Thursday, December 26, 2013

65. Moondance (1970) Van Morrison

  1. And It Stoned Me
  2. Moondance
  3. Crazy Love
  4. Caravan
  5. Into the Mystic
  6. Come Running
  7. These Dreams of You
  8. Brand New Day
  9. Everyone
  10. Glad Tidings 

Van Morrison is a genius apparently, at least that's what people keep telling me. He's not just the greatest musician ever to come out of Northern Ireland, or the finest singer to be named after a form of transport, he's the second greatest bandleader named Morrison, he's a bone fide genius with incredible talent and someone I need to respect and admire. But he's kind of dull isn't he?

I don't just means as a person, I'm sure he's an outstanding conversationalist, I mean as a musician he just seems to take the easy road a lot. There are people like Tom Waits who are keen to throw listeners for a loop at every opportunity and contemporaries like Neil Young and Bob Dylan who seem to have an obsession with reinvention. But Morrison's music tends to do what you think it will every time you encounter it and at times he sounds like a tribute act.

Crazy Love sounds like an attempt to make Soul Music in the sound of Sam Cooke which is fine but the falsetto voice he adopts makes it appear that Morrison is trying to do an actual impression of Cooke's finest moments. It's like a weird impression and it makes me want to listen to the original. The title track is a slower jazz number which everyone seems to think they've heard before when they first encounter it. It sounds like a cover because it sounds a lot like lots of other songs you've heard before and is by the numbers enough to do everything you expect it will.

The rest of Moondance is fairly by the book and predictable stuff. Whether you respond to it will probably depend on that most ephemeral and subjective of musical opinions: your opinion of his voice.

I've never really known what makes some people respond well to someone's voice while someone else doesn't. Is it related to something buried deep in our psyche? A subconscious memory perhaps? Are there those who don't like Morrison's singing because he reminds them of their least favourite teacher? Are we predisposed to like the sound of a voice that reminds us of our mothers who soothed us to sleep when we were kids?

I've wracked my brains and tried to think of all the teachers I haven't liked but can't come up with anyone who tormented me at school and sounded like Van. I've tried to think of a teacher who was a bit whiney and who pronounced "dry" as "Draaaaaye" but can't come up with anyone. (I've also tried to find a Dylan song that reminds me of my mother but come up wanting as well). Despite my inability to pinpoint why I really don't like Van's voice I definitely don't. And if you're not a fan of Van as a singer then Moondance is a difficult listen because his voice is all over it. He's not just a vocalist he's a scat singing musicians who fills in blank moments in the song with some made up stuff that grates even more if you find his voice annoying.

If you like Van The Man's pipes then you probably love this already. If you don't then it might be far too much to appreciate.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "I can't even count how many times me and the girls have gotten really drunk and belted out "Brown-eyed Girl" or "Gloria"."

-I can. The answer is none. You haven't ever sung those songs while listening to this album. Unless of course you and the girls are the type of people who like to put on an album and then sing entirely different songs over the top of it. Neither of those tracks are on this album.

So is it a marvellous night for a Moondance? Let me know below

Thursday, December 19, 2013

66. Led Zeppelin IV (1971) Led Zeppelin

1. Black Dog
2. Rock and Roll
3. The Battle of Evermore
4. Stairway to Heaven
5. Misty Mountain Hop
6. Four Sticks
7. Going to California
8. When the Levee Breaks

This list has its fair share of surprise entries. There are albums I've encountered which have been higher than I thought they were (Superfly for example) and other albums which I've been surprised to see included at all (Pretzel Logic? Seriously?). There are other releases which I've been personally disappointed to see so low (every Grateful Dead and Frank Zappa album for example) but Led Zep 4 is definitely the most surprising entry. What's it doing outside the top ten, let alone the top fifty?

This is the album with Stairway to Heaven on it. Stairway to Heaven! If you're going to list the greatest songs of all time (and goodness knows people have) then Stairway is always well up in the top ten. It's widely regarded as one of the definitive rock tracks and the solo is held up as one of the greatest collection of notes every squeezed out of six strings. The presence of Stairway alone is enough to grant it entry into this listing, god knows there are albums who are propped up by lesser tracks. The great eight minute opus that is Led Zep's most famous moments should guarantee its place here even if every other track was a tedious piece of filler designed to do nothing more than take up space.

But unlike a lot of albums with a huge hit on them, Led Zep 4 would demand a place on this listing even if its biggest track had been left on the cutting room floor (assuming studios have such floors).

Black Dog and Rock and Roll are two of the greatest songs of the classic era of Rock and Roll. They're barnstorming power houses which show off the talents of all bandmembers and have inspired generations of teenage boys to leap about their house like absolute lunatics. They're both so good we can forgive the legions of people who have tried to copy them and created an extremely crap genre that Gary Moore referred to as Led-Clones, bands who managed to do an excellent job of copying Robert Plant's hair and Jimmy Page's stance but had none of the songwriting ability.

Accompanying these three monster tracks on side one is an incredible song called The Battle of Evermore on which Sandy Denny joins Plant in proving that powerful voices can turn acoustic ballads into something truly savage. Page plays a mandolin as if it's an amplified Fender Strat, and they manage to create a headbanging metal song using an instrument that, lets be honest, is incredibly uncool. It's small and foolish and led Leo Kottke  to describe a mandolin player as "looking like a guy trying to play his tie pin" which still makes me laugh. Those four songs together make up one of the most powerful sides of vinyl ever produced.

Side two can't possibly be as good but it does its level best not to disappoint the listener. Going to California is a beautiful ballad and When The Levee Breaks is a swampy and soulful blues number with a fantastic driving bassline and is the perfect album closer.

In pure rock and roll terms there really aren't too many albums that are better than this. Drummers spend ages trying to replicate the iconic opening to Rock and Roll, vocalists drool over the talents on display on the Battle of Evermore and every guitarist who has ever wanted to rock has learnt the intro to Stairway and had a crack at the solo.

Led Zeppelin 4 appears on a huge number of "Best album" lists and this is the only one that puts it outside the top fifty, most have it well and truly in the top ten with many giving it the coveted number one spot. The fact that it's here at number 66 means it's apparently not as good as Appetite for Destruction, a view that even most of Guns and Roses would dispute.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "A .. .A.. AD.AJDADJ..F...... THEY WERE MUCH BETTER ON MASTER OF PUPPET..S........







-And that's the whole review. Doesn't Amazon have a moderator who deletes these kinds of things? How can they take themselves seriously when they let things like this up on their site?

-So do you love this album or do you agree with the above Amazon reviewer? And if you do can you tell me what the hell he meant? Let me know below.

Friday, December 13, 2013

67 The Stranger (1977) Billy Joel

  1. Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)
  2. The Stranger
  3. Just the Way You Are
  4. Scenes from an Italian Restaurant
  5. Vienna
  6. Only the Good Die Young
  7. She's Always a Woman
  8. Get It Right the First Time
  9. Everybody Has a Dream/The Stranger (Reprise)

Most artists can be fairly neatly categorised by their radio station genre. Led Zeppelin are a classic rock band, Simon and Garfunkle are easy listening, Madonna is a pop station aimed at girls, Radiohead usually get put on alternative radio and then artists like Frank Zappa just don't fit into anyone's radio station and have to be discovered for themselves.

Part of the reason for Billy Joel's fame is the fact that he covers more radio bases than his contemporaries. He's played on radio so much because so many stations can play his music. The Stranger has spread its tracks across more radio programming schedules than most artists manage in their career.

Only the Good Die Young appears on a lot of classic rock playlists with its fast tempo, loud groove and salacious lyrics about a young man trying to convince a good Catholic girl that she should come out from behind her stained glass curtain and give up that whole virginity thing which the singer clearly feels is over rated.

But if that's not doing it for you why not turn the dial where you'll find Just the Way You Are on an Easy Listening radio station where the heartfelt love lyrics and gentle feel make it a huge hit with those who like their music unchallenging but aurally pleasing.

A bit further down the dial, She's Always a Woman will probably be playing on a pop station aimed at the female listener who likes straight forward pop music with affirming lyrics.

Tucked away in the lesser touched regions of the dial you might even find a more adventurous station that's prepared to play all 7 minutes 37 seconds of Scenes from An Italian Restaurant with its multiple moods and running length that takes it outside the time limit normally permitted mainstream radio. It's probably being introduced by a cooler DJ who feels the need to justify his selection by admitting that "The Piano Man" might have enjoyed mainstream success but he was capable of creating some more interesting music as well.

It's an impressive achievement for an artist to manage and makes you appreciate that while Joel might be known for his signature tune and for recent tours with Elton John playing to massive stadiums of rich people, when he was an angry young man he was a rock and roller prepared to push some boundaries and play some interesting stuff.

Personally I was surprised at how much I enjoyed The Stranger. I'd pretty much written Joel off as just a piano balladeer with occasional rock leanings but I caught myself really enjoying a lot of what he was playing. Scenes from an Italian restaurant is actually a great song. It's three separate songs which work together as a unified whole joined together by Joel's piano playing which is actually extremely impressive. The man can really belt those keys. Back when Ben Folds Five were huge and everyone was raving about Fold's ability and how revolutionary it was to have a talented piano player in place of a guitarist in a rock outfit Joel must have been clearing his throat regularly and saying "Excuse me?" to anyone who would listen (unless he was at home rolling naked in huge wads of cash and giggling, which is just as likely).

Joel's voice is actually pretty impressive too. There are songs that have no piano theatrics but get by on the strength of his ability to belt out a rock and roll tune. He's a talented guy.

A new appreciation for The Stranger isn't enough to make me want to go out and hunt down the man's catalogue and become a huge new fan but its given me a new respect for an artist I'd previously written off as not for me.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "I bought this album thinking that it was a Billy Idol album, but this sounds nothing like Billy Idol! This garbage sounds awful! That idiot on the album cover should put that mask on in order to hide his massive shame over the pile of crap that this album REALLY is!"

-I believe this is a joke. At least I hope so. If it isn't then I continue to marvel at how people can do extremely silly things and then think "I must tell the entire internet about how silly I am"

So is this album like an old friend for you or a total stranger? Let me know below

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

68 Off The Wall (1979) Michael Jackson

1. Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough
2. Rock with You
3. Workin' Day and Night
4. Get on the Floor
5. Off the Wall
6. Girlfriend
7. She's Out of My Life
8. I Can't Help It
9. It's the Falling in Love
10. Burn This Disco Out

I find the cult of Jackson to be somewhat... disturbing. I've nothing against the guy personally but his fans are verging on the creepy and at times are just downright fanatics.

I discuss music on the internet in a range of places and an encounter with a Jackson fan is always memorable for their intense level of devotion, their fanatic defence of their hero's strange lifestyle and also, it has to be said, an ignorance of the man's career which is really baffling. I've spoken to Elvis fans whose knowledge of Presley's music is just incredible. I've met Neil Young fans who can pretty much recite every song the great man ever wrote in his five decades of music making, I've spoken with Velvet Underground fans who are just absurd in their level of detailed knowledge. But many Jackson fans know less about him than I do, and I don't even like him that much.

I've spoken to several people who have claimed Jackson wrote and produced all his own work and played several instruments as well. They've elevated him to the status of musical genius who single handed crafted his own albums and guided his career.

The truth is that this is just not the case. Jackson only wrote two songs on Off The Wall and co-wrote another. The album was almost entirely produced by Quincy Jones and Jackson's only musical contribution other than vocals was percussion.

I'm not for a second claiming Jackson was just a musical puppet with Jones pulling the strings but anyone claiming Michael was running the show and driving the whole thing is fooling themselves. He might be a great dancer and showman, but he's not Curtis Mayfield.

Off The Wall is a disco album with Jackson lending his voice to some disco tracks produced and arranged by Jones and played by session musicians. If you love disco, it's a great album but if you don't then there's really not much here for you. Jackson's voice isn't in stellar form on Off The Wall which finds him stranded between his youthful innocence and mid-era aggression. The strange transitional phase doesn't really do anything except lend itself to ballads which are too syrupy here to transcend this album's disco feel.

Off The Wall's position here is kind of mystifying. It's nobody's favourite Michael Jackson album and who other than his fans like his stuff?

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "They tried to destroy you Michael, because you dared to speak out against the racism you observed in the World & in the Music Industry perpetrated by both Jews & Anglos & their Black puppets, but they were unsuccessful. "

-See that's a true Jackson fan right there. Jackson vs a Jewish conspiracy. Seriously?

So is this off the wall or are you on the fence about its appeal? Let me know below.