FIVE-YEAR PLAN: November albums

1967

Jefferson Airplane: After Bathing at Baxter's (RCA)

This was the Airplane's second LP of 1967, and on it they took the studio freedom their two huge hit singles had earned them and went wild and unsupervised, making a real psychedelic album rather than the carefully contrived simulation of psychedelia that had been Surrealistic Pillow. The result had more avant-garde weirdness than hit singles (RCA had unrealistic hopes for "Watch Her Ride"), but the album actually coheres far better; for all the stylistic disjunctions and studio effects and Jorma Kaukonen's often-abrasive guitar sounds, and for that matter the nine-minute instrumental trio improvisation "Spare Chaynge," it flows organically, creating its own logic.

Cream: Disraeli Gears (I'm not even a Cream fan and I still have to acknowledge the brilliance of "Strange Brew," "Sunshine of Your Love," "Tales of Brave Ulysses," and "Swlabr")

Moody Blues: Days of Future Passed (early blast of prog-rock, and Mellotron)

Beatles: Magical Mystery Tour (Because George Martin knew the best and the Beatles could certainly afford to hire the best, David Mason, Elgar Howarth, Roy Copestake and John Wilbraham are the trumpeters on the title track. Just thought you should know that.)

Temptations: In a Mellow Mood (the Motown quintet's mainstream pop move, as dictated by Berry Gordy)

13th Floor Elevators: Easter Everywhere (Roky Erickson before his mind was blown apart; a classic of psych)

Love: Forever Changes (overrated, but the three Bryan McLean tracks are great)

Country Joe & the Fish: I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die ("And it's 1-2-3 what are we fightin' for?/Don't ask me, I don't give a damn/Next stop is Vietnam")

1972

Joni Mitchell: For the Roses (Asylum)

This was Mitchell's commercial breakthrough, but the song that became her first top 40 hit, "You Turn Me On I'm a Radio," was written sarcastically after the label -- Asylum; it was her first album for her friend/roommate/manager David Geffen's new enterprise -- complained about the lack of a "radio-friendly" song that might be a hit single. She had, with her previous album, established herself as a darling of the critics, and other artists had hit the charts with Mitchell songs, but this was proof that she could be a mainstream star in her own right. "You Turn Me On I'm a Radio" made it all the way to #25.

Some of the rest of the album sounded like her previous work, with her self-accompaniment the sole backing at times, but jazzman Tom Scott's horns decorated some tracks, with "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire" (a portrait of a heroin addict) presaging the jazzy musical style she'd use most later in the decade (although, surprisingly, the guitarist is James Burton, known for his early rockabilly work with Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Rick Nelson, etc.). Among the other performers are not only the cream of L.A. sessions musicians (bassist Wilton Felder, drummer Russ Kunkel, percussionist Bobbye Hall). But there was also the "Rock 'n' Roll Band" paramour Stephen Stills single-handedly provided on "Blonde in the Bleachers" (his bandmate Graham Nash contributes harmonica to "You Turn Me On I'm a Radio," and their bandmate David Crosby had produced one of her early LPs -- though she became involved with all of them, she always maintained her independence). There was also a mild classical influence on "Judgment of the Moon and Stars (Ludwig's Tune)," including strings arranged by Bobby Notkoff that interject a few chordal accents over her piano accompaniment.

So how did Mitchell follow up this breakthrough? She went on hiatus for a year.

Grateful Dead: Europe '72 (it's impossible to pick the best live Dead album, but this one's up there, and was also Pigpen's farewell)

Neil Young: Journey through the Past (Neil has refused to reissue this patchwork double LP soundtrack, but it has some good live and rehearsal tracks)

Poco: A Good Feelin' to Know (that this album with its gorgeous title track did not make Poco superstars is one of the astonishing injustices of the era)

Carly Simon: No Secrets (her breakthrough, with "You're So Vain" inspiring gossipy theories regarding who it portrayed)

Lou Reed: Transformer (Reed's first LP after he left the Velvet Underground sank like a rock; here, his snarky wit made him a New York star)

1977

Eddie & the Hot Rods: Life on the Line (Island)

On their debut LP, they were pub rockers covering The Who, Joe Tex, and Sam Cooke, but with the energy of the punk rockers coming up at the same time. On their sophomore effort, already one of the most popular bands in London and with guitarist Graeme Douglas added and contributing scorching leads, their ambitions became grander. They led with the mighty anthem "Do Anything You Wanna Do," then kept up both the energy and the social commentary through most of the album. I'm not saying they were philosophers, but the rebellious, questioning stance of "Do Anything You Wanna Do," "Quit This Town," "What's Really Going On," "Ignore Them (Still Life)," "Life on the Line," and "And Don't Believe Your Eyes" greatly contributed to their popularity with the punks.

Of course, it helped that drummer Steve Nicol's speedy rolls, the fat yet agile tones of bassist Paul Gray (later of The Damned), and the chunky chording of rhythm guitarist Dave Higgs gave the band one of the most powerful rhythm sections of that time and place, and with Douglas's snarling solos and singer Barrie Masters's Everyman vocals on top, the band transcended categories. And for even more grandeur, there's the album-closing sequence of "We Sing...the Cross" and "Beginning of the End." This album is every bit as good as the contemporaneous releases of more deified groups that repeated themselves more.

Ramones: Rocket to Russia (their last with original drummer Tommy is arguably their best)

The Jam: This Is the Modern World (no sophomore slump here, even though this came just seven months after their debut LP; the title track is one of their greatest moments)

Earth, Wind & Fire: All 'n All (the bestselling R&B album of the year, thanks to "Serpentine Fire and especially "Fantasy" -- when EW&F went disco, they did it with all the sophistication of their decades as R&B masterminds)

Chic: Chic (Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers added a special sheen to disco)

Boz Scaggs: Down Two Then Left (following up on the success of Silk Degrees, Scaggs doubled down on his brand of smooth rock)

Saturday Night Fever soundtrack (the apex of disco's popularity may have cause a backlash, and it may have some dreadful filler, but it still holds up if you like the style)

Throbbing Gristle: The Second Annual Report (the freedom that punk brought allowed out-and-out avant-garde work like this grating masterpiece more of an open-minded audience than it might have found at any other time)

1982

Michael Jackson: Thriller (Epic)

Jackson was not satisfied with the level of popularity achieved by Off the Wall. He stated that he should have won Record of the Year at the Grammy Awards -- and felt driven to top this success. From that desire came the pop music juggernaut Thriller, again co-produced by Jackson and Jones. Jackson got what he wanted: Off the Wall had peaked at #3 on the LP chart, whereas Thriller spent 37 weeks at #1 and spawned seven Top Ten singles (the LP has nine songs): "Human Nature" (soon covered by jazz trumpeter Miles Davis), "Beat It," "The Girl Is Mine" (a duet with Paul McCartney), "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)," "Billie Jean," "Wanna Be Startin' Something," and the title track.

People had been criticizing MTV for not playing videos by black artists, but they couldn't ignore all of these songs, especially after Sony applied pressure, and "Billie Jean"'s exuberant paranoia swept the nation. And the guitar-heavy "Beat It" was a natural for MTV, with session ace Steve Lukather (Toto) laying down a gritty riff and Eddie Van Halen contributing a ripping guitar solo. Jackson's grandiose vision for "Beat It"'s West Side Story-inspired video, complete with 80 gang members and 18 professional dancers, was rejected by Sony as too expensive, but Jackson just went ahead and paid for it himself. The video for "Thriller" the song (written by Rod Temperton and featuring famed horror actor Vincent Price reciting the song's closing lines and delivering his trademark chilling laugh) went even farther, and its monumental long-form video (14 minutes for a 6-minute song!) filled with dancing zombies dominated MTV in 1984. The amount of mass choreography in "Beat It" and "Thriller" was unprecedented in music videos, though Jackson's massive success quickly inspired imitators.

Thriller stayed in the album charts for 80 weeks (1982-84) and turned Jackson from a music star to a celebrity phenomenon.

Siouxsie & the Banshees: A Kiss in the Dreamhouse (evolving from post-punk to psychedelia)

George Clinton: Computer Games (Clinton's first success outside the Parliament-Funkadelic framework found him incorporating electronic elements and scoring a surprise hit with "Atomic Dog")

1987

Sinead O'Connor: The Lion and the Cobra (Ensign/Chrysalis)

Before the extra-musical controversies, there was this: a perfect debut by a twenty-year-old unknown. The hit was "Mandinka," on which her voice agilely ping-ponged between registers. MTV playing the video on its alternative show 120 Minutes helped the Irish singer break through in the U.S., presenting her bold image -- complete with shaved head -- to the only audience here that was likely to embrace it. She never matched this album's power again, but how many people ever manage to make two songs as powerful as the hit single and "I Want Your (Hands on Me)"?

Ice-T: Rhyme Pays (the first hip-hop album with a Parental Advisory sticker; "Somebody Gotta Do It (Pimpin' Ain't Easy!!!)" helped define the style)

Kool Moe Dee: How Ya Like Me Now (ex-Treacherous Three frontman hit the jackpot with the title track, keyed to a sample of James Brown's "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag")

David Sylvian: Secrets of the Beehive (post-Japan, Sylvian became mellower, more eclectic, and way less interested in hit singles, all of which helps make this a beautiful, emotionally intimate album)

1992

Bob Dylan: Good as I Been to You (Columbia)

Nobody saw this one coming, not even Dylan himself. It was Dylan's first all-acoustic album in 28 years, and his first of all covers in 19 years. He'd made an album with David Bromberg producing and with band accompaniment, and the idea when Dylan started recording solo in his garage was to get a few of his traditional favorites on tape to mix in with the band tracks. He liked the minimal style so much, he kept going, and shelved the Bromberg material.

Besides the folk tracks, which were the sort of material he'd grown up with, he also included Stephen Foster's classic "Hard Times" and blues tunes that were of somewhat more recent vintage, though still ancient by rock standards. Dylan, it seemed, had become the sort of old-timey singer he'd grown up imitating. After a decade of critically disrespected albums, he pulled a U turn and made his best album since at least 1979, possibly 1976, depending on your tastes and your tolerance for his Christian phase.

Rage Against the Machine: Rage Against the Machine (heavy metal meets rap meets leftist activism)

Sade: Love Deluxe (her/the band's fourth album, continuing in their smooth Brit-soul style, full of beautiful songs)

1997

Let's just pretend that November 1997 never happened, musically speaking.

2002

Johnny Cash: American IV: The Man Comes Around (American)

The last album Cash released before he died, this is an uneven set that finds his ravaged voice (he'd been having serious health problems for at least four years) occasionally unsuitable for some of the material or the stark way in which it was arranged, but it all came together brilliantly on his cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt."

Godspeed You! Black Emperor: Yanqui U.X.O. (You've heard of "the old, weird America"? This is the young, weird Canada, an album of harsh instrumental post-rock.)

Jennifer O'Connor: Jennifer O'Connor (the first full-length album by the best songwriter in Brooklyn)

2007

Burial: Untrue (Hyperdub)

Dubstep, a product of and for London clubs, seemed a purely 12" medium until Burial started making albums. On this, his second full-length, Burial's sound became even more gloriously eccentric. Perhaps inevitably, it was attacked by some as not really being dubstep, but that's just purist nitpicking. There is more use of vocals this time out, though they are used in a dubby way (no verses and choruses), evocative rather than narrative or poetic. And partly because of that, the tracks are catchier and more specifically memorable – one remembers not just timbres and beats, but actual hooks. There's also a broader, occasionally brighter palette of timbres.

Blut Aus Nord:Odinist: The Destruction of Reason by Illumination (combined the avant-garde touches of previous LP MoRT with the band's black metal roots and traditional song structures)

Sigur Ros: Hvarf/Heim (half rarities compilation plus half acoustic versions of "hits" with the string quartet Amiina taking the place of electric guitars equals all beautiful)

Jay-Z: American Gangster (noted only because my friend Ron Sunshine plays harmonica on one track)

Bonnie "Prince" Billy: Ask Forgiveness (an EP of one original and seven covers, including such unlikely material as songs by Björk, R. Kelly, and Danzig) - Steve Holtje

steve-holtje

Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor. His song cycle setting five of James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach can be heard here.

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