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, which Keith Emerson had seen performed traditionally many years earlier with other related songs written by the band. Keith Emerson had seen  a traditional performance of Muskorky’s peice 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 “Nutrocker”, a song combining an excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite with progressive rock. It was released as a single in the United States only. The song was performed as the encore to the concert. 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.

Jethro Tull – War Child

“War Child”, the seventh album from Jethro Tull, was originally planned to be a double album soundtrack to a black comedy of the same name. When the band couldn’t find a studio to financially back the film, the more ambitious project was scrapped and the album was trimmed back to a single record. The result was a record that has a bit more lyrical humor than prior Tull albums.

The story of the film, and of the album, to a lesser degree, revolved around a teenage girl who dies and in the afterlife has encounters with three shrewd businessmen who are actually avatars of Lucifer, St. Peter, and God.

“War Child” was received harshly by most music critics, but that didn’t stop it from debuting at the number 2 spot on the Billboard charts and earning the band another gold record. The album contains one of Jethro Tull’s biggest hits, “Bungle in the Jungle”. It also has what is quite possibly my favorite Jethro Tull song, “Skating Away on the Thin Ice of the New Day”.

David Bowie – Diamond Dogs

My first introduction…real introduction…to David Bowie was on the Midnight Special, a late-night television show that in 1973, broadcast a David Bowie concert featuring songs from his upcoming album “Diamond Dogs”.

It’s funny, because I would’ve sworn the music that aired that night was from Bowie’s “Diamond Dogs” tour. But I like to check my facts. So before queuing this album up, I found out that show actually aired in 1973, before the “Diamond Dogs” album was released. To my surprise, the broadcast actually contained more music from Bowie’s earlier recordings – only a couple of songs are from the “Diamond Dogs” album. Still, it was the songs performed from this album that really made an impression on me.

When I finally bought a copy of “Diamond Dogs” (I think it was my older sister who actually bought it first, but I was more than content stealing her copy to listen to for a few years), I was enthralled. It was a dark concept album with songs of a post-apocalyptic dystopian world from George Orwell’s worst nightmares. Actually, I’m not sure I got all that back then – I was only 11 or 12 years old (I’m not even sure if I had even read 1984 yet back then). But I know I dug the sh!t out out of the music and the other-worldly lyrics.

What blew me away with “Diamond Dogs” wasn’t just the lyrics and music; it was the remembrances of that Midnight Special concert I had seen a year or so before. It was Bowie’s music, following in the footsteps of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”, taking rock music to a whole new conceptual level, and the visuals that accompanied it.

“Diamond Dogs” was so much more than music as strictly entertainment. The album was a sociopolitical statement galvinized in the fear of things to come. But more than anything, “Diamond Dogs” was rock and roll presented in its best form: music as art.

The Pineapple Thief – Dissolution (clear vinyl)

The Pineapple Thief is a band I had heard and read a lot about before finally buying an album by them. I bought their 11th record mainly because Gavin Harrison, one of my favorite drummers, had been brought into their fold. I never realized why I liked Gavin Harrison’s drumming so much until I listened to The Pineapple Thief’s 12th album, “Dissolution”. I can not stop listening to this record. A good part of that reason I discovered, is Harrison’s influence.

It is rare for a drummer to be as intricately involved in the songs he plays on as Gavin Harrison is. There was such a shift from the “The Wilderness” to “Dissolution”, that I had to read through the liner notes to see what had changed. It was immediately obvious. Gavin Harrison co-wrote all but two songs with The Pineapple Thief’s founder, Bruce Soord. The shift was as noticeable as when Porcupine Tree founder Steven Wilson brought Harrison into their fold in 2002. Coincidence? I think not.

Although I am not yet familiar with The Pineapple Thief’s earlier work, I am willing to bet that adding Gavin Harrison to the line-up, is one of the best decisions Bruce Swoord has ever made.

Still, that doesn’t mean I’m not eager to check out their other earlier albums.

Neil Young – After The Gold Rush

Neil Young is a deeply philosophical guy. You can tell this from the lyrics in his songs. “After the Gold Rush” is a deeply philosophical album based on the script for a deeply philosophical film of the same name. A film that was never made.

The story was one of self-discovery – an end of the world tale that revolved around psychiatrist Carl Jung’s theory that deep inside, many of us are on a quest for wholeness. Weaved into the story was the Kabbalah principle of searching for the relationship between the realm of God and one’s own mortal existence.

Deep stuff.

On a perhaps shallower, but no less gratifying level, it’s just some great music.

Styx – Paradise Theatre

Despite concept albums becoming less en vogue going into the ’80s, “Paradise Theatre” did pretty well for Styx. Actually, it became their only #1 album, spawned four singles, and sold over 3 million copies. Yeah, it did very well.

Released at the beginning of 1981, the album revolves around the declining moral, social, and political state of affairs in America coming out of the ’70s going into a new decade. They used the deteriorated state of Chicago’s once majestic Paradise Theatre as a metaphor for the concept that the songs revolve around.

Not only was the music on “Paradise Theatre” some of the best Styx has ever done, the album itself was a work of art. Somehow, without affecting the sound quality, side 2 of the record was etched with a prismatic image of sculptures from the theater’s marquee along with the band’s name. Every time I listen to “Paradise Theatre” I have to admire it. It truly is a work of art – as is the music that accompanies it.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (red vinyl re-issue)

I’ve seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show probably more than any other movie; no other movie even comes close. If there wasn’t anything else happening on a late Friday night when I was in high school, you’d find me in the balcony at the Punch and Judy Theater in Grosse Pointe armed with a squirt gun, newspaper, flashlight, rice, and probably a few other items, ready for action.

But my appreciation for The Rocky Horror Picture Show was also about the music. The songs were written by Richard O’Brien, who also plays Riff Raff, made it my favorite movie soundtrack at the time. It still is today, and not because of the nostalgia either. The music is great rock and roll which, like the movie, is filled with sexual tension and kitschy theatrics. The perfect movie and soundtrack for any high school teen.

Elton John – Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy

“Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy” is an autobiographical record of the early personal and professional struggles of what eventually became one of the most successful songwriting teams in music history.

Bernie Taupin scribed the words, Elton John wrote and performed the music. As a musical team, they have sold over 300 million records. There is nary a person alive today who hasn’t been moved by at least one of their songs. But as is often the case, their success didn’t come overnight. Eventually, their perseverance paid off.

“Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy” tells the story of how they both struggled for years to find success. Perhaps the most well-known struggle was Elton John’s struggle with his sexuality. Originally keeping his homosexuality a secret, he had originally planned to give up a career in music to marry a female lover. The conflict led him to the brink of suicide which fortunately he was talked out of by a good friend. That’s what the song “Someone Saved My Life Tonight”, is about. After achieving the success he and Taupin rightly deserved, he eventually came out about being gay and has since become a huge advocate for gay rights.

I remember taking some sh!t in middle school when I wore an Elton John t-shirt one day. I had no idea that he had just openly revealed he was gay. When I learned that, I personally didn’t care. I loved his music; what he did beyond that was not my concern. I took some sh!t again for having that viewpoint. I just ignored the comments and inaccurate accusations. Still, I never wore that shirt to school again after that. Looking back, I wish I would have taken more of a stand.