January 8: Nick Drake, Aretha Franklin, George Harrison, Fela Kuti, Love, Lou Reed, Dusty Springfield

Happy New Year everyone! Since the last update, there’s been a new version of the 1001 Albums book released, adding ‘Blackstar’, FKA Twigs and The War on Drugs among others but finding no room for ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’: the full list from that version is here. I’m going to persevere with the list I’ve been working from, rather than drive myself insane by trying to combine or reconcile the lists. We’re still likely to have a late 2018 finish date for this project, by which point there’ll probably be another revision!

This week, we’re easing back into it with some of the albums I’ve been looking forward to hearing. Excitingly, we’re far enough through the project that this includes artists I hadn’t heard before I started doing this, such as our first artist…

Nick Drake, ‘Pink Moon’

While ‘Bryter Layter‘ had seen Drake working with a full band for pretty, John Cale-ish arrangements, it was only under sufferance from the minimalist guitarist, and he stripped his sound back to basics for ‘Pink Moon’: the album is just him, accompanied by his acoustic guitar. The record is alarmingly intimate as a result: on ‘Things Behind the Sun’, for example, the tempo wobbles, a string is mishit, there’s a split-second of hesitation. You can almost hear his fingers against the soundboard. The starkness would be about as exciting as a bare wall painted magnolia, but Drake is such a good singer, writer and guitarist that it overcomes the austerity. Just three albums into his career, this was it for Drake: he never recorded anything else and died of an overdose two years later. His whole canon is on the list.

Aretha Franklin, ‘Lady Soul’

The First Lady of Soul was a prolific recording artist: this is her fourteenth album, and features a dozen musicians, including her sisters and Whitney Houston’s mum on backing vocals. It has two of Aretha’s best-known songs, ‘Chain of Fools’ and Carole King’s ‘You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman’, but almost anything on this album could have been a single. Her passionate delivery – sometimes delivering sassy put-downs, sometimes full of romantic yearning – sets her apart from the pack, but she’s also matched by raunchy horns and soulful keyboards from the backing band. It’s Franklin being good, what a surprise.

George Harrison, ‘All Things Must Pass’

My goodness, but this album is long. A treble album recorded with Ringo, Badfinger and Clapton among many others, this first post-Beatles collection features Harrison compiling a selection of songs rejected by the Beatles or about them and adding some new jams on top (literally: the third album is an interminable series of jams). I love Harrison’s Beatles contributions – the cool Indian elements, the blistering solos, the dour compositions – but he was never a strong lead singer and that’s made more clear when faced with producer Phil Spector’s “just add everything” approach, which swallows the songs whole. The album’s distinguishing feature is Harrison’s slide guitar, which rises above the overegged pudding, but overkill is a pretty good summary of the record generally.

Fela Kuti & Africa 70 & Ginger Baker, ‘Live!’

Burned out from touring and partying, Cream drummer Ginger Baker fled to Nigeria for a change of scene, where he spent his time getting high with Fela Kuti. While Kuti had a very good drummer of his own in Tony Allen, Baker appeared on a couple of albums including this one. His appearances on the B-side are dynamic percussion-heavy grooves, while the rest of the album is a fun, loose, fluid collection, as you’d probably expect given the live setting.

Love, ‘Da Capo’

Forever Changes‘ is in the pantheon but I think I prefer ‘Da Capo’, a more ragged, weird offering which offers harpsichord solos and (on ‘Seven and Seven Is’) pre-thrash rock. Unsurprisingly it sounds very much like a mid-60s record, as with ‘Forever Changes’, but it keeps you guessing more frequently. It ends on a bummer though, with the deathless ‘Revelation’, where guitars and saxes wail away for nearly twenty minutes. Like most 18-minute jams, it’s best enjoyed by avoiding it altogether. The good news, of course, is that it’s the last track and you can always press ‘stop’ before you get there.

Lou Reed, ‘Berlin’

The Velvet Underground are one of my favourite bands but Reed’s solo work has always felt patchy to me: even when he was vibing with the Spiders from Mars on ‘Transformer’, the songwriting was rarely good enough for a full album. Reed was still riding the commercial crest of ‘Transformer’ on this, his follow-up, so in a typical move he decided to make it one of the most depressing records ever. The album’s overly upbeat first half isn’t much to shout about but, when the band cut out 60% of the way through ‘Oh Jim’, the stark grimness of the mostly-acoustic second half becomes a compelling Mike Leigh nightmare as the heroine Caroline’s life spirals into the vortex. Nice to see the Velvets’ prettiest song, ‘Stephanie Says’, brought back to life here, although renamed ‘Caroline Says II’, it’s a brutally damaged version telling of Caroline’s domestic abuse and isolation.

Dusty Springfield, ‘A Girl Named Dusty’

Springfield’s first solo album is mostly a collection of classy pop songs written by the likes of Kander/Ebb, Bacharach/David, Carole King (her second appearance this week) and Holland/Dozier/Holland that were more famously sung by others: ‘My Colouring Book’, ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’ and ’24 Hours From Tulsa’ (!) feature. It’s not as if you can argue with Dame Dusty, one of the all-time great vocalists, but this album serves more as a look at what fantastic songs were doing the rounds in the early 60s, rather than as a statement of Dusty’s individual greatness. Her own definitive canon was still to come.

Next week: I’ll be looking at some of the albums which, according to Listchallenges.com, are the least-heard on the list.

Status update: 381 heard (38%), 620 remaining.

 

July 4 – 10cc, Nick Drake, fIREHOSE, Sugarcubes, Suicide

10cc, ‘Sheet Music’.

This was alphabetically #1 on the list so time to get it covered off. I only knew 10cc for ‘I’m Not In Love’ (I had forgotten ‘Dreadlock Holiday’) so this album’s style was perhaps unexpected. It seems 10cc were a pretty good 70s rock band with a willingness to try out new things. This is probably the most 1974 album of all time though, that is, a bit cocainey.

Nick Drake, ‘Five Leaves Left’.

You used to call me on your cellphone… wait, wrong Drake. Spookily released five years before his suicide, ‘Five Leaves Left’ is the sort of melancholy folk at which Tanworth’s favourite son excelled. I prefer ‘Bryter Later’, although that might be because I heard it first: perhaps if I’d heard ‘Five Leaves’ first I’d like that more.

fIREHOSE, ‘fROMOHIO’.

I listened to this album because I didn’t know anything about it. This awkwardly-capitalised gang were a Minutemen follow-on who fused punk with jazz and funk and this was their third album. It’s decent enough, but the lack of dynamic variety means the album is less than the sum of its parts. Shout out to Kira Roessler, guest guitarist on this record, who must be the first Oscar winner on this list (winning this year for sound editing).

Sugarcubes, ‘Life’s Too Good’.

A glittery but fairly by-numbers 80s pop album enlivened massively by singer, keyboardist and future star Bjork, whose distinctive voice is the album’s most notable feature.

Suicide, ‘Suicide’.

An abrasive exercise in minimalism that’s often distracting in its monotony. Who knows, though, what made the band decide that a song should sound like ‘Frankie Teardrop’, which bridges the gap between the Velvets’ ‘Heroin’ and latter-day Scott Walker. Also on Suicide: it’s odd that no trebly C86 band ever named themselves after Martin Rev’s real surname, Reverby.

March 14: Brian Wilson, Chic, ‘Bryter Layter’

Brian Wilson, ‘Smile’.

The doomed Beach Boys album was the ‘Apocalypse Now’ of music, in that its cursed development became more interesting than the product. Coppolla finished his film, though, whereas the Beach Boys never got ‘Smile’ out. 38 years later, Wilson finally released a version, re-recorded without the rest of the band. The vocals are great and the melodies are strong throughout, but I’m not sure such a bitty album would have held up, even with ‘Heroes and Villains’ at the start and ‘Good Vibrations’ at the end.

Chic, ‘C’est Chic’.

A rare band where the musicians are more famous than the singers, and rightly so: the phenomenal trio of Nile Rogers, Bernard Edwards and Tony Thompson are dream session hands. Their second album revolves around wonderful singles ‘Le Freak’ and ‘I Want Your Love’, has a few cheap-sounding but decent album tracks, and is let down only by the B-side-ruining ‘At Last I Am Free’, which drags one idea out for seven interminable minutes.

Nick Drake, ‘Bryter Layter’.

A copy of this album must have been distributed to every household in Scotland, considering the obvious shadow cast on Belle and Sebastian, The Delgados and others. I hadn’t heard any of Tanworth-In-Arden’s most famous son before, but the melancholy folk is brilliant. Two more albums of his are on the list; in other words his entire discography.