Santana

The band Santana, named after latin rock legend Carlos Santana released their debut album in 1969, a couple of week after they played an unforgettable set at the original Woodstock music festival. That incredible performance showcased the band’s freeform jam band style that helped this record shoot up to the number four position on the Billboard charts shortly after its release. That despite receiving mostly negative reviews from music critics. Rolling Stone, perhaps the most influential music publication back then, said the album showcased “hollow technique” and had “no real content”. Meh, what do they know? Decades later, in 2003, they would give Santana’s eponymous debut accolades, describing it as “thrilling” and ranking it as the 150th greatest album of all time.

In their early days, Santana was first and foremost, a jam band. Much like freeform jazz musicians are masters of improvisation, Santana focused on playing by feel, never performing a song the same way twice. That’s why even though they were relatively unknown when they took the stage at Woodstock, everyone remembered them long after they triumphantly walked off it. It is that jam band mastery of musical improvisation that shines through on this record; something hard to pull off in the studio…unless you’re really good. And from the very beginning, Carlos Santana and his namesake band proved they were among the best.

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”.

Elton John – Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player

Elton John had so many great albums that anyone with a decent sized record collection is going to have more than one album by him. I guess my collection is no exception.

The title to “Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player” came from a night of joking around Elton John had with Groucho Marx. At one point during the evening Groucho, in good fun, ripped into Elton pretty well. In retort, Elton John blurted out”hey, don’t shoot me, I’m only the piano player”. As a nod to that evening there’s a poster to a Marx Brothers’ movie in the background of the album’s theater marquee designed album cover.

Typical to many Elton John’s albums from this era, “Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player” came with a bonus. Packaged in the gatefold album cover along with the record,was a 12 page booklet with a collection of photos and the lyrics yo the songs.

When it came out, “Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player” hit the top of the charts in both the US and the UK.
It also gave Elton John two more hit singles, “Daniel” and “Crocodile Rock”. “Midnight Creeper” is one of my personal favorites from this album. I still believe it could have easily been a third hit single.

Roxy Music

Glam rock and punk rock were two opposing forces in the 1970s. On their debut album, Roxy Music took it as a challenge to meld the two into a cohesive collection of songs, the likes of no one had heard before. The result was pure brilliance.

Oil and vinegar can not be mixed together homogeneously, yet they can be combined into something incredible. Roxy Music’s first album combines the slick oil of glam and art rock with the piss and vinegar of punk to make an incredible album that satisfies and stimulates the auditory to the same effect of a good olive oil and Balsamic vinegar to the palate. Great in itself, but also an excellent foundation to be built upon with things to come.

Genesis

If a rock band ever releases a self-titled album, it’s usually their first record. For Genesis, it was their 12th.

Genesis released their debut album in 1969. Their eponymous LP came out in 1983. Like most bands with that longevity, there were many personnel changes through the years. Many were so significant, most other bands would have just dissolved. But 14 years later, Genesis forged on as a three-piece band. An ensemble that consisted of all original founding members. That’s quite the exception in rock and roll.

With its combination of progressive excess and pop sensibility “Genesis” was a huge success for the band, hitting number one in the UK and earning them a Grammy award for Best Rock Performance in the US. Of the nine songs on the album, five were released as successful singles.

The standout song on this album to me will always be the opener “Mama”. It is a perfect combination of where Genesis had started, where they had been, and where they were in 1983.

Although its hard for me to say for sure, this may very well be my favorite Genesis album.

Uriah Heep – Live January 1973

I never understood why Uriah Heep didn’t earn a reputation more on par with Deep Purple. The two bands had so much in common. The Heep rocked just as hard as Deep Purple. Their songs were just as solid, as was their musicianship. Both bands had amazing lead vocalists, especially early on – when David Byron and Ian Gillan had probably the two most amazing voices in rock and roll. And then there’s the Hammond B3 organ, which both bands used extensively to augment their sound.

One of the area where my ear felt Uriah Heep had a slight edge over Deep Purple was with their use of the synthesizer. In the song “Gypsy”, one of the two songs that grace side three of this double album, Ken Hensley plays an absolutely amazing Moog Synth solo. That’s followed by a powerhouse drum solo from Lee Kerslake. That song, along with the live version of “Easy Livin'” are reason enough to make Uriah Heep’s “Live January 1973” worth owning. When you tally in the other songs on it, this is easily one of the best live albums ever recorded.

Uriah Heep’s “Live January 1973” is a live album requirement for any rock record collection. Come to think of it, so is Deep Purple’s “Made in Japan”. So there’s another thing the two bands have in common.

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.

Propaganda – A Secret Wish

If you want to really grab my attention and make me listen to your debut album, open it up with my favorite Edgar Allan Poe poem, “A Dream Within a Dream” put to elegantly dark music.

I remember exactly why I bought Propaganda’s debut, “A Secret Wish” in the late summer of 1985. I had never heard of Propaganda. I knew none of the members in the band. I had never heard any of their songs. No one I knew had heard of them. I was going through a difficult breakup and needed some comfort music. I bought a sh!t load of records that day, all by artists I had never or only barely heard of, just so I could hopefully jump into something new that was close and personal to me…anything but a new relationship. Music was the only thing I could think of to turn to.

I don’t remember any of the other records I bought that day. Only this one, because it immediately touched me personally with Poe’s poetry of a false awakening. With its innovative use synth pop combined with progressive rock, the rest of the record continued to pull my attention away from memories and thoughts I needed to abandon at the time.

“A Secret Wish” will forever be a special album to me because of the timing of when I first discovered it and because it is some of the most kick-ass and innovative music I have ever heard. But mostly, it’s special to me because it opened with lines from my favorite Edgar Allan Poe poem put perfectly to music.

“All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream”.

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.