1001 Albums 0009-0011

Published May 31, 2012


My continued journey through the albums featured in the book
1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.


0009 Count Basie: The Atomic Mr. Basie (1957)


If you like big band jazz, it doesn’t come much better than this. With all tunes written and arranged by Neal Hefti (also famous for his theme for the Batman TV series), this album is never less than brilliant. Some of the tracks, such as After Supper, make me feel like I’m walking the streets of New York City late at night, sometime in the late Fifties, which can only be a good thing. However, although I appreciate the music here, I don’t think it’s an album I would buy myself. To me, I guess it’s “mood music” rather than something I actively listen to.

A comment on the sleeve: To think there was a time when an atomic explosion was something that you’d use as a positive reference, in this case to signal the potency of the music. Times have certainly changed since then.

Verdict: Excellent, and I’m glad I’ve heard it, but not for my record collection.


0010 Thelonius Monk: Brilliant Corners (1957)


This is where jazz gets a little too convoluted for my tastes. I do understand that all the players here (including saxophonist Sonny Rollins, whom I know my father admired) are brilliant musicians, but although I guess the unorthodox structure of the music is meant to evoke a sense of “freedom”, I get a feeling of claustrophobia, like I’m being taken prisoner by the musicians – especially when they play drum solos and bass solos, something I feel, with very few exceptions, should be banned from all types of music.

Verdict: Not for me.


0011 Sabu: Palo Congo (1957)


Before recording this album, percussionist Louis “Sabu” Martinez had played with a variety of prominent jazz performers, and also with Latin American bands (he himself was born in New York City and moved to Sweden in 1967, where he died 12 years later). The 1001 Albums book describes Palo Congo as “[capturing] the fury of the Cuban rumba and son styles in a studio performance”. Fury is certainly the right word, for although I enjoy a good percussionist as much as the next man, I can’t see myself putting on this album for a quiet night in. I’m assuming this music had the same function (perhaps still has) as today’s techno music, in that it’s fairly repetitive and mainly meant for frenzied dancing.

Verdict: Great rhythms, but not enough tunes for my tastes.

 

1001 Albums 0006-0008

Published May 20, 2012


My continued journey through the albums featured in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.

 

0006 Duke Ellington: Ellington At Newport (1956)


So, here’s the first pure jazz album in the book. I can’t say that I’m extremely knowledgeable about that particular genre, but my dad was a jazz fan and although he never played records very much at home, he watched a lot of jazz on TV and told me who was who etcetera, so I picked up quite a lot of information through him. As for Duke Ellington, I’m mostly familiar with classic tunes such as ‘Take The A Train’, ‘Mood Indigo’, ‘Caravan’ and ‘I Like The Sunrise’.

This album, which consists of three very long tracks (the first of which, ‘Newport Jazz Festival Suite’, takes up the entire side one), was apparently something of a comeback album for Duke Ellington, after his brand of jazz had fallen out of fashion for a while. The concert at Newport was a great success, but the recording made there apparently wasn’t up to scratch, so the original album actually features a studio recording made in New York, mixed with parts of the original concert and the sounds of the enthusiastic audience (the audience reaction is often the most exciting part of the recording).

This is not the kind of album I actively seek out. I listen to it and am able to appreciate that it is very sophisticated and expertly performed music. However, for the most part I don’t really connect with it emotionally. The great exception is the closing track, ‘Diminuendo And Crescendo In Blue’, which swings so much that I’d have to be both cloth-eared and violently anti-jazz to be able to resist it.

Verdict: Interesting to hear in a “getting educated about music history” kind of way, and I’d definitely put ‘Diminuendo And Crescendo In Blue’ on an Ellington compilation.

 

0007 Frank Sinatra: Songs For Swingin’ Lovers! (1956)

An album I’ve already heard

This is an absolutely flawless album, and one of the first Sinatra LPs I truly fell in love with. This was when Sinatra and arranger Nelson Riddle first created an album that was nothing less than magic. The recording of ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’ has to be one of the most amazing studio-recorded pieces of music ever made – because of Sinatra’s singing, of course, but even more so thanks to Nelson Riddle. Just listen to the break with the trombone solo. If that isn’t one of the most exhilarating pieces of music ever committed to tape I don’t know what is. And the song selection itself is top-notch: Cole Porter’s ‘Anything Goes’ has to be one of the best and most complete ‘pop songs’ ever written – a lesson in musical economy and cleverly-written (but not clever-clever) lyrics. I could go on, but I think I will stop here. Listen to the album instead.

Note: Frank Sinatra’s years with the Capitol label (1953–1961) are widely regarded as the most artistically rewarding of his recording career. I’d like to mention another personal favourite among the Sinatra/Riddle collaborations, which is not included in the book, namely 1960’s ballad album Nice ‘n’ Easy. If you have any taste at all for this kind of music, I advise you to check it out.

 

0008 The Crickets: The “Chirping” Crickets (1957)


Buddy Holly was perhaps the most “pop” of the early rock pioneers, and had a huge influence on the song writing of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and countless others. Before listening to this album I had only ever heard Buddy Holly’s hits and most famous songs: this LP features classics such as ‘Oh Boy’, ‘Not Fade Away’, ‘Maybe Baby’ and ‘That’ll Be The Day’. I have to say that those songs remain the standouts for me, and they are indeed incredible, as are many of the hits not featured on this album: 'Rave On', for example, which is my favourite Buddy Holly song. As for the rest of this particular LP (credited to The Crickets; it would take a couple of years before Holly received a separate credit on records), few of the other songs are anywhere near as catchy as those hits and many of them sound a bit samey.

Verdict: I already own a great Buddy Holly compilation CD and I think I’ll stick to that.

 

1001 Albums 0004-0005

Published May 13, 2012


My continued journey through the albums featured in the book
1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.


0004 Louis Prima: The Wildest! (1956)


According to the 1001 Albums book, Louis Prima had enjoyed a great deal of success in the Thirties and Forties, but was in something of a slump career-wise in the mid-Fifties. An engagement in Las Vegas, together with his wife Keely Smith and band-leader Sam Butera, turned things around, and Prima was a success from then on.

This lively album seems to be pretty much a studio-recorded version of their stage act. You can’t fault Prima and his cohorts for energy and joie-de-vivre, and the musicianship is flawless. But as much as I would have loved to see their show at the time, as a listening experience throughout a complete album the constant high-energy feels a little bit like peeking in at a party you weren’t invited to. I think the only track I’d heard before was the medley of ‘Just A Gigolo’ and ‘I Ain’t Got Nobody’, perhaps more familiar these days in David Lee Roth’s cover version, and this remains the stand-out track for me, along with ‘Jump, Jive, An’ Wail’ and ‘Buona Sera’.

Verdict: Some of the tracks here would brighten up any Fifties compilation, but I don’t think I will want to hear the album from start to finish again.


0005 Fats Domino: This Is Fats (1956)


This is more like it. I almost wrote that it was a pleasant surprise, but although I’ve basically only heard Fats Domino’s hits before, I love them all, so it wasn’t really a surprise that there was so much to enjoy on this album.

A rock’n’roll pioneer if there ever was one, Fats Domino’s singing style is inimitable and never less than charming. He doesn’t need to yell or shout or engage in vocal acrobatics to grab your attention, he’s just one of those intuitive singers who manages to make each and every song his own. His band is truly smokin’ throughout this album, so if you have any taste whatsoever for Fifties rock’n’roll, you will love this – I know I was tapping my foot from the start of the first track.

For me the album dies a little towards the end: for example, Reelin’ And Rockin’ (not the Chuck Berry song) is the kind of dreary blues-based complaint of some man being left by some woman that makes me want to press the skip button fast. But with an album containing hits such as ‘Blueberry Hill’ and ‘Blue Monday’, it feels churlish to complain.

Verdict: The first seven tracks on this album are absolutely lovely, and I’m really glad I got to hear it. Made me want to make further explorations into the Fats Domino catalogue.

Warning: If you plan on listening to this album on Spotify, for some reason the tracks on the actual album runs too slow. Fortunately, there are playlists that bring all the tracks together, but from other sources (compilation albums etc.).

 

1001 Albums 0001-0003

Published May 04, 2012


The start of my journey through the albums featured in the book
1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.


0001 Frank Sinatra: In The Wee Small Hours (1955)

An album I’ve already heard

I first got into Frank Sinatra when I was 18. At that time, Swedish radio broadcast a 10-part series about Sinatra’s life and career. I was hooked from the start and taped most of the songs in the series onto cassette tapes. I knew that my dad had a number of Sinatra albums that I hadn’t really paid much attention to before, but I started playing them as well. I loved almost everything I heard. Most of the time, Frank Sinatra’s singing sounded so effortless, and he also became my way into what’s known as The American Songbook, i.e. songs by composers such as Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hart, George & Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin and many others.

This 1955 album was not in my dad’s collection, but I bought it a year or two into my discovery of Sinatra and have listened to it many times since then. The 1001 Albums book doesn’t mention it, but some hail this collection of songs about loneliness and heartbreak as one of the first concept albums. It is certainly a great album, not least thanks to the wonderful arrangements by Nelson Riddle, although, as I listened to it the other day, I found 16 straight tracks of “woe is me” a little too much. But I certainly wouldn’t want to live without selections such as ‘Mood Indigo’, ‘Glad To Be Unhappy’, ‘I Get Along Without You Very Well’, ‘What Is This Thing Called Love’ and the title track.


0002 Elvis Presley: Elvis Presley (1956)

An album I’ve already heard

This could probably be labelled the opposite to a concept album, since the album was a mix of tracks recorded over a two-year period, presumably assembled on vinyl with no other thought than putting together an album of assorted Elvis recordings. Some of the titles were among his earliest recordings, made while he was with Sun Records 1954–1955, while the remainder were recorded in 1956, after he signed with RCA, who released this as his début album.

I’ve come to Elvis through compilation albums and box sets, mainly the exhaustive, chronologically-by-recording-date box sets that were released in the Nineties. So although I’d already heard all the tracks on this album, I’d never heard them in this particular order before. No matter, since Elvis’ Fifties output is pretty much flawless: this is where rock’n’roll as performed by white country/hillbilly singers was born. All the tracks on this virtually hit-free album (the current CD reissue adds several hits such as ‘Heartbreak Hotel’) are great. Perhaps one could say that Elvis’ ‘Tutti Frutti’ pales a little next to Little Richard’s original version, although, of course, it’s nowhere near as pale as Pat Boone’s hit version – but then, few things are.

I still think I prefer listening to the tracks as presented in the box set The King of Rock 'n' Roll: The Complete 50's Masters, with everything in chronological order – first the Sun sessions with their special lo-fi atmosphere, and then the slightly more polished RCA recordings.

If you’re interested in learning more about this particular album, there’s a great episode of the Classic Albums TV series available on DVD.


0003 The Louvin Brothers: Tragic Songs Of Life (1956)


So, here’s the first album in the book that I hadn’t actually heard before. In fact, before giving this album a couple of spins I had only ever heard one or two songs by The Louvin Brothers, mainly thanks to a country music fan in my music quiz team. The duo, consisting of brothers Charlie and Ira Louvin, were country music pioneers, known not only for their music but for Ira’s violent lifestyle; he ended up dying in a car crash in 1965.

I can’t say that I’ve listened to a massive amount of country music in my life, although I have enjoyed much of what I’ve heard and I keep thinking that I should buy more country albums. However, I think I prefer the really commercial country sounds of the Sixties and early Seventies: lushly produced, hummable songs.

The Louvin Brothers’ bluegrass style, sparsely instrumented and featuring two-part harmony singing on virtually every song, is perhaps a little two rootsy for my tastes. It’s nice to listen to and the singing is great, but after a while the songs tend to sound the same to me and nothing ever really grabbed my attention. I imagine I would enjoy some of the tracks here more on a various artists compilation, where the “temperature” wouldn’t be near-identical on track after track.

Verdict: A pleasant listening-experience, but I probably won’t seek it out again.

 

1001 Albums I Will Try To Hear Before I Die

Published May 01, 2012


Are you familiar with the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die? It was first published in 2005 and the idea behind the book is straightforward enough: capsule reviews, in chronological order, of 1001 popular music albums from 1954 to the present day – assembled by a group of editors and critics – that one should lend one’s ears to before one shuffles off this mortal coil. Compilation albums and Various Artists albums have not been allowed as inclusions, which means there is no Saturday Night Fever, for instance. It seems the starting point of 1955 was chosen because it was 50 years before the book’s original year of publication (the book has since been updated a number of times, the latest edition being published in 2011) and also because 1955 is roughly when the “rock era” started.

A book that purports to present a “canon” will always be controversial – I’m sure the people behind the book have been subject to exclamations such as “how could you include this album but exclude that album???” and similar cries of outrage. Personally, I feel there are at least two different ways to approach a book like this: expecting to have your own tastes in music validated and reflected, and feeling offended and incensed when it fails to do so; or taking its title with a pinch of salt (as I’m sure the people who thought it up do) and use it as inspiration to look up albums that may pique your curiosity.

Being an anal sort of person I, of course, had to count the number of albums in the book that I’d already heard. It was actually no more than (or, depending on your point of view, as many as) 216 albums, which accounts for 21.6 per cent of the titles in the book. Unless you’re a music critic/journalist/historian or the kind of person who tends to listen to what music critics/journalists/historians tell them are truly important or significant long-players, I’m guessing your count wouldn’t be much higher.

Most of us do tend to listen to the music of a fairly limited number of artists, and to explore the discography of those particular acts in-depth, and also, perhaps, stick to a few select genres – if you’re into, say, heavy metal and grunge, perhaps you don’t own many albums by disco acts or easy listening crooners. In my opinion, for instance, many lives out there would be enriched if they lent an ear to albums by “sunshine pop” acts such as Harpers Bizarre, The Free Design, The Association and The 5th Dimension – I have all their albums (or at least most of them), but none of them are represented in the book.

Also, some of the albums included in the book I don’t exactly recall if I’ve heard in their entirety or not, so they couldn’t be counted. And although I don’t have any memory of listening to, say, Madonna’s Like A Prayer album from start to finish, I seem to remember she released a gazillion singles from it, so I’ve probably heard most of it.

What I intend to do now is to embark on an insane project: to listen to each and every of the 1001 albums in the book (well, the ones I haven’t heard before or not very recently at least) and to list my impressions in this blog. I will also write a few lines about the albums I’ve already heard. I will use the most recent edition available at this moment in time, which is the 2011 edition.

Will I make it to the end? How long will it take me? Will I actually endure listening all the way through to albums that I actively dislike? And, more pertinently, will I be able to access all the albums I want to hear without facing financial ruin? I’m sure Spotify will be a great aid, and perhaps also the album collections of friends and acquaintances. Join me on this journey and we’ll see how it goes – wish me luck!

I expect to post my first album impressions in a few days. Watch this space...