Raw Like Sushi | Neneh Cherry | 1989 | Virgin | #336
I think Neneh Cherry is cool. She’s empowered, multi-cultured, and full of attitude. This album is so late-eighties – keyboard funk, pop-rap – and has a bizarrely fresh yet simultaneously dated feel. It’s not easy to explain why, perhaps it’s something to do with how Neneh’s background influences the album; Swedish-African, born in Sweden but lived in Long Island and eventually moved to London when she was 15 – just in time to be a part of the punk scene over here. There’s some sort of curious appeal, but it painfully belongs in the decade it was made.
Neneh freely switches between styles and accents to create different moods (vocally, not musically) – sometimes coming across as a hollering New Yorker, other times a lippy cockney – and I can’t decide whether this adds to the charm of the album or is just confusing and disorientating. “Buffalo Stance” is edgy and scowling, making points about sexual responsibility, taking digs at unwanted sexual advances from men and womanisers, and shows a detest of superficial, tacky women. The rest of the album has a similar street-smart edginess – loads of personality and very socially concious. The problem is I feel this is neutralised by a kind of patronising, nostalgic sweetness which gets attributed to this kind of sound in the present day.
I’m sure this is sloppy analysis because in 1989 this may have been seen as a rebellious, witty, and provoking record. It just doesn’t have the same effect today and the result is that it comes across flimsy and somewhat irritating.
The Grey Album | Danger Mouse | 2004 | #337
From Brian Burton (Danger Mouse): “A lot of people just assume I took some Beatles and, you know, threw some Jay-Z on top of it or mixed it up or looped it around, but it’s really a deconstruction. It’s not an easy thing to do. I was obsessed with the whole project, that’s all I was trying to do, see if I could do this. Once I got into it, I didn’t think about anything but finishing it. I stuck to those two because I thought it would be more challenging and more fun and more of a statement to what you could do with sample alone. It is an art form. It is music. You can do different things, it doesn’t have to be just what some people call stealing. It can be a lot more than that.”
So the mash-up artist himself has insisted that the listener not be so small-minded as to simply write this off as a simple remixing. Normally I don’t like being told how I’m supposed to interpret media – a pet peeve of mine is when someone insists I listen to/watch something usually with the explanation that you should find this hilarious/brilliant/mind-blowing almost as a compulsory requirement – but in this case Brian may have a point. When you consider the restriction he placed upon himself to create an album sampling only Beatles’ White Album and Jay-Z’s Black Album to create not just something new but, something that actually works, then I think you can just about respect the creativity. For me its a concept that’s been corrupted by certain R’n’B artists sloppily cashing in on remixing pop-punk classics under spurious offerings of creative genius. There’s a point where we must refuse to reinforce ideas that were once novel and made with good intentions before they become perfunctory.
This one doesn’t quite dilute the mash-up pool though. The union of these two particular classics, the disparity of old and new, is something I haven’t heard before and it definitely is done well. It really is more of a deconstruction of both albums – although more a rebuild of the melodies of Beatles reconstructed in a hip-hop style – which I think has to call upon some inventive skill to pull off without it sounding shit. Really though it fails to hold my interest for very long and once the novelty has worn off after the first play-through I’m left feeling entirely indifferent about it.
Ready to Die | The Notorious B.I.G. | 1994 | Bad Boy | #338
This was the album that brought an end to West Coast domination of hip-hop, was the first album on Puffy’s Bad Boy label, and made Biggie an instant legend of the genre. He raps with a sense of humour and self-awareness and, while I found it funny where I was supposed to, it was also quite tragic; rapping about issues of death, crime, and his precarious existence as an ex-drug dealer.
Biggie has a laid-back form with an easy-to-follow lyrical style and flow, for a hardcore hip-hop album I found it very easy listening. And he obviously has a lot of fun being Biggie Smalls (apart from all the shit stuff obviously); it’s almost like he’s playing the character of Biggie as he refers to himself in third person and remarks proudly on what he’s apparently known for – which is either sexual or criminal in content, or bombastic blasé attitudes to life events which would make other people nervous. That attitude is the sad part for me though; it’s almost as if he saw his early death as inevitable and was very aware of his outlook given his Broolyn-raised background: “If I wasn’t in the rap game/I’d probably have a key knee deep in the crack game/Because the streets is a short stop/Either you’re slingin crack rock or you got a wicked jumpshot/Shit, it’s hard being young from the slums/Eatin five cent gums not knowin where your meals comin from”.
When he’s not talking about the “Everyday Struggle” or being “Ready to Die”, he’s romanticising criminal activities such as in “Gimme the Loot” and “Warning”. His lyrical humour and attitude combined with the funky, laid-back production of the album give it all a bit of a charm though. I don’t care at all for hip-hop politics and I’m not seduced by the drama of the massive rivalry that he and Tupac got caught up in (or any of the hard-man posturing made by today’s hip-hop artists), I just think he’s an interesting character it’s sad that he died so young -I liked his album.
Ten | Pearl Jam | 1991 | Epic | #339
This ‘album a day’ challenge really wasn’t conceived with this one in mind; I’d struggle to find many albums which I’m more familiar with than any of Pearl Jam’s, expecially Ten. Another one found in mum’s CD collection, though it took me a few years to develop a big enough sense of overly-serious introspection (i.e. being a teenager) to catch on. I did though, and now few bands create a mood that seems so tailored – in tone, character, and stylistic approach – to my temperament.
Ten isn’t Pearl Jam’s best album (they peaked with Vitology) but I can see why this one appears as their only entry on the list; as a debut it’s almost perfect. There might be familiarity with traditional song structure and melody inspired from classic rock, but this is also a product of that early-90s Seattle scene and so comes with the (pseudo)originality of the exploding grunge movement. Nevermind was released later on the same year, and while might be a more adventurous sound than what PJ were doing, I’ll happily take the superior musicianship – and relative safety that entails – over Nirvana. That’s why I come back to the likes of Ten and Vitology as opposed to Nevermind (of which can’t remember the last time I played); Pearl Jam have an unhurried, cultivated lasting appeal – expertly brooding in 90s sensibilities – rather than a snapshot of ingenuity (and angst) for which I have to strain to remember what the original appeal was.
The hits from the album: “Alive”, “Even Flow”, and possibly Pearl Jam’s most famous track “Jeremy” all demonstrate Pearl Jam’s best qualities; Mike McCready’s restrained yet melodic lead guitar, chugging hard-rock riffs, and Eddie Vedder’s characteristic vocal style – so emotionally committed on every track. But the triumph here really is “Black” which, not only is the greatest song on the album, it’s possibly one of the greatest in PJ’s entire catalogue. It’s emotionally intense, almost agonising, but also musically brilliant. There’s a gradient of passion and grief that seems to go from a sulk to all out harrowing raw emotion toward the end of the song where a subtle piano riff gets picked up by McCready’s lead and eventually imitated vocally, escalating to some sort of bawling, epic, angsty crescendo.
It’s almost pathetic how much I’ve let the sentiments of this genre (including the image) influence my character, and no band has had a bigger impact there than Pearl Jam. Maybe one day I’ll grow out of it and I’ll no longer have to put up with the sneers of being a flannel-shirt-wearing tosser, but maybe I won’t and one day it might be cool again. I’m settled with neither of those happening though – long live the 90s!
We Are Family | Sister Sledge | Cotillion | #340
This one came as a massive surprise. All I knew about Sister Sledge came from the obligatorily played title track whenever a disco was happening. Remember discos? Who the hell does discos nowadays? Do schools still put them on for students at the end of term? I bloody well hope not for their sakes. The only thing discos were “good” for was deplorably inflicting pre-2000s disco-pop upon the younger generations. I take great exception to this album being labelled as disco-pop though; this is funk. Disco-funk, but funk nonetheless.
It seems that the sisters’ success here owes a lot to the vision and talent of the backing band, Chic (Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards), who composed and produced the album. For the most part it’s upbeat, bass-slappin’ funk which I really was not expecting and which I totally enjoyed. The weakest songs on the album are “Somebody Loves Me” and “You’re A Friend To Me” which both take a diversion from the general funk theme and attempt to create disco pop ballads. I can see why they’re there, but they just interrupt the tempo of the album and serve as distractions rather than contributing anything valuable or novel. The lyrics are totally contrived and fairly insufferable throughout; “He wears the finest clothes, the best designers heaven knows Ooh, from his head down to his toes.” Really?
The truth is this album totally changed my opinion about Sister Sledge – it’s vibrant, funky, and fun – but I can’t help but feel that’s entirely down to the creative effort of the musicians who happened to record this album. So perhaps a more honest appraisal would involve directing credit to Chic rather than Sister Sledge themselves, if that’s even a distinction worth making.
Closing Time | Tom Waits | 1973 | Asylum | #341
Finally, after many recommendations from people whose musical opinions I trust (yet apparently I ignored), I’m listening to Tom Waits. I don’t suppose I would have ever got around to it if not for doing this challenge. This is his debut album which I think is important to consider prior to forming of any opinions. Apparently he experimented a lot more with his sound in later albums so I’ll be sure to give those a listen before I judge. (three more of Tom’s albums appear on this list later on)
The music is very visual. It conjures up images of him sitting in a dimly-lit, upscale club, tumbler glass on the piano top, forlornly and reluctantly entertaining the evening’s patrons with his lazy jazz, cocktail piano musical style and husky voice. The down-tempo lyrics match the musical style; sometimes desolate and of loneliness, and sometimes narrating a story in the more upbeat jazz songs. I never felt like the album wasn’t entertaining. It starts off making you feel a bit dispirited but I think his style is too strong in the end, with his vivid and articulate vocals, which just about keeps the whole thing barely enjoyable.
I kinda dig the style, but I’d definitely had enough by the end of the album and didn’t feel a strong need to come back for more (though I did, twice more in fact, for writing inspiration). He came across embittered and life-weathered which, considering he was only 23 when he wrote this album, is quite clever. The next album of his to appear on the list (in 21 days’ time coincidentally) was written a decade later than this one. God knows what that’s going to sound like after tens more of life to reflect on. Think I might get drunk for that one.
Lazer Guided Melodies | Spiritualized | 1992 | Dedicated | #342
This is the album I needed to listen to today. I couldn’t be more appreciative of how close it brought me to absolute contentment. This is atmospheric space-rock with an incredibly chilled vibe which purposefully forfeits anything musically intricate or obtrusive to create a totally tranquil soundscape. The whole album casually flows and almost drifts by inconspicuously, yet there’s something pleasantly tactile about it; it felt like having a brain massage.
There’s not much to separate one track from another. Much of the album has a similar underlying structure of synth-drone stacked with casually paced, prominent bass lines which give each track momentum and some sort of purpose. And lots of layers, mostly built up from stabs of electronica or occasional reverb’d fuzz-guitar with a garage-rock, almost shoegazing feel to it (but never like actual shoegaze-rock which has been and always will be uncool). It all comes together to create something quite cathartic, blissful, and dreamy, but not boring.
I’d never even heard of Spiritualized before now, so it surprised me to see that this was released in ’92 and that they’ve been kicking about for a while – it certainly doesn’t feel dated at all (apart from the reminiscent 3-d render album cover, there’s really not much linking this to the 90s). Apparently the best is yet to come with their other album appearing at number 156 on the list. Lazer Guided Melodies was great though.
John Wesley Harding | Bob Dylan | 1967 | Columbia | #343
The first of seven Bob Dylan albums I’ll be listening to this year. I’m sure the decision to place this particular one as his seventh best wasn’t as automatic as the predictability of placing seven Dylan albums on the list in the first place, so I’m concious to not prematurely make any conclusions. This is not so much an album, more a collection of frontier-style stories and religious fables and musings sung over an unobtrusive folk-rock musical backdrop. Listening to this now, 49 years after its release, provides an albeit obvious point of reference to observe how far music has come. Not just in the purely musical sense but in whom society heralds as heroes. Maybe it’s a shame that contemporary musicians are not as poetic but perhaps there are other aspects that should be celebrated. If it’s a toss-up between Nicki Minaj using her fame to make serious political challenges and actions against racism or Dylan’s lyrically pretty ramblings – simplistic and frankly rudimentary in content which they are in this album – I know which I would choose. (and that’s two Nicki Minaj mentions in as many posts)
Maybe that’s a bit of a silly thing to say, and it definitely is a blatant disregard for the acknowledgement of musical evolution as well as Dylan’s efforts in protesting in favour of certain civil rights (so I’ve read about). But if there’s a rebel championing for a better world in Bob it isn’t heard in this album. Instead it’s packed with biblical allusions, religious messages, and the foretelling of the apocalypse – as heard in the best song of the album “All Along The Watchtower” – which all gets a bit tiring and leaves little of substance for me to reflect on and want to come back to.
Musically it’s okay; I’m not a fan of country-blues so there’s not much for me to get excited about here. My main beef is that I feel his characteristic harmonica usage serves not so much as an accompaniment to the music but more a punctuation gratuitously served at the end of every verse. Sometimes it’s deftly delivered such as in “Wicked Messenger” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”, but mostly I found it grating.
Oh well, six more chances to convert me (literally, it seems).
Beautiful Freak | Eels | 1996 | DreamWorks | #344
I’ve never given any time to Eels. Perhaps they came a bit too early for me – I don’t think I was struggling with issues of self-worth and isolation at the age of 8 when this album was released – either way it passed me by. So I had no idea what to expect here. It’s a reveal of lead singer E’s mental health (that’s his stage name, real name Mark Oliver Everett – outcast and misfit). Contemporary indie-pop with elements of grunge and basic 3-chord rock indicative of depressed, mid-90s teen anxiety, but in a good way.
Eels create a sound and mood which I have a hard time admitting I relate to; I don’t want to be a part of E’s personal confession of worthlessness any more. But there’s some sort of suppressed engagement going on here left over from those teenage days when I thought I could learn something about myself from albums such as this. And although those days are over now (except for when I listen to Nicki Minaj, so much to learn still) there’ll always be an appreciation for albums like this. I think there’s a wistfully uplifting quality here that’s sneered at and mocked by many, but its a power to those whom it intends to reach.
So although I definitely feel like I’m listening to this album for the first time at the wrong point in my life (about a decade too late), I can’t not recognise how brilliant it is. It’s so well written to perfectly articulate a particular state of mind. “Novocaine for the Soul” was probably their biggest hit from the album and, although it’s a great song, the highlights for me are “Not Ready Yet” and “Guest List”. Both songs feel like downbeat, broken responses to the “oh, just cheer up” line unempathetically suggested by those who fail to understand. I personally won’t be coming back for more, but I bet this one features on the top 10 of many people – birth-year circa 1980 perhaps – and I can see why.
Punch the Clock | Elvis Costello | 1983 | F-Beat | #345
So far I’ve been true to listening to one album a day. I did indeed listen to this on Friday but it’s now 12:33 am on Sunday as I write. Some days it just won’t be feasible to find the time to write something down and so I’ll be playing catch-up. This is one of four Elvis Costello albums on the list and its first occurrence is also my first proper chance I’ve given Elvis to impress. Unfortunately though it didn’t.
Some people don’t like pigeon-holing artists into genres for fair reasons, but for me it’s a practical, first broad stroke which helps me discuss (in my head) what I’m listening to. What is Punch the Clock though? It doesn’t necessarily matter that I can’t decide where it falls – though in the end it feels like it fits into conventional pop more than rock – but its lack of forcing me to recognise a style kinda makes the whole thing ultimately seem a bit tedious, drawn-out, and totally forgettable.
As far as I’m concerned there are maybe two good songs on this album at a push and the rest seem rather insignificant. “Shipbuilding” is not my sort of thing at all but it really is a good song. The lyrics talk regrettably of how the shipyards in England will be revitalised with an impending war (it’s 1983, Falklands must have been pretty fresh still), “Within weeks they’ll be re-opening the shipyards And notifying the next of kin”. The prospect of new employment doesn’t seem worth it to Elvis when the cost is your life. There’s an equally sombre trumpet solo which, together with the pacing and mood of the track, hits a bit of a spot and just makes you appreciate that this is a really well-written song.
It’s not enough to make me come back for more though. Decent song-writing sometimes just doesn’t cut it and in this case it didn’t stop each song from sapping my enthusiasm a little more until after 13 tracks it was all but depleted.