June 24: Kate Bush, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Kraftwerk, Madonna, Van Morrison, Roxy Music

This week and next week, we’re taking a look at seven of the artists who have three albums on the list. All of these groups have been very influential so let’s get them under the microscope and see how their albums hold up to scrutiny.

Kate Bush, ‘The Sensual World’

Our last visit to Bush’s oeuvre also marks the slowdown of her output, as there were four years before the next album came out and 12 years after that. As much as you can have ‘typical’ Kate Bush, this is it: eclectic strands of world music (uilleann pipes, Dave Gilmour, a Bulgarian choir, her brother playing various unusual instruments) held together with the Fairlight and her otherworldly voice. As influential as Bush is, the synths have aged a bit in the thirty years since the album came out, and ‘This Woman’s Work’, the closer, is probably the strongest piece here.

The Doors, ‘LA Woman’ 

The final album to feature Jim Morrison, who died three months after its release. The early tracks are directly blues-y: pretty uninspiring fare, not helped by Morrison’s over-the-top baritone. It would be unfair, though, to write this off as purely lightweight blues, as there are also some songs that showcase the Doors at their best. I know I’m referring to the band by those who were influenced by them here but the title track has a similar drive and energy to Joy Division, while ‘Hyacinth House’ leaves me with a strong suspicion that Nick Cave has heard this record.

Jimi Hendrix Experience, ‘Electric Ladyland’

The final JHE album, by which time Noel Redding had formed his own band and was becoming less and less available, meaning the bass here is often covered by session players or by Hendrix himself. This double album has two tracks that top 10 minutes, including the 15-minute Fillmore-style blues jam ‘Voodoo Child’, which is weirdly followed by a Noel Redding-sung Carnaby Street number called ‘Little Miss Strange’. Largely blues filtered through a weird variety of effects pedals and psychedelic effects, this album ends with ‘All Along The Watchtower’ and ‘Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)’, two of the best songs of the 60s. Worth hearing but judicious skipping needed.

Kraftwerk, ‘Trans-Europe Express’

Our final visit to Kraftwerk’s output is also the most foreboding and ominous of the three albums, mainly due to ‘Trans-Europe Express’/’Metal on Metal’/’Abzug’/’Franz Schubert’, the suite that occupies the second half.  There’s something about the minor-key minimalism that feels cold in a way that their other two albums on the list don’t; deliberate, no doubt, but unattractive. The most pleasant thing here is the arpeggiating drones of ‘Europe Endless’, the ten-minute opener.

Madonna, ‘Like a Prayer’

We’ve already covered ‘Ray of Light‘ and ‘Music‘, so time to go back to the earliest Madonna album on the list. Of course, it’s possible that my attraction to this record is steeped in nostalgia – the singles would have come out when I was 8 or 9, the first time I was aware of music – but I don’t think it’s pure Proustian rush that makes it enjoyable for me. It’s an incredibly dexterous album, capable of trying out gospel, Prince jams, Sgt Pepper psychedelia and piano ballads about her father and getting them all right. Even as late as track 7-9, we get a string of hits (‘Cherish’, ‘Dear Jessie’, ‘Oh Father’), while the closer, ‘Act of Contrition’, mangles the title track in with metal guitars and a Madonna monologue that sounds like Public Enemy or something. Great record.

Van Morrison, ‘Moondance’

I wasn’t convinced by the meandering doodlings of ‘Astral Weeks’, and on the follow-up, Van structured his songs and arrangements in a more conventional manner. Maybe that means that this album is more ordinary but I preferred it: it’s a fine blue-eyed soul album with hints of ethereal mysteriousness. The best track, for me, is ‘Into The Mystic’, but it’s also one of the albums on the list (along with Drake’s ‘Bryter Layter’) where I recognised a song off ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’: that film concludes with the clavinet trills of ‘Everyone’.

Roxy Music, ‘Country Life’

The fourth Roxy Music album is the only one on the list without Brian Eno, who departed after their second album. It feels like the most accomplished from a singing and songwriting perspective, the production bathes everything in dramatic reverb, while the violin, sax, harmonica and keyboards add colour that differentiate them from their peers. The only problem is that gaudy, Playboy offshoot of a cover.

Next week: another set of bands with three albums each, as we get to the point where there’s less than 100 albums remaining!

Status update: 896 listened to (89%), 105 remain.




February 18: Leonard Cohen, Derek and the Dominos, G Love and Special Sauce, Jimi Hendrix, Lenny Kravitz, The Magnetic Fields, The Modern Lovers

It was Valentine’s Day on Wednesday so in celebration I’ve brought you flowers, chocolates, and seven of the albums on the list with ‘love’ in the name. They may not actually be romantic albums but hey, at least it’s thematically consistent. Let’s roll.

Leonard Cohen, ‘Songs of Love and Hate’ (link)

It doesn’t feature any of Cohen’s most famous tracks, but this album feels closest to how I imagined him to sound when I started this project: singing in barely one note, minimal accompaniment, generally downbeat. There’s a mere eight tracks this time, the majority of which sprawl over six minutes, although more to get all the lyrics done: musically, ‘This Year’s Man’ barely changes at all. Joan of Arc features on two different songs: odd that the list would have two albums where that’s the case (OMD’s ‘Architecture and Morality’ is the other). This is our final of four visits to Len’s oeuvre; alas, the project has not converted me.

Derek and the Dominos, ‘Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs’ (link)

The legacy of this album is driven, of course, by the title track, whose riff immediately puts you in mind of three-disc “The Best Driving Anthems in the World…Ever!” adverts around Father’s Day (see also ‘Smoke on the Water’, ‘Born to be Wild’, etc). As everyone’s no doubt aware, ‘Layla’ also has a wild backstory: it’s a love song to George Harrison’s wife, who Clapton fell in love with while she was married to Harrison. Clapton made an advance that was rebuffed, and sank into heroin addiction. Then Patti ended up leaving Harrison (because Harrison was having an affair with Ringo Starr’s wife!) and marrying Clapton, but that didn’t last either. Romance, eh? It sucks. ‘Layla’ shows up late on this double album, which largely sounds like upbeat blues rock made out of the joy of playing together. Duane Allman shows up on virtually every track playing bottleneck slide guitar, and there’s a version of ‘Little Wing’ which is perhaps the second best song on the record. Guess what: it’s too long. And yes it is “dominos” rather than “dominoes”.

G Love and Special Sauce, ‘G Love and Special Sauce’ (link)

G Love is the name of the singer, guitarist and harmonica player, and Special Sauce are presumably the rhythm section. This is a ramshackle and not especially to my taste album from the late 90s in a peculiar position somewhere between Roots and The White Stripes: it’s semi-acoustic, sloppily-played blues which has a vague flavour of alternative rap. Initially it sounds pretty cool but it doesn’t last all the way through the 57-minute running time: I was tired of it before it finished.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience, ‘Axis: Bold as Love’ (link)

The bassist gets a song (‘She’s So Fine’, sounding like The Who covering ‘Tomorrow Never Knows) and the drummer’s voice is the first one you hear on the album, but this is still Hendrix’s world really, dominating the songwriting and the arrangements even while putting more emphasis on songwriting and less on guitar chicanery. The best song is ‘Little Wing’ (a rare week where the same song appears on two different albums), the best guitar bit is the backwards solo on ‘Castles in the Sand’, and the UFO radio interview turned quadrophonic panning experiment of ‘EXP’ is the most sonically exciting thing here. ‘Are You Experienced?’ feels like the one with all the memorable hooks and tunes on, though.

Lenny Kravitz, ‘Let Love Rule’ (link)

Something of a surprise entrant on the list, the ‘Hunger Games’ star and old flame of Nicole Kidman is best remembered for ‘Are You Gonna Go My Way?’ and ‘Fly Away’, neither of which appear on this, his debut album. Picking up most of the instrumental tracks as well as the vocals, Len goes for a sound part Hendrix, part Funkadelic, part Prince: which is fine, but it’s difficult to replicate the jam band energy of the former two when it’s just you jamming with yourself, and he certainly doesn’t have the eccentric charms of the latter. Many of the songs here are just one four-chord riff stretched over five or even six minutes. Not recommended.

The Magnetic Fields, ’69 Love Songs’ (link)

I’d been putting it off because of how long it is, but this is finally the week I do this one: the only triple album on the list and, I think, the second longest album (beaten only by the quintuple-disc Ella Fitzgerald one and even then only by 20 minutes). Originally a synth-pop band, the Fields cover a huge range of styles here: acoustic folk, 30s musical ballads, experimental sound collages, anemic punk, accordion jazz played by Lemony Snicket… It starts to feel like a series of pastiches, but who can begrudge such an exhaustive commitment to making every song sound different to the one that precedes it, or the talent required to carry it off? Highlights include the banjo jangle of ‘All My Little Words’, the 60s girl group song ‘When My Boy Walks Down The Street’ (which sounds like Hunx and his Punx) and the murder ballad ‘Yeah! Oh Yeah!’. Really good.

The Modern Lovers, ‘The Modern Lovers’ (link)

This is an album recorded in 1972 (it’s referenced on ‘Here Come The Warm Jets’: “I heard the lovers/the Modern Lovers/they sounded very good/they sounded as they should”), but only released in 1976, confusingly a mere three weeks after ‘Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers’, a different album by the same singer/songwriter but with a different backing band. Richman’s solo career is the sort that’s critically acclaimed but in a way which doesn’t feature him making any more appearances on the list, but the Lovers are where it’s at. They’re from Massachusetts but sound as New York as Television, primarily through distilling the sound of the Velvet Underground and giving it a polish that makes it glisten without completely obscuring the scuzzy energy or abstract artsiness. Probably that’s due to their choice of producer; having written ‘Roadrunner’ – almost a cover version of the VU’s ‘Sister Ray’ – and a near-one-note song called ‘Pablo Picasso’, they compounded the joke by roping in John Cale to produce. I loved this album: the songs are great and the production is great. Well worth a listen.

Next week: it’s editor’s choice, so prepare for some random assortment of weirdness.

Status update: 770 listened to (77%), 231 remain.

March 5: Dr Dre, Jimi Hendrix Experience, New York Dolls, Iggy Pop, The Smiths, The Who, Stevie Wonder

Welcome back to 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. This week, we’re looking at some more of the canonical classics which almost always appear in ‘Greatest Albums of All Time’ lists in magazines like NME, Q and Uncut. This is probably the last time I’ll be able to collect a list of seven pantheon classics, as I’ve listened to all of the albums that typically appear in this sort of muso mag’s lists.

Dr Dre, ‘The Chronic’

Dre’s debut album is regularly heralded as one of the all-time great rap albums, alongside ‘Nation of Millions’, ‘Straight Outta Compton’ and ‘Illmatic’. The production mixes aggressive Public Enemy style beats (‘Nigga Wit A Gun’) and West Coast G-funk (‘Nuttin’ But A G Thang’), together with live flute in the album’s second act. It is, of course, too long at over an hour long – pruning the skits would have helped. There is, however, plenty of dynamic variety and as with ‘Doggystyle’ (recorded with most of the same cast), everyone seems more focused than on belated follow-up ‘2001’. It’s an oversight that Compton has not declared an official Fuck Wit Dre Day: free ‘gnac and Cristal for everyone, bowls of deeez nuuuutz, jeans on and teams strong. Perhaps they forgot about Dre.

Jimi Hendrix Experience, ‘Are You Experienced’

I always thought that Jimi’s focus on guitar virtuosity rather than lyrics and vocals rendered him too cool for me. A lot of my favourite artists are prepared to let their guard down and fall on their face in the pursuit of something emotionally raw or experimental, and I couldn’t imagine Hendrix doing that. Still, this album would’ve been a home run if just for the famous songs – ‘Purple Haze’, ‘Hey Joe’, ‘Foxy Lady’ and ‘The Wind Cries Mary’ all feature – but ‘Third Stone From The Sun’, the exotic time signatures of ‘Manic Depression’ and the ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’-style backwards guitar and drums of the title track consolidate the triumph.

New York Dolls, ‘New York Dolls’

This is kind of the outsider of the pack but often hangs around the low ends of these lists, and Johnny Thunders especially is something of a legendary name. It’s seen as a pivotal proto-punk and glam-rock album. Having said that, it’s dreadful: a lot of the issue is with the vocals of David Johansen, where he repeatedly makes the wrong choices in terms of delivery, but the songwriting, production and performance are all pretty gash too. Not an awful lot to recommend this one, which is odd, because you’d think I’d be all over a glammy garage-punk band who wore make-up.

Iggy Pop, ‘Lust For Life’

“Jesus, this is Iggy.” Recorded during fag-breaks on the Berlin trilogy, this album features most of Bowie’s regular band (Bowie, Carlos Alomar, Ricky Gardiner) along with future Tin Machine rhythm section Hunt & Tony Sales. I wasn’t wild about ‘The Idiot’, the other Iggy album from this era, a lot of the songs resurfaced during Bowie’s execrable 1980s (‘Tonight’ for example), and I’ve heard ‘Lust For Life’ and ‘The Passenger’ far too often for one lifetime, so imagine my surprise that this was pretty good. Kind of like Bowie’s late 70s band trying to sound like the Spiders from Mars, and full of personality, this justifies Pop’s legacy.

The Smiths, ‘The Queen is Dead’

After listening to two bloody awful Morrissey albums, it’s nice to hear him singing on some good music. This one has some big hits (‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’, ‘There is a Light That Never Goes Out’) and some archly witty lyrics (the title track, ‘Cemetry Gates’). While it’s very much a product of its time – the synths especially, which sound like they’re on loan from The Cure – it’s still deftly wry and enjoyable even 30 years on.

The Who, ‘Who’s Next’

Salvaged from the doomed ‘Lifehouse’ project, where Pete Townsend’s ambitions were basically impossible to execute, ‘Who’s Next’ is bookended by two incredible synth-based compositions in ‘Baba O’Riley’ (although isn’t it distracting that the ARP keeps changing tempo?) and the band’s masterpiece, ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’. ‘Behind Blue Eyes’ is the best-known of the rest, but it’s mostly just pretty good: ‘The Song is Over’ is the highlight. A few more listens might make it more cohesive but it coalesces less coherently than ‘The Who Sell Out’ despite its conceptual consistency.

Stevie Wonder, ‘Songs in the Key of Life’

At a whopping 104 minutes, this is up there with ‘Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness’ and ’69 Love Songs’ as the longest album on the list. It takes a while to get going – the solo vocal-and-synth tracks aren’t up to much – but picks up with full band jams ‘Sir Duke’ and ‘Wild Wild West’, sorry I mean ‘I Wish’. The album retains the social awareness of ‘Innervisions’, celebrates the achievements of multiple races on ‘Black Man’ and celebrates his daughter’s birth on ‘Isn’t She Lovely’. It felt like I was listening to this all night, but there’s plenty of good stuff here. Of course it scooped plenty of awards, including a Grammy award which he collected by satellite. The ropey video link gave Andy Williams an opportunity to jam his foot into his mouth by asking “Stevie, can you see us?”

Next week: I’ll be looking at some of the biggest-selling albums ever (according to the RIAA). Oddly, “critically-acclaimed” and “biggest-selling” are not synonymous.

Progress update: 436 albums heard (44%), 565 remain.