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.


November 12: Belle and Sebastian, Neneh Cherry, Elvis Costello, Malcolm McLaren, Moby Grape, Sebadoh, Tom Waits

It’s Sunday, the day of the week where you traditionally enjoy a delicious roast, or some other super-heavy dinner. So it’s perhaps fitting that this week’s septet are united only by their reference to food in their album titles. Yeah, it’s tenuous, but now that we’re over 2/3rds of the way through the project, with fewer than 350 albums remaining, we might have to do a couple of these weird association weeks. Let’s roll.

Belle and Sebastian, ‘Tigermilk’ (link)

The 1999 Brit Award winners for Best Newcomer had released this, their first album, three years earlier. I guess if you know me, it might be a surprise that I hadn’t listened to Belle and Sebastian before: a bookish indie band who sound like a bunch of librarians. They always seemed, though, like they were a slightly lesser version of the things I did like: not as smart as the Divine Comedy, not as ambitious as the Delgados, not as eclectic as Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci. Listening to this album twenty years after the fact, I’m still not completely moved. There’s plenty to get your teeth into: generally they sound like ‘Bryter Layter’ as played by the Triffids, but there’s also horns, strings, even a blueprint for Casiotone For The Painfully Alone on ‘Electronic Renaissance’. Yet there’s something that doesn’t quite coalesce for me: maybe it’s too shy, too timid. I get the feeling that if they haven’t won me over now, they never will.

Neneh Cherry, ‘Raw Like Sushi’ (link)

Sort of a British-Swedish take on ‘All Hail The Queen’, ‘Raw Like Sushi’ opens with Cherry’s best-known song, ‘Buffalo Stance’, all 808 rhythms and bubbling distorted synths (also a section in Cockernee for whatever reason). The rest of the record largely leans on Cherry’s spunky personality and the drum machine, with cameos from Massive Attack and Bjork collaborator Nelle Hooper. It was a fine listen, although besides the ace single, I forgot most of it straight away.

Elvis Costello and the Attractions, ‘Blood and Chocolate’ (link)

Now there’s a combination you wouldn’t want to see on Zumbo’s Just Desserts. Recorded a few years after the Attractions had nominally split up, this is in places looser and less inhibited than many of Costello’s albums: ‘I Want You’ goes on for nearly seven minutes, while ‘Honey Are You Straight Or Are You Blind’ is uncharacteristically raucous. Costello also adds a vaguely Buddy Holly vibe to some of the songs (‘Next Time Round’ for example). The production is perhaps a bit too clean for the objective, though, meaning that for all the band’s work it still sounds a little tame.

Malcolm McLaren, ‘Duck Rock’ (link)

I’d heard about this album but with bafflement: how can the Sex Pistols manager have released an album widely regarded as one of the most influential albums in early hip-hop, referenced as late as Eminem’s ‘Without Me’? Listening to the album makes it a bit clearer, as McLaren’s direct involvement on most of the songs appears to have been as project manager rather than performer, with Trevor Horn and The Art of Noise responsible for the delivery of much of the music and The World’s Famous Supreme Team delivering much of the rapping and interstitial pirate radio segues. The music takes in Latin and African styles as well as old-school hip-hop, mixed seamlessly. Turn it off before the final song, a dogshit hoedown sung by McLaren called ‘Duck for the Oyster’ and this is a good album.

Moby Grape, ‘Moby Grape’ (link, some songs unavailable)

These were a San Franciscan psychedelic rock act from the 60s who had an unexpectedly troubled life due to the mental state of their rhythm guitarist, Skip Spence. Superior Californian rock due to the band’s taste in melodies and harmonies, the album’s standout is the Byrds-ish ‘8.05’, which alas doesn’t start 8.05 into the album and doesn’t last 8.05: was nobody paying attention. This is their debut album, which suggests a promise that alas they never really fulfilled due to their personal and personnel issues: they don’t appear on the list again, despite a seven-album career, and seem to be regarded as what could have been, more so than what was.

Sebadoh, ‘Bubble and Scrape’ (link)

Lou Barlow’s post-Dinosaur Jr project, this is an obvious relation to DJ’s Sonic Youth/grunge/J&MC mix, but perhaps a bit more abrasive, shouty and violent, with acoustic songs and (on ‘Fantastic Disaster’) Violent Femmes facing off with Ennio Morricone. Initial impressions deceive, however: opening track and single ‘Soul and Fire’ sounds like a college-radio-friendly unit shifter at odds with the discordant energy of much of the rest of the album.

Tom Waits, ‘Nighthawks at the Diner’ (link)

One of the things this project has illuminated is that sometimes live albums are a better representation of an artist than their studio albums: I’d previously thought of live albums as contractual obligations, but many of the albums on this list have shown them to be a showcase for the artist’s personality. Artists don’t come more charismatic than Tom Waits anyway, but here his rambling, seemingly improvised intros to ‘Emotional Weather Report’ and ‘Better Off Without A Wife’ really lift the personality of the songs. Not that it’s often easy to tell where the intro ends and the song starts, as he rarely starts singing and carries on making Ginsbergian abstractions while the jazz band behind him keeps up. This is probably my second favourite of the Waits albums I’ve heard: just one more visit to Waits on the list.

Next week: We’re off to South America as we mop up the last of the Latin albums on the list.

Status update: 686 listened to (68%), 315 remain.


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 30 – ABC, Elvis Costello, Herbie Hancock, The Slits, The Who, Stevie Wonder

ABC, ‘Lexicon of Love’.

Well, since they’ve just released the sequel it seemed topical. The last two tracks seem superfluous, but otherwise this is a perfect pop album, mainly helped by crisp production and orchestration from the ZTT lot. ‘Valentine’s Day’ is the song I liked most.

Elvis Costello, ‘My Aim is True’.

Costello must be a favourite of one of the list compilers as there are six of his albums on the list: only the Beatles, Bowie, Dylan, the Stones and Neil Young have as many. Odd to think of Costello as mixing with that company. This album is okay, with good lyrics and pretty decent songs referencing 50s rock and roll and preceding 90s power-pop, but it’s not clear on this evidence why there are so many of his albums on here.

Herbie Hancock, ‘Head Hunters’.

This 70s jazz album only has four songs, and three are overshadowed by 15-minute opening track ‘Chameleon’, a funk-driven vamp full of synth solos whose distinctive bassline is the best thing on the record. ‘Watermelon Man’ brings in African instrumentation to further the symbiotic relationship between Afrobeat and jazz/funk.

The Slits, ‘Cut’.

I’d never previously got on with the Slits when I heard their songs in isolation, but ‘Cut’ kicks all sorts of ass with its peculiar mix of post-punk and reggae fronted by a German woman singing in English and drummed by future Banshee Budgie. Spotify’s insistence on adding superfluous extra tracks paid dividends this time as the killer cover of ‘I Heard it Through the Grapevine’ was bolted on.

The Who, ‘My Generation’.

The debut album of the world’s loudest band occupies an odd place in history as it’s probably less known than the band’s later albums (‘Tommy’, ‘Sell Out’ etc) despite having two of their best-known songs (‘The Kids are Alright’, the title track). As you might expect, ‘My Generation’ has the rhythm section higher in the mix than most 60s albums, resulting in a fairly heavy bottom end. The album weakens only when the band resort to R&B/blues cliches, usually when a piano is involved, but they hadn’t invented their only language yet.

Stevie Wonder, ‘Innervisions’.

There’s a few of Stevie’s records on the list, but I’d put them off because his work seems to be split between good stuff, like student disco favourite ‘Superstition’, and anodyne harmonica-infected sap like ‘Isn’t She Lovely’. This album takes a couple of tracks to get going, but the real talk of ‘Living for the City’ turned the corner and the rest hit the spot on a Bank Holiday afternoon. Warning: the synth solos have dated.