February 5: ABBA, George Michael, Orchestral Manoeuvres, Queen, Santana, Rod Stewart, Teardrop Explodes

It’s my dad’s birthday today so this week on 1001 Albums You Must Hear, I’m listening to seven albums from my parents’ favourites. Of course there are plenty of albums we have in common already (‘Diamond Dogs’, ‘Harvest’, ‘Paranoid’) and plenty I’ve already heard, but here’s seven I never got around to.

ABBA, ‘The Visitors’

I can’t imagine ABBA was ever a cool band to listen to but they definitely weren’t by the time my dad went to uni. Their final album came out while he was there, 1981’s ‘The Visitors’, recorded at a time when all the members were divorced and they were pretty much done with working with one another. As you might imagine, the album’s pretty melancholy and laden with synth textures, although ‘When All Is Said and Done’ rouses itself into the ‘classic’ ABBA sound. There’s bombastic musical theatre and political dread, and Bjorn even contributes a couple of guitar solos. The album has no hits – the singles did very little in the UK – which is a shame as it’s a pretty interesting record.

George Michael, ‘Listen Without Prejudice Volume 1’

My mum’s favourite album is ‘Older’ but that’s not on the list and anyway I’ve already heard it, so let’s look at this. George had already had loads of hits at this point with Wham!, and had already done one solo album, ‘Faith’, but wanted to be taken seriously as a singer and songwriter. The transition was so successful that I came into this album expecting a series of mature adult contemporary hits, while the audience of the day would have probably expected more daft pop music. The album is mostly accomplished mature songwriting, with Michael playing most of the instruments as well as the fine voice, but the serious mood means that there’s not much fun here. Incidentally Volume 2 never came out, although it seems tracks were recorded for it.

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, ‘Architecture and Morality’

My dad had loads of synthy albums like this, although oddly no Kraftwerk (at least not on vinyl). The synth-prodders had had a massive hit with ‘Enola Gay’, to their own bemusement, and weren’t sure whether they wanted to embrace or retreat from their new pop fame. They settled for this, in which their artsy side (‘Sealand’, ‘Joan of Arc (Maid of Orleans)’) squared off against their pop side (‘Souvenir’, another song called ‘Joan of Arc’), held together by booming percussion and Andy McCluskey’s Cure-ish yelp. The melodies, especially on the singles, are beautiful, although their backing is a lot harsher and weirder than you might expect from a synthpop album. This is a spectacular record.

Queen, ‘Sheer Heart Attack’

Both my parents really liked Queen and saw them at Knebworth (which is also where my grandparents live!). Transitioning between the hard rock of ‘Queen’ and ‘Queen II’ (at least they came up with an album title this time) and the camp flutters of ‘A Night at the Opera’, this album features the majority of Queen’s hallmark flavours. They could do it all, of course, so if I told you this album was a versatile combination of harmonies, multi-track guitar virtuosity, hard rock, solo piano tracks and skiffle – a dazzling range for most albums – you’d probably think this is just standard fare for Freddie and the boys.

Santana, ‘Abraxas’

An album my mum kept recommending to me. Santana were almost unknown before transforming their career with an exotic performance at Woodstock in 1969 and capitalised with this 1970 album. Although it’s best known for ‘Black Magic Woman’, this is mostly instrumental and all the better for it: I enjoyed the run of Side A songs where the instrumental tracks kind of blurred into each other, with Carlos adding bluesy solos over Latin percussion and Tito Puente covers. The vocal tracks are less convincing, with Gregg Rolie’s rawk voice an odd fit. Still, at just 37 minutes this is an easy listen. We were still, of course, a few years away from the band’s career highlight and music’s apex.

Rod Stewart, ‘Gasoline Alley’

Rod was still a member of the Faces at this stage, and years from his dabbling with disco, so this features most of the Faces as backing band and, unsurprisingly, doesn’t sound like too much of a departure for him. It’s a bit uneven though: most of the record sort of sounds like a British Neil Young, but then there’s a Womack & Womack cover and a few ropey hard rock numbers. One of those albums that is perfectly acceptable, but which I can’t imagine revisiting. My mum’s favourite is ‘Atlantic Crossing’ but alas that’s not on this list.

The Teardrop Explodes, ‘Kilimanjaro’

I found out very recently that this album was a favourite of my dad’s at uni, which was maybe a surprise as it’s co-produced by Bill Drummond, a favourite of mine from The KLF. It’s sort of a missing link between post-punk and New Romantic, with Julian Cope’s cynical lyrics and angular rhythms mixing it up with reverby rhythm guitar and synth strings. The overall sound is compatible with, perhaps, the Psychedelic Furs. I love the Furs so unsurprisingly I enjoyed this one too. The version I listened to was the original track listing and therefore does not contain ace single ‘Reward’, tacked onto a re-released edition once that song became a hit.

Next week: It’s time for another IF I MUST week!

Status update: 408 heard (41%), 593 remain.

August 12: Requests edition – The Byrds, Dandy Warhols, Grandmaster Flash, Queen, Ride, Scott Walker, Waterboys, Muddy Waters

This edition is mostly driven by requests via Facebook (aside from the Byrds and Waterboys) – thanks to those who requested.

The Byrds, ‘Mr Tambourine Man’.

The 60s janglers were Bob Dylan’s protegees, as you can tell by the multiple songwriting credits on this album (including the title track, probably the Byrds’ best-known work). The band’s trademarks, at least at this point, were the distinctive sound of the 12-string guitar and their harmonies, which are showcased throughout. It does make the album sound very similar throughout, which makes me think there’s better Byrds albums to come, particularly when Gram Parsons shows up later. Still, at least it’s a very pleasant trademark sound. The album ends in an unlikely way, with a cover of ‘We’ll Meet Again’. It sounds exactly as you’d expect.

The Dandy Warhols, ‘Come Down’.

This was the occasional nudists and Brian Jonestown Massacre frenemies’ second attempt at a major label debut after Capitol rejected their first attempt for not having enough songs, resulting in a not-particularly-harmonious combination of stoner droners with power-pop interludes. At one point there are three or four space-rock numbers in a row, which are so slow that when ‘Not If You Were The Last Junkie On Earth’ comes along, it ironically feels like an injection of speed. The louche bohemians are better at the power-pop (‘Cool Like Kim Deal’, ‘Boys Better’, ‘Every Day Should Be A Holiday’), and of course it was this style which eventually made them millions in the form of Vodafone jingle ‘Bohemian Like You’.

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, ‘The Message’.

Best known for the socially-conscious title track which closes the record, the Five (or Six I suppose) don’t seem entirely sure what their strengths are here, oscillating between party rap (the good opening tracks), electro experiments (‘Scorpio’) and abysmal ballads (most of Side 2). The Stevie Wonder tribute is especially bad: later hip-hop would pay tribute to Wonder by just sampling him (‘Gangsta’s Paradise’, er, ‘Wild Wild West’). Not enough fury, or enough Grandmaster Flash for that matter, since most of the songs were created by live musicians rather than from Flash’s turntables. You can’t argue with the title track though, a bona-fide classic from the early hip-hop era.

Queen, ‘Queen II’.

The album art (replicated memorably in the ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ video) is probably more famous than anything on the album itself, which mostly takes place in a fantastical imaginary word called Rhye. Despite its grandiose lyrical conceit, the first half of the album feels like a standard rock album, but it completely loses the plot/massively improves with the ridiculous ‘Ogre Battle’, which is more akin to the preposterous operatic rock that would become the band’s trademark.

Ride, ‘Nowhere’.

Unusually for a shoegaze band, Ride were (yecch) all male, which is perhaps why their stuff on this album at least seems more boisterous and aggressive than My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, the Cocteaus etc, but at the cost of the twinkly beauty that often defines the latter trio, and results in some flat vocals that might have been better lower in the mix. The textures are fascinating though, and elevate the album above a lot of its peers, particularly the screeching noise breaks of ‘Dreams Burn Down’ and the piano/drum battle that closes ‘Paralysed’. This must have been wonderful at ear-splitting volume live. The album ends on a flat note with the dated ‘Vapour Trail’, which sounds like the weakest track but was nonetheless the single.

Scott Walker, ‘Scott 2’.

Noel Engel’s more recent albums have been unsettling wanderings in avant-garde, hanging out with drone merchants like Sunn 0))), which was an unpredictable transition for one of the Walker Brothers. Still, even in this early solo outing, there are clues even among the lush orchestration and baritone crooning: the peculiar, uncommercial lyrics of ‘Jackie’ (a Jacques Brel translation), the urgent, nervy ‘Next’ and the weird echoes and dirge breaks in ‘Plastic Palace People’. ‘Scott 4’ is his famous one but this is worth your time.

The Waterboys, ‘Fisherman’s Blues’.

I picked this one out due to a fleeting obsession with ‘The Whole of the Moon’, the band’s grandiose 80s tribute to Prince and CS Lewis, to which this album bears no resemblance. Here, the band take their cues from Irish folk music and Van Morrison. It starts off well with the first four songs, but a lot of interminable songs (three songs here are over seven minutes long) bog down the album until you’re waiting for it to end. The longest track here is called ‘And A Bang On The Ear’ – this is not how you have sex, Mike Scott!

Muddy Waters, ‘Hard Again’.

Recorded in 1977, at which point Muddy was already in his sixties, this sounds like an overjoyed comeback album. Even the producer can’t hide his delight, whooping excitedly through one-chord opener ‘Mannish Boy’. It’s a blues album, so it uses every standard woke-up-this-morning riff in the genre, but the high standards of production and the overall sense of inspired fun makes it a good listen. It makes it sound like you’re in a great Beale Street bar listening to the best band in town.

Next edition will be an If I Must edition featuring some of the albums I’ve not been looking forward to hearing. This will be more fun for you than for me.

Current progress: 252/1001 (25%), 749 albums remain.