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HomeNewsOff the Beaten Tracks: My 100 favourite albums, Part 8

Off the Beaten Tracks: My 100 favourite albums, Part 8

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30 Steely Dan: Pretzel Logic (1974)

ON this, their third LP, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen set out to combine the conventional short pop-song format with the complexities of their beloved jazz.

They state their musical intentions on track one, Rikki Don’t Lose That Number, whose piano motif is a direct quote from the bop bassist Horace Silver’s signature tune, Song For My Father, followed by a plaintive lyric about a lover’s leaving. Released as a single it reached No 4 in the US charts and was the Dan’s biggest hit of their long career. On the B-side was another belter from side one, Any Major Dude Will Tell You. 

Barrytown  combines a catchy riff with a sardonic putdown of a hamlet in New York State near the arts institution Bard College, where Becker and Fagen met as students. Then come two more jazz references, a version of Duke Ellington’s East St Louis Toodle-Oo and Parker’s Band, with its nod to Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker. The time-travelling title track is a fetching blues shuffle and then we have Charlie Freak, a rare example of a Steely Dan song demonstrating compassion, in this case for a drug addict who overdosed.

My favourite Dan album.

29 Pixies: Surfer Rosa (1988)

Early last year I wrote here: ‘Take a smattering of surf rock and add a pinch of punk. Stir in a generous slab of Beefheart with a sprig of Buddy Holly and a dash of Iggy Pop. And prepare to enjoy Pixies.

‘Led by singer Black Francis and guitarist Joey Santiago, Pixies were at the heart of the 1990s alternative rock scene. Renowned for their jarring loud/quiet dynamics and surreal lyrics, they were witty, exciting and terrific entertainment. And however high the volume went there was always a sense of space between the notes, as typified by great British bands of the 1970s such as Free and Patto.’

I described Surfer Rosa, produced by Steve Albini, as ‘an inspired mish-mash of musical styles both heavy and light, often in the same tune. For some tracks Albini moved the equipment into the studio bathroom to achieve greater echo. He was paid a mere $1,500 for his work and refused to receive royalties, saying that was “an insult to the band”. The album eventually sold getting on for a million copies.

‘First track is Bone Machine, a typical bass and drum intro leading into Santiago’s wild guitar and Francis’s deranged vocals. The rifftastic Break My Body keeps up the good work. One of Pixies fans’ top tracks of all time, Gigantic, features Kim Deal’s vocals and brilliant bass – who’d have thought she’d been playing the instrument for only two years? Her precocious talent echoes that of another great female bassist, Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads. 

River Euphrates backs light vocals with heavy rhythms in typical Pixies fashion.Where Is My Mind? is another perennial fan favourite. Francis said he wrote it after scuba diving in the Caribbean. “I had this very small fish trying to chase me. I don’t know why – I don’t know too much about fish behaviour.” Next comes Cactus – a weird one in which a prison inmate asks his girl to smear her dress with blood and post it to him.

‘Surfer Rosa has appeared on several “all-time best album” lists. One reviewer described as “well crafted, well delivered sketches which embrace commercial ideals as well as bizarre left-field out-of-control moments”. Another hailed it as “beautifully brutal”. Kurt Cobain said the record inspired him to make his own combinations of heavy noise and pop. He hired Albini to produce Nirvana’s 1993 album In Utero.’

28 Lou Reed: Transformer (1972)

In 2019 I wrote here that Walk on the Wild Side,  the single taken from the David Bowie-produced Transformer, propelled Reed from cultitude to pop stardom.

‘Its mentions of oral sex, transvestism, drugs and prostitution failed to be recognised by the BBC, usually so keen to ban records, and it became a top ten hit.

‘The musical idea that turns the song into a masterpiece cost a grand total of £34. Session man Herbie Flowers suggested he played interlocking lines on double bass with electric bass overlaid to provide the unmistakable motif behind Reed’s deadpan vocals. Because Flowers used two instruments, he received double the normal £17 daily session fee agreed with the Musicians’ Union. He never got any royalties, however, and neither did Ronnie Ross, whose lovely baritone sax solo concludes the song after the Thunder Thighs’ doo-doo-doo-doo-doo chorus.’

Transformer opens with Vicious – ‘you hit me with a flower’ – which sets the queeny, bitchy, acerbic tone of the album. It is followed by Andy’s Chest, a bizarre tribute to Andy Warhol written after a 1968 attempt on his life left a huge scar on said torso. Perfect Day is one of my least favourite cuts but went on to become a number one hit when released with a cast of thousands as a charity single in 1997.

Then comes Hangin’ ’Round, with its contemptuous druggie reference ‘You’re still doin’ things that I gave up years ago.’ Side one concludes brilliantly with Walk on the Wild Side, whose subject matter probably qualifies it nowadays as a subject to be taught to six-year-olds in state schools.

Side two kicks off with the lovely Make Up, Herbie Flowers coining in another £17 on tuba, followed by Satellite of Love, featuring barnstorming backing vocals from Bowie.

Wagon Wheel and I’m So Free are both rockers while the two remaining tracks are quintessential Reed: New York Telephone Conversation – ‘did you hear who did what to whom, happens all the time’ and Goodnight Ladies – ‘Ah, all night long you’ve been drinking your tequila, but now you’ve sucked your lemon peel dry’.

Critical reaction was initially patchy – Rolling Stone said the album was mainly ‘artsyfartsy kind of homo stuff’ – but Transformer came to be accepted as a classic, thanks greatly to the work of Bowie and arranger Mick Ronson.

27 Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited (1965)

Dylan named his sixth studio album after the road which linked his home town of Duluth, Minnesota, with southern musical capitals such as Memphis and New Orleans. Classic songs include Like A Rolling Stone, Queen Jane ApproximatelyJust Like Tom Thumb’s Blues, and Desolation Row.

Nuff said.

26 Van Morrison: Astral Weeks (1968)

Again, what can I add to what has already been written about the LP which saw a pop singer from Ulster suddenly become a revered rock poet? Sweet ThingCyprus AvenueMadame GeorgeBallerina and the title track, all magnificent. It has consistently been classed as one of the greatest records ever made, yet it rankled with Morrison because it didn’t bring in much dosh. In a 1979 interview he growled: ‘Astral Weeks did not sell as an album, even still today. A lot of people like it, mostly musicians and other artists and writers etc like it, but as an album, it didn’t sell.’ 

25 Caravan: In The Land of Grey and Pink (1971)

This is another masterpiece which wowed the critics but failed to set the charts alight. In a piece here about Caravan and their fellow Canterburyites Hatfield and the North, I wrote: ‘I have often seen it claimed that side two of In the Land of Grey and Pink is the peak achievement in all of Seventies progressive music. I can’t disagree. The eight-part suite Nine Feet Underground is a joy from start to finish and still sounds remarkable almost half a century on.’

The album’s title and Tolkien-inspired sleeve was suggested by singer and bassist Richard Sinclair after seeing a spectacular sunset over his beloved Kent. As I said, ‘Golf Girl provides a poppy opener and is about Richard’s future wife. Winter Wine, performed here live on German TV, is a beauty. Pye Hastings takes over the vocals for the staccato Love To Love You (And Tonight Pigs Will Fly) while Richard is back for the whimsical title track during which he can be heard blowing bubbles.

‘Then fasten your seatbelts for the aforementioned Nine Feet Underground, with its concentration on Dave Sinclair’s fuzztone organ and piano. It was recorded in five sections then sewn together by producer David Hitchcock and engineer Dave Grinsted. This would prove a staple of late-night radio programmes throughout the decade. Mojo magazine described this as “the quintessential Canterbury album” while, including it in its 50 Greatest Prog Rock Albums of All Time, Rolling Stone magazine said it evoked ‘a Middle Earth sunset, with the music wavering between medieval folk melodies and jazz-savvy musos’. A new CD edition was released in 2001 and is well worth acquiring with the addition of unreleased material including the excellent I Don’t Know Its Name.’

24 Brian Eno: Another Green World (1975)

AGW was his third solo album and, as I wrote here, followed Taking Tiger Mountain, which was No 90 in my Top 100. For it, Eno continued his use of Oblique Strategies, a pack of cards each containing a musical instruction which he would shuffle and consult whenever unable to decide what to do next.

I opined: ‘The structure of the opening track, Sky Saw, is a prime example of Eno’s constantly changing direction and features him on “snake guitar and digital guitar”, Phil Collins on drums, John Cale on violas and bassists Percy Jones and Paul Rudolph. This is one of only five songs on the album to include lyrics.

‘Another is St Elmo’s Fire, featuring blazing guitar from Bob Fripp, as does I’ll Come Running, the nearest thing to a pop song on the record.

‘Three instrumentals on side one involve only Eno, In Dark TreesThe Big Ship and the brief, beautiful title track, which will be familiar to many readers as the theme music for the BBC arts show Arena.’

Another Green World, released in September 1975, failed to chart in either the UK or US. However its brilliance has since been widely acknowledged and it features in several lists of ‘All-Time Greatest Rock Albums’, justifiably so.

23 Joni Mitchell: For The Roses (1972)

I covered this lovely LP extensively here, so I’ll ask you to follow the link.

22 Michael Nesmith: And The Hits Just Keep on Coming (1972)

In June last year I wrote that this record features only Nesmith and pedal steel guitarist Red Rhodes. ‘This is an absolute cracker; in my view the man’s best LP by far. Ten all-original songs begin with Tomorrow and MeThe Upside of GoodbyeLady Love, Listening and Two Different Roads. The pace drops with the earnest The Candidate but hereon in is plain sailing. Four classics in a row – Different Drum, Harmony Constant, Keep On and Roll with the Flow

‘Nesmith’s explanation for using only Rhodes as back-up is that the rest of the band were “fed up” with their boss “and the only one I was still talking to was Red. As I look back on it, though, it was inspired. Red was playing better and more inventively than ever and I had written most of the songs in a week so they were all of one piece”. He adds that it took him years to come to appreciate the album, but “now I think it’s a jewel”.’

I’ll second that.

21 Maddy Prior and June Tabor: Silly Sisters (1976)

I wrote here in May last year that this is one of my favourite folk albums ever. If you haven’t heard it, I urge you to follow the link.

Next week, numbers 11 to 20. For those of a betting persuasion, I’d advise you not to put any money on the Dave Clark Five or Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich.

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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