August 6: Jeff Beck, Kate Bush, Killing Joke, Todd Rundgren, Steely Dan, Suede, X

Welcome back to another installment of the 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die! It’s been a busy week: I’ve also had a review of Indietracks festival published here, as well as signing up to a couple of gigs with my own band. Still listened to seven albums as ever, though, with this week’s selection picked out of the many albums I was looking forward to hearing.

As always, feel free to start the discussion in the comments or on the social media platform of yr choice.

Jeff Beck, ‘Truth’

One of the best things about ‘Roger the Engineer‘ was Jeff Beck’s unpredictable soloing, and his solo album goes into further unusual directions, featuring blues, proto-metal, folk rock, weird riffing, psychedelic noise, bagpipes, and a version of ‘Greensleeves’, because why not eh? There’s a Who’s Who of 60s rock royalty accompanying Beck (some of which are actually The Who, but I’ll refrain from doing the Abbot & Costello bit): Keith Moon, Ronnie Wood, Rod Stewart, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones all show up. It’s mostly pretty interesting, although the final two songs let the side down a bit, being unremarkable blues songs with a combined running time of 12 minutes.

Kate Bush, ‘The Dreaming’

Recorded with no apparent thoughts about commercial potential or live performance, ‘The Dreaming’ features two singles optimistically extracted by Bush’s label, who gave up releasing further singles after neither of those two went anywhere. No wonder: this might be the weirdest album I’ve listened to on the list. A patchwork quilt of fragments, oddly-processed vocals, samples, didgeridoo and choirboys, with some Art of Noise style collaging and some Cardiacs-style quirk-pop, this album is freakishly unusual in a way that Emilie Autumn wishes she could achieve. All the hits are on ‘Hounds of Love‘, but this peculiar work is well worth a listen.

Killing Joke, ‘Killing Joke’ (1980)

There are two eponymous Killing Joke albums, but the one on the list is their debut from 1980. KJ’s interests on this album are all groove and riff, rather than necessarily adhering to a verse/chorus format: it’s mostly flange-y guitars, tribal drumming and singer Jaz yelling (although in a less hoarse, aggressive way than on, say, ‘Pandemonium’), with some similarities to contemporaries like Siouxsie and the Banshees and Public Image Ltd. An interesting debut, with tracks like ‘Requiem’ giving hints towards heavier, more violent albums in their future.

Todd Rundgren, ‘Something/Anything?’

Rundgren’s brain-nuking acid trip ‘A Wizard, A True Star‘ is one of the stand-out discoveries from this project, but before he got there, he sprawled his experimentation over a double album, with a different vibe on each side of vinyl. The first side is essentially poppy soft rock, the second a ‘cerebral’ set of weirdness, the third a patchy collection of heavy rocker and the fourth a loose, ramshackle collection of semi-improvised jams with a under-rehearsed squad of hacks. There’s too much of it, and listening to all 90 minutes is probably for diehards only. Still, it’s full of offbeat personality, and juidicious skipping means there’s some fun here (‘I Saw The Light’, ‘Breathless’, ‘Couldn’t I Just Tell You’, ‘Hello It’s Me’, ‘Slut’).

Steely Dan, ‘Pretzel Logic’

The band’s last album while they were still both a touring and recording proposition (they moved exclusively into the studio after this), ‘Pretzel Logic’ retains the two guitarists from previous albums, but is mostly Becker and Fagen working with a bunch of session musicians to create the polished sound they were after. Poor Jim Hodder, the band’s drummer, doesn’t play drums on the album at all! Unsurprisingly it’s highly competent and musically cohesive, with horns taking a more central role than on the other album I’ve heard (‘Can’t Buy A Thrill‘), but perhaps without the quirkly intrigue of that album. Still, unusually for a 70s rock album, it’s unshowy: a mere 34 minutes with no instrumental jams, virtuoso guitar trickery or vocal flashiness.

Suede, ‘Suede’

By the time I got into music, Suede had already had a line-up shuffle and the hype around them from the music press had long since faded, even if ‘Coming Up’ was a commercial and critical success. In 1993, though, the NME were so high on Suede that there was a lot of expectation riding on their debut album, expectation which they mostly lived up to. Starting with ‘So Young’ and ‘Animal Nitrate’, ‘Suede’ shows a band who’ve done their homework: there’s something of Echo’s swoon, Smiths croon, the Spiders from Mars’s sass, that Husker Du-ish processed fuzz tone on the guitar, and a kind of “smart guys lost on the London bedsit scene” vibe that they share with the Pet Shop Boys. Yeah, this is a good album. ‘Dog Man Star’ is also on the list, but I’ve heard it already.

X, ‘Wild Gift’

The shortest band name on the list (no appearances for A), X were mainly driven by twin vocalists/husband and wife John Doe and Exene, whose shared harmonies and interplay gives the album a cohesiveness and unity of purpose. The music behind it is punk rock with a 50s rock’n’roll or country shuffle, which is a style that you still hear all the time among the double bass and sideburns crowd. Yet there’s a yearning and urgency about cuts like ‘Universal Corner’ that separates X from Z. Pretty decent.

Next week: we’ll be looking at some of the best pop music from the 90s and 00s (according to the 1001 curators anyway).

Status update: 588 heard (59%), 413 remain.

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September 18: Leonard Cohen, Elvis Costello, Led Zeppelin, Sonic Youth, Bruce Springsteen, Steely Dan, The Who

This week, I’ll be looking at some of the artists who feature on the list most often, but whose output is mostly a mystery to me. It probably won’t surprise you that the artists who have most entries on the list are The Beatles, David Bowie and Neil Young (seven albums each). I’ve already listened to all the Beatles and Bowie, but we will be seeing a lot more of the following artists…

Leonard Cohen, ‘Songs of Leonard Cohen’.

One of four Cohen albums on the list, this one is his debut, which features two of his best-known songs in ‘Suzanne’ and ‘So Long, Marianne’ (like Lou Reed, Cohen liked naming songs after women). Recorded in the late 60s, this album is atypical for its era as it’s often quite stark and stripped-down, whereas a lot of singer-songwriter albums are drenched in strings and horns. Indeed Cohen had to battle with a producer keen to orchestrate his songs. It’s pretty good, but I bet there’s better albums in Cohen’s oeuvre and on this list. Fans of 80s goth will be pleased to know that not only does this album contain the track ‘Sisters of Mercy’ but, in a later track, the line “some girls wander by mistake”, later used by the Sisters for a compilation.

Elvis Costello, ‘This Year’s Model’.

One of a sextet of Costello albums on the list and, look, it’s not like I hate him – I think it’s difficult to do so – but six albums? It’s like having six Weezer albums, or six Squeeze albums. This one features ‘I Don’t Want To Go To Chelsea’ and ‘Night Rally’, both of which trump anything on ‘My Aim Is True’, and the production and playing is clean, but I’m yet to hear anything essential in these albums.

Led Zeppelin, ‘Led Zeppelin II’.

There are five Zep records on the list, of which I’d heard just one (‘IV’). As well as the templated heavy blues, this one has all sorts of dynamic tricks up its sleeve: unexpected noise breaks (in ‘Whole Lotta Love’), drum solos (which could often be extended to 30 minutes live!), false fades and more. Aside from ‘Thank You’ – a sort of grandfather to 80s metal power ballads – this didn’t do a whole lotta exciting me, and has a song called ‘Living Loving Maid (She’s Just A Woman)’: I mean, ugh. Still, although the bluesy squalls aren’t necessarily to my taste, you can’t fault the musicianship, and as far as legacy and impact goes it’s obviously an important album.

Sonic Youth, ‘Sister’.

I’d heard the intermittently-superb ‘EVOL’ so the earliest Sonic Youth album on the list that I’d not heard was its successor, ‘Sister’, which bridges the gap between the noise-rock of ‘EVOL’ and the MTV-bothering tunes-and-weird of ‘Daydream Nation’. Despite the fact that zillions of imitators have recycled the ideas herein, the source material still remains compelling, with Moogs, church bells and ear-splitting noise embellishing a surprisingly coherent album. Like any band this abrasive – Atari Teenage Riot, Melt-Banana – their sound feels more effective in doses less than a full album’s worth, but this is an excellent album.

Bruce Springsteen, ‘Born to Run’.

When Todd Rundgren first heard the ‘Bat Out Of Hell’ demo, he thought it was a hilarious parody of Bruce Springsteen, extending the joke by getting two of the E Street Band in to play on the album when he produced it. Listening to ‘Thunder Road’, it’s easy to see why he might have drawn that conclusion (‘Bat Out Of Hell’ does sound very much like an overwrought version of ‘Thunder Road’). Of course, one of the other stylistic innovations of this album – putting glockenspiel all over the place – has been pilfered by the Arcade Fire and others, meaning the imitators have plundered most of the main tricks here. This is okay, and the second half removes a lot of the elements in the first half that now seem cheesy, but I dunno, the Boss is still yet to show me the magic everyone else sees.

Steely Dan, ‘Can’t Buy A Thrill’.

The band have four albums on this list, starting with this, their debut. It’s an odd choice for a name because Steely Dan were a soft-rock band in the 70s: they knew full well they could buy a thrill in grams or ounces. It’s also a novelty in the band’s back catalogue as it features a different lead singer: David Palmer covers some of the vocals here and live due to Donald Fagen’s concerns about his voice. Anyway, whoever’s on vocals, the music is great, with piano noodles, Latin rhythms, screeching solos and more in the mix. It’s very accomplished coke-y soft-rock: I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this as much as I did.

The Who, ‘The Who Sell Out’.

Five Who records on the list, here’s the second. On this one, the band pay homage to pirate radio with an album segued together with jingles and occasionally writing about products as if they were adverts – although this being The Who, the lyrics have an odd take (‘Odorono’ is about a woman failing to complete a romantic experience because she hadn’t used underarm deodorant). The segues and musical variety make this one a blast, with Moon’s drumming and the vocal harmonies standing out. The best-known song is ‘I Can See For Miles’, but there’s plenty of other treats on this day-glo Pop Art album.

Next time, I’ll be looking at some of the Australian albums on the list. See you then.

Status check: 280 listened to (28%), 721 remain.