One CEO’s 50 (or so) favorite pop albums

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Inspired by Brad’s fascinating and very New Wave-ish post “My 49 Favorite Pop Albums”, I decided to try my hand at listing the same. One difficulty, it turns out, is defining “pop”. Brad didn’t list Radiohead’s “OK Computer” (one of my Top 10 pop/rock albums) because he figured it was too proggy, which is hard to disagree with. But I have it in my list, and also included a couple more albums that are certainly in the realm of prog: “Queen II”, “Point of Know Return”, and “A Momentary Lapse of Reason”. But, on the whole, I think most everything here fits on the “pop” spectrum, even if it veers into rocky territory (Muse, Journey, Soundgarden) on occasion.

Also, I could have easily included several more albums by Sinatra and Torme, and I feel a bit guilty to not have anything by, say, Nancy Wilson, Sarah Vaughn, Rosemary Clooney, or Nat King Cole. But I’ve tried to capture a certain breadth chronologically while being true to what I like and return to. And that is a key criteria: all of these are albums I revisit and never tire of.  Finally, it might be surprising that the only artist who shows up here three times is Seal. But no Beatles? Rolling Stones? Simon and Garfunkel? Lady GaGa? Go figure!

1950s-60s:
Frank Sinatra: IN THE WEE SMALL HOURS (1955)
Frank Sinatra: SONGS FOR SWINGIN’ LOVERS! (1956)
Mel Tormé: IT’S A BLUE WORLD (1956)
Roy Orbison: IN DREAMS (1963)
Mel Tormé: THAT’S ALL (1965)

1970s:
Van Morrison: MOONDANCE (1970)
Elton John: ELTON JOHN (1970)
Queen: QUEEN II (1974)
Queen: NIGHT AT THE OPERA (1975)
Kansas: POINT OF KNOW RETURN (1977)
Electric Light Orchestra: OUT OF THE BLUE (1977)

1980s:
Journey: ESCAPE (1981)
ABBA: THE VISITORS (1981)
Asia: ASIA (1982)
The Police: SYNCHRONICITY (1983)
Big Country: THE CROSSING (1983)
Mr. Mister: WELCOME TO THE REAL WORLD (1985)
John Fogerty: CENTERFIELD (1985)
The Moody Blues: THE OTHER SIDE OF LIFE (1986)
Sting: NOTHING LIKE THE SUN (1987)
Pink Floyd: A MOMENTARY LAPSE OF REASON (1987)
Sam Phillips: THE INDESCRIBABLE WOW (1988)
Kate Bush: THE SENSUAL WORLD (1989)
Van Morrison: AVALON SUNSET (1989)

1990s:
The Choir: CIRCLE SLIDE (1990)
George Michael: LISTEN WITHOUT PREJUDICE, VOL. 1 (1990)
U2: ACHTUNG BABY (1991)
Seal: SEAL (1991)
Tori Amos: LITTLE EARTHQUAKES (1992)
Maria McKee: YOU GOTTA SIN TO GET SAVED (1993)
Chris Isaak: SAN FRANCISCO DAYS (1993)
The Cranberries: EVERYONE ELSE IS DOING IT, SO WHY CAN’T WE? (1993)
Sarah McLachlan: FUMBLING TOWARDS ECSTASY (1993)
Seal: SEAL (1994)
Portishead: DUMMY (1994)
Soundgarden: SUPERUNKNOWN (1994)
Jeff Buckley: GRACE (1994)
Jars of Clay: JARS OF CLAY (1995)
The Mavericks: MUSIC FOR ALL OCCASIONS (1995)
Duncan Sheik: DUNCAN SHEIK (1996)
Radiohead: OK COMPUTER (1997)
Seal: HUMAN BEING (1998)
Burlap to Cashmere: ANYBODY OUT THERE? (1998)
Moby: PLAY (1999)

2000 on:
Martin Sexton: LIVE WIDE OPEN (2002)
Muse: BLACK HOLES AND REVELATIONS (2006)
Brandi Carlile: THE STORY (2007)
A Fine Frenzy: ONE CELL IN THE SEA (2007)
Sia: SOME PEOPLE HAVE REAL PROBLEMS (2008)
Sara Bareilles: KALEIDOSCOPE HEART (2010)
Lake Street Dive: BAD SELF PORTRAITS (2014)
Kevin Max: BROKEN TEMPLES (2015)

The beautiful, subtle flight of One Thousand Wings

Making my way through the November 2013 issue of Prog (#40) a couple of weeks ago—it takes a while for it to swim across the Pond and trudge through the heartlands to the West Coast—I came upon a short review of the album, “White Moth Black Butterfly” (WMBB henceforth), from the group One Thousand Wings. I noted that the group was headed by ex-Tesseract vocalist Dan Tompkins, whose talents I discovered last year (Tesseract’s 2012 EP, “Perspective”), and then read that the reviewer believed WMBB to be “an absolutely essential work” and, in sum: “Experimental, accessible and quite brilliant, this ranks high among this year’s progressive releases.”onethousandwings_wmbb

Having now listened to WMBB a dozen times, I’d say the reviewer, if anything, undersells the brilliance of Tompkins’ album. And it is, really, Tompkin’s album, as he wrote nearly all the material, played most of the instruments, sang most of the vocals, and co-produced/mixed/edited as well. The One Thousand Wings Band Camp site tags WMBB with descriptives including ambient, cinematic, electronic, and experimental, and they indicate that while the album is “prog,” it is not guitar-driven, features nothing that resembles a solo, and is not really “rock” in any obvious way. While we tend to avoid needless labels here on Progarchy.com, I would suggest “ambient/folk electronica prog.” That aside, simply listen to the album on the Band Camp site.

Listening to WMBB, three other artists come to mind, the first two perhaps expected; the third likely not. Although Tompkins does not sound like Jeff Buckley, I would recommend to this album to Buckley fans, as Tompkins, first, has a tremendous and distinctive voice—clear, piercing, soothing, aching, lovely, strong, subtle, powerful—and, secondly, creates a distinct world, something Buckley did as well on “Grace” (one of my favorite albums, regardless of genre). I should note that the aforementioned  “Perspective” EP includes an impressive cover of Buckley’s “Dream Brother,” which can be viewed/heard on YouTube.

Secondly, there is a fleeting whisper of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke in the mix, specifically, his 2006 solo album, “The Eraser”. That album was far more abrupt and percussive and obviously electronica-ish than WmBB, but there are echoes (even if only in my head). But while “The Eraser” has a more overtly bristling and edgy quality, WMBB is guarded, like a candle fighting against an inevitable night. If Yorke is angry and sometimes snarling, Hopkins is wounded and searching; many of the songs might simply be described as “laments”. Finally—and this is strange—I’m reminded of George Michael. Much of that is due to vocals on songs such as “Equinox”, where Hopkins sounds just like Michael—at least a younger version (not the “Symphonica” version, from what I’ve heard). Take it for what it is!

Instrumentally, WMBB is a beautiful mixture of electronica and acoustic, with deep swells, rich textures, and subtle touches and details, usually in the form of tasteful acoustic guitar or ringing piano. As for lyrics, which is something I’m always interested in, it’s hard to tell as many of them are hard to make out. But the song titles—”Ties of Grace”, “Midnight Rivers”, “Certainty”, “Omen”, “Faith”, Paradise”—suggest some heavy duty rumination, perhaps just as much metaphysical as relational. Again, highly recommended!

Take an emotional, brilliant ride with Caligula’s Horse

I have, to the best of my knowledge, all of the less than two hours of music produced by the Australian group, Caligula’s Horse (website)—an hour and 44 minutes, to be exact, the sum total of their studio output so far. But whatever is lacking in quantity is more than made up for in outstanding quality. The group’s first, full-length album, Moments From Ephemeral City (2011), was attention-grabbing and quite memorable, featuring the virtuosity of guitarist (and band founder, producer, songwriter, etc.) Sam Vallen, and the powerful, soulful Jeff Buckley-ish vocals of Jim Grey, who apparently hails from the U.S. The two combine to create alternative prog that brilliantly marries technical prowess with emotional potency, compelling melodies, and lyrical mystery—always a winning combination in my book.

caligulashorse_ttttreWhile Moments was, again, exceptional—check out the song, “Alone in the World”, for example—the band’s new offering, The Tide, The Thief & River’s End, goes beyond exceptional. It is, as the reviewer at Murder the Dance rightly concludes, an “11/10” album: “Caligula’s Horse’s sophomore record is an exhilarating listen; the band in its entirely channel the emotions of their instruments throughout, and the structural dynamics here are constructed intelligently. However, it’s Grey and Vallen that truly shine on ‘The Tide, the Thief and the River’s End’. Their collective arsenal alone is enough to earn the band a perfect score.” I cannot improve on what another reviewer, over on the ProgArchives.com site, says about TTTTRE:

I put it to you that it does indeed compete and then some with this album and is sure to make my top albums of 2013 with Steven Wilson’s ‘The Raven that Refused to Sing (And Other Stories)’, Tesseract’s ‘Altered State’, and Haken’s ‘The Mountain’. But to those who haven’t heard the band before, what can you expect to hear? Caligula’s Horse possess the juggernaut riffing of Periphery, the delicate emotional sensibility of Pain of Salvation, the perfectly tasteful and never over or understated rhythm section of Porcupine Tree, all cast to the harmonic ingenuity of Steely Dan. Some of you may be reading this and getting a little excited, it is exciting – it’s downright awesome and executed flawlessly by a cohort of young yet seasoned masters.

The album is a concept album, but is not obvious or direct lyrically; an apparent theme is the oppression of women by religions, yet specifics are difficult to apprehend. All the better, in my opinion, as I prefer ambiguous, expressionist lyrics when it comes to rock music in general. That said, there is undoubtedly a deep sense of tension, urgency, and conflict within the lyrics, intermixed at times with glimpses of hope and a deepening resolve, as evidenced in the final lines of the concluding song, “All Is Quiet By the Wall”:

Hand in hand with our own
This is our home. This is our home
Let our sign say: “Let them come and meet their end”
Now the world is quiet, this is where we make our stand

My favorite cut is probably the second song, “Water’s Edge,” which has a bit of everything:

The band’s site states that Caligula’s Horse are influenced by “such artists as Devin Townsend, Opeth, Steely Dan, Jeff Buckley, Frost, Muse, Karnivool, Meshuggah, Rage Against the Machine, Pain of Salvation, Steeleye Span, the Beatles, Foo Fighters, Frank Zappa, the Dear Hunter, Steve Vai, Fair to Midland, Tori Amos, Lunatic Soul, Katatonia, Tracey Chapman, A Perfect Circle and many others…” I’m familiar, to one degree or another, with all of those groups/artists, and I can hear bits of most of them in the music. (Beatles’ fans can check out Vallen and Grey performing “Across the Universe”.)

Certainly Opeth, Karnivool, Pain of Salvation, Dear Hunter, Katatonia, and A Perfect Circle are readily evident, and any fan of those artists should check out Caligula’s Horse. Vocally, Buckley’s ghost is right in the ear, as this acoustic version of  “Silence” (from Moments…) aptly demonstrates: “I want to be ignorant to the frailty of my life/Days are grains of sand in a disciple’s hand/Looking out my window/Through the grey and lifeless sky/I know what I am…”:

Highly recommended!

The stunning molten lava from Anna Calvi’s mouth

After reading my e-mails this morning, I was left with some burning questions: How did I miss that Anna Calvi had a new album out? When would I get to hear it? Should I write about it?

Answers: I have no idea. Today. Yes.

If you’ve not heard of Calvi (website), here’s my short description: she is like the mysterious, nearly other-worldly, torch-singer-rocker-love child of Jeff Buckley and Kate Bush, or Freddie Mercury and Édith Piaf, with enough mystery, angst, and yearning for an entire band, which may explain why she usually performs as a spare trio (with a drummer and keyboardist/percussionist). A recent review in The Guardian of a live show captures it quite well, at least as well as can be managed with words:

Anna Calvi is a creature of contrasts. She says almost nothing between songs, breathing her thanks in a shy murmur – but when she sings, it’s as if molten lava were pouring from her mouth, a torrent of red-hot emotion. The sounds she conjures up from her guitar are crisp and precise – yet she plays with fluid motions, fingers rippling across frets, hand moving in circles across the strings. She is a vision of decorum, elegantly prim in tailored trousers and a long-sleeved blouse – but her songs drip with lust, voicing the cries of a body rejected, consumed, gripped by obsession.

Or, in other “words”, this (if you’re pressed for time, start watching at about 3:30):

Now, that is a lady with something going on deep, deep, deep inside! The Guardian reviewer further states, “It’s ridiculous that, after 60 years of rock’n’roll, a well-dressed woman wielding a guitar should still be such a rare sight as to be exciting in a primal, nerve-tingling way, but it is. She’s all the more commanding because her playing is so controlled…” Much of the uniqueness of Calvi is that the sum is far more than the parts, as good and unusual as many of the parts are. She is, in my estimation, one of those performers who completely transforms on the stage; in interviews she seems truly shy and almost apologetic (in this, she reminds of that Prince fellow). She has a voice that alternates between husky beckoning, whispered perplexity, and wailing anguish; when she fully unleashes a note, it’s a force of nature. Her guitar playing is both precise and wild, or perhaps it is precise but rendered with wild (but perfectly rehearsed) flourishes. Her appearance is somewhat androgynous and yet, ultimately, deeply feminine, as if she wishes to hide in dress what she prefers to reveal in song. Perhaps she is confused; perhaps she wishes to confuse (again, Prince comes to mind).

Regardless, the music ranges from very good to great, and her second album, “One Breath,” builds impressively on her eponymous debut. The music is again quite atmospheric, lush, and yet focused; the arrangements are intelligent and often complex, but they are accessible and attractive, even when discord and chaos are occasionally introduced. Calvi makes great use of silence; she is one of the few artists I know who will let silence be an obvious part of a song (in a way, this reminds me of jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal and his great admirer, a trumpet player named Miles Davis). Certain songs immediately stand out (“Suddenly,” “Eliza,” and “Tristan”) but this album is best heard as an operatic-like whole. The twist, if that’s the right word, is that Calvi bares her soul with unblinking ferocity and yet makes it warm and attractive and even magical, much like Kate Bush has done on some of her best albums (“The Hounds of Love” and “The Sensual World”). David Von Bader puts it well in his Consequence of Sound review:

The thing that sets Calvi apart from most virtuosic musicians is an ability to spin art out of technique without alienating the listener. Whether it be the percussive hammering of her guitar strings on “Tristan”, the emotional immediacy of her athletic vocals throughout the album, or the lush and occasionally noisy atmospheres, the album offers heaps of aural fiber without pretense or unnecessary complexity. One Breath is a dynamic statement from a young woman who could very well be the next David Bowie or Nick Cave. Much like the gilded aforementioned names, Calvi is an accomplished musician and composer, possesses an exceedingly well-developed artistic vision, and rounds the package out with a striking aesthetic. All that sets her in a class of her own as a young, exciting artist who should have strong material for years to come.

Agreed! As a bonus, here is Calvi performing Bruce Springsteen’s “Fire” live, with just an acoustic guitar to accompany:

And my concert of the year is…

No, no, no: this is not a post about choosing my favorite concert of 2013 out of fifty concerts attended—for the simple reason that I’ve not attended a single rock concert this year. Not one. (However, I did attend an organ concert a couple of months ago, and it was stunning. But that’s another post.) The fact is, I am one of those pathetic souls (I’m only being half-self-deprecating) who owns some 60,000 songs and has been to very few concerts over the years. In fact, I’ve attended so few relative to my love for music that the one concert that really stands out to me is one I missed: Jeff Buckley in Portland, Oregon, on May 8, 1995. I thought of going, but it was on a Monday night, I had to work early the next morning, I was newly married (and my wife wasn’t a Buckley fan)—and then Buckley drowned two years later. Rock concerts that stand out for the right reason—that is, I actually attended them—include Seal (1994), Martin Sexton (three times), Brandi Carlile (three times), and Def Leppard (1988). I’ve never attended a true prog concert, which probably should get me kicked off of Progarchy.com.

However, I’ve had better luck with jazz—my favorite musical form, when push comes to shove—having seen Herbie Hancock, Dave Holland, Brad Mehldau (twice), Michael Brecker, Roy Hargrove, and Wayne Shorter in concert, all here in Eugene, Oregon, of all places. Eugene, the home of the University of Oregon (or Nike, if you will), does have some big names drop in on occasion—Elton John was here a couple of years ago, as was the Dali Lama, who did not sing—but not many. Portland is two hours away, but rarely has prog groups perform, as far as I know.

All of which to say that my concert of the year is going to be a solo Chris Cornell show in a couple of weeks at The Shedd, a wonderful and intimate venue (see here and here) all of five minutes from my house. And, yes, my wife is going with me, because she’s game for hearing Cornell with just an acoustic guitar; I doubt she’d go for a Soundgarden gig. This is Cornell’s second “Songbook” tour, and his performances on the first tour earned rave reviews, leading to the release of the “Songbook” album, which featured plenty of great Cornell tunes and some covers (“Imagine”, “Thank You”, and “Billie Jean” being favorites). Cornell is a triple threat: a great rock singer, a fabulous (if often under appreciated) songwriter, and a fine interpreter who likes to go into surprising territory at times, as his cover of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” demonstrates (he first played it about ten years ago in Sweden). Those who have read my, ahem, detailed review of Soundgarden’s “King Animal” know that I find Cornell’s lyrics to be particular fascinating. A good example of the lyrical prowess is evident in a little known but intriguing Cornell song, “Scar on the Sky” from his second solo album, “Carry On”. Meanwhile, I plan to write about the concert, which will likely be free of prog but still long on great music.

As I fall I leave this scar upon the sky
A simple note for you, I’ll wait for your reply
And in your answer I’ll regain my will to try

So hover in the diving light
We will rip the night
Out of the arms of the sun one more time
Close your eyes and we will fly
Above the clouded sky
And over the dumbstruck world we will run

In these hills they wash the golden grains away
To the valley under all of this I lay
And may you dig me out unearthed and saved

A Pilgrim’s Prog-ress

I balked for a few moments at the temptation of writing an indulgent, long, complex, and idiosyncratic post about my journey to and into prog, and then realized: hey, this is Progarchy.com! If I cannot string together tenuously-related, semi-mystical concepts and conceits imbued with mythical overtones, quasi-autobiographical meta-narratives, and intertwining (and purposely confusing) philosophical musings here, then what’s the point of this wonderful blog? (No need to answer that, as I’m already soloing  on my inner Moog without regard for the boring 4/4 time signature others might wish to force upon me.) Actually, much of what follows was already presented in a long-ish comment I left on a previous post below. But Brad, as he often does, inspired me to do more, even at the risk of embarrassing the shy and retiring Olson clan. So here goes.

I was oddly oblivious to most music until my early teens. This was due in part to being raised in a Fundamentalist home and church, both of which largely frowned on rock music as the rhythmic spawn of the devil, meant to corrupt good morals and encourage bad haircuts. Yes, the stereotypes do hold, at least to some degree.  I heard a lot of church music (classic Protestant hymns, some of them very good) and mostly bland to bad contemporary Christian music. Then, around the age of fourteen or so, I started listening to the radio (one station, weak signal) and began to slowly accumulate a few tapes. My road to prog went through AOR acts such as Journey, REO Speedwagon, Loverboy, Foreigner, and Styx, with a helping of popular mid-80s albums by ELO, Elton John, Toto, and Queen. I found the standard rock of the day (including some of the stuff above) to be rather dull; I was fascinated by the more extended songs of Elton (the early 1970s albums especially), Queen, Asia, and the Moody Blues. I’m happy to say I was hooked on “Bohemian Rhapsody” long before “Wayne’s World” re-presented it to my generation. Also, I thought the usual popular, party music about sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll was mostly shallow, even if occasionally diverting. Which is another way of saying I secretly listened to my share of Van Halen while playing some laughable air guitar (oh, wait, all air guitar is laughable). I did not, however, ever party. Seriously.

Around 1985 or so, I bought a copy of “The Best of Kansas”. That opened the door to prog. There was something about the mixture of Livgren’s lead guitar, Steinhardt’s violin, and Steve Walsh’s amazing voice, along with lyrics soaked in spiritual longing and Americana, that grabbed me by the scrawny neck. Over the next three or four years, I ended up collecting everything by Kansas, Kerry Livgren (solo and with AD), and Steve Morse (solo, Dixie Dregs, etc.). My favorite Kansas albums are “Song for America” and “In the Spirit of Things”, although they weren’t the chart-toppers that “Point of Know Return” and “Leftoverture” were. I also went on a serious Moody Blues binge, focusing on the early stuff, prior to their more pop-oriented work of the mid-’80s. Then I really got into Yes (both Rabin-era and the early classic albums with Howe), Rush, and Pink Floyd; in fact, while in Bible college (1989-91), I freaked out some of my more staid classmates with my obsessive interest in Pink Floyd, Queen, Queenrÿche, and King’s X (and, yes, I also listened to Petra, David Meece, White Heart, White Cross, Russ Taff, and Margaret Becker). King’s X was a major revelation, especially the brilliant, crunching, melodic beauty of “faith hope love”, which was a masterful blend of hard rock, metal, prog, blues, and Beatle-esque harmonies. And I recall very clearly driving across the Montana plains to school in Saskatchewan, blaring “Fly By Night” and other brilliant Rush tunes. Ah, to be young again.

A quick aside here, in the spirit of musical indulgence: while in high school, I also developed a semi-secret soft spot for country artists such as Johnny Cash, Johnny Horton, and Jim Reeves. And two composers: Mozart and Brahms. I tried to get into opera (our family doctor, who owned a massive classical collection, gave it his best shot), but couldn’t get there. I would try again in the late 1990s, failing again. And at one point I must have listened to Eric Clapton’s 1989 comeback album, “Journeyman”, about a thousand times. Go figure, as it’s the only Clapton album I’ve ever fixated on. Okay, back to prog.

In my early-to-mid twenties (1989-1995), I launched into Van Morrison, Seal, Jeff Buckley, Radiohead, and jazz, five of my big musical loves ever since (I’ll eventually write some disturbingly long posts about each, I hope). My interest in prog advanced in fits and starts. Yes was a constant, as I worked through most of the band’s catalog, with excursions into solo projects by Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin, Rick Wakeman, Bill Bruford, and Steve Howe. The next big breakthrough was Dream Theater in the late 1990s, followed by Spock’s Beard, then Porcupine Tree and a bunch of others. Then, around 2004, I “discovered” Frank Sinatra, which led to the purchase of about 1,000 Sinatra tunes (favorite album: “In the Wee Small Hours”). I mention Sinatra because I have the semi-crazy idea of writing a blog titled, “Sinatra: Grandfather of Prog?”, that will either get me ejected from Progarchy, or enshrined in the Progarchy Hall of Fame.

I fully agree with Brad: we are living in a new, golden age of prog. There is such a stunning array of prog and prog-ish music to be had, I’ve long given up hope of keeping abreast of it all. Current favorites, in addition to the already mentioned acts, include Pain of Salvation, Threshold, Riverside, Muse, Animals As Leaders, Big Big Train, Anathema, Devin Townsend, Three, Astra, Blackfield, The Pineapple Thief, King Crimson, Headspace, and Mars Volta. But there are still huge holes in my prog knowledge and experience. I’m making prog-ress, but the road continues to rise and wind ahead. Which is exciting, as it means there is more to discover and hear.