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.