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Albums of the Year: 2001

October 30th, 2009 5 comments

I was very pleased that the first post in this series of my personal top 10 albums for every year of the outgoing decade (depending how you count decades, of course) created such a positive and generous response. Thank you for all the comments; they are always appreciated. I should point out again that I can include only those albums I actually have and know well. So Gillian Welch’s The Revelator fails to make the cut, though I believe that those of my friends who argue for its brilliance might have a point.

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Ben Folds – Rockin’ The Suburbs

ben_foldsThe are at least two types of Ben Folds fans: those who don’t think that Folds has ever topped the work he did in union with with Robert Sledge and Darren Jessee as the ironically named Ben Folds Five, and those who prefer his more mature solo output. Put me down as belonging in the latter group. While the very funny title track, the driving Zak And Sara, Annie Waits or Not The Same would fit snugly in the Ben Folds Five canon, Folds’ solo debut exhibited a greater empathy for the subjects of his lyrics. On Rockin’ The Suburbs (released on September 11), Folds took the baton from BFF songs such as Brick, Don’t Change Your Plans or Best Imitation Of Myself, musically and lyrically.

Folds is a wonderful story teller. The story of Fred Jones, the old newspaper man whose retirement is going barely noticed by “all of those bastards” who don’t even remember his first name, is particularly poignant. Indeed, throughout the album Folds moves the listener: in the father-and-son relationship of Still Fighting It, in the desperation of the guy still trying to get over a girl in Gone (“the chemicals are wearing off…”), or in the tenderness of the astonishing love declarations on The Luckiest (one of the greatest love songs ever written; alas Folds has since divorced the song’s addressee). The album is not flawless — there is a weak trio of successive tracks in the middle) — but it does suggest that Ben Folds is this generation’s Randy Newman. And that is high praise.
Ben Folds – Fred Jones Part 2.mp3
Ben Folds – Zak And Sara.mp3

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Hedwig and the Angry Inch Soundtrack

HEDWIGThe first time I saw the Hedwig and the Angry Inch, I was gobsmacked. The curious storyline, the intense performances, the incongruous humour (black GIs in East Berlin!), the imaginative setpieces, the animation and costumes, and, above all, the fantastic music, written by Stephen Trask and performed mostly by John Cameron Mitchell as the genitally mutilated Hedwig, which ranges from ballads and punk to Ziggy-style glam rock.

The highlight of the film is the Wig In A Box setpiece, also the soundtrack’s most appealing track. Since I am urging those who have not seen the film to catch up with it, I’ll restrain myself from describing the scene. I expect that many viewers will want to see it repeatedly. I’ll limit myself to posting only one song from each album here (apart from the #1 album of the year), but I also might have posted the gorgeous The Origin Of Love, with its Aristophanes-inspired lyrics, or Wicked Little Town, or Midnight Radio, or the explosive Angry Inch…
Hedwig and the Angry Inch – Wig In A Box.mp3

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Judith Sephuma – A Cry, A Smile, A Dance

sephumaBefore the Idols franchise spewed forth disposable singers of debatable ability, at least in South Africa, televised talent shows in the country brought several artists of notable aptitude to the public’s attention. One of these was Judith Sephuma, born in the northern town of Polokwane (then Pietersburg) and a music graduate from the University of Cape Town. Her 2001 debut album is a captivating blend of jazz and Afro-pop which fully met, and even exceeded, the expectations observers had invested in the artist since her performance at the inauguration of President Thabo Mbeki in 1999, a year before she made a huge impression at the misnamed North Sea Jazz Festival in Cape Town (the local equivalent of the Montreaux festival). If the wonderful Randy Crawford had been South African, this is what she might have sounded like.
Judith Sephuma – Mmangwane.mp3

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Hope Sandoval & the Warm Inventions – Bavarian Fruit Bread

sandovalMuch as I love Sandoval’s group Mazzy Starr, I struggled long and hard to “get” this album. It’s the sort of ambient set one needs to be in a perfect mood for (perhaps when one is recovering from a bout of inebriation). But when everything is set, it hits home in its quiet way. If Sandoval sounds fragile on Mazzy Starr, here you want to pack her in cotton wool and keep the volume low, just in case she breaks. The result is exponentially mesmerising and ultimately gorgeous. It’s not the sort of album from which one can pick a representative track (though I’ll try here); it works best as a body of music. If one is in the mood.
Hope Sandoval & the Warm Inventions – Around My Smile.mp3

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Richard Hawley – Late Night Final

HAWLEYLast month Hawley released a masterpiece, Truelove Gutter. Without wishing to resort to hyperbole, I’ll claim with confidence that it is not only the best album of the year, but one of the best of the decade. Hawley, a former member of Britpop groups Longpigs and Pulp, has produced a series of delightful and always affecting albums that started with his full debut, Late Night Final (it was preceded by a self-titled EP in 2000). The gorgeously melancholy, late night mood of that great triptych of Hawley albums — Coles Corner, Lady’s Bridge, Truelove Gutter — is already evident here. His voice has now dropped a register and the arrangements have become more intricate since Late Night Final (on which Hawley’s country influence is still evident), but the basics of the Hawley sound, and the quality, are already there. The stand-out track is Baby, You’re My Light, which I featured on this mix (which also features Ben Folds’ The Luckiest).
Richard Hawley – Love Of My Life.mp3

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Death Cab For Cutie – The Photo Album

dreath_cabDeath Cab For Cutie is one the most stupid band names in modern music. It evokes the image of shouting and wailing nu-metal emo types, or perhaps a death metal outfit that failed in conjuring a suitably satanic-sounding moniker. Death Cab are nothing of the sort, of course, nor do they deserve to be dismissed for featuring so prominently on the teen drama-soap The O.C. (which was actually quite good for a couple of seasons and featured some excellent music that otherwise would not have received wider exposure). The Photo Album is Death Cab’s transition album, still drawing from the Indie rock of the earlier albums but preparing for the almost symphonic feel of 2003’s Transatlanticism and last year’s Narrow Stairs. It lacks the diversity of 2005’s Plans, but like Plans and more than Transatlanticism, it does have tracks that stand on their own. This is solidly guitar-driven, ambient Indie rock, but more accomplished (or, purists might say, polished) than the four preceding Death Cab albums.
Death Cab For Cutie – I Was A Kaleidoscope.mp3

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Rilo Kiley – Take-Offs & Landings

rilo_kileyIn 2004, Rilo Kiley released a brilliant album in More Adventurous. The preceding two albums are more patchy. Take-Offs & Landings borrows its influences widely, blows some alt.country over it, and voila. Sometimes it works, and there is nothing here that is really objectionable, but this is very much the work of a group still finding its way. Likewise, the wonderful Jenny Lewis is still discovering her voice, which here is still banking on its cuteness before it became the sexiest voice since Julie London’s. If all this sounds half-hearted, then that is not quite fair on an enjoyable album. It suffers not on its own merits, but in comparison to what the group and Lewis as a solo artist produced later.
Rilo Kiley – Plane Crash In C.mp3

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Alicia Keys – Songs In A Minor

alicia_keysAt a time when soul music is dying a gangrened death at the hands of dancing corporate muppets and sexless nasal whiners, we ought to be grateful for the few artists who still refer to the rich heritage of the genre. So I find it difficult to sympathise with those who dismiss the artistry of Alicia Keys. OK, she’s not quite all that which the hype claims her to be, as a pianist or as a singer. Much of her material is bland. It’s safe to say that she cannot compare with, say, Roberta Flack. Judging only from her appearances at the Grammys (which I still watch for reasons I cannot comprehend; probably only for the In Memoriam section), I find her a bit smug, a bit corporate, a bit too convinced of her own genius. And yet, her albums includes a clutch of tracks which, had they been recorded 35 years earlier, would be noted as fine contributions to the canon of soul music, celebrating the derivations of her material as reflecting an astute choice of influences. Despite all the caveats I have raised, I’m glad that Alicia Keys is around.
Alicia Keys – A Woman’s Worth

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The Shins – Oh, Inverted World

SHINSPlaying the song New Slang from this album, Natalie Portman’s character in the fine film Garden State promises Zach Braff’s protagonist that it will change his life. Without wishing to spring spoilers upon the reader who unaccountably have not seen the film, it indeed does so. The Portland, Oregon-based band’s debut thus broke out from the ghetto of Indie cult on the back of Braff’s championing. If the Kinks had been Americans recording their music in the ’00s, this is what they might have sounded like. I have quite enjoyed The Shins’ subsequent albums, which are musically accomplished, perhaps more than Oh, Inverted World. But if I want a fix of The Shins, it’s the debut I turn to.
The Shins – One By One All Day.mp3

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Weezer – Green Album

WEEZERWhat is it with all those people who are so quick to dismiss every Weezer album because it isn’t Pinkerton? It seems to be accepted wisdom that Pinkerton, one of the great albums of the 1990s, set some kind of standard that Rivers Cuomo and the other three chaps must live up to. The trouble is, by the time the Pinkerton evangelists listened to the other Weezer albums, they were no longer of an age when they locked themselves in their bedrooms because school and parents and jocks sucked and listened to Pinkerton in the recovery period between wanks. The Green Album is a fine album; it has some great tunes, it’s fun, it doesn’t challenge you; it does everything you’d want from a Weezer album. Island In The Sun is my cellphone ringtone, by the way.
Weezer – Island In The Sun.mp3

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More Albums of the Year

Albums of the Year: 2000

October 21st, 2009 13 comments

Perusing the calendar, I was shocked to realise that the current decade — what some people call the “Noughties” — is almost over; that we’re about to start the 2010s. And here I am still getting used to the idea of the new millennium. So, with this decade coming to an end soon, it seems right to review my top 10 albums of this period. I’ll try to avoid joining the critical consensus (which probably agrees on albums I either never heard of or don’t like), and obviously I can’t list albums I don’t have. So, no Kid A here.

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1. Johnny Cash – American III: Solitary Man

cash_solitary_manIt’s not necessarily the best album in Cash’s American series, but probably the only one that’ll top one of my annual charts. It certainly is a fine album, with an astute song selection (no peculiar choices such as Personal Jesus, which appeared on the follow-up). Cash had previously taken a Sting song, Hung My Head, and entirely appropriated it, leaving Sting’s original sound like a pale, inadequate and ill-advised cover version by an inferior hack. Here Cash repeats the trick with One, lending gravitas to a song that in Bono’s hands sounds overwrought (Bono really meant it, man). But it is what Cash and producer Rick Rubin do with Nick Cave’s The Mercy Seat that blows me away. For this album, Rubin roped in a few heavy-hitters, including Tom Petty and Will Oldham. I’m not sure it was necessary to do so.
Johnny Cash – One.mp3
Johnny Cash – The Mercy Seat.mp3

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2. D’Angelo – Voodoo

d'angelo_voodooAfter 2000, I began falling off Planet Soul. Voodoo was the genre’s last high-water mark, even if the likes of india.arie, Erykah Badu and (to some extent) Alicia Keys proceeded to release decent albums (and I suppose John Legend isn’t bad either, even though I own nothing by the man). Before too long, it became a law that soul singers must have uniformly nasal, almost pre-pubescent voices and sing about sex a lot without projecting any confidence that they really know what to do in the sack. D’Angelo, on the other hand, left us in no doubt that he knew exactly how to create a concerto of orgasms.

In terms of soul, D’Angelo fused all that came before, plus a strong dose of hip hop and a shot of Hendrix in one album, creating a whole new, exciting and intensely sexual sound. It had taken him five years to follow up the gorgeous Brown Sugar, and I believe a new album is imminent. Whatever happened before or will happen, Voodoo is Michael Archer’s masterpiece. Had Marvin Gaye lived, this is what he’d have sounded like.
D’Angelo – Untitled (How Does It Feel).mp3

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3. Elliot Smith – Figure 8

elliott_smith_figure_8Smith’s final album in his lifetime — he died three years later — may not be his best, but even then, it is lovely and affecting. It could have done with some trimming, and the cover is unattractive. You don’t pick up an Elliot Smith album to cheer you up, but the charge of miserablism often levelled against seems unfair to me. There is beauty in Smith’s sadness — made all the more poignant by his apparent suicide (there are theories that Smith didn’t actually kill himself). We owe Smith a huge voter of thanks for his part in inspiring so many of the great acoustic artists that emerged in (and, perhaps, from) his wake.
Elliott Smith – Somebody That I Used To Know.mp3

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4. Colin Hay – Going Somewhere

colin_hayThe solo albums of the former Men At Work frontman tend to be frustrating; amid the near-perfect gems there is so much indifferent filler material. Best, really, to put together one’s own compilation. But then one would not find that some of the mediocre stuff is actually pretty good, but required a few more listens. Going Somewhere does not suffer from this. It is one of two albums on which Hay re-recorded his better songs and a couple of new ones, here mostly acoustically. And it works wonderfully. Highlights include opener Beautiful World (which features the brilliant line “where a man can still be free — or a woman if you are one”), I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You, Looking For Jack (about an encounter with Mr Nicholson), Waiting For My Real Life To Begin and Lifeline.
Colin Hay – Lifeline.mp3

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5. Jill Sobule – Pink Pearl

jill_sobuleSobule kissed a girl and liked it long before Katy Perry did so — and Sobule meant it. Sobule is an engaging lyricist dealing with often unexpected subject matter, ranging from anorexia to the case of a teacher who had sex with her pupil. In turn she can be insightful, funny, ironic, cute, tender and daring. Her music is neither particularly challenging nor bland, and some of the tracks on Pink Pearl are excellent, especially the Bacharach-via-Spektor-sounding Rainy Day Parade. But it’s for the lyrics that I return to it. This, from the also outstanding One Of These Days, always makes me laugh: “One of these days I’m gonna touch the sky. Like that awful song ‘I Believe I Can Fly’, [pause for effect] I believe I can fly.” Download free Jill Sobule tracks from her website
Jill Sobule – Rainy Day Parade.mp3

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6. Lewis Taylor – Lewis II

lewis_taylorI’ve read that Lewis Taylor has retired from the music business because his albums didn’t sell. That is a pity. Lewis II (which, you will have worked out, was his sophomore album, following the more psychedelic self-titled debut) is a likeable soulful and funky effort. When white soulsters arrive on the scene, they tend to be matched with their likely influences, invariably from the ’60s and ’70s (usually Curtis Mayfield with a bit of Motown). London-born Taylor escaped such labelling, or at least its accurate application. He drew from the treasury of soul through the ages and created his own unique sound. The album features a fine cover of Jeff Buckley’s Everybody Here Wants You.
Lewis Taylor – The Way You Done Me.mp3

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7. K’s Choice – Almost Happy

ks_choice_almost_happyIn my view, Almost Happy is the Belgian brother-and-sister act’s best album. The title track and Another Year are most affecting, beautiful songs dipped in sadness but not despondency. Both of these, and other K’s Choice songs, find an echo in the music of the wonderful Weepies (another female/male singing and songwriting combo). The stand-out track is the almost gothic (though not goth) Shadowman, a song about depression.
K’s Choice – Shadowman.mp3

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8. Ben Kweller – Freak Out…It’s Ben Kweller

ben_kweller_freak_outI know, EPs aren’t albums. But I’m not going to list my favourite EPs of the decade (hmmm, or maybe I should), so Ben Kweller’s debut on disc gets in. And what a debut it was. The stand-out track here is In Other Words, which features a few duff lines (including references to passive-aggressive butterflies) but has a tune and, especially, an arrangement that one might not expect from an 18-year-old. The piano and banjo interplay in the song’s climax is exquisite. Kweller later re-recorded In Other Words, as well as the brief How It Should Be (Sha Sha), for his first full album, 2002’s Sha Sha. Both songs are superior on this eight-song EP.
Ben Kweller – In Other Words.mp3

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9. Richard Ashcroft – Alone With Everybody

ashcroftI’d include this for Brave New World alone. And I‘ll cheerfully admit that I don’t really like about half of this album. But the other half is better than most music he created with the Verve. From his former group, we knew Ashcroft was rather given to kitchen-sink productions, and there’s little here that could be described as sparse (quite in contrast to Elliott Smith). At times the onslaught of instrumentation is sumptuous, at other times one yearns for some respite. Not a great album, but one with great moments. I’d recommend You On My Mind In My Sleep, A Song For Lovers and On A Beach; and strongly advise against Money To Burn, which I think was the lead single.
Richard Ashcroft – Brave New World.mp3

10. Badly Drawn Boy – The Hour Of The Bewilderbeest

badly_drawn_boyThe album title merely hints at the punnery Damon Gough engages in here. I like the wordplay in Badly Drawn Boy’s lyrics, even if I find them unnecessary in songtitles (Everybody’s Stalking!). Like almost any studio double album (and how audacious to release a double album on debut), there is a lot of unnecessary music here, and the brief interludes are annoying. But in the day of WinAmp, one can happily re-sequence an album according to one’s tastes. And doing so with this set is a very rewarding experience.
Badly Drawn Boy – The Shining.mp3


Albums of the Year: 1980

July 29th, 2008 8 comments

In my notebook, I have shortlists for my albums of the year for 1979 and 1980 side-by-side. The list for 1979 is shorter, but infinitely better; 1980’s list includes 24 albums, but fewer which I’m particularly enthusiastic about. While I’m deciding which albums to bump from ’79, here’s the 1980 lot, with decent albums by David Bowie, Paul Simon, Kate Bush, Motörhead, Ideal and Roxy Music not making the cut for various reasons. It’s a rather predictable list, provided one knows that I never liked ska, got into New Wave only a year later, and mostly bought singles that year. And, it seems, I never really caught up with 1980. So no Specials, no Joy Division, no Talking Heads, no Jam, no The Beat, and (you’ll be surprised) no Gaucho…It is, in fact, a year to piss off the Taste Police (with the Police) with a pick of not the best albums of the year, but those I know and still enjoy.

Dexys Midnight Runners – Searching For The Young Soul Rebel
I had never heard anything like this before. Of course, West Germany was not a hotbed of soul music, at least not the soul music which inspired Kevin Rowland and his mates. Geno might well be my favourite single of all time; it certainly was my song of 1980. The album did not quite stand up to the pop sensibilities of Geno – the brass hook, the chanting, the idiosyncratic vocals – and at times seemed downright weird. Especially Rowland’s style of singing, even when he lurched into a falsetto in the song about Leeds, lost some of the novelty over two sides (minus an instrumental). It took the release of Too-Rye-Ay two years later to rediscover Soul Rebel. And what a fine album it is, with its jubilant sounds dressing the often cynical lyrics. There should be an NGO founded which would send a copy of it to every American who has the nerve to call Dexys a “one-hit wonder”. And a copy of Too-Rye-Ay, just to remind them that one Eileen not a group define.
Dexys Midnight Runners – Tell Me When My Light Turns Green.mp3
Dexys Midnight Runners – Geno.mp3

Bruce Springsteen – The River
A good writer will know that sometimes a great paragraph, a sparkling aside or a riotous gag will need to be sacrificed to maintain the flow, the rhythm of the whole piece. It’s what makes them good writers. Recording artists, even good ones, do not always exercise such disciplined judgment. Rock history is oversupplied with double albums which were rather good, but might have been bona fide classics had the artists limited themselves to two sides of an LP. The Beatles’ White Album provided a template for excess and the problem with that excess. Which leads us to Bruce Springsteen’s 1980 offering. Cut the thing by half, and you’d have an album every bit as good as his artistic peak, Darkness At The Edge Of Town. Having said that, one of the more popular tracks on The River is Cadillac Ranch, which I wholeheartedly despise. I love the cover, on which Bruce channels Pacino and De Niro. It’s a very popular cover, as thousands of contributors to Sleeveface prove. This song, to me, defines the Springsteen sound of the era.
Bruce Springsteen – The Ties That Bind.mp3
Bruce Springsteen – The River.mp3

Warren Zevon – Stand In The Fire
Sometime in 1983 I discovered Warren Zevon. At the time, South Africa (where I has moved in 1982) had very well-stocked record libraries, where you could hire LPs for a day. Somehow the record companies didn’t like that, and by 1989 these great shops were forced to close. But when I was introduced to Warren Zevon, by my boss, I took out his entire back catalogue. Two albums stood out: Excitable Boy (naturally) and this live set. It is a rather poorly recorded live album, as these things go, but the cooking atmosphere of LA’s Roxy Club that night is steaming through the LP’s groove. The title is apt, the gig is incendiary. Zevon is often called the missing link between Randy Newman and Bruce Springsteen; Standing In The Fire proves the point.
Warren Zevon-Bo Diddley’s A Gunslinger + Bo Diddley.mp3

The Police – Zenyatta Mondatta
In 1980, the Police were still cool. Sting had not yet revealed himself to be the pretentious, tantric twat we know and hate now. He had edge, as did the other two blond chaps. I really liked the raw debut, Outlandos d’Amour, but found the follow-up patchy, besides its three big single hits. Zenyatta Mondatta (whatever that means), the final album before mega-stardom, was more cohesive than its predecessors. Where the previous two albums required the occasional song-skipping, all of the first side of Zenyatta Mondatta is quite excellent, in particular Driven To Tears. And, well, for the tune we ought to forgive the lyrics of De Do Do Do De Da Da Da. Much of my affection for this album is nostalgic: it transports me back to the day in November 1980 when my step-father and I wallpapered and painted my room. I had taken all my posters off, and threw them away. Of course, since I was a teenager, new posters would soon go up again, but that day marked a rite of passage, to the soundtrack of Zenyatta Mondatta.
The Police – Driven To Tears.mp3

ABBA – Super Trouper
By the time this was released, I had come to hate ABBA, much as I still loved the glam-pop of the mid-70s. By 1980, ABBA had grown up; I was still growing up and yet had outgrown them. I had bought Voulez-Vous, and despised the album. On the cover, our four friends looked like Mom and Dad going to the disco (and my mom and step-dad were middle-aged contemporaries of ABBA). On the sleeve of Super Trouper they were glowing at the sort of extravaganza no 14-year-old would be invited to. ABBA had entered a strange middle-age world. It was only when I had caught up with adulthood (in as far as I ever have) that I came to discover what a fine album Super Trouper is. The title track, which I had despised, is actually very lovely. The Winner Takes It All, a melancholy ballad set to a quasi-disco beat, is a high water mark in the ABBA canon, Lay All Your Love On Me is luscious and gorgeous, and Happy New Year is at once sad, bitter and hopeful. No surprises here, really. Those reside in the album tracks. If the synth-pop number Me And I sounds familiar, it does so because it would be ripped off throughout the 1980s. The Piper recalls Benny and Bjorn’s roots in northern European folk music. Andante Andante (one of those infuriating non-English titles) is a lovely ballad which, with a different title, might have been a hit. And the final track, The Way Old Friends Do, is a gloriously sentimental masterpiece. It possibly was initially conceived as a simple folk song, but here becomes an orchestral anthem, recorded live. It is a pity that the CD re-release came with three bonus tracks, because The Way Old Friends Do closes the album perfectly. Instead, it’s followed by the (admittedly very good) Gimme Gimme Gimme, the throw-away Elaine, and the absolutely awful Put On A White Sombrero, which is as bad as the title would suggest and recalls the turgid genre of the German Schlager.
Abba – The Way Old Friends Do.mp3
Abba – The Winner Takes It All.mp3
Abba – Happy New Year.mp3

Joan Armatrading – Me, Myself, I
Shortly before she passed away in October 1980, my grandmother lived with us. One day she gave me money to buy myself a new pair of trainers. Fashion be damned, I first bought myself two LPs with the unexpected moolah, and invested the remaining funds in the cheapest pair of adidas available. And I had change for some sweets still. The albums I bought were this one and Cornerstone by Styx (the one with Babe, though I bought it for Boat On The River). The latter I never played in full; Armatrading’s would get many spins over the years. The title track is excellent: great guitar riff and solo, and Armatrading in great lyrical and vocal form. All The Way From America and Turn Out The Lights are other highlights. Looking over the list it seems that I was rather too much into AOR (which beats being rather too much into S&M).
Joan Armatrading – All The Way From America.mp3
Joan Armatrading – Me Myself I.mp3

George Benson – Give Me The Night
After Zevon’s LP, this is the other album on this list which I can’t connect to 1980. I discovered it two years later. Benson has acquired an unfortunate reputation has über-smooth, glitter-jacketed soulster of 1980s lurve ballads. While elements of that are true, this image suppresses the respect the man merits for his pre-crooning days (just listen to his version of Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit). Give Me The Night, produced by Quincy Jones, finds our friend at a crossroad: part jazz guitarmeister, part proto-Vandross. Here the combination pays off: lite-funk disco numbers such as the title track and the exuberant Love X Love cohabit with fusion instrumentals such as Off Broadway (a play on his 1977 hit with the Drifters’ On Broadway) and Dinorah Dinorah, and with a couple of nice but unremarkable ballads. The highpoint is Moody’s Mood, more recently sloppily covered by Amy Winehouse. The song was based on a sax solo on James Moody’s I’m In The Mood For Love, turned into a song by King Pleasure in 1952. On his version, Benson, usually an average singer, goes all Al Jarreau on us, with the help of Patti Austin.
George Benson – Moody’s Mood.mp3

Dire Straits – Making Movies
One day I might feature Dire Straits in the Pissing Off The Thought Police series. The credibility problem with Dire Straits was threefold: firstly, when CDs became popular, all the quasi-yuppies bought Brothers In Arms, which was seen (like Coldplay today) as “music for people who hate music”; secondly, Mark Knopfler and his red headband and C&W shirt; thirdly, Dire Straits negated punk by creating 9-minute songs. Of course, only the latter element applied in 1980. I had bought the first two albums, on strength of the excellent Sultans Of Swing. Apart from that, they were fucking boring to me. Not so Making Movies. Amid a few dodgy Knopflerifications which anticipated the hateful Money For Nothing, there were four magnificent songs: Romeo And Juliet, Tunnel Of Love, Espresso Love and the title track. When this album came out, one could buy miniature sleeves of albums containing pink chewing gum shaped like an LP, grooves and everything. I remember buying two: Billy Joel’s Glasshouse (the one Billiam album of the era I have no time for), and Making Movies. When I listen to the Dire Straits album, I can still taste the gum.
Dire Straits – Romeo And Juliet.mp3
AC/DC – Back In Black
This was the last AC/DC album I bought. When my friend Mike and I, both AC/DC fans at the time, first played it and Johnson’s voice burst forth, we burst out laughing. He sounded like a Warner Bros cartoon character doing an exaggerated imitation of the late Bon Scott. I still cannot abide by Brian Johnson’s voice. And for evidence to support my dislike, take Give The Dog A Bone from his first album with AC/DC. Bon Scott, who died just half a year before this album was released, would have invested his vodka-drenched soul into this schoolboy prank of a song to make you believe he was indeed looking to, er, feed a canine. In Johnson’s larynx, the song evokes a sleazy drunk about to get nasty with a blow-up doll while his virgin friends watch. So, I think it is fair to observe, I prefer my AC/DC with Bon Scott at the wheel. Johnson actually did OK on tracks like You Shook Me All Night Long (which is really Highway To Hell Redux), Hell’s Bells, Back In Black or Rock ‘n’ Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution. But he was not Bon Scott.
AC/DC – You Shook Me All Night Long.mp3

John Lennon & Yoko Ono – Double Fantasy
John’s love for Yoko was exemplary, a real fairy tale story. This slavish devotion created his foolish impression that the sound of his wife singing was in some way attractive, so much so that the world had to be treated to it. To the world, of course, Yoko’s singing was akin to a recording of a parrot being violated and the sound of his sad squawks being played on 78rpm. Or perhaps I am being unduly harsh. Yoko’s Hard Times Are Over is a fine song, and Kiss Kiss Kiss is a good disco number. John’s tracks were great though. Even Woman, which was overplayed so much after Lennon’s murder that few people alive in 1981 should wish to ever hear it again. I will always love (Just Like) Starting Over, and defy anyone who claims it is cheesy (other than the bit about the Ono-Lennon’s taking out a loan for a trip far, far away. I imagine that Lennon had so much possession as to make the notion of him taking a trip to the bank manager obsolete [Edit: oops, misheard lyric rendering my gratuitous dig at the hypocrite Lennon obsolete. Damn]). As a father, I can identify with the sentimentality of Beautiful Boy. I’m Losing You is potent. And Watching The Wheels is among the very best things Lennon ever did out of McCartney’s earshot. Back in the day, I taped all of John’s songs, and added Hard Times Are Over and Yoko’s Walking On Thin Ice single which came out a few months after the murder (don’t let it be said that Yoko spurned great cash-in opportunities in her 28 years of grief). These days, a playlist employing the same selection technique will do the trick.
John Lennon – (Just Like) Starting Over.mp3
John Lennon – Watching The Wheels.mp3

And what are your favourite albums of 1980?

Previously featured:
1950s
1960-65
1972
1987

Albums of the Year: 1972

June 20th, 2008 No comments

In September 1972 I started school, so I didn’t know any of these albums at the time (in contrast to many of the hit singles of that year). Over time, music from all eras has accumulated in my collection, making it possible to compile top 10s for almost every year (though I would struggle to do so for some years in the ’90s). For 1972, it could have been a top 20 of albums I genuinely love. I have chosen my top 10, leaving behind great albums by the likes of Stevie Wonder, Kris Kristofferson, Al Green, Neil Young, The Spinners, Billy Paul, Neil Diamond, the O’Jays, Bobby Womack, Nilsson, the Crusaders, and Donny Hathaway & Roberta Flack. As always, this is not a list of the year’s “best” releases, but my subjective choice of ten most favourite albums (which tomorrow might well read differently).

1. David Bowie – The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust …
I believe this was the first album from 1972 I ever bought, around 1979. I think it was hearing Starman which persuaded me to buy it. So Ziggy Stardust sits at number 1 as much for nostalgic reasons as it does for my actual enjoyment of it (and it remains my favourite Bowie album by a mile). Oh, but it is all pure gold from the moment the stylus/laser/WinAmp-start-button hits on Five Years. The b-side starts off with two relatively underwhelming tracks (I actually really dislike Lady Stardust), but I challenge you to point me to an album that closes with three songs as mind-bogglingly brilliant as those on Ziggy Stardust: Mick Ronson’s fantastic opening riff of Ziggy Stardust, the mania of Suffragette City (“Oh, wam bam, thank you ma’m”), the resigned drama and possible redemption of Rock ’n Roll Suicide. Ziggy Stardust is, obviously, a concept album, with Bowie going as far as personifying the fictional Ziggy, giving him life (and making peole mourn for Ziggy when Dave dumped the costume). The concept’s execution is genius. The threads of the concept are neither too tightly woven, nor too loosely. The album provides a coherent narrative – giving listeners ample room to flesh out the story in their own minds – and yet every song can be taken out of the context of the story, and make sense on its own.
David Bowie – Starman.mp3
David Bowie – Ziggy Stardust (demo).mp3



2. Donny Hathaway – Live
Alas, Donny Hathaway. If popular music had patron saints in the ways of the Catholic Church, Hathaway could be the patron saint for depressives. Depression – clinical depression, the kind one cannot “snap out of”, as some idiots like to suggest to those suffering from it – killed Donny’s promising career, and ultimately, in January 1979, the man himself (if one discounts the speculation about foul play). Hathaway was a gifted songwriter and a brilliant interpreter of other people’s songs. Here, only two songs are co-written by Hathaway; the rest are covers, but he makes them his own. Opener What’s Going On very nearly eclipses Marvin Gaye’s original, and Lennon’s Jealous Guy (like What’s Going On then just released) ought to have dissuaded Bryan Ferry from crooning it after Lennon’s murder. Hathaway was among the slew of early ’70s soul singers who gave articulation to life in the ghetto. On this set, there are two songs featuring the word: the affecting Little Ghetto Boy, and The Ghetto, a Latino-funk workout that at more than 12 minutes doubles its original running time on Donny’s impressive 1970 debut, Everything Is Everything. Live is worth getting just for that rendition, which has the crowd going absolutely crazy (and which Justin Timberlake definitely has heard before). After the sweaty funk explosion of The Ghetto, Hathaway slows things down a bit, creating a kind of warm intimacy which rarely translates from the stage on to record. I might have included in this post Hathaway’s album of duets with Roberta Flack as well; instead I’ll recycle the best song from that LP.
Donny Hathaway – The Ghetto.mp3
Donny Hathaway & Roberta Flack – Be Real Black For Me.mp3

3. Carpenters – A Song For You
Sometimes one has favourite albums on the basis of one side only. Steely Dan’s Pretzel Logic is one of them; A Song For You is another. Look at the tacklisting of the a-side: A Song For You, Top Of The World, Hurting Each Other, It’s Gonna Take Some Time, Goodbye To Love. That is one side of pure greatest hits material (actually, I think most or all did appear on the Carpenters’ singles album a year later). With an side 1 like that, one need not flip the record over. Unlike Pretzel Logic, however, the flipside is very good, with the lovely I Won’t Last A Day Without You and the sweetly forlorn Road Ode standing out. All that is undermined by Richard’s lithping interludes. Still, it’s the first side one always returns to, immersed in the sweet sounds until the siblings announce the bathroom break. Perhaps that is so because these songs are so well known. One looks forward to the little touches: the lovely rendition of Leon Russell’s title track (done better, incidentally, by Donny Hathaway) with its saxophone solo; the pain in Karen’s phrasing in Hurting Each Other (“tearing-each-other-apaaart”), the fuzz guitar solo in Goodbye To Love; the admirable flute solo (yay!) on It’s Going To Take Some Time. Get three of the songs from this album and more Carpenters stuff (plus Hathaway’s version of Song For You) here.
Carpenters – It’s Going To Take Some Time.mp3

4. Steely Dan – Can’t Buy A Thrill
The eagle-eyed music experts among readers of this blog might have sensed that I have an affinity for Steely Dan, but that affinity finds full expression only periodically. I must be in the right mood to hear their music; exposed to it in the wrong mood, and I might even resent them. Can’t Buy A Thrill is the only Dan album I can listen to at any time (I suspect my trouble with the Dan has partly to do with Fagen’s voice, which I sometimes love and at other times cannot stand; on this album Donald shares the lead vocals with the soon-ousted David Palmer). Fagen and Becker’s debut is their most accessible album, and as such is often recommended as an entry point to the Steely Dan canon. I’d rather expose the Dan novice to the first side of Pretzel Logic or The Royal Scam, because Can’t Buy A Thrill might set up false expectations. This album is a compilation of what would become the jazz-tinged Dan sound (Do It Again, Kings, Fire In The Hole, Turn That Heartbeat Over Again) and West Coast rock (Reelin’ In The Years, Dirty Work), which would soon be abandoned. Some tracks fall right between these styles: the fantastic Only A Fool Would Say That, Midnite Cruiser, Change Of The Guard, Brooklyn (the latter brilliantly lacing the soft-rock with hints country, jazz and soul). Or maybe the nascent Dan fan should be introduced to the band with Can’t Buy A Thrill. It is an astonishing debut album, inventive and self-assured, packed with instant classics. From here, it must be a joy to discover how the sound developed.
Steely Dan – Brooklyn.mp3
Steely Dan – Reelin’ In The Years.mp3

5. John Denver – Rocky Mountain High
I suspect that not many people bought both Steely Dan (or Hathaway or Steely Dan) and John Denver in 1972. To be honest, John Denver is a recent discovery for me. To me, he always was the corny muppet with the blond hair and round glasses singing granny-friendly music. Then the great Echoes In The Wind blog posted Denver’s 1970 Whose Garden Was This album. When Whiteray bigs up the unexpected, I’m willing to listen. To cut a long story short, I’ve fallen for John Denver’s early-period music, and none more so than Rocky Mountain High, with its title track which demands the use of the cliché “achingly beautiful” (which I won’t use) and the equally lovely Goodbye Again. I know that Darcy Farrow is a cover version (Denver did a lot of those), but I don’t think I’ve ever heard an version other than Denver’s. In his hands it is just fine (though I can imagine a rougher country singer doing great things with the song). The guitar instrumental that starts the Season Suite has the approval of guitar-playing Any Minor Dude. The biggest surprise on the album is Denver’s take on the Beatles’ Mother’s Nature Son. Denver recorded a fair number of Beatles songs; some of these interpretations are OK, a few less so. His version of Mother Nature’s Son, in my view, is better than the original; something I say about very few covers of Beatles songs. Alas, the album also includes the track which anticipates Denver’s descent into muppetdom: the sickly For Baby (For Bobbie), which features – for fuck’s sake – a children’s choir.
John Denver – Rocky Mountain High.mp3

6. Curtis Mayfield – Superfly
It’s a shame that the cinema of the early ’70s which recorded the African-American experience and were soundtracked by some kick-ass hot funk have been lumped together as “blaxploitation”, acquiring a hackneyed reputation. In that regrettable calculation, Shaft, a good movie which traded in cliché, equals Superfly, which was more social critique than action (the karate chops were really a nod to crowdpleasing). Both, of course, had classic funk tracks as their theme – but only one was remade with the oh-so-fucking-too-cool-for-skool goon Samuel Jackson in the lead (I don’t like Samuel Jackson much, as you might have gathered). Mayfield’s soundtrack played a starring role in Superfly; rarely has a film theme been so tightly integrated into a movie. Where the movie is ambivalent about the pushermen – blaming society, not personal ethics, for their nasty trade – Curtis’ lyrics betray little sympathy for the eponymous dealer, while at the same time not moralising either. Indeed, No Thing On Me (in my view the album’s best track) repudiates the need for drugs, “my life’s a natural high, the man can’t put no thing on me” (sure is funky). And this was the strength of Mayfield’s social lyrics: the recurring notion of empowering one’s self to effect change or to escape destruction. Sometimes Mayfield would spell out what needed to be changed, or what self-destructive threats were present (here, for example, on the cautionary Freddie’s Dead). Crucially, Mayfield did neither sermonise nor, unlike Marvin Gaye, come over all hippie. Superfly, movie and soundtrack, has been cited as being hugely influential on Gangsta Rap. If that is true, then it is regrettable that this influence did not extend to the incorporation of Curtis Mayfield’s thoughtful methods of observation and engagement.
Curtis Mayfield – No Thing On Me (Cocaine Song).mp3

7. Big Star – #1 Record

Rarely has an LP been as spectacularly misnamed as this. #1 Record was a flop when it was released, mainly due to poor promotion by the record company. Perhaps Big Star’s mature power pop simply was not of its time — it was the day of the Partridge Family, Fat Elvis, prog rockers and folk singers. Indeed, much of #1 Record could well have been recorded by Indie acts in the ’90s – or even the day before yesterday. Big Star would break up after another album and only then attained cult status. Their influence on later acts is evident. I would not be shocked to read a customer review on Amazon.com, applying the lazy (and often inaccurate) “if you like the Lemonheads, you’ll definitely like this” routine. But, guess what, I do like the Lemonheads and I like Big Star (and, of course, Evan Dando covered Big Star on the Empire Records soundtrack). There is no poor track on #1 Record, but, truth be told, also few essential classics. There is, however, one song every human being should know and fall in love with irredeemably: The Ballad Of El Goodo, with its marvellous chorus: “There ain’t no one goin’ to turn me around”.
Big Star – The Ballad Of El Goodo.mp3

8. Nick Drake – Pink Moon
Nick Drake is the John Kennedy Toole of music. Like the author’s masterpiece Confederacy Of Dunces, Drake’s three beautiful albums found no audience during their creator’s lifetime. Only after their respective suicides did Toole’s book and Drake’s music find success and cult status. Pink Moon was Drake’s final album before his 1974 suicide (often attributed to depression linked to his commercial failure; perhaps Drake can co-chair the patronage I have already assigned to Donny Hathaway). Drake recorded the album in two sessions lasting two hours each. This, and the album’s sparseness (symbolised by almost half the song titles being single words; no title is longer than four words), lend Pink Moon an immediacy; yet it is in many ways less accessible than Drake’s two previous LPs. It’s necessary to listen to Pink Moon several times before the depth of the album’s sad beauty reveals itself fully. It is not quite a masterpiece, but despite its flaws it becomes easy to love thanks to Drake’s gentle voice and his quite excellent guitar work.
Nick Drake – Pink Moon.mp3

9. Van Morrison – Saint Dominic’s Preview
St Dominic’s Preview is not my favourite Morrison album by any stretch; when in the mood for some Van, I’m more likely to put on Moondance or Tupelo Honey. But when I do play it, I’m invariably delighted with it. Saint Dominic’s is not packed with hits; only Jackie Wilson Said is well-known. All the more the joy at hearing Morrison material that has not been overplayed (and, hell, I have come to hate Brown Eyed Girl by now). The long, intense Listen To The Lion is the album’s centrepiece. A one point Van’s goes for a bizarre impression of a stoned lion doing an imitation of an inebriated buffoon’s insensitive mimicking of a gibbering idiot. It is strangely captivating. The listener who sits through all that (or makes use of the skip button/playlist editor) will be rewarded with a great double-whammy of songs which should have been huge: the great country-blues-rock title track and the very lovely Redwood Tree.
Van Morrison – Saint Dominic’s Preview.mp3

10. Lou Reed – Transformer
I am not a particularly big fan of Lou Reed (I don’t get him much of the time), but there is one recording of his which is something like my musical Rosebud: a live performance at New York’s Bottom Line Club which was broadcast in full on northern Germany’s NDR2 radio in about 1980, and which I taped. I don’t think it’s the gig immortalised on the much-maligned Take No Prisoner album; the broadcast concert actually sounded great. Or perhaps I just remember it being so. And why am I mentioning it here when I’m supposed to discuss Transformer? Well, it’s here for the big tracks: Take A Walk On The Wild Side, Perfect Day, Vicious (a rather shameless rip-off of Wild Thing), Andy’s Chest, and especially the glorious Satellite Of Love. These more than compensate for the guff on the album, of which there is quite a bit. Since Ziggy Stardust tops this list, it seems necessary to mention that Transformer was produced by David Bowie and features Mick Ronson on guitar.
Lou Reed – Satellite Of Love.mp3

Albums of the Year: 1987

June 11th, 2008 No comments
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Some time ago I started a series of my favourite albums of the year, starting with round-ups of the ’50s and the years 1960-65. It was a good idea, but the prospect of choosing ten albums from 1966 and writing about them somehow put me off. So I procrastinated in continuing the series. Then, this morning, it hit me: why the compulsion to follow the years in a rigorously tidy chronology? Surely I won’t receive a flood of complaints if I focus on random years. So we’ll continue the long dormant series with a random year, inspired by the album I was playing in the car as I had my brainwave, and which tops the list. A few caveats: these lists represent my top 10 of albums in terms of my own enjoyment and/or the nostalgic bonds they represent. Greatest hits type compilations are not considered (else New Order’s Substance album would have featured). And, no, I never liked The Joshua Tree much, by 1987 I was past my Depeche Mode phase, and never owned Actually.

1. The Jesus And Mary Chain – Darklands
Somewhere I read the Jesus And Mary Chain’s 1985 aptly named debut Psychocandy described as the Beach Boys being played by vacuum cleaners, or a notion to that effect. The description is spot on: the rather lovely tunes struggled to be heard above the feedback. It sounded great, but somehow one wondered how great JAMC might be with a cleaner sound. Two years later the Reid brothers switched off the vacuum cleaner and, Hoover be praised, produced that clean sound. Listen to Cherry Came Too: you can imagine it being sung by the Beach Boys back in the day. Indeed, the Reid boys wore their influences with ease. The dark Nine Million Rainy Days pays homage, wittingly or not, to the Stones’ Sympathy To The Devil. Closing track About You could have been sung by Nico and the Velvet Underground. The title track channels Berlin-era Bowie (but is much better than that). Yet, they could not be accused of plagiarism, as Oasis would be later. The whole thing incorporates earlier sounds without compromising the JAMC’s originality. Two decades later, the album still sounds fresh and exciting. A forgotten classic.
The Jesus And Mary Chain – Darklands.mp3
The Jesus And Mary Chain – Nine Million Rainy Days.mp3

2. Prince – Sign O’ The Times
There probably is a critical consensus that Sign O’ The Times is the best album of 1987. There is indeed much to be admired. The music is great, of course. Provided one is in the mood for it, because it can be a bit tedious. Let it play on a non-Prince day — and surely everybody but the most devoted Prince fan has these — and the whole thing has the capacity to irritate. It is not a pop masterpiece like Purple Rain; SOTT demands that you to listen it, and forgive its trespasses, especially the flab (oh, but if you condensed it down to a single album, which tracks would you cut?). SOTT is to Prince what the White Album was to the Beatles: despite the flaws that tend to be a by product of innovation, a masterpiece.
Prince – Sign O’ The Times.mp3
Prince – Starfish And Coffee.mp3

3. The Smiths – Strangeways Here We Come
A year earlier, the Smiths had released their ageless opus, The Queen Is Dead. Now Morrissey, Marr and chums themselves delivered their swansong. It was not necessarily their finest hour: lead single Girlfriend In A Coma is a lightweight novelty number, presaging Morrissey’s solo career that is riddled with similar witless doggerels. It was a bizarre choice for a single. I submit that Unhappy Birthday might have become a big cult hit on the back of its wonderfully vicious lyrics. A Rush And A Push… and the oppressive Death Of A Disco Dancer are excellent, and Last Night I Dreamt Somebody Loved Me is one of the most affecting songs in a canon jam-packed with such things. The line “Oh mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head” is emotionally exhausting. It is a great piece of sequencing that this track, a throw-back to the self-pity years, is preceded — at least on the CD, for Last Night… opens side 2 — by a song called Stop Me If You Think That You’ve Heard This One Before.
The Smiths – Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Love Me.mp3

4. Alexander O’Neal – Hearsay
When ’80s soul became unfashionable, O’Neal became something of a reject emblem for the out-of-favour genre. It was rather unfair on the man. He made some classy soul music in his time, thanks to his effortlessly expressive voice and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’ sparkling funk-soul-pop arrangements. Hearsay is a concept album, with dialogue intros preceding each song (they tend to grate once the novelty has worn off). The first side is the going-to-a-party section with great funk tracks such as Fake and Criticise, on the flip side things mellow down a bit, though the thing continues to groove, as on the gorgeous duet with the frequent collaborator Cherelle, Never Knew Love Like This. This is one of the great soul albums of the ’80s. Why would anyone want to dismiss Alexander O’Neal? Little known fact: O’Neal was the singer of a group called the Flyte Tyme (with Jam and Lewis). The group was signed to Prince’s Paisley Park label, but after a dispute with His Tiny Highness, O’Neal left the group, which hired one Morris Day and renamed itself The Time, providing the baddy foil to Prince’s flawed hero in Purple Rain.
Alexander O’Neal – Criticise.mp3

5. Lloyd Cole & the Commotions – Mainstream
In a comment to a post in which I featured Lloyd Cole’s best song, Rattlesnakes, Rol from the fine Sunset Over Slawit blog wrote that he “could live inside” that song. I know exactly what he means. Likewise, I could spend a lost weekend (with or without a brand-new friend) in Cole’s Mainstream album. Lloyd’s final album with the Commotions, it did less well than its two predecessors. This is a pity, because — and this may be fighting talk — it is in some ways even better than the debut, Rattlesnakes, and most certainly superior to the sophomore album, Easy Pieces. On Mainstream, Cole and his increasingly distant friends returned to the guitar-based sound of the debut. Lyrically, Cole seemed to be at war with himself, his band and the world. On the side two opener he prnounced himself Mr Malcontent, and on the excellent From The Hip, he declared that he doesn’t care anymore. Oh, but he did. There are a couple of commitment songs, notably Jennifer She Said. That line “her name on you…Jennifer in blue” is a regular earworm, sometimes supplanted by the repetitious “that’s forever she said…”.
Lloyd Cole & The Commotions – From The Hip.mp3

6. Basia – Time And Tide
There is a very good reason why this jazz-pop singer goes by her Christian name. Basia Trzetrzelewska (try saying that after a few pints of finest Hevelius) provided the splendid three-octave female voice on Matt Bianco’s first LP. While I rather enjoyed Matt Bianco, their Get Out Of Your Lazy Bed song used to irritate me when I was still a notorious morning grump. There was nothing aggravating about her 1987 solo debut, a finely judged collection of Latin-tinged jazz-pop which could with ease move the twinkletoed to the dancefloor to do the samba (or its Capetonian cousin, the jazz). The title track and Promises received fairly wide exposure, and are indeed the strongest numbers on the album. But the entire set is strong, with the possible exception of Prime Time TV and How Dare You. Check out songs such as New Day For You or Astrud.
Basia – New Day For You.mp3

7. The Housemartins – The People Who Grinned Themselves To Death
Like an Indie-pop supernova, the Housemartins burnt out after two albums. It probably was just as well: the überanorak shtick was going to get them only so far. So bassplayer Norman Cook became a DJ and then Fat Boy Slim; singer Paul Heaton and replacement drummer Dave Hemingway formed the Beautiful South. Before going their own way, our Marxist-Christian pals left us with a maddeningly uneven yet rather enjoyable album, the title of which was a reference to the royal family. By now the political consciousness started to mingle uneasily with the wackiness. What at first was endearing started to irritate. The single Five Get Overexcited, catchy jangly guitar pop with a message about superficiality though it was, had annoying lrics (“I am mad from Scandinavia, I want a guy in the London area. He must be crazy and Sagittaurus, ’cause I am Leo and I’m hilarious”). Conversely, a serious song about the rotten class-system like Me And The Farmer fails to convey its message thanks to a happy melody (and a very silly video). The People Who… is at its strongest when things are allowed to calm down a bit. And so the stand-out tracks are the quieter Build and The Light Is Always Green. As an opponent of apartheid, I particularly appreciated the inclusion of Johannesburg, although the Housemartins deviation towards jazz was less welcome.
The Housemartins – The People Who Grinned Themselves To Death.mp3

8. Wet Wet Wet – Popped In Souled Out
This may be one of the most unjustly disrespected albums of the ’80s. I cannot understand why Wet Wet Wet have such a poor reputation. Is it because they were initially marketed as the teenybopper group they never could be (I mean, Marti Pellow was good looking, but the drummer and the little one are hardly dreamy heartthtrobs)? Is it because that song from a Hugh Grant movie was so ubiquitous? Was it the name? The answer is beyond me, but it surely cannot have been the music on the Scottish band’s debut album. This is high-quality blue-eyed soul, made by people who clearly understand the genre. The sound draws from ’60s pop and ’70s soul, and Pellow’s vocals settle for a fine balance between soul technique and pop delivery. The songs are very catchy. Strings swell, but never in a corny way. The lyrics aren’t Tom Waits or Patti Smith, but they remain on the right side of pop banality (and sometimes they are pretty good). What, I beg you, is there not to like here?
Wet Wet Wet – Wishing I Was Lucky.mp3

9. INXS – Kick
Let the record reflect that I had no time for INXS before Kick, and none after. And yet, I love this album. It is the most accessible INXS album; the slew of hits that emanated from it testifies to that. It is also their least self-conscious album; Hutchence lets it hang out like Jagger and actually seems to be enjoying himself. On Need You Tonight, Hutchence is sex personified. When he sings “Your moves are so raw, I’ve got to let you know…I’ve got to let you know: you’re one of my kind”, he is having hot ‘n sweaty sex. With you (well, if you happen to be listening to it). I can happily live without a few tracks from Kick, such as opener Guns In The Sky or Calling All Nations, but for all their exposure, I am never unhappy to hear Devil Inside, Never Tear Us Apart, Mediate, New Sensation, Mystify or the song on which Hutchence is having sex with us.
INXS – Need You Tonight.mp3

10. Johnny Clegg & Savuka – Third World Child
I like Johnny Clegg. I like it that an English-born Jewish boy would defy apartheid, which was predicated not only on the separation of races but also of cultures, and assimilate with Zulu culture but not lose the awareness that he could never be a fully-fledged Zulu. His affinity with the Zulu culture is sincere, as was evident in his previous group, Juluka. When Juluka colleague Sipho Mchunu left the group, Clegg founded Savuka. His new group continued in the Juluka tradition; in concerts the setlist included most Juluka classics and the old dance routines with the highkicks. Third World Child was more commercial and polished than Juluka, possibly consciously so as to appeal to the fans of Paul Simon’s Graceland. It was a better album for it, I think. One has the direct comparison of Scatterlings Of Africa, a Juluka single in 1982 and re-recorded by Savuka for this album. The latter version is marginally better. At times Third World Child, like everything Clegg does, is a little too earnest, and sometimes it seems Clegg got bored with an idea before completing its development. But, goodness, when it’s good, it really is great. Apart from Scatterlings, the stand-out tracks are Great Heart and the great anti-apartheid song dedicated to the then still jailed Nelson Mandela, Asimbonanga, with its moving litany of activists who were murdered by the regime.
Johnny Clegg & Savuka – Asimbonanga.mp3

Previously featured:
1950s
1960-65

Albums of the Years 1960-65

November 15th, 2007 2 comments

Continuing the series of albums of the year, I am condensing the years of the ’60s prior to that of my birth. It was not a time for albums yet, at least not in pop. There were classic jazz albums, such as Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, an essential album of the decade with which I have never been able to close a friendship. In the ’60s the great Sinatra left Capitol and Nelson Riddle to become a crooner for the people following him into middle-age. There was one final great Capitol album, some goofing with the Rat Pack, then straight into bloated easy listening territory. Sinatra became so bland, he made Engelbert Humperdinck seem like the muse for the New York Dolls.

But the early ’60s also saw the rise of the Beatles as a pop band which could churn out good albums at an alarming rate. Consider that between the ropey debut of Please, Please Me to Rubber Soul, not quite three years passed. Only two years after Rubber Soul came the ludicrously influential Sgt Peppers. Two years later, the Beatles were finished. Such a rich body of work and astonishing artistic growth in seven years. Think about it: an act starting out in 2000 and breaking up about now, leaving behind a legacy like that. No wonder the Beatles are represented in this top 10 three times, with some consideration for two of the remaining three albums.

As ever, my top 10s are also not representative of the “best” albums of the year. Some are, but others will be included simply because I like them, knowing well that they are not as innovative or influential as others I have listed.

1. The Beatles – Help (1965)
On Sunday I bought the new DVD set. The movie looks and sounds great. Its cinematic merits aside (it is a bit ropey), Help! the film is a fascinating time capsule, coming after The Goons and before Monty Python. Add to that the Fab Four in action, and the songs, and it is a richly rewarding DVD, at least for the Beatles fan. And the album is my favourite Beatles set of all.

Help was the culmination of the Beatles’ innocent period, before lyrics started to acquire deeper meanings; before musical innovation became a hallmark of Beatles albums; before George Harrison was given the opportunity to express himself. Notable is the Dylan influence on both Lennon and McCartney — on “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” (my all-time favourite Beatles song, by John) and on the country-flavoured “I’ve Just Seen A Face” (Paul). “Ticket To Ride” and the title track hint at the leap the group would make just a few months later with Rubber Soul. For now, though, the songs were mostly still uncomplicated and sometimes even a bit goofy (”You’re Going To Lose That Girl”, “Another Girl”, Ringo’s cover of Buck Owen’s “Act Naturally”).

Perhaps because Help was recorded just as the Beatles became musically more adventurous, but before such innovation turned up some aberrations, it is their most perfect pop album. Even the inappropriate Dizzy Miss Lizzy, a throwback to the first three albums that should have been replaced by I’m Down (b-side to the single release of Help), cannot detract from the album’s perfection — positioned, as it is, at the end of the album, one can just switch it off.
The Beatles – You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away.mp3
The Beatles – You’re Gonna Lose That Girl.mp3
The Beatles – I’ve Just Seen A Face.mp3

2. The Beatles – A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
In preparation for this post, I listened to the three Beatles albums under review. I was going to rank Rubber Soul higher, but was reminded that there was more guff on that album than there is on the Beatles’ first soundtrack album. Somehow, my respect for Beatles albums tends to be based on the quality not of the singles but that of the tracks that were neither singles nor included on the 1973 red and blue compilations (a question of overfamiliarity, probably). And the album tracks on A Hard Day’s Night are just great: Anytime At All (how was that never a single?), I’ll Cry Instead, If I Fell, I’ll Be back. The singles/red album numbers – the title track, Things We Said Today, I Should Have Known Better, Can’t Buy Me Love – are outstanding as well. Oh, and the movie was really good as well (“He’s such a clean old man”).
The Beatles – Anytime At All.mp3

3. Vince Guaraldi Trio – A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
The soundtrack to the Peanuts Christmas special. It is a sublime film and a sublime record. Both are immensely comforting, I find. This might be the only jazz album which people who hate jazz can love, and which jazz lovers can forgive for being loved by jazz novices. Nominally it is a Christmas album. If one is familiar with the Peanuts film, it will evoke Christmas. If not, it might well do so anyway, but it works at any time of the year. Listen to O Tannenbaum, a cool bass and piano driven version of the quintessential German yuletide song (Silent Night is Austrian, don’t you know?): it extends far beyond the Christmas spirit and fir trees. And yet, if you want it to be about Christmas, it can and will be. Even the 4 minute version of the Peanuts theme song (properly titled Linus And Lucy).
Vince Guaraldi Trio – O Tannenbaum.mp3

4. Miles Davis – Sketches Of Spain (1960)
First off, I love the album cover. But if that were enough to qualify, Herb Alpert would be included in this post. Sketches Of Spain delivers what it promises: Davis interpreting Spanish music. Rodrigo’s classical Spanish guitar piece Concierto De Aranjuez gets the trumpet treatment, with Gil Evans’ luscious, deeply affecting arrangement producing 12 minutes and 43 seconds of utter bliss. I have said it before, to appreciate Miles Davis’ powers of innovation, one must look to his subtle works, certainly not to the jazz fusion wankery of Witches Brew. On Sketches Of Spain, things sway gently one moment, next a jolt as the tune segues into a film noir mood before it regains its whispering, ominous beauty. It is indeed a sad album, perhaps the saddest instrumental album I know besides Morricone’s wonderful soundtrack of Once Upon A Time In America. It is a rare and special thing when being a passive participant to such sadness can make one glad to be alive. Listen to this track, and, for the sake of experiment, cue your favourite upbeat pop song to follow it. My bet is that you will resent the pop song for crashing in on the afterglow of the emotion Davis has created.
Miles Davis – Concierto De Aranjuez.mp3

5. The Beatles – Rubber Soul (1965)
Never mind Revolver, it was Rubber Soul that represented the quantum leap in the Beatles’ artistic trajectory. Suddenly all kinds of strange instruments – especially George’s sitar – crept into the music, and the lyrics became increasingly surreal and, at times, cynical. Lennon seemed to be a bitter chap at that point. Run For Your Life, even by his own admission, is a nasty song, and Drive My Car is far from the polite tone of previous records (though Another Girl on Help is pretty mercenary). Some of the generic lyrics are still evident on the songs by Paul and George; it is John who first breaks out of the easy-going ghetto. Two songs stand out: the nostalgic In My Life, which seems to have been written by a man twice Lennon’s age, and Girl, which fuses a beautiful melody with much exasperated bitterness. The latter also has the best single sound on the album: the sharp intake of air through closed teeth, which serves to emphasise the protagonist’s frustration. The counterpoint is McCartney’s Michelle, an atrocious song which the greasepot crooners quickly latched on to as they had done with Yesterday and would do with Something. But where Yesterday is a brilliant song (spoiled by overexposure) and Something is sublime, Michelle is just horrible.
The Beatles – Girl.mp3

6. Stan Getz & Joao Gilberto – Getz/Gilberto (1964)
When I picked this album up in a charity thrift shop in the ’80s, I had no idea what a classic I was buying. To be honest, I had no idea who Gilberto was, only a vague idea about Getz, bossa nova was a mystery to me, and I regarded The Girl From Ipanema as a cheesy elevator muzak tune which punk forgot to kill. I bought the album solely because I liked the cover. I need not explain what happened when I played the record, at least not to those who love it as I do. This is a late-night, kick-back record, intimate and warm. It is a great lovemaking record, I imagine (I’ve never thought of testdriving it for that purpose). Astrud Gilberto may not be the greatest singer of all time (she was roped in only because she could sing in English), but her relaxed and cute voice, when it appears, provides the varnish to Getz’s cool sax, Joao’s warm vocals and Jobim’s astounding compositions.
Getz/Gilberto – The Girl From Ipanema.mp3

7. Bob Dylan – The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963)
I am not a Dylanisto. To me, not every Dylan album is a masterpiece, even as I have most of the older ones. This one, however, is superb, with the relative sparseness of the music (in contrast to Highway 61 Revisited anyway) all the more emphasising Dylan’s poetry. There are some songs one may happily overlook when compiling the definitive Dylan anthology (Down The Highway!), and the inclusion of two self-referencing songs smacks of egotism. But when Freewheelin’ hits, it hits so well. The hits are obvious – Blowin’ In The Wind, A Hard Rain’s…, Don’t Tink Twice… – but lesser known tracks like Corrina Corrina, Girl From The North Country and the quite funny I Shall Be Free are very good indeed. The surprise track is Talking World War III Blues, a song that engrosses the listener with its sermonising and satirising storytelling – despite the unappealing title, Dylan’s terrible vocals and the overbearing harmonica. I suppose the astute Dylan fan might wonder why, if I like that, I am not a Dylanista. It just ain’t me, babe.
Bob Dylan – Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.mp3

8. Otis Redding – Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul (1965)
It is tantalising to imagine what might have become of Otis Redding had he not died in a plane crash in 1968. Would he have adapted to the smoother sounds of ’70s soul? Would he have dabbled in disco? Might the future of soul music been shaped along a different path by this great singer’s influence? Or would he have gone the way of many of his contemporaries, into oblivion and largely excised from public consciousness until the ’60s soul revival of the ’80s (Londoners may well recall the Friday night club at the Kentish Town & Country Club, the Locomotion). The question I’m really posing is this: is Otis Redding a legend because of his music, or because of his dramatic death when he was in his prime? On the evidence of this album (the title and cover of which suggests that Otis was a country singer dabbling in soul as Ray Charles did in country), I’m inclined to think that Redding is a legend because he is. Redding took the Stones’ Satisfaction, and replaced Jagger’s great insolent vocals with mature emotion (the story goes that Otis had never heard the song before recording it). There is Respect, the original, done so in such a unique way that Aretha Franklin could take the song and shape it in her own image. There is the Temptations’ My Girl, no longer a cute spark of sunlight, but deflowered by the soulman. Redding even manages to nearly match Sam Cooke’s soaring A Change Is Gonna Come. But the highlight is I’ve Been Loving You Too Long, which Redding co-wrote with the great Jerry Butler (a song Isaac Hayes should have covered in a 15-minute epic). Redding’s performance of it at the Monterrey festival shortly before the plane crash is even more fantastic. And so I’m offering that live version rather than the one on the album.
Otis Redding – I’ve Been Loving You (live in Monterrey).mp3

9. Frank Sinatra – Nice ‘n’ Easy (1960)
This album (which I bought at the same charity shop as the Getz/Gilberto LP) marked the beginning of the end of Sinatra’s glorious Capitol/Nelson Riddle era. A few albums on the label followed, but the decline was beginning to set in amid a rapidly changing musical landscape. The besuited swing stars of the ’50s were beginning to fade, and a new batch of groovily clad and chesthaired poseurs like Humperdinck and Tom Jones were taking their place. All the more the pity. The killer track on this album is the title song, with the great spoken line, “Like the man said, one more time”, symbolising the last great hurrah of Sinatra’s credibility, just one album before he recorded Old Mac Donald, for crying out loud. But while the title track swings , the rest of the album is Sinatra in relaxed balladeering mood. It might have been false advertising, but the listener is not being cheated. Tracks like I Got A Crush On You, That Old Feeling and Try A Little Tenderness (just a few years before Otis Redding totally revamped and appropriated the song) showcase Sinatra’s capacity for investing himself into a song, before he descended into the greasepit of covering Yesterday and Something for our mothers’ uncles.
Frank Sinatra – Nice ‘n’ Easy.mp3

10. The Rat Pack – Live At The Sands (1963)
I am cheating now. This album was released only in 2001, presumably to cash in on the Rat Pack retro hype inspired by the remake of Ocean’s 11 and fed off by the likes of Robbie Williams trying to capture some of the cool. Oh, but the Rat Pack dudes were cool (it was Humphrey Bogart, of course, who founded the original Rat Pack, of which Sinatra was not a member). At least on stage they were cool. This collection captures the three principal members, the vocalists, on a great night. The banter is very amusing (though by today’s standards definitely not politically correct), with zinging teasing taken in good spirits and reciprocated. I have appropriated Sammy’s line: “…and these are the best friends I have”. Sammy Davis Jr certainly has his wits about him when he tells Dean Martin during a set of impressions to “be nice…or I’ll do Jerry [Lewis]”, with whom Martin was famously feuding. Sammy’s impersonations are great – especially that of Dino (“just having a little bit of fun folks”). It takes guts to impersonate somebody while that somebody is watching you. The vocal performances on the album are fine, but it is not enjoyable for that primarily; as Dino tells the audience: “if you want serious, buy a album”. It is just great fun, with three witty pallies riffing off one another. I was sad to note that Joey Bishop, the comedian of the Rat Pack, died last month at 89.
Sammy Davis Jr. – All The Way (impressions).mp3