September 10: Dictators, Kings of Leon, Elvis Presley, Prince, Queen Latifah, Queens of the Stone Age, Stereolab

To celebrate Prince George’s first day at school, perhaps, this week looks at some of the ruling classes: any artist with a suitably regal name or album title. I wish I’d come up with this idea when we still had BB King, Carole King, King Crimson, and Queen still to review, but there’s still seven albums ready for your perusal this week. Let’s dive in.

Dictators, ‘Go Girl Crazy!’ (link)

I had absolutely no idea what this album was going in, but I forgot the golden rule: on the 1001 and you’ve never heard of it? It’s punk. This lot were a mid-70s act doing proto-punk: it’s a tongue-in-cheek take on rock’n’roll where everyone’s acting as dumb as possible. They’re playing fast and loud and kind of sloppily, as if everything could have done with a few more takes, including a deliberately daft cover of ‘I Got You Babe’ given away as early as track 2. If the Tubes aren’t on the 1001, and they aren’t, there’s no real reason for this to be.

Kings of Leon, ‘Youth and Young Manhood’ (link)

Now that Kings of Leon are a huge stadium act, it’s hard to remember that back in the day they sounded like this, kind of like The Strokes if they were into Creedence Clearwater Revival, with clean production where they should sound like they’ve been dragged out of a swamp. The Marmite on top of this fairly bland bread is Caleb, who barely sings an intelligible line at any point. Imagery evoked: A bunch of massively hungover drifters go on a hike across the desert with hilarious results.

Elvis Presley, ‘Elvis is Back!’ (link)

Well, he is the King after all. Presley had been serving in the army for the previous two years, and while he had still managed to record some singles in that time, this was sort of a comeback record for him. As with ‘Elvis Presley‘, it feels kind of like a mixed bag despite the quick recording and consistent backing band: there’s rock’n’roll, doo-wop, country and a cover of ‘Fever’ among other tracks. I guess it was a different age: get the album recorded and released quickly so that people didn’t forget about you. The last two tracks are probably the strongest on an album that’s a decent collection of songs which don’t quite cohese as an album. This is our last look at Elvis; I reviewed the chronologically latest of his albums on the list here.

Prince, ‘Purple Rain’ (link)

I’d struggled to get on with ‘1999’ and ‘Sign O’ The Times’ with all its screechy peacocking and minimalist funk, but the Purple One seems more focused on this album, trimmed down to 42 minutes and remembering to invite The Revolution to the studio for once. It feels like a concise summary of his entire schtick: the synth-funk (‘Computer Blue’), the melodramatic ballads (‘The Beautiful Ones’), the guitar solos (‘Purple Rain’), the filthy sex (‘Darlin’ Nikki’), the hits (‘When Doves Cry’). Yeah this is real good. Dig if you will.

Queen Latifah, ‘All Hail The Queen’ (not on Spotify)

The future Academy Award nominee wasn’t the first female rapper or even the biggest-selling, but is perhaps the best known of her generation. While the early stages of the album sound like just another Daisy Age album (De La Soul show up on ‘Mama Gave Birth To The Soul Children’, mucking about with sped-up voices), Latifah quickly deviates, dropping 808-heavy house rhythms on ‘Come Into My House’ and cutting down amateurs at rap battles over a King Tubby dub plate on ‘The Pros’. The Queen’s lyrical delivery feels sharp too: she somehow manages to sound like Chuck D and Flavor Flav at the same time. She’s not made a rap album since 2003 – she switched over to singing at that point, and then acting became her thing – but this is a good example of what brought her to the game.

Queens of the Stone Age, ‘Queens of the Stone Age’ (link)

The first album from the future megastars, who were at this time just Josh Homme and drummer Alfredo Hernandez; weird to see this here and not ‘Rated R’ or ‘Songs for the Deaf’. While those albums built on the Queens template and diversified, here there probably aren’t enough cooks around the pot, as the monotony of the repetitive ‘robot rock’ quickly becomes apparent. The samey formula and monochromatic arrangements mean the novelty wears off early; I was ready for this to be done by the tenth track, although at least the final two tracks are good. Be careful: the 2011 re-issue adds superfluous pissabouts mid-album.

Stereolab, ‘Emperor Tomato Ketchup’ (link)

Stereolab were one of the very first bands I saw as they opened up V96 when I was 14, although I was nonplussed by their sound. Listening now, it’s easy to see why: I’d never heard of them and their indirect fusion of Serge Gainsbourg and Kraftwerk isn’t the most compelling combination for a teenager at a summer festival. It’s easier to enjoy it 21 years later: you can see how their Gallic loungey qualities paved the way for not just the likes of Air but the likes of All Seeing I or Zero 7 too, while producer John McEntire (of Tortoise) injects energy on tracks like ‘The Noise of Carpet’. I think it’s probably too long – it’s 57 minutes – but it’s fine.

Next week: a less daft reason for a collection as we listen to that most traditional of genres, folk!

Status update: 623 listened to (62%), 378 remain.


December 4: The Crickets, Fats Domino, The Louvin Brothers, Sabu Martinez, Elvis Presley, Louis Prima, Frank Sinatra

This week we’ll be firing up the DeLorean and heading back to the 1950s! Yes, it’s time we covered the very earliest albums on the 1001. The list goes back as far as 1955 and only 23 albums from the 50s make the cut – barely 2% of the entire list. If I had to suggest reasons, I might suggest the lack of veneration of the album as an artistic statement back in the 50s (occasional gems padded out with dross), the often poor production values, at least by modern standards, or even the scarcity or inaccessibility of music at the time; more likely, though, is that the people who made the list didn’t know very many albums from the 1950s. Anyway, let’s have a look at some of the oldest (…that I haven’t already listened to earlier).

The Crickets, ‘The “Chirping” Crickets’

The first and final appearance of Buddy Holly on the list, The Crickets invented the indie band with their guitar/bass/drums line-up and their in-house songwriting. It’s fascinating to see how it began, and often there’s an energy and verve captured in this record that is still sought-after by bands in 2016. The A-side starts with ‘Oh Boy’, the B-side with ‘That’ll Be The Day’, but unusually my favourite song is the penultimate song, written by the bassist Joe B Mauldin.

Fats Domino, ‘This is Fats’

Confusingly, Fats released two consecutive albums with near-identical names: ‘This is Fats Domino’ and ‘This is Fats’, meaning I had to check a few times whether I was listening to the right one. ‘This is Fats’ it is. This starts with his best-known song, Glenn Miller cover ‘Blueberry Hill’ and has an ace song called ‘Blue Monday’: not to be confused with the New Order classic. I always thought Domino was the sort of music that had become too old to objectively appreciate (kind of like Doris Day or Noel Coward), but I really enjoyed the warm piano sound, the song choice and even the intimate production.

The Louvin Brothers, ‘Tragic Songs of Life’

I didn’t know anything about these guys before pressing play, but researching them reminded me that I had seen one of their album covers before: the notorious ‘Satan is Real’. Not surprisingly, it turns out they were a Baptist country/gospel vocal duo whose career was ruined by mandolinist Ira’s boozing and womanising. The brothers’ voices sound nice together and Ira’s mandolin adds an Appalachian flavour to proceedings, but the lack of variety in pace or arrangement makes the album feel long even at less than 36 minutes.

Sabu Martinez, ‘Palo Congo’

Sabu was a conguero – now there’s a word I hadn’t heard before – who acted as a sideman to a variety of Blue Note jazz types but who also released four albums as a band leader, of which this is the first. It may not surprise you to learn that this is very heavy on the percussion: on a lot of the early songs there are literally no tuned instruments, running off vocals, congas (a whopping five congueros are credited) and little else. Ostensibly Latin jazz, the rhythms have something of an African flavour with their hypnotic, chanting atonality. Eventually Arsenio Rodriguez’s tres guitar makes a few appearances, but nothing melodic ever happens. I didn’t like this: what a philistine.

Elvis Presley, ‘Elvis Presley’

This 1956 debut album features one of the most iconic covers in history but only one of his golden greats, opener ‘Blue Suede Shoes’. Elsewhere, his band rush through Little Richard’s ‘Tutti Frutti’ as if they can’t wait to get it out of the way, and there’s a stark ‘Blue Moon’. A few days’ recording, with Sun Records odds and sods padding out the track listing, the album’s an okay-I-suppose introduction to the young Elvis’s rock and roll, country and crooning combination, but (understandably) not a slam-dunk. There are three of the King’s albums on the list. We’ve already visited one, so just one more to go.

Louis Prima, ‘The Wildest!’

Prima was a jazz and lounge musician who, unlike some contemporaries, realised that rock and roll’s appeal to kids was that they wanted fun music to dance to. Here, Prima takes the energy of rock and roll and the style of swing, allowing trumpet and sax solos to share the spotlight with his vocals and his sidekick/wife Keely Smith’s. This sounds like a lot of fun, and it’s infectious: the frenzied wit, the joyous shouts of the band during the instrumental breaks and Smith & Prima’s jousts (minimised, alas, in the second half) make this a pleasure.

Frank Sinatra, ‘Songs for Swinging Lovers’

Sinatra’s downbeat ‘In The Wee Small Hours‘ is the sound of a man ruminating over a break-up in a smoky hotel bar at 2am, and is the oldest album on the list. While Frank doesn’t seem to have resolved the issues of his love life by the time of his next album, the record is a noticeable return to more upbeat fare. The artist’s choice, or the label’s? Whatever, it’s more like his trademark sound and, in fact, may well be the archetypal Rat Pack album: it’s free of the schmaltzy backing vocals and cheesy complacency that’s so familiar in this genre, even in the preposterous ‘Making Whoopee’. However, much like Dylan, Sinatra’s sound is so familiar that it’s difficult to judge objectively. The singing’s great (although I wish he’d experiment with singing the actual notes as written) but the Great American Songbook hasn’t ever thrilled me. Happily, the last of Sinatra’s albums on the list has a very different composer as main collaborator. Trivia: ‘Songs for Swinging Lovers’ was the first album to top the UK Album Charts.

Next week: I’ll be returning to more audience-friendly fare by returning to the most common artists on the list.

Status update: 359 albums heard (36%), 642 remain.

May 18: Anita Baker, Jean-Michael Jarre, Pixies, Elvis, Talking Heads

Anita Baker, ‘Rapture’.

I picked this one out purely because I didn’t know anything about it. It turns out that I did know the lead single, ‘Sweet Love’. The rest of the album is, alas, lesser versions of that song and the sort of electric piano-heavy, gospel-tinged soul that passed as cutting-edge R&B before Timbaland, Neptunes and BeyoncĂ© tore up the rulebook. Not great.

Jean-Michael Jarre, ‘Oxygene’.

‘Oxygene’ was met with critical apathy on its release for being tasteful, minimalist and primarily concerned with texture. Yet hacks went mad for Air and chill-out music less than 20 years later. I can only assume the advent of the pill comedown changed perspectives. Anyway this is often a pretty series of backing tracks that would sound great with a stronger top line. It still sounds pretty good; less dated and cheap-sounding than many of its descendents.

Pixies, ‘Surfer Rosa’.

I’m sure I have heard Pixies records before but I can’t remember which and to avoid doubt, I’m listening to them all again. Like probably all of their albums, this one oscillates between pop HITZ like ‘Gigantic’ and ‘Where is my Mind?’ and dissonant shouty rock. Trivia: I first heard ‘Cactus’ through the 2002 Bowie cover.

Elvis Presley, ‘From Elvis in Memphis’.

Like the Beatles, Elvis is such an omnipresent part of popular culture that it’s hard to listen to his stuff objectively; however, this is the sound of an artist at his showman peak. The music is sort-of brassy soul with a country feel. ‘In The Ghetto’, the closing track, is an obvious highlight, but ‘Long Black Limousine’ on the A-side is also ace.

Talking Heads, ’77’.

The debut album from the scratchy New Yorkers, ’77’ is a charming but oddly unvaried affair highlighted, of course, by ‘Psycho Killer’. The bonus crap on Spotify includes the version of that song with cellos: the band hated it, but the screechy Hitchcock strings sound pretty good to me.

205 albums listened to. Just 796 to go.