July 15: The Byrds, The Electric Prunes, Astrud Gilberto, Grateful Dead, Iron Butterfly, The Kinks, The Mothers of Invention

For the next five installments of the 1001 Albums, we’ll be going by decade, starting from the 1960s (there are plenty of 50s albums on the list, but by this point I’ve listened to them all).

The Byrds, ‘Younger than Yesterday’

The final visit to the Byrds catalogue in the 1001 is also one of their best, with elements of both the psychedelic peculiarities they’d been rolling with on e.g. ‘Fifth Dimension’ (‘C.T.A. – 102’, which sounds like there’s a gremlin on the wing) and the country tinge that completely took over on ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’ (e.g. on ‘Time Between’). The most alarming song is the ‘Hamlet’-quoting raga drone ‘Mind Gardens’, but the best song is perhaps the most conventionally Byrds-ian, ‘My Back Pages’.

The Electric Prunes, ‘I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night’

The Prunes had a big hit with the title track, a ‘Nuggets’ staple written by Annette Tucker and Nancie Mantz and more famous than the band themselves. Looking to capitalise, the label stuck the Prunes in the studio but retained Tucker and Mantz as songwriters, much to the band’s chagrin. It’s probably unfair to dismiss the band as mere puppets for the songwriters, but the composers’ whimsical taste for cabaret, fairytale whimsy or brassy 40s Hollywood pop means this album is some way removed from contemporaries like 13th Floor Elevators. There are some genuine gems too: ‘Get Me to the World on Time’ is a psych-pop hit in the mode of the title track, while ‘Onie’ has a fragile ‘Femme Fatale’ quality.

Astrud Gilberto, ‘Beach Samba’

The last, I think, of the numerous Gilberto family bossa nova albums on the list. Astrud had sung for the first time on the Getz/Gilberto album,  and made a star of herself with ‘The Girl from Ipanema’. This album, the only one of hers on the list, is her fifth, released in 1967. It’s the sort of groovy lounge music that seems to have been common in hip apartments in the era, with occasional stabs (usually in the intros) of other sounds: nursery rhyme glockenspiel, marching band (‘Parade’) and even a duet with her young son. Slight – nothing here lasts more than 2:48 – but charming.

Grateful Dead, ‘American Beauty’

The impression of the Dead in my head was as Fillmore psych-jam experimenters, compounded by ‘Live/Dead’ doing exactly that. ‘American Beauty’, however, shows a different side to them. Seemingly inspired by hanging out with Crosby, Stills and Nash, the album features a sort of folky country rock, heavy on harmonies, and opening with ‘Box of Rain’, a lovely song. ‘Spanish Dance Troupe’-era Gorky’s certainly heard this record. (Must confess this is a bit of a cheat: only after I’d listened to it this week did I find it actually came out in 1970).

Iron Butterfly, ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’

Like the Electric Prunes album, the album and indeed the band are best known for the title track, a far-out jam which demonstrates how far you can push a song when all you’ve got is a riff. The rest of the album is unnotable: 60s rock with a particularly hymnal quality in the organ and monk vocals on some of the tracks. However, the album is 50% ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’, and that’s one of the crucial songs of the era.

The Kinks, ‘Something Else by the Kinks’

By this point Ray Davies was installed as producer as well as singer/songwriter. The production is hardly as ornate as, say, The Beatles: there’s something almost lo-fi about it. The songwriting is on point though, starting with a (possible) gay love song in ‘David Watts’, ending with ‘Waterloo Sunset’ and featuring harpsichords, piratical rags, Dave getting a single and more. One of their most interesting.

The Mothers of Invention, ‘We’re Only In It for the Money’

One of only two Mothers albums on the list (‘Freak Out!‘ is the other), this album, like Zappa’s later ‘Joe’s Garage’, is so driven by satire, peculiar experiments and viciousness that it’s hard to take any of it at face value. This complicates the attempt to critically appraise it, or even to get it, especially 50 years divorced from its context. Zappa and co seem to be swiping at 50s and 60s pop, left and right wing politics, and especially at ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ (the closing track seems to be a spoof of the chaotic crescendos in ‘A Day in the Life’, although it’s completely atonal). At the time, it must have seemed as edgy as, I dunno, Eminem, but the disregard for anything conventional means it’s hard to know whether repeat listens would bring it into focus or dull its edge. I’m glad I heard it, either way.

Next week: We are, of course, looking at seven from the 70s.

Status update: 917 listened to (92%), 84 remaining.

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April 15: Devendra Banhart, The Byrds, Crowded House, The Faces, The Kinks, Paul Simon, Talking Heads

Today’s seven are united by either their album title or their band name referring to a part of the body. Loose and tenuous I know, but hey, there’s less than 200 albums left on the list and finding reasons to bring them together is getting harder. Some familiar names on here, as you’ve seen from the headline, so let’s go.

Devendra Banhart, ‘Rejoicing in the Hands’ (link)

With titles like ‘Tit Smoking in the Temple of Artesan Mimicry’ and ‘This Beard Is For Siobhan’, this is the weird guy at the acoustic open mic night getting a full length album. He’s got a strange, tremulous mumble as a voice, usually backed by his own fingerpicking and nothing else, which doesn’t particularly endear me. Yet there are some gems: ‘Fall’ is grounded by a rhythm section and topped with ghostly backing vocals, and ‘Insect Eyes’ is witchy folk with almost a raga drone. Not desperately necessary, but at least it wasn’t Newton Faulkner.

The Byrds, ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’ (link)

The Byrds’ dispensing of their most familiar trappings – the 12-string Rickenbacker, the harmonies, a weird album closer – and diving head-first into country rock polarised their audience and was treated with suspicion by the Nashville contingent, wary of the hippies cashing in on their sound. It’s a brave move by the band, freshening up their sound by completely changing it, but I’m not convinced that the stetson and chaps suit them: ‘One Hundred Years From Now’ is good, and Dylan’s ‘Nothing Was Delivered’ sounds okay on the prairie, but the Louvin Brothers and Merle Haggard stuff is either inexpertly handled or just doesn’t suit the band. A bit of a disappointment.

Crowded House, ‘Woodface’ (link)

You know more Crowded House than you think, according to the old advert, and this is even true of the album art here…

Woodface

The only album to feature Tim Finn, this also contains mega-hits ‘Weather With You’ and ‘It’s Only Natural’, both of which were originally intended for Tim and Neil’s Finn Brothers project. As well as the semi-acoustic indie-rock of those songs, there’s an attempt at Great American Songbook composition on ‘All I Ask’ and, on the secret track, a jokey wah-pedal thrash song. The album sounds less dated than a lot of other 1991 albums, perhaps because it avoids the familiar production cliches of the era. It sounds fine and it sold a load but I’m not sure I’d seek it out again.

The Faces, ‘A Nod Is As Good As A Wink… To A Blind Horse’ (link)

Pub rock, basically, the weirdness of which is defined by who’s singing: Rod Stewart sings the no-nonsense boogie he wrote with guitarist Ronnie Wood, while bassist Ronnie Lane sings his more skewed compositions (keyboardist Ian McLagan gets more to do on Lane’s songs, including one co-write). The closer ‘That’s All You Need’ pauses for a Led Zep guitar freakout, then goes into a chorus with a steel drum, which is the most unusual thing here. I dunno, it’s pub rock, so it depends how you get on with that. For what it is, it’s accomplished.

The Kinks, ‘Face to Face’ (link)

I owned a Kinks best of as a teenager and listened to it a lot but only got round to their albums during this project. They’ve been slightly disappointing against my expectations, and I haven’t re-listened to any of them. This is our third of four visits to the band and is regarded as the start of their imperial period, moving away from the grungy Who rock of their early stuff into something more restrained and English. It features ‘Sunny Afternoon’, for example. The stand-outs are early: ‘Too Much On My Mind’ and ‘Session Man’ (about paid-by-the-hour musicians, this features a harpsichord flourish from jobbing musician Nicky Hopkins, who presumably saw the funny side). Another one that is just okay, this also features the band inventing goth with (at least the title of) ‘Little Miss Queen Of Darkness’.

Paul Simon, ‘Hearts and Bones’ (link)

The last Simon album before ‘Graceland’, this was a commercial and critical failure at the time, and it certainly feels like a minor album: in places, it sounds like Simon’s aiming to make a Randy Newman album using synths. There are occasional hints of world music that foreshadow ‘Graceland’, and Simon gives the last minute of the album over to Philip Glass for an ominous coda. This is our last visit to Simon’s solo career: just one S&G album left on the list.

Talking Heads, ‘Remain in Light’ (link)

At long last we get to ‘Remain in Light’, our last of four visits to the Heads and one of the most critically-acclaimed albums we’ll cover in 2018. Influenced by Fela Kuti and often based around one chord, it’s impressive how expansive the sound suddenly becomes as a result: the layers of percussion, choir vocals and Adrian Belew guitars sound massive. Best known for ‘Once in a Lifetime’, I don’t have many arguments against people who regard this as the best Heads album, even if I subjectively prefer ‘Fear of Music’. Arguments over the writing credits famously caused strains in the band’s relationships: they didn’t do another album for three years, and didn’t work with Eno again.

Next week: we look at some of the post-punk and new-wave albums on the list.

Status update: 826 listened to (82%), 175 remain. Into the last six months of the project now.

December 10: The Byrds, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Sonic Youth, Talking Heads

This week’s 1001 features no new artists – we’ve met all of these musicians at least once and will meet many of them again, as these are (among) the artists with the heaviest representation on the list. No surprise to see any of these giants of rock music on the list (and they are all rock – no jazz or rap musician appears on the list more than four times), but are this week’s selection deserving of inclusion? Let’s find out.

The Byrds, ‘The Notorious Byrd Brothers’ (link)

The Byrds were in disarray while recording this album – Gene Clark almost totally gone, David Crosby most of the way out of the door too – yet against all odds, the album is pretty coherent, drawing together the Byrds’ trademark elements (12-string guitar, harmonies, Indian interests) with disparate elements like brassy soul (‘Artificial Energy’), weird sound effects (‘Draft Morning’) and 5/4 songs (‘Tribal Gathering’). It feels like the best Byrds album I’ve heard so far, and certainly contains the most lovable song in ‘Goin’ Back’.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘Henry’s Dream’ (link)

Cave’s hallmark sound is to sound like a lurid radio play in which a local in a small town is murdered at a travelling freakshow. That’s an acquired taste, which isn’t for everyone. Still, this seems like a strong version of that model, with strong melodies and motivated musicians backing up Cave’s melodramatic bombast. Atypically, nothing outstays its welcome either: the longest songs here are around the five minute mark. We’ll see a lot more of Cave in 2018, with three more of his albums on the list.

Bob Dylan, ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’ (link)

The first of Dylan’s albums on the list, this one sees him mostly accompanying himself on guitar and harmonica with no other musicians, although when a full band eventually show up on ‘Corrina, Corrina’, they’re understated enough to not seem intrusive. The album has ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’, but even in the midst of Dylan’s newly woke songwriting, my favourite on here is ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’. It influenced plenty of people, but I don’t think I’d reach for this one again.

Led Zeppelin, ‘Led Zeppelin III’ (link)

The first half of this album seems to be an attempt to win me over via sheer weirdness: the unexpected groove of ‘Immigrant Song’, ‘Friends’ sounding like two songs played at once (almost a raga with Robert Plant singing a blues song over the top), the smoky Pink-Floyd-at-a-jazz-club sound of ‘Since I’ve Been Loving You’. The second half, mostly acoustic, didn’t quite land as well with me, but did expand their sound in readiness for the folksy digressions on ‘IV’. I think ‘IV’ is still my favourite, but this one is better than its reputation suggests.

The Rolling Stones, ‘Aftermath’ (link)

As ever with the Stones, the best track is the opener: this time, we start with ‘Paint It Black’ (at least on the North American version). The other crucial cut on here is ‘Under My Thumb’. Despite Brian Jones’s best efforts to vary the sound with whatever instrument he could find (sitar, koto and dulcimer make appearances), the melodies don’t register, and ‘Goin’ Home’, one of the first 10+ minute rock songs, could have done with about eight of those minutes (or all 11) shaved off. This is the seventh Stones album I’ve listened to: with one more to go, they feel like a great singles band.

Sonic Youth, ‘Goo’ (link)

Sonic_Youth_Goo

Our final visit to the dissonant grouches features probably their most famous cover art, thanks to its T-shirt friendly nature, and one of my favourite songs of theirs in ‘Kool Thing’. This wasn’t Youth’s easiest album to record, but it feels like their most successful attempt at marrying their no-wave noise leanings to their pop sensibilities, to the point where this is perhaps their most accessible record.

Talking Heads, ‘Fear of Music’ (link)

Last week we did live albums, this week we do Talking Heads, and it is at this point I regret to inform you that ‘Stop Making Sense’ does not appear on the list, despite its reputation. Anyway. This is the third Heads album and perhaps the first great one, fusing the band’s scratchy funk with world music elements (‘I Zimbra’), electronic treatments and the album’s outstanding number ‘Heaven’. There wasn’t really anything like this lot. We’ve covered almost their whole representation on the list: ‘Remain in Light’ will follow at some point.

Next week: In the last update before Christmas break, we’re riding through the desert on a horse with no name: exploring the America-themed albums on the list.

Status update: 714 listened to (71.3%), 287 to go.

December 11: The Byrds, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, Radiohead, The Rolling Stones, Sonic Youth, Tom Waits

This week, we’re covering some of the most regular artists to appear on the list. Each of this week’s artists are represented with five or more entries on the 1001. Justifably? Let’s find out!

The Byrds, ‘Fifth Dimension’

Written after the departure of main songwriter Gene Clark, and with no Bob Dylan songs for the first time, ‘Fifth Dimension’ had mixed reviews at the time and ever since, making its inclusion a surprising one. Some of the songs sound like Crosby and/or McGuinn attempting to replicate Clark and Dylan, but these are less successful than the weird psychedelic freakouts of ‘What’s Happening?!?!’ and ‘Eight Miles High’. There’s also a crappy, lightning-speed freakbeat version of ‘Hey Joe’ and a weird cockpit sounds-and-instrumental closer called ‘242 (The Lear Jet Song)’. It’s alright but nothing special: feels a bit like one of those post-Barrett Pink Floyd albums where nobody’s in charge and nobody knows what to do.

Bob Dylan, ‘Blonde on Blonde’

After a few attempts, I finally find a Dylan album I like as much as his reputation warrants, as this one is crammed with gorgeous tunes, particularly on the first disc. I don’t love it unconditionally: the blues tracks are pretty unremarkable and the less said about ‘Rainy Day Women #12 and 35’ the better. The run from ‘Visions of Johanna’ to ‘Stuck Outside of Mobile…’ is, however, pretty much perfect. This eclipses ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ as my favourite of his albums, but either way it’s obvious that the electric rock style suits him. It almost sounds like an early Lou Reed album, probably thanks to Dylan influencing Reed.

Led Zeppelin, ‘Led Zeppelin’

The first Zep album and one of two self-titled debut albums in this week’s round-up, the A-side often sounds more like psychedelic rock than the heavy blues that the band would become better known for (‘Dazed and Confused’ is on this album). The B-side is more of an indication of the style that they’d go on to master in later years, ‘Communication Breakdown’ especially. I’m becoming kind of ambivalent about LZ: I wasn’t looking forward to listening to five of their albums, they haven’t converted me, but the albums are decent enough. If I gave out ratings here they’d be pretty solidly in the three-star range for me.

Radiohead, ‘Amnesiac’

‘The Bends’ and ‘OK Computer’ are essentials of course, guarantees on any list of this type, but they’d divided opinion with ‘Kid A’, which seemed to have come from another planet. Recorded at the same sessions as ‘Kid A’, ‘Amnesiac’ sounds more like a live band album than its predecessor’s laptop dabbling, but at the same time seems a long way divorced from anything else indie rock was doing at the time: it’s only with ‘You and Whose Army’ that a standard rock band structure emerges, by which point there’s already been a single (‘Pyramid Song’)! There’s something perversely pleasurable about such oblique, inaccessible music selling in such huge quantities, but this is an easier album to admire than to love.

The Rolling Stones, ‘The Rolling Stones’

This is the Stones’ debut album, back when Brian Jones was just the rhythm guitarist. It may surprise you, but this is an album owing a debt to 50s R&B. Lacking in Jagger/Richards collaborations, this one is pretty unexciting fare: highlights include the surprisingly bottom-heavy ‘Mona’, later covered by ‘Neighbours’ star Craig MacLachlan of all people, and closer ‘Walking the Dog’. I think my favourite Stones album thus far is ‘Between the Buttons’, but alas that does not appear on the 1001. (I also listened to ‘Their Satanic Majesties Request’ this week: there’s a lot of crap on it, but the highlights are pretty bloody good to be honest.) There are still three Stones albums on the list, so one may convert me; this one on the other hand isn’t essential at all.

Sonic Youth, ‘Daydream Nation’

The Youth’s best-known album starts with a killer A-side: ‘Teen Age Riot’, ‘Silver Rocket’ and ‘The Sprawl’ are a formidable trio of melody, spat-out slacker lyrics and noizzze breaks. The rest essentially serves as varieties on those themes, but even on filler like piano-and-radio-noise ‘Providence’ you can see them inventing a language that later acts like Trail of Dead would become fluent in. It’s too long, but with at least five really good songs, you get at least 30 minutes of excellent music here. Seems churlish to complain.

Tom Waits, ‘Heartattack and Vine’

This was Waits’ sixth album and his earliest studio album on the list (there’s an earlier live album). It features a combination of jazzy blues and sentimental ballads, including his best-known song ‘Jersey Girl’, later a hit for Springsteen. His barbecue coals voice is the most distinctive feature – although I wonder if there’s any Waits album you can’t say that about – with Ronnie Barron’s Hammond its most prominent and distinctive instrument. I mean it’s accomplished, but his voice just suits further-out fare, which luckily was just around the corner with ‘Swordfishtrombones’.

Next week: I’ll be deliberately picking seven albums about which I know absolutely nothing. Who knows what we’ll be getting.

Status update: 366 albums listened to (36%), 635 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.