947 - Eric Clapton 'Slowhand' (1977)

My Rating: 2.67 out of 5
1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die: X
Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums:
The Mojo Collection: X

Chart Peak (UK/US): 23/2

Favourite Tracks: The Core, We're All The Way, Peaches and Diesel
Least-Favourite Tracks: Next Time You See Her

Firstly to anyone who has noticed an audible glitch on their remastered edition of Eric Clapton’s albums… err, sorry about that. You see, as a young lad I got my first job in the music business at a certain major record label to which Mr Clapton was signed. I spent most of my time working in their dingy basement storeroom which was actually quite good fun as I could listen to all the rare demo tapes & nose through their performer’s royalty statements to see how much they were getting paid. Now since I couldn’t reach the top shelves & since nobody had thought to provide me with a ladder, I used my youthful initiative to build a makeshift set of steps out of dozens of small plastic cartons that I found stacked in a dark corner. They were a bit wobbly & would make a horrible crunchy, cracking noise with every step I took, but eventually I figured out a way of stacking them together so the whole thing wouldn’t keep collapsing under my weight. Ah yes, I can still remember sorting the top shelves standing proudly atop my creaky plastic podium when I was distracted by a strangulated gargling sound from the doorway. This turned out to be one of the record company big cheeses who, when he’d finally calmed down enough to shriek coherently, pointed out in less than complimentary terms that I had constructed my staircase out of Eric Clapton’s original 24-track studio master tapes. Oops.

Now I have to confess that in addition to stomping all over his priceless recordings, I have always found Eric Clapton a little dull. I saw him live at the Albert Hall several years ago & I remember thinking that it was one of the most passionless exhibitions of guitar-playing I’d ever heard. And I’ve never been able to equate this reputation he has a “guitar-god” with what I’ve heard of his soloing which, while technically-accomplished, always seems to have this going-through-the-motions feel that lacks any great spark of inventiveness. Before the lynch mob arrives at my doorstep, I should also point out that I have never listened all that closely to Clapton’s recordings, so I was rather looking forward to hearing this album properly & perhaps being made to eat those words.

So what’s the verdict? Well, in some ways it was pretty much what I expected but I will concede that I was also pleasantly surprised… yes, even by much of the guitar work. I would still argue that Clapton is greatly overrated as a guitarist, but I may indeed have to consume a snack-sized portion of my words as he does demonstrate a great deal of versatility on this album, in addition to delivering some admittedly impressive solos. I particularly liked the eclectic nature; the understated fluidity of the solos on Cocaine, the compressed country-picking on Lay Down Sally, the Led Zep like riffing on The Core (complete with an energetic heavy rock solo at the end) and the dirty blues of Mean Old Frisco.

So having got completely obsessed with the relative merits of Clapton the guitarist, I was rather shocked to notice what a lousy singing voice he had. It’s not that’s he’s out of tune but his vocals are just rather limp & characterless. Plus of course he’s just so nasal - on Wonderful Tonight he literally sounds like he’s got a clothes peg stuck on the end of his nose. Such weak vocals flatten all the life out of the lyrics for me & if you need convincing try playing John Martyn’s poignant original of May You Never next to Clapton’s cover... even Pinky & Perky could have sung it with more emotion.

Clapton is often criticised for his over-reliance on cover versions & relative lack of songwriting which is valid in some senses but perhaps also not entirely fair as he did pen 5 of the 9 tracks on this album (& I thought his compositions were more effective than the covers anyway). If composing songs was the only measure of musical greatness then we’d have to start downgrading Elvis & Sinatra too, but we celebrate them as great interpreters of songs and in a similar way I think Clapton tries to use his guitar-playing to add an extra dimension to the original. And on the strength of this album, I’d say with mixed results. At first Clapton’s version of Cocaine doesn’t stray all that far from the J.J. Cale original, but his guitar work & soloing did eventually add (just) enough for me to make the cover worthwhile. On the other hand quite what he thought he could bring to the John Martyn song is beyond me.

Glyn Johns is usually a pretty solid rock producer but I was a little disappointed by some of the production values here. Perhaps it was tempered by Clapton’s need for commercial success at this point in his career, but I felt that rather too many raw edges had been smoothed over. The Core cries out for a heavier touch, Next Time You See Her sounds like a sanitised version of Ian Dury & The Blockheads and there’s a touch of the pub band about several of the other performances that could have been lifted by more inspired arrangements.

Overall though, I’d have to say that this was a better record than I expected. It meanders easily across genres, from rock to blues to country; it rocks out then drops to a soft ballad and then surprised me further by closing out with a melodic pop instrumental. Others might disagree, but for me despite such varied material it still held together as an album. Shame it didn’t hold together quite so well as a staircase.

948 - John Martyn 'One World' (1977)

My Rating: 3.00 out of 5
1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die:
Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums: X
The Mojo Collection: X

Chart Peak (UK/US): 54/--

Favourite Tracks: Small Hours, One World, Certain Surprise
Least-Favourite Tracks: Big Muff, Smiling Stranger

John Martyn could sing the assembly instructions to a piece of flat-pack furniture & still move most of us to tears… the man was blessed with one of the richest, most emotive, melodious voices in rock and yet (and I feel strangely-guilty for even saying this) I found this album a little disappointing. There are some patchy bits here and while Martyn’s voice does much to paper over the cracks, it’s not quite the masterwork I was expecting considering its almost-universal critical acclaim.

On the positive front, let’s start with that voice; slurred, anguished and honeyed, like some bizarre cocktail of Michael McDonald, Robert Wyatt & Mark Hollis, it can transform even the most ordinary lyric into something dripping with emotion. There’s not many who could sing a simple line like it’s “just a cold and lonely world, for some” (from One World) and have you snivelling into your hanky. Likewise, how many times have we heard singers trot out a ho-hum corny line like “I couldn’t love you more”, and yet when Martyn does it we somehow get the feeling that he really means it.

Like so many people blessed with great natural talent, Martyn did his level-best to squander his gifts & the lyrics here offer an intriguing perspective on his troubled & often contradictory personal life. Martyn undoubtedly had a gentle, introspective side and that ran at odds with his hard-living reputation (a fact clearly illustrated, according to bandmate Danny Thompson, by the fact he would play something incredibly beautiful, yet burp loudly at the end just in case you thought he was going soft). Similarly both sides of Martyn’s character feature here, from the delicate sentiments of ballads like Certain Surprise & One World to the personal demons of Big Muff & Dealer and in a sense made the album feel that much more authentic & heartfelt.

Musically, the songs sound like they evolved out of jam sessions & while this loosely-structured approach complements the slow, ambient compositions I didn’t think it worked that well for the up-tempo numbers like Big Muff & Smiling Stranger which end up sounding a little unfinished. Both kick off with promising Can-like grooves but dashed my hopes by not really going anywhere special with them. Where Can might slip in a guitar solo or two here we just get far too much vocal repetition and not nearly enough musical inventiveness. It’s frustrating - especially when tracks like One World & Small Hours remind you what a great guitarist John Martyn was.

Small Hours closes out the album & this is where the unstructured, jam-session approach really comes into its own. You can really lose yourself in the ethereal drift of Small Hours, its muffled heartbeat rhythm, the echoing guitar & synth swells, the whispered vocals, the geese squawking in the distance… wait a minute, geese? Well, apparently it was rather fittingly recorded outside in the countryside at night & such ambient sounds only enhance the atmosphere. Almost nine minutes long but I can’t say that I noticed.

Overall a good album, but I was rather expecting more.

949 - Neil Young & Crazy Horse 'Weld' (1991)

My Rating: 2.25 out of 5
1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die: X
Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums: X
The Mojo Collection:

Chart Peak (UK/US): 20/--

Favourite Tracks: Hey Hey My My, Cinnamon Girl, Cortez The Killer
Least-Favourite Tracks: Blowin' In The Wind, Like A Hurricane, Tonight's The Night

Any live album that leaves your ears ringing can’t be all bad. Well, Neil Young might disagree since he apparently developed tinnitus as a direct consequence of mixing this record, but for me the ear-ringing effect was rather less permanent. I certainly felt like I’d just come out of a gig though & for a live recording that’s some achievement.

I’m not a big fan of live albums; they rarely do justice to the experience of being there in person but I have to admit this one comes a little closer than most. I didn’t know much about this record but in an effort to recreate the original ambience of a live show, I donned my best headphones & cranked the volume right up… and almost blew my head off. What’s that chainsaw guitar doing on a Neil Young album? I was expecting something all soft & acoustic (which perhaps reveals my limited knowledge of Neil Young) so the ultra-heavy opening bars of track one Hey, Hey, My, My (Into The Black) made me think I’d put on the wrong album.

So it’s loud & it’s heavy but does that make it any good? Clearly a lot of Americans didn’t think so, since this was the first Neil Young album that didn’t enter the US top 100 since his 1969 debut. I’m not really sure why because while it certainly has its flaws, I found there was an awful lot to praise here. First & foremost, it’s that lead guitar. Great rock bands need great guitarists & the guitar work here is mightily impressive; it’s brutal, edgy & bristling with raw energy & emotion. I’d normally find a line like “Rock & Roll can never die” to be the corniest of clich├ęs, but when you hear it surrounded by the strangulated solos & vicious power chords of Hey, Hey, My, My it somehow becomes validated – almost as if it was the very distillation of what rock music was about.

Of course, any old band can turn their amps up to 11 & thrash the hell out of their guitars but what makes this album interesting is the way that it never quite descends into some pointless wall of noise; as violent as the guitars may sound, they are always tempered by the melodic nature of Young’s songwriting. That contrast between his tuneful vocal harmonies & chord progressions & those angry snarling guitars works superbly well here, especially on tracks like Cinnamon Girl, F*!#in’ Up & Powderfinger.

As good as the musical performances are though this record still trips over the same old stumbling block that every live album encounters; namely what works for a live show doesn’t necessarily work on a record. Some of the songs are drawn out too long & are then stretched out even further with interminable “concert” endings & even a bit of the dreaded crowd singalong. The 14 minute version of Like A Hurricane might have breezed by if you were there in person but sitting here listening to the album the song just drags & drags. I’m not against long tracks – both Love To Burn & Cortez The Killer run to 10 minutes & held my interest throughout, but tracks like Rockin’ In The Free World, Tonight’s The Night & Like A Hurricane just seem too one-dimensional to merit their extended running times. Similarly the overblown cover of Blowin’ In The Wind, complete with machine gun fire & explosions may have seemed a timely statement during the (first) Gulf War but I just found it as dull-as-dishwater. It might have worked OK as a final encore but as the third song in the line-up it just stops the show dead & destroys all the energy & momentum of those opening numbers (which I presume was his intention).

An enjoyable album – frustrating towards the end, but in this age of endless X-Factor & soul-less prissy pop, it’s a powerful reminder of what live rock music is all about.

950 - Liz Phair 'Whitechocolatespaceegg' (1998)

My Rating: 1.50 out of 5
1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die: X
Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums: X
The Mojo Collection: X

Chart Peak (UK/US): --/35

Favourite Tracks: Johnny Feelgood
Least-Favourite Tracks: Headache, Girls' Room, Uncle Alvarez

So 1998 was a truly vintage year for music… well at least according to the All-Time Top 1000 Albums book it was. It might have seemed a pretty ordinary year to the rest of us, but for the people who voted on this list in 1998 it must have seemed the zenith of a glorious era that saw the release of some of the greatest albums ever recorded. Yes, let’s forget ’57, ’67 or ’77 and just try to imagine the heady excitement of 1998 & what a mind-blowing experience it must have been when people first heard those masterworks by Shawn Mullins, Embrace, The Goo Goo Dolls & now, Liz Phair.

Putting the sarcasm aside, I think we’ve established by now that these types of lists are of course fundamentally flawed and results are always skewed towards the year the list was compiled. Besides, you only have to look at the winner of this year’s [2009] Nobel Peace Prize to see the bizarre results that can occur when you start letting people vote for their greatest-ever’s.

Anyway on to the album & this was the first time I’d ever heard any Liz Phair. It opens with title-track White Chocolate Space Egg which starts promisingly enough with its thudding drums, plodding bass & echoey sliding guitar. But mix in some rather aimless lyrics along with a bit of a limp chorus and the whole song starts falling flat. Unfortunately weak choruses abound on this album; Only Son, Go On Ahead, Shitloads Of Money & Fantasize all have particularly lame chorus melodies too.

As the album progresses it becomes clear that musically there’s really nothing special going on here – it’s pretty standard alt-rock guitar fare with plenty of well-worn riffs & hooks and no real surprises. The performances all feel a bit passionless too; not sure if her backing band are all session musicians but they certainly don’t have any of that intuitive feel you often find in groups who have played together for years. The one-dimensional & rather lifeless production doesn’t help matters either.

While Liz Phair was lavishly praised for the lyrics on her Exile In Guyville album (#243 in this list), I really couldn’t find anything special about the words here. First of all, it’s difficult to relate to lyrics when you have no idea what they’re on about. Take the opening lines of Big Tall Man: “I’m a big tall man / I cut the grass / My left eye hurts / I am waiting & reading parts / I can be a complicated communicator / Yes I’m winning, spinning / I feel energy being pulled off from all sides / And it feels good / Like relieving a headache”. Eh? I’m sure it’s all very personal & meaningful to Liz Phair but to me it’s little more than random wordplay.

Even the songs without such cryptic content rarely moved me & there often seemed to be a lack of emotional potency to the lyrics. Not always though; Only Son struck a much more visceral tone with lines such as “All these babies are born / Like a field full of poppies / Who’s gonna know which are torn?” Similarly, the breakup song Go On Ahead sounds a good deal more heartfelt & includes the Matt Johnson’esque “You say you’re a ghost in our house / And I realise I do think I see through you”. It’s just a shame that both songs are so feeble musically.

The album would have also benefited from some quality control. There are 16 tracks included but at least a quarter of these have ‘B-side’ written all over them & really should have been dropped. The aptly-titled Headache sounds like something that John Shuttleworth might have knocked up on his home organ during the tea break. Even worse, both Ride & Girls’ Room sound like something Phoebe is performing in the coffee shop in Friends. Seriously – have a listen if you don’t believe me:

Not quite what you expect from the 950th greatest album of all-time is it? It might have seemed like something very original in 1998, but now all the hype has died down we are left with a very ordinary collection of songs. Oh well, let’s hope this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner lives up to the voters’ expectations a little better.

951 - Duke Ellington & Johnny Hodges 'Back To Back' (1959)

My Rating: 3.14 out of 5
1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die: X
Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums: X
The Mojo Collection: X

Chart Peak (UK/US): --/--

Favourite Tracks: Loveless Love, Wabash Blues
Least-Favourite Tracks: St. Louis Blues

There’s been no shortage of regal epithets in the music world, though not all have been deserved. Artists like Queen and Prince have lived up to their royal aspirations, though others like King and Princess have proved to be nothing more than pretenders to the throne. (And don’t even get me started on “Lady” Gaga). Edward “Duke” Ellington, earning his moniker as a youth on account of his snappy dress-sense, belongs firmly in the first category, however it’s still something of a surprise to find this particular album in the Top 1000.

For starters, it’s not really fair to describe it as an Ellington album. The main players here are Johnny Hodges & Harry “Sweets” Edison while Ellington seems content to sit in the background. Make that very far in the background… could they not fit the piano in the studio or something? It’s so quietly recorded that it sounds as if he’s out in the hallway. It’s not a typical Ellington big band line-up either but a more intimate small combo setting. Moreover, there are no Ellington compositions here as all the songs are classic blues numbers from the pre-war era.

So what’s so special about a bunch of jazzers knocking out a load of old blues numbers? On the face of it, not a lot – however the more you listen to this album, the more you realise what an extraordinary job they make of it. In one sense, the blues offers a fairly limited scope for original improvisation yet the inventiveness & imagination shown in the soloing here is hugely impressive. I’ve always thought that good improvisation was all about playing the right note at the right time & that’s exactly what you find here. Moreover each performer has his own unique character and the more I listened to the interplay between these differing styles, the more enjoyable I found it.

I’ve read some criticism of Ellington’s playing on this album, suggesting that he was just going through the motions & didn’t put much into it. You only have to listen to his piano solos on Loveless Love, Wabash Blues or Basin Street Blues to realise what a load of cobblers that is. It is certainly a laidback, sometimes minimalist performance but his unusual chord inversions & the effortless ease with which his solo progressions dance around the melody were a highlight of this recording for me. Another standout performance comes courtesy of Harry “Sweets” Edison, a much-underrated player who somehow manages to play the blues with trumpet solos that have a smiling, winking, feel-good quality. Add in Johnny Hodges’ silky-smooth alto sax holding down the melodies & some fine guitar work from Les Spann & it’s pretty hard to fault the musicianship.

It’s also a very accessible album for people who might not typically listen to jazz. There are no tricky solos, the progressions are all simple blues (though admittedly more jazz-blues than blues-jazz) and it has a mellow, after-hours feel throughout. You can stick it on the next time the family come to dinner & it’ll breeze gently past without ruffling any feathers, but take time out to listen closer & you’ll find it has hidden depths.