September 10: Dictators, Kings of Leon, Elvis Presley, Prince, Queen Latifah, Queens of the Stone Age, Stereolab

To celebrate Prince George’s first day at school, perhaps, this week looks at some of the ruling classes: any artist with a suitably regal name or album title. I wish I’d come up with this idea when we still had BB King, Carole King, King Crimson, and Queen still to review, but there’s still seven albums ready for your perusal this week. Let’s dive in.

Dictators, ‘Go Girl Crazy!’ (link)

I had absolutely no idea what this album was going in, but I forgot the golden rule: on the 1001 and you’ve never heard of it? It’s punk. This lot were a mid-70s act doing proto-punk: it’s a tongue-in-cheek take on rock’n’roll where everyone’s acting as dumb as possible. They’re playing fast and loud and kind of sloppily, as if everything could have done with a few more takes, including a deliberately daft cover of ‘I Got You Babe’ given away as early as track 2. If the Tubes aren’t on the 1001, and they aren’t, there’s no real reason for this to be.

Kings of Leon, ‘Youth and Young Manhood’ (link)

Now that Kings of Leon are a huge stadium act, it’s hard to remember that back in the day they sounded like this, kind of like The Strokes if they were into Creedence Clearwater Revival, with clean production where they should sound like they’ve been dragged out of a swamp. The Marmite on top of this fairly bland bread is Caleb, who barely sings an intelligible line at any point. Imagery evoked: A bunch of massively hungover drifters go on a hike across the desert with hilarious results.

Elvis Presley, ‘Elvis is Back!’ (link)

Well, he is the King after all. Presley had been serving in the army for the previous two years, and while he had still managed to record some singles in that time, this was sort of a comeback record for him. As with ‘Elvis Presley‘, it feels kind of like a mixed bag despite the quick recording and consistent backing band: there’s rock’n’roll, doo-wop, country and a cover of ‘Fever’ among other tracks. I guess it was a different age: get the album recorded and released quickly so that people didn’t forget about you. The last two tracks are probably the strongest on an album that’s a decent collection of songs which don’t quite cohese as an album. This is our last look at Elvis; I reviewed the chronologically latest of his albums on the list here.

Prince, ‘Purple Rain’ (link)

I’d struggled to get on with ‘1999’ and ‘Sign O’ The Times’ with all its screechy peacocking and minimalist funk, but the Purple One seems more focused on this album, trimmed down to 42 minutes and remembering to invite The Revolution to the studio for once. It feels like a concise summary of his entire schtick: the synth-funk (‘Computer Blue’), the melodramatic ballads (‘The Beautiful Ones’), the guitar solos (‘Purple Rain’), the filthy sex (‘Darlin’ Nikki’), the hits (‘When Doves Cry’). Yeah this is real good. Dig if you will.

Queen Latifah, ‘All Hail The Queen’ (not on Spotify)

The future Academy Award nominee wasn’t the first female rapper or even the biggest-selling, but is perhaps the best known of her generation. While the early stages of the album sound like just another Daisy Age album (De La Soul show up on ‘Mama Gave Birth To The Soul Children’, mucking about with sped-up voices), Latifah quickly deviates, dropping 808-heavy house rhythms on ‘Come Into My House’ and cutting down amateurs at rap battles over a King Tubby dub plate on ‘The Pros’. The Queen’s lyrical delivery feels sharp too: she somehow manages to sound like Chuck D and Flavor Flav at the same time. She’s not made a rap album since 2003 – she switched over to singing at that point, and then acting became her thing – but this is a good example of what brought her to the game.

Queens of the Stone Age, ‘Queens of the Stone Age’ (link)

The first album from the future megastars, who were at this time just Josh Homme and drummer Alfredo Hernandez; weird to see this here and not ‘Rated R’ or ‘Songs for the Deaf’. While those albums built on the Queens template and diversified, here there probably aren’t enough cooks around the pot, as the monotony of the repetitive ‘robot rock’ quickly becomes apparent. The samey formula and monochromatic arrangements mean the novelty wears off early; I was ready for this to be done by the tenth track, although at least the final two tracks are good. Be careful: the 2011 re-issue adds superfluous pissabouts mid-album.

Stereolab, ‘Emperor Tomato Ketchup’ (link)

Stereolab were one of the very first bands I saw as they opened up V96 when I was 14, although I was nonplussed by their sound. Listening now, it’s easy to see why: I’d never heard of them and their indirect fusion of Serge Gainsbourg and Kraftwerk isn’t the most compelling combination for a teenager at a summer festival. It’s easier to enjoy it 21 years later: you can see how their Gallic loungey qualities paved the way for not just the likes of Air but the likes of All Seeing I or Zero 7 too, while producer John McEntire (of Tortoise) injects energy on tracks like ‘The Noise of Carpet’. I think it’s probably too long – it’s 57 minutes – but it’s fine.

Next week: a less daft reason for a collection as we listen to that most traditional of genres, folk!

Status update: 623 listened to (62%), 378 remain.

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June 25: Chic, Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, Parliament, Prince, Sly and the Family Stone, War

I hear this week’s choice of albums is a bad mother-

Shut your mouth!

But I’m talking about funk!

Then we can dig it!

This week, we’ll be getting on the dancefloor with some of the funkiest platters in the box, so I hope you’re ready to shake your ass.

Chic, ‘Risque’

Our second and final visit to Nile and the gang opens with immaculate evergreen ‘Good Times’, and if you don’t like that then I can’t do nothing for you. There’s two other singles on the album, ‘My Forbidden Lover’ and ‘My Feet Keep Dancing’, which follow a similar template of cool guitar chopping, elastic bass and string section. Meanwhile, this week’s most apt song, ‘Warm Summer Night’, drifts at the same sort of tempo I was operating at all week in zillion-degree heatwave temperature. As with ‘C’est Chic’, the album’s B-side has a dull experiment in repetition, although at least ‘Will You Cry (When You Hear This Song)’ is only four minutes compared to seven minutes of ‘At Last I Am Free’. One of the great singles bands, this is the better of their two albums on the list.

Isaac Hayes, ‘Shaft: Music From The Soundtrack’

The private dick who’s a sex machine with all the chicks is probably better known from this song than the film series in which he appears, and ‘Theme From Shaft’ is Hayes’ best-known song. Only three vocal tracks over four sides here, with the majority being instrumental soundtrack pieces based around horns, Hayes on keyboards and vibraphone and rhythms that often feel Latin in flavour. Second disc standout ‘Do Your Thing’, nearly twenty minutes long, accelerates tempo and guitar dissonance like a rock song, before crumbling into organ solo exhaustion. I didn’t mind having this on, but it’s no ‘Hot Buttered Soul’ is it.

Curtis Mayfield, ‘Superfly’

Mayfield’s best-known solo album is certainly better known than ‘Super Fly’, the film which it soundtracks. I’ve never seen ‘Super Fly’, which had a perfectly acceptable amount of commercial success (and 91% on Rotten Tomatoes), but I can see why this great record was much more successful. The film tracks a drug dealer, which allows Mayfield to incorporate social themes (i.e. drugs and their consequences) into a fusion of funk and soul which marries strong rhythm sections with orchestral strings, making for a soundtrack as groovy as it is dramatic.

Parliament, ‘Mothership Connection’

I’ve heard these goofballs a few times in their alternate incarnation as Funkadelic, a more guitar-heavy, leftfield take on funk. Here, they create a mythology of black guys in UFOs (although wasn’t that part of Sun Ra’s whole deal?) and leave most of the instrumentation to Bootsy Collins, he of the star-shaped bass, who also contributes guitar and drums. This took a couple of tracks to warm to, but I was onboard from ‘Unfunky UFO’ onwards. The album was fun, but I bet it’s more entertaining live, where the ebuillence of the musicians is more likely to be infectious.

Prince, ‘1999’

Guys I know you all like Prince, but his albums haven’t done a whole lot for me yet: for every stone-cold classic, there’s a lot of waffle on the Fairlight and the Linn, and sections where nothing happens. The title track is a classic of course, a bit of Cold War four-minutes-to-midnight paranoia which was reclaimed as a party anthem by the time we actually hit the year 1999. Yet it’s ‘Automatic’ that feels like the more representative microcosm of the album: ten minutes of Prince yowling like Red Dwarf’s Cat, weird synthesizer squeals and long instrumental passages. Just one more of the Purple One’s albums on the list, ‘Purple Rain’.

Sly and the Family Stone, ‘Stand!’

‘There’s a Riot Goin’ On’ is the album always considered the classic: a gloomy bit of bleak drum machine funk which sounds smothered due to a master tape ruined by endless erasing and overdubbing. Yet ‘Stand!’ feels like the drugs were better, with a upbeat first half, ‘Everyday People’, a thirteen-minute jam with a lengthy drum solo which somehow manages to avoid boredom, and more. The first half sounds vaguely like the Temptations or the Drifters, while the second half pushes the boat out into looser and more abstract waters. Still, this is less oblique than I was expecting.

War, ‘The World is a Ghetto’

I only knew a few things about War – Eric Burdon, ‘Why Can’t We Be Friends?’, ‘My Mate Marmite’ – none of which are on this record. ‘The World is a Ghetto’ is probably the most rock-orientated of this week’s cuts, with a faint nod to ‘Voodoo Chile’ in second track ‘Where Was You At’. The third song, ‘City, Country, City’ is 13 minutes long, but mostly concerns itself with maintaining the beat, whereas last week’s prog albums were only bothered about the beat if it was 13/8 or something. The B-side is boring, floating woozily through the summer evening like a bee drunk on nectar and at the same sort of pace.

Next week: It’s time to check out some of the bands with three albums each on the list, including some artists making their blog debut!

Status update: 548 listened to (55%), 453 remaining.

 

September 11: ‘Abbey Road’, ‘Blood on the Tracks’, ‘Rumours’,’Forever Changes’, ‘Astral Weeks’, ‘Sign O’ The Times’, The Stone Roses, ‘Marquee Moon’

One of the advantages of a project like this is that it makes you listen to things that you’ve never quite got around to, allowing for gaps in your knowledge to be plugged. In this week’s update, I’ll be looking at some albums that almost always appear on Classic Albums lists, yet which I’ve never heard. Feel free to castigate me for not having heard any of these before in the comments.

The Beatles, ‘Abbey Road’.

A peculiarity: I had listened to all the Beatles’ albums between 1965-1968, even owning crappy odds-and-sods like ‘Yellow Submarine’ (although that does have ‘Hey Bulldog’), but had stopped at the White Album and not explored beyond it. Why? Because the blue double album best of had hardly inspired confidence in late-era Beatles, with crap like ‘Get Back’ and ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’ stinking up the end of that record. It was, then, with some reluctance that I came to ‘Abbey Road’. This being their farewell album, however, the band made the effort, with Lennon and McCartney raising their games, Harrison bringing some of his most accessible songs and even Ringo putting in a shift with ‘Octopus Garden’. There are some false steps: ‘Come Together’ and ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ prove yet again that blues is not the band’s strong suit, and the hidden track ‘Her Majesty’ is superfluous. However, the concluding medley is a fitting finale for the 60s’ greatest band. Just don’t mention ‘Let It Be’.

Bob Dylan, ‘Blood on the Tracks’.

Like an overquoted movie like ‘Casablanca’ or ‘Psycho’, it’s hard to come to a classic Dylan album for the first time: even though you’ve never heard it before, it’s so familiar that you might as well have. This is the third album I’ve heard of Bob’s, and it’s the one that most closely matches the stereotype I have in my head of him (mind you, one of the other albums of his I’ve heard was the inexplicable ‘Christmas in the Heart’, probably the least Dylanesque of his albums). There’s a harmonica solo in almost every song, most of the songs are over five minutes long, and they’re often just vocals and guitar. This may not be a popular decision but this didn’t do an awful lot for me I’m afraid. Luckily for Zimmermaniacs there’s still plenty of albums of his coming up, so maybe I’ll be more swayed by those.

Fleetwood Mac, ‘Rumors’.

Notoriously made while hedonistically partying like mad in an attempt to forget that their relationships had disintegrated – it was the style at the time, Abba did it too – it’s incredible that this album features a song as jauntily poppy as ‘Don’t Stop’, even if it is a fairly lousy slice of honky-tonk corn. Despite the soap opera background, the band managed to keep their shit together enough to hit home runs on virtually every track here: each of the songs is a triumphant achievement, and, in the case of ‘The Chain’, a dull plod suddenly gets a song-saving injection of adrenaline midway through. Sure it’s cheesy and soft, but it’s artfully written and masterfully constructed.

Love, ‘Forever Changes’.

The final Love album with the original line-up, this one was lucky to feature them at all: they were so lost in LSD, smack and infighting that exasperated producer Bruce Botnick hired a bunch of ace session hands to back Arthur Lee on two songs instead. This tactic finally motivated the slackers to bother to learn Lee’s songs, and they’re on all the rest of the songs (the hacks’ tracks still made the cut though). Neil Young was invited to produce but backed out: no wonder under the circumstances. Anyway, the album’s disillusioned melancholia gives it a bit more weight than a lot of groovy flower-power albums of the era, but it is still very much an album of its time, almost like a time capsule from the late 60s. I think I prefer what I’ve heard of ‘Da Capo’, perhaps because it feels more ragged and experimental even if it’s less cohesive as an album than this one.

Van Morrison, ‘Astral Weeks’.

A few weeks ago I reviewed the Waterboys’ ‘Fisherman’s Blues’, where the artist’s best-known song (‘Whole of the Moon’) gave little clue that their best-known album would be folk-heavy and largely acoustic. So too with ‘Astral Weeks’, which sounds nothing like Van’s student disco fixture ‘Brown Eyed Girl’. This is a staple of ‘Best Album Ever’ lists, so it’s no surprise to see it here, but I’m not sure I get it. The songs are unacceptably long, frequently pushing at the five- and even ten-minute marks, and the musicians are audibly figuring out their parts as they go: they were told to play whatever they felt like and were in many cases recorded in one take, which gives it a doodling feel. The album lasts 47 minutes; feels longer.

Prince, ‘Sign O’ The Times’.

Speaking of albums that feel long. Of Montreal are my favourite band and it almost feels like I should have had a mandatory education in Prince as a result and yet, due to the Purple One’s absence from Spotify and so forth, this is the first time I’ve checked out one of his albums. Come on, Prince’s estate! Even The Beatles are there now! Maybe it wasn’t the wisest idea to start with the 80-minute album, a lot of which sounds very similar (side 2 especially is mostly minimalist Fairlight funk). Side 3 has all the hits, and it’s hard to dismiss an album with two songs as different but as good as ‘I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man’ and ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’ on the same side. Good, not great, and too long. There are a couple of other Prince albums on the list, which I’m expecting good things from.

The Stone Roses, ‘The Stone Roses’.

If you’ve known me for a while then you’ll know that Madchester isn’t exactly my favourite scene, and yet here’s the second album in three weeks from the early 90s Manchester era. Yay. Like ‘Twin Peaks’, the Roses had a big hit with the first effort, on which their reputation rests, despite a less successful second release, and are only now doing a third, 25 years later. Is the first album any cop, though? Certainly it starts off promisingly, with the moody ‘I Wanna Be Adored’, the dynamic ‘She Bangs The Drums’ and the glistening ‘Waterfall’, but the momentum isn’t sustained: the fourth song is just the third song backwards right? And the sixth is ‘Scarborough Fair’ for 50 seconds? And the eleventh is ‘I Am The Resurrection’ for EIGHT minutes? (The Spotify version really compounds the piss-taking by adding a ten-minute version of ‘Fool’s Gold’ on the end, but I won’t count that against the album.) It feels like a ‘good singles, bad album tracks’ album: not that this is necessarily a bad thing but it’s hardly the second best album ever or whatever.

Television, ‘Marquee Moon’.

You get eight this week because I can’t count. I’d tried to get into Television before, even seeing them play this very album at Latitude one year, but I never quite got it. Listening to it now, however, I wonder whether it just caught me at a bad time, as this album is ace. The angular melodies of ‘Elevation’ and the title track are up my street and even a slow-motion meander like ‘Torn Curtain’ is redeemed by a heartfelt guitar solo. One listen isn’t really enough to herald acclaimed nuances such as the lyrics, but you can see why turn-of-century hipsters like The Strokes and Franz Ferdinand were paying attention.

Next week, I’ll be listening to some of the artists who appear on this list most frequently. Do Steely Dan or Elvis Costello warrant four or more albums each on here? Only one way to find out.

Progress report: 273/1001 (27%), 728 remain.