July 15: The Byrds, The Electric Prunes, Astrud Gilberto, Grateful Dead, Iron Butterfly, The Kinks, The Mothers of Invention

For the next five installments of the 1001 Albums, we’ll be going by decade, starting from the 1960s (there are plenty of 50s albums on the list, but by this point I’ve listened to them all).

The Byrds, ‘Younger than Yesterday’

The final visit to the Byrds catalogue in the 1001 is also one of their best, with elements of both the psychedelic peculiarities they’d been rolling with on e.g. ‘Fifth Dimension’ (‘C.T.A. – 102’, which sounds like there’s a gremlin on the wing) and the country tinge that completely took over on ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’ (e.g. on ‘Time Between’). The most alarming song is the ‘Hamlet’-quoting raga drone ‘Mind Gardens’, but the best song is perhaps the most conventionally Byrds-ian, ‘My Back Pages’.

The Electric Prunes, ‘I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night’

The Prunes had a big hit with the title track, a ‘Nuggets’ staple written by Annette Tucker and Nancie Mantz and more famous than the band themselves. Looking to capitalise, the label stuck the Prunes in the studio but retained Tucker and Mantz as songwriters, much to the band’s chagrin. It’s probably unfair to dismiss the band as mere puppets for the songwriters, but the composers’ whimsical taste for cabaret, fairytale whimsy or brassy 40s Hollywood pop means this album is some way removed from contemporaries like 13th Floor Elevators. There are some genuine gems too: ‘Get Me to the World on Time’ is a psych-pop hit in the mode of the title track, while ‘Onie’ has a fragile ‘Femme Fatale’ quality.

Astrud Gilberto, ‘Beach Samba’

The last, I think, of the numerous Gilberto family bossa nova albums on the list. Astrud had sung for the first time on the Getz/Gilberto album,  and made a star of herself with ‘The Girl from Ipanema’. This album, the only one of hers on the list, is her fifth, released in 1967. It’s the sort of groovy lounge music that seems to have been common in hip apartments in the era, with occasional stabs (usually in the intros) of other sounds: nursery rhyme glockenspiel, marching band (‘Parade’) and even a duet with her young son. Slight – nothing here lasts more than 2:48 – but charming.

Grateful Dead, ‘American Beauty’

The impression of the Dead in my head was as Fillmore psych-jam experimenters, compounded by ‘Live/Dead’ doing exactly that. ‘American Beauty’, however, shows a different side to them. Seemingly inspired by hanging out with Crosby, Stills and Nash, the album features a sort of folky country rock, heavy on harmonies, and opening with ‘Box of Rain’, a lovely song. ‘Spanish Dance Troupe’-era Gorky’s certainly heard this record. (Must confess this is a bit of a cheat: only after I’d listened to it this week did I find it actually came out in 1970).

Iron Butterfly, ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’

Like the Electric Prunes album, the album and indeed the band are best known for the title track, a far-out jam which demonstrates how far you can push a song when all you’ve got is a riff. The rest of the album is unnotable: 60s rock with a particularly hymnal quality in the organ and monk vocals on some of the tracks. However, the album is 50% ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’, and that’s one of the crucial songs of the era.

The Kinks, ‘Something Else by the Kinks’

By this point Ray Davies was installed as producer as well as singer/songwriter. The production is hardly as ornate as, say, The Beatles: there’s something almost lo-fi about it. The songwriting is on point though, starting with a (possible) gay love song in ‘David Watts’, ending with ‘Waterloo Sunset’ and featuring harpsichords, piratical rags, Dave getting a single and more. One of their most interesting.

The Mothers of Invention, ‘We’re Only In It for the Money’

One of only two Mothers albums on the list (‘Freak Out!‘ is the other), this album, like Zappa’s later ‘Joe’s Garage’, is so driven by satire, peculiar experiments and viciousness that it’s hard to take any of it at face value. This complicates the attempt to critically appraise it, or even to get it, especially 50 years divorced from its context. Zappa and co seem to be swiping at 50s and 60s pop, left and right wing politics, and especially at ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ (the closing track seems to be a spoof of the chaotic crescendos in ‘A Day in the Life’, although it’s completely atonal). At the time, it must have seemed as edgy as, I dunno, Eminem, but the disregard for anything conventional means it’s hard to know whether repeat listens would bring it into focus or dull its edge. I’m glad I heard it, either way.

Next week: We are, of course, looking at seven from the 70s.

Status update: 917 listened to (92%), 84 remaining.

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March 11: The Mothers of Invention, Randy Newman, Orbital, Elliott Smith, Supergrass, The The, Wilco

As we head towards the last 20% of the project, there are still a few artists who have a couple of albums on the list who we haven’t met yet. This week, the albums selected are connected only by how often the artist appears on the list. Let’s have a look at what’s on offer.

The Mothers of Invention, ‘Freak Out!’ (link)

One of the first rock double albums (along with ‘Blonde on Blonde’), ‘Freak Out!’ is also acknowledged by rock critics as being one of the first conscious attempts at making an album as a piece of art rather than a collection of songs. It’s a combination of familiar-ish bluesy rock sounds, psychedelic wig-outs, doo-wop, sound collages, jazz smatterings and juvenile racket. It can often sound like 60s rock as interpreted by the characters in ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’. Usually interesting but often a test of the patience, the Mothers’ supposed magnum opus is elsewhere on the list.

Randy Newman, ‘Sail Away’ (link)

You probably know Newman for ‘You’ve Got A Friend In Me’, his contribution to the ‘Toy Story’ soundtrack, or his appearance in ‘Family Guy’ where a safe haven in the apocalypse is ruined by Newman singing about everything he sees. If you know either of those appearances, you’ve basically got the idea of this: it’s cinematic vaudeville with Newman’s peculiar rasp over the top of it. He kind of sounds like a male Carole Kane or something, despite being from LA, and his voice certainly doesn’t suit ‘You Can Leave Your Hat On’ (one of his own compositions, who knew?). Only 30 minutes long, felt longer.

Orbital, ‘Orbital’ (‘Orbital 2’/’The Brown Album’) (link)

I knew Orbital for some of their singles in the late 90s and early 00s – ‘Chime’, ‘Nu Style’, ‘Satan’ – but I’d never heard a full album of theirs. They’re not into conventional melodies and song structures as much as layering and textures, gradually adding extra samples, Roland 303, 808 and 909 lines and synth riffs as the songs go on. My favourite song on this is ‘Halcyon + On + On’, a late-album bit of downtempo electronica with a vocal sample driving it (albeit backward-masked), which feels like the welcome advent of dawn. A bit disappointing: accomplished but felt like background music.

Elliott Smith, ‘Either/Or’ (link)

As with Nick Drake, my only previous exposure to Smith was on the soundtrack of ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’, where a deeply upsetting scene features ‘Needle in the Hay’ (taken from Smith’s self-titled debut). There’s nothing quite as dark on this album – ‘Either/Or’ is seen as pretty upbeat by his standards – but there’s still something that puts me in mind of drinking alone at 1am in Elliott’s soft, muted tones and his low-register guitar. Even on the cover, his face is obscured by shadow, he’s not quite in focus.

Supergrass, ‘I Should Coco’ (link)

Perhaps surprisingly, the Britpop moppets have two albums on the list. They came out when I was 13 or 14, probably the perfect time to hear them. While I didn’t pick up the albums at the time, ‘Alright’ still gives me a Proustian rush back to discovering rock music, going to V96, Euro ’96 and so on, even if the song’s intro is such an omnipresent shorthand for Britpop that actually you never need to listen to it again. Front-loaded with all the hits – ‘Mansize Rooster’, ‘Caught By The Fuzz’, ‘Lenny’ – the Undertones-like youthful ebullience carries them through everything even if they want to sound like the Monkees on one track and the Cardiacs on the next. The last two tracks are nowt special –  their titles ‘Sofa (Of My Lethargy)’ and ‘Time To Go’ succintly describe them – but the album generally overdelivered against expectations.

The The, ‘Soul Mining’ (link)

The The were around in the 80s and only troubled the lower reaches of the Top 20 a few times: consequently I don’t think I’d ever heard a single song of theirs before. Officially the band’s debut (although an earlier album by frontman Matt Johnson has since been retconned as a The The album), ‘Soul Mining’ starts off with a song whose pounding drums sound like Nine Inch Nails, six years in advance. It’s not necessarily representative of the whole, though: the rest is post-punk, albeit mostly played on synths and a range of world music influences and instruments. For example, single ‘This is the Day’ leads with accordion and fiddle (the best track here, ‘This is the Day’ was later covered as a single by Manic Street Preachers.) This is almost certainly the only appearance on the list for Jim Thirwell, aka Foetus, who plays “sticks” on ‘Giant’, and surely the only time that Foetus and Jools Holland appear on the same record.

Wilco, ‘Being There’ (link)

Technically Wilco have three albums on the list, but I’m using the slippery excuse that the third is a collaboration with Billy Bragg and therefore technically a different artist. Whether they have two or three albums on the list, though, it’s about time we cover them. This is an alt-country double album (must be the season for them after last week’s ‘Southern Rock Opera‘) whose first disc sounds great. It’s a combination of Neil Young/Rolling Stones-tinged countrified indie, with occasional moves into power-pop and clavichords. Maybe I’d worn myself out at that point, though, or been spoiled, as the second disc feels a bit superfluous: too much of a good thing, maybe, as the album is light on duds. Odds are I wouldn’t have been interested in this at all when it came out in 1996, but 22 years on, I can appreciate the songwriting, direct delivery and performances. Worth a listen, I’d say.

Next week: Another list of people united only by the list itself: we’re going for the first alphabetically on the list!

Status update: 791 listened to (79%), 210 remaining.

September 24: Janet Jackson, The Jam, Billy Joel, Quicksilver Messenger Service, XTC, Frank Zappa, ZZ Top

Welcome back to 1001 Albums You Must Hear, where this week’s loose collection are gathered together because they’ve chosen to start their name with one of the four least common letters for artists’ names: J, Q, X and Z. Of course, you can probably think of lots of great artists whose names start with any of those four, but here’s some of the ones whose albums I hadn’t already heard. Six of the seven are making their blog debut; let’s climb onboard.

Janet Jackson, ‘Rhythm Nation 1814’ (link)

I doubt I’d be alone in saying that while I’m familiar with much of Michael’s output, I hadn’t explored his sister’s work beyond the occasional single. Released in 1989, this has a similar drive to ‘What’s Going On’: covering socio-economic issues using a contemporary musical language. While the Gaye classic joins the songs together as essentially one continuous piece of music, Janet links between the tracks with interludes, while using Prince’s Linn-and-Fairlight template as the dominant arrangement. How much you get on with this will depend to what extent you like that late-80s/early-90s R&B pop sound; it sounds pretty good to me, but my favourite track is ‘Black Cat’, an unexpected shift into glam-metal written (and mostly produced) by Jackson on her own.

The Jam, ‘All Mod Cons’ (link)

The Modfathers make their debut on the list with their third album, which was something of a commercial breakthrough for them. Their sound is kind of an aggressively punkish take on the British rock bands of the previous decade: The Who, The Kinks (there’s a cover of the latter on here). That’s pretty much what I expected going in, but what I wasn’t expecting is how enjoyable I found it. It’s perfectly sequenced, allowing each song to breathe without being overwhelmed by the songs around it. Highlights include the commuter warfare of ‘Mr Clean’, the ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ solos on ‘In The Crowd’ and the acerbic closers ‘A Bomb In Wardour Street’ and ‘Down in the Tube Station at Midnight’. Worth a listen. We’ll come to a later Jam album down the line.

Billy Joel, ‘The Stranger’ (link)

Joel’s only appearance on the list feels like what his critics always accuse him of: piano-based soft-rock. It’s best-known track is ‘Just The Way You Are’, which sounds like Stevie Wonder: and is that 10cc’s ‘synthesizer made of voices’ trick on the backing track? While it’s a palatable listen, nothing on the album jumps out of the speakers and into my heart (hang on, is this the right Billy?).

Quicksilver Messenger Service, ‘Happy Trails’ (link)

You might remember the Allman Brothers’ adventures in long guitar explorations ‘At Filmore East’, and here’s an earlier band doing guitar improv largely at the same location (and at San Francisco’s twin venue, Filmore West). The whole of the first half is given over to a lengthy digression on a Bo Diddley track, ‘Who Do You Love’; amusingly, the song is broken up into sections with titles that riff on the song name (‘When You Love’, ‘How You Love’ etc). The best bit is when the audience participate on handclaps and shouts, which sounds like a good time. The choice cut from the album, though, is on the B-side: ‘Calvary”s 13 minutes of spaced-out spaghetti Western, as if depicting a dogie run on the prairie undertaken during an acid trip.

XTC, ‘Apple Venus Volume One’ (not on Spotify)

Our final visit to Andy’n’Colin sees them curiously out of time: in 1999, when big beats were in and Britpop was becoming passe, they released an album with virtually no drums and couched in McCartney/Ray Davies songwriting. Feeling like quite a long album despite its 50-minute running length, ‘Apple Venus’ builds around keyboards, pizzicato strings, horns and acoustic guitar in unconventional arrangements and structures. By this point XTC had spent over 15 years as a studio-only band, and it feels like this is evident in the album’s focus on craft and structure rather than hooks or urgency.

Frank Zappa, ‘Hot Rats’ (link)

The good thing about a project like this is it gives you in-roads into genres that you don’t know anything about: for example it’s acted as a gateway for me into Afrobeat, jazz and country, all of which I knew barely anything about. It also gives pointers on where to begin with artists like Zappa: I’ve tried before with him but his 109-album back catalogue, with no hits, doesn’t have any obvious starting places, and it’s hard to know which, if any, are representative of the whole (the classical albums and Synclavier stuff probably aren’t, but is the novelty hit with Moon Unit?). So hoorah, there’s one on the 1001. ‘Hot Rats’ is mostly an instrumental psych-rock album, with a cool rhythm section holding things together under the various guitar, horn, keyboard and violin (!) melodic and solo lines. There are some exceptions: ‘The Gumbo Variations’ takes a left turn into abrasive Ornette Coleman skronk, and ‘Willie the Pimp’ features Captain Beefheart in a typically idiosyncratic appearance. Well worth a listen.

ZZ Top, ‘Eliminator’ (link)

The band alphabetically last on the list (obviously?), ZZ Top have two entries in the 1001. This is the later of the two, but is also the one with all the hits (‘Give Me All Your Loving’, ‘Sharp Dressed Man’ and so on). It’s the sort of music I’d hear on the radio all the time in my early years: that kind of bluesy boogie you’d expect to hear if you hitch-hiked with a long-distance truck. There’s something artificial about it though: suspicious of the metronomic drumming, I found a post by the album’s engineer which suggests that all the drums were programmed and even half the bass was done off a Moog. I mean, it made them millions of dollars so I’m sure they’re not too concerned, but it hardly feels like an authentic capturing of the band.

Next week: Time to go back to genre as we do an all-jazz week for the final time.

Status report: 637 listened to (63.6%), 364 remain. A year left, more or less!