JUST to reiterate, I am saying not that these are the best albums of all time, but those which have given me, myself, personally, the most pleasure.
40 Nick Lowe: Quiet Please: The New Best of Nick Lowe (2009)
While Nick the Knife has released countless super pop songs over the years, his albums tend to fall short of classic status thanks to a generous sprinkling of filler material. However this ‘best of’ selection more than fits the bill. Covering 33 and a third years of his career, it starts with What’s So Funny ’Bout Peace Love and Understanding from his time with the great Brinsley Schwarz, followed by the new-wave hit So It Goes while towards the end comes one of the creepiest songs ever written, I Trained Her To Love Me. I devoted three columns to Nick’s solo work and you can read them here.
39 John Cale: Paris 1919 (1973)
I wrote about this delightful album here.
This is what I put:
‘Produced in 1973 by the mighty Chris Thomas, personnel include guitarist Lowell George and drummer Richie Hayward from Little Feat, Crusaders bass player Wilton Felder and the UCLA Symphony Orchestra.
‘Almost every track is a classic. Child’s Christmas in Wales opens with George’s slide and is followed by Hanky Panky Nohow, most wistful and beautiful songs.
‘Endless Plain of Fortune keeps up the stratospheric standard and the lovely, mournful Andalucia raises it yet higher.
‘Side two of the original LP clocks in at only 15 minutes but a very fine quarter of an hour it is, comprising the title track, Graham Greene, Half Past France and the glacial Antarctica Starts Here.
‘I would urge anyone unfamiliar with Cale’s music to lend Paris 1919 a sympathetic ear. It is his masterpiece, his most delicate and accessible album, and still sounds fresh today.’
38 Frank Zappa: Over-Nite Sensation/Apostrophe (1974)
After the jazzy noodlings of Waka Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo, it was something of a shock to place the needle on Over-Nite Sensation and hear a succession of tight vocal-led rock songs with some extremely filthy lyrics. Although they are not named on the sleeve, backing vocals are provided by Tina Turner and the Ikettes. Approached by Zappa, Tina’s domineering husband Ike apparently insisted that she and the other girls be paid only $25 per song. In fact they received $25 per hour, giving them each $187.50 for seven and a half hours of singing on five tracks, I’m The Slime, Dirty Love, Zomby Woof, Dinah-Moe Humm and the magnificent Montana.
According to Barry Miles’s 2005 biography of FZ, Tina brought Ike into the studio to hear the difficult middle section of Montana, which had taken the Ikettes a while to master. Ike listened to the tape and growled, ‘What is this shit?’ before stalking out of the studio. It was at his insistence that the Ikettes were not credited, presumably because he disliked what he heard. In fact, Montana is one of the classic Zappa tracks, the story of an insignificant little man who dreams of moving to the western state and cultivating a crop of dental floss, which he believes grows on bushes. He admits that ‘by myself I wouldn’t have no boss, but I’d be raisin’ my lonely dental floss’. Here is a stonking version by Zappa’s son Dweezil and the amazing blind prodigy Rachel Flowers, who is also a keyboards genius.
Over-Nite was released as a single CD along with Apostrophe, Zappa’s next album, half of which was recorded at the same sessions as its predecessor. It begins with Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow, the story of an Eskimo boy named Nanook whose favourite baby seal is attacked with a lead-filled snow shoe, and gets sillier thereon. The undoubted highlight is the near-six-minute title track, an instrumental jam featuring brilliant bass by Jack Bruce, although he would later mysteriously disclaim any responsibility for it.
Five years ago Frank’s family released The Crux of the Biscuit, a selection of out-takes, which includes a nine-minute version of Apostrophe and an eight-minute alternative named Energy Frontier (Bridge), a must for all Zappaholics.
37 Marc Ribot: The Prosthetic Cubans (1998)
Both Ry Cooder and Tom Waits put this among their favourite records so I’m in good company. I wrote about it here in May this year so I won’t repeat myself, other than to say that it’s a blast. In Ribot’s own words: ‘Basically, we have fun. We play. We jam. We like to make people dance whenever possible. In fact, if I could make people dance every night, I wouldn’t care if I ever played to a sit-down jazz audience again for the rest of my life. I’d happily prefer to play gay discos.’
36 Talking Heads: Fear of Music (1979)
I wrote about this outstanding album here, back in 2019. I said: ‘Top tracks include Mind, Life During Wartime, Air and Heaven – a place where nothing ever happens.
‘To promote it, the Heads embarked on a European tour which on December 1, 1979, took them to the Free Trade Hall, Manchester. They blew me away – particularly the waiflike Tina Weymouth pounding out those amazing basslines. This was no art rock combo, it was a fearsome machine. There is a set of three live CDs, Transmission Impossible, which includes a date from that storming 1979 tour. There is also this live recording on YouTube, made in London six days after I saw them.’
35 Laura Veirs: Troubled By The Fire (2003)
This was Laura’s third album and, as I wrote here in January this year, far more sophisticated than its down-homey predecessors. I said: ‘It establishes Laura’s style as a sort of chamber folk music and includes some fabulous arrangements such as the strings on the opener, Lost at Seaflower Cove. This is followed by the excellent and sexy Bedroom Eyes.
‘Song My Friends Taught Me is an ethereal beauty. Cannon Fodder starts with a moody electric piano motif with voice on top before crashing into a powerful anti-war diatribe.
‘Further highlights include Tiger Tattoos “Will you come down to the river and take a swim with me?” and the rousing Devil’s Hootenanny in which Veirs finds herself playing to an audience of demons. This is a magical record.’
34 Mike Cooper: Do I Know You? (1970)
Last November I wrote here: ‘The first thing that strikes you about the album is the joyous, pounding energy of the opening instrumental, The Link. I have seen this described as a “modal piece which uses open tunings and drones, full of driving power and fluency”. I have been unable to find an individual YouTube link to this track but here is the whole album.
‘Next up is the mournful Journey to the East and then it’s back to muscular guitar work on the excellent First Song. In an early taste of ambient recording, this is followed by an interlude of mainly curlew-based birdsong which blends into another vocal highlight, Thinking Back. Further favourites include Too Late Now, the lovely title track, which is introduced by church bells, and the closing selection, Looking Back, with sterling work from Harry Miller, who would become an increasing influence on Cooper.
‘After hearing Mike on John Peel’s radio programme I was lucky to happen upon a cheap second-hand copy of Do I Know You at my local record shop and played it to death. It was on particularly heavy vinyl which managed to withstand everything thrown at it. Eventually, in a drunken moment of madness, I sold it to my friend Steve and instantly regretted it. He refused to sell it back to me at any price and by then it had been deleted so I was mightily relieved to find another used copy some months later. It’s one of those special records that never lose their charm.’
33 Ry Cooder and V M Bhatt: A Meeting By The River (1993)
In a column late last year, I wrote that this is an entirely improvised collection of instrumentals in which Ry’s bottleneck dovetails with the Indian classical musician V M Bhatt, who plays a 20-string guitar of his own invention known as a mohan vina. Cooder’s son Joachim, then only 14, plays percussion.
I went on: ‘Recorded in a chapel in Santa Barbara, California, this is one of the most serene and beautiful records ever to bless these tired old ears. In his liner notes producer Kavichandran Alexander writes, “Having worked in the studio for nearly ten hours recording a film score, Ry drove for two hours and met Bhatt in a motel lobby. It was close to midnight. Half an hour later we were at Christ the King Chapel tuning guitars and drums, drinking tea and laughing. With no planning whatsoever, and no preparation, the musicians soon established a dialogue. In the presence of Franciscan monks in woollen habits, on a Persian rug by the altar of a Catholic church, two streams merged to form a river.”
‘Here is the whole album. Pour yourself something nice, close your eyes and let it wash over you.’
32 Faces: Five Guys Walk Into a Bar . . . (2004)
This brilliant four-CD box set, compiled by the late Ian McLagan, is a fitting epitaph to one of the greatest British bands. In 2018 I wrote here: ‘Of all the rock shows I attended in my youth, the one that left me smiling for longest took place on December 23, 1972. Four school friends and I managed to borrow someone’s dad’s car and arrive at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester, in time for the Faces’ Christmas Concert.
‘Never have I seen anyone have so much fun on stage. The band gave every impression of being boozed-up mates who just happened to have rolled in from the pub, hurling insults at the crowd and each other. Yet the musicianship was impeccable, inspired. Kenney Jones beating hell out of the drums, Ronnie Lane laying down the bass, Ian McLagan on keyboards, Ron Wood on that inimitable, scratchy-sounding lead guitar.
‘And then there was Rod. Looking with his back-combed barnet like a deranged cockatoo, hoisting his mike stand high into the air and belting out classics with those vocal cords roughened in alcohol-soaked gravel. Who could forget his live versions of Maggie May?
‘These days Rod Stewart is disparaged by some as a has-been who trots out old standards in search of another few million quid. Not by me. I think he is one of the finest singers, performers and all-round personalities rock and roll has ever known. And, best of all, funny with it. In everything he has done it has been obvious that he’s in with us on the joke – a nod and a wink that says: “I know it’s all a bit ridiculous but let’s enjoy ourselves and get to the bar before closing time”.’
Five Guys contains all the Faces’ hits, which need no introduction, plus a number of previously unreleased tracks, out-takes, B-sides and more. Here are some lesser-known highlights, As Long As You Tell Him, Come See Me Baby, a live performance of Bad ’n’ Ruin and, from their last recording session, a version of the Beach Boys song Gettin’ Hungry. A joy throughout.
31 Sufjan Stevens: Illinois (2005)
Oh no, I hear you moan, the silly old sod’s going on about Sufjan Stevens again. Well I like him, anyway. As I wrote here: ‘Some of the subjects are startling. John Wayne Gacy Jr is a portrait of the Chicago serial murderer known as the Killer Clown, who claimed the lives of at least 33 men and boys up to his arrest in 1978.
‘One of the highlights is Decatur, a whimsical exercise in how many rhymes Stevens could produce with the city that is the seat of Macon County. Another is Chicago, with its rueful refrain of I made a lot of mistakes. Then we have Casimir Pulaski Day, about the death of a loved one from cancer. And many more great songs which led several critics to name this their album of the year.’
Next week we’ll saunter into the Top 30.