Tag Archives: acclaimed

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.

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.

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.

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.

Acclaimed Albums – Five Leaves Left by Nick Drake

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 140/250Title: Five Leaves Left
Artist: Nick Drake
Year: 1969
Position: #157

To go back and experience classic albums, films and TV shows is to come into contact with the many stories (both heroic and tragic) of their creators. Recently, the untimely death of Carole Lombard and depression of Rita Heyworth have formed the kick-off points of blog posts. Today, we’re keeping on with the tragedy with the music of Nick Drake – who died of an overdose at the tender age of 26 in what was a possible suicide (although this is still up for debate).

You would be forgiven for not knowing who Nick Drake is. He died in relative obscurity and has been subject to a re-evaluation. His debut album Five Leaves Left and follow-up Bryter Layter are now seen as classics of the folk rock genre. If you have even a toe in the water of contemporary folk musicians you can see how the music of Nick Drake has influenced the likes of Beck, Laura Marling, Jeff Buckley and Mount Eerie.

I don’t know if it is because I’m listening to the 2004 re-mastered edition or just the quality of the album itself, but this could have been released now. It’s difficult to find an album from the 1960s that feels truly timeless, usually there’s a contemporary trend or technological limitation that gives it away. I am guessing that this was what prevented this from being noticed?

It sounds hyperbolic, but listening to this album on good headphones just transports you. The guitar is so ridiculously perfect that it doesn’t feel of this world. Similarly, the production on some songs (such as ‘Three Hours’) somehow creates this cavernous world where all the layers feel just out of reach. It’s similar to what The xx do.

Then you have the many tracks with incredibly vibrant strings. The tracks still feel as if they are being played in an observatory tower, but there’s more warmth to these thanks to the added complexity. Also, there’s sometimes a conga drum being played which is a bit unusual… then again it does fit in with the album.

Honestly, this is an album that surprised me. I was expecting something a bit melancholic (which this is) and folksy – that’s it. Instead I have an album with an emotional affect that makes you both want to reach out to Nick Drake and respect the level of detatchment that he is fostering. It isn’t a brooding album, it’s a profoundly beautiful one that really should have gotten some notice back in 1969. Maybe if it had… well we’ll never know.

Acclaimed Albums – The Band by The Band

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 139/250Title: The Band
Artist: The Band
Year: 1969
Position: #55

Am I the one who thinks there was an opportunity wasted with the title of this release? I mean, as a name for the group The Band was always a bit on the nose. So someone please tell me why they went for an eponymous release at this point rather than going for The Album or The LP.  Well, they didn’t so here we are with their second album: The Band.

It’s been nearly a year since I listened to Music From The Big Pink, which is about the same time that passed between the releases. Where their debut went between genres, The Band is far more fixated on being a roots rock/pre-Americana release. That isn’t by any means calling this album limited in genre; there’s enough variation to keep things interesting.

Let’s take ‘Rag Mama Rag’ for instance. It’s the song that made the most immediate impact on me on the first listen, which might be because it is the most upbeat. There is something about the relentlessly cheerful fiddle and mandolin that makes this song truly sing. Not entirely sure what the song is about, but it feels like it should be something borderline bawdy.

Compare this to ‘Whispering Pines’ and ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ – both slower songs with the latter being one of the more powerful on the album and both having hints of  Procal Harum every now and then.

What truly unites the songs on this album are the stories. It’s described as a loose concept album dealing with themes around the more traditional strand of Americana. It goes beyond a more surface treatment showcasing the different facets of a genre, but instead looks more at the people and tells stories of those who would normally be associated.

It’s a different sort of Americana/country rock take than Sweetheart of the RodeoWhere The Byrds were experimenting and trying to drive this genre forward (essentially giving it a wider audience), The Band were embracing the history and trying to bring to life a genre that was in the process of shifting identities.

What’s the better album? Well I prefer Sweetheart of the Rodeo, but The Band is still a good album. I like this more than Music From The Big Pink though, which would agree with concensus.

Acclaimed Albums – Sweetheart of the Rodeo by The Byrds

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 138/250Title: Sweetheart of the Rodeo
Artist: The Byrds
Year: 1968
Position: #194

It’s been an awfully long time since I last listened to a country album for this list… and I don’t think any of them have been so honky-tonk as Sweetheart of the Rodeo. This country sound is down to the inclusion of Gram Parsons which, to be honest, doesn’t surprise me now that I’ve read it on Wikipedia.

This marks the third Gram Parsons album (and probably the last) that I have heard for this list – the others being his solo album Grievous Angel and The Gilded Palace of Sin which he recorded as part of The Flying Burrito Brothers. Now that I have listened to Sweetheart of the Rodeo it feels like I have founded the starter Pokémon of the evolution line of alternative country music.

You have the close harmonies and blues piano that would be expected of a country album from this era, but the rock influences are starting to creep in with some of the choices. Closing track ‘Nothing Was Delivered’ works to show the subtleties of what was happening here. Other tracks feel more traditional, but there is a hint of rock here and in ‘One Hundred Years From Now’.

It feels like one of those albums where a well established singer “goes country”. Thing is, this was one of the first times that happened, and so this is a very early example of both that phenomena and of country rock on the whole as a genre. I can certainly see how this album was influential – plus it’s just fun to listen to.