Yes, I have too much time on my hands. Here's a new feature that was fun to put together (though quite time-consuming, which makes me worry about my ability to do this every month). I look back at rock, pop, and R&B albums that came out five years ago, ten years ago, etc.
There was much chaos surrounding the creation of this quintet 's second album. Bassist Bruce Palmer, in some ways the soul of the band, was unavailable due to a drug charge deportation, and a string of session players took his place. Stephen Stills, who saw himself as the leader of the group, was feuding with Neil Young, who considered himself an equal, and Young actually quit -- but returned. And that's without getting into the fiasco that was the band's management team.
Nonetheless, it was a quantum leap forward from their debut, especially for Young, whose collaborations with Jack Nitzsche, "Expecting to Fly" and "Broken Arrow," were recorded without the rest of the band except for one harmony vocal by Richie Furay. Aside from drummer Dewey Martin's anomalous feature "Good Time Boy" (written by Furay), every song is brilliant. Young's other contribution was the opening track, "Mr. Soul," one of the first rock tracks to wrestle openly with the dark side of fame. Furay was moving into country, and "A Child's Claim to Fame" includes dobro by James Burton. Stephen Stills was on his game with four fine tracks: the mildly psychedelic "Everydays," the epic "Bluebird" (complete with banjo), "Hung Upside Down" (Furay sings the verses, Stills the refrains), and the gorgeously layered "Rock & Roll Woman," co-written (though not credited as such) with David Crosby, who's also rumored to have sung harmony on it.
Other fine 10/67 releases:
Phil Ochs: Pleasures of the Harbor (his masterpiece)
Arlo Guthrie: Alice's Restaurant (much more than the shaggy-dog title track)
The Hollies: Butterfly (U.K. version; Graham Nash's farewell)
Nico: Chelsea Girl (solo debut full of excellent songs, though she hated the arrangements)
Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band: Gorilla (their debut, and the most intentionally funny album from England that year)
Pearls Before Swine: One Nation Underground (in case you'd like to hear "fuck" spelled out in Morse code)
Nina Simone: Silk & Soul (with the most heart-wrenching performance of 1967: "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free")
Judy Collins: Wildflowers (her best thanks to masterful song selection and her first self-written recordings)
Stevie Wonder: Talking Book (Motown)
Although he had been recording for a decade -- "Fingertips" had made him a star at age 13 -- Stevie Wonder was only 22 years old when this LP was released in October 1972. It quickly shot him to a new level of fame, with two No. 1 singles ("Superstition" and "You Are the Sunshine of My Life") on Billboard's Pop chart -- his first since his initial hit, "Fingertips," in 1963. It began an amazing five-year peak period of creativity and commercial success.
It also marked his full emergence (begun on his preceding release, Music of My Mind) as a mature, in-control artist, as opposed to a young talent guided by Motown's producers. Not incidentally, there was a concurrent tendency to play most of the instruments himself (although, amid the many overdubbed parts by Wonder himself, there are scattered contributions by a select group of guests including guitarists Jeff Beck, Ray Parker, Jr., and Buzzy Feiten and alto saxophonist Dave Sanborn). The result was not only the blossoming of an innovative, instantly distinctive sound, heavy on the Hohner clavinet (an electric piano) and ARP and Moog synthesizers. There is also a political edge, heard here on the bitter "Big Brother," that went beyond the more optimistic statements of, say Marvin Gaye. Even "Superstition" draws on that socio-political awareness to a degree.
But Wonder's lyrical focus remained strongly fixed on relationships, whether celebratory -- "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" (which won a Grammy), "I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)" -- or documenting disappointment -- "Maybe Your Baby," "Tuesday Heartbreak," "You've Got It Bad Girl." Some of Wonder's most sensual melodies are featured, with the slippery accompanying synths making the ballads wonderfully mellow. For variety, of course, he could be deeply funky without being clichéd, with "Superstition" -- the clavinet jam -- and "Maybe Your Baby" grooving especially hard.
Talking Book operates at a level most artists never come near. That it's arguably only Wonder's third-best album (after Innervisions and Songs in the Key of Life) just proves what a genius he was in the 1970s.
Genesis: Foxtrot (In the top three Genesis albums, this was the band's great leap forward, framed by the dramatically brooding "Watcher of the Skies" and the epic "Supper's Ready," perhaps the greatest prog-rock suite)
Santana: Caravanserai (Santana's least typical album, but also my favorite for its dream-like fusion tracks)
Miles Davis: On the Corner (Miles moved into a more abrasive and rhythmic style)
Al Green: I’m Still in Love with You (more smooth soul from the master, with a surprise cover of Kris Kristofferson's "For the Good Times")
Steely Dan: Can’t Buy a Thrill (they would get better, but their debut's still a favorite for its soul sound)
Bread: Guitar Man (a more bittersweet offering than their norm on their last album before a hiatus)
Captain Beefheart: Clear Spot (with Ted Templeman -- producer of the Doobie Brothers, Van Morrison, and later Van Halen -- at the helm, the Captain got his cleanest-sounding album, and his most soul-oriented)
The Raspberries: Fresh (more tuneful ditties by the masters of Beatlesque pop)
Electric Light Orchestra: Out of the Blue (Jet/United Artists [later Columbia])
One of leader Jeff Lynne's two favorite ELO albums. How often is a double LP a band's best-selling album? It had four hit singles: the Beatlesque opener "Turn to Stone," "Mr. Blue Sky" (the whimsical crowning section of a side-long suite entitled Concerto for a Rainy Day), the nostalgic "Wild West Hero," and "Sweet Talkin' Woman" with its prototypical ELO sound. Pretty good for a 17-track album supposedly written in less than four weeks and recorded in two months, which might not sound so amazing until you hear how densely complex the arrangements are.
My favorite track here isn't one of the singles. "Sweet Is the Night" is just an amazing song that I can only describe as what Born to Run-era Springsteen would have sounded like had he been a classically trained middle-class Englishman.
The Heartbreakers: LAMF (the paradox of one of the most important NYC punk bands making its only studio album in England)
Kansas: Point of Know Return (much more than "Dust in the Wind," this and the band's previous album are high points in the history of American progressive rock)
David Bowie: Heroes (the middle album in Bowie's Krautrock trilogy)
Meat Loaf: Bat Out of Hell (yeah, it's bombastic -- that's the whole point)
Sex Pistols: Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols (what was supposed to kick off the British punk movement was so delayed that it might have ended up as an afterthought, but it was too powerful to ignore)
Neil Young: Decade (back when artist compilations had only the hits, on this three-LP set Young pioneered an approach mixing hits with unreleased material and new recordings)
Queen: News of the World ("We Will Rock You"/"We Are the Champions")
Donna Summer: Once Upon a Time (a disco double LP concept album)
Randy Newman: Little Criminals (far, far more than the jokey hit "Short People"; the chilling "Germany Before the War" is based on the classic Fritz Lang child murderer movie M)
Santana: Moonflower (a double LP mixing concert and studio tracks, including a cover of the Zombies' "She's Not There")
Blue Oyster Cult: Spectres (their funniest song, "Godzilla," and their most beautiful, "I Love the Night")
Dead Boys: Young Loud and Snotty (classic NYC punk -- even though the members were from Ohio and the best song, "Sonic Reducer," was co-written by Pere Ubu's David Thomas)
Art Garfunkel: Watermark (an underrated album of Jimmy Webb tunes -- when it didn't sell, it was reissued in '78 with a lovely cover of Sam Cooke's "(What a) Wonderful World")
Prince: 1999 (Warner Bros.)
This double LP, which turned Prince from a critic's darling to a mainstream star, was his first with backing band The Revolution, at least the first credited as such (though in backwards type). At that point, it included guitarist Dez Dickerson, bassist Mark "Brownmark" Brown, keyboardists Lisa Coleman and Matt "Doctor" Fink, and drummer Bobby Z.
What made Prince a star were the Top 10 singles "Little Red Corvette" and "Delirious." The former was significant as one of the few MTV videos at the time to feature a black artist; breaking through in that then-new medium gave his career a big boost. The latter song is one of the many tracks in Prince's innovative dance style that was much-imitated over the next few years; others include the title track, "Let's Pretend We're Married," and "DMSR" (standing for dance, music, sex, romance).
However, the album's stylistic breadth is also impressive. The sexual/revenge fantasy "Lady Cab Driver" was the first hardcore funk track on a Prince album. The moody "Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)" has the most futuristic, electronic sound here. The anthemic "Free" showed he could do power ballads; the bedroom ballad "International Lover" continued his expertise in weird extended sex metaphors.
Obviously there were some stylistic antecedents, but when this album came out, it sounded like nothing else on the airwaves. Prince had taken various strands of rock, R&B, and electronica and molded them into a distinctive new style.
Hall & Oates: H2O (the duo's '80s renaissance peaked with this album's "Maneater," the best-charting single of their career)
Donald Fagen: The Nightfly (Steely Dan mastermind's first solo album sported a '50s theme)
Adam Ant: Friend or Foe (first solo album of Adam & the Ants' frontman featured "Goody Two Shoes")
Marvin Gaye: Midnight Love (his first non-Motown album sadly proved to be his last album before his death; its production style was innovative and influential)
The Fixx: Shuttered Room (debut of this English New Wave band featured "Stand or Fall" and "Red Skies")
Bauhaus: The Sky’s Gone Out (third album from the Goth pioneers kicks off with a brilliant cover of Brian Eno's "Third Uncle")
The Damned: Strawberries (pioneering punks' fifth album was last of classic early period with Captain Sensible and Paul Gray)
Joni Mitchell: Wild Things Run Fast (her last great album; too bad iTunes only has it in a box set)
Sting's best-selling album. His jazzy rock style tilts far more in the direction of jazz on the cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Little Wing," where -- unlike the rest of the album -- Sting is backed by the Gil Evans Orchestra, a big band that had made a specialty of epic, timbrally vivid versions of Hendrix classics. NTLS also found him reunited with his Police bandmate Andy Summers, who contributes guitar to a few tracks.
The hit, "We'll Be Together," was an anomaly; there's an unavoidable suspicion that it was included on the album specifically and solely to be its hit single. Its dance tone doesn't fit in here, where even the political tracks have an unusual intimacy, especially the quiet nobility of "They Dance Alone." That and a few other songs here came from visiting South American during an Amnesty International tour. The more personal songs -- the album is dedicated to Sting's then-recently deceased mother -- tend to low-key introspection, with even the love songs rather dark in tone. Oddly but lovably, one of the standout tracks is "Englishman in New York," about the legendary Quentin Crisp.
Bruce Springsteen: Tunnel of Love (quite underrated, perhaps because Bruce recorded most of it himself using synthesizers and drum machines; the songwriting, partly documenting the breakup of his marriage, is superb, especially "Brilliant Disguise" and "One Step Up")
Joe Satriani: Surfing with the Alien (one of the greatest rock guitar instrumental albums)
Earth, Wind & Fire: Touch the World ("System of Survival" and "Thinking of You" showed EWF hadn't lost touch with the charts)
INXS: Kick (when dance-rock wasn't an oxymoron yet, these Australians were among the best at it, with four hits here: "New Sensation," "Never Tear Us Apart," "Devil Inside," and "Need You Tonight")
Less industrial and less noisy than in this Texas-born/Chicago-based quartet's early days, this is nonetheless a bracing sonic assault, and no compromise even if the tracks sound more like actual songs at times. Vocalist David Yow certainly isn't holding back; to call what he does "singing" is almost a misnomer as he yelps, howls, growls, grunts, and shouts his way through blurted-out anthems of alienation.
Prince: O+> (the first single was "My Name Is Prince," but soon he would adopt the unpronounceable album title "love symbol" as his name; nonetheless, you've gotta admire a guy who dares to not only make a song called "Sexy Motherfucker" [though of course it's "Sexy MF" on the track list] but also release it as a single)
Neil Young: Harvest Moon (after years of evading expectations, he finally made an album of pretty folk-rock songs)
Neneh Cherry: Homebrew (hip-hop, funk, rock, and jazz collide; college radio hit "Trout," a duet with Michael Stipe, includes samples from Steppenwolf and Led Zeppelin)
R.E.M.: Automatic for the People (their most overrated album, but some of you will bitch at me if I omit it)
The Sundays: Blind (the English alternative rock band's darkest, most dream-pop release, featuring an atmospheric cover of the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses")
Soul Asylum: Grave Dancers Union (it was this album's "Runaway Train" that made them stars, but "Somebody to Shove" that most pleased old fans)
King Crimson: The Great Deceiver (not many bands could release a box set of four CDs of concerts from 1973-4 and get away with it, but the magnificent bombast of guitarist Robert Fripp, violinist David Cross, bassist/vocalist John Wetton, and drummer Bill Bruford is as good as prog-rock gets)
Art Alexakis had made some fine, gritty indie albums that put him on music-lovers' radar, but I don't think anybody expected this. Of course, in the wake of his mainstream breakthrough, accusations of Nirvana-ripoffery flew fast and furious, but though the similarities are there, I think he came by them honestly. I had the good fortune to hear him play solo around this time -- just him and his guitar in a small club -- and he was the real deal: his songs were so strong that they'd work in any style, with his lyrics depicting the dark side of the California dream, full of drugs both prescribed and street, growing up in a broken family, being poor, feeling like a loser, dreaming of a better life against all the odds. It was a perfect storm of alienation, but so well written that it was uplifting. Sparkle and Fade had been Everclear's breakthrough album; this one was more polished (even horns on one track!), but just as good.
Janet Jackson: The Velvet Rope (we already knew Janet liked to get busy; this is where we learned she was kinky)
Aphex Twin: Come to Daddy (Richard James brought welcome weirdness to dancefloor electronica, but also at times a rare kind of musical poetry)
Will Oldham: Joya (his first album under his own name didn't change things from his Palace Music style)
The Corrs: Talk on Corners (my Irish pop guilty pleasure)
The Flaming Lips: Zaireeka (four CDs designed to be played simultaneously; has anybody who wasn't stoned ever done this?)
Not only is this one of the most dazzlingly beautiful albums ever, it's also a thought-provoking concept album. Singer Jónsi uses a made-up language, Hopelandic, throughout; all tracks and the album itself are untitled; and even the pages of the booklet are mostly blank, theoretically so listeners can write the lyrics they think they hear. In an age when everything gets analyzed to death, this Icelandic band made an album completely open to interpretation.
Of course, one need not ponder the philosophical implications of (). The textural richness of the band's post-rock arrangements, and the evocativeness of its melodies -- with Jónsi's voice nearly functioning like a horn -- make it endlessly engrossing, like a cross between Brian Eno's ambient albums, Explosions in the Sky's crescendoing riffs, and early Radiohead ballads. There have been imitators, but nobody has equaled this album's impact.
Broken Social Scene: You Forgot It in People (these Canadians brought a richness and complexity and polish to indie-rock that had rarely been heard in such precincts; this, their second album, remains their best)
Christina Aguilera: Stripped (the first album where she exercised creative control, resulting in raunchier tracks -- notably "Dirrty" -- but also some more personal songs, especially the hit "Beautiful")
The All-American Rejects: s/t (indie release whose "Swing, Swing" got them signed by Interscope)
Elvis Costello & the Imposters: Cruel Smile (a collection of "airshots, imposter mixes, studio mysteries, world tour highlights")
The Libertines: Up the Bracket (a welcome reminder that drunken and/or doped up wastrels can occasionally manage to make compelling music)
Tori Amos: Scarlet's Walk (that it's a concept album about womenhood didn't matter as much as that it was a return to her old sound)
Eminem: 8 Mile (okay, it's a soundtrack, not exactly an Eminem album, but his four tracks here are his best work)
This was my favorite album of 2007. It was surprising to learn that Sharon Jones was born in 1956 (or '58 -- sources vary), because she sounds like she's a late-'60s/early-'70s soul-funk vet. The soulful inflections of gospel are fully ingrained in her style, and the Dap-Kings are mighty authentic as well. They command a variety of styles, too, from James Brown funk to Motown pop to Stax soul, and most of the tracks (except the final track, a gospel tune) are written by band members -- they don't need covers to send listeners back in time. The way Jones sings the melodies, it seems like she had input too, even if not credited as a songwriter, because they sound half-improvised; throw in all of the added timbral color from her inflections and phrasing, and these songs achieve transcendence.
Phosphorescent: Pride (the feeling that things are on the verge of falling apart, accents the edgy undercurrent in Matthew Houck's poetic lyrics.)
Old Time Relijun: Catharsis in Crisis (more than just a post-punk revivalist, OTR leader Arrington de Dionyso’s musical vision is highly original)
Sally Shapiro: Disco Romance (old-school Italo-electro-disco from Sweden that's cute and charming and catchy as hell)
Radiohead: In Rainbows (more important as a symbol of indieness than musically speaking, but an enjoyable listen)
Orgone: The Killion Floor (three ace '70s covers, especially "Funky Nassau," plus originals with hip-hop sensibility and African grooves) - 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.