October 8: Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Marianne Faithfull, Bruce Springsteen, Robert Wyatt, Neil Young

Pop music fans are capricious, meaning that most bands’ careers are shorter than even that of a professional footballer.  It’s generally accepted that artists’ best work is normally done by the fifth album, when the combination of initial passion and musical accomplishment is still at its peak. Beyond that, many artists go on to make albums which are either dignified but play mainly to their core fanbase (Eels, for example), or are derided as embarrassing experiments (Lou Reed is the king of this, but see also Korn’s dubstep album). Even a band like Pulp, whose commercial peak came as late as their fifth album, were all but done by their seventh.

Yet there are some exceptions to this rule. This week’s entries are all artists who released critically regarded albums 15 or more years into their careers. Of course, we’ve met many of these artists before.

Johnny Cash, ‘American IV: The Man Comes Around’ (link)

Pretty much the definition of this week’s list, this album is, of course, best known for his dignified cover of ‘Hurt’. The Nine Inch Nails cover – surprisingly credible, doing justice to both the original song and to Cash’s legacy – serves as a reasonable summary of the album, which mainly features covers or previously-recorded Cash compositions in a stripped down, restrained manner. The best other song is Sting’s ‘I Hurt My Head’, which sounds strong (I don’t know the original). Several singers show up to complement Cash, but with mixed results: on ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, Fiona Apple sounds as if she was singing to a different version of the track, while Don Henley does nothing notable on ‘Desperado’; only Nick Cave adds any value (on ‘I’m So Lonesome I Might Cry’). While this is perhaps a few tracks too long, it serves as a high point to go out on. This is the last of his albums on the list and our final visit.

Leonard Cohen, ‘I’m Your Man’ (link)

Not many artists do their most well-regarded album aged 53, but Cohen was never an ordinary artist; besides, he only started making music in his thirties. One of just two 80s albums from the never-prolific Len, this one backs him with an unusual combination of female hackette backette vocalists, a crummy-sounding synclavier and a bunch of near-Eastern instruments, while Cohen himself rarely expands his vocal range beyond a single note. In an odd symbiosis, his monotone baritone almost sounds as if he’s taken cues from his own acolyte Andrew Eldritch. This is a popular album with Cohen fans and features some of his best known songs, but sounds like an album where the writing is better than the execution, whether due to cheesy arrangements (‘Ain’t no Cure For Love’) or dud playing (the synth solos in ‘Tower of Song’ for example). I’ve not gotten a lot out of Leonard yet; we do however have another (earlier) album of his to explore.

Bob Dylan, ‘Time Out of Mind’ (link)

Dylan’s idiosyncratic later career has seen him doing three albums of standards and a Christmas album, as well as winning a Nobel Prize he scarcely bothered to acknowledge. Before all that, though, he made a 1997 record with Daniel Lanois which was widely acclaimed. In some ways, the shimmering sound makes it as much a Lanois album, but the odd way Bob’s vocals are recorded doesn’t do any favours. Dylan’s contributions, meanwhile, are some of his most direct lyrics, delivered in a guttural semi-croak that became his late-era trademark. ‘Not Dark Yet’ is very good, ‘Can’t Wait’ sounds like a Tom Waits cut, but overall I don’t think this is a contender for Dylan’s top three (with or without the 17-minute blues cut at the end). We’ve covered Bob many times on this blog, but there are still two more of his albums to go.

Marianne Faithfull, ‘Broken English’ (link)

Marianne in 1979 was younger than any of the other artists this week, but she’d spent a lot of time in the wilderness after a fairly prolific 60s and had wrecked her voice with smoking, drugs and laryngitis, so the quality and success of this record was seen as something of a surprise. Re-inventing herself as a new wave artist with the help of Steve Winwood and others, the synth-heavy cuts on this album often sound like Blondie (‘Guilt’, the title track), or are fresh post-punk takes on ominous, brooding folk songs (‘The Ballad of Lucy Jordan’, Lennon’s ‘Working Class Hero’). The album ends with the fantastically crude ‘Why’d Ya Do It?’, an explicit story about sex with the wrong woman strewn with Berlin trilogy guitar which, amazingly, was originally written for Tina Turner (Faithfull astutely realised Turner would reject the track and took it for herself).

Bruce Springsteen, ‘The Rising’ (link)

If I told you that this was Bruce’s 2002 album, made in response to September 11, and featured the E Street Band, you could probably figure out what it sounds like without me elaborating. But in case you’re struggling to picture it: it’s 70 minutes long, is arranged with plenty of musicians, a lot of organ, and nothing gets out of second gear tempo-wise: all very classy but not very edgy. There is, however, some pretty good stuff here: ‘Lonesome Day’ is a good opener, ‘Worlds Apart’ has an unexpected Qawwali intro (I guess to demonstrate that being a working-class Yank doesn’t mean you’re anti-Islam), and ‘The Fuse’ starts off with what sounds like an organic stab at the ‘Head Like A Hole’ intro.

Robert Wyatt, ‘Shleep’ (link)

This is the first album of Wyatt’s I’ve heard, and features a bunch of old boys, but maybe not the ones you’d expect: rather than Canterbury pals like Ratledge and Ayres, it’s 70s geezers like Eno, Manzanera and Weller. I’ve always found the jazz-influenced Canterbury psychedelic sound a bit cluttered and finicky for my tastes, and this album often has the same issues. There are some exceptions, though: ‘Free Will and Testament’ is the sort of frazzled sighing Wayne Coyne excels at, the melody and backing perfect for Wyatt’s mannered, splintered falsetto. The best on the second half is ‘Blues in Bob Minor’ borrows a template from ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ for Robert to ramble unusual words like ‘intercontinental’ and ‘genuflecting’ over the top. This came out in 1997 and it’s odd that Wyatt didn’t – never did – make an album with young fans who’d taken this sort of sound into the top 50. You’d think the Flaming Lips, Gorky’s and Grandaddy would have loved to make a record collaborating with him, but it never happened.

Neil Young and Crazy Horse, ‘Ragged Glory’ (link)

Young is one of my big discoveries from this project: this is about the 10th album of his I’ve listened to, and I hadn’t listened to any 18 months ago. Here we are in 1990, just before he enjoyed a kind of resurgence in the 90s, due mainly to his veneration by the Seattle scene: he made some records with Pearl Jam, and he was notoriously quoted in Cobain’s suicide note. Still, Young wasn’t just coasting on endorsements: he made very good albums like ‘Harvest Moon’ in this time. ‘Ragged Glory’, like his other albums with Crazy Horse, allows many openings for lengthy guitar workouts (‘Over and Over’, ‘Country Home’). Which is fine on a 40-minute, 6-track album, but feels a bit like overkill on 10 tracks in 62 minutes. The grizzled old boys do sound up-to-date here, with something of a Frank Black feel: ripe for a career revival. We’ve almost listened to everything on the list from Young’s solo career: just one album remains.

Next week: we’ll be getting into the DeLorean and going back to the 1950s with some of the oldest albums on the list!

Status update: 651 albums listened to (65%), 350 remain

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November 20: Leonard Cohen, Cowboy Junkies, kd lang, Joni Mitchell, Rush, Rufus Wainwright, Neil Young

This week, I’ll be looking at some of the Canadian albums on the list. There aren’t an awful lot of Canadian artists on the 1001, but those that are represented generally have multiple albums, almost as if the quality is concentrated in a small group.

Leonard Cohen, ‘Songs From a Room’

The second Cohen album, and the second of his on the list, sees his backing stripped back to predominantly acoustic guitar and, of all things, jew’s harp. There are no hits, or at least no songs I’d heard of before, but highlights include ‘The Butcher’, a Lou Reed-ish tale of a butcher father and a heroin experiment, and ‘Story of Isaac’. The album abruptly ends ever 35 minutes: always leave them wanting more eh Len? Incredible, listening to this minimalist record, to think that he would later make synthpop records and work with Phil Spector, but Cohen was an artist who did what he wanted.

Cowboy Junkies, ‘The Trinity Session’

The second album (and only appearance on the list) for a band whose debut had the fantastic name ‘Whites Off Earth Now!!’. The album was mostly recorded in one day around a single microphone in a church, which results in the sort of wintry reverb you hear on Low or Fleet Foxes albums, albeit without the multi-layered harmonies of those acts. The music is minimalist country, blues and folk, with the most distinctive features being Margot Timmins’ vocals and her brother Michael’s guitar. I prefer the tremelous country to the blues. This is a record suited for 2am.

k.d. lang, ‘Shadowland’

The nicotine and caffeine aficionado and capital letter eschewing lang is best known for ‘Constant Craving’, an adult-rock staple from the album ‘Ingenue’ (which also features on the list). There are no original compositions on this, her solo debut, however, which combines crooning country, smoky blues and Orbison-ish pop. The album is kind of like a 60s Patsy Cline album recorded on modern technology (Patsy Cline’s producer is even onboard). Lang’s voice is fine, as is the playing, but the album never veers into particularly interesting territory.

Joni Mitchell, ‘The Hissing of Summer Lawns’

Joni alienated a lot of her listeners with this abrupt shift into jazz-based territory and it’d certainly be fair to say that the album is not what they – or I – were expecting from a Joni Mitchell record. The peak weirdness is as early as the second track, ‘The Jungle Line’: based around a sample of Burundi drummers and a Moog bassline, it sounds like a prototype of Bjork or Portishead. ‘Shades of Scarlett Conquering’ is an orchestral song that avoids Carpenters-style gloop by its rambling digressions and oddity, the title track obliquely covers life as a trophy wife and, while some of this fades into the background, it has touches that force it back into your attention (the splanky piano in ‘Harry’s House Centerpiece’. The last track is arranged for gospel choir and ARP synth. Who knows what made Mitchell decide an album should sound like this but bless her for doing so: it’s excellent.

Rush, ‘2112’

This is the first time I’ve knowingly heard Rush and it seems that they’re a helium-voiced rock band doing a space opera: hey, I didn’t know Coheed and Cambria were on the list! Rush appear to be straddling the fence between super-serious prog of the Floyd type and stadium hard rock of the AC/DC and Kiss variety. Surprisingly, it works pretty well on the 20-minute title track (sadly it does not last 21:12, surely an oversight), as the rawk elements steer it away from po-faced pretension despite the preposterous Ayn Rand-influenced concept about finding a mystical banned instrument called the “guitar”. The second side’s non-concept tracks fare less well: a corny lyric about ‘The Twilight Zone’; an attempt to emulate ‘In The Court of the Crimson King’ called ‘Tears’. Worth it for the title track mind.

Rufus Wainwright, ‘Want One’.

The last time we’ll visit Rufus (we looked at ‘Want Two‘ just a month ago), this is the first part of the ‘Want’ double-header. As with its Siamese twin, ‘Want One’ has eclectic instrumentation, celeb mates including his mum and a kind of arch feyness, voluptuously top-heavy by front-loading its best tracks with okay/bland stuff towards the end. Rufus’s lyrics are prominent – not always a good thing in the case of ‘Vibrate’ or ’11:11′ – and when he croons “I just want to be my dad with a slight sprinkling of my mother”, you can’t help but wonder what he means given Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle never did louche theatrical quirk-pop like this. It’s okay but perhaps a few songs too long and there’s nothing fabulously captivating here.

Neil Young, ‘Tonight’s The Night’.

Recorded in the wake of the heroin overdose deaths of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry, ‘Tonight’s the Night’ sounds like a group of shitfaced people shellshocked, but too wasted to realise how the deaths might be a wake-up call to them. The recording process probably contributes: the band got wasted before they started recording, and most of the tracks were recorded in one take in one session. It takes a while to get going; ‘Borrowed Tune’ is the point where it feels like it’s taken flight. One song, recorded years earlier, features Whitten: it is called ‘Come on Baby, Let’s Go Downtown’. Unfortunately for everyone, we know what happened when they did go downtown (and Young himself foreshadowed it on ‘The Needle and the Damage Done’).

Next week I’ll be looking at some, but not all, of the 17 country albums on the list.

Progress report: 345 of 1001 listened to (34%), 656 remain.

September 18: Leonard Cohen, Elvis Costello, Led Zeppelin, Sonic Youth, Bruce Springsteen, Steely Dan, The Who

This week, I’ll be looking at some of the artists who feature on the list most often, but whose output is mostly a mystery to me. It probably won’t surprise you that the artists who have most entries on the list are The Beatles, David Bowie and Neil Young (seven albums each). I’ve already listened to all the Beatles and Bowie, but we will be seeing a lot more of the following artists…

Leonard Cohen, ‘Songs of Leonard Cohen’.

One of four Cohen albums on the list, this one is his debut, which features two of his best-known songs in ‘Suzanne’ and ‘So Long, Marianne’ (like Lou Reed, Cohen liked naming songs after women). Recorded in the late 60s, this album is atypical for its era as it’s often quite stark and stripped-down, whereas a lot of singer-songwriter albums are drenched in strings and horns. Indeed Cohen had to battle with a producer keen to orchestrate his songs. It’s pretty good, but I bet there’s better albums in Cohen’s oeuvre and on this list. Fans of 80s goth will be pleased to know that not only does this album contain the track ‘Sisters of Mercy’ but, in a later track, the line “some girls wander by mistake”, later used by the Sisters for a compilation.

Elvis Costello, ‘This Year’s Model’.

One of a sextet of Costello albums on the list and, look, it’s not like I hate him – I think it’s difficult to do so – but six albums? It’s like having six Weezer albums, or six Squeeze albums. This one features ‘I Don’t Want To Go To Chelsea’ and ‘Night Rally’, both of which trump anything on ‘My Aim Is True’, and the production and playing is clean, but I’m yet to hear anything essential in these albums.

Led Zeppelin, ‘Led Zeppelin II’.

There are five Zep records on the list, of which I’d heard just one (‘IV’). As well as the templated heavy blues, this one has all sorts of dynamic tricks up its sleeve: unexpected noise breaks (in ‘Whole Lotta Love’), drum solos (which could often be extended to 30 minutes live!), false fades and more. Aside from ‘Thank You’ – a sort of grandfather to 80s metal power ballads – this didn’t do a whole lotta exciting me, and has a song called ‘Living Loving Maid (She’s Just A Woman)’: I mean, ugh. Still, although the bluesy squalls aren’t necessarily to my taste, you can’t fault the musicianship, and as far as legacy and impact goes it’s obviously an important album.

Sonic Youth, ‘Sister’.

I’d heard the intermittently-superb ‘EVOL’ so the earliest Sonic Youth album on the list that I’d not heard was its successor, ‘Sister’, which bridges the gap between the noise-rock of ‘EVOL’ and the MTV-bothering tunes-and-weird of ‘Daydream Nation’. Despite the fact that zillions of imitators have recycled the ideas herein, the source material still remains compelling, with Moogs, church bells and ear-splitting noise embellishing a surprisingly coherent album. Like any band this abrasive – Atari Teenage Riot, Melt-Banana – their sound feels more effective in doses less than a full album’s worth, but this is an excellent album.

Bruce Springsteen, ‘Born to Run’.

When Todd Rundgren first heard the ‘Bat Out Of Hell’ demo, he thought it was a hilarious parody of Bruce Springsteen, extending the joke by getting two of the E Street Band in to play on the album when he produced it. Listening to ‘Thunder Road’, it’s easy to see why he might have drawn that conclusion (‘Bat Out Of Hell’ does sound very much like an overwrought version of ‘Thunder Road’). Of course, one of the other stylistic innovations of this album – putting glockenspiel all over the place – has been pilfered by the Arcade Fire and others, meaning the imitators have plundered most of the main tricks here. This is okay, and the second half removes a lot of the elements in the first half that now seem cheesy, but I dunno, the Boss is still yet to show me the magic everyone else sees.

Steely Dan, ‘Can’t Buy A Thrill’.

The band have four albums on this list, starting with this, their debut. It’s an odd choice for a name because Steely Dan were a soft-rock band in the 70s: they knew full well they could buy a thrill in grams or ounces. It’s also a novelty in the band’s back catalogue as it features a different lead singer: David Palmer covers some of the vocals here and live due to Donald Fagen’s concerns about his voice. Anyway, whoever’s on vocals, the music is great, with piano noodles, Latin rhythms, screeching solos and more in the mix. It’s very accomplished coke-y soft-rock: I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this as much as I did.

The Who, ‘The Who Sell Out’.

Five Who records on the list, here’s the second. On this one, the band pay homage to pirate radio with an album segued together with jingles and occasionally writing about products as if they were adverts – although this being The Who, the lyrics have an odd take (‘Odorono’ is about a woman failing to complete a romantic experience because she hadn’t used underarm deodorant). The segues and musical variety make this one a blast, with Moon’s drumming and the vocal harmonies standing out. The best-known song is ‘I Can See For Miles’, but there’s plenty of other treats on this day-glo Pop Art album.

Next time, I’ll be looking at some of the Australian albums on the list. See you then.

Status check: 280 listened to (28%), 721 remain.