Tears For Fears – Songs From The Big Chair

“Songs From The Big Chair” is, in my opinion, one of the best albums to come out of the ’80s. It is pop music at its best. Then again, like any exceptional album, the songs don’t fit neatly into just one genre. With layers of electronic and traditional percussion underneath the hooks and melodies of the guitars, synthesizers, piano, and electronics, (and the occasional saxophone) “Songs From The Big Chair” experiments with a variety of styles bordering it and sometimes even crossing it over into progressive rock territory, much in the same way Peter Gabriel did on his later albums.

“Songs From The Big Chair” was Tears For Fears’ most successful album, topping the charts in the U.S. and Canada and taking the second from top spot in the U.K.

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.

The B52’s – Wild Planet

I’ve been told by my friends and family that sometimes I take life too seriously. Sometimes I even say that to myself. It’s times like those that the B-52’s are the perfect band for me to listen to. I don’t care what album it is by them. They’re all good. But “Wild Planet” is probably my favorite, but only because it’s the album I first heard by them. 

If ever there was a band that didn’t take itself too seriously it’s the B-52’s. They border on being a novelty band, but unlike most novelty bands, their songs are timeless and even have a decent level of musicianship. But most importantly, they are a band that reminds you to stop taking life too seriously and just have some fun.

The Call – Modern Romans

In their 15 years together, from 1982 to 1987 The Call released 8 albums. This is the only one I ever owned – actually, it’s the only one I ever even listen to – and I can’t say why. I loved this album when it came out in 1983. I still do today.

“Modern Romans” has a perfect blend of political reverence and musical sensibility and originality. Every song strives to make a statement. And that can be dangerous territory to tread for risk of losing the focus on the quality of the music. I always felt this album hit both marks in perfect balance.

When “Modern Romans came out, the video for “The Walls Came Down” received significant airplay on MTV (back when MTV used to play music videos almost exclusively) and the song became The Call’s biggest hit. In it Michael Been sings “I don’t think there are any Russians/And there ain’t no Yanks/Just corporate criminals/Playing with tanks”. Words that some might say are more relevant today than they were when he sang them back in 1983. Whether you agree with the sentiment or not, it’s still good music.

Amy Winehouse – Back To Black

Amy Winehouse was an incredible talent that sadly, was taken from us way too early. She sang of her experiences in life, and when you listen to her songs you learn what a tortured soul she had. It’s something we all have inside us, albeit to a much lesser degree. That’s part of what makes her songs so great, they’re relative to life. None of us leave this world without scars, and on Back To Black, Amy Winehouse sings beautifully and painfully about those scars.

And then of course, there’s her voice. Smooth and yet powerful, sultry with a touch of darkness, and at times even playful. She sang about being sent to rehab like it was a joke – something she couldn’t take seriously. Yet in her voice you could tell she knew her addictions were serious. She knew her inner demons would probably take her one day. It was just a matter of time. That’s what makes both her songs and her story so sadly beautiful.

The National – Sleep Well Beast

Sometimes it amazes me how a great band can slip through my radar. I must be slipping in my (old?) age. 

A friend told me about The National a while back – I meant to check them out, but it slipped through the cracks (file under “life gets busy”). Then I heard they had a new album that just came out this month, so I went online and sampled the songs. Intrigued is a massive understatement. 

I ordered the album that night, and now that I have given it a listen (and another, and now another, as I write this) I have to say that the snippets that provoked me to buy “Sleep well Beast” were samples of awesomeness I did not see coming – and the best thing is, this album gets better with each new listening.

That The National slipped through my musical radar isn’t in itself, what amazes me – it can happen with new bands. It’s the fact that this is The National’s seventh album; and that they’ve been around since 1999. I mean, REALLY?!?!? They are this good and have been around for 18 freaking years! They have six other albums out? AND I NEVER FREAKING HEARD OF THEM?!?!? What rock was I hiding under?

Part of what makes The National so unique on “Sleep Well Beast” is not so much in the band’s own uniqueness, but rather in how they take elements from other eclectic bands that came before them (The Beta Band, Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds, late era Radiohead, Depeche Mode, and Leonard Cohen are the first to come to mind) and combine those pieces into something totally different. Something totally original.

In the end, all I can say is, they are on my radar now.

U2 – War

U2’s third album, “War” is not an album about war. It is a protest album against it. I remember first hearing it when ironically…or maybe it was more fittingly, I was serving in the U.S. Army. Although war is the most common association made when one hears the word “army,” I served in the hope of defending freedom and the hope of one day having peace in the world. In 1983, this album spoke to me. It still does today – perhaps even more so. 

The closing song on War is “40”.  The song is based on the bible passage in Psalms 40 and is a plea for peace. The closing lyric to that song, “How long to sing this song?” is a beautiful loop-back to the same sentiment sung in the album’s opening song, “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, a song about the torments of war. 

Yes, this album still speaks to me. I firmly believe that the song of war and torment we all too often sing today will one day end in a beautiful song of peace. 

The only question is…

How long?

Pink Floyd – Animals

Pink Floyd’s tenth album, Animals, is perhaps the band’s most scathing, sociopolitically charged album. Loosely based on a book by George Orwell, Animal Farm, it categorizes society into three classes of animals: pigs, dogs, and sheep. The pigs represent the government and bureaucracy. The dogs are symbols of the ruthless corporate world. And the sheep are the complacent followers and often victims of the other two. Fitting perfectly with the subject matter, the music has an edgier, more raw sound when compared to any of Floyd’s previous albums. More than just a collection of songs, this is an album that needs to be listened to in one sitting to be truly appreciated.

The front cover shows a power station with a pig floating in between smoke stacks. Right after the picture was taken, the cables holding it in place snapped and the helium filled pig went floating over the skies of London. All flights from nearby Heathrow Airport had to be temporarily grounded as the giant flying pig floated through its airspace. The pig eventually crash landed in a nearby farmer’s field. Pink Floyd has been associated with flying pigs ever since and all of their concerts have featured a pig flying over the audience at some point during all their future live shows.

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.