16 -24 DecemberHOME
Welcome To The Beautiful South - The Beautiful South
According to guitarist/third vocalist Dave Rothery, The Beautiful South are everybody's second-favourite band. This would account for the meteoric success of their Greatest Hits collection, whilst the individual albums to relatively poorly in the charts. This debut album, released in 1989 to a world expecting The Housemartins Part Two, was surprisingly low-key in its arrangements and spoke of a more relaxed musical stance, in direct opposition to the radical political stance of singer Paul Heaton. The almost immediate addition to the band of girl-singer Briana Corrigan complicated matters further: the outfit was starting to look large on the stage.
Clearly, Heaton's love of soul music was the inspiration for this band. Bitter-sweet is the name of the game, with glittery musical arrangements of piano and light guitar work juxtaposed against social commentary on subjects such as domestic abuse, lovelorn suicides, the realities of war, lack of personal motivation … and even a manifesto of non-commerciality with Straight In At 37.
Sure, there is the prerequisite number of singles: Song For Whoever, You Keep It All In and I'll Sail This Ship Alone, but towards the end the album meanders into the fairly experimental Love Is…and bafflingly draws to a close with I Love You (But You're Boring). Deliberately obtuse? Undoubtedly. But who would have thought that within a year a Beautiful South ballad would top the singles charts?
The album's come down in price now, making it a far more attractive offering, and interesting for fans in hindsight.
9 - 15 December
Strangeways Here We Come - The Smiths
Their fourth and final studio album showed that The Queen Is Dead was still not the best they were capable of. A great singles band, their first two albums were a slight disappointment until their widely-acclaimed "best album" dispelled doubts that their songs stood up to a 33 rpm outing. Strangeways is more interesting still, with a greater variety of musical direction and still more on-the-edge topics.
Girlfriend In A Coma is here, sounding as fresh and shocking as ever, while Morrissey's can't-get-a-girlfriend depression reaches its climax in the dramatic wash that is Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me. Marr's jolly guitar licks are eminently enjoyable throughout, while the Moz-Man runs through stirring optimism (A Rush And A Push And The Land Is Ours), hatred (Unhappy Birthday), a cynical look at the record business (Paint A Vulgar Picture), cultural pessimism (Death Of A Disco Dancer) and of course a final submission to haunting melancholy (I Won't Share You). I find this record perpetually fresh, more so in fact than its illustrious predecessor, and probably the most likely to appeal to potential fans. Highly recommended.
1 - 8 December
A Night At The Opera - Queen
Despite the proliferation of Queen "Best Of" compilations these days, the original albums are still the best way to hear what this legendary band were all about. This is the prime example. Their fourth album, released in 1975, it was a quite deliberate attempt to produce a classic album, and eminently successful in that regard. The album successfully switches between diverse musical styles without becoming a confusing medley, and the degree of innovation is self-evident.
Starting with the furious, anger-driven Death On Two Legs, it progresses via the first of two over-the-top Mercury-pistache numbers into drummer Taylor's testosterone-ridden love song to his car, then via the pure pop You're My Best Friend arrives at a folksy space/time-travel number authoritatively penned by stargazing guitarist Brian May. Overblown production has never been more striking than in the lengthy Prophet's Song, comparable to the album's overplayed high-spot, Bohemian Rhapsody. There's still room for some trad jazz with shades of George Formby, and the stage-favourite harp-strumming ballad Love Of My Life before the closing rendition of God Save The Queen.
If it sounds pompous, pretentious, overblown, then it certainly is. But it's also amazingly diverse, innovative and intelligently constructed. If you like Queen at all then you should own this. It proves that they had even more to offer as a unit than the well-established Greatest Hits collections would suggest. Not an album to be worn out in a couple of airings.
* * *
23 - 30 November
Room To Roam - The Waterboys
The Waterboys went through several distinct phases in their career before they became simply Mike Scott. At this juncture, Karl Wallinger had left to form his own successful career as World Party, and they had switched from their U2-meets-Dylan sound to a bafflingly different folk sound with the Fisherman's Blues album. Diving in deeper, and acquiring more folk musicians, they came up with Room To Roam in 1990.
Predictably, the high spots of the album are the gentle ballads such as A Man Is In Love and Something That Is Gone, and there is a sound similar to The Levellers evident on The Raggle Taggle Gypsy and How Long Will I Love You? Attempts at marrying Irish poetry with tender musical accompaniment break the album up, and are fair enough, if not entirely successful. Fiddly jigs abound, accompanied somewhat painfully by the sounds of "authentic" bar-room antics.
This is an album for a lighter frame of mind. One is not drawn to it for endless re-plays, but there is an underlying joyousness in much of the music which is hard to ignore.
15 - 22 November
Green - R.E.M.
REM's 1989 album was their first for a bigtime label, and the last before Out Of Time broke them internationally. Not surprisingly then, it is a rich, intelligent, half-commercial mixture of driving three-minuters (Stand, Get Up, Orange Crush) and luscious ballads (You Are The Everything, World Leader Pretend), augmented perfectly by Stipe's consciousness-stream poetry.
The conservation theme is not strictly adhered to (good thing too) and there's a good degree of musical variety from song to song. The musicianship is top-notch, of course, and there is little criticism which can be levelled at such a competent product. If you like REM at all, you'll like this, whether you prefer the earlier, mumbly Stipe or the more recent flirtation with enunciation.
Too many people missed this one - go and buy it instead of waiting for their next!
8 - 15 November
How Dare You! - 10CC
The last album to feature the original lineup of Godley and Creme, Stewart and Gouldman, this album was pretty much more-of-the-same, if a little more rooted in the pistache and quirkiness that made the early 10CC so fresh. I'm Mandy Fly Me and Art For Art's Sake are the instantly recognisable hits, fine melodic numbers, competently produced.
By this time the band seemed incapable of writing a song without some form of pun or joke, from the ice-maiden serenade Iceberg, to the sex comedy Head Room, and the inevitable tongue-in-cheek mini-opera I Wanna Rule The World. If this sounds too much, be reassured that the music is never predictable; the intensity of songwriting is such that melodies come and go in each song with mind-boggling frequency, keeping the entertainment factor high throughout. Don't Hang Up is the delightful climax, a story of a man at the bar on his wedding day drinking "marriage on the rocks".
The "Gizmo" guitar-distorter invented by Godley and Creme is showcased on the opening instrumental and throughout, but these days is no longer a revelation to the listener. In some ways dated, this album should appeal to the open-minded listener, but if it sounds too complex then stick with a hits collection.
* * *
24 - 31 October
Tapestry - Carole King
Perhaps better known for her startling catalogue of '60s hits penned for other bands with then-husband Gerry Goffin, Carole King here showed that she was also a fine performing artist. Her writings had mostly taken place at the piano, leaving others to alter the arrangements to suit themselves, so it is unsurprising that piano is the dominant instrument on this album, backed up by bass and drums.
This is a largely wistful-sounding album, Carole's clear vocal perhaps best suited to such a style. The list of standards is quite startling: her covers of her own songs It's Too Late and Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? transform them into haunting ballads, and I Feel The Earth Move only highlights the inadequacies of Martika's version. So Far Away, You've Got A Friend (covered by the Housemartins), Like A Natural Woman and the title track contain a quality of performance and material which she has since struggled to match. There is nowhere to hide in these arrangements, and the quality of her songwriting is borne out magnificently.
This album will lend an edifyingly classy ambience to any rainy afternoon.
16 - 24 October
Sticky Fingers - The Rolling Stones
To review this album it is first necessary to get past the cover legend. Yes, Andy Warhol designed the jeans-zip and the pubic hairs underneath, and yes, the original version with the real zip is now a collectors' item. This was also the first album to bear the Stones' lips-and-tongue logo. Now can we move on please?
There can be few better examples of pumping pop songs than the opening Brown Sugar, but for such a well-known album the commerciality is surprisingly underplayed elsewhere. Firmly rooted in the blues, the jerking, uncompromising fast numbers (Bitch, Can't You Hear Me Knocking) are suitably wild vehicles for any Stones outfit. The album comes into its own in the quality of the blues-ballads, such as Sway or the drug-damning Sister Morphine. The bare arrangements of sliding blues guitars, fleshed out by luscious brass and occasional Hammond, are as successful as they seem obvious today.
Perhaps it is difficult now to understand why this album is regarded as such a classic, but I think the answer lies in its honesty and authenticity. Their biggest selling album, if not the most commercial, this is a compelling set.
8 - 15 October
Sounds of Silence - Simon & Garfunkel
This 1968 album successfully catches Simon and Garfunkel in full swing, doing wholeheartedly what they did best. Although lacking the production gloss of their last album, it conveys a greater artistic honesty through the songs. It is grounded in folk roots (the nicked-from-traditional lyrics in Leaves That Are Green, the instrumental jazz cover Anji, the definitive version of the time-honoured April Come She Will); and shows a willingness of progression in the self-penned folk-rock numbers, all of which are quality recordings. We've Got A Groovy Thing Goin' is about as sixties as a song can be; Kathy's Song is a pure and blissful love song; Richard Cory (covered by Wings on their Over America tour) is a quick stab at socio-political commentary.
There is a fair quota of S&G classics here, with the title track, Homeward Bound and I Am A Rock guaranteeing the album a fair hearing. They may appear elsewhere, but this is where they belong. Untainted by duff numbers, the album hardly puts a foot wrong. It must be remembered, however, that this will not be to everybody's taste. The light folk-rock style is not for everyone, and this is an album to listen to in patient frame of mind, forgiving the New York art college sentiments whenever they may grate upon the postmodern listener's ears.
With fine harmonies and competent if not inspired musicianship, this album stands the test of time musically, and no fan of the duo will be disappointed. Not one for the more cynical listener, however.
* * *
23 September - 30 September
Infidels - Bob Dylan
The eighties were a tough period for Dylan, and this album saw him struggling to regain credibility after a three-album flirtation with Christianity which had done nothing for his commercial success and threatened even his enormous die-hard fan-base.
The quality of the songwriting was on the up again, but frustratingly he left some of those off this album, settling on far less satisfactory offerings as album-fillers. Jokerman, Don't Fall Apart On Me Tonight and Sweetheart Like You are approximations of the greatness his muse once knew, but need better support than the dire Neighbourhood Bully or the Christian-era hangover Man Of Peace.
The collaboration with Mark Knopfler almost saved this album, and certainly made for a tantalisingly laid-back sound, but Dylan's capacity to make sudden, wrong decisions resulted in diluted production mixes of some songs making the final cut at the last moment, while the superb Foot of Pride was left off altogether.
While loyal fans will still find it a worthwhile exercise, this is not one of Dylan's top 15 albums, and best avoided for most. For homework, get the Bootleg series and hear what this album could have been like.
15 - 23 September
Tommy - The Who
There is little to be said about a work of this stature that has not been said before. A double album/CD, it was the first of its kind, a rock opera. Townshend, the group's main songwriter, finally broke free of the three-minute-pop single format which had so entrapped him, in this surprisingly early (1968) attempt at a more mature form of rock music.
Its success can hardly be explained by the storyline: a boy who witnesses his own mother's fornication is instantly struck deaf, dumb and blind; then amidst attempts at cure, and being subjected to various forms of abuse, he is discovered to be a world-champion pinball player, is suddenly cured and then taken by millions as a messiah, only to see his new religion rejected and destroyed by his followers who refuse to wear eye shades, ear plugs and corks.
This manifestly ludicrous story is told in The Who's irrepressable, and highly efficient hard-rock style. They are quite simply one of the best rock groups ever, Townshend's effective guitaring augmented by the stunningly proficient Entwistle on bass, Moon the madman on drums, and Daltrey's impressive vocal range. And they are on top form here, capably switching from lengthy instrumental (Overture, Underture) to snappy pop singles (Pinball Wizard, I'm Free) to light jazz (Welcome, Sally Simpson), blues (Eyesight To The Blind) and ludicrously brief story-telling snippets (Miracle Cure, Tommy's Holiday Camp). It's this dynamic quality which makes the work so vital. There is an all-pervasive opine from Tommy (See Me, Feel Me) which binds the music and story.
The album has inspired a score of successful stage productions and attendant albums, but this is still the definitive version of what is an outstanding milestone in rock history. An absolutely essential purchase.
The Weird Bunch
The Golden House Sparrow