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.

October 29: The B-52s, The Beta Band, The Kinks, Kraftwerk, Joni Mitchell, Tom Petty, Sister Sledge

This week’s seven are united only by my having wanted to listen to them. The good thing about the 1001 is that it gives me an excuse to listen to these records. I’ve exercised uncharacteristic restraint by not listening to all the albums I was excited about straight away. This tactic that should yield dividends as we enter the final year of the project because there are still at least 60 albums I’m looking forward to: one in every six albums. So what are we listening to this week?

The B-52’s, ‘The B-52’s’ (link)

Best known for their peppy 1989 single ‘Love Shack’, the first album from the new-wave band features their second most famous track ‘Rock Lobster’. If you know ‘Rock Lobster’, then you’ve got a fair idea of the template used here: kind of like if the Cramps went surfing. It’s oddly minimalist, light on bass (they use a keyboard bass) and using the sort of keyboards that must have sounded ancient even in 1979. On songs like ‘Planet Claire’ you can see the influence on riot-grrls like Bratmobile as well as later post-punk, while the album closes with a cover of ‘Downtown’ that suggests the band are only vaguely familiar with the original. Both kitschy and catchy, this is a good album.

The Beta Band, ‘Hot Shots II’ (link)

I was a huge fan of the three EPs (later consolidated into an album called, um, ‘The Three EPs’), but the first proper album’s ramshackle doodlings put me off and I never went back to them. ‘Hot Shots II’ (surely ‘Hot Shots, Part Deux’) was an attempt to regain some of the lost ground, jettisoning their stoned ten-minute jam songs for conventional songwriting which fused indie-rock and contemporary Timbaland rhythms, relying on keyboards and Steve Mason’s monastic chant of a voice to hold it together. The album sounds okay but in cutting out the improvised shambling, they also lose their unpredictable spontaneity.

The Kinks, ‘Arthur, or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire’ (link)

Originally meant to soundtrack a Granada sitcom of the same name, the Kinks found themselves back to square one when the sitcom’s funding was pulled, so put it out as an album instead. The album opens with ‘Victoria’, but Side A’s key song seems to be ‘Australia’, a seven-minute noodle that I found kind of unbearable as it twatted around to the point of overkill ‘Be Here Now’ style. There’s plenty going on here: for example ‘Yes Sir, No Sir’ includes strings, Motown brass, marching band oompah and blues lead guitar in a mere 3:46. There’s also elements of folk, Californian psyche and harpsichords. Yet I didn’t really like any of it.

Kraftwerk, ‘Man Machine’ (link)

Kraftwerk

Between ‘Autobahn‘ and ‘Man Machine’, Kraftwerk had expanded from a duo to a quartet, having presumably assembled the two drummer bots in the interim, and streamlined the sound to focus exclusively on metronomic electronica (so no flute or violin solos). This approach yielded one massive hit, ‘The Model’, which kicks off Side B, and contains five other songs in a similar vein. The deadpan lyrics and factory-setting dress sense have been easy material for parody, of course, but this feels like the pinnacle of this genre.

Joni Mitchell, ‘Hejira’ (link)

Joni Mitchell never lies, but she only caught my ear for the first time with the shocking ‘The Hissing of Summer Lawns‘, her audience-alienating experimental album. This album is less hostile than that one, based on and written during a long road trip. As you’d perhaps expect for an album with that context, it’s sprawling and lyrical, most of its nine songs taking five or more minutes to unravel. What sets Mitchell apart from her contemporaries and imitators is her arrangements and rhythms; the album mixes in jazzy elements (Weather Report’s Jaco Pistorius brings the Bass of Doom on four songs) and country sounds (what sounds like a pedal steel on ‘Amelia’, Neil Young wheezing on harmonica on ‘Furry Sings the Blues’). This album’s unhurried, reflective air is best suited to a Sunday afternoon.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, ‘Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ (link)

We lost Petty a few weeks ago, of course, so a good opportunity to check out his only appearance on the list. Released in 1970, these ten tracks in 30 minutes kind of fall somewhere between Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello, while sounding like an influence on bands as diverse as Razorlight (on ‘Rocking Around (With You)’) and Bon Jovi (on ‘The Wild One, Forever’). I wouldn’t typically go for this type of music but something about these simple, heartfelt songs impressed me. I’m not sure I was keen on Petty’s voice, somewhere between Neil Young’s wail and the yelpy, slurred Tom Verlaine-ish style, but the album is good.

Sister Sledge, ‘We Are Family’ (link)

In which the Sledge trio are paired with Chic, and Nile and Bernard respond by making an album which may as well just be another Chic album: it’s got the same combination of killer singles and mid-side saggy ballads. Still, more Chic is hardly a bad thing, and Rodgers and Edwards gave some of their best ever songs to this album: ‘He’s The Greatest Dancer’, ‘Lost In Music’, ‘Thinking of You’ and the title track are all great. And when there’s only eight tracks, who can complain? The Spotify version dumps superfluous remixes onto the end: as usual, press ‘stop’ before you get there.

Next week: Hold your T-shirts together with safety pins and get a nose ring because it’s PUNK time.

Status update: 672 listened to (67%), 329 remain.

 

June 7 – 50 Cent, The Adverts, Aerosmith, Big Star, Missy Elliott, The Kinks, Kraftwerk, Neil Young

50 Cent, ‘Get Rich or Die Tryin”.

This was on my ‘if I must’ pile due to repetitive singles ‘In Da Club’ and ‘P.I.M.P.’ and the dreaded tinge of Eminem producing, which usually guarantees tinny guitars and cheap synths. I blame Mike Elizondo, in-house musician for the Dre stable. Surprisingly, however, the album is generally an improvement on its two key singles. There’s an “everyone hates me, don’t care” defiance that you might expect from someone who’s been shot, but tinged with a metaphysical dread, while the Dre/Mathers production sounds motivated. Some gripes: the album tails off towards the end, and the haphazard sequencing makes it sound more like a home-made compliation than a coherent album (unusually for a rap album of its time, it’s light on skits and segues).

The Adverts, ‘Crossing the Red Sea with the Adverts’.

I didn’t know much about this album going in, having forgotten ‘Gary Gilmore’s Eyes’. Unusually, I warmed to this album as it went on, perhaps because it feels like the band’s playing and writing improves as it goes on (the early songs, including giveaway ‘One Chord Wonders’, betray the band’s punkish lack of musical chops). It doesn’t feel essential though.

Aerosmith, ‘Pump’.

A couple of great early songs and that’s it. You wouldn’t have thought that the same album would have ‘Love in an Elevator’ and a didgeridoo interlude, yet here we are (the album has three pointless interludes on unlikely instruments). The great, expensive-sounding production explains why this sold in such high volumes.

Big Star, ‘#1 Record’.

I listened to this a few weeks ago and forgot to add it to any other reviews. Sort of a predecessor to Weezer in its power-pop feel, this is occasionally quite lovely and occasionally quite sloppy, dependent on which of the two singers’ songs are being performed.

Missy ‘Misdemeanour’ Elliott, ‘Supa Dupa Fly’.

Producer Timbaland was the man in the early years of the century, and his childhood pal Missy his most charismatic foil. This album is fun enough but I think Elliott’s more immediate spoils (i.e. the hits) are on her later albums, none of which, alas, are on the list.

The Kinks, ‘The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society’.

In which the wonky pop act have a stab at Qualuudes-and-cuppa psychedelia, referencing steam trains and cricket as well as the titular village green. The album’s rarely dull and, as well as the obvious influence it had on Blur, you can see the shadow cast over early Of Montreal and (on the Mellotron-and-vocal track) Eels. Good.

Kraftwerk, ‘Autobahn’.

The first Kraftwerk album that sounded like Kraftwerk, even though the two drummer robots were yet to be assembled (sorry I meant “recruited”). ‘Autobahn’ is a delightful combination of synths’n’rhythm machine grooves interspersed with organic instruments (there’s an acoustic track on this album!). REAL MUSIC YEAH

Neil Young, ‘Harvest’.

Another album I came to with some reticience given the threat of harmonica, typically an instrument that serves as an avatar for a certain strain of dreary music (rootsy, ‘real’, male). However, there are seven of this guy’s albums on this list so in I went. Turns out I liked this album despite myself: the songwriting and his voice are strong enough to overpower the stench of authenticity in the arrangements. ‘Out on the Weekend’, ‘Heart of Gold’ and ‘Old Man’ are all familiar, but not in a way that feels cliche. Plus there’s a live track? What is this, ‘It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back’?