Thursday, August 21, 2014

29 Led Zeppelin (1969) Led Zeppelin

1. Good Times Bad Times
2. Babe I'm Gonna Leave You
3. You Shook Me
4. Dazed and Confused
5. Your Time Is Gonna Come
6. Black Mountain Side [Instrumental]
7. Communication Breakdown
8. I Can't Quit You Baby
9. How Many More Times

It's worth taking a minute or two to admire the guts of Jimmy Page. People revere him as a guitarist, and it's right that they should, but he's much more than just one of a bunch of great players of a Fender stratocaster or Les Paul. Jimmy Page created Led Zeppelin and their legacy in a way that few people have created a band before. He's more than just a guitar-slinger, he's a band leader, producer and visionary with no shortage of chutzpah (a word I'm happy to type but don't have enough chutzpah to actually try and say).

Page created Led Zeppelin out of the ruins of The Yardbirds, a band he was in until the rest of the line up decided they weren't in it with him. The Yardbirds fell apart completely leaving Page with rights to the name but nobody to play with. He immediately set about assembling a band and called on John Paul Jones, a bass player he'd done a lot of session work with. He chose Robert Plant after checking him out in a tiny club gig and being amazed at his abilities. Apparently Page's initial reluctance to sign him up was because he felt anyone that talented who wasn't famous must have been incredibly hard to work with. Plant recommended Bonham on drums and the band had a try out and apparently gelled immediately and went on a tour of Scandinavia as The New Yardbirds to fulfil an outstanding contract.

When they returned Page decided to get a recording contract but rather than audition for record executives he paid for studio time out of his own pocket. The first Led Zeppelin album was funded and produced entirely by Page without any record executives looking over his shoulder telling him what he should or shouldn't do. He mixed the tapes and then strode boldly into Atlantic and said "Listen to this". They fell over themselves and decided to sign up the band for a huge advance and were prepared to give Page unprecedented levels of control over future Led Zeppelin albums.

When Page's first band collapsed he had the guts to back his own abilities and assemble other players who could accomplish his vision and then direct them as their leader. Then he had the temerity to back himself and tell a record company what terms he would let them sign him up with. That's some fairly gutsy play in my book.

While he had a lot of skills, it could be argued that one of them wasn't really songwriting. As others are quick to point out, the majority of Led Zeppelin is made up of blues covers, several of which aren't fully attributed to the original artists who deserve a song-writing credit. Even Dazed and Confused, which for many is Zep's signature tune, owe's a huge debt to a song by Jake Holmes. He's also overstated his credit for Babe I'm Gonna Leave You, You Shook Me, I can't Quite you Baby and How Many More Times and been called out for it several times. He's been called a plagiarist although Page probably prefers to be called an interpreter if he bothers responding to the charge at all.

Regardless of who wrote the songs in their original form, Page can take credit for turning them into hard edged rock and roll. He's the one who took Dazed and Confused and gave it the grunt and the power. He's the guy who decided to play a guitar solo with a violin bow and to make the whole thing into a proto-Heavy metal odyssey. He's the one who told the others how to play and sat behind the control deck and then the mixing desk. He called the shots and made sure they were big booming shots that the whole world heard.

Led Zeppelin 1 (as this is often called) is fantastic and we owe credit to Page for making his vision real. The rest of the band are brilliant at what they do but we should thank Jimmy P for having an idea and turning into a barnstorming reality.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "In fact, Led Zepplin is ALREADY forgoten -- NOBODY in my hi school has ever hear of them, or any song they've ever done."

-This is clearly nonsense. There are kids rocking to Led Zeppelin at every high school in the English speaking world.

So does this go down like a Led Zeppelin for you? Let me know below.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

30 Blue (1971) Joni Mitchell

1. All I Want
2. My Old Man
3. Little Green
4. Carey
5. Blue
6. California
7. This Flight Tonight
8. River
9. A Case of You
10. The Last Time I Saw Richard

A lot of people tell me that they really like Bob Dylan as a songwriter but can't stand him as a performer. They'll list their favourite Dylan songs but point out that the versions they like are all covers. They like Hendrix's Watchtower or Adele's To Make you Feel My Love but they can't stand the originals.

I've never understood this view myself because I love Dylan's voice but it's exactly the way I feel about Joni Mitchell. There are songs on this album that I really love and adore but not in their original incarnation. I've got a version of the Indigo Girls doing River which is just fantastic. One of my favourite things ever is a version of A Case of You as performed by Tori Amos. Irish balladeer Luka Bloom does a rendition of Urge For Going (recorded for this album but dropped at the last minute) which is just sensational. But the original versions are things that I'd really rather not hear again.

I just have a huge problem with Joni's voice. She's talented but she has a vocal style which I can only describe as "irritating". Most Mitchell songs follow a fairly predictable pattern. She uses her fairly deep and almost conversational tone for a bit and the suddenly swoops off into the higher registers for a while as she leaps about from note to note hitting them all but making you wish she'd drop about half of them. Then suddenly she's back to chatty deep voice but you know she's only readying herself for another opportunity to fling her voice skywards once again.

It's an approach that really takes its toll on my patience pretty quickly and I have to say an entire album of Joni being Joni gets pretty grating after a while. In fact it quickly becomes extremely painful to listen to as Mitchell seems to take each track and use it as a platform to prove what an impressive register she's got. As each song progressed I wanted her to calm down, take a deep breath and just sing the tune she'd written. I know when Emily Saliers and Tori Amos do it there's real beauty there but Joni seems to have a total disregard for the songs she's written. It's almost as if she wrote them at home and performed them to herself a few times and now she's bored with them and feels the need to play with them to entertain herself in the studio.

It's not hard to respect Mitchell, or at least it wasn't before she recently affected a transformation into a bitter and cranky old lady. She writes a really nice song, her lyrics are brilliant and she's an under rated guitarist and piano player. She also surrounds herself with a collection of talented friends. She might have broken up with Graham Nash when she recorded Blue but she was still capable of hanging around with his good friend Stephen Stills. And anything Stills plays on is immediately better for his presence.

Listening to Blue made me want to appreciate it as a piece of songwriting without  Joni's voice to put me off. So I jumped on youtube and started listening to cover versions of the pretty much the entire tracklisting. There are some very talented people out there doing some great covers of Mitchell's songs and listening to them makes you realise that she could write a great tune.

I'm not saying Mitchell is a bad singer, far from it, she's definitely a talent, but she has a style that just sets my teeth on edge and prevents me from enjoying her work, at least in its original form. I'll keep enjoying the Indigo Girls playing River and Tori Amos singing A Case of You but I won't feel the need to return to Joni herself anytime soon. I'm glad she exists but I'm glad she's avoidable.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "This album is so overrated. This album is actually 2.75 out of 5 not 3. "

-I love people who feel the need to qualify their rating with fractions. A five star rating system isn't enough for this guy, in fact a 10 star system isn't enough either (he'd need to tell us it was 5.5. He needs a twenty star system so he can give it the 11 stars it deserves.

So does this make you blue or see red? Let me know below.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

31 Bringing it all back home (1965) Bob Dylan

1. Subterranean Homesick Blues
2. She Belongs to Me
3. Maggie's Farm
4. Love Minus Zero/No Limit
5. Outlaw Blues
6. On the Road Again
7. Bob Dylan's 115th Dream
8. Mr. Tambourine Man
9. Gates of Eden
10. It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)
11. It's All over Now, Baby Blue

Now we're all grown up and Dylan is in his seventies and rock music has matured we can look back at Bob's career and judge every album on its merits. We're no longer trying to put him in a box, label him with a stamp or make him the sole possession of a certain musical faction. We don't need to worry about whether he's lost to us or coming back to us or turned his back on this or embraced that. We don't need to worry about what their new direction is for their creator because they're markers on a journey we've seen plotted out, not signposts to an uncertain future. We can sit down and just enjoy each Dylan album for what it is.

Using this knowledge we know that Self Portrait is still pretty bad but was a minor aberration, the Born Again albums aren't as bad as everyone thought they were and the eighties albums are actually worse. And it frees us up to listen to Bringing it All back home as an album not a bold and terrifying new direction.

The biggest songs on Bringing it all back home are probably Maggies Farm, Tambourine Man and Subterranean Homesick blues, or at least they're the songs that people who don't consider themselves Dylan fans would probably know. Of course like a lot of Dylan songs they probably don't know the originals as much as they know the popular covers. Tambourine Man was a huge hit for The Byrds and Maggies Farm was an obligatory hit for any self respecting Punk Band playing in Thatcher's Britain during the eighties.

Those who consider themselves casual Dylan fans would probably know Love Minus Zero/No Limit, It's allright ma I'm only bleeding and It's all over now Baby Blue all of which don't get the radio airplay or the publicity that the others do but are by no means lesser songs. It's Allright Ma is often cited as one of his best songs and I'm inclined to agree. It's not a pretty listen like Blowin in the Wind and it doesn't get covered by popular artists but it's incredibly powerful. It still amazes me to this day that anyone could hear Bringing it All Back Home and be disappointed, as many die hard folkies were back in 1965. They might have heard electric instruments on side one and lamented a lack of obvious protest songs but how could they not love this? It's alright Ma is incredibly dark and spooky but it's lyrics are just unbelievable and incredibly dense. You can spend years listening to it and still hear new things as its incredible series of words and images takes you by surprise every time.

To me the best example of the genius of Dylan however are among the overlooked and lesser known tracks. She Belongs to Me flies under the radar of a lot of people. It doesn't get played on the radio and it rarely makes anyone's list of top Dylan tracks but it's fantastic. It might sound like a love song but it's so much more. It's got some great Dylan lines which you can ponder for ages and still get a lot out of. I personally love: "She never stumbles, She’s got no place to fall" which for me is a fantastic piece of lyric writing. She Belongs to Me is also a track that I suggest people listen to if they claim Dylan can't sing. If they're caught up in their own warbly Dylan impressions and believe his vocals are all nasal expeditions up and down the register in the course of one song I suggest they give this a listen. It's proof that Dylan can not only hold a tune he can cradle it lovingly which makes the lyrics all the better.

Bringing it All Back Home is not a perfect album but with the power of CD burning and the accessibility of out takes it's easy to make it one. I drop Bob Dylan's 115th Dream from the running order (which is too long and loses its novelty value too quickly) and instead include three outtakes which were considered but not recorded. Farewell Angelina, If You Gotta Go, Go Now (Or Else You Got to Stay All Night) and I'll Keep It With Mine all deserve to be rescued from obscurity. They're brilliant songs and their presence here would lift this album from outside the top thirty to inside the top ten.

Bringing it all Back Home is the sound of Bob Dylan tearing down his own legend but creating an even greater one in the process. It's the greatest and most influential recording artist of the past fifty years proving he didn't need popular causes and a sub-culture's adoration to prop him up but he wasn't going to let them hold him back either. If it was recorded by any other solo artist it would be their highest ranked appearance on this countdown. Bob has three others higher than this which just goes to show how amazing he is.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "Never say that one Dylan album is your favorite over another. You always have to change your mind."

-Possibly the truest thing ever said on Amazon. Amen brother.

So are you glad Bob brought it all home or do you wish he left it wherever the hell it was? I mean where are we even going to put it it? Seriously Bob, hire a shed or something, sheesh... sorry I got sidetracked. Just let me know below.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

32 Let it Bleed (1969) The Rolling Stones

1. Gimme Shelter
2. Love in Vain
3. Country Honk
4. Live with Me
5. Let It Bleed
6. Midnight Rambler
7. You Got the Silver
8. Monkey Man
9. You Can't Always Get What You Want

It's not often I can say this but there isn't a single dud track on this album. There isn't a flat spot on the entire release and not a weak moment in its entire running length. It's gold from start to finish and proof that The Rolling Stones were the best band in the world as the sixties gave way to the seventies and they had a magnificent run of albums which nobody has managed to top since.

The weakest song on Let it Bleed is Monkey Man which is fantastic. Many bands writing music in 1969 would have killed to write a song like Monkey Man, I mean literally killed. If they'd been given the option of having a songwriting credit on Monkey Man in exchange for knifing someone in a dark alley then every city would be heaving with lead guitarists hiding in shadows wielding blades. It would be a hit single for most bands but on Let it Bleed it just sits there as an album track. They didn't even bother playing it live when they toured until the mid nineties when it became one of the songs they revived in order to delight fans who loved hearing obscure old tracks given a live working. Despite being 25 years older than when he recorded it, Jagger hauled the band through stage renditions of Monkey Man as if he wrote it that morning and was keen to capture it before the magic left his head. He howled the words, ably supported by Lisa Fischer who has a voice so powerful they can enjoy her in Wales when she's appearing in London, and blew away everyone who heard it.

The strongest song on Let it Bleed is definitely Gimme Shelter and to be honest it would be the strongest track on pretty much every album on this countdown. Shelter is dark but magnificently so. It says something about a track when the lightest moment is probably a woman screaming "Rape, Murder, it's just a shot away". It's pitch black in its outlook and downright scary when you get down to it but it's also proof that the four guys who we think of as making up the core of the Rolling Stones were incredible talents. Watts gives every drumbeat an extra thump, Wyman grooves along on bass and Richards handles sole guitar duties. Jagger sings like he knows he's the greatest frontman in rock and roll (and to be fair he did because he was) and his harmonica sounds like it's possessed. 

The main impression you get from Let it Bleed is a band who is incredibly self confident and supremely sure of their own abilities. They were no longer a tentative cover band dipping their toe in song writing. They were the greatest band in the world and they knew it. If they wanted to record an extended blues track about the Boston Strangler then dammit they would. If they wanted to augment a song with an entire choir then why the hell not. if they wanted to throw on a country version of a prior hit then who would stop them? And if they wanted to pay tribute to Robert Johnson and remind everyone how they started then they would. They were the Stones and the rest of you could get stuffed.

Part of the reason for this new found confidence was the drifting away of founder and bandleader Brian Jones. In the early days The Rolling Stones was Brian's band. He was the leader and Mick and Keith were just the vocalist and other guitarist in his band. He ran the show and was the guy in charge. When it became clear the Jones wasn't really a songwriter but Mick and Keith were, the dynamic in the band changed and Brian went from being leader to hanger on.

Jones was present for the recording of Let it Bleed but didn't pick up his guitar for the entire session. He beat a bit of percussion on Midnight Rambler and played autoharp on You Go the Silver but the band could have easily survived without either contribution. For the first time it was clear that they didn't need their former leader and he was surplus to requirements. The sound of Let it Bleed is the sound of Jagger and Richards realising who is boss. 

Let it Bleed is dark, wonderful and rocks harder than anything else around at the time. Every track is a winner and it's one of those albums that you want to return to and hear again as soon as the final notes have died away. If you've only heard the Stones on radio then you'll know three of these tracks but you owe it to yourself to hear the others. It's outstanding stuff.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "The stones didnt know how to explore(unlike another band I could mention) and all their stuff sounds the same."

-So... you've actually listened to the album then? Or you just wrote this nonsense off the top of your head?

So can you always get what you want? And is this it? Let me know below.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

33. Ramones (1976) The Ramones

1. Blitzkreig Bop
2. Beat On The Brat
3. Judy Is A Punk
4. I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend
5. Chain Saw
6. Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue
7. I Don't Wanna Go Down To The Basement
8. Loudmouth
9. Havana Affair
10. Listen To My Heart
11. 53rd & 3rd
12. Let's Dance
13. I Don't Wanna Walk Around With You
14. Today Your Love, Tomorrow The World

Before his untimely death in 2004, lead vocalist Joey Ramone was asked to rate the records he'd recorded in his career. When asked about Rocket to Russia he had this to say: "This was the best Ramones album—one great song after another. It has just the right balance of slow songs, ballads, and rockers." When asked about their self titled debut his comment was "After each take, the engineers would ask if I wanted to hear it back. I'd ask them how it sounded. "It sounded good." So I just said, "Okay, let's keep going."

That pretty much sums up how I feel about the Ramones work. I reviewed Rocket to Russia a while ago and really enjoyed it. It was the first Ramones album I'd heard all the way through and found myself mightily impressed. Consequently I had high hopes for The Ramones which accordingly to this list is a lot better. I was a bit disappointed. The strength of Rocket was definitely its variety. It's still recognizably the Ramones all the way through, it's not like there's some acid jazz fusion or long piano work tucked away towards the end, but even though it's the same four guys playing the same instruments for its entire running length, there are definitely changes of tempo and mood.

The Ramones however is pretty much a one-tempo affair. It starts off as a fast paced hurtle through some basic chords and continues that way for pretty much the entire album. Since the strongest piece of songwriting is the first track, the other 13 just sound like lesser copies. The band kicks off with with their best song and then spend the rest of the album trying to play it again but not doing it quite as well. To my mind Rocket to Russia is a much better listen. The variations in tempo create a much stronger album and Rocket's faster songs benefit from being mixed in with some slower tunes.

Even taken on their own merits however, I'd rate the songs on Rocket as stronger. Blitzkrieg Bop isn't nearly as good as the joyful Sheena is a Punk Rocker which gets stuck in your head and is a pleasure to have around. With the exception of Surfin Bird, which is one of the most annoying surfing songs ever written and not even the Ramones can improve, I'd take almost every track on Rocket.

So why is this here and Rocket isn't? Why is this the highest Ramones album on the countdown? I think it's related to the idea of influence. This was the first album, it was the one that started it all for the Ramones and helped launch their careers. Even though it sold badly at the time and it took a long time before it achieved classic status, it's still their first, and there's something about a debut album which has a sense of romance for so many. And the idea of four unknowns entering a studio and coming out with a classic album under their belt is definitely a tantalising one.

I'm not saying I hated The Ramones, I quite enjoyed it, but it was a let down after the pleasant surprise that was Rocket to Russia. Maybe you always enjoy your first Ramones album more, which explains why others have voted for this, but I suspect, and the internet research I've done suggests I'm right, that Rocket is a stronger album, this one is here because it pioneered something.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "this is kinda bleeeeeh.i would get a headache after three songs.all their songs sound the same and yes i have gave the ramones a chance and they are bleeeeeeeeeh"

-That's a lot of e's in the that Bleeeeh. Possibly one too many I think. It might be overstating the case somewhat.

So how many e's does your response to the Ramones warrant? Let me know below.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

34 Music from the Big Pink (1968) The Band

1. Tears of Rage
2. To Kingdom Come
3. In a Station
4. Caledonia Mission
5. The Weight
6. We Can Talk
7. Long Black Veil
8. Chest Fever
9. Lonesome Suzie
10. This Wheel's on Fire
11. I Shall Be Released

When you're trying to make it in the music business it helps to have friends in high places. Sometimes it's not what you know, it's who you know. Captain Beefheart could well have languished in total obscurity if it wasn't for his friendship with Frank Zappa; Roy Harper managed to launch an entire career thanks to his friendship with Jimmy Page and Yoko Ono would never have been anything more than an irritating visual artist if it wasn't for her marriage to John Lennon.

Canadian Rockers The Band have definitely benefited from the friendship of Dylan but it would be doing them a huge injustice to claim their entire career is due to the fact that they can use the phrase "I was chatting with Bob the other day..." at parties. Bob may have given their career a huge boost but before it did, they had to win the great man's respect. They've benefited from Dylan's friendship but they had to earn it in the first place.

The Band started their life as the backing band for Canadian rock legend Ronnie "The Hawk" Hawkins but split with him when they decided they could be more successful and independent on their own. They performed for a while without much success until they were recommended to Dylan who at the time was looking for a backing band to help him turn into a rock and roll star. Impressing Bob is a notoriously difficult feat and getting on with him personally is fairly tricky as well so the Band deserve credit for being a bunch of guys that Dylan would be prepared to hang with him onstage and off.

After touring with Bob, the group practically moved in with him when he retired from music for a while thanks to a motorbike accident which left him injured and reluctant to return to the road. The Band moved into a large pink house with a big basement which Dylan visited almost daily for a while with his guitar and a desire to just play music for the heck of it.

The recordings made during those sessions have been partly released as The Basement Tapes but the sessions inspired The Band to continue song-writing and they learnt how to craft songs at the feet of the master.

So when they came to release a solo album, the Dylan connection helped them get a record deal and gain some publicity but the reason this album is revered so much isn't because we can enjoy listening to the album knowing that these guy used to hang with Bob. It's fantastic stuff.

The three Dylan compositions were all originally recorded by Bob and The Band during their Basement sessions but not released officially for several years so this was the first chance that most had to enjoy Tears of Rage, This Wheels on Fire and I shall be Released all three of which are brilliant songs. Dylan's recorded output does tend to fall away in the late sixties but these three tracks are proof that he was still writing incredible music. And The Band are the perfect interpreters of his work turning in brilliant versions which are verging on the definitive.

Hanging around with his Bobness clearly helped the members of the Band to develop their own songwriting skills. His influence rubbed off on them and produced the very Dylanish The Weight which managed to compete with the Bob tracks to be the album's highlight. The Weight is a perfect narrative song and like all good Band songs sounds so traditional and seeped in Americana that most people think it's a cover.  It's a song that lots of people have taken to a lot of different places but nobody has done it quite as well as the guys who first came up with it.

There's a lot more to like on Big Pink. Long Black Veil is a beautiful song and The Band sing it like they wrote it and understand it and there are lots of other indications that Robertson, Manuel and Danko might have gone into the basement as side men but they emerged as songwriters. There isn't a weak song here and I can't recommend it enough.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "I purched this cd for a friend, actually; who requested The band's greatest Hits. When I received the CD, Cripple Creek was not on it. That was one of their biggest hits. I also have to admit, that I purchased 3 CDs at the time; and I may have the confused the song title with the right cD."

-Yeah, is your own stuff up really reason to give this CD one star?

So do you like your music big and pink? Let me know below.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Another 500 Horizons special announcement.

I've been looking around for a new project to write about for a while now and recently decided to blog about the songs included in a book entitled "1001 songs you must hear before you die". It's a brilliant list which is much more varied than this one. It's international, comprehensive and casts a much wider net without tedious repetition. 

I started writing posts a few months back but made it live two weeks ago after I was sure it was a project I would actually enjoy and could see myself continuing until the end. 

I made the decision to launch it on Quora, because I know it has an excellent music community and it's a good place to generate discussion. It's also more user friendly than blogger which means I can imbed youtube clips easily so readers can listen to the song while they're reading. 

In the few weeks that it's been active, it's already received a lot of fascinating comments from readers and acquired some dedicated followers. 

I'd love to invite all loyal 500 horizon fans to join me over at Quora to participate in  1001 Songs my new blog. Viewing the posts is available to anyone but you will need to create a Quora account if you want to comment. I'd highly recommend you do. It's free and Quora is an outstanding place to discuss music and pretty much everything else. 

I will continue to update 500 horizons every week until the full list has been completed early in 2015. Thanks again for reading and I hope you continue to enjoy discussing albums here and songs with me over at Quora.