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Off the Beaten Tracks: My Top 100 albums, Part 3

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THANKS for your positive response to Part 2 last week. Here goes with ten more of my personal favourites from the last half century or so.

80 Iris DeMent: Infamous Angel (1992)

It was in March last year that I wrote: ‘For simple songs straight from the heart, Iris DeMent’s debut album Infamous Angel is hard to beat. Her delivery is unspoilt, unadorned, often childlike in its charm and the quality of her writing is up there, in my view, with the best in country music.’

There are innumerable highlights, foremost of which is the point on When Love Was Young when Iris catches her breath before delivering the final soaring note.

79 The Innocence Mission: Glow (1995)

On this, their third album, the Mission established their true identity. Previously, as I wrote in 2019, their music had been a mish-mash of influences including 10,000 Maniacs, Enya, and The Sundays, but here they play it simple and allow Karen Peris’s high, almost childlike voice to ring out clearly against a simple backing. Her songs celebrate the quiet joys of family life and love, kitchen chats and playing in the snow. Keeping Awake is the first track, followed by Bright As Yellow, which was released as a single and sold quite a few copies. It is one of not too many songs to have been played in space, when on June 6, 2008, it was the wake-up call for the crew of Nasa’s Shuttle mission STS-124.

Further treats include BraveThat Was Another Country, Speak Our MindsHappy The End, and the lovely Everything’s Different Now. The Innocence Mission have made several superb albums over the years, but I think this, along possibly with Befriended, is my favourite.

78 Steely Dan: Countdown to Ecstasy (1973)

The Dan’s second LP, following the successful Can’t Buy A Thrill with its smash singles Do It Again and Reelin’ In The Years. This time there was no hit 45 to boost sales and it was something of a commercial disappointment. However it is stuffed with great songs. As I wrote here in 2018, Show Biz Kids is a sly attack on Hollywood hipness with a brilliant slide guitar performance from the then wunderkind Rick Derringer. Razor Boy, The Boston Rag and My Old School are equally sensational and then we have the plaintive Pearl of the Quarter, about a poor geezer hopelessly besotted with a New Orleans hooker named Louise.

She loved the million-dollar words I’d say
She loved the candy and the flowers that I bought her
She said she loved me and was on her way
Singing ‘voulez-voulez-voulez-vous’.

77 Nico: Chelsea Girl (1967)

The unique Nico was the subject of an early column in August 2018. Having quit the Velvet Underground when they mocked her voice and slight deafness, the German chanteuse and model born Christa Paffgen quickly released her own solo album and it was a chamber-folk gem. Her teenage boyfriend at the time, one Jackson Browne, supplied three songs – The Fairest of the Seasons, Somewhere There’s a Feather and the sublime These Days,  the latter of which he did not record himself until 1973. Another precocious young shaver, Bob Dylan, supplied I’ll Keep It With Mine while the Velvets’ Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison wrote Chelsea Girls, a sort of prequel to Reed’s Walk On The Wild Side, describing some of the denizens of New York’s dingy Chelsea Hotel. The last track, Tim Hardin’s achingly beautiful Eulogy to Lenny Bruce, foreshadows the heroin problems that would dog Nico in later life.

Fifty-four years after it was recorded, Chelsea Girl still sounds newly minted.

76 Randy Newman: Good Old Boys (1974)

Newman’s fourth studio album is his masterpiece. In March 2019 I wrote here: 

‘For his 1974 tour de force Good Old Boys, he turned his gimlet eye on the American Deep South. As was his customary method, he mocked prejudice not by criticising the culprits but by assuming their character and letting them hang themselves. One of his greatest songs,Rednecks, begins, “Last night I saw Lester Maddox on a TV show, with some smartass New York Jew. The Jew laughed at Lester Maddox and the audience laughed at Lester Maddox too. Well he may be a fool, but he’s our fool; if they think they’re better than him they’re wrong.”

‘Lester Maddox was governor of Georgia from 1967 to 1971 and a staunch segregationist. He appeared several times on the Dick Cavett Show, to widespread ridicule. Newman in his persona as a redneck supports Maddox’s cause then self-destructs with an exposition of complacent racist beliefs. There are songs about historical events, plus the slow classics Marie and Guilty, but my favourite track is the plaintive A Wedding in Cherokee County, about an under-endowed Native American bridegroom. “Why must everybody laugh at my mighty sword?”.’

In 2002 the album was re-released as a double CD, with the second disc being Johnny Cutler’s Birthday, a demo for the actual album. Among the songs that didn’t make the cut is a little beauty called Good Morning, which portrays the aforementioned Cutler, who had been out celebrating the night before, being serenaded by his family over the breakfast table. Through his hangover Johnny retorts: ‘F*ck off!’

75 Van Morrison: St Dominic’s Preview (1972)

I never got around to writing about the Belfast Curmudgeon because a) he comes across as a singularly unappealing character and b) he cancelled a gig in Bristol in 1974 at very short notice when I had travelled all the way there from Lancashire. (I watched the Kinks instead at Bath University and was privileged to share a bottle of brown ale handed down from the stage by Ray Davies). I have to admit, however, that Morrison is one of the great rock voices and has made some sensational albums, of which this is one. It opens with Jackie Wilson Said (I’m in Heaven When You Smile), which was a top ten hit when covered ten years later by Dexy’s Midnight Runners. The standout songs for me are the title track and the lengthy vocal workouts Listen to the Lion (a leftover from Tupelo Honey) and the hypnotic Almost Independence Day, which features an early appearance by the Moog synthesiser.

74 John Martyn: Inside Out (1973)

I wrote about this here in February 2019 when I confessed to having conducted a lengthy and tedious interview with a bearded festivalgoer while under the mistaken impression that he was John Martyn. In fact he was a bloke called Clive.

Inside Out was Johnny’s second album of the year after Solid Air, and while slightly less consistent it contains my favourite Martyn tracks Fine Lines and Ways to Cry.  

Both of these are transformed by the magical double bass of Danny Thompson, whom I profiled here, and as I said he deserved a joint credit for his contribution. 

73 Little Feat: The Last Record Album (1975)

This was the final Feat album to be dominated by the wonderful Lowell George before he eventually succumbed to a succession of destructive habits. I have mentioned him in countless columns including this one, when I told how a girl friend who had accompanied me to a Feat concert in Manchester remonstrated with a chap in the row behind us who insisted on loudly singing along with Lowell. Elton John wisely shut his trap.

Little Feat’s shuffling, swampy brand of rock and roll is typified here by the songs Mercenary Territory and All That You Dream, featuring the toothsome Linda Ronstadt, while best of all is the magnificent Long Distance Love, which contains one of my all-time favourite lines – ‘Her toes, they were so pretty’. Here, for good measure, is a performance for the Old Grey Whistle Test, introduced by Whispering Bob Harris.

72 Richard Thompson: guitar, vocal (1976)

As I mentioned here, this career retrospective was released after Richard and wife Linda had gone into musical semi-retirement, retreating to a Sufi Muslim commune in Norfolk. Previously unreleased tracks included a Fairport Convention cover of the Byrds’ Ballad of Easy Rider, which was recorded during the sessions for the Liege and Lief album but clashed with the rest of the traditionally themed material. Poor Will and the Jolly Hangman featured in sessions for Fairport’s Full House LP but was shelved because Thompson was dissatisfied with his vocals. The standout songs are all live versions, Richard and Linda singing Dark End of the Street and Richard demonstrating his astonishing guitar virtuosity on Calvary Cross and Night Comes In. For some reason guitar, vocal was allowed to go out of print but thankfully the best tracks have all reappeared on various album reissues.

71 Tim Buckley: Dream Letter, Live in London 1968 (1990)

I wrote about this as recently as February so I won’t repeat myself, although those of you who missed the column can read it here. 

Suffice to say that it’s one of the greatest live albums of all time.

More next week.

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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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