Warren Zevon – Transverse City

Warren Zevon released “Transverse City” in 1989; a time when concept albums weren’t much en vogue. That’s the only reason I can think of for it not being as successful as his earlier, more popular albums. The songs on Transverse City are themed around a life in a futuristic world based on the stories of cyberpunk sci-fi author William Gibson.

I picked up this album not only because I liked Warren Zevon’s song writing and distinctive voice, but also because I am a fan of David Gilmour (Pink Floyd) who plays on the song “Run Straight Down”. Also appearing on this album are Jack Cassidy (Jefferson Airplane), Jerry Garcia (Grateful Dead), Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), and Neil Young, among others.

But it’s not the star power that make “Transverse City” such a great recording. It is simply a collection of great songs that all revolve around a theme perfectly suited to Warren Zevon’s rock and roll style.

Radiohead – OK Computer

Every now and then an album comes along that breaks all the rules yet somehow still manages to become a huge hit. “OK Computer” was so unconventional that Radiohead’s record label considered it “commercial suicide”. But what do record execs know?

The lyrical themes of Radiohead’s third album revolve around increased social alienation in an age of technology, compensated for by consumerism. Musically, its influences are all over the map; hardly the stuff hit records are made of. Its musical aesthetics became significantly influential to the next decade of alternative rock and can still be felt today. Personally, OK Computer” is one of my top favorite albums; an amazing piece of musical art and social commentary.

The experimental adventure of “OK Computer” became one of Radiohead’s most successful albums, topping the UK charts and hitting #21 in the US. It has sold over 7 million copies. Receiving almost immediate commercial and critical success after its release in 1997, “OK Computer” was nominated for the Record of the Year Grammy and won for Best Alternative Album. In 2014 it was archived the US Library of Congress National Recording Registry as being a record of cultural, historical, or aesthetic significance.

Alice Cooper – Lace And Whiskey

An often overlooked gem in Alice Cooper’s dicography, “Lace and Whiskey” reaches into both familiar and new territory for the famed shock rocker. In typical Alice cooper fasion “Lace and Whiskey” focuses as much on concept and theatrics as it does rock and roll. The 1977 album tell the story of “Maurice Escargot”, a heavy drinking private eye, much in the vien of “Philip Marlowe” from the 1940s. Contrary to Cooper’s two previous solo records, and seventh as part of the Alice Cooper band, Aice doesnt don any makeup for the theatrics here. The main character is more of a straight shooter (literatively and figuratively) than on earlier concept albums by Cooper.

Although there are some rockers on “Lace and Whiskey”, most notably, the album opener “It’s Hot Tonight”, the music odten reaches further into broadway theatrical territory than Cooper’s albums ever had before. It made for one of the more intriquing albums of Alice’s career, often setting up visual scenery with the words and music similar to his previous effort, “Alice Cooper Goes to Hell“. This undoubtedly continued to alienate some of Alice’s hard rock fans and failed to get a lot of airplay on rock radio stations at the time. Many others, like me, embraced the creative originalty of Alice Cooper’s further immersion with combining theatrics and rock and roll.

Cat Stevens – Teaser and the Firecat

Cat Stevens was all about introspective and inspirational lyrics along with beautifully moving acoustic music. His fifth album, “Teaser and the Firecat” was a bit more. It was also a collection of songs that coincided with the a children’s storybook that Stevens also wrote. The album came out in 1971; the book about a year later.

The story was a fantasy tale about a young boy named Teaser and his pet Firecat who set out on a journey to find the moon, which had fallen out of the sky, and put it back in the sky, where it belonged. In addition to writing the story and accompanying songs, Cat Stevens also did all of the book’s illustrations and the cover art for the album.

I have my sister to thank for my discovering this album. She owned Cat Stevens’ previous album “Tea for the Tillerman”. At eight years old, I was enthralled by it. I got a copy of “Teaser and the Firecat” (on 8-track tape) the following year. It may well have been the first tapes or records I ever owned. I played it so much, it eventually wore out.

Right now “Teaser and the Firecat” is the only Cat Stevens album I have in my record collection. Listening to it now, I’m thinking I need to change. Maybe keep an eye (and ear) out for “Tea for the Tillerman”.

Gentle Giant – Three Friends

The story of three childhood friends and the very different paths their lives take after going their separate ways; falling out of touch with each other in adulthood. That’s the concept behind Gentle Giants eclectic 1972 progressive rock showcase.

One becomes part of the blue-collar working class. He feels trapped in a dead-end job living paycheck to paycheck. Another becomes a starving artist. Answering to no one but himself and expressing the good and hidden evil he sees in the world through his paintbrush. The third becomes a successful businessman. With his trophy wife and materialistic lifestyle he looks uses people to his own ends and looks down on the on the lazy working class and unambitious artists.

It’s not a deep concept, but it’s one that can be easily combined with different musical themes that make for a diverse combination of intricately complex arrangements which is what Gentle Giant’s music is all about.

Boston – Third Stage

I remember waiting such a long time for Boston’s third album to come out. In between when “Don’t Look Back” and “Third Stage” were released, I had graduated from high school, moved to Tennessee, served in the US Army as an air traffic controller, moved back home, met and lost who I thought was the girl of my dreams, enrolled in college, worked as a Zamboni driver, janitor, and courier, got hired by General Motors as a factory rat, and moved into an upper flat on Detroit’s east side.

Okay, that’s a lot to have going on in six years. Even so, six years is a long time between albums – especially for a band as popular as Boston. Apparently a flood and several power failures in Tom Scholz’s home studio had something to do with the delay. I’m sure his perfectionist attitude toward Boston’s sound had something to do with it as well.

Tom Scholz’s attention to the finest of details is what made “Third Stage” totally worth the wait though. That, and it being a collection of great songs. In Scholz’s own words, each individual song “relates a human experience” and collectively they “tell the story of a journey into life’s Third Stage”.

Of those songs, Amanda is perhaps the most beautiful arrangement Boston ever did. “Cool the Engines” is possibly the most rocking. But best of all, all the songs on “Third Stage” are unmistakably Boston.

Yeah, a lot had happened and a lot of time had passed in between Boston’s second and third album. But all things considered, it was well worth the wait.

Pete Townshend – White City: A Novel

Novel may be a bit of an overstatement here, but there certainly is a story that is told by the songs on “White City”. It’s a blithe story of society; a society where violence has long been viewed as a sign of being a man, yet one where that will now land you in jail. It also speaks of racism and racial identity, sexual identity an sexuality. It speaks bluntly of 1985’s view of society’s past, present, and questions of its future. It’s the story of tolerance and intolerance, the tolerance of intolerance, the intolerance of tolerance, and intolerance of intolerance. It is a story of both the need for and resistance to a change in society.

Yeah, this is a lyrically complex album. It’s easier to comprehend if you watch the accompanying 60 minute film. If you don’t want to take the time for that, just filter out the deeper meaning of the lyrics and simply listen to the music. It’s awesome.

Emerson Lake and Palmer – Pictures At An Exhibition

Emerson Lake and Palmer’s masterpiece, “Pictures at an Exhibition” was proof that almost anything could go with rock and roll in the early seventies.  Performed live in 1971, the concert album combined arrangements from Russian composer Modest Muskorky’s 1874 classical score with other related songs written by the band. Keith Emerson had seen a traditional performance of Muskorky’s piece many years earlier and became stoked to have Emerson Lake and Palmer record an adaptation of it.  The album hit number 10 on the US charts and went up to number 3 in the UK.

Like many in the US, the first song I ever heard off of “Pictures at an Exhibition” was the encore ELP played that night: “Nutrocker”, a song combining an excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite with progressive rock virtuosity. It was released as a single in the United States only. I remember my elementary school music teacher playing “Nutrocker” for us in class one day. I was familiar with The Nutcracker Suite and was absolutely enthralled by this variation of its music.

Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On

If Barry Gordy Jr. had his way back in 1971, Marvin Gaye would have never recorded the album “What’s Going On”.

When the founder of Motown Records in Detroit first heard the title song Marvin Gaye had recorded for his next album, he was confident it would be a failure and refused to release it. Barry Gordy believed in the upbeat tempo and feel of the songs that had been the formula to Motown’s success. That was the record he wanted from Marvin Gaye. What Gaye delivered instead was a mid-tempo, multilayered song that made a sociopolitical statement against war, poverty, and brutality.

Barry Gordy felt “What’s Going On” would never sell and that it would be the ruin of Marvin Gaye’s career if it was ever released. Equal in his passion for the song, Marvin Gaye took a stand, refusing to write or record even one more note for Motown if the song wasn’t released. Barry still refused. It was his record company after all, and he had the final say.

But the song was released anyway.

Circumventing Barry Gordy, the VP of sales at Motown records decided to go behind his back and have the record pressed and released, sending some advance copies out to radio stations. It’s the kind of thing that will get you fired – unless you know you’re right. The song got heavy airplay across the country and when it came out “What’s Going On” became the fastest selling single in Motown’s history. Marvin Gaye was given the green light to make his album and make it his way.

“What’s Going On” didn’t ruin Marvin Gaye’s career, it defined it. It was his masterpiece. Like its title track, the album makes a strong statement. The soulful and beautifully layered songs lament against war, poverty, drug abuse, injustice, hate, and destruction of the environment. In contrast to the music, the lyrics to the songs don’t always paint a pretty picture, but they always make you think. This is an album that begs you to step back and take a look at the world around you; to take a good close look at “What’s Going On”.

Muse – Simulation Theory (super deluxe edition)

When Muse comes out with a new album, I never fully know what to expect, except I expect it to be totally awesome. With that, “Simulation Theory”, the eighth album from Muse, is exactly what I expected.

Like Muse’s last few albums, “Simulation Theory” is more than just a collection of songs; there is a theme wrapped around all of them. This time though, the trio steps back a bit from the seriousness of “The Second Law” and “The Resistance”, instead diving into a
science fiction virtual reality world. But that’s not to say there aren’t also underlying sociopolitical statements. This is Muse I’m talking about after all.

I pre-ordered the super deluxe edition of “Simulation Theory” because from what I had already heard from the singles released on the Internet, I knew I was going to like it. It was packaged as a double album with basically, an alternate version of the album on a second record and both records on CDs. It also came with free pre-release digital downloads for some of the songs. I would have gladly paid the price for this just for the two records alone. The album artwork, designed by “Stranger Things” artist Kyle Lambert, fits the sci-fi theme of the album perfectly, as does the heavy use of synthesizers and electronics in the music.

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, it also came with pre-release access to tickets for their upcoming concerts. I have seen Muse live twice already and look forward to seeing them again. Those two shows rank among the most amazing concerts I have been to, ranking right up there with Rodger Waters performing The Wall, Pink Floyd, and TSO.

My favorite song on the original album is probably “Break It to Me” with its strange chord bends on the guitar. My favorites on the bonus record are tied between the gospel version of “Dig Down” and the live version of “Pressure” performed with the UCLA Bruin Marching Band. I thought the latter was such an odd combination when I read it in the credits, I didn’t know what to expect. But it was awesome. Exactly what I expect from Muse.