Elton John – Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

Putting out a double album of studio material can be an ambitious and somewhat risky undertaking. Unless you happen to be an artist as accomplished and talented as Elton John.  

By 1973, the songwriting team of Elton John and Bernie Taupin had already established themselves as an unstoppable force. On his six previous albums, Elton had proven what an exceptional piano and keyboard player he was. His band members were top-notch musicians who matched his music perfectly. With all the pieces fitting together so perfectly while making Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, it probably didn’t seem like a gamble at all to be a little more ambitious.

Amazingly, Bernie Taupin wrote all the lyrics for the album in just two and a half weeks. Once he received the lyrics, Elton John wrote all the music in just a few days. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was originally intended to be just a single album. But when you realize you have 22 great songs and need to get rid of four just to whittle it down to a double album, I bet it becomes an easy decision to up the ante.

King Crimson – Larks Tongues In Aspic

I think “Larks Tongues In Aspic” is one of my favorite King Crimson albums because this, the fifth incarnation of the band, featured violin as one of the main instruments. It truly gave this album a distinctly unique character. Not that King Crimson’s music ever needed any help with being distinct or unique.

This was an album you had to be sure to take proper care of. It has many quiet passages, and if not treated properly the scratches could easily overwhelm the music. The album opens with one of those quiet passages, some soft percussion work by Bill Bruford and Jamie Muir, which leads into the an elegant violin intro played by David Cross, which is then torn out of existence by Robert Fripp’s frantic guitar work. This kind of slow then fast, quiet then loud roller coaster ride is kind of a theme throughout the entirety of “Larks Tongues In Aspic”. The glue holding all these diverse parts together is the solid bass playing by John wetton, who also does all the singing.

I suppose Larks tongue could be a difficult album for some to listen to, but it’s one well worth putting the effort into. Like a good brandy or a fine wine, “Larks Tongue In Aspic” is an acquired taste. It’s an album that intrigues your ears and mind. This is music that is intended to be interpreted, not merely listen to. Then again, that could be said of all King Crimson’s work.

Yes – Fragile

Yes was a band that went through many iterations of of membership during the band’s long history. As a matter of fact Chris Squire, the bassist, is the only member to have existed consistently throughout the entire history of the band up until his death in 2015. The band lineup on “Fragile” is considered by many, myself included, as being the best lineup Yes has ever had, potentially to the point of actually defining the band.

This was proven most evident after the release of 90125 in the 1980’s, Jon Anderson left Yes and joined his former bandmates in a group named after the four members in it. Along with Anderson on lead vocals, “Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, and Howe” included former Yes members Bill Bruford (drums and percussion), Rick Wakeman (keyboards) and Steve Howe (guitar). While Yes released a new album under their current band roster at the same time its former members released their Collective debut. Many considered “Anderson, Wakeman, Blrford, And Howe” to be more Yes than Yes at the time.

In the long history of Yes, former band members from the band’s distant and more recent past would continue to weave in and out of its rosters. Although I appreciate, and even enthusiastically enjoy all the incarnations of Yes, the musical chemistry betwen the members of Yes on “Fragile” is by far my all-time favorite and this album will forever remain my favorite album by Yes.

Boston (Half Speed Master)

Boston’s debut album was both a blessing and a curse for the band. At the time of its release it became the most successful debut album by any band and went on the sell over 17 million copies in the United States and 25 million worldwide. So how can you follow up with success like that? Well, the short answer is you can’t. 

Although Boston’s next two albums, “Don’t Look Back” and “Third Stage” we’re solid albums and would be considered extremely successful by any other band, they just couldn’t come near the success Boston’s eponymous debut. The fact that there was an 8-year gap in between the second and third album (caused by the master tapes being damaged in a flood) didn’t help either. Still, all three albums stand as a testament to an exceptionally talented band.

All three albums were recorded in the basement studio of Tom Scholz, chief songwriter and guitarist for the band. SChola was actually a classically trained pianist, which helped shape Boston’s sound- classical elements mixed with hard rock, interweaving with instrumental melodies and harmonies exhibited by no other bands at the time. Their sound was imitated by, and garnered success for, many other bands that followed them – a sound that was unfairly coined as “corporate rock”. In reality, it was just plain and simply a sound that offered enough complexity to appeal to people who wanted to intimately listen to their music, yet at the same time, have a simplicity in it’s hooks and song structures that appealed to the passive listener as well. 

If you listen to classic rock radio today, there is not one song on this album that is not regularly played. Quite an amazing accomplishment for a first outing. Then again, this was an amazing debut album.

REO Speedwagon – Live: You Get What You Play For

REO Speedwagon had their greatest success in the 80s with their more pop oriented songs. I love the album “Hi-Infidelity” and was so glad it brought much deserved success to a band that was vastly underrated for over a decade. But to me, the epitome of what REO Speedwagon was happened in the 1970s, and was encapsulated on their live album “You Get What You Play For”. This album ranks up there with the greatest of the great live albums which are in my humble opinion Bob Seeger’s “Live Bullet”, Peter Frampton’s “Come’s Alive” and REO’s live album from 1977.

What gave this, and the preceding Studio albums by REO Speedwagon, their special character, was the band’s geographical Origins. Coming from Indiana, their early music had midwestern rock roots with just a slight hint of southern rock influence. Then they combined this, ever-so-slightly, with progressive rock that was influential in the seventies, and created a sound that was unmistakaby unigue. Yes, some of this came through in their later, more pop oriented material, but to me this was the epoch of what REO Speedwagon was at their finest.

I would be remiss to not mention every song on this album, in mentioning what makes a great. It really is the combination of the whole. But if I were to list standouts, they would be the opener “Like You Do”, “Keep Pushin'”, “157 Riverside Avenue”, with its incredible improvisational interplay between lead singer Kevin Cronin and lead guitarist Gary Richrath, “Ridin’ The Storm Out”, and what has to be one of the finest live album closers of all time, “Golden Country”.

This album is also one of the reasons I started getting turned off by compact discs. Although they offered convenience, quite often the remastering of some albums left something to be desired. Either the recordings were over compressed, muddying the sound of the original recording, or they came across sounding thin, losing much of the dynamic range of the vinyl record. With “You Get What You Play For”, it was the latter. 

What made it even worse though, was the omission of critical songs off the record. To omit “Little Queenie” might have been forgivable, but “Gary’s Guitar Solo” was one of the defining moments of this album. To delete it was near blasphemy. The CD noted that this was because of time constraints. I later recorded my own CD, direct from the album (this was in the era predating MP3s). I merely edited the length of some of the audience sounds in between the songs and was able to fit the entire album onto one CD, so I call bulls***!. They just didn’t want to take the time to do it right – to give “You Get What You Play For” the respect it rightfully deserved.

Robert Plant – Carry Fire

So I’m sitting here listening to Robert Plant’s new album, “Carry Fire”, which just came out today, and I’m wondering…how do I describe this? It’s not bluegrass, at least not in the traditional sense. There’s not a lot of fast picking in it. But there are certainly bluegrass roots in it. But then again, it’s got a very modern modern feel to it as well. These are songs that fit right in more with Arcade Fire, KT Tunstall, The National, Alison Krauss, Blackfield, and Radiohead than they do with bands from the classic rock era, when Led Zeppelin ruled. That’s not to say there’s not Zeppelin elements in here as well. But it’s more of the acoustical, eclectic, and experimental side of Zeppelin.

No, this isn’t an album you want to listen to if you’re in the mood for the Sonic bombast Led Zeppelin was known for. But it is the album to put on if you want to be absorbed by the sounds radiating from your speakers. This is an album worthy to be cranked up when no one else is home -but not for the purpose of playing air guitar like a fool because you think no one is looking. You want to let it surround and envelop you.

I have to say I was somewhat skeptical pre-ordering “Carry Fire”. A lot of classic rock era performers that are still making music today just try to rehash what they’ve done in the past. And that’s not to say they put out  bad music. It’s just that a lot of the time, it feels like the same old same old. But then there are those performers who are true artists. They believe in branching out and trying new things. Sometimes what they do works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Whether it does or doesn’t, I always respect the effort and risk they took try something new. In the case of Robert Plant’s new album, it really, really works.

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.

Led Zeppelin – Physical Graffiti 

Most who grew up in the golden age of vinyl will be quick to claim that Led Zeppelin was one of the greatest bands ever. That’s a proclamation easily proven by their sixth album, “Physical Graffiti”.

Debuting at number one on both U.S. and U.K. record charts. 16 times platinum in the U.S. A double album that is ranked by Q magazine as the 28th greatest album of all time, and the 71st by Rolling Stone magazine. 

That in itself is impressive. But consider this: Almost half of the songs on Physical Graffiti were throw-aways from previous albums – 7 out of the 15 on it.

Now ponder that for a moment…

Five Led Zeppelin albums preceded Physical Graffiti. 

Five highly successful albums. 

They obviously didn’t omit the wrong songs. But the the songs Zeppelin threw away still blew away almost all the songs by any other band at that time. 

That’s a thought that blows me away every time I listen to Physical Graffiti. 

Thin Lizzy – Jailbreak

One of the greatest things about buying an album is that sometimes you discover the songs you hear on the radio are actually part of a bigger musical composition. Unless you actually listened to Thin Lizzy’s album Jailbreak in it entirety, or read the back cover, you would have no idea that the two songs from the album that you heard all over the radio in 1976 (and are still classic rock radio staples today) we’re actually part of a larger conceptual piece of music. 

The two biggest hits off the album – the title track and “The Boys Are Back in Town” are two small parts of a story about a world ruled by the Overmaster, who controls all media and religious belief, and who has imprisons everyone who doesn’t comply to his will. A riot is organized in one of the jails that leads to a planned mass escape. All the escapees are captured – except for four. On the lamb, they start broadcasting banned music and become the inspiration for the people to rise up and take their freedom back. It’s not a complicated story, but then again, neither is the concept of freedom. 

The best thing about Jailbreak however, isn’t how the songs all fit together to tell a bigger story, it’s how they tell the bigger story and also stand alone as a just a collection of great songs. 

Queen – A Night At The Odeon

Christmas eve, 1975. A sold out show at London’s Hammersmith Odeon. One of the first times Queen played Bohemian Rhapsody live. A performance broadcast live on the BBC but never released (except as a bootleg recording) until 2015.

Queen was a band that not only did some incredible stuff in the studio, they knew how to put on one helluva show at their concerts. A Night At The Odeon is Queen captured live and in top form only a few weeks after the release of their fourth album, A Night At The Opera. In that short time, the album had already sold over one million copies, becoming Queen’s first platinum album, and Bohemian Rhapsody had just become the band’s first number one single in the U.K. 

From Brian May’s dual echo guitar extravagance in Brighton Rock to Roger Taylor’s blister pounding drum solo in Keep Yourself Alive. From John Deacon’s distinctly solid bass lines throughout to Freddie Mercury’s unbelievable four octave vocal range, this is Queen holding nothing back to give the audience, in the theatre and across the radio airwaves, a Christmas eve they would never forget.

Yesterday would have been Freddie Mercury’s 71st birthday. Sadly, he lost a long battle with AIDS at the way too young age of 45. 

Happy Birthday Freddie.