60 Years, Twelve Albums, One Man’s Favorites

(us.fotolia.com | Zarya Maxim)
(us.fotolia.com | Zarya Maxim)

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!

sinatra_torme1955: 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”. Continue reading “60 Years, Twelve Albums, One Man’s Favorites”

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.