April 16: If I Must – The Darkness, Def Leppard, Everything But The Girl, Iron Maiden, Megadeth, Morrissey, U2

Happy Easter everyone who celebrates it; to everyone who doesn’t, happy Sunday! This week, it’s time for another of everyone’s favourites, the If I Must week. Fortunately for me, but sadly for you, this will probably be the last of these: I’ve pretty much listened to all of the real horrors on the list now, so while there are still some that I’m dreading, there aren’t quite enough for more of these weeks. Luckily, that still leaves me with over 100 albums that I’m looking forwards to hearing, so there’ll be plenty of good stuff as we head towards the second half of the project. Seven of the ones I least wanted to hear first though: let’s get to it.

The Darkness, ‘Permission to Land’

Although their second album ‘One Way Ticket to Hell… and Back’ went platinum, The Darkness’s commercial and critical peak was their debut album. At the time, they were massive, but the fact that their jokey take on 70s and 80s hard rock was going Top 10 at a time when less retro British rock bands were completely absent from the Top 20 was a worrying sign for the genre. Anyway, this is front-loaded, with catchy singles ‘Growing On Me’, ‘Get Your Hands Off My Woman’ and ‘I Believe In A Thing Called Love’ all in the opening four tracks. The novelty’s worn off by the fifth track though: Justin Hawkins hasn’t got anything in his arsenal other than falsetto, at least one of the songs is nearly six minutes long, and given that the list already contains all the acts that The Darkness are aping (AC/DC, Queen, Aerosmith, Bon Jovi), you don’t need this.

Def Leppard, ‘Hysteria’

And indeed here are one of the bands that The Darkness are likely imitating. ‘Hysteria’ recorded over the course of a year packed with incident, including two of the band being involved in motor accidents: one, of course, cost drummer Rick Allen his arm. Consequently, there’s a fair bit of Fairlight jiggery-pokery involved with the drum tracks here. ‘Gods of War’ and ‘Love and Affection’ are probably the best songs here, but they all sound the same anyway: commercial 80s hard rock with massed backing vocals, helium lead vocals and synths. It seems mean to lambast such good-natured music too much: it’s okay, but this will be my last listen to it.

Everything But The Girl, ‘Idlewild’

Not to be confused with the Scottish band who did ‘When I Argue I See Shapes’, or the 2006 Outkast album, ‘Idlewild’ was the fourth album from EBTG, released in 1988. When we last looked at Tracy ‘n’ Ben, it was in their mid-90s dance incarnation, but before that they were making a sort of light coffee-table take on sophisticated pop, which I guess would have been popular with people who also liked The Beautiful South and Level 42. It starts with the band’s cover of Crazy Horse’s ‘I Don’t Want to Talk About It’, but it quickly recedes into background music: it’s so tasteful and restrained that it becomes a struggle to resist turning it off and listening to something more interesting. The dated production doesn’t help – tenor saxes and fretless bass everywhere – any more than the lyrics, where “they call you Jimmy, they call you James” is regarded as a good enough lyric for a repeated refrain. ‘The Night I Heard Caruso Sing’ is probably the best song here, vaguely like Slow Club’s last album; as a two-piece who trade vocals, Slow Club should see EBTG as a warning from history.

Iron Maiden, ‘Iron Maiden’

The line-up on the first Maiden album is different to their later ‘classic’ line-up: here we have Paul Di’Anno on vocals, Clive Burr on drums and Dennis Stratton on guitar, so no high-pitched extended notes from Dickinson and not much twin guitar riffing. The band don’t like the production on this (which they mostly did themselves) but I think the raw sound suits them: on ‘Prowler’ and ‘Running Free’, they sound sort of like ‘Destroyer’-era Judas Priest rather than the polished cheese (an Edam wheel?) of their later material. The album only sags at the midway point, with the instrumental ‘Transylvania’ and the waltz-time downer ‘Strange World’ both moves into areas the band don’t sound at home in. It finishes strongly, though, and overall this one is pretty good.

Megadeth, ‘Peace Sells, But Who’s Buying?’

This was Megadeth’s breakthrough album and is one of the big three as far as thrash is concerned (together with ‘Master of Puppets’ and ‘Reign in Blood‘). Dave Mustaine, the former Metallica guitarist, focuses here on political and global concerns rather than the Lovecraftian omens of his old band, giving the lyrics a then-topical feel. I’ve always found thrash a bit tedious though: no wonder nu-metal eschewed the multi-section, solo-heavy, five-minute-or-more template for something blunter, punkier and funkier. You can’t fault the instrumental skill, particularly on the guitar lines, but the style seems old hat now.

Morrissey, ‘Vauxhall and I’

Our fourth visit to Moz’s back catalogue, we meet him here in 1994, at a time when he’d stopped wanting to plough the same furrow he did with The Smiths but before he started making off-colour remarks about immigration, the Chinese and so on. I’m starting to think that perhaps his solo career is best regarded as having a great singles catalogue, rather than any crucial albums: here, the best song is the elegaic ‘The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get’, which even Boz Boorer’s mid-90s Noel Gallagher lead guitar can’t spoil. Elsewhere there’s a cinematic closer called ‘Speedway’ and what sounds like a clarinet section, but nothing that quite matches the single.

U2, ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind’

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed ‘The Joshua Tree‘ and remember quite liking U2’s mid-90s output, or finding it interesting at least, but the release of the band’s 1980-1990 Best Of seemed to cause them to re-evaluate their output, hence abandoning the My Bloody Valentine and Nine Inch Nails experimentation and reverting to Soaring Anthem U2. Commercially it was a big success, but critically? Early on Bono feels like the weak point, both lyrically and vocally, while sequencing ‘Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of’ as track 2 is a mistake, as the song piles on instrument after instrument in a vain attempt to bring a dull melody to life. Elsewhere, ‘Beautiful Day’ borrows its middle eight from A-ha, ‘In A Little While’ sounds like Eels with its arpeggios and drum machine, ‘Wild Honey’ sounds like Van Morrison, and I’m sure you know what the rest of this album sounds like.  Pretty dull.

Next week: a type of album I’ve never generally been hot on – the live album! There are at least a dozen on the list; hit me up in the comments if you have any favourites.

Progress update: 478 listened to (48%), 523 remain. Nearly halfway!

February 12: If I Must – Beck, The Coral, Don McLean, Morrissey, Primal Scream, The Ramones, Scissor Sisters

This week it’s time for another If I Must special, comprising of albums I was not looking forward to hearing at the start of the project. Will any of them surprise me? Let’s find out.

Beck, ‘Sea Change’

The last Beck album we’ll be covering off after I wrote about ‘Odelay‘ and ‘Guero‘ in previous editions. Here, everyone’s favourite Scientologist and ironic eclectist is blighted by heartbreak: he learned that his fiancee, who he’d been with for nine years, was cheating on him with someone from an LA band called Whisky Biscuit. He had to be convinced that writing about his feelings wasn’t self-indulgent, and recorded these songs with his usual band. The circumstances account for the sombre mood and the Nick Drake feel of tracks like ‘Round the Bend’, while the rest combines desert psychedelia, acoustic guitars and Sean O’Hagan-ish string arrangements from Beck’s dad. By dropping the mask and being more directly emotional, Beck’s probably done his best album here or at least my favourite of his.

The Coral, ‘The Coral’

Indie was running on fumes by the time these perky Liverpudlians came along, and mining 60s sounds was getting very close to being passe. The Coral weren’t the last band to do this and still have hits – after all, they brought along mini-mes The Zutons – but they were among the last. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this, being as it is full of energy and enthusiasm, and glueing together a whole bunch of influences in the same way that a big beat record might. It’s perhaps a bit light on compelling melodic hooks (except the singles), and aside from a thrillingly Of Montreal-ish funk sample collage at the end of ‘Skeleton Key’ there’s little indication that this was made in the 21st Century. Yes, they’ve listened to a lot of good albums, but the point of a project like this is to listen to those albums, meaning that on its own merits, this one is superfluous.

Don McLean, ‘American Pie’

This album is of course most famous for its opener and title track, a song so big and long that it threatens to swallow the rest of the album. I was reticent to come to this album because of that song, full of good ol’ boys and “wasn’t it better in the old days” sentiments and rambling. The rest of the record, though, doesn’t try and replicate the formula, being instead a mostly pleasant late 60s/early 70s folk-pop album. Surprisingly it does have one other fairly famous song in the gentle solo acoustic track ‘Vincent’, although I prefer the Car Seat Headrest song of the same title and subject.

Morrissey, ‘Viva Hate’

Moz had barely closed the door on The Smiths before this album came out: a mere six months had gone by. Here, he retains Smiths producer Stephen Street and promotes him to co-writer, bassist and rhythm guitarist. Street’s no Johnny Marr though, and the album’s a bit pedestrian in parts. Although this has ‘Everyday Is Like Sunday’ and ‘Suedehead’, its best three songs are, unusually, its last three: the uptempo ‘I Don’t Mind If You Forget Me’, the acidic ‘Dial A Cliche’ and the backwards chords and flamenco style of anti-Thatch fantasy ‘Margaret on the Guillotine’. If it makes a difference, I listened to the remastered Spotify version of this, where Moz’s meddling involved a song being removed and another added, and another song being truncated (to Street’s displeasure). Two more Morrissey albums and three more Smiths ones on the list.

Primal Scream, ‘Vanishing Point’

The singles from this album felt weak in isolation but work better in context: ‘Kowalski’ sits in the middle of a mostly instrumental, groove-heavy section of the album and ‘Star’ sounds like an expansive piece of dub (Augustus Pablo even turns up on melodica). The album is probably best understood and appreciated as an experimental big beat album, even if the makers are nominally a guitar band; the album’s strong points are its groove, samples and melting pot of styles, whereas its weak points are the melodies, lyrics and vocals. Less of a boring slog than I was anticipating. I’ve already heard ‘Screamadelica’ so there are no more of the band’s albums left to hear: mysteriously ‘XTRMNTR’, considered an essential Scream cut, is absent from the list.

The Ramones, ‘The Ramones’

Joey and the gang influenced millions of people with their breakneck three-note punk, but I’ve never felt that their stuff was anything I desperately needed to hear. For a start, it all sounds the same (there aren’t any other Ramones albums on this list). This one blasts through 14 tracks in just 28 minutes, features ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ and a lot of songs about horror movies (plus a Velvet Underground-ish lyric about a male prostitute turning tricks but then murdering the john to prove he’s not gay). Aside from the Blondie-ish ‘I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend’ and a hilarious cover of ‘Let’s Dance’, this is very repetitive.

Scissor Sisters, ‘Scissor Sisters’

The Sisters first came to prominence in the UK with their cover of ‘Comfortably Numb’, which they bragged about having modernised. Sounded like it’d be a good idea: yet the cover sounds like it came out in 1977, whereas the original came out in 1979. (If anything, it’s less of an update and more of a recontextualisation: from “prog singer ODs before a stadium show” to “kid has ketamine freakout in a gay bar”.) The album too is something I should like – a male singer and a female singer doing camp songs and occasionally putting the feather boa down to sing from the heart – but which instead bored me pretty quickly. ‘Laura’ is catchy, ‘Tits on the Radio’ at least mixes things up by giving female singer Ana Matronic something to do – she is almost absent from most of the songs – and ‘Return to Oz’ is a bit of fairytale prog, but the rest is pretty uninspiring.

Next week: we’ll be looking at what happened in the 1980s when post-punk gadabouts tried to make sophisticated pop music instead. Yes there’s a lot of New Romantic stuff in the next episode.

Status update: 415 listened to (41%), 586 remain.

May 25 – ‘If I Must’ List #1: Beck, Morrissey, Royksopp, Travis, ‘The Joshua Tree’

The thing with the 1001 Albums You Must Hear project is that, as well as a lot of albums I’m intrigued to check out, there’s a fair amount of albums I’m reluctant to listen to. Rather than put them off any longer, it’s time I covered some of them.

Beck, ‘Odelay’.

I’m sure my dislike for Beck is a surprise for some, given I like Eels and the Beta Band, both of whom did similar blues-n-sampler kitchen-sink records. Unlike those two, though, Beck always struck me as all-surface-no-feeling: the ironic detachment is at the cost of relatable content or melodic impetus. He couldn’t even get ‘Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime’ right! As for ‘Odelay’: the musical palette is always varied, but it’s a record to admire rather than love.

Morrissey, ‘You are the Quarry’.

There are four of Stephen Patrick’s solo albums on this list: perhaps more than even Moz fans would consider essential. ‘Quarry’ was preceded by killer single ‘Irish Blood, English Heart’, where the most dramatic chord sequence on the record is augmented/completely ruined by Morrissey’s tainted patriotism schtick: lyrics which leave a bitter taste when matched against later “I’m not xenophobic but immigrants” speeches. The most evocative lyrical image on the album is “you have never been in love/until you’ve seen the stars/reflected in the reservoir”, from second single ‘First of the Gang to Die’ (which sounds better here than it did as a single). The other bulbous salutations on this album are bogged down by leaden arrangements or titles like ‘All the Lazy Dykes’.

Royksopp, ‘Melody AM’.

Royksopp are another band who sounded on paper like a band I’d like (I like Air and Bent) but who never impressed me: despite the album title, ‘Eple’ and ‘So Easy’ have no tunes. The album is more palatable than I expected as background muzak, but it’s not exactly an attention-grabber.

Travis, ‘The Man Who’.

It’s hard to understand how this album qualified for this list given its obvious debt to other albums on the list (Jeff Buckley, Radiohead): in fact the album’s producer is ‘OK Computer”s Nigel Godrich, bringing along the same bag of tricks he used for that album. When they aren’t ripping off Thom, they can’t resist pointing out their sources (“what’s a wonderwall anyway?” indeed). The best song is the Ziggy-for-dummies ‘She’s So Strange’ but there is nothing essential here. This was a band whose previous album featured a song called ‘All I Want To Do Is Rock’: on this evidence, clearly not.

U2, ‘The Joshua Tree’.

Later efforts like Apple malware ‘Songs of Innocence’ and ego-driven political campaigns have soured people to U2, but here on ‘The Joshua Tree’, hit after hit are augmented by great Brian Eno production and top drawer musicianship. It’s easy to mock The Edge’s minimalist style, but it sounds refreshingly spacious compared to his five-note-per-second contemporaries. Dare I say it: this is a good album.