Friday, December 30, 2011

245 Bryter Layter- Love the Drake

Album: Bryter Layter
Artist: Nick Drake
Genre: Folk
Year: 1970


  1. Introduction
  2. Hazey Jane II
  3. At the Chime of a City Clock
  4. One of These Things First
  5. Hazey Jane I
  6. Bryter Layter
  7. Fly
  8. Poor Boy
  9. Northern Sky
  10. Sunday

At 245 we can all welcome the chance to enjoy another offering from Nick Drake, his second and his highest ranking on the countdown. Drake released three albums in his short and tragic life and every one of them is now regarded by Rolling Stone magazine as among the top 500 records ever made. Millions of records and CD's have been released in the history of recorded music but only 244 of them were considered by a panel of experts to be better than Bryter Later. And praise for this album isn't just a strange notion entertained by the writers of Rolling Stone. Q magazine ranked it 23 on the list of best British albums ever made, NME rated it the 14th best album of the seventies and I'm sure Mojo have it ranked on a list of "Best albums with a purple cover" or "Greatest CD's with deliberately mispelt titles", there's a list for pretty much everything nowadays.

While people are falling over themselves to praise it today, when it was released Bryter Later was a long way from a hit. In its year of release it sold less than 3,000 copies. If you do a google image search for the album title you will find 45,500 results. Forty years after its release the cover image is 15 times more popular on a search engine than the album was in the shops.

Bryter Layter features a more straight-forward pop sound than the albums before and after. Among the musicians turning Drake's compositions into band songs were members of Fairport Convention, The Beach Boys and John Cale from the Velvet Underground. The end result sounds slick and according to Drake himself "Too full, too elaborate". I'm inclined to agree. There are some beautiful songs and Nick's voice is a wonderful thing but there's too much going on that doesn't need to be there. I'd love to hear the demos he brought to the studio.

Ironically Drake's career was bound to become much Bryter Layter but he would never live to see it. I'm just glad the music public wised up and finally realised his music was worth hearing before it became lost entirely.

Influenced by: Bob Dylan and the English countryside.
Influenced: Pretty much nobody at the time but a lot of people since

Highlight: The title track
Lowlight: Poor Boy

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "This is so totaly relaxing that it takes actually a few listens to notice a few annoying things:
- Nick can only sing in one voice
- Nick can only write lyrics that convey one kind of feeling
- Nick can only play the guitar in one particular way, and in one (quite particular) tuning"

-Ouch. That's kind of harsh. 

So do you love the Drake? Let me know below.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

246. The Shape of Jazz to Come- I hope it's a rhombus.

Album: The Shape of Jazz to Come
Artist: Ornette Coleman
Genre: Jazz
Year: 1959

1. Lonely Woman
2. Eventually
3. Peace
4. Focus on Sanity
5. Congeniality
6. Chronology

If you can find it, I recommend you hunt down an excellent BBC documentary called 1959 The Year that Changed Jazz. It documents four albums that were all released in the last year of the fifties that changed the face of Jazz Music forever. When I saw this outstanding program a few years back I was familiar with Kind of Blue (Miles Davis), Time Out (Dave Brubeck) and Mingus Au Um (Charles Mingus), all of which I'd been enjoying for years. But Ornette Coleman's The Shape of Jazz to Come had never crossed my path.

Like any good doco, The Year that Changed Jazz made me keen to find out more about the subject matter. I wanted to hear Ornette Coleman's greatest work. Partly out of curiosity but mainly because of Lou Reed's passionate tribute. Reed loves The Shape of Jazz to Come and when he talks about it his affection is contagious. It made me need to hear what the fuss was about.

Initially, most of the attention was directed at Coleman's aversion to "chord based instruments" (pianos, guitars etc) that were traditionally used to anchor melodies in place. He discarded the idea of conventional song structures with solo spots and allowed the four musicians in the quartet (sax, cornet, bass and drums) to effectively solo constantly with the occasional return to a musical theme. The end result could be a total shambles but it works. It succeeds mainly because Coleman and his band aren't just capable of a great solo they're capable of listening to each other, giving each other space and picking up on what the rest of the band is doing.

There's no doubt The Shape of Jazz to Come isn't for everyone but it's not just for musical odd-bods like Lou Reed. If you're willing to take a chance with music that breaks some of the rules you never even knew your music was fixed into, The Shape of Jazz to Come might just be what you need.

Influenced by: A desire to rebel from established structures.
Influenced: Anyone who played Free Jazz and Lou Reed (which means by extension it influenced everyone who was influenced by the Velvet Underground which seems to be everyone)

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "It sounds like a bunch of guys just honking there horns. lol. Im sorry its a free country you can honk ur horn but I thought I bought music. If you want to hear some real music check out Lady Gaga."

-Is this person really a Lady GaGa fan? Who knows. Did they say this in the hope that it would annoy jazz fans? Of course. And did it? Oh yes, yes it did.

So do you think Jazz is in good shape or not? Let me know below.

Friday, December 23, 2011

247. Automatic for the People. Back when they were fab.

Album: Automatic for the People
Artist: REM
Genre: Rock
Year: 1992


  1. Drive
  2. Try Not to Breathe
  3. The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite
  4. Everybody Hurts
  5. New Orleans Instrumental No. 1
  6. Sweetness Follows
  7. Monty Got a Raw Deal
  8. Ignoreland
  9. Star Me Kitten
  10. Man on the Moon
  11. Nightswimming
  12. Find the River

REM recently pulled up stumps on the career, shook hands with the umpires and walked off the world's stage claiming bad light stopped play. They decided their life as a rock band was over which caused a lot of people to say "I had no idea they were still together". There was a lot of love for the band but not much of it for their later career, most of the affection was reserved for the early days when they played the big rooms and albums like Automatic for the the People sold millions and made them rich.

If you're one of the people whose response to REM's break up was: "Who are REM?" then this album is probably the best introduction to a band who once rivaled U2 for popularity. Contained within Automatic's microscopic silver grooves is some of the best music from the early nineties, a time when "alternative rock" became mainstream and the name itself  became meaningless.

Everybody Hurts is probably the biggest hit. With its memorable video clip (and even more memorable D-Gen send up) it seemed to perfectly express a shared sense of communal existential angst. Stipe's voice could be genuinely beautiful when he had the right song and Everybody Hurts (along with Nightswimming and Drive) provided him the perfect outlet. His voice even sounds great in The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite which features the magnificent chorus "Call me when you try to wake her," at least that's what the lyric sheet says. In reality everyone on earth hears "Call me Jamaica Ha." I'd love it if there was a tradition in REM concerts to shout "Jamaica Ha!" at Stipe whenever he sings this line. Sadly I think REM fans take the band a bit too seriously for that to ever happen.

Automatic for the People's main flaw is the fairly flat middle section. Track 5 is a two minute instrumental. I don't know about you but when I see an instrumental in an album I consider it to be an admission from the artist that they haven't written enough to fill the running time. It's entitled New Orleans Instrumental No. 1 but it might as well be called Filling up Space. It's the album's low point and sadly it's followed by the rest of the dud tracks which are clumped together forming a large dead space. If it wasn't for the appearance of Man on the Moon at track 10 it might be tempting to stop the album early and put on something else.

REM- they were great once and music is better for their presence.

Highlight: Everybody Hurts
Lowlight: New Orleans Instrumental No 1

Influenced by: The Monkees apparently.
Influenced: Alternative rock (but don't hold that against it)

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "Save your money, or better yet, take the money you would have spent on this album and bet your friends that the members of REM end up homeless within the span of five years."

-Considering this was written in 2002 I think he reviewer might have lost himself a bet. I'm fairly sure the members of REM still had homes in 2007

So can you drive an automatic or do you prefer a manual? Let me know below.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

248. Reasonable Doubt. JayZ. The best businessman in Rap.

Album: Reasonable Doubt
Artist: Jay Z
Year: 1996
Genre: Rap


  1. Can't Knock The Hustle
  2. Politics As Usual
  3. Brooklyn's Finest
  4. Dead Presidents II
  5. Feelin' It
  6. D'Evils
  7. 22 Two's
  8. Can I Live
  9. Ain't No Nigga
  10. Friend Or Foe
  11. Coming Of Age
  12. Cashmere Thoughts
  13. Bring It On
  14. Regrets

A criminal past definitely doesn't prevent a musician from forging a successful career. Just because you may have done some naughty things in your earlier life (drug dealing, murder, light treason etc) doesn't mean you can't rise above it and sell records. Of course the way you go about it depends on what genre you're moving into. If you're going to be a country artist then you have to use your shady background as a chance to show off your contrition and need for redemption, if you're going to go into pop then it's probably a good idea to hire a PR agent to try and keep it quiet but if you're trying to move rap records then your criminal past serves as inspiration and gives you some much needed street cred.

Jay-Z started life as a crack dealer in New Jersey, selling drugs on street corners and generally hustling. I'm sure he showed a genuine sense of dedication to his craft and was among the districts finest purveyors of illicit substances but I'd be surprised if anyone saw him selling crack and thought "One day that kid is going to own a clothing label, a series of sports bars and a percentage of Aresenal Footbal club". (In fact I'd be surprised if there was any kid growing up in America anywhere who was widely tipped to become a key investor in a UK soccer club). And yet JayZ has managed to turn a talent for saying things rhythmically into a massive global business empire worth millions of dollars. He's worth more than half a billion and is among the most powerful people in the music industry worldwide.

That's the power of Rap music that middle class white people like myself will never fully understand. Rap is about the American dream. It's about celebrating a downtrodden past and how music enables rappers to overcome poverty and become not just well off but absurdly and ridiculously wealthy. The most respected rappers in the world are the ones who go from literal rags to riches and it explains why someone like Tom Felton (Harry Potter's Draco Malfoy) could never be a rapping success with his home in Surrey and his background singing in choirs.

Reasonable Doubt might provide you with an opportunity to celebrate the idea of the drug dealer made good. The kid from the streets who could barely afford clothes who went on to own a clothing company. Or it might just be another rap album you don't need to hear. It depends on which narrative you want to enjoy.

Highlight: Dead Presidents II
Lowlight: Regrets

Influenced by: Old school rap and a need to rise up from the streets.
Influenced: Some white middle class boys.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "People should just accept the fact that hip hop is headed to the grave and heavy metal will once again rule the world.HEAVY METAL RULES FOREVER!!!"

-I'm sorry was there a time when Heavy Metal ruled the world? I think I slept in that day and missed it.

So is this album guilty of brilliance or is there some reasonable doubt? Let me know below.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

264- Child is the Father to the Man. Blood, Sweat, Tears and Nuts.

Album: Child is the Father to the Man
Artist: Blood Sweat and Tears
Year: 1968
Genre: Almost all of them.


  1. Overture
  2. I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know
  3. Morning Glory
  4. My Days Are Numbered
  5. Without Her
  6. Just One Smile
  7. I Can't Quit Her
  8. Meagan's Gypsy Eyes
  9. Somethin' Goin' On
  10. House in the Country
  11. The Modern Adventures of Plato, Diogenes and Freud
  12. So Much Love/Underture

(Apologies to all. This post should have appeared last month but was overlooked. Sorry if you were waiting for it)

Child is the Father to the Man begins with an overture: a 93 second piece arranged for strings which perfectly introduces the album. Not only does it feature the main refrain of most of the songs that follow, it's also overdubbed with manic and demented laughter. That's Blood Sweat and Tears for you: music with catchy tunes created by mad people.

Blood Sweat and Tears bubbled out of the crazy mind of Al Kooper, who is often the crankiest and weirdest person in any documentary about Bob Dylan (he played on Like a Rolling Stone and as he's told inquisitive interviewers on camera, is bored of talking about it). He started the band with a view to combining musical genres into a new musical form. The end result is a series of pop songs with blues affectations, or blues songs with strings, or rock with horns, or jazz with catchy vocals all blended together with a few covers and a divergence into hippie waffle. It's like nothing you've ever heard and at times it's brilliant and at others it's just dreadful.

The highlights all belong to Kooper: I love you more than you'll ever know, I can't Quit Her and Something's Going On are fantastic blues tracks with wailing horns and a great beat. If it was all this good I'd love it to shreds.

Sadly the rest of the album brings the whole thing down a few notches. Meagan's Gypsy Eyes is a pointless acid-soaked hippy trip that sounds like one of those songs which really spoke to people wearing joss-stink reeking tie-dye in the sixties but is sadly inadequate when listened to outside it's own era. Morning Glory is a really embarrassing attempt to patronize the homeless as a kitsch ballad dedicated to a hobo. It sounds dated now but then it probably sounded passe the second it limped out of the studio. Listening to it I was instantly transported to a B-grade sixties movie- suddenly my life was full of badly focused psychedelic colours and wood paneled rooms. I had to suppress a mad urge to grow sideburns and a moustache.

Child is the Father to The Man makes you appreciate that Al Kooper was more than just a regular contributer to Dylan's recorded and stage work. He was also a great writer and band leader. It's a shame he left BS&T after this and never really matched his efforts here.

Highlight: I can't Quit Her.
Lowlight: Meagan's Gypsy Eyes.

Influenced by: Everything going.
Influenced: The rest of the band's career, which never came close.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "You can't qualify 'coolness'. You can't take an empirical measure of it but you know it when it is there. Bands like The Beatles had it, Traffic had it, Jimi Hendrix positively oozed it. But Blood, Sweat and Tears seem to be just short of the mark, like the potentially good looking kid at school that always wore the hand-made, woolen sweaters his grand mother knitted him. "

-Anyone else describe music in relation to knitwear? I think the practice should be a lot more widespread.

So is this album in your blood or does it make you shed tears of rage? Let me know below.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

249. Low- and behold it's more Bowie.

Album: Low
Artist: David Bowie
Genre: Pop
Year: 1977


  1. Speed of Life
  2. Breaking Glass
  3. What in the World
  4. Sound and Vision
  5. Always Crashing in the Same Car
  6. Be My Wife
  7. A New Career in a New Town
  8. Warszawa
  9. Art Decade
  10. Weeping Wall
  11. Subterraneans

Following up a huge name whose music I have trouble getting into (Springsteen) comes... another huge name whose music I struggle to appreciate. David Bowie has appeared on the countdown several times before and every time has left me underwhelmed in no uncertain terms. As I've said before- I respect the guy but I have no desire to listen to his music.

Low is another step in Bowie's long term journey of reinvention. This time he's incorporated the Kraftwerk inspired noises of Station to Station and added some more melodic elements and let producer Brian Eno loose on his sounds. The results don't often get played on the radio because they're not really very radio friendly. They're noisy and a bit harsh and not especially catchy.

The one thing that has unified Bowie releases throughout his career has been his voice. That deep and beautiful voice that is unmistakable Bowie. I might not like the tunes or the instruments behind him but that voice has always had a real appeal. I love the voice of Bowie. Which is why it's such a disappointment to find it's so sparsely utilised. In the shorter tracks that make up side one, Bowie's voice is frequently cast aside in favour of instrumentation and on side two it's completely absent. The second half of Low is entirely made up of instrumentals. And not catchy, tuneful instrumentals, the sort of drawn-out soundscapes that sound like extracts from a movie soundtrack about life on a tedious alien planet.

Low might float some people's boats but I'm afraid I found side one dull and side two even duller. David Bowie- he makes Springsteen look good.

Influenced by: Brian Eno, Berlin and German music
Influenced: Eighties electro.

Highlight: What in the world
Lowlight: Art Decade

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "I'm sure that this sound was very unique when first released but it now sounds like something you would hear at a science museum".

-That's a perfect summation.

So is this album Bowies Low point or should it be held above all else? Let me know BeLow.

Friday, December 9, 2011

250. The River. Letting the Springsteen Flow.

Album: The River
Artist: Bruce Springsteen
Genre: Rock
Year: 1980


  1. The Ties That Bind
  2. Sherry Darling
  3. Jackson Cage
  4. Two Hearts
  5. Independence Day
  6. Hungry Heart
  7. Out in the Street
  8. Crush on You
  9. You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)
  10. I Wanna Marry You
  11. The River
  12. Point Blank
  13. Cadillac Ranch
  14. I'm a Rocker
  15. Fade Away
  16. Stolen Car
  17. Ramrod
  18. The Price You Pay
  19. Drive All Night
  20. Wreck on the Highway

This album represents the halfway point of the countdown. The bottom half is out of the way and the top 50% is yet to come. But despite the fact that we've knocked off 250 albums we haven't yet heard half of what Springsteen has to offer the top 500. Bruce not only appears at number two hundred and Fifty he's got another 5 albums somewhere up there in the higher reaches for us to encounter at some point. If you're a fan of Bruce then there's a lot more of your favourite rocker to come. If you hate Springsteen then I'm sorry to say that a full 2% of the albums to come have been let loose by Bruce.

Personally I don't think BS is BS but he's never been someone I've especially warmed to either. The albums I've heard so far in the countdown haven't persuaded me that there's a lot to get excited about. At 250 I've got a double dose of Bruce to try and persuade me as I listen to The River, a double album that clocks in at over two hours. It's a lot of Bruce when I know there's a lot more to come. 

Like most double albums this release is tooooo damn long. As with every other album that's stretched across four sides of vinyl there's probably a great album in here trying to get out but it's obscured by a lot of padding. The songs start to get repetitive after a while and there's no doubt removing the least memorable half would make the rest shine a lot brighter. 

The song you're most likely to recognise is Hungry Heart. I'm not sure who's idea it was to take Bruce's deep and expressive voice and speed it up but whoever it was should put their hand up and admit to making a huge mistake. Why would you take the best thing about the album and ruin it? Bruce doesn't sound like Bruce he sounds like a thin and reedy Billy Joel impersonator. Where was the logic there? 

The good news is that I responded a lot more to The River than I did to previous Springsteen efforts. Hopefully future releases will impress me even more.

Highlight: Point Blank
Lowlight: Ramrod

Influenced by: Dylan
Influenced: New Jersy as a whole

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "This irritating, tinny, repetitive schlock soared on the hot air pumped out by Bruce's moonie-like fans."

-Ouch. Moonie like fans? Harsh.

So do you like to dip your toes in the River or would you damn it to hell? Let me know below.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

251. Dictionary of Soul. Worth looking up.

Album: Complete and Unbelievable: The Otis Redding Dictionary of Soul
Artist: Otis Redding
Genre: Soul
Year: 1966


1. Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)
2. I'm Sick Y'all
3. Tennessee Waltz
4. Sweet Lorene
5. Try a Little Tenderness
6. Day Tripper
7. My Lover's Prayer
8. She Put the Hurt on Me
9. Ton of Joy
10. You're Still My Baby
11. Hawg for You
12. Love Have Mercy"

Otis Redding was taken from us too soon. When the plane he was in hit Lake Monana on the tenth of December 1967 we lost one of Soul's greatest voices and most talented superstars. Thankfully before he died he left us with some great albums. Dictionary of Soul was the last album he recorded before he was taken away and the fact that it's so good makes his death all the more tragic.

Dictionary features a collection of Otis originals (My Lover's Prayer), traditional standards (Try a little Tenderness) and contemporary covers (Day Tripper) all of which Otis turns into Soul classics. Aided by Booker T Jones, Steve Cropper, Donald "Duck" Dunn and Isaac Hayes (among others) Redding lays down vocals that make you forget anyone else ever sang the same songs. At times he can make you forget anyone ever sang another song ever.

While I could talk a lot about how good this album is I don't recommend you hunt it down. Instead why not get your hands on Otis! The Definitive Otis Redding, a box set put out in the nineties. The three discs of studio releases collect Reddings finest moments from his albums and singles but the real treat is the fourth disc which collects the definitive versions of his various recorded live appearances into one "Dream concert" which is far better than much of this countdown. While it doesn't have too many songs from the Dictionary (Otis died before he could perform them live) it does have an incredible atmosphere and doesn't feature the annoying fade outs that prematurely end too many of the Dictionary's tracks.

Otis Redding- people that talented shouldn't be allowed to fly. Just in case.

Highlight: My Lover's Prayer
Lowlight: Fa Fa Fa Fa

Influenced by: Sweet Soul Music
Influenced: All Souls that followed

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "Personally, I hate listening to anything is MONO even Otis, and I love the man's voice."

-I worry that there are people that my son will grow up with who won't want to watch The Godfather because it's not in 3D.

So is the dictionary worth looking up or should it be left on the shelf? Let me know below.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

252. Metallica- Metal for the Masses

Album: Metallica
Artist: Metallica
Year: 1991
Genre: Metal


1. Enter Sandman
2. Sad but True
3. Holier Than Thou
4. The Unforgiven
5. Wherever I May Roam
6. Don't Tread on Me
7. Through the Never
8. Nothing Else Matters
9. Of Wolf and Man
10. The God That Failed
11. My Friend of Misery
12. The Struggle Within

"Going Commercial" is a strange concept. One person's idea of an attempted sell-out might not reflect another's. It really depends where you're coming from. Some people might view Metallica as too loud, fast and heavy for the mainstream. For die-hard Metallica fans it's too soft, slow and light. It's a sellout

Metallica, along with Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax, helped to create a genre of music known as Thrash Metal, which is basically rock and roll played very fast, very loud and with vocals that are very, very shouty indeed. Thrash bands featured guitars, bass, growling and a drummer who played more beats in a concert than most drummers manage in an entire tour. In the early eighties, Thrash bands carved out a considerable niche in the music market. They didn't top the album charts but they had an incredibly loyal fanbase that allowed them to sell out venues across the world. 

After ten years of riding high as the Kings of Thrash Metal, Metallica decided to team up with producer Bob Rock (who helped to give Motley Crue commercial success with Dr Feelgood) and slow down their sound to produce an album of commercially acceptable Metal. 

The end result was Metallica an album of Heavy Metal tracks that even your mother would love. Well maybe not. My mum certainly wouldn't enjoy the crunching guitars, screaming solos and aggressive vocals but then it's all a matter of perspective. She might howl at me if I put it on over Christmas but if she was forced to listen to Metallica's recorded output in chronological, order Metallica would come as a blessed relief from the relentless thrashing of their previous efforts. 

For Thrash Metal fans this was an insult and a sell out. For those who preferred more conventional rock, Metallica was a mainstream success. Taken on it's own merits it's a collection of great songs played harder than most rock is performed but it's still rock. It gets a bit repetitive towards the end but the singles (Enter Sandman, Nothing else matters, The Unforgiven and Wherever I may Roam) are outstanding tracks.

Highlight: Enter Sandman
Lowlight: The final two tracks.

Influenced by: The commercial success of their producer
Influenced: Metal's move towards the mainstream.


-It's fair to say the reviews for this album are generally not among Amazon's finest.

So is this too loud and fast or not loud and fast enough? Let me know below.