June 10: Incubus, Meat Puppets, Minutemen, Pavement, Pixies, Screaming Trees, Violent Femmes

We’re looking over to the States again for a dose of 80s and 90s rock, in a selection spanning 17 years. Some well-liked bands here, some of which I’ve never heard before. Let’s see what’s in the bag…

Incubus, ‘Make Yourself’

The most recent album this week, released in 1999: amazing to think this was nearly 20 years ago. ‘A Certain Shade of Green’, from the band’s ‘S.C.I.E.N.C.E.’ album, is a shoo-in if I ever make a nu-metal playlist, but on ‘Make Yourself’, the band start to make the move towards the kind of Pearl Jam-style music that moved them into the mainstream. The commercial rock parts of the album feel the stalest, at least to my ears, while the freshest-sounding elements are actually the nu-metal trappings (the scratching, the samples) which I thought would sound like museum pieces. Still, I’m sure they’re not too concerned about my take when ‘Pardon Me’ is a familiar song from rock clubs and they went on to have even bigger hits with 2001’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ (and the album ‘Morning View’).

Meat Puppets, ‘II’

The Puppets’ second album is also their most famous due to their subsequent association with Nirvana, who performed three of the band’s songs on ‘Unplugged’ alongside the band’s Cris and Curt Kirkwood. While their previous album was hardcore (apparently, I haven’t heard it), here they buy acoustic guitars and weird 60s pedals and record an album which might be a suburbanite in Arkansas approaching the end of their tether. Pretty listenable, and a breeze at 29 minutes.

Minutemen, ‘Double Nickels on the Dime’

A double album crammed with as many songs as they had, this crams 42 tracks into 70 minutes, including the ‘Jackass’ theme tune. Their trade is scratchy, jazzy meanderings, perhaps an American Gang of Four who’ve listened to Ornette Coleman. However, there’s time for all sorts on here: shambling live recordings, a polka, Henry Rollins contributions and a song scored for a trio of cars. Sadly, the Spotify version omits their version of Van Halen’s ‘Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love’, but 42 tracks is too many to be listening to this band as it is.

Pavement, ‘Slanted and Enchanted’

I know I got into it 15 years after everyone else but ‘Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain’ is one of the best albums I’ve heard on this project. ‘Slanted and Enchanted’ was one album earlier, two fewer band members (they added the second guitarist and Bob, and changed drummer) and contains fewer familiar hits. This is a very popular album among Pavement fans but I’m not as keen: it’s more dissonant, less melodic, and perhaps still containing some leftover punk trappings from Malkmus’s previous band. Maybe more listens will make it easier to love. Either way, this is our last visit to Pavement.

Pixies, ‘Bossanova’

The third and final appearance of the Pixies on the list, this one does digress from the template established on ‘Doolittle‘ but rather than bossa nova, they try out surf and space rock. It features the faint Talking Heads sound of ‘Dig For Fire’ and the rock song ‘Velouria’, and is probably their most cohesively sequenced and arranged album. However, I think the songwriting on ‘Doolittle’ trumps anything here. The band went on to do ‘Trompe le Monde’ and lately returned for some Kim-free comeback albums, none of which make the list.

Screaming Trees, ‘Dust’

Accomplished but boring, this final album from Mark Lanegan and the band is a fairly late grunge album, released in 1996. It piles on the guitars and vocal harmonies, and sounds very professional in a way that sands off any possible edge that it might have had. Sometimes (like on ‘Make My Mind’) it sounds like U2, sometimes (as on ‘Look At You’) it sounds like Robbie Williams album fodder. The sort of music your big brother would like while he sneered at you for liking Le Tigre.

Violent Femmes, ‘Violent Femmes’¬†

The first and biggest selling Femmes record opens with ‘Blister in the Sun’, their most famous song and the only one I’d heard of theirs. The remainder of the album follows along similar lines: like the Meat Puppets, it’s a punkish set-up recorded mostly on acoustic guitars, giving it something of a country feel. There’s also something vaguely Only Ones about Gordon Gano’s unenunciated drawl, and a stop for a xylophone solo on the back end of the album. Pretty good, and suggests the band’s back catalogue deserves exploring beyond the one hit.

Next week: It’s gonna be another week of editors’ choice as we get into the back end of the project.

Status update: 882 listened to (88%), 119 albums remain.

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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 Beyonc√© 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.