April 22: Elvis Costello, Devo, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Go-Gos, Pere Ubu, The Police, Public Image Ltd

This week on 1001, I’ll need you to move away from that punk era and into POST PUNK, and I want you to dispense with all of those old waves you’re so comfortable with, because it’s time for NEW WAVE. Loads of albums on the 1001 fall into one of these two categories, so a week dedicated to them is long overdue. Let’s have a look.

Elvis Costello, ‘Brutal Youth’ (link)

Like Neil Young with Crazy Horse, Costello seems more willing to sprawl loosely when he’s with his backing band (The Attractions, not credited by name here); unlike Young, he doesn’t seem to have spent his 90s exploring grunge, as we learn from this album. Running nearly an hour long, this would have benefitted from 20 minutes being cut off, at which point the songwriting – deftly constructed but written with a punkish energy – would have felt like his best album. Just one more EC album left.

Devo, ‘Are We Not Men? We Are Devo!’ (link)

I was kind of expecting this album to be weirder, especially considering it was produced by Brian Eno: like a Roy Liechtenstein version of the Residents. Reading about it, it seems like Eno expected that too: the Mothersbaughs weren’t, apparently, interested in experimenting or deviating from what was on their demos. Instead, then, it sounds like a lot of other new-wave: choppy, clean riffs and frantic yelping over the top, with the possible exception of a collapsed cover of ‘Satisfaction’ and the Bauhaus motorik of ‘Mongoloid’. Angular but tame. A bit of a letdown.

Echo and the Bunnymen, ‘Porcupine’ (link)

It’s a shame that the first Echo and the Bunnymen I heard was their awful, Liam Gallagher-on-backing vocals 90s comeback, because it put me off exploring their majestic back catalogue for years: like having a drunken fight in a Wetherspoons with a stranger who should by all rights become your best friend. In fact Echo were a high quality act: brooding, faintly goth, but poppy with great choruses. This starts with the hit ‘The Cutter’ and keeps at the same level of urgent, yearning anguish throughout: dark and moody but not so far off the deep end that it becomes impenetrable. Bringing strings, autoharps, harmoniums and marimbas into the mix, this must have seemed thrilling at the time. Now, you can see some of the trappings of the era, but it still sounds pretty excellent.

The Go-Gos, ‘Beauty and the Beat’ (link)

Belinda Carlisle of course had about 15 minutes in The Germs, but she struck gold (well, double platinum) with this outfit, whose sunny, well-produced jangle reminds me of the most poppy Blondie tracks. In the same way that Echo and the Bunnymen’s album sounds like it’s from Liverpool (because it’s raining all the time), ‘Beauty and the Beat’ sounds like a band writing songs in the California sunshine, and so they were. Guitarists Charlotte Caffey and Jane Wiedlin write the lion’s share. Carlisle’s sole co-write betrays her roots: it’s a Bikini Kill-ish stomp with the snot-nosed title ‘Skidmarks on my Heart’.

Pere Ubu, ‘Dub Housing’

Unavailable on Spotify. Ubu are one of those bands who became post-punk because they were more interested in sounding like Captain Beefheart than sounding like The Who: so while there’s songs with clear melodic structure here (‘Caligari’s Mirror’, ‘On The Surface’) there’s also meandering drones like ‘Thriller’ and ‘Blow Daddy-O’. Singer David Thomas’s bizarre delivery is the difference-maker, I think: much post-punk has barely controlled yelping at the front, but Thomas’s breakdown soundtrack isn’t controlled at all. Some of this sounds like early 90s lo-fi: so it sounds both ahead of its time and in the past at once.

The Police, ‘Synchronicity’ (link)

The guitarist gets a song (the Weill-via-Fripp ‘Mother’) and so does the drummer (‘Miss Gradenko’, tolerable), but this is mostly Sting’s tilt at the mainstream: and of course it paid off with super-hit ‘Every Breath You Take’. Unusually, the experiments are on the first half and the hits are on the B-side (‘Wrapped Around Your Finger’ and ‘King of Pain’ the others). But either due to the over-familiarity of the sound, a dislike of both Sting’s voice and some of the additional sounds (more sax, some of the synth pads), or both, I didn’t particularly care for this: ‘Regatta de Blanc‘ was further up my street.

Public Image Ltd, ‘Metal Box’ (link)

This album was famously packaged in a three-vinyl set trapped like sardines in a metal box, and once the listener had managed to wrestle the vinyl out of the box without snapping it in half, the music itself offers similarly few compromises. Johnny goes into the abstract, Keith mostly plays metal guitars which sound like knives being sharpened, and the overall impression is of an album easy to admire, but difficult to love.

Next week: We take a look at more of the most frequent artists who appear on the list, some for the last time!

Status update: 833 listened to (83%), 168 remain.


July 2: The Doors, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Fall, Pet Shop Boys, Public Enemy, Paul Simon, Frank Sinatra

It’s a beautiful day here in Coventry and it’s time for the 56th installment of the 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. This week’s septet have nothing in common other than the number of appearances they make on the list: each artist has three albums on the 1001. As they all have extensive back catalogues, this means that we should have the highlights here. Let’s find out.

The Doors, ‘The Doors’

Jim and the lads didn’t do too much for me on the first album I heard (‘Morrison Hotel‘), but in hindsight I should have started in the most logical place: their debut album. Opening with ‘Break On Through’, the album refrains from too much pontificating or arsing around early on, with dud Brecht country song ‘Alabama Song (Whisky Bar)’ the sole dud on the first half. It goes into spacier territory on the second half, with ‘Light My Fire’ going on for seven minutes and ‘The End’ going on for about a million. Doors fans are divided on what their best album is, but this certainly feels like it encapsulates everything I know about the band: freakbeat, blues, long Indian-style drones.

Echo and the Bunnymen, ‘Crocodiles’

Another debut album, and the Bunnymen’s first appearance on the list. I wasn’t impressed when I first heard E&TB, during their 90s comeback and with their Embrace-ish single ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’. Exposure to their 80s output warmed them to me, though, and the band have been used as a musical cue for swooning, fatalistic doom from 2000’s time travel mindscrew ‘Donnie Darko’ to 2017’s upsetting, problematic suicide/revenge drama ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’; Shelley as a band. Their debut is produced by mischievous management/label Bill Drummond and Dave Balfe, the latter of whom provides some dated-sounding keyboards. Mainly, though, it sounds as though it’s got one eye on the abyss and one eye looking over its shoulder, from the low-key intro of ‘Going Up’ to the dissonant, spooked voodoo outro of ‘Happy Death Men’. Recommended.

The Fall, ‘This Nation’s Saving Grace’

550 albums into this project, The Fall finally swagger in for their first appearance on the list. I have the band’s “greatest hits” (“hits” relative with The Fall), but knowing where to go from there has always been the challenge. Although this isn’t the earliest Fall album on the list, it’s the one that’s meant to be their most accessible, though, recorded during their most commercially successful era with guitarist/second singer Brix Smith widely considered to be the band’s pop element. While the first two songs don’t sound particularly poptastic, the corner turns with ‘Barmy’, so melodic I had to check it wasn’t a cover. ‘Spoilt Victorian Child’ and the electronic babble of ‘LA’ are also catchy, while ‘Gut of the Quantifier’ has a bass riff reminiscient of ‘Boogie Nights’. Mark E Smith’s drunken slurring and the band’s abrasive guitar clanging aren’t for everyone but this must be one of the easier entrance points into their long, exhausting career.

Pet Shop Boys, ‘Actually’

Another band arriving late to the party, whose back catalogue I haven’t explored beyond exemplary hits collection ‘Pop/Art’; I wanted to save something for the second half of the project. This features three wildly different singles: Dame Dusty collaboration ‘What Have I Done To Deserve This?’, dramatic, moody ‘It’s a Sin’ and the gentler ‘Rent’, as well as some filmic ballads (Ennio Morricone gets a writing credit!). Of course, its deadpan dissection of Thatcher-era breadline life could only have been made in the 80s, but they’re elegant enough to overcome some of the dated sound – the orchestral hit pad on ‘It’s A Sin’, the cheesy voice synth of ‘Everytime’ – and it mostly still sounds pretty great. Well worth a listen.

Public Enemy, ‘Apocalypse 91 – The Empire Strikes Black’

The only PE album I hadn’t heard on the list; ‘Nation of Millions‘ and ‘Fear of a Black Planet’ also inevitably appear (and rightly so!). Moving the Bomb Squad upstairs to executive producers and replacing them behind the desk with The Imperial Grand Ministers Of Funk, there’s not an awful lot of difference sonically, except perhaps it’s a bit less dense and there’s less atonal noise. The exciting first half, almost a continuous sequence with no resting, probably peaks with Flav’s Hendrix funk ‘I Don’t Wanna Be Called Yo Niga’ and Chuck’s dark ‘How To Kill A Radio Consultant’. The second half makes room for Sister Souljah and Harry Allen to make appearances, but also has three unconvincing tracks at the end: Flav’s ‘Letter to the New York Post’ claims the Post published a false story about him assaulting his girlfriend, yet Flav went on to plead guilty of doing so; ‘Get The F… Out Of Dodge’ coyly censors the swearing; ‘Bring Tha Noize’ is just the Anthrax/Chuck D cover of the ‘Nation of Millions’ track.

Paul Simon, ‘Paul Simon’

This is Simon’s second album (the first, if you’re wondering, was the equally imaginatively-named ‘The Paul Simon Songbook’) and features Simon fusing his vaguely Paul McCartney singing and songwriting to a variety of world music flavours, an interest which of course finally found its apothesis on ‘Graceland‘. Here, we open with a bit of lovers’ rock (album highlight ‘Mother and Child Reunion’), have an Andean band, Los Incas, show up on ‘Duncan’ and a couple of flavours of Gershwin-ish jazz-pop. There’s also a wacky bass harmonica on ‘Papa Hobo’ and brass punctuating ‘Paranoia Blues’, while Wes Anderson fans will recognise the acoustic shuffle of ‘Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard’. The range on the album is pretty broad, although I think this is the weakest entry this week. Very much a transition from Simon & Garfunkel to just Simon; he did better.

Frank Sinatra & Antonio Jobim, ‘Francis Albert Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim’

Ol’ Blue Eyes’ third and final appearance with us after ‘In The Wee Small Hours‘ and ‘Songs For Swinging Lovers‘, and Tom Jobim’s only appearance by name. The bossa nova supremo mostly sticks to guitar and piano and leaves the singing to Sinatra – and why wouldn’t you – although he makes the occasional vocal cameo, including an unpredictably late showing on ‘The Girl From Ipanema’. Jobim brings Sinatra some of his own songs to sing, Sinatra responds with some Great American Songbook tracks for Tom to convert to his style, and the results are surprisingly fruitful. Frankie’s strongest suit, if you ask me, is wistful all-night-bar melancholia, and we have that in abundance here on tracks like ‘Meditation’. This only lasts 28 minutes: I would have been happy if it was double the length.

A lot of very good stuff this week. Hooray!

Next week: since my baby left me, I can’t even talk newspeak, so I’m gonna have to write elsewhere, as next week will be blues week.

Status update: 555 listened to (55%), 446 remaining.