Frankly Speaking

    150 Favorite Rock Albums: More Mini-Reviews

    Issue 166

    In Issue 150 I listed my 150 desert island favorite rock albums, and offered a first batch of mini-reviews in Issue 151. I got a range of comments and e-mails, from complements to derision about my bad taste.

    I admitted that I was fixated on albums from my youth through my twenties or so. This is hardly a groundbreaking concept, and it prompted me to do some research. Numerous articles have been written about this kind of “Neural Nostalgia,” as an excellent Slate piece called it, and its basis in memory and the way our brains work. In an article titled “Why We’re Obsessed With Music From Our Youth,” Neuroscience News noted, among other things, a phenomenon delightfully named the “reminiscence bump” (sounds like a dance floor hit to me), where, as they stated, “people tend to disproportionately recall memories from when they were 10 to 30 years old.” Should you wish to dig deeply, here a link to a study in Music and Science.

    Well, it’s comforting to know that I’ve been scientifically validated as psychologically normal – at least when it comes to musical preferences. As promised, here are more mini-reviews of my favorites, perhaps evidence that some memories might be better than others.

    The Allman Brothers Band, At Fillmore East

    No one would argue that this is one of the greatest live rock albums of all time, featuring the Allmans at their absolute peak, which was an astounding musical height. The dual guitars of Duane Allman and Dickey Betts were telepathically complementary, whether writing the book on twin-guitar harmony or playing brilliantly grooving solos, if perhaps indulging a little too heavily in the pentatonic blues scale at times. The band cooks and grooves and Gregg Allman’s vocals and Hammond B3 playing are crushingly soulful. Of course, At Fillmore East is also of historical significance, having jump-started the band’s career and Southern Rock as a genre, and Capricorn Records as a label.

    In my freshman year of college, the album was so popular that it was blasting from dorm rooms everywhere – you could pretty much walk around the quad and hear any song off the album by picking the window you wanted to stand next to. It’s also one of the best-sounding live rock recordings ever, with great dynamics, depth, tonal balance and presence, especially if you get an original pink-label Capricorn Records LP pressing.

     

    Roy Buchanan

    Though he’d been around for more than a decade before, in 1971, the PBS documentary Introducing Roy Buchanan blew the minds of guitar players everywhere. Wielding an early-1950s “Blackguard” Fender Telecaster through a black-panel Fender Vibrolux amplifier, Buchanan amazed viewers with his uncanny ability to coax all manner of blazing country/rock/jazz runs, melodies, twang, screams, squalls, pinch harmonics, multi-note bends, “chicken picking,” volume swells, wah wah, beyond-the-neck high notes, and most of all, incredible feeling. He soon inked a deal with Polydor Records and his eponymously titled first album features mostly country tunes like “Haunted House,” “Sweet Dreams,” “I Am a Lonesome Fugitive,” and blues – along with Buchanan’s signature song, the transcendent “The Messiah Will Come Again.” Like so many virtuoso but uncommercial musicians, Buchanan never got the recognition he deserved, had a troubled life and died too young on August 14, 1988 at age 48, found hanged in a Fairfax County, Virginia jail. It was ruled a suicide, which some people (including Buchanan’s one-time lawyer, who I spoke with many years ago) remain skeptical about.

     

    Kraftwerk, Autobahn, Computer World/Computerwelt, Electric Café, Radioactivity/Radioaktivitat, The Man Machine/Die Mensch-Maschine, The Mix, Tour De France, Trans Europe Express/Trans Europa Express

    I wrote about this pioneering electro-pop band extensively in “The Incalculable Influence of Kraftwerk” in Issue 111. No other band offers their combination of electronic sonic innovation, memorable melodies, propulsive beats, and an utterly distinctive, elegant sound that is simultaneously futuristic and, now seen through the lens of more than a half-century, timeless, standing apart from all other music. Computer World/Computerwelt was uncannily prescient and still sounds light years ahead of its time, 41 years later. Considering the way pop music has evolved since Kraftwerk hit the scene, the band may in fact be more influential than those lads from Liverpool. Die Mensch-Maschine, indeed.

     

    China Crisis, Autumn in the Neighbourhood

    Released in 2015, this was China Crisis’s first album in 21 years. It’s superbly-crafted pop perfection, blending the band’s original new wave sensibilities with irresistibly catchy melodies, lush vocal harmonies, and synth-pop orchestrations (and they even sneak in some pedal steel guitar on “Because My Heart”). This is evident from the first note of the first track, “Smile (What Kind of Love Is This)” and doesn’t let up. “Autumn in the Neighborhood” has a stately unfolding Art Of Noise-ish groove, while “Everyone You Know” closes the album at a gallop. “Being in Love” echoes the band’s now-classic “Arizona Sky,” and “Fool” should have been a mega-hit, had we all not gone through an inter-dimensional portal in 2020 and wound up on Earth-Two instead of remaining in the reality we used to know.

     

    Jim Dawson, Songman

    Full disclosure: Jim is a friend. He became a friend because Harry Pearson, late founder of The Absolute Sound, played me the album’s closing suite, “City Song/Simple Song,” and I was bowled over. A few years later I met Jim at one of Harry’s parties and we hit it off. If I’ve said it once I’ve said it hundreds of times: I don’t understand why some songwriters get all the recognition while people like Jim don’t, though his songs are far better than many of the marquee names. Maybe it’s because, aside from the kids’ songs “The Purple Puppy Dog” and “Paws of a Pup,” his music isn’t available on streaming services yet. You can find CDs and LPs online and at used-record stores, though, and the original vinyl of Songman sounds superb – as of 2019 (the latest update I could find online), it was still on The Absolute Sound’s Super LP List, where it’s rightfully been for decades. The title song sums up the Meaning of Life with poignant, wise insight: “Sing a simple song/we all belong/only to Time.”

     

    Black Sabbath

    I heard the radio ad before I bought the album: “music that’s as subtle as an open wound!” Well. That, accompanied by the ominous devil’s tritone opening riff of the title track, was enough to hook my 14-year-old self into running to the record store in 1970. Though rousingly panned by critics at the time, I guess history has vindicated people like me who thrilled – and still do – to Tony Iommi’s genre-defining heavy guitar, Bill Ward’s pounding yet at-times-subtle, even jazz-influenced, drumming, Geezer Butler’s lithe bass and of course, the ominous vocals of Ozzy Osbourne. These songs still have a crushing heavy rock weight, and if, well, they hardly make Grand Statements like Dylan or Cohen, my teenage as well as sexagenarian self would say, so what? Although people can’t resist poking fun at Ozzy Osbourne sometimes (even us), the fact is that he has the perfect atom-smashing hard rock voice, and when this album first came out, rockers everywhere flipped out.

     

    Black Sabbath, Paranoid

    I guess critics can change their minds. In 2017 Rolling Stone named Paranoid Number One on its 100 Greatest Metal Albums of All Time list. No wonder – if Tony Iommi showed a propensity for writing memorable hooks on the first album, he established himself as the undisputed king here, with planet-pulverizing riffs in “War Pigs,” “Paranoid,” and perhaps the heaviest of all time, “Iron Man,” which really does sound like a thousand-ton giant demolishing everything in its path. Side Two wanders a bit but ends strongly with the incomprehensible “Fairies Wear Boots” (even Osbourne doesn’t remember what it’s about), which, like most of the album, is a pure adrenaline rush. Like their first release, you can hear that the musicians are playing together, live, and getting it done fast and furious, with good sound quality into the bargain. There’s real musicianship behind the gloom-and-doom trappings.

     

    David Bowie, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

    When I was young, listening to the radio used to be really exciting. It mattered. I’ll never forget the first time a kid on the bus told me to listen to FM instead of AM, because that’s where the really heavy stuff was being played. In June 1972 I was at home listening to WNEW-FM, or maybe WPLJ-FM. (I was not drinking white port and lemon juice.) An astounding, otherworldly song came on with this freaky-sounding guy singing along with a 12-string guitar. I flipped. It was such a riveting song, different than anything I, or anyone for that matter, had ever heard before. Based on the lyrics, I figured it was called “Starman” and the DJ confirmed that, and announced it was David Bowie, from the just-released The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars album.

    I had to have it immediately. I called E.J. Korvette, a department store with a great record department, and asked if they had the album the song was on. The guy who answered the phone said they had one copy in the back; they hadn’t put it out yet. “Hold it for me!” Somehow (I didn’t have a driver’s license) I got there, probably begging my mom, bought the album, got home, put it on the turntable and then had my mind completely blown. “Five Years”… “Moonage Daydream”… “Ziggy Stardust”… “Suffragette City”…fantastic music, and Bowie’s alien persona (I didn’t know if it was a put-on or if the guy was really weird) made it that much more compelling to my 17-year-old ears. To say nothing of Mick Ronson’s bone-crushing guitar tone. We now know that Bowie was a restless musical chameleon, and this album was one of his most stunning guises…

     

    David Bowie, Aladdin Sane

    …to be followed by 1973’s equally mind-shattering Aladdin Sane. Bowie was rocking at this point, with Mick Ronson, Trevor Bolder (bass) and Mick “Woody” Woodmansey (drums) providing relentless accompaniment, and for this album joined by Mike Garson, who would prove to be an absolutely crucial element to Aladdin Sane’s sound. His wild, sprawling, rule-breaking piano solo on the title track is one of the greatest keyboard moments in rock and roll history. The songs (“Watch That Man,” “Panic In Detroit,” “Time,” “The Jean Genie”) had a harder, more jaded-decadent edge, and Mick Ronson’s pulverizing intro to “Cracked Actor” gets my vote for the heaviest intro guitar riff ever recorded (apologies, Mr. Iommi). And there’s that iconic album cover.

     

    David Bowie, Station to Station

    I kind of lost David Bowie after Aladdin Sane. The Pin Ups album was a holding maneuver, Diamond Dogs was a letdown, and I just plain didn’t like Young Americans, thinking that Bowie, like Clapton, Genesis and so many others of the time, had watered down his music in favor of gaining commercial success. (Hey, I was a kid with an attitude. Now I tip my hat to anyone who can make a living in this crazy music business, whether I like their music or not.) And crucially, Mick Ronson was no longer in the band. But Station to Station was a return to rocking form with songs like “TVC 15” and “Stay,” and Earl Slick and Carlos Alomar brought their own guitar powers to the arrangements. George Murray (bass) and Dennis Davis (drums) added wallop to the rhythm, and the E Street Band’s Roy Bittan (keyboards) helped propel the proceedings.

    The album yielded a hit, “Golden Years.” There’s sentimental value here, too; my mom loved “Wild Is the Wind,” impressed that this weird-looking rocker could sing so beautifully.

     

    David Bowie, Lodger

    The last of Bowie’s much-written-about Berlin Trilogy (along with Low and Heroes), this album received mixed reviews, and I have to agree (I don’t even remember how “Red Money” goes right now), but Lodger is on my list because it has some of my all-time favorite Bowie cuts, including “Yassassin,” “DJ,” the irresistibly campy ear candy of “Boys Keep Swinging” (well, this boy has slowed down a little over time), and “Red Sails,” one of the most intensely flat-out rocking songs Bowie ever recorded, featuring absolutely devastating, squealing, squalling guitar work by Adrian Belew. This song sounded 30 years ahead of its time in 1979. It still does today.

     

    Iggy and the Stooges, Raw Power

    I bought this, unheard, because of a rave 1973 review in Creem. I sort of knew what to expect – after seeing pictures of a bare-chested, crazed-looking Iggy Pop, and reading the author's (wish I could remember who wrote the review) ravings about the music’s raw rock and roll onslaught, I didn’t think I was going to hear the Carpenters. Well, that reviewer was right. You want loud? You want treble? You want Iggy shredding his voice like a chainsaw trying to cut through metal? You got it!) The opening track, “Search and Destroy,” sounds exactly like what the title would have you think – a frantic, adrenaline- (or maybe amphetamine)-fueled onslaught of hyper-distorted rhythm and ear-piercing lead guitar courtesy of the great James Williamson, and a mix that isn’t very good, but somehow adds to the feeling of rock chaos.

    David Bowie had mixed the album but it wasn’t his finest accomplishment, shall we say. Iggy remixed the album in 1996, and that remix...didn’t receive universal acclaim either. I’m an audiophile who cares about sound, a lot...and I’m going to say, in this case…whatever. Because the songs are devastatingly powerful, especially “Gimme Danger,” “Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell,” “Penetration,” Shake Appeal,” and the title track, which pretty much says it all. As has been noted by scribes more astute than I, the song even starts with a burp from Iggy. No, really.

    8 comments on “150 Favorite Rock Albums: More Mini-Reviews”

    1. I love articles like this not only to see where tastes combine or collide but also in the hope of discovering a new gem. You reminded me about Roy Buchanan, I only know ‘Sweet Dreams’ and was surprised at the inclusion of China Crisis as it didn’t follow the ‘from your youth’ directive although I’m sure you still feel youthful.
      I don’t understand either why some people make it and others don’t. I guess a lot can be down to that intangible luck, or a case of who you know not what you know and of course sometimes it’s money. An absolute essential for me when listening to a song, I have to like the singers voice. First listen to Jim Dawson I’m on the fence, so much stuff out there you have to be selective, but it could be a grower. Thanks for the introduction.

    2. Wow. Jim Dawson. I saw Jim Dawson as the warmup act for Harry Chapin when I was in college (74? 75?). I had one or two of his albums until my vinyl purge sometime in the late 90s. His version of Guy Clark's LA Freeway still runs in my mind from time to time. Thanks for the memory.

      1. Jim was and is something of a local hero around Long Island where I live. He should have gotten more recognition but look at how many recording artists you can say that about. I saw him before the pandemic and he sounded great.

    3. Having spent more than my share of the '70s on a variety of university campuses, I found no more reliable indicator of the arrival of the first day of spring than speakers propped into an open dorm window, blasting the Allman Brothers out onto the quad. It didn't matter which university. It was a constant.

    4. Another great list, Frank! Computer World is the only Kraftwerk album I ever owned, and that was due to the local funk/dance radio station (!) playing it non-stop. I still have my original vinyl copy of that one.

      China Crisis is one of those groups that flew under the radar, but I think it was a review in the Digital Audio/CD Review magazine (depending on which year it was--I remember the name change) that led me to it. Flaunt The Imperfection had the benefit of Walter Becker's production, and that caught my attention since it was a post-Steely Dan world and many fans wondered if they would ever regroup. It's one of those albums I keep forgetting about, but always have a good time listening when I put it on.

      I never have been into rock all that much, but there's a certain "crunch" that comes from those first two Black Sabbath records that attracted me to them in later years.

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