Introduction and the First 8 Selections:
What can be said about the once mighty musical form known as the album? For a start, we can distinguish it from the embedded 21st century mix tapes known as playlists. Unlike the customizable mix tape or playlist, an album is a group of songs that come together as part of an artist’s vision or creative experience at a specific time. Some albums are driven by a central concept or grand design while others convey the freedom to change the subject and the tone over and over again. These album selections are not presented in a particular order or ranking system. The intent is not to provide a list of universally superlative or “best” albums but rather to share insights and recordings that have added a lot of happiness and resonance to my life. Without further ado, here is the first installment of 24 musical suites that have passed my own personal listening test in a big way.
1. The Seeds of Love, Tears for Fears (1989)
This album became a part of my life instantly upon publication at the beginning of fall 1989 and it was in part thanks to the exposure of the single “Sowing the Seeds of Love” and the frequent showings of its accompanying video on MTV (back in the days when MTV showed videos). This album has never ceased to amaze me with its beautiful arrangements, extensive melodic soundscapes, and introspective sincerity turned pointedly toward a sometimes turbulent world. For a just turned seventeen-year old me, it was a suite of songs that connected with my feminist convictions in songs like “Woman in Chains” and my idealism in the title track. In “The Bad Man’s Song,” the soulful voice of Oleta Adams contributes to a sprawling, lyrically idiosyncratic masterpiece that has always appealed to my sense of the power of atonement. Even 25 years after its release, the beautiful refrain in the song “Standing on the Corner of the Third World” is a stunning musical moment. The gospel organs, choruses, and symphonic flourishes all work beautifully with the album’s youthful outlook to make this recording an undisputed classic for me, and I hope that more people revisit this one or experience it for the first time.
2. The Stranger, Billy Joel (1977)
Billy Joel needs no introduction from me, but what is interesting about this album is that a couple of years ago I learned that The Stranger is the album that launched his mega-stardom. I was five years old when this album came out, so I grew up with its songs such as “Just the Way You Are” playing on the radio. However, I didn’t buy the album until much later—some thirty years later. When I listened to all of the tracks, I discovered several great songs I never remembered hearing before. Of these the one that stands out is “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.” It showed such a powerful grasp of styles, transitions, and melody that it became an immediate favorite. The pastiche of images and experiences in the song and the story of the ill-fated run of the prom king and queen are all unforgettable for me. I don’t have a similar memory in my high school or young adult years, but the song makes me see it as clearly as if I had lived it myself. The title song was another hidden gem for me—the story of the masks worn in human relationships still has real substance and insight years later. My wife’s favorite is “Only the Good Die Young” with its earnest and just slightly overbearing take on an adolescent speaker’s wooing of a Catholic girl. The flaws, the natural talent, and the unexpected honesty of The Stranger make it worth getting to know this character and his (or her) many sides.
3. Electric Ladyland, The Jimi Hendrix Experience (1968)
I do not remotely qualify as a hard rock fan, but this album is one that crystallizes all of the possibility of rock ‘n roll and also transcends the genre. As one of several double-albums on my list, it may be cheating a bit to select this and then praise its extended palette of musical journeys, portraits, and jams, but I’m going to go ahead and do that anyway. Listening to Electric Ladyland is always a special event for me. It is like a panoramic film with elements of danger in songs like “House Burning Down,” superhuman power in “Voodoo Chile,” and futurism mixed with fantasy in “1983…(A Merman I Should Turn To Be).” Hendrix engages in unbridled sonic experimentation on this album with keyboards, guitars, and amplifiers and somehow also offers up the most beautiful of melodies—sometimes simultaneously as in the case of “The Burning of the Midnight Lamp.” Among the many talents of Hendrix was his ability to switch effortlessly and expertly from poet to narrator to vocal actor. Hendrix builds the opening of “All Along the Watchtower” with a gigantic, beautiful statement on guitar and then vividly paints the apocalyptic adventure in Bob Dylan’s lyrics. In “House Burning Down,” he delivers an unexpected moral question with perfect sincerity, “Oh, why oh why do you burn your brother’s house down?” Electric Ladyland is a place that rewards repeated visits, and it is difficult to imagine another artist who could be as joyfully riotous and yet so exacting in his craft.
4. Aja, Steely Dan (1977)
A woman returns from jail to lead her unruly pack again. Odysseus goes on his journey with a new soundtrack. An irresistible young woman becomes the focus of the camera. A talented but drunken artist on the verge of breakdown crafts a dreamt-of identity. A seeker runs to the arms of a foreign woman who will be his refuge from a world full of misunderstandings and superficial judgements. To begin at the end, the combat-ready “Josie” comes back to her crew riding the wave of an awesome guitar riff. In “Home at Last,” we get a compact but potent revisitation of the Odyssey of Homer. I always picture the storm-tossed ship when Donald Fagen dives into his synthesizer solo. Back in the 1990’s when I bought my copy of this CD, I didn’t know that there was a surprise song on the album (for me) that would have one of the most memorable hooks imaginable. “Deacon Blues” is the song, and it is possibly both the linchpin of the album and the best exhibition of Steely Dan’s ethos. The smoking and hard-drinking “expanding man” who is voiced so expertly by Fagen, confounds understanding and sympathy. He is overtly driving toward death and dissipation, but it is hard to resist his charisma. The song seems to stitch together Charlie Parker, Lenny Bruce, and James Dean, and it is a song that I never visualize with any images appearing in daylight. The title track is a rock-jazz composition that shows off the more evasive lyrical side of Becker and Fagen. What exactly is the “dime-dancing” of the narrator? Are the people who are “Up on the hill” snobs? At least there is more hope for this character than ‘Deacon Blues’ as it were. Wayne Shorter joins the list of all-time jazz greats to guest on a standout pop composition with his memorable saxophone solos. Concept album? Not certain, but it sure makes a statement.
5. What’s Going On, Marvin Gaye (1971)
This collection of songs is the concept album par excellence. The title track of the album starts the bidding off very high both in terms of seriousness of the content and beauty of the arrangement. The appeal to the listener is unmatched in its mixture of smoothness and sympathy. And perhaps, to digress for a second, Marvin Gaye himself turned out to have the quality that this album possesses, which is that the man and the record are both multifaceted and also imbued with a great sincerity. Mr. Gaye was not strictly an idealist or a master of soulful r & b. In this record, he portrayed the disenfranchised, the journalistic voice, the addict, the seeker, the brother, and the fighter (after the battle). The title track asks difficult if general questions while its sister track “What’s Happening, Brother?” pursues a more personal line of questioning. In order to craft this album and complete its production, Marvin Gaye had to overcome the Motown label’s objections to making serious, socially conscious music that moved away from their patterned hit factory model. What he created, anchored by impassioned performances such as “Save the Children,” stands as one of the finest suites of music that I have ever heard—regardless of genre. The haunting, almost gothic feeling of the background vocals has not dimmed in its effectiveness more than forty years after its initial release. Returning to the conversation about the cohesiveness of albums and the features of the concept album, this recording, like the Beatles Abbey Road, presents a dovetailing connectivity between the songs that powerfully conveys the sense of an underlying narrative or a musical drama. I think about this album the way that some people think of the film Casablanca or the musical Porgy and Bess. I’m really grateful to have heard Marvin Gaye’s music and message in this record.
6. Rockin’ the Suburbs, Ben Folds (2001)
Having been a fan of the melodic pianos of Billy Joel and Elton John and their music for as long as I can remember, it is impossible for me not to have become a fan of Ben Folds almost instantly upon introduction to his music. I owe that introduction to columnist Tom Moon’s CD review of the great Ben Folds Five album Whatever and Ever Amen in the Philadelphia Inquirer back in 1997. Seventeen years later, whether in that earlier group of his or as a solo artist, arranger, or producer, Ben Folds has been writing consistently melodic, well-constructed songs that are rich in storytelling and rife with insightful stanzas about life and the experience of the youthful but aging white guy who is sort of in touch with his sensitive side. Rockin’ the Suburbs is a brilliant sequence of portraits that are presented in the voices of these white male everymen whom Folds selects in order to reveal their observations, confessions, and criticisms of self and world. The piano riff and hand claps that open the album build into a melody and chorus that paint the picture of an uncertain girl fixating on her absent boyfriend, but the last words of the song finally pull us out of the girl’s head and reveal the narrator, brilliantly shifting the focus of the portrait to the loner who is outside of her interest. An unimpressive father who comes in from the rain to greet his son with a combination of guilt, joy, and embarrassment is the subject of the song “Still Fighting It,” one of the most heartfelt numbers on the record. This is the song that perfectly captures Folds’s ability to be sincere and hopeful in a world of people who have gone not terribly but still visibly wrong. The stellar piano work and superbly crafted melodic structures come together in the brooding, probing “The Ascent of Stan,” in which irony and criticism are employed perfectly at the expense of a once-promising “text-book hippie man” who has become the entrenched and aging sell out. Rockin’ the Suburbs hits its mark because it is talent and craftsmanship applied with honesty. It is very serious and also hilariously irreverent. To appropriate one of Ben Folds’s own sentiments about one of his wives, there is no one word for what he does, and the man has ears.
7. Dino & Sembello, Ralph Palladino and John Sembello (1974)
In a flourish of favoritism, I introduce the most obscure album of this list but in some ways one of the most accomplished. It is the first and last complete LP of a pair of songwriters who combined folk, rock, and r&b as part of their drive for self-expression and the search for the lost chord. My father John Sembello and his partner Ralph Dino worked together on a great many musical projects together, and this album captures their interest in the power of compact portraits in song form. This album came to fruition from their partnership with the old songwriting duo of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (writers of Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” and co-writers of Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me”). Upon publication in the mid-seventies, this album did very little in terms of immediate commercial impact. However, within a few years, the album had begun to work its magic as a combination of upcoming and established artists began to mine the record’s many great songs. The album was never officially remastered or sold in the digital music era, but it is possibly the best recording to listen to the stellar singing and rich voice of Ralph Dino. On a ballad named “Helpless,” Ralph sings a shimmering love song that is akin to the classic songs of Motown in its beauty and ethereal string arrangement. On the more driving songs such as “Feels So Good” and the oft-recorded “Dancin’ Jones,” John and Ralph are a vocal team of great harmony, energy, and coordination. In the mid-1990s, two of the album’s gems were discovered by the producers of the Broadway play “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” which was a musical revue of the many hits of Leiber and Stoller. Despite its obscurity on this out-of-print album, the song “The Neighborhood” was selected along with “Pearl’s a Singer” (one of Leiber & Stoller’s biggest hits in the UK) for inclusion in the Broadway revue. While the Broadway version has a certain pomp and charm, the original version of “The Neigborhood” recorded on this album with its stately arrangement and Ralph’s vocal is my favorite. It is a ballad of sentiment and sincerity that conjures up images and memories of life and times in the America of the 1950s and early ‘60s.
8. Extensions, The Manhattan Transfer (1979)
This recording is decidedly not a concept album, and this fact may be its great strength. It is a recording that brings together multiple eras of jazz, pop music, Broadway and a very prominent streak of Los Angeles, California of the turn of the 80’s. The selection of material includes the vocal version of what is possibly the greatest jazz hit of the 70’s in ”Birdland” and an energetic (if disco-ized) interpretation of the Twilight Zone theme. Of the many made by the group, this recording in particular displays the vocal power and perfect bell-tone of Janis Siegel, who sings the lead on several of the songs. The Transfer (which also features the hip Alan Paul, the airy Cheryl Bentyne and maestro Tim Hauser) takes a sort of Spielbergian approach to putting this record together. They take songs from a variety of sources and then apply their magical ability for arrangement and precision performance. For the jazz fan, the album has several songs that are of great interest, particularly “Body and Soul” as a vehicle for the group’s sophisticated harmonization. The album is replete with superb vocal performances, but the group’s interpretation of the gruff voiced Tom Waits’s song “A Foreign Affair” is a masterpiece of a sentimental and resonating album closer. Thirty-five years after the original release of this album, it is a very unusual aggregate from a sonic standpoint. The jazz and harmonies of the album are packaged in what I would call the sound of Los Angeles, Burbank, and Hollywood. The synthesizers, the polish and the glitz of the music convey much more of a sense of Manhattan’s West Coast counterpart in Southern California than they do the Big Apple. Even in Joe Zawinul’s “Birdland,” a song at least nominally devoted to Charlie Parker’s New York scene, the opening lyric (by jazz great John Hendricks) rockets the listener “5000 light years from Birdland.” So the operative word for this recording may not be Manhattan but rather transfer as the group dances across styles and extends itself across jazz and pop to great effect.