December 3: Live – Jacques Brel, Sam Cooke, Grateful Dead, Jerry Lee Lewis, Motorhead, The Who, Neil Young

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Last time we did the live albums was a big hit. So the only reasonable thing to do is come back for an encore (crowd screams). We’ll be looking at a few little ditties that you might have heard, and maybe one or two that you haven’t. Are you ready, 1001 readers? Let me hear you! (crowd screams). Alright, 1-2-3-4:

Jacques Brel, ‘Olympia 64’ (link)

Ecoute: le chanteur plus celebre en France – le roi de la chanson Francais. Nous commencons avec ‘Amsterdam’, un chanson que je connais grace a la version de Dresden Dolls. Cette disque est 28 minutes seulement: il est assez bien, mais, pour moi, un petit peu trop ridiculeux, avec l’accordeon et la Theremin et les chansons traditionelle, malgre la voix fantastique de M. Brel et la reaction enthousiaste du public.

Sam Cooke, ‘One Night Stand! Live at the Harlem Square Club’ (link)

Like the James Brown album on the last live round-up, it seems that soul in this era was best when performed in front of a receptive audience, at least for master showmen like Brown and Cooke. While many live albums indulge in studio skulduggery to fix stuff, this one seems to have been released with all its rough edges left in, giving it a raw, exciting feel together with the masterful performances by Cooke and band. Great stuff here. This is Cooke’s only appearance on the list. At the time, he was running a label and writing and performing his own songs at a point where that was unheard of. Who knows where he would have been had he not been killed in mysterious circumstances aged just 33.

Grateful Dead, ‘Live/Dead’ (link)

The Fillmore clubs have become synonymous on this list with long, improvisational jams (Allman Brothers being another example) so of course the Dead lugged their 16-track into Fillmore West to record this, an album which starts with a 23-minute song (‘Dark Star’). With fewer than ten songs over 90 minutes, it felt like I was listening to this forever, but it achieves its presumable intended purpose as background music (probably for skinning up to).

Jerry Lee Lewis, ‘Live at the Star Club, Hamburg’ (link)

Maybe the best rock’n’roll album ever? Recorded during Lewis’s early 60s wilderness period (the record-buying public did not like the fact he married his cousin’s daughter, who was 13), this is a performance of extraordinary energy, pace and intensity. The songs are played so fast it’s as if the performers had to catch a plane in an hour; when Lewis says he’ll slow it down (with ‘Your Cheating Heart’), it’s only relative to the 1000mph speed of the rest of the set. You’re exhausted just listening to this stuff, particularly on the Spotify version, which turns a 37-minute album into a breathless 22-minute sprint. There are Megadeth albums with less aggression and tempo than this.

Motorhead, ‘No Sleep ‘Til Hammersmith’ (link)

It’s fairly surprising to have two Motorhead albums on the list, as while everyone justifiably loves classic single ‘Ace of Spades’, less have explored the ‘Head back catalogue, and a lot of the stuff on Best Of albums suggests that the band only has one mood. This live album, surprisingly recorded in locations other than Hammersmith, features ‘Bomber’ and ‘Motorhead’, but doesn’t teach me anything new about Lemmy, ‘Fast’ Eddie Clarke or ‘Philthy Animal’ Taylor.

The Who, ‘Live at Leeds’ (link)

Recorded around the same time as ‘Tommy’ (which we’ve not covered yet, but which we will), this album sees the band generally playing the hits: ‘Substitute’, ‘I’m A Boy’, ‘I Can’t Explain’, ‘My Generation’ and ‘Magic Bus’ all appear (the latter two dragged out to 15 and 8 minutes respectively). There’s also covers of ‘Summertime Blues’ and ‘Shaking All Over’. The Who’s reputation as a great live band precedes them, of course, and they were a great studio band as well. I’m not sure there’s anything essential here that you couldn’t get out of a Greatest Hits, but it was hardly an ordeal to listen to.

Neil Young and Crazy Horse, ‘Rust Never Sleeps’ (link)

Our seventh and final visit to Young comes at a time when he was feeling threatened by punk and concerned about his own obsolescence. His response was this, a live album with no previously-released material, most of the audience reaction mixed out, and studio overdubs, attempting to take his sound into new territory as he headed into the 80s. There’s an acoustic side and an electric side. It proved inspired: ‘Powderfinger’ is regarded as one of his best songs, and ‘My My Hey Hey’ opens the album with Young playing solo in wistful, mournful style, and finishes the album with Crazy Horse playing it in a heavy, bleak style. I’m not sure about ‘Welfare Mothers’ or ‘Sedan Delivery’, one-note thrashes, however, there’s a whole lot to like on this.

Weird to think the live album ever died when you listen to albums of this quality; however, these were different times. The rise of the VHS, the DVD and ultimately the YouTube video made it easier to understand a band’s dynamic in a live setting, meaning the live album nowadays is pretty much a dead scene, used generally to paper the cracks when the artist hasn’t got anything new, or to fleece more money out of the marks. Still, there’s some genuine thrills in this week’s batch: check them out. (In case you’re wondering, no, ‘Stop Making Sense’ is not in the 1001.)

Next week: A look at some of the most heavily-represented artists on the list.

Status update: 707 listened to (71%), 294 remain.

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March 5: Dr Dre, Jimi Hendrix Experience, New York Dolls, Iggy Pop, The Smiths, The Who, Stevie Wonder

Welcome back to 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. This week, we’re looking at some more of the canonical classics which almost always appear in ‘Greatest Albums of All Time’ lists in magazines like NME, Q and Uncut. This is probably the last time I’ll be able to collect a list of seven pantheon classics, as I’ve listened to all of the albums that typically appear in this sort of muso mag’s lists.

Dr Dre, ‘The Chronic’

Dre’s debut album is regularly heralded as one of the all-time great rap albums, alongside ‘Nation of Millions’, ‘Straight Outta Compton’ and ‘Illmatic’. The production mixes aggressive Public Enemy style beats (‘Nigga Wit A Gun’) and West Coast G-funk (‘Nuttin’ But A G Thang’), together with live flute in the album’s second act. It is, of course, too long at over an hour long – pruning the skits would have helped. There is, however, plenty of dynamic variety and as with ‘Doggystyle’ (recorded with most of the same cast), everyone seems more focused than on belated follow-up ‘2001’. It’s an oversight that Compton has not declared an official Fuck Wit Dre Day: free ‘gnac and Cristal for everyone, bowls of deeez nuuuutz, jeans on and teams strong. Perhaps they forgot about Dre.

Jimi Hendrix Experience, ‘Are You Experienced’

I always thought that Jimi’s focus on guitar virtuosity rather than lyrics and vocals rendered him too cool for me. A lot of my favourite artists are prepared to let their guard down and fall on their face in the pursuit of something emotionally raw or experimental, and I couldn’t imagine Hendrix doing that. Still, this album would’ve been a home run if just for the famous songs – ‘Purple Haze’, ‘Hey Joe’, ‘Foxy Lady’ and ‘The Wind Cries Mary’ all feature – but ‘Third Stone From The Sun’, the exotic time signatures of ‘Manic Depression’ and the ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’-style backwards guitar and drums of the title track consolidate the triumph.

New York Dolls, ‘New York Dolls’

This is kind of the outsider of the pack but often hangs around the low ends of these lists, and Johnny Thunders especially is something of a legendary name. It’s seen as a pivotal proto-punk and glam-rock album. Having said that, it’s dreadful: a lot of the issue is with the vocals of David Johansen, where he repeatedly makes the wrong choices in terms of delivery, but the songwriting, production and performance are all pretty gash too. Not an awful lot to recommend this one, which is odd, because you’d think I’d be all over a glammy garage-punk band who wore make-up.

Iggy Pop, ‘Lust For Life’

“Jesus, this is Iggy.” Recorded during fag-breaks on the Berlin trilogy, this album features most of Bowie’s regular band (Bowie, Carlos Alomar, Ricky Gardiner) along with future Tin Machine rhythm section Hunt & Tony Sales. I wasn’t wild about ‘The Idiot’, the other Iggy album from this era, a lot of the songs resurfaced during Bowie’s execrable 1980s (‘Tonight’ for example), and I’ve heard ‘Lust For Life’ and ‘The Passenger’ far too often for one lifetime, so imagine my surprise that this was pretty good. Kind of like Bowie’s late 70s band trying to sound like the Spiders from Mars, and full of personality, this justifies Pop’s legacy.

The Smiths, ‘The Queen is Dead’

After listening to two bloody awful Morrissey albums, it’s nice to hear him singing on some good music. This one has some big hits (‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’, ‘There is a Light That Never Goes Out’) and some archly witty lyrics (the title track, ‘Cemetry Gates’). While it’s very much a product of its time – the synths especially, which sound like they’re on loan from The Cure – it’s still deftly wry and enjoyable even 30 years on.

The Who, ‘Who’s Next’

Salvaged from the doomed ‘Lifehouse’ project, where Pete Townsend’s ambitions were basically impossible to execute, ‘Who’s Next’ is bookended by two incredible synth-based compositions in ‘Baba O’Riley’ (although isn’t it distracting that the ARP keeps changing tempo?) and the band’s masterpiece, ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’. ‘Behind Blue Eyes’ is the best-known of the rest, but it’s mostly just pretty good: ‘The Song is Over’ is the highlight. A few more listens might make it more cohesive but it coalesces less coherently than ‘The Who Sell Out’ despite its conceptual consistency.

Stevie Wonder, ‘Songs in the Key of Life’

At a whopping 104 minutes, this is up there with ‘Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness’ and ’69 Love Songs’ as the longest album on the list. It takes a while to get going – the solo vocal-and-synth tracks aren’t up to much – but picks up with full band jams ‘Sir Duke’ and ‘Wild Wild West’, sorry I mean ‘I Wish’. The album retains the social awareness of ‘Innervisions’, celebrates the achievements of multiple races on ‘Black Man’ and celebrates his daughter’s birth on ‘Isn’t She Lovely’. It felt like I was listening to this all night, but there’s plenty of good stuff here. Of course it scooped plenty of awards, including a Grammy award which he collected by satellite. The ropey video link gave Andy Williams an opportunity to jam his foot into his mouth by asking “Stevie, can you see us?”

Next week: I’ll be looking at some of the biggest-selling albums ever (according to the RIAA). Oddly, “critically-acclaimed” and “biggest-selling” are not synonymous.

Progress update: 436 albums heard (44%), 565 remain.

September 18: Leonard Cohen, Elvis Costello, Led Zeppelin, Sonic Youth, Bruce Springsteen, Steely Dan, The Who

This week, I’ll be looking at some of the artists who feature on the list most often, but whose output is mostly a mystery to me. It probably won’t surprise you that the artists who have most entries on the list are The Beatles, David Bowie and Neil Young (seven albums each). I’ve already listened to all the Beatles and Bowie, but we will be seeing a lot more of the following artists…

Leonard Cohen, ‘Songs of Leonard Cohen’.

One of four Cohen albums on the list, this one is his debut, which features two of his best-known songs in ‘Suzanne’ and ‘So Long, Marianne’ (like Lou Reed, Cohen liked naming songs after women). Recorded in the late 60s, this album is atypical for its era as it’s often quite stark and stripped-down, whereas a lot of singer-songwriter albums are drenched in strings and horns. Indeed Cohen had to battle with a producer keen to orchestrate his songs. It’s pretty good, but I bet there’s better albums in Cohen’s oeuvre and on this list. Fans of 80s goth will be pleased to know that not only does this album contain the track ‘Sisters of Mercy’ but, in a later track, the line “some girls wander by mistake”, later used by the Sisters for a compilation.

Elvis Costello, ‘This Year’s Model’.

One of a sextet of Costello albums on the list and, look, it’s not like I hate him – I think it’s difficult to do so – but six albums? It’s like having six Weezer albums, or six Squeeze albums. This one features ‘I Don’t Want To Go To Chelsea’ and ‘Night Rally’, both of which trump anything on ‘My Aim Is True’, and the production and playing is clean, but I’m yet to hear anything essential in these albums.

Led Zeppelin, ‘Led Zeppelin II’.

There are five Zep records on the list, of which I’d heard just one (‘IV’). As well as the templated heavy blues, this one has all sorts of dynamic tricks up its sleeve: unexpected noise breaks (in ‘Whole Lotta Love’), drum solos (which could often be extended to 30 minutes live!), false fades and more. Aside from ‘Thank You’ – a sort of grandfather to 80s metal power ballads – this didn’t do a whole lotta exciting me, and has a song called ‘Living Loving Maid (She’s Just A Woman)’: I mean, ugh. Still, although the bluesy squalls aren’t necessarily to my taste, you can’t fault the musicianship, and as far as legacy and impact goes it’s obviously an important album.

Sonic Youth, ‘Sister’.

I’d heard the intermittently-superb ‘EVOL’ so the earliest Sonic Youth album on the list that I’d not heard was its successor, ‘Sister’, which bridges the gap between the noise-rock of ‘EVOL’ and the MTV-bothering tunes-and-weird of ‘Daydream Nation’. Despite the fact that zillions of imitators have recycled the ideas herein, the source material still remains compelling, with Moogs, church bells and ear-splitting noise embellishing a surprisingly coherent album. Like any band this abrasive – Atari Teenage Riot, Melt-Banana – their sound feels more effective in doses less than a full album’s worth, but this is an excellent album.

Bruce Springsteen, ‘Born to Run’.

When Todd Rundgren first heard the ‘Bat Out Of Hell’ demo, he thought it was a hilarious parody of Bruce Springsteen, extending the joke by getting two of the E Street Band in to play on the album when he produced it. Listening to ‘Thunder Road’, it’s easy to see why he might have drawn that conclusion (‘Bat Out Of Hell’ does sound very much like an overwrought version of ‘Thunder Road’). Of course, one of the other stylistic innovations of this album – putting glockenspiel all over the place – has been pilfered by the Arcade Fire and others, meaning the imitators have plundered most of the main tricks here. This is okay, and the second half removes a lot of the elements in the first half that now seem cheesy, but I dunno, the Boss is still yet to show me the magic everyone else sees.

Steely Dan, ‘Can’t Buy A Thrill’.

The band have four albums on this list, starting with this, their debut. It’s an odd choice for a name because Steely Dan were a soft-rock band in the 70s: they knew full well they could buy a thrill in grams or ounces. It’s also a novelty in the band’s back catalogue as it features a different lead singer: David Palmer covers some of the vocals here and live due to Donald Fagen’s concerns about his voice. Anyway, whoever’s on vocals, the music is great, with piano noodles, Latin rhythms, screeching solos and more in the mix. It’s very accomplished coke-y soft-rock: I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this as much as I did.

The Who, ‘The Who Sell Out’.

Five Who records on the list, here’s the second. On this one, the band pay homage to pirate radio with an album segued together with jingles and occasionally writing about products as if they were adverts – although this being The Who, the lyrics have an odd take (‘Odorono’ is about a woman failing to complete a romantic experience because she hadn’t used underarm deodorant). The segues and musical variety make this one a blast, with Moon’s drumming and the vocal harmonies standing out. The best-known song is ‘I Can See For Miles’, but there’s plenty of other treats on this day-glo Pop Art album.

Next time, I’ll be looking at some of the Australian albums on the list. See you then.

Status check: 280 listened to (28%), 721 remain.

 

 

May 30 – ABC, Elvis Costello, Herbie Hancock, The Slits, The Who, Stevie Wonder

ABC, ‘Lexicon of Love’.

Well, since they’ve just released the sequel it seemed topical. The last two tracks seem superfluous, but otherwise this is a perfect pop album, mainly helped by crisp production and orchestration from the ZTT lot. ‘Valentine’s Day’ is the song I liked most.

Elvis Costello, ‘My Aim is True’.

Costello must be a favourite of one of the list compilers as there are six of his albums on the list: only the Beatles, Bowie, Dylan, the Stones and Neil Young have as many. Odd to think of Costello as mixing with that company. This album is okay, with good lyrics and pretty decent songs referencing 50s rock and roll and preceding 90s power-pop, but it’s not clear on this evidence why there are so many of his albums on here.

Herbie Hancock, ‘Head Hunters’.

This 70s jazz album only has four songs, and three are overshadowed by 15-minute opening track ‘Chameleon’, a funk-driven vamp full of synth solos whose distinctive bassline is the best thing on the record. ‘Watermelon Man’ brings in African instrumentation to further the symbiotic relationship between Afrobeat and jazz/funk.

The Slits, ‘Cut’.

I’d never previously got on with the Slits when I heard their songs in isolation, but ‘Cut’ kicks all sorts of ass with its peculiar mix of post-punk and reggae fronted by a German woman singing in English and drummed by future Banshee Budgie. Spotify’s insistence on adding superfluous extra tracks paid dividends this time as the killer cover of ‘I Heard it Through the Grapevine’ was bolted on.

The Who, ‘My Generation’.

The debut album of the world’s loudest band occupies an odd place in history as it’s probably less known than the band’s later albums (‘Tommy’, ‘Sell Out’ etc) despite having two of their best-known songs (‘The Kids are Alright’, the title track). As you might expect, ‘My Generation’ has the rhythm section higher in the mix than most 60s albums, resulting in a fairly heavy bottom end. The album weakens only when the band resort to R&B/blues cliches, usually when a piano is involved, but they hadn’t invented their only language yet.

Stevie Wonder, ‘Innervisions’.

There’s a few of Stevie’s records on the list, but I’d put them off because his work seems to be split between good stuff, like student disco favourite ‘Superstition’, and anodyne harmonica-infected sap like ‘Isn’t She Lovely’. This album takes a couple of tracks to get going, but the real talk of ‘Living for the City’ turned the corner and the rest hit the spot on a Bank Holiday afternoon. Warning: the synth solos have dated.