November 26: Cardigans, Stevie Wonder, Underworld, Big Star, Soft Machine, Eric Clapton, Alice Cooper

This week, as a one-off, we’re going to go numerically through some of the albums on the list which have a number in their title! Choosing a theme each week is a bit of a free for all as we get this deep into the project, and there aren’t even any records by 5ive! Let’s get down to it.

The Cardigans, ‘First Band on the Moon’ (link)

I always thought ‘Gran Turismo’ was their big album – certainly it had two of their big hits, ‘My Favourite Game’ and ‘Erase/Rewind’ – but the one on the list is this one, which features their breakthrough, ‘Lovefool’. It kind of feels like it’s a product of its era, that point in the 1990s which was heavily influenced by the 1960s. It’s okay, but struggled to resonate with me.

Stevie Wonder, ‘Fulfilingness’ First Finale’ (link)

Following ‘Innervisions’, this awkwardly-titled album contains none of the big hits, and feels like much the same things that I’ve come to expect from Stevie: keyboard-led funk with the occasional saccharine ballad. The best song, despite its name, is ‘Boogie On Reggae Woman’, where Wonder’s own synth bass and drumming replicates an up-tempo funk jam band. It’s refined and surprisingly concise but can’t match ‘Innervisions’. Just one more of his albums on the list.

Underworld, ‘Second Toughest in the Infants’ (link)

Apparently named from one of the band’s nephews boasting, this album came out around the same time as Underworld’s biggest hit, ‘Born Slippy.NUXX’, which doesn’t feature here. It’s a collection of lengthy electronic tracks, pausing occasionally for guitar interludes, and topped with Karl Hyde’s muttered vocals. ‘Pearl’s Girl’ is the closest thing to a banger here, so it’s no surprise that it was chosen as the single. This is fine. I think, however, that my favourite song of Underworld’s other than the ‘Trainspotting’ one is ‘Shudder/King of Snake’, a kind of merging of ‘Born Slippy.NUXX’ and Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’.

Big Star, ‘Third/Sister Lovers’ (link)

Singing about ‘Cool Jerk’ while the drummer bangs a saucepan, doing a wet version of ‘Femme Fatale’ with his girlfriend on vocals, playing a slow-motion piano dirge and calling it ‘Holocaust’… Alex Chilton had some strange ideas at this point in his career. As a rock album, this is all over the place, but as a document of Chilton’s apparent disintegration, it’s compelling. A Big Star album in name only – only two of them even appear on the album and it was originally recorded either under Chilton’s name or as Sister Lovers (Chilton and Jody Stephens’s girlfriends were sisters).

Soft Machine, ‘Third’ (link)

Never the most imaginative when it came to naming their albums, Soft Machine save their wild ideas for their music, which here mark their transition from prog rock to free jazz. Wait, come back! This does start with their most objectionable song, ‘Facelift’, all random doodlings and Miles Davis parping. The second disc, with Robert Wyatt’s ‘Moon in June’ and the closer ‘Out-Bloody-Rageous’, feels more cohesive and coherent, and feels pretty palatable. This is the band’s only appearance on the list.

Eric Clapton, ‘461 Ocean Boulevard’ (link)

I was kind of dreading listening to Clapton – bluesy old guy rock, whose previous appearance here was in the Blues Breakers – but I found myself enjoying the heck out of this. Clapton’s first album after three years of heroin addiction, he sounds like he has a point to prove, and sounds as though he’s found some musicians he’s having fun with. Good harmonies and good songs here, although we learn nothing new about Marley’s ‘I Shot The Sheriff’.

Alice Cooper, ‘Billion Dollar Babies’ (link)

Suddenly huge after the success of their triumphant ‘School’s Out’, the Alice Cooper band were both bewildered by their fame and attempting to equal it. Commercially, this was a triumph which essentially codified heavy metal and shock rock: songs about necrophilia with a cheesy stage show. Artistically, though, I’m not sure it has a consistent motif in the same way as ‘School’s Out’ does: ‘Hello Hooray’ is a great bit of Ziggy Stardust peacocking, but the dallying with glam and proto-metal doesn’t quite gel with me in the same way as ‘School’s Out’ does.

Next week: back to the live albums! *audience cheers*

Progress update: 700 listened to (70%), 301 remain.

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July 9: Blues – four Jo(h)ns (Lee Hooker, Mayall, Spencer and Dr), BB King, Muddy Waters, The Yardbirds

Woke up this morning, checked out the news, I had to listen to seven albums in the style of the blues.

I said, I woke up this morning, now baby don’t you cry, it’s blues week on 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.

Dr John, ‘Gris Gris’

I selected this week’s albums knowing little about them, but my understanding of the Night Tripper was that he was a blues pianist, kind of like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (who isn’t on the list at all). This album, however, has little piano and bears only the dimmest resemblance to blues – or anything else. ‘Dance Kalimba Ya Boom’ has some Arabian flavourings, ‘Dance Fambeaux’ a 60s psychedelia workout with disembodied female vocals and church bell percussion, and ‘Croker Courtbullion’ engages a call-and-response flute/harpsichord/Moog section. This was John’s debut album, released on an Atlantic subsidary, so who knows what possessed him to adopt this persona and record this album (New Orleans voodoo loas perhaps). What a great gimmick, though, and what a great record. In it, you can see the origins of Tom Waits, Nick Cave and no doubt a million other swampy weirdos of his type.

John Lee Hooker, ‘The Healer’

Hooker’s only appearance on the list doesn’t get off to a promising start: the artwork is reminiscent of the poster for ‘The Human Centipede: First Sequence’, and the first song is an awful Santana collaboration driven mostly by cheap electric piano. Once Carlos and his mob are out of the way, though, the rest of the first half is mostly energetic electric blues, collaborating with Bonnie Raitt, Los Lobos and others. The second half, where Hooker is mostly solo, is generally a bit more meandering and undistinguished. Tracks 2-6 are very good, though. This album was recorded when Hooker was 78, making him almost certainly the oldest performer on the list. It sold well enough to enable him to live in comfort for the rest of his life. Boom boom.

John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, ‘Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton’

Aside from a solo on the White Album, this is Eric Clapton’s first (but not last) appearance on the blog. Here, it’s 1966 and in the same year as ‘Blonde on Blonde’, ‘Revolver’ and ‘Good Vibrations’, four white English guys were trying to sound like a 50s Beale Street jam band. Although none of the tracks here exceed the five-minute mark, they contain plenty of my musical Room 101s: there’s a drum solo, loads of harmonica and a whole motorway of jams. My partner suggested this album’s credited artist would be better named “Boring Dude and the White Men”. Not, as you might have guessed, one I’ll be coming back to.

Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, ‘Now I Got Worry’

A lot of Johns and Jons this week, eh? Not the only album this week to have been released after punk broke (my heart) but the only one to acknowledge it, JSBX take some of the staples of blues – bottleneck slide, Bo Diddley riffs – and incorporate punkish raucousness, dub and DJ Shadow-ish cut-up sounds, then record everything on what sounds like a four-track Tascam. It’s thrillingly unpredictable and experimental, the rough production very effective on such loose, edgy music. If I have a gripe, it’s that there’s too many tracks, making it feel long: trimming four of its sixteen tracks out would have taken the running time under 40 minutes, but the dynamic impact would have been more effective.

BB King, ‘Live at the Regal’

Initially, I thought this album by the Blues Boy was too smooth – probably after the Blues Explosion – but I warmed to the album as it went on. Perhaps it’s the overjoyed audience, or the way the band play continuously, even as King introduces the next song with an instruction (to listen to the lyrics, for example) or an anecdote. The audience seem to get tired in the second set, as their reception is muted, and the album ends oddly abruptly without a big finale or a swelling ovation from the crowd. It’s easy to be charmed by this one.

Muddy Waters, ‘At Newport 1960’

Another live album, this starts with the endless, ickily-titled ‘I Got My Brand On You’, which isn’t a promising start. Muddy and his band seem to be on cruise control for the first few tracks, but please the audience by picking up the tempo on ‘Tiger in my Tank’ and ‘I Feel So Good’. Yes, a blues song called ‘I Feel So Good’. Taken out of context nearly sixty years after its recording, this album doesn’t seem like a particularly big deal, but it played an important part in popularising blues among a white European audience. Still, as a listener, I prefer Waters’ later album ‘Hard Again‘.

The Yardbirds, ‘The Yardbirds’

The Yardbirds had something of a revolving door when it came to lead guitarists: at this point, they were post-Clapton but pre-Jimmy Page. Stepping up to the plate, Jeff Beck, all white noise and Ravi Shankar influences. I was kind of expecting all the tracks to sound like mid-B-side instrumental 12-bar frittering ‘Jeff’s Boogie’. Instead, the band constantly keep me guessing, whether it’s tangential wanderings off the track on ‘Lost Woman’ and ‘The Nazz Are Blue’,  monastic vocal breaks, or the kitchen-sink percussive approach (guiro and wobble board both show up). As much as the band feel like they’re anchored to their blues-rock template, every track on this album threw up something unusual or unexpected. I’d recommend this one, and while all the credit can’t go to Beck here, I’m looking forward to hearing his solo record ‘Truth’ later on the list.

Next week: This week, we did blues, so next week, let’s have a look at some of the other colours on the list!

Progress update: 562 listened to (56%), 439 remain