Chicago – Greatest Hits

For whatever reason, I don’t have a lot of greatest hits packages in my record collection. I can’t really say why, other than if a band that I like comes out with a greatest hits album, I usually have most of the albums that have those songs on them, so why bother. The band Chicago is the exception to the rule for me. In the mid-seventies, they were one of my favorite bands, but for whatever reason, I never owned any of their albums. So picking this one up was a given.

As should be the claim for any greatest hits album, there is not a bad song on this record. But Chicago IX, as it is often also referred to, goes beyond just a greatest hits album. It is one of the greatest Greatest Hits albums ever. That’s incredible testament to the band, considering they still had a long enough string of hits afterwards, to come out with two more greatest hits albums – one at the beginning of the 80’s and one at the end.

Chicago’s best work, to me at least, was always their material from the late sixties and early seventies. Going into the 80’s they started to use less and less of their horn section that gave them such a unique sound on their earlier albums, with influences of jazz and rhythm and blues. Though earlier songs also played around with unique vocal arrangements and at times, odd time signatures and shifting rhythms. In the 80s, their sound was much mellower and relied more heavily on the keyboards and Peter Cetera vocals. Although that formula garnered them consistently better chart positions than the hits on this album, it also gave them a more generic sound with their later songs.

To me, this collection is the best of their best.

Robert Plant – Pictures At Eleven

Following the death of Led Zeppelin’s drummer John Bonham, there was some uncertainty about whether the band would continue on with someone different behind the kit. Eventually, the members of Led Zeppelin announced that they couldn’t continue on as they were, and the remaining three members went their separate ways. About a year and a half later, Robert Plant released his debut solo album,Pictures At Eleven. 

Probably in keeping with what was felt fans wanted, the album has a very Zeppelin-esque feel to it, with Robbie Blunts guitar finding a tone very similar to that of Jimmy Page’s. But the album still had moments of Plant moving out of his comfort zone and into new musical territory. There was a heavier use of synthesizers on a couple of songs, and a notable difference in the feel of the rhythm section. Phil Collins, the drummer from Genesis, played drums on most of the tracks, delivering a looser R&B back beat than what was typically associated with Led Zeppelin. Cozy Powell, who played on only two songs, had a heavier style of drumming, more akin to John Bonham’s sound. Overall, the album delivered what Zeppelin fans wanted but still gave Plant a chance to forge something new.

In subsequent solo releases, plant would continue to diversify his sound. He also worked on a variety of other non-solo musical projects, including the Honeydrippers and a duet album with bluegrass musician and singer Alison Krauss. 

Throughout his recording career Robert Plant has released over 35 albums, including his work with Led Zeppelin and other projects. He has a new album coming out this October. 

John Lennon & Yoko Ono – Double Fantasy

After the breakup of The Beatles, each member of the Fab Four pursued a solo path. Not surprisingly, the often outspoken John Lennon went on to have a very successful post-Beatle musical career. He and his wife, Yoko Ono, also became a much stronger voice in the advocacy for pacifism and anti-war politics.

He took a hiatus from his musical career after his son, Sean was born, deciding to focus more on being a dad rather than a musician. However, after a near tragedy at sea while on a sailing trip, he decided to go back into the studio, only this time it would be together with his wife, Yoko Ono.

The album they made together wasn’t so much a duet, as it was a collection of songs written and performed by each of them. All of the songs focused on  relationships, more specifically,  the ups and downs between John and Yoko. Resembling conversations between the two, the sequence of the songs alternated between one song by John Lennon followed by a song by Yoko Ono. It’s easy to tell, this was a very personal album for both of them.

Although he lived to see the release of his final album Lennon never lived to see the success it achieved. John Lennon was tragically shot outside his New York apartment by Mark David Chapman, on December 8th 1980 and died shortly after. It was one of the saddest days in music history.

Carol King – Tapestry

Brisk Sunday mornings are meant for simpler, mellow sounds. No crunching guitars. No heavy blues. No complex, changing rhythms.  No belting out of the lyrics. Just good quality, we’ll crafted songs performed with a great blend of style and emotion. There is no better singer/songwriter in that realm than Carole King. 

Tapestry is her masterpiece.

But don’t take my word for it. In 1972, Tapestry grabbed four Grammys, including Best Album. With more than 25 million copies flying off store shelves, it is one of the best-selling albums of all time. And in 2003, Rolling Stone magazine named it as one of the 500 best albums of all time. 

Not too shabby for your second album, Carole. 

Kansas – Point Of Know Return

I was totally blown away the first time I heard Point Of Know Return. I had actually gone to the record store to buy the previous Kansas album, “Leftoverture.” That album was sold out, so I bought their newer, fifth album instead. Although I had already heard a couple of songs off this album that had been played on the radio, I was not ready for what I experienced when listening to it. 

This was complex, and intelligent music. It had the rawness of Midwestern U.S. rock and it had progressive rock elements from the U.K. bands I was into, like Emerson Lake and Palmer and Yes. Plus, the lyrics were cool as s***. There was a song about Albert Einstein, who has always been an intellectual, political, and philosophical hero of mine – “Portrait (He Knew).” There was another about Howard Hughes – “Closet Chronicles.” And the collective remainder were spiritual or thought-provoking in their lyrics and acoustically beautiful or complex and powerful in their musical composition. It was an album that inspired, challenged and provoked introspection all at the same time. It remains one of my all time favorite albums.

I loved this album so much that I eventually upgraded it to a “Half Speed Mastered” edition. These were audiophile pressings that more accurately captured the dynamic qualities of the original recording, versus the mass-produced typical commercial release which sacrificed quality for quantity. It was definitely worth the extra price.

The Beatles – Revolver

Americans got ripped off with Beatles’ seventh album. And it wasn’t the first time either – but it wold be the last.

With Revolver, the fab four continued to expand their sound and experiment with different, often unorthodox recording techniques in the studio for the time. (They were expanding and experimenting with other things outside the studio too. But let’s not go there right now.) Backwards recording, post recording speed and pitch variations (varispeeding) and artificial double tracking, which adds a slight delay to a voice or instrument and plays it back with the original, so one voice sounds like two, or four sound like eight, were all used here. 

Although these techniques are now commonplace in modern recording studios, they were truly groundbreaking at the time. The Beatles would continue expanding on what could be done in the studio on their next album,  “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

I know, all that is really cool (at least if you’re a music nerd like I am) but what you really want to know is right now is just how did American’s get ripped off  by this album? 

Well here it is…

Although The Beatles had started their own record label, Apple Records, their records were still released through major record companies. To the whole world outside of the United States, The Beatle’s albums were released through Parlaphone records. In the U.S., The Beatles were released through Capitol Records. Capitol didn’t like releasing albums with too many songs on them – and apparently 14 was too many. For Revolver, they only wanted theirs to go up to 11. So U.S. record buyers didn’t get “I’m Only Sleeping,” “Doctor Robert,” and “And Your Bird Can Sing ” on their albums.

This wasn’t the first time Capitol had made changes to a Beatles’ album. Most early albums by them had song omissions and/or reordering on the U.S. editions. Fortunately, Revolver would be the last time it would happen. Starting with “Sgt. Pepper’s” Capitol stopped messing with what should be better off left alone.

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.

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.

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.  

Peter Gabriel – Security

Peter Gabriel’s fourth solo album after leaving Genesis was titled Security in the United States and Canada, but the rest of the world knew it simply is Peter Gabriel’s fourth album. Just like his three previous solo albums the album featured only his name on the cover. Even the spine did not designate any title for the record. Gabriel didn’t want the album to have a name, just like its predecessors. But at the insistence of Geffen Records, who Gabriel had just signed with, he was forced to choose one for its release in the US and Canada. In those countries only, a sticker was placed on the shrink-wrap outside the cover noting the album’s name.

The album was recorded in Gabriel’s home studio where he had amassed a huge collection of then cutting edge synthesizers, drum machines, and full digital recording equipment. For the starting point of all the songs, he recorded rhythms and beats from his travels throughout the world and rather than sampling them, reproduced them on the drum machines and electronic instruments so they could be more easily manipulated. He and the other musicians on the album then improved over those beats and rhythms, structuring the songs. It was a radical approach for its time, but one that’s not very distant from the way many electronic and Hip Hop artists compose their music today.

When listening closely, it’s interesting to hear a simplicity in most of the lead instruments, yet a complexity in the rhythms underlying them as well as in the way the individual pieces are put together to form the whole of the songs.

Shock The Monkey, a song about jealousy, became Peter Gabriel’s first top 40 hit in the United States.