Billy Joel – The Bridge

Billy Joel was such a versatile artist, he never needed to change his style to keep having hit records. They were always universally appealing.

Like Billy Joel’s previous records, “The Bridge” was filled with a huge array of musical styles and influences. A few of those musical influences appear with Joel on this, his tenth studio album. Ray Charles adds his unmistakable bluesy piano and voice to the song “Baby Grand” and Steve Winwood’s Hammond B3 helps Joel cut loose on “Getting Closer”, the rocking closer on the album.

Surprisingly, neither of those two songs were hits off of “The Bridge”, although “Baby Grand” was released as the fourth single from it. I don’t think Billy Joel was too concerned about that song’s lackluster sales. “The Bridge” still gave the entertainer three top 20 hits with “Modern Woman”, “This Is the Time” and my personal favorite from the album, “A Matter of Trust”. That song will always have special meaning to me as I was getting over some trust issues I had at that time in my life. It was the reason I had to buy “The Bridge” when I first heard it.

The Waitresses – Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful?

The Waitresses were best known for their quirky 1982 new wave hit “I Know What Boys Want”. Anyone who never checked them out beyond their one hit wonder status, has no idea what they are missing.

Quirky, sure. But The Waitresses were also about intelligent, multifaceted arrangements and musicianship that had every bit as much in common with the CBGB crowd in New York as it did with the virtuosic eclecticism of Frank Zappa.

The Waitresses released a couple of albums following “Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful?” Unfortunately neither contained the magic combination of what they accomplished on their debut. An album I rank as one of the top ten albums from the 1980’s.

The Nice – Nice

“Won’t you welcome please, a most distinguished group from England: The Nice.”

And so begins side 2 of the third album by the band where Keith Emerson earned his reputation as one of the greatest keyboardists in rock and roll. At this early stage in his career, Emerson had yet to begin his pioneering work using the Moog synthesizer. That would come a couple of years later in the supergroup Emerson Lake and Palmer. So here, his talents are limited to just organ and piano. That is, if you could ever refer to Emerson’s playing as limited. Listening to “Nice” you can’t help but feel that it’s the instruments themselves that are limited in Emerson’s hands.

It’s easy to tell here how influential Keith Emerson was to ELP – and not just because both The Nice and ELP had keyboards as the main lead instrument. Like ELP, the songs on “Nice” integrate rock and roll with heavier doses of classical and jazz than do the psychedelic musings of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown and the dark, moody prog of King Crimson, Carl Palmer’s and Greg Lake’s respective bands prior to ELP.  Then there’s the many pieces of Nice songs that were incorporated into later ELP tracks.

The standout track however, at least to me, is the live track  “Rondo ’69”, which was based on the polyrhythmic “Blue Rondo à la Turk” by jazz master Dave Brubeck, from his 1959 classic “Time Out“. “Rondo” became a keyboard showcase at Emerson Lake and Palmer concerts in the years to come.

I hate to admit it, but until the 1980s, when I started to expand my musical appreciations, I thought Rondo was an ELP original. Yeah, not even close. It’s pure Brubeck; the song is merely reinterpreted by Keith Emerson and the other members of The Nice. But I give them credit for the improvisational midsection. It was very…Nice.

Carlos Santana & Buddy Miles! – Live! (Quadrophonic)

An amazing live performance by two legends. Recorded at what was probably the most incredible location to ever see a rock festival: inside the crater of the Diamondhead volcano in Honolulu Hawaii.

The Sunshine Festivals used to happen every year on New Year’s eve and day, and on the Fourth of July. The first festival was organized in 1970 and had about 12 thousand people in attendance. By 1979, it was attracting over 75 thousand people and had to be shut down due to concerns over the environmental concerns being caused by the huge crowds.

This blistering performance by Carlos Santana and Buddy Miles was recorded on New Year’s day in 1972.

Listening to this performance in quadrophonic (a 1970’s analog version of surround sound that preceded home theater systems) really adds to the listening experience of this record. Well, I guess technically, I’m not listening to it in quad, but I find Dolby Pro Logic surround sound (an analog surround sound from the 1990’s that predates Dolby Digital surround sound) brings out the same effect as quad. If it’s not the same, it’s darn close. (I’m thinking they didn’t try to totally reinvent the wheel for analog home theater surround sound). The ambience of the venue is capture perfectly here, with the rear speakers making me feel like I’m sitting right in the middle of the crowd.

I really need to look into picking up some more quad albums.

Linda Ronstadt – What’s New

Transitioning into the ’80s, the sound of popular music was changing. Many poular acts from the ’70s found themselves either adapting to more dance oriented music or risk falling off the musical radar of most people. Never one to follow trends, Linda Ronstadt chose a different road. In 1983, she released an album of pop and vocal jazz standards from the musical era that preceded rock and roll – the music her father listened to when she was growing up. The result was an ulikely album to hit the number 3 position on record charts being dominated by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie.

I always loved Linda Ronstadt’s voice. She could sing anything and make it her own. Her voice never sounded more beautiful than on her trilogy of albums with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra. “What’s New” was the first in that great musical trilogy.

Beautiful music sung by a beautiful lady with a beautiful voice.

Frank Marino – Juggernaut

First there was the band Mahogany Rush. Then there was Frank Marino and Mahogany Rush. Finally it was just Frank Marino.

I suppose the writing is on the wall when your lead guitarist and vocalist start tagging their name in front of the band’s.

Frank Marino is a Canadian rock legend who, much in the style of Hendrix, played a combination of hard rocking blues and jazz guitar. “Juggernaut”, the second solo album by Marino, had a slightly more ’80s feel than his earlier work in the ’70s but still found him staying true to form; doing what he does best. Really, the music didn’t change that much from Mahogany Rush to Frank Marino’s solo material. It’s still some of the best guitar playing you’ll hear on any record.

The Best Of Sam Cooke

Sam Cooke was a pioneer of soul music, bringing it to the forefront of popular music. Once dubbed the King of Soul, without his groundbreaking songs, popular music may never have come to see the rise of Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and Aretha Franklin (later dubbed the Queen of Soul); all followed in Cooke’s soulful footsteps.

I guess it should be expected that every song on a greatest hits album is great. So I’ll avoid that particular and predictable redundancy to describe Sam Cooke’s 1965 Greatest Hits album. The description I will use instead is timeless.

Unfortunately, the music world lost Sam Cooke much too soon when in 1964, he was shot and killed by the manager of a motel he was staying at. His death was ruled justifiable homicide in self-defense but that ruling was immediately brought into question. The actual circumstances surrounding Sam Cooke’s death has forever been shrouded in controversy. He was only 33 years old.

Joe Walsh – The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get

I’m not one to try to rank in detail, my all-time favorite rock albums. The list I would give today would probably be very different from one I would give you next week, so why bother. I will say this however, no matter what day I ranked them, Joe Walsh’s “The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get” would consistently place in the top 20.

The album contains such a myriad of styles it would be hard for anyone to not find something they like on this, Joe Walsh’s second album. The songwriting and playing are the strongest of any of his solo work; possibly even better than his albums with The James Gang and The Eagles. At least one of the albums by each of those bands, while Joe Walsh was a member, would always be in my top 20 list. That speaks volumes to his talent, versatility, and creativity. He is definitely one of my all time favorite rock artists. By the way, don’t ask me to rank them in detail either. I’d run into the same problem I’d have with albums.

Nick Mason’s Fictitious Sports

A Pink Floyd album this is not. Neither is it truly a Nick Mason solo album. It’s more of a collaboration between Jazz artist Carla Bley and Nick Mason. Both were looking for something different to do in their respective careers. Since the success of “Dark Side of the Moon”, “Wish You Were Here”, and “Animals”, Mason wanted to do something outside of what was becoming the increasingly Roger Waters influenced Pink Floyd music. When Carla Bley contacted Mason about some new, less free-form jazz material she had written, it was just what he was looking for. So he lent his input and they co-produced this album.

Although Nick Mason’s name adorns the album, the drummer for Pink Floyd admits this is not really his first “proper” solo album, he labels it more of a musical experiment. Still, it is an exciting album, filled with a sound that is less non-conformist than Bley’s other material and a definite step outside the comfort zone of Pink Floyd’s success for Mason.

Carla Bley wrote all the songs for this album and co-produced it with Nick Mason, so some consider this to be more her album than his. I disagree. It is a collaboration between two artists wanting to do something outside what both felt had become considered the norm for them. My guess is that Bley didn’t want to alienate her free-form jazz fans, so Mason’s name was chosen for the marquee on the record. Plus, Mason’s association with Pink Floyd ensured a bit more commercial success for the record.

Sade – Diamond Life

There’s a reason “Diamond Life” by Sade (pronounced shah-DAY) was one of the best-selling debut albums in the ’80s. It’s musical combination of jazz, soul, and pop made the songs infectious and irresistible. And then there’s Sade Adu’s sultry and seductive voice. This is the perfect album to start off the day or relax to at the end of it.

Born in Nigeria, Helen Folasade Adu eventually moved to England where her creativity and beautifully exotic looks landed her careers in both modeling and fashion design. But it was while singing background vocals for a local band, Pride, that she found music to be her true calling. Changing her performing name to Sade Adu, she convinced three members of Pride to form a band with her. My guess is it didn’t take much convincing.

“Diamond Life” went on to sell over 4 million copies worldwide and topped the charts in numerous European countries. It hit number 2 in the U.K. and number 5 in the U.S. In the following years, Sade released many more successful albums earning them 9 Grammy nominations, taking home four. Their most recent album, “Soldier of Love” was released in 2010. It hit number 4 in the U.K. and topped the U.S charts.