November 13: If I Must – The Band, Everything But The Girl, David Gray, The Happy Mondays, Kid Rock, The La’s, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Verve

This week is another of the popular If I Must series, in which I pick out some albums I don’t want to listen to on the 1,001 and put myself through them. I got so excited to do this that I ended up doing eight: here they are.

The Band, ‘The Band’

‘Music From Big Pink’ was a one-pace slog filled with Dylanisms, so it was with some reluctance that I came back to The Band. On ‘The Band’ it seems that the, uh, band remembered that they could play in more than one tempo and, without Dylan around, indulged their interest in Southern US influences, moving into a more country flavour and pushing Levon Helm’s unusual alto voice closer to the foreground. The stop-start of ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ and the clavinet wah of ‘Up on Cripple Creek’ add dynamic variety, while ‘Whispering Pines’ is an obvious influence on Mercury Rev. I’m still not totally sold on Americana – a sort of rootsy rock version at invoking ‘Huckleberry Finn’ vibes – but I feel more positively towards The Band.

Everything But The Girl, ‘Walking Wounded’

Ben’n’Tracey were megastars at the time as a result of the omnipresent Todd Terry version of ‘Missing’, which pushed a folksy band on the fringes of the top 30 into a Top 5 presence. I was unenthusiastic to listen to a whole album of their stuff as I always thought their singles were pretty bland lite electro-sad and, for all this album’s interest in jungle and techno, it does little to disabuse me of that notion. Its monochromatic mood and pace are inoffensive at Brand New Heavies frequencies and while it’s not outstandingly bad, there’s nothing on here that would be too aggressive for a Dido album.

David Gray, ‘White Ladder’

Before there was Adele, there was David Gray, whose wobbly-headed singing and flappy-brushed drummer clogged up the charts for what seemed like an eternity with an album that, like ’21’, is bland but mystifyingly mega-selling. If you lived through the dark reign of Gray, you’ll recall the sound of this album: folky acoustic guitar and gently tapped drums in a sphere nominally called folktronica but mostly created with organic instruments. There are no surprises here apart from the forced wackiness of ‘We’re Not Right’, and the overall effect is dullness that even a Soft Cell cover (‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’: sadly no David Gray covers of ‘Sex Dwarf’ exist) fails to redeem.

The Happy Mondays, ‘Pills’n’Thrills And Bellyaches’

This dreadfully-named album contains the Mondays’ biggest hits, ‘Step On’ and ‘Kinky Afro’, add at least one new member (singer Rozalla) and sees Paul Oakenfold on the faders and tape deck. It’s surprisingly eclectic, as the band’s 60s and 70s influences are visible, but not so much that they’re blind to the contemporary scene around them. It’s a plausibly comprehensive snapshot of Manchester in the late 80s/early 90s. It doesn’t entirely hang together, though, at least not for me. Why? Probably the melodies, which are often weak or completely absent when left to Shaun Ryder, who couldn’t be described as a great or good or even average singer.

Kid Rock, ‘Devil Without A Cause’

The cowboy and singer in black was an early proponent of rap-metal, meaning that in some places, this album sounds like a fresh mix of metal riffs and rapping; in some places, however, it sounds about as edgy as 5ive. The main problem with the album, as with most albums, is the personality at the front: whether it’s moaning about his record label, uncharitably referring to his son’s mother as a ‘slut’ or not writing enough ideas for a song (‘Bawitdaba’, just ‘Rappers Delight’ with metal guitars), he’s pretty constantly obnoxious. Still, his interests are rap-metal, being a redneck, and misogyny: probably an insurmountable combination for me.

The La’s, ‘The La’s’

Like ‘Apocalypse Now’, or ‘Loveless’, the mythos surrounding The La’s doomed album has elevated it to almost mythical status: rumour has it that Lee Mavers didn’t want the band to dust their guitars, thought they sounded best recorded on dictaphone and rejected a mixing desk because it didn’t have authentic 60s dust on it, to the point where the exasperated label ended up stealing the master tapes just so they could finally put out the record. To what extent this is all apocryphal is another question, but what is definitely true is that the band disowned the record on its release and Mavers pulled a Neutral Milk Hotel and never released another album. Are we missing much by not having more La’s material? On this evidence, no. The first two songs are as innovative as Jet, the third is literally called ‘Timeless Melody’ and the fourth has whistling. Then the album finishes with a nine-minute song. “But JT, the album celebrates Liverpool’s past while looking forward to later Scouse bands like The Coral and The Zutons.” Well, exactly.

Red Hot Chili Peppers, ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’

‘Californication’ is a strong contender for Most Boring Album I’ve Listened To, but this album isn’t quite as monotonous. John Frusciante is the stand-out performer as he works his way through a variety of styles from John McGeoch to Michael Hampton, while Chad Smith is also louder in the mix. Additional texture is brought by mellotron, celeste and trash-heap percussion. The boisterous performances put Anthony Kiedis lower in the balance, but he still stamps his mark: one of the more interesting songs has the bloody awful title ‘Sir Psycho Sexy’. This would be a pretty good 40-minute album: it runs a near-intolerable 73 minutes.

The Verve, ‘A Northern Soul’.

One of two Verve records on the list, but luckily for me I’d already heard the good singles/crap rest ‘Urban Hymns’. Here we have a lot of cokey guff – the first two tracks sound like one long song (and one is called ‘This Is Music’, presumably unironically knowing Richard Ashcroft). Gentle third song ‘On Your Own’ and the string-drenched ‘History’ poke their heads above the parapet of sprawling, overlong, blustering trudge and if it seems like I’m indicating that only the singles are any good here, then it at least suggests they had good choices of singles. The e-bow and feedback instrumental ‘(Reprise)’ makes for a pleasant closer: I wonder whether Nick McCabe might have been better suited leading a post-rock band like Mogwai rather than spending a decade playing second fiddle to Ashcroft and his ego.

Next week, in tribute to one of the country’s most notable singers, Leonard Cohen, passing away this week, I’ll be listening to some of the best Canadian albums on the list. Obviously Laughing Len will be featured.

Progress update: 338 listened to (34%), 663 remain

August 28: If I Must special – The Bees, Mariah Carey, The Happy Mondays, Jamiroquai, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Simply Red, Paul Weller

As the 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die was voted by committee, there will inevitably be albums on the list that aren’t to my taste. Some of them are surprising choices which, on paper, looked like an excruciating listen. This week’s update is a collection of the albums on the 1001 that I was least looking forwards to hearing.

The Bees, ‘Sunshine Hit Me’.

Hearing their irritating Os Mutantes cover ‘A Minha Menina’ made me assume that this group was a novelty version of the post-Beck kitchen-sink style, a particularly aggressive form of the lethal virus that infected fin-de-siecle British indie prior to the Strokes. While ‘A Minha Menina’ appears here, the rest of the album is mostly competent, if go-nowhere, pastiches of the band’s record collection which as often sounds like Zero 7 as The Coral. Hardly essential but not the calamity I was dreading.

Mariah Carey, ‘Butterfly’.

The 1990s footballer’s favourite singer, Mariah Carey was newly-divorced and hanging out with Q-Tip and Puff Daddy during the run-up to this album, which seemed like it could yield some interesting results. No such luck, however. Carey still leans heavily on piano ballads – three of the first five tracks are dull low-tempo workouts co-penned by regular collaborator Walter Afanasieff. Where the collaborators do show up, they’re either invisible (Bone Thugs ‘N’ Harmony negligible) or relegated to the sidelines (Missy Elliott is hired but merely as co-lyricist on one song), while Carey trades in her Whitney-ish showstopper voice for breathy fluttering that’s barely intelligible. David Morales finally injects some energy into the album as late as the tenth track with a remix/reprise of the title track; perhaps he should have produced the whole thing.

The Happy Mondays, ‘Bummed’.

Like Joy Division before them, the Mondays were a Factory band paired with unruly producer Martin Hannett, whose contributions here drench the drums in echo and turn the treble up on the guitar as if he was producing a Slowdive record, while Shaun Ryder stomps belligerently in the middle like Mark E Smith. The results sound very dated now, with the possible exceptions of ‘Lazyitis’ (the most tuneful song here) and perhaps ‘Wrote For Luck’. Skippable.

Jamiroquai, ‘Emergency on Planet Earth’.

Coming into this album I knew I didn’t like Jamiroquai, but beyond the unlikeable antics of their frontman Jay Kay I couldn’t put my finger on why. Listening to this, their debut album, makes me wonder whether the BBC’s co-opting of acid-jazz as tasteful background muzak for its Sunday programming (‘The Clothes Show’ for example) means that the original edge is lost, that the sound is hard to appreciate on its own merits because it immediately brings to mind a certain feeling of bland wallpaper music. But then acid-jazz didn’t become jingle fodder because of its immediacy: there’s something a bit anonymous about this whole album. Weak melodies, lyrics that are swallowed up by Kay’s Stevie Wonder impersonating mumble, solos that are low in the mix, the whole thing feels unintrusive even though it’s a funk album! Given the six-minute jam-band running length of the songs, the musicians must be having fun but, unlike Parliament or the Family Stone, for example, this doesn’t translate onto the record.

Red Hot Chili Peppers, ‘Californication’.

The album which turned the Chilis from funky-junkie also-rans into the most overplayed band on the planet, ‘Californication’ also reminds you that RHCP have a hand in nu-metal insofar as they made white men rapping badly over rock riffs into an acceptable thing to hear on the radio; like war criminals they must be held accountable. On the opener, ‘Around the World’, Kiedis couldn’t even be arsed finishing the lyrics: as bad an opening track as you’ll hear this side of ‘Philosophy of the World’ and yet a single which went Top 40. Second track sounds like Muse and, look, you know how the rest of this album sounds. For an album with a song called ‘I Like Dirt’, the adjective I kept coming back to was “clean”: John Frusciante got clean, most of his guitar settings are clean, the Rick Rubin production is clean (too clean I’d say). Not a band I ever want to hear again; unluckily there is another of their albums on this list, but thankfully it is not ‘By The Way’.

Simply Red, ‘Picture Book’.

In which a bunch of musicians from post-punk bands try their hand at adult-oriented soul and the rest is history. As with most of the bands on this week’s update, the obnoxious frontman is the most distinctive thing about the band, but Mick Hucknall is after all a strong singer. He’s helped by the album boasting a then-contemporary sheen which means that the aping of 60s soul doesn’t descend into outright parody. However, the 80s production, no doubt great then, has dated badly, and a lot of the vocal arrangements (particularly the backing vocals) are flat-out terrible. There’s also little personality from any of the musicians other than the keyboardists, and the keyboard contributions are crap. ‘Holding Back The Years’ is, I guess, the best song on here. Nobody who reads this was going to listen to this album anyway. Make sure it stays that way.

Paul Weller, ‘Wild Wood’.

The Modfather appears on the list four times, with two Jam albums and, surprisingly, a Style Council album also appearing, but it was his solo album I was least looking forward to hearing. Weller’s work in this era has always been synonymous in my mind with tracksuit-y lumpen plod-rock, which isn’t entirely unfair given members of Ocean Colour Scene feature on the record and Weller features on ‘Champagne Supernova’, almost the set-text for 90s bloke rock. This album starts more promisingly than you’d expect, with Weller sounding motivated, but the wheels come off by track 5 with a plague of harmonicas and a bunch of pedestrian semi-acoustic slogs. With 16 tracks over 54 minutes, it is too long and boring, but at least there’s a variety of styles and the old git sounds like he’s up for it.

Next week, I’ll be looking at some of the least-heard albums on the list.

Progress report: 259/1001 (26%), 742 remain.