My music reviews for music originally released in 1974.
1. Genesis: The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (10/10)
The best rock opera ever, in my mind. Avant and still (somewhat) accessible. It (get it?) doesn’t make any sense, but my theory is that’s the point. It’s pomo. Let’s not forget Eno.
2. Brian Eno: Here Come the Warm Jets (10/10)
Eno’s debut album is everything I want in British art rock: catchy, seemingly very simple songs with super arty arrangements and production. I love this record so much it’s hard to be critical about it.
Eno is a remarkably strong songwriter for someone who hadn’t written songs before (and who hasn’t done much since). Yes, many of them are quite simple musically but they are remarkably catchy for someone with seemingly no writing experience. There’s maybe only one song here which doesn’t reach that standard, but I don’t think that matters.
Eno’s lyrics are rather bonkers, as befits someone who supposedly uses a deck of cards to make artistic decisions.
But its’ the arrangements that are the real draw. Eno has constructed elaborate arrangements around for his relatively simple songs, played by him and a strong assortment of British art and prog rock musicians, including some personal favourites (such as Fripp). They all add quirks to Eno’s own weird touches – such as his one solo where he sounds like he’s flipping a switch – as well as lots of dyanmism. (This is the guy who later “invents” ambient music, remember. Looking back, it’s hard to understand this record and that music were made by the same person.)
Finally, there’s the production: Eno distorts his own instruments of those and his guests sometimes so subtly you don’t notice and sometimes smacking you in the face with it. He plays with the mix mid song, moving instruments and voices forward and back, frustrating your ears. And he manages to do this without the record sounding horribly dated. (Though it sounds a little dated.)
One of the great art rock albums of the 1970s (or any era) and one of the best albums you’ve never heard.
2. King Crimson: Red (10/10)
Their best album, I would argue. How did they get better as they unraveled? “Starless” is mind-boggling. One of only two songs that have ever given me stomach cramps.
4. Neil Young: On the Beach (10/10)
This is my favourite Neil Young record. I cannot be unbiased about it.
This is one of his best sets of songs, full of penetrating personal insights that feel like they could be about me, rather than him. And lyrical pictures of what it’s like to struggle with being successful in a very pleasant climate and yet still not be happy, combined with stream of consciousness sections which I probably can’t explain to you in any kind of coherent way, but still resonate. (“He’s talking about Toronto!!! on “Ambulance Blues”. I’m from there!!!” Cue audience applause because he knows we exist.) Some people have pointed out that this record is very depressing, but it’s considerably more hopeful – or at least forward-looking – than Tonight’s the Night. This is much closer to the way I feel about the world (though I am far more optimistic than Young in general).
But I almost like the arrangements as much as the songs. A little less chaotic than Tonight’s the Night and featuring some of Young’s most insane, unconventional guitar solos and fills, which reject all convention when it comes to the way they’re played, and sometimes also the volume at which they are played at. I like nothing more than a guitar solo that goes in the most unexpected direction and there a couple here.
5. King Crimson: Starless and Bible Black (10/10)
Despite the sudden departure of Muir and the lack of material this record is even better than the previous one. The lack of prepared material forced them to mine their live performances and the decision ends up working wonders, as they are vibrant and even more forceful than what this band had managed in the studio previously. Even the softest, slowest peace feels inspired.
And then there’s the influence: I don’t know when exactly math rock was born, but if it was born in the 1980s, as it likely was, then this record can be counted as one of the forefathers, particularly on “Fracture” but on some other tracks as well.
This is loud, forceful, expertly played prog rock that managed to be both louder and more daunting than the vast majority of other prog being made at the time. One of the essential prog rock records.
6. Brian Eno: Taking Tiger Mountain (by Strategy) (10/10)
7. Philip Glass: Music in Changing Parts (9/10)
This is as impenetrable as Glass gets, I think. Though Einstein on the Beach is hard to get into if you don’t have the patience, this makes that “opera” downright accessible. As others have noted, your enjoyment of this will entirely depend on your willingness to not just sit through it – that in itself is hard enough if you don’t like this style of music – but to actually listen to it. What at first sounds like mindless repetition is actually extraordinarily full of (minute) variety. I want to call this one of the subtlest pieces of music I ever heard, only I can’t say anything this long is, well, subtle. It sort of hits you over the head with its subtlety, making it entirely unsubtle.
Anyway, if you have the patience (and time) for it, this is one of Glass’ most remarkable works and a landmark of the genre. I’m not sure it’s a masterpiece, but it’s close.
8. Richard Thompson and Linda Thompson: I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight (10/10)
I have heard so little of his catalogue that it’s ridiculous to say this but my guess is that this is Richard Thompson’s best set of songs. It’s hard for me to believe otherwise as nearly every one of them is excellent, featuring his great ability to mix Christian themes with stories of the poor, sometimes with just a hint of the supernatural. (Also, they’re catchy.) The performances are all excellent, regardless of who is singing lead and the looseness of theses performances feels like the perfect complement to the songs themselves.
I like this record so much I am pretty sure I will never find another Richard Thompson record I think is as good.
9. Joni Mitchell: Court and Spark (9/10)
Assured but breezy. Melodic but sophisticated. The kind of record that might not seem very impressive at first listen just because it sounds so easy.
Some of her very best songs are here along with (I believe) her biggest hit.
For all her weird tunings, Mitchell has such a way with melody – there’s not really a single song here that has a weak one. And there’s the cover, which feels like it was written for Mitchell – allowing to show off her voice and seemingly describing how Mitchell likely thought of herself (and maybe still thought of herself, given her reputation).
Mitchell’s own lyrics are as interesting and compelling and unique as ever.
Though not quite as jazzy or experimental as later records, this still has enough of a jazz vibe that it differentiates itself from previous records in her career. And that sound – which could easily sound dated and does on later records when the jazz fusion thing gets a little too heavy – never sounds dated.
Not my absolute favourite of hers, but one of them.
10. Gil Scott-Heron, Brian Jackson: Winter in America (9/10)
11. The Who: Odds and Sods (9/10)
12. Rory Gallagher: Irish Tour (9/10)
13. Henry Cow: Unrest (9/10)
14. Robert Wyatt: Rock Bottom (8/10)
15. Gram Parsons: Grievous Angel (8/10)
I think one reason why this record blows everyone away is because we all know how close to death Parsons was when recorded it. If you take that out of it, I think it’s probably fair to say it’s not his best work.
Not Parsons’ best is pretty damn good, still. There are a few too many covers but some of them are pretty stellar, especially “Love Hurts.” I have always struggled with Parsons as a songwriter – he wrote such strong melodies and often wrote really compelling lyrics, but then he regularly confuses his story. Take “$1000 Wedding, “for example, which is one of my favourite songs of his. I’m not 100% sure it’s a great song because he got confused. Yes, “supposed to be a funeral” sounds good but it doesn’t make sense to me, given the rest of the very vivid picture. (There are many Parsons songs like this.)
But the arrangements and performances basically always make up for any issues I have with the lyrics. Parsons has the reputation he has in part because few country singers of his day (or really, any singers) allowed themselves to sound so damn vulnerable. And, as always, the playing behind his and Harris’ voices is suitably unpolished.
A fitting final record.
16. Keith Jarret: Death and the Flower (8/10)
17. Keith Jarrett: Treasure Island (8/10)
18. Big Star: Radio City (8/10)
This is another fine power pop record from Big Star, with a just a titch more emphasis on the power than the pop, this time. (Presumably due to the departure of one of their members.)
I don’t listen to these records enough to know which of the first two I prefer, which is a problem when I sit down to try to definitely review this one. Because, the thing is, power pop is definitely not my thing. I appreciate and like Big Star more than other bands like this due to their warts and their idiosyncrasies but, at the end of the day, I prefer different music. I know #1 Record was first, so there’s part of me that wants to rate it higher. But I think, if memory serves, that I like this one more. (I think, but, I’m not sure.) I know I liked the third one the most, but between these two…well, I guess I should have listened to #1 Record again.
Anyway, this is very well done. If power pop is really your thing, you probably think of it as one of the best records of the 1970s. As a fan of music that is basically the polar opposite of power pop, I can say that I respect it: I respect the songs, I respect the idiosyncrasy and the warts and I do enjoy listening to it enough, after all of these years. But I will never regard it as a masterpiece.
19. Frank Zappa: Apostrophe (8/10)
To me, Apostrophe is significantly better than Over-Nite Sensation, as the best things about the latter record are far more dominant this time out, and the worst things are mostly suppressed.
The suite which opens the album is perhaps the perfect distillation of everything that made the Mothers so great into accessible arena-ready rock music. There’s so much going on here but, because it’s Zappa, it really doesn’t sound very revolutionary compared to what he did before, and because of the hooks and the production values, it actually sounds…accessible. It’s marvelous.
I’m not sure the rest of the record is up to par. The remaining individual songs range in quality and Zappa can’t resist throwing in a jam, or maybe he just didn’t have enough new material. (As an aside, reading about the title track – how both Bruce and Zappa had no respect for each other – is hilarious and fascinating.)
But the opening suite is worth the price of admission. And this remains one of the most accessible records in his catalogue, a place for people to get a taste of the sound without being put off by the ambition or the production or what have you. If I had to recommend an LP rather than a best of as an introduction, it would likely be this one.
20. Ry Cooder: Paradise and Lunch (8/10)
An excellent display of Cooder’s musical ability and his interest in older genres of music, where he is able to make the music sound contemporary but also honour it at the same time.
21. Little Feat: Feats Don’t Fail Me Now (8/10)
22. Keith Jarrett: Backhand (8/10)
23. Tangerine Dream: Phaedra (8/10)
24. Introducing The Eleventh House With Larry Coryell (8/10)
A little too imitative of Mahavishnu Orchestra. Read the review.
25. New York Dolls: Too Much Too Soon (8/10)
Basically an even campier retread of the first record. If you like Dolls you’ll like it. But if you found the first record a little too campy, or not quite punk enough, it’s hard to imagine this record will convert you.
Honestly the more and more I listen to this record the less I think it’s anywhere near as seminal as their debut – some of the songs sound too much like songs on the debut and the whole things is definitely goofier and more over-the-top if that was even possible. (This record is probably why the Pistols hated the Dolls.)
If you’ve never listened to them before and this is your first experience after reading way too much about how “important” you are, think about this when listening to “Stranded in the Jungle”: there are real music critics who have insisted that the New York Dolls are one of the handful of most important musicians of the 20th century. (I’m looking at you Robert Christgau.)
26. Roy Harper: Flashes from the Archives of Oblivion (8/10)
It’s mostly a great live album, except when he gets carried away with the pedals.
27. The Meters: Rejuvenation (8/10)
28. LaBelle: Nightbirds (7/10)
29. Randy Newman: Good Old Boys (7/10)
30. David Bowie: Diamond Dogs (7/10)
Once upon a time I wrote the following:
Caught somewhere between the Spiders and his new plastic soul thing, and somewhere between an aborted concept album and a bunch of decent songs half of which have nothing to do with it. It’s a mixed bag, that’s for sure. There are some classics here, but there are more misses. The misses are at least interesting. For an ego trip – and an aborted concept album at that – it’s relatively unpretentious. Relatively I say.
That’s the thing about this record. It’s clearly a misstep compared to the records that came before and the records that will come after, but it still has some pretty great songs on it. I’m not sure they fit together and I’m not sure Bowie could have convincingly pulled off a 1984 album even if he had gotten permission, but that doesn’t take away from how catchy his songs are.
31. Leonard Cohen: New Skin for the Old Ceremony (7/10)
32. Queen II (7/10)
They have an utterly distinct sound but I’m not sure the songs are quite there. Read the review of Queen II.
33. Peter Hammill: The Silent Corner and the Empty Stage (7/10)
This is a weird combination of what sounds like super eccentric singer-songwriter solo stuff and music that is basically Van Der Graaf Generator. It’s an odd mix that I would find less appealing if I didn’t like Hammill or VDGG so much.
It’s great that Hammill wrote so much so that even when the band was on hiatus he just had so much material. But one of the things I struggle with while listening to solo albums from the frontmen or songwriters of bands is when their solo music sounds too much like their band. That’s a weird problem to have, and it’s pretty nit-picky. Fortunately, I think I’m starting to get over it.
I like everything here, I think. I just think that the combination of music that sounds like it’s Hammill solo and the music that sounds like it’s sort of sub-VDGG makes for a weird combination.
2019: The only thing I would add in 2019 is that I don’t like Hammill as a producer. For example, sometimes he double-tracks his voice. Peter Hammill, one of the most powerful singers of his generation, double-tracks his voice. I have no idea why. I think he would be better known and have more fans if he had let someone else produce his records.
34. Hawkwind: Hall of the Mountain Grill (7/10)
The first time I checked out Hawkwind I was severely disappointed. I guess I had read a lot about how they were that other definitive Space Rock band, and since I liked the definitive Space Rock band, Pink Floyd, I was going to really like Hawkwand. And then I didn’t.
I didn’t like Hawkwind because they weren’t Pink Floyd. The Floyd’s compositions are (mostly) far more elaborate and not just jams. The Floyd actually write the occasional conventional song. The Floyd’s lyrics are better. (In fairness to Hawkwind, the Floyd’s lyrics are better than virtually all prog rock bands.) Pink Floyd features two trained musicians famous for their ability, one of whom is legendary for his tone. And Pink Floyd have their unique avant garde production style which makes them basically unique among prog rock bands. So Hawkwind are not Pink Floyd. (Shocker.) And for younger me, they were demonstrably worse in every way.
Over time I’ve come to realize that Hawkwind are just a very, very different band, making different music, that just so happens to occasionally approach a similar sound that has been labeled “Space Rock” for obvious reasons. But I have never sat down to listen to Hawkwind’s discography all the way through again, like I did 15 years ago, so this is my first encounter with one of their albums since I dismissed them as “not Pink Floyd”.
In that time I have also listened a lot more music, some of which has very clearly been influenced by Hawkwind. One of the cliches about Hawkwind is that they are the “People’s Prog Rock” band; less snobby and obnoxious than their contemporaries and not trying to make art necessarily, just trying to have a good time. As I approach this album for a second time at such a far remove that it feels totally new, that idea really appeals to me. The music feels almost more like the logical conclusion of Acid Rock than it does any kind of attempt to create a “new musical form”.
I still don’t know that I love this like I love some ’70s prog rock. There are moments that are really, really great, but then there are other moments that don’t work as well, and then there’s just filler. (Also, these guys sure like their vamps.)
The other thing is the production has sure dated. This is one of those records you can date by its sound rather easily.
Still, I’m coming around, I think.
35. Earth, Wind and Fire: Open Our Eyes (7/10)
I like the diversity. Read the review of Open Our Eyes.
36. Cockney Rebel: The Psychomodo (7/10)
37. Cluster: Zuckerzeit (7/10)
38. Mot the Hoople: ‘The Hoople’ (7/10)
Finally I actually like this band. Read the review of ‘The Hoople.’
39. Lynyrd Skynyrd: Second Helping (7/10)
I like the sound but the material isn’t strong enough. Read the review of Second Helping.
40. Bob Dylan and the Band: Before the Flood (7/10)
41. Aerosmith: Get Your Wings (6/10)
The songs are not good enough yet. Read the review of Get Your Wings.
42. Strawbs: Hero and Heroine (6/10):
Sometime in the past – perhaps over a decade a go – I wrote the following:
It took me a little while to get into this album, the first one I’d heard by the Strawbs. There are elements I don’t like: sometimes they drift far too much into prog-cheese territory (which is always dangerous it seems). But generally, the cheesy bits pass by and we’re left with a very strong prog album that manages to sound good nowadays. Personally, I don’t really care about the concept because it strikes me as kind of silly. I’m willing to forget that to listen to solid music. It’s not masterpiece, but it’s good. Evidently, it hasn’t inspired eloquence on my part.
I can’t say that I still feel that positive in 2019, as I listen to it for the podcast. They’re impressive musicians and the songs are catchy enough, but they do drift into cheese on occasion and, moreover, the music just isn’t that progressive compared to my favourites of the genre. Much like some other bands in the genre who began in folk, they use an overarching concept for the lack of anything truly musically risky.
43. Blue Öyster Cult: Secret Treaties (6/10)
Excellent playing marred, as usual, by tongue-in-cheeks lyrics and super slick production. Read the review of Secret Treaties.
44. Steely Dan: Pretzel Logic (6/10)
The demarcation point: from this point on, I don’t like this band. Read the review of Pretzel Logic.
45. Kansas (6/10)
Boogie prog, but pop boogie prog. Read the review of Kansas’ debut album.
46. Sparks: Kimono My House (6/10)
47. Minnie Riperton: Perfect Angel (6/10)
48. Supertramp: Crime of the Century (6/10)
49. Stevie Wonder: Fulfillingness’ First Finale (5/10)
I don’t like good Stevie Wonder. This is not good Stevie Wonder. Read the review of this ridiculously named record.
50. KISS (5/10)
Generic, dumb, blues rock that does not distinguish itself, performed by a band that puts much more time into their makeup and stage show. Read the review of KISS’s debut album.
51. AWB (5/10)
52. Electric Light Orchestra: Eldorado (4/10)
Compilations, archival releases and new performances of old music:
New Jersey Percussion Ensemble: Percussion Music: Works by Varese, Colgrass, Saperstein, Cowell, Wuorinen (8/10)
This is a fine selection of modern “art music” attempts to break out of western traditions by making percussive music. Not really knowing a ton about any of the composers save Varese that’s tough for me to say, but it seems a fair sample. Colgrass’s piece in particular is a highlight.
It’s nice to see that there was an orchestra dedicated to this kind of music back in the ’70s, a time when one would thing there would be a least some empathy between rock musicians trying to expand their horizons and “art” composers and ensembles trying to expand theirs. Not having the ears I’d like to have, I can’t tell you exactly why this is so neat, just that it is.