September 24: Janet Jackson, The Jam, Billy Joel, Quicksilver Messenger Service, XTC, Frank Zappa, ZZ Top

Welcome back to 1001 Albums You Must Hear, where this week’s loose collection are gathered together because they’ve chosen to start their name with one of the four least common letters for artists’ names: J, Q, X and Z. Of course, you can probably think of lots of great artists whose names start with any of those four, but here’s some of the ones whose albums I hadn’t already heard. Six of the seven are making their blog debut; let’s climb onboard.

Janet Jackson, ‘Rhythm Nation 1814’ (link)

I doubt I’d be alone in saying that while I’m familiar with much of Michael’s output, I hadn’t explored his sister’s work beyond the occasional single. Released in 1989, this has a similar drive to ‘What’s Going On’: covering socio-economic issues using a contemporary musical language. While the Gaye classic joins the songs together as essentially one continuous piece of music, Janet links between the tracks with interludes, while using Prince’s Linn-and-Fairlight template as the dominant arrangement. How much you get on with this will depend to what extent you like that late-80s/early-90s R&B pop sound; it sounds pretty good to me, but my favourite track is ‘Black Cat’, an unexpected shift into glam-metal written (and mostly produced) by Jackson on her own.

The Jam, ‘All Mod Cons’ (link)

The Modfathers make their debut on the list with their third album, which was something of a commercial breakthrough for them. Their sound is kind of an aggressively punkish take on the British rock bands of the previous decade: The Who, The Kinks (there’s a cover of the latter on here). That’s pretty much what I expected going in, but what I wasn’t expecting is how enjoyable I found it. It’s perfectly sequenced, allowing each song to breathe without being overwhelmed by the songs around it. Highlights include the commuter warfare of ‘Mr Clean’, the ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ solos on ‘In The Crowd’ and the acerbic closers ‘A Bomb In Wardour Street’ and ‘Down in the Tube Station at Midnight’. Worth a listen. We’ll come to a later Jam album down the line.

Billy Joel, ‘The Stranger’ (link)

Joel’s only appearance on the list feels like what his critics always accuse him of: piano-based soft-rock. It’s best-known track is ‘Just The Way You Are’, which sounds like Stevie Wonder: and is that 10cc’s ‘synthesizer made of voices’ trick on the backing track? While it’s a palatable listen, nothing on the album jumps out of the speakers and into my heart (hang on, is this the right Billy?).

Quicksilver Messenger Service, ‘Happy Trails’ (link)

You might remember the Allman Brothers’ adventures in long guitar explorations ‘At Filmore East’, and here’s an earlier band doing guitar improv largely at the same location (and at San Francisco’s twin venue, Filmore West). The whole of the first half is given over to a lengthy digression on a Bo Diddley track, ‘Who Do You Love’; amusingly, the song is broken up into sections with titles that riff on the song name (‘When You Love’, ‘How You Love’ etc). The best bit is when the audience participate on handclaps and shouts, which sounds like a good time. The choice cut from the album, though, is on the B-side: ‘Calvary”s 13 minutes of spaced-out spaghetti Western, as if depicting a dogie run on the prairie undertaken during an acid trip.

XTC, ‘Apple Venus Volume One’ (not on Spotify)

Our final visit to Andy’n’Colin sees them curiously out of time: in 1999, when big beats were in and Britpop was becoming passe, they released an album with virtually no drums and couched in McCartney/Ray Davies songwriting. Feeling like quite a long album despite its 50-minute running length, ‘Apple Venus’ builds around keyboards, pizzicato strings, horns and acoustic guitar in unconventional arrangements and structures. By this point XTC had spent over 15 years as a studio-only band, and it feels like this is evident in the album’s focus on craft and structure rather than hooks or urgency.

Frank Zappa, ‘Hot Rats’ (link)

The good thing about a project like this is it gives you in-roads into genres that you don’t know anything about: for example it’s acted as a gateway for me into Afrobeat, jazz and country, all of which I knew barely anything about. It also gives pointers on where to begin with artists like Zappa: I’ve tried before with him but his 109-album back catalogue, with no hits, doesn’t have any obvious starting places, and it’s hard to know which, if any, are representative of the whole (the classical albums and Synclavier stuff probably aren’t, but is the novelty hit with Moon Unit?). So hoorah, there’s one on the 1001. ‘Hot Rats’ is mostly an instrumental psych-rock album, with a cool rhythm section holding things together under the various guitar, horn, keyboard and violin (!) melodic and solo lines. There are some exceptions: ‘The Gumbo Variations’ takes a left turn into abrasive Ornette Coleman skronk, and ‘Willie the Pimp’ features Captain Beefheart in a typically idiosyncratic appearance. Well worth a listen.

ZZ Top, ‘Eliminator’ (link)

The band alphabetically last on the list (obviously?), ZZ Top have two entries in the 1001. This is the later of the two, but is also the one with all the hits (‘Give Me All Your Loving’, ‘Sharp Dressed Man’ and so on). It’s the sort of music I’d hear on the radio all the time in my early years: that kind of bluesy boogie you’d expect to hear if you hitch-hiked with a long-distance truck. There’s something artificial about it though: suspicious of the metronomic drumming, I found a post by the album’s engineer which suggests that all the drums were programmed and even half the bass was done off a Moog. I mean, it made them millions of dollars so I’m sure they’re not too concerned, but it hardly feels like an authentic capturing of the band.

Next week: Time to go back to genre as we do an all-jazz week for the final time.

Status report: 637 listened to (63.6%), 364 remain. A year left, more or less!

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April 24: Cocteau Twins, Wire, XTC

1001 Albums You Must Hear, Jo Bevan Special. (This was largely accidental, I did however deliberately pick a third once I realised I had a theme)

Cocteau Twins, ‘Treasure’.

The Twins’ output is equal parts blissed-out cloud-kissing and gloomy dirge, both parts compounded by the incomprehensible/wordless vocals. The band’s first two albums were Banshees-esque shoegaze-o-goth; here we find the band transitioning away from the unnerving valleys of ‘Head Over Heels’ and towards the sunkissed alps of ‘Blue Bell Knoll’, without really being as good as either. Early track ‘Lorelei’ is the highlight.

XTC, ‘Skylarking’.

English folk-pop as produced by Todd Rundgren, this unlikely alliance reaches a compromise as Damn Fine Pop Record. The tracklisting on this seems to change on every release; I listened to what must be the 2001 reissue as it ended with standout/tacked-on-later-B-side ‘Dear God’.

Wire, ‘Pink Flag’.

Wire were not interested in wasting any time or leaving anything for later, rattling off 21 tracks in barely 40 minutes on their debut album. The frantic energy and variety make it obvious why so many plagiarists had their notebooks out; for the 2016 listener there’s some retroactive comedy when listening to ‘Three Girl Rhumba’, stolen note-for-note by famous cuckoos Elastica and renamed ‘Connection’.

More later and until the end of time. Whose record collection will I listen to next? YOURS? TUNE IN NEXT TIME TO FIND OUT!!