June 4: Elvis Costello, Radiohead, Rolling Stones, Sonic Youth, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Neil Young

This week on 1001 Albums it’s another look at the artists whose back catalogues are most heavily represented on the list (but where I’ve not heard all of it already: the Beatles and Bowie both have seven albums on the list but I’ve heard them all).

Elvis Costello and the Attractions, ‘Armed Forces’

I’ve complained about Costello’s over-representation on the list before, but this is the first time that I’ve thought the list might be onto something: Costello serving as the link between Bruce Springsteen and Abba, and Pulp and Mull Historical Society (or stuff like Scouting For Girls). There’s a clear fusing of his pop sensibilities with unusual song structures (‘Accidents Will Happen’ for example). The album also contains ‘Oliver’s Army’ and ‘What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and Understanding’, the latter of which features an unusually husky vocal take. The only criticism I’d level is that it sometimes feels like a collection of songs rather than a cohesive album, particularly due to the use of the dreaded fade-out, but this is the best album I’ve heard by this Elvis.

Radiohead, ‘Hail to the Thief’

If you think of bands who love using puns in their output, you’d probably reach for Super Furry Animals, Eminem, or a million other bands, before you got to Radiohead, which makes the lame gag in this album title more distressing (“more like ‘Hail to the THIEF’ amirite boys?”). But then they’ve always been an inscrutable act: with ‘Kid A’ and ‘Amnesiac‘ they’d gained a reputation for making almost inpenetrable music but still selling loads, yet this album has a song called ‘A Punchup At A Wedding’ (which appears to be their equivalent of – oh dear – the Stereophonics’ ‘Mr Writer’, written after reading a review they didn’t like). Anyway, this is probably their most accessible album post-‘OK Computer’: ‘2+2=5’ resembles a conventional rock song, the Bat For Lashes-ish toms of ‘There There’ are direct enough to explain the song’s placing as lead single, and the Goldfrapp-y sawtooth synths on ‘Myxomatosis’ serve as a clear hook even if the song’s in a bizarre rhythm and/or time signature. There’s also a dirge called ‘We Suck Young Blood’ that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Portishead’s second album. Definitely an album with more entry routes than normal, even if the band themselves have cooled on it since. This is our last visit to Radiohead’s back catalogue: I’ve heard all their stuff on the list now.

The Rolling Stones, ‘Let It Bleed’

This is the sixth Rolling Stones album I’ve heard and I’ll tell you this: if every song on a Stones album was as good as its opener, we’d be looking at some unbelievable albums. This one kicks off with ‘Gimme Shelter’, an incredible track full of dread and violence and so intense that guest singer Merry Clayton miscarried hours after recording it. Understandably, the album doesn’t sustain that intensity, but it’s frustrating how quickly it’s squandered: the second song is a laidback song with a Ry Cooder mandolin solo and the third is a country version of ‘Honky Tonk Woman’. The best tracks aside from the opener are the two closing tracks: ‘Monkey Man’ sounds like it was designed for a rap sample, while ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ is a preposterous step outside their comfort zone with both a boys choir and Pink Floyd soulstress Diana Troy stopping in.

Sonic Youth, ‘Dirty’

The NY kool katz are in a sour mood on this album (aren’t they always?) which adds a sneering heaviness to their usual sound. More than usual, Kim Gordon steps up to take lead vocals, her hoarse spit most electrifying on the standout ‘Drunken Butterfly’, perhaps the album’s most famous song. Geffen were apparently expecting big things from lead single ‘100%’, but even in the era of Nirvana it’s not clear why: the song has no chorus, and ‘Sugar Kane’ and ‘Youth Against Fascism’ have superceded it as the album’s most famous cuts (other than ‘Drunken Butterfly’). My other favourite on this is the spacey ‘Theresa’s Sound-World’. As always with the Yoof, their abrasive style is exhausting given how long the album is (59 minutes): there’s no obvious duds here, but fifteen fewer minutes might have made for a punchier record.

Bruce Springsteen, ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’

Following on from ‘Born to Run‘, this evocatively-named album scales the arrangements down from ‘Born To Run”s cheesy sound while retaining the same cast (the E Street Band), and as a result is slightly less ridiculous. Highlights include the sombre piano on ‘Racing in the Street’ (not to be confused with ‘Dancing in the Street’, or ‘Dancing in the Dark’, or – y’know what forget it), the dramatic crescendo bridge of ‘Candy’s Room’ and the vaguely Dylan-ish sound of ‘The Promised Land’. Maybe it was just in contrast to the Sonic Youth album, but this album felt really short, despite being 42 minutes: the title track finishes the album while I was settled in for another 10 minutes. Guess it just passes quickly.

Tom Waits, ‘Bone Machine’

Three albums into Waits’s career and I’m starting to feel as though I know what I’m going to get: this alternates between Waits’s two default settings of clattering percussive racket and sombre, drunk-at-2am ballads. (Were the latter designed to appease a spooked label, or does Waits just vacillate between these two moods?) The sonic palette isn’t entirely restricted though: there’s some blaring horns on ‘Dirt in the Ground’, some twangy guitar provided by Keith Richards on ‘That Feel’, and ‘Goin’ Out West’ sounds like a template on which Nick Cave based much of his career. Tom himself contributes some rudimentary, idiosyncratic guitar throughout, too. This one didn’t grab me like previous albums did: ‘Who Are You This Time’ is the most accessible track and that’s a distant cousin of ‘Jersey Girl’, while melodies are in short supply – maybe half-a-dozen over 16 tracks. Still, this won a Grammy so I’m wrong.

Neil Young, ‘On The Beach’

“I’m a barrel of laughs.” ‘Tonight’s The Night‘ is the sound of a shell-shocked party continuing despite one of the partygoers overdosing and being taken to hospital, a frenetic urgency to have a good time because of that. ‘On The Beach’ was recorded around the same time, but came out first, and feels more like the Sunday afterwards where the party’s host wakes up hungover as hell and finds out the guest died at the hospital. Quite the follow-up to ‘Harvest‘. The first half feels more like accessible ‘Harvest’-sequel fare – ‘Walk On’ and ‘See The Sky About To Rain’ introduce the electric piano to Young’s output but are otherwise conventional enough – but the crash happens on the second half, with the word ‘blues’ appearing in three song titles, one of the songs crawling on for seven minutes and the closer ‘Ambulance Blues’ taking nearly nine. It’s good but ultimately gruelling: would not recommend this as an entry point to Young.

Next week: we’re looking at another nation’s output and looking at some of the Irish albums on the list.

Status update: 527 listened to (52%), 474 remain.

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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 14: Abba, Nick Cave, Frank Sinatra, Tom Waits, Zombies

Abba, ‘Arrival’.

In many ways this is a typical pure pop album: great singles (five of them) dotted among bad album tracks. The all-treble production has dated, though, and with its low-in-mix drum machine and invisible bass, ‘Dancing Queen’ must be the least rhythm-driven song to have the word ‘dancing’ in its title. It doesn’t even have a tambourine! It’s unusual for a band whose songs were generally composed by a guitarist and a keyboardist to steer away from solos, too, so when one does turn up on ‘Happy Hawaii’ it’s a surprise.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘Murder Ballads’.

One of many Cave albums on the list, this one has the big hit, ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’, with Kylie Minogue. Cave has a penchant for vaudevillian ham but his output is generally more enjoyable on the tracks where that’s curtailed. Overall, this imaginative combination of traditional songs and original songs is a fully realised world, concluding with a Dylan cover, ‘Death is Not the End’.

Frank Sinatra, ‘In The Wee Small Hours’.

I’ve always been suspicious of the reverence afforded to the Rat Pack: there’s something a bit self-satisfied about the whole thing, with the smug lyrics of, say, ‘That’s Amore’ being just one example. Trotting out teenagers on X-Factor to do ‘Mack the Knife’ in suits as if they’ve accidentally applied for ‘Stars in their Eyes’ is such a ridiculous concept that you might as well have them come out and sing madrigals. Anyway, this is the oldest album on the list and features Ol’ Blue Eyes being, well, blue. The melancholy air of the selections is informed by Sinatra’s divorce and if the pace never rises above somnolent then bear in mind the intended listening time of 2am. I doubt I’ll necessarily listen to this again but it certainly captured a mood.

Tom Waits, ‘Swordfishtrombones’.

The Beefheart-ish album title name and Waits’ eccentric turns on Sparklehorse and Eels albums made me think that this would be an obtuse listen but, although very unusual, this quirky not-quite-jazz was surprisingly easy on the ears, perhaps due to its sympathetic production and playing, allowing Waits to go wild over the top. A good album.

Zombies, ‘Odessey and Oracle’.

By the time this album came out the band itself was a zombie, long dead but still releasing the album anyway. I imagined this would be sort of Animals-ish R&B but instead it’s a day-glo 60s pop album evoking swinging Carnaby Street cliches. Pretty groovy.