September 10: Dictators, Kings of Leon, Elvis Presley, Prince, Queen Latifah, Queens of the Stone Age, Stereolab

To celebrate Prince George’s first day at school, perhaps, this week looks at some of the ruling classes: any artist with a suitably regal name or album title. I wish I’d come up with this idea when we still had BB King, Carole King, King Crimson, and Queen still to review, but there’s still seven albums ready for your perusal this week. Let’s dive in.

Dictators, ‘Go Girl Crazy!’ (link)

I had absolutely no idea what this album was going in, but I forgot the golden rule: on the 1001 and you’ve never heard of it? It’s punk. This lot were a mid-70s act doing proto-punk: it’s a tongue-in-cheek take on rock’n’roll where everyone’s acting as dumb as possible. They’re playing fast and loud and kind of sloppily, as if everything could have done with a few more takes, including a deliberately daft cover of ‘I Got You Babe’ given away as early as track 2. If the Tubes aren’t on the 1001, and they aren’t, there’s no real reason for this to be.

Kings of Leon, ‘Youth and Young Manhood’ (link)

Now that Kings of Leon are a huge stadium act, it’s hard to remember that back in the day they sounded like this, kind of like The Strokes if they were into Creedence Clearwater Revival, with clean production where they should sound like they’ve been dragged out of a swamp. The Marmite on top of this fairly bland bread is Caleb, who barely sings an intelligible line at any point. Imagery evoked: A bunch of massively hungover drifters go on a hike across the desert with hilarious results.

Elvis Presley, ‘Elvis is Back!’ (link)

Well, he is the King after all. Presley had been serving in the army for the previous two years, and while he had still managed to record some singles in that time, this was sort of a comeback record for him. As with ‘Elvis Presley‘, it feels kind of like a mixed bag despite the quick recording and consistent backing band: there’s rock’n’roll, doo-wop, country and a cover of ‘Fever’ among other tracks. I guess it was a different age: get the album recorded and released quickly so that people didn’t forget about you. The last two tracks are probably the strongest on an album that’s a decent collection of songs which don’t quite cohese as an album. This is our last look at Elvis; I reviewed the chronologically latest of his albums on the list here.

Prince, ‘Purple Rain’ (link)

I’d struggled to get on with ‘1999’ and ‘Sign O’ The Times’ with all its screechy peacocking and minimalist funk, but the Purple One seems more focused on this album, trimmed down to 42 minutes and remembering to invite The Revolution to the studio for once. It feels like a concise summary of his entire schtick: the synth-funk (‘Computer Blue’), the melodramatic ballads (‘The Beautiful Ones’), the guitar solos (‘Purple Rain’), the filthy sex (‘Darlin’ Nikki’), the hits (‘When Doves Cry’). Yeah this is real good. Dig if you will.

Queen Latifah, ‘All Hail The Queen’ (not on Spotify)

The future Academy Award nominee wasn’t the first female rapper or even the biggest-selling, but is perhaps the best known of her generation. While the early stages of the album sound like just another Daisy Age album (De La Soul show up on ‘Mama Gave Birth To The Soul Children’, mucking about with sped-up voices), Latifah quickly deviates, dropping 808-heavy house rhythms on ‘Come Into My House’ and cutting down amateurs at rap battles over a King Tubby dub plate on ‘The Pros’. The Queen’s lyrical delivery feels sharp too: she somehow manages to sound like Chuck D and Flavor Flav at the same time. She’s not made a rap album since 2003 – she switched over to singing at that point, and then acting became her thing – but this is a good example of what brought her to the game.

Queens of the Stone Age, ‘Queens of the Stone Age’ (link)

The first album from the future megastars, who were at this time just Josh Homme and drummer Alfredo Hernandez; weird to see this here and not ‘Rated R’ or ‘Songs for the Deaf’. While those albums built on the Queens template and diversified, here there probably aren’t enough cooks around the pot, as the monotony of the repetitive ‘robot rock’ quickly becomes apparent. The samey formula and monochromatic arrangements mean the novelty wears off early; I was ready for this to be done by the tenth track, although at least the final two tracks are good. Be careful: the 2011 re-issue adds superfluous pissabouts mid-album.

Stereolab, ‘Emperor Tomato Ketchup’ (link)

Stereolab were one of the very first bands I saw as they opened up V96 when I was 14, although I was nonplussed by their sound. Listening now, it’s easy to see why: I’d never heard of them and their indirect fusion of Serge Gainsbourg and Kraftwerk isn’t the most compelling combination for a teenager at a summer festival. It’s easier to enjoy it 21 years later: you can see how their Gallic loungey qualities paved the way for not just the likes of Air but the likes of All Seeing I or Zero 7 too, while producer John McEntire (of Tortoise) injects energy on tracks like ‘The Noise of Carpet’. I think it’s probably too long – it’s 57 minutes – but it’s fine.

Next week: a less daft reason for a collection as we listen to that most traditional of genres, folk!

Status update: 623 listened to (62%), 378 remain.

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October 23: Beck, Kings of Leon, MIA, The Streets, Rufus Wainwright, The White Stripes, The Zutons

This week, I’ll be looking at the newest albums on the 2006 list: not exactly “up to date” but as close as we’ll come in this project. Annoyingly, more than one of these albums had disappeared from the list in later editions. Were the compilers right to remove them? Let’s find out!

Beck – Guero

I’d already listened to one of Beck’s recks for this project, ‘Odelay’, and found it easy to admire but hard to love due to the measured ironic posturing. This album brings back the same producers, the Dust Brothers, and the same kitchen-sink approach, but feels easier to connect to than ‘Odelay’. Perhaps this is because it feels less mannered and self-conscious, perhaps because the influences are easier for me to engage with. Distorted bass lines inform ‘E Pro’ and ‘Rental Car’, while the gruff baritone Hansen adopts onĀ  ‘Emergency Exit’ reminds me of fellow junk-shop eclectist Eels. There is yet another Beck on the list, ‘Sea Change’: I’m slightly keener now to check it out than I was. This one is good.

Kings of Leon – Aha Shake Heartbreak

Before their unexpected rise to stadium rock band, the Followills had a sort-of Southern blues take on the Strokes template which they were still using on this, their second album. The album’s lead single was its best track, ‘The Bucket’, a killer single which remains the band’s best song. So this isn’t the disaster I thought, right, I hear you ask. Well, no, and yet it’s a difficult album to love, with Caleb’s slurry mumble rendering most of the lyrics impenetrable. The second half of the album adds some more imaginative flourishes onto their standard sound, but it’s an inessential listen. This isn’t even the only KoL album on the list!!

M.I.A. – Arular

M.I.A.’s minimalist template goes beyond drum’n’bass and expunges the bass as well, leaving only the vocals and the drums as the dominant instruments (with low-in-mix synths here and there). Largely written on a Roland 505 previously owned by Elastica’s Justine Frischmann, the obvious debts to Missy and Peaches are largely written off by an artist furrowing her own path. Okay, if largely a triumph of sass over substance, ‘Arular’ pre-dates her best-known songs (‘Paper Planes’, say) and I would be surprised if there weren’t better albums later in her career.

The Streets – A Grand Don’t Come For Free

This was in the If I Must pile thanks to the bloody awful singles (‘Dry Your Eyes’ was a slog) and it’s mildly surprising to see this on the list instead of ‘Original Pirate Material’. Despite my reticence to listen to it, though, the album has a sort of scrappy DIY feel to it which should have come as an inspiration to young rappers in the same way as, say, Bratmobile inspired punk grrls. Here we have a rapper delivering rhymes in a stilted, hesitant fashion over beats he recorded at home, calling it ‘Fit But You Know It’ and having top 5 hits. As much as I hate to use these words there’s something that feels authentic and genuine about the experiences Skinner describes, couched in the language he’s comfortable with, which is charming despite some seriously ropey material (‘It Was Supposed To Be So Easy’ for example) and despite the fact that Skinner’s singing on the choruses rivals D-12’s ‘My Band’ for Worst Vocal Delivery On A Rap Song.

Rufus Wainwright – Want Two

Given the wealth of uninspiring choices this week I perhaps reacted more favourably to Rufus than I might have done normally, even if all he’s doing here is a selection of camp theatrical pop songs performed with his celeb mates (mother Kate McGarrigle, sister Martha, Anhoni Hegarty, Levon Helm from The Band etc). Patrick Wolf (who is not on the list) did a similar thing in a more aggressive style with thunderous beats, of course, and ‘Want Two’ doesn’t quite maintain interest all the way through. There is, though, a lot to like about Wainwright’s songs and arrangements, which take in solo piano, Eastern-sounding violin, Van Dyke Parks orchestrations and more.

The White Stripes – Get Behind Me Satan

I’d been a White Stripes fan at the same time as everyone else had, but I got off at this stop due to lacklustre singles ‘Blue Orchid’ and ‘The Denial Twist’ (and because I was bored of Jack White’s fetishisation of ancient equipment) so never heard this album. This album appeared on 2006’s list but was hastily removed in the 2007 edition, indicating that posterity hadn’t been kind to it: and so it proves. The previous albums had been most effective when White was either going in hard with riotous rock-outs or going in soft with sweet Paul McCartney ballads; this album mostly expunges both. The album mostly focuses on piano or marimba, and poor Meg is often sidelined or absent. Unlike the previous two albums in their career, you don’t need to own this.

The Zutons – Who Killed The Zutons?

Back when I was at university I was seeing a girl who went to university in Liverpool and we’d see the Zutons semi-often at tiny venues like Le Bateau. This was in 2002, where they sounded very like The Coral and their sound diversified only on the tracks Abi Harding featured on saxophone. By 2004, they’d become monsters with moronic geezalongs like ‘Don’t Ever Think (Too Much)’ and ‘You Will, You Won’t’ scaring me off pursuing their career any further. The concentrated horror of ‘You Will, You Won’t’ is, thankfully, an anomaly that isn’t sustained throughtout the album, and they’d largely purged their Coral-alike elements by this point, yet there’s little here that hadn’t been done before; in some cases, 30 or 40 years before.

Next week, I’ll be checking out some more of the jazz on the list. Jazz is not a genre I know almost anything about. Will that change by next week? We’ll find out!

The week after will be REQUESTS WEEK so feel free to pick an album for me to enjoy (or not enjoy if you’re a sadist) – full list here

STATUS: 315 albums listened to (31.5%), 686 remain.