March 25: Tom Waits, The Who, Steve Winwood, Stevie Wonder, Bobby Womack, Robert Wyatt, Youngbloods

Last week on 1001 we looked at all the remaining albums at the top of the alphabet. This week, we’ll look at the albums at the bottom half of the alphabet. Not a very imaginative theme I know, but as we get into the last 200 and it becomes harder to cohesively group the albums, there’s a fair chance that this sort of arbitrary coupling will be more frequent. Let’s roll.

Tom Waits, ‘Rain Dogs’ (link)

Our last of five non-chronological visits to Waits’s oeuvre, this was his eighth album and the follow-up to ‘Swordfishtrombones‘ (still my favourite of his). His general vibe – erratically arranged, clanking swamp blues interrupted by schmaltzy ballads – is a familiar one to me at this point, albeit uniquely his own. Here, we get a central role for the marimba, accordion interludes and at least one spoken word section. Late-album cut ‘Downtown Train’ sounds like it would have been a hit if not for Waits’s spluttering, hoarse vocal, and sure enough it was a smash for Rod Stewart.

The Who, ‘Tommy’ (link)

Maybe the most famous album we’ll come to this year, this is I think one of only two albums on the list which were adapted into a movie (‘The Wall’ is the other; of course there are a few soundtrack albums too). The story of a deaf, dumb and blind kid whose internal voyages result in amazing insights, Tommy’s narrative is only really understood through the prism of Eastern philosophy (it’s based on the teachings of Meher Baba) and its emphasis on meditation, silence and introspection. Even then, it’s not clear how or why Tommy plays a mean pinball. Concept albums were common enough at this point but there’d never been an album quite like this, as interested in singles as in continuity, and if it doesn’t all work – ‘Fiddle About’ and ‘Tommy’s Holiday Camp’ are pretty gauche both in and out of context – it does also contain some of the band’s best stuff (‘Pinball Wizard’, ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’).

Steve Winwood, ‘Arc of a Diver’ (link)

We only just bumped into Winwood a few weeks back on the Traffic album, but here he is again on his second solo album, playing all the instruments and doing most of the recording too. Released in 1980, this hasn’t dated terribly well: Winwood’s Genesis-ish voice invokes terrible memories of the Phil Collins albums of the era, and the synths on stuff like ‘Spanish Dancer’ sound antique these days. The most contemporary thing here is ‘Night Train’, the eight minutes of which sound like they could have been released this year by an 80s-influenced indie band. Generally though this is pretty uninspiring.

Bobby Womack, ‘The Poet’ (link)

Maybe it’s different expectations, maybe it’s the force of personality infusing it, but even though it’s even cheesier and more 80s than the Winwood album, this album by Womack from Womack & Womack (or is it & Womack from Womack and Womack? Which Womack is which?) felt more enjoyable. With the highest available production standards and a cheesy front cover making Bobby look like a cruise ship entertainer, this combination of Marvin-ish soul and Prince-like funk would probably be in the bottom 500 of the 1001 if it was ranked that way, but it’s entertaining enough crud.

Stevie Wonder, ‘Talking Book’ (link)

This is our final of four visits to Stevie’s output, but this is the earliest of his albums to make the list (he’d already done 14 albums, none of which make the list; all four of the next four albums make the list). ‘Talking Book’ features indie disco staple ‘Superstition’, but I don’t think this can compare to ‘Innervisions’ or ‘Songs in the Key of Life’: the backing vocal and instrumental arrangements seem overly cluttered and the sequencing allows for a six-minute jam as early as track 2. The B-side is better than the A-side, however I don’t think this is one I’ll return to.

Robert Wyatt, ‘Rock Bottom’ (link)

English psychedelia often sounds like dropping acid during the lunch break of a cricket game, and like an England batting collapse in the second innings, it’s often drawn-out and deeply frustrating to sit through. I guess it’s the expressionistic jazz influences that cause the songs to sprawl and meander, whereas American psychedelics often come from a blues background? Written before Wyatt had an accident that left him paraplegic, but recorded after it, it feels more of a test of the patience than a cathartic release. This may be Ivor Cutler’s only appearance on the list: he contributes vocals on a couple of tracks and harmonium & concertina on another.

Youngbloods, ‘Elephant Mountain’ (link)

An enjoyable enough, if wholly inessential-feeling, late-60s combination of Young Rascals-type guitar-based rock (‘Smug’), folky rock of the type that appears on ‘Led Zeppelin IV’ (‘Darkness, Darkness’), electric piano-driven instrumentals (‘On Sir Francis Drake’) and relaxed-sounding studio chatter. Nice, harmless enough fare that The Coral or The Wombats might aspire to in their own songwriting, this could easily have come out in the last 20 years – even when listening to it I couldn’t exactly pinpoint when it had come out. Harmless stuff, which doesn’t demand further listens but which wouldn’t be offensive on a second play.

Next week: everybody on the floor as we look at seven of the best dance albums on the list.

Status update: 805 listened to (80%), 196 remaining.


November 12: Belle and Sebastian, Neneh Cherry, Elvis Costello, Malcolm McLaren, Moby Grape, Sebadoh, Tom Waits

It’s Sunday, the day of the week where you traditionally enjoy a delicious roast, or some other super-heavy dinner. So it’s perhaps fitting that this week’s septet are united only by their reference to food in their album titles. Yeah, it’s tenuous, but now that we’re over 2/3rds of the way through the project, with fewer than 350 albums remaining, we might have to do a couple of these weird association weeks. Let’s roll.

Belle and Sebastian, ‘Tigermilk’ (link)

The 1999 Brit Award winners for Best Newcomer had released this, their first album, three years earlier. I guess if you know me, it might be a surprise that I hadn’t listened to Belle and Sebastian before: a bookish indie band who sound like a bunch of librarians. They always seemed, though, like they were a slightly lesser version of the things I did like: not as smart as the Divine Comedy, not as ambitious as the Delgados, not as eclectic as Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci. Listening to this album twenty years after the fact, I’m still not completely moved. There’s plenty to get your teeth into: generally they sound like ‘Bryter Layter’ as played by the Triffids, but there’s also horns, strings, even a blueprint for Casiotone For The Painfully Alone on ‘Electronic Renaissance’. Yet there’s something that doesn’t quite coalesce for me: maybe it’s too shy, too timid. I get the feeling that if they haven’t won me over now, they never will.

Neneh Cherry, ‘Raw Like Sushi’ (link)

Sort of a British-Swedish take on ‘All Hail The Queen’, ‘Raw Like Sushi’ opens with Cherry’s best-known song, ‘Buffalo Stance’, all 808 rhythms and bubbling distorted synths (also a section in Cockernee for whatever reason). The rest of the record largely leans on Cherry’s spunky personality and the drum machine, with cameos from Massive Attack and Bjork collaborator Nelle Hooper. It was a fine listen, although besides the ace single, I forgot most of it straight away.

Elvis Costello and the Attractions, ‘Blood and Chocolate’ (link)

Now there’s a combination you wouldn’t want to see on Zumbo’s Just Desserts. Recorded a few years after the Attractions had nominally split up, this is in places looser and less inhibited than many of Costello’s albums: ‘I Want You’ goes on for nearly seven minutes, while ‘Honey Are You Straight Or Are You Blind’ is uncharacteristically raucous. Costello also adds a vaguely Buddy Holly vibe to some of the songs (‘Next Time Round’ for example). The production is perhaps a bit too clean for the objective, though, meaning that for all the band’s work it still sounds a little tame.

Malcolm McLaren, ‘Duck Rock’ (link)

I’d heard about this album but with bafflement: how can the Sex Pistols manager have released an album widely regarded as one of the most influential albums in early hip-hop, referenced as late as Eminem’s ‘Without Me’? Listening to the album makes it a bit clearer, as McLaren’s direct involvement on most of the songs appears to have been as project manager rather than performer, with Trevor Horn and The Art of Noise responsible for the delivery of much of the music and The World’s Famous Supreme Team delivering much of the rapping and interstitial pirate radio segues. The music takes in Latin and African styles as well as old-school hip-hop, mixed seamlessly. Turn it off before the final song, a dogshit hoedown sung by McLaren called ‘Duck for the Oyster’ and this is a good album.

Moby Grape, ‘Moby Grape’ (link, some songs unavailable)

These were a San Franciscan psychedelic rock act from the 60s who had an unexpectedly troubled life due to the mental state of their rhythm guitarist, Skip Spence. Superior Californian rock due to the band’s taste in melodies and harmonies, the album’s standout is the Byrds-ish ‘8.05’, which alas doesn’t start 8.05 into the album and doesn’t last 8.05: was nobody paying attention. This is their debut album, which suggests a promise that alas they never really fulfilled due to their personal and personnel issues: they don’t appear on the list again, despite a seven-album career, and seem to be regarded as what could have been, more so than what was.

Sebadoh, ‘Bubble and Scrape’ (link)

Lou Barlow’s post-Dinosaur Jr project, this is an obvious relation to DJ’s Sonic Youth/grunge/J&MC mix, but perhaps a bit more abrasive, shouty and violent, with acoustic songs and (on ‘Fantastic Disaster’) Violent Femmes facing off with Ennio Morricone. Initial impressions deceive, however: opening track and single ‘Soul and Fire’ sounds like a college-radio-friendly unit shifter at odds with the discordant energy of much of the rest of the album.

Tom Waits, ‘Nighthawks at the Diner’ (link)

One of the things this project has illuminated is that sometimes live albums are a better representation of an artist than their studio albums: I’d previously thought of live albums as contractual obligations, but many of the albums on this list have shown them to be a showcase for the artist’s personality. Artists don’t come more charismatic than Tom Waits anyway, but here his rambling, seemingly improvised intros to ‘Emotional Weather Report’ and ‘Better Off Without A Wife’ really lift the personality of the songs. Not that it’s often easy to tell where the intro ends and the song starts, as he rarely starts singing and carries on making Ginsbergian abstractions while the jazz band behind him keeps up. This is probably my second favourite of the Waits albums I’ve heard: just one more visit to Waits on the list.

Next week: We’re off to South America as we mop up the last of the Latin albums on the list.

Status update: 686 listened to (68%), 315 remain.


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.

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.