Category Archives: 75 essential Albums

Van Morrison Astral Weeks

75 Essential Albums – #1 – Van Morrison – Astral Weeks

Van Morrison – Astral Weeks

After 7 weeks of recommending a great album every day I come, at last, to my favourite album of all time the simply unsurpassable Astral Weeks by Celtic Soul legend, Van Morrison.  I have included no less than five Van Morrison albums in my list of 75 essential albums, Common One, Into The Music, No Guru, No Method, No Teacher and Moondance all making the cut.  It will be clear that I am a massive fan of Morrison’s work and to be frank I could have included 17 of his 30 plus albums in my top 75.  I could have completed a list of 75 from the output of Dylan, Springsteen and Neil Young and had little space for anything else but I don’t think that would have been terribly interesting.

The real strength of Morrison’s music lies in its originality, its spirituality, its depth and its life affirming freedom.  Nowhere is this more evident than on Astral Weeks.  This is an extraordinary album on so many levels.  It has influenced generations of musicians and yet before Van walked into the studio he had never met much less played with most of the jazz musicians who played on the album.  Rolling Stone points out that:

“It also sounds like the work of a group of musicians who had become finely attuned to one another through years of working together — but, in fact, Morrison had made his name with rock songs like “Gloria” and “Here Comes the Night,” and he sang Astral Weeks sitting by himself in a glass-enclosed booth, scarcely communicating with the session musicians, who barely knew who he was.”

The album was recorded in just a few days and whilst Astral  Weeks was critically acclaimed from its release and yet it was never a huge chart success.  Appreciation of the album increased as years past and it achieved legendary status with many reviewers over the years hailing it as the best album ever made.  The late great Lester Bangs said:

“Astral Weeks, insofar as it can be pinned down, is a record about people stunned by life, completely overwhelmed, stalled in their skins, their ages and selves paralyzed by the enormity of what in one moment of vision they can comprehend.  It is a precious and terrible gift, born of a terrible truth, because what they see is both infinitely beautiful and terminally horrifying: the unlimited human ability to create or destroy, according to whim.  It’s no Eastern mystic or psychedelic vision of the emerald beyond, nor is it some Baudelairean perception of the beauty of sleaze and grotesquerie.  Maybe what it boils down to is one moment’s knowledge of the miracle of life, with its inevitable concomitant, a vertiginous glimpse of the capacity to be hurt, and the capacity to inflict that hurt.”

Therein lies both the strength and the weakness of Astral Weeks. It is incredibly complex, obtuse, deep, surreal, allegorical and impossible to analyse.  It is an album that reaches right down into your soul, it becomes a part of you.  Even after many years and thousands of listens I find something new in the album almost every time I listen to it and there is rarely a week, much less a month when I don’t listen to it.

The album is often seen as a concept album and indeed it does progress through a life cycle from ‘Taking care of your boy/ seeing that he’s got clean clothes / putting on his little red shoes’ in the opening title track through to “I know you’re dying, baby / And I know you know it, too” in closing track ‘Slim Slow Slider’.  For many Astral Weeks was the ultimate ‘stoner’ album, something to lay back and absorb, to allow yourself to be carried away by it.  It may be the fact that the album is difficult to understand that leads people to this conclusion.  It is absorbing, a piece of fine art to be revered and enjoyed time and again.

Every song creates incredibly powerful imagery, it showcases Morrison’s abilities as a storyteller but above all it highlights his abilities as a vocalist.  It shows his mastery of phrasing and timing and the lyrics do paint pictures even if those pictures are sometimes disturbing.  The beauty of Sweet Thing “you shall take me strongly In your arms again, And I will not remember That I even felt the pain” contrasts with the lyrics in Cyprus avenue where a presumably adult male sits in his car shaking and trembling as Van sings “nobody stops me from loving you baby, So young and bold, fourteen years old.”  The joy of young lovers who  “sat on our own star and dreamed of the way that we were” contrasting with the transvestite ‘Madame George’ “sitting in the corner playing domino’s in drag.”  It is complex, interesting and thought provoking piece of work.  It is the interest and engagement, the light and the dark, the joy and the sadness, the mundane and the spiritual which all blends together to create a piece of musical art that I doubt will ever be equalled much less surpassed.

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Van Morrison no Guru No Method No Teacher

75 Essential Albums – #2 Van Morrison – No Guru, No Method, No Teacher

After over six weeks of providing a rundown of 65 albums that I believe everyone should own we come to the final 10.  In the days between now and Xmas I will give a run down of my personal take on the top 10 albums ever released.  Hopefully I have given you some thoughts as to new albums to check out and I hope that the final 10 will have you rewriting your Christmas lists and picking up a few of these brilliant albums.

Van Morrison – No Guru, No Method, No Teacher

Released in 1986 this beautiful album was the 16th studio release by Northern Irish maestro Van Morrison and comes within a whisker of being my favourite ever album.  I am the first to admit that this is not a ‘get up and dance’ type of record.  It is deep, contemplative, introspective, multi-faceted and very slick.  It isn’t just an album it is unquestionably a work of art and like a lot of fine art it is best appreciated when it is understood.

When this album was released Van was on one of his seemingly interminable quests to find himself. Much of the material on the album contains references to nature, water, tantric meditation, eastern mysticism, Irish folklore, Irish poetry, especially the work of W.B. Yeats and references to Vans childhood.  The musicianship is absolutely beyond reproach.  It is deliciously sympathetic and supportive of Van’s voice and in Jeff Labes, Richie Buckley, David Hayes, Chris Michie and John Platania Van had collected together some of the best musicians he ever worked with.

No Guru, No Method, No Teacher opens on an acoustic groove with “Got to Go Back,” Morrison’s vocal is smooth and low, an introduction to the meditative theme of the album.  “Oh the Warm Feeling” begins with gentle horns, evoking warm summer evenings by the sea, a track which perfectly describes the beauty of living in the moment and enjoying the simple things in life.  It is one of my favourite tracks on this or any other album.

The mysterious “Foreign Window” is one of those complex and often misunderstood tracks, it speaks of a spiritual journey, of striving for self actualisation and name checks the likes of Lord Byron and french poet Arthur Rimbaud.  The song has been covered live by Dylan on numerous occasions.

“A Town Called Paradise” is upbeat gritty and dynamic, Vans vocal rising and falling with the music as he attacks the duplicitous nature and crookedness of the world. The first side of the album concludes with one of Morrison’s best ever songs and a track that fans attending concerts pray for.  “In the Garden” has us transported through the mild steam after a summer afternoon rain. We are taken on a meditative journey through religion, love and companionship.  It is sensual and beautiful and as Van whispers the lyrics it pulls you in  and wraps you up.

The second side of the album begins with “Tir Na Nog,” another track full of imagery, mysticism and mystery.  It speaks of reincarnation, spirituality and destiny, the strings reflecting Morrison’s voice, as he creates a sense of yearning, of wanting to stay forever young. ‘Tir Na Nog’ is the Irish mythological ‘land of the young’.

“Here Comes the Knight” is the token soul number of the recording, the most straightforward track on the album, it could have been a ‘Them’ track from the 1960’s.  “One Irish Rover” is a folk ballad which showcases Morrison’s talent as a storyteller.  “Thanks for the Information” and “Ivory Tower” are the reason that ‘No Guru’ doesn’t claim my number 1 spot.  In my view neither of these songs rises above the level of ‘not too bad’.  Neither feel right on this gorgeous album, they feel out of place, almost as if Van has spent the album extolling the virtues of spirituality and meditation only to close it off saying ‘Just kidding’.

That said this album is  one of Morrison’s finest. The songs pour out, flowing and rolling musical water, rushing and blending into one another and sweeping you along on a spiritual journey.  It sits  comfortably in the finest of company as one of the best albums ever released.

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Stiff Little Fingers Inflammable Material

75 Essential Albums – #3 Stiff Little Fingers

After over six weeks of providing a rundown of 65 albums that I believe everyone should own we come to the final 10.  In the days between now and Xmas I will give a run down of my personal take on the top 10 albums ever released.  Hopefully I have given you some thoughts as to new albums to check out and I hope that the final 10 will have you rewriting your Christmas lists and picking up a few of these brilliant albums.

Stiff Little Fingers – Inflammable Material

Inflammable Material is the 1979 debut album by the Northern Irish punk band Stiff Little Fingers. It is arguably the best album the band ever released  and it offers a no hold barred look at the grim realities of life in Northern Ireland with the songs containing themes of teenage boredom, sectarian violence, police oppression, and the realities of growing up in a province torn apart by sectarian violence, where the army where on the streets and on every street corner, where you couldn’t enter Belfast City centre without being subjected to numerous searches.  The album paints a very bleak picture, it is an angry album, it bristles with resentment and a sense of injustice.  As a kid growing up in Northern Ireland it was the soundtrack of my life.  it is no exaggeration to say that this album changed my life.

I first heard the record in the Good Vibrations record store in Great Victoria Street, Belfast.  The store was just a few minutes walk from my grandmothers house and from where my mother was living at the time.  The shop and record label of the same name were owned by Terri Hooley, the Godfather of Irish punk music.  I was in the ‘store’, a couple of upstairs rooms in a rundown building opposite the Europa Hotel when the album was put on.  From the first few bars of ‘Suspect Device’  I was hooked.  I couldn’t believe that this great record was by a group of guys from Northern Ireland.  The impact of that should not be forgotten because at the time no-one was coming to play in the province, bands couldn’t get insurance and because of the bombings they couldn’t come without it.

Sadly for SLF they were on an independent label and, although the album was the first on an independent label to break into the top 20, they were up against the biggest names in punk.  Bands who were big names, were on big labels and had big A&R budgets.  Whilst SLF were championed by John Peel and highly regarded by their contemporaries they didn’t quite hit the heights their talent deserved.

Despite the bleak subject matter of many of the songs Inflammable Material was an album of hope, it was a call for change urging people to “grab it and change it, it’s yours” in what became their signature song “Alternative Ulster”.  The song “Rough Trade” is about the band’s view of the music business as being dishonest but have since claimed it is not about the record label which happens to have the same name. State of Emergency & Law and Order railed against the oppressive policing in the province.  Wasted Life, No More of That and Barbed Wire Love were urging people to break away from sectarianism and the paramilitary groups who had such a grip in Northern Ireland.

The bands cover of Bob Marley’s ‘Johnny Was’ is sublime and when that closes out you get hit by Alternative Ulster in a 1-2 thats is simply breathtaking.  The album should have ended there but for some bizarre reason they added ‘Closed Groove’ a track completely out of keeping with the rest of the album.  Inflammable Material is quite simply one of the greatest albums ever made, a remarkable pice of work and a remarkable piece of social history.  If you don’t own this album you should hang your head in shame.

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Levellers Levelling the land

75 Essential Albums – #4 The Levellers

After over six weeks of providing a rundown of 65 albums that I believe everyone should own we come to the final 10.  In the days between now and Xmas I will give a run down of my personal take on the top 10 albums ever released.  Hopefully I have given you some thoughts as to new albums to check out and I hope that the final 10 will have you rewriting your Christmas lists and picking up a few of these brilliant albums.

The Levellers – Levelling The Land

Levelling the Land was released in 1991 and is the second full-length album by the Brighton folk-punk group The Levellers. The album reached number 14 in the British album charts and has since gained platinum status through ongoing sales. The original album pressing contained ten tracks (lacking Fifteen Years); but following the success of the single Fifteen Years, the song was added as track three to later pressings.

This was the first Levellers album to feature the input of Simon Friend as songwriter, vocalist and musician. Simon replaced Alan Miles, who had sung and played guitar and mandolin on the previous album, A Weapon Called the Word and co-write The “Liberty Song”.

The Levellers music is a quintessentially British blend of folk rock and punk music, often driven along by John Sevink’s fiddle playing.    The bands occupation of a space between genre’s, their Englishness and  their rise out of the Brighton squat scene probably accounts for their comparative lack of success outside the UK but the band have a huge, dedicated and fiercely loyal army of fans in the UK and in parts of Europe.  Many levellers fans would point to ‘Levelling The Land’ as the bands seminal album.  On the 11 track version the album there are eight tracks that fans would include in any ‘Greatest Hits’ compilation.

In a 2007 review for the BBC  Paul Sullivan said that the Levellers are “lauded by millions for their song-writing skills and blistering live performances”  whilst Sputnik music say Levelling The Land is a solid and forceful album that delivers classic track after classic track. Unsurprisingly all of the songs are still in rotation of in the bands live set.

Once again in my list of top ten albums ‘Levelling The Land’ is a genre defining album.  It has its roots in the alternative lifestyles that were taking place in the UK in the late 1980’s as a response to Thatcherism.  It is a cry for freedom a clarion call for civil disobedience, encouragement to do your ‘own thing’ whether the authorities liked it or not.  “One Way’ contains the lines that arguably define everything the Levellers stood for “There’s only one way of life and thats your own”, a line that encapsulates the feelings of their fans perfectly.

Fifteen years is a harrowing story of abusive relationships and alcohol abuse, Liberty Song,  The Boatman and Battle of the Beanfield are about state oppression of individual liberty and ‘Another Mans Cause’ is a moving story if lives lost in senseless conflict.  Depressingly all of these songs are just as relevant in 2014 as they were in 1991 when Levelling The Land was released.

If you are not familiar with the Levellers Music this is undoubtably the pace to start.  It is a very powerful social and political commentary, full of great tracks and deserving of a place in any music collection.

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Van Morrison Into the music cover

75 Essential Albums – #5 Van Morrison – Into The Music

After over six weeks of providing a rundown of 65 albums that I believe everyone should own we come to the final 10.  In the days between now and Xmas I will give a run down of my personal take on the top 10 albums ever released.  Hopefully I have given you some thoughts as to new albums to check out and I hope that the final 10 will have you rewriting your christmas lists and picking up a few of these brilliant albums.

Van Morrison – Into The Music

Into the Music is the eleventh studio album by Northern Irish singer/songwriter Van Morrison, released in 1979.  Typically for of Morrison the album draws on wide range of styles, from Celtic Folk, New Orleans Jazz,  R&B and Philly soul.  It might be said that this album marked the birth of celtic Soul.  Saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis, horn player Mark Isham, violinist Toni Marcus and the prominent backing vocals of Katie Kissoon all feature prominently and all combine to a ‘big band’ sound which showcases Morrison’s Vocals perfectly.  Into the Music’s reputation has grown since release and it is often regarded as among Morrison’s greatest albums.  It is a truly incredible piece of work, almost, but not quite flawless.

Van the Man is truly a musical legend a veritable behemoth.  Up to 1998’s Philosophers Stone he released  album after album of superb content.  With the exception of a couple of weak albums his output was outstanding.  Easily the equal of Dylan, Young or anyone else you care to mention.  Sadly Morrison is a very difficult character, a flawed genius who is famously private and reclusive and who avoided the limelight  Unfortunately his early experiences in the music business scarred Morrison so badly that he has carried bitterness through his entire career.  His total failure to engage with the promotional side of the business in my view is the only thing that stopped Van being recognised as the best of the best.  Make no mistake when Van is on his game he is without peer and on Into the Music he is bang on it.

The album is in two clear parts.  What was side 1 of the LP is bright cheery and sing-a-long, opened by one of Morrison’s brightest ever songs, the appropriately named ‘Bright Side of The Road’.  The fact that Van was searching for something within himself when this record was cut is apparent, especially in Full Force Gale where Van shout out loud and proud that he was ‘lifted up again by the Lord’.  Three other songs on the first side all allude to Morrison’s spiritual journey.  ‘Stepping out Queen’, ‘Troubadours’ and ‘You Make Me Feel So Free’ are all superb positive anthems, full of joy the piano, flute, violin and brass, all adding texture and feel.  As always though it is Morrison’s vocal that pulls it all together, ensuring it makes sense.  He is famous for his phrasing and timing and even a casual listen of this album shows why.

The first side and indeed the album is only let down by the lamentable ‘Rolling Hills’.  As a dyed in the wool Morrison obsessive (I have seen him live well over 200 times) I have never and will never understand why this cut made the album.  It is a dreadful track, not fit to be on the worst of Morrison’s albums never mind on one of the best.  For most of the hardcore Van fans that I know it is side 2 that sets their pulses racing.  The second side sets a totally different mood, it is deep, introspective and totally absorbing, the musicians are given free rein to expand their parts and Van goes with it, directing them with oooh’s and aaaahhhh’s and the occasional whispered Yeeeeessssss.  Van watchers know that when Van is on his game he totally loses himself in this way,   when he begins to scat when playing live you know you are in for a treat, when he does it on a recording you know you are hearing something truly special.

The second side consists of just three songs, though the track listing says four.  ‘Angelou’ and ‘The Healing Has Begun’ are classic Morrison.  The stuff of legend when played live.  They clock in at 7 & 8 minutes respectively but it is the last track that is the albums true epic.  It starts out with a gorgeous version of ‘Dawes & Sigman’s’ ‘Its All In The Game’, Morrison then uses his box of vocal tricks to segue the song into ‘You Know What they Are Writing About’ combined the tracks come in at around 10:30 minutes, six minutes of which are Morrison doing vocal gymnastics, playing with the dynamics, taking the song up and down, vocals fading to a whisper before exploding into a crescendo at the finale.  It is epic, spine tingling, breathtaking brilliance and only Morrison can do.  Whilst the first side of the album is merely wonderful it is the second side that takes it above almost anything else that you are ever likely to hear.  It is the blend of life affirming joy, spirituality and artistic brilliance that makes this one of the best five records ever released.

Check out these videos for a feel of the brilliance of the live versions

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The Clash London Calling

75 Essential Albums – #6 – The Clash – London Calling

After over six weeks of providing a rundown of 65 albums that I believe everyone should own we come to the final 10.  In the days between now and Xmas I will give a run down of my personal take on the top 10 albums ever released.  Hopefully I have given you some thoughts as to new albums to check out and I hope that the final 10 will have you rewriting your Christmas lists and picking up a few of these brilliant albums.

The Clash – London Calling

1979’s London Calling is the third studio album The Clash. As with the Clash’s eponymous debut album It incorporates a range of styles, including punk, reggae, rockabilly, ska, rocksteady and rock.  It may be the case that ‘The Ramones‘ defined punk rock but there can be no argument that London Calling redefined the the genre.

As with the Clash’s previous album’s the subject matter included social displacement, unemployment, racial conflict and drug use.  The album was a top 10 hit in the UK and received almost universal acclaim.  It has sold over five million copies worldwide and was certified platinum in the United States.

Sputnik Music says that London calling was “where punk truly transcends its limits and a masterpiece is born.”  Mark Sutherland writing a review for the BBC said:

“If music-loving aliens land and you find yourself, at laser-point, searching for one single example of how rock is supposed to be rolled, then you are strongly advised to recommend London Calling. Because this epic double album, from its iconic sleeve to its wildly eclectic mash-up of styles, is surely the quintessential rock album.”

Now its fair to say that you might not categorise London Calling as a punk record as it is such a blend of disparate musical styles.  The mix of genres reflects the eclectic and cosmopolitan feel of the late 1970’s London music scene.  That said it still has a fiery punk spirit undercutting each and every track, and through its adaptation of foreign musical styles, the sound becomes more political and revolutionary than any punk band has sounded before.

Sputnik music finish their review of the album in a fashion that really says everything I would about this truly brilliant album and it is so perfectly summed up there is no point in my trying to better the reviewer who says:

“There’s virtually an iconic song every other track or so – the nightmarish, post-apocalyptic tension of ‘London Calling’; the sense of urgency and suffocated anger on ‘The Guns of Brixton’; the guitar pop meets political ramblings of ‘Spanish Bombs’; not to mention the delights of other grade A tracks such as the jerky ‘Rudie Can’t Fail’, the consumerist attack of ‘Lost in the Supermarket’, the metallic ‘Clampdown’, and the anthemic ‘Death or Glory’. There’s quality, vibrancy, urgency, thrills and hooks consistent throughout the entire track-list, ultimately, and when you strip away deep analysis or historical importance, this is what truly matters, and here, The Clash did nothing but nail making an enduring, influential and truly classic album – pile on top the aforementioned deeper levels present and the historic musical importance of this double LP, and we finally arrive at my humble declaration of just why all those inclusions in the upper echelons of ‘greatest ever albums’ lists make complete and utter sense. London Calling is a musical revolution, and simply one of the most stunning rock albums of all time.”

Well said sir, this encapsulates perfectly the soundtrack of many a music fan who, like me, was born in the early to mid 60’s and who claimed the punk revolution as their own.  You could sum the album up in a single word: Stunning!

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Ramones - Ramones

75 Essential Albums – #7 Ramones

After over six weeks of providing a rundown of 65 albums that I believe everyone should own we come to the final 10.  In the days between now and Xmas I will give a run down of my personal take on the top 10 albums ever released.  Hopefully I have given you some thoughts as to new albums to check out and I hope that the final 10 will have you rewriting your Christmas lists and picking up a few of these brilliant albums.

Ramones – Ramones

The Ramones debut album was released in 1976 and made on a budget of just $6000 and recorded in just 7 days using microphone techniques adapted from orchestral works and adapted by the Beatles.  Despite its 14 tracks the album comes in at under 30 minutes with the longest track coming in at just 2:34.  At face value It hardly seems likely that this would be a recording that would simply change the face of music.  Like Nirvana 15 years later the Ramones took a stagnating music industry by the throat and shook it back to life.

In July 1976 Rolling Stone wrote with “their first album, Ramones, is constructed almost entirely of rhythm tracks of an exhilarating intensity rock & roll has not experienced since its earliest days.”

Writing in 2007 Chris Jones for BBC music said “Dumb, crude, three-chord thrash? Yes. Fast, exhilarating and brand new? Yes. Intelligent, boundary smashing and woefully underrated? Definitely. The Ramones were all of these things and more. Like a film’s opening credits their first album contains everything that their later career was to offer, and in 1976 nothing else sounded quite like it.”

So it was with roaring guitar, overbearing power, catchy choruses and easy chord progression that the Ramones created one of the most recognisable sounds in music and created a new genre.  The songs are all hard-driving and catchy, the simple lyrics over top. “Blitzkrieg Bop” is the first real punk sound ever recorded and arguably one of the most recognisable songs of all time.  Seriously the four words “Hey, ho! Lets go!” repeated, over and over is hardly forgettable.   Likewise “Beat on the Brat” isn’t exactly cerebral with the lines “Beat on the brat, beat on the brat, beat on the brat with a baseball bat”, definitely not cerebral but definitely amusing and definitely catchy.

The great attraction of the album is its simplicity, its sense of fun and the controversy it created, believe me in 1976 no-one was singing songs like “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue”.  Sadly for the Ramones they were just too different and too radical for radio stations and as a result they never really hit the heights of bands like the Sex Pistols and the Clash who followed in their footsteps.  That said, their influence cannot be denied,  In my opinion, this is one of the greatest and most influential albums of all time, check it out, if you don’t know it you will love it, if you do remind yourself what a great band the Ramones were.

As always thanks for dropping by my blog.  if you like what you read please hit the like button or leave a comment.  If you don’t like what you read then please leave a comment explaining why 🙂