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