Thursday, July 31, 2014

32 Let it Bleed (1969) The Rolling Stones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 26, 2014

33. Ramones (1976) The Ramones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 19, 2014

34 Music from the Big Pink (1968) The Band

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 14, 2014

Another 500 Horizons special announcement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 11, 2014

35 The Rise and fall of Ziggy Stardust and the spiders from Mars (1972) David Bowie

1. Five Years
2. Soul Love
3. Moonage Daydream
4. Starman
5. It Ain't Easy
6. Lady Stardust
7. Star
8. Hang On to Yourself
9. Ziggy Stardust
10. Suffragette City
11. Rock 'N' Roll Suicide

Hooray! As the list stumbles to its inevitable conclusion there are certain genres, artists and styles that I can tick off the list and never need to hear again. I've already heard my last hip hop album, my last Reggae release and my final Prince CD. Those are all behind me now and the less said about them the better.

Posting this entry means the door closes on two other problem areas that I've struggled with throughout this blog: David Bowie and concept albums.

I should clarify and make it clear that I quite like Bowie as a guy and even as a performer. I really like his voice, I like his style and I'm a big fan of his attitude. Bowie does what he wants when he wants and doesn't seem to care much what people say or do about him. That "Take me or leave me" attitude is very rock and roll. Lots of other artists come across as desperate for your love and attention, Bowie doesn't care. I respect Bowie but I can't really get into him as an artist. He has his moments (Life on Mars being the best of them) but on the whole his music doesn't really move me much.

Concept albums are another area that long-term readers (thanks for hanging in there by the way) would know I have a definite problem with. Concept albums tend to transform an album of songs into a pointlessly bloated entity which might seem deep and profound when the creator was coming up with the idea but quickly looks fairly foolish when you come to encounter it later.

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars has a story attached which, like all the best concept album stories is long, silly, pretentious and makes no sense. It's about a time in the future when a rock and roll star from another planet tries to save the earth but gets killed by people from another dimension, or his own fans, or something. It doesn't matter really its not a story that's going to move anyone any time soon.

Unlike other concept albums however, Bowie started to get wrapped up in his own concept. He started to perform concerts as Ziggy Stardust and called his band The Spiders from Mars. His shows started to turn into theatrical events with costumes and make up being as important as the music.

Ziggy Stardust is a glam rock concept album and it sounds to me like the songs from a musical than I have no desire to see. It's well written and well sung glam-rock nonsense which means if you're the kind of guy who likes glam it's probably just your cup of tea. Personally I've never thought rock and roll needed glamming. Songs like Starman are catchy but far too glam for my personal tastes.

I might be able to get more out of this album if there wasn't such a pretentious narrative attached. The storyline annoys me partly because it's full of space-wankery and cosmic nonsense but mainly because there seems to be a belief that it's actually important. It's not just a tale it's social commentary, but for me says nothing that I think is worth hearing. I've lately become more aware of things that pose genuine obstacles to my musical enjoyment. Pretension is definitely one of them and this album just strikes me as a bit pretentious, especially when I know it's backed up with a desire to actually adopt another persona onstage.

I've heard a lot of Bowie now and I definitely disagree that Ziggy is his finest hour. It's his most courageous and most celebrated but form a purely musical point of view, it's a long way from his best.

Still if you enjoy glam rock then this might well be for you, especially if you think the concept of alien rock stars trying to save the planet is your thing. As for me I'm a bit sad to come to the end of the list's Bowie output but thankful that the concept albums have finally run out... unless of course a certain Beatles album crops up later on. But what are the chances of that?

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "Concepts like this should be done with a flourish, with a smile, with a lightness of touch. Laugh-a-minute-Dave uses a mallet."

-To be honest I don't think the concept of this album is going to be saved simply by smiling. It's definitely a mallet concept.

So which one had you cheering more: the rise or the fall? Let me know below.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

36 Tapestry (1971) Carol King

  1. I Feel the Earth Move
  2. So Far Away
  3. It's Too Late
  4. Home Again
  5. Beautiful
  6. Way Over Yonder
  7. You've Got a Friend
  8. Where You Lead
  9. Will You Love Me Tomorrow?
  10. Smackwater Jack
  11. Tapestry
  12. (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman

There aren't too many artists who can boast a career like Carol King. Before she ever stepped up to a microphone and started her solo career, she was already a music legend thank to her incredible string of hits as a songwriter composing tracks for other artists. She had a long list of No 1's to her name that she co-wrote with her husband and was a big name in the music business.

From all reports King was a reluctant performer who had to be coaxed into the studio and practically chained to a microphone in order to actually put something down on vinyl. She relented and the result is one of the biggest selling albums of all time. It spent an incredible number of weeks on the charts and was one of the albums to own in the early seventies. King proved she was more than just a writer for other people.

There are lots of artists on this list who haven't really aged all that well. They were big in the sixties and seventies but their voices have shown the ravages of time, cigarettes and alcohol and left them a shadow of their former selves. There are people who are currently touring the world on the strength of the talents and abilities that they had forty years ago and lost some time in the eighties. Carol King is like this only in reverse. As a performer she has grown in confidence and ability over time and come to appreciate her talents and limitations while growing into her voice.

When I hear Tapestry it does sound to me like a singer who isn't entirely confident in their own abilities. You can almost see her looking towards the control booth and mouthing "should I really be doing this" to her producer. She sounds like a woman that's entirely conscious of the fact that she's singing songs that had previously been made a hit by Aretha Franklin. Nobody should be compared to Aretha, not even the person who wrote the song in the first place.

Tapestry was such a huge seller so there was no way she was ever going to be able to get away from the material, and to Carol's credit she's never seen the need. These songs have been a huge part of her concert repertoire for decades which gives listeners the chance to hear and appreciate them as her voice, abilities and confidence and have grown into the material. She's become a performer worthy of the material she's capable of writing.

I don't really enjoy Tapestry all that much. The songs are fantastic and proof that King really is one of the great songwriters of the last 50 years, but the performances aren't nearly as good as they could be or half as good as they would become. The recent re-release of this album included a live disc with every song but one recorded onstage two years later. King is already growing in confidence and her singing makes the live disc much better than the original version. Later live performances were even better.

Tapestry is great but for me celebrates King as a songwriter and potentially a great talent.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "If you don't own this then it means you have no regard for our musical culture, our heritage, or even for music itself."

-I love musical overstatements and this one might well the biggest of them all. Do  you own this album? If not then you have no regard for music and a total disregard for America's heritage. Shame on you.

So is this a Tapestry you can admire or not? Let me know below.