The Beatles – Rubber Soul Following a well deserved holiday, John, Paul, George and Ringo returned to the studios in mid October 1965, not only to record their next album but also a new single – their first double A-side “Day Tripper” and “We Can Work It Out. “ During these sessions, The Beatles […]The Beatles — 188 Classic Rock
Firstly a proviso: This is my list, so it almost certainly won’t match with anyone else.
Secondly, I’m English so this maybe a bit Anglocentric, so apologies there too. Actually, looking at it again there’s only two British bands in my list, so not guilty!
I’m also no spring chicken, so my picks tend to fall in my formative years during the late 60s and 70s — when the music was better, right?
Coming in at number 5: ‘Dark Side of the Moon‘ Pink Floyd – EMI 1973
This had to make my top 5. Everything from the concept, production, musicianship, lyrics… is top notch.
Coming in at number 4: ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water‘ Simon & Garfunkel – Sony 1969. A wonderful collection of songs that have stood the test of the last 50 years.
Coming in at number 3: ‘Aja‘ Steely Dan – MCA 1977. This is not actually my favourite album by this band now. This maybe partly due to the fact it got ‘played to death’ whilst I was at college. Nevertheless, head ruling heart, I have to acknowledge the sheer painstaking craftsmanship that has gone into this, producing something almost peerless; intellectual yet accessible; sophisticated but easy on the ear.
Coming in at number 2: ‘Blue‘ Joni Mitchell – Reprise 1971. Again, this is probably not my favourite of Joni’s repertoire these days. But the songwriting is just wonderful, heart on sleeve stuff, so painful at times, but always simply beautiful. The best of a singer songwriter at their peak.
And finally, coming in at number 1: ‘Revolver‘ The Beatles – EMI 1966. Ok, I know — what about ‘Sgt. Peppers..’? I just think this is better. So much variety in one album, fantastic songs which are very short and wonderfully produced. The Beatles at their peak in my opinion, at the turning point of their first era of predominantly love songs, looking towards the future of experimentation… and so influential: ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ anyone?
Copyright Francis Barker 2020
Ranking Bob Dylan’s 39 studio albums- #34- Bob Dylan’s 20th studio album release- Saved [1980} 2 1/2 stars. Bob Dylan’s nearly sixty year career has at times been highly controversial- his going electric in the mid-60s and turning his back on the folk movement immediately comes to mind. But the most controversial- to this day […]RANKING BOB DYLAN’S 39 STUDIO ALBUMS- #34: SAVED [1980} — slicethelife
Inspired by Welsh countryside, suffused with folk, acoustic and pastoral music, it was the Zeppelin album that confounded critics but truly brokered their legend Image credit: Getty Images)This article originally appeared in Classic Rock #198. Nineteen sixty-nine was one helluva year for Led Zeppelin. In the short span of 12 months they played close to […]
Choosing a favourite Joni Mitchell album is a bit like choosing my favourite chocolate.
I suppose I could pin it down a few: ‘For The Roses’, ‘Court And Spark’, ‘Hejira’, ‘Turbulent Indigo’…
But I’m plumping for the 1975 release of ‘The Hissing of Summer Lawns’ (Asylum). I think it received somewhat mixed reviews on release and to me it marks her final ‘departure’ from the folk scene, which she had been threatening to leave on her previous two albums.
‘Hissing’ is more jazz oriented than before, softly sophisticated and it seems to be this which attracted some of the more less favourable reviews.
For a start it’s varied. The first track, ‘In France They Kiss on Main Street’, sounds as if it could have been included on ‘Court and Spark’, her 1974 album. It moves along nicely, catchy, with a great hook involving a bit of ‘rocking and rolling’. Larry Carlton’s lead guitar work is quite superb, as usual.
‘The Jungle Line’, ‘Edith and the Kingpin’, juxtapose quite alarmingly. The former was quite radical at the time for its instrumentation and composition, though it’s not often seen as a favourite.
‘Edith’, on the other hand, is one her best, a juxtaposition in itself, for me. Beautifully written, performed and produced, it’s soft jazz but with a story line that’s actually anything but soft.
At the end of the song, when she sings about the two protagonists who dare not look away, intrigue, crime and sleaze truly never sounded so beautiful. Carlton’s guitar work is wonderful, too, gentle and precise, just enough to accent the song.
Another favourite, ‘Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow’, contains some of her best story telling, character forming lyrics. I’m taken to heady, intellectual parties somewhere in mid 70s California, full of ‘holier than thou’ characters, tipsy on German wine and other stuff.
‘Shades of Scarlett Conquering’ strongly evokes, over another jazzy theme, a Southern Belle whose sensibilities have no place in a changing, fracturing world, where the glamour seems to melt away the more you grasp at it.
The title track itself is that rare item, a co-written song. Here too, we can feel the easy, yet slightly disturbing direction of life in California at the time, drowning in its materialism.
‘The Boho Dance’ is a reflective, piano dominated piece, with lovely a lovely horn section. It leads nicely into ‘Harry’s House-Centrepiece’, another shot at the materialistic world of big business and its victims, the men and women sated on consumption and luxury, whose lives are empty.
‘Sweet Bird’ seems to give a hint of what’s to come the following year, with ‘Hejira’. Joni’s very distinctive guitar playing is at its best here in an atmospheric and reflective number.
‘Shadows and Light’ is perfect to end the album, a gospel sounding, philosophical song. Mostly sung a capella, a synthesiser track backing it up, this is a beautiful song and quite set apart from the rest of the album.
To conclude, I feel this album marks Joni Mitchell’s full maturity as a performer and songwriter. It’s varied, more jazz influenced and if there’s a theme, I think it’s the general disillusionment with America life at the time, a theme which was being picked up by other other artists at this time – but they never sounded this beautiful.
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Few British bands changed so radically during the 1980s as Talk Talk.
Their early albums and singles were very much of their time, like their eponymously named single and ‘Today’, for instance. The early sound featured a strong, driving electronica dominated by synths and hooks.
However, even on those earlier pieces, there were hints of what was to come, that this was no ordinary, shallow 1980s band.
‘Life’s What You Make It’, their best remembered song, though still synth oriented, is beginning to veer away from ‘established’ sound and subject matter.
Yet, despite such progress and change, I don’t think anyone was ready for the 1988 release, ‘Spirit of Eden’ (EMI).
At the time it left many fans and critics dumbfounded with its often improvised, expansive, moody, melancholic, spiritual soundscapes. Then there was the use of a wide variety of session musicians, playing an array of instruments – brass, wind, harmonica. And there were only six tracks.
Then there is the Choir of Chelmsford Cathedral, even an obscure electronic device called a Shozygs to add to the eclectic, unconventional nature of the album.
But if the initial reaction might in some circles have been termed ‘puzzled’, or ‘underwhelmed’, over the years this album has achieved true iconic status, a literal masterpiece of modern music with many fans, myself included.
In some ways it’s a hard album to describe, or to breakdown in to what it’s really about. Yes, there’s an unconventional spiritual element to it, as the name ‘Spirit of Eden’ suggests. You just have to listen to it. It’s perfect background music, good to concentrate on, good to talk about amongst friends.
What’s more, the lyrics, though relatively sparse, have enough ambiguity to allow you interpret things your own way, to lead you back in again and again.
Take Track 1, ‘The Rainbow’ which sets things off as they are to carry on. It’s sparse to begin, wonderfully atmospheric with great usage of piano and organ in solitaire mode. An electric guitar pitches in suddenly with a bluesy riff, over the top of a simple drum beat – the latter a feature throughout the album until the last track. And the harmonica is something else too.
And what can one say about the late Mark Hollis’ vocals? I would’ve gladly listened to them on their own, without lyrics; they sound just like an instrument which complements all the others. He is forceful, thoughtful, emotional, tender, a kaleidoscope of feeling in one voice: no better British singer in the past forty years, in my opinion.
Then there’s ‘Eden’, another soundscape beginning with brass and wind. There is a particular melancholy here, but a beautiful one, like some sublime torture as each chorus leads up to a desperate statement of faith, or maybe the lack of it. But there’s hope here too.
I particularly like the electric guitar cameo, almost ‘Beatles-esque’ in its playing, to take you off in some beautiful diversion. An extraordinary song which I still don’t fully understand, but I love it.
‘Inheritance’ carries on with the improvisational sense, evoking space, yet might seem a little more conventional sounding.
Track 5, ‘I Believe In You’ might seem even more conventional to start with, with a regular, gentle beat. And there’s a soulful, gospel edge to this one too.
This leads us on to the use of The Choir of Chelmsford Cathedral. It’s not overdone, it accents everything tastefully, merely to illustrate the song, finally taking you out into the ethereal at the end.
‘Wealth’ ends this collection of sounds, with another understated sense of melancholic peace, with a twist of gospel. We’re back to the gentle minimalism of the organ and piano, with no percussion at all. It evokes a rare sense of space, reflection, the general feel throughout the album.
After all these years, I still can’t truly say I understand what this album is about. But it doesn’t matter, it’s all the better for it and will remain one of my ‘go to’ albums.
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The continuing story of what I consider to be one of the greatest albums ever, Steely Dan’s ‘Aja’ (MCA) from 1977. If you haven’t seen part 1, check in my blog first.
If side 1 was a tour de force, then side 2 continues slightly differently, with four songs which are in their own way, equally impressive.
‘Peg’ gets going with a much lighter disco feel, compared to side one. It’s fairly typical of the time but done in Steely Dan’s own inimitable way, with attention to detail. It turns out the guitar solo which made it onto the album took some time to finalise, with numerous guitarists auditioning for the ‘role’. Listening to it, I think they made the right choice. This is probably the most ‘commercial’ track on the album.
With Track 2, ‘Home At Last’, we’re suddenly, though not surprisingly, in the realms of Homer (the ancient Greek writer, not the cartoon character) and Ulysses (Odysseus), with references to danger on the rocks and being tied to a mast over a bluesy jive that gets your foot a-tapping nicely. Once again the instrumentation, particularly the use of brass, I feel, is second to none. Very much of its time, almost ‘Starsky and Hutch’ in feel.
‘I Got The News’, the second to last track is an ‘angular’ sounding disco number, with those enigmatic, yet fitting lyrics full of innuendo and direct references which are so much a feature of the Dan’s music. There’s a great guitar break too, which belies the track’s disco setting, a feature first perfected I think on their previous album, ‘The Royal Scam’. It’s like they’re letting you know how sophisticated they are – and why not?
And so to the last, and certainly not least track on this classic album. ‘Josie’ is one of Steely Dan’s most celebrated songs, a fine R&B number, about a girl the guys simply can’t do without, it would seem, a bit of a hell raiser by the sound of it, who evidently could’ve been present when Nero set fire to Rome in AD 64. This has all the feel of LA and sophistication, the place Becker and Fagen made their home for some time.
Once again though, it’s the jazz inspired elements, like the rather haunting, minimalistic guitar riff/section sandwiching the main part of the track, which sets it apart from what anyone else was doing before or since.
‘Aja’ will always be a classic. Was it the peak of their success? Most definitely, which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen to ‘Gaucho’, or ‘Two Against Nature’, nor indeed the older back catalogue. It’s just that if I was to recommend one album of this band, it would have to be ‘Aja’. It gets an A+++.
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I think I can say without qualification that Steely Dan’s 1977 album release, ‘Aja’ (MCA), changed my life. This is part one – I feel there’s simply too much to say in one piece.
At the time I was at college and it became the soundtrack of my time. It was a tape (I got the vinyl later) and I must have worn it out. On that tape ‘Josie’ was the opening track, swapping places with ‘Black Cow’ from the vinyl.
Of course, I was already a big fan of their previous five albums, beginning with the 1972 release of ‘Can’t Buy A Thrill’ and the singles, ‘Reeling In The Years’ and ‘Do It Again’. That was some entry into the mainstream.
Put simply, anyone who tries to play guitar or any instrument, like me, or just appreciates music, simply couldn’t help but be impressed, not merely with the virtuoso playing of various band and session guys over the years, but with the whole jazz infused rock style which is all their own.
And to say that the songs of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen are well-crafted would be a great understatement; they are simply peerless – witty, sarcastic, intellectual, moving, all in a wonderfully constructed, painstakingly produced package that is, nevertheless, often hard to define. The element of doubt I’m sure is deliberate, lyrically and musically, so that the listener can make up their own mind, take them to places they never thought they would go. And I’ve been everywhere.
But to the album. Is it their best? Probably, a classic certainly, released when punk rock was at its height, which makes its success all the more remarkable. Great music is great music in any age and will find its way.
New York night life
The opening track, ‘Black Cow’, is the name of a mixed alcoholic drink of New York origin, apparently, though as is sometimes the case, the name of the song is incidental to the main message: that there’s a relationship ending, badly, and one of them isn’t taking it too well. Pretty straightforward really. The song to me simply oozes New York night life, with a slow, steady, ‘catchy’ beat which has been sampled at least once since then. Great piano solo, superb de rigueur saxophone on the outro.
The title track is next and quite unlike anything the band had attempted before. ‘Aja’ is a girl’s name, quite a girl by the sound of it. The lyrics are concise, perfect, simply to illustrate the song, leaving the stage open for the incredible musicianship. The song is complex, evocative of sensory pleasures, Asian themes. I feel sunshine every time I hear it. Denny Diaz’s extended guitar solo is wonderful, almost like glints of sunlight on the Pacific Ocean, or maybe a boat bobbing up and down.
And then the saxophone solo (yes, another one, and why not!), seems to take you into the evening, more busy night life, romance. If this wasn’t enough there is, in my opinion, the most incredible outro ever, consisting of sensational drumming, a single piano chord repeat pattern and atmospheric synths all around it, taking you into the heady early hours of the morning. Quite wonderful.
‘Deacon Blues’ is the next track, completing side one of vinyl. The story of a loser? More than once I’ve toyed with the idea that it could be about me. The subject is resigned, yet determined to play saxophone, to drink Scotch all night and go out driving (no, I don’t do that).
Once more I sense the night, this time dark alleys, jazz clubs, New York street life. The saxophone illustrates the song beautifully (naturally), a long track of nearly seven and half minutes, but it’s over before you know it – a sign of quality, that not a second is wasted in creating these mental pictures. Great lyrics, great playing, great song. Just great.
It even inspired the name of a band, but that’s another story.
So that completes side one. Only three tracks, but all different. Quite simply the best first side of an album, period.
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