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.


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.