Sunday, 15 October 2017

10 Albums from 1972

10 Albums from 1972

Another very strong year (perhaps not as strong as ’71, though).

One problem that I have been facing here has been what to do when an artist has a particularly fertile flurry of releases. For instance, this year marks such a patch for two artists, Stevie Wonder and Al Green. Taking the latter, last year it took an act of total discipline not to include Green’s Hi debut, the awesome Gets Next to You. During ’72 he released two great albums Let’s Stay Together and I’m Still in Love With You and in ’73, he gave us what some call his finest work Call Me.

I have said before that what I want to avoid is writing the same thing over and over again, so I do not want to include every release in such a flurry. Noting that there have already been a few artists where exactly this problem has occurred (Black Sabbath, Curtis Mayfield, Funkadelic), I have decided to note explicitly when this is happening – just so people don’t think that I am neglecting great records inappropriately.

Stephen Stills (Manassas) – Manassas

You don’t hear too much about Stephen Stills anymore – at least I don’t. 1972 was about the end of a pretty incredible period of musical activity. In the 60s he was in Buffalo Springfield and wrote some of their greatest hits (along with Neil Young – see below), then he joined forces with David Crosby (see 1971) and Graham Nash (never my favourite) and Neil Young again with CSN(&Y). He produced a couple of solo LPs; the first spawning the monster hit (If You Can’t Be With the One You Love) Love The One You’re With. And then in 1972, there’s this. I think that he may have poured all that was left of his talent into this record, as it’s amazing, and nothing afterwards comes close. Shame.

Manassas lasted two albums but this is the one. In short it is Stills along with Chris Hillman (of the Byrds, Burrito Brothers) and a bunch of top-notch musicians from the West Coast rock scene. Stills throws everything at this record, and it should have been a massive shambles, but against the odds it works. As a double album with four sides, each side had it’s own mood and style; classic rock, Latin, folk-rock, country. And throughout it all it produces some monster tracks; Song of Love, Both of Us (Bound to Lose), So Begins The Task, Johnny’s Garden, Bound to Fall, The Treasure. If you want a measure of how great this record is, Bill Wyman of the Stones said that he would have left Mick and Keith and the lads and joined Manassas if asked. It’s probably best, all things considered that he wasn’t, but that’s a hell of a testament to how good Stills was in ’72.

War – The World is a Ghetto

This LA Soul/Funk/Latin band made a name for themselves by providing loose, extended improvised jams that reflected the serious talent of all seven members. Initially they had toured with Eric Burdon of The Animals, but they soon struck out without him, and as much as Burdon could be a fine vocalist, this was for the best. It enabled them to refine their sound and tighten up their songs. I can’t say that I have heard all of War’s albums but this one kicks ass. It opens with the monster, The Cisco Kid, free and deeply rhythmic with the most infectious sing-along lyrics. City Country City offers a 13 minute showcase for the whole band to stretch out and show off. However, it is the second side where the album hits the heights. Four Cornered Room is a seriously funky lament that could be straight off Funkadelic’s first album. It’s a heady mixture of smoke and blues and feeling. The title track rivals Donny Hathaway’s similarly titled classic, and has the same social consciousness that we see in Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On? It is bright, funky, sweet and full of sadness and hope. It also features an incredible saxophone solo from Charles Miller. Beautiful! The album closes with the bizarre Beetles in the Bog which reminds me a little of some Rastafarian chant music (Ras Michael & Dadawah or African Head Charge from the Songs of Praise period). As odd as it is, it is infectious and hard to resist. A great record!

Jean-Claude Vannier – L’Enfant Assassin Des Mouches

You may recall Vannier from ’71, when we mentioned Gainsbourg’s Histoire De Melody Nelson. As the arranger, Vannier was a key part of what made that project so special. Here Vannier is in the driver’s seat and the result is total, unabashed insanity. Taking his lead from a short story proposed by Gainsbourg of a child who attempts to kill a fly and is later defeated by those flies (see the insert below), Vannier constructs the story. It is made up of noises, mad indescribable noises, sometimes for minutes at a time. But between those nightmarish visions are some of the coolest and out-there musical moments that you might find anywhere; some groove, some rock, some have a distinct circus feeling. It doesn’t matter, they’re all awesome. In addition, it has become incredibly influential – these are the templates for late-period Pulp, Beck, Air pretty much based their entire career of it.

In all honesty, this is not always the smoothest listen. It is insane. And while listening I asked myself whether this was as pleasant a listening experience as say, The Isley Brothers’ Brother, Brother, Brother, which has not made the cut. Truth is, no it isn’t. But while the Isley’s album is great – definitely recommended – it has a small fraction of the ideas of Vannier. If I was forced at gunpoint to give up one or the other, it’ll be the Isleys. Vannier is simply too interesting to let go.

Bill Withers – Still Bill

I almost included Withers’ first album, Just As I Am in my 1971 list. It is an incredible debut containing the classic Ain’t No Sunshine and the beautiful tribute Grandma’s Hands. (Side note: It was produced by Booker T and featured lead guitar by Stephen Stills – further confirming the latter’s great final years.) It was a great album in a great year and I was sad not to include it. But perhaps it was for the best as it leaves this possibly stronger follow up space in 1972. This time, it contains three cast-iron monsters: the uplifting Lean on Me, the deep groove of the paranoid Who Is He (And What is He To You?), and the funky Use Me which has been covered almost as often as Sunshine.

What is so cool about Withers is how he is so funky while being so incredibly restrained. While our typical mental image of a soul singer is somewhat sweaty (think James Brown, Otis, Isaac Hayes or Barry White), even in the midst of a track as danceable as Use Me, it is inconceivable that Withers has even a hair out of place – he is that unflappable. As an album every track is cool, like sunset on a summer’s evening – there’s no rush, no hustle, but there’s no sitting still either. It is grooves so deep – check out Kissin’ My Love with it’s sampleable guitar lines and subtle arrangements. Withers’ discography continues in this vein over the next few years: ’73 brings Live at Carnegie Hall which underlines the genius of these two albums, and +Justments continues the groove present here in ’74. Genius!

Neil Young – Harvest

Neil Young has been a mainstay of American rock it’s hard to imagine a time when he wasn’t important. It’s incredible to think that in 1972, Young had been around for six years and that during that time he had formed Buffalo Springfield with Stephen Stills and Richie Furay – one of the finest West Coast groups of the 60s, released an album with Crosby, Stills and Nash – one of the biggest selling records in rock music history, and released four albums. Not one of them were slouches; each record had it’s own character and contain enough classics to be safe for credit and royalties for the rest of his life. And then, Harvest, which is possibly his best record. I say possibly because there are other contenders. Anyway, it’s safe to say that Young sits in the rarified company of Dylan and maybe one or two others: Bowie, the Stones, Leonard Cohen perhaps.

Harvest is magnificent but in a very relaxed, downhome sort of way. None of the songs feel urgent or visceral. While it is safe to say that Young is never really content with the world – there’s always something to be dissatisfied about – nonetheless, this record is a relatively easy listen. It is one of Young’s most country records, every song is embellished by steel guitar.

Anyway, if you’ve stuck with me this far you probably know this record as well as I do. If not, and you’re still with me, please rectify this as soon as possible. Not one song is wasted, every one is gorgeous. Virtually every song here is, or should be, part of the Classic Rock canon; A Man Needs a Maid, Heart of Gold, Old Man, Alabama, The Needle and the Damage Done.

Lal & Mike Waterson – Bright Phoebus

This is a very late addition to the list of 1972 albums. While it was originally released in that year, it very quickly disappeared and only received a CD release earlier this year. A little context is necessary: The Watersons were the first family of the ‘60s folk revival. They had made a name for themselves in creating very pure, very faithful reproductions of the British folk traditions. Their style was stark and unadorned by anything that could be described as modern, singing as they did songs that dated back decades, if not centuries, and singing without instrumentation, they sound like the recordings themselves may date back that far too. So when Lal & Mike released this album of new songs with ‘new’ instrumentation (I placed new in inverted commas there because there is nothing that might strike us as modern), it was viewed as something like a betrayal.

The second thing I should note before I really dig in is to say something about Lal & Mike – their voices are as stark as the songs, fully embodying the North East; cold, stern, bitter, devoid of obvious signs of warmth. The production, even when adorned by sympathetic arrangement, still pushes the vocals up front. There is something very Nico-like about this, where the voices are strong and imposing and forcing themselves upon all else.

But then, the songs. While they fit into two broad types; the jaunty and the not, the lyrics maintains the subject matter of the traditional materials; nature, death, despair, isolation. Danny Rose is, to the ears, a light rock’n’roll style number and is possibly the most upbeat here, is about a violent thief who stole a car, crashed it and died in the subsequent explosion. The Magical Man is again jaunty, apparently celebrating a mysterious magician. Closer looking at the lyrics suggests something sinister.

But then, the stars of the show are the ballads sung by Lal. The combination of her deep sonorous voice, foreboding and the solo guitar and light-touch arrangement of strings is honestly spine-chilling. To Make You Stay sings a song of abandonment. Never the Same tells a horrifying story Rosemary’s death on the hillside.

But Johnny can’t play no more,
Rosemary’s lying in a shower of rain.
If we live another day,
We’ll never be the same again.

The album closes on the title track, which refers to the sun. While it is, ostensibly, a happy song – it is lovely when the sun comes out for the first time – there’s something a little Wicker Man about it. And here we find another striking parallel – a picture of an England gone by brought into contact with (1970s) modernity producing something both beautiful and a little unsettling.

Al Green – Let’s Stay Together

Along with Bill Withers, The Reverend Al Green almost appeared last year. Again, like Withers, he could easily show up next year too. Both artists had incredible periods during this time (see my introduction). Obviously, this album has the outstanding title track – a staple of wedding discos. Quite rightly (full disclosure: it was Bella and my first dance at our wedding), it is beautiful; soulful and uplifting and has that easy warmth that Green is known for. It is also massive. I don’t know anyone that does not have at least a deep regard for that track. And this song alone would be enough to make the album necessary. However, what ensures its inclusion on this list is the eight songs that follow. Not one disappoints is could be described as optional. Not a single one!

La-La For You is smooth Southern soul of the highest order. Remember! Al Green was recording with Willie Mitchell’s Hi Records at it’s finest point. Mitchell was a genius producer. His band was the shit! It’s not for nothing that bands and artists up to the present has headed to Memphis to record with these guys, even to the present day. Anyway, track three So You’re Leaving drives and pulsated – no-one could leave this song. You get the picture? Every song is a masterclass of early 70s Southern Soul. It is the perfect blend of smooth and grit. 

Lou Reed – Transformer

So I was at my friend’s house not so long ago and he put on some Lou Reed (this album as it happens), and I admitted that I have never really gotten on with him very well. I love the Velvet Underground without question, but a little like the John/Paul debate post-Beatles, I again dug John over Lou (see next year for Cale’s eventual arrival to these lists). But the exception is this album, of course. The ‘of course’ is mandatory. Any album with Vicious, Perfect Day, Satellite of Love and, of course, Walk on the Wild Side is somewhat obligatory. I still remember the first time I heard Wild Side – it was a cafĂ© or restaurant or bar in Jersey. I was holidaying with my mother and her friend and I was around 13. It was on the juke box and I must have put it on half a dozen times (the spare change no doubt a ploy of my mother’s to keep me distracted). I don’t think I realised how transgressive the song is – not least because the other song I fixated on that night was Gloria by Laura Branigan. It was many years until I found out that that song was a gay disco anthem.

So, Transformer. It has the classics listed above and it was produced by David Bowie – you can hear him in the background along with Mick Ronson. It also has 8 other songs that are also excellent and do what Lou Reed songs do best – capture snippets of life, romanticise them or de-romanticise them (depending on what is appropriate), or at the very least offer three minute reasons to still love rock music. If you only listen to one Lou Reed album – make it Transformer.

Terry Callier – What Color is Love?

Where to put Terry Callier? He exists in the nexus between folk, jazz, soul and funk along with people like Nina Simone, Gil Scott-Heron or Richie Havens. Picking up different albums may be more this or that. His early 60s albums are more folk, for instance. Like so many of these guys he has a great story that I encourage you to check out (once you’ve caught his records, of course!). He was supported and encouraged by the legendary Charles Stepney of Chess records and this album is typical Stepney; it is jazzy, funky and lush with incredible arrangements. (Also check out Minnie Riperton, or The Dells 70’s output.)

The album here is exemplified by two tracks: the opener Dancing Girl and the funky You Goin’ Miss Your Candyman. Both of these tracks are extended workouts that show the breadth of both Callier and Stepney. The former begins so delicately with a light filigree guitar and chimes. Callier sings of dreams and we seem to be slipping into an out of body experience. The dancing girl of his dreams leads Callier into a meditation of the music as two minutes in all breaks down and a light but persistent groove takes over, Callier referencing Hathaway, Charlie Parker. As a piece it soars – reflecting the healing, transformative powers of music, as the grooves becomes more persistent again at 5 minutes. Callier lets go and vocalises freely as the horns and strings swirl around him. It has the freedom of jazz, but the groove and constraints of 70s soul music. Candyman is more contained, more funky – holding a heavy bassline down accompanied by propulsive percussion. It just pushes onward and onward. If you don’t want to move, you’re dead – I’m sorry to break it to you so bluntly.

I have focused on these two tracks, but the truth is that I could have written about any of the seven here just as effusively. Some are ballads, some are almost poetry. The album closes with the lush, smooth, lovely You Don’t Care. I’ve never been more conflicted. I care deeply. But it’s so pretty.

David Bowie – The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

Hunky Dory was amazing but the step between that album and this is incredible. In truth, it took me a long time to see it. From first listen, I loved Ziggy and appreciated it but it was a good while before I saw the progression involved and how sophisticated a record it was. I don’t know why – I think that other Bowie records just sung out more to me than others. I remember sitting on the bus listening to Moonage Daydream, and the structure, the production, the lyrics and simply being blown away by it all. From the opening bursts of guitar, to the immediate restraint, to the chorus, to the jittery title – all within the first minute and nothing is wrong or out and all with deeply signifying lyrics. And as the song progresses the arrangement becomes more and more complex. And Ronson’s guitar solo! It is unbelievably beautiful. I love Hunky Dory like mad – but nothing on it comes close to this one song!

And the rest of the album maintains this exceptional standard. The opener Five Years is theatrical in all the best ways, as is the closer Rock’n’Roll Suicide. The title track is iconic. It is easy to see why Bowie’s performance of Starman on Top of the Pops was held like an epiphany to a future generation of artists, musicians and writers (many of whom are likely to appear in future posts of these lists). Not one song is filler, not one song is wasted. Every song invites you to either sing along or listen closely.

In writing these posts I have shied away from making any excessive claims about the records I have chosen. I do not propose that they are the best records of their respective years, just interesting or worthy. They may be my favourites but I am not even sure how much I want to commit to that. Some of the albums that slip off the lists might have made them on another day. But this record is within a very decent shout of being the best of 1972. It is that good.

And also…

It’s been an incredible year for Stevie Wonder. He produced his wife, Syreeta’s eponymous album, which is lovely. But on top of that he released two astonishing records, Music of my Mind and the amazing Talking Book. The latter was comfortably in the top ten, but I am going to hold off commenting until next year and Innervisions, which just about tops it – even though it doesn’t have Superstition on it.

And nearly…

Aretha Franklin – Young, Gifted and Black Her last great LP - more upbeat than Spirit in the Dark but a multi-faceted monster of an album. (If you want to know why, check out ‘Rocksteady’- Wowzer!) Curtis Mayfield – Superfly A real contender along with his debut (1970) for the best in a very rich career. Along with the classic title track, we have Pusherman and Freddie’s Dead – both monsters. Without doubt my favourite soundtrack ever. The Staple SingersBealtitude… Big Star - #1 Record… Candi Staton – Candi Staton

Friday, 29 September 2017

10 Albums from 1971

Before we leap straight in, let me bring up two things: I am going to have to be briefer. I am just about to embark upon a pretty demanding course and I just cannot devote large amounts of time in this project, no matter how enjoyable.

Secondly; but damn, 1971 has been a tough year. I thought 1970 was tough. Seriously – I felt really bad that some great albums had been relegated to a quick paragraph at the end. Now I feel that some horrendous injustice is afoot. There is a clear twenty albums that could easily be in the top 10. As I was listening though, there were several albums that I was nodding to myself thinking, yup – safe contender – only for it to slip out of contention when it came time for the final cut.

So anyway, let’s get on. In case you missed the previous (and first) instalment, I am listing ten albums from each year of my life. 1970, my first year, has gone and we are onto the second. I do not claim that these are necessarily the BEST albums, but that they are awesome albums worthy of a listen if you’re not already tuned in…

Oh yes, and this time in reverse order!

Eugene McDaniels – Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse

Of all of the interesting people, The Left Rev. McDaniels is up there. Set out on a MOR uptown mood in the early 60s with classics such as Tower of Strength, he moved to Europe, wrote songs for Roberta Flack, including the cast-iron classic Compared to What before producing this album and Outlaw for Atlantic. Nothing that came before can prepare the listener for these two albums – not even the biting cynicism of his work with Flack. Pitched somewhere between soul, jazz, funk with strong doses of psychedelia and what could plausibly be called proto-hip-hop, the album suggests a curious space where anything could happen. Opening with the two punch of The Lord is Back, a demanding meditation of the relationship between society, religion and judgement, and Jagger the Dagger, a tribute cum condemnation of Jagger post-Altamont, both tracks carry a swamp-like, jazzy mood – somewhere between Funkadelic and Dr. John. The album sometimes veers into a more straightforward arrangement, but the lyrical devastation continues. Freedom Death Dance calls out the empty platitudes of those who would simply entertain us to social justice – “there’s no amount of dancing that will ban the bomb, guarantee equality… make us free”. On the one hand the album has been sampled to death, which pretty much guarantees a solid listen, on the other, it was called to be removed from the shelves by Spiro Agnew, Nixon’s right hand; the message was seen to be so incendiary.

Comus – First Utterance

This is one of the weirdest records that will appear on any of these lists. This is the archetype of acid-folk or freak-folk (whichever); from the cover (grotesque), instrumentation (violins, flutes, bongos, oboes), lyrical matter (crucifixion, necrophilia, madness). All of the songs are obsessed with the madness of drugs, occult, mythologies, and are, frankly, a little disturbing – if not disturbed. They were early contemporaries with Bowie hanging out at the Beckenham Arts Lab, supported by Arthur Lee and other luminaries. Notes from the 2005 anthology suggest that they made the pre-superstar Bowie look like the epitome of normality. Listening now and comparing it to the pre-Ziggy records, I can imagine.

All this would be fine, except that they are also excellent musicians. The songs, long and perhaps overly fanciful, are interesting and they contain enough hooks to keep you connected. Furthermore, there is a serious groove – a deep rhythm that is not lost even when everything turns to insanity. It’s just a shame that no-one bought the record – I guess it was just a little leftfield…

Baby Huey – The Legend of Baby Huey

I said in the previous instalment that Donny Hathaway was one of the most tragic figures in seventies soul – here is another one. James Thomas Ramey, aka Baby Huey was 400 pounds of soul. He suffered from health problems and other problems and when he died in October 1970, no-one could say for sure whether it was weight or drugs. Doubly tragic was that this was weeks after the death of his close friend, Jimi Hendrix. More so, he never saw the release of this, his only LP, released posthumously and produced by his mentor Curtis Mayfield on Curtom records.

What is evident from these eight songs is that this was a party band. From the bombastic opener Listen To Me, every song demands your attention, your soul and your body – you are not sitting still. His cover of Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come is amazing and eye-opening with a firm psychedelic nod. His versions of Mayfield’s own Mighty Mighty and Hard Times rival the master’s – the latter is perhaps the definitive version. I have never ever regretted popping this album on to play. Not once!

Rolling Stones – Sticky Fingers

Given that the Stones are often considered a 60s band, you could be forgiven for forgetting that their purple period was in the early 70s. Post-Altamont, post sixties, post-Beatles, they plunged headlong into the American rhythm and blues that had inspired them so deeply in the first place. Gone is any trace of whimsy, psychedelia – here we set the template of the Stones as a blues and rock’n’roll band first and foremost that has characterised most of their career ever since. While it is in many respects similar to Exile on Main Street that follows, and to be honest often garners more critical acclaim, I prefer this one. It is more immediate and retains just a little of the pop spirit that is lacking in the latter. Just look at the classics that sit here; Brown Sugar, Wild Horses, Can’t You Hear Me Knocking, Sister Morphine. These songs will never get tired or wearisome. Even the other songs, which might not be so memorable, rock and roll with the best of the bands (incredible) career.

Serge Gainsbourg – Histoire De Melody Nelson

I am not sure why I decided to check this album out – I guess I must have read something somewhere. Either way, I found a copy in a Virgin Megastore. It was £15.99, which was very expensive even then. Because of the price I took it to the counter and asked if I could listen to it first. I was directed to a player on the side and I popped it in. It opens with a very cool bass line, which languidly grooves along for a couple of minutes. Gainsbourg mutters away in French. I do not know the language so it was a while until I had any idea what it was all about (I don’t it would have added or taken anything away ). Some jagged guitar creeps in for a little while and then slips away again. And then, after about three minutes, the strings come in and the whole things goes up another gear. It was at this point I was hooked and I knew that I was going to buy it. I also knew that I was never going to regret that price-tag.  It’s a super-short album (28 minutes) and it bookended by two seven-ish minute pieces. The intervening tracks are fun, sexy, infuriating, hilarious (remember I do not speak French). Gainsbourg became an obsession for me, but what I didn’t know then was that the arrangements were the work of maverick producer-arranger Jean-Claude Vannier. (We may see more of him next year.) The work these guys did together is essential in my view, and this is the pinnacle.

David Crosby – If I Could Only Remember My Name

David Crosby been (at least partially) responsible for a whole bunch of great records. From his work in the Byrds and later CSN(&Y) and also the collaborative role that he has taken on a bunch of others’ records, including people like Joni Mitchell, Judee Sill and so on. But if you want a single document to pinpoint the reason why he is a musical genius, this is the one. And it was a record that came from tragedy – following the death of his girlfriend; and a record that came from confusion – being caught between post-Woodstock and post-Altamont, post summer of love, post-Manson. Legend has it that Crosby hunkered down in his home/studio and invited all of his friends. These friends made up a who’s who of San Francisco’s finest: Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead and of course, Stills, Nash, Young and Joni Mitchell. The outcome was this album.

It has been described as the perfect comedown album. I don’t know about that, but the cover is of a sunset and it is one of the most appropriate album covers I can think of. The deep oranges and the rippling textures match the warmth and restfulness of the record. It is an album of 12 strings, open-tunings, harmonies and reverb. It contains good vibes and wistfulness and a hopefulness. Even when Crosby is being critical (Laughing is directed at devotees of the Maharishi), it falls short of being condemning. In short, it’s a lovely, warm, pretty record.

Marvin Gaye – What’s Goin’ On

This is often described as the greatest soul album ever made. I disagree that it is THE greatest, but it is unquestionably one of them. Thousands of words have already been devoted to it, so I’ll try not to add too many more. Musically, it is gorgeous. The Motown musicians were often the real stars of the label (here for the first time credited on the sleeve at Gaye’s insistence!) and if you want to know why they are considered so incredible, this is the record. The arrangements are beautiful too as each piece segues perfectly one to another. Lyrically – there were many socially conscious songwriters operating within the soul universe (how could there not be!?), but I can think of no other album so perfectly devoted to the range of issues facing the US at the turn of the decade. Marvin manages to marry this lament at the state of the world with faith, hope and love – giving reason to not give up. Anyway, it’s genius – I love it.

Dr. John – The Sun, Moon and Herbs

For those who are familiar with Dr. John, aka Mac Rebenback, this is a transitional album. It sits between Dr. John The Night Tripper and Dr. John the interpreter of New Orleans long traditions, breathing new life into Professor Longhair, Huey Smith and so on. The Night Tripper is voodoo, murky, dangerous, a wrong turn and is present on Craney Crow, Zu Zu Mamou. Later Dr. John is lighter, jaunty, feels like a parade and can be found on Where You At, Mule? and Familiar Reality.  As a result, it represents a perfect balance of this doubly rich period of Mac’s career. Legend has it that it was supposed to have a double or triple album but that Dr. John was so stoned that he left it in the back of a taxi or something. The possibilities of what was lost are fascinating.

As it is, each track is as rich and layered as you would ever hope from a Dr. John album. Craney Crow and Zu Zu Mamou include swamp-like nocturnal rhythms, whispers, percussion, fantastic backing vocals. On the other hand, Familiar Reality feels like Mardi Gras, all joy and daylight. What’s not to love?

David Bowie – Hunky Dory

Let’s face it; this whole project is going to have a problem with Bowie. I decided on the first post that I would not include albums by the same artists unless there was some clear progression between the records or that I had something new or interesting to say (hence this year we are missing Roots by Curtis Mayfield, Black Moses by Isaac Hayes and Maggot Brain by Funkadelic.) Almost every year in the 1970s Bowie put out a record that was both awesome and a clear progression from the one that went before. Time will tell how much this is going to impact this silly little project of mine, but there is no doubt that 1971 marks the first truly awesome Bowie record, Hunky Dory.

A million words have been devoted to this record and I doubt that there are many people reading this that don’t already know (and probably love) it, but let’s note a few things. Firstly, virtually every song here could have been a single. Listening now, it feels like they were – Changes, Oh! You Pretty Things, Life on Mars. Even the album tracks are loaded with hooks and their own earworms. Bowie’s songwriting, both musically and lyrically, has truly come into its own. When he is down at home, the writing is close and immediate and accessible. When he is staring to the stars, he already has the obscure and mysterious elements in place. Bowie’s journey was just starting with this album, but the key pieces of the puzzle are already in place.

The Doors – L.A. Woman

It feels odd that this should be in 1971. I think of The Doors as squarely a 1960s band (unlike say, The Stones, who I know straddle two or even three decades). But this was released in 1971, just before Morrison’s death. What can you do? Rules are rules.

I am not 100% sure why this is my favourite Doors album. Maybe it is their best or maybe it simply that this is the first album that I really connected with. Either way, this is a record I love unquestioningly from beginning to end – even when I can see its flaws. It opens with a barnstorming one-two of The Changling followed by Love Her Madly. The former a bone shaking blues number, the latter a classic Doors track. From thereon in, the album never lets up. So long as you’re not put off by Morrison’s preposterous lyrics, every track is a monster. Densmore, Manzarek and Kreiger are all on top form and make the most of every opportunity. The album as a whole feels more indebted to the blues than any of the previous records – only Love Her Madly, L’America and Hyacinth House seem to lie outside that tradition.

To finish your final (official) album with Riders on the Storm, that’s pretty cool, yes? It does seem to me the musical equivalent of riding off into the sunset.

And nearly….

Al Green – Gets Next to You… Rod Stewart – Every Picture Tells a Story… Alice Coltrane – Journey in Satchidanandra… Bill Withers – Just As I Am… Gil Scott Heron – Pieces of a Man… Francoise Hardy – La Question….

Finally, apologies for the scrappy writing. I want to carry on doing these, but I am rushing them a little... 1972 will follow soon-ish....

Sunday, 17 September 2017

10 Albums From 1970

A while ago, a friend suggested a silly game on Facebook – I don’t know how it came to him – to name a favourite film for every year since you were born. It was fun and silly and wasted a good amount of time and spawned a good amount of discussion. Given how much I like a list, and given how much I like to talk about music even more than I like to talk about movies, I thought a similar game could be played with records.

Of course, choosing a single favourite is impossible and absurd. I set to the task with gusto and went year by year, noting every album I found interesting, that could possibly be a contender. In the end I had a list of just under a thousand albums covering 47 years of life. You do the math…

Anyway, I decided to whittle each year down to ten on the basis of what I enjoyed the most and what I felt that I would want people to listen to, if they hadn’t already checked this or that artist out. I will stress, therefore, these are not claimed to be the best albums of any given year, or even necessarily my favourites (they are liable to shift and change). But they are close to my favourites – at least they are right now.

I hope that you enjoy this ridiculous task as much as me, and I would love to know what albums you agree with, or disagree with, or would include instead.

Let’s begin with the year of my birth, 1970…

Funkadelic – Funkadelic

Holy cow, this is an incredible album and it never fails to make me happy. It was introduced to me in 1990 by a man called Frank. This is not the time to go into detail, but Frank was a seer when it comes to music. To say that he was ahead of the curve was an understatement, especially when we recall that there was no internet etc. Who knows where Frank is now, but I hope he is well. If I meet him, I will thank him for introducing me to this album.

In 1990 I had no idea what funk music was and given the variations within the genre it is forgivable to be uncertain, but this has only a faint family resemblance to the godfather, James Brown. It’s not even that close to what George Clinton’s various bands would become at the end of the decade (P-funk etc.). Instead it is a murky, swampy, acid-drenched smudge between soul, funk, rock and the blues. It’s not a million miles away from Gris-Gris era Dr. John, Electric Ladyland Hendrix or even the looser end of The Doors but with a massive dollop of Sly Stone thrown in.

Each track has a groove as deep as the Mariana Trench. When I listen I want to sing along, move, slap, rejoice in this bewildering, carnal, profane world. What is soul?, they sing – a joint wrapped in toilet paper, rusty ankles and ashy kneecaps, a hamhock in your cornflakes. Who knows? They don’t know either. But if I was to recommend one album from the year of my birth, this would be it.

Black Sabbath – Paranoid

I cannot remember when I first heard Sabbath. My mother had a tape copy of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. My uncle, a large scale provider of metal in my early teens, wasn’t too keen – he preferred NWOBHM; I can’t recall him ever sharing anything with me. I know that I bought a copy of Live at Last – I was probably around 13 – so they must have made an impression. But it wasn’t until my friend Ezzy loaned me a cassette copy of Paranoid in 1989 that I finally understood.

When the most boring song on an album is also the most famous single, not just of the album, but of your whole career, then there is a good chance that this album is something pretty special.

I encourage you to sit and listen to any single song on that album, and listen closely to the three principal instruments; drums, bass and guitar. The drums are pounding – not quite as heavy as John Bonham, but they provide the rhythmic bottom line. They, more than anything else – even Iommi’s heavy heavy riffs, underline the industrial factory tone that Sabbath said was the inspiration and imprint for the sound they were to create. They are sophisticated, switching the rhythms around, flipping from drum/snare/hi-hat to toms, mixing up the variations. The bass reveals Butler’s tradition in the jazz/R&B groups of his youth. Where heavy metal later became a vehicle for masturbatory guitarists, bass players like Geezer Bulter’s followed the Who’s John Entwistle in keeping very very busy. As soon as Butler is freed from service of the riff (as in Electric Funeral), he’s off and providing an endlessly fascinating bottom line that is always responding to Bill Ward’s drumming. And then there’s Tony Iommi – one of the greatest guitar players in all of rock and much like Butler and Ward under-rated even when he’s being praised. His riffs are legendary, and his solos do exactly what they need to do – and no more. Finally, on top of it all, there’s Ozzy. Never the greatest singer or lyricist, but coupled with such a backdrop we find that his limitations become strengths.

Any of the first four albums by Sabbath are worth a listen, but if I had to choose one – it would be this one.

Donny Hathaway – Everything is Everything

Donny Hathaway is one of the most tragic figures in 1970s soul. Classically trained, worked with everyone from Franklin to Mayfield to Motown and most famously Roberta Flack. However, he struggled with mental illness and committed suicide in 1979 cutting short an incredible career.

His albums have a richness of textures and structures that is uncommon in soul. He draws on classical, jazz, latin influences to create a much more layered music. Nonetheless, this does not suck the life out of the music – it’s as funky as Mayfield and has as much soul as Stevie – just check out the opening to the first track, Voices Inside – deep groove with the most uplifting horn arrangement.

The album is stacked full of monster tracks. I Believe To My Soul is blues rhythm, with Stevie Wonder flourishes, huge brass blasts – a chorus line that is somewhere between Abbey Road and Hey Joe. Unsurprisingly, this is written by Ray Charles but the arrangement is to die for. Sugar Lee is halfway between jazz and campfire riffing – all shouts and handclaps. Young, Gifted and Black – one of Nina Simone’s most famous tunes gets an extended gospel work-out.

The star of the show is probably Hathaway’s most famous: The Ghetto (everything is everything). It reflects Donny’s Latin influences most plainly and has the deepest groove; dangerous, uplifting. Cool as anything – just like Donny.

The Stooges – Fun House

Legendary second album from Iggy and the Ashton brothers. A move forward (backward?) from the John Cale produced debut with the avowed intention of capturing The Stooges as they were live. Ex-Kingsmen Paul Gallucci is brought in to record the unrecordable. Seven songs of brutality and violence, sheer unbridled rock’n’roll. If this doesn’t make you want to shout, move and break things, you’re already dead.

The three opening songs – Down on the Street, Loose and TV Eye – break down all defences. They are relentless, pushing through any reservations. Their power is their determined simplicity. There is nothing sophisticated here. Nothing. Just power – raw bloody power. Jack White describes this as ‘the greatest rock’n’roll record ever made’ and these three songs set out to prove it. More punk than punk – a hurricane of blistering riffs. Dirt is a seven minute grind. Psychedelic and anti-hippy. The summer of love was three years ago, baby. This is a come down set to music. Brooding, sexual – almost jazzy. It is primal energy slowed down to a dangerous hum.

Brian James of The Damned describes the opening of 1970 has ‘pure bloody mayhem’. He should know, The Damned’s cover version is almost as good and while it is close to as insane, it lacks the insanity of the original. Fun House and L.A. Blues finish the set with sustained brutishness. Fun House has a Detroit factory line for a rhythm and beats the listener into submission, whereas L.A. Blues abandons even rhythm – it is just noise and madness…

Curtis Mayfield – Curtis

If Curtis Mayfield had decided to call it a day in 1970, if he had decided to quit the music business and become a gardener or a goat-herder or something, he would have already earned his place in the pantheon. During the 1960s, he had formed one of the best soul vocal groups, The Impressions, written some of the greatest songs, given an invaluable leg up to a multitude of musicians and formed his own record label, Curtom. But in 1970, Curtis had left his group and gone solo, releasing the first in a series of groundbreaking albums.

What made these records so important was a vital combination of warmth and humanity, social consciousness, and first rate musicianship. We could debate whether this is his finest record, or Roots or Superfly – it doesn’t matter. This is a masterpiece. Any album that opens with (Don’t Worry) If There’s Hell Below We’re All Gonna Go is going to be something special. Lyrically it is devastating – shocking even – in unrelenting condemnation. But the instrumentation; distorted bass, percussion, wah-wah guitar, great horn lines and psychedelic flourishes. Nothing can stand in its way.

And the album does not let up. Perennial classic Move On Up is track 5, back where things might be forgiven for being a little relaxed after such a strong start. But no, Mayfield is not giving up. Nothing compares to this.

The Velvet Underground – Loaded

You could argue that there were two Velvet Undergrounds. There was the envelope pushing Velvets with Cale and Sister Ray. And then there is the other Velvets, the one with the songs. An interesting debate could be had which of these two incarnations were better or more influential. I love them both, so I am not going to get embroiled, but this album – the 4th and final – is definitely of the second type.

Loaded has some of the best songs that Lou Reed ever wrote. I don’t think that it is the most progressive or intense. Reed had largely abandoned the album in exhaustion and so Doug Yule had finished the album off in his absence. All the same, Reed’s song writing was on an incredible high. Obviously we have the classic Sweet Jane, but alongside it there’s Rock’n’Roll, Oh Sweet Nuthin’, I Found a Reason. None of these are Reed’s most famous songs, but all of them could have been. One of my favourite songs full stop is New Age. It is a fascinating story within the song, but it is also heartbreakingly beautiful in its own way.

Of all the albums listed here, I probably have the least to say about this one. I think it just has the best songs.

Syl Johnson – Is It Because I Am Black?

Man, Syl Johnson was unlucky! He worked hard in the 60s, making a name for himself. He established Twinight Records, produced some great artists, and a series of his own knockout albums, including this one. In 1973 he signed to Willie Mitchell’s Hi-Records, expecting to be the label’s next big thing. Just as Al Green took off…

Consequently, he remains in the second tier of Soul’s heroes, unknown to the general public. This is a massive injustice as he was awesome. He produced a few incredible albums on both his own label and Hi, but you could make a strong case for this being the best. It contains the best of both Chicago and Memphis. The song-craft and the arrangements have a Northern quality, but the pace and the mood is Southern.

The album is framed between two longer workouts. The opening title track is a deep lament, which must have reflected a reality for black men in the US and beyond that was immediately recognisable. The lyric is heartbreaking but the groove is soulful; marrying the sadness of the blues with the persistent optimism in spite of it all of deep soul. The album closes with Right On, a scrappy funky strut. It answers the former track with a determination and call for togetherness. Between these two tracks are eight incredible late-60s, early 70s deep soul cuts from the cover of Come Together to the gorgeous Everybody Needs Love. Awesome.

Bill Fay – Bill Fay

Where to start with this oddity? Bill Fay was a British singer-songwriter in the late 60s who was pitched in a sort of Dylan mould. Except he wasn’t. There was a single Some Good Advice released in ’67, that had a Dylan-ish quality, but by the time we reach this album, it was a real stretch. British psychedelia had come and gone, but something lingered on so Fay’s curious, provincial poem-songs were matched by the lushest, most expansive baroque orchestral arrangements – huge amounts of brass and woodwind. The overall effect is beautiful if jarring. It is an album that is peculiar if intriguing on first listen, but with return visits it is eternally rewarding. Over the years I have played it for a few people. Often the first response is mild, not unpleasant, bemusement. But this typically gives way to an openness to Fay’s weird vision.

Garden Song opens without much pomp, but at the end of the first verse the listener is swept up in a vivid swoop of strings that lists the song up and whisks it away somewhere else. Narrow Way is the most baroque. We Have Laid Here is driving forward, the most rock of the album, but… It is followed by Sing Us One of Your Songs May, a haunting conversation that could have been the 1940s. Just a simple, repetitive poem placed above a heavily reverbed piano.

This album, like so many, dropped off the radar almost as soon as it was released (Fay did release a follow up in ’71). However, it is one of the most prominent of the revivals of ‘lost’ albums and has since been championed by David Tibet and Jeff Tweedy.

Isaac Hayes – To Be Continued…

The title of this album should give a pretty clear sense of itself. It follows very much in the vein of its two immediate predecessors, Hot Buttered Soul and The Isaac Hayes Movement. While the first of those remains my favourite, this is a close second. Again we have a series of lushly orchestrated, lengthy adaptations of a series of classic song songs; You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling by Mann/Weil, Runnin’ Out of Fools by Kenny Rogers, Our Day Will Come popularised by Ruby and the Romantics. But the pick is Bacharach & David’s The Look of Love. Hayes extends it to 11 minutes of seductive glory. You’d think that at that length it might overstay its welcome. No – Hayes by this point is a master at wringing every drop of drama and emotion out of these 2 and a half minute songs. Not a moment is wasted. Alongside the other master, Barry White, Isaac Hayes is genius at marrying lush, sophisticated arrangements to close, sweaty, intimate grooves.

Aretha Franklin – Spirit in the Dark

For my final selection, I chose this often overlooked Aretha Franklin classic. It’s not surprising that it is overlooked, it almost appears like it is overlooking itself. The cover is so subdued – Aretha is slipping into the darkness of the background. The music, on the face of it, is also subdued. There is little of the high octane push of ‘Think’, ‘Save Me’, or even the overt bombast of ‘Natural Woman’. The mood here is restrained. Even the lead track, the excellent Don’t Play That Song, feels like its hold back. Aretha in ’67 might have caused it to self-combust, but here it is cooler. This is not to say muted or squashed, but that the emotion is under the surface, deeper.

And it flows. The feel of the album is more church, more blues. There is a nice mix of groove and rhythm, call and response. The album moves like the tide – pushing and pulling you along. The title track mixes the sacred and the profane – which spirit does she mean? This ambiguity is at the heart of much of Aretha’s music, I think, but here it is even less obvious than usual, especially when it hits a Gospel breakdown in the second half.

It would be fair to say that this is not the most striking Aretha album, but it is solid and deserving of our attention. It is a traditional album but that isn’t any bad thing.

All the same, people often talk about soul music like it’s a 60s thing, but if one thing should be taken from this list, it’s that the genre was just getting started.

Other Albums considered…

I listened to a bunch of albums in writing this. (It’s always a massive pleasure.) While I had to make a selection and thus exclude a bunch of records, I wanted to just give a shout to some that might, on a different day, have made the list.

John Lennon – Plastic Ono Band offers a fascinating, if emotionally-damaged, snapshot of the ex-Beatle in a stripped back fashion. Steeleye Span – Hark! The Village Wait is a fascinating debut. It is harder and more vital in many respects than Fairport and yet so deep into traditional English and Irish folk. Nick Drake – Bryter Later is another selection of deeply beautiful songs with a fuller, more dynamic arrangement than his debut. Simon & Garfunkel – Bridge Over Troubled Water is perhaps over-wrought, over sweet, but Paul Simon’s songwriting and Garfunkel’s singing is never not incredible. Perhaps the album that I am saddest about missing out is Elton John – Tumbleweed Connection. If you ever needed a reason, or a starting point, for reassessing Elton John, here it is. There are no well known singles here. There is no flash or pizzazz. It is simply 10 excellent songs, performed by top-knotch musicians. 

Onwards into 1971 now...

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Gimme Danger - A Film About The Stooges

If ever there was a band that deserves to be thrust into the public’s mind, it is The Stooges. Well, perhaps there are others too, but whatever list you care to compile, The Stooges had better be on it. They are one of the most influential bands ever. Their three proper albums might not have sold very much in their day, critics may not have spent very much time thinking about them. They were seen as, indeed they were signed on the basis of being, MC5’s ‘little brother’. But since that date, their reputation has grown and grown. Even when their figurehead, Iggy Pop, has dropped off the culturally relevant map, they have remained an essential touchstone for any band that deserves to be called ‘rock’.

So ‘Gimme Danger’, a documentary directed by Jim Jarmusch (no less), is very welcome. Obviously, front and centre is Jim Osterberg himself. But we have contributions from all the central players, bar Dave Alexander (who sadly passed in 1975); both Asheton brothers, their little sister, Steve Mackay, and James Williamson. It was very nice to see something of the background of Pop and the Asheton brothers. How they came to music. It was fascinating to hear that Iggy had fulfilled his musical apprenticeship in Chicago behind R&B artists. This was a revelation and a helpful one in understanding where the ‘Iggy’ persona came from. It was similarly interesting to see how they began to take themselves seriously as a band, rather than simply 4 guys who really liked to get high. There were also some insights into the personal costs that came from being in a band that required total physical, psychological and pharmaceutical commitment, especially in the period between Fun House (1970) and Raw Power (1973).

However, it came across as hagiography. There was little critical assessment. When things went wrong it was someone else, or it was a one off, or it was drugs. Where criticisms were mentioned, they were brushed off. For instance, Iggy recounts that Joey Ramone saw The Stooges during the time of the recording of Fun House and the band plays nothing from the first album and that Ramone thought this disgusting. OK, why? Why does Iggy disagree with Ramone? That would have been an interesting discussion to dig into.

The film assumed that the records themselves were unimpeachable. They are great great records – that is not in question – but there was still no sense of where things could have been better or more functional. Given the people involved in these records and the decisions made, there could have been so much more said. John Cale produced the first LP. Where was he? I know that they were not so keen on the mix of the first album, but it was the album that made them and contains some of their iconic tracks. Why not have some discussion of that? Bowie produced Raw Power. Again, there were discussions regarding the mix. But where was he? Bowie was instrumental in reviving Pop’s career, in getting him a new contract, and remained integral to his career deep into the 70s. If we have talking heads footage from Ron Asheton who died in 2009, surely some conversation with Bowie would have been possible – especially since the film was ready by April 2016, suggesting that much of the filming was done in 2015 or earlier – i.e. while Bowie was still alive. All we got was some bitching about Tony DeFries, Bowie’s manager at the time.

Finally, the movie pretty much stops in 1973. There is some material about their inauguration into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which is nice, and about how Jay Mascis was involved in getting the band back together, again nice. But there is nothing about the two albums, The Weirdness (2007) and Ready to Die (2013). Truthfully, they are not held in very high esteem, but to remain silent on them seems dishonest.

Overall, it is important to give this band their due. They deserve it. Their place in the pantheon is secure and the film gives solid evidence for why. However, it could have been more. I’d certainly recommend it, but not without qualifications.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Ten Great Single Disk Compliations

One of my deepest character flaws is that I am a little easy to troll. I know that the person is trying to get a rise out of me. I know that what they have just said is ridiculous. I am pretty sure that they think it is ridiculous too (even if they may want to argue that there is a kernel of truth to it). Nonetheless, I still want to either beat them or at the least berate them for their apparent stupidity.

I say this because a number of years ago a friend of mine trolled me. Knowing that I am an obsessive collector of music, she said to me, 'if you love music so much, why do you buy compilations - surely you would hunt down the originals?'

Compilations are an odd thing from one perspective - they are tracks yanked out of their original context and forced into a new artificial format, where they must rub shoulders with other tracks from other places. However, on the other hand, they perform a service that is invaluable. They produce a short cut into a world that may be too difficult or foreboding to access single-handed. No matter how much we might value music, uncovering the seminal tracks from a specific time or place or genre might be too time consuming or too costly or both. It may be that you might go on to find the original releases, or it may be that the original releases are impossibly rare or simply not available.

Thus, compilations play an essential role to the music lover and a good compilation is priceless. This list (and some further lists already lined up) are intended to flag up some compilations that I have enjoyed and found to be first rate. Some of them have uncovered new world, whereas some have simply encapsulated what is special about a given scene.

I have specifically focused on single disk compilations here. Primarily this is because a single disk can be digested in a single sitting. Multiple disks can be wearying, even if they are excellent. Fundamentally I hope that you consider checking out some of these albums if you have not already come across them, and I feel that by sticking to single disks you are more likely to connect with them. Maybe I will do some more lists of multiple disk sets, but in my preparation for this I already have 40 compilations I would like to write about, so they will have to wait.

So, here are ten. As ever they are in no particular order, with no particular agenda. I just hope that, if you check them out, you enjoy them as I have.

Tropicalia (Soul Jazz 2005)

"Tropicalia mixed American and British psychedelic rock and pop with Brazilian roots and European avant-garde and experimental music to create a new sound that was both distinctly Brazilian and truly international. Ideologically they mixed high art with mass culture and mocked both the military dictatorship under which they were living at the time as much as the militant left wing artists that wanted to bring them down." (From the CD Booklet)
Soul Jazz have rightly made a name for itself as must-buy compilation label. Their albums are often definitive statements of the scenes, styles, places, people that they are intended to depict. Sleeve notes are typically informative and pertinent and the design is high quality. Soul Jazz had already established a pretty formidable reputation, but this - their highest rated compilation - set a new standard. (It is, according to Rate Your Music, in the 15 best compilations ever - top 5 if you include single disks comps only.)

So why is it so good? It captures the scene, includes the major players, points to further areas to explore, includes a 48 page booklet explaining and offering a detailed history of Tropicalia. So as a document it is exemplary. But as with any document, no matter how good, it is wholly dependent on what is being documented. Luckily, this scene is one of the richest and most beautiful bubbles of the whole of musical history. The talent, the inspiration, the influences on display here are truly unique and this CD captures the excitement and inventiveness of the scene. Furthermore, it gives a very good set of reasons for why it went on to be so revered and influential.

It might be cheating, but I will end this review with stealing a review of it from the internet (a RYM user called 'Blowout'). I think it gives a very succinct impression for why this is essential: "Imagine you'd never heard any music whatsoever from the major artists of England (or alternatively the USA) from the late 60s. Then imagine an album that compiles the best tracks of the best 6 artists from England/USA from that period. Imagine how it would blow your head?"

Never the Same (Honest John's 2005)

Folk music did not begin at any point, any more than it has had any point of decline - like the poor, folk music is always with us. But this is not to say that it has not suffered ebbs and flows. In the 1960s, folk music had what could legitimately be described as a renaissance. From the inception of the decade (strictly speaking the middle of the previous) there was renewed interest in the traditional songs of England, nurtured by the touring fellow-travellers from the States; Dylan, Simon, Franks. This was, on both sides of the Atlantic, fed into the rock machine, and folk-rock became a vital force until the turn of the decade. At which point it either went back to its roots or became a novel irrelevance - so, if we are to be cruel, it was sort of irrelevant either way (commercially, at least). Nonetheless, this compilation looks at some of the recordings made by Bill Leader for the Leader or Trailer label in the mid-70s. Leader's approach was to record the music as simply as possible, on 2 or 4 track, with next no overdubs or embellishments. The music captured could never have been further from the glam, prog, punk or disco that it was contemporaneous with. 

Instead, it was stark, simple and achingly beautiful. For most tracks it is simply a voice and an instrument. Sometimes, not even that. There is a heavy Gaelic tone to the compilation, pulling tunes from Scotland or Ireland. The only track that might have an inkling of familiarity is Tony Rose's cover of Bert Jansch's 'Blackwaterside' (credit shamelessly stolen by Jimmy Page as Black Mountain Side from Led Zeppelin 1). Otherwise, here lie some of the unsung (or unsung enough) heroes of 70s folk; Nic Jones, Dick Gaughan, The Boys of the Lough. The real gems here are two tracks from the Legendary album 'Bright Phoebus' from Mike & Lal Waterson*. Lal's heavy, dark, Northern voice soars over the delicate guitars and rare strings. This CD rewards repeated listens despite the strict simplicity of the music. If I ever needed to convince someone that there was value in British folk beyond 1970, this is where I'd take them.

* 'Bright Phoebus' has finally been given a wildly overdue reissue on Domino records.

Eccentric Soul: The Capsoul Label (Numero 2004)

Nowadays Chicago-based Numero have made a pretty solid name for themselves as a premium archivist label, having stretched out from their initial soul roots to picking up obscure gospel, slowcore and even LOTR inspired metal. Just check out the love and care and that has been bestowed on the discographies of Bedhead or Codeine. But back in 2004, this must have been a curiosity with little context to point the way. Numero releases are beautifully packaged but until you get beyond the cellophane there is precious little actual information. On the rear there is the title of the series 'Eccentric Soul'. Below this, in smaller type: 'The Capsoul Label'. Aside from the number 001, which is also found on the front cover, there is no other text at all. On the front is a water damaged photograph of Bill Moss (who?) manning the controls alongside the now familiar logo. This is unhelpful beyond even that of Factory records releases.

And yet, those who ventured beyond the cellophane were treated to a full tracklisting - inside the slipcase - beautifully compiled sleevenotes and most of all a collection of tunes that almost no-one had ever heard before. And those who had heard it, had most likely forgotten. But what tunes! The Eccentric Soul series has now established itself as a first rate resurrector of obscure soul. Whilst some tracks might have been familiar to the cognoscenti or Indiana Jones level crate diggers, almost all are unknown.

Amongst the revelations present is the awesome vocal group Johnson, Hawkins, Tatum and Durr. The may sound like a third rate law firm but their 'You're All I Need to Make It' should have been a hit - it is comfortably the equal of The Detroit Emeralds or The Elgins. Marion Black's tenor delivery is stately and rich. Kool Blues 'I'm Gonna Keep on Lovin' You' could have been a Sam & Dave hit. Bill's Moss's own tracks are classic, specifically the conscious anthem 'Sock It To'Em Soul Brother'. Elijah & The Ebonites' 'Hot Grits' brings the funk. The stars of the show is The Four Mints who are a hop and skip away from 60s' Stevie or early Jacksons. In short, this set - like most of the Eccentric Soul releases - is a hard luck story. If circumstances had been just a little different, one or more of these songs would have hit, and no doubt one of the above would have been household names now.

Michael Mayer - Immer (Kompakt 2002)

I find it hard to write about this album. I don't know about you but the world of electronic music - and German minimal techno especially - is the most foreboding of genres. It is so wide and so anonymous, made up of endless 12" singles than may or may not be remixed by someone else that you may or may not have heard of. Probably the latter. It doesn't help that the music itself adds to that anonymity by leaving few traces of overt personality. I know that I risk sounding simplistic, or perhaps geriatric, when I say that the difference, for me, between good electronic music and bad electronic music is that the former will lead me to feel something, whereas the latter will leave me feeling nothing, save frustrated in its impotence. So all credit then to Mayer and his legendary mix-cd 'Immer' (although Mayer's name is presented like it is his album, it is a mix-cd and thus a compilation) since it elicits a lot of feelings - mostly happiness, a good deal of bobbling up and down. 

In short, it contains a really nice array of textures and grooves and it maintains the focus without being busy. Nothing is rushed, and yet nothing outstays its welcome. It also offers a look into the world of minimal techno and while it makes no claim to function as a primer to the genre, it does provide a sense of why this music can be so powerful. On the surface, minimal techno can appear a wash of nothing, but a good listen to Immer illustrates that beneath it all there is a lot going on. And that alone justifies this album as worth investigating.

Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out (Castle 1997)

I tend to veer away from compilations on Castle or Spectrum labels. Not so much because they are bad, but there tends to be better, more lovingly compiled examples to choose from if you look a little deeper. That said, sometimes they get it exactly right and this is one such example. This encapsulates the divergent trends of late 60s counter-culture perfectly, with seminal and exact selections throughout. There are very few tracks that are new or surprising, but if you wanted the perfect example of what The Byrds brought to the party or Zappa or Velvet Underground or Love or even some of the lesser known bands like Vanilla Fudge, this CD has them. Ignore the dodgy cover and the perfunctory info, it does what it has to and no more.

Dread Meets Punk Rockers Uptown (Heavenly 2001)

There are a million great reggae compilations out there. Soul Jazz built their whole reputation digging through the Studio One vaults producing a series of great reggae compilations, Blood & Fire specialised on reggae, as did Adrian Sherwood's Pressure Sounds label. So why is this CD from a decidedly non-specialist label so good and the first reggae compilation I will highlight. Quite simply, it is a perfect mix of mid-70s roots and dub. It includes some of the most famous artists and recordings: Culture's classic 'Two Sevens Clash', Junior Murvin's 'Police and Thieves', The Congos' 'Fisherman'. Even when the track itself is not necessarily immediate, the artist is essential: Big Youth, Horace Andy, Lee Perry.

The mix itself is thoughtful and sensitive; offering something introductory for the newcomer but maintaining a solid entertainment value for the longtime fan of the music. This is exactly what we would expect from the compiler - the legendary Don Letts, who has spent a lifetime introducing and promoting reggae. He has even slipped in a few tracks that you might have missed - I was not aware of Sylford Walker's 'Deuteronomy' when I picked this up. Seven minutes of deep religious deejaying over a driving persistent dub. This is roots reggae to dance to, to meditate to, (if it is your thing) to smoke to. The mix has sprinkled in a few well chosen dubs, Augustus Pablo, King Tubby and Tappa Zukie appear in dub form. While it is a mix, not one track is compromised - another plus point. My only criticism is that to compensate for that last point, Letts inserts vocal clips from old movies or intros from other records between the tracks. These are mostly short and ignorable, but I'd rather he simply hadn't. All the same, this is highly recommended.

Black Roots: Funky and Abstract Directions in Jazz 1965-1975 (Atlantic/Ace 2001)

The subtitle of this compilation is, I think, a little overstated. I would say that while some of it is a bit funky, if you are coming to this expecting much in that direction you might be disappointed. Similarly, while some of it does deserve the epithet 'abstract', not all of it does. Atlantic were pretty liberal and generous about who and what was recorded, but I'd say 50% of this is fairly straight-ahead 60s jazz. 

So, with those caveats made, what is good about it? The general standard, even of those tracks that are more traditional, is very good. We have some solid players here: Eddie Harris, Yusef Lateef, David Newman. Consequently the standard is high - Lateef and Harris especially bring the good. Shirley Scott's cover of the Isley's 'It's Your Thing' is solid too. 

But then, there are solid tracks that do push the boundaries a little. Not really jazz, but awesome all the same is Dr. John's 'I Walk on Gilded Splinters'. The track summons up the swamp-like voodoo atmosphere of New Orleans more than anything else. Everything about it feels murky, dangerous, occult. But then there's Eugene McDaniel's ode to Mick, 'Jagger the Dagger'. McDaniels is an official genius in my book, having a solid mainstream career before writing classics for people like Roberta Flack ('Compared to What') and then releasing two of the most awesome albums of the early 70s ('Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse' and 'Outlaw'). 'Jagger the Dagger' has a sleazy lilting groove that lets Gene and the girls grind up against it. Awesome! British Joe Harriot-John Mayer Double Quintet fuses Jazz with Indian Raga and the result is spacey and sultry. Jim Pepper's 'Witchi Tai To', which could tilt a little too heavily into TV-theme territory if it wasn't so damned catchy and absorbing. 

In all, this compilation succeeds despite its limitations. As long as you take it as it is and do not get too caught up with the subtitle, it has more than enough to push open the gates. If you like your jazz a little out there, or even if you like your rock a little jazzy, there'll be something here to pique your interest. In all, in the 15 or so years that I have had this album, I have always been able to pop it on and find something new for my ears.

Sounds of the New West (Uncut 1998)

As a rule I ignore CDs that come from the front of magazines. In the attic I have a box or two filled with unlistened-to CDs from various magazines. I know that sometimes they will have things that will be interesting, or perhaps even revelatory. All the same, while I often followed the advice of the reviews within the magazine, the CDs on the front were left to gather dust. It doesn't quite make sense, but there you go....

Anyhow, there is one major exception and anecdotal evidence suggests that it was an exception for many many people. In fact, I would go so far as suggesting that the CD above had a massive impact on the musical tastes of the UK, introducing as it did a significant raft of the key bands in the genre that came to be called alt-country. While some of the bands included had been around for a while, and the precursors of the genre (Uncle Tupelo, Whiskeytown) had formed and split in the very early 90s, I am not even sure the term existed before 1998. The earliest reference I can find for the term is that year. Anyway, for me at least, this CD marked my introduction to a number of bands and artists that have burrowed deep into my psyche and I suspect will be with me forever.

Amongst these are two old-timers who significantly predate this movement; Gram Parsons (strictly, The Flying Burrito Brothers) and Emmylou Harris. Parson's 'Sin City' is probably the only song I would ever perform karaoke to, if it is even possible. As a starting point for Parsons' view of country as cosmic american music, it is perfect. Of course, Emmylou was a fellow traveller with Parsons until his death, whereupon she carried on, keeping his vision alive whilst embracing all that Country music could do. The track chosen here is one of the most divergent moments from the album by the same title 'Wrecking Ball'. Produced by Daniel Lanois, it has that other-worldly, reverb heavy sound that you'd expect. Also, it was written by another godparent to the genre (as was The Walkabouts' 'On the Beach'), Neil Young. Few songs ever are as beautiful or as heart-breaking or catch that universe in which Country Music is situated. The singer, as the song, embodies the soul and the heart of both Country and it's Alt-variation. 

Amongst the more contemporary bands, there is not one duff track. The Handsome Family bring their most depressing song and their most gorgeous, 'Weightless Again' - a song about the moments of faltering consciousness after suicide. Calexico, at the beginning of their sterling career, tell a story of accidental murder ('Trigger'). Neal Casal, a criminally under-rated songwriter, sings of  inevitable failure ('Today I Gonna Bleed'). Willard Grant Conspiracy offers a haunting and yet lush account of the loss of faith ('Evening Mass'). It's all pretty grim, to be honest, but never so uplifting. The mandolin solo in the latter track always makes me want to throw my hands in the air. Perhaps it is best summed up by outsiders, 16 Horsepower and their brand of gothic americana, who as deep southern preachers tell us that we have dug a hole, the hole of our own sin, a hole that we fell in (Coal Black Horses). I haven't even mentioned Lambchop or my favourite Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, here in his own name, Will Oldham. 

All of the above named artists are well represented in my collection. Several of their records would be counted amongst my favourite albums ever. This compilation has done more than any other to change my tastes. Not only that but it provided a serious push in my re-evaluation of country music. And all from a free CD from the front of a magazine...

This is Soul (Atlantic, 1968/2007)

This album is one of two compilations that have legitimately changed my life. (The other is, if you're wondering Sounds of the New West [above]). This is probably the most impactful purely by dint of when I encountered it. As a young record collector, the first port of call is always to ransack your parents' collection. My mother's stack of records was not that big but it had a few serious gems and amongst them was the original 1968 release of this album. Let me begin by reprinting the original track-listing:

A1 –Wilson Pickett - Mustang Sally
A2 –Carla Thomas - B-A-B-Y
A3 –Arthur Conley - Sweet Soul Music
A4 –Percy Sledge  - When A Man Loves A Woman
A5 –Sam & Dave - I Got Everything I Need
A6 –Ben E. King - What Is Soul?
B1 –Otis Redding - Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)
B2 –Eddie Floyd - Knock On Wood
B3 –Solomon Burke - Keep Looking
B4 –Aretha Franklin - I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)
B5 –Percy Sledge - Warm And Tender Love
B6 –Wilson Pickett - Land Of A Thousand Dances

I am willing to bet that even if your knowledge of soul music is not all that, you know seven or eight of these tracks without having to go remind yourself. Those that might be a little unfamiliar will likely become clear with a quick listen. My point is that as a primer of soul music, specifically Southern soul, this is perfect. While any soul fan can think of tracks or artists that they might prefer to see (especially with two Percy Sledge songs here?? ) this is a perfect point of entry and gives the newcomer ample reasons to see why someone might devote their lives to the genre. 

For me, even though a goth, it blew my mind. Friends would be mystified when they received a mix-tape from me, finding it with Wilson Pickett or Otis Redding amidst the Sisters or Alien Sex Fiend. No-one ever complained - more often than not, the surprise was welcome. This music has been the soundtrack to my life and in recent years has become a fully-fledged obsession - the energy, the feeling, the joy, the church, the depths, the sheer primal passion. Here is life put to music.

In 2007, Atlantic reissued this album on CD alongside a massive 17 bonus tracks. Again, the selection was exemplary; and it became even more so the first soul CD anyone (everyone) should buy. I don't feel like I need to write much about this music other than simply to say what's there - the tracks will account for themselves:

Sam & Dave - Hold On I'm Coming, The Bar-Kays - Soul Finger, King Curtis - Memphis Soul Stew, Otis Redding - Hard To Handle, Aretha Franklin - Save Me, Archie Bell & The Drells - Tighten Up, Wilson Pickett - Funky Broadway, Otis Redding & Carla Thomas - Tramp, The Mad Lads - Get Out Of My Life, Barbara Lynn - You're Losing Me, Soul Brothers Six - Some Kind Of Wonderful, Jeanne & The Darlings - Soul Girl, Arthur Conley - Funky Street, Eddie Floyd - Big Bird, Soul Clan - That's How It Feels, Johnny Taylor - Ain't That Loving You (For More Reasons Than One), Otis Redding - (Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay

What's not to love?

This gives me the chills...

Whine & Grine - Club Ska '67 (Trojan/Island 1967/1998)

Oddly, I came to ska a while after reggae. I was too young for the Two Tone thing in the late 70s/early 80s. I liked Madness and The Specials well enough, but I didn't really see it as any different other to pop music in general. Even the handful of reggae songs that caught my attention were not seen as very different. Perhaps that is as much about the radical changes that were happening in pop music at the time as anything else... Anyway, even when I did perceive reggae as reggae in the later 80s, I came at it via dub (specifically from On-U Sound records), rather than its chronological progenitors. In fact, by the time I caught this album in 1991, it might as well have been a wholly unrelated genre. Aside from its devotion to the off-beat, it seems to share relatively little with the hazy, dubby skank of Big Youth or Prince Far I.

So I moved to Birmingham and into a house with Lee and Sandra. They were a few years older than me and because Sandra was an actress, they tended to be away a lot. So I did what I often did when left unattended in other people's houses - I listen to their records. They had lots of interesting records and I picked up a lot from them. One of the high points was the original Club Ska '67 album. This was a very different year from the '67 I was familiar with. Sgt. Pepper and psychedelia or Monterey or Stax and Otis or Motown and Marvin seem a long way away. (I have since learned to see that the distance is not quite as far as it seemed, but anyway...) Again, like the This is Soul comp above, it is populated by some of the archetypes of the genre; The Skatalites' Guns of Navarone, Desmond Dekker's 007 (Shanty Town), Baba Brooks' Guns Fever, The Rulers' Copasetic (I always wondered where Delboy's catch-phrase came from).

Every track is vibrant, full alive. Even the slower ballads have an immediate energy and the status of this as dance music is unavoidable. A track like Dancing Mood by Delroy Wilson is a mellower track, only just mid-tempo. Like many mid-60s Jamaican music, it owes plenty to the early 60s R&B coming in radio waves from Florida (it is a cover of The Tams original). But the rhythm and musicianship is first rate; Jackie Mittoo plays piano and is it wishful thinking to propose saxophone by the legendary 'Deadly' Headly Bennett? Everything is understated but in its right place. Side two is full of these cool, sly monsters; Bob's wife Rita with the catchy Pied Piper, Justin Hines' single entendre Rub Up, Push Up, The Gaylads' Stop Making Love.

I suppose that it is the rowdier side one that is most typical. These are the tracks that were covered and were direct inspiration for Jerry Dammers and the Nutty Boys. In 1998, Island reissued the compilation and perhaps to drive the point home included one new track, Whine and Grine by the massive Prince Buster. This is street music, it is party music; it is dangerous but it is fun and impossible not to want to move. Another great and highly recommended compilation.