April 8: Bjork, Tim Buckley, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, The Fall, Peter Gabriel, The Smiths

This week, and not for the first time, we look at seven artists who have three albums each on the list. There’s not a lot else uniting these groups, so let’s jump straight in.

Bjork, ‘Vespertine’ (link)

I listened to Bjork’s Greatest Hits (from 2002) loads when it came out: apart from the mandatory new-for-the-album track, the newest tracks on the compilation all came from ‘Vespertine’ (‘Pagan Poetry’ and ‘Hidden Place’). Putting these tracks in the same space as ‘Big Time Sensuality’ or ‘Bachelorette’ served to underscore that she was going for something very different with her latest album: something which played less to the feet than to the brain. The main ingredients here are music boxes, harps, spectral choirs and barely audible Timbaland-ish rhythm skittering; it’s as if acting as a soundtrack to the planet Neptune (not The Neptunes). It’s easy to admire the uniqueness of the project and her UN amabassador-style attempt to unify incongruous elements in dialogue, but it’s certainly not immediately accessible.

Tim Buckley, ‘Greetings From LA’ (link)

I’d enjoyed Buckley’s ‘Goodbye and Hello‘ and, while I knew he did sex-funk albums later in his career I wasn’t expecting to actually hear any of them. Yet here we are, on this album with a mere seven songs, listening to Buckley trying to get sexy. It’s an unpredictable, Of Montreal-ish career trajectory. Let’s just say it’s not an organic fit for him: on the opener ‘Move With Me’, he sounds like a suburban dad doing the Rolling Stones on karaoke. There are some decent tracks. The second, ‘Get On Top’, is a War-ish jam which survives Buckley’s mannered wail mostly unscathed even in the face of his least subtle lyrics. ‘Hong Kong Bar’ is a country blues number comfortable enough to make it sound like the bar is Buckley’s regular watering hole. An unusual album but too abnormal to get the recommendation.

Creedence Clearwater Revival, ‘Green River’ (link)

The previous Creedence album on the list sounded like a fallen tree covered in lichen decaying in a Louisiana swamp. This one is sort of like a bayou version of ‘Crocodile Dundee’: it attempts to reach out to the wider world while not forgetting that it’d ultimately be happier drinking and wrestling alligators. Featuring both a Ray Charles cover and their most famous song ‘Bad Moon Rising’, it mostly sounds pretty good. There are some rumours that John Fogarty plays all the instruments on this, having secretly overdubbed his bandmates’ parts: I could believe it, I guess, but to me it sounds like four guys playing together.

Dexy’s Midnight Runners, ‘Too Rye Ay’ (link)

Deciding to evolve his band’s sound after ‘Searching For The Young Soul Rebels’, Kevin Rowland recruited two violinists, only for his entire horn section to decide to leave: something of a challenge, as the trombonist was one of the main songwriters. Rowland persuaded them to hang around long enough to get the album done, which proved to be the best decision for everyone as ‘Too Rye Ay’ was both creatively and commercially fruitful. It adds Kate Kissoon on backing vocals and brings in falsetto and Van Morrison influences (and songs), and the pay-off for the band is two of their biggest hits: ‘Jackie Wilson Said’ and, of course, closer ‘Come On Eileen’. Another good album from these.

The Fall, ‘Live From The Witch Trials’ (link)

The band’s first album, recorded in a day and mixed in another, established them as something of a weird sore thumb in the post-punk scene. In some ways they’re skinny and Wire-y, but they add Argos keyboard, remove choruses and often drone around one riff like they’re Neu or something. This version of the line-up doesn’t seem to have any skilled musicians, which means they eschew cliches (Bramah on ‘Music Scene’ sounds like John McGeoch without a flanger) but also restricts them: the imperial era with Brix still sounds more palatable to me. Spotify adds ‘Bingo Master’s Break-Out!’ and a minor-key vamp called ‘Dresden Dolls’, from whence the Boston duo’s name (at least in part).

Peter Gabriel, ‘Peter Gabriel’ (‘Melt’) (not on Spotify)

There are four self-titled Gabriel albums, none of which are on Spotify, which adds a layer of complexity to seeking them out online. Fans call this one ‘Melt’, more in reference to the artwork than a denigration of the musician. Anyway, this one throws in marimbas, bagpipes, Zulu-ish chants, Kate Bush, the dread Chapman Stick, some of King Crimson and Phil Collins – many of these elements are found in the same song. But while there’s usually something interesting going on in the arrangements, the songs themselves are oddly unengaging: none of the hooks, melodies or lyrics caused me to prick up my ears, and it felt long even though it’s only 45 minutes long.

The Smiths, ‘Meat Is Murder’ (link)

The Smiths’ second album (their first doesn’t make the list) came out in 1985 and in many ways sounds like a product of its age: the reverb-y drums especially are like opening a time capsule. Most of the lists I looked at – NME, Guardian, Stereogum – had this ranked as the band’s third or fourth best album, and despite a few well-known songs (‘That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore’, ‘I Want The One I Can’t Have’) it lacks the sparkling wit or dynamic immediacy of their best stuff. Although there’s a surprising rhythm-section-only outro on ‘Barbarism Begins At Home’, the standout is Johnny Marr, who almost never plays solos yet covers more melodic and rhythmic ground than Nile Rodgers.

Next week: I’ll be looking at another seven albums with body titles!

Status update: 819 listened to (82%), 182 remain.

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July 2: The Doors, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Fall, Pet Shop Boys, Public Enemy, Paul Simon, Frank Sinatra

It’s a beautiful day here in Coventry and it’s time for the 56th installment of the 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. This week’s septet have nothing in common other than the number of appearances they make on the list: each artist has three albums on the 1001. As they all have extensive back catalogues, this means that we should have the highlights here. Let’s find out.

The Doors, ‘The Doors’

Jim and the lads didn’t do too much for me on the first album I heard (‘Morrison Hotel‘), but in hindsight I should have started in the most logical place: their debut album. Opening with ‘Break On Through’, the album refrains from too much pontificating or arsing around early on, with dud Brecht country song ‘Alabama Song (Whisky Bar)’ the sole dud on the first half. It goes into spacier territory on the second half, with ‘Light My Fire’ going on for seven minutes and ‘The End’ going on for about a million. Doors fans are divided on what their best album is, but this certainly feels like it encapsulates everything I know about the band: freakbeat, blues, long Indian-style drones.

Echo and the Bunnymen, ‘Crocodiles’

Another debut album, and the Bunnymen’s first appearance on the list. I wasn’t impressed when I first heard E&TB, during their 90s comeback and with their Embrace-ish single ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’. Exposure to their 80s output warmed them to me, though, and the band have been used as a musical cue for swooning, fatalistic doom from 2000’s time travel mindscrew ‘Donnie Darko’ to 2017’s upsetting, problematic suicide/revenge drama ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’; Shelley as a band. Their debut is produced by mischievous management/label Bill Drummond and Dave Balfe, the latter of whom provides some dated-sounding keyboards. Mainly, though, it sounds as though it’s got one eye on the abyss and one eye looking over its shoulder, from the low-key intro of ‘Going Up’ to the dissonant, spooked voodoo outro of ‘Happy Death Men’. Recommended.

The Fall, ‘This Nation’s Saving Grace’

550 albums into this project, The Fall finally swagger in for their first appearance on the list. I have the band’s “greatest hits” (“hits” relative with The Fall), but knowing where to go from there has always been the challenge. Although this isn’t the earliest Fall album on the list, it’s the one that’s meant to be their most accessible, though, recorded during their most commercially successful era with guitarist/second singer Brix Smith widely considered to be the band’s pop element. While the first two songs don’t sound particularly poptastic, the corner turns with ‘Barmy’, so melodic I had to check it wasn’t a cover. ‘Spoilt Victorian Child’ and the electronic babble of ‘LA’ are also catchy, while ‘Gut of the Quantifier’ has a bass riff reminiscient of ‘Boogie Nights’. Mark E Smith’s drunken slurring and the band’s abrasive guitar clanging aren’t for everyone but this must be one of the easier entrance points into their long, exhausting career.

Pet Shop Boys, ‘Actually’

Another band arriving late to the party, whose back catalogue I haven’t explored beyond exemplary hits collection ‘Pop/Art’; I wanted to save something for the second half of the project. This features three wildly different singles: Dame Dusty collaboration ‘What Have I Done To Deserve This?’, dramatic, moody ‘It’s a Sin’ and the gentler ‘Rent’, as well as some filmic ballads (Ennio Morricone gets a writing credit!). Of course, its deadpan dissection of Thatcher-era breadline life could only have been made in the 80s, but they’re elegant enough to overcome some of the dated sound – the orchestral hit pad on ‘It’s A Sin’, the cheesy voice synth of ‘Everytime’ – and it mostly still sounds pretty great. Well worth a listen.

Public Enemy, ‘Apocalypse 91 – The Empire Strikes Black’

The only PE album I hadn’t heard on the list; ‘Nation of Millions‘ and ‘Fear of a Black Planet’ also inevitably appear (and rightly so!). Moving the Bomb Squad upstairs to executive producers and replacing them behind the desk with The Imperial Grand Ministers Of Funk, there’s not an awful lot of difference sonically, except perhaps it’s a bit less dense and there’s less atonal noise. The exciting first half, almost a continuous sequence with no resting, probably peaks with Flav’s Hendrix funk ‘I Don’t Wanna Be Called Yo Niga’ and Chuck’s dark ‘How To Kill A Radio Consultant’. The second half makes room for Sister Souljah and Harry Allen to make appearances, but also has three unconvincing tracks at the end: Flav’s ‘Letter to the New York Post’ claims the Post published a false story about him assaulting his girlfriend, yet Flav went on to plead guilty of doing so; ‘Get The F… Out Of Dodge’ coyly censors the swearing; ‘Bring Tha Noize’ is just the Anthrax/Chuck D cover of the ‘Nation of Millions’ track.

Paul Simon, ‘Paul Simon’

This is Simon’s second album (the first, if you’re wondering, was the equally imaginatively-named ‘The Paul Simon Songbook’) and features Simon fusing his vaguely Paul McCartney singing and songwriting to a variety of world music flavours, an interest which of course finally found its apothesis on ‘Graceland‘. Here, we open with a bit of lovers’ rock (album highlight ‘Mother and Child Reunion’), have an Andean band, Los Incas, show up on ‘Duncan’ and a couple of flavours of Gershwin-ish jazz-pop. There’s also a wacky bass harmonica on ‘Papa Hobo’ and brass punctuating ‘Paranoia Blues’, while Wes Anderson fans will recognise the acoustic shuffle of ‘Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard’. The range on the album is pretty broad, although I think this is the weakest entry this week. Very much a transition from Simon & Garfunkel to just Simon; he did better.

Frank Sinatra & Antonio Jobim, ‘Francis Albert Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim’

Ol’ Blue Eyes’ third and final appearance with us after ‘In The Wee Small Hours‘ and ‘Songs For Swinging Lovers‘, and Tom Jobim’s only appearance by name. The bossa nova supremo mostly sticks to guitar and piano and leaves the singing to Sinatra – and why wouldn’t you – although he makes the occasional vocal cameo, including an unpredictably late showing on ‘The Girl From Ipanema’. Jobim brings Sinatra some of his own songs to sing, Sinatra responds with some Great American Songbook tracks for Tom to convert to his style, and the results are surprisingly fruitful. Frankie’s strongest suit, if you ask me, is wistful all-night-bar melancholia, and we have that in abundance here on tracks like ‘Meditation’. This only lasts 28 minutes: I would have been happy if it was double the length.

A lot of very good stuff this week. Hooray!

Next week: since my baby left me, I can’t even talk newspeak, so I’m gonna have to write elsewhere, as next week will be blues week.

Status update: 555 listened to (55%), 446 remaining.