October 7: The Sonics, Soul II Soul, Steely Dan, Stereo MCs, Talk Talk, Turbonegro, ZZ Top

Today’s seven is our final seven of the project, as we reach 1001/1001. It’s been a long journey, so thanks for reading and following my 30-month voyage through the list! Next week will be a more in-depth look at the best and worst of the adventure, so let’s get to the final albums on the list…

The Sonics, ‘Here Are The Sonics!!!’

The earliest of the albums regarded as proto-punk (it came out in 1964), this is essentially rock and roll standards played very fast, in a raw and aggressive way. It reminds me of the Jerry Lee Lewis album from the same year, with everything played at a billion miles an hour. There’s perhaps not enough momentum or variety for an entire album, but then it’s only 29 minutes long anyway. The Sonics were so young that when they disintegrated two years after this, it was because some members went to university. Feted by The Cramps and The Fall among others, The Sonics eventually reformed and are still touring now, albeit with only one original member.

Soul II Soul, ‘Club Classics Vol. One’

Nominally the Soul II Soul album with the hits on, although ‘Back To Life’ is only there on a technicality (it’s an a capella cut which was extensively reworked into the single version). It’s a smooth, classy version of 808-heavy soul music which is palatable if not exactly exciting. The worst thing about it is Jazzie B’s rapping: he rhymes like Des’ree and flows like Murray Head. Unfortunately, his vocals are so prominent that it’s difficult to take this album seriously; whenever someone else has the mic, the album’s quality improves dramatically.

Steely Dan, ‘Aja’

The final of four Steely Dan albums on the list, this one is almost a solo album by Donald Fagen, with Walter Becker mainly contributing guitar solos. As the band get smoother, they retain the quirky, sarcastic lyrics but lose the hooks and musical peculiarity that informs my favourite of theirs, ‘Can’t Buy A Thrill’. ‘Aja’ comprises of jazz-informed pop, with songs sprawling for seven or eight minutes. The best-known song here is perhaps ‘Deacon Blues’, the title of which named the Scottish 80s act.

Stereo MCs, ‘Connected’

I’d been putting this one off because it didn’t feel like it would be very good, and managed to successfully defer it until the very end. ‘Connected’ contains the band’s best known songs – the title track and ‘Step It Up’ – and it sort of sounds like a Golden Age of Hip-Hop record but in nonchalant British accents. It’s too long – it lasts nearly an hour – but better than I was expecting. Still, though, you don’t need this when there are other Golden Age albums on the list (De La Soul, Jungle Bros etc). The Stereo MCs couldn’t follow it up: burned out after touring this album from 1992 to 1994, they withdrew from performing for six years, eventually coming back in 2001 with the unlovely ‘Deep Down & Dirty’.

Talk Talk, ‘Colour of Spring’

I didn’t really know anything about Talk Talk before this album but it turns out that, at least here, they’re a sophisticated art-pop act with occasional experiments with piercing guitar lines that Mansun’s Chad was probably listening to. Considering some of the rough edges that get brought in – children’s choir on ‘Happiness is Easy’, amateur-hour recorder section on ‘Time It’s Time’ – it’s surprising that it sounds so smooth. Large swathes of it don’t demand attention, however.

Turbonegro, ‘Apocalypse Dudes’

With song titles like ‘Rendezvous With Anus’ and ‘Don’t Say Motherfucker, Motherfucker’ you can probably understand what this sounds like without having to listen to it. In case there’s any doubt, it’s a glammy punk record played at a frantic pace (they call it ‘deathpunk’). The tongue-in-cheek Swedish quintet foreshadowed the advent of compatriots The Hives and British mayflies The Darkness; much like them, the album is samey. It’s also weirdly trebly, either by accident or design.

ZZ Top, ‘Tres Hombres’

And of course, the final album is ZZ Top, the band at the end of the alphabet (although there is a Dutch rock duo called zZz). I’ve reviewed them before and wasn’t impressed at the phony trappings of ‘Eliminator‘. Here, we’re earlier in the band’s career – they didn’t even have the massive beards – and as you’d expect from the title, it’s a more authentic record of the trio playing together. It often sounds like a well-produced blues album: specifically, the John Lee Hooker influences are strong on ‘La Grange’, although there’s also a harmonies-laden waltz called ‘Hot, Blue and Righteous’. Not bad; certainly not a low point to go out on. I listened to the 2006 remaster, which was a salvage job restoring the original mix; the version that was issued on CD in the mid-80s (and from then on) was a much-loathed digital remix.

Next week: I’ll be rounding up some of the highlights and lowlights of the project, and my views on the list in general. This will probably contain a lot of lists, because I like lists of albums (can you tell?)

Status update: 1001 OF 1001 LISTENED TO (100%), 0 remain. 

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April 29: Nick Cave, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, REM, The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Steely Dan

Welcome back to 1001 Albums, where this week it’s a party full of people we’ve already hung out with several times. Many of today’s star guests are making their final appearance on the blog, as we’ve now listened to everything on the list by them: we’re in the last six months of the project after all. Let’s get to it.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘The Boatman’s Call’ (link)

Many of the albums we’ve been listening to of Cave’s involve a one-legged pirate murdering a dwarf at a carnival or something, but this album by the Antipodean vampire is less lurid and more sombre and romantic than usual. Written around the time of a brief and unsuccessful relationship with PJ Harvey, although not necessarily about her, the infusion of personal themes invigorates Cave’s writing. The best thing here is ‘Brompton Oratory’, in which Cave conflates religious ceremony and carnal desire in a classical Catholic manner. Also, what an opening lyric for an album: “I don’t believe in an interventionist God”. The only gripe is that maybe it’s too long for such a windswept album.

Miles Davis, ‘In A Silent Way’ (link)

Our final of four visits to Davis, but the third chronologically, this one has just two tracks, unravelling over eighteen minutes each. The first, ‘Shhh/Peaceful’, starts off like a jumbled 60s spy movie soundtrack and ends up like a precursor to Broadcast or DJ Shadow or something, gradually adding textures and sounds without perceptibly changing. The second, ‘In A Silent Way/It’s About That Time’, starts off sounding like Godspeed You Black Emperor before the trumpet and drums come in, making it sound more definably jazz. The sound of walking home late at night and unexpectedly seeing a shadowy figure bathed in streetlight, I’m not sure I completely understood this.

Bob Dylan, ‘Bringing It All Back Home’ (link)

Gradually transitioning between the all-acoustic sounds of ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’ and the rock band line-ups of ‘Highway ’61 Revisited’, this features Bob doing half of one and half of the other. It features two of Bob’s best-known songs: ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ opens the album, and ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ appears in a sleepy, wistful guise rather than the Byrds’ jingle-jangle. Some of the lyrics on this are Dylan at his most Dylanesque: ‘Gates of Eden’ and ‘Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream’ (at least after the false start) are both rambling stories with no real chorus featuring surreal characters. Not my favourite of his, but in some ways his most representative.

REM, ‘Document’ (link)

They go for everything full-tilt: upbeat jangles like ‘It’s The End of The World As We Know It’, callous break-up songs like ‘The One I Love’, vaguely pub-rock stompers like ‘Strange’. And it sounds like a 1987 album: drums high in the mix with reverb all over them, guitar a trebly jangle. I think this lacks the emotional immediacy of ‘Automatic For The People’, which is probably why that album sold loads more, but at least you can make out what Stipe’s singing. There is another REM album on the list, which we’ll cover this year.

Rolling Stones, ‘Sticky Fingers’ (link)

Our last of six trips into the Stones’ back catalogue. I’ve come to understand Mick and the boys as starting their albums in style (‘Gimme Shelter’, ‘Street Fightin’ Man’, ‘Paint It Black’) but not sustaining the momentum for a long-player. Here, we open with ‘Brown Sugar’, which did nothing for me. And yet! This may well be my favourite of theirs. ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’ goes into a lengthy Allman Brothers jam, ‘Sister Morphine’ is a bleak wallow, and ‘Moonlight Mile’ is a stirring closer. It sounds more American than some of their albums (e.g. their psychedelic albums) but the sound suits them.

Bruce Springsteen, ‘Nebraska’ (link)

In the days of streaming music, having the unreleased demos bundled onto Spotify as bonus tracks is nothing out of the ordinary (‘Tommy’ has the entire album’s demos as extras); rarer, however, is the home demo actually being the album. The story here is that the Boss made the demo at home on a four-track in order to record the album in the studio with the E Street Band. However, when the band struggled to replicate the intimacy or the soul of the demos, the demo itself came out instead. And that’s how lo-fi was invented, everyone! I often find Springsteen stifled a bit by the cornball earnestness of the arrangements, and listening to this palatable album of stark, barely accompanied cuts, perhaps that was the problem all along. This is good.

Steely Dan, ‘Countdown To Ecstasy’ (link)

The first album on which Donald Fagen sings everything – although the previous singer David Palmer didn’t take it personally, appearing on backing vocals here. Music fans of about my age probably know this album best for ‘Show Biz Kids’, or at least its featured spotlight when sampled on Super Furry Animals’ ‘The Man Don’t Give A Fuck’. But the two-chord vamp is hardly representative of the whole: the album’s mostly jazz-styled, harmony-heavy soft-rock which is familiar, but pretty good.

Next week: it’s my birthday week, so we’ll be doing EDITOR’S CHOICE. Even this far into the project, there’s still loads of albums I’m excited to hear. Hooray for self-restraint!

Status update: 840 listened to (84%), 161 remaining.

 

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.

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.