Here's Part Two of my celebration of the 60th anniversary of the LP, which has turned into an exploration of one the greatest labels of all time. (Click here for Part One.)
1967 Clive Davis, who'd been working his way up the corporate ladder, became President of Columbia, and the label's attitude towards rock changed immediately.
He attended the Monterey Pop Festival and signed many of the artists he heard there. Within three years, Columbia's market share doubled. Meanwhile, rock itself was changing, becoming far less tied to singles as the LP became the format in which progressive, adventurous bands had more room to transform the music.
Simon & Garfunkel: The Graduate soundtrack
Few things better emphasized the ascendancy of rock than the producers of The Graduate opting to use S&G songs for their soundtrack rather than the usual instrumental score plus theme song.
Moby Grape: Moby Grape
Not having a clue how much differently underground, counter-culture bands needed to be marketed than what they were used to in the pop world, Columbia's marketing campaign for Moby Grape, considered one of the most promising of the Bay Area bands, went for an unprecedented all-at-once impact by releasing five singles on one day --10 tracks from a 13-track album. It backfired, of course, reeking of the sort of corporate hype that was anathema to the underground. Then the subversive middle finger on the first pressing of their LP got airbrushed out for subsequent pressings. Then their greedy manager demanded a million-dollar fee for them to play at Monterey Pop (and be in the subsequent film), which needless to say was not forthcoming, so they missed the spotlight of the biggest music event of the year. Under the weight of all that, their promising career soon sunk, and mastermind Skip Spence lost his mind, but the album is now considered a psychedelic masterpiece.
The Byrds: Younger Than Yesterday
Veterans of stardom by this point, the Byrds mocked it with "So You Want to Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star," paid obeisance to it with another brilliant Dylan cover ("My Back Pages"), and ignored it with McGuinn's anthems of space aliens and Crosby's haunting ballads.
Leonard Cohen: Songs of Leonard Cohen
Cohen's debut revealed a songwriter with little innate musicality and only the slightest singing talent, but flaws that would've negated anyone else's career proved negligible in his case, thanks to some of the most literate lyrics in rock history: "Suzanne," "Sisters of Mercy," and "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye," and more. Producer John Simon, ignoring Cohen's wishes, added enough instrumental tracks over the simple acoustic guitar accompaniment to make the tracks palatable.
New York Philharmonic; Leonard Bernstein Mahler: Symphony No. 9
Bernstein's first recording of this piece is nerve-wracking, drenched in angst. It makes for quite a contrast to Walter's more autumnal interpretation! The NY Phil was proud of its Mahler tradition, dating back to when the composer himself directed it and extending through the tenures of Mitropoulos and Walter, so Bernstein was in a perfect position: a virtuoso group, familiar with the pieces, which he could wield in shaping his larger-than-life conceptions of these works. Dramatic nearly to the point of melodrama, contrasts amplified, emotions juiced to the max, extreme lyricism alternating with extreme terror and extreme repose, this is a Ninth of utmost Romanticism.
New York Philharmonic; Leonard Bernstein Copland: Symphony No. 3
Copland himself recorded this piece -- one of the few great American symphonies -- but Bernstein, a much better conductor, finds more drama and draws a tauter, better-played version from his orchestra.
Rudolph Serkin, piano; Jamie Laredo, violin; Philipp Naegele, viola; Leslie Parnas, cello; Julius Levine, bass Schubert: Piano Quintet "The Trout"
Schubert's most famous chamber music piece, the "Trout" Quintet gets its name from the composer's use of the melody of his song "Die Forelle" as the theme for the fourth movement's variations. Unusually, its instrumentation is piano, violin, viola, cello, and double bass. It's largely a perky, cheerful piece, though the Andante movement is more reflective. This classic 1967 Marlboro Festival performance, though a studio recording, is a vibrantly spontaneous, lushly toned reading.
Terry Riley: In C
Riley brought Minimalism to the mainstream, with his 1964 composition In C the stylistic landmark. A seminal Minimalist composition that gets its title from the key it so determinedly and diatonically explores throughout its duration (a bit over 45 minutes here), it consists of 53 patterns written in open score -- it can be played by a single pianist or an entire orchestra. With a lot of rock fans growing used to lengthy spans of repetition, and the more open-minded of them looking to get their minds blown by new musical experiences, Riley was able to move beyond the connoisseurs of the avant-garde to a much larger audience.
Blood, Sweat & Tears: Child Is Father to the Man
Al Kooper (of Dylan session man fame) was playing in the Blues Project and wanted to add a horn section, which was vetoed. So he quit and formed this band, quickly recording a debut that would be highly praised. But because it spawned no Top 40 singles, it was considered a commercial disappointment. Some band members blamed Kooper's singing and he ended up leaving. "I Can't Quit Her" and "I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know" must have just been a little ahead of their time.
Mike Bloomfield/Al Kooper/Stephen Stills: Super Session
After departing BS&T, Kooper became a staff producer at Columbia and soon produced himself with some guitarists recently departed from their bands as well. This LP is split between a side of Kooper with Mike Bloomfield (after one album with another horn band, Electric Flag, in the wake of his breakthrough with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band) and and, after Bloomfield had burned out, a side of Kooper with Stills (ex-Buffalo Springfield). Instead of crafting concise pop songs, Kooper now crafted long jams, overdubbing the horns later. It proved surprisingly successful; rock was suddenly free from pop constraints and able to stretch out. It helped that Bloomfield was totally wired for this and laid down some of the best playing of his illustrious career. On the flipside, Stills's style is much cooler, but works well, especially on an 11-minute cover of Donovan's "Season of the Witch."
Laura Nyro: Eli and the Thirteenth Confession
Nyro's debut on Verve had been a commercial failure, but some of its songs had been picked up by other groups with some success, so the world was primed for the intricacies of this, her first Columbia release. She mixed singer-songwriter intimacy of detail with soul-inflected vocals and ambitious arrangements full of sharp turns and shifts, as on its signature song, "Eli's Comin'" (the concluding vocal counterpoint is absolutely spectacular). The simpler pleasures of the perfect-pop "Stoned Soul Picnic" mixed oddly with its is-that-a-double-entendre? lyric to add up to more than the sum of its many parts.
Big Brother & the Holding Company: Cheap Thrills
The ragged, husky, sensual glory of Janis Joplin's voice was unleashed on the mainstream when this San Francisco psych-blues-rock band leaped onto Columbia's artist roster thanks to a stunning performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. The band originals drew on primal blues and psych tropes, and Joplin's hoarse intensity transmuted Gershwin's "Summertime," Big Mama Thornton's "Ball and Chain," and the Burt Berns/Jerry Ragovoy gem "Piece of My Heart" into a new sound, abetted by the coruscating guitar solos of Sam Andrews and James Gurley.
Bob Dylan: John Wesley Harding
Dylan's post-accident official comeback came in February 1968 with this much-anticipated LP, which easily reached #2 on the album chart. Much quieter, with the raucousness of his previous two-and-a-half studio rock albums a distant memory, it's a country-rock album recorded in Nashville with a minimum of sidemen, spiced by Pete Drake's pedal steel guitar (on the last two tracks), devoid of epics, 12 songs in 38 minutes. The romanticized outlaw ballad "John Wesley Harding" leads off with an inconsequentiality one is tempted to assume is deliberate. On the following "As I Went Out One Morning," Dylan adopts a nearly crooning vocal tone to tell a story through accumulation of simple details; on the closing "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" his voice is even mellower. Things get more allegorical on "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine," while "All Along the Watchtower" is the most powerfully poetic song. The LP stood on its own; Columbia could find no songs here suited for single release.
The Byrds: Notorious Byrd Brothers; Sweetheart of the Rodeo
Notorious is vastly underrated in the Byrds canon, sporting some of their most effective and imaginative production and Crosby's last contributions (though by the time it was released, he'd left the group). Hillman stepped into the gap and contributed "Natural Harmony" and much co-composition with leader Roger McGuinn and sometimes Crosby. By the end of the year, the science fiction elements and futuristic production embellishments were banished in favor of unadulterated country rock, thanks not only to Hillman's natural inclinations and McGuinn's on-again, off-again fascination, but most of all the recruitment of new member Gram Parsons. The open-mindedness of most of their fans was not sufficient to the task of making this 180-degree turn into music considered the epitome of unhipness, alas. But a small cult of fans embraced the move with rabid fervor, and in the following decade the new style would burgeon into mass popularity and Sweetheart of the Rodeo would be spoken of reverently as a touchstone of the genre.
Simon & Garfunkel: Bookends
Side one is supposed to be a song cycle, but it operates through contrast more than integration of its elements, with whooping synthesizer rubbing up against acoustic guitar, quiet intimacy juxtaposed with public drama. The song cycle aspect mostly seems to be a matter of each song overlapping with the next, structure based more on filmic jump cuts than any musical model, but there is an overarching theme of interpersonal relationships and the difficulties of personal connection in an increasingly alienated and impersonal society. It's all bracketed (bookended!) by a short, pretty theme song. Side two is more random, starting with the self-questioning "Fakin' It," putting in the middle their hit Graduate hit "Mrs. Robinson" (on a proper S&G album for the fans who already had everything else from the soundtrack on the earlier S&G LPs), followed by the desolate despair of "Hazy Shade of Winter," surrounding those two with playful songs ("Punky's Dilemma," "At the Zoo").
Walter Carlos: Switched-on Bach
The sheer novelty of Carlos's concept -- playing Bach on the Moog synthesizer -- blinded the more hidebound observers to the musical quality he (later she, renamed Wendy) brought to the task. Those with no stake in the classical verities, however, responded en masse to the novelty: This was the first classical LP certified Platinum for sales. Whether adding new colors to solo keyboard pieces or putting a new spin on orchestral pieces (including, most spectacularly, the third Brandenburg Concerto) by changing their textures, the arrangements are always tasteful and imaginative, and the way the tempos sometimes shift to warp speed is startling but joyous.
Taj Mahal: Taj Mahal
Taj Mahal released three LPs in 1968, all excellent, but the impact of his debut was strongest. It's all covers and updatings of traditional folk blues, but with a modern heft. His overblown and overamped harmonica sound on "Leaving Trunk" immediately announced the arrival of a unique talent. Thanks to Ry Cooder and especially Jesse Ed Davis tearing it up on electric guitars, and the leader's powerful yet nuanced singing, all eight tracks fascinate. The Allman Brothers' subsequent version of Blind Willie Johnson's "Stateboro Blues" borrowed more than a little from Mahal's arrangement.
Miles Davis: In a Silent Way
Davis's interest in the then-new fusion genre combining jazz with rock's electric instruments and more aggressive beats reached its first fruition on this LP's two lengthy, flowing tracks. The undulating lines of electric keyboardists Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul and electric guitarist John McLaughlin intertwine in a seamless mesh, over which Davis and Wayne Shorter wax eloquent while drummer Tony Williams stokes the fires with subtle yet relentless rhythmic intensity. There was a lot more amplification here than jazz audiences were used to, nor were they all ready for the less syncopated, more rock-like rhythms and extended harmonic vamps, but this multi-layered music remained complex, just in different ways. And, in the near-stasis of "In a Silent Way," Davis's supremely nuanced trumpet playing achieved the haunting beauty of his greatest music.
Philadelphia/Cleveland/Chicago Brass Ensembles: The Antiphonal Music of Gabrieli
This LP is the object of awed worship by brass players. Columbia wasn't much into the growing "early music" movement, and when they did pay attention to the Renaissance and Baroque eras, it was with recordings on modern instruments, such as this one and Glenn Gould's piano Bach. But when the results were this good, it was hard to complain. Nineteen of the best brass players in the country ("The Virtuoso Brass of Three Great Orchestra," the cover crowed) convened to play the music of Giovanni Gabrieli, drawn from 1597 and 1608 publications and written for St. Mark's in Venice, where the musicians would be split into two or three groups in opposing locations in the building that gave a physical component to the interplay among the groups.
Terry Riley: A Rainbow in Curved Air
Even more than In C, this crossed over to the more adventurous section of the rock audience, perhaps because its timbres were more technologically derived: rather than using an orchestra, Riley overdubbed himself playing electric keyboards, soprano sax, dumbec, and tambourine. The hypnotic results were probably especially appealing to listeners in the habit of "mind expansion."
Blood, Sweat & Tears: Blood, Sweat & Tears
Subtract founder Al Kooper, add stentorian vocalist David Clayton-Thomas and Chicago producer James William Guercio, and a band that had critical respect but low sales suddenly shot to the top of the charts. "You've Made Me So Very Happy," "Spinning Wheel," and Laura Nyro's "And When I Die" might not sound so ambitious now (over-familiarity can have that effect), but their brassy arrangements were trendsetting at the time. Covers of "God Bless the Child" and Traffic's "Smiling Phases" showed more imagination, and the organ solo on "Blues - Part II" was downright daring (by rock standards) in its unusual harmonies.
Chicago: Chicago Transit Authority
This was a self-titled album at the time, but Chicago Transit Authority was soon asked to shorten their name by the agency they had named themselves after. The third big horn band on Columbia, they were also in many ways the most adventurous (at first; by their fifth album they had become more cautious). The catchiness of a song such as "Beginnings" disguises how unpop-like its structure is, and some other tracks are way out there. No hit singles were immediately forthcoming; this album made it to #17 on the LP chart despite being a more expensive double -- very impressive for a debut -- and stayed on the chart for three years. Such was the power of FM radio by this point. (In 1970, by which point Chicago were superstars, this album's "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?" made it to #7 on the singles chart; the following year, two more songs from CTA followed it.)
Mixing Latino, black, and white players and music, Santana the band created a new sound that fit nicely next to the psych jams of their San Francisco neighbor bands but standing out thanks to the many elements rock bands didn't have back then: Gregg Rolie's soul-jazz organ and white soul vocals; the three drummers' Latin grooves and extra percussion, and the instantly recognizable, utterly distinctive wailing lead guitar sound of Santana the guitarist. Who else could take a Willie Bobo song ("Evil Ways") and sell it to rock radio? And then have the next track on the album start out like it was borrowing a theme from John Coltrane? And have a jam titled "Soul Sacrifice" (one of the high points of Woodstock, where it was nearly twice as long) that was heavy enough to live up to its title and featured one of the most spectacular extended drum breaks in rock?
By far Santana's most popular album, with the medley of Fleetwood Mac's "Black Magic Woman" and Gabor Szabo's "Gypsy Queen" and the cover of Tito Puente's "Oye Como Va" a powerful one/two punch. Its Mati Klarwein cover (a 1961 painting entitled Annunciation) adds to the attraction.
Miles Davis: Bitches Brew
This double LP -- with an expanded electric band -- took Fusion to more avant-garde realms. Though jazz purists were aghast, it actually is as texturally based and colorful in timbre (notably shaded by bass clarinet) as Davis's work with Gil Evans -- but it grooves a lot harder and shouts where the earlier stuff whispered. And it sports another Mati Klarwein cover, especially cool in its gatefold form (seen here as the original painting, before band name and album title were added).
Another year, another double LP from Chicago. This was the one that made them superstars, but how that happened was surprising. Side two was devoted to James Pankow's classically influenced 13-minute suite Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon. Producer James William Guercio broke it into seven tracks and with a little editing two of them, "Make Me Smile" and "Colour My World," became hits, with the separate "25 or 6 to 4" in between. Side four was also a suite, "It Better End Soon," but nothing in that anti-war screed stood a chance of hitting the charts.
Johnny Cash: At San Quentin
Yeah, I know, the earlier Folsom Prison show is more famous. But this one's better because the band is much tighter. For proof, check out the pure adrenaline rush that is "Wreck of the Old '97," and the headlong intensity of "I Walk the Line." And it also has "San Quentin" and "Starkville City Jail" as well as "Folsom Prison Blues," so you get the Cash Prison Trifecta.
The Jerry Hahn Brotherhood: The Jerry Hahn Brotherhood
A dark horse entry. This quartet from Kansas moved to San Francisco and made one album. What little impact it had came from other bands covering a couple of the songs on here, most notably Manfred Mann's version of "Martha's Madman." Most of the members were jazz musicians, with Jerry Hahn in particular going on to have a fine career as a jazz guitarist. Mike Finnigan, the keyboardist and main singer thanks to his soulful voice, went on to back some of the biggest names in rock. The predominant style on this LP, however, is a sort of folk-rock flecked with soul and jazz and a bit of psychedelic flavor at times. This LP is also proof that you should hang onto your turntable because everything good has not been transferred to CD yet. I got my copy for $3.99 on eBay, and three-quarters of that was for shipping.
Simon & Garfunkel: Bridge Over Troubled Water
Despite the greatness of the title track and "The Boxer" (including the immortal lines "a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest/La la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la"), S&G's final studio album is somewhat disappointing, its style-hopping lacking coherence and some songs becoming annoying after multiple listens (and they've been played to death on radio ever since). Nonetheless, this became the best-selling LP in Columbia's history (since surpassed, as mentioned below). And two of the songs that haven't been over-programmed, "So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright" and "The Only Living Boy in New York," have a wry charm that's proven timeless.
The Firesign Theatre: Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers
A new kind of comedy, moving way past standup and skit routines into a nearly musical construction in the studio, this is a concept album keyed to the character George Leroy Tirebiter and structured around memory and flipping through TV channels. It veers off into paranoid conspiracy theory and acid humor, warped pop-culture references, and is both hilarious and thought-provoking.
Miles Davis: A Tribute to Jack Johnson
This soundtrack to a rarely seen film about the black heavyweight boxing champion of the early 1900s is groove-based. Having already alienated traditionalists with heavy electric instrumentation, Davis now moved in a more rock-oriented direction, with Billy Cobham's relatively simple trapset groove, Stevie Wonder bassist Michael Henderson's firm bottom, and John McLaughlin's funky, riff-heavy guitar playing on the 25-minute "Right Off" the epitome of this fusion. Some of Teo Macero's production touches, such as abrupt juxtapositions of different music, were radical by the standards of jazz at that time. Davis's creative process had become more studio-oriented, with multiple takes multiple compositions (or jams) yielding short, specific moments edited together by Macero into music that had never even been conceived of in their final form.
Mahavishnu Orchestra: The Inner Mounting Flame
There was much talk of fusion capturing the power of rock, but in most cases it just borrowed the beats and the electricity. Guitarist John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra really did have the power; probably the only rock bands that could have matched them in 1971, when they made their debut with The Inner Mounting Flame, were King Crimson, the Stooges, and the MC5. McLaughlin had paid his dues with Tony Williams Lifetime and with Miles Davis, but Mahavishnu's music was much flashier; McLaughlin had apparently been holding back previously, because in this context he showed the electric guitar had capacities undreamt of in jazz until then. Where Davis's music was eerie and subversive, Mahavishnu's would just snap your neck. The other members contributed mightily too. Drummer Billy Cobham's powerhouse drumming was less subtle than Tony Williams's, but made up for that with sheer brutal strength and speed. Jerry Goodman managed to make the electric violin an instrument of aggression. Keyboardist Jan Hammer and bassist Rick Laird filled in every crack in the sound to create an impenetrable wall. (They do quiet down for the lovely "A Lotus on Irish Streams.") It remains an iconic sound.
Charles Mingus: Let My Children Hear Music
Columbia would still put out acoustic jazz, if it would sell, and Mingus was a big enough name to ensure that. This is actually one of his best albums, augmenting his band with imaginative orchestral arrangements. Soloists are trumpeters Lonnie Hillyer and Joe Wilder (Snooky Young plays lead throughout), Julius Watkins (French horn), saxophonists Charles McPherson, James Moody, and Bobby Jones, Charles McCracken (cello), and Roland Hanna (piano).
Taj Mahal: The Real Thing
Turn-of-the-century Texas bluesman Henry Thomas's "Fishin' Blues" starts up this double live album with a vocal-and-acoustic-guitar number, but the rest of this loose 1971 Fillmore East concert features a horn section including up to four tuba players led by jazz tuba/baritone saxophone great Howard Johnson. Johnson and guitarist John Hall unleash many thrilling solos. The expansive grooves climax with the nearly 12-minute "You Ain't No Street Walker Mama, Honey But I Do Love the Way You Strut Your Stuff."
Mott the Hoople: All the Young Dudes
With some help from David Bowie, a mediocre British band made a great leap forward. Ian Hunter and company had actually given up and ceased being a band, but Bowie, a big fan, offered to produce them (with Mick Ronson contributing arrangements) and gave them his song about the burgeoning glam movement, "All the Young Dudes," which would be the band's only U.S. hit. Bowie's friendship with Lou Reed probably explains the opening cover of the Velvet Underground's "Sweet Jane." Hunter's songwriting was pretty good too, and his winking delivery put across the covers with wit and panache, while the guitar work of Mick Ralphs kept everything rocking Ralphs also co-wrote, with Hunter, the LP's second-best track, "One of the Boys," and his "Ready for Love," which he later brought with him to Bad Company, is also heard. One of the great hard rock albums of the decade.
On their fourth LP, Santana went uncommercial. This is basically a fusion album, but where most fusion consisted of jazzers simplifying to rock, this was a rock band with Latin percussion moving into jazz harmonies and improvisation, so the effect is quite different, especially rhythmically (Michael Shrieve, the trapset drummer, does his best work here). Santana fans at the time were mostly disappointed; it's mostly instrumental, pieces blending into each other, with no singing until the fourth song and vocals on only two more of its ten tracks. But it's my favorite Santana album and has been since the day in the mid-'70s when I borrowed it from my local public library in Bay Shore on Long Island. Even without words, "Song of the Wind" is one of the most memorable creations in the Santana canon, and the Gil Evansesque arrangement by Tom Harrell on the closing "Every Step of the Way" is the most sophisticated use of orchestra in the history of rock by anyone besides Frank Zappa.
Herbie Hancock: Sextant
Herbie's band Mwandishi -- Hancock (on multiple electric and acoustic keyboards), Eddie Henderson (trumpet, flugelhorn), Julian Priester (trombones), Bennie Maupin (soprano sax, bass clarinet, piccolo, etc.), Dr. Patrick Gleeson (ARP synthesizers), Buster Williams (electric and acoustic basses), Billy Hart (drums), and Buck Clarke (congas, bongos) -- was much more interesting than the fusion Hancock shortly began making with the Headhunters. It was also a lot less commercial. The opening "Rain Dance" set up looping patterns that added layer upon layer, creating highly syncopated electronic groove the likes of which had never been heard in jazz (though reminiscent of one part of Morton Subotnick's pioneering electronic composition Silver Apples of the Moon). "Hidden Shadows" was a bit more normal in sound and construction, but so extremely syncopated in its weird 19/4 meter that it went beyond funk to a sort of geometrical exercise in asymmetrical pattern complementarity. Those were side one; side two was entirely taken up by "Hornets," much more closely related to the sort of music Hancock had taken part in on Bitches Brew (above) and On the Corner, gradually building in density and intensity under long solos by Henderson, Maupin, and Hancock. Too avant-garde for the general public, Sextant sold poorly, and Hancock moved on to a different concept.
Herbie Hancock: Head Hunters
Herbie's new direction: simpler, funkier, its surface more easily comprehensible by the masses yet still musically satisfying. The catchy "Chameleon," edited down considerably for radio play, became a hit single (by jazz standards -- not Top 40). It propelled the LP not only to #1 on the jazz chart, but #13 on the pop chart.
Bruce Springsteen: Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.
Verbose this is, true, clearly indebted to certain stylistic tendencies of mid-'60s Dylan. In the '70s lots of singer-songwriters were trumpeted as The New Dylan, and Bruce had to bear that cross as well, especially on the two sub-par acoustic tracks (and because he was signed by John Hammond, who signed Dylan -- but then, that's quite an endorsement). But the two duds aside, it's effervescent and witty, not least because some of that verbosity includes great turns of phrase. Oh, and E Street Band lineup with Vini "Mad Dog" Lopez on drums and David Sancious on piano and organ rocks with a loose, jazzy exuberance that was lost a few years later.
Earth, Wind & Fire: Head to the Sky
On their second Columbia LP (and fourth overall), EW&F finally hit their stride. The Latin-beat "Evil" is appropriately catchy, and Philip Bailey, who had joined on the previous LP, brought his falsetto to the inspirational "Keep Your Head to the Sky." The guys get funky on the one for "Build Your Nest," then mellow out for the gorgeous, gospelly ballad "The World's a Masquerade." "Clover" is a sweet love song, and then "Zanzibar" closing the LP on a long, jazzy jam.
Billy Joel: Piano Man
Billy had been kicking around the music biz since the age of 14 and participated in his first recording session in 1965. Nothing quite worked out until esteemed Philadephia radio station WMMR-FM began playing a radio concert tape of "Captain Jack," on the strength of which Columbia signed Joel (once again we see the power of FM radio in this era). He moved to Los Angeles, worked as a lounge singer/pianist, and transmuted this dues-paying into his breakthrough, the title track of this LP. Pretty much every track is a well-crafted bit of pop songwriting except the rockin' "Captain Jack," which transcends pop both sonically in its epic distillation of teenage ennui (Captain Jack being the name of a heroin dealer). After 35 years, it still sends a chill down my spine.
Mott the Hoople: Mott
This time out, the guys produced themselves, all the tunes were by band members, and the result was just as good as All the Young Dudes and perhaps even a bit better as a coherent and consistent LP. Songs about the perils of fame and touring are rarely either so entertaining or speak in such universal terms. After this LP, Ralphs left, and the band was never again to reach such heights.
Bruce Springsteen: The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle
Greetings came out at the beginning of the year; by September it was vastly overshadowed by this amazing follow-up. The Gary U.S. Bonds party vibe that kicks off the album serves notice that the Dylan thing is in the past; hell, by the end of "The E Street Shuffle," they could pass as a funk band. "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)" is a gorgeous ballad that puts Bruce's verbosity into a more natural framework. "Kitty's Back" kicks off with one of his greatest guitar solos on a slow, bluesy, brassy intro and is downright sexy. The primary attraction of "Wild Billy's Circus Story" was arguably that, as the last track on side one, it was easy to skip, although the tuba is charming, and skip it many listeners probably did in the rush to get to side two, one of the great LP sides in rock. Where before Springsteen was suburban, here he was city on the great triptych of "Incident on 57th Street," "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)," and "New York City Serenade." Sancious shows off his jazz chops to good effect, and "Rosalita" was such a magnificent burst of youthful energy that for years afterward it was the established set-closer.
Glenn Gould J.S. Bach: French Suites, Nos. 1-4
Gould's sprightly playing of Bach is especially well suited to these dance suites. His extremely clean articulation and his light tone (on a personal piano carefully honed to produce his trademark sound) make the fast movements positively sparkle, and in slower movements he plays with a great deal more feeling and songfulness than many more mechanical Bach interpreters of the time -- Gould understood the tenor of Bach's minor-key pieces as well as anyone ever has. With his tempo choices giving each suite a sense of unity (as opposed to the sense of randomness in many other performances), this is arguably the finest interpretation this set of works has ever received, and most certainly the finest on piano.
Glenn Gould J.S. Bach: French Suites, Nos. 5-6; Overture in the French Style Ditto the above, and kudos for including the less frequently played Overture (which carries the additional benefit of getting a minor-key work on the program for more balance).
Earth, Wind & Fire: Open Our Eyes
On this album's release, Robert Christgau finished his capsule review by dubbing it "A fucking tour de force." It proved to be the band's breakthrough, containing its first two Top 40 hits. More importantly, three decades plus down the road, it contains not a single weak track; even the filler is masterful. Maurice White's leadership (and kalimba flaunting) and vocalist Philip Bailey's high vocals get most of the attention, so please pause to give proper respect to the amazing bass playing of Verdine White, who locks into perfect grooves with the drummer, a veteran of Chess and many years of soul session work -- named Maurice White. And praise also whoever chose to revive the gospel tune "Open Our Eyes" to close the LP.
Miles Davis: Get Up With It
Davis's 1974 double album confounded many listeners on its release, not least because of the 32-minute dirge "He Loved Him Madly," an ultra-atmospheric tribute to then recently deceased Duke Ellington that's all about subtle nuance and tone and basically abjures melody, harmonic progression, and groove. The widely varying styles on the rest of the set include everything from the sunny, accessible, Latin groove "Maiysha" to the funky "Honky Tonk," "Calypso Frelimo" (another 32-minute marathon), and "Billy Preston"; from the low-down "Red China Blues," complete with harmonica, to the twistingly polyrhythmic workout "Mtume" and the blistering blare of "Rated X." With as many as three electric guitarists (including skronk-master Pete Cosey) weaving multi-layered patterns along with various horns, the rock-solid bass lines of Michael Henderson, and arsenals of drums, this set (Davis's last studio recordings before his 1975-81 hiatus) repays the deepest listening.
This is the album that changed Bruce from local hero to national icon and put him on the covers of Time and Newsweek the same week. Lopez was gone, alas, and Sancious left after the title track, at which point Max Weinberg tightened up the beat and Roy Bittan switched the keyboard parts from jazzy to majestic and got glockenspiel on the radio. This is pretty much a perfect album, its only flaw paradoxically being its perfection, its airtight abandonment of the anything-can-happen feeling of the first two LPs. But the track list is impeccable, and if it turned out that one couldn't just drive away from one's problems and find freedom and opportunity around the corner or down the highway, well, that was because life was inferior to Springsteen's magnificent vision. And Bruce knew that, and celebrated it on the last two tracks, "Meeting Across the River" and the epic "Jungleland."
Earth, Wind & Fire: That's the Way of the World; Gratitude
That's the Way of the World is the soundtrack to an obscure film starring Harvey Keitel as a record label exec. It got no boost from the tie-in, but didn't need it with lead track "Shining Star" hitting #1 on the singles chart, EW&F's first Top 20 record. Without a weak track, and with "Reasons" one of the band's best ballads and a great vehicle for Philip Bailey's stunning high vocals, this is one of the greatest soul/funk albums of the decade. Columbia quickly followed up with the double LP Gratitude, three sides of concert recordings (and EWF was a superb "live" band) plus a fourth side of studio creations highlighted by "Sing a Song" and "Can't Hide Love," both Top 40 hits.
Willie Nelson: Red Headed Stranger
A country concept album about a murderous preacher, this is practically operatic in its ambition. "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" is the most familiar track, but the point here is not songs, it's storyline and the subtle warping of Western tropes.
Pink Floyd: Wish You Were Here
Dark Side of the Moon hit #1, so Columbia picked up Pink Floyd's U.S. releases after that. They were immediately rewarded with another #1, with no help from any hit tracks -- the quintessential album band. There weren't really any singles here (although Columbia gave it a shot with "Have a Cigar"), since it consisted of "Shine On You Crazy Diamond, Parts 1-9" and "Wish You Were Here," tributes to their mentally damaged ex-bandmate Syd Barrett, with two anti-music-biz songs stuck in the middle. Both deeply emotional and a great display of textural guitar by David Gilmour, it's one of the Floyd's most consistently satisfying LPs.
Murray Perahia, piano; Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields; Neville Marriner: Mendelssohn: Piano Concerti Nos. 1-2
These two readings are considerably more polished and playful than the Serkin listed above (And, of course, in better sound.) Perahia's gossamer touch produces absolutely gorgeous piano tones. 1976
Blue Oyster Cult: Agents of Fortune
No major metal band has more consistently shown a sophisticated sense of humor and literary merit than BOC, and this is the platinum-selling LP that moved them from hard rock stalwarts to mainstream stars. "Don't Fear the Reaper" was the big hit (#12), but the whole LP was a masterpiece. The opening "This Ain't the Summer of Love" displays both their wit and their powerful multi-guitar attack. The sound of "True Confessions" looks back to early rock 'n' roll, complete with ironic falsetto and saxophone (Michael Brecker). "E.T.I. (Extra Terrestrial Intelligence)" tells a strange story of alien visitation. Patti Smith, then dating rhythm guitarist/keyboardist Allen Lanier, contributed lyrics for "The Revenge of Vera Gemini" (plus vocals) and "Debbie Denise," about a rocker neglecting his girlfriend (uh-oh). Throughout, the attention to musical detail and the variety of styles marks BOC as much more than a genre band.
Earth, Wind & Fire: Spirit
EW&F was on a roll, and they kept it up with another LP chock full of excellent songs. The LP is superior to the current CD, which uses an alternate Philip Bailey vocal to "Imagination," a bit over-sung compared to the original, marring one of EWF's finest ballads.
Morton Feldman: Rothko Chapel/For Frank O'Hara
I taped this from my college's music library a few years after it was released; I was immediately mesmerized by Rothko Chapel. Written in 1971 to be performed in the art installation of the same name created by modern artist Mark Rothko, this extremely innovative work for chorus, viola, and percussion received its first recording on this important LP. Clouds of sound hover and dissolve, the viola occasionally waxing lyrical in their midst. The choir here is the Gregg Smith Singers, its titular leader conducting the performance including Karen Phillips, viola, and percussionist James Holland. The more abstract For Frank O'Hara is for flute (Eberhard Blum), clarinet (Allen Blustine), violin (Benjamin Hudson), cello (David Gibson), piano (Julius Eastman), and percussion (Dennis Kahle, Donald Knaack); there is more space to it, longer silences separating the sound events, which are so sparely spread out that each individual timbre can be contemplated meditatively.
Murray Perahia: The Chopin Preludes (Complete)
Perahia's playing may strike some as too low-key, but I say they just aren't used to pianists who can play a real pianissimo for a sustained period of time, with his perfect evenness of tone remarkable. Not that the stormier and flashier bits (try Op. 28 No. 8) aren't aptly full of fire! Nor are they making a whole lot of pianists nowadays who can maintain a songful legato even in knottier passages the way Perahia can. In fact, I would say that what some hear as drama from other pianists occasionally just might be strain, which is something Perahia never exhibits. It's mind-boggling that Columbia has not seen fit to keep in print this wonderful recording by one of its last star pianists. Certainly the sound quality is no impediment; it's warm and clear and realistic.
Miles Davis: Agharta
Made in the throes of pain from a serious hip ailment and various other medical problems, this double album recorded live in Japan in 1975, just before his temporary retirement, wasn't issued until several years later. Keyed by the coruscating guitars of Reggie Lucas and Pete Cosey, with the versatile Sonny Fortune reaching his apex as a saxophonist and flutist, it's a shattering cathartic outburst.
Tatiana Troyanos, mezzo (Judith); Siegmund Nimsgern, bass-bar. (Bluebeard); BBC Symphony Orchestra; Pierre Boulez Bartok: Duke Bluebeard's Castle
Of what is perhaps the most enigmatic of all operas, an Expressionist allegory of indeterminate meaning, Bartok's countryman said, "here we have a masterpiece, a musical volcano that erupts for sixty minutes of compressed tragedy." It is an hour of slowly but inexorably unfolding horror dominated by a theme of blood, yet with an ending that in unsettlingly chilly fashion resolves nothing but is nonetheless fulfilling, a sort of unclosed closure. Boulez provides absolute clarity of textures such that Bartok's orchestral colors illuminate the action. A work with only two characters, a work that can seem to have little action -- seven doors are opened, the contents of their rooms are commented on -- is revealed to be a work with three characters, as the castle with its foreboding contents "speak" through the orchestra. With Troyanos and Nimsgern conveying the claustrophobic intensity of this opera so well, this is considered by many its supreme recorded expression.
Billy Joel: Turnstiles
I can't help it, I'm a child of the '70s and of Long Island. Billy Joel is just in my blood. I owned the songbook and could play and sing every track. Highlights: "Say Goodbye to Hollywood" (sounding like a musical hat-tip to the baion style of the Drifters), "Summer, Highland Falls" (great opening line: "They say that these are not the best of times/But they're the only times I've ever known"; great piano part), "New York State of Mind" (a classic), "Prelude/Angry Young Man" (yeah, the piano intro was tough, but I got it down), the lush chord progression of "I've Loved These Days" (apt for an ironic ode to opulent decadence), and the weirdly ominous futurist nostalgia of "Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)," which gained new resonance in the wake of 9/11.
Willie Nelson: To Lefty from Willie
On which one country music great pays tribute to a predecessor and inspiration. It's a little under a half hour, but short measure is the only thing to complain about here. That the songwriting is top-notch is a given; that Nelson in his own inimitable fashion would prove Frizzell's equal on the ten songs was not, yet here's the evidence.
Dexter Gordon: Homecoming
As I write this, pianist Ronnie Mathews is recently deceased. One of the best known of his many sterling contributions to jazz is on this double LP, which includes his composition "Let's Get Down." Gordon, a tenor titan, had spent years living in Europe because it offered better work for jazzmen and less racism. His return to New York in 1976 was a major event in the jazz world, and thus newsworthy enough that Columbia picked him up and issued this set drawn from two dates at the Village Vanguard. Not only is Gordon triumphal in his reassertion of his mastery, the rest of the quintet is fine as well, with trumpeter Woody Shaw absolutely on fire and the rhythm section of Mathews, bassist Stafford James, and drummer Louis Hayes is all-star quality whether supporting or soloing. Bebop lives!
Earth, Wind & Fire: All 'n' All
Opening with the syncopated "Serpentine Fire," one of the funkiest Top 20 pop hits ever, this LP kept EWFâ€™s streak of great LPs going. On "Fantasy," the other pop hit here, the group's gradual adjustment to the rhythms of disco begins, but imaginatively rather than imitatively, and the hard funk of "Jupiter" and "Magic Mind" left no doubt that they weren't going to give up their edge. As usual, Bailey gets to shine on a pretty ballad, "I'll Write a Song." Occasionally a Brazilian feel pops up for even more variety.
Weather Report: Heavy Weather
This is one of the most tuneful albums by a serious fusion group, as opposed to the more pop-oriented ones. The most famous track is "Birdland," which was a radio hit as covered by the Manhattan Transfer, but leader Joe Zawinul's arrangement is far better than that vocal group's simplification. Saxophonist Wayne Shorter's tunes "Harlequin" and "Palladium" are also high points, and this was the album that introduced electric bass prodigy Jaco Pastorius to many listeners. Alex Acuna and Manolo Badrena handled the percussion chores this time out. Not only did this LP top Billboard's Jazz album chart, it made it to #30 on the Pop chart as well.
The Emotions: Rejoice
Maurice White loaned his magic touch to this vocal trio and hit the jackpot. "Best of My Love" was a bigger hit than any EWF single, staying at #1 for five weeks. But this LP wouldn't be listed here if the rest of the tracks weren't good too. Nor is it just White and the many EWF bandmates playing on so many of the tracks (though certainly "Love's What's Happening" has a familiar sound, even if some other songs have a more disco-ish beat). The vocal arrangements of Sheila, Wanda, and Jeannette Hutchinson -- drawing on both their early gospel experience and their long pop career -- are quite distinctive.
Billy Joel: The Stranger
On Long Island, all nine tracks were radio fare. The big surprise was that four of them were also national hits, with "Just the Way You Are" hitting #3 (it also won Grammy Awards for Song of the Year and Record of the Year), while the album hit #2, his first Top Ten LP, and made Joel an international superstar. Sales of The Stranger even surpassed those of Bridge Over Troubled Water, making it the best-selling LP in Columbia's history to that point (it has now sold over ten million copies). Producer Phil Ramone, working with Joel for the first time in their decade-long run deserves much credit, especially if he's who put multiple alto sax solos by bebop legend Phil Woods in "Just the Way You Are."
Pink Floyd: Animals
Dark, atmospheric, enigmatic, a concept album inspired by George Orwell's book Animal Farm, and a #3 LP anyway. (It has since gone quadruple platinum.) Roger Waters now totally dominated the lyric writing; David Gilmour provided most of the musical focus and his guitar playing sets most of the tone. The last great Floyd LP.
New York Philharmonic/Pierre Boulez Varese: Ionisation; Ameriques; Arcana
Boulez succeeded Bernstein as Music Director of the NY Phil and proceeded to vastly change its programming, upping the percentage of modern music and especially highly dissonant or outright atonal music. This was not stunningly surprising considering that Boulez himself was a leading composer of Serial music. But his advocacy of modern music at the helm of one of the world's most prestigious orchestras took such music to a much bigger audience than had previously heard it, and of course this extended to Boulez's recordings at their helm. French composer Edgar Varese's music has rarely been recorded by a group that could give it such fullness of tone, and the highly colorful orchestral showcases Ameriques and Arcana sound much richer here than usual, allowing their complete brilliance to be heard. "Ionisation," for 13 percussionists, receives a thoroughly precise reading. Boulez would later record the first two again with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for a different label, and that's a snooze compared to this.
Peter Tosh: Equal Rights
Columbia never paid much attention to reggae, but someone was smart enough to grab Tosh in the wake of his departure from the Wailers, and he rewarded them with four good albums over the rest of the decade, of which this is arguably the best. As the LP's title suggests, this is protest music; "Get Up, Stand Up" is the most famous track in the U.S., but in Jamaica he is perhaps more revered for the more threatening "Stepping Razor." Not many reggae albums are better than this.
Bruce Springsteen: Darkness on the Edge of Town
Bruce's vision turned dark, with even romance is deeply shadowed and uneasy ("Candy's Room"), and his lyrics turned lean and terse to match it. And apparently that wasn't enough to express the anger and frustration he felt, so he sometimes just howled wordlessly, and tortured his guitar into unleashing gales of fury. After all those songs on earlier albums about the promise of escape, here he sang about what needed escaping from, and if it turned out there was no way out, well, at least the effort (or, more accurately, his expression of it) was cathartic.
Willie Nelson: Stardust
Stepping outside his country comfort zone, Nelson takes on The Great American Songbook, or standards, or whatever you want to call "Stardust," "Georgia on My Mind," "Blue Skies," "All of Me," "Unchained Melody," "September Song," "On the Sunny Side of the Street," "Moonlight in Vermont," "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," and "Someone to Watch Over Me." Whew. It would be hubris -- and the sort of album that gets played at "bad music" parties to gales of laughter -- if not for Willie's jazz-like phrasing, tender delivery, and (a crucial yet often overlooked component) understated but perfectly judged arrangements. The immortal creations of Hoagy Carmichael, Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington, Kurt Weill, George & Ira Gershwin, etc. are done full justice. All that plus the greatest top-hat in music history.
Elvis Costello: This Year's Model
His first LP was pretty good, but it was when the Attractions became his backing band that his albums became more than a presentation of clever lyrics. Steve Nieve's thick organ chords, the pulsating bass lines of Bruce Thomas, and the insistent, tom-heavy beats of Pete Thomas were like nothing else out there. Reverting to a mindset reminiscent of Capitol's treatment of Beatles LPs, Columbia dropped "Night Rally" and, stupidly, "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea," a hit in England) from the Radar LP and substituted "Radio Radio." With music this powerful, we took what we could get.
Heather Harper, Halina Lukomska, sopranos; Charles Rosen, piano; Isaac Stern, violin; Gregor Piatigorsky, cello; John Williams, guitar; Colin Bradley, clarinet; Juilliard String Quartet; John Alldis Choir; London Symphony Orchestra/Pierre Boulez; etc.: Anton Webern: Complete Works Opp. 1-31
Look at that artist list! These performances have a special magic, a combination of intellectual rigor and emotionally committed performances by great artists rather than modernist specialists. And for many listeners there might also be a sense of discovery; how many, after deciding on the basis of a few isolated experiences that Webern's music was interesting, sprang for this box and enjoyed complete immersion in the Austrian's unique sound-world? Boulez's advocacy for difficult modern music -- and in particular the Serialists -- served Webern well. And somebody's idea of throwing in the bonus of Webern's 1932 recording with the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra of his inimitable arrangement of a set of Schubert's German Dances is the icing on the cake.
Kenny Loggins: Nightwatch
Laugh if you will, but consider that Loggins always had talent, just not taste, and somehow here he makes not a single misstep (okay, the production is dated, but that's kind of a given in this genre). This feat was duly rewarded; the LP hit #7 on the album chart, his best showing there. Much of that was due to "Whenever I Call You Friend," a hit duet with Stevie Nicks, at a time when anything anybody in Fleetwood Mac did was news, but people could've just bought the single. Buying the album got them the first version of the Loggins/Michael McDonald songwriting collaboration "What a Fool Believes," and some moody Loggins tunes that make this a soft-rock classic.
Arthur Blythe: Lenox Avenue Breakdown
The first track is so-so, the rest are "whoa!" It's almost as if somebody thought, "the executives won't listen past the first seven minutes, so if we put the wild free jazz in after that, they won't notice and this will get issued." If you've ever wanted to hear a tuba player go nuts on his instrument, check out the title track. That's Bob Stewart; the rest of the band is the leader on alto sax, James Newton on flute, James "Blood" Ulmer on guitar (we'll be hearing from him again further down the list), bassist Cecil McBee, drummer Jack DeJohnette, and percussionist Guillermo Franco, which as liner note author Stanley Crouch puts it in his trademark mixture of wit and condescension, "[makes] it an all-star date, even if some of the stars are new to you."
Elvis Costello: Armed Forces
Us ignorant Americans might not have understood the political origin of "Oliver's Army," but the sardonic tone of Costello's voice and Steve Nieve's music-hall piano were unmistakable. Elsewhere, the line between the political and the personal is often obliterated, as on "Two Little Hitlers," which not only compares fascist politics to relationship dynamics, but throws in a Douglas MacArthur reference for good measure. After all that, the cover (on the U.S. edition) of Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" is not only more sonically powerful than the original (Rockpile was good, but the Attractions were better), its lyric has gained emotional depth from the context.
Pink Floyd: The Wall
I'm not a fan of this double LP, believing that Waters's ambition exceeded his grasp by a wide margin, but I'm obviously in the minority as it's by far the best-selling Floyd album: 23 million sold in the U.S., 30 million worldwide, making it the best-selling double album in history.
The Psychedelic Furs: The Psychedelic Furs
Youthful contempt drips from Richard Butler's sneering, Johnny Rottenesque vocals on every track here (he must have set the record for most appearances of the word "stupid" on an LP with this album). But for all the Sex Pistols comparisons this earned, the Furs sound very different, more concerned with guitar timbres and using a wider dynamic range, and mixing in saxophone adds edgy menace. It helped that Martin Hannett (Joy Division) and Steve Lillywhite (U2) were among the producers.
Bruce Springsteen: The River
Originally Bruce's follow-up to Darkness was planned as a single LP entitled The Ties That Bind, but he felt it lacked depth. After another year had been spent on it, it had metamorphosed into this double LP that deliberately lacked musical or thematic focus, ping-ponging between exuberant rockers, serious ballads, retro exercises in old styles, cheerful pop ("Hungry Heart," written with the Ramones in mind, became Springsteen's first Top Ten single, peaking at #5), and dark, quiet tracks ending sides 3 and 4. Despite this, the album flows pretty well and -- unlike most of his albums -- still offers surprises after repeated listening.
Elvis Costello: Get Happy
Elvis's soul move here (way more Stax/Southern soul than Motown) was a deliberate denial of New Wave-ness. (The retro quality extends to the fake ring-wear on the cover.) Get Happy was also an expression of his prolific songwriting: 18 originals and two covers on one LP, which pushed the technological limits of the format. It was such an embarrassment of riches that radio had no idea what to focus on, and the eccentric first single choice was no help: "I Can't Stand Up (For Falling Down)" was a two-minute-long rearrangement of a Sam & Dave B-side. "High Fidelity," on the other hand, should have been a hit. I would have nominated the closing "Riot Act" for a single release as well. No matter; the LP hit #11 and is so full of sharp wordplay that it ranks in my personal E.C. top three, and at times I think it's his best.
Murray Perahia: Bartok Piano Works The Piano Sonata sounds like the masterpiece it is, simultaneously primitive and modern in its rhythmic ferocity and harmonic dissonance. Hearing Perahia put all his technique and interpretive taste at the service of the relatively obscure Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs - much more complex and unfolkish than the title suggests -- it too sounds like a great work. Perahia's playing is less clangorous and percussive than his competition's, so the harmonies seem more piquant and the lyricism in the slower pieces is never slighted. But the drive of the Eastern European rhythms Bartok took from the folk music he loved and researched so extensively loses no acuity in Perahia's hands.
With three Top Ten hits -- "Who's Crying Now," "Open Arms," and the immortal "Don't Stop Believin'" -- this was a juggernaut of MOR. Steve Perry's heart-on-sleeve emotive wailing and ex-Santana guitarist Neal Schon's primal riffs define the power ballad in its most focused, finely honed form. None of the other tracks feel like filler. Love 'em or hate 'em, this is their best.
The Psychedelic Furs: Talk Talk Talk
In which our Richard matures. He doesn't sound any happier, but he has seemingly had enough experience now to laugh (well, crack a wry, sad half-smile) at the absurdity of life and realize that it's not that way solely because other people are stupid. Meanwhile, he and the rest of the boys have added hooks to their textures, which Steve Lillywhite still helps make absolutely striking.
Marvin Gaye: Midnight Love
Aside from Earth, Wind & Fire, Columbia/CBS' engagement with R&B (including hip-hop) was mostly through subsidiary labels: Philly International, Def Jam, Epic, Uncle Jam (even EWF had formed their own Columbia-associated label, ARC, by 1979). Here's a noteworthy exception. I wonder whether Gaye was averse to having his first post-Motown LP issued on one of the less prestigious labels. (Two other ex-Motown artists signed by CBS, Michael Jackson and Teena Marie, had ended up on Epic.) At the time, he said, "Art comes first. But I also feel obligated to show Columbia I can still sell records." With "Sexual Healing" (the lyric written by Gaye biographer David Ritz during a period when Gaye had writer's block) leading the way, he achieved a very successful balance between art and commerce. The production style was thoroughly up to date with synthesizers and drum machines, but has an unmachine-like vitality. Tragically, Midnight Love was his final album.
James Blood Ulmer: Black Rock
That this Ornette Coleman guitarist got signed by Columbia on the basis of his second album as a leader, Are You Glad to Be in America, issued not by a jazz label, but by U.K. indie rock label Rough Trade, suggests just how open possibilities seemed back then thanks to the buzz over post-punk and no wave: throwing Coleman-style harmolodic jazz and funk into the mix seemed to make perfect sense. And as can be heard here on his second Columbia LP (following 1981's also-fine Freelancing), it also made perfect music. The core trio is Ulmer, who also sings in his mush-mouthed drawl; bassist Amin Ali, popping percussively; and drummer Grant Calvin Weston, who handles all rhythmic challenges and grooves hard in the process. Spicing things up from time to time are singer Irene Datcher, rhythm guitarist Ronnie Drayton, second drummer Cornell Rochester adding to the roiling rhythms, and Sam Sanders on tenor and alto sax and flute. But the focal point is Ulmer's playing, a great lead/rhythm combination even by himself, his bright tone beguiling and his wide-open solos full of scrabbling surprises blending Delta blues depth with free jazz complexity.
Bruce Springsteen: Nebraska
By taking this stylistic left turn, Springsteen avoided typecasting, though if this solo acoustic affair had been his first album, the "New Dylan" hosannas would have been even louder! Not just low-key, this LP is also downright depressing in its bleak vision of the world, its triumphs grim (the "Highway Patrolman" lets his murderous brother escape to Canada), its pleasures small and desperate ("Atlantic City"), its slight attempt at hopefulness ("Reason to Believe") merely a suggestion that people motivate themselves to get through life with flimsy rationalizations. As quiet as it is, it's a brutal album.
Billy Joel: The Nylon Curtain
Speaking of Springsteen, this is the album where Joel moved into his territory with two surprisingly serious songs. "Allentown" looks at the inhabitants of economically devastated factory towns, obviously sympathetic but utterly realistic in its refusal to offer any solutions. "Goodnight Saigon" views Vietnam through the eyes of the grunts who fought it, willingly or not; no judgment is passed on the war itself, but the toll it took on the dead and the survivors alike is made clear and the comraderie it forced is celebrated. Other songs track Joel's disintegrating marriage and find him grappling with self-doubt. With his trademark glibness toned down, this was his darkest LP, by far.
The Psychedelic Furs: Forever Now
The Furs lighten up a bit, thanks to producer Todd Rundgren, who piles on enough cellos and vocal harmonies (by Flo and Eddie) that this occasionally suggests ELO, if they were sardonic, disgruntled twentysomethings (while "Sleep Comes Down" pays tribute to the Beatles). Even Butler seems a tad cheerier than usual, though "Love My Way" isn't quite the sunny song the production superficially suggests.
Glenn Gould, piano J.S. Bach: Goldberg Variations
Gould, always eager to exploit recording technology, made his second studio recording for Columbia of this work to take advantage of digital sound. Hearing his interpretation change after over a quarter-century had passed is fascinating; he takes some repeats (after utterly avoiding them before) and plays the opening/closing Aria much more slowly; the effect was to make this performance seem more expansive and contemplative, though largely his tempos otherwise were similar. His tone, though, had changed, mellower now. Later in '82 he suddenly died at age 50, and his Goldbergs immediately seemed like bookends on his remarkable Columbia career (though a few later recordings eventually were issued).
James Blood Ulmer: Odyssey
After two albums didn't take off, Columbia asked Ulmer to record Bruce Springsteen and Jimi Hendrix songs. In reaction, he delivered a radically different album with a trio of himself, electric violinist Charles Burnham, and drummer Warren Benbow. For this LP, Ulmer came up with his own personal guitar tuning, which he -- of course! -- called harmolodic tuning. All the strings are tuned to the same note, in three octaves. He plays droning basslines and jangling, angular rhythm riffs or lead lines at the same time. It's funky, but it's not funk. Burnham's violin gives it a country feeling at times, but it's not country by a long shot. It's definitely bluesy (especially on the tracks with his drawling vocals), but still not blues. It has the freedom of avant-garde jazz, but with structures and chord progressions. And it's bursting with energy. Paradoxically, Odyssey sold the most of his three Columbia records and so far is the only one to earn reissue, albeit briefly.
Juilliard Quartet Bartok: String Quartets
This was the Juilliard's third recorded Bartok cycle. They're all great, but this has the best sound (downright spectacular, I think). And it catches the group before leader Robert Mann's playing began to slip in his old age. There are quartets who embody the Hungarian rhythms more authentically, but for an X-ray presentation of these 20th-century masterworks, perfectly proportioned thanks to a thorough understanding (through long experience, obviously) of their structures, it's hard to beat these edgy, propulsive readings.
Midnight Oil: Red Sails in the Sunset
Who would have guessed that one of Columbia's most successful bands of the '80s would feature a chrome-domed Australian politician haranguing listeners about nuclear disarmament, U.S. imperialism, workers' rights, economic disparity, etc.? Their U.S. debut the previous year, 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1, had already garnered praise, but this LP was in a completely different league thanks to catchier melodies and more propulsive power chords, while the complex musical structures of the previous LP were reined in. Drummer Rob Hirst, kind of their secret weapon, laid down hard-hitting beats behind songs about militarism, the nuclear meltdown in Harrisburg (Pennsylvania), unchecked capitalism, and the like.
The Psychedelic Furs: Mirror Moves
Keith Forsey's production transformed the Furs into something brighter (synthesizers, drum machines) and more accessible, but below the shiny surface, shadows lurked. Sometimes bittersweet, sometimes paranoid, occasionally fearful, and often sarcastic, Richard Butler's singing and lyrics undercut everything upbeat about the production, and the dichotomy merely increased the depth of the band's fine songs.
Ensemble InterContemporain/Pierre Boulez Varese: Density 21.5; Offrandes; Octandre; Integrales
After departing the NY Phil, Boulez ran a new-music center in Paris sponsored by the French government. That institution's flexible ensemble is heard here, ranging from solo flute (Lawrence Beauregard) on the iconic "Density 21.5" to sextet on Octandre to soprano (Rachei Yakar) and chamber orchestra on Offrandes to small orchestra on Integrales.
The Bangles: All Over the Place
A quartet of women (yes, Michael Steele is female) who sprang from the Los Angeles "Paisley Underground," the Bangles' debut LP with its jangly guitars and soaring harmony vocals sports lots of '60s influences, from the Beatles and the Mamas & Papas to garage rock and folk, and includes a fine cover of the Merry-Go-Round's "Live." They would sell a lot more records in years to come, but many devout fans still consider this their best LP, and Kimberley Rew's "Going Down to Liverpool" their best song.
Bruce Springsteen: Born in the U.S.A.
The cheesy 'Dancing in the Dark" signaled the start of Bruce's decline, but it's hard to gainsay the rest, and the title track is a stark masterpiece.
Various Artists: USA for Africa: We Are the World
This is not really a good LP overall, but good intentions (or so one charitably [no pun intended] assumes), historical significance, and two must-have performances -- not the title track, certainly; rather, Prince's "4 the Tears in Your Eyes" and Springsteen's cover of Jimmy Cliff's "Trapped" -- get it on this list.
The Bangles: Different Light
Mixing an astutely chosen selection of songs by outside writers and fine band co-compositions, this became a surprise hit boasting four Top 40 singles. The opening track, Prince's "Manic Monday" (under the pseudonym "Christopher"), started things off by hitting #2 on the singles chart, with Susanna Hoffs taking the lead. The title track, with Vicki Peterson up front, kept the momentum going. "Walk Like an Egyptian" (written by Liam Sternberg) alternates vocals among Vicki, Michael, and Susanna and spent four weeks at #1. Susanna's "Walking Down Your Street" was the final hit. Those are the first four tracks, but the quality of the LP hardly lets up after that, with great versions of Jules Shear's "If She Knew What She Wants" and Alex Chilton's Big Star fave "September Gurls" interspersed among strong originals.
Fishbone: In Your Face
A unique genre-hopping mixture of punk, ska, funk, soul, and a few other styles here and there, this kicks off with the anthemic, unstoppable "When Problems Arise" and takes many twists and turns after that, even a good ballad ("Movement in the Light"). If the excitement and loose spontaneity the band was capable of in concert is not captured, well, this was their first full-length and hit like a bomb at the time.
Sonya Robinson: Sonya
Another dark horse, perhaps the most obscure artist on this list, Robinson is a classically trained violinist who incidentally was crowned Miss Black America in 1983. This album is produced and mostly written by guitarist Jean-Paul Bourelly. Robinson is the focal point and plays extremely well, but Bourelly's melodic funk and distinctive guitar playing are also great attractions on this mostly instrumental LP.
Midnight Oil: Diesel & Dust
Peter Garrett focused more strongly on Aboriginal issues here (as well as environmentalism) in the wake of a 1986 tour with Aboriginal group Warumpi Band through indigenous communities. That focus might seem parochial, but has obvious parallels with Native American rights in the U.S. and colonialism around the world. "Beds Are Burning," which calls for reparations and reconciliation, was a surprise Top 20 single in the U.S. (Columbia has just released a CD/DVD set of the album including a documentary about the tour with the Warumpi Band.)
Wendy and Lisa: Wendy and Lisa
In Prince's movie Purple Rain, two female members of his backing band The Revolution frequently bug him to listen to their music and include it in the band's set. The climax of the film comes when he finally does, the song being "Purple Rain." In real life, Prince wrote that song, but Wendy and Lisa really did write music. And when Wendy Melvoin (daughter of jazz pianist Michael Melvoin) and Lisa Coleman, with fellow Revolutionary Bobby Z co-producing and sometimes co-writing (And with Wendy's brother Jonathan sometimes on drums), finally went out on their own, their talent was clear. The production's resemblance to Prince's style was there, but hardly overwhelming, because they had their own style -- a cool, glossy, occasionally jazzy (the instrumental "White" features Tom Scott on soprano sax) sound. This LP is better than a bunch of Prince albums.
In 1988, CDs outsold LPs and CBS was bought by Sony. Two eras ended. The LP, however, eventually made a bit of a comeback. In the four-plus years the record store I work at has been open, we have quadrupled our bin space for new vinyl to meet growing demand. (Major labels have been slower to pick up on this than indie labels, and Sony/BMG has been slowest of all.) The LP may end up outlasting the CD, which is losing ground fast to electronic downloads. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer who splits his time between editing Culturecatch.com, working at the Williamsburg record store Sound Fix, and editing cognitive neuroscience books for Oxford University Press. No prizes for guessing which pays best.