April 15: Devendra Banhart, The Byrds, Crowded House, The Faces, The Kinks, Paul Simon, Talking Heads

Today’s seven are united by either their album title or their band name referring to a part of the body. Loose and tenuous I know, but hey, there’s less than 200 albums left on the list and finding reasons to bring them together is getting harder. Some familiar names on here, as you’ve seen from the headline, so let’s go.

Devendra Banhart, ‘Rejoicing in the Hands’ (link)

With titles like ‘Tit Smoking in the Temple of Artesan Mimicry’ and ‘This Beard Is For Siobhan’, this is the weird guy at the acoustic open mic night getting a full length album. He’s got a strange, tremulous mumble as a voice, usually backed by his own fingerpicking and nothing else, which doesn’t particularly endear me. Yet there are some gems: ‘Fall’ is grounded by a rhythm section and topped with ghostly backing vocals, and ‘Insect Eyes’ is witchy folk with almost a raga drone. Not desperately necessary, but at least it wasn’t Newton Faulkner.

The Byrds, ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’ (link)

The Byrds’ dispensing of their most familiar trappings – the 12-string Rickenbacker, the harmonies, a weird album closer – and diving head-first into country rock polarised their audience and was treated with suspicion by the Nashville contingent, wary of the hippies cashing in on their sound. It’s a brave move by the band, freshening up their sound by completely changing it, but I’m not convinced that the stetson and chaps suit them: ‘One Hundred Years From Now’ is good, and Dylan’s ‘Nothing Was Delivered’ sounds okay on the prairie, but the Louvin Brothers and Merle Haggard stuff is either inexpertly handled or just doesn’t suit the band. A bit of a disappointment.

Crowded House, ‘Woodface’ (link)

You know more Crowded House than you think, according to the old advert, and this is even true of the album art here…

Woodface

The only album to feature Tim Finn, this also contains mega-hits ‘Weather With You’ and ‘It’s Only Natural’, both of which were originally intended for Tim and Neil’s Finn Brothers project. As well as the semi-acoustic indie-rock of those songs, there’s an attempt at Great American Songbook composition on ‘All I Ask’ and, on the secret track, a jokey wah-pedal thrash song. The album sounds less dated than a lot of other 1991 albums, perhaps because it avoids the familiar production cliches of the era. It sounds fine and it sold a load but I’m not sure I’d seek it out again.

The Faces, ‘A Nod Is As Good As A Wink… To A Blind Horse’ (link)

Pub rock, basically, the weirdness of which is defined by who’s singing: Rod Stewart sings the no-nonsense boogie he wrote with guitarist Ronnie Wood, while bassist Ronnie Lane sings his more skewed compositions (keyboardist Ian McLagan gets more to do on Lane’s songs, including one co-write). The closer ‘That’s All You Need’ pauses for a Led Zep guitar freakout, then goes into a chorus with a steel drum, which is the most unusual thing here. I dunno, it’s pub rock, so it depends how you get on with that. For what it is, it’s accomplished.

The Kinks, ‘Face to Face’ (link)

I owned a Kinks best of as a teenager and listened to it a lot but only got round to their albums during this project. They’ve been slightly disappointing against my expectations, and I haven’t re-listened to any of them. This is our third of four visits to the band and is regarded as the start of their imperial period, moving away from the grungy Who rock of their early stuff into something more restrained and English. It features ‘Sunny Afternoon’, for example. The stand-outs are early: ‘Too Much On My Mind’ and ‘Session Man’ (about paid-by-the-hour musicians, this features a harpsichord flourish from jobbing musician Nicky Hopkins, who presumably saw the funny side). Another one that is just okay, this also features the band inventing goth with (at least the title of) ‘Little Miss Queen Of Darkness’.

Paul Simon, ‘Hearts and Bones’ (link)

The last Simon album before ‘Graceland’, this was a commercial and critical failure at the time, and it certainly feels like a minor album: in places, it sounds like Simon’s aiming to make a Randy Newman album using synths. There are occasional hints of world music that foreshadow ‘Graceland’, and Simon gives the last minute of the album over to Philip Glass for an ominous coda. This is our last visit to Simon’s solo career: just one S&G album left on the list.

Talking Heads, ‘Remain in Light’ (link)

At long last we get to ‘Remain in Light’, our last of four visits to the Heads and one of the most critically-acclaimed albums we’ll cover in 2018. Influenced by Fela Kuti and often based around one chord, it’s impressive how expansive the sound suddenly becomes as a result: the layers of percussion, choir vocals and Adrian Belew guitars sound massive. Best known for ‘Once in a Lifetime’, I don’t have many arguments against people who regard this as the best Heads album, even if I subjectively prefer ‘Fear of Music’. Arguments over the writing credits famously caused strains in the band’s relationships: they didn’t do another album for three years, and didn’t work with Eno again.

Next week: we look at some of the post-punk and new-wave albums on the list.

Status update: 826 listened to (82%), 175 remain. Into the last six months of the project now.

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July 2: The Doors, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Fall, Pet Shop Boys, Public Enemy, Paul Simon, Frank Sinatra

It’s a beautiful day here in Coventry and it’s time for the 56th installment of the 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. This week’s septet have nothing in common other than the number of appearances they make on the list: each artist has three albums on the 1001. As they all have extensive back catalogues, this means that we should have the highlights here. Let’s find out.

The Doors, ‘The Doors’

Jim and the lads didn’t do too much for me on the first album I heard (‘Morrison Hotel‘), but in hindsight I should have started in the most logical place: their debut album. Opening with ‘Break On Through’, the album refrains from too much pontificating or arsing around early on, with dud Brecht country song ‘Alabama Song (Whisky Bar)’ the sole dud on the first half. It goes into spacier territory on the second half, with ‘Light My Fire’ going on for seven minutes and ‘The End’ going on for about a million. Doors fans are divided on what their best album is, but this certainly feels like it encapsulates everything I know about the band: freakbeat, blues, long Indian-style drones.

Echo and the Bunnymen, ‘Crocodiles’

Another debut album, and the Bunnymen’s first appearance on the list. I wasn’t impressed when I first heard E&TB, during their 90s comeback and with their Embrace-ish single ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’. Exposure to their 80s output warmed them to me, though, and the band have been used as a musical cue for swooning, fatalistic doom from 2000’s time travel mindscrew ‘Donnie Darko’ to 2017’s upsetting, problematic suicide/revenge drama ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’; Shelley as a band. Their debut is produced by mischievous management/label Bill Drummond and Dave Balfe, the latter of whom provides some dated-sounding keyboards. Mainly, though, it sounds as though it’s got one eye on the abyss and one eye looking over its shoulder, from the low-key intro of ‘Going Up’ to the dissonant, spooked voodoo outro of ‘Happy Death Men’. Recommended.

The Fall, ‘This Nation’s Saving Grace’

550 albums into this project, The Fall finally swagger in for their first appearance on the list. I have the band’s “greatest hits” (“hits” relative with The Fall), but knowing where to go from there has always been the challenge. Although this isn’t the earliest Fall album on the list, it’s the one that’s meant to be their most accessible, though, recorded during their most commercially successful era with guitarist/second singer Brix Smith widely considered to be the band’s pop element. While the first two songs don’t sound particularly poptastic, the corner turns with ‘Barmy’, so melodic I had to check it wasn’t a cover. ‘Spoilt Victorian Child’ and the electronic babble of ‘LA’ are also catchy, while ‘Gut of the Quantifier’ has a bass riff reminiscient of ‘Boogie Nights’. Mark E Smith’s drunken slurring and the band’s abrasive guitar clanging aren’t for everyone but this must be one of the easier entrance points into their long, exhausting career.

Pet Shop Boys, ‘Actually’

Another band arriving late to the party, whose back catalogue I haven’t explored beyond exemplary hits collection ‘Pop/Art’; I wanted to save something for the second half of the project. This features three wildly different singles: Dame Dusty collaboration ‘What Have I Done To Deserve This?’, dramatic, moody ‘It’s a Sin’ and the gentler ‘Rent’, as well as some filmic ballads (Ennio Morricone gets a writing credit!). Of course, its deadpan dissection of Thatcher-era breadline life could only have been made in the 80s, but they’re elegant enough to overcome some of the dated sound – the orchestral hit pad on ‘It’s A Sin’, the cheesy voice synth of ‘Everytime’ – and it mostly still sounds pretty great. Well worth a listen.

Public Enemy, ‘Apocalypse 91 – The Empire Strikes Black’

The only PE album I hadn’t heard on the list; ‘Nation of Millions‘ and ‘Fear of a Black Planet’ also inevitably appear (and rightly so!). Moving the Bomb Squad upstairs to executive producers and replacing them behind the desk with The Imperial Grand Ministers Of Funk, there’s not an awful lot of difference sonically, except perhaps it’s a bit less dense and there’s less atonal noise. The exciting first half, almost a continuous sequence with no resting, probably peaks with Flav’s Hendrix funk ‘I Don’t Wanna Be Called Yo Niga’ and Chuck’s dark ‘How To Kill A Radio Consultant’. The second half makes room for Sister Souljah and Harry Allen to make appearances, but also has three unconvincing tracks at the end: Flav’s ‘Letter to the New York Post’ claims the Post published a false story about him assaulting his girlfriend, yet Flav went on to plead guilty of doing so; ‘Get The F… Out Of Dodge’ coyly censors the swearing; ‘Bring Tha Noize’ is just the Anthrax/Chuck D cover of the ‘Nation of Millions’ track.

Paul Simon, ‘Paul Simon’

This is Simon’s second album (the first, if you’re wondering, was the equally imaginatively-named ‘The Paul Simon Songbook’) and features Simon fusing his vaguely Paul McCartney singing and songwriting to a variety of world music flavours, an interest which of course finally found its apothesis on ‘Graceland‘. Here, we open with a bit of lovers’ rock (album highlight ‘Mother and Child Reunion’), have an Andean band, Los Incas, show up on ‘Duncan’ and a couple of flavours of Gershwin-ish jazz-pop. There’s also a wacky bass harmonica on ‘Papa Hobo’ and brass punctuating ‘Paranoia Blues’, while Wes Anderson fans will recognise the acoustic shuffle of ‘Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard’. The range on the album is pretty broad, although I think this is the weakest entry this week. Very much a transition from Simon & Garfunkel to just Simon; he did better.

Frank Sinatra & Antonio Jobim, ‘Francis Albert Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim’

Ol’ Blue Eyes’ third and final appearance with us after ‘In The Wee Small Hours‘ and ‘Songs For Swinging Lovers‘, and Tom Jobim’s only appearance by name. The bossa nova supremo mostly sticks to guitar and piano and leaves the singing to Sinatra – and why wouldn’t you – although he makes the occasional vocal cameo, including an unpredictably late showing on ‘The Girl From Ipanema’. Jobim brings Sinatra some of his own songs to sing, Sinatra responds with some Great American Songbook tracks for Tom to convert to his style, and the results are surprisingly fruitful. Frankie’s strongest suit, if you ask me, is wistful all-night-bar melancholia, and we have that in abundance here on tracks like ‘Meditation’. This only lasts 28 minutes: I would have been happy if it was double the length.

A lot of very good stuff this week. Hooray!

Next week: since my baby left me, I can’t even talk newspeak, so I’m gonna have to write elsewhere, as next week will be blues week.

Status update: 555 listened to (55%), 446 remaining.

August 9: 808 State, Fugazi, Gang of Four, Jefferson Airplane, ‘Tubular Bells’, Koffi Olomide, ‘Exile on Main Street’, ‘Graceland’, Nina Simone, Neil Young

808 State, ‘808:90’.

Containing their most famous song, ‘Pacific State’, this album both sounds exactly like you’d expect a dance record of its time to sound and pretty good.

Fugazi, ‘Repeater’.

Angry as hell 1990 underground punk which finishes with the almost perfect ‘Shut the Door’ (so of course there’s an extended version of the album with three superfluous tracks glued onto the end). It’s good, but the previous day, I had listened to its most obvious influence, which is…

Gang of Four, ‘Entertainment’.

All post-punk is arty, but there’s a certain branch of it which was snappy and angry rather than sprawling and/or gothy. Wire and Mission Of Burma are in this territory, but so too are Gang of Four. ‘Entertainment!’ takes a few tracks to get going, but starts delivering from ‘Damaged Goods’, the fourth track, and is pretty much brilliant from there.

Jefferson Airplane, ‘Surrealistic Pillow’.

This excellently-named album from the psych-folk sextet contains their big “hits” ‘White Rabbit’ and ‘Somebody to Love’. Nothing else is as good as those songs, but it’s a pleasant enough listen. Hard to listen to them without thinking of the awful crimes they went on to commit in the unspeakably terrible form of Starship.

Mike Oldfield, ‘Tubular Bells’.

The first album on Richard Branson’s Virgin Records contains the tune from the ‘Exorcist’, a Piltdown Man impression, a hornpipe and the guy out of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band reading the instruments. It feels like a lot of farting around that’s a bit too pleased with itself for my liking, but it’s unpredictable at least.

Koffi Olomide, ‘Haut de Gamme: Koweit, Rive Gauche’.

Okay but a bit naff-sounding, Olomide is a Congolese soukous musician known for his sharp dress sense and his Mark E Smith-ish habit of assaulting his collaborators (he is currently in jail). I feel pretty ignorant when reviewing this sort of music, but it didn’t do an awful lot for me.

The Rolling Stones, ‘Exile on Main Street’.

Generally regarded as their best album and a landmark in music and so on, this sprawls over two records of blues, country and soul. Still struggling to see the appeal of Mick and the gang though: this just sounds like white boys playing pub rock with harmonicas, honky-tonk piano and all the other trappings of by-the-book boredom.

Paul Simon, ‘Graceland’.

Speaking of albums everyone loves, this is the hipster record du jour and, in fairness, it is pretty good. No wonder Ladysmith Black Mambazo became stars off the back of it: their harmonies are the best thing on the album. Unusual to see later Nine Inch Nail Adrian Belew credited on a few tracks; what a strange career he has had.

Nina Simone, ‘Wild is the Wind’.

The voice is impeccable of course but the sedate pace that the entire album crawls by at makes this one a bloody slog. David Bowie’s cover of the title track was faster (probably a side-effect of the cocaine), elevating it to ‘mid-tempo’.

Neil Young, ‘Everybody Knows This is Nowhere’.

An early-70s album with Crazy Horse, this is the second of Young’s albums I’ve heard, and suffers a bit by comparison with ‘Harvest’. Still, there are three great songs on this album which, combined, last over half the running time of the record – good going.