’ (link)

If I told you that this was Bruce’s 2002 album, made in response to September 11, and featured the E Street Band, you could probably figure out what it sounds like without me elaborating. But in case you’re struggling to picture it: it’s 70 minutes long, is arranged with plenty of musicians, a lot of organ, and nothing gets out of second gear tempo-wise: all very classy but not very edgy. There is, however, some pretty good stuff here: ‘Lonesome Day’ is a good opener, ‘Worlds Apart’ has an unexpected Qawwali intro (I guess to demonstrate that being a working-class Yank doesn’t mean you’re anti-Islam), and ‘The Fuse’ starts off with what sounds like an organic stab at the ‘Head Like A Hole’ intro.

Robert Wyatt, ‘Shleep’ (link)

This is the first album of Wyatt’s I’ve heard, and features a bunch of old boys, but maybe not the ones you’d expect: rather than Canterbury pals like Ratledge and Ayres, it’s 70s geezers like Eno, Manzanera and Weller. I’ve always found the jazz-influenced Canterbury psychedelic sound a bit cluttered and finicky for my tastes, and this album often has the same issues. There are some exceptions, though: ‘Free Will and Testament’ is the sort of frazzled sighing Wayne Coyne excels at, the melody and backing perfect for Wyatt’s mannered, splintered falsetto. The best on the second half is ‘Blues in Bob Minor’ borrows a template from ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ for Robert to ramble unusual words like ‘intercontinental’ and ‘genuflecting’ over the top. This came out in 1997 and it’s odd that Wyatt didn’t – never did – make an album with young fans who’d taken this sort of sound into the top 50. You’d think the Flaming Lips, Gorky’s and Grandaddy would have loved to make a record collaborating with him, but it never happened.

Neil Young and Crazy Horse, ‘Ragged Glory’ (link)

Young is one of my big discoveries from this project: this is about the 10th album of his I’ve listened to, and I hadn’t listened to any 18 months ago. Here we are in 1990, just before he enjoyed a kind of resurgence in the 90s, due mainly to his veneration by the Seattle scene: he made some records with Pearl Jam, and he was notoriously quoted in Cobain’s suicide note. Still, Young wasn’t just coasting on endorsements: he made very good albums like ‘Harvest Moon’ in this time. ‘Ragged Glory’, like his other albums with Crazy Horse, allows many openings for lengthy guitar workouts (‘Over and Over’, ‘Country Home’). Which is fine on a 40-minute, 6-track album, but feels a bit like overkill on 10 tracks in 62 minutes. The grizzled old boys do sound up-to-date here, with something of a Frank Black feel: ripe for a career revival. We’ve almost listened to everything on the list from Young’s solo career: just one album remains.

Next week: we’ll be getting into the DeLorean and going back to the 1950s with some of the oldest albums on the list!

Status update: 651 albums listened to (65%), 350 remain

Advertisements

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.