Paul Heinz

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20 More Desert Island Albums

Thirty down with another twenty below. This list of albums I can’t live without is limited to rock/pop albums, no greatest hits or typical live albums are allowed, and double albums count for two picks unless only two sides are chosen. Here are my first thirty entries, in no particular order:

Kean - Hopes and Fears
Aerosmith - Toys in the Attic
Innocence Mission - Umbrella
Jackson Browne - Standing in the Breach
Lyle Lovett - The Road to Ensenada
Fleetwood Mac - Tusk (sides 1 and 2)
Fleetwood Mac - Tusk (sides 3 and 4)
Radiohead - The Bends
Company of Thieves - Ordinary Riches
Stevie Wonder - Songs in the Key of Life (sides 1 and 2)
The Pursuit of Happiness - Love Junk
Big Country - Peace in our Times
Pink Floyd - The Wall (sides 1 and 2)
Pink Floyd - The Wall (sides 3 and 4)
Randy Newman - Little Criminals
Randy Newman - Bad Love
Bad Examples - Kisses 50¢
Paul Simon - Suprise
Off Broadway - On
Joni Mitchell - Court and Spark
Lloyd Cole - Don’t Get Weird on Me Babe
Phil Collins - Hello, I Must Be Going!
The Who - Quadrophenia (sides 1 and 2)
Gabriel Kahane - Where are the Arms
Supertramp - Crisis? What Crisis?
Supertramp - Breakfast in America
R.E.M. - Automatic for the People
Yes - Close to the Edge
Elton John - Madman Across the Water
Elton John - Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy

Up to speed? Okay - here are my next twenty selections in detail:

Rickie Lee Jones – Rickie Lee Jones (1979).  Wow, what a debut.  I’m not sure how an unknown singer managed to nab Steve Gadd, Dr. John, Randy Newman, Jeff Porcaro, etc. to accompany her, but having first-class musicians to backup your debut sure doesn’t hurt!  Jones’s next two albums are also wonderful, but listening to them front to back, her debut is the standout, with nary a weak track to be found, offering a wide ranging output: playful, nostalgic, desperate, loving and chilling.  “Last Chance Texaco” and “On Saturday Afternoons in 1963” are favorites of mine.  That’s another release from 1979.  More to come!

Pete Townshend – White City: A Novel (1985).  Just a few years post-Who, Townshend returns with an excellent solo effort, a sort of story (though I’ve never followed it) taking place in a section of London in the 60s, Townshend surrounds himself with a terrific cast of musicians and focuses on short, melodic songs without getting too bogged down in the story it’s supposed to tell.  Instead, we’re simply left with a solid set of songs, with “Crashing By Design” the highlight.

Aimee Mann – Music from the Motion Picture Magnolia (1999).  Mann’s first solo effort in 1993 has a few of my favorite tracks ever, but six years later her soundtrack to a film that left my jaw on the floor upon first viewing hits the nail on the head.  Once in a while a soundtrack is so inextricably linked to a movie, the opening chords of a song like “Wise Up” is enough to send chills down the spine and transport one right back to the film.  Mann has such a knack for writing lyrics that so perfectly describe a character, it’s easy to overlook the labor that Mann must expend to finish a song.  Either that or she’s just plain brilliant.  Maybe both.  But this is a great album filled with wonderful characterizations.  The soundtrack also two Supertramp songs and a few other cuts, but the album stands on Mann’s contributions alone.  Jon Brion produces and adds his tasty flavoring throughout.

Led Zeppelin – Physical Graffiti, Sides 1 and 2 (1975). 

Led Zeppelin – Physical Graffiti, Sides 3 and 4 (1975).  Funny how some songs grate on you after decades of being overplayed while others sound as fresh and urgent as the first time you heard them.  For me, Led Zeppelin’s sixth album is full of the latter.  I’ve never gotten tired of hearing the ball-busting intro to “Kashmir.  If I were a professional baseball player, that would be my song when I came up to bat.  (Think it’s weird to fantasize about being an MLB player?  Yeah, fair enough.)  “Ten Years Gone” is among the most beautifully-crafted songs ever produced, with Page’s multiple guitar tracks interweaving perfectly into a sublime climax.  With just the right balance of rockers and softer tracks, long and short, blues-based and folk-based, Physical Graffiti is one of the best albums in rock history.

Genesis – A Trick of the Tail (1976).  My favorite Genesis albums have shifted over the years.  Wind and Wuthering and Selling England by the Pound used to be tops, but these days if I am to pick a few albums by one of my top two favorite prog-rock bands, one has to be the first album with Phil Collins on lead vocals.  I’ve never been one of those goofballs who claim that Genesis after Peter Gabriel isn’t worth the time of day.  This album is a kick-ass clinic on all things prog, from shifting time signatures, obscure and fanciful lyrics and deft musicianship, but unlike many bands in this genre, Genesis manages to achieve all the essential elements while crafting beautiful melodies over challenging harmonic structures, with just enough lyrical universality to entrance the listener.  Take “Mad Man Moon,” a preeminent track composed by keyboardist Tony Banks.  I couldn’t tell you exactly what the song means or what Banks intended, but it seems to tell a tale of a man who leaves his loved-one in search of glory, and winds up in a desert, where he keenly observes how no matter where you live, the grass appears to be greener elsewhere.  Nothing miraculous there, but beautifully stated over absolutely sublime chord changes, with a mid-section of subtle percussion and piano.  It’s just a perfect, standout track on a standout album.  Only the unfortunate “Robbery Assault and Battery” keeps this album from being flawless.

Ben Folds Five – Ben Folds Five (1995).

Ben Folds – Rockin’ the Suburbs (2001).  Just like I can’t overstate the importance of Supertramp to the 11 year-old me, I can’t tell you how revitalized my interest in music became when I first heard Ben Folds Five on WXPN, Philadelphia.  Finally, a pianist with edge, wit and chops, with a kick-ass drummer and bass player to boot.  This music influenced my own compositions in a big way, much like Randy Newman had just a few years before.  The debut album holds up oh, so well, and so do the second and third albums, but if I have to choose one from Ben Folds Five, it has to be the one that put them on the map, with “Philosophy,” “Underground” and “Boxing” the highlights.  And a mere six years later, Ben Folds releases an almost perfect solo effort, with some of this most exciting and moving pieces to date.  “Still Fighting It,” “Gone” and “Not the Same” are my favorites.

Marc Cohn – Burning the Daze (1998).  You know him for his pseudo hits, “Walking in Memphis” and “Silver Thunderbird,” and while his debut album is undeniably solid, it’s his third album that grabs me and doesn’t let go.  Oddly, Cohn plays virtually nothing from this release when he performs live, and one gets the feeling that he’s lost all affinity for it.  This collection of songs is deep and dark, delving into the insecurities and baggage that humans carry with them on convoluted paths, with “Lost You in the Canyon” a standout, a song whose lyrics about disconnection from a loved one could be applied to society as a whole twenty years later

Rufus Wainwright – Want One (2003).   To date, this is Wainwright’s crowning achievement, a fifty-eight minute single release absolutely packed with memorable tunes, lush arrangements and lyrics that are utterly empathetic to the human experience.  “I Don’t Know What It Is” is one of my favorites tracks ever, “14th Street” is a gem, and “Dinner and Eight” brings me to tears if I’m in the right sort of mood (or, perhaps, the wrong sort of mood).  Wainwright sometimes aims high and misses the mark – which is entirely forgivable – but with Want One he hits the bulls-eye.  In the age of streaming, you’ll be hard-pressed to hear highly-produced (i.e., expensive) albums like this being recorded anymore.

Sara Bareilles – Kaleidoscope Heart (2010).  Hey, I stand by this, so back off!  Bareilles is ridiculously talented, a pop-melodist extraordinaire, and I love that her lyrics are both vulnerable and strong, providing a great role model for youth and elders alike, male or female, but there’s no denying that she played an important musical role in my daughters’ upbringing.  “Uncharted” and “Let the Rain” are standouts.

Billy Joel – Turnstiles (1976).  I wasn’t aware of just how good an album this is until a few years ago.  I knew all but two of the songs, but hadn’t realize they were all from the same album, self-produced by Billy Joel after relocating back to New York after a stint in LA.  Joel is a consummate lyricist, and the greatest pleasure in listening to his songs – aside from impressive melody – is picking up on lyrics like “Now as we indulge in things refined/We hide our hearts from harder times.”  None of Joel’s albums is perfect, and Turnstiles is no exception, with “All You Want to Do Is Dance” the clunker on Side A, but the other good stuff is so good, I’ll allow it.

Paul McCartney – Chaos and Creation in the Backyard (2005).  Tug of War and Flowers in the Dirt aren’t nearly as good as I remember them, Back to the Egg is a favorite with just a few too many weak points, Ram may be in vogue with the critics but it really doesn’t measure up, and Band in the Run is undoubtedly a worthy contender, but for me McCartney’s 2005 release is the most solid album from start to finish, and it’s one that speaks to me more lyrically than the nonsensical words on some of his other releases.   I’ve written about Chaos and Creation before, but suffice to say that it’s a great effort with beautiful melodies that are much more complex than they appear to be at first glance.  My one gripe is that I’d love to have more backup vocals – I can actually hear where they should go and what they should be – but producer Nigel Godric opted for a sparser album.

Steely Dan – Gaucho (1980).  Aja is probably their crowning achievement, but I’m kind of tired of the tracks, and I don’t really like “I Got the News.”  Instead, I choose the smooth-jazz follow-up, Gaucho, an album that makes me want to drink a dirty martini in a high-class nightclub.  Polished beyond belief – you can read stories about the lengths that Donald Fagen and Walter Becker went to to get the sounds they wanted – it still breathes humanity and musicianship.  “Babylon Sisters” and the title track are my favorites here.

Joe Jackson – Get Sharp! (1979).  One more from 1979!  Joe Jackson has put out so much great material in so many different genres over four decades, I feel a little bad for picking his very first effort, but there’s simply no denying its magnificence.  From top to bottom, Jackson effuses sarcasm and wit with enough insight and substance to keep it from getting downright cranky, and he wades into the waters of so many different musical feels – the breakdown of the title track, the manic anxiety of “Got the Time,” the reggae feel of “Fools in Love” – that it never gets redundant.  My favorite lyric: “Happy loving couples/in matching white polo-necked sweaters/reading Ideal Homes magazine.”  Fantastic!

Joe Jackson – Blaze of Glory (1989).  Just a decade later Joe put out his most ambitious record to date, the fifty-seven minute-long Blaze of Glory that he played in its entirely when I saw him in September that year.  Each album side plays uninterrupted, beginning with the idealistic outlook of a young man who eventually grows disillusioned and who has to scratch and claw his way to an unsatisfying, but inevitable, consolation.  Bold and beautiful, the only unfortunate aspect of the album is the highly produced and electronically triggered snare and tambourine sounds.  When I saw him live these sounds were prerecorded (or triggered somehow), the drummer literally avoiding playing the snare.  It sure was the 80s!  I found this album on vinyl a few years ago for something like $8 and was ecstatic.

The Hush Sound – Like Vines (2006).  I was turned onto this band after some of its members who attended my town’s local high school rehearsed in my neighbor’s garage, but this isn’t some homer fascination with a local band.  The Hush Sound is serious shit, having produced three albums and gone onto do other musical projects both individually and together.  With a beautiful melding of male vocalist Bob Morris and female vocalist Greta Salpeter, the band produced fabulous dynamic changes from sweet piano waltzes to ballsy guitar rockers and was on regular rotation throughout much of my children’s upbringing.  Greta’s voice and influence grew as the band went on (she was all of 17 when the first album was recorded), but it’s this second album that balances both singers’ influences in perfect harmony.  I see on-line and on Spotify that “Wine Red” has been remixed into a positively horrendous dance tune, a black spot for anyone with musical taste.  If you take the jump, find the original CD avoid this egregious affront to music lovers.

Simple Minds – Once Upon a Time (1985).  Two years before The Joshua Tree, I felt like this Scottish band was accomplishing what U2 was still hoping to achieve: a consistent, powerful album with mass appeal and a unifying sound.  One Upon a Time is nearly perfect, with each of the first five tracks absolute juggernauts.  When they performed “Ghost Dancing” at Live Aid in Philadelphia, I’m not sure the American audience quite knew how blessed they were.  The band’s next album, Street Fighting Years, a whopping four years after, was such a disappointment, it gets my vote for worst follow-up to a magnum opus ever.

10,000 Maniacs – In My Tribe (1987).  This could have gone either way: the band’s 1987 release or its last with singer/songwriter Natalie Merchant, Our Time in Eden.  The latter packs more punch in parts, but the former album marked a clear delineation for me when I purchased it at Tower Records on Mass Ave in Boston instead of Toto’s seventh album.  I chose something new, something progressive, instead of the usual fair I’d been accustomed to.  I’ve never turned my back entirely on classic rock bands, but this purchase opened the door to Elvis Costello, Innocense Mission, and on and on.  This is a terrific release.  I’m ashamed to say – or maybe the U.S. education system should be ashamed – that I didn’t know who Jack Kerouac was in 1987, so that upon hearing the second song on the album – my favorite – I didn’t know who or what Merchant was singing about.  I just knew it was good.  Just as this album opened up musical doors, it also opened up literary doors, as On the Road was soon part of my library.

James Taylor – Never Die Young (1988).  James Taylor is an American treasure, but he’s laid a few eggs in his time, and few of his albums are terrific from front to back.  I thought I might pick Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon, but then returned to a tried and true album that I listen to regularly: Never Die Young.  Aside from the fact that I have a personal relationship with this album – my wife and I danced our first dance as a married couple to “Sweet Potato Pie” – there’s just a lot here to like: the quirky “Valentine’s Day” that I fondly recall Taylor playing it at a concert back in 1996, and an ostensibly silly song like “Sun on the Moon” that’s actually quite poignant, speaking to the rat race that many of us choose to engage in.  The only tune I could do without is the last on the album, “First of May,” which is kind of ironic, as this track was the sole representative of the album on JT’s most recent tour.  Go figure.  Probably played better live.

So there you are! One more entry and I’ll be finished with my list of albums I can’t live without. Stay tuned as we ramp up into the new year.

20 More Albums I Can't Live Without

A quick recap from my last entry: this list of albums I can’t live without is limited to rock/pop albums, no greatest hits or typical live albums are allowed, and double albums count for two picks unless only two sides are chosen. So far, I’ve chosen 10 albums, in no particular order:

Kean - Hopes and Fears
Aerosmith - Toys in the Attic
Innocence Mission - Umbrella
Jackson Browne - Standing in the Breach
Lyle Lovett - The Road to Ensenada
Fleetwood Mac - Tusk (sides 1 and 2)
Fleetwood Mac - Tusk (sides 3 and 4)
Radiohead - The Bends
Company of Thieves - Ordinary Riches
Stevie Wonder - Songs in the Key of Life (sides 1 and 2)

Without further ado, here are my next twenty picks in detail:

The Pursuit of Happiness – Love Junk (1988).  Probably not a perfect choice in the midst of the #MeToo movement, as much of this album could be categorized as misogynistic or at the very least demeaning to women, but for fun, angry and edgy melodic power-pop, you can’t get much better that this gem of a debut album by this Canadian power pop group led by Moe Berg.  Pop songs like “She’s So Young” are countered nicely with the bitterness of “Hard to Laugh” and playful “I’m an Adult Now.”  Solid throughout, and a perfect selection when you’re feeling angry or joyful alike, as long as you don’t practice what the lyrics preach.

Big Country – Peace in our Time (1988).  Another release from ’88, this album produced by Peter Wolf of J. Geils fame was regarded negatively at the time.  True, the opening track “King of Emotion,” with its heavy cowbell and a cheesy chorus, has Wolf’s fingerprints all over it, but it’s still fun, and there’s plenty of deeper, socially-conscious songs that one expects from this Scottish quartet, and the musicianship is impeccable.  With sharp, clean production – as opposed to, say, the muddied sound of their sophomore effort, Steeltown – this release still sounds in the present.  The song “In this Place” absolutely kills me.

Pink Floyd – The Wall, sides 1 and 2 (1979).

Pink Floyd – The Wall, sides 3 and 4 (1979).  Funny, because I know Pink Floyd fans who shell out big money to see The Australian Pink Floyd who could take or leave The Wall.  For me, it is quite simply the greatest achievement in rock and roll history.  Yeah, you heard me.  More universal than Tommy or Quadrophenia, with its theme of isolation even more relevant today than when it was first released, it’s a moving, heart-wrenching journey.  Favorite track: “Mother” in addition to the seminal “Comfortably Numb.” Among my biggest regrets is not seeing Roger Waters’s initial arena tour of The Wall in 2010 (I also failed to see the stadium tour, but with less regret).  That’s another release 1979.  There are more to come.

Randy Newman – Little Criminals (1977).

Randy Newman – Bad Love (1999).  When reviewing top albums lists by various publications, three other Newman albums are often mentioned: 12 Songs, Sail Away and Good Old Boys, but I think the best of Newman was still to come when those early 70s albums – as good as they might be – made a splash with critics and fans alike.  Newman’s Bad Love is his masterpiece, a perfect blend of sardonic, witty, funny, poignant and heartbreaking songs (“I Miss You” absolutely kills me).  You simply can’t do better.  Likewise, Little Criminals has it all, (and even has Newman’s one and only hit, “Short People”) and sounds fresher and more urgent that his preceding albums of more notoriety.

Bad Examples – Kisses 50¢ (1995).  This Chicago band led by Ralph Covert, who later went on to quite a successful career writing music for kids, is one of those unsung power pop bands that recorded in the wrong decade, as grunge was in full-force in the 90s, when subtlety in composing and production wasn’t exactly in vogue.  The band’s second album is a great listen, full of melody, wit, changing moods and excellent guitar work.  My favorite moment is the second half of the chorus for “Trying to Prove that the Earth is Flat,” when the energy picks up a touch with a fabulous double octave guitar line, but the whole album is solid, with “Every Poet Wants to Murder Shakespeare” and “The Mask of Mona Lisa” standout tracks.

Paul Simon – Surprise (2006).  When looking back on Simon’s consistently strong output, I kept coming back to one of his lesser-known albums, Surprise, a project that gave Simon a reinvigorated sound thanks to the sonic landscapes created by Brian Eno.  This album sounds fresh, exciting and fun, and there’s so much going on here lyrically that it warrants repeated listens.  I find much of Simon’s earlier output to sounds tired these days.  Even Graceland lacks the energy I’d expected to hear upon revisiting it recently, and aside from the title track, none of the lyrics speak to me.  Simon is one of those rare artists who’s managed to put out high quality recordings even into his 70s, though I find his last two studio albums of original material to be good, not great.  If I have to pick only one Paul Simon album to listen to these days, it’s Surprise.

Off Broadway – On (1979).  Another entry from 1979, this may be the best power pop album ever, fulfilling all the requirements of the genre: captivating melodies, tight arrangements, heightened energy, crunching guitar and slick harmonies and production.  The B section of “New Little Girl,” the chorus of “Bad Indication,” the verse of “Money’s No Good,” the unique voice of Cliff Johnson (except when he channels Buddy Holly) – it’s pure pop perfection.

Joni Mitchell – Court and Spark (1974).  I like a lot of Joni Mitchell’s output between 1968 and 1976 or so.  After that, she loses me, but I know people who feel that’s when her music gets really interesting.  For me, that middle period when she became a little less folky and a little more jazzy and bluesy is the sweet spot, and Court and Spark is a perfect melding of those genres, with her lyrics still self-reflective but more universal: who hasn’t been at a party feeling a little insecure?  Who hasn’t wondered whether the rat race in the U.S. is too much and who longed for an easy life in Paris?  Side one of this album is spectacular; side two gets a little bogged down, but not enough not to choose this as my favorite Mitchell album.

Lloyd Cole – Don’t Get Weird on Me Babe (1991).  I had no clue who Lloyd Cole was when I found this cutout at Musicland, and although I’ve investigated his music before and since this release, nothing else reaches the heights of this album.  Divided into two parts – a rock side and a more romantic, melodramatic side (with orchestral parts arranged by Paul Buckmaster) – track after track offers great grooves with Cole’s infectious baritone cooing acerbic wit and melancholy, and Blair Cowan’s tasty organ parts really stand out.  My favorite track is “Pay for It,” whose riff is so simple but oh so irresistible, I could listen to this one happily for hours on end.  The intro and outro of “Half of Everything” also stand out, a beautiful blending of rock and orchestra.

Phil Collins – Hello, I Must Be Going! (1982).  Yeah, I know.  I suspect that of all the albums I pick this will be the one I get the most flack for.  This album is notable for being the very first album I ever heard on CD.  My brother set up the player in our basement in Brookfield, Wisconsin, and we watched the CD spin through the semi-transparent door with hints of a green laser reflecting off the mirrored surface, and soon began the opening tom rhythm of “I Don’t Care Anymore.”  Fantastic.  It’s this track and two other dark songs that really make the album work for me: “Do You Know, Do You Care?” and, especially, “Thru These Walls” which highlights an angry and creepy side that’s fun to explore in music as long as it’s not overbearing.  Collins does a nice job of intermixing moods, whether sinister, fun or sappy.  Yes, “Why Can’t It Wait ‘Til Morning” goes a bit over the top with its schmaltz, but it’s a well-crafted song, and I especially like “Don’t Let Him Steal Your Heart Away.”  Cheesy?  You bet!  But I’ve always been a fan of cheese, as long as it’s good.

The Who – Quadrophenia, sides 1 and 2 (1973).  This is without a doubt The Who’s magnum opus, their musicality and storytelling reaching new heights, with all four band members making stunning contributions.  The first two sides are pure perfection, with the title track and “The Punk and the Godfather” my favorites.  The second two sides never held together quite as well for me, though they certainly have their high points, but when I’m being (self) forced to limit my selections, that disc has to go.

Gabriel Kahane – Where are the Arms (2011).  A short Sunday morning segment on NPR clued me into Kahane, and it was a lovely bit of happenstance for me, because this album is utterly captivating.  Not unlike Elvis Costello’s The Juliet Letters and Rufus Wainwright’s All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu, this album builds off the heritage of classical song, but unlike Costello and Wainright (and Kahane’s more recent efforts), this collection infuses more modern elements into the songwriting and production, including some kick-ass guitar and drum performances that keep the album from getting bogged down under its own weight.  The upshot is a song cycle of moving, complicated and mysterious tunes with beautiful melodies and infection grooves.  The brass breakdown on “Calabash & Catamaran,” alternating between 7/8 and 4/4 is absolutely brilliant.

Supertramp – Crisis?  What Crisis? (1975).

Supertramp – Breakfast in America (1979).  I can’t overstate how important this band was to the young version of me, insecure and creative, the youngest child of separated parents.  Hodgson’s lyrics were the empathetic voice I craved, though I can’t say for sure that I understood them all at the time.  Listening to Supertramp nearly forty years on, the band’s output still holds up.  I’ve always loved the juxtaposition of Davies’s and Hodgson’s respective oeuvres, one cynical and cranky, one spiritual and nurturing, and together they were greater than the sum of their parts.  Crime of the Century might be their most revered album, but weak production, overexposure and a so-so second side keep this out of the top for me (for today, at least).  Crisis? What Crisis? still excites me.  Back in the day I learned the piano solo to “Another Man’s Woman” note for note, and “A Soapbox Opera” and “The Meaning” are Hodgson at his best.  Davies only has four songs on the album, but they provide just enough edge to keep the album from sounding overly saccharine.  As for Breakfast in America, Davies raises the stakes to match his writing partner’s output note for note.  “Gone Hollywood” is the perfect opener, “Child of Vision” the perfect closer, and just about everything in between reaches the same level.  Another fantastic album from 1979.

R.E.M. – Automatic for the People (1992).  One year after their enormous Out of Time, the band wisely changed directions again, releasing a quirky yet moving collection of melodic tunes with lush string arrangements provided by John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin.  Like other semi-experimental albums such as The White Album and Tusk, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1” and “Star Me Kitten” may not be brilliant, but in the context of the album they work effectively. Then you add some dark, intriguing songs like “Monty Got a Raw Deal” and “Try Not to Breathe“ and some truly exceptional tracks like “Nightswimming,” Everybody Hurts” and “Man on the Moon,” and, well, you’ve got yourself a gem. R.E.M.’s best.

Yes – Close to the Edge (1972).  This is where things get a bit tricky, because I could easily add five Yes albums to my list, but I probably have to limit it to two.  I’ll continue to struggle to determine what else cracks my top albums list, but one I know that has to be on there is the band’s fifth studio album, the last with drummer Bill Bruford and the second effort with Rick Wakeman on keys.  Close to the Edge probably gets my vote for the best prog-rock album ever.  From the side-long title track with distinct movements, to the bombastic climax of “And You and I” and the blistering “Siberian Khatru,” you just can’t get any better.

Elton John – Madman Across the Water (1971).

Elton John – Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975).  Elton holds a special place in my memory, his music lingering in the background for much of my childhood.  When I was twelve I finally purchased his greatest hits album and a piano book of his music, and they were both life-altering, allowing me to finally start enjoying playing the piano instead of trudging through yet another Michael Aaron book.  Elton John could do little wrong from 1970 to 1976, but there are two albums that stand out.  Although I’m really tired of “Tiny Dancer,” Madman Across the Water is an excellent LP, consistent, with not a bad track to be found.  Even songs titled “Razor Face” and “Rotten Peaches” hit the mark, and the closing song, “Goodbye,” is so marvelously melancholy, it’s rivaled only by the bittersweet finale of what I consider to be Elton John’s best album, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy.  The highs on this album are very high – “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” “Tower of Babel” – and even the lesser tracks are excellent.  My only gripe about this autobiographical album is the insanely overpowering drum track with slap-back echo on “Better Off Dead,” an otherwise great track.  I have no idea what producer Gus Dudgeon was thinking. The last song, “Curtains,” is tear-inducing and happened to finish off season one of Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Whoever chose that song for the series deserves a medal.

That’s it for now! Next week I’ll add twenty more selections.

Are Spine-tingling Musical Discoveries Over?

Robert Plant recently said of the constant request to reunite Led Zeppelin, “magazines and internet platforms should be supporting new music” rather than clamoring for reunions. A fair argument for a man who fronted the band over thirty-seven years ago (with a few one-off reunions since). His retort inspired me to investigate his recent output, and I’m listening to his latest album, “Carry Fire,” as I write this. And it’s fine. It might even be good. Plant has proven to be among the most versatile vocalists in rock history, but there’s nothing about his new music that’s shaking me down to my soul, imploring me to listen. 

It’s not Plant’s fault. Creating something that screams “this is something you HAVE to hear” is getting harder and harder to achieve, and I’m beginning to think that music has largely played itself out. Everything that you’re able to accomplish using 12 tones has been achieved (check out The Guardian's article, Has Pop Finally Run Out of Tunes.). Classical music hit a wall in the 20th Century, giving way to Dixieland and jazz, giving way to blues and folk, giving way to simple rock followed by prog rock, breaking back down to punk, post-punk, new wave, giving way to rap and hip hop, electronic, etc. This isn’t to say that there isn’t good music being written and performed today – in fact, I’d argue that there may be more good music today than at anytime on the planet, simply because there’s SO MUCH to choose from – but I doubt that many current acts are breaking any new ground. I’m currently rehearsing songs for my tenth album, and while I truly like the compositions and think it’s going to end up sounding great, I’d be a moron to think that any of it is particularly inventive and not leaning heavily on influences of other artists.

“Ah-hah” moments – those spine-tingling revelations that grab you by the collar and assault you emotionally – happen few and far between for me these days, but they DO happen once in a while, most times in the car where most of my new music listening occurs. In 1980 Rush sang about radio’s “magic at your fingers,” and for me, this has certainly been the case, as I can recall several "Ah hah” moments in transit:

2016:  Heading north on York Road in Elmhurst, returning home from volunteering at a food bank, I tuned into WDCB playing “Porcupine Dreams” by the Danny Green Trio. It blew me away. I’ve written since about Green’s stellar album, Altered Narratives, but it bears repeating: listen to this recording!

2011:  In the parking lot at the mini-golf on Lake Street in Addison, I waited for my son to leave a birthday party when “Rolling in the Deep” by Adelle came on WXRT. Say what you want about Adelle, but the gal has chops. This song grabbed me by the gut and didn’t let go.

2009:  Driving to drop off the kids at Hebrew school on a Wednesday afternoon, WXRT played “Oscar Wilde” by a local band called Company of Thieves. Holy crap. Intelligent, sultry, angry, rocking, enticing - everything that I want in a song was there, and all in under five minutes.

1999: On my way to kill some time with my girls on a cold winter’s day, I took some extra time in the Lehigh Valley Mall parking lot as the disc jockey of Muhlenberg College’s WMUH played a song by a woman singing the lyric “I can’t breathe” over an infectious drum loop and haunting Rhodes keyboard. Unfortunately, this was pre-smart phone, so I jotted down what I could remember about the song and what time it was played. Upon returning home I called the radio station, by which time a classical guy was manning the radio booth. He was kind enough to go back to the previous jockey's song log and start rattling off song titles, eventually coming to the title “Here with Me” by an artist named Dido. That was it! One of the best songs of the 1990s. 

1995: After flying into Detroit, I borrowed my brother’s car to drive to Grand Rapids for a friend’s wedding, and on the way a very angry woman spouted off venomous words to a former lover. I needn’t have jotted down the song title or the woman’s name the way I did, as the song “You Oughta Know” by Alanis Morissette consumed the airwaves for the next six months and beyond. It was a game changer, and it was evident upon first listen.

1995: Just six months after the revelation of Alanis, I heard the pounding piano, falsetto voices and witty, sardonic lyrics of Ben Folds Five. Driving with my handheld recorder that I used to quickly document song ideas, I pressed record in case the DJ of WXPN didn’t announce the artist and song right away. I still own the tape today of the fantastic final thirty seconds of “Underground.” Four years later I was recording my own songs that were directly linked to that revealing day driving around in my crappy Dodge Neon.

Lately, I've been tuning into classical radio when I'm in the car. The songs I’m hearing on XRT are predictable and lifeless. The songs on classic rock radio are overplayed and cumbersome. Jazz on WDCB is hit and miss. But classical often provides the challenge my ears are searching for, something I wouldn’t have predicted just a few years ago. 

Where music goes from here is open to debate, but there will always be opportunities to discover “ah hah” moments - if not from new artists, then retroactively. Leaning on the familiar denies the spark of insight and emotional intensity that the soul seeks. Keep searching and once in a while you may find it.

Ben Folds in Los Angeles

When I first heard Ben Folds Five while driving in 1995 I nearly crashed my car in excitement. I’d never heard anything like it before. A funny, smart, musical piano-based trio sang “Underground” on the radio, a week later I overpaid for the album at CD World, a few years later I sang their songs to my twin daughters, and in 2012 the brainwashing culminated in a Ben Folds Five reunion performance with all three of my children in attendance.

At the Ace Hotel in Los Angeles on Sunday night, my daughter and I took in a solo Ben Folds show of his “Paper Airplane Request Tour” and enjoyed an impressive and somewhat unpredictable performance, as Folds took audience recommendations for the last half of the evening (via paper airplanes thrown onto the stage). My other daughter had attended his Louisville performance last April and was somewhat disappointed with the song selection, as Folds leaned too heavily on familiar territory. The paper airplane tour has helped to alleviate this tendency, and a quick glance at the shows thus far confirms that the second halves of have been completely different, and the loose nature of the programs have also allowed Ben to improv songs on the spot for comedic effect. At Sunday’s concert he performed two ad-libbed songs – one for a man in the audience who was being a dick and another for the theater where he was performing – and both were hilarious.

Folds is an exceptional piano player, something I don’t think I fully realized until this performance. When I watched Folds and Rufus Wainwright perform back in 2004 at Ravinia in Chicago the latter’s piano skills stood out to me, but Folds is right up there, exhibiting not only his own unique style and sound (something very difficult to achieve on the piano) but also very technical runs and hand independence that far surpass anything Elton John or Billy Joel are capable of at the piano. Because of this, an entire evening of piano never got old; Folds has enough tricks up his sleeve to make the last song sound as engaging as the first.

Aside from skipping the repertoire of the last Ben Folds Five release and his collaboration with Nick Hornby, each of his albums were well represented on Sunday, including his most recent effort, So There, whose songs were much more vibrant and effective as a solo performance than on the album that highlighted an accompanying sextet.

Like James Taylor, Folds is able to introduce a song as if it’s the first time he’s ever done so, with an engagingly dry wit and timing. The most compelling may have been his prelude to “Not a Fan,” during which he recounted a moment after a Cincinnati concert when a boyfriend of a fan pulled a knife on him. Apparently some people can really get worked up over music.

The last song of the first set included a short drum duet and piano duet with singer Josh Groban (who knew?) and then the airplanes flew and littered the stage, resulting in some deep cuts that had Folds slightly stumped. “Redneck Past” required a cheat sheet and Folds stumbled in the middle section of “Kyle from Connecticut,” but the rest of set was more familiar.  A 17 year-old aspiring actress who sat in front of me went crazy when Folds began “Emaline,” and my daughter and I high-fived during “Cologne,” an example of one of the singer’s biggest talents – composing beautifully heart-wrenching songs. That fans actually threw airplanes onstage to request “The Luckiest” and “Gracie” was a disappointment (that’s what you wanted him to play out of his entire repertoire?) but “Narcolepsy” and “Where’s Summer B.” helped redeem that audience in my eyes.

Prior to this performance I admit that Folds had grown a little stale in my eyes. His past four albums haven’t excited me nearly as much as his past efforts (the last one to grab me was Way to Normal), but this performance convinced me that he’s still a force to be reckoned with. A more motivated version of me would spend the next year dissecting his songs and piano playing to really get a better handle on his craft. For now, I’ll have to settle for recording my own piano-based trio sometime this winter for my next album, hopefully with a unique result, but undoubtedly owing a great deal to the man that paved the way.

Two Albums I Missed

I must have been preoccupied in 2004 and 2005 – something to do with three kids under the age of eight I suppose – because aside from Rufus Wainwright’s Want Two, I can’t recall any new album that I purchased during that timeframe. Flash forward thirteen years or so and I’m filling in a few gaps, and I’ve found two gems from the mid 2000s that I missed the first time around: Paul McCartney’s Chaos and Creation in the Backyard and William Shatner’s (yes, that William Shatner) Has Been. Both are fantastic, and dare I say, McCartney’s album from 2004 may be among his top five albums of his entire post-Beatles career.

McCartney is one of those artists who I want to like more than I actually do, and therefore often overrate an album in retrospect. People often refer to his 1989 release Flowers in the Dirt as a great ablum, but listen to it again sometime and you may conclude that it’s a pretty good album. Sure, he makes a bold statement with Elvis Costello’s co-written opening track, and the album chugs along nicely for a while, but it falls off the rails completely by the end (and track two – “Rough Ride” – blows). But when compared it to his prior efforts, Press to Play and Pipes of Peace, its high marks are exaggerated.

Chaos is something different. With the help of producer Nigel Godric and a supporting cast of musicians mostly named Paul McCartney, the former Beatle recorded what is undoubtedly his best in the past twenty-five years and probably his best since Back to the Egg. (I had previously considered Tug of War great but realized that I conveniently overlooked ”Dress me up as a Robber” and “Ebony and Ivory.”) Unlike so many McCartney albums, there isn’t one track on Chaos that leads me to reach for the “next track” button, and many of the songs are downright stellar.

McCartney proves he can still deliver a deftly-crafted pop song in “A Fine Line” and can make a gentle nod to his Beatles past with tracks like “Jenny Wren” and “English Tea,” but for me the standouts are songs that offer an unexpected darker side. My favorite albums moments are:

  • The 2:05 mark of “How Kind of You” as the drums and electric guitar kick in. The tune is lyrically hopeful but juxtaposed nicely against a rather melancholy harmonic progression that’s only enhanced by the drone of a harmonium.
  • The opening of “At the Mercy,” a particularly complex song both melodically and harmonically, deliciously dark by McCartney’s standards with a universal lyric.
  • The entire track of “Riding to Vanity Fair.” This gets my vote for the best song on the album, a gem that lifts the veil from Paul’s sunny disposition and wades in the waters of resentment.

While listening to this album for the first time I had assumed that it was about his breakup with Heather Mills, but alas, they didn’t divorce until 2008. Still, Chaos exudes uneasiness, reminding me of Ben Folds’s Songs for Silverman in that it may have captured the beginning of a downfall that didn't come to fruition until a few years later.

All in all, Chaos is a beautifully rich and complex album.  I’ve listened to it more in the past six months than any other album I own.

And now to William Shatner. When I saw him perform “Common People” on The Tonight Show with Ben Folds and Joe Jackson, both of whom are among my favorite musicians, the song peeked my interest back in 2004. And then I awoke the next morning to get the kids ready for school and forgot all about it.

Fast forward eleven years later, when – in an effort to prove to my friend Kevin that 1995 was in fact a terrific year for rock music and not its nadir – I purchased the album Different Class by the band Pulp, and the fantastic third track “Common People” suddenly reminded me of the Shatner performance. I finally took the plunge and purchased Has Been earlier this year on the advice of a musician friend of mine, and lo and behold, the former Captain Kirk – with the help of producer and co-writer Ben Folds – pulls off a brilliant combination of wit, vulnerability, frustration and hilarity.

Shatner can’t sing. He knows he can’t sing, and when I mean he can’t sing, I don’t mean he can’t sing well, I mean he CAN NOT SING. It’s okay. Instead, he executes something close to beat poetry behind a backdrop of Folds musical compositions, and the results are often mesmerizing.  My favorite tracks from the album:

  • “It Hasn’t Happened Yet.” After the entertaining cover of “Common People,” Shatner lets the listener know that the album isn’t going to be one big joke, that lyrically he can match the uneasiness and regret of a good Jackson Browne song. Wonderfully evocative.
  • “You’ll Have Time.” Sure, it goes on a bit long, but it’s an excellent example of how a performance can raise the ante. Reading the lyrics to this song and one might think, “meh,” but hear the lyrics out of Shatner’s mouth, and it’s comedic perfection.
  • Nothing wins me over more than an artist who doesn’t take himself too seriously (and there have been plenty of times in Shatner’s career when he seemed to take himself WAY too seriously), and in “I Can’t Get Behind That” he and Henry Rollins recite a litany of things that make their blood boil. And then Shatner says, “I can’t get behind so-called singers that can’t carry a tune, get paid for talking. How easy is that?”  I’m sold!

So there you are. Two of undoubtedly dozens of great albums I missed in the mid 2000s. If you’ve got a few more suggestions, send them my way. It seems there’s always time to make up for lost time.

Copyright, 2017, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved