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!

 

September 11: ‘Abbey Road’, ‘Blood on the Tracks’, ‘Rumours’,’Forever Changes’, ‘Astral Weeks’, ‘Sign O’ The Times’, The Stone Roses, ‘Marquee Moon’

One of the advantages of a project like this is that it makes you listen to things that you’ve never quite got around to, allowing for gaps in your knowledge to be plugged. In this week’s update, I’ll be looking at some albums that almost always appear on Classic Albums lists, yet which I’ve never heard. Feel free to castigate me for not having heard any of these before in the comments.

The Beatles, ‘Abbey Road’.

A peculiarity: I had listened to all the Beatles’ albums between 1965-1968, even owning crappy odds-and-sods like ‘Yellow Submarine’ (although that does have ‘Hey Bulldog’), but had stopped at the White Album and not explored beyond it. Why? Because the blue double album best of had hardly inspired confidence in late-era Beatles, with crap like ‘Get Back’ and ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’ stinking up the end of that record. It was, then, with some reluctance that I came to ‘Abbey Road’. This being their farewell album, however, the band made the effort, with Lennon and McCartney raising their games, Harrison bringing some of his most accessible songs and even Ringo putting in a shift with ‘Octopus Garden’. There are some false steps: ‘Come Together’ and ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ prove yet again that blues is not the band’s strong suit, and the hidden track ‘Her Majesty’ is superfluous. However, the concluding medley is a fitting finale for the 60s’ greatest band. Just don’t mention ‘Let It Be’.

Bob Dylan, ‘Blood on the Tracks’.

Like an overquoted movie like ‘Casablanca’ or ‘Psycho’, it’s hard to come to a classic Dylan album for the first time: even though you’ve never heard it before, it’s so familiar that you might as well have. This is the third album I’ve heard of Bob’s, and it’s the one that most closely matches the stereotype I have in my head of him (mind you, one of the other albums of his I’ve heard was the inexplicable ‘Christmas in the Heart’, probably the least Dylanesque of his albums). There’s a harmonica solo in almost every song, most of the songs are over five minutes long, and they’re often just vocals and guitar. This may not be a popular decision but this didn’t do an awful lot for me I’m afraid. Luckily for Zimmermaniacs there’s still plenty of albums of his coming up, so maybe I’ll be more swayed by those.

Fleetwood Mac, ‘Rumors’.

Notoriously made while hedonistically partying like mad in an attempt to forget that their relationships had disintegrated – it was the style at the time, Abba did it too – it’s incredible that this album features a song as jauntily poppy as ‘Don’t Stop’, even if it is a fairly lousy slice of honky-tonk corn. Despite the soap opera background, the band managed to keep their shit together enough to hit home runs on virtually every track here: each of the songs is a triumphant achievement, and, in the case of ‘The Chain’, a dull plod suddenly gets a song-saving injection of adrenaline midway through. Sure it’s cheesy and soft, but it’s artfully written and masterfully constructed.

Love, ‘Forever Changes’.

The final Love album with the original line-up, this one was lucky to feature them at all: they were so lost in LSD, smack and infighting that exasperated producer Bruce Botnick hired a bunch of ace session hands to back Arthur Lee on two songs instead. This tactic finally motivated the slackers to bother to learn Lee’s songs, and they’re on all the rest of the songs (the hacks’ tracks still made the cut though). Neil Young was invited to produce but backed out: no wonder under the circumstances. Anyway, the album’s disillusioned melancholia gives it a bit more weight than a lot of groovy flower-power albums of the era, but it is still very much an album of its time, almost like a time capsule from the late 60s. I think I prefer what I’ve heard of ‘Da Capo’, perhaps because it feels more ragged and experimental even if it’s less cohesive as an album than this one.

Van Morrison, ‘Astral Weeks’.

A few weeks ago I reviewed the Waterboys’ ‘Fisherman’s Blues’, where the artist’s best-known song (‘Whole of the Moon’) gave little clue that their best-known album would be folk-heavy and largely acoustic. So too with ‘Astral Weeks’, which sounds nothing like Van’s student disco fixture ‘Brown Eyed Girl’. This is a staple of ‘Best Album Ever’ lists, so it’s no surprise to see it here, but I’m not sure I get it. The songs are unacceptably long, frequently pushing at the five- and even ten-minute marks, and the musicians are audibly figuring out their parts as they go: they were told to play whatever they felt like and were in many cases recorded in one take, which gives it a doodling feel. The album lasts 47 minutes; feels longer.

Prince, ‘Sign O’ The Times’.

Speaking of albums that feel long. Of Montreal are my favourite band and it almost feels like I should have had a mandatory education in Prince as a result and yet, due to the Purple One’s absence from Spotify and so forth, this is the first time I’ve checked out one of his albums. Come on, Prince’s estate! Even The Beatles are there now! Maybe it wasn’t the wisest idea to start with the 80-minute album, a lot of which sounds very similar (side 2 especially is mostly minimalist Fairlight funk). Side 3 has all the hits, and it’s hard to dismiss an album with two songs as different but as good as ‘I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man’ and ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’ on the same side. Good, not great, and too long. There are a couple of other Prince albums on the list, which I’m expecting good things from.

The Stone Roses, ‘The Stone Roses’.

If you’ve known me for a while then you’ll know that Madchester isn’t exactly my favourite scene, and yet here’s the second album in three weeks from the early 90s Manchester era. Yay. Like ‘Twin Peaks’, the Roses had a big hit with the first effort, on which their reputation rests, despite a less successful second release, and are only now doing a third, 25 years later. Is the first album any cop, though? Certainly it starts off promisingly, with the moody ‘I Wanna Be Adored’, the dynamic ‘She Bangs The Drums’ and the glistening ‘Waterfall’, but the momentum isn’t sustained: the fourth song is just the third song backwards right? And the sixth is ‘Scarborough Fair’ for 50 seconds? And the eleventh is ‘I Am The Resurrection’ for EIGHT minutes? (The Spotify version really compounds the piss-taking by adding a ten-minute version of ‘Fool’s Gold’ on the end, but I won’t count that against the album.) It feels like a ‘good singles, bad album tracks’ album: not that this is necessarily a bad thing but it’s hardly the second best album ever or whatever.

Television, ‘Marquee Moon’.

You get eight this week because I can’t count. I’d tried to get into Television before, even seeing them play this very album at Latitude one year, but I never quite got it. Listening to it now, however, I wonder whether it just caught me at a bad time, as this album is ace. The angular melodies of ‘Elevation’ and the title track are up my street and even a slow-motion meander like ‘Torn Curtain’ is redeemed by a heartfelt guitar solo. One listen isn’t really enough to herald acclaimed nuances such as the lyrics, but you can see why turn-of-century hipsters like The Strokes and Franz Ferdinand were paying attention.

Next week, I’ll be listening to some of the artists who appear on this list most frequently. Do Steely Dan or Elvis Costello warrant four or more albums each on here? Only one way to find out.

Progress report: 273/1001 (27%), 728 remain.

March 25: The Avalanches, The Band, ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, The Butthole Surfers, Count Basie

The Avalanches, ‘Since I Left You’.

This came out in my lifetime but I didn’t know anyone local who owned it, so this is my first listen. Its standout tracks are the singles ‘Frontier Psychiatrist’ and ‘Since I Left You’ but, like a lot of dance music of its time, this is high on sounds and samples but low on melody and hook. A good party album.

The Band, ‘Music From Big Pink’.

The first album in this project I’ve hated, from the amateur Dylan painting that adorns the cover to the narcotic pace of most of the tracks. This slow-motion country-rock sounds infinitely more fun to have recorded than to listen to; the arrangements and melodies are tedious white male stuff. Atypically, the album wakes up with its penultimate track, ‘This Wheel’s On Fire’.

The Beatles, ‘A Hard Day’s Night’.

Opening with the finest chord in rock history, the rest of the album doesn’t quite live up to the standard. If you like the Beatlemania stuff then this is a fine example of it, though, and it’s the first Beatles album to be wholly original material.

The Butthole Surfers, ‘Locust Abortion Technician’.

SATAN! SATAN! SATAN! SATAN! I think I had heard this album already c/o Funk Cutter from Anarchistwood. It’s at its best when there are melodies – ‘Human Cannonball’ is the stand-out – but the variety and grittiness of this record means it’s never dull.

Count Basie, ‘The Atomic Mr Basie’.

This sort of music is difficult to judge objectively, as my only real exposure to it came from its use in cartoons from the 40s-60s. Basie’s ‘splanky’ piano and the frenetic brass must have been thrilling at the time.

February 7: Beatles, Kate Bush, Can, ‘Bitches Brew’, DJ Shadow, Eno, Iggy and the Stooges, Incredible String Band

I’ve been working through the 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. Luckily I had a head start, having listened to 130-odd already, but that still leaves 871 that I hadn’t. While this means I will listen to a lot of good music, there also appears to be some total dreck: I am particularly reluctant to listen to three Def Leppard albums, a Bees record and ‘Slippery When Wet’. Sarah-Beth suggested I write about them, so here are some.

The Beatles – ‘With the Beatles’.

All the famous ones are on the list too but I’d already heard them. This one is from the point where things like ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ covers were still acceptable choices for album tracks. The only famous Fabs song on it is their cover of ‘Money’ (not the Pink Floyd song obv). Okay, not great, still a couple of years away from the real game-changers.

Kate Bush – ‘Hounds of Love’.

Hits on the A-side, dull concept stuff on the B-side. The hits have dated better than the Fairlight jams. Bat for Lashes was taking notes.

Can – ‘Tago Mago’.

Starts off as a normal enough 70s Krautrock album, but changes shape with the 18-minute ‘Halleluwah’, which adds curious sound effects and edits over the funk-trance jam like a King Tubby record or something. Everything on the second disc is abstract experimentation, often without a clear melody line. Pretty good in places.

Miles Davis – ‘Bitches Brew’.

I’d never heard this, but Angelo Badalamenti obviously has – the cumulative discordance and noisy horn blasts often present in his work clearly originate from this album. I’m a total jazz philistine so the wild cacophonies were beyond me; ‘Spanish Key’ is the track that made most sense to me.

DJ Shadow – ‘Entroducing’.

Too long, but still sounds fresh and holds up well even after 20 years or however long it is. I’d heard Shadow’s stuff with UNKLE and Quannum Projects but never his solo work. Good album.

Brian Eno – ‘Before and After Science’.

Eno’s 70s were pretty great all in all. This isn’t as good as ‘Another Green World’ or ‘Here Come the Warm Jets’ but is more of the quirky, off-kilter rock he did that decade. Also surely the only album of the 1001 to use the phrase “not a sausage”.

Iggy and the Stooges – ‘Raw Power’ (Iggy Pop mix).

The album’s always criticised for its mixing and production: Iggy’s mix was so rudimentary that the label insisted Bowie remixed it; there wasn’t much Bowie could do with it though as the recording was so poor. This is, however, the original Iggy mix. The guitar is too loud, Iggy is too loud, the rhythm section is often inaudible. This must have sounded fantastic at the time – it does have melodies and structure, despite initial appearances – but bloody hell.

The Incredible String Band – ‘The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter’.

Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci were always compared to ISB in their day; it’s possible that this was a derogatory reference. The ISB were a weird psych band from Scotland, so are contemporaries of the Canterbury lot. Without a rhythm section, these songs drift around and last forever, often sounding like extended sitar jams. Pretty dull.