I began writing this post several months ago, in January, carried along on the brief rush of excitement that comes with a new year. “2015! How about noting a bunch of anniversaries of great albums?” And, in fact, one of the great strengths of Progarchy.com is the sense of music history and the awareness of anniversaries: “Forty year ago….thirty years ago….twenty-five years ago…twenty years ago…”, as opposed to the dominant model out there, which is “Forty minutes ago…thirty seconds ago…twenty tweets ago…” But then life overwhelmed me and the burst of focused energy dissipated for a while. Now it’s back. Best strike while the vinyl is hot—or something along those lines.
The idea here is very simple: I listen to hundreds of new albums every year, along with hundreds of older albums that I come back to for various reasons; but how much of that music has real staying power? And what, in the end, makes a person return repeatedly to This Album rather than That Album? Sure, of course it is because of impeccable taste and a rare instinct for timeless music. (Duh.) But there is a wonderful mystery to it all, for so much of what resonates in a particular album comes from accidental things: the time, the place, the event, the moment. Certain songs bring back great memories; certain songs make you want to jump off a cliff (yes, I’m looking at you, Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical”).
But it isn’t simply a matter of nostalgia, which can only go so far; it is, I hope, more often a matter of discovery, of hearing something new—or, in some cases, hearing something old and suddenly hearing it. Really hearing it.
My criteria is this: what albums from 60, 50, 40, 30, 25, 20, and 10 years ago do I still listen to now on a regular basis? And never tire of hearing? And why? With that, here goes!
1955: In the Wee Small Hours by Frank Sinatra and It’s a Blue World by Mel Tormé. I was not raised on Sinatra’s music; quite the contrary—I was raised on decent hymns and mediocre to rotten “Christian” music; I hardly paid attention to Top 40 pop and rock until I was in junior high. And I didn’t really listen to Sinatra or Tormé until a dozen years ago. Prior to that, I simply didn’t “get it”. Then I did. Why? I’m not sure. But since then, I’ve collected some 1300 Sinatra songs. The Chairman of the Board produced many classic albums, but this one is my personal favorite: dark, lush, aching, beautiful, gut-wrenching, perfect. I sometimes fall to sleep listening to it, especially when it’s 2:00 in the morning and I’m wide awake. Sinatra had the rare gift of making you, the listener, believe The Voice was singing only to and for you. It’s impossible to describe; it simply has to be heard and experienced. And don’t forget: Sinatra is the God Father of Prog. Really. Sinatra, by the way, was born a hundred years ago this year.
Tormé did not have the edge or darkness of Sinatra, nor did he ever plumb the depths of emotional despair as did the legend ten years his senior. But Tormé had range, talent, and genius to burn, not just as one of the greatest vocalists of the 20th century, but also as an accomplished songsmith (he penned 250 songs or so), fabulous arranger, top-notch drummer (and decent pianist), novelist, biographer, author, actor, screen writer, consummate showman, and collector (guns, cars, movies, etc.). It’s a Blue World is a lush, impeccable set of songs, likely influenced by Sinatra’s Wee Small Hours. While Sinatra packs an emotional punch, Tormé thrills with pure beauty and dazzling musicality, all delivered with an effortless ease that reminds me of watching Roger Federer play tennis at Wimbledon. Bing Crosby, asked late in life to name his favorite musicians, named only one vocalist–Tormé–saying, “Any singer that goes to hear this guy sing has got to go and cut his throat.” For a taste, check out Tormé singing Duke Ellington’s “I’ve Got It Bad, And That Ain’t Good”.
1965: Maiden Voyage by Herbie Hancock. I will always be grateful that I was able to see Herbie Hancock in concert a few years ago as he has long been one of my favorite jazz artists. Hancock, who is still going strong at the age of 75, was just 24 years old when he recorded this legendary album (his fifth as a leader), which featured trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams—with whom Hancock played as part of Miles Davis’ astounding 1960s quintet (saxophonist George Coleman also appears on the album). The five songs are meant to evoke the ocean, and they do so in mysterious fashion; the modal-based music is restless and searching, with memorable melodies and a top flight solos. As with Davis’ “Kind of Blue”, there is a timeless, transcendent quality to the entire album, and the influence of Davis on his young pianist is noted in this March 2015 piece on the Blue Note site: “[Hancock’s] windblown, undulating, intentionally low-key environment proceeds from the belief, acquired from Davis, that a minimal setting can inspire all kinds of meaningful musical conversations.” Good songs can take you away for a few minutes, but great albums are able to transport you to another place—even when that place cannot really be described or defined. This is one of those albums for me; it never fails to transport, as if sailing on a dusk-kissed sea. As a bonus for rock/prog fans: Toto covered the song on their 2002 album “Through the Looking Glass”.
1975: Köln Concert by Keith Jarrett and A Night At The Opera by Queen. First, the similarities: both albums include piano and some truly fantastic melodies. Oh, and both feature mercurial, genius front men and both sold millions of copies (Jarrett performed solo, but I figure that counts as being a “front man”). Köln Concert is the album that launched a thousand more ECM albums, being the biggest-selling solo piano album ever recorded (3.5 million copies and counting). Not bad for an evening of improvised piano music by a sleep-deprived Jarrett playing on a sub-par piano! The American musician, playing in Germany, coaxes forth gorgeous, on-the-fly compositions incorporating jazz, classical, folk, gospel, and even some country, creating a cascading mosaic of sound that builds in a series of layers, like Andrew Wyeth laying down layer upon layer of thin but brilliant tempera paint. A must have for any serious music collection.
Queen’s fourth album, meanwhile, was reportedly the most expensive album ever made at the time, featuring layers upon layers of sound (vocals! guitars! more vocals!), most dramatically in “Bohemian Rhapsody”, the enduring fame of which hardly needs to be detailed here. But the entire album is wildly, maddeningly brilliant, from the snarling “Death On Two Legs” (“You suck my blood like a leech….”) to the ragtime-y “Lazing On a Sunday Afternoon” and “Seaside Rendezvous” (there’s that piano!) to the big love song (“You’re My Best Friend”) to the intimate love song (“Love Of My Life”) to the massive rock-opera nuttiness of “Rhapsody”. One critic aptly described it as “prog rock with a sense of humour as well as dynamics”, which captures what I enjoy about Queen at their best: they are prog-gish, they rock, they are funny and poignant, and they know how to write a great tune. I never tire of Mercury and Company, especially the first five albums.
1985: Welcome To the Real World by Mr. Mister and Hounds of Love by Kate Bush. Mr. Mister’s hit album (it climbed to #1 on the American charts in early 1986) landed smack dab in the middle of my high school years, and was a key part of the soundtrack of my life at that time, along with albums by The Moody Blues, ELO, Steve Winwood, Asia, and Kansas. While many popular rock albums of the time were dominated by tunes about young love (Journey!), lust (Van Halen!), and more lust (Mötley Crüe!) that were about as deep as a bird bath in the Sahara, Richard Page and Company stood out with their unique brand of sophisticated, sparkling art-rock that was as cerebral and spiritual as it was catchy and radio friendly. This was an album that rewarded multiple listens, and I listened to it repeatedly; it is still as fresh sounding now as it was then, which is remarkable. The musicianship is, of course, sensational, and the lyrics were often far deeper than one might expect, with songs about birth (title song), spiritual journeying (“Kyrie”), the struggles of love (“Black/White”), and the sacrificial nature of love (“Broken Wings”). And, as prog fans know, drummer Pat Mastelotto has been with King Crimson since 1994 and has appeared on some 20 albums with that legendary group.
If Mr. Mister was producing sophisticated, sparkling art-rock, Kate Bush was busy producing sophisticated, sparkling, weird, daring, and mind-melting prog-pop-art-rock. Bush had already established herself as a one-of-a-kind singer and songwriter, but with Hounds of Love she took everything to another world. I didn’t start really listening to Bush until the early ’90s, and perhaps it’s just as well; I’m not sure I could have wrapped my head around songs such as “Running Up That Hill” and “Cloudbursting” (“You’re like my yo-yo/That glowed in the dark/What made it special /Made it dangerous”) in my teens. Like so much of Bush’s music, it’s an album that transports. Bush is one of those remarkable musicians who can create an entire world, and then convey it without compromising at all. Every time I listen to this album, I have to brace myself a bit, as it is like stepping into an alternate universe. If Sinatra makes you believe he is singing to you, Bush can make you believe she is singing right through you.
1990: faith hope love by King’s X and Circle Slide by The Choir. How strange it is that these two albums were released in the same year, if only because both groups are criminally underrated and largely ignored, both groups came out of the CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) world, and both albums are about as far from standard CCM as I can imagine—yet remain distinctively Christian without ever being preachy or pious (faith hope love is #52 in the 2001 book, CCM Presents: The 100 Greatest Albums in Christian Music, but don’t let that frighten you if you’re allergic to CCM). Quite the contrary. I discovered both bands while attending Bible college (1989-91), and they opened up new musical windows for me. faith hope love was the third album from King’s X, whose first five albums or so are essential, in my opinion, for anyone who values intelligent hard rock with prog influences, along with deep dives into blues, metal, and Beatles-flavored pop (most notably in the killer vocal harmonies). Listen to just the first minute of “We Are Finding Who We Are” and you hear it all: the riffs, the vocals, the lyrical depth, the fabulous rhythm parts. Songs such as “It’s Love” feature the proggy time signatures, weird tunings, and layers of rich sound. At their zenith, King’s X matched musical swagger with lyrical vulnerability in a rare way. I never tire of hearing this one!
While faith hope love certainly has threads of melancholy woven into the power chords and crazily tuned riffs, Circle Slide is an album drenched in longing, fragility, and sweet sadness. Not quite 40 minutes long, it’s a sneaky album; nothing is immediately remarkable or grabbing, but it slowly and surely weaves a spell, somewhat akin to what I experienced with The Church’s Gold Afternoon Fix, which also released in 1990. Every song has a memorable melody, which drifts through a golden haze of atmospheric guitar; the shimmering sound is paired with lyrics filled with regret, questioning, and stuttering spiritual steps. The final song, “Restore My Soul”, is a modern-day psalm, filled with existential crisis and poetic starkness:
I call to you
With one lung exploded
From breathing the dust of the earth
With my tongue eroded
From licking the crust of the earth
A tear away from reconciled
A prayer away from whole
Restore my soul…
1995: The Bends by Radiohead and Gone by Dwight Yoakam. Although OK Computer is my favorite Radiohead album, in part because it was my introduction to the band, The Bends is a close second. In my mind, it’s the best demonstration of Radiohead as a rock band; OK Computer marked a turn toward electronica, jazz, and other forms of music that came to startling fruition with Kid A and Amnesiac. Radiohead is, of course, one of the greatest bands of the past twenty years; really, of the past fifty years. What sets this album apart for me is the raw energy, which has been focused with sophistication and power into the two opening songs, “Planet Telex” and “The Bends”, then condensed into the diamond-like lament, “High and Dry” (apparently one of Thom Yorke’s least favorite songs, one written before Radiohead formed). While bands such as Coldplay and Travis were able to imitate certain elements of Radiohead, very few can touch the breadth and depth of Yorke and Co.
I hold to a rather severe line of demarcation when it comes to country music. I think Top 40 country music today is, with only a couple of exceptions (Brad Paisley comes to mind), complete farmyard slop. In high school I listened to Johnny Cash, Johnny Horton (two of the few artists my father and I could agree on), and some Jim Reeves. It took me a while to appreciate Yoakam’s early mix of twang and punk, but I soon realized that Yoakam–who came to the so-called “Bakersfield sound” via Kentucky and Nashville—was a gutsy trailblazer, not a bloodless imitator. Gone, his seventh album, built on the cocky mix of traditional country, cosmopolitan country, tex-mex, bluegrass, and roots rock found in This Time (1993) and took it even further. It demonstrated, among other things, that Yoakam is one of the best songwriters in the genre, with a gift for dry wit (“Sorry You Asked”, “Baby Why Not”), bemused romanticism (“Near You”), and raw heartbreak (“Nothing”, “Heart of Stone”), delivered with a rare combination of attitude, subtlety, and vulnerability. Where much country music wallows clumsily in base emotion, Yoakam works like an accomplished boxer around the edges, giving hints and glimpses, thus bringing a mature and world-wise feel to an album full of great songs. And I’m happy to say that his most recent release, Second Hand Heart (2015), continues an impressive run of great to classic albums by this iconic artist.
2005: Out of Exile by Audioslave. It ain’t Soundgarden, in either scope or ear-melting brilliance, but it never tried to be. After a shaky but respectable debut, supergroup Audioslave produced a sophomore album that was lean, confident, and even expansive in places. As Chris Cornell continued to rebuild a legendary voice damaged by heavy drinking and smoking (he finally beat the demons shortly before Audioslave went full tilt), he also continued to demonstrate his ability to write memorable rock songs with big hooks that draw a bit from Led Zep and a bit more from alternative rock. Tom Morello shines with throw-back, throw-down riffs (“Your Time Has Come”, The Worm”) while the Commerford-Wilk rhythm section is all muscle and sinew, with absolutely no fat. Morello’s solos occasionally annoy with indulgence, but those few moments are obliterated by Cornell’s powerful and elastic vocals, which are front and center in all their raw, wailing glory. While Cornell had demonstrated his facility for mainstream rock and even pop in previous work outside of Soundgarden, his work with Audioslave brought forward his affinity for the blues, something he has developed even more in subsequent years. At the end of the day, I tend to view the three Audioslave albums as a single block of good to great music, a necessary act of revitalization that actually succeeded, unlike supergroup forays.
The things that I’ve loved the things that I’ve lost
The things I’ve held sacred that I’ve dropped
I won’t lie no more you can bet
I don’t want to learn what I’ll need to forget
— “Doesn’t Remind Me” — Audioslave