Album #542 – Ocean Rain

Album #542

Ocean Rain is my favorite album from one of the best bands to come out of the 1980s. Echo & The Bunnymen got their start in the Liverpool music scene of the late 70’s and early 80’s. Many British artists came out of similar scenes throughout the UK. Bands didn’t have to go to London to make it big. They could perform, write, record and release music on their home turf. By the time Ocean Rain was released in 1984, the band was at their creative peak. They are in fine form on the LP. Unique for its time, the album has virtually no synthesizers or synth drums. Instead, each song has live strings and acoustic instruments. The overall tone of the music matches the haunting quality of the songs. Lead singer Ian McCullough is Jim Morrison reincarnated. His haunting vocals match the songs beautifully, with lyrics that are closer to those of romantic poets than 80’s pop stars. Ocean Rain still stands up well today and that is because it is a timeless album. The Killing Moon, the album’s biggest track used brilliantly in Donnie Darko, captures this feeling brilliantly. Not everyone liked the album when it was released. Rolling Stone gave it 2 stars along with a dismissive review. But, since when has Rolling Stone ever gotten it right? To me, Ocean Rain is one of those albums that will be with us 50 and 100 years from now and still sound just as fresh as it did in 1984. Other highlights include: Silver, Nocturnal Me, Thorn of Crowns, Seven Seas, My Kingdom and one of the best album closers of all time, Ocean Rain. Overall, I give Ocean Rain, 8.5 out of 5.

Next: Double Nickels on the Dime by Minutemen

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Album #541 – Private Dancer

Album #541

This album was a disappointment. Tina Turner’s comeback singles from this album were electric. She showed just how much she could hold her own with new performers half her age. But, that was the problem with Private Dancer, the album: too much 80’s inflated pop production. Besides What’s Love Got To Do With It, Better Be Good To Me and the title track, the rest of the album falls flat. Tina’s voice is unique enough to cut through even the massive production that surrounds it. But, the production takes away from all the other cuts on this album. It wasn’t rocking enough for me. Better Be Good To Me shows that Tina can rock and roll with the best of them. The producers should have really taken a cue from Tina’s duet with Bryan Adams from his album Reckless, released the same year. There’s not a lot of production there. Just a tight, kick ass rock and roll band with Bryan and Tina passionately singing. Maybe its me, but Tina sounds best with that type of set up. Then again, this album had TOO many producers. Better Be Good To Me provides this and along with Private Dancer is my favorite track on the album. It’s more about the voice and less about everything else. Despite the over-production, Private Dancer brought Tina back into the public eye. What’s Love Got To Do With It was her first and only number one hit. It’s a song that Turner disliked but made the latter half of her career a success. After that success, she sold out venues around the World and proved that age is just a number. Tina is now retired and living happily with her second husband in Switzerland. But, she will always be the Queen of Rock N’ Roll not only to me, but millions of others. It’s just too bad that Private Dancer wasn’t a stronger album. Overall, I give Private Dancer, 2.5 out of 5.

Next: Ocean Rain by Echo and The Bunnymen

Album #540 – Cafe Bleu

Album #540

After the Jam split up in 1982, Paul Weller decided to do something different. He created The Style Council along with Mick Talbot. Both are picture on the album cover for Cafe Bleu. The title suits the album very well. The Style Council were part of a wave of pop music in the mid 80’s called sophisti-pop. It combined pop, jazz and r&b to create a new sound. It was the total opposite of what Weller had done in the Jam, but there were indications of the new direction on one of the Jam’s last singles, The Bitterest Pill (I Ever Had to Swallow). In fact, not only soul and jazz are present on Cafe Bleu but rap too (A Gospel). The album makes Weller sound more like a crooner than an ex-punk and mod. But, after The Style Council folded in the late 80’s, Weller would continue to incorporate some of these influences into his solo career. Cafe Bleu contains one of my favorite songs of all time, You’re The Best Thing. I first heard the tune about 10 years ago, listening to radio online from the UK. I didn’t like the song right away but, after hearing it many times over that summer, I fell in love. Everything is lush, from the strings to the guitar and sax solos but, it all works. To me, it’s the perfect mushy love song. The rest of the album has the same tone and even features fellow sophisti-pop artists Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt of Everything But The Girl. If you are trying to look for Cafe Bleu in North America, it will be hard to find under that name. I have a vinyl version with the title My Ever Changing Moods and it contains a slightly different track listing. Suave, classy and chill: the three qualities that define this album. For You’re the Best Thing alone, it’s worth a spin. Other highlights include: Mick’s Blessings, The Whole Point of No Return, The Paris Match, My Ever Changing Moods, Here’s One That Got Away and Headstart for Happiness. Overall, I give Cafe Bleu, 3.5 out of 5.

Next: Private Dancer by Tina Turner

Album #539 – Let It Be

Album #539

If Prince was the King of the Minneapolis R&B scene, the Replacements ruled the roost when it came to Minneapolis rock in the 80’s. Along with Husker Du, the ‘Mats built on their original hardcore sound to create something real in rock n’ roll. Honest lyrics and straight-forward rock. There wasn’t much of that going on in 1984. Guitars were out, synths were in. It seemed like the musicians in Minneapolis rock weren’t aware of this trend. To them, loud and fast mattered more than bright and shiny. Paul Westerberg, front man and chief songwriter, knew how to write songs that described every facet of the culture at the time. He knew what it was like to still be questioning life around you. If anything, Let It Be is like a John Hughes teen movie, perfect at encapsulating what it means to be a teenager or young adult, trying to find your place in the world. There’s no bullshit or polished image; just the truth. The best song on the album that captures this feeling is Unsatisfied. I love this song because whenever I get down, I can listen to the track and know that I am not alone. I am not the only one questioning my life and circumstances because this song lets me know that its OK. It is my battle cry. Reading stuff on the band, it almost seemed as if Paul was too good for them. The ‘Mats were originally more about drinking than the music. In fact, they would be just another hack hardcore band, if it wasn’t for Westerberg’s songwriting talent and discipline. Ultimately, it was Westerberg’s sensibilities that ruined the group. They split up in 1991 before reuniting three years ago. The band dissolved again earlier this year. Let It Be marked their first change in sound. No more loud, fast hardcore. It was still loud at times but, there was melody and honest lyrics. All the songs make sense and are relatable. In general, the band was tired of the “rules” within hardcore. If anything, its what I dislike about hardcore and punk. I understand why there needs to be an identity but, isn’t punk supposed to be different? Isn’t it supposed to be anti-authority? No rules, D.I.Y., make up as you go along? Clearly the hardcore scene wasn’t that at all. I know many people who are attracted to the ‘Mats like I am. I’m not sure why but I’m glad to see that their influence has continued to exist. I was first introduced to them in high school but, it wasn’t until I saw the video for Bastards of Young from this album’s follow-up Tim, that I was hooked. So minimal, yet so bad-ass and real. The band was never successful in the mainstream but, who cares. Their music isn’t for everybody but those who get it, love it. Just ask Johnny Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls. Westerberg’s songwriting and their sound, beginning with Let It Be, allowed them to wear their heart on their sleeve. This was unique for the 80’s. So much was pre-packaged in that decade, but Let It Be proved that rock and roll wasn’t dead…yet!!! Other highlights include: I Will Dare (featuring R.E.M.’s Peter Buck on guitar), Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out, Androgynous, Black Diamond (great cover of the KISS classic) and Sixteen Blue. Overall, I give Let It Be, 4.5 out of 5.

Next: Cafe Bleu by the Style Council

Album #538 – Purple Rain

Album #538

Ahhh…the purple one, the artist formerly known as…now known again as…PRINCE. Living next to Minnesota, it’s a state that is more known for hockey players, bitterly cold winters and its distinctive accent. But, I am in love with this part of the world since I moved to Northwestern Ontario 2 and a half years ago. Maybe its because the Midwest is not unlike the Maritimes in that the people are friendly, charitable and communal. Their neighbors and community are everything.  But, Minneapolis/St. Paul is kind of a world unto itself. There are still the cold winters and, if you look hard enough the accent but, some of the best music of the last 35 years has come out of that city. First Avenue is where most of it was heard for the very first time, live in front of eager music fans. The Minneapolis scene was not only huge for punk rockers but, r&b too. Not only Prince, but Morris Day and the Time, Lipps Inc. and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. They all came from the same Minneapolis scene and helped shape the music we love today. Like the scene, Purple Rain really does a good job at combining gritty rock n’ roll, smooth r&b, psychedelic pop and new wave synths together. You can hear Prince’s influences on every track. In fact, 1984 was his year. He was not only riding high on Purple Rain’s success but, producing and writing songs for Shelia E, Sheena Easton and Chaka Khan among others. I love that he can not only sing and dance but play the guitar like nobody’s business. The proof is in this performance of While My Guitar Gently Weeps from George Harrison’s induction into the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame. Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and Dhani Harrison are all playing the song when, out of nowhere, Prince does Eric Clapton’s solo better than he did on the album!!!  But, for all that showmanship and musical intellect, there is Prince’s mysterious persona and attitude. He can be pretentious, intimidating, over bearing and quiet. Some might even go as far as calling him a dick or an asshole. Case in point, when he covered Radiohead’s Creep at Coachella a few years ago and had all the YouTube vids of him performing it taken down (only to have Thom Yorke demand to have them put back up, as it is their song after all!!!) That aside, Purple Rain is an amazing example of the different types of pop music that came out of the 80’s. Maybe it didn’t match Thriller in sales or acclaim BUT, for a movie soundtrack, Purple Rain is one of the most influential of them all. I can’t think of another soundtrack album with original songs that was as successful on the pop charts. Probably because most soundtracks are a mishmash of artists and songs; some new, some old. But, it certainly held it’s own: 2 #1 hits, 4 top 10 singles!!! And that’s just in the US. Purple Rain cemented Prince’s place in pop music. Thankfully though, he would change his style, just as fast as he made his way to the top. The worst thing for an artist to do is to get stuck in the same sound or image. Highlights include: Let’s Go Crazy, Take Me With U, Darling Nikki (the song that started it all for the PMRC and the Explicit Content label), When Doves Cry, I Would Die 4 U and one of the best album closers EVER, the EPIC Purple Rain. Overall, I give this album 4 out of 5.

Next: Let It Be by The Replacements

Album #537 – 1984

Album #537

The album cover says it all. Van Halen was a band who kicked ass and took names. They have never taken themselves too seriously but, the music has always been good. 1984 was their massive hit album. It was everywhere that year, and into the next. The group lit up MTV and MuchMusic with their hilarious (and sometimes cheaply made) music videos. The Hot for Teacher video remains a classic. Frontman David Lee Roth showed the World that he was larger than life and represented the group often on MTV. But, nothing lasts forever. The following year (1985), DLR left the band that he helped propel to stardom. His departure has divided fans ever since. Former Montrose lead singer Sammy Hagar (who had a solo hit with I Can’t Drive 55, just 2 years before) became the next lead singer of the band in mid 1985. I can’t bring myself to say replacement because NOBODY and I mean NOBODY was able to replace David Lee Roth. I’ve heard that DLR left because he hated synths being used all over the album. His fellow band members reportedly got tired of his showman persona. Bada-bing, bada-boom. I personally think it was his time. He gave everything he could give to the band and wanted to spread his wings. Who could blame him? MTV made him a huge star. Contrary to popular belief, this was not the first Van Halen album to have synthesizers on it. Several tracks on 1984’s predecessor, Diver Down, feature keyboards including their hit cover of Dancing In The Street. This addition to their sound was able to bring Van Halen to pop stardom and accessible to the masses. Yet not every track on 1984 had them. Two of the album’s biggest hits, Hot for Teacher and Panama, are full on rockers. And then, there’s Jump. The group’s biggest song and one that added to the landscape of pop radio when it was released as a single. It was also their first #1 hit. David Lee Roth’s departure was the biggest irony of all. Hard to believe that the most well known face of the biggest band in America, at the time, would end up leaving. Seems like being on top isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. And yet, he went out of the band with a huge bang. 1984 is PERFECT from start to finish. It’s not hard to figure out why it is only one of two Van Halen albums on the list.  1984 was the first VH album to be recorded in Eddie Van Halen’s home studio, called 5150, after a police radio term he heard on engineer Donn Landee’s police scanner. It would also be the title of their first album with Sammy Hagar. But, I feel 1984 lacks the punch of their debut. Don’t get me wrong, the album and sound are still badass. But, the raw energy that they had 6 years prior is gone. The guitar takes a back seat. But, you can only be edgy for so long. David Lee Roth eventually rejoined his band mates, briefly in 1996 and for good in 2006. But not without bassist Michael Anthony leaving or getting fired, depending on who you talk to. Complications aside, the album is a testament to where rock was headed in the mid to late 80’s: big hair, wacky clothes, synths and killer riffs. Thank God we still have the music and our memories. An essential album for any collection.

Other highlights include: Top Jimmy, Drop Dead Legs, I’ll Wait and House of Pain. Overall, I give 1984, 5 out of 5.

Next: Purple Rain by Prince and the Revolution

Album #536 – Out of Step

Album #536

Man, was this an album that I could relate to. But, it isn’t for the faint of heart. Out of Step by Minor Threat is the perfect soundtrack to teen angst. Many of the songs lyrics came out of frustrations with society, romantic relationships and being an outsider. I could relate to so many of these songs because I have had these feelings. I find much of the music made today lacks this honesty and anger. And that bums me out. You have to get angry, every once in a while. In fact, the type of music Minor Threat was making was outside of the mainstream. Hardcore punk was the closest American music got to the British punk scene of the late 70’s: raw, brash, honest, vulgar and in your face. At the center of Minor Threat is Ian MacKaye, lead singer and reluctant front man. MacKaye’s lyrics are almost entirely inaudible but, when you look them up, they mean something strong. I’ll be the first to admit that the first time I listened to the album, I had to look up the lyrics. But, I instantly got what they were trying to say. Their music wasn’t a joke, it says something. MacKaye’s singing style is part spoken, part singing and mostly yelling. It is outside of the box and unique, just like his band mates. Unlike Black Flag, I never felt like this was all one big joke to the band. Their songs, like many amazing bands, capture their feelings and thoughts perfectly. But, this isn’t one sloppy mess. Make no mistake, Minor Threat is an amazing group of musicians. They can play BUT, they choose to do it their way. Fast and loud!!! A style has that been lost on the current generation of musicians. Where’s the honesty? Where’s the feeling? God, I wish I could have discovered this album when I was 16. It probably would have changed my life. But, Ian MacKaye has changed many people’s lives. In fact, it was MacKaye who brought the straight edge lifestyle to the masses. And yet, MacKaye never intended for it to be popular, go figure. MacKaye would go on to be a record producer and front the band Fugazi, among other projects. But, Out of Step was a great musical testament for not only him and his bandmates, but an entire generation. It’s always the innovators who set the pace and capture our true feelings, whether we want to hear them or not. Ian MacKaye and Minor Threat did that perfectly on their one and only full-length album. Highlights include: Betray, Look Back and Laugh, Sob Story, Out of Step and Cashing In. Overall, I give Out of Step, 4.5 out of 5.

Next: 1984 by Van Halen