Blues Brothers – Briefcase Full Of Blues

What started out as a comedy/music skit on Saturday Night Live, turned into one of the best-selling blues albums of all time.

Dan Aykroyd and the late John Belushi were part of the original “not ready for prime-time players” cast on Saturday Night Live when they came up with the concept of a fictitious blues band from Chicago as a way to have some fun, pay homage to their appreciation of blues, soul, and R&B, and fill a slot for a musical guest that was lacking for the show that weekend. Little did they know, it would turn into an opening slot for comedian Steve Martin on his “Wild and Crazy Guy” tour, a hit album recorded from one of the shows on that tour, and a mega-hit movie based on the fake biographies of Joliet Jake and Elwood Blues.

They were just having fun with it all; but they had a band of crack musicians backing them up (who also happened to be the SNL band at the time). That’s what really made it all come together and work so well – taking their music, but not necessarily themselves, seriously.

That’s what I think I love most about “Briefcase Full of Blues” – it taught me that you need to think seriously about, and focus on what’s most important to you, but never forget to have fun with it at the same time.

How can I not love this album?

Santana – Welcome

There never has been, nor will there probably ever be, and artist who combined Latin rhythms along with rock and roll better than Carlos Santana.

1973’s “Welcome” was Santana’s was quite possibly the most varied and experimental album for the renowned guitarist and his namesake band. Perhaps more than any other Santana album, “Welcome” combined jazz fusion, soul, and a little funk with the band’s already distinctive latino-rock sound.

“Welcome” also marked a significant change in the band lineup. Keyboardist and lead vocalist Greg Rollie had left the group along with second guitarist Neal Schon to form the group Journey. This left the band without their primary vocalist. Instead of replacing their former singer, Santana chose to feature a variety of guest vocalists for the songs on this, their fifth album adding to the album’s varied sound. The decision to use a variety of singers would be a hallmark of future Santana records as well.

The J. Geils Band – Sanctuary

The J. Geils Band is one of the most underrated bands in the US; except in Boston and Detroit. Boston is understandable. Geils after all, comes from that city. You always love your hometown hero. But Detroit was equally, if not more enthusiastic about The J. Geils Band’s combination of blues, rock, funk, soul, and pop from day one; and Geils loved them right back. They even at one point during an interview, referred to Detroit as their home away from home.

Geils was first and foremost, a live band. If you never saw them perform live, you have no idea what they were all about. Perhaps the album that came closest to capturing their live sound and energy in the studio was their tenth record, “Sanctuary”.

I can’t even pick a favorite song on this album. Every song is my favorite off of it. “Sanctuary” is one of those albums that, when I ignorantly thinned down my record collection, converting everything to compact disc, I never considered parting with. Yes, I eventually bought it on CD, but I was never not going to own this album.

To me personally, “Sanctuary” is memories from my ignorant teenage party days, the album I took refuge in during my early adult years when I felt down and betrayed, and the record I always pulled out when I just needed to f’ing crank it up and jam out.

Musically, it has been and will always be my “Sanctuary”.

Roxy Music – Avalon

Even though their seven previous albums had exhibited Roxy Music as one of the most versatile groups in modern music – a band that was never afraid to explore new musical ideas – “Avalon” was a departure from anything they had done before. When I first heard it, it was like nothing like I had expected. I don’t really know what I expected.  But this wasn’t it.

“Avalon” with its ebb and flow of synths, guitars, and sax, combined with Brian Ferry’s seductive vocals is a sensual rock masterpiece. Like a good brandy or bottle of wine, the songs are simple in their initial presentation but full of complexity – and inexplicably intoxicating.

“Avalon” is an album you can crank up and jam to when you’re by yourself or hanging with friends. It’s also the perfect choice for a romantic, candle-lit evening with the one you love. It is easily, the most versatile album in Roxy Music’s catalog.

Phil Collins – Face Value

I remember when I first heard Phil Collins’s “Face Value” album. I remember thinking what a great album it was, which was disappointing to me. I remember being concerned that it was the end of Genesis, whom I had only recently started to get into, discovering their diverse back-catalog of progressive rock. I remember not wanting to like “Face Value” because it could mean the end of Genesis. But I remember it was impossible for me to not like it.

Genesis had already suffered the loss of Steve Hackett, their incredibly talented guitarist who had left years earlier to pursue a solo career. But Genesis continued on as a quartet. Then, a few years after that, Peter Gabriel, the front man and primary songwriter for Genesis, also left for a solo career. But Genesis continued on as a trio, with Collins taking on lead vocal and drums in the studio and leaving the comfort of sitting behind a drum kit to front the band when playing live (Bill Bruford, and later, Chester Thompson played drums during concerts).

But the first album by Phil Collins wasn’t the end of Genesis. Nor was his second or third. Phil Collins continued on in both his solo career and with Genesis – and that was a great thing.

The versatility Genesis had shown on all their albums was taken to the next level on “Face Value”. On it, Phil Collins incorporated influences of R&B and soul into many of the songs. He even used the horn section from funk masters Earth Wind and Fire on some of the tracks.

And then of course, there’s the moody song about the anguish and anger felt with the betrayal of love. “In The Air Tonight” was a song Collins wrote after his wife left him. Oh lord, what a great song.

Oh lord, what a great album.

Humble Pie – Smokin’

Humble Pie’s fifth album, “Smokin'”, can be summed up in two words: heavy groove. You can put those words together or keep them apart, either way, it’s accurate.

Peter Frampton had just left the Humble Pie in 1972, and the band had to prove they could make it on their own without him. With Steve Marriott at the helm, the Pie set out to make an album that was heavier and funkier than anything they had done before … or after. The result was magical.

Blues riffs and power chords dominate on “Smokin'”, making it an album that is best appreciated when played LOUD. The Pie have never sounded better than they do here. They play down and dirty electric blues-rock with a heavy dose of soul that makes it’s truly addicting. Don’t get me wrong, I love Peter Frampton … but in all honesty … he’s not missed here.

“Smokin'” was also an example of why CDs could really suck. When I purchased this album on CD, I could not believe how terrible it sounded. There was no care at all taken with transferring this album over to the digital realm. I’m not a vinyl snob. I have some old recordings that absolutely shine on CD. But when it comes to bringing a classic analog album over to digital, “Smokin'” is an example of how to do it wrong.

I had a friend ask me recently how vinyl albums could possibly sound better than CDs. This album is a prime example of how. There are cases where the opposite is true – where the CD is superior to the original album. Humble Pie’s “Smokin'” is not one of those instances. If you want to really appreciate this album, and know what it was all about, you need listen to it on vinyl.

And listen to it LOUD!

Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color

Sometimes strange is good. “Sound & Color”, the second album from Alabama Shakes, certainly is a strange. It is also exceptionally good. Soulful psychedelic blues garage rock is the best way I can find to describe this album. It is one of those I have to be in the right mood to listen to. But when I’m feeling that way, almost nothing else will suffice.

Alabama Shakes formed in 2009 released sound and color in 2015. The album immediately topped the Billboard charts. It was nominated for 6 Grammys, winning four of them, including best alternative album.

Toto IV (half speed master)

For the most part, I’m not a huge fan of a lot of 80s pop music. I was more into alternative music back then. However, in the case of Toto’s fourth album I make a huge exception. This is an album that is great from start to finish. But then again, considering the musicians on it that’s not too surprising. If you read liner notes and credits on albums the way I do, even before Toto released their first album, Steve Porcaro, Jeff Porcaro, David Paich, and Steve Lukather would have been more than familiar names. Playing as session musicians, they performed on more albums, with more artists, than I have time to mention here. Even after Toto formed, its members continued to make individual appearances on albums by other bands.

It’s not surprising that so many artist would want them to lend their talents. The key members of Toto are perhaps some of the most versatile musicians to ever perform in rock and popular music. That versatility is what really shines on Toto IV. There is nearly something for everyone on this album. Rock, Soul, Funk, progressive rock, Hard Rock, jazz R&B, they’re all present in one manner or the other. It’s that combination that places Toto IV so far beyond nearly any other pop album from the eighties.

Most people probably think that Toto derived the name of the band from the dog in The Wizard of Oz. But according to an early interview with the band members, they actually got their name from the Latin phrase and “in toto”, which means “all-encompassing”. The band felt that phrase accurately described the diversity and Incorporation of so many different musical styles in their music.

The Rockets

The Rockets were the best band to break out of Detroit following Bob Seger gaining a national audience. Although, after six solid albums, including a great live one, they would never really reach the success and recognition they deserved. 

If you had asked me in the late ’70’s to define Detroit rock and roll, I would have told you the Rockets. They had the grit and noise synonymous with the factories that churned out the cars which also defined the Motor City. But the Rockets threw in a soulfulness reminiscent of Detroit’s Motown roots and Mitch Ryder And The Detroit Wheels, whom drummer John Badanjek and guitarist Jim McCarty had both played together in early in their careers. 

While Bob Seger started to move toward softer ballads going into the ’80s, The Rockets refused to soften their sound. Don’t get me wrong I love Seger’s stuff, I just felt Rockets never strayed from a sound that defined the determination of a struggling midwest industrial city. A city that welcomed, and even celebrated that struggle. But that attitude was what probably prevented them from maintaining the national popularity they achieved with their self-titled debut. I always respected their music for that.

The Rockets’ debut scored three hit singles for the band: “Turn Up The Radio” and “Can’t Sleep”, both written by their Drummer, John Badanjek, and a cover of a Peter Green era Fleetwood Mac song, “Oh Well”. Although a cover, The Rockets refused to do a carbon copy rendition of the song, rearranging it to conform to their mix of grit and soul. One song I alway thought they should have released as a single is “Lost Forever, Left For Dreaming”, which closes Side one.

Side two kicks off with “Long Long Gone”, a song written for them by Bob Seger, and another one that could have easily been a hit single. Another stand out on the flip side of the album is a rocking cover of Little Richard’s “Lucille”.

The Rockets will probably always be my favorite band from my hometown. Although all of their albums are great and grace my record collection, their debut will always remain my favorite of theirs.

Stevie Wonder Р 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.