Stevie Wonder –  Songs In The Key Of Life

Comedian Eddie Murphy said it best back in the 1980s (and he wasn’t joking): Stevie Wonder is a musical genius. 

Breaking onto the pop and R&B music scene at the age of eleven, and continuing with a span of incredible music for decades to follow, Stevie Wonder was an incredible songwriter, performer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist. An undeniable talent that few in music can ever come close to. 

If I had to name just one album to prove that point, it would without a doubt be Songs In The Key Of Life. Throughout the four sides of this double album are songs that are just as deep in their musical quality as they are in their lyrical content. This is one of those rare albums, that really cannot be classified in just one genre. On it Stevie mixes pop, R&B, jazz, and soul along with sprinklings of other styles like reggae and Samba like no other artist could. Lyrically, it speaks in equal parts of the wonderous joy and beauty in the world, of faith and spirituality, and of the political and social misgivings of society. 

If I had to pick just one favorite song from this album, I’d have to pick two: Sir Duke, the wonderful tribute to jazz legend Duke Ellington and Isn’t She Lovely, a joyously beautiful song written about Stevie’s newborn daughter. 

Songs In The Key of Life has sold over 10 million copies and remains Stevie Wonder’s most successful album ever.

Rush 2112

Rush is a band that always exemplified virtuosity and detail. They were also band that believed in change and and doing things their way.

Rush’s first two albums were straightforward hard rock records that were fairly successful for the Canadian power trio, earning them a modest but dedicated following. However, their third album, Caress Of Steel, with its extended songs that went into progressive rock territory, was a flop for the band after it came out. But the band still had one more album to release in fulfillment of the record deal it signed with Mercury records. So disillusioned, they went back into the studio figuring their fourth record would probably be their last. It ended up becoming one of their most successful.

The record label wanted them to go back to their previous hard rock style with shorter songs, but the band members figured if they were going to do only one more album it was going to be done the way they want to do it. Against the recommendation of the record execs, they decided to make the first side of the album a mini rock opera based on a lyrical storyline their drummer Neil Peart had written. 

The premise is a futuristic science fiction story that took place in a dystopian society in the year 2112. The world is run by the priests who use powerful computers to determine how best to run a structured and efficient society where people are not necessarily happy, but for the most part, satisfied with their lives. The priests and their computers make all the decision for the people including what is considered art and what music people listen to. 

Venturing outside the city limits, a wanderer discovers an ancient guitar hidden in a cave behind a waterfall. Discovering the music he can make on it, unlike anything he had heard before, he takes his wonderful discovery to the priests so they can share it with the people. Instead, they get angry, smashing the guitar and telling him “it doesn’t fit the plan.” He leaves the city for good to live in isolation inside the cave. One night he has a dream of the elder race, who left the planet to “learn and grow,” before the priests took over. He has a premonition of them returning to reclaim their home. But as time passes, he begins to doubt his vision. Despondent and disillusioned, he eventually commits suicide. A bittersweet ending, as he never lives to see that his vision was real. The elder race return and give back to the people the freedom to make their own choices. 

There is an interesting detail that Rush put at the very end of the song 2112. After the elder race reclaim the world, they announce: three times “Attention all Planets of the Solar Federation” and then three times “We have assumed control.” The first part, seven words said three times, is collectively, 21 words, the second phrase is four words said three times, totalling 12 words. 2112

Restless Variations

Long before Record Store Day, there was a time when indie record labels released compilation albums promoting the cool-ass bands signed to them because…well, just because. A lot of the collections were crap, with only one or two good songs on them, if that. But what the hell, they were cheap, so you gave ’em a shot whenever you had a few extra bucks. One compilation that really hit the mark was Restless Variations.

Restless records was a post-punk extention of Enigma records which had made its name by being the starting label for a number of bands that later signed to major labels. I don’t think any of the bands on Restless ever signed a major label deal. Then again, I’d be willing to bet none of them gave a f*ck if they did. It was that moxy that makes this a kick-ass colection of songs by bands that almost nobody has heard of – Electric Peace, Get Smart!, Mojo Nixon & Skid Roper, Fear, and The Lazy Cowgirls were a few of the bands on this album that never went anywhere beyond maybe a cult following. And I’d be remiss if I left out The Dead Milkmen. Hell, Bitchin’ Camaro is the staple track of this album.

Restless Variations was the epic sound of struggling bands trying to make it, doing it their way. Yeah, for the most part, they all failed miserably. But they had fun trying…and they left at least one great song in their wake. And isn’t that what it’s all about?

Florence and the Machine – Ceremonials

Released in 2011, Ceremonials was the second album for Florence and the Machine. It debuted at number one on the UK charts and was nominated for two Grammys that same year. 

Although the production is fuller and more soulful than their first album, the lyrics delivered by Florence Welch’s distinct and powerful voice still feel intimate and personal. She sings with such a sense of urgency, you can’t help but feel these are songs that she needs to get out from inside her.

Almost all the songs on Ceremonials contains multiple layers, making it one of those albums that you can hear something new on even after numerous listenings. Many of the songs on the album incorporate the use of a full choir and harp, at times giving them a lush feeling, while others feel heavier and slightly darker. I can’t help but think of Kate Bush with a touch of Siouxsie And The Banshees mixed in for good measure.

Journey – Infinity

Infinity was a turning point for Journey. Formed by three former members of Santana, they had started out as a progressive rock band, with songs that focused on rhythmic changes and virtuosity. Keyboardist Greg Rollie assumed all lead vocals. Unfortunately, more structured and formatted radio in the mid-to-late seventies was starting to make progressive rock more of a niche genre than something that was commercially viable. 

In 1978, for their fourth album, Journey decided to add a new lead singer to change their sound, making it more commercially marketable. Although they retained the foundations of progressive rock in their music, with the addition of Steve Perry as frontman, Journey’s songs became shorter and more concise, focusing more on vocal harmonies and melody, while still displaying the virtuosity possessed by the individual members.

Adding Perry as lead singer proved to be a masterstroke for the band. Infinity brought in more fans who were in-tune to popular music, without totally alienating the progressive rock fans that Journey had already established. Infinity became their breakout album. Journey would follow it up with a string of numerous multi-platinum albums and would go on to become one of the most successful bands of the ’80s.

Many people are unaware that Journey ever existed without Steve Perry as the lead vocalist and think Infinity was there first, not their fourth album.

Infinity will forever hold a special place in my memories because it was the first album I ever owned. Before that, it was strictly 8-track tapes for me.

Journey was also the first big concert I ever went to. There would be many, many more to follow.

What was your first album? 
What was your first concert?

Cheap Trick – Live At Budokan

Sometimes you’ve got to alter the plan.

In 1978, Cheap Trick was a struggling band. With their first three albums finding massive success in Japan, the Rockford Illinois band found themselves virtually unknown to the rest of the world. However, they had an ace hidden up their sleeve. They had been working on their latest studio album, Dream Police. That album had all indications of being their breakout album. The band felt it, and possibly more importantly, the record label felt it. 

Before releasing Dream Police however, the band wanted to release a live album strictly for their Japanese fans, who had been very devoted to them when success seemed to evade them everywhere else. So they released Live At Budokan only in Japan, not expecting it to sell anywhere else in the world. After all, who would want to buy a live album by a band they had never heard of? Well, not so obvious at the time, the whole rest of the world. 

In the US, a couple radio stations had started playing tracks from Live At Budokan and requests for it started pouring in. When people went to buy it at the record stores it was only available as a Japanese import, so the record stores started ordering imports from Japan and the Japanese market sold out with the record still in high demand there. 

Record companies have tendency to notice things like this. Although Dream Police was about to be released and it was still strongly felt that it would be a break out for them, Epic Records and the band decided to ride the wave and release Live At Budokan to the rest of the world instead. So, Dream Police got put on the shelf for a year. Live At Budokan went on to become Cheap Trick’s biggest selling record ever.

When Dream Police was released in 1979 it became their biggest selling studio album. Even so it never surpassed the sales of live at Budokan,  Cheap Tricks breakout album.

Blind Faith

Another controversial album cover…

Blind Faith was a supergroup from the late ’60s that consisted of Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker who had just left Cream, and Steve Winwood who was looking to depart the Spencer Davis Group.  The band was rounded out by Ric Grech, who had come from a lesser-known band at the time, Family.

The album cover was designed by Bob Seidmann, a friend of Clapton’s. Although the artwork became controversial, it was not meant to be so. According to Seidmann, the image represented “the achievement of human creativity and its expression through technology.” The young girl was meant to represent innocence and the tree of life, and the spaceship she was holding was emblematic of the tree of knowledge.” Seidmann named the piece “Blind Faith,” and being as the band had not yet chosen a name for themselves, and really liked its meaning, they decided to name their new band after it.

Although Blind Faith’s debut album was extremely successful, hitting number one in many countries including the United States, the members would part ways before ever releasing a followup.

Many critics in the United States felt that regardless of the “tree of knowledge” explanation, the spaceship was too much of a phallic symbol.  It was consequently released with an alternate cover that simply showed a photo of the band.

David Bowie – Ziggy Stardust

What’s in a name? Well, in the case of David Bowie’s fifth studio album, shortness. The actual, full title of the album is “The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars” but that can be quite a mouthful.

Considered to be one of the greatest concept albums ever, Ziggy Stardust is the story of the final five days of an omnisexual alien (yes, there are more than just two sexes in the universe in this story) who tries to save the Earth because of a dream he has about the Infinites, alien beings made up of antimatter. He is able to convey his message to the youth of the planet by becoming a Rock And Roll Star. In the end, Ziggy is willingly torn to pieces by the Infinites while on stage, in a Rock And Roll Suicide, so the Infinites can assume a material presence in order to tell us the fate of our existence. 

And here’s another little name-game fact for you. “David Bowie” is not his actual birth name. He was born with the last name “Jones.” But because of another singer with a similar name who was in a popular band called The Monkeys when he was just starting out, Bowie decided to rebrand himself after a popular knife company.

Steven Wilson – To The Bone

I was reading the other day that for the first time in decades, the sale of vinyl records  exceeded the sale of CDs last year. And it’s not just older stuff that comes out on vinyl today. 

One of the greatest new artists you’ve probably never heard of is Steven Wilson. I wanted to buy his new album, which came out on August 18th of this year, and like a fool, I didn’t pre-order it on vinyl. When I went to buy it a few days late, everyone was sold out, including amazon.com. Yeah, I could have gotten it on CD, but I wanted it on vinyl. Fortunately, the last call I made to a record store a little further out of town had one copy left, and the owner knew me. So he held it until I could get there after work.

When I first heard Steven Wilson say that his fifth solo album was going to be a more pop album than any of his previous ones, I have to admit, I was worried. But then I thought, to this guy, pop music is Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, XTC, Tears for Fears, and Simple Minds. What he really meant was that, unlike his previous albums, there would be no concept. There would be no common tie between the songs. It would be just a collection of good songs. And what a great selection of songs it is. Yes, the songs are not as complex as some of his previous albums. That doesn’t mean they’re not just as good. These are songs that are crafted and structured with such integrity that they grab you from the inside and make sure you listen. Sure, they can be played as just background music, but their strength lies in their composition. This is an album that that demands to be paid attention to – that demands to be listened to. 

So listen.

Prince – Purple Rain

I like all types of music.

But when you get right down to it, when I sit down to listen, I like the sound of guitars best. Acoustic or electric, it doesn’t matter.

Okay when you get right down to it I prefer electric.

Although I always thought Prince was one of the best funk, R&B, and pop performers ever, I never put him in the ranks of great guitarists… Until I heard Purple Rain.

I was absolutely blown away by this album the first time I heard it. It had the beat and groove that I expected from Prince, but it was his guitar playing that really grabbed me. He could wring the emotion out of his axe as good as any of the Guitar Gods I grew up listening to.

Released in 1985, Purple Rain won two Grammys and went on to sell over 13 million copies worldwide. It spent an amazing 24 weeks at number one on the billboard charts.

More importantly, at least to me, in my book it moved Prince into the ranking of guitar God.