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HomeNewsOff the Beaten Tracks: My Top 100, Part 4

Off the Beaten Tracks: My Top 100, Part 4

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TEN more of the albums that have given me most pleasure. If you missed any of the three previous instalments, you can find  them here. And for the reader who complained last week that this is the slowest Top 100 list he or she had ever seen, sorry. It doesn’t get any faster. And there’s no Dave Clark Five either.

70 Sufjan Stevens: Michigan (2003)

Regular readers will have observed that I have little time for the bulk of 21st century music. The gentle sounds of Sufjan Stevens, however, are an exception. I repeat my words from early this year: 

‘His musical breakthrough came with 2003’s Michigan album, recorded on basic equipment in houses, apartments, schools and churches. The lovely opening song, Flint (For the Unemployed and Underpaid) sets Sufjan’s light and breathy vocal against a mournful background of piano and trumpet. The range of his musical talent can be gauged by the contribution he makes to the album according to the sleeve notes: “Oboe, English horn, piano, electric organ, electric piano, banjo, acoustic and electric guitars, bass guitar, vibraphone, xylophone, glockenspiel, recorders, wood flute and likeminded whistles, drum kit, various percussion, shakers, sleigh bells, tambourine, dramatic cymbal swells, singing, rhetoric”.’

Banjo comes to the fore on the third track, For The Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti. I can never resist a banjo. 

Then we have Say Yes! To Michigan! followed by the beautifully played The Upper Peninsula, Holland, and the busy, eight-minute-plus Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!). All this is a touching love letter to his home state similar in feeling to Jonathan Richman’s oft-repeated praise for New England.

The wonderful Romulus is nakedly autobiographical and desperately sad. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KOuepo6DP4k 

Stevens discusses his Christian faith with Oh God, Where Are You Now? and Vito’s Ordination Song. And interspersed between songs are some charming instrumentals such as Tahquamenon FallsAlanson Crooked River and Redford. My column about Sufjan resulted in a deafening silence comment-wise, but I hope the uninitiated will lend an ear and give the man a chance.

69 Fotheringay (1970)

The great Sandy Denny formed Fotheringay after walking out of Fairport Convention in the belief that her songwriting deserved greater recognition. She was right. As I wrote in September 2018, the second track on the album is my favourite song by anyone, ever. ‘The Sea is five and a half minutes of magic, the music rising and falling like waves on the shore while Sandy sings of her mystical obsession with the power of the ocean. You will be taken, everyone, you ladies and you gentlemen.
Fall and listen with your ears upon the paving stone.
Is that what you hear? The coming of the sea?’

There is more wonderful stuff from the Denny pen, including Nothing MoreWinter Winds and The Pond and the Stream,  plus a lovely version of the traditional Banks of the Nile. What keeps the album out of my top ten is the contribution of Sandy’s future husband Trevor Lucas, whose crooning lead vocals on several tracks are about as pleasant as biting chalk.

 68 Rory Gallagher: Blues (2019)

The hugely popular Irishman in the lumberjack shirt made many successful albums in his short life but I have chosen this compilation from 2019 because I feel Rory’s blues numbers highlight his guitar virtuosity at its peak. As I wrote that year,  ‘According to music legend, Jimi Hendrix was once asked on TV what it was like to be the greatest rock guitarist in the world. He allegedly replied: ‘I don’t know, you’ll have to ask Rory Gallagher.’

67 Jimi Hendrix: Electric Ladyland (1968)

With the huge amount of Hendrix product out there it seems strange that this, only his third studio album, was the last he released before his death in 1970. It’s something of a hotchpotch, reflecting chaotic studio scenes when friends and hangers-on were invited along, but at its best is mind-boggling. Voodoo Chile (Slight Return) is in my view the finest hard-rock track ever made. Following Jimi’s death it was released as a maxi-single with Hey Joe and his brilliant cover of Dylan’s All Along The Watchtower, also from this album. It cost just six shillings (30p), for me the best-value item in music history. Other highlights of Electric Ladyland are the psychedelic 1983 (A Merman I Should Turn To Be), the wah-wah-infested Burning of the Midnight Lamp and the near-15-minute blues workout of Voodoo Chile, with Steve Winwood on organ.

66 David Bowie: Low (1977)

I refer you to my column of March 25, 2019 which was exclusively about this remarkable collaboration with Brian Eno. As I said, Britain’s then music bible, the New Musical Express, described Low as ‘stunningly beautiful – the sound of Sinatra reproduced by Martian computers’. The New York Times’s pompous rock critic John Rockwell opined: ‘There are hardly any vocals, and what there are, are mostly mindless doggerel heard from afar. And the instrumentals are strange and spacey. Nevertheless, the whole thing strikes this listener as remarkably, alluringly beautiful.’ 

65 Rolling Stones: Exile on Main Street (1972)

In the early Seventies this was one of only two tape cassettes I had in my battered Ford Anglia so I played it hundreds of times. It was recorded sporadically over a three-year period and often features the Stones at their loosest, with various band members wandering in and out of sessions at will. One example is the song Happy, recorded in the basement of a rented villa in the South of France, which features a rare appearance on lead vocals by Keith Richards. Interviewed ten years later, he said: ‘Happy was something I did because I was for one time early for a session. We had nothing to do and I suddenly picked up the guitar and played this riff. So we cut it and it’s the record, it’s the same. It was just an afternoon jam that everybody said, “Wow, yeah, work on it”.’ The Stones played Happy when I saw them at the cavernous New Bingley Hall in Stafford in 1976. Keef started off on vocals but his voice was so knackered that Mick Jagger had to take over. I remember thinking: ‘How much longer can this lot go on?’ Nearly half a century later I still wonder.

Exile is stuffed with great songs including the wonderful Tumbling Dice, which was recorded in LA and whose gospel tinges were inspired by a visit by Jagger to an evangelical church where Aretha Franklin was recording her live album Amazing Grace. In 2010 an expanded version of Exile was released with an extra disc of unreleased material, the pick of which for me is Plundered My Soul

Critics were initially unimpressed by the LP, finding it inconsistent, but changed their tune after its huge worldwide success. It is now acknowledged by many to be the Stones’ greatest achievement and one of the finest albums of all time.  

64 Talking Heads: More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978)

The follow-up to their acclaimed debut LP 77, this was the first of three collaborations with Brian Eno following his successful stint with David Bowie on Low and Heroes. As I wrote here in 2019, he encouraged the band to adopt a more rhythmic, danceable style ideally suited to Tina Weymouth’s bass. More Songs established Talking Heads as a band to be reckoned with and was a top 30 LP in both the US and UK. A cover version of Al Green’s Take Me To The River also became a hit single.

Other picks include The Good ThingThe Girls Want To Be With The Girls and the final track, The Big Country, Byrne’s sardonic attack on America’s southern states – ‘I wouldn’t live there if you paid me’.

63 Ry Cooder: Chicken Skin Music (1976)

I mentioned this terrific record in a column in early 2020. It is so titled because it brings you out in goosebumps. I wrote: ‘It opens with Lead Belly’s The Bourgeois Blues followed by three excellent tracks, I Got MineAlways Lift Him Up/Kanaka Wai Waifeaturing the legendary Hawaiian guitarist Gabby Pahinui, and the old Jim Reeves number He’ll Have To Go – here in a live version. This was our first glimpse of the brilliant Mexican accordionist Flaco Jimenez, who would be associated with Ry for ever onwards.

‘Further highlights include a version of Ben E King’s Stand By Me, the lovely Yellow Roses, and another Lead Belly tune to close, Goodnight Irene.’ 

62 Rickie Lee Jones: Pirates (1981)

It was in late 2019 that I profiled Rickie Lee, Duchess of Coolsville. Pirates, her second album, came after she got the heave-ho from her lover Tom Waits, who took exception to her drug consumption. It is regarded as one of the great break-up albums, of which several more will appear in this list. I wrote: ‘It begins with the plaintive We Belong Together and continues with Living It Up,  whose three characters Louie, Eddie and Zero are said to be based loosely on herself, Waits and (their friend) Chuck E Weiss. Pirates (So Long Lonely Avenue) is another ode to Waits, as is A Lucky Guy, where she openly declares her love for him.

‘This was released as a single, reaching 64 on the Billboard chart, and so was Woody and Dutch on the Slow Train to Peking, whose finger snaps and jive beat were widely imitated on commercials for McDonald’s and other products.’

61 The Beach Boys: Surf’s Up (1971)

In July last year I wrote here
‘While it’s obviously not as strong as Pet Sounds, 1971’s Surf’s Up remains my favourite Beach Boys album. The opening track, Don’t Go Near the Water, reflects the record’s “save the planet” theme. At (new manager Jack) Rieley’s suggestion, there were more political songs to make the group seem more “relevant” to the Seventies. Instead of plunging into the surf, they are shunning the ocean because it’s polluted.

‘Long Promised Road  is Carl Wilson’s baby. He wrote it and played almost all the instruments. Take a Load Off Your Feet  is a leftover from the Sunflower sessions. Disney Girls (1957) is a sweet and nostalgic composition by Bruce Johnston. The heavy-handed Student Demonstration Time I can do without. Side Two begins propitiously with the dreamy, synthesiser-driven Feel Flows, co-written by Carl and Rieley. The manager takes on lead vocals for A Day in the Life of a Tree and then we have the superb ‘Til I Die, a song about helplessness written by Brian Wilson.

‘In it, he compares himself to a cork on the ocean, a rock in a landslide, and a leaf on a windy day. He said it was “perhaps the most personal song I ever wrote for the Beach Boys”. Johnston described it as the last great Brian Wilson song. Here’s an alternative, longer version. 

‘Finally comes the title track,  originally part of the Smile project, co-written by Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks. “The lyrics were very Van Dyke,” Wilson told an interviewer. “It took us about an hour at most to write the whole thing. We wrote it pretty fast; it all happened like it should”.’

More of my favourites 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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