Styx – The Grand Illusion

As I think it was for many back in 1977, “The Grand Illusion” was my introduction to the music of Styx. This album hooked me right away because of its extensive use of the use of synthesizers throughout it. Dennis DeYoung was an incredibly talented keyboardist and knew how to fully take advantage of the synthesizers to expand his creative ability. Because of the synths, Styx had elements of prog similar to Emerson Lake and Palmer. A big difference though, was that they had three singers, all with very distinctly different voices, allowing them to add impressive vocal arrangements to their songs. Then there was James Young and Tommy Shaw, who had distinctly different playing styles that gave Styx a versatility that few bands could equal. Gluing all this versatility together was the rhythm section of the Panozzo brothers, John on drums and Chuck on bass.

But the thing that made “The Grand Illusion” such a good album was the songs themselves. There is not a mediocre track on this album. Perfectly arranged and neither overly polished or too raw, it was a near perfect combination of pop, prog, and hard rock. It’s no wonder this was the album that broke Styx into the mainstream. And then there were the lyrics. If it was Styx’s music that initially hooked me, it was the lyrics that reeled me in. Sometimes they were insightful. Sometimes mystical. Sometimes beautiful. Sometimes scathing. Always deeply meaningful. It’s no wonder that Styx will always be one of my favorite bands and “The Grand Illusion” will always be my favorite album by them. Although there’s also “Pieces of Eight”…

The Smithereens – Especially For You

2017 was a sad year for rock and roll. So many legends and so much talent was lost this year. Perhaps more so than any other year.

Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Tom Petty, Chester Bennington (Linkin Park), Gregg Allman, Chris Cornell (Soundgarden, Audioslave), J. Geils, Malcom Young (AC/DC), and most recently, Pat DiNizio from the Smithereens.

The Smithereens were formed by four friends from New Jersey who in 1980, decided to form a rock and roll band. They finally found success in 1986, with their debut album, “Especially For You”. The band had a hit single with the opening track to the album, “Strangers When We Meet”, and another with the opening song to side two, “Behind the Wall of Sleep”. But their biggest hit off the album…their biggest hit ever…was the unforgettable “Blood and Roses”. A song driven by an unforgettable bass line and lyrics about losing out on love because of not being able to express it. The song was an immediate hit on both ’80s alternative and mainstream rock radio stations.

Sadly, 2017 took its latest, and hopefully its last, rock and roll icon, Pat DiNizio, lead singer and guitarist for The Smithereens, on December 12, 2017. He will forever be remembered by so many for the multitude of emotions he brought to our ears.

In memory of Pat, and all the other legends and remarkable talent we lost in 2017, I will let the rhythmic thump/click of this album’s inner track resonate in the room for at least the next 17 minutes in honor of the rhythmic heartbeats of the those whom rock and roll lost in 2017.

‘Twas a sad year, 2017.

Dinosaur Jr. – You’re Living All Over Me

The second album by Dinosaur Jr, “You’re Living All Over Me” is not an album that’s for the faint of heart. Guitarist J. Mascis had a habit of cranking the distortion up on his guitar to levels that would make even Neil Young shudder in amazement. Yet he could somehow make it come out feeling melodic…bordering on controlled chaos.

I’ll admit, this is an album I have to be in the mood for (which tonight I am). It’s raw. It’s raucous. It’s as unforgiving as a sucker punch to your face. And it’s as exhilarating as sitting in the front seat of a roller-coaster that’s about to jump the tracks, but somehow it holds on.

Dinosaur Jr. is one of those bands that is hard to fit into a specific genre because they just did what they did, with no reservations and without ever asking forgiveness.
Punk rock.
Post Punk.
Alternative.
Indie rock.
Shoegaze.
Dinosaur Jr. was all of the above.

Ian Hunter – You’re Never Alone With A Schizophrenic

This has got to be my favorite album title ever. Apparently Ian Hunter loved it too. Legend has it that the phrase was first seen on a bathroom stall wall and Mick Ronson, who is best known for his collaborations with David Bowie, was going to use it as the title to a solo album of his own. But once Ian Hunter heard it, he wanted to use the title so badly he offered Ronson writing credits on the first track and single from the album, even though Ronson had nothing at all to do with the song. Released in 1979, “You’re Never Alone with a Schizophrenic” was Ian Hunter’s fourth solo album after leaving Mott the Hoople in 1974. In addition to “Just Another Night”, the aforementioned first single off the record, the album also garnered hits for other artists as well. In the ’80s, Barry Manilow would have a hit with the song “Ships” and in the ’90s, The Presidents of the United States would strike gold with “Cleveland Rocks”. That song was also used as the theme song for one of my favorite TV shows “The Drew Carey Show”.

Although they did not go by the name they were collectively known as, Ian Hunter’s backing band on this album were the members of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band.

Queensrÿche – Empire

Empires can be built in many different ways. Dedication and drive. Crime and Corruption. Narcissism. Greed.

They can also have many different consequences for the builder. Satisfaction. Loneliness and abandonment. A desire for more.

Those topics and more pretty much sum up the theme of Queensrÿche’s fourth album, aptly titled “Empire”.

Queensrÿche had paid their dues as a band throughout the eighties. After years of rejection from every record label they courted, the band finally signed a deal with EMI, and released their first album in 1984. “The Warning” earned them a moderate but solid fan base which stayed with them for their subsequent albums. Their third album, “Operation Mind Crime” should have been the album that broke them, but EMI did little in promotion and it never did as well as it had potential. When Queensrÿche released “Empire” as the follow-up, it absolutely exploded. There was no holding it back. It hit near the top of the charts in almost every country it was released in, including number 7 in the U.S. It sold over 3 million copies worldwide.

The song “Silent Lucidity” was nominated for two Grammy Awards – Best Rock Song and Best Rock Vocal. Unfortunately, it didn’t win either. I honestly forget what songs it was up against at the time, but I remember thinking at the time that “Silent Lucidity” was the hands down winner. It is one of the most beautifully and emotionally gripping rock songs ever performed. A masterpiece of a song on an album that is the same.

REO Speedwagon – Hi Infidelity

Sellout.

That was a word a lot of people used to describe “Hi Infidelity”, the 9th studio album by REO Speedwagon. And in many ways it was. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Towards the end of the 70s, REO Speedwagon’s albums began to take on more of a pop sound then their earlier, harder rocking albums. A trend that was brought to fruition on “Hi Infidelity”. The thing is though, when you really listen to it, this record rocks just as hard and any of its predecessors. Sometimes more so. It just did it with a bit more polish.

In their early incarnation, REO Speedwagon was anything but a pop band. They were a hard rocking Midwestern American band with highly talented musicians. Gary Richrath was a phenomenal guitarist and Neil Doughty was absolutely one of the most underrated keyboardists ever, as was Alan Gratzer on drums. Despite their talent and some great songs, true success seemed to elude REO Speedwagon, album after album, in their early days.

So they spruced up their sound a bit, to make it more accessible, and started throwing a slow ballad or two on each new album. And voila! Hit records. The great thing was, they still wrote songs that allowed Gary Richrath and Neil Doughty to really cut loose. Hidden under the hood of the pop gloss on “Hi Infidelity” are some of the best riffs and solos in the REO Speedwagon canon.

The formula on “Hi Infidelity” absolutely worked worked for REO. Even though it was absolutely a pop album, especially when compared to their early material, “Hi Infidelity” never alienated REO’s early fan base because it’s still rocked hard. Yet the album gained them a new pop fan base. The album ended up becoming their most successful album ever, selling over 10 million copies and topping the Billboard charts in 1981. It also earned them their first number one single, the obligatory slow ballad “Keep on Loving You”.

“Hi Infidelity” was the record that finally, after eight previous albums, earned REO Speedwagon the success they had so long deserved but had constantly been denied, while still letting them keep their musical integrity. Call it a sellout if you want. I call it REO Speedwagon at their finest.

Rush – All The World’s A Stage

Oh won’t you please welcome all, RUSH! And so begins one of my all-time favorite live albums.

I’m not going to say it’s the best live album ever, because that’s subjective. And, quite honestly this is a live album that’s not for the faint of heart. Geddy Lee’s vocals, especially in Rush’s early music, could be an acquired taste. His voice was perhaps my only reservation when I first heard “All the World’s a Stage”, which was my introduction to Rush. But after a while I began to really like it.

It was in the locker room after gym class in 8th or 9th grade when one of my classmates noticed that I had an Emerson, Lake, and Palmer tape with me. He asked if I like Carl Palmer’s drumming. Well, of course I did. He said he had something he wanted me to listen to. At the next gym class, he brought me in a copy of “All the World’s a Stage”. Without a doubt, Neil Peart’s drum solo on “Working Man / Finding My Way” is, and forever will be, the biggest highlight on this album for me. And for good reason – there are few who will argue against it being the best rock drum solo ever recorded. … EVER!

But a drum solo does not a record make. Nay, it was the rest of the musicianship and the arrangements on that make this recording iconic. Peart’s drum solo was just the icing on the cake.

Rush was one of the few bands that can claim to have introduced a whole new genre of music – at least until you get into the 90s in the new millennia. Progressive metal did not exist before Rush. Maybe it would have been introduced by some other band, had Rush not taken the bull by the horns. But no other band did. At least not in this universe. I am forever grateful to my friend in junior high school who introduced me to Rush; a band that has become one of my favorite bands of all time. A band that opened my ears to realms of new musical possibilities.

Pink Floyd – Dark Side Of The Moon

After some long negotiations, I finally convinced my wife to let me not only have a turntable in the man cave, but also upstairs in the living room. As I was getting out of bed, eager to start hooking up the new system, she added one more point to the deal: no playing any Jethro Tull upstairs (for whatever reason, she hates Jethro Tull). I told her that “Aqualung” was the first thing I wanted to play on the new setup. This earned me a bit of an expected scowl in return. 

“I’m joking” I replied, adding “You know what the first thing I always play on any new sound system is.” 

She just said “You’re such a nerd”, rolled over and went back to sleep.

The Cult – Love

The year was 1985. It was a good year. Not just for me but for music as well. This was the year The Cult broke into notoriety with the release of their second album, “Love”.

I first discovered The Cult on a sampler cassette that came contained in a sealed can. It was called “Survival Sampler: SR-1A Sound Rations”. It looked oddly similar to the many C-rations I had eaten while in the US Army. I had to buy it just because of the packaging. I wore that cassette out. It contained music by The Smiths, The Church, Scritti Politti, The Cure, and of course, The Cult, among others. Because of the song “She Sells Sanctuary”, The Cult was one of the first bands on that cassette that I had to go out and buy an albums by to check out further.

When I first heard “Nirvana”, the opening track on “Love”, with Ian Astbury’s unique vocals and Billy Duffy’s equally stand out guitar tone l knew I knew this was an album that was going to be memorable, if not incredible.  In essence, “Love” is a recording that is hard rock, goth rock, alternative rock, and even the core of classic rock all rolled into one.

“Love” would end up being the album that brought worldwide recognition to The Cult. They would follow it up with their album “Electric” which would go on to be even more successful for them. Both records are on my short list of must have records essential to any vinyl lovers collection.

Yes – 90125

Progressive rock was in its prime in the 1970s. And there was possibly no band more at the forefront of prog than Yes. But then punk rock and disco worked their influences into popular music. Going into the ’80s, Prog bands were suddenly labeled as self-indulgent and pretentious dinosaurs.

I agree with the pretentiousness and self-indulgence, but in a good way. I mean, hell, if you’ve got that level of talent and creativity, by all means, flaunt it. Show off. Impress me. Blow me away with your virtuosity and showmanship. But dinosaurs? Oh, hell no! 

Dinosaurs went extinct because they couldn’t adapt. With 90125, Yes proved they were more than capable of adapting to the changing music scenes. Their songs became more short and concise. There was a greater emphasis on the underlying rhythms than on extended solos and a heavier reliance on electronic instruments. 

But that’s not to say there wasn’t any of the virtuosity Yes was known for – there was plenty. It was just more focused. The interplay between the instruments had the complexity that Yes was known for, yet the production of the album gave the songs the underlying character of pop simplicity. The vocal arrangements throughout the album were equally impressive, at times becoming the focal point in the songs, or as in “Leave It,” the entire song.

Then there’s the case of “Owner Of A Lonely Heart,” the first, and only number one single for Yes. It became so popular they even released a 12 inch dance remix of it. Now, if you had told me in the ’70s that a song by Yes would be played in dance clubs in the ’80s, well, I’d be handing my life savings over to you right now. I would have lost that bet big time. But there it was. 

But the big thing was, they still sounded like Yes. They still sounded like the prog band their fan base dug. They were still pretentious and self-indulgent – they just did it in a way that nobody  noticed. On 90125, Yes had learned to adapt and survive…and thrive. Something the dinosaurs couldn’t do.