Tag Archives: Music

Music Monday: Graceland by Paul Simon

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 25/250Graceland_cover_-_Paul_SimonTitle: Graceland
Artist: Paul Simon
Year: 1986
Position: #74

In a very odd pattern of semi-random choice this is the fourth album in the row placed as #-8 on the acclaimed list (at least before the update  little while ago anyway). It has seen albums that encapsulate the rise of college radio, a turning point in female singer-songwriting and whatever superlative you want to attach to OdelayThe superlative that can be attached to Graceland is a rather interesting one, the album that brought African music into the Western music mainstream.

To put this into a historical musical context Graceland was recorded and released during the time of apartheid in South Africa, a time where boycotts existed against the cultural elements of the nation. As such, when Paul Simon crossed over the metaphorical picket line to work with South African musicians he had some explaining to do. Now  here’s the thing, the musicians he chose to work with were the ones being discriminated against under apartheid and he never showed any support towards the government so… all was good.

The fact that Paul Simon did this helped to introduce a wide audience to music of black origin that did not fall into the world of jazz or rhythm and blues. It was also the album that helped the group Ladysmith Black Mambazo crossover and gain world prominence. It is also the album that inspired the likes of Vampire Weekend, so my thanks to Paul Simon there.

The reason that this album works so well and became a classic (as well as one of the select few albums in this Top 250 lists that also won the Grammy for Best Album) is how well the seemingly disparate genres mesh. This is most evident, at two ends of the spectrum, on tracks ‘You Can Call Me Al’ and ‘Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes’. On the one hand you have the latter, the closer of the first side of the album, where the stylings of Ladysmith Black Mambazo are very much at the forefront to make this a very atmospheric number. Then there is personal favourite ‘You Can Call Me Al’, a rather upbeat song about a man going through a midlife crisis (with a very memorable music video starring comedian Chevy Chase) where the fusion of genres is very much westward-leaning.

The rest of the album well accomplishes this meeting of musical worlds, just not as well as titular track ‘Graceland’ or the other two songs that I have previous mentioned. In the absence of Miriam Makeba’s eponymous album this may be the only time I get to listen to music with such obviously African elements. A pity really since it really helps an album to stand out.

Music Monday: Blue by Joni Mitchell

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 24/250blue-jonimitchellTitle: Blue
Artist: Joni Mitchell
Year: 1971
Position: #49

This week’s album is the second highest ranked album by a woman. I am in danger of using up all the albums with female singers before I reach 100 listened to if I continue to liberally pepper my blog with these albums but… I prefer to listen to women over men. In fact in the last week of my casual listening I’ve had an anomaly with scandi-pop group Donkeyboy receiving a large number of listens (as well as some residual R.E.M.). Still, the point stands.

Blue is one of those albums that I have always really liked but rarely have a time where I feel it suits my listening patterns. If I could drive it would make for the perfect road album (and not just because of the scene in Practical Magic where Nicole Kidman sings along to ‘A Case of You’ in a key that is… not of the song). I have Cat Power’s cover of ‘Blue’ to thank for me giving this album a go back in 2008.

What makes Blue an exceptional album is just how raw it is. Being just Joni and her guitar or piano it is very intimate and feels very much like a confessional. ‘River’ starts off with a tune that resembles ‘Jingle Bells’ and transforms into a song about someone having broken up near Christmas time and wishing to get away from the past. ‘A Case Of You’ tells a story of being so in love with someone that you just want to drink it all up until you explode. ‘Little Green’ is a nice enough song until you find out it is about the daughter she gave up for adoption, then the song becomes heartbreaking.

In many ways Blue is an album that is exactly that; blue. In other ways it is the album that helped to define to many future artists what a singer-songwriter album should be. Brutal, lyrically complex and, above all, honest. It isn’t all down in the dumps. In many ways it’s an album of rebirth and picking yourself up again. The break-up of a major relationship hurts like hell but, as demonstrated in ‘Carey’, there is always the other end of the tunnel.

At just over 35 minutes this album is compact and, in the words of my partner, verbose. A strum of the guitar is not wasted and it makes for a near-impossible act for any artist to follow. The fact that she seems to have almost equalled this in terms of kudos two albums later is nothing less than extraordinary.

Music Monday: Murmur by R.E.M.

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 23/250

R.E.M._-_MurmurTitle: Murmur
Artist: R.E.M.
Year: 1983
Position: #62

I am in the very privileged position to have seen R.E.M. live in concert before their unexpected split a few years ago. In fact, it was during their final tour, supporting their penultimate album Accelerate, where I saw them supported by Guillemots and Editors at Twickenham. I will always remember a bit when he dedicated a song to all the redheads in the audience and everyone surrounding me briefly stared in my general direction. As someone who has had bottles thrown at me for having red hair… it made me feel special.

Since I really enjoyed the gig, and all the R.E.M. I had on my iPod was Automatic From The People and a greatest hits compilation I decided I would further explore the back catalogue which is how I got to the first time I ever played Murmur. Since it did not really have much in common with the music I listened to I pretty much abandoned this album but never actually deleted since I figured that one day I would probably grow into it. Seeing how I eventually grew into Radiohead this was not a bad idea.

Of course I had no idea when I first listened to Murmur how important an album it was (for a very well written explanation behind this see this review on Popmatters) and that in an era where punk had died and there was a bit of a creative vacuum in the music industry R.E.M. emerged from a growing scene and shaped it in a big way. It helps that with Murmur they were able to do so with an album with tracks like ‘Radio Free Europe’.

Since Automatic For The People is also on this list, and is 16 places higher, I will probably go more into R.E.M. specifics then (especially since it is my favourite album of theirs) but I will leave this write-up of Murmur with the following note: it is one of those debuts that definitely spells out what is to come for their career. It’s just… not an album that did it for me completely after a number of playthroughs.

Music Monday: Odelay by Beck

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 22/250OdelayTitle: Odelay
Artist: Beck
Year: 1996
Position: #56

In 1996 Belle & Sebastian’s album If You’re Feeling Sinister carved out a successful niche in the world of folk-rock and was the most acclaimed album of that year by a UK-based act. On the other side of the pond came an album that is very hard to pigeon-hole into a genre that alternative rock will just have to do. Widely acclaimed on its original release with a critical regard that has grown with age; let’s look at Odelay by Beck.

Since this is Beck’s only appearance in the Top 250 (Sea Change trailing behind at #443) I was going to save this album for a long while since he is one of only two male singers that I listen to on a regular basis. However, the weather has been gorgeous recently and I found myself in the mood for some Odelay, Guero and Mutations whilst at work and at home doing some of the cleaning.

It’s interesting to me how Odelay is held in such high esteem since, personally, it is a Beck album that took me a while to get into. Guero, Morning Phase and Sea Change were instant. I still don’t quite get Midnite Vultures. Odelay, Mutations, Modern Guilt and The Information all took a little while. Still, years after first trying it out I feel I am finally able to access what so many people have said about Odelay over the years since it is a great album with a very weird Hungarian dog on the front.

As an album it is the work of a genre-alchemist (equal props to both Beck and The Dust Brothers for that) where the samples of screams, robot voices and a weird segue into the appearance of a ‘rhythm wizard’ are just part and parcel of the album. It is also something that is so much greater than the sum of its parts. Songs like ‘The New Pollution’, ‘Where It’s At’, ‘Devil’s Haircut’ and ‘Lord Only Knows’ are clearly great stand-out tracks but they don’t appear to be as good when listened in isolation if it wasn’t for mood-setters like ‘High 5 (Rock The Catskills)’ surrounding them and lending them support.

I think this might be the reason this took me the longest to really get into. I was able to pick out tracks from other albums of his such as ‘Rental Car’, ‘Cellphone’s Dead’, ‘Paper Tiger’ and ‘Sexx Laws’ which I could just stick on repeat. Here, it takes patience to appreciate Odelay fully. I just wonder what his supposed second album of 2014 is going to turn out like.

Music Monday: If You’re Feeling Sinister by Belle and Sebastian

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 19/250Belle_And_Sebastian_-_If_You're_Feeling_SinisterTitle: If You’re Feeling Sinister
Artist: Belle and Sebastian
Year: 1996
Position: #209 (Previously: #242)

This album listen is a bit of a calculated risk since, as of writing this, I am aware that the site that puts up the list I am using is doing a recalculation of the list. I may end up being set back a few weeks seeing how the update goes… since both of the Frank Sinatra albums are poised on the edge. Anyway, this week I am gambling that If You’re Feeling Sinister retains its place.

I am very much like my mum whereby I assign seasons to a number of albums and movies. Vespertine by Bjork and Illinois by Sufjan Stevens are rarely played outside of the cooler months whereas the entire back-catalogue of She & Him and Belle & Sebastian are very much summer albums.

The first time that the name Belle & Sebastian entered my awareness was at the BRIT Awards where I was angry that they beat out Steps to the award for Best British Newcomer. Please remember I was nine here and, through the magical art of retrospect, I can agree that they were the preferred interest over the likes of 5ive, Cleopatra and Steps (I still love you Steps).

If You’re Feeling Sinister is, obviously, viewed by many in the music community as the best album that was produced by Belle and Sebastian. I think Dear Catastrophe Waitress comes close but having re-listened to If You’re Feeling Sinister I have to say that I am probably in agreement now more than before.

Outside of The Smiths there are very few acts that are able to successfully bring together a sense of humour (sometimes biting in the case of the S&M-loving churchgoer mentioned in one of their songs) and music that is part-folk, part-indie and part-pop. Stuart Murdoch’s voice is not strong but it doesn’t really need to be. It’s wry and he is able to sing his whimsical and bitter-sweet songs with complete sincerity.

Since a lot of the tracks work well where they are placed on the album it is hard to place which ones would be stand-out in my eyes. For me they would probably end up being ‘Mayflower’, the opener ‘The Stars of Track and Field’ and then (the best of them for me) ‘Seeing Other People’.

If You’re Feeling Sinister is truly an album that could have been released any time since the sixties. It is timeless in so many ways. I mean, it could have so easily come out this year or in the middle of the eighties. I don’t think there are many albums I have listened to that have this quality.

Music Monday: Rumours by Fleetwood Mac

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 18/250Title: Rumours
Artist: Fleetwood Mac
Year: 1977
Position: #58 (Previously: #59)

For a number of people of my generation or younger the first exposure to Fleetwood Mac will come from one of two sources. Firstly, Glee did an episode in 2011 where the album Rumours was the central focus and they actually did some decent covers including ‘Don’t Stop’ serving as the closer. The other main source (for those of us in the UK that is) is the use of ‘The Chain’ as the theme music for the BBC’s coverage of Formula 1 racing.  Personally, my first exposure was seeing the music video for ‘Everywhere’ on one of those music stations, a rather beautiful take on the Alfred Noyes poem The Highwayman.

Rumours is one of those albums like Michael Jackson’s Thriller or Shania Twain’s Come on Over in that I know a large number of people that will have owned it at some point. Much like how those two were one of “those” albums so was Rumours. Having reportedly sold over 40 million copies around the world it stands to reason that everyone will know someone that purchased this album.

As albums go it is one of those that I forget how much I enjoy it until I start playing it again. I know that I love the song ‘Go Your Own Way’ because it has memories of playing Guitar Hero with my best friend and her (now) husband. For similar reasons I have an attachment to the song ‘One Way or Another’ from Blondie’s Parallel Lines but I’ll talk about that another time.

The odd thing here is that the stories surrounding the production of Rumours is probably as interesting, if not more than the album itself. There is no doubting that this is a classic and influential album… but being the product of broken up relationships, drugs and a decadent recording schedule it had to either be inevitable that this would lead to the album hailed as their best (ironic due to the complete mess the band’s personal lives were at the time) or an utter shock that they would somehow use the pain to make something so timeless.

Then again, so many of the great songs have been the products of heartache and the suspicions that can form before, during and after it. I mean ABBA produced their darkest and, in my opinion best album (The Visitors) since the divorces of the two couples lead to new writing territory. There is a cruelty in musical partners writing for each other since there are times where you can make your ex sing something particularly edged.

Rumours takes a different tactic from The Visitors with the different parties singing their own take on broken relationships whether it be optimism for the future (‘Don’t Stop’ and ‘Dreams’), a slightly darker take on things (‘Go Your Own Way’) or about the feeling of loss and blindness that comes about when everything falls apart (‘Gold Dust Woman’).

The most interesting song on the album, however, is ‘The Chain’. Since it is actually cobbled together from a number of songs written by all members of the band which was then spliced together (apparently by-hand through the use of razor blades) and formed this chimeric record which has come to symbolize the fractured nature of the band. An essential listen for anyone looking to start their own band really.

Music Monday: Mr. Tambourine Man by The Byrds

 List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 17/250album-mr-tambourine-manTitle: Mr. Tambourine Man
Artist: The Byrds
Year: 1965
Position: #270 (Previously: #231)

The Byrds. I don’t understand the reason for the misspelling of this name. I can only guess it is a reference to the similar occurrence in The Beatles. Either way this has always annoyed me and I don’t entirely know why. Annoying name or not their influence has already been felt on this list despite Mr. Tambourine Man actually being their debut release. Hurrah! Who did they influence I hear you/no one ask? None other than the original Tambourine Man himself, Mr. Bob Dylan. So needless to say this band are a bit of a big deal.

When it comes to what The Byrds sounds like you can easily see that they are heavily influenced by The Beatles, and not in the annoying over the top way like Oasis are. Also there are the close harmonies that dominate most of the songs, which are more of a resemblance to The Beach Boys. So here we have an album that draws itself from two of the great acts of the sixties and feature covers from Bob Dylan, aside from the incredible alliterative possibilities this shapes up to be a good album.

On the whole it stands up as a pretty decent album, if a bit too heavy on the covers for my taste. Although, with the majority of covers, they actually manage to twist everything round so that it sounds like they are the original writers. To do this demonstrate greatness in a band to be creative and make the best of it and as such should be applauded. This tactic, however, doesn‘t really work on the . This, however, doesn’t work on the first and last tracks, ‘Mr. Tambourine Man and ‘We’ll Meet Again’ respectively, since the original versions resonate so much in the public consciousness that you can not help but think on the original versions. It may sound controversial but I actually prefer the Bob Dylan version of Mr. Tambourine Man, this isn’t detracting from The Byrds who do an amazing album highlight-version but I found myself missing the quirky vocals of Dylan.

The rest of the album just makes you feel as if you are floating on some puffy sixties Technicolor cloud. The electric guitars and harmonies on songs like ‘The Bells of Rhymney’ and ‘I Knew I’d Want You’ makes me wish that they had made a brief jaunt into lullabies as it’s so loose and relaxing that I found myself sitting in some lucid dreamlike state where I knew I was typing at a laptop but somehow every action seemed to be coloured different. Before you ask, no I don’t do drugs. I don’t even drink coffee. But when you have earphones in and all you can here is are these songs you can so easily lose yourself in it.

This can not be said of my least favourite track ‘Don’t Doubt Yourself, Babe’ which I personally just found annoying and out of place here. There is one thing creating these dreamlike songs that allow them to transport the listener but this is way too hippy for my tastes. The lyrics and sentiment are something you would expect a 16 year old to concoct in his bedroom addressing a depressive girl he knows in his year, I know as I was that 16 year old boy. You would hope that The Byrds or the record company would have had the wherewithal to leave it out. The same applies to ‘We’ll Meet Again’. So all in all a very disappointingly trite ending to an otherwise great and original album.

Despite the final two tracks this is actually an amazing album, that deserves this high rating. As you listen to it you can here the beginnings of songs that’ll later be sung by R.E.M., Beck and The White Stripes. That, in my opinion, is never a bad thing.

Music Monday: Dare by The Human League

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 17/250

Dare-coverTitle: Dare
Artist: The Human League
Year: 1981
Position: #248 (Previously: #235)

The Human League are an oddity for me. I have previously mentioned how they were one of the first bands I took notice of thanks to both of my parents and the release of the single ‘Tell Me When’ around the time I began to take notice of music but not quite begun to make my own distinct musical choices. Looking at how many artists I listen to are derived from the sound of Dare it is easy to see how early exposure to this shaped my listening habits.

Unlike many artists on this list with only one entry (like Kate Bush and Ray CharlesDare is an example of an album where everything seemed to slot together for a group (with this being their third album) and then afterwards releasing albums that, to be honest, are inconsistent at best. Post-Dare there are still great singles like ‘Stay With Me Tonight’, ‘Human’, ‘Keep Feeling (Fascination)’ and ‘Tell Me When’ but the ability to create a good album dissolved.

Maybe it was the fact that the band was in such a state of flux that this album ended up working as well as it does. The fact that this became such a defining moment of synth-pop (and was one of the first albums to really do this sort of music and be successful at it)  is probably why it has remained as big as it is. As much as I like Dare I still have tracks I skip over (‘Get Carter’ and ‘I Am The Law’) which ends with this being a rather short 8-track listen… with ‘Don’t You Want Me’ acting as a finale. Which is still amazing to this day and I have rather fond memories singing along to it in the car.

Music Monday: Hounds of Love by Kate Bush

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 16/250

Hounds_of_loveTitle: Hounds of Love
Artist: Kate Bush
Year: 1985
Position: #162 (Previously: #197)

I need to ration my coverage of female singers. As someone who listens to women almost exclusively this is something of an annoyance. Thing is on this consensus list of albums there are not a lot of women who feature within the Top 250. I have already used up both of the PJ Harvey albums and now is time for me to use up the only Kate Bush entry. The great thing about Hounds of Love being that in essence you are looking at two mini-albums with the vinyl A-side being titled Hounds of Love and the B-side being a concept album called The Ninth Wave.

The first five tracks aka Hounds of Love plays like a miniature greatest hits with ‘Running Up That Hill’ and ‘Hounds of Love’ acting as the ultimate one-two punch. I don’t care what people say about The Futureheads cover of ‘Hounds of Love’ being better than the original, you are wrong and that is all I have to say on the matter. ‘The Big Sky’ is a big song celebrating the joie de vivre that children get from things like spending all day staring at the clouds and then you get ‘Mother Stands For Comfort’ which is Kate Bush starting to toe the line a bit more between experimental and radio-friendly.

Now, whilst people will turn to the first two tracks of the album to pick a favourite I have to say that I am torn between two rather different ones. The first is ‘Cloudbusting’ which tells a story of the relationship between psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich and his son Peter. The ‘cloudbuster’ was a rather odd machine invented by Reich in order to make rain and in the rather brilliant video (featuring Bush as a young boy and Donald Sutherland as her father) they even recreate a simplified cloudbuster. The reason that this song works so well is because of both the strong undercurrent of cello that drives the melody (somewhat ferociously at times) and the bittersweet lyrics. The son begins to realize, possibly for the first time, that his father may be in the wrong about something as the government come to cart him away. The moment that she sings the lines “cloudbusting daddy” breaks you heart just a little bit since it does mark the loss of some sort of innocence.

So what is the other favourite song candidate? Well it is a bit of a cheat since it is actually a combination of two songs on the B-Side… but I’ll get to that in a second. Where Hounds of Love is a collection of radio-friendly songs with no real connection The Ninth Wave tells the story of a girl (or woman) having to survive a night after falling through the ice and her survival.

This brings me to ‘Under Ice’ and ‘Waking the Witch’ which together tell the story of the girl skating down a river only to have the ice crack beneath her, her realisation that she’s drowning and then her beginning to succumb to the darkness before being rescued (signalled by the helicopter sounds at the end). This journey is disturbing with demons putting her on trial and condemning her to hell whilst she screams for her life. It’s macabre and it is utterly riveting stuff which is nothing like she has done before or since.

The rest of The Ninth Wave features the girl coming back to life and her eventual waking up. Bush uses her Irish roots as a way to signal this fight for live and within a few tracks manages to do something that Dante took nearly a hundred cantos to do. A journey of a soul travelling (and surviving) through damnation and ascends back to Earth and gets a chance to live again. Without knowing the story behind the tracks The Ninth Wave can be an awkward listen, but some attention paid to the narrative make it incredibly engaging.

As a whole Hounds of Love is one of the most influential albums to come out of the 1980s. The ripples of both this album and The Dreaming (the preceding album which was just a whole heap of amazing experimentation) can be felt to this day since it really helped women to be more accepted as slightly darker pop artists. I know that I probably would not be as into music had this album not influenced every female artist that came afterwards; I therefore owe a lot to this album and the force behind it.

Music Monday: Kind of Blue by Miles Davis

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 15/250

kindofblueTitle: Kind of Blue
Artist: Miles Davis
Year: 1959
Position: #44 (Previously: #35)

Another day and another jazz album… oh wait. It’s time for Kind Of Blue today. Awesome.

I say awesome because this is an album that I am already acquainted before I started this project and so will be the victim of a surprise jazz attack. Also, this is Miles Davis who’s previous album, Birth Of The Cool, was rather enjoyable.

Thus here we have Kind Of Blue which critics tend to agree is Miles Davis’ masterstroke of an album, and it has been the one I have preferred of his thus far. This may change though since there is another album of his I need to listen to.

The thing that sets this album apart from other jazz albums is that nothing on it jars at all. This is an album focused more on smoothing and concordant sounds that please the ears rather than a discordant mess that give me a headache.

While as a whole this is one top album there is one clear favourite track for me on this album, the opener ‘So What. While the whole album itself is incredibly smooth and pleasing to the ears this track to me is the epitome of smooth jazz. For over 9 minutes it is able to stay smooth with subtle nuances changing here and there whilst never forgetting the central melody. Yet this is still recognisable as a jazz/blues track. How does Miles Davis do it? I tell you why, he’s plain awesome.