Don Ignacio's Music Reviews (Capsule)

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Explanation for this page:

Even though I genuinely wish to review every album ever released, it's unlikely I'll ever be able to reach that goal, especially if I write the typical 1,000-word review for everything. So why don't I try to speed this along and write extremely short reviews of albums instead? Also, I've been a little bit tired of planning everything I review, so maybe for awhile I'll only review what I happen to be listening to in the car, at work, or while exercising.

My goal here is to try to write these reviews as if they were to appear in a coffee table book. In other words, concise and strictly professional. For that reason, many of these reviews might be suddenly edited without warning (especially if they were recently posted).

The Rating System is going to seem somewhat more harsh than it is on the main site. That is because every grade from 0/15 to 7/15 is consolidated into a single rating: ☠. After all, I doubt a whole lot of people care about degrees of crap. These reviews are also going to be slightly more opinion-based than it is on the main site. For example, I think I only would have rated The B-52's debut a 13/15 on the main site on account of "objectively perceived flaws," but since I consider it one of the jewels of my collection, I'll give it five stars here without further explanation required. (These ratings only go to albums I consider top-tier personal favorites and thus they are going to be somewhat rare. Optimistically, I'm guessing there are 200 five-star albums that do exist and will exist.)

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ - Fantastic album and personal favorite
★ ★ ★ ★ - Great album that I want to revisit time and time again
★ ★ ★ - Good album
★ ★ - So-so album
★ - Bad album


List of Capsule Reviews:

Abdul, Paula - Forever Your Girl (1988) - Shut Up and Dance (1990)
a-ha - Hunting High and Low (1985) - Scoundrel Days (1986) - Stay on These Roads (1988)
Animotion - Animotion (1984)
The B-52's - The B-52's (1979) - Wild Planet (1980) - Party Mix (1981) - Mesopotamia (1982) - Whammy! (1983) - Bouncing Off the Satellites (1986) - Cosmic Thing (1989) - Good Stuff (1992)
A Band Called Quinn - Luss (2006)
The Bay City Rollers - Rollin' (1974) - Once Upon a Star (1975) - Wouldn't You Like It? (1975)
The Beach Boys - Surfin' Safari (1962) - Surfin' USA (1963) - Surfer Girl (1963) - Little Deuce Coupe (1963) - Shut Down Vol. 2 (1964) - All Summer Long (1964) - Concert (1964)
Bee Gees - Bee Gees' First (1967) - Horizontal (1968) - Idea (1968)
The Belle Stars - Belle Stars and Stripes (2011)
Bush, Kate - A Kick Inside (1978) - Lionheart (1978)
Camera Obscura - Underachievers Please Try Harder (2003)
Caravan - In the Land of Grey and Pink (1971)
The Cardigans - Life (1995) - First Band on the Moon (1996)
Crabby Appleton - Crabby Appleton (1970) - Rotten to the Core (1971)
Curiosity Killed the Cat - Keep Your Distance (1987)
Darin, Bobby - Bobby Darin (1958) - That's All (1959) - This is Darin (1960) - Darin at the Copa (1960) - For Teenagers Only (1960) - 25th Day of December (1960)
Duffy, Stephen - I Love My Friends (1998)
Easton, Sheena - Take My Time (1981)
Electronic - Electronic (1991)
Eurythmics - In the Garden (1981) - Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) (1982) - Touch (1983) 1984 (For the Love of Big Brother) (1984)
FolkLaw - Tales That They Tell (2012)
The Free Design - Kites Are Fun (1967) - You Could Get Born Again (1968)
Furniture - The Wrong People (1986)
Glitter, Gary - Glitter (1973) - Touch Me (1973)
Greenslade - Greenslade (1973)
Gryphon - Gryphon (1973)
Guryan, Margo - Take a Picture (1968)
Harris, Richard - A Tramp Shining (1968)
Hayward, Justin and John Lodge - Blue Jays (1975)
Heaven 17 - Penthouse and Pavement (1981) - The Luxury Gap (1982)
The Hollies - Stay With The Hollies (1964)
Hoffs, Susanna - Susanna Hoffs (1996) - Someday (2012)
The Human League - Dare (1981)
Icehouse - Great Southern Land (1989)
The Jackson 5 - Diana Ross Presents The Jackson 5 (1969) - ABC (1970) - Third Album (1970)
Jepsen, Carly Rae - Kiss (2012)
Joel, Billy - Cold Spring Harbor (1971) 52nd Street (1978)
Jones, Grace - Portfolio (1977) - Fame (1978) - Muse (1979)
King Crimson - In the Court of the Crimson King (1969)
The La's - The La's (1990)
The Like - The Like (2010)
Love, Mike - Looking Back With Love (1981)
The Lucy Show - ...undone (1985) - Mania (1986)
M - New York • London • Paris • Munich (1979)
Marillion - Misplaced Childhood (1985)
Maroon 5 - Songs About Jane (2002) - It Won't Be Soon Before Long (2007) - Hands All Over (2010) - Overexposed (2012)
Mazzy Star - So Tonight That I Might See (1993)
Minogue, Kylie - Kylie (1988) - Enjoy Yourself (1989)
Miss Li - Dancing the Whole Way Home (2009)
Missing Persons - The Best of Missing Persons (1987)
Mraz, Jason - Waiting for My Rocket to Come (2002)
Motorhead - Motorhead (1977) - Overkill (1979) - Bomber (1979)
The Move - Message From the Country (1971)
The Passions - Thirty Thousand Feet Over China (1981)
Planet P Project - Planet P Project (1983)
Polvo - Cor-Crane Secret (1992) - Today's Active Lifestyles (1993)
Pratt, Jessica - Jessica Pratt (2012)
Presley, Elvis - Elvis Presley (1956) - Elvis (1956) - Loving You (1957) - Elvis' Christmas Album (1957) - Elvis' Golden Records (1958) - King Creole (1958) - For LP Fans Only (1959) - A Date With Elvis (1959) - 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong (1959) - Elvis is Back! (1960) - G.I. Blues (1960) - His Hand in Mine (1960)
Procol Harum - Procol Harum (1967)
Psychedelic Furs - Forever Now (1982)
Roxette - Look Sharp! (1988)
Talking Heads - Talking Heads 77 (1977) - More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978) - Fear of Music (1979) - Remain in Light (1980)
Queen, Monica - Ten Sorrowful Mysteries (2002)
Schneider, Fred - Fred Schneider and the Shake Society (1991)
Sedaka, Neil - Neil Sedaka Sings His Greatest Hits (1962)
Sexton, Charlie - Pictures for Pleasure (1985) - Charlie Sexton (1989)
Shocking Blue - At Home (1969)
Simon, Carly - Carly Simon (1971) - No Secrets (1972)
Sinatra, Frank - The Voice of Frank Sinatra (1946) - Songs By Sinatra (1947) - Christmas Songs By Sinatra (1948) - Frankly Sentimental (1949) - Dedicated to You (1950) - Swing and Dance with Frank Sinatra (1950) - Songs for Young Lovers (1954) - Swing Easy! (1954) - In the Wee Small Hours (1955) - Songs for Swingin' Lovers (1956) - This is Sinatra (1956) - Close to You (1957)
Slapp Happy - Slapp Happy (1974)
Sparks - Sparks (1971)
Springsteen, Bruce - Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ (1973) - The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle (1974) - Born to Run (1975) - Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978)
Stevens, Cat - Tea for the Tillerman (1970)
The Sundays - Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic (1990)
The Supremes - Meet the Supremes (1962) - Where Did Our Love Go (1964) - A Bit of Liverpool (1964)
Talking Heads - Talking Heads 77 (1977) - More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978) - Fear of Music (1979)
Voice of the Beehive - Let it Bee (1988)
When in Rome - When in Rome (1988)
White, John Paul - The Long Goodbye (2008)
Wilde, Kim - Kim Wilde (1981)
Zelmani, Sophie - Sophie Zelmani (1995)


Abdul, Paula

Forever Your Girl (1988) ★ ½
It was about the time this album was released that I first became aware of pop culture. This overall sound (a style known as “New Jack Swing,” which was so named by the Commission of Naming Things) evokes deeply seeded childhood memories within me. I'm talking about, of course, songs with those huge stadium drums, super-slick synth-bass rhythms, neutered electric guitar, etc. So essentially, even though the late '80s might have been a horrible time for mainstream rock 'n' roll history, it's precious to me. ...With that said, I'm having a difficult time trying to understand the big appeal of Paula Abdul's debut album. It was such a big deal in the late '80s that it yielded four #1 singles and turning Paula Abdul into a household name. (In spite of the fact that I, as a young child, did not listen to the radio or watch MTV, even I remember her.) The biggest hit of them all was “Opposites Attract,” an upbeat, bubbly song with an OK dance groove. However, its vocal hooks are weak, and its groove isn't particularly addicting. It doesn't even have a chorus. (Aren't pop songs usually supposed to have choruses?) At the very least, it's likable, particularly if you watch it with the music video in which Abdul makes a bunch of cute faces while dancing about with a cartoon cat. ...In my view, the best moment here is probably “Cold Hearted,” which has a somewhat of a more catching groove to my ears, even though it's still a stagnant thing that's without a chorus. ...Now, I'm not a big fan of these dance songs as it is, but those are easily the best this album has to offer. Because the ballads are worse. My goodness, if you want to experience an exercise in nothing, just listen to “Next to You.” ...Overall, this was a disappointing listen for me. It's supposedly one of the major albums of my early childhood, and I can't seem to bring myself to like much about it.

Shut Up and Dance (1990)
Weird how Paula Abdul prognosticated my thoughts and opened her remix album with the two songs I said I liked the most off her debut. That was “Cold Hearted” and “Straight Up.” Leave the rest for the birds, I say. (Also I'm going to stress the fact that I don't hate Paula Abdul. I just don't think her songs were very good. ...That isn't a mortal sin, you know.) Oh, and I guess the burning question on everybody's mind: Did remixing these songs improve anything? ...Did they even change anything? I've tried playing both the original and remixed versions of “Cold Hearted” and “Straight Up” back to back, and they sound entirely identical to me. Maybe somebody with bat-like hearing might be able to spot the differences, but as I must be a layperson when it comes to sound, I don't notice a thing. ...Now, a few of these songs really are remixed, most notably “Opposites Attract.” Originally, it took the song about 15 seconds to begin. In the remix, that was extended to two minutes, which are occupied by a giant club-dance beat, warped vocals, and awkward stops and starts. “Forever Your Girl” is another awful remix where they've added an annoying techno rhythm as well as an awkward booming, industrial noise that keep sounding off and hit me like bowling balls bashing into my brain. The only “new” song here is called “1990 Medley Mix,” a directionless collage of Abdul's songs that's set to a blank techno rhythm. Ugh, as if her songs weren't blah enough as it was, they had to go and do something like that...

a-ha

Hunting High and Low (1985) ★ ★ ★ ½
This Norwegian synth-pop band's single “Take on Me” was the hit from 1985 that has managed to resonate through the ages. It's a glorious thing with its large, grandiose atmosphere, potent melodic hooks, and the nearly unmatchable, soaring vocal performance from lead singer Morten Harket. The song proved to be so popular in its day (particularly accompanied with its music video) that it's easy to assume the rest of the album might have just been rushed out merely as padding for it. While there's nothing else here that captures me quite to that level, I find that this is a consistently enjoyable album. It's no masterpiece, but it's recommendable to anyone who requires a synth-pop fix from time-to-time. Perhaps the common criticism leveled against these guys was they didn't express much interest in pushing the boundaries in synth-pop; rather they preferred to work smartly within the confines of the established genre. The other song released as a single at the time--albeit a much less successful one--was the heavy and brooding power ballad “The Sun Always Shines on TV.” (Oh, and its music video takes the “Take on Me” thread and gives it a sad ending. Ugh, if we can't even let Love Conquers All exist in the fantasy world of '80s pop-rock, where can it exist?) All in all, I've enjoyed this album quite a bit over the years.

Scoundrel Days (1986) ★ ★ ★ ★
This group might have only had one major hit in the U.S., but they were major superstars everywhere else. This entire album, for instance, sold six million copies worldwide whilst only managing to peak at #74 on the American billboard charts. The rest of the world clearly had it right; this thing is wonderful. It's a huge improvement over the debut, by the way--it's far more mature and even more melodic. Right away its opener, the title track, is a towering and moody masterpiece. We've already known that Morten Harket was one of the finest lead singers in all of synth-pop--and he did do a fantastic job handling the bubblegummy “Take on Me”--but here, he's baring his soul. Really, all these songs are things I can endorse. “The Swing of Things” is probably the highlight of the album, just as moody as the opener--and it does almost seem to turn into a dance song if it weren't constantly interrupted by dreamy, moody choruses. However, these sections are independently fantastic--the chorus is what prompts me to dwell on things larger than myself while the addictive dance groove puts a little fun into it. “I've Been Losing You” is nothing less than a solid pop tune, with a snappy melody, crispy textures (my goodness, fantastic drumming), and Harket--once again--sings like a Greek God. I suppose one might criticize “October” for being rather uneventful, a song which Harket sings in a quiet, warbly manner to some simple keyboard/drum-machine textures. But at the same time, it's a pretty good song, and it provides the album some excellent contrast to the rest of these heavier songs. Overall, I find this to be one terrifically solid album and is quite probably a-ha's best.

Stay on These Roads (1988) ★ ★ ★
Even though a-ha's music had been purely synthetic since their inception, their previous album had shown them developing a rather good track record of injecting exciting textures into their pop music. This follow up contains far fewer of these interesting textures and instead relies more on washy synths. While that doesn't necessarily mean there also aren't a number of good songs here (and there are), it also means this album comes across far more like an ordinary pop album of 1988. That is, of course, with the exception of Morten Harken who continues to have one of the most soaringly stunning vocals of any band this era. The reason, I would guess, they went more mainstream for this release stemmed from them accepting an offer to compose and perform music for the title sequence of a James Bond flick, The Living Daylights, which required them to create a piece of radio-friendly pop. When it came to filling up the rest of the album, they naturally wanted the rest of the album to match the style. While a lot of these songs are quite good, and I enjoy listening to them, there's nothing here I find particularly gush-worthy. I at least enjoy the majority of it. For instance, there's the soaring title track with its huge drum sounds, huge drama, and even huger vocals from Harken. Now whatever goodness is to be found there is somewhat counterbalanced by “This Alone is Love,” a similar sort of song I'd describe merely as adequate (albeit nice to sit through if you like that sort of stuff). There's also a seven-minute “Out of the Blue Comes Green” with a fitfully moody atmosphere and an OK tune, but seven minutes was just pushing that too far. As a whole, though, while this album might not be one of a-ha's best, I do enjoy it.

Animotion

Obsession (1984) ★ ★
Animotion were a Los Angeles based pop-rock act best known for their Top 10 single "Obsession," a song that continues to be fairly well-known today, and in fact probably transcends the fame of the band itself. The song fully deserves its notoriety (in a good way of course), and more than anything else, it shows that the band could play perfectly to the trends of 1984. Its hook is catchy, its synthesizers are mesmerizing, and there are flailing electric guitars everywhere. Though perhaps the trendiest aspect of it is the singers who sound a bit like robots. ...Now, if every other song on the album were as good as that, then this would have been a surefire classic. Regrettably, though, the non-hits merely range from good-to-adequate ("I Want You," "Strange Behavior") to some of the dullest things I've ever laid ears on ("House of Love," "Message of Love"). The good news is the female singer, Astrid Plane, has quite a powerful set of chops--coming off a bit like Terri Nunn from Berlin--but it's only regrettable she didn't have much more to work with. In the end, this album might constitute a decent time capsule to anyone who remembers pop music from 1984. But unless you yearn for such things, there's no reason for you to look into this band.

The B-52's

The B-52's (1979) ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
The B-52's made a name for themselves by exploiting the kitschy aspect of '60s surf-rock and combining it with modern, new wave sensibilities. After applying a dash of their own wacky personalities, the result was an album that--no question--was one of the major landmarks of the new wave era. Another distinctive thing about the band was three of their members had very distinctive singing styles. First, there was the flamboyant Fred Schneider who adopted an outrageous speak-singing voice. Second, there were the two women, the fiery Kate Pierson and the southern belle Cindy Wilson, whose deceptively pure voices were able to harmonize together just as enticingly as Agnetha's and Anna-Frid's from ABBA. No doubt, these guys' debut album is a pure classic from beginning to end. It starts with "Planet Claire," which is a catchy and addictive throwback to surf-rock that seems to have taken on the personality of a cheesy sci-fi flick from the '50s. It's loaded with all sorts of spaceship blips and bloops, and Schneider sings as though he were an extra terrestrial. Another song I especially like "Hero Worship," which is a completely demented thing about a teenager who... er... hero worships. And you really have to give Wilson credit for singing that exactly as though she were such a teenager; she even incorporates a few tight-lipped teen-screams into the performance. However, the real highlight of the album is undoubtedly "Rock Lobster," another song with a twisted surf-rock vibe to it, and it's exactly as infectious as it is hilarious. My favorite part is the sea-creature roll call, which features Kate and Cindy letting out a series of maniacal yips, barks, yodels, wails, bellows, screams, etc. ...There are so many more great songs here to talk about! But this is one of those albums constantly full of surprises I'll leave to you to experience for yourself.

Wild Planet (1980) ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
The B-52's follow-up was slightly less wacky (and thus slightly less exciting) than the debut. Although one could argue that their musicianship has improved a mite. Still these songs have less of a tendency to stick to my brain, and that's a problem. These songs are somewhat more contemporary for the '80s--opting for keyboards and a crisp bass sound instead of the '60s surf-rock vibe of the debut. "Private Idaho" is probably the best party-song here; it has an attractive party-groove and an infectious melody. Kate Pierson makes distinctive whooping noises at the beginning, which I suppose reminds us pleasantly more than anything that these guys were still silly gooses. The other especially memorable tune here is "Give Me Back My Mind," which has one of the tightest grooves known to mankind, and a fantastic vocal performance from Cindy Wilson. (OK, I still prefer her crazed-teen performance from "Hero Worship!") The opening song, "Party Out of Bounds," starts the album off on a memorable note, as an infectiously wild romp about Schneider and Pierson crashing a party. "Quiche Lorraine" is perhaps the strangest song, about a crazy dog owner (played by Schneider) who doesn't take kindly to his mutt running away and leaving him lonesome. ...Overall, this is a fantastic album, and any fans of the debut should be able to quickly take to heart.

Party Mix! (1981) ★ ★ ★ ½
For the longest time, the bulk of my experience with remixed songs have been those horrible things tacked onto the ends of all my Queen CDs. So awful, were they, that they've effectively shut me off the notion of listening to remixed songs. Ever. But then The B-52's created an EP filled with remixed songs, I felt the need to listen to it. Lo and behold, what I've discovered, is remixes can be a lot of fun. These don't even get close to the originals, naturally, but they're not supposed to. “Party Out of Bounds” is extended two minutes and comes armed with a doofy drum-machine rhythm and crazy bongos. The original was the thing you'd listen to at home with your headphones on; however, this alternate version is something you'd dance to at a costume party with your art-school friends. Nice additions include the always great “Private Idaho,” the seven-minute “Give Me Back My Man,” and the sound-effects heavy “Lava.” ...If you were like me once and are venomously opposed to the idea of remixes, just remember that this stuff isn't meant to be taken seriously. Have fun with it.

Mesopotamia (1982) ★ ★ ★
The B-52's were not trained musicians by any means (they had an idea, found some instruments and rolled with it). But they already had two successful albums under their belt, and they didn't want to just keep recreating the same ol' things. To take them in a new direction, they hired Talking Heads frontman David Byrne as producer. On paper, this collaboration seems an intoxicating proposition. In reality, though, the album ended in utter disaster. What was planned initially to be a full-length album ended up being scrapped, and all they had to show for it was a measly EP. ...The good news is that they did achieve one mega-classic here: the terrific title track, hypnotic and weird. The rest of this stuff is unfortunately very stiff. “Deep Sleep” is a perfect example why God never intended David Byrne and The B-52's to join forces. It's downbeat and atmospheric with a sinister overtone. The setting might have been perfect for Byrne to warble away psychotically about something that's bothering him; but all Kate and Cindy do there is sing like quiet, polite librarians. In other words, it's boring. To be fair, though, I wouldn't call it as much of a bad song as it is underwhelming. ...One song that is pretty neat is “Cake,” which has a driving beat that I can tap my foot to. The complaint is that it features a conversation between Kate and Cindy about “cakes,” and that comes across roughly as dull as such a conversation seems like it should be. Other songs I like include the opener “Loveland” and the closer “Nip it in the Bud,” which are excellent to dance to and features stunning vocals from Cindy (on the former) and Kate (on the latter).

Whammy! (1983) ★ ★ ★ ★
After their botched collaboration with David Byrne, The B-52's decided that it was time to get back to their roots and make an album that would recreate that crazy vibe of their debut. The only caveat was that they wanted to orchestrate this primarily with keyboards and drum machines. ...You couldn't really blame them for that, since such was the trend of 1982, after all. While they might not have managed an album with as much infectious, maniacal greatness as their first two albums, this is nevertheless amiably goofy and something that's provided me with many months' worth of good cheer. The two openers “Legal Tender” and “Whammy Kiss” are a pair of sweetly scented mid-tempo synth-pop numbers featuring a couple of spirited vocal performances from the girls. After that point, things start to get a little more bizarre with “Song For a Future Generation,” a goofy thing about writing personal ads. And then there's “Butterbean,” which is about... erm... butterbeans. Just the straightforwardness of that is goofy. (“Pass me a plate full, I'll be grateful / 1-2-3-4 / Pick 'em, hull 'em, put on the steam / That's how we fix butterbeans / Fix 'em hot hot hot / Yeah, make 'em jump outta the pot”) ...I generally find this to be a consistent album, even with the presence of “Moon 83,” an unnecessary but somehow still appreciated rework of “There's a Moon in the Sky.” (I'd just learned that the original LP version had a different song in its place called “Don't Worry.” Sources seem to indicate that it was only barely over one minute long, but I'm nevertheless upset that they left it off the CD. I want more B-52's, dammit!) I'd have to say that my favorite song of this album is “Big Bird,” which is in spite of it being basically a one-chord song. It's the most maniacal thing here, with a menacing synth groove, some rapid-fire bongo drums, some hilarious squawking and tweeting vocal effects from the ladies, and--my favorite thing--some hot sax playing. I mean, listening to that, I can sense these guys working up that psychotic sweat about that big gray bird--whatever kind of bird that could be--terrorizing their house. Overall, this might not be as good as their first two albums, but it's certainly within the same class. I'd call it their third-best album, which ain't too shabby.

Bouncing Off the Satellites (1986) ★ ★ ★ ½
First thing's first. This was where horrible tragedy struck the band and their guitarist--Ricky Wilson--died of AIDS in the middle of these recording sessions. Members of the band went into seclusion and would only reform briefly and only out of duty to finish up the post-production of the album. They would also throw together a quick music video to promote “Girl From Ipanema Goes to Greenland.” After that, they were unsure whether they would continue go on as a band. This did unfortunately mean that this album wasn't given the care and attention that it might have otherwise. While these songs still have their quirks, this marks a substantial shift to mainstream pop. And this was 1986, so what we get are lots of washy synths, thumpy dance bass, and heavy electronic drums. The issue is this doesn't sound much at all like The B-52s did in their debut. But the question is does that really matter? For starters, I think the bass-work can be quite fantastic, and I tend to enjoy their synthesizer tones than not. The vocal performances are also remarkable--Cindy Wilson's terrifically soaring vocal performance in 'Greenland' might even be the performance of her career. Now, factor in the reality that many of these melodies are catchy, and what we get in the end is another amiably addictive record. Though there were no hit songs, the album opener “Summer of Love” did reportedly receive quite a bit of radio play. It's a likable and catchy thing. We also get a silly, psychedelic song from Fred, “Detour Thru Your Mind,” which will be great for anyone who wants to listen to his surreal ramblings. (I know I do!) “Ain't it a Shame” is the closest these guys got to a ballad, and it's sweet and mellow; not too shabby at all. “Wig” is the highlight of the album, though, and the thing that comes closest to the ole B-52's vibe. (“Sally's got a wig / Ricky's got a wig / Baby's got a wig / Kate's got a wig / Fred's got a cheap toupee / Keith's gotta big bouffant on / We all got wigs, so let's go!”) There's no question that this album marks a step down for these guys, but it's nevertheless entertaining and catchy enough that I've listened to it quite frequently.

Cosmic Thing (1989) ★ ★ ★ ★
This is seen as The B-52's comeback album--their first effort sans their original guitarist Ricky Wilson. (Their drummer Keith Strickland took over guitar duties starting here.) This is also their best selling album, propelled by the mega-success of “Love Shack,” which continues to be their most widely recognized song. Certainly compared to their earlier stuff, it's heavily polished and radio-friendly, and it's for that reason I have a harder time celebrating it like I'd celebrated a song like “Rock Lobster.” Nevertheless, that doesn't mean it isn't a good song--quite the contrary. “Love Shack” is a full-on party song with an infectious dance groove, bubbly vocals, and endearingly irrelevant lyrics. (Though the actual “Love Shack” is said to be the pet name of the band's old hangout spot in Athens, Ga.) The high-energy title track is infectious and spirited and proves that--radio success or no--Fred Schneider was still willing to ham it up gloriously with his classic speak-singing style. The girls' pure voices continue to be infectious, as they sing that song at the top of their lungs (a few time almost screaming). Although the girls' finest performances can be heard within “Deadbeat Club” showing us, once and for all, that their abilities to harmonize with each other, in the pop-rock sphere, was only matched ABBA. Another one of my favorites is “Channel Z,” for that extremely driving rhythm. Even the more laid-back tunes, like “Topaz” and “Dry County,” while not the stars of the show, are endearing and infectious. ...And so I'm left to say that I like everything here. It's not my favorite release of theirs, but it's something I want to (and do!) listen to frequently.

Good Stuff (1992) ★ ★ ½
The B-52's hit commercial gold with their previous album, and they understandably wanted to try following that up with another one. But regrettably, as is usually the case with these things, this effort lacks the same kind of inspiration. So many of these songs are bland and seem to go on forever. The only thing really saving this is, simply, their addictive personalities shine through this album like the beams of a fog-light tearing itself through tissue paper. With that said, there would still be a problem: they were missing one of their essential vocalists, Cindy, who left the band to go on maternity leave, reducing the band temporarily into a trio. Kate is still here, who seems a bit lonely, having to sing with her own overdubs. The song I like the most out of here is “Hot Pants,” a catchy tune with an infectious groove and Schneider-delivered lyrics that are so silly they can't contain themselves. (“If you would be so kind / Put on those red hot pants and take a stroll through my mind”) The opening song, “Tell It Like It-I-Is,” might not be among their more addictive numbers (particularly since it well overstays its welcome at five minutes), but it has a fun melody and an enjoyably crunchy dance groove. Unfortunately these overall good moments give way to a couple of overlong, quasi-psychedelic/synth-pop tracks that are somewhat enjoyable but just miss the mark: the Kate-lead “Revolution Earth” and the Fred-lead “Dreamland.” I do enjoy “Is That You Mo-Dean?” which is the closest thing we get to recapturing some of that old B-52's glory. Not only does it has a quirky groove and is infused with some space-age sound effects, but its lyrics are about an alien encounter. (“Waitin' for bus #99 / Goin' to the store for hot dogs and wine! / When all of a sudden, I felt real cold / And wound up in the belly of a big ol' UFO”) ...The worst songs are probably the last three, “Vision of a Kiss,” “Breezin',” and “Bad Influence,” because not only are they too long, but I get tired of listening to that ultra-clean, adult contemporary drum thwop all the time.

A Band Called Quinn

Luss (2006) ★ ★ ★ ½
A Band Called Quinn is a Scottish indie-pop band whose lead singer and primary songwriter, Louise Quinn, has a voice of a candy cane. They hadn't managed to get much of an international following apart from--perhaps--myself after gleefully stumbling upon “Slow Motion Smile” one day whilst poking around on YouTube. The song resonated with me so much that I ended up playing it to myself about 100 times, which is about as much as I've ever played anything. It's an infectious folk-rocker with a breezy melody and bouncy instrumentation. But what captures me most about it is its perfectly bittersweet vibe and its lyrics which overflow with mysterious imagery. I like the acoustic guitar, which Quinn plays in a pattern similar to that of a Vaudeville piano, and I also like the unusual contrast that comes from that low-pitched, buzzy synthesizer that pops up in the second half. ...Now there are other songs in here as well, but they don't quite capture me like that one. They're all good, though; the melodies are usually likable, and the instrumentation is always smart (enhanced perhaps by creativity that comes from having a small budget). The opening song “Astronaut” has a tune I can sing along with and an interestingly disjointed rhythm. “So Long” is a lovely folk ballad, which starts to get a little peculiar in the middle. The eight-minute closer “The World is Upside Down” has a repetitive chorus in a similar spirit of “Hey Jude,” except it's far more low-key. On the downside, there are a few other spots which are too despondent for my tastes, though I don't really consider those worth dwelling.

The Bay City Rollers

Rollin' (1974) ★ ★ ½
This was originally a UK-only release. American audiences would get a different version of the album a year later, when “Saturday Night” would reach #1 on the pop charts. To this day, the song continues to be widely popular. (Though, strangely, the song didn't quite hit it off with the British crowd. Maybe they don't romanticize Saturdays like Americans?) As an American, I'm going to claim that's the best song of the album thanks mostly to that memorable chant they do, which does an excellent job teaching '70s school kids how to spell “Saturday.” (My only criticism is that they curiously neglect to spell “night,” which might have left some kids wondering if it was “night” or perhaps a “knight” who was named “Saturday.”) ...The remainder of the song is nice; it's a thing to tap your toes to. I would call it a plastic Beach Boys imitation, and that's a major compliment to these guys. In England, the big hit here was “Shang-a-Lang,” which I also like--it's cute, catchy, and I get a big thrill every time they shout out “Hey!,” which is quite often. Another decently popular song was “Summer Love Sensation,” which is lushly orchestrated with twinkling piano and tubular bells; it's one of those things that's fun to sit through, if you're looking for something to sit through. I'll also give a shout-out to “Remember (Sha La La La)” for being fun even though it's basically a lesser version of “Summer Love Sensation.” ...No doubt, this is a pure-pop album, so don't expect it to blow your senses out of the water. The problem is--while those four songs are quite nice--the remaining eight songs unfortunately come off quite languid.

Once Upon a Star (1975) ★ ½
Well there's one thing for certain: The Bay City Rollers' budget increased dramatically since their debut. That debut was self-produced (and it showed!) but here they're working with Phil Wainman whose previous production credits included The Sweet and future credits would include XTC. And thanks to Wainman, this Bay City Rollers album would bear a slight improvement from the debut--however, it wasn't in the areas that particularly needed to be improved. That is, I'm glad the auxiliary songs have improved, but those sorts of songs had nothing to do with what made these guys originally appealing. It was their crass hit singles, dang it! And regrettably, there are no crass hit singles on this album. However, they did manage to score a UK #1 hit single here: “Bye Bye Baby.” It's alright--a fitfully catchy and blatantly obvious take-off of The Ronettes' “Be My Baby”--however, it's no “Shang-A-Lang.” (Heh, only a band like The Bay City Rollers can make me write a silly sentence like that.) Closer to their classic spirit is “Let's Go,” but that lacks their old charm. That is, its drums are nice 'n' thumpin' and the guitars are nice 'n' crunchy, but it all comes off a bit flat. “Rock and Roll Honeymoon” and “Keep on Dancing” are both goofy glam-rock take-offs of '50s rockabilly, and I do kind of like them, but even then, they don't have that something extra. And then I have to point out that they are so generic that they make even “Saturday Night” seem wildly original by comparison. It didn't take long for these guys to run out of ideas, did it? Other songs come off rather nice, such as “La Belle Jeane,” a ballad with an accordion and softly harmonized vocals, the appealingly poppy “Marlena,” or... *herm*... a quasi-disco number “The Disco Kid.” (I guess it's disco for kids, as the adults would probably want something with a more driving rhythm.) By far the most detestable song of the album is “When Will You Be Mine?,” a country ballad where they sound positively horrifying.

Wouldn't You Like It? (1975) ★ ★
At least this marks a small improvement over their sophomore effort but not a whole lot. The best thing I can say about this is they retained Wainman as producer and as such, the instrumental/recording quality here is about as top-notch as it could ever be. The only hitch: Studio polish does not mask mediocrity. One of the better songs is surely the opener, “I Only Wanna Dance With You,” a fun bit of power-pop with a heavy glam-rhythm. The melody is OK although somewhat dumb. (Eh! What do I expect from these guys?) ...The only hit off the album is also the only song here that wasn't written by a band member, the ballad “Give a Little Love.” It's not bad, but it also comes across rather tepid, and I get bored sitting through it. ...Much better is the bouncy glam-rock title track, which still isn't a particularly great song, but at least I can mindlessly tap my foot to it. My one complaint about it, though: That low-pitched robot-belch voice constantly chiming in Like it! gets on my nerves quickly. The album's most embarrassing moment is “Maybe I'm a Fool to Love You,” a sappy Bee-Gees-ish ballad. The only reason The Bee Gees got away with such songs is because they had songwriting and singing talent--qualities that largely escape The Bay City Rollers. A nicer ballad is “Here Comes That Feeling Again,” whose intro contains some sugary recorders and chorus contains thick Beach Boys vocal harmonies. By far the best song of the album is “Lovely To See You,” a pop-tune right out of a Turtles album, featuring bouncy keyboards, thickly harmonized vocals, and an all-in-all happy atmosphere. The worst moment of the album is probably the disco called “Don't Stop the Music.” Not only are its hooks extremely weak, but I don't even want to dance to it. ...So yes, please stop that music!

The Beach Boys

Surfin' Safari (1962) ★ ★ ½
It started when the teenaged Brian Wilson and Mike Love decided they had some sort of inherent interest in writing songs together. The problem was that they didn't know what to write about. Then, Dennis Wilson popped into whatever room they were sitting in, after having just come back from surfing and suggested they write a song about that. And they did. The song that was born out of this was called “Surfin'.” ...It's a primitive Beach Boys composition, for sure, and I let out a giggle at Mike Love gawky chant of “ba-ba-dippity-dippity-ba-ba”. While this album shows The Beach Boys not quite ready for prime time, it nonetheless makes a fun listen just on account of how fresh they sound. I'm talking about all that wide-eyed excitement of recording their first album and all the crassness that came from that experience. Many of their trademarks aren't present yet, such as their angelic ballads and their tightly knit harmonies. However, they did manage to eke out two timeless classics: The title track and “409.” The former is their most instantly recognizable song about surfing, and the latter is their first hit song about cars, another topic that would become a staple of their early period. Some of these songs make me roll my eyes a bit--particularly having to listen to Mike Love singing horribly off-key in “Little Girl (You're My Miss America),” that lame play-acting during “County Fair,” and those oh-so-politically-incorrect “ob-ob-ob-ob” noises at the beginning of “Ten Little Indians.” But they make up for some of that with a cute song about root beer, “Chug-A-Lug,” and a silly song about them moaning about their summer jobs in “Summertime Blues.”

Surfin' USA (1963) ★ ★ ★
Certainly an improvement over the debut, although it'd still be a couple years before these guys would start producing the those immaculate albums they were best known for. Nevertheless, this album does show them making some giant strides in that direction. We have “Surfin' USA,” the first Beach Boys song to lay on thickly background vocals (which chant “inside, outside USA”) that clashes beautifully with the lead vocal. The song turned out to be a huge hit, but they would eventually get in trouble for it, because they stole--note for note--Chuck Berry's “Sweet Little Sixteen.” They did eventually have to give Berry getting a writing credit. “Farmer's Daughter” is another important one in the Beach Boys catalog in that it's first to feature Brian Wilson's heart-melting falsetto. Others featuring these vocals include the mournful “Lonely Sea” as well as the slightly misfired “Lana.” ...As far as the big recognizable hits goes, the other one here of note is the car song, “Shut Down.” It doesn't quite have the same impact as “409,” but the rhythm is nice 'n' crunchy, and I like the more involved background vocals. (“Superstock Dodge is winding out in low / But my fuel-injected Singray's really startin' to go / To get the traction I'm ridin' the clutch / My pressure plate's burnin' that machine too much”) Other songs in here might be called 'filler.' Or, rather, they are instrumentals. Really, such instrumentals were common staples of surf-rock in the early '60s. In particular I think everyone had to release a version “Misirlou,” a Turkish folk song that had become a surf-rock staple thanks to Dick Dale. The Beach Boys' version doesn't even come close to Dale's. Or even the version recorded by The Trashmen. But hey. The Beach Boys might not have been major instrumental virtuosos, but they did at least prove they could play. I mean, I can't play an electric guitar like a mandolin...

Surfer Girl (1963) ★ ★ ★ ★
Another giant-sized leap of improvement for The Beach Boys. But those of us with knowledge of their future know they still would have a ways to improve after this. The encouraging sign was this is the first Beach Boys album to have a truly sublime ballad on it: the title track. The melody is based on "When You Wish Upon a Star," though it's unclear how much of that resemblance was intentional. (Well, Jiminy Cricket didn't sue, so I guess it all worked out in the end.) That's followed-up by "Catch a Wave," one of the band's signature surfing songs (albeit perhaps not enduring as some of their previous surfing classics). The freshness of that song comes from not only their youthful vocals, but also the crisp rhythm section. ...The song here that made the biggest impact in public conscience is the one about cars, "Little Deuce Coupe," which I've heard a million times and yet it never seems to lose its luster. Another pop classic is "Hawaii," which not only features some of Brian's stunning falsetto on lead, but some infectious back-up singing that I've always found myself mouthing along with ("Honolulu, Waikiki / Do you wanna come along with me?") Other songs here are kind of silly ("Surfers Rule," "Our Car Club"), though I'd credit them with being endearingly silly, and, moreover, their melodies are catchy. One of the finest songs here is another ballad, credited as the first personal song Brian had ever written, "In My Room," a beautiful thing about how secure he feels to be inside of his own room. The amazing thing was that this was also a song all of us can relate to; apart from maybe people in jail, everyone feels this way about their rooms! ...In the end, the only complaints I could muster about this album are regarding the instrumentals (“Boogie Woodie,” “The Rocking Surfer”). Though I'd hardly claim they ruin the overall experience. How could they?

Little Deuce Coupe (1963) ★ ★ ½
It's been well-demonstrated that The Beach Boys' first three albums had shown steady improvement. Preventing them from consistently continuing this streak was their rigorous commitments to their record company, which required them to release three or four albums per year. Brian would attempt to work around this by concentrating most of his efforts to one particular album and letting the others be more or less toss-offs. This album is one of the toss-offs: a collection of car songs. What makes it a rip-off is that four of these songs are repeated from previous Beach Boys albums (“Little Deuce Coupe,” “409,” “Shut Down,” and “Our Car Club”). Making that prospect even worse is that these four songs are easily the best the album has to offer. There is only one other song here that proved to endure through the years: “Be True to Your School.” It's catchy, for sure, but I'm really not sure what Brian (or Mike?) was thinking when he decided place that blaring, ugly saxophone in the intro. The other new fast songs, while they aren't among their finer compositions, make perfectly OK listens but hardly fabulous ones: “Car Crazy Cutie,” “Cherry, Cherry Coupe,” “No Go Showboat,” “Custom Machine.” The ballads are certainly nice even though they're also a step back from some of the ballads in Surfer Girl. They do at least continue to showcase their burgeoning vocal harmony skills: “Ballad of Ole Betsy,” “Spirit of America,” “A Young Man Gone.” The last is a particularly successful attempt at a cappella. (It's a tribute to James Dean--which is car-related because he died in a car crash.)

Shut Down Volume 2 (1964) ★ ★ ★ ½
The Beach Boys' record company kept bearing down on them to release more product and a result, their next album wouldn't nearly be as much of a step forward for them as it might have been. Nonetheless, this marked at least a tiny step forward. The opening song, “Fun, Fun, Fun,” for instance, turned out to be their best upbeat pop-rock number to date. That is, even though they had to rip off Chuck Berry (“Johnny B. Goode”) to come up with that tight guitar intro! ...At least the main vocal melody was 100% Brian's, and it is as so infectious that it begs to be sung along with. The thickly layered, harmonized vocals come in heavily for the chorus, which perhaps is what makes that song probably their first perfected, fully-developed, summer-charged song. The ballad “Don't Worry Baby” is also a major classic, for sure, featuring Brian's most beautiful vocal performance to date. However, the most sublime aspect of the vocals happens in the background where the rest of the Beach Boys provide counterbalanced “answers.” Also, I can't forget to mention that the song's steady rhythm section is thick and delicious, which is a far cry from those rawer sounds we were getting in their debut album. Another beautiful--but slightly lesser--ballad is “Warmth of the Sun” where their arresting vocal harmonies are king. Two other enjoyable songs worth mentioning are “In the Parkin' Lot” and “Keep an Eye on Summer.” ...While it would seem so-far-so-good, the remainder of this album is very tossed off. The most notorious one is “Cassius Love Vs. Sonny Wilson,” a sort of scripted skit in which Mike Love and Brian Wilson are warming up for a concert and rip on one another's singing skillz. At the end of the album, we get a half-assed cover of “Louie Louie” and also a boring drum solo by way of “Denny's Drums.” Other songs I haven't mentioned, “This Car of Mine,” “Pom Pom Play Girl,” and the surf instrumental “Shut Down, Part II” are OK; however, songs of that caliber should've stayed on their more primitive debut.

All Summer Long (1964) ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
Here it is. At long last. The first nearly perfect Beach Boys experience. They still had a ways to improve, but this was where they ascended past the treeline. Even though these guys were contractually obligated to release four albums per year, Brian Wilson seemed adamant that he would spend more of his efforts on one particular album a year. In the year 1964, this would be their big effort. It also doesn't beat around the bush; the best song here, in my opinion (and most other people's), is the first track, “I Get Around.” It is positively one of the most exquisite moments in pop-music history, that titillating chant “Get around 'round 'round I get around” while Brian--with his angelic falsetto--soars over that majestically. That's followed up with the title track, which not only has beautiful harmonization and a catchy melody, but it also shows these guys expanding their instrumental range--incorporating a xylophone into the groove! The ballad “Hushabye” seems to serve little more than an excuse for Brian to show off his falsetto, but considering how much of a fantastic voice the guy had, I wished he would've recorded 50 times more songs like that. “Little Honda” is a catchy ditty about a motorcycle, a song that rivals any of their previous ones about cars (this time, Mike Love sings over an infectious chant “Honda Honda go faster faster!”). ...The first side of the album is impeccable. The only bit of “filler” comes with a generic rock 'n' roll instrumental called “Carl's Big Chance.” But even these “filler” moments are improving compared to previous albums. The second side opens strongly with “Wendy,” another one to feature their gloriously thick vocal harmonies, a feature that makes it soar 20,000 feet through the atmosphere. However, after that point, the album drops off somewhat. “Do You Remember?” is a goofy, cutesy tribute to rock artists of the '50s. Relative to most of the first half, “At the Drive In” seems throwaway; however, I still end up loving its hefty groove and those tightly harmonized voices singing “Ooooooo-wop! We love drive in! We love the drive in!” “Don't Back Down” is the album's lone song about surfing, and it's good; though it's less than two minutes longs and seems undeveloped somehow, giving off the impression these guys were conscious about wanting to get away from the subject (despite always remaining The Beach Boys).

Concert (1964) ★ ★ ½
Whoops. It's a live album from 1964. The main motivation of releasing as such was to fulfill the rigorous record commitment schedule forced onto them by their record company. And as we all could probably surmise, before even listening to this, that the problem would be all these teenaged girls screaming all over the place! I do, however, find it entertaining, hearing that wild audience, who as a collective unit, have roughly the same responses to everything. Carl rocks out a solo? Same response. Brian comes in with a falsetto? Same response. That response is to make ear piercing shrieks, like hordes of angry seagulls. The worst thing about this album, though, is the poor recording quality. When Mike Love does the introductions during “Little Deuce Coupe,” he incites each band member to play their instruments. That is how I can tell I can't pick up Jardine's rhythm guitar at all throughout this recording. ...Perhaps the one thing unexpected about this release is they cover a number of non-Beach-Boys songs, such as Jan & Dean's “The Little Old Lady from Pasadena,” a silly country-western tune “Long Tall Texan,” Dion's “The Wanderer,” The Four Freshman's “Graduation Day,” and (giving credit where credit's due?) a crazy-furious cover of Chuck Berry's “Johnny B. Goode.” And then there are two covers of goofy songs, Trashmen-esque versions of “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow” and “Monster Mash.” I'm not particularly in love with either one of those songs (and if I were at the concert, in my current form, I might have stood there with my arms crossed at such throwaway shenanigans). But then again, I guess since there wasn't a way they could have done justice to their polished studio songs at that venue anyway, as they had to play over these horrid teenagers screaming like miniature maniacs at them, they made the economical decision to just play silly stuff for the kids to dance to. ...And they did, of course, also play through a few of their own classics: “Fun, Fun, Fun” which opened the set, “I Get Around” which closed the set, a rather sloppy rendition of “Hawaii,” and the only ballad of the album, “In My Room.” ...All in all, while this might not be a *good* album, as we as a society define the term “good,” I rather enjoyed this experience. And to anyone with any appreciation for The Beach Boys, it could be worth listening to for curiosity's sake.

Bee Gees

Bee Gees' First (1967) ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
The Bee Gees is a name thought by many to be synonymous with disco, but they had been around for quite some time before the ol' disco bug bit them. Bee Gees' First was their international debut (having released two Australia-only albums before this), and it showscases these guys as one of the hundreds of Beatles-inspired bands there were in 1967. While it would be entirely correct to accuse them for being unoriginal, keep in mind that they were among the finest copy-cats of the era. If you enjoy post-Rubber Soul Beatles albums, there should be no particular reason you wouldn't enjoy this. (And I recommend it for that! After all, no matter how good those Beatles albums are, you're eventually gonna get tired of playing 'em over and over again.) These guys' greatest strengths were their beautiful and thickly harmonized vocals, which would mesh majestically with those lush, chamber-pop orchestral arrangement. They were also excellent songwriters, loading this album with 14 songs each distinctively memorable. One of the standouts for sure is “Holiday,” a terrifically engrossing ballad with a heavy string and organ arrangements. “Every Christian Lionhearted Man Will Show You” is an infectious bit of guitar-pop that's infused amazingly with some deep-throated monk chanting. “Red Chair Fade Away” could be the star of the album with its catchy melody and orchestration loaded with what seems like one new flourish every few seconds. While the Bee Gees' unoriginality is undeniable, the only thing in those regards that's actually jumped out at me “In My Time,” which sounds an awful lot like “Taxman.” ...All in all, I say consider this one of the most essential pop releases of the '60s.

Horizontal (1968) ★ ★ ★ ★
This is loaded with ballads, ballads, ballads, and they're heavy ones at that. Never make the mistake of calling them saccharine; they are rich and bittersweet. This is some heavily dramatic, serious stuff, a stark contrast to the sweeter (and yes, occasionally saccharine) ballads they would record in the disco era. The opening song, “World,” for instance starts out richly with some thick strings and organs and then gets positively sweeping when a heavier string section pipes up and they take to some epic drumming. It isn't unlike a Moody Blues song of this era. The hit song here was “Massachusetts,” which is as much of a gorgeous thing as you can imagine with the lush string arrangements, heavy vocal harmonies, wall-of-sound guitars, and (the cherry on top) a lightly twinkling xylophone. “Lemons Never Forget” is another heavy ballad that has the power to draw me into its spooky mood within its first few seconds; the melody is catchy, too. Maybe the dreariest song of the lot is “With the Sun in My Eyes,” which is Barry singing along with thick organ chords and little else... but I'll be hornswaggled if I'm not affected by that foggy organ. I also enjoy the distinctly British “Harry Braff,” which seems both Kinks-inspired through its lyrics, chord progression, and melody. The most rockin' song here is “The Earnest of Being George,” which features some pounding drums and watery electric guitar. ...While most of these songs are excellent, the major downside is that they're not exploring as much of a wide range of textures and ideas as they did in the debut--these songs do tend to sound like one another. Nevertheless, this is an excellent album that's suitable for anyone who likes moody and heavily orchestrated pop music from the '60s.

Idea (1968) ★ ★ ★ ½
This was Bee Gees' third international release and probably their worst internationally released album of the '60s. However, considering they were a true class act--rest assured--this album remains excellent. Certainly something going in this album's favor is the presence of one of their biggest hits of the '60s, "I Started a Joke," a tuneful thing featuring a beautiful vocal performance from Robin. Other songs that I can't help but fall in love with are the lush opener "Let There Be Love," the quietly lovely folk ballad "Kilburn Towers," the touching piano ballad "When the Swallows Fly," and the memorable power ballad "I've Gotta Get a Message to You." (Mmmhmmm, there are lots and lots of ballads...) Another song I enjoy quite a lot is the upbeat and infectious "Kitty Can." The songwriting here is clearly quite strong; what brings this album down comes to the mixing. Their two previous albums had a sort of out-of-this-world glow to them. Here, the strings aren't so caramelly, the pianos and guitars aren't so haunting, and their tight vocal harmonies aren't always stacked so deliciously thick. Another problem is the presence of a song called "Such a Shame," which was composed and performed by guitarist Vince Melouney. That makes it the only Bee Gees original in their catalog not from a brother Gibb. ...I'd hardly call the song terrible, but it also doesn't quite seem like it belongs here.

The Belle Stars

Belle Stars and Stripes (2011) ★ ★ ★ ★
The Belle Stars were a UK girl group who recorded from 1980-1986. They had released only one album in 1983 but released a number of non-album singles beforehand and afterward. This much-appreciated compilation album--available only electronically--is currently the most affordable way (at least in the USA) to properly get to know this group. While The Belle Stars were hardly groundbreaking in any sense of the word--and we even frequently find them embarking rather fearlessly into cheesy territory--there's an undeniable, irresistible freshness to all of this. Most audiences will probably go for their delightful synth-pop cover version of the classic Cajun folk song “Iko Iko,” which--by the way--dances circles around a similar version Cyndi Lauper would record a few years afterward. (Dustin Hoffman reportedly loved this version, too, which was why it would appear on the soundtrack of Rain Man.) However, the shimmering star here has got to be the high-energy and infectious “The Sign of the Times,” one of those rare songs that captures me within its first three seconds. The remainder of the songs are also quite enjoyable, particularly the ones that are done in the same style as “Iko Iko,” such as “The Clapping Song” and “Needle In a Haystack.” A criticism one might have is that a number of these songs veer into mindless dance-music territory (i.e., “Sweet Memory,” “Blame” and “Burning”). I wouldn't unleash such criticisms, however, because even those songs have their appealing hooks, and I'd wager that they are fun to dance to. ...In the end, I believe The Belle Stars to be among pop-rock's finer hidden gems. They're worth checking out, if you're so inclined.

Bush, Kate

A Kick Inside (1978) ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
It wouldn't be correct to say that Kate Bush was out-of-this-world. She was very much something of this world. However, she was tucked inside a corner of this world where nobody would have figured something amazing might exist. ...Kate Bush never did anything all that unconventional, particularly in this album where every song is either keyboard- or guitar-based. Her lyrics are also very much based on earthly things--typically they're tales taken from classic literature or are otherwise matters that pertain to the human condition. But even under her earthly constraints, Bush did manage to come out above the rest with her positively unique approach to her songs. Nobody ever dreamed of this approach before Bush came around, and nobody after her was able to replicate it, try as they might. These songs are unconventionally structured and theatrical, and she's frequently heard using the entire range of her four-octave voice. Some people find her high voice shrill, but I don't. I find her songs too fascinating to think anything's shrill. A song that was a surprise hit in England was "Wuthering Heights," which obviously takes its inspiration from the Emily Bronte novel. It's difficult to tell why that song is so compelling, since it doesn't contain hooks... or at least conventional hooks... and yet, its melody somehow dwells in my mind like a ghost. "The Man With the Child in His Eyes," is a piano ballad with a beautiful melody and heavy string orchestration. You can probably count it as the most normal thing here, but it isn't anything less than compelling. "Them Heavy People" might almost be described as a reggae... Or, rather, a reggae loosely interpreted by this enchanted, pixie-voiced English girl who seemed to pop up out of nowhere.

Lionheart (1978) ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
Astonished by the wild success of Kate Bush's debut album, her record company commissioned a quick follow up. Bush herself would end up lamenting that the company rushed her far too much and that she had to rely too heavily on leftover material from A Kick Inside. ...However, even for an album that wouldn't be composed mainly of leftovers, this thing is amazing. While it has the same general style as A Kick Inside, these songs tend to be more atmospheric, more mystical. The greatest moment is “Wow,” one of the most spellbinding songs I think was ever written. It features Bush's haunting, ghostly vocals, which match perfectly its heavy, cinematic arrangements. The melody is also catchy, with a memorable chorus in which Bush cries out “Wow-wow-wow-wow-wow!” And the build-up to that chorus is a grand flight that sends the senses soaring, something that everyone must experience at some point, if somehow you haven't yet. A couple of other song that are similarly evocative is “In Search of Peter Pan,” as well as the gorgeous album opener, “Symphony in Blue.” (“I spent a lot of my time looking at blue / The colour of my room and my mood / Blue on the walls, blue out of my mouth / The sort of blue between clouds when the sun comes out / The sort of blue in those eyes you get hung up about.”) This also has one of Bush's finest piano ballads, the title track, beautiful and whimsical, orchestrated partly with delicate, serene recorders playing medieval chords. I suppose relative disappointments are “Don't Push Your Foot on the Heartbreak,” as I'm not terribly in love with that almost hard-rocking groove; “Kashka From Baghdad,” in which Bush shrieks out a little more than usual; and the very peculiar “Coffee Homeground,” which sounds like a bizarro version of a show-tune from Cabaret. But even those relative low-lights I ended up falling in love with. No doubt: If you like progressive rock, your album collection would be amiss without Kate Bush's entire discography.

Camera Obscura

Underachievers Please Try Harder (2003) ★ ★ ★
Camera Obscura's sophomore effort is a weird example of an album with a title that also works as an accurate criticism of it. This is quite like their debut--except whereas that one had charmed me with its simplicity and pleasantness, this follow-up starts to cross the line into dreary, lackadaisical territory. Lead singer Tracyanne Campbell had also charmed me previously with her low-key singing, but the style wears out its welcome a bit here. At least the melodies usually have a decent hook or two. The best is the opener: "Suspended From Class." It has a quiet mid-tempo beat, a cute melody, and acoustic guitars that gradually build up their textures as it progresses. A few other songs are recommended here for similar reasons: "Keep it Clean," "Teenager," and "Lunar Sea." Other songs, unfortunately, don't do much at all for me. "A Sister's Social Agony" is basically an indie-pop rewrite of any generic '50s ballad you can think of. "Your Picture" is a downbeat folk ballad that doesn't go anywhere. "Books Written For Girls" is roughly as exciting as a book written for girls. ...I know this album has its proponents, and there are some very nice songs here. I just can't seem to get into this as immediately as I did its predecessor (and, for that matter, their spectacular follow-up)!

Caravan

In the Land of Grey and Pink (1971) ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
Caravan were part of the Canterbury scene, which--to generalize things--consisted of artists who specialized in fusing jazz with progressive-rock. The nice thing about Caravan's brand of progressive-rock was that it was relatively modest. They didn't feel the need to be pompous. ...I'm saying that even though there's a side-long, 22-minute song here called "Nine Feet Underground." But even then, it's consistently upbeat, and I don't think you have to try hard at all to be entertained by it. The players seemed far more interested in finding engaging motifs to play instead of doing what most of their contemporaries were doing and jam-packing their songs with obscure pseduo-mystical ramblings or flashy experiments with Mellotrons. However, as good as the 22-minute song is, the finer parts of the album are the other four songs. My favorite is the title track, which has a catchy melody, folksy acoustic guitars, and charming, Tolkein-esque lyrics. ("So we'll sail away for just one day to the land where the punk weed grows / You won't need any money, just fingers and your toes") "Winter Wine" is another great one, a beautiful folk ballad that has the power to transport me out of a stuffy room and into the open countryside. Anyway, this album is considered a prog-rock classic for good reason: Caravan were excellent instrumentalists, the songs are all catchy, and--above all else--this is unabashed fun.

The Cardigans

Life (1995) ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
The Cardigans were lead by Nina Persson who not only had a distinctive voice of candied apples, but she was also one of the cutest lead singers of all time. This band also had a very appealing gimmick: they would write very catchy, very clean, and very fluffy retro '60s-pop music except with a somewhat shady, post-modern twist to it. The result was a sound that was uniquely them. ...Now, of course I wouldn't like this album so much if it wasn't catchy, but the fact that they were unique gives this an extra bite. The album opens with “Carnival,” a quick and poppy number with tight some tight though subdued funk guitar, upbeat drumming that occasionally sounds like hand-claps, and a vocal hook that sticks in my mind forever. Other similarly infectious upbeat songs include “Rise & Shine,” “Sick & Tired,” and “Tomorrow.” There's also a lovely bossa nova “Celia Inside,” a the sly and snappy “Gordon's Gardenparty,” an atmospheric, sort of retro-futuristic ballad “Our Space,” and a sweeping and touching “Beautiful One.” ...By far the quirkiest thing they do here is an incredibly cutesy (and incredibly good!) cover version of Black Sabbath's “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath.” If the original was like a panther stalking prey in the jungle, then this cover is like a kitten chasing a butterfly in a field of daisies.

First Band on the Moon (1996) ★ ★ ★ ½
This was The Cardigans' second album (or third depending on what you count), and it wasn't quite the same deceptively cheeky throwback to the '60s that Life was. However, most of that spirit remains with the band and the songwriting is still excellent. Also, this is the album with The Cardigans' hit single, which catapulted them to international fame: “Lovefool.” I distinctly remember that song annoying me to the brink of death back when it was popular, but my tastes must have diminished significantly since then, because I love it to pieces these days! Its melody is surely one of the most infectious things to have ever been devised by mankind, and it's orchestrated with some breezy bossa nova guitar, a heavy disco drum beat, and--my favorite thing--a thick bass-line that sounds like a dancing bullfrog. Lead vocalist Nina Persson continues to be in top form here as she sings in nothing but alluringly sweet coos. While that's the famous song of the album, I'd say the best song is the opener, “Your New Cuckoo,” which is infectious, bouncy, and it positively glistens. Other songs I find especially enjoyable are the sprightly “Never Recover,” the heart-felt, twinkling ballad “Great Divide,” and “Been It,” which is characterized by a riff that manages to be both acrobatic and pounding. What keeps this album from measuring up to Life, in my mind, is the presence of a few drearier tracks: “Heartbreaker,” “Happy Meal II,” and “Losers.” Also they do another Black Sabbath cover, “Iron Man,” but it doesn't come off quite as novel as their prior Sabbath cover, “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath."

Crabby Appleton

Crabby Appleton (1970) ★ ★ ★ ★
I let out a chortle the first time I learned that there was a rock band in the early '70s named "Crabby Appleton." I then got curious enough to actually take a listen to how this band sounded, and I discovered--lo and behold!--that they were fantastic! This was their debut album, and its main claim to fame was a song that managed to eke its way onto the Billboard Top 40, a power-pop song called "Go Back." And I'll tell you: The song is a whole hell of a lot of fun. It begins with a menacing bass-line that deceives me into thinking I'm about to listen to Black Sabbath, but it isn't much longer when there are some bright, Byrds-ish jangle guitar layered on top of it. (So I'm safe!) Its vocal melody is infectious and sung with the powerful but pleasant chops of Michael Fennelly. I'll also mention that Phil Jones' drumming does all it can to assist that menacing bass to help make the song utterly driving. The remainder of these songs are not only consistently hooky, but they also explore a wide range of styles. "The Other Side" is a mysterious ballad with nicely textured drums, guitars, and Hammond organ, and its potent melody is sung beautifully with a near-falsetto. "Peace By Peace" is an addictive piece of jam-rock; "How Long Will I Live" is a loose and pretty bossa nova; "To All My Friends" is a pop song that's roughly as good as anything from Badfinger; and "Hunger For Love" is a surprisingly effective seven-minute-long piece of jazz-fusion. Certainly, if you're into unearthing forgotten gems of the '60s and '70s, be sure to pick this one up.

Rotten to the Core (1971) ★ ½
Crabby Appleton's second and final release was a huge, huge, huge let-down. Gone were the infectious power-pop anthems, the weirdly engaging ballads, and the charming bits of Badfinger-esque pop music. What we get instead, for example, is this bland and weak-willed boogie-rocker "Smokin' in the Morning." Nothing against boogie-rock, but its melody is so generic that even Ringo Starr would have been embarrassed to sing that. Maybe even worse is its instrumentation that is so lifeless that it doesn't even inspire me to tap my foot. (What's the point of boogie-rock if not to make your foot tap, then?) There's also a weirdly straightforward country-western song here called "Paper to Write On" that contains some of the most gag-inducing lyrics that have ever passed through my ear canals. ("Paper to write on / and ink for the pen / I will send you sweet letters / Till you're with me again.") On the brighter side, there's a decent Zeppelin-esque rocker called "Lookin' For Love," and I also enjoy the folk song "One More Time," which is orchestrated with some lovely country-fiddle. ...Now, if it wasn't already obvious that Michael Fennelly was struggling for ideas when he wrote this album, he made that abundantly clear with the presence of a few shameless rip-offs. "Make No Difference" sounds almost exactly like Joe Cocker's version of "With a Little Help From My Friends." The hard-ish rockin' "Lucy" uses a riff awfully similar to Steppenwolf's "Born to be Wild." ...Such a shame.

Curiosity Killed the Cat

Keep Your Distance (1987) ★ ★ ½
Curiosity Killed the Cat were a British blue-eyed-soul act whose lead vocalist Ben Volpeliere-Pierrot had an appropriately dark and soothing voice. Given that this album was made in 1987, you could also rightfully expect it to be orchestrated with the usual electronically enhanced drums, smooth synthesizers, and deep bass that rings clear as a bell. They did manage to score a #3 hit in England for their single “Down to Earth,” which I find perfectly likable. It's a soft, mid-tempo song with a fancy, sophisticated melody and some decent smooth-jazz saxophone. It's so completely likable that I do believe you'd have to be some kind of a cave troll to hate it. However, my favorite song of the album would certainly be the opener, “Misfit,” which sounds like a lite-version of any standard INXS rocker you can think of. (Hm! That might not seem like such a heavy compliment, but I actually like it for that!) A number of these other upbeat songs also make enjoyable listens: “Curiosity Killed the Cat,” “Ordinary Day,” and “Shallow Memory.” On the downside, the slower, “soulful” stuff is where my attention tend to start to waft away into outer space. ...Though perhaps that's only more of a testament that I've never considered myself much of a plastic soul nut, so don't take my words too much to heart if you are one. The worst thing I'm going to say about this album is that there's little about it that makes me want to return to it. That is despite the fact that I, for some reason, own a physical copy of this CD and will probably keep it forever.

Darin, Bobby

Bobby Darin (1958) ★ ★ ★
Bobby Darin must've been rock 'n' roll's first chameleon, taking on many genres head-on and succeeding wildly at most of them. Here was his first album, and despite his, er, preppy appearance on the cover, this is rock 'n' roll. It contains “Splish Splash,” an insatiable dance classic that continues to be widely played to this day. (Of course it was the Sesame Street version which I'd first come accustomed to when I was in kindergarten in the 1980s.) Other than that, these songs--most of which are originals written by Darin and Don Kirshner--have trouble making themselves stand out beyond any other thing that existed in 1958. However, that's OK; consider this the boost Darin needed to put himself on the map so that he could do the stuff he really wanted to do.

That's All (1959) ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
Rock 'n' roll hits “Splish Splash,” “Dream Lover,” and “Queen of the Hop” might have catapulted Bobby Darin to fame, but it was old-timey standards where his heart really was. And that's what this album is; here is Bobby Darin transformed into Frank Sinatra. If nothing else, he did this to prove to people that he could really sing. (...I'm feeling the need to point out that Darin is the only artist I can think of whose choice method of expressing himself was through performing more covers.) He was misquoted once saying he not only wanted to gain a firm foothold in the adult, Sinatra-savvy audience, but he even wanted to be bigger than Sinatra. But of course such ambition could never have come into fruition; both as a singer and a pop-culture icon, Darin would always look like Sinatra's precocious, somewhat hyperactive younger sibling. However, if you want to look at it from the point of view of a brief snapshot in time--that is, the Year 1959--perhaps Darin was bigger that year. After all, I can't think of anything Sinatra did that year that left as much of a stamp in pop culture as Darin's iconic takes on “Mack the Knife” and “Beyond the Sea.” ...While those two songs are unquestionably the best moments of the album, the rest of this stuff still holds up remarkably well. He does the punchy, big-band jazz stuff (“I'll Remember April,” “Softly As in a Morning Sunrise,” “Some of These Days,” “That's All”), interspersing those with some lovely ballads (“Through a Long and Sleepless Night,” “It Ain't Necessarily So,” “Was There a Call For Me,” “Where is the One”). The orchestration throughout is top-notch--bright, delightful, never for a moment forgetting that they're supposed to entertain us, above all. If you're a rock 'n' roll fan and for whatever reason want to own an album of standards (while perhaps finding Sinatra somewhat too heavy handed), then perhaps this bubbly, lighthearted album would prove to be useful to you!

This is Darin (1960) ★ ★ ★ ★
Darin might not have been as good of a singer as Sinatra, but he had an insatiable personality that pops out of this. That was really the man's important selling point. The result? Another terrifically entertaining album of Vegasy standards. Some say this follow-up is better than the debut even though there were no hits on it to the caliber of “Mack the Knife” or “Beyond the Sea.” They say this was a more mature work that proved to the world--definitively--that he deserved to perform these sorts of songs right along side Sinatra and to the same audience. Given this is such an entertaining album, I tend to agree with the assessment. But on the other hand, those two hits were fantastic, and thus I'm far more prone to revisiting that one as opposed to this one. ...I'll give credit where credit's due, though; “Clementine” is a catchy, toe-tapping song with a very cheeky vocal performance (supplied with Darin making a high pitched whoops!, a hilarious bubbling noise, and several hearty hut-huts). “Don't Dream of Anybody But Me” is a more serious ballad, though some tasteful orchestrations and a nevertheless lively vocal performance makes it just as entertaining as anything. “Pete Kelly's Blues” shows Darin convincingly doing a Vegasy interpretation of the blues... and I gotta love that orchestral interlude, which briefly punches up that slow, bluesy drawl as though Darin couldn't even manage a blues without throwing in a few entertainingly flashy moves. Well, that's why we love 'im, right? I'm not going to discuss every song here, so I'll just close this by saying if you love this kind of Vegasy vocal-jazz stuff, this might be one of the finer albums you could possibly own.

Darin at the Copa (1960) ★ ★ ★ ½
This live album shows Bobby Darin living his dream: headlining the Copa. He's being quite goofy, though--singing through most of this with a particularly hopped-up voice. But maybe that goofiness was why people went and saw him? He is rather infectious. I find charming all these things: His vocal performance in “Some of These Days” includes quite a bit of growls; when his musicians are obviously starting to play “Mack the Knife,” he introduces it as a popular Bolivian folk-song; he keeps the silliness of the studio version of “Clementine” entirely intact with that high pitched whoops! and his astounding bububububububu-bubble outburst; he introduces “Bill Baley” with these bizarre blu-blap blu-blap-bla noises before singing the song for real; at one point a woman yells “Splish Splash” at him to which he responds in a W.C. Fields voice “You're going back farther than I care to remember” and then proceeds to ad lib a silly scat song; etc. Certainly the audience seemed to soak up all of this, proving that Darin was essentially an effective stand-up comic in addition to being an effective singer. The recording quality isn't pristine but remember this was the early '60s, and I'd thus say it's decent enough fodder for me to close my eyes to and imagine what it must've been like to be at The Copa, watching Bobby Darin. Man o man, I woulda had a blast!

For Teenagers Only (1960) ★ ★ ★ ★
Or, as it's stylized on the cover, “For Teen Agers Only.” So I guess if you want to enjoy this, it helps to be a farm kid. ...This was a compilation Darin's record company slapped together containing mostly material recorded in the “Splish Splash” era in hopes of keeping his teenage crowd interested. It didn't end up working. However, this album nevertheless continues to survive through the ages, and that's a good thing, because I'm finding that I'm enjoying this collection quite a bit. While it doesn't contain any of his instantly recognizable hits to speak of, a few of them are roughly as good as one. There's “All the Way Home,” which features some great Elvis-ish vocals (but to keep his identity intact he throws in a high-pitched hot dawg! and some of his hut-huts). “Keep a Walkin',” “I Ain't Sharin' Sharon,” “Pity Miss Kitty,” and “Hush, Somebody's Callin' My Name” are high energy pop-songs that sound like they came out of the same recording sessions that had brought us “Splish Splash,” and they're almost as fun. (For reference, Darin's debut LP had only one song of this style and caliber, and that was “Splish Splash” itself.) Though my pick for album-best is the lovely ballad “A Picture No Artist Could Paint,” which features a nicely orchestrated string arrangement. Albeit, it also has back-up singers that seem like they are on the verge of becoming overblown, they keep the balance just right, and the result is a vibe that's positively glorious. Another nice addition to the mix was a beautiful pop-rock performance of an old standard “That Lucky Old Sun.” All in all, these are some excellent songs. My only complaint is regarding “Somebody to Love.” While a perfectly decent bit of '50s pop-rock, someone put this WEIRD stereo effect on it in which Darin and the background singers are continuously flipping speakers. Perhaps that doesn't sound so awkward on a home stereo system, but if you're wearing headphones, it gets obnoxious.

25th Day of December (1960) ★ ★ ★ ½
I'm beginning to suspect I tend to be heavily biased in favor of Bobby Darin only because Kevin Spacey had portrayed him in a movie I liked. Because I rarely rate Christmas albums this highly. However, in my defense, give a listen to this guy sing “Ave Maria.” ...Isn't this guy positively glorious? There's a heavy use of a back-up choir there--they are used heavily throughout this album--but they're a hearty choir, and the recording quality is good enough that I can make out each of their individual voices. (That's certainly preferable to that dreary din that a lot of choirs sound like to me.) Overall, the best idea Darin had for his Christmas album was to give it some diversity. In addition to the usual flock of boring crap we're all sick to death of (“Silent Night,” “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Auld Land Syne”), there are also some terrifically upbeat spirituals (“Go Tell it On the Mountain,” “Mary Where is Your Baby”), slow spirituals (“Poor Little Jesus”), and church music (“Holy Holy Holy,” “Dona Nobis Pacem”). The great thing is that Darin's vocal performances are as infectious and charismatic as always, and he's a pleasure to listen to. So all these things considered, this is going to be one of the more highly recommended Christmas albums out there.

Duffy, Stephen

I Love My Friends (1998) ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
Stephen Duffy's string of incredible albums with The Lilac Time and his solo work had produced some of the breeziest and most likable pop-songs I've ever heard in my life. I Love My Friends was the album Duffy made before reforming The Lilac Time one year later, and--no doubt--this is one of the finest musical projects he'd ever been associated with. This album seems to be a retrospective of Duffy's life—opening with the thirty-second “Tune In,” which replays brief sound-clips of various songs that he'd written over the years. Then we get to the present day, when Duffy sings songs pertaining to his past, and sometimes the memories he churns up are utterly painful. Most memorably there's “The Postcard,” which is a touching and tearful folk-ballad about the discovery of an old postcard from a long ago girlfriend who'd since passed away. ...But, no, this isn't supposed to be a sad album; he loads this album with plenty of terrifically upbeat power-pop tunes. I'd dare you to find an album with these many bright, catchy songs this side of a Beatles album: “Eucharist,” “17,” “You Are,” “What If I Fell In Love With You,” and “One Day One of These Fucks Will Change Your Life.” Another especially memorable song here is the breezy “She Belongs To All,” which sounds like '60s jazz-pop from Henry Mancini, and it's exactly as good as one of those. I can't recommend this album enough!

Easton, Sheena

Take My Time (1981) ★ ★
British pop singer Sheena Easton is probably best known for singing the song that played over the opening credits of the James Bond flick For Your Eyes Only. But that song isn't on this album. A song that is here is her #1 hit from 1981 "9 to 5 (Morning Train)," which is a catchy and irrepressibly cute number. Unfortunately, nothing else here comes close to matching that, but I'd say a few of the other upbeat songs--"One Man Woman" and "Voice on the Radio"--pull their weight. The worst thing about this album is that Easton's reedy singing voice comes across as weak as she belts out most of this stuff at the top of her lungs. Also not helping matters is that the adult-contemporary ballads here are atrocious. (A notable exception to that is a pretty but half-baked folk ballad "Moody (My Love).") This is only recommended if you're into bubble-gum pop from the 1980s, but even then I'd be leery of it.

Electronic

Electronic (1991) ★ ★ ★
Electronic are a dance duo consisting of Bernard Sumner (of New Order fame) and Johnny Marr (of The Smiths fame). Certainly, this far more resembles New Order than it does The Smiths. Or might I say it most resembles The Pet Shop Boys? ...I was gearing up to criticize (positively!) this album for being a perfectly adequate Pet Shop Boys knock-off. But then I'd learned it's actually quite a bit more than that: The Pet Shop Boys actually make an appearances here! Yup, listening to “Getting Away With It,” I can indeed confirm that I hear Neil Tennant's very distinctive voice singing in the background. That song also happens to be handily the best this album has to offer. That is, even though it can be described accurately as a super-slick dance-song with some near-techno drum machines and synth-bass. The secret to its success? Its wonderfully soaring melody. My goodness, it's just like a Pet Shop Boys song! Other highlights include the album opener “Idiot Country,” an infectious rap with a gentler refrain, and “Get the Message,” which another amiable Pet Shop Boys send-up. On the downside, most of these other songs are somewhat blanker dance-floor fodder (“Reality,” “Tighten Up,” “Try All You Want,” “Feel Every Beat,” “Gangster,” “Some Distant Memory”). But even all those songs have at least something uniquely interesting about them. “Reality,” for instance, has some really neat techno rhythms, and “Gangster” features some nice keyboard work. ...I can tell you that I never grow completely tired of this record, which is probably the highest compliment I could ever lend to such a dance album. (I'm fully aware I'm biased against this genre.) In the end, though, I wouldn't bother recommending this to anyone who isn't already inclined to liking early '90s dance music. After all, for most of us, The Pet Shop Boys is really all we needed. That is, if we need that stuff at all. (I do!)

Eurythmics

In the Garden (1981) ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
Eurythmics were a duo consisting of lead singer Annie Lennox and guitarist Dave Stewart--both of whom had splintered off the defunct band The Tourists. Their debut as Eurythmics was closer to a Tourists album and--by extension--quite unlike any of the albums these guys would become most known for. For starters, not only are there no hits on here, but there's nothing here that obviously could have become a hit. This is an art-pop album, just as druggy as an early Roxy Music album, but mellower. Iconic lead singer Annie Lennox, while she might be known for belting out songs toward the great big sky above, she coos through much of this album rather sweetly and quietly. ...This is certainly a testament, at least, to Eurythmics' roots. They might have come up with a crazy amount of pop-radio hits in the 1980s, but this proves that they were artists first and foremost. It's also my favorite album of theirs by a long shot, although I expect the vast majority of people would disagree with that (that is, those who would even venture to listen to an early Eurythmics album without any hits on it). I wholeheartedly love everything on this. The opener “English Summer” is mesmerizing with some cool, watery guitars, and some really fantastic bass. That's followed up by “Belinda,” which is quite infectious and danceable. Later on, we get an unbalanced though fascinating groove of “Sing-Sing” and then “Revenge”--surely one of the major highlights--a brilliantly druggy/hazy thing with potent vocal hooks, an intoxicating, jumping bass-line, and some brilliant space-age guitar and synthesizer effects. ...I've owned this gem for a number of years and have gotten plenty of mileage out of it. I expect to get plenty more.

Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) (1982) ★ ★ ★ ★
Despite In the Garden being a fantastic record, Eurythmics must've worried they'd eventually suffer the same fate they'd suffered with The Tourists if they kept going like that. So they changed gears and made a trendy, entirely synth-based album. My best guesses is that they were aiming to create a more commercially viable version of Kraftwerk's The Man-Machine. What tips me off is the lead single, “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” which sounds like a more evolved version of “The Model.” Particularly the slower songs, like the brooding “This City Never Sleeps” and “Jennifer” do carry distinctly Kraftwerk vibes to them. “Sweet Dreams” would be the song to catapult these guys to international superstardom. It was also one of those early, highly successful synth-pop singles that helped prove that the style would be there to stay. It's a great song, too; its hooks are potent, and Lennox's soaring and powerful vocals fit its pensive mood perfectly. Maybe more than anything to convince me the song is a masterpiece, it's that brief refrain in which Lennox starts to chant "Keep your head up / moving on," a section not only addictive in its own right but also provides the needed break-up from what might have been too much of a repetitive/robot groove. I like pretty much all these songs, but one of the finest ones is the opener “Love is a Stranger," which is so catchy I'm addicted to it. I also particularly enjoy their highly energetic synth-pop reinvention the Isaac-Hayes-penned “Wrap it Up.”

Touch (1983) ★ ★ ★ ½
Eurythmics had become major international sensations by now with their elegantly minimal Sweet Dreams. I suppose not wanting to repeat themselves for the follow-up, this album explores far greater musical styles, and its synth-textures tend to be more flowery. They did, however, keep the one thing that worked extremely well: Annie Lennox's belt-i-tude. The vocal performances here, once again, are phenomenal. This album is also what confirmed Eurythmics' place in the public lexicon--as there are a number of very well known songs here. The biggest hit was the album opener “Here Comes the Rain Again,” a terrifically catchy bit of synth-pop with soaring vocals, high-flying synth-string arrangement, and a moody atmosphere. “Who's That Girl?” (not to be confused with the Madonna song!) was another hit, a low-key and cold though engaging ballad with convincingly spiteful lyrics. Most of these other songs I also find entertaining experiences, although I tend to lack general enthusiasm for some of them. “Aqua” is a playful thing with a low, rumbling groove, a clutter of synthesizer effects, and some cunning guitar-work. “Cool Blue” starts out a bit slowly, but it escalates into a memorable chorus. “Right By Your Side” is the most unusual song here--and a minor hit in the UK--a synth-pop calypso. ...My gut tells me combining synth-pop and calypso could never work, but it does there. “The First Cut” is basically a loop that gets repeated over and over; however, it's a driving loop. “No Fear, No Hate, No Pain” is a sprawling, morose thing that is completely made by Lennox's awe-inspiring performance soaring over all of that, leaving pinwheels in my eyes. They drop the ball a bit at the end with “Paint a Rumour,” a seven-and-a-half-minute thing with a stiff groove that gets a bit annoying. Although I'll give it all the credit its due for containing a number of interesting synth effects. All in all, very good album.

1984 (For the Love of Big Brother) (1984) ★ ★ ★
Of all the Eurythmics albums in the world, this is the oddest duck. For starters, it was released on a different label, meaning that it doesn't always get included in their discographies. It also received little promotion at the time, and thus, it only had minuscule presence on the charts. This is also technically a soundtrack album, intended for Michael Radford's cinematic adaptation of George Orwell's 1984. And that lead to another thing that didn't help this album's reputation: The film studio that had commissioned this album did so behind the back of Radford, who went on record stating that he hated Eurythmics and was adamantly against them recording anything for his film. (Eurythmics would later say they never would have accepted this contract had they known the director was against it.) ...Now despite this technically being a soundtrack album, Annie Lennox's voice can he heard in most of these songs, even the near-instrumentals where she only makes noises in the background. Just for that, I wouldn't think any true Eurythmics fan would want to forgo this release for their collections. More than that, this has one of their dance-pop classics on it, “Sexcrime (Nineteen Eighty Four).” Oddly that song seems far more appropriate club-dance fodder than anything I've heard from them previously or afterward--the synth-groove is quite mainstream and stiff--however, it's also a catchy thing, and Lennox's crystal-pure vocals are as hell-raising as ever. The best song is almost certainly “Julia,” a richly dark and moody piece in which Lennox sings hypnotically with a vocoder, giving her voice the same sort of synthetic, thickly layered effect that characterized Laurie Anderson in “O Superman.” Other songs here are heavily atmospheric and oftentimes utilize neat synthesizer effects. I especially like that world-beat, synth-pop hybridization “Ministry of Love.” Now, some of the near-instrumentals are worth a listen if you're into Eurythmics, but I doubt they would be of much interest to anyone else. Surely this would be hardly among the great Eurythmics albums, but for an odd duck, it's quite decent.

FolkLaw

The Tales That They Tell (2012) ★ ★ ★ ½
FolkLaw are a... er... folk band (and I suppose also law abiding citizens) who hail from England that, to me, sound a bit like post-Sandy Denny Fairport Convention. Their lead singer comes across like he's trying too hard to create a hefty voice like a modern day Peter Gabriel. But I've listened to this album a number of times at work, got more used to the voice, and ended up enjoying it quite a lot. They do know how to write a good hook (i.e., all of these songs are hooky), and the instrumentation is appealingly raw--rife with earthy acoustic guitars, fiddles, and bongos. No question, these guys knew what they were doing. The seven-minute “Some Way Somehow” might be my favorite song here; it's beautiful, gentle, and sad that's only spoiled a bit by those over-strained vocals. Another especially enjoyable piece is a bit of upbeat Celtic-rock, “Dublin City.”

The Free Design

Kites are Fun (1967) ★ ★ ★ ★
The Free Design were a sunshine/psych-pop band who weren't terribly popular in their day but have since developed a cult following. Listening to their debut, it's easy to see why people eventually caught up with them: This is delightful. Sure, it's a bit fruity, but how could I ever think anything ill of it? That would be like denying the title song's simple proclamation: Kites are fun. The title song's melody is pretty and the orchestration is beautiful, which contains flighty flutes, caramelized organs, and bright guitars. Naturally, there are also heavily harmonized vocals (the band had both male and female singers), and it seems like each one of them takes lead at some point. The remainder of the songs aren't quite as infectious, but most of them are nevertheless excellent. "When Love is Young" is a pretty folk ballad. "The Proper Ornaments" is a wistful bit of baroque-pop. "Make the Madness Stop" has a groove-happy, bongo-ridden drive to it in between moments of wistful tranquility. Perhaps the surprises here are two covers of popular songs that are genuine reinventions: Simon & Garfunkel's "59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy)" and The Beatles' "Michelle." I can bet you The Beatles never would have dreamed of giving it that Medieval introduction The Free Design did! Now, putting my gushiness aside, this is hardly a perfect album. A few songs, such as "Stay Another Season," "Don't Turn Away," and "My Brother Woody," while they make lovely listens, don't come across as especially distinctive.

You Can Get Born Again (1968) ★ ★ ★ ★
The Free Design's sophomore effort is a letdown of sorts; it doesn't have anything I'd rank quite as highly as "Kites Are Fun" or "Make the Madness Stop." In addition, I don't think any of the covers are quite as good as the previous' "Michelle" or "59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy)." On the bright side, however, I still love this album; they hadn't lost an ounce of their charm. The title track gets things rolling strongly, a song with a gently strumming guitar, colorful vocal harmonies, and optimistic lyrics that match the tone. (“There was a moon last night, a pretty bird in flight / and a quiet breeze gliding through the trees / I can still feel the ache in my heart / showing my life to be in need of a brand new start”) Another great moment is the gentle and majestic “I Like the Sunrise,” beginning with a tiny orchestral swell that veers somewhat into becoming atonal! (That's interesting in more of an academic sense, I suppose.) Another song not to be missed is the sweetly melancholic “The Windows of the World,” which gives off just a hint of tropical vibe and lyrics that are melancholic and yet are filled with hope. The best of the covers is a Beatles one, a nearly a cappella rendition of "Eleanor Rigby," where the background singers make these funny, rapid-fire dut-dut-dut-dut sounds. ...While the album is quite happy and wistful throughout, I do hear some spooky ghost howls at the end the penultimate song, “Ivy on a Windy Day,” and there is a markedly dour tone to “An Elegy.” ...Such prompts me to think these guys may have suffered collectively from manic depression. ...But I would say these guys are just as interesting when they're dour as when they are fantastically elated. Without a doubt, if you loved their debut, you will also love this.

Furniture

The Wrong People (1986) ★ ★ ★ ½
According to legend, Furniture were one of the great '80s pop bands that nobody's ever heard of. Maybe they were? (They released their early albums on a label that didn't press too many copies before going bankrupt. Today, fortunately, their stuff is available for all to purchase.) Furniture did manage, at least, to score a Top 30 hit in England for "Brilliant Mind," which also earned high praises from the likes of Boy George and even appeared on the soundtrack of Some Kind of Wonderful. It's a sort of gothic ballad that features excellent blue-eyed soul vocals from Jim Irvin who sings a memorable melody over a heavy atmosphere. However, my favorite song of the disc goes to "Love Your Shoes," which has now become one of my favorite New Romantic songs of all time. The appealing melody sounds perfect with those smooth-as-silk vocals, and I like the herky-jerky rhythm and those heavy, jingly guitars. Its lyrics also do what lyrics rarely do and gets stuck in my head. ("I know it's bound to rain on our party but / We mustn't let that get us down / We're going to have the best time / The time of our worthless lives") One small issue I have with the album is that after I listen to the first four songs, I'm somewhat less inclined to sit through the rest of it. However, when hard-pressed I'm unable to name a single song in here that isn't totally solid. That even includes the closer, "Pierre's Fight," which is a goofy bit of theatrical piano jazz.

Glitter, Gary

Glitter (1973) ★ ★ ★ ½
These days, Gary Glitter is best known for being a perv. However, in those more secretive olden days, Glitter was a much-beloved singer in the land of Britannia. He capitalized upon Glam-music, putting him in the same class as T. Rex, David Bowie, Roxy Music, and The Sweet. Though keep in mind there were two vastly different sub-categories of glam-rock: the artsy acts (i.e., Roxy Music) and the loud and sleazy acts. Glitter assuredly belonged to the latter. ...There's one song in here that everybody knows: a near-instrumental “Rock 'n' Roll (Part 2),” or otherwise known as “The Hey Song,” that is played at just about every hockey game I've ever been to. (I stopped going to hockey games in the late '90s, so my information might be badly out of date.) It's a silly thing, of course, but it's enjoyable. It has drumbeats that roll and crack like thunder and buzzing guitars that sound like kazoos. A song I like far more, however, is “I Didn't Know I Loved You ('Till I Saw You Rock 'n' Roll),” which is more low-key but nevertheless snappy and among the more hopelessly catchy things I've ever run across. The only shortcomings of this album is the presence of an awful lot of covers, such as Chuck Berry's “School Day” and Ritchie Valens' “Donna.” However, even those benefit from Glitter's tight instrumental style and his charismatic vocals. ...Recent versions of this album also come with bonus tracks, one of which is his signature single “I'm Leader of the Gang (I Am),” which must be one of the craziest and catchiest bits of frantic pop-rock that has ever been devised by mankind.

Touch Me (1973) ★ ★ ½
That's a bit of an unfortunate album title. It gets even worse when you factor in that it's based on the lead single whose full title is, “Do You Wanna Touch Me? (Oh Yeah!).” That's also by far the best song the album has to offer; it's frantic, Glitter's vocal performance is infectiously boisterous, and the melody is catchy, catchy, catchy. My goodness, listening to that song is like eating delicious candy. By the way, Glitter wasn't known much for “diversity,” since this song could very well have appeared on the debut. It's instrumented with more of those thunder-crack drums, buzzy guitars, and Glitter screaming out “Yeah!” rather often. The only difference between this album and the previous is these songs tend to be more driving. That was probably a wise move, but the problem is the songs here aren't nearly as catchy. And if this guy isn't throwing hooks at you that can stick with you for all eternity, then what good is he? Most of this stuff is quite fun, though: “Hello, Hello I'm Back Again!” has more of those frantic thunder-cracks and kind of a good melody; “Didn't I Do it Right,” an adequate glammy boogie-rocker; “Hold On To What You Got” has a pretty vicious, pounding bass line; "Come On, Come In, Get On" uses the thunder-crack drums to sound like soldiers marching; “Happy Birthday” has an appealingly tight groove. I also enjoy the hard-grooving “Hard On To What You Got,” even though it has the most unfortunate song title of them all. The album is rounded out with a '50s style love ballad, “To Know You Is to Love You,” where Glitter hams up the squished-faced, mawkishly despairing angst like a champ. All in all, there's enough entertainment value here to recommended this to anyone who liked the debut. However, far too much of this stuff is too forgettable to recommend to anyone else.

Greenslade

Greenslade (1973) ★ ★ ★ ★
I am an egghead. An incurable egghead. The first listen of Greenslade's debut album had me practically drooling over it. This album is has theatrical melodies, dramatic chord progressions, rumbling Mellotrons, and there are complicated drum fills all over the place... When they get around to singing, the lyrics are usually about God-knows-what. ...Yes sir, this is a prog album in the good spirit of King Crimson, Yes, and Genesis (the holy trinity of prog). The Year 1973 would seem a little late for any prog band to first arrive on the scene, but this was a supergroup of sorts. Founder Dave Greenslade had splintered off another progressive-rock band, Colosseum. Additionally, the drummer Andrew McCulloch had a brief stint with King Crimson. So it wasn't like these guys were going into this without knowing what they were doing. Now as far as prog acts go, they weren't nearly as technically proficient as Yes, as astute as Genesis, nor as brilliant songwriters as King Crimson (at their best!), but the album is nevertheless loaded with entertaining songs that have more than their fair share of interesting ideas. One song that pops out at me is “An English Western” with sprightly and complicated scales that are played all over the place, dazzling my ears. “Drowning Man” sounds like an English hymnal, and it's very pretty. “Melange” is the epic song with huge Mellotrons and wobbly guitar solos. The closer “Sundance” start and ends quietly with a gentle (and let's face it: not terribly interesting) piano arrangement until midway through when we get a lengthy organ solo that has a few interesting tricks. ...While there's probably a good reason Greenslade were never counted among the superstars of prog, this is something real fans of that genre should delight at discovering later.

Gryphon

Gryphon (1973) ★ ★ ★ ★
We all know of bands like Fairport Convention or Steeleye Span who sought to reinvent Medieval and Renaissance folk music. But Gryphon wanted to recreate the style more authentically--not only covering actual songs from the era but playing them with recorders, bongos, tom toms, and tambourines. They even went to the extent of using a couple of crumhorns--marking the first time that instrument's ever been used on a rock album. (They do use modern acoustic guitars, though, which lends it the modern touch.) Definitely don't make the mistake of thinking this is some kind of music appreciation lesson. First and foremost, this is an entertaining album. For instance, I'm sure they were milking out for all it was worth the amusing aspects of that crumhorn, which creates a sort of high-pitched buzzy honk. Additionally, many of the songs they cover are raunchy as all heck-fire. (“The Devil he brought her close to Hell's door / Get along in you damn scolding old whore / She saw some young devils all hanging in chains / She ripped off her mittens and dashed out their brains”) Gryphon didn't have any full-time singers in their midst, but that hardly mattered since they sing these tunes in gravelly, drinking-song voices, with thick British accents. However, most of these 12 songs are instrumentals, one of which, “Pastime With Good Company,” was composed by none other than King Henry VIII (he was).

Guryan, Margo

Take a Picture (1968) ★ ★ ★ ★
The classically trained Margo Guryan enjoyed a successful career as a jazz composer in the late '50s and early '60s, but this career-path was interrupted when she heard "God Only Knows" by The Beach Boys, which inspired her to become a full-time pop-rock composer. She wrote a number of songs that became hits for other artists, but here her own voice is at the helm. Unfortunately, due to Guryan's unwillingness to tour, the record label wouldn't promote the album, and thus this was basically ignored at release. However, it has since enjoyed a cult following and the reason for which could only have been for one thing: These pop songs are fantastic. This is stuff is pure sunshine-pop--some of the best around--and every song is equipped with a melody that's perfectly hummable and with chord progressions so involved they are of Brian Wilson caliber. The major caveat is that her voice is starkly unconventional: it's whispery and very highly pitched. Fans of this album like to call her singing "seductive," but that rings of people making excuses. Nevertheless, these are excellent songs. "Think of Rain" was the song she wrote right after hearing that Beach Boys song, and it's hazy, enchanting and orchestrated with beautiful chamber-pop sensibilities. "Sunday Morning" (completely unrelated to the Velvet Underground song!) was a hit for Spanky & Our Gang, and it's infectious no matter who sings it. The title track is one of my favorites, a leisurely paced and gently uplifting thing with some of the sweetest lyrics I've ever heard. ("See the smile / on my face / take a picture / so we can remember / the things you do / to make me smile this way.") One of the more fascinating songs here--from a compositional standpoint--is "Someone I Know," which amazingly manages to work in Bach's "Jesu, Joy Of Man's Desiring" into its framework. ...This album is only for people who like obscure sunshine-pop recordings, but if you're among them, you'd might just consider this one a gem.

Harris, Richard

A Tramp Shining (1968) ★ ★ ★ ★
Even in 1968, Richard Harris was more renown for his acting than he was for his singing; however, that didn't stop this album from turning into one of the strongest sellers that year--staying on the pop-charts for an entire year. It even contains a song within it that became one of pop's most enduring classics: “MacArthur Park.” Albeit, part of its notoriety might be aimed at its lyrics, which are pompous and overblown, to say the least. (“MacArthur's Park is melting in the dark / All the sweet green icing flowing down / Someone left the cake out in the rain / I don't think that I can take it / 'Cause it took so long to bake it / And I'll never have the recipe again / Oh, noooooooooo!”) Surely, it was a bit silly to use a cake as a metaphor for love, but I admit I strongly prefer those lyrics to those typical ones I hear about love. And moreover, maybe those lyrics should have been pompous considering the entire freaking song is one of the most pompous things ever to be recorded. I swear, just an ounce more heft to that already-lush string section would've rendered the thing completely unintelligible. Everything there is huge: its intensified harpsichord playing a minor chord sequence; Harris' loudly despairing vocal performance; the scaling strings; the heavy horns; the tom-tom rolls; the cymbal crashes; etc. Then the icing on the cake (pun confusingly intended) comes in its final third when it suddenly jumps into a section of groovy (and awesome!) rock 'n' roll. When the song finally gets itself over with, seven minutes' of time has passed, and... er... I loved all of it! For sure, if you're going to make a pompous song, that's the way to do it. It also helps that the melody is beautiful. The composer of that song--and all the others on this album--is Jimmy Webb, who'd previously composed, among other things, the wonderful “Up, Up and Away” for The 5th Dimension and Glen Campbell's biggest hit, “Wichita Lineman.” His collaboration with Harris was his first actual full-album project. ...While the rest of his songs don't make nearly the same impact as “MacAthur Park,” they're all quite nice--full of melancholy, nicely sung, heavily orchestrated. The atmospheres are such that they would've fit comfortably within a film of the time period. I might have preferred a little more diversity here, however, but that's really only a minor complaint. In particular, I love the ballads “Name of Sorrow” and “In the Final Hours,” which are so good that they might have even spelled more hits for Glen Campbell, if only Webb hadn't already promised them to Dumbledore.

Hayward, Justin and John Lodge

Blue Jays (1975) ★ ★ ★ ½
Hey! When you get that longing emptiness after having just finished listening to all your Moody Blues records, here is something for you: A solo album released by the group's two most prolific members. Moreover, this is almost as good as one of their Classic Seven. The main want with this album--a want I'm sure most people would share with me--is simply for a handful of contributions from the other Moodies. Without them, this doesn't seem like a particularly diverse album. (As, you know, those Moody Blues albums spoiled me a lot.) The other issue was that I suppose neither Hayward nor Lodge were comfortable working with Mellotrons, so instead they arranged this with sweeping string sections. In a certain respect, you might say they were getting back to basics, as the album that had put them on the map was orchestrated in such a way. However, I strongly prefer the Mellotrons. But that wouldn't take away from the fact that there are many nice moments here. We have Justin Hayward and his soaring vocals who write and sing most of the album's good songs (with Lodge and his less soaring voice, rather expectedly, contributing less of the good songs). The album opens with “This Morning,” a song so majestic it takes us up to the mountain-tops, a melody that's as utterly gorgeous as anything I've come to expect from Hayward. What comes next is a touching ballad, “Remember Me (My Friend)” in which Lodge and Hayward share lead vocals. (“You don't need to ask me if I'll be your friend / I am, I am”) The orchestration is perhaps at its lushest in “Maybe,” which starts to sounds something like Handel's Water Music. ...The orchestration gets a little carried away, however, as it waltzes into schmaltzy territory with “Nights Winters Years.” There, Hayward tries to hit so many sustained high notes that it has me sitting on the edge of my seat waiting for it to crack. John Lodge's best contribution here is probably “Saved by the Music,” which, in his signature fashion, contains a driving beat. It also has more lovely vocal harmonies to boot. A smaller but nice contribution from Hayward is a short, melancholic folk ballad “Who Are You Now.” ...Overall, I wouldn't peg my hopes on liking this as much as a real, classic Moody Blues record, but it is nevertheless a definite must-have for any of their serious fans.

Heaven 17

Penthouse and Pavement (1981) ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
Heaven 17 were fronted by Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware, who had been co-founders of the experimental synth-pop outfit The Human League, but left the group due to creative differences with lead singer Philip Oakey. The split may not have been terribly amiacable, which resulted in serious competition between the two parties. Thus, it might come to no surprise that both of these groups' maiden, post-split activities would produce two of the finest synth-pop albums there ever were. The Human League's contribution from 1981 was Dare, an elegantly minimal album that contained some of the finest pop-hooks around. Heaven 17's melodies in this album were also strong (if a mite weaker); however, their instrumentation approach was startlingly different. They were interested in developing exotic textures and infusing their songs with provocative lyrics. Particularly, the album's opening song, “(We Don't Need This) Fascist Groove Thang," was so controversial that some (right-winged) radio stations flatly refused to play it. (“Democrats are out of power / Across that great wide ocean / Reagan's president elect / Fascist god in motion / Generals tell him what to do / Stop your good time dancing / Train their guns on me and you / Fascist Thang advancing”) ...Those lyrics amuse me to death, and it happens to be a great tune, too. It's punchy, it's texturally rich, and I've not been able to get it out of my head. The same goes for the rest of these songs. More great moments include the engagingly cheeky “Play to Win,” the slick and piano-studded “Soul Warfare,” and darkly humorous anti-Cold War statement “Let's All Make a Bomb.” (OK, the main reason I like the latter song is the referee-whistle battle in the middle.) All in all, I consider this one of the quintessential releases of the 1980s. Not only is it unique, but it's also wildly entertaining.

The Luxury Gap (1982) ★ ★ ★ ★
After falling mad for their debut, I was eager to get into their second album. However, listening to it for the first time, my initial reaction was that it was a significant letdown. But then I listened to it again and wondered how on earth I could have missed the fact this album has so many fantastic tunes on it. I still don't think it's even remotely as good as the debut, however, but there's plenty of good reason to listen to it over and over again. Maybe the only actual source of disappointment is in regards to the opening song, “Crushed By the Wheels of Industry,” which doesn't contain nearly the same level of sparkly charisma as the song that opened the previous album. It's OK, to be sure, but it's a bit stiff (albeit, purposely so, mimicking cold, mechanical factory sounds). More than that, its tune doesn't capture me a whole lot, and I also find that it's far too long. ...After that, though, we start getting into stuff that I can celebrate more. Namely “Who'll Stop the Rain,” a short and punchy number with a great melody and infectiously danceable groove. Equally as good is “Let Go,” which has a delightfully rubbery synth-bass groove and some foreboding background synths. Another highlight is “Lady Ice and Mr. Hex,” which features some unkempt lounge-lizard piano right out of Aladdin Sane and a good melody. (My only complaint about it are certain, meandering parts in the middle that don't strike me terribly interesting.) The final song is “Best Kept Secret” and another terrific gem; it is entrancingly atmospheric and evocative. There's no dance-beat there but rather seems like a synthesized version of something that Frank Sinatra would've sounded great singing in the '60s. All in all, I do like this album quite enough to give it a glowing recommendation--it's just a recommendation not as glowing as the recommendation I give their debut.

Hoffs, Susanna

Susanna Hoffs (1996) ★ ★ ★
Susanna Hoffs' second solo-LP was eponymous, which she'd done to symbolize that this would be an abrupt shift from the pure-pop of her debut to that of a confessional singer-songwriter like Shawn Colvin or Carly Simon. This shift ended up causing her some grief with her record company, but Hoffs ended up getting her way in the end. ...And what should I say? This album is good. Hardly great, but it makes a perfectly nice listen. As advertised, this album is lyrical and personal. “Beekeeper Blues” seems to be about a friend or a family member who's a little less than congenial. (“I know that you're good lookin' / And you're not known for too much else / I took you in and you left me half alive / Don't know what you do / Or who you do it to”) And the song is quite engrossing as well, particularly in that it rustles up a little dust as it progresses. Another lyrically memorable bit is “Weak With Love,” which is an anthemic folk song about what she was doing the day John Lennon died. ...My main complaint about this album is that while the melodies are usually pretty good, nothing especially huge jumps out at me. That is, apart from a few excellently chosen covers: “All I Want” by The Lightning Seeds, “To Sir With Love” originally sung by Lulu, and “Stuck in the Middle With You” by Stealers Wheelers.

Someday (2012) ★ ★ ★ ★
I am a sucker for this kind of stuff, and I'm guessing that Bangles guitarist Susanna Hoffs was too. This is a retro '60s pop album that's filled with melodies that are breezy, happy, and catchy, and its orchestration is supplemented warmly with upbeat drums, jangle guitars, sweeping string sections, and the occasional woodwind. There's even a little bit of harpsichord in the opening tune, "November Sun." A few people out there are going to complain that there's a total lack of ambition here; this doesn't even try to break new ground. Of course, they would be 100 percent correct about that. But this rings of an album Hoffs made just out of the joy of making a pleasant sunshine-pop album. (I saw The Bangles in concert last year, and I remember seeing her eyes light up when she talked briefly about Emmitt Rhodes.) Some of the highlights include the Burt Bacharach posturing of "Picture Me," the sweeping ballad "Raining," the infectiously toe-tapping "This is the Place," and the sweet love ballad "One Day." ...This is such a fun album that I'd wager I could listen to it until the day I die.

The Hollies

Stay With The Hollies (1964) ★ ★ ★
Well, there's something to be said for unabashed, youthful energy, which the Hollies display here in spades. They weren't the most technically proficient nor the most hard-rocking groups at the time (nor ever), but they did what they could to try to make up for their shortcomings by SINGING REALLY FORCEFULLY. And, geez louise, these guys were AWFUL at harmonizing. Later in their career, of course, they'd be experts. At this point, however... no. Too often in this album, I'd hear a background harmonizer sing too loudly, starting to drown out the lead singer. It's also on more than one occasion I'd hear someone or other singing out-of-key. ...However, I guess this could have been worse. I do, after all, find the album to be enjoyable. Similarly to most albums from British Invasion bands in the 1963-1965 time-frame, this is filled mostly with covers. There's only one original here, “Little Lover.” It's not bad, but it's really not so much more “original” than the covers. Maybe their best song here is their cover of “Do You Love Me,” which is surprisingly pretty fast and rough for a bunch of clean-cut kids. There's also a kind of a brazen cockiness to Allan Clarke's vocal performance there, which I find amusing. (...It's as though he isn't even really asking if the girl loves her. He's telling her and with a you-wouldn't-dare-contradict-me snarl.) Other enjoyable songs here include “Mr. Moonlight,” “Baby Don't Cry,” and “Candy Man.”

The Human League

Dare (1981) ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Feuds among band-mates weren't uncommon in the annals of rock 'n' roll history; however, there are few that mystify me more than the one that existed between Philip Oakey and Martyn Ware/Ian Craig Marsh. It got bad enough that Ware and Marsh splintered off the group (that they founded) to start the excellent synth-pop group Heaven 17. That left Oakey behind to recruit a new line-up and craft for himself a unique, elegant synth-pop sound. And they released could very well be the best synth-pop album ever made. (...And Oakey wasn't even a musician when Ware and Marsh initially recruited him!) What makes this album so enjoyable is not only its unique, minimalist instrumentation standards, it's how hooky everything is. This is among the strongest concentration of hooks that has ever been assembled anywhere. One track managed to become an international hit single “Don't You Want Me” (which stayed #1 on the American charts for three weeks). Its lyrics are romantic; however, the singing and instrumentation are dispassionate, a concept carried over from David Bowie's Low, a style that Human League helped make mainstream and remain strong (for better or worse) for the rest of the '80s. While that is an excellent song, my favorite of the album is the opener, “The Things That Dreams Are Made Of,” which is really just Oakey singing with a plodding synth-bass, simple drum machine, and an occasional keyboard effect. And yet, it can somehow gets those wheels in my head turning! Also, be sure to check out the brilliant “Love Action (I Believe in Love),” a song I'd imagine I could listen to every day for the rest of my life. ...Now, despite what I said about this album being synth-pop and “hooky,” don't mistake that to mean these guys weren't great artists. Take a listen to that unusual synthesizer texture in “Do or Die” or that dark and echoey texture in “Seconds.” The strangest song of the album might be “I Am the Law,” a slow dirge with a chilling atmosphere and some intriguing, wispy synthesizer effects. No question, this shouldn't only be considered one of the best albums of the '80s, but one of the best albums of all time. One of my personal favorites, and I listen to it a lot.

Icehouse

Great Southern Land (1989) ★ ★ ★ ½
Icehouse were a mainstream pop outfit from Australia whose big hit was "Great Southern Land," a synth-heavy ballad that puts me in a catatonic stupor whenever I hear it. The lead singer and primary songwriter Iva Davies (nice crossword puzzle name!) has a smooth voice perfectly suited for such things. But there are other songs here worth their weight. Some of the highlights include the infectious anthem "Touch the Fire," the Bowie-esque "Hey Little Girl," and the herky-jerky "Can't Help Myself." The one song I haven't been able to bring myself to like a whole lot is "Jimmy Dean," which is well-written, but it comes off waaaay too overwrought. (Of course that's coming from someone who didn't consider "Great Southern Land" prohibitively overwrought!) This is a compilation, by the way. I wanted to buy some of their regular albums, but it was threatening to put too much of a dent in my pocketbook. I'll bide my time and wait to see if their record label ever releases their stuff on iTunes. ...Ah, this compilation is probably all I'll ever need from these guys anyway, although I'd love to be proven wrong.

The Jackson 5

Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5 (1969) ★ ★ ½
Ah, the tender beginnings of Michael Jackson. Also, I suppose, it was the beginning of the end for him. (But let's keep a positive tone to these reviews! This is bubblegum Motown, after all.) The title of this album is strange considering Ross had virtually nothing to do with this group other than having once said a few things about them on national TV. I guess her name was put on there as more of an endorsement than anything. (Come to think of it, I doubt Michael Jordan had much to do with designing those shoes, either.) The Jackson 5 might have been something of a cutesy/kiddie-R&B act, but they were highly professional. Certainly, Motown believed in them enough to put their finest songwriting and production team on the job (known collectively as The Corporation). Truthfully, they were hit-or-miss as songwriters, but when they hit, it went to the sky. There's one mega-classic here, “I Want You Back,” which is such a funky, bright, bubbly, and catchy single that it's no surprise that it shot up to #1 on the pop charts. Michael Jackson's vocals, right away, reek of professionalism, spirit, flash, and even passion. There's another Corporation original here called, “Nobody,” which is an OK bit of soul-pop but not great; it's cute, but the hook is far weaker than it should be. Everything else here is a cover of some sort, and they all make fun listens. A Motownized version of Disney's “Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah” is the opener; it's cutesy and trivial for sure, but I'd no sooner throw that one out than “I Want You Back.” Some of the highlights include covers of Sly and the Family Stones' “Stand!,” The Four Tops' “Standing in the Shadows of Love,” and Smokey Robinson's “Who's Lovin' You.” The downside are a few tracks here featuring Jermaine's more raspy vocals, and while he was an excellent singer, he nevertheless paled in comparison to Michael, light years ahead of him. In the end, this album could have used more hits, but I do find it enjoyable.

ABC (1970) ★ ★ ★ ½
Precisely as predicted, The Jackson 5 would come across even more sparkly for their sophomore album. Most of the reason for that is simply they were given better songs to sing (courtesy of none other than “The Corporation”). However, also playing part is the fact these kids' vocal abilities had improved considerably. If Michael Jackson's voice had any raw, unpracticed tinges to it in the debut, they're gone here; he doesn't miss a beat nor does he fail to belt out these songs powerfully. As far as songs go, easily the one to make the biggest impact was the title track: a bright, danceable, and infectious bit of soul-pop. The lyrics ring a little bit of Sesame Street, but other than that--and very much to The Corporation's credit--it isn't as cutesy as it could have been. That groove is really hot, and I've also got to love hearing Michael scream in the brief interlude portion of this “Sit down girl! I think I love ya! ...No! Get up girl! Show me what you can do!” Shortly after that I believe we witness Michael Jackson belt out his very first “ooo ooo!” (Though, perhaps not shockingly so, he comes off far more macho doing that as an 11-year-old boy than he would a 29-year-old man.) Almost equally as good as that song is the shimmering “The Love You Save,” which opens the album. I even find myself enjoying the some of their covers--particularly Stevie Wonder's “Don't Know Why I Love You” and The Miracles' “(Come 'Round Here) I'm the One You Need” (featuring a little wobbly guitar!). But maybe the album's surprising gem is “I'll Bet You,” featuring one of the less identifiable brothers singing in a very deep, groaning tone. ...This isn't a perfect album; the songs I didn't mention, while they're too well-executed to really qualify as 'filler,' don't add anything particularly spectacular to the experience.

Third Album (1970) ★ ★ ½
Aw, shucks; what a letdown. While this album has some fine songs, it's missing that same kind of sparkly glory that permeated throughout their previous album. The exception to that is the funky and delicious bit of funk-pop “Goin' Back to Indiana,” which has a driving, toe-tapping rhythm, catchy melody, and another terrific lead vocal performance from Michael Jackson. “Mama's Pearl” is another fast song done in that same general style; however, it is a relative disappointment. While it's fitfully fun, it just isn't infectious. And songs like that really need to be infectious, or they're useless. One of the more popular songs here is the album opener, a ballad penned by The Corporation, “I'll Be There.” It's nice, but I can't say I'm particularly in love with the melody. More than that, I'm not sure why they would give such a song to The Jackson 5; it's so mature that surely it would have been better handled, for instance, by the Jean Terrell incarnation of The Supremes. The worst thing about this record is that so many of the covers--particularly the ones at the beginning of the record--are uninteresting to me. The worst of them is a cover of Simon & Garfunkel's “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” It's orchestrated so heavily that it's dreary, and it suffers from an uninspired vocal performance from Jermaine. I know the 'crossover' aspect of a Motown group covering a folk song was a daring idea... but just because an idea is daring doesn't make it good. One of the more notorious songs here is “How Funky is Your Chicken,” which is just as much of a silly, throwaway type of song as its title implies. It does make an OK listen, however; but it adds nothing to the Jackson 5 legacy. ...The album ends with one of their more celebrated songs, a Corporation original titled “Darling Dear.” I like hearing Michael's performance, as expected, and its melody is OK. It just doesn't get my juices pumping. And if a Jackson 5 song doesn't get my juices pumping, then it's not doing its job.

Jackson 5 Christmas Album (1970) ★ ★ ★ ½
Merry Christmas and a groovy New Year! (I didn't say that; The Jackson 5 did.) I actually like this quite a bit more than Third Album, which might be more of a testament to how weak that album was. ...For instance, compare the lush string arrangements in “Have a Merry Little Christmas” in this album, to those lifeless string arrangements we were subjected to in “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” from the previous album. ...Even though I usually have trouble embracing Christmas albums, I find that these are some very enjoyable songs, sort of a fusion between Christmas classics and funky Motown soul-pop. They also almost made this a secular Christmas album (including such featherweight songs as “Frosty the Snowman,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”). But I guess the folks at Motown couldn't resist the idea of getting Michael to perform a soulful rendition of “Little Drummer Boy.” (Not that I don't appreciate The Reason for the Season but so many Christmas albums I hear remind me too much of sitting in church.) ...The production and instrumentation throughout this is fantastic, bright and sparkly, just how Motown is supposed to be. I also find it endearing when occasionally they slightly alter the lyrics. For instance one of the familiar lyrics to “Up on the House Top” becomes (“Tito had just one desire / That he gets a new guitar / But he wants a guarantee / That it won't play out of key.”) Additionally, sometimes they slickly incorporate other Christmas classics into these songs, such as sneaking in few lines of “Jingles Bells” while “The Christmas Song” is wrapping up. ...Yes, this album is insufferably cute; however, it's also a lot of fun, and it isn't cheap. So let's grant this admission into the rarest of clubs: A Christmas album that I like quite a lot.

Jepsen, Carly Rae

Kiss (2012) ★ ★ ★
It was sometime on or before the Summer of 2012 that a record company overlord deemed that the world needed a new teen-pop sensation. Searching far and wide, the overlord ventured to a land up north called "Canada" where he uncovered an elfish 26-year-old brunette who went by the name Carly Rae Jepsen. Jepsen was no stranger to pop music; she was a Canadian Idol runner-up, and an accomplished songwriter. She'd even released a modestly successful debut album in 2008 in Canada. However, Kiss was her debut onto the international scene and, no surprise, most of its songs are catchy, flashy, and just about as mainstream as can be. Naturally, this was going to be a popular album. What surprised me about it, however, was that I was actually enjoying it. I do have some complaints about it, though. I wish her hot-shot producers would learn how to make a different drum rhythm than those incessant boom-boom-boom-boom thunder hits that dominate nearly every track. I also wish Jepson wouldn't sing all these songs in the same manner, belting out everything as loudly as she can while displaying no true emotion. ...Even though all these songs sound alike, there are some clear highlights here. The lead single, "Call Me Maybe," was #1 on the American charts for nine weeks, and it does what every self-respecting pop-hit should do: be catchy enough to burrow itself underneath my skin. Other tracks worth their weight in gold include “Tiny Little Bows,” “This Kiss,” and “More Than a Memory.” (One song, “Hurt So Good,” sounds like it's based on the chorus of Belinda Carlisle's "Heaven is a Place on Earth.") The album is pretty solid until the final three songs, which are TERRIBLE. They are boring, confusing, and completely misfired on almost every level. But let's not dwell on those. Let's dwell on the fact that this is an overall fun album. Some notable guest artists here include Owl City on "Good Time" and Justin Bieber on "Beautiful."

Joel, Billy

Cold Spring Harbor (1971) ★ ★ ★ ½
Billy Joel left Attila for this? ...Joel's shift from the very heavy acid rock of Atilla to the wussy piano-pop of Cold Spring Harbor is surely among the most extreme career shifts in rock 'n' roll history. Of course the shift was quite an astute one for Joel; singer-songwriters, in the early '70s, were newly emergent as the big thing, whilst psych-rock was already rotten in the dustbin. While this debut album unquestionably showcases Joel in recognizable form, he would still have a ways to develop before finding his signature style. The question, however, is if I prefer this earlier style. In Joel's heyday, he would come off frequently as angry and arrogant. Here, however, his songs glow warmly and sweetly. Perhaps one might not have suspected it from the two-tone album cover, but this is a pretty album. It makes for a nice listen. The biggest complaint I can muster is these songs fail to make huge impressions on me. At least Joel had enough melodic talent that these light and feathery songs have at least one hook in them that captures me. As a lyricist, he might not have been a Bernie Taupin, but they do express a little tenderness that we'd rarely see from Joel again. (“Feelin' the glory from that smile upon your face / It's liftin' me high above my ordinary place / And I'm so happy when I'm in your warm embrace.”) As far as songs go, it's difficult to choose a highlight here, since everything is merely consistently likable. Even the flowery piano instrumental “Nocturne” proves to be a sweet little thing; it's hardly innovative or exciting, but it's also far too interesting to get unceremonious classification as elevator music. As a whole, this album isn't usually considered among his best. But it should it be? (My answer: Yes.)

52nd Street (1978) ★ ★ ★ ½
Even though this album makes Joel come off as the snottier, poorer man's version of Elton John, there are some pretty good songs here. My favorite is the infectiously upbeat "My Life," and I'd also say it's probably the best song Joel's ever written. It's hardly cute, though; the lyrics tell the tale of an obnoxious teenager who longs to live on his own, and Joel, of course, gives a snotty vocal performance to match the attitude. "Big Shot" is probably the most popular song here, and why shouldn't it be? It has a catchy power-pop riff and a chorus that's equally as memorable as the verses. "Honesty" is a piano ballad with a pretty melody and vocals that might be described as 'gut-wrenching.' (Truth be told, I don't think Joel usually comes off terribly sincere, and thus I don't truly feel him suffering there... but anyway...) One particular gem is "Zanzibar," which has a well-textured, jazzy piano groove, an infectious vocal melody, and an extended jazz interlude featuring a brilliant trumpet solo. ...Those four songs I mentioned constitute the first half of the album, and unfortunately, the second half isn't quite as good. "Stiletto" has a nicely snappy groove, but its melody is forgettable. "Rosalinda's Eyes" has a better melody, but its dragged down with terrible song production that gives off a pukey '70s soft-rock vibe. "Until the Night" is a pompous, Latin-tinged power-ballad with a few decent hooks to its name, but I find that it rather bores me. Overall, I'd say this is a good album, but is it one of the best ever in rock 'n' roll? Nah...

Jones, Grace

Portfolio (1977) ★ ★
Jamaican born fashion model Grace Jones might be more popularly remembered today as an actress, but she's most respected as a singer and songwriter in the 1980s. This album was released before the 1980s, though, which was when she was vying to be the next disco queen. On paper, it seems like she ought to have been able to pull that off; she not only has a powerful singing voice, but she has a fashionably androgynous look (both of which, by the way, is said to have directly influenced Annie Lennox). The problem was that Jones' singing voice--at least in the first half of the album--is sketchy at best, oftentimes veering out of key. Perhaps even worse is that the song selection is terrible. My goodness, here's a disco version of Stephen Sondheim's “Send in the Clowns.” (Ack!) Even more gasp-worthy is a disco version of “Tomorrow” from the musical Annie. (Blech!) Strange as it might seem, though, Jones must've had voice lessons after recording the first half of the album, because she sounds quite good in the second half. There was one hit song on here, a seven-minute long cover of “La Vie En Rose.” For sure, it's way too long, but at least they didn't try to turn it into disco. What we get is a quiet drum machine rhythm, upbeat acoustic guitar strums, a fancy grand piano, and an inventive and bizarre vocal performance from Jones. In one moment she sings (in well-enunciated French) in a manner that's somehow simultaneously forceful and whispery. Another moment, she belts out a sustained note, ending it with a cat-like “eeeouughh!”. ...However, what really gets me there is what she does at the end of that song, unleashing a full-scale assault, belting out rapid-fire calls of “La vie en rose! La vie en rose! La vie en rose!” Of the remainder of the songs, most of them are trivial disco songs that didn't age well at all. All I think about when I listen to them is the forgettable soundtrack to some forgettable TV show made in the late '70s. An exception is “I Need a Man,” which has a driving rhythm, a powerful vocal performance, and--I suppose--a vaguely memorable melody. (For sure, that song was played at those same clubs that played Village People songs.)

Fame (1978) ★ ½
This is much like her previous album. Which means that it's another one only for mainstream disco fans. And I might suspect these types of music fans would enjoy this album more than the previous one simply because these songs are far more polished and come across less mawkish. (For instance, there's nothing even remotely as goofy/misguided as the previous album's disco version of “Send in the Clowns” or “Tomorrow.”) However, I am not a particular fan of disco, and I find these songs little more than averagely boring. If you just want something to dance to (and I don't), these songs'll probably do you just fine. However, if you'd like something more infectious, these songs just aren't juicy enough. The second half of the album opens with another song sung in French, “Autumn Leaves.” For sure, it's pleasant, and Jones' amazonian vocal delivery is maybe a little bit crazy; however, it doesn't have nearly that level of raging insanity that characterized her previous success, “La Vie En Rose.” Other songs here include the Vegasy “All on a Summers Night,” a goosey disco song “Am I Ever Gonna Fall in Love With New York City,” and “Below the Belt” (featuring Jones' very first writing credit!).

Muse (1979) ★ ★ ½
Wow! This is the last of Grace Jones' early disco trilogy, and it's... er... good! As a matter of fact, this would even rival some of albums she'd release during her acclaimed period, so color me surprised. The main thing that changed is... everything. The melodies are catchy, the disco rhythms are actually driving, and a number of these songs take surprising turns. “Saved,” for instance, might start as an enjoyable disco number, but then Jones takes it to a full-on gospel. She also tends to do a better job making her vocals fit the moods of her songs, and doing so while hardly losing that howling, Amazonian tone. (“Atlantic City Gambler” might not be a terribly good reggae/disco hybrid, but hearing Jones bark out the lyrics, I find immeasurably entertaining.) The opener “Sinning” is a rather infectious toe-tapper, a bit of electro-disco. ...Yes, yes, yes, if you threw up in your mouth when you read the term “electro-disco,” you should know that song would be about to turn you into a fan. However, as I am someone who can tolerate the style, I'll say it isn't bad. “Suffer” is almost certainly the best song of the disc, if it's only for the funky groove and that shaky, psychotic thing Jones stutters “Su-su-su-su-su-su-su-su-Suffer!” The closing tune “Get on Your Knees” might be another good pick for the disco aficionado. It has another infectious, driving rhythm, and Jones' patented Amazonian vocals lend it more personality than it ever could have warranted on its own. ...A blanketed complaint I have of this album, and one that I throw at nearly every disco album I'd ever run across, is that so many of these songs are too long. I mean, as much as I enjoyed that gospel/disco hybrid, I didn't enjoy it seven-minutes worth. Of course, I know that any self-respecting disco song is required to go on for many minutes on end so that people on the dance floor would be given the proper chance to enact all the appropriate (and/or inappropriate) dance-move-combinations. However, to those of us who are listening to disco, for whatever reason, sitting alone in the dark and with headphones on, it gets a bit tiring.

King Crimson

In the Court of the Crimson King (1969) ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
This wasn't the first progressive-rock album, but it was the first one to make a major, sweeping statement. It was also an important album, one that every progressive rock band to follow would try their mightiest to emulate. But I can count with my fingers the ones that would even get close. Just like all the great albums, the reason you should buy them is not because of their perceived historical importance--it's because they make bloody excellent listens. This album is dark, sinister, sprawling, and epic by all measures. There's not a terrible amount of electric guitar, but when that instrument does make an appearance, it's rip-roaring. Generally, guitars are used here to create textures. Without guitars, the predominant instrument here is left to be keyboards--or a sinister Mellotron to be exact. There's also some epic drumming and occasionally a flighty flute solo. My God, proof alone of this album's enormousness is the leading song “21st Century Schizoid Man,” which is among the most psychologically intense songs that have ever been committed to tape. Greg Lake's lead vocals scream out at you in piercing whooshes (garbled partly through some kind of electronic devise). The main riff is pounding and vicious, and it gives way to a frantic, quasi-jazzy instrumental section tucked away in its mid section. It's quite long--more than seven minutes--but one of the most exciting and well-spent seven minutes in all of rock 'n' roll. This gives way to a sort of drowsy though pretty ballad “I Talk to the Wind,” and then the heavenly “Epitaph,” whose pastoral pace and Mellotron-heavy atmospheres may have been what single-handedly inspired Genesis to get into prog biz. Though the album's biggest moment comes at the end “The Court of the Crimson King” with those majestic and towering Mellotron chords that gush out and leaving me listless in its wake, and I can do nothing else but take heed at Lake's cryptically foreboding omens. ...Some might classify my decision to deem this album a rare five stars because of “Moonchild,” an 11-minute doozy with dreary tones, and an incredibly long portion of it is devoted to spacey, piddly avant-garde noodles. Surely, I'd agree the album probably would have been improved if it were tightened up a bit. Nevertheless, I've listened to this album quite a bit over the years, and I never skip that track. I can't really claim it's ever truly ruined the experience of this album, which by the way is one of my personal favorites.

The La's

The La's (1990) ★ ★ ★ ★
I bought this album only because I knew that beautiful, captivating anthem "There She Goes" was on it, but I was a little bit taken aback to discover that none of its other songs were even vaguely like that. ...That song is basically a chorus that gets repeated over and over again; however, it's a such a fantastic chorus that I want it to go on forever. What helps keep the experience especially entrancing is its atmospheric orchestration, which is supplemented with some bright 'n' jangly guitar, and lead singer and writer Lee Mavers sings that with an utterly beautiful falsetto. ...Every other song here features his more 'natural' voice, which is kind of nasally, gravelly, and obnoxiously British. Also, none of these other songs are captivating anthems like that. They're mostly old-school pop-rockers that I could imagine The Yardbirds doing in 1965. Of course there's nothing wrong with that; The Yardbirds were awesome, lest you forget. Some of my favorites here include the harder rocking "Failure," the infectious "Timeless Melody," and the jangly "Way Out." An unusual piece here is "Freedom Song," which I might describe as gypsy-folk. The only place these guys actually lose me is within the eight-minute folk ballad "Looking Glass," which comes off choppy and tiring to me. Otherwise, this album gets a huge recommendation from me. ...Another reason you might want to take a listen to this is because it's claimed to be the direct precursor to '90s Brit-pop bands such as Oasis and Blur. (Hm, do you think we should forgive The La's for Oasis?)

The Like

Release Me (2010) ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
When it comes to naming great albums from the 2010s, there's no question I'd be ranking highly the ones that sound the most like they came out of the 1960s. Like this album, for instance, by the girl group The Like who've created one of the most poppy and delightful things that has ever graced my eardrums. This also marked a significant departure from their more wistful, washy debut, this time favoring tighter, brighter and hookier songs with a raw, '60s garage-rock bite to them. The primary composer for this group is Z Berg who is also the lead singer, and she is armed with an adorably girly/raspy set of pipes. The two songs that are most worth dropping everything to listen to right now are the two openers, “Wishing He Was Dead” and “He's Not a Boy.” If you liked those, there's more where that came from: All of these songs are so insatiably hooky that my head is spinning. Not even the popular bands of the 1960s were able to make an album this good. The 'thumbs up' I give this is bigger than the sun.

Love, Mike

Looking Back With Love (1981) ★ ★
Mike Love's one and only solo album wasn't as bad as I expected it to be (I expected it to be MISERABLE DRECK), and one thing working in its favor was that Love hardly wrote any of the material. The title song is the best thing here even though it comes off as nothing more than a pale and plastic Beach Boys imitation. It's heavy on the classic Beach Boys harmonies (Brian Wilson can be heard on background vocals, I believe), and the melody is pretty catchy. too. The lyrics center around nostalgia, as the title would suggest. And Mike Love sings lead vocals, as the title would also suggest. He throws in a few quotes from various Beach Boys songs as well a few other popular songs from the mid '60s. ...One song that struck me a little weird was a cover of ABBA's "On and On and On," with Love incorporating those chugging background vocals from the Beach Boys hit "Do It Again." But then I listened to the original ABBA song, and I also heard those chugging vocals! (ABBA were major Beach Boys fans, and--apparently--"On and On and On" was a Beach Boys homage.) Other songs here I don't like as much. "Over and Over" is cheesy tropicana rife with ridiculously plastic instrumentation. "One Good Reason" is dull soft-pop. "Paradise Found" is a ballad that might have had some potential, but the vocal harmonies aren't majestic enough to overcome its woefully lethargic pace. There are also so-so covers of Neil Sedaka's "Calendar Girl" and The Ronettes' "Be My Baby."

The Lucy Show

...undone (1985) ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
The Lucy Show were often compared to The Cure, although I think I do slightly prefer these guys to them. The Lucy Show were a post-punk outfit who wrote atmospheric, brooding music with jangle guitars, despondent synthesizers, and cold drumbeats. They once toured with R.E.M. as their opening act, and yet I enjoy this album roughly as much as any R.E.M. album I can think of. (Hey, we're all entitled to our tastes, roughly speaking, aren't we?) Every song here intrigues me. The opener is “Ephemeral (This is No Heaven),” a heavy anthem with a melody that I want to sing along with. The second is “Resistance,” such a cold song that it makes me shiver, but I still want dance along with it. “Wipe Out” is a lonely ballad that gives me a lump in my throat, and it has lyrics that aren't anything less than brilliant. (“All this casual silence / It appeared without warning / With intent to hold me still / Been watching the dream fall into the sea / All on a day that got swept away / If I hold out my hand, would you see it? / If I hold out my hand, would you see it?”) “The Twister” has a strange chord progression and an atmosphere so thick it's like I'm in a weird fog. The title song is another terrific highlight that has a danceable, infectious-as-all-hellfire guitar groove. ...Heck, I like all of these songs. There are no weak spots in sight. So, I say this to ye: Scout this thing out NOW, if you know what's good for you.

Mania (1986) ★ ★ ★ ★
The Lucy Show's second and final album is far brighter and more upbeat than that cold and anguished debut. It was strictly a commercial move for them. And at first, the strategy was seeming to work. A couple of these songs “A Million Things” and “New Message” had turned into college-radio hits. Unfortunately, though, their label go bankrupt soon after the album's release, spelling the end for these guys. They did at least get to leave behind an entire album for us to listen to, and it has surely proven itself to be very popular among the few who have heard it. The first song is “Land and the Life,” which is heavy on the tight jangle guitar, and the lead vocals are forceful and spirited. Hm! I had mentioned in my previous Lucy Show review that these guys once toured with R.E.M. In this album, they are actually sounding like R.E.M.! ...The only negative criticism I can throw at them is simply to compare this to the debut where every song was a wildly unique experience. Here, the songs tend to be more similar to one another. Exceptions to that are “Sad September” and “Part of Me Now,” which are different because they are ballads (the latter of which features very heavy pulsating synthesizers). The most unique songs of the album turn out to be bonus tracks in the CD reissue, “Jam in E” and “Invitation.” The former doesn't go anywhere apart from presenting us with a hazy, unbalanced groove; however, the latter has an utterly menacing dance groove with all sorts of wild sound effects zipping past my ears! ...In the end, I'd say this album is a must-have if you're into jangly college-rock from the 1980s, because this suff is very good. Hell, a college-rock enthusiast would probably even disagree with me about which is the better Lucy Show album.

M

New York • London • Paris • Munich (1979) ★ ★ ½
M were a German pop-rock outfit who happened to dabble in synth-pop before that style caught on with the rest of the globe. Given the immense popularity of the hit song "Pop Muzik," perhaps M were among the acts that played a vital role in helping introduce the style? The song, which is almost a rap, is one of the most infectious things I've ever listened to. However, that infectiousness comes at a price: I've had this album sitting on my iPod collecting dust for more than five years, and I've only found the occasion to sit through the whole thing twice. The second time was only a few hours ago. (I've made the attempt to sit through it a few other times, but it's like playing a game with myself: How long can I go into it before I just give up and play "Pop Muzik" again?) Truth be told, the rest of this material is perfectly alright, but all these songs have a knack of losing their steam well before they're through playing. Some songs here include "Moderne Man/Satisfy Your Lust," which is fairly average disco; "Made in Munich," which gets a pretty nifty synth-pop groove going; and "Unite the Nation," which was probably cutesy enough to have had a strong showing at Eurovision. But as a whole, I'd recommend only buying the hit single and nothing else.

Marillion

Misplaced Childhood (1985) ★ ★ ★ ★
Marillion's third album was their most commercially successful, and they deserved that. It was known especially for a couple of successful singles released off it: "Kayleigh" and "Lavender." The former was a sort of a typical '80s pop ballad orchestrated with thick drums, squeaky clean stadium-guitar, and standard-issue synthesizers. Fortunately, it was also very tastefully mixed and catchy, so it didn't end up coming off nearly as generic as it could have been. "Lavender" was a striking piano-led ballad that has a bit of lyric that sticks in my mind: "Lavenders blue, dilly dilly, lavenders green / When I am king, dilly dilly, you will be queen." ...This was a concept album, by the way, that was said to have combined the lead singer's turbulent adult relationships with events that happened to him (real or imagined) in childhood. When you write about such things, naturally, there's bound to be plenty of opportunity to display some raw emotion, and I'd say Fish managed to do that billiantly and with a theatrical flair to boot. (He 'borrowed' this theatrical style from Peter Gabriel whose voice he also happened to strongly resemble.) This might be far from the most revolutionary or intriguing prog album ever made, but I'd say it's overall solid. It's certainly one of the better 'neo-prog' albums that I know about. If I were to throw a complaint at it, I'd say that the middle portion of the nine-minute suite "Blind Curve" starts bore me a bit, and I also find the closing song "White Feather" to be rather cheesy. But don't take these 'complaints' too much to heart; I've listened to this album a number of times over the years, and they hadn't phased me one bit.

Maroon 5

Songs About Jane (2002) ★ ★
I remember this white-bread funk album being wildly popular in 2003 & 2004. However, when I attempted to listen to it back then, I thought it was terrible. I thought this stuff was so heavily polished that it was bereft of soul, and--more than that--I just didn't think these guys were very good songwriters. (OK, maybe I haven't stopped thinking those things!) The result of me rejecting Maroon 5 was an overwhelming sense of aloneness and confusion. Why I couldn't I have just bucked it up and started liking those same, horrible things that other people liked? ...These days, it seems, I'm a little more open to... er... enjoying (or at least tolerating) a Maroon 5 record. One thing that certainly works in this album's favor is the presence of one genuinely decent piece of pure-pop: “This Love.” It's a song with--wait for it--hooks. Hell, I'd even sing along with that if I weren't so afraid doing so would conjure the ghost spirit of a 2003-era frat boy threatening noogies. Other than that, some highlights include “Shiver,” which has a cool guitar in the intro that sounds like it's out of Bollywood. Additionally, “Sunday Morning” deserves credit for a fitfully interesting fusion of their usual white-bread funk with lounge-jazz. ...Unfortunately, other stuff here doesn't end up impressing me a whole lot. But the worst thing I'm going to accuse them of being is adequately listenable. Their ballads are lame, for sure (see “Sweetest Goodbye”), but I've heard plenty worse (i.e., ballads later in their career). In the end, I guess, enjoy this album just fine when I put it on in the background. The problem I have is that this is supposed to be pop music, and there really ought to be more than one song I uninhibitedly enjoy here.

It Won't Be Soon Before Long (2007) ★ ★ ★
It took them five years to release their difficult second album, but my expectations were low. Maybe low expectations paid off, because I find this album to be miles more enjoyable than their more popular debut. Note, however, they hadn't really improved their abilities to write truly great melodies; what they did, however, was greatly increase the fun-factor. I'm talking mainly about the first four songs, where their white-bread, frat-boy funk have never been louder and funkier. They are even somewhat quirky, although certainly not to a B-52's level. The end result is a quartet of songs which make me want to do nothing else but tap my toes giddily. Regrettably, these sorts of songs become rarer the farther we get into this album. All I want to tell Maroon 5 is perhaps they should save the serious songs for seriously good bands? I do like the ninth track, though, “Not Falling Apart,” which features a subdued and very, very tight groove. Yes! My foot is tapping again! ...My biggest complaint about this album is in regards to its many ballads, which can get quite drab (i.e., “Nothing Lasts Forever,” “Goodnight Goodnight,” “Back at Your Door.”) A minor exception is a halfway decent piano ballad “Better That We Break.” ...I suppose halfway decent is the best I can hope from these guys as far as ballads are concerned.

Hands All Over (2010) ★ ★ ★
Weirdly, I also like this album. This is Maroon 5's third, and--as expected--it's more white-bread funk. Like their previous, the first four songs blow everything else out of the water with their mighty, catchy, and dazzlingly well-mixed grooves. I mean, with songs like these, what else is there for my foot do but detach itself from my brain and start tapping? My favorite song is “Don't Know Nothing,” which sounds like something that might have come out of Motown from the 1970s. And, by God, it might have even been a genuine hit: It's fun, infectious, and glamorous. I only wish they didn't have such an airy/reedy vocalist; they needed a singer with real verve. Later in the album is when they try to write “real songs,” and just like It Won't Be Soon Before Long, that's where my general interest in the album starts to wane. One thing that evidences these guys were terrible songwriters is that every song here with a chorus would've been far better off without one. For instance, there's a pretty neat hopping bass part in "Last Chance," but then it goes away to make room for a typically bland and “soaring” chorus. Come on! Screw the chorus! Let me hear the hopping bass some more! The only significant bright spot in the album's second-half is "Get Back in My Life," which is armed with a hokey rhythm and stilted chord progression. Which makes it sound exactly like something out of Eurovision. Long live Dschinghis Khan! ...Oh, and I suppose I should mention that there was some kind of major hit here, “Moves Like Jagger.” It's one of those tiring '00s/'10s pop songs characterized by an obnoxious thud-thud-thud drum machine rhythm. Its melody is... I guess... somewhat hooky but not really enough. So in the end, it ends up being something that I kind of don't like, but I also kind of like. Ugh, these conflicted emotions.

Overexposed (2012)
What the hell happened to Maroon 5? Their previous album had some fun times on it. Here, everything went to pot. Where are those hooky grooves I was so enamored with? Heck, I never thought much about their choruses, but even those were far better than the miserable junk they're throwing at us in here. Oh, and I'm not going to pretend I don't know why it happened: "Moves Like Jagger." Mediocre as it was, it became such a smash-hit that Maroon 5 responded by filling up their follow-up album with clones. Not surprisingly, they'd managed to extract another hit out of this, "Payphone." However, I listen to it waiting for hooks to show themselves, but they don't. ...I also want to know what happened to the lead singer's voice. It was always quite thin and reedy and nasally--but it was at least relatively tolerable before. Here, they are processed heavily through an autotuner, which does nothing but make his voice seem even thinner, particularly as he hits those high-notes. Perhaps the worst song here is a piano ballad called "Sad," which must have been named after how I feel when I listen to it. A few other songs include "Tickets," coming off like a worse version of Lady Gaga's "Telephone," and a lousy cover of Al Green's "Let's Stay Together." The only things halfway decent they have to offer here are a few funky-ish tracks, such as "Doin' Dirt" and "Wasted Years." But all they do is serve as insignificant reminders of how tolerable--nay enjoyable--some moments of their previous albums were.

Mazzy Star

So Tonight That I Might See (1993) ★ ★ ★
"Fade Into You" was an unlikely hit that catapulted this dream-pop band into modest international fame. It is also handily the best song the album has to offer; it's hauntingly melancholic and features a longingly beautiful vocal performance from their distinctive lead singer Hope Sandoval. As good as that song is, however, this album unfortunately never gets itself out of that downbeat, melancholic funk. The result is an album that can get quite miserable at times. “Mary of Silence,” for instance, has an atmosphere spooky enough to send shivers down my spine, but I'm only a few minutes into it before I grow desperately tired of it. It's orchestrated with a monotonous organ that plays long and deep notes while a minimal drum makes these sleepwalking pitter-patter sounds. Meanwhile, an extremely distorted electric guitar wisps about like a mad dentist with a drill. ...If Mazzy Star were tring to wipe away any semblance of joy I might have had before listening to their album, then they very well succeeded. (The least these guys could have done was provide a few free anti-depressant tablets with every new purchase of their album.) On the bright-ish side, there is a small handful of these songs that I do like. “Blue Light” has a consistently enticing atmosphere that interests me enough to draw me into its sinister shadows, “Five String Serenade” is an Arthur Lee cover with an intriguing and sparse string arrangement, and the downbeat folk ballad “Into Dust,” while a mite repetitive, manages to make a lasting impression on me. ...This album might legitimately be considered a landmark dream-pop album, but I also don't think it's likely to convert many new fans. There are a few excellent songs here, though, so get this album if you're into the style.

Minogue, Kylie

Kylie (1988) ★ ★ ½
The most embarrassing thing I'm ever going to admit on this website is that I can lip-synch all the lyrics to “I Should Be So Lucky.” There are maybe only two dozen or so songs in existence that I can lip-synch to, so that's why it's embarrassing. I don't even remember why I've even listened to that song in the first pl--- Oh wait, I know: I saw a picture of her. Good lawdy. ...Kylie Minogue was a soap opera star from Australia who left her acting career behind to find fortune and continued fame as a pop singer. She would catch her break quickly when the hottest songwriting and production team at the time, SAW (Stock, Aitken, Waterman), took her under their wing. And thus, a new international sensation was born! (Except for in the USA where she's known, but not terribly big.) She has an excellent set of pipes, too--exuberant, brassy, and charismatic--or rather, she sings exactly like she looks. Her voice is so potent that it could even make SAW's most insufferable song sufferable. Think of the same album but with Rick Astley on vocals. Yeah, there's no way I'd be giving that thing two and a half stars. This leads me to state the album's glaring flaw: The songwriting. SAW were notorious for providing each of their artists only one or two decent songs and then filling up the rest with forgettable dreck. Purely, that was a marketing and time management strategy; it takes only one song to sucker somebody into buying the rest of the album. Kylie's hit single, “I Should Be So Lucky,” is of course one of the most addictive things on the planet, but we should be so lucky if we get another one like that. Another decent hit here was a perfectly passable synth-pop cover of “The Loco-Motion.” A few of these other songs, “Got to be Certain,” and “Je Ne Sais Pas Pourquoi” had been released as successful singles at the time; I just don't think they're very good. There's another song here that wasn't released as a single (except for in Japan) that I find to be hooky in the way it should be: “Turn it Into Love.” It was rendered into pure gold, of course, because Kylie sings on it.

Enjoy Yourself (1989) ★ ★ ½
Kylie's second album is both better and worse than her debut. It's better because the SAW songwriting team wrote overall better songs for it (understandably inspired to do so to keep their hottest commodity hot, if not hotter). Worse because none of these songs have quite the staying power of “I Should Be So Lucky.” However, they do make a few earnest stabs at it. I do quite enjoy the first four songs of this disc; they're entirely plastic, but they're also overwhelmingly euphoric. And well? I'm hooked on 'em because of that. Of course, Kylie's lead vocals are as charismatic as ever, which increases their entertainment value two-fold. The lead single is “Hand on Your Heart,” which is as good of a club-dance song as there ever was from the era. Although unless you're dancing to it at a club somewhere, it's best to listen to the song with the music video. (The third time I viewed it, I'd finally gotten around to noticing that the color of her dress changes a half dozen times.) If you liked that song, then you'll probably also like “Wouldn't Change a Thing,” because it sounds exactly the same. That makes the album lose points for diversity, but it also means I'd like the song equally as much. ...SAW also gives Kylie a chance to sing a number of ballads “Tell Tale Signs,” “Especially for You,” “Heaven and Earth,” and “Tears on My Pillow.” The latter is a cover of a doo-wop classic; Kylie nails the vocal performance, but the synthesized instrumentation is woefully kitschy. I also like the vocal performances in the other ballads, but the songs themselves are more or less forgettable. I'd expect that, of course, because SAW had trouble enough as it was composing competent dance tunes, much less would they be able to pull off a ballad with confidence. They're listenable but they're unsuccessful, because good ballads require grace and subtlety. “My Secret Heart” is an obvious (and cheap!) knock-off of Madonna's “Dear Jesse.” (My goodness, if SAW can make Madonna come off like a pop genius in comparison...)

Miss Li

Dancing the Whole Way Home (2009) ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
Miss Li is a raspy singer-songwriter hailing from Sweden who specializes in high-energy, retro-ish cabaret pop. Potent pop-hooks seem to flow out of her like running water. (Hey, what's the deal with Swedish musicians hogging all the good hooks, anyway?) This album is jam-packed with some of the most enjoyable songs I think I've ever heard in any album released in the '00s. If you don't believe me, just listen to the infectious pop-rock opener “I Heard of a Girl” for proof. Once I start listening to it, I can't stop. Another song I enjoy especially is “Bourgeois Sangri-La,” which has a tight toe-tapping groove, soulful vocals, a vaudeville piano, a twinkling xylophone, and it even finds time for a brief though haunting refrain in the middle. Other highlights include the jazzy “Polythene Queen,” the soaring folk ballad “Is This the End,” and the anthemic “Dancing the Whole Way Home.” Lyrically the song that stands out at me the most is “Dirty Old Man,” which is a naughty thing about a drunken 50-year-old man who attempts to pick up 18-year-old girls. I can't mention every song here, but I want to; I enjoy all of this immensely. Also, worth a mention, is the album's crisp sound production and the backing band, which is tight and terrific.

Missing Persons

The Best of Missing Persons (1987) ★ ★ ½
Sometimes with nearly forgotten '80s new wave bands, the best experiences you might ever hope to get out of them are from compilations such as this. However, that isn't the case with Missing Persons; their quirky and herky-jerky debut album is by and large their finest concentration of work. (New copies of that CD are going for $60 on Amazon, which is why I was stuck with the $5 compilation!) With no doubt of the matter the best stuff here is the material from that debut album and their prior, self-titled EP. Unfortunately, those only constitute the first six of these 15 tracks. My favorite song here is the catchy “Destination Unknown,” which is a good showcase of lead singer Dale Bozzio's (who is female) hiccup-laden vocal style. (She obviously took a few hints from Lene Lovich there!) Maybe the surprise is their cover of The Doors' "Hello, I Love You," which is orchestrated fascinatingly and even uses a different chord sequence than the original. The songs that stem from Missing Persons' final two albums are far more standard '80s-pop fare. They are perfectly competent songs that the kids probably enjoyed dancing to at the time, but they didn't have terribly distinctive melodies. Prior to forming this group, Bozzio and her husband Terry were part of Frank Zappa's repertoire along with guitarist Warren Cuccurullo. After this band broke up, Cuccurullo would join Duran Duran.

Motorhead

Motorhead (1977) ★ ★ ★
Motorhead would still need an album or two before they would start producing the real goods, but their debut is nevertheless loud and has a lot of guitar. I can't say many of these songs are terribly memorable, unless you want to count the lyrics, which are disgusting. (e.g., "Vibrator" is about exactly what you and your perverted mind thinks it's about.) But even their lyrics would be more outrageous in later albums. Another thing holding this album back is the sound production. The guitars and vocals are so muddy and muffled that it sounds like they were maxing out their system. (Motorhead were also muddy in their later albums, but it's clearer mud! Like a higher resolution photograph depicting mud.) The lead singer is Lemmy Kilmister, who was a former member of the progressive-rock band Hawkwind somehow, and his singing is so guttural that I'm waiting for him to clear his throat and finally honk that loogie. He's a terrible singer, but I can get used to him. My favorite song is the first one, "Motorhead," which features some really fast guitar. Somehow that sounds more punk-rock than anything from the iconic Sex Pistols album released the same year. (I guess, people say, the Sex Pistols were considered punk for their lyrics and attitude and not so much for their "tunes.") ...The rest of these songs are enjoyable as a whole, but there's nothing greatly awe-inspiring. The closing song is a cover of Tiny Bradshaw's "The Train Kept A-Rollin'" ...although it's certainly more directly related to The Yardbirds' version.

Overkill (1979) ★ ★ ★ ★
Holy Moses, this is a prime example of an album I shouldn't like (among other things, because I list ABBA as one of my Top Five favorite bands), and yet I enjoy this thing immensely. It was a big improvement over the debut. Perhaps not so much in the songwriting or performing (which is roughly equivalent), but in the sound-production. Of course their guitars are still muddy and gross, rife with caveman riffs, and their lead singer growl-sings with a voice far too high-pitched to be truly menacing. However, the guitars make heavy roaring noises, and the drummer hacks away like some kind of maniac. This stuff is passionate like a wrecking ball operator who's obsessed with his job. It's been said (by Mama Wikipedia) this album even made an impact on the British punk scene. This isn't punk music, but can imagine droves of punk freaks at Motorhead shows bashing into one another's chest like pre-evolved humanoids. ...The sound production improvements here are thanks to the talents of Jimmy Miller who produced all of The Rolling Stones' peak albums. So you can bet anything if anybody knew how to make their disgusting guitar sound pop out of your speakers and smack your in the face, it'd be that guy. The best song here is easily the first one, “Overkill,” and the song-title is no joke. The guitars and drums are so lightning fast that I don't really understand what they're playing, but it's nonetheless like I'm hearing the most thrilling thing that ever existed. The rest of the songs aren't that fast, but... wow... they're entertaining. Loud, obnoxious, and rude, but entertaining. This album deserves a wide-eyed-and-stunned recommendation.

Bomber (1979) ★ ★ ★ ½
This is somehow less exciting than their previous effort--although that might just be because it's similar, and their novelty factor worn off slightly. It might also be, simply, that the songs don't quite lodge themselves in my brain quite like the previous one. But regardless, this Motorhead album also proves to be hugely entertaining. Right away it starts with the three-minute “Dead Men Tell No Tales” (an anti-heroin song), a rough and furious number that's nonetheless intelligible and crunchy enough to make it palatable to my tastes. Maybe the nicer thing about this album is that even though all these songs are orchestrated in similar ways, they're distinctive enough from one another that the experience is kept generally fresh throughout. The tracks can be separated into fast, medium, and slow, but each song gets its own unique texture, which keeps the experience from growing dull. “Step Down” is one of the slower songs that nonetheless has a huge, stomach-ripping solo in it. The title track is a particular fan favorite, which has such a powerful groove that it makes even me--among the most reserved people in the universe--want to do some serious head banging.

The Move

Message From the Country (1971) ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
This was not intended to be The Move's final album before forming Electric Light Orchestra--which was originally going to be nothing more than a side-project. It's great, at least, to hear that The Move ended their brief career with an album that's surely among their finest. The material here is wildly diverse, melodically brilliant, and continues to display that edgy creativity that they've always had. Though keep in mind that this is a fair step away from their psych-rock origins; most of these songs are cleanly produced and shows them dabbling a bit in prog. The most characteristic song here is "It Wasn't My Idea to Dance," a pop song with heavy guitar and some woodwinds that play an infectious medieval motif. Other numbers ("No Time," "Message From the Country," "The Minister") feature heavy, Beatles-esque harmonies that begin to resemble Jeff Lynne's later work with ELO. Some of the wild diversity comes with an impeccable Elvis homage "Don't Mess Me Up," a silly country-western ditty "Ben Crawley Steel Country," and a cute Vaudeville number "My Marge." A treat for diehard ELO fans can be found in the bonus tracks: the original version of their 1976 hit "Do Ya." This 1971 version was released as the B-side to "California Man."

Mraz, Jason

Waiting for My Rocket to Come (2002) ★ ★ ½
For some reason I thought Jason Mraz was a low-key folkie type, but after listening to this debut album, I have absolutely no idea how I'd gathered that impression. Leave none of it to question: Mraz writes radio-friendly pop music. Perhaps it was called “alternative” back then; “alternative” to what, I'll never know. ...Anyway, Mraz has a pretty voice, which can hit some very high notes without compromising his perfect phrasing or his commanding presence. My ears are telling me the best song here is “I'll Do Anything,” which has an enjoyable reggae groove. Another OK one is called “The Remedy” in which Mraz rattles off involved lyrics with a rapid-tongue. (“Well I heard two men talking on the radio / In a crossfire kind of reality show / Uncovering ways to plan the next big attack / They were counting down the ways to stab / The brother in the be right back after this.”) ...He's not even remotely as witty as the Barenaked Ladies, but he did at least prompt me to read the lyrics, which isn't something I commonly do with pop acts. Or “alternately” pop acts. Other songs, such as “Sleep All Day” and “Too Much Food,” sound nice, but they lack bite. They're one-ear-out-the-other kinds of things. Although to his credit, he does seem to work with a variety of genres. We've got '70s funk (“No Stopping Us”), country (“On Love, In Sadness”), folk-pop (“Who Needs Shelter”), bossa nova (“The Boy's Gone”), and sort of a country/rap (“Curbside Prophet”). All in all, this record has spotless production standards. I only wish more of it would've stuck to me.

The Passions

Thirty Thousand Feet Over China (1981) ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
The Passions scored a minor hit in England with the haunting "I'm in Love With a German Film Star," but they haven't gained much attention beyond that. This ladened them with one-hit-wonder status, but that's clearly undeserved. While the hit song is assuredly the finest thing this album has to offer, it proves to be merely an introduction of what's to come. It's a brilliant thing with a cold, moody atmosphere, a balmy vocal performance from lead singer Barbara Gogan, and some hypnotic guitar-work that does to my ears what looking at fireworks does to my eyes. The remainder of the songs have similarly thick atmospheres, and they're all quite interesting in their own unique ways. I love Gogan's singing voice, but I contend this band is just as great--if not better--in those moments when there is no singing at all. “Small Stones,” for instance, features a frantic guitar riff that hints at a Far East influence. I'm also a huge fan of “Skin Deep,” which dazzles my ears to death with its intricate textures. ...I'm really only barely scratching the surface when I attempt to describe this album. However, let it be known: This is one of the prized gems of my collection. By extension, that must mean this is one of the greatest albums ever made! (Wow!!!) If you like moody new wave music, this is really where you should be.

Planet P Project

Planet P Project (1983) ★ ★ ★
Planet P Project, fronted by Tony Carey, come across as the poor-man's Alan Parson's Project, but if you think you could get into a group that touts themselves as sci-fi progressive rock, then it might be worth giving this a try. (All of the songs come in at less five minutes, which probably makes this more of an art-pop album.) The highlight here is "Why Me?," which was a minor hit in the MTV era. Other enjoyable songs include the AOR-ish "Power Tools," the synth-pop "Adam and Eve" (parts of which are reminiscent of Alice Cooper's "Skeletons in My Closet"), the breezier synth-pop "I Won't Wake Up," and the haunting ballad "Top of the World." What holds this album back is that it's rather uneven, and Carey's distinctly average-guy singing voice betrays his larger-than-life ambitions.

Polvo

Cor-Crane Secret (1992) ★ ★ ★ ½
Noise-rock, these guys are called. Certainly not grunge, even though it would be tempting to assume as such, given the year this was released. This album also utilized, very heavily, distorted guitars, and there is nary a keyboard in sight. The most appealing quality of this group was that they liked to experiment with their craft, exploring unusual tones and rhythms. Their lead vocalist had roughly the same technical singing ability as Dee Dee Ramone, except he's far more reserved. ...As a matter of fact, there might as well have not been a lead singer at all on this album; guitar textures are king (and his singing is so quiet in the mix I have a difficult time picking him up, anyway). Almost needless to say at this point, Polvo were not a band for people who need pretty music. However, speaking as someone who doesn't always go for “ugly music,” I can attest to not only liking this thing but being fascinated with parts of it. “Bend or Break,” for instance, shifts between a slow, dreary bit where a ringing electric guitar is played like wind chimes. And then after awhile, a thick and driving bit pops up where some staticy rhythm guitars chomp away while the lead guitar plays this strangely appealing, high-pitched, ghostly tone up top. My one complaint about the album is that when I'm halfway through it, I start to pick up on their formula. That is, all these songs start out quietly and pensively with some new kind of dreary guitar noodle... until the middle when it's inevitable that a heavy beat will pipe up and a guitar of some sort will play disgustingly dissonant guitar tones. By far my favorite of the album is the opener, “Vibracobra.” The quiet portion of it at the beginning is dreamy, like some kind of weird jangle-pop. When it gets heavier in the middle, they throw at us a myriad of crazy, conflicting guitar tones that give my brain quite a few interesting things to pick through. Overall a highly recommended album, if you like experimental guitar music.

Today's Active Lifestyles (1993) ★ ★ ★ ★
Lots more of the same thing except slightly better, if you liked the previous album. They're continuing to experiment with some incredibly wild guitar textures. What makes this album better is simply their experiments pique my interests more. Just take a listen to “Lazy Comet” to hear just what they're capable of--and I seriously doubt you've heard anything else like it. The texture they create is wobbly, very drunken, and it becomes almost an infectious groove. But with these guys I'm left to wonder how much of that infectiousness was intentional. This album continues to wander in and out of interesting guitar textures. I suppose the biggest complaint I can come up with is that I can't say I find everything here supremely interesting. For instance, a section in “Sure Shot” where I hear a squeaky guitar playing a complicated quasi-groove with a thick bass and a marching-band drum. That part is great, but the rest of the song meanders aimlessly--some moments more interesting than others. The great highlights include “Shiska,” which has a weird, sort of Adam Ant drum rhythm while a squeaky guitar plays a really awesome riff. “Thermal Treasure” has some really fantastic and tight guitar interplay amidst a fast and heavy drum rhythm. “Time Isn't On My Side” sounds like the lead guitar and the people singing in the background were thinking two different things, and yet it all somehow works together in its own, twistedly weird way. ...I won't talk about all these songs here, but this is the sort of album I could definitely do that with. If there's one album in the world that's intricate and wild enough that you could continue to listen to it and find new things to discover, this would be the one.

Pratt, Jessica

Jessica Pratt (2012) ★ ★ ★ ★
Jessica Pratt is a singer-songwriter from San Francisco who draws immediate comparisons to Joanna Newsom. Though certainly her instrumental approach is far simpler--this is just an acoustic guitar and her voice. This renders a homespun style that some listeners (including myself) find charming. I do find her far more accessible than Newsom, although I doubt she'd gain much of an audience outside of those already devoted to Newsom. Pratt's folk tunes ramble on sweetly, working themselves through vivid lyrics, occasionally interesting chord sequences, and mesmerizing acoustic guitar patterns. She's also quite an earnest performer with a voice creamy, earthy, and mid-pitched. (“Some days are long and / Summer days are hard / I was dragging my feet across the parking lot / I remember sad faces in the mirror behind me / And I saw those blank places in the driver's seat / You know I spent a million tears trying to dig myself out of these years”). I'm not so much inclined to go through this album to try to pick out a few tracks to highlight, since this is an incredibly even album and I'd already described its general sound. One might argue this album suffers from “everything sounds alike syndrome,” and that probably would be correct; however the number of times I've listened to this, I found it consistently engaging. Thus, I'm left with little else to do but slap it with my seal of approval, proclaiming this debut album to be remarkable and promising.

Presley, Elvis

Elvis Presley (1956) ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
This was the first rock 'n' roll LP ever to reach #1 on the charts, and it changed everything. Surely, one big reason the teenagers went to the record store in droves in 1956 was to buy into his image--the hip wiggling and crazy good looks, which they had come to know thanks to his highly anticipated television appearances. However, it would be impossible to deny that Elvis' raw and unique singing talent and these brilliantly chosen songs weren't equally important reasons. The secret to this album's success--and the primary reason this album still holds up to modern audiences--is its startling variety; he veers effortlessly into rockabilly (“Blue Suede Shoes”), R&B (“Tutti Frutti”), country (“I'll Never Let You Go”), and even standards (“Blue Moon”). Moreover, the recording quality is fantastic for 1956. ...This is not the sort of album you would want to get because of its historical importance. This is the sort of album you'd get because it's fun. It's strange to admit that this is the first time I've ever tried to seriously listen to Elvis Presley, and I can see myself listening to this many more times in the coming years.

Elvis (1956) ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
Maybe I like this just slightly less than Presley's exciting debut; however, it's hardly enough to register a shift on this rating scale. Perhaps the excitement I'd gotten from the debut was the sense that Presley had recorded it when nobody was sure where their efforts would lead; all they knew was the process of it was exhilarating. When it came time to record this follow-up, he did so with full knowledge that he was a huge media sensation, and thus he was perfectly free to continue boldly doing what he knew was best. And what was best, of course, was creating an album that was very much like his previous one. ...That was a good thing, of course, because just like the debut, we get another excellent showcase of the wide range of Elvis' vocal talent. “Long Tall Sally,” “Ready Teddy,” and “Rip it Up” surely must be three of the most wildly exciting rockabilly songs that have ever been recorded. (Check out out that punchy electric guitar solo on “Rip it Up!”) Otherwise, we get beautifully sung ballads (“Love Me,” “First in Line,” “How's the World Treating You?”), enjoyable mid-tempo pop numbers (“How Do You Think I Feel,” “When My Blue Moon Turns Gold Again”), a blues (“Anyplace is Paradise”) and country-western (“Old Shep”). Once again, this is a classic album not to be missed.

Loving You (1957) ★ ★ ★ ★
And thus begins the descent. For the time being, though, through the '50s, the descent would be gradual. This album, while it lacks the raw energy or excitement of either of his two previous ones, it has its fair share of fantastic moments. (I suppose part of the blame for the relatively lackluster material here is that this is a film soundtrack, which probably limited the song selection.) The R&B opener, “Mean Woman Blues,” gets things off on the right foot; it is as snappy and infectious as anything, and Elvis' bright and energetic performance is so much fun. However, my favorite moment of the album might just be hearing Elvis' low, rumbly vocals in “Teddy Bear.” There are also a few very short, punchy numbers “Got a Lot O' Livin' To Do,” “Party,” and “Hot Dog,” each of which are well worth their weight in gold. I particularly enjoy the Jordanaires' background singing in “Hot Dog,” which sounds (for whatever reason) like a steam train. The other songs are also generally excellent; I only wish there were a few more quicker numbers in the second half. “Tell Me Why” is nevertheless a stunning ballad featuring Elvis tightly harmonizing with The Jordanaires. But on the downside, “Lonesome Cowboy,” is betrayed by its positively epic introduction when it turns into a rather standard country ballad. But that's really the only beef I have with any of these particular songs. ...All in all, this album might not add as much to Elvis' legacy as his previous two albums, but it is nevertheless an entertaining product. No doubt, anyone who is a budding, big-time fan of his needs to own it.

Elvis' Christmas Album (1957) ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
Bah humbug; I hate Christmas albums! Except for this one. For you see, this is almost certainly the greatest Christmas album ever made. The reason for that, simply, is that Elvis was the coolest person who'd ever tread the earth, and he was absolutely at the peak of his coolness when he recorded this thing. If you want proof that Elvis could do no wrong, look no further than his take on “White Christmas.” Of all the Christmas songs in the world, I'm sick of that one the most, but here's Elvis turning that dreary old miserable old song into something jazzy and suave. He's delivering one of his characteristically snarly vocal performances over a quietly grooving piano. Reports are that Irving Berlin called it a “profane parody” at the time. That's unfortunate for him that he couldn't recognize the definitive version of his song when it was staring him in the face! ...In Elvis' usual standard, he does an excellent job providing a wide variety of styles in this album. There are the fun, upbeat songs: a stunningly excellent R&B original by Leiber and Stoller “Santa Claus is Back in Town;” a poppy rendition of “Here Comes Santa Claus;” and a fresh and catchy bit of rockabilly “Santa Bring My Baby Back (to Me).” Then, naturally, there's a song in here in which he serenades a lady, “Blue Christmas.” The second half of the album--I guess--is The Reason for the Season side, where all the songs are serious ballads about God. (There were Christian parents who feared this man? Seriously?) But even those tired old Christmas old classics like “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Silent Night” are magically transformed into things that I actually want to listen to. Even though this is a Christmas album, and Christmas albums usually stink, I love all of this! So I give this a big ol', Elvis-sized thumbs up. ...The CD release of this album also includes the Peace in the Valley EP, which contained four spirituals. It was probalby a good idea for this CD to help pad it out a little bit. (Elvis' albums were barely over 20 minutes in these days.) These spirituals include “Peace in the Valley,” “I Believe,” “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” and “It's No Secret (What God Can Do).”

Elvis' Golden Records (1958) ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
While Elvis' big early albums were iconic in their own rights, some of his most enduring songs from this period--“Hound Dog,” “All Shook Up,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Don't Be Cruel,” “Love Me Tender”--were singles-only releases. Hence the creation of Elvis' Great Golden Records, a compilation of his A-Side and B-Side singles. It's regarded by some to be rock 'n' roll's first greatest hits album, and it's also clearly among the best. As a matter of fact, the only one that probably surpasses this--that I can think of--is The Beatles' Past Masters, Vol. 2. Predominantly, this album consists of songs that had not been included previously on one of his albums. (The exceptions to that is “Teddy Bear,” found on the Loving You soundtrack and “Love Me,” found on Elvis.) There's so much good stuff here. “Hound Dog” is Elvis' most famous song for a good reason, which is quite simple: It rocks. The vocal performance is loud, rough, and raunchy, the rhythm is nimble and crunchy. And--oh--let's not forget about the brilliant electric guitar solo from Scotty Moore. I might be somewhat more partial to “Don't Be Cruel,” though, which is was one of the sweetest, catchiest songs in Elvis' repertoire. “Love Me Tender” might not be my favorite Elvis ballad, but it's certainly his most iconic; his gentle crooning somehow has the power to go right past the flesh like a ghost and straight into the heart. (...Wait! I'm not a girl! I'm not supposed to swoon at this!) The slightly less famous songs also prove to be immensely enjoyable; the poppy, piano-grooving “Treat Me Nice;” a beautiful country-western ballad “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You;” and a swingin' R&B tune “Too Much.” The only song I'm unable to embrace here is “That's When Your Heartaches Begin,” which is nevertheless very pretty. It might strike some as odd that I'd pinpoint this as Elvis' best album, but what else can I say: It has his best songs on it!

King Creole (1958) ★ ★ ★ ★
This was Elvis' second soundtrack LP but his fourth film. (You mean to say that he could have conceivably released more soundtrack albums?) It would also be the final album he'd released before being called away into the army. Now, even though Elvis' soundtrack albums justly have a reputation of being filled with throwaway show-tunes, this one is an early Elvis album, and thus it's got genuine rock 'n' roll. Though I suppose simply being the nature of a soundtrack, this is bound to be far less explosive than any one of his regular albums. A few of these tracks really don't do much for me. The title theme, for instance, doesn't seem quite as exciting as it should be. But don't be too quick to write this off; there's plenty of great stuff in here. We've got a spirited rendition of Claude Demetrius' “Hard Headed Woman,” and a bit of hard-blues “Trouble,” which starts out like a remake of Bo Diddley's “I'm a Man” before turning into Dixieland jazz. “Don't Ask Me Why” is the kind of ballad that Elvis did best--crooning in that passionate, low-warble--and it's a good tune as well. “Lover Doll” is a cute Vaudevillian number that would become standard fare for The Kinks 10 years later. My favorite song is “Crawfish,” which has a spooky bass-line, and Elvis gives a terrifically sultry vocal performance (whilst Kitty White rattles off some soulful responses off in the humid distance). All in all, this might not be one of Elvis' major releases, but it is nonetheless a great pick for his fans.

For LP Fans Only (1959) ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
Elvis' draft into army service was untimely for his career--the risk was that the world might have passed him by after two years. Although his service did help improve his image among some--particularly Elvis' own decision to serve as an ordinary soldier instead of accepting an offer to work in the special services as an entertainer. To help keep his name circulating in the media, this LP was released, compiling a number of singles that had been recorded in his so-far brief career. Based on the history of it, it might be easy to assume the material within might have been thrown together or sub-par. However, that's simply not the case; this material holds up with the best of them. The performances and instrumentation are remarkably fresh and vibrant. Elvis gives a particularly passionate vocal performance in “Lawdy Miss Claudy.” Perhaps a drawback is there's only one quick rocker here, “Shake, Rattle & Roll,” where Scotty Moore can be heard giving a few surprising solos in it. (That's about as detailed a description of his performance I'm prepared to go! Though I will comment that the tone of his guitar has this incredibly pleasant, golden ring to it.) “Mystery Train” has some very bubbly rhythm guitar, and Elvis matches it with some winsomely hopped up vocals. Many of these drum rhythms have a kind of galloping clicking style, which lends these songs an oaky texture. The ballad “Playing For Keeps” is another song that Elvis croons beautifully. ...Yes indeed, this might be for LP fans only, but it must be stuff like this that turn people into LP fans in the first place!

A Date With Elvis (1959) ★ ★ ★ ★
(I like how we're supposedly on a date with Elvis, but the LP sleeve features a photograph of him that was taken clearly from the perspective of the back seat. ...As though we're allowed to gape at him and his divine man-hunk poses, but we just can't sit up front with him.) It's kind of a mantra I've been developing lately: If it's early Elvis, then it must be good Elvis. That even applies even to this LP, a sister compilation to For LP Fans Only, which is a scraped-together collection of his previous singles that the record company released as a means of keeping his brand fresh while he was in military service. I knocked a half-point knocked off this only because it comes off far more rag-tag--the recording quality of “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” for instance, seems cloudy compared to “Young and Beautiful,” which was recorded crisply off the Jailhouse Rock soundtrack. Indeed, this is indicative that the record company really scraped the bottom of the barrel to create this, but I don't care! This stuff is great! The pop-rock “Blue Moon of Kentucky” was apparently something that Elvis had reportedly done off-the-cuff in the studio and featured a particularly hopped-up vocal performance. Though it's not quite as poppy as “We're Gonna Move” or as bright as “Milkcow Blues Boogie” (which features an odd bit of spoken dialog). The ballads continue to be beautifully sung and have been derived from excellent source material: “I Want to Be Free,” “It's So Strange,” and “Young and Beautiful.” My favorite dance song is “Baby I Don't Care (You're So Square),” which starts out with an interestingly cold and rumbling bass groove. For awhile, there, I think it's about to turn into a punk song. That is, those few seconds before the period-appropriate '50s guitar and drum rhythm surface. But anyway, while this might not be one of the essential Elvis albums--only if you're collecting all his '50s output.

50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong (1959) ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
...or otherwise known as Elvis' Gold Records – Volume 2. This album rivals Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band as having rock 'n' roll's most parodied album cover. It is also a compilation of Elvis' hit singles released between 1958 and 1959. All 10 of them hit at least #15 on the charts. And as far as I can tell they all deserved it: They're terrific pieces of entertainment, surely measuring up to Elvis' best. There were two #1 hits: “Don't,” one of Leiber's and Stoller's most enduring R&B ballads with some heavenly backup singing from The Jordanaires, and “A Big Hunk O' Love” one of the most excitingly upbeat songs in his repertoire in which he delivers--yet!--another fantastic vocal performance. (Man, this guy has been parodied so much over the years it's unfortunate I could never seriously fathom, until now, that he was actually a great singer.) There were two #2 hits: an infectious, upbeat R&B (gospel?) ditty “Wear My Ring Around Your Neck,” and a mid-tempo R&B “Fool Such as I,” also infectious. ...Definitely make this one of your essential Elvis purchases, if you're into this sort of thing. (Note: The current CD version of this mixes up the original track order and contains 10 extra songs, most or all of which had appeared in earlier Elvis albums.)

Elvis is Back! (1960) ★ ★ ★ ★
As its title so roundly puts it, this was the first album Elvis recorded after returning home from his military service. And the burning ol' question looming on everybody's mind back then: Would he still have it? After listening to this album, the answer was a resolute yes. However, whether it would compare favorably to his '50s output was a different question. Personally, I think it at least comes close. Commercially speaking, this album was remarkably successful--making it to #2 on the charts. But more importantly, songs within it were excellent; the sound is crisper than ever, and Elvis' vocal performances continued to be engaging. However, there was one major regret: The furious R&B numbers that used to be his bread and butter were mostly out the window. The closest thing we get to that might be “Dirty, Dirty Feeling,” a Leiber and Stoller original. It's a great song, but it isn't nearly as insatiably driving as they used to be. It also might come across a bit cutesy with that tooting saxophone and extra playful back-up singing from the Jordanaires. (This poppier style of music would go to characterize Elvis' songs throughout, basically, the rest of his career.) Also in this album, we get a beautiful ballad, “Soldier Boy,” with some oh-so-sweet piano, which plays a descending progression. “Fever” is a low-key and too-cool-for-school blues that's complete with snapping fingers and bongos. There are also a couple of fun dance-pop ditties with a grooving saxophone (“Such a Night,” “Girl Next Door Went A' Walking”), and there is also a heavier blues number, “Reconsider Baby.”

G.I. Blues (1960) ★ ★ ★ ½
When Elvis returned from his stint in the military, not only had he resumed recording albums, but he'd also resumed making movies. Even though the former activity was what put Elvis on the map, it would be the latter that would gobble up the vast majority of his time throughout the '60s. Generally speaking that might not have been a problem--particularly since his soundtrack albums in the '50s had more or less resembled his rock 'n' roll records. But regrettably, his '60s soundtrack albums would veer strongly into musical theater. Take a listen to this newly recorded version of “Blue Suede Shoes.” Elvis' vocals are more showy here--whereas they were far more rip-roaring in the original. But you know what? Even when Elvis when he was at his worst (and he isn't here, not by a long shot) was still Elvis: one of the world's foremost entertainers. ...I get a stinging sense of betrayal right away, though, as the album opens with an accordion-ridden, albeit fitfully catchy showtune “Tonight is So Right for Love.” That's followed up with a song about puppy love, “What's She Really Like.” ...Oh, I won't talk about every song here, but I will have to highlight “Pocket Full of Rainbows” as one of Elvis' more beautiful love songs.

His Hand in Mine (1960) ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Even though my reviews of Elvis' previous few albums read like little eulogies, I didn't mean to suggest he was out of the game quite yet. Nor would he ever be truly "out of the game." This gospel album is certainly one of the shining beacons of his discography; it is not only something I would recommend just to Elvis fans or to gospel fans, but to anyone. Speaking of myself, my knee-jerk reaction to gospel music is to groan; this is the boring stuff I used to hear all the time at church. (A few of these songs were actually performed at my church.) And perhaps I have good reason to react that way; the way my church performed them were crap. However, here is Elvis performing these songs, and--by God--they must be done here exactly the way they were intended. Orchestrated simply, he sings with a piano, drums (sometimes), strummy guitar (sometimes), and The Jordainaires, whose harmonization is stunning. The extent of the the album's diversity is, simply, that some of these songs are slow, others are faster. The reason I like this album so much should be easy to guess: Elvis' vocal performances. Let his golden, godly voice passes though my headphones and into my ears, soothe me, give me cause to reflect upon God's infinite love and wisdom (or whatever). ...Whereas it was pretty obvious that Elvis' heart wasn't really into recording that soundtrack album, G.I. Blues, he comes off here nothing less than passionate and sincere. And when Elvis is passionate about anything, it had the power to create nuclear blasts. Elvis, having been raised in the South as a good Christian child, had a familiarity with these songs that was deeply rooted, and he must've known exactly the best ones to perform. There's not a boring thing in sight here. And for my money, that's not just for church music but for any kind of music.

Procol Harum

Procol Harum (1967) ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Procol Harum's debut was one of the earliest and one of the greatest art-rock albums ever made, and it was best known for containing the landmark single "Whiter Shade of Pale" and the original version of "Conquistador." (The more popular version of "Conquistador" had an elaborate string and brass arrangement and can be found on their 1972 live album Live in Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra.) "Whiter Shade of Pale" was recorded as, what was intended to be, a one-off single. However, it had such a strong showing at the charts (#1 in the UK; #5 in the USA) that the record label commissioned the band to quickly create an entire album. ...And isn't the song magical? That gently descending bass-line was ripped off of Bach's "Air On a G String" (...g string...) but Hammond organist Matthew Fisher provided a beautiful flourish over it that practically stole the show from Gary Brooker's excellent vocal melody. Brooker's voice, by the way, perfectly suited the song; it was thick and soulful, and it had the flavor of butterscotch. Most of the other songs on this album are orchestrated and sung just as richly as "Whiter Shade of Pale," and it's a shame more people don't know these other songs; I'd say that they're nearly as good. (Be sure to check out all of the following: "She Wandered Through the Garden Fence," "A Christmas Camel," "Salad Days (Are Here Again)," "Repent Walpurgis," and "Homburg.") Additionally, there is a smattering of songs here that harken back Gary Brooker's R&B roots, as a former member of The Paramounts ("Something Following Me," "Cerdes," "Lime Street Blues"). Lastly, there are a couple of silly Vaudeville numbers ("Mabel," "Good Captain Clack"). Definitely take a moment to check out this album. And I mean the whole album.

The Psychedelic Furs

Forever Now (1982) ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
I admit I'd rather ignored this Psychedelic Furs album until I went to one of their concerts and noticed their set-list had borrowed heavily from this album. Well, that concert turned out to be one of the times of my life, so you can bet I listened to this album lots since then. No doubt, if you're a fan of herky-jerky dance music with distinctly crispy rhythms and a druggy/hazy vibe, this is one of the most recommendable albums you could possibly own. All at the same time, this album is ugly, romantic, seedy, and soaring. The most highly celebrated track is “Love My Way,” a suave and elegant thing that's most notable for a simple but potent xylophone loop. Even the lyrics manage to capture me (“There's emptiness behind their eyes / There's dust in all their hearts / They just want to steal us all / And take us all apart”). The craziest, most rabble-rousing song of the bunch has got to be “President Gas,” which I always seem to want to crank up to the loudest volume that my eardrums can stand. (I'm going deaf.) Lead singer Richard Butler's raspy vocals, while I maintain that they took me a few passes to get used to, are an integral part of these songs' atmospheres.

Queen, Monica

Ten Sorrowful Mysteries (2002) ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
Monica Queen was a singer-songwriter hailing from Glasgow and was probably best known for having provided vocals for Belle & Sebastian's "Lazy Line Painter Jane." But if the world were actually fair, she would have been best known for this wonderful debut album she released. Its title, by the way, describes perfectly its mood; all of these songs are hauntingly atmospheric, and Monica Queen sings them as though she were constantly on the brink of tears. ...I know, that description might make this album seem so heavy handed that it'd be rendered unlistenable, but let me assure you that is not the case. These songs are positively brilliant. The album opens with my favorite of them, "I'm Sorry Darling," which draws me into its deep, dark pool of regret and despair with a beautiful, longing melody. Its instrumentation is fairly simple, featuring an acoustic guitar, and--the most characteristic thing of them all--a high-pitched, echoey synthesizer that makes longing coo noises. It's really like nothing else I've ever heard before. Another song I find myself returning to on a consistent basis is "Only Love," which is about despairing unrequited love, and it absolutely pierces my soul. While this album might not be not for all audiences, it's something that might catch a few people out there off-guard. Definitely take a listen to the first 60 seconds of "I'm Sorry Darling." If it hypnotizes you, then this your ticket.

Roxette

Look Sharp (1988) ★ ½
When I was a kid, I didn't listen to pop music. Except for when I was in the second grade, I had a rule-breaking bus-driver who used to play pop music on the bus. I recall that the radio station she tuned to was prone to playing certain songs over and over again. However, I can no longer recall what any of these songs were. Except for one. I remember singing its chorus while I was at home, playing outside, or on the playground. I remember sitting on the bus, listening to that station, and hoping that it would come on again that day. I had no idea what the song was or who the artist was. But the song stuck with me. Eighteen years later, when I was in engineering college and looking for an excuse not to study, I had a bright idea: I was going to try to figure out what the song was. All it took was Google and about twenty minutes, and I had it: “Dangerous” by the Swedish pop band Roxette. (I guess that was an early tell that, from birth, I was destined to become an ABBA fan. And I might also mention how similar that name is to “Roxy Music,” a band that latched onto my brain like a magnet the first time I heard them.) ...These days, when I listen to the song, I still consider it quite good. As I've demonstrated by the fact that it stayed with me for 18 years, the chorus is catchy. The verses aren't anything special to write about, though: no hooks to speak of, just a bland herky-jerky synth-bass. But the verses really don't take up much of the song anyhow. ...Roxette is a poor-man's Eurythmics, by the way. The lead singer Marie Fredriksson has a respectable bit of husky beltitude to her voice; however, it doesn't have that glistening pureness that makes Annie Lennox such a rare pop singer. The song production throughout this album is standard issue for the late 1980s--thick drum machines, plodding synth bass, dank synth-scapes, all of which were aiming to create a sort polluted, post-industrial atmosphere. While “Dangerous” is quite a decent song, the only other I get mild enjoyment out of is “Paint,” which for a while, anyway, is catchy synth-pop. Other than that, most of these songs are bland. Just a few of them have tiny moments that seem to give off promise. “The Look” starts with a decent guitar riff (that is nonetheless spoiled a bit by its heavily processed sound), but overall the song just doesn't take off. ...I'd recommend skipping this album entirely unless you were like me and happened to hear “Dangerous” when you were a kid.

Schneider, Fred

Fred Schneider and the Shake Society (1991) ★ ★ ★
If you've listened to every B-52's album and was feeling a little depressed 'cause there's no more, here's a bit of news to temporarily ease your woes: Fred Schneider released a few solo albums. This one was recorded and released in 1984, but it was remixed and given wider release in 1991--probably to cash in on the commercial success of Cosmic Thing. Even more to the delight of a B-52's fan, a number of these tracks feature Kate Pierson on background vocals. Even Ricky Wilson can be heard playing an infectious funk-groove in “I'm Gonna Haunt You.” Without a doubt, if you like Whammy!-era B-52's and you find Schneider's antics endlessly entertaining, you're going to want this. (If you said 'no' to either one of those two things, ........ you're dead to me.) I certainly don't think this is quite as good as Whammy!; however, it's close. It did take me a pass or two to get to liking it. My first listen to the lead song, “Monster,” didn't go over that well; I thought it was based on a far too stiff and repetitive groove, and Schneider's lyrics were getting a bit too bawdy for my tastes. (“There's a monster in my pants / And it does a nasty dance / When it moves in and out / Everybody starts to shout.”) Four or five listens, though, I finally started thinking the whole thing was hilarious. Then I read further into the lyrics, and... um... I don't know what you were thinking Fred meant by 'monster.' ( “Gosh would you look at that thing / And I thought dinosaurs were extinct.”) “Cut the Concrete” is very infectious and Talking-Heads-ish, which makes me wonder if that was one of those aborted songs from Mesopotamia; it's one of the most insanely danceable songs ever. “Summer in Hell” is pretty great, featuring a killer, synth-bass rhythm; it certainly had the makings of becoming a B-52's classic, if only that was what fate intended for it. ...And there are a number of other songs here that are also worth checking out, which I would do pronto, if I were you.

Sedaka, Neil

Neil Sedaka Sings His Greatest Hits (1962) ★ ★ ½
I don't understand why this album is titled Neil Sedaka Sings His Greatest Hits. What else would have have done to his greatest hits if not to sing them? And this is a compilation, so it's not like he's singing these songs again. ...Anyway, Neil Sedaka was kind of a big thing in that Great Lull between Elvis and The Beatles. I'm not such a big fan of Sedaka's sharp and high-pitched voice, which he had to try to warble a bit to make as cutesy as possible. However, I do like a few of these songs here. By and large the best one is "Next Door to an Angel," which has got to be one of the most insanely infectious things I've ever heard. If you only hear one Neil Sedaka song in your life (and that would probably be adequate!) make it that one. Other likable hits include "Oh! Carol" (written about his then-girlfriend Carol Klein... later Carole King), "Calendar Girl," and "Happy Birthday, Sweet Sixteen." Other songs I wouldn't really want to write home about include "King of Clowns," a forgettable thing with militaristic drumming and bland hooks; "The Diary," a ballad without any real juice to it; "Little Devil," which only makes me want to listen to Bobby Darin's "Splish Splash" again. "Stairway to Heaven" is pretty good though, and I'm sure it was the best song named "Stairway to Heaven" until that... other... "Stairway to Heaven."

Sexton, Charlie

Pictures for Pleasure (1985) ★ ★
If you can imagine what David Bowie might sound like singing karaoke over Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark," then you would have a pretty good idea what this album sounds like. Every one of these songs is heavy on thick, pumping stadium drums, pulsating rhythm guitar, and '80s standard-issue synthesizers. Charlie Sexton, who was 16 at the time, had an appropriately powerful and svelte voice, and he was handsome to boot. This album was a modest success at the time, hitting #15 on the charts, and it also produced a Top 20 hit single called "Beat's So Lonely." My favorite song, however, is the catchy opener, "Impressed," which starts off with Sexton very suavely listing off a bunch of famous couples (i.e., Romeo and Juliette, Louis and Mademoiselle Antoinette, Napoleon and Josephine, Mickey and the Rodent Queen ...?!!). And then he belts out at the top of his lungs I AM NOT IMPRESSED!!! ...That might have been annoying coming from a 25-year-old, so it's a good thing I knew that Sexton was only 16. Now, while I find this album as a whole generally enjoyable, it unfortunately suffers from saminess after only the first two tracks, and my interest-level in this album drops significantly as a result. The exception to that is the title track, which is a cute and bubbly thing that's so sweet it makes me want to pet a puppy. ...As a whole, I'd probably give this album a pass. Forget I even brought it up.

Charlie Sexton (1989) ★ ½
This is exactly why I feel like a jerk sometimes. I'm sure Charlie Sexton would have been perfectly fine remaining unnoticed without me, some random Internet guy, deciding for some unspecific reason to dig up his albums. I've listened to them, now, and I'm burdened with the unpleasant duty of having to unleash a deservedly negative review of something that most people wouldn't have bothered to learn about anyway. Not that I want to suggest that Charlie Sexton was some kind of washed-up pop star or anything: He was a talented guitarist who made quite a career for himself as a session and/or touring musician for some pretty huge names. While I think this sophomore effort is far more tedious than the debut, this does at least show him taking one step in the right direction: There's a lot more guitar on here, and nothing at all sounds like a remake of “Dancing in the Dark.” ...I'd characterize this more like something of a late-'80s Aerosmith album. It's all quite competent, but nothing here really grabs me. “Question This,” for instance is a heavy ballad with some flashy singing and some nice guitar parts, but it comes off so... bland. “Don't Look Back” has a nice atmosphere to it, but it comes off so... bland. “Blowing Up Detroit” sounds a bit like Don Henley's “The Boys of Summer,” but it's just so... bland. While this is a professionally crafted album--and I can see why he's in high-demand as a back-up band guitarist--there's really not much I can do with this.

Shocking Blue

At Home (1969) ★ ★ ★ ★
This Dutch pop-rock band was best known for penning the 1969 hit single "Venus," which would become a hit once again in 1986 for Bananarama. While I respect the Bananarama version, the original wins it for me hands down. (As much as I like synthesizers, give me hazy guitars and a grooving electric organ any day of the week.) Even though 21st Century reissues of this album contain that song, it was a single-only release at the time, which is probably why this band would become forever associated with that dreaded one-hit-wonder label. They didn't deserve it, however; this album is loaded with songs that are almost just as good. Lead singer, Mariska Veres, was armed with a powerful voice, and the instrumentalists, also, knew how to rustle up some dust. (A few of these songs feature a sitar and/or a horn section, lest you forget this was a product of the late '60s.) Some of the more memorable songs here include "Boll Weevil," "I'll Write Your Name Through the Fire," and "California Here I Come." Unfortunately, the enjoyability of the album is hampered a bit with the presence of a couple instrumentals as well as a few other songs that leave me shrugging my shoulders. But there's no doubt about it: This comes highly recommended to anyone who's into catchy '60s pop music.

Simon, Carly

Carly Simon (1971) ★ ★ ★ ★
Carly Simon had spent most of the '60s as half of the folk duo The Simon Sisters, the other member being her older sister Lucy. The group disbanded when Lucy left to get married. Carly would, of course, go onto becoming one of the most successful solo artists of the '70s (and even into the '80s). Here is her first album, full of lovely ballads, proving right away she was a compelling songwriter. There's something catchy and/or endearing about all these songs. I'm particularly attracted to a haunting ballad called “Reunions.” Beautiful melody with an enchanting vocal performance and lightly hypnotizing guitar arpeggios while a deep cello does pretty things in the background. Perhaps one might accuse the song of sounding too much like something out of Joni Mitchell's debut album, and that's probably valid, but I don't necessarily demand originality out of everything I hear. The hit song was “That's the Way it Should Be,” a sullen ballad about a woman feeling pensive about getting married. ...It seems the most criticism I read levied against Simon is her lyrics, and I suppose she could have been a little cleverer with her metaphors. (“You say we'll soar like two birds through the clouds / But soon you'll cage me on your shelf.”) At the same time, though, I'd hardly call it bad. (God, not everybody can be Bob Dylan, you wretches.) Two other songs worth highlighting is a tuneful country ballad “One More Time,” a pleasant bit of skiffle “Rolling Down the Hills,” and another utterly gorgeous, haunting ballad for the ages, “The Love's Still Growing.” A must for singer-songwriter buffs, but I'd say anybody else would be well-advised to give this at least a tentative go.

No Secrets (1972) ★ ★ ★ ★
Carly Simon might not have been the most well-reviewed singer-songwriter of her era (I believe Robert Christgau compared her to a horse). My best guess is they all liked her but way too embarrassed about it to admit it. People who actually bought records in 1972 seemed to like her unreservedly, shooting this album to #1 on the charts, where it stayed for five weeks, becoming one of Simon's biggest commercial successes. ...And listening to this album, the only conclusion that could possibly be formed, is that masses were correct. The instantly recognizable hit “You're So Vain” is a great song no matter how you look at it; it's catchy, the lyrics provocative, vocal performance powerful and headstrong. But my favorite moment of the album is the opening track, a sweeping ballad called “Loving You is the Right Thing to Do.” Ohhhhh, what a pretty song. And it also features some interesting chord progressions. (That chord change at the end of the line "But now the river doesn't seem to stop here anymore" sends my heart in a frenzy everytime I hear it.) I'm also quite enamored with the more low-key piano ballad “His Friends Are More Than Fond of Robin,” the toe-tapping boogie-rocker “Night Owl,” and a captivating folk song “It Was So Easy.” This is no doubt one of the shining beacons of the early '70s singer-songwriter era.

Sinatra, Frank

The Voice of Frank Sinatra (1946) ★ ★
Frank “Ol' Blue Eyes” Sinatra actively despised rock 'n' roll, criticizing it for being “sung, played, and written for the most part by cretinous goons.” And yet, the albums he'd cut in the '50s have managed to make strong showings on such authoritative documents as Rolling Stone Magazines' 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Why aren't we making this guy pay for his sins? Well, there's one thing for certain: Whatever answers to these burning questions will not be found here, his debut album released in 1946. (This was well before he'd achieve commercial independence in 1953.) Furthermore, despite this being Sinatra's first "album," he'd been releasing singles as far back as 1939. By 1946, he was already starting to go into career-decline. ...The good news is Sinatra's unmatchably smooth and smokey voice is indeed like having cool air blown through your ear canals. The bad news is these songs are orchestrated drearily and dully. Or, in other words, this was perfectly ordinary pop-orchestration by 1946 standards. All that means is anyone hoping this early Sinatra album might contain gems like his '50s albums would be sorely disappointed. The vast majority of listeners needn't bother with this early albums at all.

Songs By Sinatra (1947) ★ ★
Frank Sinatra was apparently not discouraged by my less-than-stellar review of his debut album and released his first follow-up a year later. This is a collection of eight standards--all of which continue to be rife with dreary, syrupy strings and harps. I expectedly continue to enjoy his singing voice, but the lack of orchestral texture throughout this creates such saminess that I get bored. Here, we get a rather dull cover of “Over the Rainbow,” complete with a corny choir, but the most tedious song here is “She's Funny That Way,” which is slowwwwwww. Perhaps the best song here is “That Old Black Magic,” even though that would eventually be trumped by a far superior version he'd record in 1961.

Christmas Songs By Sinatra (1948) ★ ½
Oh, dear. It must be Christmastime. And here is Frank Sinatra and his band to bore us to death with all those rotten classics. Behold, another version of “Silent Night,” even drearier and more awful than you remember; “O, Come All Ye Faithful,” rife with Hollywood orchestral swells; “White Christmas,” which I maintain to be the worst song ever written; “Jingle Bells,” somewhat tolerable but I've heard it 80 billion times; “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” with horrible choir; “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” not so horrible but hardly measures up to that famous version. ...It turns out the only song I can truly enjoy here is “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” which is on account of how curiously appealing it is to hear Sinatra sing “You betta watch out!”

Frankly Sentimental (1949) ★ ★ ½
Here is another conglomeration of eight songs. The orchestration is improved here a mite, for sure; this doesn't so much come across like I'm listening to a thick blanket of dreary strings all the time, and I get to hear somewhat more varied and intricate textures rise to the surface. (Though keep in mind we're still not nearly to the level of sophistication of his golden years.) The exception to that are those tiring orchestral swells during “Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out to Dry” and those depressing tones I'm hearing in the background during “It Never Entered My Mind.” This song selection is particularly nice, however; Johnny Mercer's and Rube Bloom's “Fools Rush In” might be the best song here. Although keep in mind that Sinatra would re-record a far superior version of it in the '50s. ...Indeed, Sinatra would re-record almost all of these songs again in the '50s--“Laura,” “Spring is Here,” “One For My Baby,” and “It Never Entered My Mind.” That might explain why nobody ever bothered giving this album a proper release on CD.

Dedicated to You (1950) ★ ★
I enjoyed Sinatra's previous album--somewhat--because the orchestration was restrained more and the song selection was quite nice. Here, the song selection continues to be nice, but the orchestration is back to business as usual. Expect these songs to be overflowing with huge orchestral swells right out of a standard Hollywood film soundtrack. The swells get so intrusive at times that they even drown out Sinatra's voice. (And isn't his voice supposed to be the reason we're listening to this guy in the first place?) “The Moon Was Yellow” and “Where or When” unceremoniously mark the return of the cheesy choir--the former of which they seem to spend as much time singing lead as Sinatra does. I do really like the song “Where or When,” though. But, as circumstances would have it, he'd end up recording a far superior version of it in 1958 with a lounge piano! (At some point, somebody is going to school me that this orchestrator during this period, Axel Stordahl, was highly respected and, per Wikipedia, “is credited with helping to bring pop arranging into the modern age.”)

Swing and Dance with Frank Sinatra (1950) ★ ★ ★
Er, what's this? A collection of upbeat songs? You mean to tell me Frank Sinatra wasn't only for people who take bubble baths, listen to mopey soap operas, and drink wine? What we get with this shift is a selection of catchier songs and punchier orchestration, songs with swinging horn sections, thumping double bass, bouncy ivory tickling, lively vocal performances, etc. Of course, we've all heard this sort of music before, but if you want some early Sinatra to snap your finger to, then this might be your bag. Here are some respectable renditions of well-known songs, “My Blue Heaven,” “It's Only a Paper Moon,” and “When You're Smiling.” My favorite, though, is the album opener, Rodgers' and Hart's “Lover,” which'll get them bobby soxers swingin' for sure! ...Actually not too many "bobby soxers" ended up buying this record, which was why Sinatra was unceremoniously dumped from his label... only to resurface three years later as a completely reborn artist.

Songs For Young Lovers (1954) ★ ★ ★ ★
Enter the second--and ultimately more lasting--phase of Frank Sinatra's career. This came after a major career lull in which the singer/actor was so depressed that he'd even contemplated suicide. But instead of doing himself in with razor blades, he bounced back, not only finding a new record label, but getting far more artistic control over his output. ...And look! I'm giving one of his albums a high rating! This was also a concept album--an innovative idea Sinatra had to newly record a bunch of similarly themed songs in a context that wasn't tied to a film or Broadway musical. Naturally, the art of the concept album would still require more evolution before it'd get to the state of producing things like Sgt. Pepper or Tommy. But hey! The ball had to get rolling somehow! ...So the songs that young lovers like are mellow and breezy.And listen! The recording quality, for the first time in Sinatra's career, is pristine. It wasn't just that technology/budget was such that Sinatra comes across crisper than he did in those early albums, but he's also working with a new orchestrator--George Siravo--who seemed to prefer to explore and develop finer textures. This is as opposed to those simpler, dreary string arrangements that relentlessly soaked me in those earlier albums. (The conductor of this orchestra was Nelson Riddle who, after this album, would take over Sinatra's future arrangement duties.) Sinatra's vocals had always been soothingly cool and confident, but thanks to the recording quality here, his presence is clearer and far more commanding. The song selection is good, too. We get the sweetly romantic “My Funny Valentine,” a longing “The Girl Next Door,” a jumpin' “A Foggy Day,” the wistful “Like Someone in Love,” ...and so on. This is crackin' stuff. Reportedly, this was even James Dean's favorite album.

Swing Easy! (1954) ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
Frank Sinatra's concept album Songs for Young Lovers turned out to be a mega-success, not only reviving Sinatra's stagnating career, but also changing the industry. This follow-up is another concept album, which is in the sense that its title describes the tone of these songs. That is, they swing easy! And to be honest--even though this album doesn't get the distinction of having been James Deans' favorite--I think I like Sinatra best this way. That is, he's singing mellowly like a classy cat with a hoppin' horn section. A number of these songs even feature a xylophone that zips around, which must be one of the most delightful things on the planet earth. (...Oh man, if you could somehow get inside my brain and understand how much know how much a zipping xylophone excites me so.) The song selection is also pretty great, starting out with a snappy rendition of Cole Porter's “Just One of Those Things” and following that up with the comely “I'm Gonna Sit Down and Write Myself a Letter.” Frequently when I review standards albums, I've been somewhat resentful towards songs--from my perspective--that have been overplayed over the years. There are two such standards here: “Jeeper Creepers” and “Get Happy.” However, they are presented so freshly, so delightfully, that I feel that I could keep listening to them. Maybe these are even the songs' definitive versions? Once again, this is a rather short album--consisting of eight songs and not even spanning more than 20 minutes. However, this would become Sinatra's final short album.

In the Wee Small Hours (1955) ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
This is where Frank Sinatra's vision was finally realized. His previous two albums had been conceptual in nature, but those were quite short--only 20 minutes a piece. Here, he gets to record an entire 40+ minute album--and it's, of course, songs all centered around similar themes and with similar moods. It's immersive. It's the sort of thing that has the power to transport you to a different time and place. (Or rather, maybe all I'm doing when I listen to this is imagining myself in a black and white film from the '50s.) The conceptual idea for a 40+ minute album does have a downside in that I do tend to prefer albums that vary their moods a little bit. On the other hand, that's something of a non-issue here, because I never seem to tire of it. This stuff is rich and smooth, and why would I want him to change it? The melancholic orchestrations by Nelson Riddle are beautiful and graceful--sweeping when they need to be sweeping, calm when they need to be calm. (Very difficult to pull that off.) Perhaps most importantly, the orchestration serves nothing but to enhance Sinatra's golden baritone, such a seductive force that never lets go of me. If you needed an actual reason this guy was considered one of the greatest singers of all time, then witness it here. I'm not an expert in this genre by any means, but I'm willing to assume--for now--that professional critics are correct when they say this is one of the finest standards albums ever made.

Songs For Swingin' Lovers (1956) ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
Ol' Blue Eyes made records for people who went to key parties? (Um, I guess back in the '50s, “swingin'” meant two people who had their arms around each other, rocking gently back and forth... apparently as a giant, creepy ghost of Frank Sinatra were looking upon, grinning like a serial killer.) What we have here is an album that's exactly like In the Wee Small Hours--it's about 45 minutes or so worth of Sinatra-sung standards. The difference is that these songs are more swingin' in the sense that you can slow-dance to this. Nelson Riddle is still retained as the arranger and conductor, and he does an equally as remarkable job creating textures that enhance and never distract from Sinatra's voice. The atmospheres surely aren't as thick as the melancholic previous album; however, the presentation is more fun, which is as it should be for “swingin'” music. That's why I have a difficult time figuring out which album I like better. ...I'd probably recommend getting both, if you're the type of record collector who generally dislikes Greatest Hits compilations but nevertheless would like to capture the essence of important artists' careers. (Sinatra would basically continue remaking these concept albums--half of them would be slow and depressing while the others were for the “swingers.”)

This is Sinatra! (1956) ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
My decision to award this Frank Sinatra album a perfect rating might be a contentious one, particularly since this is a compilation of singles and not one of his concept albums. However, I hope the decision isn't too surprising, since--as is consistent the nature of singles--these were songs designed to be independently enjoyable. (Whereas I guess his other songs were meant to be part of an overall mood.) And these are vastly enjoyable songs and prove themselves to be among the finest he's ever recorded. I also like the inherent diversity that comes with this release; we not only get songs for young lovers, but we also get songs for swingin' lovers! We also get that silly novelty song, “Love and Marriage,” which would later be used as the Married With Children theme song. Another notable is “From Here to Eternity,” a beautiful ballad that was featured in the film of the same name that he'd also co-starred. While that's a pretty ballad, I wouldn't quite call it the best of the disc. For those honors, I'd look towards “My One and Only Love” and “Young at Heart,” which are both beautifully orchestrated songs that are a bit light but nevertheless manage to resonate with me. The other ballads tend to radiate Sinatra's exquisite melancholic glow: “Three Coins in the Fountain,” “Rain (Falling From the Skies)” and “Don't Worry 'Bout Me.” For the swingin' set, there's “South of the Border,” “The Gal That Got Away,” “Learnin' the Blues,” and “(Love is) The Tender Trap,” each of which are poppy and Sinatra's lead vocals are as engagingly classy as they've ever been. All in all--despite this being a compilation--it's the most wholly entertaining Sinatra album I think there ever was.

Close to You (1957) ★ ★ ½
A bit of a misfire. Nelson Riddle is still here conducting and arranging these songs; however, his orchestrations don't nearly evoke the same hazy, melancholic glow that made his earlier ones (e.g., In the Wee Small Hours) so haunting. His approach here is far more minimal. Perhaps the idea of toning down the orchestrations was to allow Sinatra to get more intimate with us--as though he's whispering these songs sweetly into our ears. However, I don't want that! I'd rather be dazzled! Furthermore, I don't want Sinatra to whisper anything in my ears (lest he mention anything that might make me an accessory-after-the-fact with the FBI). This is the kind of standards album that I can sit down, listen to, and respect. When I review it, I would be sure to comment somewhere that Sinatra has the voice of a golden god. I would also comment somewhere else that--boy--they sure don't write songs quite like these anymore. Etc., etc., etc. However, at this point, those things alone couldn't make this album special. So, count this as a mild disappointment for me.

A Swingin' Affair! (1957) ★ ★ ★ ★
Back to the good ole times for us, it seems. Although this title bears an uncanny resemblance to two Frank Sinatra albums that have come before it. I can't pinpoint exactly the reason I deem this album four stars whereas his previous 'swingin' things got notches higher. Other than, perhaps, these concept idea of his is becoming less novel for me. Nonetheless, this is more of the same: well orchestrated songs with upbeat brass sections and Sinatra's golden throat warbling his heart out. So if that's your bag, jump on board. I also enjoy the song selection. (“Night and Day,” “I Wish I Were in Love Again,” “Stars Fell on Alabama,” “I Won't Dance,” etc., etc.) They're all sirloin cuts: catchy, and I'm not terribly familiar with any of them (apart from “The Lady is a Tramp,” which was only included in the bonus tracks). Sinatra, once he got going, could very well have had the most consistent career of any recording artist, which isn't to mention that he was unmatchably prolific. This album, without a doubt, has his seal of quality.

Slapp Happy

Slapp Happy (1974) ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Also known as Casablanca Moon, this kraut-rock import is easily the most accessible thing this band has ever been associated with. (That is even though lead singer Dagmar Krause's voice takes a little getting used to, sounding something like milky cat meows.) Every song here is an unhinged classic. Some of the especially strong standouts include the beautiful acoustic guitar ballads "Mr. Rainbow" and "The Drum," the horn-tootin' "Dawn," and the unforgettable tango "Casablanca Moon." The latter song features some of my favorite lyrics ever written, telling a surreal tale of a globetrotting secret agent. ("He lurks behind a paper in the shadow of a mosque / He can't count all the continents he's crossed / Tailing party members leaving footprints in the frost / Underneath the Acnalbasac moon.") Not only are all these melodies memorable, but each song seems to be loaded with some wild instrumental flourishes. This is easily among my Top 100 favorite albums ever made.

Sparks

Sparks (1971) ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
This album is genius. The weird thing is it sounds like a goofy new wave record from 1979. Like someone who was a big Blondie fan who had the penchant for druggy, Roxy Music-esque atmospheres and, for good measure, threw in some of those campy theatrics from Queen. ...But all of those bands came after these guys. While the prognostication might be interesting, the main reason you should hear this is because it makes such a fun listen. These guys were absolutely nuts, and they were lovable nuts, and these melodies are catchy, catchy, catchy. No doubt, they aren't for all tastes--they're, you know, commercially nonviable. However, if you've the right type, these guys'll suck you in like nothing you've ever known. I consider all of this stuff to be perfectly accessible, so I don't think anyone has a legit reason to not check this out. In spite of the album cover depicting five people, Sparks officially consisted of two members--brothers Russell and Ron Mael. Russell was the lead singer who sings like a hopped-up pixie, and Ron was the keyboard player with the Hitler 'stache. “Wonder Girl” is the mid-tempo opener, and that drum is played so stiffly that it sounds like it's coming from a drum machine. ...My goodness, “Fa La Fa Lee” has a bubbly rhythm from a future-Cars album with some hopped-up electric organ right out of Blondie's debut with a strangely placed operatic refrain from a Queen album. Speaking of Queen, “High C” is an intricately structured mini rock-operetta. I hear little inklings of Talking Head's debut album in “Saccharin and War.” And as if predicting most of what would happen new wave wasn't enough, they even rap in here--in the final half of “Big Bands.” ...A few of these songs aren't particularly prophetic, such as “Simple Ballet,” which sounds like a more maniacal version of something out of Procol Harum's Grand Hotel. Or “Slowboat,” which isn't particularly unusual in any way; it's beautiful, though, and should prove to us, once and for all, that behind their eccentricities, they were excellent songwriters.

Springsteen, Bruce

Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. (1973) ★ ★ ★ ½
Man oh man, do the critics ever love this. Here is Bruce Springsteen, in the beginning, when he was touted as a Dylan-esque folkster. The difference between Springsteen and Dylan (other than Springsteen being generally less talented) was that he'd sing with such a forceful, crazy-dramatic wail that it seemed like he's trying to force the moon in the sky to wobble slightly out of orbit. ...To be honest, I think he comes across as a bit silly doing that--I mean, I know that there are many important things in the world worth singing loudly about. But this many of them? On the other hand, the songs here are usually quite good, and--despite the ridiculousness of his style--he pulls off this sort of thing better than anyone else I can think of. (Or at least it strains my brain too much to try to come up with someone who could do it better.) This is a very lyric-heavy album. I'm not sure if anyone's ever tried counting, but it's probably safe to assume there are more lyrics here than there is in any of his later albums. These songs are a whole lot of rambling, which is another one of those things that gets a bit old after awhile. ...The most recognizable song here is “Blinded By the Light,” which is thanks to a #1 hit version of it recorded by The Manfred Mann Earth Band in 1976. It's catchy and exciting number and makes for an explosive opener, so it must be one of the best songs here. Other enjoyable songs include a couple of upbeat, poppy songs “Growin' Up,” “Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street,” and the terrifically swingin' “Spirits in the Night.” ...Others, however, can be too heavy-handed for my tastes (“Mary Queen of Arkansas,” “Lost in the Flood,” “The Angel”). Overall, though, this isn't a half-bad debut. (And thank goodness he'd get better!)

The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle (1974) ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
This is equally, if not more, overblown than the debut album. But the big difference this time is that I'm actually able to get into it. For a start, the lyrics are greatly improved. In the debut, they came off rambly and cluttered, and I couldn't make a connection with a whole lot of it. Here, he's telling stories. Mostly, they seem to be fond recollections of his time spent in Asbury Park, and he's quite vivid in his descriptions. (“Sandy, the fireworks are hailin' over Little Eden tonight / Forcin' a light into all those stony faces left stranded on this warm July / Down in the town, the circuit's full of switchblade lovers, so fast, so shiny, and so sharp / And the wizards play down on Pinball Way on the boardwalk way past dark / And the boys from the casino dance with their shirts open like Latin lovers on the shore / Chasin' them silly New York virgins by the score.”) Though perhaps most of the reason that I like this album is for the music itself. In the debut, it didn't seem like the instrumentation fit in so well with Springsteen's over-emphasized vocals. Here, his vocal style isn't particularly different; it's the volume and verve of the background instrumentation, which is brought up to his level. The result is a whole bunch of thrilling songs. “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” gives us a flurry of jangly guitars, heavy horns, flourishing pianos, and a danceable rhythm section. “The E Street Shuffle” throws a little bit of funk into the mix, and it's a whole lot of fun. “Kitty's Back” is jazzy and features a fantastic extended guitar solo in the middle. The final song “New York City Serenade” is 10 minutes long, a sprawling piece that starts out with an extended lounge piano solo, turns into an intoxicating moody ballad, and even detours for a brief time into a hand-clapping gospel in the middle. Springsteen tries his hardest to give a Dylanesque vocal performance in that one, and he pulls it off as well as he could. All in all, this must rank as one of Springsteen's best albums--if not very best.

Born to Run (1975) ★ ★ ★ ½
This was where Springsteen came onto his own and also where he'd gained his mass legion of fans. This thing is loud, lush, bombastic, rocking, and it's sure--for better or worse--to make a huge impact on whoever listens to it. For sure, it's a good album, and certainly there's none other like it. I do have my reservations about it, however. For starters, if I didn't think Springsteen was overdoing it enough with his overly bombastic vocals on his previous albums, he's absolutely off the radar here. I mean, he's screaming loudly throughout this thing that it gets a bit ridiculous. The exception is the album's lone quiet song, the beautiful piano ballad “Meeting Across the River.” (However, even then he sings loudly--just not as loudly.) Not only is that song's melody nice, but I really dig that pensive saxophone that blares deeply in the background. Otherwise, these songs are bombastic to hell. Occasionally, the bombastic approach does work: the title track particularly, which causes a hefty, driving ruckus, and it's filled to the max with huge pounding pianos, pulsating bass, chimes, and a heavy sax. The melody is at least catchy enough that I'm able to get caught up into its spirit. A couple of other popular songs here are “Thunder Road” and the closer “Jungleland,” each of which start off with a twinkly piano. (Sort of like... er... an Elton John ballad?) However, it isn't long before Springsteen starts hurling off lyrics about escape at the top of his lungs. Most of these melodies are OK, although I thought they were stronger in his previous album. Perhaps the biggest problem I have with this album is the lack of diversity. It's all rather singularly toned. Those big songs couldn't have sounded bigger, but the constant stream of hearing that for so long makes it lose its luster. Other than the piano ballad, the only other relative break we get is “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out,” which has more of a snappy--and rather playful--rhythm.

Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978) ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
Most of the reason I think this is far better than the eternally popular Born to Run is because, here, he explores a wider range of moods and textures. However, I understand why I might be in a minority, as the soaring optimism in Born to Run made it one-of-a-kind, resonating with legions of repressed teenagers. In contrast, the lyrics in Darkness on the Edge of Town are quite searingly bitter at times, as if Springsteen had grown up and come to realize that adult life sucks. I'd complained a few times about Springsteen's tendency to greatly over-sing his songs, and to my delight, he's actually restraining himself somewhat here; he only sings loudly when his emotions tell him to, and--in this case--that wasn't all the time. He does sing boisterously in “Adam Raised a Cain,” but that song deserves it; it's powerful and gritty, with a fantastic, bluesy riff. A soaring song that rather resembles something out of Born to Run is “Candy's Room,” which has a rolling drum beat, jangling chimes, and a heavily pounding piano. Keeping the song apart from Born to Run is it doesn't quite build up that exuberant wall-of-sound; however, I actually prefer this, because it is far more texturally rich. One of my favorite moments here is "Racing in the Street," which comes off sometimes like a morose, piano-ballad variation of "Dancing in the Street." But wow. That's a beautiful moment. Springsteen always seems to sing like he had something important to say, but there I am actually feeling it. ...And there are plenty of other good things to say about the rest of these songs, making this overall one of Springsteen's most solid creations.

Stevens, Cat

Tea For the Tillerman (1970) ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
This is probably Cat Stevens' most well-known album, and it's also probably his best. In a nutshell, this contains some of the finest pop compositions that have ever been committed to tape. These melodies seem to flow out of Steven's expressive voice like running water, and his lyrics--very quickly--had managed to weave themselves into my heart. This is also one of those rare albums in which I seem to like every song almost equally. Some of the most celebrated numbers here include the infectious “Wild World,” the aching folk-ballad “Hard Headed Woman,” and the brilliantly anthemic “Father and Son.” In the months after buying this, I hadn't been able to stop listening to it.

The Sundays

Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic (1990) ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
Members of The Sundays had only recently graduated from college before starting a band, and it turned out their debut would become a major beacon for the college-rock/jangle-pop scene. ...It's certainly one of the best jangle-pop albums I've ever heard, and I'm sure it comes off exactly as fresh today as it was the day it was released. Lead singer Harriet Wheeler's smooth, high-pitched voice sings over these songs like a gently howling breeze. The melodies aren't usually “catchy,” per se, but her interesting ways of phrasing these lyrics are nonetheless consistently engaging. The only “catchy” song here is called “Here's Where the Story Ends,” although I'm left somewhat to believe that the hooks they managed there were more or less accidental considering none of these other songs have hooks quite as strong as that. One thing that I could lodge a complaint about is how similar these songs seem to one another--they're all orchestrated with jangling guitars and have breezy, somewhat indistinctive melodies, after all. But even if there aren't a whole lot of songs that individually pop out at me, these guys' jangly arrangements are consistently fascinating to me, like I'm hypnotized by a diamond reflecting light and have pinwheels in my eyes.

The Supremes

Meet the Supremes (1962) ★ ★ ★ ★
I might be rating this album too highly just because I know a lot of their later albums are even better than this. But I can't help it: I love The Supremes. One reason you won't often see high ratings for this album is simply because there were no hits on it. The reason I'm rating it highly is because these songs seem like hits. They're fresh, exciting, and catchy. Even some of Motown's best songwriters are represented here, such as the Smokey-Robinson-penned album opener, “Your Heart Belongs to Me,” a warm and pleasant tune featuring some sweetly ringing rhythm guitar and a clomping drum rhythm. The 17-year-old Diana Ross already sounds fully developed--her voice was like none other: Smooth, sweet, fresh, and brassy. I've heard it written before that Ross wasn't the best singer of the group, but I don't buy that. I mean, I can listen to the other Supremes until he cows come home, but Ross had one of the most unique voices in the world. It's true, however, that Ross couldn't belt it out quite like Flo Ballard, who can be heard taking lead vocals in an infectious song about a popular snack, “Buttered Popcorn,” and she also delivers a heart-wrenching performance in the ballad “Baby Don't Go.” Two other songs that pop out at me every time I listen to this is “Let Me Go the Right Way” and a poppy and infectious plea for a little romance: “I Want a Guy.” Maybe the most appealing thing about this album is that it shows The Surpremes in the rawest, tenderest state. By their next album they'll have already reached big time status with major hits.

Where Did Our Love Go (1964) ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
While the debut Supremes album failed to make much of an impact on the charts, Motown believed in these girls enough to let them have fresh cracks at some new songs written by their top songwriting team, Holland-Dozier-Holland. The result was a string of hit singles that come off as fresh today as it would have to someone in 1964. (Or at least that's true to my ears.) This was also where Diana Ross had more or less assumed lead singer responsibilities, as the other girls were relegated principally to background duties. That is, apart from an occasional outburst, just so that we don't completely forget about them. There were three #1 hits here: “Baby Love,” “Come See About Me,” and the title track. My favorite is surely “Baby Love,” which has one of the world's most unrelentingly hooky melodies and a soothingly sweet, high-pitched vocal performance from Ross. ...That song was basically a rewrite of “Where Did Our Love Go,” even down to the point that both songs feature some heavy foot stomps. But I don't care that they copied themselves: The song has a different melody, which is infectious in its own right. The first song to make an entry on the Billboard charts was “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes,” with a heavy rhythm section (with some hand claps that are weirdly louder than Ross' vocals). Good song, although the chorus rings a bit stiff to me. Another couple favorites are “Run, Run, Run,” which has a jittery rhythm section, and the sweetly breezy “A Breathtaking Guy” (composed by Smokey Robinson). All in all, there's great stuff here. I even like the songs I didn't mention! There's really no debate that this should be considered one of the essential Motown releases, if you're interested in getting into this stuff. (And you should be!)

A Bit of Liverpool (1964) ★ ★ ★
I was surprised at first to learn that The Supremes' follow-up to their excellent Where Did Our Love Go was a tribute to British Invasion bands. I suppose they did that because British Invasion acts used to sing Motown songs. This was Motown returning the favor. ...This was considered side-project for The Supremes, and as such, the production values weren't nearly as pristine they typically would be for their hit singles. For sure, though, I could think of a thousand things less entertaining than listening to The Supremes perform songs by The Beatles (and other British Invasion acts). However, regrettably, they treat this material straightforwardly, which is just a few rungs higher than tossed off, rendering this release only for their most dedicated fans. If you do find yourself listening to this, however, take notice of their “A Hard Day's Night” cover. Listen to the session musicians' attempts to recreate that dissonant, opening chord and even trying to, note-for-note, block together George Harrison's guitar solo. These were professional guys, for sure, but this shows how tough it is to transfer freshness and charisma when you're making a carbon copy of something. ...But the stars of this album are, of course, The Supremes who do harmonize nicely throughout this. However, I nevertheless get the impression they didn't spend a whole lot of time rehearsing this. In addition to originals by British Invasion bands, they also cover a few Motown classics, which had been retooled as hits for British Invasion Acts (“Do You Love Me,” “You Really Got a Hold On Me”). Among the other covers are Gerry & the Pacemakers' “How You Do It?”, Dave Clark Five's “Because” and “Bits and Pieces,” Peter and Gordon's “A World Without Love” (which was written by Lennon/McCartney), “The House of the Rising Sun” in the style of The Animals, and The Beatles' “You Can't Do That,” “Can't Buy Me Love,” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

Talking Heads

Talking Heads: 77 (1977) ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
Right off the bat, Talking Heads wanted desperately to be wildly unique. And they were; however, it would still be a year before Brian Eno would jump on board and help them develop their trademark style. As for now, they can be heard as a quirky art-pop band, creating song structures aren't particularly simple nor typical, but they're instrumented minimally with guitars, drums, bass and the occasional keyboard. They specialized in creating strange, quasi-funk textures--more or less a primitive style of the sound they would develop in their signature albums--that are consistently interesting. Really, every song here proves to be a superbly unique experience, and--maybe the most important thing--these songs are crazy-catchy. The major personality behind this group was lead singer David Byrne who had a chilling, warbled vocal style. His lyrics are also infectiously clever and tended to encompass all of the following qualities: hilariously cheerful, bizarrely straightforward, and joyously paranoid. “Don't Worry About the Government” is a good example of his weirdly straightforward lyrics. (“My building has every convenience / It's gonna make life easy for me / It's gonna be easy to get things done / I will relax along with my loved ones”) “Psycho Killer” is the song that everyone remembers best and for good reason: It's frickin' awesome. It starts out with a menacing bass line thumping away like some kind of heart beat. It's kind of scary until Byrne comes in with his friendly, paranoid-man persona, ratting off silly lyrics. (“Psycho killer, qu'est-ce que c'est? / Fa fa-fa fa, fa-fa fa-fa fa-far better / Run run-run run, run run-run away”) I also really enjoy the opening song, “Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town,” with its bright groove, infectious melody, and its use of one of the most underutilized instruments in pop-rock: the steel drum. “New Feeling” is more hopped-up, and it's danceable as all hell. “Tentative Decision” starts out with an odd, slinky-dink bass rhythm until it hits the chorus, which uses a heavy and stiff militaristic drum march. ...While this album is sometimes overshadowed by their future releases, I nonetheless think this one of the strongest entries in their catalog.

More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978) ★ ★ ★ ★
Brian Eno steps on board as producer to help take this band one step higher. This time around, the guitar textures and song structures are far more experimental, and the result is a far more unique album. Some would even call it groundbreaking. ...Not that I necessarily like it more than the debut; certainly the melodies there were catchier. And while the guitar textures are very unusual, they are also repetitive, making these chunka-chunka-chunka sounds, sometimes relentlessly. On the other hand, even then, plenty of these songs are wild and exciting. That galloping rhythm in “Thank You For Sending Me an Angel,” for instance, is crunchy and driving and sends my mind racing 1,000 miles per hour. I also dig that tight funk guitar playing that unusual chord progression in “With Our Love” whist Bryne, in his classic fashion, warbles paranoid things at the top of his lungs. Probably the best song here, though, is an enticing version of Al Green's “Take Me To the River,” which had somehow become a hit. The melodies might be a bit weaker here than usual, but I nevertheless find that I can sing along to “Stay Hungry” as well as the sweetly toned “The Good Thing.” So even though I might not enjoy this overall quite as much as I enjoyed their debut, there's something about all these songs that I actively like. That is, except for “I'm Not in Love” where I find its overall groove tiring and those frequent stops clumsy.

Fear of Music (1979) ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
One thing to notice--to those listening to these Talking Heads albums in order--is the incredible shift between this and their previous two records: The atmosphere is darker, the tone is more paranoid, lyrics are more unsavory. This is a mad album--one of the maddest albums of them all--and I can't get enough of it! This album is infectious; the only thing that could ever hope to top it would be their follow-up one year later. While this album marked a clear point of evolution for the band, everything we've loved about them until this point are still here; this continues to be overflowed with creative lyrics and excellent (and danceable!) quasi-funk rhythms with catchy melodies. My favorite track is a strange choice, “I Zimbra,” with its tight funk guitar, heavily involved world-beat percussion and highly pitched vocalizations of lyrics that mean absolutely nothing. Another great song is “Heaven”--perhaps the closest thing we get to a ballad--and it's so beautiful that it even would have worked as a good “normal” song. The funniest song here is “Cities” (which is extremely dance-happy) where Byrne's hyperactive vocal delivery is especially fantastic. (“Did I forget to mention, to mention Memphis / Home of Elvis and the ancient Greeks / Do I smell? I smell home cooking / It's only the river, it's only the river”). This is one of those albums with songs I could gush over for an entire millennium, and I might just do that one day. For now, I will just have to say that these are some of the most brain-teasingly, most brilliant compositions that have ever been committed to tape. The only relative disappointment is the final track “Drugs,” which seems to drag on too long (five minutes) with a slow, repetitive bass rhythm and nothing terribly interesting to listen to, apart from a few synthesizers that flash by every once in awhile.

Remain in Light (1980) ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
The masterpiece. Not only was it the best album Talking Heads ever released, but it was also one of the major albums of the 1980s. It's so brilliant that it makes Fear of Music seem little more than its prototype. Talking Heads didn't change their overall sound a whole lot for this--rather they went further down the path they had already been traveling, which was to combine their new wave sensibilities with funk and world influences. The result is not only artful and well-polished, but it's also wildly entertaining. Trying to choose a best song here is impossible, so why not start from the beginning? "Born Under Punches” is a sonic masterpiece, tight with funk guitars, bubbling-over synthesized bongos, drum machines that make whipping sounds, colorfully grooving keyboards, David Byrne and his hopped-up lead vocals telling us to 'Take a look at these hands...' ...Unlike the previous album which had lyrics I could more or less follow, these ones are more cryptic. Though, I'm fascinated at everything he says. Particularly my favorite song of the album, “Once in a Lifetime,” in which Byrne sounds like some kind of preachy infomercial announcer who had just woken up from a profound psychedelic experience. What a song! It has waving synthesizer making shapes, a powerful pum-dum-dum bass, and even a detached, buzzy guitar solo at the end--something I don't even think I completely noticed until now, in spite of the fact I've heard the song literally hundreds of times. There seem to always be new things to discover about this album. ...And it's not just those two songs that are worth gushing over. There's so much going on here that it would take a 10,000 page thesis to properly dissect everything. But alas; these are short reviews. This thesis might have to wait for the afterlife.

Voice of the Beehive

Let it Bee (1988) ★ ★ ★ ½
When I first gazed upon this album cover, I'd wondered if I had another B-52's on my hands. That is, I see two women with effervescent expressions on their faces--one blonde and one redhead. Also, the band has the word 'beehive' in it, which is the same style of haircut the The B-52's named themselves after. But alas; this is a fairly standard college-rock act. ...That isn't a put down, by the way. Sure, their style is ordinary for the genre--that is, jangly guitars, heavy drums, and occasionally washy keyboards--but they could also write catchy tunes. Go hear it for yourself in the band's signature song, “Don't Call Me Baby,” and see if you don't get hooked. That's a fun, upbeat song with a heavy, jangly atmosphere, and the two ladies harmonize quite well with one another. If that song wasn't played heavily on your local college radio station, then why not? One of the more unique songs is the the opener, “Beat of Love,” which features one of the tangy ladies talking stylishly over a heavy, toe-tapping groove. Other interesting songs include a country-western ballad for slackers, “Oh Love;” a power-song with a heavy riff and a great chorus, “I Walk the Earth;” a danceable song with some funny lyrics, “There's a Barbarian in the Back of My Car.” By the end of the album, there's also a beautiful cover version of one of Velvet Underground's most affecting ballads: "Jesus." All in all, this is a solid album and an excellent pick if you're into late '80s college-rock--even if I would stop short calling this a great album, as their style does seem to grow a bit stale before the album runs out.

When in Rome

When in Rome (1988) ★ ★ ★
I don't know if it's just that I have bad taste, but I actually enjoy When in Rome's first (and final) album for more than just the hit single. That's peculiar because these guys can be described accurately as a blander version of Duran Duran. The hit single was “The Promise,” a moody thing with echoing electronic drums, pulsating bass, and a cold, wobbly, Bowieish lead vocals. I find the melody to be quite good, but that's not really the main appeal to the song--it's the heavenly vibe. And all throughout this album, these guys prove themselves to be relentlessly likable. Listen to that breezy chorus in “Wide, Wide Sea,” and try to convince me that its aim is not to gently reminds you how sweet it is to be alive. They also manage to do something that isn't easy to pull off and infuse a little gospel choir into synth-pop in “I Can't Stop.” The secret is they only use it minimally--just to put a bit of umph into what was already a heavily driving song. Maybe the biggest surprise was that they'd even managed to make a decent tropicana/synth-pop hybrid in “Child's Play.” On paper, of course, that seems like the worst idea ever; but never discount these guys' immense likability (plus the power of a hooky chorus). ...There are even some decent ballads here. “Everything” is the best of them, even though I have to point out its lyrics are particularly banal. (“I would have given my heart / I would have given my everything / I would have given my soul / If you had only waited”) Had Diane Warren written that--and believe me, she's done worse--I'd have skewered her alive. But hell! I love these guys! All I want to do there is hold up my flaming cigarette lighter and sway gently my body back and forth along with everybody else.

White, John Paul

The Long Goodbye (2008) ★ ★ ★
This was the album John Paul White recorded right before forming The Civil Wars with CCM artist Joy Williams. And--boy--was this guy ever anguished without his female companionship! (He lacked Joy, you see... hardy har har...) Many of these songs here are great--particularly the soul-bearing opener "Losing Me," which has a chorus that grips me by the stomach and twists it. What makes this stuff especially compelling, however, is this guy's voice is just beautiful; he has a HUGE operatic tenor that soars in the sky and cries out at you about its suffering. ...Now, here's the problem I have with this: Even though these songs are well-written, nearly every one of them attempts to have the exact same impact that "Losing Me" had. Twelve songs of that gets extremely tiring to listen to. An exception to that is "Holiday." It is nonetheless a dirge, but it's a pretty dirge, and White spares us another one of his sweeping choruses for a change. ...I'd say if you're into The Civil Wars, then definitely check this one out. Just remember that he's very miserable here without his lady-friend. (Well, he was miserable with his lady-friend, too, but somehow it doesn't seem as bad when he found someone to share in it.)

Wilde, Kim

Kim Wilde (1981) ★ ★ ★ ½
Kim Wilde was the daughter of the early British rock 'n' roller Marty Wilde, who also co-penned all the material for this album. (The other songwriter was Kim's brother Ricky, who released a few obscure but memorable singles in the '70s when he was only 12. Check out "I Am an Astronaut," if you are curious.) Considering Kim had accomplished songwriters as family members giving her original material to sing, she certainly had an edge over all the other upstart pop-stars from the early '80s. While these songs are hardly brilliant, they are catchy and a whole lot of fun. If I were to nitpick about something it'd be that everything's a bit too cutesy. Certain songs seem directly aimed at children, sort of pandering to them. But that's not something worth dwelling on. Also, I guess thanks to it being 1981 as opposed to 1986, the rhythms here are bare, crunchy, and very danceable. Punchy electric guitar is sometimes given preference to synthesizers. And in the songs where keyboards do dominate, they frequently contribute an infectious rhythm. Kim's vocal performances are youthful and unrefined, radiating an almost punk-rock charisma. The hit song was "Kids in America," which performed very well in Europe but only made it to #25 in the USA. Other memorable songs include "Water on Glass," "Young Heroes," the Police-ish "Everything We Know," and the Madness-ish "2 6 5 8 0." A weird favorite of mine is one of the bonus tracks, "Shane," based on the George Stevens film of the same name. (There's something unexplainable about westerns adapted into new wave songs that intrigues me. There should have been more.)

Zelmani, Sophie

Sophie Zelmani (1995) ★ ★ ★ ½
Sophie Zelmani was a Swedish folk singer who never managed to garner much notoriety outside of her corner of the European Union. It's a shame she never really took off internationally, because Zelmani is one of the more genuinely melancholic folk singers I've ever heard. The typical song of the album is earthen and is orchestrated with simple acoustic guitars, pianos, and/or an occasional auxiliary instrument such as a harmonica, slide guitar, or quiet string section. Now, despite her typical song being quite downbeat, this debut album contains a number of uncharacteristically upbeat songs. They include the thrusty “There Must Be a Reason,” the toe-tapping “So Good,” and gasp! the almost rock 'n' roll “You and Him.” More characteristic of Zelmani are the album's achingly beautiful songs like “Stand By,” which surely ranks among her many finest compositions. However, the most well-known song here is probably “Always You” (even though, sigh, its main claim to fame was once being featured on an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer). For sure, it is another gorgeous song with romantic lyrics, featuring more of her pretty acoustic guitar textures, and a chorus that is potent enough to linger in my mind. Other songs I would recommend sampling before considering the album is another achingly beautiful ballad, "Tell Me You're Joking," as well as the more traditional folk composition “Until Dawn.” ...While this is an enjoyable album as a whole, there is a downside: there are quite a few songs here that fail to make distinct impressions on me. This I would attribute to Zelmani still being a little green behind the ears. This is a strong debut, but her best work would come later!


All reviews are written by Michael Lawrence.