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

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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

Album #535 – Treasure

Album #535

The Cocteau Twins are one of those groups that you either know and are mesmerized by their work OR, you have no freakin’ clue who they are. That’s OK. I love the fact that I am the only one among my friends who knows who they are. Their music is not for everyone. And even when I discovered them, I didn’t get them right away. Some tracks are angelic, while others are droning, random and sparse. But, is any band perfect? The Cocteau Twins comprise lead singer Elizabeth Fraser along with guitarist Robin Guthrie and bassist Simon Raymonde. These three individuals created a sound that has been copied BUT, never able to be duplicated. The key is their lead singer. Elizabeth Fraser is my favourite female singer. Her vocals are mostly indecipherable gibberish yet, she conveys so much emotion when she sings that you can instantly know what she is singing about. She conveys emotion better than any singer I know. She changes her voice to suit the song. It’s not always pretty, not always harsh but always suits the song. Their sound would not work at all without Fraser’s angelic voice. The tag “voice of an angel” I find is heavily overused. There are few people who fall into that category and in my opinion, Elizabeth Fraser’s voice and style of singing fits nicely into that label. It’s no wonder that singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley and her were very close. Buckley is her only male equivalent. It’s a shame he’s no longer with us but, Liz is still alive and kicking, yet rarely performs in public. When she does, much like Kate Bush, it is an event. This is due to her shyness. It’s always the shy ones who dazzle us and take our breath away. The Cocteau Twins broke up in 1996 and there is another album from them further down the list, in the early 90’s. Treasure has it’s ups and downs musically. Not every song is amazing but, by this album their musical trademark was fully realized. They really created dream pop and ethereal music before there was such a thing. Guthrie and Raymonde compliment Fraser’s singing magnificently. Their sparse musical accompaniment is key to their successful sound: lots of reverb, jangly guitars and bass, drum machines and overall droning. Fraser’s singing makes them stand out and that is why other’s have failed at trying to recreate this sound. Nobody can compare to Elizabeth Fraser, the true voice of an angel.

Highlights include: Ivo, Persephone, Pandora (the album’s best song and one that perfectly captures the sound of Cocteau Twins), Amelia, Cicely, Otterley and Donimo. Overall, I give Treasure, 4 out of 5.

Next: Out of Step by Minor Threat

Album #534 – Diamond Life

Album #534

Sade is a band that named themselves after their lead singer, Sade Adu. They took the music world by storm in 1984 and 1985. Sade’s voice is unmistakable. Smooth, sweet and soft. It is soothing and calm, quite the opposite from many of the pop singers of the time. The group’s music mixed jazz with r&b and soul. Many have labeled it Quiet Storm, after the soft r&b radio format. It is also called sophistipop, a genre of mid to late 80’s British pop mixing jazz and soul influences. But, Sade had something special. Their music was laid back, not forceful. Take the album’s biggest hit Smooth Operator, for example. It was the type of song you would hear in a quiet jazz club on a Sunday night, never mind on MTV or MuchMusic along side Madonna, Michael Jackson, Prince and Cyndi Lauper. The song did well and cracked the top 5 on the Billboard Hot 100. Sade is another example of why the 80’s were so good musically: risks were taken. The group seemed to fit in well with the style of the 80’s: sophisticated yet unique. Today, an artist like Sade would not have a chance on radio in North America. The band would be pigeon-holed. But, as much as times have changed, the sound of Sade has always remained timeless. Other highlights include: Your Love Is King, Hang on to Your Love and Why Can’t We Live Together. Overall, I give Diamond Life, 3.5 out of 5.

Next: Treasure by Cocteau Twins

Album #533 – Run-D.M.C.

Album #533

Run-D.M.C. are my favorite rap group. It’s probably because they combined rap and rock before anybody else. In fact, Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels is a bigger fan of classic rock than hip hop. In fact, session guitarist and film composer Eddie Martinez played guitar on several of this album’s tracks. Hard rock would play a bigger role on their next album, King of Rock, but the harder edge was also present on their debut. The differing styles of D.M.C. and Joseph “Rev. Run” Simmons, made their music exciting. The late Jam Master Jay was one of the best turntablists around, only rivaled by Erik B. and Grandmaster Flash. The best part about this album was the attitude. The group had swagger and didn’t take anything from anybody. The album sounded like it came from the street too: bare-bones, cheaply produced. But, it had a strong statement too. Hip hop was the new sound of the street. It had attitude and could be more than just some great tracks that could be played at a party or a showcase for the masters of the turntable. If anything. Run-D.M.C. paved the way for modern hip-hop. But, I love them more than many others because what they did was legitimate. It was not put on, manufactured or stylized. It was the REAL thing!!! The sound of the street. And if anything, it proves that hip hop had a new energy that was not being seen elsewhere in music. It was scary to some but, Run-D.M.C. breathed new life into something that already was starting to take the world by storm. Highlights include: Rock Box, Hollis Crew 2 (Krush-Groove 2),  and It’s Like That. Overall, I give Run-D.M.C., 4 out of 5.

Next: Diamond Life by Sade

Album #532 – Welcome to the Pleasuredome

Album #532

Frankie Goes To Hollywood, a band named after an article which told the story of Frank Sinatra’s arrival in L.A., burst on to the pop music scene in England in 1983. Their song Relax, became a mega hit. This is because of the song’s lyrics and the single’s picture sleeve, which were both explicitly sexual. The BBC banned the song because of this and it’s original erotic music video. But, that just drove the sales of the single up even more, shooting it straight to #1, proving that bad press and controversy can be a good thing. The album’s next single, Two Tribes, took the opposite extreme, a song about the dangers of the Cold War between the U.S. and Russia. In fact, the music video for that song was a wrestling match between the U.S. and Russia, pitting a Ronald Reagan look alike against a Chernenko look alike. That video was equally controversial but, didn’t raise as many eyebrows as the original video for Relax. This was the reputation that Frankie Goes To Hollywood had. Rooted in punk music, the group challenged the status quo. This made the group very successful in England and Europe but, not as successful in North America. Relax was a massive hit for the group on both sides of the Atlantic but, Two Tribes and follow-up single The Power of Love failed to crack the top 40. One magazine ad promoting the album in the UK, quoted the band as saying they were out to destroy teen idols like Duran Duran. Ironically, Duran Duran would continue to be mega stars in North America while Frankie Goes To Hollywood are remembered more for a T-shirt with the phrase “Frankie says Relax…” than any of their work. The album itself was controversial due to Trevor Horn’s production. Since Relax and Two Tribes were released months before the album, many felt the versions on Welcome to the Pleasuredome paled in comparison to the original versions released on 7 and 12 inch singles. Also, due to Horn’s perfectionism in the studio, the members of Frankie Goes to Hollywood did not play on many of the tracks. Instead, session musicians filled the gaps. Another criticism was the fact that cover tunes took up a quarter of the album. Where was the new material? Despite all of this, the album is crisp and clean and is a reflection of it’s times. Chris Barrie’s cunning impersonations of Ronald Reagan and Prince Charles add to the political tone of many of the album’s tracks. Vocalists always stand out for me and Holly Johnson is no exception. His voice is emotive, strong and typical of many male singers from the 80’s. But for the first time, the sexuality of Johnson and backing singer/dancer/keyboardist Paul Rutherford (not related to the guitarist/bassist for Genesis and Mike & The Mechanics, Mike Rutherford) was not hidden. In fact, Welcome to the Pleasuredome show cases their sexuality in a way that many other synth pop groups didn’t. The only exception being Soft Cell. Welcome to the Pleasuredome represents it’s times very well: a look at excess, decadence and political warfare. Nobody else would come close to capturing ALL three as well as they did. The group never were fully successful after this album’s release. The follow-up, featuring all the band’s members playing on every track, did very poorly and any attempts to reunite the original line-up were futile. But, the album stands as a testament to it’s times and is one of the best albums of the decade. Other highlights include: War, The Ballad of 32, Black Night White Light and the Power of Love (released as a single near Christmas 1984, the video featured a live nativity scene thus making the song a defacto Christmas staple even though it wasn’t a holiday song to begin with). Overall, I give Welcome to the Pleasuredome, 4 out of 5.

Next: Run-D.M.C. by Run-D.M.C.