Jeff Beck – Wired

Jeff Beck will always be one of my favorite guitarists. Mainly, because of his versatility. The man can play anything. Like on his previous second solo outing, “Blow by Blow”, Jeff Beck chose to make his third album, “Wired”, a jazz fusion recording.

If I could own only one Jeff Beck album, it would definitely be “Wired”. Mainly because with jazz fusion being a melding of rock, funk, R&B, and pretty much any other style, with jazz stylings and improvisation, it is perfect for a guitarist who is as diversified as Beck.

Instrumental albums typically do not do very well on the record charts or in sales. “Wired” is one of the rare exceptions. But then again, Beck didn’t need vocals to put expression and meaning into the songs on “Wired”. All he needed was his fingers and six strings; Jan Hammer’s distinctly expressive synthesizer work didn’t hurt either.

Jeff Beck was known to almost always play without a pick, abandoning it early in his career. He claimed that once he discovered how to play with his fingers, he found a pick to be limiting. Listening to wired, and the rest of Jeff Beck’s musical canon, one finds it nearly impossible to dispute that statement.

Alice Cooper – Killer

Killer is arguably Alice Cooper’s best album,  but then again he, or maybe I should say they, have released so many great records, that’s a difficult claim to make. 

So is which is it? Is Alice Cooper the name of a band or a person? The answer is: both. When the band Alice Cooper started out they did a mix of theatrics along with hard rock and created an image for themselves that brought them great success. Part of that image was to create an eclectic persona for the front man of the band. They named that character Alice Cooper, which was also the name they gave the band. But there really was no person named Alice Cooper.

The lead singers real name was Vincent Furnier, and it was mainly his idea to incorporate the theatrics into their live performances. As the band became more popular, the other band members wanted to move away from the stage extravagance and just focus on the music on stage. This eventually drove a creative wedge between the lead singer and contributing songwriter, and the rest of the band.

Vincent decided he would carry on combining stage theatrics with the music using the name Alice Cooper. The rest of the band members weren’t too keen on that idea and threatened to sue him for the use of the name. But Vincent Furnier had an easy solution – he legally changed his name to Alice Cooper – the rest of the band members  could not stop him from using his legal name. So, for the first seven albums Alice Cooper was the name of the band. For everything that came after, starting with “Welcome To My Nightmare”, Alice Cooper was a person.

I have quite a few records  in my collection  and  I’m  pretty particular with keeping them organized so I can find  what I want to listen to. Alice Cooper is one of the rare cases where there are two places in my musical library where their / his albums reside. The only other case I can think of, off the top of my head, is John Cougar when he changed his name to John Cougar Mellencamp and then John Mellencamp. But that’s another story for another day.

The Cars

The Cars released some good albums in the late ’70s into the ’80s. And they released one great album – their eponymous debut. It was such a good album that during an interview, the band jokingly referred to it as their “true greatest hits album.” 

This album was so unique at the time of its release in 1978 that, in all honesty, I really didn’t know what to do with it. But in the end, the solid hooks throughout, and quite simply the great songs on it, won me over. I guess I wasn’t alone.  It remained on the Billboard charts  438 weeks  after its release. To this day it remains one of my favorite albums.

The Cars, along with bands like the Talking Heads and Blondie, hailed from the east coast of the U.S. and helped usher in the New Wave era in rock music.

Although it has one of the most immediately recognizable album covers of all time, ironically the band did not like it or really want it. The picture on the inside sleeve, which contained a black and white photo mosaic is what the band actually wanted. In the end the record company chose the artwork for the cover. The band designed all their subsequent album covers.

Led Zeppelin РPhysical 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. 

Tool – Lateralus

Q: What do you get when you mix Pink Floyd, Metallica, King Crimson, Led Zeppelin, and a heavy dose of originality?

A: I can’t say for sure, but I bet it would be something along the lines of Tool.

Lateralus is one of their best albums. 

…No…

I think it IS their best album.

‘Nuff said.

Oh yeah, picture disks are freaking cool too.

Now, ’nuff said.

Rush – Moving Pictures

I remember anticipating the release of Rush’s eighth album, “Moving Pictures”, probably more than any other album I had up to that point. Yet it would be almost three months after it came out before I would actually get a chance to listen to it. By then, almost everyone I knew had already heard it.

Before “Moving Pictures” came out, I had always considered Rush to be one of the best kept secrets in rock. It wasn’t that they didn’t get any radio airplay, or that people didn’t know about them. It was just that with as great of musicians that they were, I never felt they got the recognition they deserved. They were a great band, but hardly anyone realized it. It was like a secret only a select few knew – and I was fine with that.

A friend of mine turned me on to Rush when I was in high school. He lent me their live album, “All The World’s A Stage”, because I had told him how much I liked the drummers Carl Palmer (Emerson Lake and Palmer) and Bill Burford  (Yes) and he wanted me to hear Neil Peart’s drum solo. I was an immediate fan, not just of Peart, but of Geddy Lee and Alex Leifson as well. I checked out a couple of their albums after that, and picked up their seventh album, “Permanent Waves”, the day it came out. when I heard their newest album was coming out in February of 1981, I couldn’t wait to get it – but I would have to.

I started Army basic training the third week of January 1981. We didn’t get to hear any music from the outside. Until basic training was over, we never got off base. To the new recruits, the outside world did not exist. By the time it did exist for me again, it seemed everyone knew who Rush was and their songs were all over the radio. You couldn’t help but hear songs from “Moving Pictures” everywhere. Nearly everyone thought they were a great band. The secret was out – and I was fine with that.

Neil Diamond – Moods

Moods was an album that defined Neil Diamond. It contained a wide variety of material that made it universally enjoyable to listeners both old and young. It’s one of those albums that’s perfect to listen to on a warm summer afternoon or a brisk autumn morning. A great album for setting the tone to start off your day with a hot cup of coffee or to mellow out after a rough one sipping on a bourbon or a glass of wine.

Diamond once said he had a love-hate relationship with songwriting. He said he found it “extremely satisfying when it worked,” but hated that it “forces you to dig inside yourself.” 

But it’s that digging that makes his music so good.

Ultravox – Vienna

New Wave Music started in the late 70s. It took the DIY attitude of punk and made it more accessible. Instead of using over driven guitars and rants, New Wave bands broke the rules with wild guitar effects, synthesizers, and unconventional vocal stylings in ways that cut against the grain of traditional rock and pop music just like punk rock did. But it added to it, a musical diversity and commercial accessibility punk rock, by its very nature, lacked. 

Ultravox was a perfect example of what New Wave music embodied. With its heavy use of synthesizers and layers of effects on the guitars, accompanied by Bill Currie’s violin and viola and Midge Ure’s versatile voice, Ultravox intentionally tried to defy classification. 

On their fourth album, Vienna, Ultravox built lush audio soundscapes that soared around inside your head and then crashed, or sometimes floated you away to a place of beauty and serenity, but not for too long, before taking off again. 

Sometimes the songs take you down a dark alley with a mysterious stranger you admire and fear at the same time. Other times, they try to entice you into indulgence and excess. Vienna is that rare album that can paint pictures with sound. Just close your eyes and listen. You’ll be amazed at what your ears can see.

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 I think 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.