January 8: Nick Drake, Aretha Franklin, George Harrison, Fela Kuti, Love, Lou Reed, Dusty Springfield

Happy New Year everyone! Since the last update, there’s been a new version of the 1001 Albums book released, adding ‘Blackstar’, FKA Twigs and The War on Drugs among others but finding no room for ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’: the full list from that version is here. I’m going to persevere with the list I’ve been working from, rather than drive myself insane by trying to combine or reconcile the lists. We’re still likely to have a late 2018 finish date for this project, by which point there’ll probably be another revision!

This week, we’re easing back into it with some of the albums I’ve been looking forward to hearing. Excitingly, we’re far enough through the project that this includes artists I hadn’t heard before I started doing this, such as our first artist…

Nick Drake, ‘Pink Moon’

While ‘Bryter Layter‘ had seen Drake working with a full band for pretty, John Cale-ish arrangements, it was only under sufferance from the minimalist guitarist, and he stripped his sound back to basics for ‘Pink Moon’: the album is just him, accompanied by his acoustic guitar. The record is alarmingly intimate as a result: on ‘Things Behind the Sun’, for example, the tempo wobbles, a string is mishit, there’s a split-second of hesitation. You can almost hear his fingers against the soundboard. The starkness would be about as exciting as a bare wall painted magnolia, but Drake is such a good singer, writer and guitarist that it overcomes the austerity. Just three albums into his career, this was it for Drake: he never recorded anything else and died of an overdose two years later. His whole canon is on the list.

Aretha Franklin, ‘Lady Soul’

The First Lady of Soul was a prolific recording artist: this is her fourteenth album, and features a dozen musicians, including her sisters and Whitney Houston’s mum on backing vocals. It has two of Aretha’s best-known songs, ‘Chain of Fools’ and Carole King’s ‘You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman’, but almost anything on this album could have been a single. Her passionate delivery – sometimes delivering sassy put-downs, sometimes full of romantic yearning – sets her apart from the pack, but she’s also matched by raunchy horns and soulful keyboards from the backing band. It’s Franklin being good, what a surprise.

George Harrison, ‘All Things Must Pass’

My goodness, but this album is long. A treble album recorded with Ringo, Badfinger and Clapton among many others, this first post-Beatles collection features Harrison compiling a selection of songs rejected by the Beatles or about them and adding some new jams on top (literally: the third album is an interminable series of jams). I love Harrison’s Beatles contributions – the cool Indian elements, the blistering solos, the dour compositions – but he was never a strong lead singer and that’s made more clear when faced with producer Phil Spector’s “just add everything” approach, which swallows the songs whole. The album’s distinguishing feature is Harrison’s slide guitar, which rises above the overegged pudding, but overkill is a pretty good summary of the record generally.

Fela Kuti & Africa 70 & Ginger Baker, ‘Live!’

Burned out from touring and partying, Cream drummer Ginger Baker fled to Nigeria for a change of scene, where he spent his time getting high with Fela Kuti. While Kuti had a very good drummer of his own in Tony Allen, Baker appeared on a couple of albums including this one. His appearances on the B-side are dynamic percussion-heavy grooves, while the rest of the album is a fun, loose, fluid collection, as you’d probably expect given the live setting.

Love, ‘Da Capo’

Forever Changes‘ is in the pantheon but I think I prefer ‘Da Capo’, a more ragged, weird offering which offers harpsichord solos and (on ‘Seven and Seven Is’) pre-thrash rock. Unsurprisingly it sounds very much like a mid-60s record, as with ‘Forever Changes’, but it keeps you guessing more frequently. It ends on a bummer though, with the deathless ‘Revelation’, where guitars and saxes wail away for nearly twenty minutes. Like most 18-minute jams, it’s best enjoyed by avoiding it altogether. The good news, of course, is that it’s the last track and you can always press ‘stop’ before you get there.

Lou Reed, ‘Berlin’

The Velvet Underground are one of my favourite bands but Reed’s solo work has always felt patchy to me: even when he was vibing with the Spiders from Mars on ‘Transformer’, the songwriting was rarely good enough for a full album. Reed was still riding the commercial crest of ‘Transformer’ on this, his follow-up, so in a typical move he decided to make it one of the most depressing records ever. The album’s overly upbeat first half isn’t much to shout about but, when the band cut out 60% of the way through ‘Oh Jim’, the stark grimness of the mostly-acoustic second half becomes a compelling Mike Leigh nightmare as the heroine Caroline’s life spirals into the vortex. Nice to see the Velvets’ prettiest song, ‘Stephanie Says’, brought back to life here, although renamed ‘Caroline Says II’, it’s a brutally damaged version telling of Caroline’s domestic abuse and isolation.

Dusty Springfield, ‘A Girl Named Dusty’

Springfield’s first solo album is mostly a collection of classy pop songs written by the likes of Kander/Ebb, Bacharach/David, Carole King (her second appearance this week) and Holland/Dozier/Holland that were more famously sung by others: ‘My Colouring Book’, ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’ and ’24 Hours From Tulsa’ (!) feature. It’s not as if you can argue with Dame Dusty, one of the all-time great vocalists, but this album serves more as a look at what fantastic songs were doing the rounds in the early 60s, rather than as a statement of Dusty’s individual greatness. Her own definitive canon was still to come.

Next week: I’ll be looking at some of the albums which, according to Listchallenges.com, are the least-heard on the list.

Status update: 381 heard (38%), 620 remaining.



March 20: 13th Floor Elevators, Barry Adamson, Fela Kuti

The 13th Floor Elevators, ‘The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators’.

As you might have guessed from the album title, this lot were an acid-fried psychedelic group from the 1960s. This is more the frenzied California style of psychedelia (although the band were Texan) than the cuppa-and-Quaaludes English brand. It mostly sounds like everything else on the Nuggets set, although features the almost unique sound of the electric jug, which is often its most distinctive feature.

Barry Adamson, ‘Oedipus Schmoedipus’.

Adamson was a member of Magazine and the Bad Seeds. This record isn’t easy to categorise, but bridges the gap between – of all things – Portishead and Fatboy Slim, moving deftly between BBC-friendly acid-jazz/big-beat muzak and unsettling filmic pieces. Occasionally a pain, but never dull.

Fela Kuti, ‘Zombie’.

Just two tracks over 29 minutes, ‘Zombie’ is an impossible-to-pigeonhole combination of jazz, afrobeat and funk. A courageous attack on the Nigerian government, who took it so seriously that they invaded Kuti’s commune, beat him up and defenestrated his elderly mother. According to Wikipedia, ‘Kuti’s response to the attack was to deliver his mother’s coffin to the main army barrack in Lagos and write two songs, “Coffin for Head of State” and “Unknown Soldier”, referencing the official inquiry that claimed the commune had been destroyed by an unknown soldier.’ Music is serious business in Nigeria. Anyway, the music itself is great, matching the urgent anger of the lyrics. I like to think the brevity of the album is determined by Kuti’s need to immediately release the record: there wasn’t a moment to lose.