We’re into the last five weeks of the project now and the remaining albums are getting fewer and fewer. This week, we’re looking at seven of the solo artists on the list. A couple of familiar faces here but most of this week’s collection are making their debut on the blog. Let’s get to work.
Tracy Chapman, ‘Tracy Chapman’
Chapman’s debut contains all her big hits: ‘Fast Car’, ‘Talkin’ Bout a Revolution’ and ‘Baby Can I Hold You’, the latter a hit for Boyzone years later. It’s heavily focused on acoustic guitar and social commentary, unfashionable things in 1988 but which nonetheless sold millions of copies when a label finally took a chance. Charming, of course, especially when it’s not victim of 80s production cliches (big drums on ‘Why’ for example).
Elvis Costello, ‘Imperial Bedroom’
The final Costello on the list might be one of the most interesting in its extravagant ornamentation. Something of a baroque pop record, there’s a jazzy piano and accordion piece (‘The Long Honeymoon’) and some Sgt Pepper orchestration (‘…And in Every Home’), as well as increased emphasis on the piano even on more recognisably Costello songs. I’ve not been as big a fan of Elvis as the list seems to be, and I’m not sure I’d come back to any of his stuff, but this was the most intriguing.
Aimee Mann, ‘Whatever’
Released in the early 1990s with Jon Brion on the controls, this is somewhere between a less rootsy Sheryl Crow and a less quirky Fiona Apple: a breezy, summery alt-lite album often interrupted by ragtime, New Orleans funeral bands and calliopes as if it’s the United States of America album. We might assume the weirdness is Brion’s influence given his body of work, and the untroubled songwriting is all that of Mann. It sounds fine if perhaps unremarkable when compared to her peers and successors.
Morrissey, ‘Your Arsenal’
The majority of the Moz albums on the list have been dreary slogs enlivened by the occasional great single but hampered by pedestrian writing and musicians. Here, with Mick Ronson at the controls, we see Morrissey fronting a glam band. There’s some familiar sounds here – ‘Glamorous Glue’ sounds like ‘The Jean Genie’, and ‘I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday’ is so like Bowie that it was covered on ‘Black Tie, White Noise’. This is, though, also the most agreeable he’s sounded in his solo career, with things like ‘We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful’ and ‘We’ll Let You Know’ among his best work. This is also the last time in which he could do a song like ‘The National Front Disco’ and it be a sarcastic putdown of the far-right rather than a gig announcement. If you have to listen to any of his solo stuff, make it this album.
Harry Nilsson, ‘Nilsson Schmilsson’
Harry is best known for his big power ballad ‘Without You’, covered by Mariah Carey and notoriously bowdlerized as ‘Ken Lee‘ on Bulgaria’s Music Idol. Nothing else on this album even approaches the bombast of that song. In fact, this album is quite a mixed bag. For every good idea Harry has (promising ELO-ish opener ‘Gotta Get Up’), he undoes himself with a terrible one (the cod-Jamaican accent he adopts on one-note gag ‘Coconut’ is deeply problematic). Reasonable but not essential. Nilsson’s 70s was mostly occupied with being John Lennon’s drinking partner, sometime housemate and collaborator; Lennon’s death in 1980 led to Nilsson’s hiatus, and he only recorded sporadically afterwards.
Bonnie Raitt, ‘Nick of Time’
Raitt’s commercial breakthrough, her 10th album features David Crosby, Don Was, Herbie Hancock, ex-Beach Boy Ricky Fataar and other familiar musicians: so even if people hadn’t been buying her records up until now, plenty of notable musicians were paying attention. It’s a combination of blues, country and rock elements turned into fairly straightforward 80s pop. The closer to her roots she gets (i.e. the further from the contemporary pop sound), the more enjoyable the record is, but I doubt I’ll listen to this again.
James Taylor, ‘Sweet Baby James’
Recorded in 1969 but released in 1971, ‘Sweet Baby James’ is very much an album of that era, often starting with Taylor accompanying himself on acoustic guitar before bringing in the band. There’s a folksy sound to many of the songs here, with the occasional deviation into country (especially on the title track with its pedal steel and dogies) or blues (‘Steamroller’). This is often very pretty, and goes by in a mere 31 minutes: very much a demonstration of less being more.
Next week: Seven more solo albums are on the list, so let’s cover those off.
Status update: 966 listened to (96%), 35 remain.