Florence And The Machine – High As Hope

Florence Welch has one of the most immediately identifiable voices in popular music today. She is also an incredible songwriter. With its somewhat stripped down production, Florence and the Machine’s latest album, “High as Hope” focuses on both to create what is one of the best new albums released in 2018.

The songs on “High as Hope” revolve thematically around the end of love. That thought is so ingrained throughout the lyrics of the songs here that “The End of Love” was originally considered for the title of the record. That subject may sound like the making of a somber, even downtrodden record, but it’s really not. As the album’s chosen title implies, the overall focus is the hope that comes after the hunger for love is washed away. Even though there is an aire of sadness here and there, the songs on “High as Hope” purvey an upbeat feeling of acceptance, comfort, and self reliance. This is all beautifully delivered with the perfect pairing of the music to the lyrics…and of course, the confidence exhumed by Florence Welch’s wonderfully powerful voice.

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.

Styx – Crystal Ball

The first Styx album with Tommy Shaw in the lineup.

Although superstar success appeared to be on the horizon for Styx, it was the addition of Tommy Shaw’s voice, Mississippi influenced blues and slide guitar style and songcraft that propelled them to become one of the most popular bands in the 1970’s.

That success wouldn’t happen yet with “Crystal Ball”, although the album and its title track (penned by Shaw) would become Styx’s most successful album and single to that point in time. Styx’s follow-up “The Grand Illusion” would become the band’s true breakthrough album. Even so, “Crystal Ball” is every bit its successor’s equal; at least in my opinion.

Electric Light Orchestra – A New World Record

I remember when ELO released “A New World Record”. I listened to it until I was sick of it.

The album was a breakthrough for the Electric Light Orchestra. Sure, their previous album “Face the Music” had their first worldwide hit with “Evil Woman”, but “A New World Record” hit across the globe with “Telephone Line”, “Rockaria”, “Livin’ Thing”, and “Do Ya”. Plus, it also included a slew of other great prog rock leaning pop songs like “Tightrope”, “Mission (A World Record)”, “So Fine”, “Above the Clouds”, and “Shangri-la”. Any of these songs could have easily been hit singles for ELO at the time. I guess four was enough for the record company.

ELO’s sixth album definitely marked a shift towards a more pop oriented sound. That combination of progressive rock and pop hooks is really what makes this album so great. It was a perfect blend. Although I did grow sick of it at one point, that’s only because it was on my turntable nearly everyday – and it wasn’t even my record, I borrowed it from a friend. Hearing it again years later, I remembered how good it was and added it to my collection. It never left.

Stevie Nicks – Bella Donna

Sometimes great records just appear out of nowhere. A friend at work told me she had some old records that were from a family member and she wanted to know if I wanted them. I really didn’t expect much. Back in the day, a lot of people just didn’t know how to take care of records. If they get scratched up, they’re just not worth listening to; to me anyway. As expected, most of the records in the collection were scratched up, or they were old Mills Brothers albums that I just wasn’t interested in, but there were a few exceptions. Bella Donna, the exceptional debut album by Fleetwood Mac singer Stevie Nicks was one of them. I can now cross that one off of the list I carry with me, just in case I happen to wander into a used record store.

Bella Donna ranks right up there in the short list of the best debut albums of all time, it’s also one of the best albums ever. I’m surprised I let this record slip out of my record collection back in the late ’80s. Then again, the songs on it were all over the radio back then; many still are today.

Stevie Nicks has one of the most immediately recognizable voices on modern music. It’s that voice combined with Stevie Nicks’ exceptional songwriting (she wrote all but one song) that made Bella Donna an immediate success. It immediately grabbed the top chart position when it came out, selling over a million copies within three months of being released and stayed on the charts for an amazing three years. It went on to sell over six million copies. Bella Donna also yielded four hit singles, including a duet with Tom Petty, “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around”, and another with Don Henley (from the Eagles), “Leather and Lace”.

Supertramp – Crime Of The Century

Supertramp’s third album, crime of the century was their commercial breakthrough. It also was a near perfect combination of progressive rock showmanship and pop rock sensibility. Come to think of it, that’s probably why it was their commercial breakthrough.

“Crime of the Century” was the first in a string of highly successful albums by Supertramp. A streak that would be climaxed by 1979’s “Breakfast in America.” 

Asia

I remember picking up Asia’s debut, self titled album without ever hearing a song on it. The only thing I knew about the band was who was in it – and that was enough for me. Carl Palmer, the drummer from Emerson Lake and Palmer; Geoffrey Downes and Steve Howe, keyboardist and guitarist respectively from Yes, and John Wetton bassist and vocalist from King Crimson. For members from three of my favorite bands. 

I also remember that when I first heard Asia, I was initially, somewhat disappointed. To me, this was the supergroup to end all supergroups. And in a way it was – just not in the way I expected. This was the ’80s. This was the time of pop and polish – and reverb. Progressive rock was waning in popularity. Gone were the epics that took up an entire side of an album. Gone were the extended solos. The songs on Asia were short and concise compositions – songs designed to be hits. And there were many hits on this album. 

After repeated listenings, I learned to appreciate this album for what it was. The members of Asia, having been in some of the most successful bands in the ’70s, wanted to have a successful album. They also wanted to keep their integrity as musicians and songwriters. Mission accomplished. Asia was the marriage of  ’70s prog and ’80s pop music.

Listening to Asia’s first album now, I realize what a significant record it is. Although it has a somewhat overproduced, distinctly 1980s production style to it, which I am typically not a huge fan of, the musicianship on this album is exceptional. Typical to prog-rock, many of the songs mix loud and soft passages, tempo shifts, and interesting chord changes. Those elements were just more subtle than before, and mixed in with a bit of pop and polish – and reverb. Asia is a great album for what it was: a record that marked a turning point in rock and roll, for better or for worse.

REO Speedwagon – Live: You Get What You Play For

REO Speedwagon had their greatest success in the 80s with their more pop oriented songs. I love the album “Hi-Infidelity” and was so glad it brought much deserved success to a band that was vastly underrated for over a decade. But to me, the epitome of what REO Speedwagon was happened in the 1970s, and was encapsulated on their live album “You Get What You Play For”. This album ranks up there with the greatest of the great live albums which are in my humble opinion Bob Seeger’s “Live Bullet”, Peter Frampton’s “Come’s Alive” and REO’s live album from 1977.

What gave this, and the preceding Studio albums by REO Speedwagon, their special character, was the band’s geographical Origins. Coming from Indiana, their early music had midwestern rock roots with just a slight hint of southern rock influence. Then they combined this, ever-so-slightly, with progressive rock that was influential in the seventies, and created a sound that was unmistakably unique. Yes, some of this came through in their later, more pop oriented material, but to me this was the epoch of what REO Speedwagon was at their finest.

I would be remiss to not mention every song on this album, in mentioning what makes a great. It really is the combination of the whole. But if I were to list standouts, they would be the opener “Like You Do”, “Keep Pushin'”, “157 Riverside Avenue”, with its incredible improvisational interplay between lead singer Kevin Cronin and lead guitarist Gary Richrath, “Ridin’ The Storm Out”, and what has to be one of the finest live album closers of all time, “Golden Country”.

This album is also one of the reasons I started getting turned off by compact discs. Although they offered convenience, quite often the remastering of some albums left something to be desired. Either the recordings were over compressed, muddying the sound of the original recording, or they came across sounding thin, losing much of the dynamic range of the vinyl record. With “You Get What You Play For”, it was the latter. 

What made it even worse though, was the omission of critical songs off the record. To omit “Little Queenie” might have been forgivable, but “Gary’s Guitar Solo” was one of the defining moments of this album. To delete it was near blasphemy. The CD noted that this was because of time constraints. I later recorded my own CD, direct from the album (this was in the era predating MP3s). I merely edited the length of some of the audience sounds in between the songs and was able to fit the entire album onto one CD, so I call bulls***!. They just didn’t want to take the time to do it right – to give “You Get What You Play For” the respect it rightfully deserved.