Tuesday, December 30, 2014

10 The White Album (1968) The Beatles




This used to be my favourite Beatles album. In fact for a while it was probably my favourite album of all time. I listened to it constantly and it became my go to album when I was in that "what do I feel like listening to now?" mood. I always felt like listening to The White Album.

Over the course of years, White has slipped in my estimations. It was first overtaken by Abbey Road and now it's possibly been overtaken by Revolver and Rubber Soul mainly for their solid consistency.

The White Album always had some amazing highs but some terrible and piteous lows. There are definite skip tracks but over the years songs that had some novelty value have worn a bit thin for me. As I've aged the "Good" column has stayed constant but the "Maybe" column has thinned and the "Bad" column has grown slightly longer to accommodate it. As I've moved from enjoying this on a cassette to owning it on CD, where I've had access to a skip function, and finally in a digital format which I can manipulate at will, I've developed less tolerance for Bungalow Bill and his ilk.

(By the way, I know this isn't actually The White Album and is officially called "The Beatles" but it's always the White Album to me)

Back in the USSR

The White Album is lauded for experiments, stylistic changes and general quirkiness but it's supported by good songwriting. Back in the USSR is just a simple and basic rock song which is nothing but an outstanding example of its kind. Despite the fact that it's lyrically a bit controversial for a song recorded in the Cold War, it's bread and butter stuff for the Beatles and it proves that they could do straight ahead rock better than anyone else at the time. (it also proves that they didn't really need Ringo. Their drummer had walked out at the time so Paul played the drums himself and did a great job)

Dear Prudence

It's often said that The White Album was a compilation of solo tracks recorded by the three Beatles working as their own independent artists, which is true to an extent but overstating the case somewhat. Dear Prudence was written by Lennon who sings lead vocals and plays guitar but Paul plays drums, bass, piano, fl├╝gelhorn and also provides percussion overdubs. The idea that the Beatles paths barely crossed during the recording just isn't true. Prudence is beautiful by the way and all the stronger for being a ballad by John that isn't about his mother or Yoko, two subjects he was known to dwell on somewhat.

Glass Onion

Glass Onion hasn't made the move from "undecided" to "bad" in the ledge of my mind but it's sort of teetering there. Years of listening have dulled and not heightened its impact and it's become a bit take-or-leave in my mind. The self-referential nature is fun but I'm not sure there's enough at its heart to keep it interesting. There's a limit to how many times you can nod knowingly at "The Walrus was Paul" before the novelty wears off completely.

Ob-la-di Ob-la-da

For many this is not just the worst song on the album, it's the worst song the Beatles ever recorded. John certainly thought so and apparently hated having anything to do with it. I've always kind of liked it. It's disposable silly fun but I have no problem with it. It might be an indication of Paul turning to the light side while John was getting darker in his songwriting, but that balance isn't a bad thing as far as I'm concerned.

Wild Honey Pie

Skip this. Seriously. This is just nonsense. It's not part of the album's charm, it's bollocks and while I used to endure it on my tape copy I've barely heard it since I first held the CD in my hands.

The continuing Story of Bungalow Bill

This used to be cute. "Hey Bungalow Bill" used to be fun to say but to be honest over the years it's got kind of annoying. It's not just the presence of Yoko (who makes anything that much more irritating) it's just a stupid kind of song with only a faintly catching chorus line to redeem it.

While My Guitar Gently Weeps

As I said at the start, the lows are pretty low on this album but the highs are just magnificent. The White Album was the first Beatles release that saw George take "best song" honours and despite facing some stiff competition, he pulls of an absolute winner here. Weeps is in my top five Beatles songs of all time from its opening to Clapton's solo. It's just brilliant. I've always thought it was a huge shame that George never did this song justice when he played it live. In his few tours he either changed the lyrics or added pointless backing vocals and in every instance buggered it up. I'd love a great live version of him singing this masterpiece with a truly weeping solo. Special mention should go to the acoustic demo which is also great, both are worth enjoying.

Happiness is a Warm Gun

This is what happens when John sort of smooshes tunes together to make something that he considered a coherent whole. It works but partly because he's gutsy enough to try it and just manages to pull it off. It's dark which isn't normally a Beatles mood but they manage some how make it a decidedly Beatles shade of darkness.

Martha My Dear

This isn't about Paul's dog, despite what you may have heard. He got the name from the dog but it isn't actually a song about a dog. Which is a pity because if it was it might be more interesting. Martha My Dear is one of those tracks in which the novelty has just worn off. It's kind of pretty I've had enough.

I'm so Tired

Lennon in blues mode, effective but not his finest contribution.

Blackbird

McCartney in pretty mode. And it is very pretty. It's a beautiful little number which is simple but doesn't need to be any more complicated. Just lovely.

Piggies

I've never really appreciated the Beatles much when they try and do social commentary. There's something about their world statements that just don't connect, almost as if they're trying too hard. It's like they think Dylan does this sort of stuff so they should too. Piggies is definitely George's weakest contribution to the album and far too strained a metaphor to actually say anything worthwhile.

Rocky Racoon

Oh shush Paul. Bungalow Bill and Rocky Racoon should both just sod off together and form a silly character convention far away from this album as far as I'm concerned.

Don't Pass Me By

Ringo writes a song! Go Ring! It's not bad either. I mean it would be a dud if the others had wrote it but Ringo has enough charm to pull it off and it actually works.

Why Don't we Do it In the Road

As simple as Blackbird but not as effective. The Road sounds more like the potential for a great song rather than a great song in its own right. To be honest it sounds like one of the unfinished song fragments that got smooshed together to make the medley on Abbey Road.

I Will

It would have been interesting if The Beatles had arranged The White Album into a more conceptual idea rather than a random one. They could have had a rock side, an experimental side, a cutely narrative side and a side that was more low key and acoustic. It would be interesting to hear how I Will would have fit into a side of vinyl that also boasted Blackbird, Julia, Sexy Sadie and Mother Natures son. I suspect they'd actually complement each other well and make the whole thing a more enjoyable listen. It would also mean we could just skip the experimental side altogether after hearing it once.

Julia

I will and Julia give us a chance to put a John and Paul acoustic number side by side and see which one comes out strongest. It surprises me to say in this case it's Paul. I Will has a beautiful chorus, verse and bridge while Julia sounds a bit too aimless. I will hangs around in your head after its finished but Julia doesn't.

Birthday

One of the things I love about Birthday is that it's so fantastically meaningless...

You say it's your birthday
It's my birthday too, yeah
They say it's your birthday
We're gonna have a good time
I'm glad it's your birthday
Happy birthday to you.

Whenever anyone complains about modern music and says: people don't write good lyrics like they used to I like to point them to this song. The lyrics are something that Paul obviously wrote in a matter of seconds. It's just any old bollocks that entered his head. Fantastic though isn't it? Birthday is just a joyously fabulous song that it's impossible not to like and the fact that the lyrics are rampant tosh don't detract from it for a second.

Yer Blues

Yer Blues is just an attempt to write a blues song by someone whose natural musical mode isn't the Blues. Lennon wasn't a fan of Muddy Waters or Robert Johnson like his contemporaries were. He was more of a pop and R&B man than a blues purist. But Yer Blues proves that even if he wasn't soaked in the blues it had rubbed off on him enough to perform some with a fair degree of efficiency. Yer Blues is a fantastic and powerful track that Lennon gives real feeling to. I suppose you don't need to study the blues if you live them.

Mother Nature's Son

Another gentle Paul ballad and a really nice one. His tunes seemed simple but were perfect little pop songs. I've heard this a million times but I'm still more than happy to see it come along again.

Everybody's got something to hide except for me and my monkey

Hot on the heels of While my guitar gently weeps as my favourite song on the album. Monkey isn't long or overblown or drawn out or wasting anyone's time, it just jumps in quick, rips your ears off, belts you around the head a few times and then buggers off.  Brilliant stuff. It's often a favourite track for people hearing the album for the first time because it's the most obscure track on the album which is worth hearing. Anyone who puts White on for the first already knows Birthday, Back in the USSR, Weeps etc but this comes as a surprise and an extremely pleasant one at that.

Sexy Sadie

Originally this was a venomous song about The Maharishi but John was persuaded to change the lyrics to tone them down which is why he's singing an angry song about someone named Sadie who is apparently possessed of a certain allure. The end result doesn't really work because it's an angry song that isn't angry and John sounds unconvinced. Shame. It could have been great in its original form.

Helter Skelter

This is really noisy stuff. It's just intense and shouty and the track to play people if they think the Beatles were just light pop and ballads. It's a song that really makes you happy to be leaping around your room shouting about a fairground attraction. And not many other songs do that.

Long Long Long

Another of those songs whose ideas don't seem to justify its running length. Harrison's weakest contribution to the album

Revolution 1

Slow and plodding. Unlike the single version which is faster and infinitely better. The plod version of Revolution is one of the reasons why I don't often bother listening to White all the way through anymore. I wonder how many Vinyl owners never bothered flipping over to side 4.

Honey pie

Paul's love of music hall "granny music" used to annoy Lennon and listening to this it's not hard to see why. It's kind of irritating and doesn't just sound like music hall, it sounds like bad music hall.

Savoy truffle

Another in a line of "not really worth the full song length" list of songs and definitely a track which has started to grate on my nerves a bit over the years.

Cry Baby Cry

The best song on side 4 which isn't saying much. It's infectious though and sometimes I find it in my head and I've got no idea how it got there (although perhaps it's got something to do with the fact that crying babies have been a part of my life for four years now)

Revolution 9

The most infamous Beatles track of them all. Eight minutes of noise collage and sound effects that feels like a lot longer. The fact that Lennon recorded this and Paul didn't want it on the album has enforced the view that John was all about experimenting while Paul was safe and mainstream. The truth is that Paul could experiment as well, he was just clever enough to realise that people didn't need to actually hear it. Is it an interesting idea? Possibly? Does it need to hold up eight minutes of album time? No. No it doesn't.

Good Night.

How many people have missed hearing this track because they turned the album off a few seconds into Revolution 9 knowing that it was unrelenting like that for the next eight minutes? I'm guessing a lot. They weren't really missing a huge amount. Goodnight is too overblown and silly for it's own good.


Like most double albums, there's a good single album somewhere within The White Album and it runs like this:

Back in the USSR
Dear Prudence
While My Guitar Gently Weeps
I'm so Tired
Blackbird
I Will
Birthday
Yer Blues
Mother Natures Son
Everybody's got something to hide
Helter Skelter
Cry Baby Cry
Revolution (fast version)

That's quite possibly the best Beatles album ever. I also think there would be a lot to be said for an Abbey Road style medley of tracks like Why don't we do it in the road, Glass Onion, Savoy Truffle etc which could exist without their welcome being worn out.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "I have never understood all the fuss over the Beatles. They couldn't sing, weren't good looking and played the same guitar music over and over that you can't even dance to."

-You have clearly not listened to the album you're actually reviewing. Put down your computer and walk away, you're not qualified to comment.

So is this fantastic or just all white? Let me know below.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Wishing all regular readers a Happy Christmas. I hope you unwrap some quality music on Christmas day. It's one of the finest gifts you can get.

Join me in the new year for the top ten as this blog counts down to its inevitable conclusion. 

11 The Sun Sessions (1976) Elvis Presley




  1. That's All Right
  2. Blue Moon of Kentucky
  3. I Don't Care If the Sun Don't Shine
  4. Good Rockin' Tonight
  5. Milkcow Blues Boogie
  6. You're a Heartbreaker
  7. I'm Left, You're Right, She's Gone
  8. Baby Let's Play House
  9. Mystery Train
  10. I Forgot to Remember to Forget
  11. I'll Never Let You Go (Little Darlin')
  12. I Love You Because
  13. Trying to Get to You
  14. Blue Moon
  15. Just Because
  16. I Love You Because


Elvis Presley walked into Sun Studios and changed the world. He really did. He made it a better place and revolutionised the planet for all of us by inventing Rock and Roll. Sure there are those who believe he should share the credit with a handful of other people; and it feels like every week someone comes up with a new song they think should be called the first rock and roll record, but nobody could ever discount the impact that the original Sun recordings had on the world.

What sets Elvis apart from all the other people who started Rock and Roll was the fact that Elvis was white, at least cosmetically. He had white skin which meant when he played music written and originally recorded by black people it was acceptable to white folk. Not all of them of course, there were still people who thought all "Jungle Music" was inherently evil, but for a generation of white kids who were bored with their parents music (and who could blame them?) Elvis was a breath of fresh air and was the right colour as well. Ike Turner might like to claim he invented rock and roll but Elvis made it a style that everyone could enjoy.

But unlike Pat Boone, who took black music and bleached it till it was lifeless pop, Elvis understood what he was singing and brought something sensational to the table. He had an amazing voice and was an incredibly dynamic performer. Listening to these tracks more than sixty years after they were recorded they still have a real power and impact. The recordings might be in mono and they might show the degradation of age, but the performance is still fresh and exciting thanks to that amazing vocal talent. It's hard to believe that when he sang these songs he wasn't a seasoned studio performer and didn't have a massive concert career behind him. Before he played That's All Right he hadn't performed in a single live show, had any vocal training  or formal lessons. He hadn't met the band before or run through anything with them before that day. It was the sound of magic being made.

Credit should go to the band. In the years since Elvis performed in Sun we still haven't really improved on rock and roll band blueprint they laid down in that session. A drummer keeping rhythm, a bass player adding depth and a guitar player taking a lead break. It worked then and it still works today. Granted we've swapped the cumbersome upright bass for the more portable bass guitar but the principal is still the same. There's a reason why Scotty Moore is still revered by guitarists today. None of his playing sounds dated or old fashioned and his eight-bar guitar breaks are a thing of beauty and perfection.

The other reason to appreciate the Sun Sessions tracks is that, unlike a lot of his contemporaries, Elvis was a long way from a one trick pony. These 15 tracks encompass true rock and roll (That's alright, Good Rockin tonight) Country (Blue Moon of Kentucky) slow ballads (I'll Never Let you Go Little Darlin), blues (Milk Cow Blues) and popular standards (I Forgot to Remember to Forget, Blue Moon). Elvis took in a huge variety of musical styles and ideals in his life and he understood them all. He would later add Gospel to his repertoire with equal success.

I don't choose to put on Sun Sessions often by choice but I can't help but treat it with a degree of measured awe when I do. Elvis really was a huge talent and this really is music that changed the world. It turned rock and roll from a musical sideline into a revolution and popular music wouldn't be the same if it hadn't existed. Thanks Elvis, may you rest in peace.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "Before Col Tom Parker, Before Ed Sullivan, Before Hollywood, Before Percilla, Before Hawaii, Before Las Vegas, Before Drugs, Before The Gut - There was ROCK and ROLL!! I Challange ANYONE to listen to this legendary first reconding session in 1955 and tell me there has ever been anyone better!!"

-Yeah, hard to disagree with that.

So is this the start of rock and roll or does something else deserve the credit? Let me know below

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

12 Kind of Blue (1959) Miles Davis




1. So What
2. Freddie Freeloader
3. Blue in Green
4. All Blues
5. Flamenco Sketches

I always make a bit of a git of myself when I write about jazz. It's a style of music whose appeal I struggle to put into actual words. I know there are people who can and do it very well but usually they're actual performers themselves. It's interesting that in order to be a pop or rock reviewer you don't need to have played an instrument in your life, you just have to know what you like, but in order to write about Jazz you need to have a background in your subject and a knowledge spawned from an attempt to make the music yourself.  There are some great writer/performers out there who have written some fantastic stuff about jazz and this album in particular. The liner notes to my copy of Kind of Blue make for bafflingly pleasing reading as it references terms that I just don't understand but wish I did. I don't understand what syncopated actually means and I can't tell you why modal jazz is different to jazz that isn't modal.

In fact my reading about Kind of Blue has actually made me understand it less rather than understand it more. I've read about how pianist Bill Evans could play a chord without actually playing the chord, or at least some of the notes, and instead play around the chord and suggest the chord. I don't understand how this works. I don't get how you suggest three notes by playing different ones. It's all got me baffled.

What I'm trying to say is that I don't know why I love Kind of Blue but I can tell you that I adore it to bits. It's blissfully perfect in every way. It's gloriously dense because every single player is doing something interesting at every available moment. Nobody is just hammering out a rhythm while wondering where they're going for dinner and nobody is coasting along, they're all playing their little hearts out all the time and they're just making that stuff up. Nobody is following sheet music, they're just letting the music pour out of them like it was pumped into their body and needed an outlet to prevent them from exploding. The sound of  a bunch of guys making music up at the same time should be a recipe for disaster but whatever loose rules they were sticking to (I think it was a form of modal syncopation) keeps them together. It helps that they're clearly listening to each other as well. Nobody is off on their own planet having an aimless noodle. It all sounds like a coherent and structured group performing a structured idea.

I have made the mistake of putting Kind of Blue on as background music when I've got company around which I realise is a huge error because I have very few friends that are anywhere near as interesting as Kind of Blue is. I find myself wishing my guest would shut up and appreciate the music. It's easy to think it could be background material but it benefits from your full attention. When I hear the opening notes of So What I just want to sit back and enjoy the whole thing.

Kind of Blue is genuinely perfect. It's the jazz album that non-jazz fans like and in its time has converted many non jazz heads to the joys of good jazz music. Be one of those guys if you haven't already.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "how can someone enjoy the horn when all through EVERY song this constant bass thumping, boom boo boo boom boom boo boom boo boom boom boom boo boo boom STUPID!"

-Um... turn the bass on your stereo down maybe? Just a thought.

So does this make you Kind of Blue or Kind of Happy? Let me know below

Thursday, December 11, 2014

13 The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967) The Velvet Underground




1. Sunday Morning
2. I'm Waiting For The Man
3. Femme Fatale
4. Venus In Furs
5. Run Run Run
6. All Tomorrow's Parties
7. Heroin
8. There She Goes Again
9. I'll Be Your Mirror
10. Black Angel's Death Song
11. European Son

There are a couple of entries on this countdown which I can honestly say I've done a complete reversal on: albums or artists I was initially not a fan of but have come to appreciate and even love over time. The VU is definitely of them.

Many years ago, a work colleague tried to convince me of the benefits of the VU and I have to confess I wasn't ready for them. I listened and concluded they just weren't for me. They confirmed what I'd always suspected: they were something of an acquired taste.

It's possible I was correct but I've since definitely acquired the taste. The access point was the easily accessible Loaded which is the VU album that non VU fans like but it led me deeper to try and appreciate this masterpiece, which really is as good as everyone gives it credit for. It's tempting to believe that the only reason The Velvet Underground and Nico is lauded so much is because it was so ignored at the time. We're all over-praising an album because we're so romantically attached to the notion that quality work went totally ignored in its day. While it's true there is a certain cool factor in liking this album and knowing it makes you smarter than the entire of 1967, but that's not the only attraction.

There are some simply outstanding songs on this album. I'm waiting for the Man is a great rock and roll song by anyone's standards. It's not darkly impenetrable, weirdly esoteric, emotionally disturbing or any of the other labels that get thrown at the VU, it's just a great rock song. True it's about waiting for a heroin dealer which in 1967 wasn't in any way cool but that's beside the point. Speaking of heroin, the song Heroin is apparently about heroin. While other bands were trying to subtly drop hints at marijuana or LSD usage into their lyrics, The VU were happy to write a song that was blatantly and unequivocally about an intravenous drug trip.  The lyrics not only talk about taking heroin, the song structure, with its lazy opening tones which build to a crescendo, is designed to replicate the feeling of a trip in progress. Speaking as someone who has never used heroin I have no idea how accurate the aural depiction is, but I can tell you that it works as a Rock and Roll song. Run Run Run is another great track which could easily have been a minor hit for lots of other bands performing at the time, assuming of course that they dropped the heroin references.

I'm Waiting for The Man, Heroin and Run Run Run are three fantastic songs with brilliant Lou Reed vocals but then Reed's singing isn't the problem a lot of people have with The Velvet Underground and Nico. The issue is the Nico bit.

Nico was a German chanteuse, a word which I think means "woman possessed of a deep voice". She sings her lyrics with a definite German accent in a register below what most people consider a normal female range. For those used to pretty singers with pretty voices it must have been a real shock to encounter someone who sounds like she's not just from the other side of the Berlin wall, she's actually a part of its foundations.

When you can get past the fact that Nico has an unconventional voice, you can definitely start to really enjoy and not just endure her contributions to the album. I'll be your mirror is great, All Tomorrows parties is brilliant and Femme Fatale is kind of haunting. I've heard them all done by more classically acceptable singers with pretty voices and they don't have anything near the appeal of the original. There really is something to be said for the value of character and personality in a vocal performance and this proves how important matching the right singer to the song really is.

Even if you overcome the hurdle of Nico's voice, this album still has challenges to throw at you. European Son is basically just loud feedback and distortion and The Black Angels Death Song sounds like... well it sounds a lot like a Black Angel would if it was dying. Neither are the sorts of tracks that your mother would put on for a relaxing afternoon.

The Velvet Underground and Nico isn't just a novelty album that has gained a reputation thanks to its initial obscurity and famous cover. It's a great set of songs in its own right and deserves all the praise it gets. If you're not a fan then can I urge you to give it a few more listens? You might be exactly where I was once, but trust me you'll be much happier where I am now.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "I bought this CD after a guy at a coffee shop saw me playing my Strokes CD on my player. He said, if you like the Strokes you'll like the velvet Underground."

-That's a very cool way to get into music "Some stranger reccomended this album..." shame he didn't end up enjoying it.

So is this as addictive as... I don't know some addictive substance, I can't think of one right now... or not? Let me know below

Thursday, December 4, 2014

14 Abbey Road (1969) The Beatles



Abbey Road isn't just a great Beatles album, it's an important one. It's one that Beatles fans need in order to end their story on a high instead of a depressing kind of low.

After spending a painful few weeks staring at each other in hatred for the dismal Let it Be sessions, the band was pretty much ready to go their separate ways and call it a day.  They were happy to slink off into their solo careers leaving someone else to salvage what they could from the Let it Be sessions and consequently make the band's final statement a sad record of their infighting and bickering. Thankfully Paul had more respect for the Band's legacy and persuaded them to reunite in their old studio with their old producer for a final album made the way they used to.  The end result is Abbey Road which is thankfully a triumph. If you're going to listen to the Beatles albums in order of release then Let It Be will be your final moment, but if you listen to them in they order they were created you can end the journey that starts with Please Please Me with this masterpiece and feel like you've had a much more satisfying trip.

Come Together.

Come together has a brilliantly slinky baseline some outstandingly cryptic lines and a fantastic vocal performance. It's also responsible for the best legal settlement in music history. For years people have been suing other people who they think have lifted bits of their music. There are a huge number of lawyers in America getting extremely rich representing disgruntled musicians who are suing other disgruntled musicians demanding a percentage of royalties because their songs sound a bit similar. Most of these settlements end up with one party paying the other some cash, but Come Together's lawsuit had a much better result. Lennon was sued by the people who held the publishing rights for Chuck Berry's catalogue for a line that he definitely lifted from a Berry song. Instead of handing over any money however, Lennon agreed to record some of their songs on his next solo album which would give them royalties but wouldn't cost him. How cool is that? I'd like to see all such disputes settled this way: okay so you clearly plagiarized the tune from these guys so you should probably listen to the rest of their catalogue because you're covering three of their songs on your next LP.

Something

It's definitely fitting that one of the best songs on Abbey Road is by George. Lennon and McCartney started life as the Beatles songwriting strength and George was running to catch up. By the White Album he was more than holding his own and by Abbey Road he was producing songs as good as Something, which nobody else was doing at the time. It's the perfect love ballad which has soul not schmaltz at its core.

Maxwell's Silver Hammer

Nobody covers this song much anymore. At the time it was kind of a cheery kids song and I remember singing it in school but as the years went on people started to think "Wait, is hitting someone with a hammer really that cute?" Somehow brutal violence could be overlooked in the late sixties and you could easily slip multiple blunt-force trauma fatalities into an album as long as the tune was bouncy. We've changed a bit now.

Oh Darling

It was easy to write McCartney off at the end of the Beatles career as someone who was moving towards the Middle of The Road artistically and producing dull and tedious music. There are those who believe he was turning his back on rock and roll and embracing music hall. Oh Darling proves them wrong. It's a fantastic song that he really belts out with genuine passion.

Octopuses Garden

The obligatory Ringo track and one that he wrote (almost) by himself. While his other songs were often covers or written by a fellow Beatle, this one was his own idea. It's one of those Beatles songs which is great for kids but a bit tiring when you're an adult, especially when people started playing it to you when you were three. There aren't many things I liked when I was three that I still like now.

I want you (She's so Heavy)

A good song? Yes. Worth extending to almost eight minutes? No. When it starts you're pleased to see it arrive but by the time it finishes you're definitely glad to see the back of it. The extended coda wears out its welcome. It's made more frustrating by the knowledge that George had some great songs lying around that could have been included and if John had turned this into a regular length composition there would have been space for one, but no instead of hearing All Things Must Pass we had to hear this repeat itself over and over again.

Here Comes the Sun

Another classic George composition. How many people sing this spontaneously when the sun breaks through a cloud cover suddenly? And how much more joyous does it make the situation when it does? Some songs just put a permanent smile on your face, this is definitely one of them.

Because

I love Because. Partly because it's a fantastic song but partly because it's the sound of John, Paul and George working together in harmony, literally. The gorgeous harmony vocals were created because the three of them put aside their differences and banded together to make a great song as good as it could be. Nobody was saying "That's good enough" and leaving to pursue their solo interests, they all cared enough to put the effort in and make the best Beatles album they could. Thanks guys.

The Medley

The rest of Abbey Road is taken up with a medley which almost acts as a clearing house for half finished songs that Lennon and McCartney had lying around and couldn't brush up into a full track. It shouldn't work but it does. It doesn't have a weak moment from its opening note to the final triumphant finale as it travels through lyrical vitriol and absurdity, rock and pop, vocal harmonies, drum solos and lead breaks. It's all there and every single bit of it works.

My only quibble with Abbey Road is the presence of Her Majesty as the final moment. It would be perfect if the finale moment in the Beatles catalogue was "And in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make" which might be clumsily worded but is as good a summation of the Beatles ethos as your likely to find. It comes at the conclusion of a magnificent album of music and should send the listener on their way with a huge grin plastered over their face. Sadly Her Majesty breaks the euphoria and is the album's final track. Her Majesty is a pointless little 23 second ditty with useless lyrics and an aimless tune that starts nowhere and ends up in the same place. It was included on the album's final mix by accident but approved by the band which on the whole is a shame. I'm tempted to say it would be better if it had never existed but then if it didn't Chumbawamba would never have recorded a cover version with added verses and chorus which turn it into a fantastic republican anthem.

Abbey Road is my favourite Beatles album and the one that I return to most frequently. There's not a weak song on its running length and the whole thing creates a joyous mood, making it one of those rare albums that genuinely has the power to lift my day. It's testament to the Beatles' genius that even though we're at number 14 on the countdown, there are still four more of their albums to come. To my mind none of them is better than this one but my favourite Beatles album has changed several times over the years and may well change again.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "England's Fab Bore released this album in 1969, during which the Beatles were falling apart at the seams due to creative, financial, and legal issues. "Come Together" sounds fake, and everything else is tired. Who would buy this when you have Pink? Get her new album instead."

-Do you know the only fun I have with this whole Amazon review thing now? It's reading reviews that are obviously written by American 14 year olds and trying to guess which band they will say is better than the artist they're writing about. Which artist are they going to claim the reader should buy instead? I didn't see Pink coming this time but that doesn't make it any less depressing.


So... favourite Beatles album? Abbey Road? Sgt Peppers? Revolver? Something else? Let me know below.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

15 Are you Experienced (1967) Jimi Hendrix Experience



1. Purple Haze
2. Manic Depression
3. Hey Joe
4. Love Or Confusion
5. May This Be Love
6. I Don't Live Today
7. The Wind Cries Mary
8. Fire
9. 3rd Stone From The Sun
10. Foxey Lady
11. Are You Experienced

Hendrix once supported the Monkees on tour. In 1967, the Monkees thought The Jimi Hendrix Experience was the right group to warm their audience of teenage girls up for their rendition of Daydream Believer. Predictably it was a disaster and Hendrix eventually grew sick of performing to room full of screaming Monkees fans chanting "We Want the Monkees!" while he was playing Purple Haze and walked out of the tour.

Today we look at Hendrix as a guy who could solo for longer than most Monkees songs and we think of him as the height of psychedelic excess. But back in 1967 when people only had this album as an indication of his abilities, it must have seemed like a more reasonable proposition. Granted it would never have looked like a good idea and there must have been people scratching their heads and saying "Seriously?" to each other when they first heard it but you can kind of see where people are coming from because Are you Experienced is, at its core, a collection of really strong songs.

Forget about the wild clothing, forget about the stage theatrics, even forget about the guitar playing ability and just focus on the album as a set of 1960's pop tunes. Foxy Lady, Manic Depression, Can you See Me, Fire, Love or Confusion and I Don't Live today could all have been hits for other bands if they'd played to their pop strengths. At their core, they're just catchy melodies with good hooks. You may think I'm mad but I can even imagine a song like Fire being slowed down slightly, brightened up and performed by the Monkees themselves. It's not lightyears away from I'm Not Your Stepping Stone.

Thanks to a frenetic schedule of touring and recording, Hendrix would never have such a strong set of songs to enter a studio with ever again. His time spent building his career in the lead up to the release of his first album gave him some freedom to sit down and write which gave him an opportunity to pen some fantastic pieces of late sixties rock. Regardless of what you think of Jimi's other abilities, you can't deny the fact that The Wind Whispers Mary is actually a beautiful song. It might be played by a guy we associate with feedback and guitar burning but we should take the time to remember that he was also a guy who could write a really lovely piece of music. Even the lesser known tracks on Experienced showcase a talent for putting together a memorable song.

Of course his songwriting pales when you compare it to his guitar playing. My goodness could that guy play guitar. He was a truly amazingly gifted musician and there aren't too many other people who have such a natural talent. He was 24 at the time this was recorded which still blows my mind. I have no idea how someone manages to develop such a revolutionary ability and freakish range of gifts when they've only been of legal drinking age for 3 years. It's one thing to be incredibly good at what you do, it's another thing to be able to take that talent in a bold new direction. Hendrix mastered the pop, rock and blues playing styles of the day and could do what his contemporaries could do but could also pioneer new ways of using the guitar to express himself which are still be copied (but rarely if ever bettered) to this day.

Hendrix was a great singer and the world's greatest guitarist, but early in his career he was a great writer of pop tunes as well which makes Are you Experienced one of the greatest albums of alltime.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review quote: "Words cannot describe my intense dislike for Jimi's guitar "skills". This guy is a HACK."

-This has been so depressing. Every week I sift through some of the most peurile and inane dross searching for an interesting Amazon Customer Review Quote. "This albums sucks, if you want real music listen to..." over and over again. It's been soul destroying finding this nonsense for you. Soul destroying.

So are you experienced? Let me know below.



Thursday, November 20, 2014

16 Blood on the tracks (1975) Bob Dylan



1. Tangled Up in Blue
2. Simple Twist of Fate
3. You're a Big Girl Now
4. Idiot Wind
5. You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go
6. Meet Me in the Morning
7. Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts
8. If You See Her, Say Hello
9. Shelter from the Storm
10. Buckets of Rain

By 1975 Dylan had been recording albums for 13 years and had managed to effectively kill off the public's expectations of his work, which he felt had been holding him back for nearly a decade. He started life as an acoustic writer of "Finger pointing songs" but destroyed the ideals of a generation when he went electric and became a rock star, singing impenetrable psychedelic missives backed by a full band. He then explored Americana and totally changed his singing style before finally killing off his entire fanbase with Self Portrait a deliberate attempt to commit career suicide.

After becoming an icon of the sixties, Dylan entered the middle of the seventies as nothing more than an artist, free to create music on his own terms and in his own way. He no longer felt the overwhelming burden of public pressure and an insatiable desire to shrug if off. He had reached a happy point in which he could just release Bob Dylan albums for people who wanted to buy them. He could write songs and release them and if people liked them they could buy them and show up to his concerts and everyone else wasn't his concern.

1974's Planet Waves was a return to form of sorts but it wasn't until 1975 that Dylan proved he wasn't just the best survivor of the 1960's, he was one of the best artists of the 70's as well.

Blood on the Tracks is a masterpiece and far and away the best album released in 1975 and quite possibly the finest release in the entire decade. It has at least four of Dylan's best songs and several tracks which classify as those unappreciated gems that Dylan fans love and more people should hear.

Tangled Up In Blue is quite possibly my favourite ever Dylan song (although even pinning me down to a top ten in no actual order would cause me considerable pain and angst). I'm one of those people who always seems to have a song in their head and spends most of their time singing it out loud much to the irritation of those around me. For over two decades now I think Tangled has been the song my brain has returned to most frequently. It's just a permanently happy place that my mind gravitates towards and I'll regularly find myself singing "Early one morning the sun was shining, I was laying in bed..." and I'll be off. I can do the whole song and have to stop and really revel in each opportunity to sing "Tangled up in blue!"

Tangled challenges the notion held by many, Dylan included, that he was a lyricist and not a tunesmith. To the best of my knowledge nobody has accused Dylan of snatching the melody for Tangled from another source. Many of his classic songs are "based" to a lesser or greater degree on folk melodies but there are others that are entirely original and Tangled is one of them. It's a perfect marriage of music and lyrics and while it wouldn't be as brilliant with other words attached it's definitely not a case of poetry propping up a substandard melody.

I really love Tangled's lyrics by the way. I mean really love them. I can't explain why lines like "Some are mathematicians, some are carpenter's wives" are so perfect but I know they are. They're unmistakably Dylan and even though he would tamper with them in later live renditions they're triumphant in their original, and deliberately baffling form. Much of the appeal of Tangled lies in the fact that the narrative perspective switches around so we can't tell if Dylan is singing in the first person or the third person which sounds a bit crap as an idea but makes the song so much more intriguing in practice.

Tangled on its own would be enough to carry the album (it's better than Forever Young which was Planet Waves standout track and was so good Dylan included two different versions) but it's far from the album's only highlight. Simple Twist of Fate is one of Bob's best slow ballad songs and tells a story that is so much more than a simple love song.  Idiot Wind is a magnificently scathing and vitriolic song that rivals Like a Rollin Stone or Don't think twice it's alright in its bitterness and would overtake them completely if it wasn't for Dylan's declaration that he's an idiot as well. The final act of outright genius on Blood is Shelter from the Storm which gets under your skin and shakes you around. It's essentially another break up song in an album which is full of them (nobody believes Bob when he says he didn't write it about his failed marriage) but its images are apocalyptic, messiah-like and downright scary at times but beautiful at others. You could spend months alone with this song dissecting its meaning and at the end you might come to some understanding but a part of you might die as well as you looked into its blackness.

Tangled, Simple Twist, Idiot and Shelter make up the four great moments on Blood and they're all classic Dylan songs and arguably the best tracks released in 1975. They're well supported by You're a big girl now, You're gonna make lonesome when you go, Meet me in the Morning, If you see her say hello and Buckets of Rain which would have been the standout track on any album Dylan released for the next decade. In fact only the overlong Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts, which doesn't deserve a quarter of it's running time, let alone a full 9 minutes, isn't at least very good.

Blood on the Tracks marks the moment when Dylan reconnected with his muse and proved to children of the seventies why he was such a big deal in the sixties. His muse would abandon him again for a while in the future but anyone who thinks Bob is a part of the hippie decade and never survived outside needs to hear 1975's Blood on the Tracks. And then follow that up with 1989's Oh Mercy and then everything he's released since 1997.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "Zimmerman? Zimmerframe more like, you cactus-faced crock of cack."

-Oh shush, foolish person.

So are you happy this blood was shed? Let me know below.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

17 Nevermind (1991) Nirvana


1. Smells Like Teen Spirit
2. In Bloom
3. Come as You Are
4. Breed
5. Lithium
6. Polly
7. Territorial Pissings
8. Drain You
9. Lounge Act
10. Stay Away
11. On a Plain
12. Something in the Way


There have been a few albums which have totally changed the world. Their appearance completely revolutionised music as we know it and left an altered state in their wake. They grabbed what we knew about popular music and shook it up and battered it around and everyone knew nothing could be the same again. It wasn't subtle, we didn't need ten years and the benefit of hindsight to see it happening, we watched music change before us and knew we were part of a revolution.

I wasn't actually born when a lot of these changes occurred. When Elvis, The Beatles, Dylan, Zeppelin and others dropped their respective bombshells I was yet to trouble the planet in any way. When the Sex Pistols tore music apart in the last seventies I was only four years old and it would still be years before I listened to anything that wasn't created by Jim Henson.

But Nirvana's bombshell I was definitely around for and I remember the impact well. In 1991 I was 18 and had lived through the eighties and knew I was being shortchanged. I had realised that previous generations had great music and I had to put up with synth pop and hair bands. I was acutely aware that with a few exceptions (thanks Midnight Oil, thank you now and always) most music from the decade of my formative years was more than a bit naff.

I remember things like Poison's Unskinny Bop being what we thought Modern Rock and Roll was. It had all the ingredients music needed at the time: Handsome guys with big hair. That's what the decade was basically all about.

And then Nirvana came along and stuck a massive boot straight though our musical TV screens. I can remember a time when Smells Like Teen Spirit was everywhere. It was on TV and radio all the time and people were playing it in their homes and singing it in the streets. I'm sure looking back on it now I'm over romantacising the time and there must have been some people singing something by the Carpenters but in my memory it was everywhere and we loved it.

Being 18 at the time I was part of the generation that the song apparently spoke to. People have held it up as an anthem for a generation and something that spoke to us and moved us in a way that we hadn't been moved before. It summed up Generation X apparently which I personally think is nonsense. My friends and I didn't respond to Smells Like Teen Spirit because it expressed our feelings in a way that we couldn't. We didn't think we'd finally found an outlet for our angst and frustration which somehow wasn't being conveyed in whatever the hell Unskinny Bop was about. We just liked it because it rocked.

And Smells Like Teen Spirit definitely rocks. Those opening chords are fantastic and the sound is just unbelievably powerful. That onslaught of grunge intensity made us all realise just how anaemic hair bands really were. They didn't have attitude, they had stylists, but Nirvana looked like they would physically assault anyone who came near them with hair spray. I didn't know what the lyrics were at the time and still don't but I knew that stomping drum beat was the sound of three guys jumping up and down on the grave of Poison's career and I thanked them for it.

You'd be forgiven for thinking I'm a massive Nirvana fan. The truth is I never actually bought a copy of Nevermind and have never heard it all the way through before now, more than two decades after it was released. I liked Smells Like Teen Spirit and enjoyed hearing it on the radio and I'm forever grateful that it existed but it never moved me enough to buy it.

There's no doubt that listening to Nirvana twenty years after its initial release makes you appreciate that unlike a lot of things that demolished music (the Sex Pistols most notably) they don't sound stuck in their era. You could play one of the lesser known tracks, Polly for example, on the radio today and nobody would immediate think it was a 90's song that should have stayed there. There's nothing that dates it badly or holds it back. And it doesn't have the traditional grunge sound that makes it immediately recognizable. Polly features acoustic guitars and harmonies and is quite a pretty melody when you get down to it.

When Rolling Stone magazine listed the best albums of the 90's at the end of the decade, they put this at number one with Radiohead's OK computer at number two. Years later they revised the list and swapped them over to put Nevermind in second place. Regardless of which is best there are definitely similarities between the two bands. They both appear to operate with a total disregard for any genre classification or rules. Neither band really cares what you think they should sound like and what category record shops put them in. They're both they're own genres and they both arrived at that point by absorbing a huge range of musical influences. The members of Nirvana have talked about being huge devotees of both Punk and bands like Led Zeppelin which Punk was a reaction against. They enjoy alternative rock like The Pixies and a lot of the Heavy Metal bands that The Pixies were supposed to be an alternative to. They're just three guys who devour the music they like and let it create something new without really trying.

The result really does deserve to be held up as one of the great rock albums of all time. Cobain is a talented vocalist, the band creates a fantastic sound and more importantly there's some great songwriting on offer. Tori Amos proved that Smells Like Teen Spirit didn't need the power chord and volume to work, it thrived with just her piano and a voice to propel it. Come as you are, In Bloom and Polly are all great pieces of writing and brilliant songs in their own right.

The massive success of Nevermind delighted the record company executives but made Cobain decidedly uncomfortable. He quickly wanted to turn his back on the image they'd created. It's hard to know what Nirvana might have sounded like had Kurt not taken his own life a few short years after this album was created. They might have sounded like the Foo Fighter do now, or it's possible they'd still be playing somewhere debuting new music to smaller and smaller crowds disappointed at Cobain's refusal to play anything from their glory days. Sadly we'll never know, but this album does stand testament to a massive talent who deserves our thanks for helping to drive a knife through the heart of eighties music.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "Better yet, go check out some classics like Van Halen (Sammy Hagar era - I don't think we have to get into that other dork and his pathetic shtik). Now there's someone that knows how to take a guitar and make it go "neeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeer-wah-wah-wah-wah-wah-diddly-diddly-doodley-doooooooooo!!!!!"."

-I love that solo! That's a great song!

So is this great or... nevermind? Let me know below.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

18 Born to Run (1975) Bruce Springsteen


1. Thunder Road
2. Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
3. Night
4. Backstreets
5. Born to Run
6. She's the One
7. Meeting Across the River
8. Jungleland

This countdown has given me an excellent opportunity to assess several artists that I've always respected but never actually enjoyed, and discover what it is that's keeping me from appreciating them. With Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison it's their voice, with David Bowie it's his production and with Bruce Springsteen it's that face he pulls when he goes shouty.

Actually it's not the face as much as it's the voice he's using and the mood of the song. There seem to be a lot of songs in Springsteen's repertoire which see him take the microphone and shout a big line while the band swells behind him and the volume rises and it gets faster and its all big and bombastic. While this is happening, Springsteen makes a face. I have no problem with his face or any particular expression it pulls. I'm okay with Springsteen's features it's just a visual representation of a Springsteen musical mood that I just don't get. I'm not 100% sure why this is. I have no trouble with loud rock and roll and many of my favourite artists have big voices which they're not afraid to use. When Daltry gets screamy I get chills, when Springsteen gets shouty I get kind of bored.

It might be in part because it seems like a technique that Springsteen tends to over use. He does it a lot and to be honest every time I hear Springsteen from this era I'm just waiting for it come along. Even when a track starts off slowly, I'm still anticipating a build up towards the moment when the band turns everything up to 11 and Bruce gets shouty and pulls the face. I passed every song on Born to Run through the "Does it have Shouty Face Bruce" test and the following are my results...

Thunder Road? Yes. It gets their eventually.

Tenth Avenue Freeze Out? He gets there within the first minute even if the the band don't go with him.

Night? Doesn't go all the way to 11 until the final minute when it definitely approaches ten.

Backstreets sounds like it will never get there because it starts with a gentle piano but by the halfway mark he's well and truly shouting.

Born to Run? Hurtles there within the first minute and pretty much stays there for the entire track. The video clip is one of the best visual depictions of the shouty face you're likely to find.

She's the one?  Another faker, it starts nice and gentle but builds again and by three minutes in he's shouting to compete with a saxophone solo.

Meeting across the river? No. Bruce starts gentle and despite spending the whole song looking like it's going to suddenly launch into 11 territory it says toned down.

Jungleland? With a nine minute running time you would think Bruce has longer to wait before he gets shouty but he's there before the three minute mark.

In other words pretty much every song on Born to Run except one has Bruce in shouty bombast mode after a brief but predictable musical climax. It's a trick that might be really effective once but when it's used on the majority of the album it tends to wear a bit thin.

I've discovered in my musical listening that my favourite Springsteen tracks are pretty much all his quiet and subtle ones. The Streets of Philidelphia, My Home Town etc are all really great songs. I like Bruce when he slows down and uses his fantastic voice as a subtle instrument not something to bludgeon the audience with.  He's got a great voice, writes a great song but for reasons I'm struggling to identify, he bores me a bit when he gets loud and shouty.

Before I started listening to his albums on this countdown, I would have struggled to answer if someone asked me "Do you like Springsteen?" I probably would have said I liked him as a person but not really as a performer. Now that I've delved into his catalogue more I can say I really like him when he's being subtle but I find him a bit dull when he puts his foot the floor and goes full bore.

Born to Run isn't my least favourite Springsteen album, but it's certainly one I don't need to hear again. Every song except one (and that's pretty dull to be honest) builds up to 11 pretty quickly and gets immediately tiring when it does.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "Timing really is everything. When this album came out in '75, most of the people who had revolutionized rock in the 1960s and early '70s were either dead (Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison), in seclusion (John Lennon, Brian Wilson) or in a declining phase (the Rolling Stones). Meanwhile, Punk and New Wave were still a couple of years away on the horizon. The Bay City Rollers were probably Bruce's toughest competition. The contrast made this album look more innovative than it really was."

-That's actually quite an astute observation. Not sure I entirely agree but it's kind of hard to argue against.

So were you born to run or are you happy walking? Let me know below.


Sunday, November 2, 2014

19 Astral Weeks (1968) Van Morrison



1. Astral Weeks
2. Beside You
3. Sweet Thing
4. Cyprus Avenue
5. The Way Young Lovers Do
6. Madame George
7. Ballerina
8. Slim Slow Slider

Sometimes there are things that just stop me from enjoying an album. It might be the artist's reputation, it might be the production values, it might be a personal association. With Astral Weeks, it's Van Morrison's voice, which I find staggeringly unpleasant in every possible way. I'd even go so far as to say Van Morrison has the least appealing voice in the entire of rock and roll as far as I'm concerned. There is nobody on the planet whose vocal chords annoy me more. It's no exaggeration to say I'd rather listen to an actual Van than Van Morrison, even if the van in question was being gradually whittled by a team of crying children with nail files. Even the sound of metal on  rasping metal as applied by howling infants would be preferably to hearing Van Morrison sing.

In the past, when I've been presented with an album that presents a stumbling block that prevents me from appreciating it, I try and look for a way around it. Usually I go in search of cover versions to I can hear the song-writing from a fresh perspective and I can listen to the songwriting rather than the singer. That seemed like the perfect approach for Astral Weeks in which the problem was the vocalist. I wanted to know if I could enjoy the songs without having to endure Van Morrison adding every single vowel sound known to man, and even some that are traditionally only the domain of animals, in every word. Could I appreciate Astral Weeks in the hands of someone whose voice didn't remind me of a nasal-inflected impression of an air raid siren?

Thankfully I didn't have to turn to anyone else. Van himself came to the rescue. In 2012 he decided to perform Astral Weeks in its entirety at the Hollywood Bowl and then release the result as a live DVD and album. I have to admit I was tentative but considering it's up on youtube I thought I'd give it a go and see what the years had done to Morrison's voice. Had the passing of time mellowed his tones and smoothed out his tendency to wail?

Thankfully I'm pleased to report the answer is yes. Unlike a lot of other artists, Morrison's voice has actually improved over time. He can still hit the notes and still has power but doesn't have the need to wander around vowels the way he used to and the nasal tones have been tempered a lot. It was odd experience: I can honestly say I suffered through 4 listens of Astral Weeks. I endured them for the sake of the blog. But I found myself quite enjoying the live rendition at the Hollywood Bowl. It's a completely different experience.

It probably helps that Van has surrounded himself with a great bunch of musicians. He plays with what looks like a jazz combo backed with a string quartet and a flautist which might sound like overkill but it really works. They're a tight unit and they really bring the songs to life. They even manage to not be totally upstaged by Van's tendency to sing all the time. Morrison has obviously decided he will wait until he's dead to be silent (although even then the sound of gases escaping from his corpse will sound better to me than his younger self singing) and until then he's going to fill pretty much every moment with singing of some kind even if it's just repeating one word a lot in a descending register as if the word in question has just thrown itself off a cliff.

I really recommend checking Astral Weeks Live out on youtube. You don't need to actually watch it. Van was never much to look at in his prime but now he's basically an overweight old guy with bad teeth in a silly hat and dark glasses. He looks like a bad Blues Brothers tribute act, but you can always have the clip playing in the background without the visuals. For me it was a way of appreciating the songwriting in Astral Weeks and enjoying the album without having to endure vocals which I will never, ever be able to appreciate.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "The customary juxtaposition of the existential with the metaphysical may lead one to believe there is more going on here than the VanMan improvising for 45m on a few of his favorite themes. "

-So juxtaposing existential with metaphysical is customary now is it? Okay.

So is this an album you could listen to for Astral Weeks or turn off after Astral minutes? Let me know below

Thursday, October 23, 2014

20 Thriller (1982) Michael Jackson





1. Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'
2. Baby Be Mine
3. The Girl Is Mine
4. Thriller
5. Beat It
6. Billie Jean
7. Human Nature
8. P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)
9. The Lady in My Life


Thriller is an absolute monster of an album. The exact number of sales it's racked up varies depending on you talk to, but it's definitely over 50 million which means there are more than copies of Thriller than there are Spaniards. Everyone in Spain could have a personal copy of this album and there would still be copies spare for everyone in New Zealand.

The question is: would they actually want one?

Thriller hasn't dated all that well to be honest. At the time its production was cutting edge and revolutionary and it was the most modern sound around. Today it's definitely a product of its time and stuck firmly in the 80's. It sounds like it was recorded in 1982 which isn't a crime but it also sounds like you need to take yourself back to 1982 to appreciate it. The Beatles sound like a sixties band but there's something contemporary about their production techniques that makes them sound fresh today. People are still trying to capture the Beatles sound but you don't find too many people harking back to 1982's production values: "Hey, why don't we make the drums sound more fake?"

Thriller's obvious highlight is the title track, despite being overshadowed by its video clip with its immediately recognizable dancing zombies that must have seemed quite cool at the time. Years later Thrillers' visuals all look a bit naff which is a pity because it drags the original song down with it and Thriller kind of deserves better. It's catchy stuff and one of Jackson's finest moments.

Just as good is Beat It, which is Jackson's finest rock moment. Eddie Van Halen on guitar helps but it's Jackson's attitude which really makes it work. Jackson looks and sounds angry on Beat it. The video clip is extremely cheesy with a bunch of dancers trying to look like street thugs but never looking anything other than guys who defer to choreographers not gang leaders, but even its inherent silliness (in which Jackson unites rival gang factions through the power of dance) can't disguise the fact that this is the sort of stuff that Jackson does best. He's most affective when he's aggressive.

I've always said it's a huge shame that when Jackson was accused of paedophilia that he chose to try and portray himself as a loving messiah figure and not an angry man with his fist raised in anger. I'm not sure whether he was guilty or not but I can tell you that if he wrote Beat it back in 1982 when he had nothing to be angry about then how good would have been writing angry songs when the press were hounding him and his nose was falling off? I'd definitely buy a Jackson album called "Damn my mutant nostrils!"

Sadly the rest of Thriller isn't nearly as good as its two best tracks. Billie Jean was a big hit but is a bit of a dud song with some especially laboured lyrics that sort of get crammed into the song structure without ever really feeling like they belong. Apparently producer Quincy Jones never liked it and I have to say I'm with the Quince on this one.

But Billie Jean is far from the worst song on the album. That honour is given to The Girl is Mine, a song so appallingly awful it defies description. It's not just the worst song Jackson has ever done, it's the worst song Paul McCartney has ever sung on, which considering his eighties career is a big statement. Is there a more cringing thing in the entire of pop music than the line "The doggone girl is mine"? If there is then I struggle to think of one. It's just deplorably awful in every way it's possible to be dreadful. The repetitive tedium, the wash of woeful strings, the cheesy backing vocals, the big synth flourishes, the terrible key change, the embarrassing conversational interlude ("No Michael she's mine") it's just terrible beyond words. The Girl is Mine is an instant inclusion in my compilation of "Worst Songs on the top 500 albums" and might even be the lead single.

The rest of Thriller doesn't plummet to the depths of The Girl is Mine but doesn't reach the highs of Beat it either. There's a lot of filler which sounded new in 82 but sounds dated and tired today.

Thriller is currently the best selling album of all time but I wonder if it will hold the title indefinitely. What will future generations make of Jackson's finest hour, especially now that the man has gone and the honeymoon period of his death has passed. Will tomorrow's teenagers wonder what the fuss was about? Will they hear something that sounds like a product of their parents time and turn their backs? Can it win over any new devotees or will it be overtaken by albums that went before or came after?

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote:  "Man on cover handsome, that all. Music not good. Singer sound like he mad in most songs. And sometime he sound out of breath. He grunt on songs too. Songs not making sense either. "Baby Be Mine" not about a baby, it about something else. And he sing "Want to Start Something" but he not say what. Guitar sound cheap on most song too. Not good!!"

-Not listen to handsome grunty man. Not listen.

So is this a thriller or not? Let me know below

Sunday, October 19, 2014

21 The Great Twenty Eight (1982) Chuck Berry



1. Maybellene
2. Thirty Days
3. You Can't Catch Me
4. Too Much Monkey Business
5. Brown Eyed Handsome Man
6. Roll Over Beethoven
7. Havana Moon
8. School Days
9. Rock and Roll Music
10. Oh Baby Doll
11. Reelin' and Rockin'
12. Sweet Little Sixteen
13. Johnny B. Goode
14. Around and Around
15. Carol
16. Beautiful Delilah
17. Memphis
18. Sweet Little Rock and Roller
19. Little Queenie
20. Almost Grown
21. Back in the U.S.A.
22. Let It Rock
23. Bye Bye Johnny
24. I'm Talking About You
25. Come On
26. Nadine (Is It You?)
27. No Particular Place to Go
28. I Want to Be Your Drive

There are many who feel Chuck Berry deserves as much credit for starting Rock and Roll as Elvis and listening to the Great twenty eight it's impossible to deny they've got a hell of a point. Berry is one of the first great guitar heroes and proved to the world that you could be a great showman with an instrument around your neck. He sang his own lead vocals, not just because he could but because there wasn't a singer in the world who would want to compete with Berry the guitarist. The guy was truly dynamic.

Unlike a lot of other great artists in this countdown who forged their career in the fifties, Berry is well served by a perfect representation of his work. The Great Twenty Eight is exactly the right amount of Berry. It has literally all the hits and none of the misses. Later compilations would try and be exhaustive in their inclusiveness and throw in alternate takes, lesser songs and run throughs but the Great Twenty Eight is pure gold from start to finish.

While it's true Berry was a brilliant artist, he was also kind of repetitive it has to be said. There are those who claimed his entire career was basically rewriting Johnny B Goode, and while that's a bit of a harsh accusation there is definitely more than a smidgen of truth in the statement. Berry revisited the title character another thirty times in his career and each new composition wasn't really light years away from the original.

But Berry was a lot more than just his most famous track. Rock and Roll Music, Around and Around, Carol, Too much Monkey Busines and Reelin and a Rockin are all fantastic rock songs which might rely heavily on an opening riff but have enough distinction that nobody would think they were the same song reworked. The Great Twenty Eight also features songs like Maybellene, his first hit and No Particular Place to go both of which are outstanding tracks that you wouldn't describe as a ballad but slow the tempo down enough to provide some much needed variety.

Every song on this album, without exception, has been covered at least once by a big name somewhere. Berry's cannon of work is so influential he's put his stamp firmly on rock and roll and people will still be covering his music decades from now. But even though you could assemble a complete version of this album with tracks covered by The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, ACDC, The Yardbirds, The Kinks, Elvis, The Beach Boys, MC5, The Animals. Jerry Lee Lewis and many more besides, it would never fully supersede the original in my expectations. There is something about a Chuck Berry song performed by Chuck Berry which gives it an immediate charm that I'd miss, even in a version with superior soloing and double the energy. His singing style is infectious and his guitar slinging is so clean and punchy it really does suit the song perfectly. Many others have proved they can play his riffs faster and louder but Berry proves that it's not about speed or volume as much as it's about style and substance. And he definitely has both.

Berry is one of those early rockers whose performance will last as long as his legacy. While many of his contemporaries (Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters etc) will probably be overtaken by those they influenced, Berry's performances will continue to impress people for decades to come. Especially since they can be enjoyed in the most comprehensive but filler free compilation on this countdown.

I can't recommend The Great Twenty Eight enough. It's timeless rock and roll which sounds like it was made in the fifties but hasn't aged a day. Berry's music still has the ability to move and groove you and it still rocks after all these years. This would be fantastic even if it the only good song was Johnny B Goode, whose magnificence alone is enough to justify its position on the countdown. But there's so much more than just Rock and Roll's national anthem to enjoy. Put it in your CD collection now.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "Wonderful cd. Great song after great song. Chuck Berry's hit parade! 28 stars!"

-Yeah that sums it up nicely.

So is this a great 28 or average at best? Let me know below.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

22 Plastic Ono Band (1970) John Lennon




1. Mother
2. Hold On
3. I Found Out
4. Working Class Hero
5. Isolation
6. Remember
7. Love
8. Well Well Well
9. Look at Me
10. God
11. My Mummy's Dead

If this list has a lone King, it's probably John Lennon. With ten entries by The Beatles and two of his solo albums included, he can claim full or partial credit for 12 albums which is an impressive achievement. He's on 6% of this countdown which means he had a hand in 3/50ths of the greatest albums ever made.

I love every single one of the Beatles albums on this list. There is not a single release by the Fab Four that I don't adore utterly. But to be honest I have barely a passing interest in John's solo work. Despite the fact that the four Beatles were effectively operating as solo artists towards the end of their career, I still love their individual contributions to the late era Beatles albums but care little for anything they did a few months after they announced they'd broken up.

I've always wondered why this should be the case, but sitting down to listen to this album with an open mind has provided me with an answer of sorts which I believe is correct: I don't really like John when he's being earnest.

The Beatles were basically fun. They're a fun band and a bunch of guys who made a lot of really great music. It's not all lightweight nonsense but there's a general sense of joie de vivre if you'll pardon my French. Even when they were having a truly miserable and wretched time (The Let It Be sessions most notably) there is still a sense of genuine playfulness that comes through their music. John's neuroses and insecurities came through from time to time but even when they did they were often fun. Help is a genuine cry of Help, at least lyrically. It's written by a guy who was genuinely feeling down and genuinely needed some help. But because it's the Beatles it's been converted into a rollicking and fun tune which will give a lift to anyone listening. Be honest can you name another song which has the lyrics "Help me if you can I'm feeling down" but is such a hoot to put on the stereo?

But when he left the Beatles, John left fun behind him and filled the void with a sense of earnestness and seriousness. He was no longer part of the best group around, he was an important artist in his own right who wanted the sort of respect that Bob Dylan earned. He wanted to save the world and lay his soul bare. And he became kind of boring as a result.

Working Class Hero is Lennon at his most earnest. It has the sort of lyrics that might sound deep when sung but on reflection are just rhyming words ("As soon as you're born they make you feel small, by giving you no time instead of it all") and has a gratuitous use of the word "Fuck" which is Lennon telling us that he's serious now. There's no fuck in a Beatles song, he's all grown up now and he's into protest songs and proper swearing and everything. It's self important and not at all fun and a bit dull as a result. Forgive me, but if it's a choice between hearing Dylan or Lennon trying to be Dylan I'd take the original every time.

Part of my problem with Lennon post Beatles also stems from the fact that I don't really buy into the idea of Lennon as seer, mystic and spokesman for his generation. I don't hold him up as a hero and someone to idolise. I think he was a troubled guy at best and a bit of a bastard at worst. I've read too much about his treatment of his first wife, his troubled relations with his band, his earlier attitude to women and his youthful hijinks to think of him as anything other than a deeply flawed human. He wasn't really a pleasant guy and there's something about having him preach (and Plastic Ono Band is very preachy) that rankles somewhat. I'm not saying I'll only listen to messages delivered by people who pass high standards of morality that I can't even match myself, but it's a bit much having someone tell me about working class heroes when they own a hand painted Rolls Royce and have a cocaine habit.

Plastic Ono Band is partly about John's pain but I just don't feel it with him. His obsession with his long lost mother comes up often which isn't something I can relate to but John doesn't help me out at all. I should feel sorry for anyone who lost their mother at a young age but John does seem to be indulging in it somewhat. Mother deals with his loss which is fine but did we really need My Mummy's dead to come along at the end? Isn't it all getting a bit self-indulgent now? Time to stop surely?

Even the love songs on this album cause me problems because unlike most love songs, which are directed towards an anonymous entity that I don't know or have any opinion of, all of John's romantic statements are directed at Yoko who I've always thought was a bit of a dick. I know it's popular to think Yoko is really a misunderstood genius but even those who love her music would have to acknowledge that she's a bit of a prat and kind of annoying. I'm not a huge fan of Joni Mitchell as a person but listening to Graham Nash sing Our House about her is a beautiful thing and somehow more special knowing who he's singing about. Every love song Lennon wrote about Yoko has precisely the opposite effect on me and it doesn't help that he quite deliberately aims it all directly at her and namechecks her whenever he can, making it impossible to distance yourself from the subject.

I'm only glad I discovered The Beatles and their solo careers many years after they broke up. Part of me is jealous of people who got to wait for each new Beatles release with an eager sense of anticipation. It must have been wonderful to rush out and purchase a new Beatles LP on the release date and dedicate time to hearing it for the first time and discussing with others who are enjoying the same experiences. I'd have loved to have been a part of that but I would have had to endure the succession of crushing disappointments that each subsequent solo album represented. Every time I heard one of the Fab Four being less than a quarter of the brilliance they were when together, a part of me would have died inside. Encountering their work long after the event saves me the disappointment.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "When I was 12 years old, I was playing in a field near my house and I found an 8-track tape of Plastic Ono Band. It was under a rock. My young mind was reeling, "What's a Plastic Ono and why is it under a rock?" Exitedly I took my lucky find home, anxious to discover what was on the tape. Being only 12, I thought that since it was a tape there must be music on it. Boy was I surprised! I returned to the field bright and early the next morning to put the tape back under the rock. That was 30 years ago, it's probably still there. I learned an important lesson that day about not second-guessing the judgment of others and I vowed never to tamper with the underside of rocks ever again."

-Cool story. Thanks for sharing.

So do you love this or wish it would stay in isolation? Let me know below.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

23 Innervisions (1973) Stevie Wonder




1. Too High
2. Visions
3. Living for the City
4. Golden Lady
5. Higher Ground
6. Jesus Children of America
7. All in Love Is Fair
8. Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing
9. He's Misstra Know It All

As we creep slowly up the countdown towards the number one spot, the number of new albums I'm encountering is getting less and less. Most of the records I've encountered lately are either old friends from my own CD collection (Who's Next, Led Zeppelin, Let it Bleed) or albums so famous that I knew most of the tracks already (Born to Run, Tapestry). Innervisions was an odd encounter for me: an album that was almost entirely new.

I'd heard Higher Ground before of course but only as a cover version. I'm not the world's biggest Red Hot Chilli Peppers fan but their version of Higher Ground is fantastic and something I've always enjoyed. But that was my only familiar point in the world of Innervisions. The rest of it was all new.

As I've recently had the chance to experience again and again, I quite like Wonder when he speeds up but don't think much of him when he slows down. When he chooses to bring the pace down a notch and move into ballad territory he loses me but when he puts the pedal to the floor and goes the full funk I think he's awesome. I'm clearly alone in this. I've had a look at the guy's catalogue and discovered there's a compilation of just his love ballads (which I will never voluntarily choose to hear) but no compilation of his fast and funky material which I would choose to listen to often. I can't be the only one surely?

So when I put on Innervisions I was expecting the same reaction I'd had to his previous work: a sense of excitement at the funk and disappointment at the shmaltz. Instead I was just kind of... bored. 

Wonder plays pretty much the entire of Innervisions himself, much of it on a synthesizer. He lays down the drum tracks and then overdubs himself on bass and keyboards before finally creating a final track he can lay his vocals on top of. It's definitely something that requires a huge talent and not many people can effectively do. It also makes the music feel kind of sterile. Nobody pushed Wonder while he was making Innervisions, nobody suddenly played an unexpected note or launched into an experiment. The drummer didn't make a mistake that made Wonder sit up and take notice and the bass player didn't play a funky little riff he'd been experimenting with while they were between takes. It was all Wonder using technology to get what was in his head onto tape in the most accurate way possible. All which explains why I think it's kind of boring. It sounds so safe and pre-arranged and sterile. It just doesn't move me in the way that I think it could. It doesn't even repel me in the way that Wonder can. It just leaves me bored.

I'm at a loss to know why this is so high in the list compared to his other work. Higher Ground isn't nearly as good as Superstition and it doesn't boast any of his greatest ballads. It's also got an incredibly annoying spoken word intro (Don't you worry about a thing) which gets more annoying every time you hear it. 

Innervisions was a huge influence at the time and helped to popularise the synthesizer in R&B and Soul music, which lets be honest is a fairly big black mark against it. It might be Wonder's most consistent and complete album and perhaps my problem is that I don't want consistency in a Stevie Wonder album. I'm happy to endure a Shmaltzy ballad if I know a paint-peeling funkfest is just around the corner. Innervisions has no corners, they've all be buffed out by the recording process.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "I love funky "Sir Duke" stevie. This album was so highly billed, but it was a real let down for me. I wanted more funk, and did not find it."

-Yeah I'm with you

So does this album reach Higher Ground or fall well short? Let me know below




Friday, September 26, 2014

24 Live at the Apollo (1963) James Brown


1. Introduction to James Brown and The Famous Flames
2. I'll Go Crazy
3. Try Me
4. Think
5. I Don’t Mind
6. Lost Someone
7. Medley: Please, Please, Please/You've Got the Power/I Found Someone/Why Do You Do Me/I Want You So Bad/I Love You, Yes I Do/Strange Things Happen/Bewildered/Please, Please, Please
8. Night Train


James Brown likes the Apollo which is just as well because they clearly like him too. It's a relationship based on mutual love and affection and saw the hardest working man in showbusiness return to the illustrious venue on numerous occasions. It was clearly his favourite venue to produce a live album.

Live at the Apollo documents a James Brown show from 1962 recorded before anyone in the USA had heard of the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. He returned there for Live at the Apollo 2 in 1967 when everyone was pretty much obsessed with the Beatles and the Stones and again in 1971 when the Fab Four had broken up and the Stones were about to start their downward slide away from the peak of their career. He even returned again in 1994 for another live album.

According to popular opinion the first of these is worth having and the rest are pale imitations but to be honest I think that's not an accurate reading of the situation. The gulf in quality between Apollo 1 and its sequels isn't nearly as huge as many would have you believe and the later editions have the benefit of being more complete and comprehensive. Live at the Apollo 1 presents us with an abridged version of an early 1960's James Brown concert. It edits and cuts the show down to a half hour running time so it fits comfortably on two sides of vinyl. The following volumes have the benefit of being double albums and provide a much more comprehensive overview of the great man's show, especially in their lavish CD deluxe reissues.

The later volumes also benefit from the additions of some of Brown's greatest songs and signature tunes. Everyone who knows anything about Brown knows I got you (I feel good) which is absent from Volume 1 but appears in two of the sequels along with Get up (I feel like being a) sex machine which has the most annoying parenthesis in all of modern music.

There's nothing wrong with Live at the Apollo volume one and it deserves credit for what it did for Brown's career. It made him a superstar and brought his incredibly dynamic show into the home of anyone with a record player. It has huge historical significance and musical importance. But if you put on the four volumes of Live at the Apollo and played them to a room full of people it wouldn't have nearly the impact of its follow ups.

Live at the Apollo will do everything a James Brown album should do. It will have you tapping your toes and grooving along. It will make you appreciate what a sensational voice he had and how tight is band was. But it will leave you feeling slightly unsatisfied and hungry for more, something that the future volumes won't be guilty of. My advice: get them all. You can never have too much funk and Brown Funk is the best colour Funk around.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "!!! BEWARE, THIS MAY NOT BE WHAT YOU WANT-1962 CLASSIC IS ELSEWHERE !!! !! IF ITS NOT A LIVING BABY, THEN YOUR'E NOT PREGNANT !!"

-That's just about the strangest thing I've read on Amazon ever. Even without the exclamation marks.

So does this make you go Crazy? let me know below.