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.

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January 1: The Beatles, Eels, Michael Jackson, Public Enemy, Sigur Ros, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Velvet Underground

Happy New Year! This week I’ll be looking at more of my favourites before going back to normal next week.

The Beatles, ‘The Beatles’

Sometimes it’s all about the context in which you hear an album. I heard the White Album for the first time when I was 18 and falling in love for the first time. The album is all about new love: John with Yoko, Paul with Linda. I guess I came to it at the right time, which may mean that I’m more forgiving of some of the duds than I would be if I’d heard it for the first time last week. That said, while you could get a brilliant single album out of this, expendable duff tracks like ‘Rocky Raccoon’ or Ringo’s ‘Don’t Pass Me By’ (where he sings and plays piano!) feel too charming to lose, and where would we be without ‘Revolution #9’? This is also the album with ‘Back in the USSR’, ‘Dear Prudence’, ‘Julia’, ‘Blackbird’, ‘Revolution #1’, ‘Helter Skelter’ and ‘Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except For Me and My Monkey’. The canonical highlight of their career is ‘Revolver’ but the diversity of sounds, the range of experimentation and the quantity of highlights mean I’ve always been fonder of this one.

Eels, ‘Beautiful Freak’

Eels are one of my favourite bands and this is hardly my favourite of theirs, but it’s their only appearance on the list. While the group were heavily advertised at the time as a guitar-bass-drums trio, drummer Butch and bassist Tommy rarely feature on the album, and are absent from both ‘Novocaine for the Soul’ and ‘Susan’s House’. It’s all about E and his rotating cast of collaborators, with the resulting sound an unusual mix of cynical, misanthropic Generation X post-grunge and dusty, sample-heavy trip-hop. I prefer the heavy, difficult ‘Electro-Shock Blues’, the vicious ‘Souljacker’ and the defiantly upbeat ‘Wonderful, Glorious’ but, if you’re unfamiliar with Eels, this is about as commercial and accessible as E’s grouchy sound gets.

Michael Jackson, ‘Thriller’

This was probably the last point at which Jacko was unquestionably great without a qualifier of “but a bit weird” or “but this album is way too long” (although ‘Bad’ has its highlights). ‘Thriller’ is pretty much impeccable 80s pop, starting with the electro-funk ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ and taking in Jackson’s best compositions in ‘Beat It’ and ‘Billie Jean’. The album also has three consecutive tracks with collaborators which show the range of his eclectic tastes and flexibility: Paul McCartney (sadly the naff ‘The Girl is Mine’ rather than ‘Say, Say, Say’), Vincent Price (on ‘Thriller’) and Eddie Van Halen (on ‘Beat It’). The last track is dreadful, but you can always press stop before that. ‘Thriller’ has sold an amazing 65 million copies: it’s warranted.

Public Enemy, ‘It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back’

‘Fear of a Black Planet’ is denser and probably more complex but this album’s reputation as PE’s finest hour is well-deserved. The Bomb Squad mash Slayer and the Beastie Boys in with James Brown and Isaac Hayes, Chuck D spits his finest rhymes and Flavor Flav rambles around the margins (generally ‘Yo, Chuck!’, ‘we ain’t goin’ out like dat!’ and/or ‘yeah boyee’). ‘Bring the Noise’ and ‘Don’t Believe the Hype’ are on the album early, but my favourite two tracks are late in the album: the proto-rap-metal of ‘She Watch Channel Zero?!’ and the prison riot anthem ‘Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos’. My favourite rap album of all time.

Sigur Ros, ‘Ágætis Byrjun’

The hype preceding this album was that singer Jonsi sang in his own made-up language, Hopelandic. While the album is, in fact, mostly in Icelandic, what’s certainly true is that Sigur Ros were making up their own language musically. Essentially a post-rock band, the album’s most distinctive features are not common to the genre: the glacial pace, the atmospheric bowed guitar, the orchestral breaks, the soprano vocal parts. It often sounds more like the soundtrack to a ballet than a rock album; there are a lot more piano solos than guitar solos on this album. When I first heard this it seemed so remote from anything that I was doing as a songwriter, or that anyone else was doing. The band became normalised, to an extent, due to repeated use in soundtracks and even had a sort-of hit with ‘Hoppipolla’, but that’s probably inevitable with such beautiful, unfathomable music. The translated song titles are good too: ‘Viðrar vel til loftárása’ translates as ‘Good Weather For Airstrikes’.

Siouxsie and the Banshees, ‘Juju’

Lots of commentators prefer ‘The Scream’, the band’s debut, which also appears on the 1001, but for me the band’s peak was the era where Magazine’s John McGeoch played guitar and Budgie played drums, a line-up that lasted from ‘Kaleidoscope’ to ‘A Kiss in the Dreamhouse’ but which most famously resulted in this album. ‘Juju’ is the most goth of the Banshees’ albums, from the song titles (‘Halloween’, ‘Voodoo Dolly’) to the image to the sound: heavy on the rhythm section with McGeoch playing sustained, screechy atmospherics over the top. It’s concise and tight where other Banshees records ramble, is melodically strong, especially on the singles ‘Spellbound’ and ‘Arabian Nights’, and knows how to keep a groove when it wants (e.g. ‘Monitor’). The Banshees are generally a better singles band than an albums band – they’re one of the all-time great singles bands – but this is an essential album, if just for Siouxsie’s pronounciation of “entranced”.

The Velvet Underground, ‘White Light/White Heat’

Of course the first and third albums are on the 1001, and it’s very difficult to pick my favourite VU record, but their second album often ends up overlooked and it’s time to show it some love. It’s easy to understand why it doesn’t get much press: its oblique, noisy sound doesn’t ooze commercial potential and the length of the tracks makes it hard to extract samples for Greatest Hits. Even the title track, the best known song here, has a clustered sound with virtually inaudible drums. I love this album, though: from the surreal narration of ‘The Gift’ (in which a man posts himself to an uninterested lover) to the dissonant noise of ‘Lady Godiva’s Operation’ to the surprisingly gentle ‘Here She Comes Now’. It is, of course, an album based around loud improvisations: both ‘I Heard Her Call My Name’ and ‘Sister Ray’ are characterised by unpredictable bursts of noise. Not for the faint-hearted, ‘White Light/White Heat’ is a boldly charismatic, uncompromising record.

Next week will be seven of the albums I haven’t heard before, but which I’m looking forward to hearing. Hooray!