The Velvet Underground & Nico

It was ignored by most rock critics when it was released in 1967. Its songs were near to never played on the radio. Its initial sales were next to dismal.

Yet…

By the 1990s it was regarded as one of the most influential rock records ever made. In 2003 Rolling Stone magazine ranked it #13 in its list of the greatest rock and roll records of all time. In 2006, it was one of only a handful of rock albums ever added to the Library of Congress National Recording Registry, recognized for being either culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant. Spoiler alert: It’s all three.

The Velvet Underground & Nico was an album so far ahead of its time, it was destined to fail.

Yet…

The Velvet Underground & Nico was an album so far ahead of its time, it was destined for legendary success.

Suzi Quatro – Suzi…And Other Four Letter Words

Suzi Quatro’s music never got the recognition it deserved. That’s not to say she didn’t find success. I just think that through no fault of her own, she should have found a lot more.

Suzi found her biggest musical success in the UK and Europe which is kind of sad considering she grew up in Detroit.

Suzi started her rock and roll career in 1964. A career that seemed to go virtually nowhere until she moved to England in 1971. The success of her career from that point forward went on to inspire the careers of Pat Benatar, Joan Jett, Debbie Harry, Tina Weymouth (Talking Heads), and Ann and Nancy Wilson (Heart). “Suzi…And Other Four Letter Words” was Suzi Quatro’s second most successful album in the US.

Before “Suzi…And Other Four Letter Words” came out, most people in the US only knew Suzie Quatro as Leather Tuscadero, the character she played in 7 episodes of the TV sitcom “Happy Days”. I hate to admit that I’m one of them. But that doesn’t mean I couldn’t check out her back catalog afterward; more about that later.

Joe Jackson – Look Sharp

The story of Joe Jackson’s 1979 debut album is one to file under “If at first you don’t succeed”.

When record producer David Kershenbaum first heard the songs Joe Jackson was working on for what Jackson hoped would eventually be his first album, he liked what he heard so much, he immediately had Jackson signed to A&M records. To gain traction for “Look Sharp”, the first single from it, “Is She Really Going Out with Him?”, was released ahead of the album. It went nowhere, in the US or Britain. A second single, “Sunday Papers”, was released. Same thing. The third single, “One More Time” followed suit. Things weren’t looking too sharp for Joe Jackson. But finally, the album “Look Sharp” was released…and it went nowhere.

It made no sense. It was a great album with great songs bouncing between new wave and punk. What went wrong?

I’m not sure who made the final decision, but they did what was really the only thing that made sense at that point. They re-released the single “Is She Really Going Out with Him?”. It was a hit! “Sunday Papers” and “One More Time” soon took off as well. Radio stations even started playing songs from the album that weren’t released as singles. A short while later Joe Jackson had his first gold record in the US and Britain, just like they had planned all along.

And the moral of the story is never underestimate the power of “try, try again”.

The Fixx – Phantoms

The Fixx is one of the bands that helped defined alternative rock, or new wave as it was called in its beginning, in the 1980s. They had an impressive run of numerous hit singles and five successful studio albums. “Phantoms” was their third. “Are We Ourselves” was the biggest hit off of it and it became the new wave band’s first number one hit on Billboard’s mainstream rock charts. Two more number ones would follow before the end of the decade.

Overall, The Fixx racked up ten hit singles on the mainstream rock charts seven of which broke the top 10. They probably would have had even better success on the alternative charts, except Billboard didn’t create the alternative rock charts (originally termed “modern rock”) until 1988. It was bands like The Fixx, bands that didn’t really fit the bill of mainstream rock, that prompted Billboard to start the new record charts.

As the ’90s rolled in, The Fixx’s style of music grew out of favor as grunge gained popularity in the U.S. The Fixx remained together however and the original line-up continues to record and tour today. Their 10th album, “Beautiful Friction” was released in 2012.

Electric Light Orchestra II

In 1973, Electric Light Orchestra had a very different sound from Jeff Lynn’s highly polished production of their late ’70s and ’80s albums. Perhaps the most significant difference was that they hadn’t yet started to use an actual backing orchestra (probably because they couldn’t afford to hire one). Instead, the band used overdubs of the band members playing cellos and violins to create a bigger sound. On some songs, even the overdubbing was skipped, creating a more rock band / string quartet styled sound.

ELO’s early songwriting also took a different approach than their later albums. Even though Roy Wood left ELO before this album was released, his influence is still significantly felt here. Electric Light Orchestra II has a more experimental, progressive rock sound and the production is noticeably less slick than the direction Jeff Lynn took the group in their later years.

I love ELO’s later stuff but once I discovered their early works, I remember wishing they had done more albums like this. A standout track on this record is ELO’s take of Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven”. With the integration of violins and cellos, the version on this album will always be the definitive one to me. Sorry Chuck.

The Black Keys – El Camino

Some records grab you right from the opening riff. “El Camino” by Ohio duo The Black Keys is one of those albums. The rest of the album follows suit, with a driving collection of rough and ready blues rock. Although The Black Keys formed in 2001 and “El Camino”, the band’s seventh album came out ten years later, don’t let that fool you. This is old school garage rock with a modern twist.

If you know anything about classic cars, I know what you’re thinking about the album cover: that is NOT an El Camino. In remembrance of their early days, for this album, The Black Keys wanted to use a picture of a van similar to the one they used to tour in their early days. So why call the album “El Camino”? Well, in Spanish “El camino” means “the Road”. The album title is actually also another nod to their early days since it was on the road touring that The Black Keys earned the musical reputation leading to the success they have today. Also, knowing the “El Camino” is a classic muscle car, the van on the cover was done in jest. The Black Keys knew it would drive the car enthusiasts nuts.

The J. Geils Band – Love Stinks

Rock and roll was going through some significant changes going into the 1980s. Many bands that had cut their teeth in the ’70s either couldn’t adapt to the newer sound and fell by the wayside or overcompensated and were labeled as sell-outs by their long time fans. For The J. Geils Band the transition was easy. Their style of r&b party rock didn’t need to change much at all to propel them to the top of their popularity and the top of the record charts without alienating any of their fans.

The conversation within the band may very well have gone something like this:

Peter Wolf: “Seth, we need you to start playing more synthesizers instead of just piano and organ.”

Seth Justman: “Okay.”

I don’t know if that’s the way it all went down, but it could’ve been. That’s really all Geils did for “Love Stinks” to become their second most successful album shortly after it was released. Their next album, “Freeze Frame”, would do even better.

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.

REO Speedwagon – Nine Lives

The ninth album by REO Speedwagon was one of their hardest rocking records and one my favorites by them.

Following the respectable success of “Nine Lives” – it went gold, selling over half a million copies and hit #33 on the Billboard charts – the band achieved mega-star status with their later ’80s power-pop rock albums. In comparison, “Hi Infidelity”, the follow-up to “Nine Lives” went mult-platinum selling over 10 million copies and topped the Billboard charts. I can’t really blame any band for going softer and sticking with a formula for success like that.

Still, although I liked their later stuff, and was glad to see one of my favorite bands finally achieve the success they deserved, as the years moved forward I found myself missing the hard rock of early REO. To me, “Nine Lives” was REO Speedwagon at their hard rocking best.

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.