HERE we are then, sailing stately as a galleon into my 20 favourite albums of all time.
20 Robin and Barry Dransfield: The Rout of the Blues (1970)
This was the subject of one of my earliest columns back in August 2018. It was recorded and produced by the great Bill Leader, who had a remarkable talent for capturing singers at their best and resisting the temptation to mess about with their stuff. Sadly, his business acumen failed to match his musical gifts and his Trailer/Leader label went bust in the late 1970s, leaving much of its catalogue the subject of dispute to this day.
The Rout of the Blues can still be found on vinyl but, scandalously, it was available on CD only briefly in the early 21st century. The last second-hand copy I saw for sale was going for £1,000 but I wouldn’t sell mine at any price.
Perhaps my favourite track is Scarborough Fair, whose vinegary lyrics will come as a surprise to those familiar with the saccharine Simon and Garfunkel version. As I wrote earlier, ‘it is a powerful, bitter, angry denunciation by a spurned lover who has lost all faith in women. “Tell her to make me a cambric shirt; without any seams or needlework; then she’ll be a true love of mine.” In other words, never. “Tell her to wash it in yonder dry well; where water ne’er sprung, nor drop of rain fell; then she’ll be a true love of mine.”’ Powerful stuff.
The only other extracts I can find on YouTube are Who’s The Fool Now? The Waters of Tyne, the title track and the heartbreaking The Trees They Do Grow High, the story of a boy who marries at 16, is a father at 17 and dies at 18. Yorkshiremen Robin and Barry are in fine voice throughout and one hopes that, one day, someone will see sense and bring this great record back into circulation.
19 Bridget St John: Ask Me No Questions (1969)
This gentle beauty is one of the great Sunday-morning albums. As I wrote here in 2018, ‘there is an optimistic, naïve feel to it typified by the song Barefeet and Hot Pavements. Beautifully sung and a tribute to the courage of a gal prepared to shuffle shoeless through turd-strewn streets in the days before dog owners were shamed into “picking up”. To B Without A Hitch, Curl Your Toes and the title track, complete with birdsong recorded in John Peel’s Suffolk garden, are all cosy classics – in fact there isn’t a dud.’
18 Jimi Hendrix: Jimi Plays Monterey (1967, released 1986)
Having already made a name for himself in the UK, this was Jimi’s debut American performance and by jingo he made it count with a blistering performance which culminated with his setting his guitar alight. In 1970, weeks before his death, an LP was released, Historic Performances Recorded at the Monterey International Pop Festival. It features four of his songs on side one along with five on side two by the late Otis Redding. In 1986, Jimi’s full 41-minute set was released and it’s a blast, particularly his versions of Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone, his own The Wind Cries Mary and Purple Haze, and finally Chip Taylor’s Wild Thing, on which, as I have written before, his guitar sounds like a six-stringed motorbike.
A reviewer for Rolling Stone magazine wrote: ‘The wondrous ferocity and impish cosmic humour of his performances live on here. As he said before he doused his guitar with lighter fluid, “There’s nothin’ I can do more than this.” You can still feel the heat.’
17 Television: Marquee Moon (1977)
In 2019 I wrote here about this album, whose release was preceded by Nick Kent’s hyperbolic two-page piece in the NME which left guitar fans champing at the bit to hear what Tom Verlaine and the boys had produced. I said: ‘Rather than go through the album track by track I refer you to the exhaustive descriptions in the Kent review. I must mention, however, the lovely Venus – “I fell right into the arms of Venus de Milo” and the amazing title track, ten minutes-plus of perfection.
‘I love the crispness of the bass, drums and guitars, and the space between them. Allegedly this was recorded in one take. The story goes that (co-producer Andy) Johns wanted to try another version but Verlaine told him: “Forget it”. However, there is an alternative take among the bonus tracks on the album’s 2003 reissue. Further highlights of the original for me are Elevationand Prove It.’
16: Big Star: Third (1978)
As I wrote here, this dark masterpiece was recorded at a time when the band’s main man, Alex Chilton, was mentally coming apart at the seams. Nevertheless it contains moments of great beauty, including my favourite Big Star song of all, Blue Moon (no relation to the Marcels or Man City). Other standouts include Big Black Car, the Christmas song Jesus Christ, a lovely cover of the Velvet Underground’s Femme Fatale, Holocaust, Nightime and Take Care. For Chilton freaks such as myself, there is a three-CD set, Complete Third, released in 2016 which includes 29 previously unissued tracks including, according to the blurb, ‘every demo, rough mix, outtake, alternate take and final master known to exist for Big Star’s legendary third album’.
15 Neil Young: On The Beach (1974)
As I wrote here in June 2019, this was the third album in Young’s so-called Ditch Trilogy. It opens with the short (sub-three-minutes), rocky Walk Onthen moves into See The Sky About To Rain, which was written some years earlier but fits with the album’s sombre themes. Revolution Bluesis about Charles Manson, whom Young knew before the Family’s atrocities, and is followed by For The Turnstiles, which I would contend is surpassed by the Be Good Tanyas’ version.
The vinyl album’s original side two is sensational. It begins with the brilliant title track, a nod to Nevil Shute’s post-apocalypse novel of the same name, and includes one of Young’s most moving guitar solos. It continues with Motion Pictures, which looks back at his relationship with the Hollywood actress Carrie Snodgress, and concludes with the nine-minute Ambulance Blues, the last verse of which is taken to refer to Richard Nixon:
I never knew a man could tell so many lies
He had a different story for every set of eyes
How can he remember who he’s talking to?
‘Cause I know it ain’t me, and hope it isn’t you.
On The Beach was a commercial disaster on release. It was rapidly deleted from vinyl and failed to return in digital form until the 21st century, following a petition from fans. Thankfully I had a bootleg double CD combining it with American Stars and Bars, which kept me going until the official release.
14 Robert Wyatt: Going Back a Bit (1994)
At this point I had intended to include Robert’s amazing and unique album Rock Bottom, but realised I could cheat a bit by substituting this retrospective double CD, subtitled A Little History of Robert Wyatt, which includes the best of Rock Bottom. It begins with Soft Machine playing Moon in June and continues with the lovely Matching Mole song O Caroline.
From Rock Bottom we have Alifib, Alifie, A Last Straw and Robert’s towering achievement, Sea Song, a stunning combination of keyboards, bass and voice culminating in a scat passage which sounds at times like a human saxophone solo.
At the time I assumed he had written this cri de coeur while in hospital following the fall that left him in a wheelchair but he later claimed the bulk of the album had been devised earlier, in Venice, while his partner Alfreda Benge was working as an assistant editor on the Nic Roeg movie Don’t Look Now. We also have Wyatt’s two pop music covers I’m a Believer and Yesterday Man, and a version of Charlie Haden’s mournful Song for Che. Plus much, much more.
13 Fairport Convention: Liege and Lief (1969)
This was voted the most influential folk album of all time and I covered it exhaustively here.
12 Sandy Denny: The North Star Grassman and the Ravens (1971)
After leaving Fairport to concentrate on her own songs, Sandy formed the band Fotheringay, which has already figured in this list at Number 61. For North Star Grassman, they were joined by such folk luminaries as Richard Thompson and the Dransfield brothers. It begins with the brilliant Late November and from then on the standard barely drops. Blackwaterside is an outstanding version of the traditional song. For light relief she covers Dylan’s Down in the Flood and the Brenda Lee hit Let’s Jump The Broomstick, but it is in her original compositions that she excels. The Sea Captain, a Denny classic, returns to her beloved maritime theme. Next Time Around is said to have been inspired by her relationship with the US singer-songwriter Jackson C Frank and, sadly, involves one of the string sections which would saccharinise much of Sandy’s later work. Crazy Lady Blues is a portrait of her great friend Linda Peters, soon to become Mrs Thompson.
And then there is the title song, with Sandy’s double-tracked vocal above a wash of sea sounds. Lovely. A 2005 CD issue has four extra tracks including a duet with Thompson on the country hero Ernest Tubb’s Walking the Floor Over You and an alternative version of Next Time Around, much improved in my view by having no strings attached. A 2011 ‘deluxe edition’ contains an extra disc of demos and BBC live performances.
11 Bob Dylan: Blonde on Blonde (1966)
After Highway 61 Revisited, some critics wondered if Dylan would be able to maintain its stellar standards. With Blonde on Blonde, one of the first rock double albums, he matched it and more. Its 73-minute running time meant he was able to give songs the lengthy treatment they deserved, culminating in the 11-minute epic Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, which comprised the whole of Side Four.
I must admit I have never been keen on the opening track Rainy Day Women No 12 and 35, with its jaunty trombone and background whoops, but the bluesy Pledging My Time gets the record going properly and then we have one of Dylan’s finest songs, Visions of Johanna, including that astonishing line ‘the ghost of ’lectricity howls in the bones of her face’. Next comes One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later) and Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again. Side Two concludes with another classic, Just Like a Woman.
Side Three is my least favourite, a series of somewhat pedestrian rock arrangements, with the exception of the delicate 4th Time Around, and then we have Sad Eyed Lady, a love song to his bride of three months Sara Lownds. Dylan would later tell his biographer Robert Shelton that ‘this is the best song I have ever written’. And that’s saying something.
Next week we lower the stylus on to my all-time top ten.