May 6: Black Flag, Buffalo Springfield, The Flaming Lips, Mudhoney, Neu, Pet Shop Boys, T-Rex

Welcome back to 1001 Albums – a bit later than usual this week because I’ve been celebrating my birthday and seeing pals (and catching 60s electronica pioneers White Noise doing an idiosyncratic set in tribute to Delia Derbyshire’s birthday). This week it’s dealer’s choice, as a further celebration of my birthday. What did I choose to listen to? Let’s find out.

Black Flag, ‘Damaged’

I imagined a Black Flag album to be as brief as the Minor Threat one we covered a few months back and, while it’s true that few of the songs here break the three minute mark, the album is actually a relatively normal length: 35 minutes. Containing their two best-known songs in ‘TV Party’ and ‘Six Pack’, it’s a fast, aggressive and often barely audible thrash topped by Henry Rollins’ strangulated vocals (odd that a man with such a big neck would sound strangled). Very palatable despite the intensity, I actually think this album is a few songs too long: there’s 14 tracks here and a few knocked off might have been better.

Buffalo Springfield, ‘Buffalo Springfield Again’

Neil Young and Stephen Stills’ first band were already drifting apart at this point: Young’s ‘Expecting To Fly’ was recorded essentially as a solo song, and members were in and out of the band throughout the nine months the album took to record. It’s a charmingly whimsical psychedelic folk-rock which doesn’t quite hit the heights that Young scaled in his later solo career. There are some notable songs: ‘Good Time Boy’ is a funky soul song so incongruous with the rest of the album that I thought Spotify had started playing the wrong album, and ‘Broken Arrow’ features a jazzy clarinet and tape effects among other things.

The Flaming Lips, ‘The Soft Bulletin’

The Lips are objectively good but, as I’ve probably written before, the only time they captured my heart was on ‘Miley Cyrus and her Dead Petz’. Perhaps the injection of a different lyricist willing to open her heart in a relatable manner is what the band needed, at least for me, as I’ve always found them less engaging than contemporaries Super Furry Animals, Mercury Rev or Sparklehorse. While there’s a lot of lysergic filler on this album, there are at least two glorious songs: opener ‘Race For The Prize’ and the heartfelt ‘Waitin’ For A Superman’.

Mudhoney, ‘Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge’

‘Superfuzz Bigmuff’ was an unexpected delight, the fuzzy distortion and dumb genius vaulting the anti-grunge barriers I normally build around me. I was keen to check out the follow-up, but alas it underdelivers by comparison: only when they bring the pedals out and weld on a B52s organ do they come close to replicating the majesty of that album. There are some good songs here (‘Who You Driving Now?’ was I think my favourite) but it doesn’t compete with Superfuzz.

Neu!, ”75′

Very much an album of two halves here: on the first half, Michael Rother plays ambient while Klaus Dinger taps gently on a drum kit, and on the second half, Dinger steps up to the microphone and guitar for a two-guitar, two-drummer set that puts the ROCK in Krautrock. Everyone loves the second half, whose European underground nightclub sound was an influence on ‘Heroes’ and more, but I really liked the first half too. Good album, overall, then.

Pet Shop Boys, ‘Behaviour’

One of three PSB albums on the list, this sounds like the one most vulnerable to ageing: perhaps because of how heavily the style was used as background music in the 1990s, perhaps due to some of the ancient synth sounds used throughout the album. The songwriting occasionally shines through the production, though: ‘So Hard’ is a rumination about adultery and ‘Jealousy’ is a West End-style album closer.

T-Rex, ‘The Slider’

The second and final T-Rex album on the list doesn’t sound too different from ‘Electric Warrior’: in fact dare I say that there’s probably no need for two of their albums on the list when they sound so similar. Not that the Bolan boogie doesn’t sound good: ‘Telegram Sam’ and ‘Metal Guru’ both appear here alongside lesser fare with typically Marc-esque titles like ‘Spaceball Ricochet’, and crude Ronson-like soloing on ‘Rabbit Fighter’ and others.

Next week: We hit some of the obscurities: it’s albums heard by less than 5% of the listchallenges.com community!

Status update: 847 listened to (85%), 151 remain.

 

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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.