May 7: Bjork, Garbage, PJ Harvey, Magazine, Shuggie Otis, Pixies, Slint

Welcome back to 1001 Albums! Hopefully you’ve had a good week. This week, it was my birthday, so to celebrate this it’s editor’s choice week. There are loads of albums on the list that I’d been looking forwards to listening to, so let’s check some of them out.

Bjork, ‘Debut’

I’ve got Bjork’s Greatest Hits, and have listened to it about a million times, but for some reason I’ve never explored her albums. Prior to her solo career, Bjork had played in ace punk band Tappi Tikkaras and art-rock combinations KUKL and Sugarcubes. On her inaugural solo effort, she eschews her guitar background for something more akin to contemporary dance music: some of the house beats serve as a clue to the album’s 1993 origin. Not that she sticks to any genre: there’s some gloomy jazz on ‘Aeroplane’, some Bollywood strings on ‘Venus as a Boy’ and, on ‘There is More to Life Than This’, an average dance saunter is interrupted when Bjork apparently goes outside and takes the song with her, the backing track still leaking ineffectually through a wall. Bjork’s magpie invention and her astounding voice carry the record, and killer opening and closing tracks (the timpani funk of ‘Human Behaviour’ and the Timbaland synths of ‘Play Dead’) are enough for a recommendation on their own.

Garbage, ‘Garbage’

Another one that I really should have heard at the time, this is essentially a pop take on the sounds explored by trip-hop and industrial, although it’s a pop album with an unusually sour, glum outlook: they’re only happy when it rains, after all. While ‘Garbage’ definitely sounds like an album of the 1990s, it’s aged pretty well: the up-tempo singles all sound good and even brooding closer ‘Milk’ sounds easier on the ears than it did as a single (although it’s not the version with Tricky whispering over the top). This is the band’s only entry: no ‘Version 2.0’ or ‘Beautifulgarbage’ alas.

PJ Harvey, ‘Dry’

Peej was a perennial Brit Award and Mercury Music Prize nominee for a career of pretty solid work, but her albums often meander or veer into abrasive, difficult territory that can make them a slog. Not so on ‘Dry’, her first album, made under the assumption it would be her last. Apart from some dissonant strings on ‘Plants and Rags’, this is mostly an accessible listen: perhaps the world has caught up to her, as you can see the roots of the Duke Spirit and The Kills in this music. The 40 minutes of this album are a breeze. PJ is on the list a couple more times, but I’ve already heard (and own) her other two appearances (‘Rid of Me’ and ‘Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea’).

Magazine, ‘Real Life’

Magazine were a post-punk quintet featuring ex-Buzzcock Howard Devoto, future Banshee John McGeoch and future solo artist Barry Adamson, and influenced artists including Blur, Mansun and Desperate Journalist. The album includes fantastic single ‘Shot By Both Sides’ (vibrant with Buzzcocks energy), the stop-start ‘Motorcade’ and plenty of keyboard-heavy punk-ish sounds. There’s plenty of imagination and weirdness here and, when it recedes into the background, it usually pushes itself back to the foreground with an abrupt change or wonky solo.

Shuggie Otis, ‘Inspiration Information’

Shuggie was only a teenager when he recorded his best-known song ‘Strawberry Letter 23’, but by the time he’d finished tinkering with this follow-up album, he’d reached his 20s. This is half an album of oddly constructed but lush songs like the title track or psychedelic drum machine tinker ‘Aht Uh Mi Hed’, and half an album of instrumental doodling on organ and guitar. I enjoyed it, although would have preferred a full album of vocal tracks.

Pixies, ‘Doolittle’

As I’ve mentioned before, I couldn’t remember which, if any, Pixies albums I’d heard, so played it safe and logged them all as To Be Listened. It seems incredible that I’d not come to the Pixies, but you know how it is: nobody plays you the record as they assume you know it already, and there’s always other stuff to hear first. Like, say, Pulp’s ‘Different Class’, this is so full of familiar tracks that it feels like a greatest hits: student disco classics like ‘Monkey’s Gone To Heaven’, ‘Debaser’, ‘Wave of Mutilation’, ‘Gouge Away’ and ‘Here Comes Your Man’ all feature. At their best, they mix abrasive elements – the distorted screeching, the screaming – with major chord 4/4 pop sensibilities, which make both the former and the latter more palatable. The second half is less fun, with more ‘Surfer Rosa’-ish noise and fewer melodies, but at least the songs are only like two minutes and it closes with the minimalist ‘Gouge Away’ (did they edit half the lyrics out?). This is essential.

Slint, ‘Spiderland’

In the last couple of weeks this album seems to have come up in conversation repeatedly, so time to get it covered. Slint were a bunch of teenagers who made tangled, slow-burning lo-fi whose influence you can see in Shellac, Idlewild and Mogwai. I think this is an album I admired more than I particularly liked: the intricate diminished-chord arpeggios and spoken mutterings are okay but I guess post-rock has conditioned me to expect a loud part as pay-off. Instead, you’re waiting for the beat to kick in, but it never does.

Next week, I’ll be looking at some of the African music on the list, and reaching the halfway mark on the project! Exciting!

Status update: 499 listened to (49.9%), 502 remain

May 18: Anita Baker, Jean-Michael Jarre, Pixies, Elvis, Talking Heads

Anita Baker, ‘Rapture’.

I picked this one out purely because I didn’t know anything about it. It turns out that I did know the lead single, ‘Sweet Love’. The rest of the album is, alas, lesser versions of that song and the sort of electric piano-heavy, gospel-tinged soul that passed as cutting-edge R&B before Timbaland, Neptunes and BeyoncĂ© tore up the rulebook. Not great.

Jean-Michael Jarre, ‘Oxygene’.

‘Oxygene’ was met with critical apathy on its release for being tasteful, minimalist and primarily concerned with texture. Yet hacks went mad for Air and chill-out music less than 20 years later. I can only assume the advent of the pill comedown changed perspectives. Anyway this is often a pretty series of backing tracks that would sound great with a stronger top line. It still sounds pretty good; less dated and cheap-sounding than many of its descendents.

Pixies, ‘Surfer Rosa’.

I’m sure I have heard Pixies records before but I can’t remember which and to avoid doubt, I’m listening to them all again. Like probably all of their albums, this one oscillates between pop HITZ like ‘Gigantic’ and ‘Where is my Mind?’ and dissonant shouty rock. Trivia: I first heard ‘Cactus’ through the 2002 Bowie cover.

Elvis Presley, ‘From Elvis in Memphis’.

Like the Beatles, Elvis is such an omnipresent part of popular culture that it’s hard to listen to his stuff objectively; however, this is the sound of an artist at his showman peak. The music is sort-of brassy soul with a country feel. ‘In The Ghetto’, the closing track, is an obvious highlight, but ‘Long Black Limousine’ on the A-side is also ace.

Talking Heads, ’77’.

The debut album from the scratchy New Yorkers, ’77’ is a charming but oddly unvaried affair highlighted, of course, by ‘Psycho Killer’. The bonus crap on Spotify includes the version of that song with cellos: the band hated it, but the screechy Hitchcock strings sound pretty good to me.

205 albums listened to. Just 796 to go.