Saturday, July 31, 2010
Van Morrison - Moondance
Van Morrison must have been in a fantastic mood when he produced this album - it's the most comfortable album ever recorded.
Stylistically, the songs on this album have a wide range of moods and genres (blues, jazz, country, folk, rock), but thematically, they all address the warmest, most natural, most universal human experiences: nostalgia for carefree youth ('And It Stoned Me'), the buzz of good times with good friends ('Moondance'), the giddiness of a new infatuation ('Crazy Love'), the sense of security and validation that comes with camaraderie ('Caravan'), the rapture you feel in the awesomeness of nature and your place in it ('Into the Mystic'), etc.
The Moondance vs. Astral Weeks debate divides Van Morrison fans. The critical concensus is that Astral Weeks is Van Morrison's best album; Acclaimed Music ranks Astral Weeks as the #15 album of all time with Moondance at #95. I'm in the Moondance camp. My defense is that the emotions this album evokes are so primal, so visceral, that it doesn't pose much challenge to the listener - it's simply not humanly possible to dislike this album. I suspect this makes the album seem slight or vapid, but this is deceptive; It's not as easy as it looks to make it look this easy.
Friday, July 30, 2010
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young - Déjà Vu
This album, their first (with Young), was highly anticipated and was a commercial and critical success. Each of the four contributed two songs each plus an additional Stills/Young collaboration (the closer 'Everybody I Love You'), and the Joni Mitchell cover 'Woodstock'.
They provide the vocal harmonies and signature sound their fans expect on the opening track 'Carry On', but they also expand their sound and appeal with the country-influenced 'Teach Your Children' and the Beatlesque pop of 'Our House'. By the end of the album, they give an indication of the direction they're heading; Stephen Stills' '4 + 20' sounds like the mellow blues songs he would explore on his first solo album later in the year, and Neil Young's 'Country Girl' suite would fit right in with the rest of his moody minor-key ballads on his After the Goldrush album.
1970 was definitely CSN&Y's year. A few months after the release of this album, they would record and release the classic song 'Ohio' inspired by and released a few weeks after the Kent State shootings. A few months after that, the concert film for the Woodstock Festival and the soundtrack on which they are prominently featured would be released. By the end of the year, both Stephen Stills and Neil Young would release excellent solo albums.
Thursday, July 29, 2010
Santana - Abraxas
It's hard to imagine another era in the history of popular music where the prog-rock experimentation of Pink Floyd, the electric guitar idolatry of Eric Clapton, the world-beat exoticism of Ravi Shankar, and the jazz-rock fusion of Miles Davis could co-exist so comfortably in someone's LP collection. It's particularly hard to imagine another era when all these influences would co-exist on a single album.
Wednesday, July 28, 2010
John Lennon - Plastic Ono Band
John Lennon had released personal songs before before ('The Ballad of John and Yoko' and 'Cold Turkey' for example), but this album goes further; it's a therapeutic exercise where he lays bare all his neuroses and insecurities for examination and exorcism. It's almost as if he never intended an audience to listen to it; he doesn't seem to be trying to make any of it commercially appealing, or to conceal anything that might be embarrassing or reveal his vulnerabilities.
Because of it's unique nature, most of the tracks really don't stand alone out of context ('Working Class Hero' is an exception), but there's not one track on the album that shouldn't be there. The album as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Tuesday, July 27, 2010
Nick Drake - Bryter Layter
This album was a late bloomer. It started turning up on critics top ten lists and movie soundtracks in the 90's, but seems to have been more or less ignored when it was released in 1970 (basically the opposite of what happened with The Pretty Things' Parachute).
The album doesn't sound much like it's contemporaries. Richard Thompson and John Cale show up on the album, and their influence is recognizable, but the folk elements are more polished than the ramshackle style of Fairport Convention, and the art rock is more mannered and classical-leaning than the rougher sound of Velvet Underground. There's is also a distinct jazz influence - most notably on the fantastic 'Poor Boy'. I'm also a fan of the string arrangements on several of the tracks and the brass arrangement on 'Hazey Jane II', all arranged by Robert Kirby (I'm making a note to check out other albums he's worked on).
Monday, July 26, 2010
Pretty Things - Parachute
This album is made up of hard rockers with a bitter edge ('Cries From The Midnight Circus' and 'Sickle Clowns') tempered with sweet ballads featuring lovely three part harmonies ('The Good Mr. Square'). The result is a multi-textured, but cohesive collection of great songs that ends up sounding like a hard rock Abbey Road.
The album was well-regarded by critics at the time; Rolling Stone named it the best album of the year. It's a mystery to me why it has faded into relative obscurity since. Perhaps it's because the album didn't produce any tracks that have become staples of classic rock radio, or because The Pretty Things subsequent work didn't live up to the promise of this album.
Sunday, July 25, 2010
Dave Mason - Alone Together
Along with George Harrison and Sandy Denny, Dave Mason contributed to a trend of under-appreciated sidemen that made striking solo debuts in 1970. This album, his first post-Traffic effort, is a model of economy: 8 tracks, 34 minutes, no filler, no throw-away tracks, no overlong solos. Each track is a solid original pop song that could stand alone as a single. He has an almost McCartney-esque knack for making pop songwriting look easy, whether it's a rocker like or 'Only You Know and I Know' or a sentimental ballad like 'Sad and Deep As You'.
Saturday, July 24, 2010
Cat Stevens - Tea for the Tillerman
The exploration of spiritual topics wasn't uncommon or unpopular at the time this album was released, but I can't think of any other artist that made his personal spiritual journey so central to his artistic identity. His spirituality is not the primary appeal to me, but I do appreciate that his lyrics are intellectually inquisitive, and not pedantic or trite. If there's one song with a whiff of sanctimony, it's 'On The Road To Find Out', but the song is so rockin' that it's easy to overlook the preachiness. That's what really makes the album great; every song is catchy and interesting. Stevens never forgets that he's a pop star not a priest.
Friday, July 23, 2010
The Beatles - Let It Be
This album is much better than it has a right to be. Its troubled history is well documented: In early 1969, The Beatles decided to 'Get Back' to their roots and make an album in the style of their early albums, and to have film cameras document whatever happens - unfortunately, not much did. By the time the sessions dissolved, there were hours of film footage and audio tape of the Beatles tuning guitars, warming up with classic rock covers, and getting testy with each other. The project was abandoned, and only two singles 'Get Back' and 'Don't Let Me Down' were salvaged from it.
In 1970, Phil Specter was hired to make an album out of the mess. It would be the first Beatles' album not produced by George Martin, and Specter's 'wall of sound' production style didn't seem like a natural fit for the album's back-to-basics concept. Anyone who had heard the widely circulated 'Get Back' bootleg album that was generated from these sessions (which was also not produced by George Martin) would not have high expectations of this Specter-ized version.
Incredibly, the album is fantastic. Even the criticism of Phil Specter's overblown production on 'Long and Winding Road' seems unfair - could the song really be less sappy even without the choir of angels? The in-between-songs banter, and the loose and joyful mood really show through as originally intended; this is particularly remarkable considering the actual mood of the sessions (if the footage in the film is any indication) was often tense and joyless.
A particular highlight for me is the song 'I've Got a Feeling'. My favorite Beatles' songs are the ones where an unfinished McCartney song is mashed up with a complementary unfinished Lennon song (The earliest example being the appropriately titled 'We Can Work It Out' in 1965; Sgt. Pepper's 'A Day in the Life' is another memorable example). McCartney's 'I've Got A Feeling' shifts into Lennon's 'Everybody Had a Hard Year' and back again.
This is not the first or only time that Phil Specter was involved with the Beatles in 1970. He first produced the single 'Instant Karma' for John Lennon (easily my favorite song of 1970), and he also produced George Harrison's excellent solo album All Things Must Pass.
Thursday, July 22, 2010
Joni Mitchell - Ladies of the Canyon
This one is a grower. On first listen, it's a pleasant and pretty folk album with the tone set on the folksy opening track, 'Morning Morgantown', with the fun 'Big Yellow Taxi' standing out near the end. After listening to it several times, I found the other tracks beginning to sink in. I was really hooked by the complex arrangements with a variety of instruments (the flutes in 'For Free', and the piano in several tracks) and her expressive vocals that tap into some authentic emotions not typically expressed in pop songs (the sympathetic jealousy in 'The Conversation' stands out to me).
It's 'Woodstock' that really gets me, though; the Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young's cover was louder, more muscular, and more popular - and a fantastic interpretation to be sure - but Mitchell's own version of her song is intimate and soulful with effective non-lyric vocal sections and instrumental sections that highlight the song's haunting piano arrangement.
Wednesday, July 21, 2010
James Taylor - Sweet Baby James
I was familiar with the song 'Fire and Rain' before I ever listened to this album, so I had an idea of what to expect - smart, mellow, minor-key folk rock with enough of a melancholy edge to not be sappy. The album provides exactly that ('Sunny Skies' is an apt example), but this is not a follow-your-formula kind of album; it's more of a jazz-like riffing on a theme.
Without straying too far from his comfort zone, Taylor explores a variety of genres: the country waltz lullabye of 'Sweet Baby James', the bluesy 'Steamroller', the gospel 'Lo and Behold', and the vocal improvisation in 'Oh Susanna'. The final track, 'Suite for 20G', is a multi-textured combination of several of these elements, and it's a perfect, if disjointed, culmination of the tracks that precede it.
Tuesday, July 20, 2010
Creedence Clearwater Revival - Cosmo's Factory
This is CCR's 42 minute clinic on rock and roll music - it's history, and it's influence on the then current incarnation of the genre. For comparison sake, they provide two covers of classic rock songs ('Ooby Dooby' and 'My Baby Left Me') faithfully interpreted in the style favored in the last half of the fifties by the likes of Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. They also provide two originals performed the same way ('Travelin' Band' and 'Lookin' Out My Back Door'), to show that the genre is durable. To prove the genre is flexible as well, they perform two additional covers in styles popular with their contemporaries: a rocking cover of a blues standard ('Before You Accuse Me'), and an epic length meandering rock jam ('I Heard it Through the Grapevine').
If there's one track that best exemplifies the band's authority on rock and roll, it's 'Ramble Tamble', the first song on the album. One critic (Steven Hyden from The Onion's AV Club) makes a convincing case for this song being the 'Most Rockin' Song of All Time'.
The album does have a few notable departures from its prevailing roots rock theme: the socially conscious folk rock song 'Who'll Stop the Rain', the menacing bayou blues of 'Run Through the Jungle', and the soulful "Long As I Can See the Light".
Monday, July 19, 2010
Simon and Garfunkel - Bridge Over Troubled Water
I find this a very difficult album to rate. It's one of the first albums I ever owned, and the first album I ever memorized all the lyrics to. It's probably the one non-Beatles album I've listened to most frequently, and I haven't grown tired of it yet.
This familiarity makes it difficult for me to be objective. On one hand, it's easy to overrate songs like "Baby Driver" and "Why Don't You Write Me" simply because I know them so well. On the other hand, the sheer repetition makes it easy to forget that songs like "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and "The Boxer" were once fresh.
In its cultural context, it was a phenomenally successful record: It's one of the best selling albums of the year, it spawned four hit singles, and it won the Grammy for best album. The fact that this album appealed to so many different people during such a culturally divisive era is an incredible feat. This broad appeal is, I think, attributable to it's timelessness; both thematically (no questions about what war is good for or references to Woodstock or tin soldiers and Nixon), and musically (no long jammy electric guitar solos or sitars). Ultimately, This album may sound "old" due to its constant radio airplay, but it doesn't sound "dated".
Sunday, July 18, 2010
The Kinks - Lola versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One
I seems that every third song on this album is a Ray Davies' satire about the treachery of the music industry. If his lyrics weren't so clever and his music so catchy, it would sound pitiful. Fortunately, these songs are endearing enough not to distract from the rest of the album - which rocks. Some of my favorites: the crunchy "Rats", the sweet "This Time Tomorrow", the fun "Ape Man", and the acoustic-but-hard "Lola".
Saturday, July 17, 2010
Fotheringay - Fotheringay
Sandy Denny's first project after leaving Fairport Convention consists mostly of her singing original ballads that sound like they could be traditional folk songs, plus a handful of actual traditional folk songs sung by guitarist Trevor Lucas. The album is at its best when it features Denny's ethereal vocals over a rolling cadence of syncopated bass-heavy guitars. Still, the hypnotizing Gordon Lightfoot cover "The Way I Feel" featuring Lucas on vocals has ended up on many of my playlists.
It's a wonder that this album wasn't more popular. Perhaps fans were expecting the looser, more ragged sound of Fairport Convention and found the classical perfectionism to be stifling. Maybe if the album had been directed to Joni Mitchell or Tim Buckley fans, it would have found a more appreciative audience.
Friday, July 16, 2010
James Gang - Rides Again
This album can loosely be separated into the heavy-funk Jim Fox side and the country-fried Joe Walsh side. But it's really Walsh's guitar and songwriting that lead the entire album. One thing I really like about Joe Walsh is that he doesn't take himself too seriously. Sure, he's a creative genius and a talented musician, and he'll throw a little Ravel's Bolero into "The Bomber", but he's not too snooty to hoot like a monkey in "Funk #49".
Thursday, July 15, 2010
Elton John - Elton John
Elton John's second LP, but the first to become widely popular, features his first hit "Your Song".
One of the most distinctive traits of this album is the bold string arrangements by Paul Buckmaster that could overwhelm a meeker performer; fortunately, subtlety isn't one of Elton's faults. Another distinctive trait is Bernie Taupin's obtuse lyrics that only Elton has that audacity to sing as if they mean something. Listen to "Take Me To The Pilot" for the best example of all these traits - Elton John belts Taupin's absurd lyrics with conviction and out-duels Buckmaster's bombastic arrangement.
Not every track works out this well. "No Shoe Strings On Louise" is one of those mean songs the pairs a ridiculous lyric with a catchy riff intended to get stuck in your head and drive you nuts. The album would be better off without this track (but even Revolver had its "Yellow Submarine"); it's a bouncy country waltz that would be a better fit on John's other 1970 album, the country-themed Tumbleweed Connection.
Wednesday, July 14, 2010
Grateful Dead - American Beauty
The Grateful Dead released two albums in 1970; this one, and Workingman's Dead. I usually listen to them back-to-back, or put them both in the playlist and shuffle them. But American Beauty, is easily the Grateful Dead's most essential album. It starts strong with three classics: "Box of Rain", "Friend of the Devil", and "Sugar Magnolia". The album is a group effort; each of the first 5 tracks (i.e. Side A) features a different band member. The next five (i.e. Side B) reverts back to the Garcia/Hunter formula with the exception of the great final track "Truckin'" which is credited to the entire band and has become their signature tune.
This album also has my all-time favorite Grateful Dead song, "Ripple".
Tuesday, July 13, 2010
Stephen Stills - Stephen Stills
This album is just packed with great songs representing a wide range of styles and genres. Stills not only provides the rock, pop, and ballad he's known for ("Old Times Good Times", "Love the One You're With", and "Do for the Others" respectively), but proves he's capable at gospel ("Church (Part of Someone)"), Clapton-style blues-rock ("Go Back Home" - with Clapton himself contributing on the track, naturally), and old style acoustic blues ("Black Queen").
The song "Cherokee" is worth singling out as a personal favorite of mine. Three intruments that I don't think get utilized enough in rock music: the flute, the jazz organ, and brass; all appear in this one song - and an electric sitar, too! The only minor quibble I have with the track is that even though Booker T. himself plays the organ, he doesn't get a solo.
NOTE: I couldn't find any tracks from this album on YouTube, but you can check the album out on Amazon and listen to the previews.
Monday, July 12, 2010
Badfinger - No Dice
The song "No Matter What" with it's crunchy guitar riff, sweet "ooh girl" harmonies, and catchy hand-clap percussion, sounds positively Beatlesque; Pete Ham's vocals could easily be mistaken for McCartney himself. The album is a diverse mix of straight-forward rockers, catchy pop tunes, and sweet ballads, each handled with surprising facility. In the year that The Beatles broke up, Badfinger stepped in looking like their heir apparent.
Sunday, July 11, 2010
George Harrison - All Things Must Pass
As a big fan of George Harrison, it's hard for me to be objective in rating his music. When I first started listening to this album over 20 years ago, I would even defend the third record of this three record box set - a set of jam sessions that I now acknowledge is completely disposable. I'll even admit that the second version of "Isn't It A Pity" is unnecessary. But every other track on the album is indispensable, including the hits "My Sweet Lord" and "What Is Life", as well as the lesser known "Art of Dying" and "Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp (Let it Roll)".
Saturday, July 10, 2010
Spirit - Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus
Spirit is an inspired band at the peak of their creativity on this album. Although they have some fun experimenting on this album, they never wander into pretentious prog-rock territory. The most popular track on this album is the environmental ballad "Nature's Way", a sweet folk-rock melody that's atypical of the trippy psychedelia that makes up most of the other tracks, but since the album explores so many different styles and genres, it's impossible to define any one of them as typical.
Friday, July 9, 2010
Argent - Argent
I've always been mystified that The Zombies weren't more popular; their music was consistently good - literate, adventurous, but always accessible and pop-friendly.
Rod Argent's first post-Zombies album not only gives him a chance to show off his top-notch organ and piano skills, but also showcases his under-appreciated pop instincts; well timed riff changes, organ solos, breakdowns, and other stylistic flourishes keep the songs constantly interesting. The tracks "Free Fall" and "Lonely High Road" are particularly good examples of his Brian Wilson caliber popcraft.
With a few notable exceptions (particularly "Liar" which Three Dog Night would famously cover), the album's songwriting isn't on par with its music, but even then, the lyrics are merely unobtrusive, and allow the groovy jazz-influenced music to speak for itself.
Thursday, July 8, 2010
Derek and the Dominoes - Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs
Three months before releasing this album, Eric Clapton released his first solo album. The self-titled album would set the standard for his subsequent 70s studio albums - mannered, mature, pop-friendly songs performed with impeccable technique. This makes the raw emotion with which he tears through the songs on this album all the more exciting by comparison. His vocals have never been this passionate, his guitar playing never this searing. He bares his soul on every track of this album, which includes two bona fide classics: Layla, and Bell Bottom Blues.
Critical consensus (according to Acclaimed Music) rates this album in the top 5 of 1970, and if I was making this list 20 years ago, I would doubtlessly agree. Back then I couldn't get enough of Clapton's long jammy versions of blues standards, and the three such songs on this album (Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out, Key to the Highway, and Have You Ever Loved a Woman) are longer, jammier, and bluesier than usual. Listening to the album now though, I'm finding that these tracks, as great as they are, put an unwelcome damper on the intensity of the rest of the album.
Wednesday, July 7, 2010
Neil Young - After the Goldrush
The plaintive vocals and deliberate tempo sets a tone that's a little weary, a fitting allegory to the Woodstock generation that a few years prior believed they could change the world overnight, only to have the luster of their idealism fade as the Vietnam war continued its downward spiral, and the culture war escalated into bloody confrontations at Kent State and Jackson State. Yet Young's lyrics have a tendency to become stridently hopeful at unexpected times, as if to reiterate that it's not naive to believe you can change the world, it's only naive to think it would be easy.
This is exemplified by the albums best track and thematic core, Don't Let it Bring You Down, where Young starts by setting a squalid scene of an "old man lying by the side of the road", ignored by passersby and left to the elements, he ends up dead by morning. The initial refrain of "Don't Let it Bring You Down" at this point could be interpreted as cynical apathy, but later versus, when he sings "Blind man walking by the river at night with an answer in his hand. Come on down to the river of sight where you can really understand." reveal what (I think) is the intended interpretation: Don't lose faith, things will "turn around". He uses this formula throughout the album alternating the "bring downs" (Southern Man, Tell Me Why) with the "uplifts" (Till the Morning Comes, I Believe in You).
The consensus among rock critics (according to Acclaimed music, which compiles reviews from numerous sources and combines them) is that this is the best album of 1970. While that validates it's inclusion on my list, I think I need to explain why I don't rate it higher...
Not every track on the album works for me. The tone of the album is consistent throughout and the lesser songs don't interrupt the flow, but they certainly don't stand on their own, either. Particularly the album's highest charting single, Only Love Can Break Your Heart. I find the lyrics a little trite, and when the piano thunks out a dirge-tempo waltz with easy rhymes on the downbeat, I can't help but think of Sesame Street's Prairie Dawn playing the song for a muppet pageant. Another miss for me is another of the album's most popular songs, Southern Man. Even though I sympathize with the sentiment (the history of racial intolerance in the South is an easy target), I find the tongue clucking a tad sanctimonious.