Category Archives: Music

Acclaimed Albums – Carrie & Lowell by Sufjan Stevens

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 147/250Title: Carrie & Lowell
Artist: Sufjan Stevens
Year: 2015
Position: #220

At the end of 2015 I ranked Carrie & Lowell as my second favourite album of that year behind Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear. That was a tough call as, honestly, there was less than a hair between my top 3 of that year. Even now, two and a half years later, it is incredibly difficult to rank them. However, there is absolutely no denying that Carrie & Lowell is an incredibly special album.

As someone who has been a loyal fan of Sufjan Stevens’ music for over a decade (and seen him live twice) a new album always produces a lot of excitement for me. With Carrie & Lowell it was even more so as it was a return to the folk roots that he abandoned for his previous album (The Age of Adz). Not only that, but this was going to be his most personal work to date. I couldn’t wait.

I was right to be excited. Carrie & Lowell is an album of outstanding beauty that has been created from Sufjan Stevens’ own pain and his love for both his mother and his step-father. There are still times where track from this album have the ability to make me feel tearful, and considering how many times I’ve played this album in the last 3 years that is no mean accomplishment.

As an album is an incredibly cohesive time capsule  for a short period in Steven’s life. His lyrical quirks and asides (such as the line from ‘Eugene’ about his stepfather calling him “Subaru”) with the beautiful arrangements that are at times sparse and at others lush just make this whole album sound like sonic therapy.

At the centre of all this are two tracks which, somehow, were even better when I saw him play this album live: ‘Fourth of July’ and ‘The Only Thing’. The former is about a conversation between Stevens and his mother as she lay dying in hospital. It’s a story about how, in the face of death, they were able to properly communicate their feelings of unconditional familial love.

Then there’s ‘The Only Thing’. A song that, if you are someone who has ever had the misfortune to come face to face with part of you that seeks self-destruction, speaks a strange truth. In essence, it is a song about all the ways you imagine topping yourself, wondering how much you care if you end up surviving and finding a reason to carry on.

There’s a similar song on St Vincent’s amazing album MASSEDUCTION called ‘Smoking Section’. For her the reason to keep going is love, for Sufjan it’s the beauty that can be found in nature and his own faith in God. I cannot imagine how hard it must be sing a song like that every night when on tour – must be like continually prodding at an open would.

Then again Carrie & Lowell, as an album, is an open wound. It’s made of some of the most beautifully and brutally honest songs that I have ever heard. Hopefully this has been the catharsis he needed.

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Acclaimed Albums – Freak Out! & Hot Rats by Frank Zappa

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 146/250

Title: Freak Out!
Artist: The Mothers of Invention
Year: 
1966
Position:
#246
Title: Hot Rats
Artist: Frank Zappa
Year: 1969
Position: #285

Man, it’s been an awfully long time since I last did a double bill for albums. Then again it’s been an awfully long time that I was posting over six months in advance. Also, this is one of those rare instances where I had the chance to listen to both of them in quick succession. I know that Hot Rats isn’t within the 250, but in for a penny etc.

Okay, so I had them on in the background during an all day remote meeting, but after the weirdness of Trout Mask Replica this felt like the best way for me to deal with two hours of Zappa’s music. I know, sacrilege an’ all that.

Honestly, I am not sure what to write about these two albums. Compared to his album with Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, these Frank Zappa albums feel normal. I was going to use the word ‘pedestrian’, but that would imply that these albums were boring. Quite the contrary really.

Both albums are, as expected, experimental. It’s just that these experiments aren’t as off-putting as those on Trout Mask Replica. Freak Out! is very much an experimental album in the same way that The White Album by The Beatles, i.e. a lot of the impact has been lost in 50 years of music evolution. In fact, it’s beginning to just sound like one of the better albums of the mid 1960’s that covered psychedelic rock and proto-punk.

Hot Rats is in a similar position as Freak Out! in that it feels fairly tame. However, what helps it to stick out is that – apart from one track – it is an instrumental album. The idea behind this album was to create a ‘movie for your ears’, which sounds like it could be pioneering until you realise that is that classical composers have been doing for centuries. Then again, where would we be without a hint of pretension.

So that’s where we are, two more albums down with not a lot to say about them on my part. Maybe because I listened to them as I would most albums and not as if I was to write something about them? By this point I had hoped to be further into this list and thinking of expansion. Hey ho, as long as I finish it eventually, right?

Acclaimed Albums – Paranoid by Black Sabbath

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 145/250Title: Paranoid
Artist: Black Sabbath
Year: 1970
Position: #147

I am not a metal head when it comes to music. I mean I went through a bit of a symphonic metal phase when I was 16, but that was mainly Within Temptation and a bit of Nightwish and Epica. This phase only lasted a few months and was more down to the influence of some online friends than an actual interest.

Guess what I’m trying to say is that it wasn’t until I listened to ‘War Pigs’ back in February that I had first heard a song by Black Sabbath. I guess this is a generational thing, but for me Ozzy Osbourne has always been more of a name associated with music rather than a musician (if that makes any sense) because of his appearance in The Osbournes. Not that I’ve actually seen that show, but I’ve seen enough clips.

Having properly listened to Paranoid, the second album by Black Sabbath, I think I might need to take Osbourne a bit more seriously. Yes, this is a metal album, but not a metal album as I have come to think of them (aka the huge guitars and the screams). I guess this is one of the stereotypes that I am starting to tear down thanks to this list.

Metal will never be a genre that I reach for as a general listen over the likes of pop, folk or electronic. However, an album like Paranoid works remarkably well when I playing video games (especially ones like Mass Effect 3 or Overwatch with a lot of shooting.

In terms of stand-out songs, I’m going to be very boring and say that it’s the single ‘Iron Man’ that made the biggest immediate impact on me. ‘War Pigs’ stands-out as well because of the devilish imagery and then there is ‘Electric Caravan’, which stands out as it’s oddly quiet.

So yes, I liked this album but metal just isn’t the genre for me as a focused listen.

1001 Songs – 1970: Part Three

This is it, the final batch of songs from 1970. This year has taken a weirdly long time to make my way through, but at least we’re here now.

Into the Mystic – Van Morrison

It’s been two and a half years since I listened to Moondance for the first time, and it’s a downright shame that I haven’t played it anytime since. With ‘Into the Mystic’ I felt myself being immediately being transported back to that sunny day when I listened to this album on my commute.

It’s a great example of folk done right. It tells of a mystical journey and uses the guitar and the horns to unfurl the feeling. It’s weirdly soothing and helps remind me why I liked the parent album so mucn.

Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine – James Brown

“You just don’t like him, do you?” That’s what my husband said to me as I was losing patience with this song as we reached the three minute mark. He’s right.

Whilst I can appreciate that in person James Brown had charisma, on a recording I find a 5 minute song that is just so repetitive to be pretty much unforgiveable. If this song was released now I would wager it would be seen as not even worthy of radioplay.

I know, I know, historical context. James Brown was a big influence and a pusher of his genre. However, when I think back to the work done by Sly and the Family Stone done back in 1969 on their album Stand!… well there’s no comparison.

Ohio – Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

“Four dead in Ohio” is the refrain at the end of this powerful song about the Kent State shootings; where four students were gunned down by police during a protest against the Vietnam War.

This song was on the radio within a few weeks of the shooting, the lyrics really demonstrating the sense of anger and loss over what happened. At the end you can hear David Crosby breaking.

There are a number of protest and counter-culture songs on the 1001 list, but none so far have felt as raw as this one.

The Only Living Boy in New York – Simon & Garfunkel

It’s interesting that of all the songs on the iconic Bridge over Troubled Water album it is ‘The Only Living Boy in New York’ that appears on the 1001 songs list. I mean, there’s the obvious choice from that album… maybe even two. Then again, this is one of the great classic albums so you are spoilt for choice.

One thing that this list does well is find the songs that act as bridges between eras. You have ‘The Boxer’ and ‘Bridge over Troubled Water’ which are very much Simon & Garfunkel songs; then there’s ‘The Only Living Boy in New York’ which is where Simon & Garfunkel becomes Paul Simon.

It’s a beautiful song to end such an iconic duo on. Looking back is nice to see this bridge, but at the time the idea of going solo must have been terrifying for both of them. At least it worked out for both of them.

In a Broken Dream – Python Lee Jackson

Why is this on the list? Well, it’s an example of an early song with the vocals of Rod Stewart in a song that is a soft metal. Interesting to note that despite being first released in 1970, ‘In a Broken Dream’ didn’t chart until a re-release in 1972 due to the success of Rod Stewart’s later singles like ‘Maggie May’.

Rock at this time was in an awkward phase. It was still trying to cling on to the organs of the 1960s whilst bring in the guitar solos that would become a staple in the years to come. Makes for an interesting listen when doing this chronologically.

Oh Lonesome Me – Neil Young

After the Gold Rush is such a well received album that it perplexes me that they pick the only cover to appear in this list. The book itself says that this is the standout track from the album. They’re wrong. That song is ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ and that’s all there is to it.

54-46 Was My Number – Toots & The Maytals

The moment I heard the ska beat starting I was ready to pack in any attempt to write about this song. But something weird happened, I actually started to like this song.

It’s about the wrongful imprisonment of the lead singer, who was framed by a promoter who didn’t want the tour to go ahead. The song tells this in a traditional call-and-response with the ska beats playing underneath. I don’t know why, but this song actually did this for me.

Working Class Hero – John Lennon

When I first heard ‘Working Class Hero’ last year, it struck me that he’s not a man who I could imagine swearing. Now I listen to this again… it’s fairly dull.

The emotions don’t work because he’s so far removed from who he is trying to connect with. He’s a man of priveledge who, whilst growing up in a working class family, has not been part of that demographic for most of his life. It’s like a Christian writing a song about the Holocaust – it all just rings false.

Box of Rain – The Grateful Dead

Here I am at the end of 1970. It’s a song that I would not have expected from a band whose name feels like it would make for an amazing metal band. Book, cover and all that jazz.

For such a well known band it is interesting to note that this album track is their only entry on the list. A song that is sung by their regular bassist Phil Lesh rather than lead singer Jerry Garcia.

‘Box of Rain’ is a touching folk song that feels like where Neil Young meets Simon & Garfunkel. It’s about Lesh’s father who was dying of terminal cancer and contains lyrics intrpreted from Lesh’s scat singing.

I wish I could say that this song had some profound effect on me… but it didn’t. Nice enough and it does make the connection, but that’s pretty much where this ends.

Progress: 319/1021

Acclaimed Albums – Stand! by Sly and the Family Stone

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 144/250Title: Stand!
Artist: Sly and the Family Stone
Year: 1969
Position: #198

Four months ago was the first time that I had ever heard a song by Sly and the Family Stone. It was ‘I Want To Take You Higher’ and, for whatever reason, I figured that this was a piece of joy within a rather political album. Where did this idea come from? No clue, but I rather wrong. Maybe it’s because the title of the album, Stand!, reads like an imperative and this was an era of counterculture and anti-Vietnam feeling… anyway.

If you look at the Acclaimed Albums Top 250 chronologically, Stand! is the first album that can be identified as either funk or psychedelic soul. Despite their being six years between Stand! and the earliest soul album on the list (James Brown Live at the Apollo) there appears to be a world of difference. The soul genre had moved on and begun to diverge… for the better.

You see – where a lot of people seem to like to spontaneity of James Brown, it leaves me cold. I can appreciate the energy, but I end up striving for some sort of structure or for the songs to to be a few minute shorter. On Stand! I was able to find an album that gave me what I wanted in an album that was funk and soul-adjacent, including a song that would be a rather unfortunate karaoke choice.

As good as ‘I Want To Take You Higher’ is, for me the standout song is the first and title track: ‘Stand!’. I love the fact that this is an explosion of soulful glitter with a gospel tinge. It’s one of those songs where it is ridiculously hard not to smile or at least ‘feel the music’. I’m not sure how else to describe the feeling, but it’s a really good one. It’s a feeling that you get throughout the album, which helped make this a joy to listen to.

🎻♫♪ – Diferencias by Antonio de Cabezón

List Item: Listen to half of the 1001 Classical Works You Must Hear Before You Die
Progress:
 26/501Title: Differencias
Composer: Antonio de Cabezón
Nationality: Spanish
Year:
 1560s

It’s safe to say that, according to the chronology of this list, we are now firmly in the renaissance. I say this because suddenly this has gone from music you’d expect to hear in a church to something that would form the soundtrack of computer games like Civilization or Crusader Kings II. Probably not the best place to be setting the bar, but these are my still touchstones of mine.

It’s so refreshing to be in the earliest reaches of the classical music list and finally come across something where I don’t have to listen to an hour of vocal harmonies engaged in a loudness war. Okay, that was harsh… but now that this list seems to be moving into the more instrumental territory, there is more incentive for me to pick up a copy on YouTube or Spotify and give it a go.

So, to give a bit of context to this, the composer of these classical pieces was blind from early childhood. Despite this difficulty he still found himself under the patronage of the Isabella of Portugal, the wife of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Thanks to both his talent and connections de Cabezón became one of the most important Spanish composers of this era.

Listening to these Diferencias is just feels so incredibly different to a lot of the music that has come before it. Maybe because this doesn’t feel like music that would have been played for religious ceremonies. Instead of vocals we have lute, clavichord and a woodwind instrument I can’t quite work out (I want to say fife, but I’m probably wrong).

This feels like music that would have set the scene at a formal gathering at court. I’m not sure whether this necessarily music that people would have attended a recital of but it was clearly known enough to influence the next composer on the list: Thomas Tallis

Acclaimed Albums – White Light/White Heat by The Velvet Underground

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 143/250Title: White Light/White Heat
Artist: The Velvet Underground
Year: 1968
Position: #184

Just to start off, I have put off listening to White Light/White Heat for a few years because of how low it is on the list. It’s fairly precariously placed near the bottom and, as I write this, there is a decent chance that it will have fallen off by the time this is posted (in the end it didn’t, it actually went up by a lot)

Now, The Velvet Underground were a band that was all about experimenting. With their debut album The Velvet Underground & Nico they made an album that was experimental then, but due to it’s influence feels almost accessible to modern ears. Their follow-up, on the other hand, is a bit of a different story.

Where their debut album had a lot of beauty in their arrangements (see: ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’) there is none of that in White Light/White Heat. Beauty and calculation have been traded in for distortion and improvisation. I guess this was a reaction to their firing of Andy Warhol as a producer and they decided to move in an opposite direction. It would make sense and explain where the nuance has gone.

It feels like it’s been too long since I last listened to an album where I physically and mentally had to exhale at the end. I’m not entirely sure if I liked it what I heard, but I know that this is something I want to give another listen to. Maybe it’s because of the sheer boldness to release this album that is pretty much based off of two days of jam sessions or because I want to see why an album that’s nearly off the cuff is higher than most other albums ever produced.

1001 Songs – 1970: Part Two

It’s been a while, nearly two months, since I was last in 1970. Hopefully it won’t take as long next time…

Black Night – Deep Purple

It’s weird to go back in musical time when the last two albums I listened to for the blog were influential for punk (Suicide and Horses). We’re still in 1970 where hard rock was beginning it’s transformation into metal, with the guitar solos being a key ingredient falling into place.

Listening to this I got a strange mix of an Easy Rider style road-trip and ‘Play That Funky Music’. I probably should be hearing more Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, but you can’t help where the brain goes.

War – Edwin Starr

I should have got what the song was from the title and the year. The chanting chorus is such a simple protest against war, but it is hard to deny the effectiveness of it. As a song ‘War’ has become such a part of the culture that it is easy to forget its roots as an anti-Vietnam funk piece.

Probably didn’t help that a lot of people my age may know this song best as being part of the Rush Hour soundtrack. Whilst that helped to keep the song alive it has cheapened it somewhat.

Interesting to think how this was a song originally meant for the Temptations (see two songs down the page) but it was seen as career suicide. At least Edwin Starr was able to get his hands on a classic.

To Be Young, Gifted, and Black – Bob and Marcia

From the off, the Nina Simone version of this song is so much better. ‘To Be Young, Gifted and Black’ is a great song from the Civil Rights movement and both Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin have given powerful renditions of this as strong black women. Then you have this… the song which typifies what happens to something fed through trends to be chart-friendly.

I mean, this version is like turning ‘Strange Fruit’ into an upbeat pop song by Rihanna as remixed by David Guetta. Just no.

Ball of Confusion – The Temptations

So the Temptations had to pass on ‘War’ and this is their equivalent, a great bit of psychedelic soul. We’ve been skirting around this sub-genre for a while and I think we have a first good example of this. I know that funk is meant to come from psychedelic soul… but it feels like the choice of songs from this book managed to leap frog over that transition.

The distortion effects, the disjointed song structure and the rapid switching between the different voices of the band members all helps to compound this idea of the titular ball of confusion. As a song this is as relevant now as it was back when it was first released, which is a bit hisheartening when you think about it too much.

Avec le temps – Léo Ferré

Within 30 seconds I can feel tears in my eyes. A minute goes by and the goosebumps start. I don’t speak French, but I understand exactly what he’s singing about because it’s there in his intonation, his timbre and in the circular piano playing the scales. I am having a visceral reaction.

‘Avec le temps’ (With time, in English) is a song about loss. About the death of love that can happen with the passing of time. The piano plays an excellent part in the illusion of time passing around you (the playing of scales, which feels like a spiral staircase) whilst you remain in place (because you only play the same set of notes in sequence).

That was an interesting reaction… then again I just have one of those brains I guess.

The Man Who Sold the World – David Bowie

Here we are in 1970 and we have our first of a fair number of David Bowie songs. I guess that it was this album that was where what we understand to be Bowie actually started, so it makes sense for this song to be included as some sort of timestamp.

It feels slightly off-kilter when compared to the other psychedelic song of the time, with Bowie’s echoey vocals being used to great effect towards the end. There are some interesting parts here, but I think we’ll here something more groundbreaking from him later on.

Awaiting on You All – George Harrison

I knew this was Phil Spector the moment it started playing. That ‘Wall of Sound’ is such an obvious fingerprint that, when listening to this, I can’t help but think back on ‘River Deep – Mountain High’ or the Phil Spector Christmas album.

So you take the ‘Wall of Sound’ mix it with a pinch of Love’s psychedelia (see: ‘Alone Again Or’) and this is the song you get.

I’m a sucker for a big production number, so ‘Awaiting on You All’ got an immediate thumbs up from me. Just wish it was a bit longer.

Northern Sky – Nick Drake

Oh Nick Drake. I wish I knew that you were going to be okay.

‘Northern Sky’ feels like a different direction from Five Leaves Left, mainly because this feels a bit more upbeat. The spacious world created on the previous album is still there, but gone are the strings and the bongos and instead there’s a celeste and a light piano.

Listening to ‘Northern Sky’ makes me want to expand my albums list out from 250 because then I will have the agency to listen to it’s parent album Bryter Layter. I just need to listen to those albums faster!

Maybe I’m Amazed – Paul McCartney

Growing up in the time that I did, the formative memories that I have of Paul McCartney was the business surrounding his marriage to Heather Mills. With that and the deification of John Lennon in pop culture, I began to form a negative view of McCartney based on nothing but hearsay.

I think with ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ I need to make a re-evaluation. This not a song that you could have had from the Beatles. As classic as many of their songs are, there is always a distance between the listener and the Beatles themselves. Their stories are about other people, not them.

With ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ it feels like the first time that I have been allowed to see something personal from McCartney – and it’s great. The love that he had for Linda is so obvious in this song that you cannot but help feel uplifted.

Progress: 310/1021

Acclaimed Albums – Suicide by Suicide

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 142/250Title: Suicide
Artist: Suicide
Year: 1977
Position: #202

I am surprised that I haven’t had a summons to the HR department over the Googling of this album. Similarly, I am bracing myself for a bit of extra blog traffic over the title and tagging of this post. But what are you gonna do with an album called Suicide by a band called Suicide… apart from be surprised that the name is derived from a Ghost Rider comic book rather than the act of self-slaughter.

Thinking on it: Suicide would have been a great name for an emo band with a more metallic edge – like Fall Out Boy meets Megadeth. I’m glad that they weren’t as it probably wouldn’t have made for as interesting an album.

Continuing on from the last album I listened to, Horses by Patti Smith, Suicide is one of the influential punk albums. Not only that, but Suicide is also an interesting landmark for electronic music and is a key stepping stone on the route from rock and roll to noise pop/rock and shoegaze.

As with many punk albums of this era Suicide is really short at around 32 minutes, with a third of the run time being taken up by the penultimate track. Honestly though I appreciate a shorter album (length being my big issue with the Random Access Memories album). Sometimes an album can overstay it’s welcome and everything on Suicide felt tightly produced.

So yes, Suicide feels like a bit of a misnomer. Walking into this I was expecting music that would be overtly emotional, heavy metal or both. Instead I got a minimalist electronic punk rock album.

Acclaimed Albums – Horses by Patti Smith

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 141/250Title: Horses
Artist: Patti Smith
Year: 1969
Position: #24

I remember that about 11-12 years ago there was a programme on Channel 4 about the best albums of all time. I have a rough idea of how long ago it was because I remember writing a ridiculously over the top diary entry about Jeff Buckley and how I had achieved nothing in life. I was 15 and dumb. I bring this up because this programme inspired me to listen to Horses for the first time… where I didn’t get past track one.

Here we are 12 years later and all the way through Horses I was just thinking to myself, ‘I get it now’. When I was 15 my musical taste had barely developed. This was before I discovered the music of  Bjork, Beck and PJ Harvey (aka the trinity that saved me musically) so I was nowhere near ready for the album that is said to have truly started off punk. Since Horses was released a few months before the Ramones… I’ll have to agree with this sentiment.

When you listen to Horses it’s hard to not think of all the artists that have come since. Someone like PJ Harvey owes a lot to Patti Smith as both a trailblazer for women and as an inspiration for their music. There were times where I was listening and I could have convinced myself this was going to eventually segue into ‘This Wicked Tongue’ or any track off of Hole’s Live Through This.

It’s an understatement to call this album revolutionary. The fact that this was a debut is all the more impressive. Horses is an album that didn’t just inspire a genre, but generations of musicians to come. For me this feels like a better Bob Dylan who has more bite and is someone who you can rock out to. If that isn’t a reason to enjoy this album I don’t know what is.