Traffic – The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys

“The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys” is the album I choose when I can’t decide if I need just kick back and chill out or if I want to totally jam out, because it offers the best of both. The songs on it are combinations of bohemian folk, jazz, blues, avant-garde experimentalism, and of course rock. As such, the album offers itself up to a hugely diverse sound that is as ambitious as it is creative.

The title track is probably the most well-known song off the album and which, to a degree, encapsulates what traffic’s music was all about. The name of the song and album are an obscure reference to rebellion against the establishment and adherence to personal originality. Or, in laymen’s terms, not running with the pack and just being yourself. 

A creed I have always, and will forever live by.

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.

Supertramp – Crime Of The Century

Supertramp’s third album, crime of the century was their commercial breakthrough. It also was a near perfect combination of progressive rock showmanship and pop rock sensibility. Come to think of it, that’s probably why it was their commercial breakthrough.

“Crime of the Century” was the first in a string of highly successful albums by Supertramp. A streak that would be climaxed by 1979’s “Breakfast in America.” 

Queensrÿche – Operation Mindcrime

There’s an exception to every rule. I’ve never been a big fan of ’80s metal bands, and you won’t find many of them in my record collection. For the most part, I felt they offered more flash over substance. But Queensrÿche was different.

On their third album, “Operation Mindcrime”, Queensrÿche chose to do a concept album / rock opera. The story revolves around an ex-junkie who is disillusioned with the corruption he sees everywhere in our society. He’s eventually lured into an underground organization that brainwashes him into becoming an assassin of the people they perceive as being the evil perpetrators in the world.  Murders which he has no remembrance of performing afterwards. 

When they send him out to take the life of a nun and corrupt priest, he learns how her previous life, before being taken in by the priest, was in many ways parallel to his story. He falls in love with her, but in the end, still accomplishes his mission. This proves to be his mental undoing and he suffers a breakdown. He is arrested for the murders and put in a mental institution. While there, all the memories of everything he has done all come flooding back.

“Operation Mindcrime” became a very successful album for Queensrÿche. It eventually went platinum, selling over a million copies. The only single released from the album, “I Don’t Believe In Love”, was nominated for a Grammy.

Kansas – The Prelude Implicit

It’s a wonderful thing when one of the bands you admired in your youth can still put out one of their best studio albums decades after their heyday and over a decade and a half since their last release. It’s not reminiscing when it’s new music. It’s a refreshment of youth revisited.

“The Prelude Implicit” is the first studio album by Kansas in over 16 years, and it was well worth the wait. It has all the elements associated with Kansas’s sound: lyrics  that are deep and introspective and music that is a combination of gritty Midwestern rock combined with complexity and virtuosity associated with progressive rock. The production is exactly what you would dedemand from a band of Kansas’s stature: dynamic and clean without sounding overproduced.

Although Kansas’s previous album, 2000’s “Somewhere to Elsewere”, was a solid recording, it was unfortunately evident that lead singer and keyboadist Steve Walsh’s voice was straining and he could no longer hit the high notes most notable in Kansas’s sound. Walsh retired from the band in 2014 and was replaced by Ronnie Platt, who is also an exceptional keyboardist. Shortly thereafter, a rejuvenated Kansas started working on “The Prelude Implicit”. An album that literally and figuratively hits all the right notes.

Foghat – LIVE

“Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome, FOGHAT!” And so begins one of my all time favorite live albums. My only gripe is – and I ask this every time I listen to this album – “why didn’t they make this a double album?” I guess they wanted to leave you wanting more. And I’m sure Foghat’s performances on the nights the songs on this album were recorded left the audience doing just that.

An offshoot of Savoy Brown, Foghat formed in 1970 and specialized in straightforward blues-based rock and roll.  They were experts at it,  and by 1977 had honed and perfected their live performances. Although their preceding studio albums were good, on this album Foghat proved that they were a band that was meant to be heard live. This, their first live album, was their biggest selling record ever.

Foghat “LIVE” featured a die-cut cover with the word “LIVE” displaying the record sleeve behind it which had pictures of the band performing live. Unfortunately, if you didn’t keep this record in a protective sleeve, the “E” would eventually get mangled or torn off when other albums caught on it as they were slid in next to it in your collection. My original copy of Foghat live suffered this fate. It took me forever to find one that wasn’t ripped or torn off. Lesson learned.

The Outlaws

You can call it country rock or southern rock, I just called good music. The Outlaws debut album came out in 1975. Falling somewhere in between the Eagles and Lynyrd Skynyrd, with a little Crosby Stills Nash and Young and the Allman Brothers thrown in, their sound was an incredible combination of great guitar playing and beautiful vocal harmonies.

The Outlaws featured two guitarists in their lineup. Hughe Thomasson and Frank O’Keefe both had a fast picking, bluegrass style that, combined with three of the five band members also singing, allowed The Outlaws to harmonize and jam with a feel-good Southern style that made them stand out among their contemporaries. A perfect example of this is “Green Grass and High Tides”, the nearly ten minute closing song to the album that features some of three-part vocal harmonies in the chorus and one of the coolest dual guitar jams played in any song.

Golden Earring – Cut

Golden Earring was almost a one hit wonder in the United States. In 1973 they released their album “Moon Tan”, which spawned their hit “Radar Love”, which hit number one on the Billboard rock charts in the U.S.. Although the Dutch band remained extremely successful in the Netherlands, they failed to have any further hit records in the United States. That is, until nine years later.

In 1982, Golden Earring released their 16th album. With the help of a spy themed video that got heavy airplay on the newly launched MTV, the song “Twilight Zone” became Golden Earring’s second number one hit in the United States. Following the success  The “Twilight Zone”, he band released a follow-up single, “The Devil Made Me Do It”. Unfortunately, that song failed to do well in the U.S. because it contained the word “bullshit”, and was not released with an edited version – consequently, many U.S. radio stations refused to play it.

Although they had continued success in the Netherlands, Europe, in the U.K., Golden Earring failed to see any significant success in the United States following “Cut”. They continue to perform over 200 concerts a year to capacity crowds in those areas of the world. They released their 25th album “Tits ‘N Ass”, in 2012 under the same band lineup they have had since 1970. That album hit number one on the Dutch record charts.

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.

Asia

I remember picking up Asia’s debut, self titled album without ever hearing a song on it. The only thing I knew about the band was who was in it – and that was enough for me. Carl Palmer, the drummer from Emerson Lake and Palmer; Geoffrey Downes and Steve Howe, keyboardist and guitarist respectively from Yes, and John Wetton bassist and vocalist from King Crimson. For members from three of my favorite bands. 

I also remember that when I first heard Asia, I was initially, somewhat disappointed. To me, this was the supergroup to end all supergroups. And in a way it was – just not in the way I expected. This was the ’80s. This was the time of pop and polish – and reverb. Progressive rock was waning in popularity. Gone were the epics that took up an entire side of an album. Gone were the extended solos. The songs on Asia were short and concise compositions – songs designed to be hits. And there were many hits on this album. 

After repeated listenings, I learned to appreciate this album for what it was. The members of Asia, having been in some of the most successful bands in the ’70s, wanted to have a successful album. They also wanted to keep their integrity as musicians and songwriters. Mission accomplished. Asia was the marriage of  ’70s prog and ’80s pop music.

Listening to Asia’s first album now, I realize what a significant record it is. Although it has a somewhat overproduced, distinctly 1980s production style to it, which I am typically not a huge fan of, the musicianship on this album is exceptional. Typical to prog-rock, many of the songs mix loud and soft passages, tempo shifts, and interesting chord changes. Those elements were just more subtle than before, and mixed in with a bit of pop and polish – and reverb. Asia is a great album for what it was: a record that marked a turning point in rock and roll, for better or for worse.