Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Thanks, that was fun.

Well that's that then. Six years, 500 posts and 2,000 listens. All done.

Thanks very much to everyone who has been with me from the start. The contributions of regular readers has been much appreciated. I hope you've enjoyed reading it as much as I've enjoyed writing it.

If you've just discovered this blog then feel free to look around and feel free to comment. While I won't be updating anymore, I will check for comments and publish any appropriate ones and respond if I can.

Meanwhile I will continue to write my blog about the 1001 songs you must heard before you die over on Quora. http://1001songs.quora.com/

And if you prefer your music discussion to be album sized, the great Nicholas Moyne rights an excellent Quora blog on albums which I highly recommend

http://moynemagnificentmusic.quora.com/

Thanks again and all the best.

David

1 Sgt Peppers (1967) The Beatles



Well here we are then. The greatest album of all time and the least surprising entry on the countdown. If you were expecting to find a Polka album or your favourite 10CC release I'm sorry to disappoint you. The number one spot is, and was always going to be, the most famous album in the history of albums. It's the yardstick by which all other LP's are judged and every genre that isn't rock and pop has an album that people like to describe as Rap/funk/metal etc's Sgt Peppers. Its name is a synonym for musical revolution and no other album comes close to rivaling it for impact and power.

Sgt Peppers is a work of art and was created by four guys who wanted to take the album to a new level it had never enjoyed before. Their break with touring had freed them from the need to produce music that could be replicated onstage. Their previous experimental outings on Revolver had liberated them from the public's expectations. They were confident to go into the studio and spend as much time, money and effort getting the sounds they heard in their head onto the page. They didn't need to worry about any of the other trappings of Beatledom, this is what they did and this is who they were: artists who made music.

Sgt Pepper made such a massive impact on the music scene primarily because it was the first Beatles album which stood alone as a single work of art released to the entire world at the same time. Since their career began, the United States was issuing strange bastardised versions of the UK albums and releasing them at odd times. But Sgt Peppers was released all over the world in the same format on the same day. The world was able to anticipate the build up of the new Beatles album and then enjoy it together. People all over the planet queued up to get their copy and the release felt like a communal experience that the world enjoyed together. Sgt Peppers was playing wherever you went and it felt like it unified everyone together for a glorious summer.

None of which means a damn thing to those of us who were either too young to remember or weren't there for the summer of love. It's all very well for people to recall those heady days but the rest of us just have to to try and appreciate the album on its own terms. We weren't part of the world it transformed so we have to take it on its own merits.

Even separated from its era by almost fifty years, it's fair to say that Sgt Peppers has a huge impact. There really is something special about it that's hard to pin down and put your finger on. I think it might have something to do with the iconic (an overused word but appropriate here) cover art. There are other covers that are as famous (Abbey Road, The Velvet Underground and Nico, Sticky Fingers) but none that required so much damn effort. Sgt Peppers wasn't just a lucky photograph, it was 3,000 pounds worth of flowers, specially made costumes, props and cardboard cut outs. It's a huge work of art in itself which took weeks to prepare. It's not just a quick snap that is thwacked on the cover so you can tell it apart from the other Beatles albums, it's something you can sit and admire for ages and still find new things in. It's fantastic and it does make the album more special somehow.

Of course a nice cover is nothing if the music inside doesn't justify the expense. All the pretty pictures in the world aren't going to save an album whose music kind of sucks. Thankfully even after four decades, Peppers still sounds timeless and joyous. It's a brilliant collection of some of the Beatles finest music and as close to perfect as any album can hope to get.

Sgt Peppers isn't my own personal pick for number one and it's not even my favourite Beatles album, but I can fully understand what it's doing here on top of this list where it belongs.

Sgt Peppers

The title track is a great rock and Roll number the likes of which Paul could simply crank out whenever the mood took him. It's just over two minutes of fiery guitar with tricky interjections and some of Paul's trademark shrieking. It's a huge amount of fun and you want it to come back again which is why you're so glad when it does.

With a little help from my friends

Let's get Ringo's contribution out of the way early I say. Friends is his most famous song but not my favourite. It's just a bit to hokey for my liking, although if I have to hear it I prefer to hear the original and not the overblown and self indulgent covers of the likes of Joe Cocker who I think turned a passable but light song into something heavy and turgid.

Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds

Is the title a reference to LSD? Who cares? Who really gives a stuff? The point is that for whatever reason John paints a wonderful dreamscape in which fantastic images wander around in an enchanting kind of universe. It's a bit like Dylan's stream of conscious imagery only Dylan's world is often dark and scary but this is really cute. You can imagine enjoying yourself in Lucy's world which brings out the child in every one.

Getting Better

Any attempt at a concept album has been thrown out the window by this point and replaced with a new concept which was basically just the old one: here's some songs we wrote. Getting Better is more enjoyable than it could be in part because it sounds like a band working together. Part of the charm of Sgt Peppers is the idea of the Beatles really working as a team to produce their greatest work. While the White Album is notorious for being recorded by a fractured group more concerned about their own work than the final product, Peppers is the result of five creative guys dizzy with possibilities firing each other up and Getting Better sounds like that ideal in its purest form. I love the fact that George comes in at the end with a tanpura (which is a kind of sitar in batter I think) as if he had one lying around the studio and just rushed in at the end because it sounded right. And it does.

Fixing a Hole

It might be a minor track in the context of the album but Fixing a Hole is a great number. It's full of perfect harmonies and is one of the most fun songs on the album to sing along too. It's usually at this point of the album when I shake my head in wonder at the fact that five years earlier the Beatles had never set foot in a studio before and were writing songs about holding hands.

She's Leaving Home

This is one of those narrative songs by Paul but lyrically not one of his most successful. Paul wants you to feel wistfully sad and while he succeeded with Eleanor Rigby, he fails her with a set of words which just don't evoke the same emotion. It probably doesn't help that the rest of the album doesn't have lyrics that the listener feels hugely attached to. We're fixing holes! We're in the sky with diamonds! We're reading lyrics off a circus poster! The words are almost immaterial but in this instance they bog the track down a bit. The tune is great though.

Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite

John had a poster he liked. John read the poster. John started to turn the words he read into a tune because that's what John does. John came into the studio and said: "I've got a song about an old circus" and the band said "Great!" because that's the prevailing mood of Sgt Peppers. John said: "We need organs and calliopes and harmoniums and glockenspiels and weird percussion" and the band said "Yes, yes we do." So they did. That's one of the reasons I love Sgt Peppers. That can-do attitude is just great and while it could well have produced the biggest load of self indulgent waffle it actually produced a song as fantastic as this.

Within you or Without You

George's sole contribution to Sgt Peppers is Within you or without You, a track he recorded without any contribution from the other Beatles. While Love you To sounded like a traditional pop composition played on Indian instruments, Within you or Without You sounds like an attempt to write Indian music. At five minutes it's the longest song on the album but definitely worth persisting with. I used to hate Within you or Without you but it definitely grows on you if you give it time. If you sit down and actually enjoy it there's a lot of charm in it and I can't imagine the album without it.

When I'm sixty four

A staple of old people's radio where it's enjoyed primarily by people who see 64 as a memory and not a destination. I know there are those who love it and good luck to them but it is a bit too twee for me. It's had the exact reverse effect on me as the previous track. While Within You or Without you has grown on me, When I'm sixty Four has ebbed away and gone from something I find passable to something I skip. If this and A little Help from my friends had been lifted off the album and replaced with Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields, I'd rarely stop listening to Sgt Peppers.

Lovely Rita

Possibly the most simple song on the album. While the rest of the tracks called for all manner of exotica and technical complications, Lovely Rita could have been done much earlier in their career. It's as complicated as it needs to be however and a great song.

Good Morning Good Morning

John complicates things again with a song that crams all manner of trickery and overdubs into it's 2 minutes 40 seconds running time. But while Rita was a simple tune, Good Morning Good Morning is a complicated piece of songwriting as Lennon's demos reveal. It could easily fall in under the weight of its own trickery but slides along happily and in the end is a brilliantly catchy and accessible song.

Sgt Peppers reprise.

Remember how the title track left you with a desire to hear more of it? Well here's your chance. A quick 79 second reminder of how much fun you were having at the start before you had a lot of other fun.

A day in the life

This is the sort of song that only the Beatles could pull off, as the unsuccessful results of many of their contemporaries have proved. The strength of the song is the fact that the two disparate pieces work so well when they get smooshed together. John wrote a fairly sombre piece of music about a car accident and Paul wrote a jaunty little thing about someone getting ready for work. They two shouldn't meet and shouldn't accompany each other. Another band would have come up with a sombre middle section for John's tune and worked Paul's into a cheery tale in which the protagonist falls in love with a passing girl. The Beatles saw that somehow Paul's jaunt and John's somb could work together to create a bold new track. All they really needed then was a full orchestra, a harp and a whole lot of pianos playing in unison. But they didn't want them to perform a conventional score they wanted them to improvise, something orchestras just didn't do. This should not work. This should be a total disaster. Instead it's one of the most powerful tracks recorded in the sixties and a fitting conclusion to the Beatles finest hour and rock's greatest achievement and a fitting end to this list, because you just can't imagine anything else coming after it.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "Perfect."

-Yep.

So should this have been number one or has something else been robbed of it's rightful place? Let me know below (it's your last chance).

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

2. Pet Sounds (1966) The Beach Boys




  1. Wouldn't It Be Nice
  2. You Still Believe in Me
  3. That's Not Me
  4. Don't Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)
  5. I'm Waiting for the Day
  6. Let's Go Away for Awhile
  7. Sloop John B
  8. God Only Knows
  9. I Know There's an Answer
  10. Here Today
  11. I Just Wasn't Made for These Times
  12. Pet Sounds
  13. Caroline, No 


My promise to myself when I started this blog was that I would listen to each and every album at least four times before I posted my review. I would give every album four attempts to win me over and persuade me that it deserved its place in this listing. It's been hard and I have to confess that there are albums which have failed to hold my full attention during the fourth listen but I've persevered. Pet Sounds however was a special case.

I first heard Pet Sounds years ago and couldn't understand what the fuss was about. I'd heard people say it was as good as the Beatles' best and I wanted to see what the appeal was. A quick listen left me baffled. I found it a bit dull to be honest; overproduced and with a set of songs that had only one obvious stand out.

When I came to this project I figured Pet Sounds should warrant more attention so I've been listening to it regularly throughout the countdown. I keep putting it on and keep trying to like it. I've listened to it a dozen times throughout the time I've been doing this and please believe me when I say I've been desperate to see the appeal. It's not like I've entered each listen in an antagonistic "How dare someone say this is better than Revolver" frame of mind. I've pressed play every time with a silent prayer to the surf gods that this time they will part the clouds and reveal the attraction. I've wiped out every time.

So I started to get a bit desperate. I got my hands on the four disc box set which is as much attention as any single album needs. It's got the full album in mono and in stereo and features alternate mixes and takes and examines the album every possible way. There's eight different version of You Still Believe Me for goodness sake and I heard them all which means I've heard it in stereo, mono twice, without vocals, without instruments and in alternate fragments. Did it make me like it? No.

I've studiously read everything I could find about Pet Sounds, I know more about it now than I do about a lot of my favourite albums. I've read accounts of its production, appreciations, reviews and analysis. I've delved deeply into every nook and cranny of Pet Sounds appreciation. I tracked down two separate audio documentaries about it including an excellent BBC one which spent a full hour dissecting it track by track in the company of members of the band and production team who talked about the making in intricate detail.

I did all of this in the time leading up to now when I come to write about it. I've immersed myself in the album in the past but I still took the time to listen to this four times before I came to write these words and it saddens me to say that the album that for some is the second best of all time and for others is the greatest, just does nothing for me. I've missed out. The attraction just isn't there.

I can appreciate the fact that God Only Knows is beautiful and a lovely piece of music, but I still prefer it when done by others. Sloop John B however is just deplorably awful. It's interesting how the famous Beach Boys harmonies can move me on something as nice as God Only Knows but make me cringe on something as inherently naff as Sloop John B which as far as I'm concerned has nothing to redeem it. I've always found Wouldn't it Be Nice to be annoyingly sunny and twee. No I can't explain or justify how the Beatles Here Comes The Sun leaves me with a big grin on my silly face but Wouldn't it Be Nice doesn't. I can't tell you why I have two separate reactions and I can promise you that I'd rather enjoy both but I just can't.

As for the rest of the songs on Pet Sounds, I just find them dull. There's nothing there that interests me or moves me at all. Nice voices guys, great band but I'm just not feeling it.

So here I am admitting defeat and shaking my head in wonder at how this album could be considered better than Revolver, Rubber Soul or Highway 61 revisited which are just below it or even better than Workingman's Dead and American Beauty which languish hundreds of places below but to my mind are infinitely better. It's a mystery that for me will always remain unsolved.

So it's with huge disappointment that I sigh and admit I don't really like this album much. It makes me sad that something so great, and I'm not denying its great, has passed me by. It's sad on one hand but on the other hand I can't tell you how happy I am that I never need to listen to that damn album ever again.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "It's slow and dreary and by about the sixth or seventh track it all starts to sound alike."

-Yeah. That's pretty much my reaction right there.

So is Pet Sounds really great? Let me know below.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

3 Revolver (1965) The Beatles



Revolver is a turning point (pun intended but not very good) for the career of the Beatles. It's the moment the Fab Four strode into the studio completely unencumbered by the need to produce material that they would have to take on tour. They'd quit their lives as a concert giving band once and for all and would no longer need to spend their time careering around the world performing the same set of songs to a group of people who were shouting too loud to hear the music they were screaming at. The Beatles decided to spend their time making music that was art for its own sake and gave them an outlet for experimentation. Revolver was the first album that saw them go into the studio treating it as their playground, canvas and laboratory. The end result could have sounded like a shambles without form or structure but it sounds like a coherent album. There are definite indications that it might be a group starting to go their separate ways but it's still a band effort and it still holds up well.

You can see why over the years its managed to climb in the esteem of Beatles fans. It started below Abbey Road, The White album and Sgt Peppers but as history has reassessed the Beatles catalogue it's started to climb gradually to the point where it's often held up as not just their greatest work but the best thing anyone has done anywhere ever.

Taxman

While it might seem a bit offensive to have incredibly wealthy people whine about money issues the problems discussed in Taxman were actually a big deal. The Beatles were living with an incredibly harsh tax system which saw a huge amount of their income taken away by the government. Taxman was a George Harrison song and straight away he's announcing to the record buying public that he's learned a lot in the few shorts months since they recorded Rubber Soul. Touring definitely didn't agree with George who needed time to develop a song and couldn't do it on the fly in hotel rooms like John and Paul. Taxman is better than anything George had written up to that point but only a warning of what was to come.

Eleanor Rigby

John Lennon may have hated this style of song writing from Paul but its hard to deny just how good this is. Rigby is an incredibly catchy piece of pop writing and sounds like a mature and confident song writer enjoying telling stories through his music. John might hate it but he's the only one on the planet who does (or did).

I'm Only Sleeping

After two great opening songs by George and Paul, the pressure was on John to come up with something worthy of the high bar set for the album. Sleeping isn't his finest moment but it's far from a dud. It also shows an inkling of how experimental the Beatles were becoming. Everyone cites the sitar as an example of their boundary pushing but its also worth noting that even in a straightforward song like Sleeping they experimented. George's backwards guitar effect was the sort of thing that casual listeners might never notice but those in the business of creating music heard and said: "How the hell did they do that?"

Love you To

Anyone who put on Revolver expecting a traditional Beatlemania approach had their notions well and truly dispelled by Love you to which features George on sitar accompanied by Ringo on percussion and a tabla player. It's recognisably a pop song but it sounds like a traditional Indian piece. It shouldn't work but it definitely does and marks a moment when George stopped looking like the guitarist following the other two geniuses around and started looking like a guy taking bold new strides and daring his friends to follow him.

Here, There and Everywhere.

After Love you To, Paul's catchy pop song sounds deceptively simple but is actually a more complex piece than it might appear. It's beautiful and haunting and stays with the listener after it stops.

Yellow Submarine

And along comes a children's song. For those of us who grew up with Yellow Submarine and Octopuses Garden serving as our introduction to the Beatles, this comes as no surprise but for those who followed their career chronologically it was a bit of a shock. They were still reeling from the whole sitar and tabla thing of a few tracks before and suddenly Ringo was singing them a kids ditty. It's a great kids song if you like that sort of thing but it wears out its welcome a bit when you've heard it dozens of times before your eighth birthday.

She Said She Said

John does seem a bit absent on Revolver it has to be said. This is only his second contribution to the album and thankfully it's a ripper. It's a dreamy drug song which points the way towards John's future dreamy drug songs. I've often wondered how this song would have fared if its lyrics weren't so dark and impenetrable. "I know what it's like to be dead" isn't really the stuff of most hit singles. If he'd changed the words to be a simple love song would it be better known? I'm not suggesting for a second that he should have but it's something I've often wondered about.

Good Day Sunshine

Almost as an antidote to She Said She Said, Paul comes along with this bright and cheery ditty which opens up side two and gives the listener a spring in their step and a smile on their face. Paul is often accused of being mindlessly sunny and when you hear this you can understand why but it makes me wonder if people have actually bothered to listen to the lyrics of Eleanor Rigby which is about a woman dying all alone and forgotten. How sunny is that?

And your bird can sing

I really like John when he sounds cheery and jaunty and poptastic but writes lyrics that are really anything but. Help is really a cry for help and this is actually quite a spiteful little number from a guy who was in quite a bitter place, but it doesn't sound like it. It sounds like a guy trying to write a good follow up to Good Day Sunshine.

For No One

This is not just the sound of Paul breaking up with his girlfriend, it's the sound of Paul breaking up with the Beatles. Granted it would take a few years before the group was officially dissolved but this is Paul in the studio recording a song pretty much on his own. Ringo plays the drums but Paul could have done them too if he felt like it. John and George did nothing and weren't needed at all for the recording. Paul knew that he didn't need them after the event either because he wasn't writing this to be performed onstage. It was his own work of art and marks a definite step towards a solo career. A love that could have lasted years.

Doctor Robert

You can enter into the debate about who Dr Robert is referring to if you like but personally I don't care I'm having too much fun enjoying the song. It's a really catchy piece of mature songwriting from John and has a structure that seems to be him raising two fingers to the stage. How could you ever hope to pull this off live? It just wouldn't work.

I want to tell you

Probably George's most accomplished composition up to that point. His best song and the first thing he's written which fully justifies its position on a Beatles album.

Got to Get you into my life

The opening horn blasts of this track are some of the most exciting moments on the album and always put a smile on my face. This is really infectious stuff. Paul is definitely a genius and Revolver is quite possibly his finest hour.

Tomorrow Never Knows

So far the finest moments on the album have been Paul's, but John more than makes up for his second place running at the end. Tomorrow Never Knows proves what an incredible talent John was an how the studio was the perfect place for him to show off his abilities. He might have driven the studio staff mad trying to capture the vision that was in his head but what they finally produced was an incredible piece of dream-scape psychedelia which takes the listener on an amazing journey into John's mind. It's a Beatles track that demands to be appreciated in a totally different way than all that went before. The rest of the Beatles catalogue before then is for playing at parties or in brightly lit rooms. It's daytime music. This is for putting on in the dark and absorbing. It's for experiencing and appreciating in full. It sent a loud and clear message to the world: we're done with that moptop thing now. We're adults, we're artists and we've come to shake up your world again.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "It's so dated right now, I can't ever hear any song from it anymore. I would suggest earliler Beatles albums like Help! which is better than this."

-I've read a lot of Amazon reviews saying the Beatles are crap and while I can't understand the viewpoint I can understand them better than this. How does Revolver sound dated by Help doesn't? Who likes one but not the other?

So is this a regular revolver on your turntable? Let me know below.


Tuesday, February 3, 2015

4 Highway 61 Revisited (1965) Bob Dylan

1. Like a Rolling Stone
2. Tombstone Blues
3. It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry
4. From a Buick 6
5. Ballad of a Thin Man
6. Queen Jane Approximately
7. Highway 61 Revisited
8. Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues
9. Desolation Row

Even if every other track on this album was sub-standard filler material that left as much impression on the listener as a nerf ball leaves on granite, the opening track would still be enough to justify the presence of this album on the countdown.

Highway 61 opens with Like a Rolling Stone which for many is the greatest song ever recorded by anyone anywhere ever. It frequently tops greatest song lists and is cited as a huge influence by a staggering range of great musicians. When Rolling Stone magazine decided to put together a list of the top 500 songs of all time, Like a Rolling Stone sat in the number one position. What does it say about us a race that we voted this song as the best when there are so many alternatives that are a lot nicer? There are a billion love songs and odes to peace, companionship and other great things in life that could have moved us but we seem to care more for a song which is downright nasty. It's cruel and seems to revel in the plight of a woman who has fallen so far she's living on the streets. Of course Dylan isn't singing about a real person's situation but still someone has taken a fall and Bob seems rather pleased. Either way that "How do you feeeel" refrain is almost impossible not to sing along with. It's a genuine masterpiece and while I might try and think there are other greater songs when I'm not in its presence, as soon as I hear this I agree with everyone who voted it number one. Rolling Stone is truly magnificent and I can honestly say the entire rest of the countdown isn't nearly as good.

Thankfully the rest of the album isn't just filler material. If you took the opening track off there's still enough here to justify its inclusion on this list. The title track is an oustanding rock and roll composition which makes us forget that Dylan hadn't actually been writing Rock and Roll all his life. While this is his sixth album, it's only his second attempt at writing music for a rock band and it's amazing that he's so good at something he's only been doing for a couple of months. There were bands who were trying to write music like this as soon as they heard Please Please Me in early 1963 that hadn't managed it by the end of 1965 but Dylan just plugged in and mastered rock straight away, pulling of tracks like this and Tombstone Blues as if he'd been writing them for decades.

Dylan also quickly mastered a means of turning his previous acoustic music into electric performances without compromising integrity, message or mood. Queen Jane Approximately is a mid tempo slice of brilliance that immediately comes into my head whenever I meet anyone named Jane, irrespective of their position in a royal family. I can't help but feel sad for anyone who got angry hearing this. There were those who wanted Dylan to forsake electricity and return to his acoustic roots writing the protest material that made people love him. If they could get over the instrumentation and subject matter they would find a fantastic song that has a brilliant tune at its core.

There isn't a weak song on Highway 61. There's not an ounce of filler and no lyric that sounds like it was tossed off quickly on the way to the studio. It's perfect from start to finish and while people dwell a lot on the start they should definitely take the time to enjoy the finish which is just fantastic. Desolation Row rarely gets covered because there aren't too many artists who feel like doing their own version of a 12 minute odyssey without a standard verse chorus structure. People don't tend to do it live very much if only because they struggle to remember all the words. The more you hear Desolation row the more hypnotic it becomes and the more you get lost in the series of images which tumble out of Dylan as he sits with just his acoustic guitar and his incredible ability to create entire worlds with just his lyrics.

Highway 61 is the highest ranked Dylan album on this list and testament to his incredible ability. He's got albums from the 60's, 70's, 90's 00's spread throughout this list which is a feat no other artist can manage.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "It's crap. It's just a commercial computer manufactured pile of flaming poo"

-Wait, computer manufactured? In 1965? Huh?

So if you've listened to this album recently, how do you feeeeeel? Let me know below