August 19: Belle and Sebastian, Depeche Mode, Dire Straits, The Jam, Elton John, Randy Newman, New Order

It’s another week of 1001, hope you’ve all had a nice week since last we met. This week and next, we’ll be looking at the artists on the list who have two albums making the cut. I’ve written about all seven previously – check out the tags for more.

Belle and Sebastian, ‘If You’re Feeling Sinister’

Both of B&S’s first two albums appear on the list, but nothing afterwards, which suggests that the list’s compilers were more interested in the act when they were an insular university project rather than when they became a proper band with singles and stuff. This one does sound a lot like ‘Tigermilk’ – similar arrangements, similar production, everyone playing rhythm and nobody playing lead. Yet while that album sounded like the work of insufferable wets and weeds, there are a few good songs here. ‘Stars of Track and Field’ has a dramatic chord change in the chorus, ‘Get Me Away From Here’ is a jaunty this-band-is-killing-us deal, and the title track at least has a compelling lyric. There’s also a ‘Telstar’ stylophone solo on ‘Mayfly’, which varies the arrangements a bit. Pretty good.

Depeche Mode, ‘Violator’

They’re from Essex, but there’s something faintly Manchester about this album: the New Order pulses and bass solos of ‘Enjoy the Silence’, the Morrissey echoes of the vocals in ‘Policy of Truth’ and others. This is the one with the hits – the bottleneck guitars of ‘Personal Jesus’ also appear, and it was the big DM album in the States. It’s fine, capably executed, but perhaps a bit heavy on songs at the same tempo.

Dire Straits, ‘Dire Straits’

Last time we looked at Dire Straits was ‘Brothers in Arms‘, a commercially successful album with a feeling of taking the money and running. On their debut album, things feel a bit more organic than the Fairlight-heavy ‘Brothers in Arms’, and there’s some interest in contemporary music: a Marley-ish jam (‘In The Gallery’) and a funk cut (‘Southbound Again’). Like John Martyn, Mark Knopfler’s gruff mutter is an acquired taste of a voice, and I think it’s the most offputting element of this album. Otherwise, there’s a quality to this album that indicates how they became dadrock staples.

The Jam, ‘Sound Affects’

Two big hits back-to-back here, both owing a debt to ‘Revolver’: ‘Start!’ (which appears here as *squints at notes* track 5) makes liberal use of the bassline from ‘Taxman’, and ‘That’s Entertainment’, which uses the backwards guitars from ‘I’m Only Sleeping’. Beatles lifts aside, the album’s energetic first half is full of urgency and vigour: ‘Pretty Green’, for example, sounds more like Blur than Ocean Colour Scene, while ‘Set The House Ablaze’ sounds like the template for Bloc Party. The second half’s meandering is less essential. I’ve come reluctantly to The Jam after being uninspired by Weller’s post-Jam career, but I’ve found their stuff a lot more enjoyable than I was expecting.

Elton John, ‘Madman Across the Water’

If you know – and who doesn’t know – ‘Tiny Dancer’, then you’ve got the idea of how this album sounds: a sort of ‘Ziggy Stardust’-ish piano-based glam, using many of the same musicians as Bowie (Wakeman, Herbie Flowers). Arrangement-wise, the most dynamic departure is the acoustic guitar-driven ‘Holiday Inn’ (inexplicably omitted from any of the chain’s advertising), which also features a sitar solo and ‘Dark Side of the Moon’-style soul backing vocals. The album is fine, but kind of felt like it was the same all the way through, especially in tempo.

New Order, ‘Technique’

Decamping to Ibiza during the late 1980s, ‘Technique’ is an odd mix of trebly guitar songs like ‘Love Less’ (no relation to MBV) and Pet Shop Boys-ish synth-and-sequencer cuts like ‘Round and Round’ – in consecutive songs. The overall effect suits Bernard’s wan vocals more than ‘Low Life’, and the songwriting on, say, ‘Vanishing Point’ is also an improvement. If you’re prepared to overlook some dated synth patches, this is pretty good.

Randy Newman, ‘Good Old Boys’

Newman’s first big album features the template he’s best known for: piano, strings and reeds backing up his Muppety voice and wry lyrics. Unlike ‘Sail Away’, there is some interesting stuff on this record: ‘Guilty’, for example, has the reeds playing dissonant notes which add diminished sevenths or something to the piano chords. If you’re a fan of Eels, you’ll probably get on with stuff like ‘Marie’, which sounds like the source for many of Everett’s more mellow pieces. How well you get along with this album, though, depends on your take on opener ‘Rednecks’, a sarcastic in-character song about institutionalised racism which nonetheless drops the n-bomb more often than an Ice Cube track. It’s very clever but it’s deeply uncomfortable hearing a white guy sing that word so often. Perhaps the intended effect?

Next week: Another round-up of the acts who appear on the list twice, after which we’re more or less into acts who only show up once.

Status update: 952 listened to (95%), 49 remain.


March 12: AC/DC, Bon Jovi, Boston, Dire Straits, The Eagles, Led Zeppelin, Pearl Jam

This week, we’ll be looking at some of the biggest-selling albums of all time, according to the RIAA and Wikipedia. A lot of the best-selling albums ever are Best Of collections (e.g. the Eagles and the Beatles) or popular country albums that don’t make the list (Garth Brooks, Shania Twain). There are also plenty of mega-selling albums that I own (‘The Wall’, ‘Thriller’) or at least have already heard (‘Jagged Little Pill’). Strangely, a lot of the biggest-selling albums are not necessarily the most critically-acclaimed albums ever. Is this deserved? Let’s find out.

AC/DC, ‘Back in Black’

The first album following vocalist Bon Scott’s untimely death on tour, ‘Back in Black”s title track is of course a tribute to Scott. Brian Johnson takes over the shrill vocal slot while the brothers Young keep the riffs steady and producer ‘Mutt’ Lange demands the best from the band. If you’ve heard ‘Back in Black’ or ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’ – and of course you have – then nothing here will surprise you. The ghastly single entendres (‘Given the Dog a Bone’, ‘Let Me Put My Love In You’) compound the atrocity.

Bon Jovi, ‘Slippery When Wet’

Commercial hard rock sold in massive quantities in the 1980s, clearly. This incredibly popular album – the band’s only entry on the list – features all their signature tunes: ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’, ‘Wanted Dead or Alive’, ‘You Give Love A Bad Name’. With its huge choruses, massive guitars and group vocals, it’s designed for stadiums. It’s almost unlistenable though: all the best hooks come from the Desmond Child songs and penultimate track ‘Never Say Goodbye’ is one of the worst songs I’ve heard during this project.

Boston, ‘Boston’

Boston’s record label insisted that they should record in a studio rather than rely on home recording, booking time in an opulent studio for the band to do so. While pretending that they were making the record there, Boston were in fact back at home recording the majority of this record in the guitarist’s basement. The hard rock formula sounds familiar and dated, but it’s not entirely textbook: there are some nice organ flourishes (e.g. on ‘Foreplay’) and classical guitar parts. You can tell it was produced by the guitarist though i.e. the vocals are too quiet and the guitars are too loud.

Dire Straits, ‘Brothers in Arms’

Confusingly, Dire Straits were originally formed by a pair of brothers, but David Knopfler had left the band before this album, despite its name. This is the one with the blue cover with the dobro on the front and is best known for ‘Money For Nothing’ (and did you know it uses the word “faggot” three times?) and ‘Walk of Life’ (Springsteen re-writes ‘A Town Called Malice’). The 80s production sounds great of course but the Synclavier sounds ancient and the second half is mostly tedious guitar rambling. ‘Why Worry?’ and perhaps ‘The Man’s Too Strong’ are the highlights.

Eagles, ‘Hotel California’

The Eagles were an enormous band in the USA – their greatest hits also sold like hotcakes – but the title track here was the band’s only big hit in the UK. ‘Hotel California’ itself sounds pretty good: a combination of gentle 12-strings, meticulous soloing and an almost reggae lilt. ‘New Kid in Town’ also sounds good: a gentle bit of cokey soft-rock. It sags dramatically after that, but recovers in time for the last three tracks. Decent enough, and you can see why it was so popular, but I can’t see that I’ll listen to this all the way through again.

Led Zeppelin, ‘Physical Graffiti’

Zep are a familiar face here on 1001, but this album – their sixth – is the biggest-selling and their longest: a double album lasting over 80 minutes. This is the most eclectic and far-out of the albums this week: there’s acoustic instrumentals, funk Clavinet noodles and Oriental strings on ‘Kashmir’. After four albums, I doubt I’ll ever come to love Robert Plant’s bluesy wail or Jimmy Page’s multi-layered guitars, but this feels like more of a John Paul Jones album anyway with the prominent keyboard and bass parts. In places, this is a lot of fun.

Pearl Jam, ‘Ten’

The second album this week to have a misleading name – ‘Ten’ is neither the band’s tenth album nor does it contain ten tracks – ‘Ten’ was one of the biggest-selling grunge albums. The production has dated a bit, particularly the reverb-heavy 90s guitars, and the second half is a bit weak. However, I enjoyed this more than I was expecting: the singles sound strong and the timpani-based ‘Oceans’ is pleasant. The idea of an entirely grunge week doesn’t seem as daunting as it might have done previously.

Next week: I’ll be going to the opposite extreme and listening to some of the weirdest records on the list.

Progress report: 443 listened to (44%), 558 remain.