GREAT BRITISH ALBUMS.

GREAT BRITISH ALBUMS.

Usually, in the run-up to Christmas, record companies find any excuse to release compilations, best of’s and box set galore. Wander through you’re local record shop, and you’ll find the umpteenth album of greatest hits from the usual suspects, including rock stars of yesteryear topping up their pension plans. Often, a similar album was released last year, or failing that, the year before. Then there’s compilations. Every possible musical situation is covered. I’m sure they’ll be the usual cash-ins, that are only ever released at Christmas. There’s sure to be everything from driving anthems, Christmas songs, and dance parties galore. I’m sure every musical genre will be covered. So expect the usual compilations of commercial dance music, eighties pop and what every Christmas would be complete without, a barrel scraping Northern Soul compilation. Lastly, there’s box sets. Now I thought Christmas had come early, when recently I came across a box set entitled Great British Albums. After all, surely such box sets are only released at Christmas? Having checked that a couple of months hadn’t passed without me noticing, I decided to check-out what Great British Albums has to offer. With such a bold, almost boastful title, I was expecting great things from the twenty albums included in Great British Albums. Did the quality of music on the twenty albums included in Great British Albums match the title?

For any compiler given the job of compiling a box set entitled Great British Albums, they’re faced with something of an uphill task. Making this task even harder, is the description of Great British Albums. It’s meant to contain “genre defining albums” with a “unique sounds, innovative style and cult status.” Choosing twenty such albums isn’t going to be easy. Everyone, critics included, have their own favorites and reasons for their inclusion. Some albums pick themselves. The Beatles would have at least one album in the box set, either Revolver, Rubber Soul or Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. So would the Rolling Stones, possibly Exile On Main Street. Other albums I’d expect to find are Dusty Springfield’s Dusty In Memphis, either Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks or Moondance or Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of The Moon. What about an album by David Bowie, Roxy Music, The Who, Led Zeppelin or The Smiths, who like the other artists I’ve mentioned, are among the most important artists in the history of British music. Guess what, not one of these artists are included in Great British Albums. The reason for this is quite simple and shows that the idea behind Great British albums is fundamentally flawed.

The problem with the Great British Albums box set is that it only covers RCA, Columbia, Epic and Sony. To compile a box set of twenty Great British Albums, this would’ve required all the major record labels to cooperate. This would probably be impossible. So what we have is a box set that should be entitled Great British Albums Released By RCA, Columbia, Epic and Sony. However, having told you what’s not included in Great British albums, I’ll tell what is in the box set.

Great British Albums covers the period between 1968 and 2010. Starting with Fleetwood Mac’s Mr. Wonderful and ending with The Vaccines’ What DId You Expect From The Vaccines 2010. I’m sure these two albums give you a flavor of the eighteen other albums in between. As you’ll realize, calling the box set Great British Albums, is maybe a slight exaggeration.

Given how important the sixties were musically, and the effect British groups had on music, the sixties are grossly under represented. The only album included is Fleetwood Mac’s 1968s album Mr. Wonderful. It’s one of the highlights of Great British Albums. Featuring the original and some would say classic lineup, which included guitarist Peter Green, drummer Mick Fleetwood and John McVie. This is the polar opposite of what Fleetwood Mac became circa Rumours. Mr. Wonderful features Peter Green at his very best, and is a reminder of just how talented he was. From Mr. Wonderful, there’s a gap of four years, to what many people see is where the seventies rock went awry.

Prog rock is a musical genre that divides opinion. One of the biggest prog rock bands were Emerson, Lake and Palmer, who released Tarkus in June 1971. Given prog rock was a musical genre British groups excelled at, I can see why a prog rock album was included, but wonder whether this is the right album?  Mott The Hoople’s All the Young Dudes, comes close fulfils  the criteria laid out. Released in September 1972 and produced by David Bowie, this was Mott The Hoople’s best album and features Ian Hunter at his very best. Forty years later, it’s stood the test of time, whereas Jeff Beck’s overblown and Blow By Blow, released in March 1975 hasn’t. It’s a self-indulgent album, where like an attention seeking child, Jeff Beck says “look at me.” There’s no disputing he’s a hugely talented guitarists, but Blow By Blow is neither a classic, nor even a great album. By the time the next album in Great British Albums was released, music had changed, drastically.

By the time The Only Ones released their eponymous album The Only Ones in April 1978, punk was now flavor of the month. Many critics had been won over by the one chord wonders of punk. Punk, post-punk and new wave all made their presence felt. There were the odd memorable albums. While The Only Ones was a decent album, it certainly is neither a great, nor classic album. I’d argue whether  its inclusion can be warranted. London Calling, The Clash’s Magnus Opus was different though. Released in December 1979 and produced by Guy Stevens, London Calling is The Clash at their finest, snarling, full of political and social comment. While London Calling is a classic album well worthy of inclusion, so too would Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures. Sadly, it’s overlooked. Indeed, Factory Records, one of the most important independent British labels in represented by an album that takes Great British Albums into the eighties.

Factory Records is represented by John Cooper Clarke’s Snap, Crackle and Bop. Released in 1980, referring to Snap, Crackle and Bop as a great album, is over-egging the musical pudding. It’s a good album, indeed I’d say it’s a very good album from one of British music’s mavericks and commentators. Since its release, it’s attracted a cult following. Sadly, referring to it as a great album, is possibly pushing things. The same could be said of the Psychedelic Furs album Psychedelic Furs, released in February 1980. Yes, it’s a cult classic, but referring to it as a great album is debatable. In many ways, Great British Albums seems to be about including an eclectic selection of albums, as the next two albums prove.

if you think about what’s missing from Great British Albums, you’ll realize neither heavy metal nor live albums have been represented..until now. Judas Priest’s British Steel, released in April 1980. This is a live album recorded during their British Steel Album. Now Judas Priest were one of the most successful British heavy metal groups, but surely if British Judas priest were to represent British heavy metal, the surely a better album could’ve been included. Mind you, British Steel shows how good a live band they were. One of the most questionable inclusions is Adam and The Ants’ Kings of The WIld Frontiers, released in December 1980. All I can say is why? Dressing up as pirates or highwaymen and releasing singles as forgettable as Antmusic doesn’t make a group innovators. Classic album this definitely isn’t, neither is it great album, merely forgettable. Things improve during the rest of the eighties.

Prefab Sprout’s Steve McQueen, released in June 1985 and produced by Thomas Dolby is what I’d refer to as an underrated classic. It showcases the genius of Paddy McAloon, one of the most talented British singers and songwriters. Steve McQueen is just one in a series of minor classics, including From Langley Park To Memphis, Jordan the Comeback and Let’s Change the World With Music. Quite simply, Steve McQueen is one of the highlights of Great British Albums. Big Audio Dynamite’s This Is Big Audio Dynamite was released in October 1985 and featured a post-Clash Mick Jones, who produced the album. While there’s some innovative music on This Is Big Audio Dynamite, comparisons will always be drawn with The Clash. This is unfair, given how different the music is. Other contenders I’d have rather included are The Cult’s Love or The LA’s debut album The LA’s. I could just as easily argue for the inclusion of an album by The Cure, X.T.C. or Depeche Mode. In many ways, Great British Albums is a box set that provokes debate and discourse. Everyone will have their own ideas about what albums deserve included. Some of the albums included in Great British Albums, rather than being British albums, remind me of and make the think of specific cities. 

Calling Deacon Blue’s Raintown a British album is something i’d dispute. To me, Raintown is a quintessentially Scottish album. I’d go further and say it’s a Glasgow-centric album, much like Blue Nile’s A Walk Across The Rooftops, which I’d say is much more worthy of inclusion. Of all the Scottish albums, Raintown is a genuine classic. While Raintown is a Scottish albums, The Stone Roses debut album The Stone Roses, released in May 1989 and Primal Scream’s Screamdelica are Manchester albums. They’re two of the best albums released by Manchester bands. Both are stonewall classics, John Leckie produced The Stone Roses indie rock at its best and Screamadelica is stunning fusion of indie rock and dance. These two albums are Manchester’s music at its best, only The Smiths are missing from Great British Albums. After 1991, things go somewhat awry for the rest of Great British Albums.

Apart from Screamadelica, only the Manic Street Preachers’ Everything Must Go, released in May 1996 represents British music in the nineties. Featuring the classic lineup of Manic Street Preachers, Everything Must Go was their best album. It represents the Manic Street Preachers before they sold their soul to poppy hooks and commercial success. However, surely there are other British groups from the nineties worthy of inclusions? How about Oasis’ Definitely Maybe or (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, Blur’s Parklife, when they were at the height of their Britpop success. Or how about an album from New Order, Pulp, Leftfield, Massive Attack or Portishead? With just two albums from the grossly underrepresented nineties, the noughties are represented by four albums. 

Faithless’ No Roots, released in June 2004, is the first of four albums where the debate about whether the album’s inclusion is worthy. Certainly the dance-floor friendly No Roots is representative of the time it was released and is Faithless’ best albums. Like Kasabian’s Empire, released in August 2006, which saw a revival in indie rock, judging whether both albums will stand the test of time is just a bit early. Both were successful albums, released to critical acclaim, but whether in ten or twenty years time, they’ll have stood the test of time, is for others to decide. Whether Mark Ronson’s Version, released five years ago, in April 2007 is worthy of inclusion is highly debatable. Granted he’s an innovator, but some of the tracks on Version come across as lightweight. Some of the collaborations are better, including his collaboration with Amy Winehouse on Valerie, but others are less memorable. The final album included in Great British Albums is The Vaccines’ What DId You Expect From The Vaccines, released in March 2010. Although the album was well received and commercially successful, like the inclusion of Kasabian’s Empire and Mark Ronson’s Version, they seem somewhat strange additions. After all, they’ve been released relatively recently. At the time, they weren’t regarded as timeless classics. These weren’t instant classics like London Calling, The Stone Roses or Screamadelica. Maybe in the future, when further volumes of Great British Albums are being released, then they’ll be worthy of inclusion, but this time around is way too soon.

In many ways, Great British Albums is a bit like a burger from a fast-food joint, it looks better than it really is. Draped in the Union Flag, Great British Albums looks as if a sturdy, musical feast is in-store. Sadly, it’s more of a snack. Open the box set, the sleeve-notes are slightly disappointing. They describe Great British Albums “genre defining albums” with a “unique sounds, innovative style and cult status.” 

If that’s the case, why no albums from The Beatles like Revolver, Rubber Soul or Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Similarly, Dusty Springfield’s soulful Magnus Opus Dusty In Memphis is missing. So too is the innovation of Van Morrison’s innovative Astral Weeks or Moondance or Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of The Moon. What about album from David Bowie, Roxy Music, Led Zeppelin, The Smiths or even The Sex Pistols? Instead we’re meant to believe Adam and The Ants, Judas Priest, The Vaccines and Kasabian are innovators? While some of the artists are true innovators, including The Clash, John Cooper Clarke, Prefab Sprout, The Stone Roses and Primal Scream, others are hardly innovators. That’s one of the reasons why Great British Albums is fundamentally flawed. Another is many ground-breaking, innovative genres are ignored. Many of them are British, including Trip Hop and Ambient House. That means no Leftfield, Massive Attack, Portishead or The Orb.

Two other reasons Great British Albums is fundamentally flawed  are the title and the concept. Calling the box set Great British Albums is flawed as several albums are far from great, never mind innovative, unique or having attained cult status. Proving this are Jeff Beck’s overblown Blow By Blow, the pantomime of Adam and The Ants’ King of The Wild Frontiers and Judas Priest’s British Steel. Instead, the twenty albums included in Great British Albums are an eclectic selection of albums by British artists. It would’ve been a much better box set if the cutoff date for albums was the year 2000. Anything after that date is almost too new, to be worthy of inclusion. Like wine, albums need time to mature, for critics to decide their importance. Granted some albums you realize instantly they’re going to forever change the musical landscape and history. However, Faithless’ No Roots, Kasabian’s Empire, Mark Ronson’s Version and The Vaccines’ What DId You Expect From The Vaccines are hardly musical game-changers.

What Great British Albums is, is a talking point. Great British Albums provokes debate, brings back memories and often, proves infuriating, but similarly great fun and controversial. Sometimes, you wonder why an album was even included? Other times, you rediscover an album you’d long forgotten. It’s like meeting an old friend, after many years apart. Whether it’s worth buying Great British Albums, will depend on the extent of your record collection. What I discovered, was I have many of the albums. Indeed, given the current fashion for remasters and special editions, several albums I’ve got multiple copies of. However, given there are twenty albums included in Great British Albums, some with bonus tracks and it costs roughly £25, $38 or €30, then it represents good value for money. Whether like me, you’ll think that Great British Albums is a concept that’s fundamentally flawed and sometimes, frustrating and infuriating. At the same time, it’s a compellingly eclectic selection of albums, that shows how rich, varied and innovative British music is. Proof of this comes from The Clash, The Stone Roses and Primal Scream, plus memorable musical moments from Fleetwood Mac, Mott The Hoople, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Prefab Sprout, Deacon Blue and Manic Street Preachers. 

GREAT BRITISH ALBUMS.

 

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