March 25: Tom Waits, The Who, Steve Winwood, Stevie Wonder, Bobby Womack, Robert Wyatt, Youngbloods

Last week on 1001 we looked at all the remaining albums at the top of the alphabet. This week, we’ll look at the albums at the bottom half of the alphabet. Not a very imaginative theme I know, but as we get into the last 200 and it becomes harder to cohesively group the albums, there’s a fair chance that this sort of arbitrary coupling will be more frequent. Let’s roll.

Tom Waits, ‘Rain Dogs’ (link)

Our last of five non-chronological visits to Waits’s oeuvre, this was his eighth album and the follow-up to ‘Swordfishtrombones‘ (still my favourite of his). His general vibe – erratically arranged, clanking swamp blues interrupted by schmaltzy ballads – is a familiar one to me at this point, albeit uniquely his own. Here, we get a central role for the marimba, accordion interludes and at least one spoken word section. Late-album cut ‘Downtown Train’ sounds like it would have been a hit if not for Waits’s spluttering, hoarse vocal, and sure enough it was a smash for Rod Stewart.

The Who, ‘Tommy’ (link)

Maybe the most famous album we’ll come to this year, this is I think one of only two albums on the list which were adapted into a movie (‘The Wall’ is the other; of course there are a few soundtrack albums too). The story of a deaf, dumb and blind kid whose internal voyages result in amazing insights, Tommy’s narrative is only really understood through the prism of Eastern philosophy (it’s based on the teachings of Meher Baba) and its emphasis on meditation, silence and introspection. Even then, it’s not clear how or why Tommy plays a mean pinball. Concept albums were common enough at this point but there’d never been an album quite like this, as interested in singles as in continuity, and if it doesn’t all work – ‘Fiddle About’ and ‘Tommy’s Holiday Camp’ are pretty gauche both in and out of context – it does also contain some of the band’s best stuff (‘Pinball Wizard’, ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’).

Steve Winwood, ‘Arc of a Diver’ (link)

We only just bumped into Winwood a few weeks back on the Traffic album, but here he is again on his second solo album, playing all the instruments and doing most of the recording too. Released in 1980, this hasn’t dated terribly well: Winwood’s Genesis-ish voice invokes terrible memories of the Phil Collins albums of the era, and the synths on stuff like ‘Spanish Dancer’ sound antique these days. The most contemporary thing here is ‘Night Train’, the eight minutes of which sound like they could have been released this year by an 80s-influenced indie band. Generally though this is pretty uninspiring.

Bobby Womack, ‘The Poet’ (link)

Maybe it’s different expectations, maybe it’s the force of personality infusing it, but even though it’s even cheesier and more 80s than the Winwood album, this album by Womack from Womack & Womack (or is it & Womack from Womack and Womack? Which Womack is which?) felt more enjoyable. With the highest available production standards and a cheesy front cover making Bobby look like a cruise ship entertainer, this combination of Marvin-ish soul and Prince-like funk would probably be in the bottom 500 of the 1001 if it was ranked that way, but it’s entertaining enough crud.

Stevie Wonder, ‘Talking Book’ (link)

This is our final of four visits to Stevie’s output, but this is the earliest of his albums to make the list (he’d already done 14 albums, none of which make the list; all four of the next four albums make the list). ‘Talking Book’ features indie disco staple ‘Superstition’, but I don’t think this can compare to ‘Innervisions’ or ‘Songs in the Key of Life’: the backing vocal and instrumental arrangements seem overly cluttered and the sequencing allows for a six-minute jam as early as track 2. The B-side is better than the A-side, however I don’t think this is one I’ll return to.

Robert Wyatt, ‘Rock Bottom’ (link)

English psychedelia often sounds like dropping acid during the lunch break of a cricket game, and like an England batting collapse in the second innings, it’s often drawn-out and deeply frustrating to sit through. I guess it’s the expressionistic jazz influences that cause the songs to sprawl and meander, whereas American psychedelics often come from a blues background? Written before Wyatt had an accident that left him paraplegic, but recorded after it, it feels more of a test of the patience than a cathartic release. This may be Ivor Cutler’s only appearance on the list: he contributes vocals on a couple of tracks and harmonium & concertina on another.

Youngbloods, ‘Elephant Mountain’ (link)

An enjoyable enough, if wholly inessential-feeling, late-60s combination of Young Rascals-type guitar-based rock (‘Smug’), folky rock of the type that appears on ‘Led Zeppelin IV’ (‘Darkness, Darkness’), electric piano-driven instrumentals (‘On Sir Francis Drake’) and relaxed-sounding studio chatter. Nice, harmless enough fare that The Coral or The Wombats might aspire to in their own songwriting, this could easily have come out in the last 20 years – even when listening to it I couldn’t exactly pinpoint when it had come out. Harmless stuff, which doesn’t demand further listens but which wouldn’t be offensive on a second play.

Next week: everybody on the floor as we look at seven of the best dance albums on the list.

Status update: 805 listened to (80%), 196 remaining.

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November 26: Cardigans, Stevie Wonder, Underworld, Big Star, Soft Machine, Eric Clapton, Alice Cooper

This week, as a one-off, we’re going to go numerically through some of the albums on the list which have a number in their title! Choosing a theme each week is a bit of a free for all as we get this deep into the project, and there aren’t even any records by 5ive! Let’s get down to it.

The Cardigans, ‘First Band on the Moon’ (link)

I always thought ‘Gran Turismo’ was their big album – certainly it had two of their big hits, ‘My Favourite Game’ and ‘Erase/Rewind’ – but the one on the list is this one, which features their breakthrough, ‘Lovefool’. It kind of feels like it’s a product of its era, that point in the 1990s which was heavily influenced by the 1960s. It’s okay, but struggled to resonate with me.

Stevie Wonder, ‘Fulfilingness’ First Finale’ (link)

Following ‘Innervisions’, this awkwardly-titled album contains none of the big hits, and feels like much the same things that I’ve come to expect from Stevie: keyboard-led funk with the occasional saccharine ballad. The best song, despite its name, is ‘Boogie On Reggae Woman’, where Wonder’s own synth bass and drumming replicates an up-tempo funk jam band. It’s refined and surprisingly concise but can’t match ‘Innervisions’. Just one more of his albums on the list.

Underworld, ‘Second Toughest in the Infants’ (link)

Apparently named from one of the band’s nephews boasting, this album came out around the same time as Underworld’s biggest hit, ‘Born Slippy.NUXX’, which doesn’t feature here. It’s a collection of lengthy electronic tracks, pausing occasionally for guitar interludes, and topped with Karl Hyde’s muttered vocals. ‘Pearl’s Girl’ is the closest thing to a banger here, so it’s no surprise that it was chosen as the single. This is fine. I think, however, that my favourite song of Underworld’s other than the ‘Trainspotting’ one is ‘Shudder/King of Snake’, a kind of merging of ‘Born Slippy.NUXX’ and Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’.

Big Star, ‘Third/Sister Lovers’ (link)

Singing about ‘Cool Jerk’ while the drummer bangs a saucepan, doing a wet version of ‘Femme Fatale’ with his girlfriend on vocals, playing a slow-motion piano dirge and calling it ‘Holocaust’… Alex Chilton had some strange ideas at this point in his career. As a rock album, this is all over the place, but as a document of Chilton’s apparent disintegration, it’s compelling. A Big Star album in name only – only two of them even appear on the album and it was originally recorded either under Chilton’s name or as Sister Lovers (Chilton and Jody Stephens’s girlfriends were sisters).

Soft Machine, ‘Third’ (link)

Never the most imaginative when it came to naming their albums, Soft Machine save their wild ideas for their music, which here mark their transition from prog rock to free jazz. Wait, come back! This does start with their most objectionable song, ‘Facelift’, all random doodlings and Miles Davis parping. The second disc, with Robert Wyatt’s ‘Moon in June’ and the closer ‘Out-Bloody-Rageous’, feels more cohesive and coherent, and feels pretty palatable. This is the band’s only appearance on the list.

Eric Clapton, ‘461 Ocean Boulevard’ (link)

I was kind of dreading listening to Clapton – bluesy old guy rock, whose previous appearance here was in the Blues Breakers – but I found myself enjoying the heck out of this. Clapton’s first album after three years of heroin addiction, he sounds like he has a point to prove, and sounds as though he’s found some musicians he’s having fun with. Good harmonies and good songs here, although we learn nothing new about Marley’s ‘I Shot The Sheriff’.

Alice Cooper, ‘Billion Dollar Babies’ (link)

Suddenly huge after the success of their triumphant ‘School’s Out’, the Alice Cooper band were both bewildered by their fame and attempting to equal it. Commercially, this was a triumph which essentially codified heavy metal and shock rock: songs about necrophilia with a cheesy stage show. Artistically, though, I’m not sure it has a consistent motif in the same way as ‘School’s Out’ does: ‘Hello Hooray’ is a great bit of Ziggy Stardust peacocking, but the dallying with glam and proto-metal doesn’t quite gel with me in the same way as ‘School’s Out’ does.

Next week: back to the live albums! *audience cheers*

Progress update: 700 listened to (70%), 301 remain.

March 5: Dr Dre, Jimi Hendrix Experience, New York Dolls, Iggy Pop, The Smiths, The Who, Stevie Wonder

Welcome back to 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. This week, we’re looking at some more of the canonical classics which almost always appear in ‘Greatest Albums of All Time’ lists in magazines like NME, Q and Uncut. This is probably the last time I’ll be able to collect a list of seven pantheon classics, as I’ve listened to all of the albums that typically appear in this sort of muso mag’s lists.

Dr Dre, ‘The Chronic’

Dre’s debut album is regularly heralded as one of the all-time great rap albums, alongside ‘Nation of Millions’, ‘Straight Outta Compton’ and ‘Illmatic’. The production mixes aggressive Public Enemy style beats (‘Nigga Wit A Gun’) and West Coast G-funk (‘Nuttin’ But A G Thang’), together with live flute in the album’s second act. It is, of course, too long at over an hour long – pruning the skits would have helped. There is, however, plenty of dynamic variety and as with ‘Doggystyle’ (recorded with most of the same cast), everyone seems more focused than on belated follow-up ‘2001’. It’s an oversight that Compton has not declared an official Fuck Wit Dre Day: free ‘gnac and Cristal for everyone, bowls of deeez nuuuutz, jeans on and teams strong. Perhaps they forgot about Dre.

Jimi Hendrix Experience, ‘Are You Experienced’

I always thought that Jimi’s focus on guitar virtuosity rather than lyrics and vocals rendered him too cool for me. A lot of my favourite artists are prepared to let their guard down and fall on their face in the pursuit of something emotionally raw or experimental, and I couldn’t imagine Hendrix doing that. Still, this album would’ve been a home run if just for the famous songs – ‘Purple Haze’, ‘Hey Joe’, ‘Foxy Lady’ and ‘The Wind Cries Mary’ all feature – but ‘Third Stone From The Sun’, the exotic time signatures of ‘Manic Depression’ and the ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’-style backwards guitar and drums of the title track consolidate the triumph.

New York Dolls, ‘New York Dolls’

This is kind of the outsider of the pack but often hangs around the low ends of these lists, and Johnny Thunders especially is something of a legendary name. It’s seen as a pivotal proto-punk and glam-rock album. Having said that, it’s dreadful: a lot of the issue is with the vocals of David Johansen, where he repeatedly makes the wrong choices in terms of delivery, but the songwriting, production and performance are all pretty gash too. Not an awful lot to recommend this one, which is odd, because you’d think I’d be all over a glammy garage-punk band who wore make-up.

Iggy Pop, ‘Lust For Life’

“Jesus, this is Iggy.” Recorded during fag-breaks on the Berlin trilogy, this album features most of Bowie’s regular band (Bowie, Carlos Alomar, Ricky Gardiner) along with future Tin Machine rhythm section Hunt & Tony Sales. I wasn’t wild about ‘The Idiot’, the other Iggy album from this era, a lot of the songs resurfaced during Bowie’s execrable 1980s (‘Tonight’ for example), and I’ve heard ‘Lust For Life’ and ‘The Passenger’ far too often for one lifetime, so imagine my surprise that this was pretty good. Kind of like Bowie’s late 70s band trying to sound like the Spiders from Mars, and full of personality, this justifies Pop’s legacy.

The Smiths, ‘The Queen is Dead’

After listening to two bloody awful Morrissey albums, it’s nice to hear him singing on some good music. This one has some big hits (‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’, ‘There is a Light That Never Goes Out’) and some archly witty lyrics (the title track, ‘Cemetry Gates’). While it’s very much a product of its time – the synths especially, which sound like they’re on loan from The Cure – it’s still deftly wry and enjoyable even 30 years on.

The Who, ‘Who’s Next’

Salvaged from the doomed ‘Lifehouse’ project, where Pete Townsend’s ambitions were basically impossible to execute, ‘Who’s Next’ is bookended by two incredible synth-based compositions in ‘Baba O’Riley’ (although isn’t it distracting that the ARP keeps changing tempo?) and the band’s masterpiece, ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’. ‘Behind Blue Eyes’ is the best-known of the rest, but it’s mostly just pretty good: ‘The Song is Over’ is the highlight. A few more listens might make it more cohesive but it coalesces less coherently than ‘The Who Sell Out’ despite its conceptual consistency.

Stevie Wonder, ‘Songs in the Key of Life’

At a whopping 104 minutes, this is up there with ‘Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness’ and ’69 Love Songs’ as the longest album on the list. It takes a while to get going – the solo vocal-and-synth tracks aren’t up to much – but picks up with full band jams ‘Sir Duke’ and ‘Wild Wild West’, sorry I mean ‘I Wish’. The album retains the social awareness of ‘Innervisions’, celebrates the achievements of multiple races on ‘Black Man’ and celebrates his daughter’s birth on ‘Isn’t She Lovely’. It felt like I was listening to this all night, but there’s plenty of good stuff here. Of course it scooped plenty of awards, including a Grammy award which he collected by satellite. The ropey video link gave Andy Williams an opportunity to jam his foot into his mouth by asking “Stevie, can you see us?”

Next week: I’ll be looking at some of the biggest-selling albums ever (according to the RIAA). Oddly, “critically-acclaimed” and “biggest-selling” are not synonymous.

Progress update: 436 albums heard (44%), 565 remain.

May 30 – ABC, Elvis Costello, Herbie Hancock, The Slits, The Who, Stevie Wonder

ABC, ‘Lexicon of Love’.

Well, since they’ve just released the sequel it seemed topical. The last two tracks seem superfluous, but otherwise this is a perfect pop album, mainly helped by crisp production and orchestration from the ZTT lot. ‘Valentine’s Day’ is the song I liked most.

Elvis Costello, ‘My Aim is True’.

Costello must be a favourite of one of the list compilers as there are six of his albums on the list: only the Beatles, Bowie, Dylan, the Stones and Neil Young have as many. Odd to think of Costello as mixing with that company. This album is okay, with good lyrics and pretty decent songs referencing 50s rock and roll and preceding 90s power-pop, but it’s not clear on this evidence why there are so many of his albums on here.

Herbie Hancock, ‘Head Hunters’.

This 70s jazz album only has four songs, and three are overshadowed by 15-minute opening track ‘Chameleon’, a funk-driven vamp full of synth solos whose distinctive bassline is the best thing on the record. ‘Watermelon Man’ brings in African instrumentation to further the symbiotic relationship between Afrobeat and jazz/funk.

The Slits, ‘Cut’.

I’d never previously got on with the Slits when I heard their songs in isolation, but ‘Cut’ kicks all sorts of ass with its peculiar mix of post-punk and reggae fronted by a German woman singing in English and drummed by future Banshee Budgie. Spotify’s insistence on adding superfluous extra tracks paid dividends this time as the killer cover of ‘I Heard it Through the Grapevine’ was bolted on.

The Who, ‘My Generation’.

The debut album of the world’s loudest band occupies an odd place in history as it’s probably less known than the band’s later albums (‘Tommy’, ‘Sell Out’ etc) despite having two of their best-known songs (‘The Kids are Alright’, the title track). As you might expect, ‘My Generation’ has the rhythm section higher in the mix than most 60s albums, resulting in a fairly heavy bottom end. The album weakens only when the band resort to R&B/blues cliches, usually when a piano is involved, but they hadn’t invented their only language yet.

Stevie Wonder, ‘Innervisions’.

There’s a few of Stevie’s records on the list, but I’d put them off because his work seems to be split between good stuff, like student disco favourite ‘Superstition’, and anodyne harmonica-infected sap like ‘Isn’t She Lovely’. This album takes a couple of tracks to get going, but the real talk of ‘Living for the City’ turned the corner and the rest hit the spot on a Bank Holiday afternoon. Warning: the synth solos have dated.