David Bowie – Hunky Dory

If you want to discover a great album by an artist you really like…I’m talking about an album that you hardly ever hear any of the songs from it on the radio, except maybe one, but it will forever be one of your favorites by that artist….then I have a formula for you: Find their breakthrough album, and buy the album that came out just before it. I’ve used this formula many times, and have almost never been disappointed. “Hunky Dory” by David Bowie is one of the best examples of this that I can think of.

Yes, David Bowie had some hits before this album. Space Oddity, off his debut, was probably his biggest to this point. But none of is albums ever attained the success and musical respect of Ziggy Stardust and his albums that  immediately followed it. That was the first album by Bowie where I really went “WOW!” His preceding fourth album, “Hunky Dory”, was the second one.

The thing that made “Hunky Dory” so great was it found David Bowie in the first of many of his musically transitional phases. Bowie’s early albums were straightforward rock with a little folk rock thrown in at times. Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, and Diamond Dogs almost defined glam rock. Sandwiched right in between is “Hunky Dory”. It was the best of both worlds.

I often wonder if David Bowie was hinting at the fact that this was a transitional album for him – a sort of bridge between two defining styles. He did after all, open up the album with the song “Changes”. And there were many changes to come in David Bowie’s illustrious career. His timing with the changes he would make with his music to follow, made him seem like a musical chameleon. Though not one that adapted to things as they were, but to things that were to come, right around the corner. Hunky dory was the album that defined David Bowie as an artist who was always just one step ahead of the times.

Yes – Fragile

Yes was a band that went through many iterations 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 band mates 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, Bruford, 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 between the members of Yes on “Fragile” is by far my all-time favorite and this album will forever remain my favorite album by Yes.

U.K. 

It must be a chore keeping a super group together. They always seem to have a short life, but as the old adage goes, “the candle that burns the shortest also burns the brightest”. When you combine multiple people who are as equally creative as they are talented, you can’t help but have strong opinions of the direction songs and performances should go. Everyone wants to do it their way, and everyone thinks they have the right answer to make the songs great. And the thing is, each one of them is right in their own way.

U.K. was a British band that formed in 1976. They were a lesser-known supergroup but no less impressive than many others. They were definitely one of the most talented. They only released three albums in their short history, one of those being a live album, and had a personal change between the first and second album. But all of their albums are amazing. My personal favorite is their eponymous debut.

Consisting of John Wetton, formerly of King Crimson and Uriah Heep, on vocals and bass, Allan Holdsworth, a virtuoso guitarist who had been a member of Tempest, Soft Machine and Gong, keyboardist and violinist Eddie Jobson who came from Roxy Music and Frank Zappa’s band, and Bill Bruford, who was the former drummer for Yes and King Crimson, UK’s music was complex, with many rhythmic changes and challenging time signatures. Their songs focused mainly on the music with long instrumentals and only short vocal passages. They were a band that was all about playing music that was as enjoyable to listen to as it was difficult to play. Some called this self-indulgent. Others, like me, called it incredible. By definition, it was called progressive rock.

Before U.K. could release a second album, Allan Holdsworth would leave the band, followed soon after by Bill Bruford. The equally talented Terry Bozzio, who came from Frank Zappa’s band, took the place behind the drum kit. Interestingly, nobody  replaced Holdsworth on guitar. Rather, the band became a trio , with Eddie Jobson playing all the lead parts on either keyboards or Electric violin.

Eventually, creative differences between Eddie Jobson and John Wetton would split the band apart permanently, but not before they would release their third and final live 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.

Walter Carlos – Switched On Bach

What do you get when you take the compositions of Baroque Era composer Johann Sebastian Bach and interpret them on the Moog synthesizer? That’s the question Walter (Wendy) Carlos was inspired to answer in 1968, shortly after the birth of the Moog synthesizer.

This album is one of my all-time favorites and, when I regrettably and ignorantly thinned down my record collection decades ago and started “upgrading” to CDs, this was one of those albums I never thought I would be released on CD, so I held on to it.

I love classical music. And although I tend to be more of a fan of the faster solo oriented material from composers like Mozart, I still really love the heavier density of Bach’s compositions. In today’s heavy metal music, Bach would have been your AC/DC or Black Sabbath, while Mozart would have been more in the realm of solo shredders like Joe Satriani or Steve Vai.

Switched-on Bach is one of my all-time favorite albums because it took age-old classical compositions, songs that were familiar to so many, and explored them in ways that, up to that point, could never have been done. The performances of these songs are not a recomposition of what Bach had written. They are interpretations of his compositions as they were written, performed on a modern instrument that did not exist in his lifetime. I have no doubt that had the Moog synthesizer existed in Bach’s lifetime, he would have composed quite a bit of his music on it. It was a perfect fit. It took the genius and insight of Walter (Wendy) Carlos to first recognize this and bring the reality to fruition.

So you may be asking “why do I keep referring to the artist performing this music as Walter (Wendy)?” You see, to my surprise, this album was eventually released on CD, and I did eventually buy it. What I couldn’t help noticing, was that the album I had owned for many years was credited to Walter Carlos, while the CD was designated to the artist Wendy Carlos.

I have to admit, I didn’t really do my homework here to verify, but I’d lay odds on an operation being involved somewhere that resulted in this name discrepancy.

But that’s just a hunch.

Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits

“Greatest Hits” is kind of an odd title for this album. Although it’s true that all 14 songs on it were hits for the duo, the album doesn’t contain the original versions of all their hits. Four of the songs that appear on it are live, previously unreleased versions. Additionally, one of the studio songs, “America” wasn’t even a hit for them…yet. Although it appeared “Bookends”, their final album together, it was never released as a single until two years later when this greatest hits album came out. Then it became a hit.

None of that stopped Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits from being hugely successful. The album was released in 1972, two years after Simon and Garfunkel broke up. There was still high demand for new material from them at the time, so certainly having the live tracks on the record didn’t hurt. The album still holds the record in the US as the best-selling album by a duo.

Jethro Tull – Aqualung (Original Master Recording)

Aqualung is the quintessential Jethro Tull album. If you own only one Jethro Tull album, this should be it.

Aqualung was one of the first albums in my collection that I “upgraded” to digital. Unfortunately, I got rid of the album before I actually listened to the CD – it sounded like s***.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a music snob. Scratch that, I am somewhat of a music snob, but that’s not why I thought the original CD release of Aqualung sucked. I thought it sucked because… well, it sucked… even the record company eventually admitted it. Because of litigation against them regarding the original CD release, Chrysalis records recalled it, offering a refund to everyone who had purchased the CD. They posted a recall of it in music magazines and it was announced on numerous radio stations, and I darn shure took advantage of it.

Care has to be taken when bringing an analog recording over to digital. When Aqualung was originally released on CD, that care was not taken. There was so much tape hiss and noise during the numerous quiet passages on the recording, at times it was overbearing of the music. The album was eventually, remastered as a 25th Anniversary Edition on CD where the time and effort were taken to do it right.

I always wanted to replace my vinyl copy of Aqualung. But again, because of the quiet passages, it was hard to find one in the condition of what I had gotten rid of. That is until recently, when I ran across an original master recording of it that was in mint condition.With as good of a job they did on the 25th anniversary CD, I can honestly say that this sounds way better. This is the best Aqualung has ever sounded, even compared to the 25th anniversary CD. This is the way it was meant to be heard.

If that makes me a music snob, so be it.

A lot of people think, because of the lyrics on Aqualung, that Ian Anderson was an atheist, or at least anti-religion. Nothing could be further from fact. What he was against was the corruption of religion, which he felt was the case with the Church of England.

He speaks of this revelation on the very last song on Aqualung. In it he tells of how, after some philosophical contemplation when he was a young school boy, he went to the school’s headmaster, and told him that the God he believed in was not the kind you “Wind Up” on Sundays. My beliefs couldn’t be more in line with his. Maybe that’s the reason I love this album so much.

Sweet – Give Us A Wink

Sweet was a band that never could really find who they wanted to be. But that’s not really a bad thing. In the wake of trying to find who they were as a band, they left a flood of great music. Hands down, “Give Us A Wink” was the hardest rocking album Sweet ever did. This was Sweet’s attempt at metal, and just like Led Zeppelin didn’t white nail reggae with their song “D’yer Mak’r” and Radiohead didn’t quite nail electronica with their album “Kid A”, sweet doesn’t quite nail metal here. But they come up with something that is so close, and at times, so much cooler.

There weren’t really any big hits off “Give Us A Wink”, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a phenomenal album. Sweet, up to this point has been restricted by their management and had a lot of their songs written for them. This was the album where they decided they were going to do what they wanted to do. And what they wanted to do was rock their asses off.

Sweet never holds back on this album. The “Action” starts with a synth leading into vocal arrangements that segues into distorted power chords, a cash register, and a great guitar solo (yes, I said a cash register). It doesn’t let up until the last song on side one, and then only slightly. “Healer” could hardly be called a mellow song – it has more of a slow, eerie and then bluesy feeling.

My only gripe about this album is that the beginning to side two opens with “The Lies In Her Eyes” with its synthesizer opening that is a bit too familiar with “Fox On The Run”, a previous hit by Sweet. But the moment is short, but Sweet.

Cockroach has one of the coolest reverb drenched drum intros of any song. It is followed by “Keep It In” which is an unbelievably twisted Jam. This was the song where Sweet put out to prove that as musicians, they were a force to be reckoned with. This was followed by the album closer, “Fourth Of July”, which brings it down just a little (but not much).

Previous to this album, I had heard Sweet only on their two hits at that time, “Fox on the Run” and “Ballroom Blitz”. A girl that I was seeing for very brief time, had an 8-track tape of “Give Us A Wink” and gave it to me because she didn’t like it. I loved it.

Kansas – Leftoverture

One of the things I always found most intriguing about Kansas was not their music, but their lyrics. Kerry Livgren was one of the founding members and primary songwriters for Kansas. His lyrics often explored spiritual discoveries. Lyrics to almost all the songs on “Leftoverture” are examples of this, including the biggest hit off of the album “Carry On Wayward Son”. Other songs off the album like “Miracles Out Of Nowhere”, “Cheyenne Anthem”, and “Questions Of My Childhood” also explore a variety of spiritual themes. There really isn’t any song on “Leftoverture” that doesn’t, except maybe “What’s On My Mind”.

Going into the 80s Livgren became a born-again Christian and record a solo album of Christian rock, “Seeds Of Change”. Two of the songs on that album feature Ronnie James Dio on lead vocals. So yes metal-heads, Ronnie James Dio sang on a Christian album. As a matter of fact, Ronnie James Dio was a fairly spiritual guy himself. But that’s another story for another time.

Unfortunately, Livgren’s Christian discovery what eventually lead to the demise of Kansas, as Steve Walsh, keyboardist in lead singer, and also one of the primary songwriters, felt Kansas was becoming too much like a Christian band. Eventually he, Livgren, and violinist and vocalist Robby Steinhardt would leave the band, causing them to eventually disband all together. Although, they would reunite periodically in various forms in the years to follow.

Cocteau Twins – The Pink Opaque

“The Pink Opaque” is a compilation album released in 1986 that was meant to introduce the music of the Cocteau Twins, a Scottish band that had released three LPs and five EPs in the UK since 1982, to American audiences. Despite having never released an album in America, the band had gained a cult following from airplay on college and alternative radio stations. The album consisted of material culled from all of their previous releases.

With swirling, effect laden guitars, a drifting, occasionally heavy bass minimalistic drums, and Elizabeth Fraser’s distinct dipping and soaring soprano voice, the band had a dreamscape quality to their music. But there was also a heavy goth influence, reminiscent of Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Cure. This is music that swirls around inside your head. Although not technically complicated, it’s music that’s intriguing and thought-provoking. It’s all about how the pieces all fit together.

I first discovered Cocteau Twins after picking up another somewhat obscure album by a band called Felt. That album, “Gold Mine Trash”, was recommended to me by the clerk of a local record store, who had come to know me fairly well. Elizabeth¬†Fraser sang backing vocals a song called “Primitive Painters”. Her voice immediately grabbed me.

“The Pink Opaque” has special meaning to me as it was an album I purchased while going through a difficult time in my life. I could relate to the dark, somber mood of the music, yet at the same time found it oddly uplifting. It was an album that, with its layers of sound swirling in my head, helped me disconnect from what was bothering me, allowing me to reconnect with what I appreciated in life. Consequently, “The Pink Opaque” is one of my go-to albums when I’m feeling down or need to deeply ponder some subject. But sometimes, like now, I listen to it just because it’s a really good record.