Album #552 – Steve McQueen/Two Wheels Good

Album #552

This album was a huge disappointment. I had read many reviews that hailed Paddy McAloon as one of the greatest songwriters of his generation. Indeed, When Love Breaks Down is one of the saddest songs I have ever heard. It shows the real aspect of any relationship: that it’s not easy and always filled with tests and tension. In fact, I can’t think of anyone who has captured this feeling better. But, the rest of the album was lost on me. It probably has to do with the fact that Steve McQueen/Two Wheels Good is over produced. The band recruited Thomas Dolby (yes, THAT Thomas Dolby) to act as producer. I have no issue with Dolby’s solo output and some of it is AMAZING (I Scare Myself, Windpower). But, he was the wrong guy for the job. Too many synthesizers and slick pop production. It then causes most of the songs to go unnoticed. McAloon’s lyrics become buried under Dolby’s prowess. It’s really too bad. Maybe I will listen to it again at some point but, despite this, When Love Breaks Down still holds up as one of THE greatest love songs of all time. Overall, I give When Love Breaks Down, 2 out of 5.

Next: Fear and Whiskey by Mekons

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Album #551 – Brothers In Arms

Album #551

Brothers In Arms is one of the biggest selling albums of all time. I can remember seeing the iconic cover in my parent’s cassette tape collection as a little kid and wondering what sounds were on this album. I figured it was some random delta blues record. The best part is that there is traces of that (The Man’s Too Strong), country (Why Worry), rock (Money for Nothing), jazz (Your Latest Trick)  and rockabilly (Walk of Life). Kind of like any great music from the 80’s. The band was a huge part of not only my dad’s life but that of many others. Dad always talks about how big Dire Straits were when he was in their heyday. Mark Knopfler’s every man approach to songwriting was not only extremely accessible but awesome and reliable. He has always been a storyteller and that sets him apart from other songwriters of this decade. In fact, it has gotten him into trouble. Money for Nothing was written directly from a conversation he heard in an NYC electronics store. Two workers were talking about their disgust with MTV and the whole notion of a rock star in the mid 80’s. Knopfler was instantly able to translate that into a song and many thought his words were actually taken to be his literal opinion. Nothing could be further from the truth. The full album version was briefly banned from airplay in Canada but, thankfully the context of the song rescinded it. In many ways, Dire Straits were the antithesis of 80’s rock stars: they hated making flashy music videos and never really appeared in them, the music was more important than the image and they were never afraid to combine their influences from the past into their music. And yet, because the music was of the utmost importance, this album had to be good. Really good. In fact, drummer Terry Williams was replaced by session vet Omar Hakim for the sessions of Brothers In Arms because Williams wasn’t up to snuff. What we are left with is one of the best sounding albums of the decade without a single throwaway song. That is a huge accomplishment in itself for any album released in 1985.

Other highlights include: So Far Away, Ride Across The River and Brothers In Arms.

Overall, I give Brothers In Arms, 9 out of 5.

Next: Steve McQueen/Two Wheels Good by Prefab Sprout

 

 

Album #550 – Songs from the Big Chair

Album #550

Songs from the Big Chair is the best pop album I have heard so far from the 80’s.I first listened to the album in full while driving home from a vacation to the Maritimes a few years ago. I flew most of the way but, the trip always requires a four hour drive to Thunder Bay. I don’t mind this at all. I could choose to fly to TBay but, I love the drive because I get to listen to albums in full through my car’s CD player. Yes, I still have CDs. That and the fact that its summer and perfect weather for a road trip.  I decided to bring this album along and as I was heading back home, Songs from the Big Chair was the first album I chose to listen to. It couldn’t have reflected my mood more. Sad, gloomy but also uplifting. Those were the emotions that I was feeling that day. Listening to it, made things more bearable.  All the tracks on this release are accessible, like all good pop music, and yet there is a deeper meaning to these songs. Tears for Fears burst onto the scene in 1982-83 with their debut album, The Hurting. That album was a huge success in the UK but, failed to crossover to North America and beyond. Songs from the Big Chair did just that and more. In fact, this album was so successful that the group had to take a long break from music. The follow-up to Songs from the Big Chair, Sowing the Seeds of Love, was released 4 years later. But, its no surprise considering what this group was all about. Songs from the Big Chair talks more about human nature in its 41 minutes than its contemporaries. And yet, the album is just as accessible as Madonna and Michael Jackson’s music.  If anything, Songs from the Big Chair was ahead of its time. At the core are songs about life and its ups and downs. It doesn’t hide anything. These songs are brutally honest and even the 80’s production does not change that. In the early 90’s, the explosion of alternative rock and “grunge” would also have songwriting that was raw, honest and unabashedly real. It’s too bad that more pop music couldn’t be like this. Highlights: every track is AWESOME!!! Overall, I give Songs from the Big Chair, 8 out of 5.

Next: Brothers In Arms by Dire Straits

Album #549 – Hunting High and Low

Album #549

a-ha is one example of an 80’s band who were brought to new heights and worldwide acclaim because of music video. The Take on Me video is the greatest of the decade; only equaled by the vid for Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer. Combining animation and live action was very innovative for 1985. Because of that landmark, a-ha became Worldwide stars. Take on Me is a song that people either love or hate. Many see it as the finest example of 80’s cheese. I used to be one of those people until I listened to this album. Hunting High and Low is more complex than people realize. It took a-ha 2 years to crack the mainstream. Take on Me was remixed a second time before the song became a monster hit. But, unlike most albums on this list that feature a one-hit wonder, Hunting High and Low offered more. The fact that these guys are from Norway also adds to the cheesy quality. But, you can hear the Progressive Rock influence on the album in tracks like Train of Thought and Hunting High and Low. These guys are clearly musicians first. Maybe that explains why they didn’t take full advantage of their fame. Sure, they won loads of MTV VMAs and other awards but, after listening to the full album, I feel the music is what mattered most. Morten Harket’s voice is distinctive. I heard shades of Midge Ure and the Blue Nile’s Paul Buchanan while listening. To hear those singers as influences is a huge compliment to a band of this caliber. Guitarist Paul Waaktaar-Savoy also made this album phenomenal by writing most of Hunting High and Low’s tracks. Waaktaar was the band’s driving force. Waaktaar and co-writer keyboardist Magne Furuholmen are also visual artists. Not too many bands have real artists in them. It probably made their sound even more unique. The album was not recorded in their native Norway, but in Southwest London at Pete Townshend’s Eel Pie Studios. It was co-produced by Tony Mansfield, the driving force behind 80’s synthpop group New Musik. Mansfield has also produced the B-52’s, Aztec Camera, Naked Eyes and Captain Sensible. The band were in great hands. I never got the feeling that Hunting High and Low was overproduced. This became so common place in the 80’s. Artists were not given the freedom in the studio that had been present in the past. If you get past the synthesizers, the album is a good one. You can tell that the band had a say in how things were done. My, how things have changed. Other highlights include: Living a Boy’s Adventure Tale, The Sun Always Shines On T.V. and I Dream Myself Alive. Overall, I give Hunting High and Low, 4 out of 5.

Next: Songs from the Big Chair by Tears for Fears

Album #548 – Water from an Ancient Well

Album #548

Abdullah Ibrahim is a South African jazz pianist who, along with trumpeter Hugh Masekela, shaped South African Jazz during Apartheid. Ibrahim’s influences are all over the place. Gospel, ragas, modern jazz, swing, Monk, Ellington, and be-bop all mix into his music. Cape jazz is the moniker that is used most to describe it. The diversity of his music is also similar to New Orleans Jazz, in that it has so many influences melding together. That is why I love New Orleans culture and music so much. The best of everything available coming together to create something new. It is brilliant and what good music should be. Water from an Ancient Well is a prime example of this also because of the fact that many of the album’s musicians are Americans. It makes for a very interesting sound. The album is produced by Ibrahim’s wife, jazz singer Sathima Bea Benjamin. The track, Song for Sathima, was no doubt written for her. The two would work together on many projects over the course of their careers. They even recorded together the first ever South African jazz LP, My Songs for You, in 1965. Water from an Ancient Well is one of their finest collaborations and one of the best jazz albums I have ever heard to date. It captures a range of emotion: from the happiness of Mendala and Mennenberg (Revisited) to the elegance of The Mountain and The Wedding. It is also an album where 80’s slick and synths haven’t crept in. Instead, Water from an Ancient Well sounds more like an album that would have been released between 1955 and 1965, in what I like to call the Golden Age of Jazz. It would have fit right in with A Love Supreme and Kind of Blue. The qualities that make those albums classics are also found on Water from an Ancient Well. Other highlights include: Tuang Guru, Water from an Ancient Well and Sameeda. Overall, I give Water from an Ancient Well, 4.5 out of 5.

Next: Hunting High and Low by a-ha

Album #547 – This Nation’s Saving Grace

Album #547

The Fall are one of those bands that you either love and know their work or you ask “who’s that?” as soon as you hear their name. Maybe its a good thing. This Nation’s Saving Grace is an album that still holds up today. In fact, its sound is present in a lot of current indie rock. Mark E. Smith, the lead singer and reluctant front man, blends in with the music. His half-singing/half-speaking style might be jarring to some but, thank God he has some amazing musicians backing him up. Mark E. Smith has worked with so many of them over the years that, he is the only original member of The Fall still in the band. Nothing wrong with that. This Nation’s Saving Grace marks the beginning of the Fall’s classic period. Every album they released between 1985 and 1988 is in my opinion, their best and finest work. Who cares if Mark E. Smith can’t sing? Who cares if the songs are rambling diatribes? It all works. I love the Fall because its good music. Not because they were among BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel’s favorite bands and Pitchfork gave This Nation’s Saving Grace a rare 10 out of 10. The Fall is all about what rock and roll is supposed to be. Pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable and turning the mainstream on its head. Thank God this notion didn’t disappear in 1985. Not bad for the first album on the list from that year. Highlights include: Spolit Victorian Child and My New House. Overall, I give This Nation’s Saving Grace, 5 out of 5.

Next: Water from an Ancient Well by Abdullah Ibrahim

Album #546 – Born In The U.S.A.

Album #546

What can I already say that hasn’t already been said about Born in the U.S.A.? 32 years after its release, we are still talking about it. Over 30 million copies sold, 7 top 10 chart hits in the US and one of the BEST concert tours of the decade. Now, THAT is a powerful album. But, the best thing about this album was that Bruce Springsteen was finally getting his due in the mainstream. The attention first surrounded him by the time Born to Run was released nine years earlier. He was called the next Bob Dylan and shook up rock n’ roll in a time where things looked bleak. Today, the Boss continues to influence artists and popular music. He wouldn’t have made a HUGE impact had it not been for this album. Bruce Springsteen was EVERYWHERE when Born in the U.S.A. was released. Radio loved this album and so did MTV. Like John Mellencamp, the Boss’s songs were desperately needed after almost four years of Ronald Reagan’s first term. Unemployment was very low and many were losing their jobs. The Boss understood what these people were going through. The songs on Born in the U.S.A. provided hope and strength to many. It’s sound marked a stark contrast from his previous work. Synthesizers and Phil Collins’ sounding drums ruled this record. It made the album rule the charts as a result. You also can’t deny how amazing these songs were. Many of them still get airplay in 2016 and show him at his creative peak. I can’t think of an album that has been released in the last couple of years that has had this much of an impact. Most popular albums are lucky to get a couple of chart hits but, very few have seven in the top 10. The best part: it hasn’t really changed him. The Boss still fights for what he believes in and is as down to earth as ever. He still plays to sold out crowds and does an amazing show. It is nice to know that he hasn’t forgotten where he comes from. Highlights include: Born in the U.S.A., Cover Me, Downbound Train, I’m on Fire, No Surrender, Glory Days, Dancing in the Dark and My Hometown. Overall, I give Born in the U.S.A., 4.5 out of 5.

Next: This Nation’s Saving Grace by The Fall