July 2: The Doors, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Fall, Pet Shop Boys, Public Enemy, Paul Simon, Frank Sinatra

It’s a beautiful day here in Coventry and it’s time for the 56th installment of the 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. This week’s septet have nothing in common other than the number of appearances they make on the list: each artist has three albums on the 1001. As they all have extensive back catalogues, this means that we should have the highlights here. Let’s find out.

The Doors, ‘The Doors’

Jim and the lads didn’t do too much for me on the first album I heard (‘Morrison Hotel‘), but in hindsight I should have started in the most logical place: their debut album. Opening with ‘Break On Through’, the album refrains from too much pontificating or arsing around early on, with dud Brecht country song ‘Alabama Song (Whisky Bar)’ the sole dud on the first half. It goes into spacier territory on the second half, with ‘Light My Fire’ going on for seven minutes and ‘The End’ going on for about a million. Doors fans are divided on what their best album is, but this certainly feels like it encapsulates everything I know about the band: freakbeat, blues, long Indian-style drones.

Echo and the Bunnymen, ‘Crocodiles’

Another debut album, and the Bunnymen’s first appearance on the list. I wasn’t impressed when I first heard E&TB, during their 90s comeback and with their Embrace-ish single ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’. Exposure to their 80s output warmed them to me, though, and the band have been used as a musical cue for swooning, fatalistic doom from 2000’s time travel mindscrew ‘Donnie Darko’ to 2017’s upsetting, problematic suicide/revenge drama ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’; Shelley as a band. Their debut is produced by mischievous management/label Bill Drummond and Dave Balfe, the latter of whom provides some dated-sounding keyboards. Mainly, though, it sounds as though it’s got one eye on the abyss and one eye looking over its shoulder, from the low-key intro of ‘Going Up’ to the dissonant, spooked voodoo outro of ‘Happy Death Men’. Recommended.

The Fall, ‘This Nation’s Saving Grace’

550 albums into this project, The Fall finally swagger in for their first appearance on the list. I have the band’s “greatest hits” (“hits” relative with The Fall), but knowing where to go from there has always been the challenge. Although this isn’t the earliest Fall album on the list, it’s the one that’s meant to be their most accessible, though, recorded during their most commercially successful era with guitarist/second singer Brix Smith widely considered to be the band’s pop element. While the first two songs don’t sound particularly poptastic, the corner turns with ‘Barmy’, so melodic I had to check it wasn’t a cover. ‘Spoilt Victorian Child’ and the electronic babble of ‘LA’ are also catchy, while ‘Gut of the Quantifier’ has a bass riff reminiscient of ‘Boogie Nights’. Mark E Smith’s drunken slurring and the band’s abrasive guitar clanging aren’t for everyone but this must be one of the easier entrance points into their long, exhausting career.

Pet Shop Boys, ‘Actually’

Another band arriving late to the party, whose back catalogue I haven’t explored beyond exemplary hits collection ‘Pop/Art’; I wanted to save something for the second half of the project. This features three wildly different singles: Dame Dusty collaboration ‘What Have I Done To Deserve This?’, dramatic, moody ‘It’s a Sin’ and the gentler ‘Rent’, as well as some filmic ballads (Ennio Morricone gets a writing credit!). Of course, its deadpan dissection of Thatcher-era breadline life could only have been made in the 80s, but they’re elegant enough to overcome some of the dated sound – the orchestral hit pad on ‘It’s A Sin’, the cheesy voice synth of ‘Everytime’ – and it mostly still sounds pretty great. Well worth a listen.

Public Enemy, ‘Apocalypse 91 – The Empire Strikes Black’

The only PE album I hadn’t heard on the list; ‘Nation of Millions‘ and ‘Fear of a Black Planet’ also inevitably appear (and rightly so!). Moving the Bomb Squad upstairs to executive producers and replacing them behind the desk with The Imperial Grand Ministers Of Funk, there’s not an awful lot of difference sonically, except perhaps it’s a bit less dense and there’s less atonal noise. The exciting first half, almost a continuous sequence with no resting, probably peaks with Flav’s Hendrix funk ‘I Don’t Wanna Be Called Yo Niga’ and Chuck’s dark ‘How To Kill A Radio Consultant’. The second half makes room for Sister Souljah and Harry Allen to make appearances, but also has three unconvincing tracks at the end: Flav’s ‘Letter to the New York Post’ claims the Post published a false story about him assaulting his girlfriend, yet Flav went on to plead guilty of doing so; ‘Get The F… Out Of Dodge’ coyly censors the swearing; ‘Bring Tha Noize’ is just the Anthrax/Chuck D cover of the ‘Nation of Millions’ track.

Paul Simon, ‘Paul Simon’

This is Simon’s second album (the first, if you’re wondering, was the equally imaginatively-named ‘The Paul Simon Songbook’) and features Simon fusing his vaguely Paul McCartney singing and songwriting to a variety of world music flavours, an interest which of course finally found its apothesis on ‘Graceland‘. Here, we open with a bit of lovers’ rock (album highlight ‘Mother and Child Reunion’), have an Andean band, Los Incas, show up on ‘Duncan’ and a couple of flavours of Gershwin-ish jazz-pop. There’s also a wacky bass harmonica on ‘Papa Hobo’ and brass punctuating ‘Paranoia Blues’, while Wes Anderson fans will recognise the acoustic shuffle of ‘Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard’. The range on the album is pretty broad, although I think this is the weakest entry this week. Very much a transition from Simon & Garfunkel to just Simon; he did better.

Frank Sinatra & Antonio Jobim, ‘Francis Albert Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim’

Ol’ Blue Eyes’ third and final appearance with us after ‘In The Wee Small Hours‘ and ‘Songs For Swinging Lovers‘, and Tom Jobim’s only appearance by name. The bossa nova supremo mostly sticks to guitar and piano and leaves the singing to Sinatra – and why wouldn’t you – although he makes the occasional vocal cameo, including an unpredictably late showing on ‘The Girl From Ipanema’. Jobim brings Sinatra some of his own songs to sing, Sinatra responds with some Great American Songbook tracks for Tom to convert to his style, and the results are surprisingly fruitful. Frankie’s strongest suit, if you ask me, is wistful all-night-bar melancholia, and we have that in abundance here on tracks like ‘Meditation’. This only lasts 28 minutes: I would have been happy if it was double the length.

A lot of very good stuff this week. Hooray!

Next week: since my baby left me, I can’t even talk newspeak, so I’m gonna have to write elsewhere, as next week will be blues week.

Status update: 555 listened to (55%), 446 remaining.


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.

August 14: Abba, Nick Cave, Frank Sinatra, Tom Waits, Zombies

Abba, ‘Arrival’.

In many ways this is a typical pure pop album: great singles (five of them) dotted among bad album tracks. The all-treble production has dated, though, and with its low-in-mix drum machine and invisible bass, ‘Dancing Queen’ must be the least rhythm-driven song to have the word ‘dancing’ in its title. It doesn’t even have a tambourine! It’s unusual for a band whose songs were generally composed by a guitarist and a keyboardist to steer away from solos, too, so when one does turn up on ‘Happy Hawaii’ it’s a surprise.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘Murder Ballads’.

One of many Cave albums on the list, this one has the big hit, ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’, with Kylie Minogue. Cave has a penchant for vaudevillian ham but his output is generally more enjoyable on the tracks where that’s curtailed. Overall, this imaginative combination of traditional songs and original songs is a fully realised world, concluding with a Dylan cover, ‘Death is Not the End’.

Frank Sinatra, ‘In The Wee Small Hours’.

I’ve always been suspicious of the reverence afforded to the Rat Pack: there’s something a bit self-satisfied about the whole thing, with the smug lyrics of, say, ‘That’s Amore’ being just one example. Trotting out teenagers on X-Factor to do ‘Mack the Knife’ in suits as if they’ve accidentally applied for ‘Stars in their Eyes’ is such a ridiculous concept that you might as well have them come out and sing madrigals. Anyway, this is the oldest album on the list and features Ol’ Blue Eyes being, well, blue. The melancholy air of the selections is informed by Sinatra’s divorce and if the pace never rises above somnolent then bear in mind the intended listening time of 2am. I doubt I’ll necessarily listen to this again but it certainly captured a mood.

Tom Waits, ‘Swordfishtrombones’.

The Beefheart-ish album title name and Waits’ eccentric turns on Sparklehorse and Eels albums made me think that this would be an obtuse listen but, although very unusual, this quirky not-quite-jazz was surprisingly easy on the ears, perhaps due to its sympathetic production and playing, allowing Waits to go wild over the top. A good album.

Zombies, ‘Odessey and Oracle’.

By the time this album came out the band itself was a zombie, long dead but still releasing the album anyway. I imagined this would be sort of Animals-ish R&B but instead it’s a day-glo 60s pop album evoking swinging Carnaby Street cliches. Pretty groovy.