Album of the Week, March 19: Glass Houses by Billy Joel

joelglasstvBilly Joel had music in his life from birth. His father was a classical pianist who fled Europe to escape the Nazis. His mother, another Jewish refugee, encouraged music in the household and insisted that young Billy take piano lessons. Despite his initial resistance, he showed a natural aptitude. After his parents divorced, he played in piano bars to help his mother make ends meet; that work interfered with his studies, and rather than extend his high school years, he dropped out to play rock and roll. Inspired by the Beatles, the Drifters, and the Four Seasons, he worked in a series of Long Island bands and did some session work.

His first solo album, Cold Spring Harbor, was released to little fanfare. While touring to support it, he was signed by Columbia and moved to Los Angeles. His experience in a local piano bar there formed the basis of the title track for his second album, Piano Man. That disc sold modestly, but established him as a talented singer, pianist, and songwriter with a knack for charming pop, sometimes with a rock edge. After two more solid albums that established his sound, he broke big with The Stranger, followed by the nearly as massive 52nd Street. By 1979, he was a certified superstar, with platinum #1 albums, nine Top 40 hits, and a handful of Grammy awards. Frustrated by his inability to get critical acclaim that matched his success, he headed to the studio with his long-time band to record his finest album.

Title Glass Houses
Act Billy Joel
Label Columbia Release Date March 10, 1980
Producer Phil Ramone
U.S. Chart  #1 U.K. Chart  #9
[U.S. Hot 100]
  1. You May Be Right [#7]
  2. Sometimes A Fantasy [#36]
  3. Don’t Ask Me Why [#19]
  4. It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me [#1]
  5. All For Leyna
  6. I Don’t Want to Be Alone
  7. Sleeping With the Television On
  8. C’était Toi (You Were the One)
  9. Close to the Borderline
  10. Through the Long Night

Glass Houses was both a departure and a logical progression. Joel intentionally incorporated more electronic keyboards and synths into the mix and pursued music with nods to punk and New Wave. Through it all, however, he still wrote, played, and sang like Billy Joel, creating a unique synthesis that worked almost in spite of itself. The shattering glass sound effect that opens side one is an apt aural metaphor.

The first four tracks were all Top 40 hits — an unusual feat for the time that duplicated the success of The Stranger. They’re a mixed bag, but each charming in their own right. You May Be Right borrowed from My Life and Movin’ Out, but added a post-punk edge to the sound. Joel roughened his vocals a bit, fitting the story of the bad boy looking for love on his own terms. The second track was another story altogether. Sometimes A Fantasy is a clever song about phone sex that sounds like an Elvis impersonator borrowing Billy Idol’s band. And it works. The result is fun, urgent, and one of Joel’s best songs. Don’t Ask Me Why is another look at relationships and personal interactions, just smug enough without being snide. It also sounds the most like his earlier hits, helping long-time fans feel at home.

It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me is famously the singer’s kiss-off to those who don’t appreciate his musical roots and approach. With nods to classic 50s pop sounds in a very New Wave setting, it shouldn’t work, but it does. Joel’s committed delivery and fun lyrics pull the whole thing together — and result in his first #1 single. Side one wraps up with a fantastic should-have-been-a-hit track. All For Leyna is an urgent, lusty tour-de-force. Joel’s protagonist is obsessed with a woman who may be indifferent, may be no good for him, may be just teaching him a lesson. Whatever the case, he can’t stay away. It’s a great song, with a stunning piano line and smart backup from the whole band.

After that set, side two somehow manages to keep up the pace. I Don’t Want to Be Alone is a wonderful love song, less easy listening than some of his earlier romantic tunes. Joel borrows a semi-Reggae riff that owes something to early Elvis Costello, giving the track an extra twist that helps it work. Sleeping With the Television On is his finest hit that never was, a perfect dissection of how independence and loneliness intersect. The mundane metaphor is perfect, adding a familiarity to the proceedings that makes the story universal. C’etait Toi is the lone throwaway, a fluffy bit of low-key wistfulness that’s partly in French for no particular reason.

On Close to the Borderline, Joel offers his own take on punk attitude. It’s somewhere between hard rock, pure punk, and new wave pop, and again, the determination and skill of the band make it work. It’s a fun romp that shows off how Joel can rock well when he puts his mind to it. Things wrap up with the most classic Joel moment. Through the Long Night sounds more like the decade it’s ushering in than the one it’s leaving, but the sweet sentiment and elegant delivery harken back to the Piano Man’s arc over the 15 previous years. It’s a smart track to end the disc, both as a career touchstone and as a sort of lullaby coda.

Over the course of ten tracks and barely 35 minutes, Billy Joel and company accomplish what they set out to do. Glass Houses is less a reinvention than a smart burst of artistic growth. The variety of lyrical and musical approaches helps it rise above his previous work. It also set the stage for the best — as well as the most indulgent — moments of the decades to come.

FURTHER LISTENING: Billy Joel has said he’s done recording pop and rock music, so his full career is available for the listening. With nearly three dozen Top 40 hits, he’s well anthologized. The three Greatest Hits volumes capture his radio-friendly career relatively well, tossing in a couple fan favorite album tracks for good measure. For a single disc sampling, either The Essential Billy Joel or The Hits does an adequate job that should satisfy the casual fan.

His just over a dozen albums are a mixed bag, usually including a couple of solid hits, a couple of great album tracks, some interesting songs, and some filler. The Stranger and 52nd Street are the most successful and most praised, but not my favorites. After Glass Houses, I recommend The Nylon Curtain. It’s trickier, and has some famously awkward lyrical moments, but the production is amazing and the adventurous spirit is compelling. An Innocent Man is a wonderful tribute to the music of Joel’s youth, and arguably his most consistent disc.


Album of the Week, March 5: Heart Like A Wheel by Linda Ronstadt

ronstadtwheeleyesLinda Ronstadt grew up in Tucson, AZ, the daughter of pioneering Arizona ranchers of mostly German and Mexican descent. Her whole family loved music, and she absorbed a wide array of styles by the time she was 10. She credits significant influence from artists as disparate as Hank Williams and Maria Callas. At 14, she and two of her siblings formed a folk trio. She grew increasingly interested in merging folk and rock, eventually dropping out of college to join friend Bobby Kimmel in L.A. They hooked up with Kenny Edwards and formed the Stone Poneys, whose Different Drum gave Ronstadt her first hit. After three Poneys discs, she went solo, recording a series of albums blending pop, country, and folk and touring with artists ranging from the Doors to Jackson Browne. Her albums met with limited success, but she gradually developed a distinctive style and a significant circle of like-minded musical friends and collaborators. Her 1973 album Don’t Cry Now found her working with J.D. Souther, future Eagles Glenn Frey and Don Henley, and — significantly — British pop singer and producer Peter Asher. They meshed well in the studio, with Asher understanding Ronstadt’s broad tastes and talents. He signed on as producer for her next album, which proved to be her breakthrough.

Title Heart Like A Wheel
Act Linda Ronstadt
Label Capitol Release Date November 1974
Producer Peter Asher (with Andrew Gold)
U.S. Chart  #1 U.K. Chart  n/c
[U.S. Hot 100]
  1. You’re No Good [#1]
  2. It Doesn’t Matter Anymore
  3. Faithless Love
  4. Dark End of the Street
  5. Heart Like A Wheel
  6. When Will I Be Loved? [#2]
  7. Willin’
  8. I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You)
  9. Keep Me From Blowin’ Away
  10. You Can Close Your Eyes

Heart Like A Wheel set up the formula that launched a superstar career. Asher and Ronstadt rounded up a collection of classic rock and R&B covers, songs written by her friends and contemporaries, and new songs suited to the country-pop flavor of the album from a variety of writers. The result was a smart, cohesive adventure in music. It was also a showcase for Ronstadt’s vocal power, showing off more range and depth than her previous solo work. Asher also brought in multi-instrumentalist Andrew Gold — who assisted with production on some tracks — and engineer Val Garay; the three would be mainstays of Ronstadt’s music for nearly a decade.

Things kick off in high fashion with a song Ronstadt and her band frequently used to close her live shows. You’re No Good is a smoldering song of romance gone wrong, a classic R&B track written by Clint Ballard and recorded a handful of times before Ronstadt perfected it. A very different sound than her previous more country-tinged tracks, it’s a smart choice and a great introduction to the disc. It also became her first big hit and her only Hot 100 chart-topper.

It Doesn’t Matter Anymore — another classic cover written by Paul Anka and made famous by Buddy Holly and the Crickets — is more like her earlier work, but sounds fresh and inviting after the strong lead-in. Souther’s Faithless Love is a great country-pop torch song with a charming arrangement and a passionate vocal. Pop chestnut Dark End of the Street finds new life with Ronstadt’s restrained vocal and sudden, urgent surges of sorrow. The title track is and inspired choice, a quirky, literate look at the challenges of love written by Anna McGarrigle. Ronstadt channels the distinctive energy of the song, adding a pop standard vocal that differs completely from the McGarrigle version, working just like a good cover should.

Side two opens with another classic song that became another big hit. The team transform the Everly Brothers’ quietly wistful When Will I Be Loved into a demand for the love the singer deserves. Short and powerful, it works nicely and shows of the clever sequencing of the album. Lowell George’s Willin’ is an even odder choice than the title track, a song about trucking written from a very masculine point of view. Ronstadt mines the essential humanity of the song, however, and the production is flawless. Up next is a tribute to one of her main influences, a solid cover of Hank William’s I Can’t Help It. Ronstadt offers a respectful interpretation, crafting an homage rather than a surprise, and it works well. Keep Me From Blowing Away is a lovely song of loss written by fellow Williams fan Paul Craft. It makes for a solid pairing.

Things wrap up with the gorgeous You Can Close Your Eyes. Written by James Taylor about his relationship with Joni Mitchell, it’s a modern lullaby of aching beauty. Taylor himself has recorded it solo and with both Mitchell and Carly Simon, and dozens of other artists have interpreted the song over the years. Ronstadt’s may be the finest approach, however, with the production discovering the hope in the sorrow, the possibility in the leaving. It’s a perfect way to wrap up a stunning album.

FURTHER LISTENING: Heart Like A Wheel matched the chart success of its lead single, becoming the first of Ronstadt’s three #1 albums. It propelled her to stardom, and over the course of the following decade she became one of the best-selling pop artists in the country. Her next six discs were fairly similar in approach, gradually taking on a more New Wave flavor as she entered the 80s. Since then, she’s offered up a variety of sounds, ranging from traditional Mexican music to pop standards to country-pop gems (often in collaboration with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris). She stopped recording in 2006, revealing in 2013 that Parkinson’s disease made singing difficult. All of her albums offer something charming. Besides Wheel, her most consistent album (and a sentimental favorite of mine) is 1982’s Get Closer. Hasten Down the Wind is a good showcase with some strong tracks, and Simple Dreams is her second-best pop-rock set. With 21 Top 40 hits, her chart career distills nicely. If you’re mostly interested in her radio material — which is solid but misses many of her finer moments — The Very Best of Linda Ronstadt is a solid collection.

Album of the Week, January 10: Precious Time by Pat Benatar

BenatarPreciousPatricia Andrzejewski was born in Brooklyn 63 years ago today. She developed an early interest in music and theatre, starting voice lessons at the age of eight. Trained as a coloratura, she planned to go to Julliard but changed direction at the last minute, enrolling in a nursing program. She left that to marry her high school sweetheart, gaining the surname Benatar and a career as a bank teller following his military postings. Inspired by a Liza Minnelli concert, she quit banking and became a singing waitress, eventually becoming a regular performer at the Catch A Falling Star club. She developed a solid rock repertoire and recruited a sterling band; after a headlining run at Tramps, she was signed to Chrysalis records. Producer Mike Chapman, who had vowed to take on no new clients, changed his tune after hearing her demo and manned the boards for her debut, In the Heat of the Night. A reasonable success, it was followed by the smash Crimes of Passion. That album featured her first Top 10 hit, Hit Me With Your Best Shot and went to #2, unable to dislodge the Lennon/Ono Double Fantasy juggernaut. Benatar and her band toured heavily to support the album, writing new material on the road. Chrysalis wanted to capitalize on Passion‘s success and rushed them into the studio.

Title Precious Time
Act Pat Benatar
Label Chrysalis Release Date July 6, 1981
Producer Keith Olsen and Neil Giraldo
U.S. Chart  #1 U.K. Chart  #30
[U.S. Hot 100]
  1. Promises In the Dark [#38]
  2. Fire and Ice [#17]
  3. Just Like Me
  4. Precious Time
  5. It’s A Tuff Life
  6. Take It Any Way You Want It
  7. Evil Genius
  8. Hard to Believe
  9. Helter Skelter

Benatar’s guitarist and future husband, Neil Giraldo, had effectively co-produced the second disc with Keith Olsen. On Precious Time, he received full credit for his efforts, helping ease the tension of the hectic sessions. Benatar and her band were a well-honed unit at this point, and had a solid formula for recording and song selection. As with the previous two albums, this disc included a couple of established covers, a couple of solid tracks from outside writers, and contributions from Benatar, Giraldo, and company.

The opening track is one of Benatar’s finest moments. She wrote the song with Giraldo, but was still nervous enough about her writing that she slid the lyrics under his hotel room door. The collaboration was powerful, however, and the slow build and lyrical structure are perfect. The song makes the most of Benatar’s vocal power, from a whisper to a roar, and the band are flawless behind her. The singer’s third Top 20 hit, Fire and Ice is next. Penned by Benatar and guitarist Scott Sheets with rising star songwriter Tom Kelly, it’s a great pop-rock track, firmly establishing her as a star.

Just Like Me was a #11 hit for Paul Revere and the Raiders in 1966. Benatar and company stay true to the original while giving it their own stamp. It’s a tested formula for her, and pays off as an energetic third track. The title track is a meditative number written by Tom Kelly’s musical partner, Billy Steinberg. It’s well suited to the rushed existence of the band at this point and provides a strong centerpiece for the disc. It’s a Tuff Life is a fluff track, a reggae-tinged Giraldo song that snarks at a poor-little-me celebrity. It’s a fun song that helps leaven the disc but arguably the weakest link.

Things surge back into form with Take It Any Way You Want It, an angry kiss-off song written by Giraldo with power popster Martin Briley. It’s a should-have-been-hit, zipping by in under three minutes, making its point perfectly and moving on. In lesser hands, Evil Genius would be melodramatic trash. Instead, Benatar and Giraldo craft it into a sort of 80’s thriller soundtrack piece. Over half the song is instrumental, showcasing the band and building the eerie tension that makes the song work. It’s smart and unexpected, a harbinger of musical explorations to come.

Drummer Myron Grombacher wrote Hard to Believe with Giraldo, proving his growing strength in all aspects of the Benatar team. It’s a solid pop rocker that would be a standout in lesser company. Benatar picked a risky cover to wrap up the proceedings. She describes the Beatles’ classic Helter Skelter as “something that rocked, sounded dark, and was a lot of fun to scream to.” It fits the dark themes of the album nicely and provides an energetic catharsis. Benatar has always had a great ear for songs to make her own, and this unexpected choice underscores that talent.

Pat Benatar has said that she was disappointed with Precious Time, feeling like it was too rushed. She wishes that the best of this disc and its follow-up Get Nervous had formed the “correct record”. I appreciate an artist who is critical of her own work, and the what-if track listing of the “Nervous Time” hybrid is fun to ponder. I disagree with her assessment, however. The demand to put down the tracks quickly forced the band to be honest and straightforward, eliminating the gloss that sometimes obscured her later work. The result is a powerful, consistent album — incidentally the singer’s only #1 — and a highlight in an impressive career.

FURTHER LISTENING: Benatar, Giraldo, and company knocked out four albums in four years as they established her as one of the best singers in the business. All four are solid, building in confidence and skill. Get Nervous hints at the more pop-oriented material that would dominate her hits after 1982. Her later albums have strong individual tracks but lack the cohesion of the early work; the finest is 1988’s Wide Awake In Dreamland. A mainstay of rock and pop radio in the 1980s, Benatar has an enviable collection of singles and an array of compilations. The best of these is 2005’s Greatest Hits, a 20-track set that includes all the hits and a couple of significant album tracks.

P.S. – Happy Birthday, Pat! Thanks for all the wonderful music.

Album of the Week, October 11: City to City by Gerry Rafferty

RaffertyCityGerry Rafferty was born and raised in the Scottish town of Paisley. He learned Irish and Scottish folk songs from his mother and developed a passion for Dylan and the Beatles. After leaving school he worked a variety of odd jobs, always intent on finding his way into a career in music. He and school chum Joe Egan performed together in a couple of bands, then Rafferty made his first big move. He joined Billy Connolly and Tam Harvey in the folk-pop group the Humblebums. Harvey soon departed, and the remaining duo recorded two solid albums of Connolly’s bluesy folk and Rafferty’s folk-tinged pop. When they split, the singer recorded his first solo album, the lovely Can I Have My Money Back? Producer Hugh Murphy and cover painter John “Patrick” Byrne would remain fixtures for much of Rafferty’s career. Joe Egan co-wrote a couple of songs on the disc, and the pair decided to form a new band. Stealers Wheel had some initial success, but internal tensions and label problems cased the group to fracture. Legal issues arising from that breakup kept Rafferty from releasing any music for over three years. He made the most of that time.

Title City to City
Act Gerry Rafferty
Label United Artists Release Date January 20, 1978
Producer Hugh Murphy
U.S. Chart  #1 U.K. Chart  #6
[U.S. Hot 100]
  1. The Ark
  2. Baker Street [#2]
  3. Right Down the Line [#12]
  4. City to City
  5. Stealin’ Time
  6. Mattie’s Rag
  7. Whatever’s Written In Your Heart
  8. Home and Dry [#28]
  9. Island
  10. Waiting For the Day

Rafferty spent long hours shuttling between Glasgow and London while he worked to resolve his legal problems. Those journeys — and the time it caused him to spend away from his family — provided inspiration for a wonderful set of songs. He kept in contact with friends in the music industry, so when he was finally able to return to the studio, he and producer Murphy assembled a crack band for the project. Rafferty took his diverse musical interests and filtered them all through the folk-pop lens he had refined in his early work, creating a cohesive sound that was instantly recognizable. The result was a pop masterpiece that propelled him to a level of fame he never expected.

Things open with a direct nod to Rafferty’s folk roots. The Ark opens with a nice fiddle-and-whistle tune before the drums kick in, propelling a beautiful song of journeying. Using the ancient story as a metaphor for new beginnings — with some dark times around them — Rafferty presents a compelling start to the album. A steady beat with quietly surging guitars provides the waves on which his vocals sail, welcoming the listener to a wonderful adventure.

Baker Street is a direct reflection of his divided life, relating the dark times he spent in London. It’s an epic song, told smartly in second person to make the very personal story resonate on a universal level. Arguably the finest moment in a sterling career, it also became Rafferty’s biggest hit, trapped behind Andy Gibb for six weeks at #2. Rafferty got his own back, however, when City to City hit #1 on the album chart, dislodging the monster soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever.

The second single is up next, the enchanting Right Down the Line, a touching tribute to his wife and the strength he drew from her during his travelling time. It’s a smart, beautiful song, showing off another side of Rafferty’s pop expertise. The title track is a classic train song, featuring a wonderful harmonica line and a rail-conjuring rhythm section. Noting the tedium of travel — and the small pleasures of the journey — Rafferty promises to return home as quickly as he can. City to City allows the narrative to run both directions, and avoiding explicit destination names allows the story to apply to anyone out on the road. Side one wraps up with the bluesy ballad Stealin’ Time a reflection on the practical losses of separation. Maintaining a strong undercurrent of hope, Rafferty makes the most of another look at relationships and distance.

The joyous Mattie’s Rag is dedicated to the singer’s daughter, a promise that the times they are going through will become fond memories in later years when he’s her “grand old man of rock”. It’s a delightful romp and provides a smart burst of sunshine in the night-time travelogue. Another standout track — both on this disc and in Rafferty’s career — is the second epic, Whatever’s Written In Your Heart. With a simple vocal-and-keyboard delivery, he celebrates the place where intentions and actions come together. In the end, the human feelings that connect us matter more than the moments we go through. It’s a moving masterpiece.

Home and Dry is another clever single, a culmination of the themes of the album. It celebrates the singer’s eventual return home and the love of his family, holding just enough tension to acknowledge everything it took to get to this point. Island opens with a tropical sax riff, allowing the reunited couple to indulge in some private time away from the world and its distractions. Rafferty provides a marvelous coda to the journey with Waiting For the Day, a song of hope delayed, propelled by determination.

Gerry Rafferty frequently observed that the central theme of his music was alienation. There’s truth to that, but when it works best he provides a lens of hope and humanity that gives the alienation context. With a compelling central image, City to City uses travel and separation to represent alienation. The carefully crafted tracks — smart but never slick, cohesive without sounding all the same — give human voice and heart to those feelings. The result is a pop masterpiece that holds up decades after its initial release, when so many of its contemporaries have faded into the disco dusk.

FURTHER LISTENING: Gerry Rafferty died in 2011, only 63. His constant tension with the industry that provided and interfered with his career resulted in a relatively small output considering the 40 years he recorded. Anyone interested in the whole arc of his career should consider the three-disc set Collected. It includes well-chosen selections from most of his albums, including his work with Stealers Wheel and the Humblebums. The 1998 EMI collection Baker Street is a nice overview of his solo hits with some well-chosen album cuts thrown in.

Both Night Owl and Snakes and Ladders were commercial successes, launched from the power of City to City. For my money, they suffer from follow-up syndrome, with some nice moments but not nearly as much spark. Any of the compilation albums captures the best of this pair. Fans interested in Rafferty’s finest should check out these three gems:

  • Can I Have My Money Back? (1971) is a strong debut, blending the more acoustic elements of the Humblebums with the solid 70s pop of Stealers Wheel.
  • Sleepwalking (1982) is a strong set of songs, arguably the most consistent album Rafferty recorded other than his masterpiece. Fans often reject it for its use of synths and drum machines. Rafferty actually made the most of the contemporary tools, staying true to his core sound. This is a personal favorite.
  • North and South (1988) is Rafferty’s return to music after another extended break. Working in a home studio, he set the stage for his later career, more intimate songs that still resonate with his fine musical energy.

Billboard #1s for the Week Ending September 7, 1985

This week’s Time Capsule!

Chart Title Act Weeks
Hot 100 St. Elmo’s Fire (Man In Motion) John Parr 1
R & B Saving All My Love For You Whitney Houston 1
Country I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me Rosanne Cash 1
Adult Contemporary Cherish Kool and the Gang 3
Rock Lonely Ol’ Night John Cougar Mellencamp 1
Album Brothers In Arms Dire Straits 2

jan_hammer-miami_vice_themeThis week sees an unsual confluence of pop culture accomplishments enter the Hot 100. When producer Michael Mann introduced his pioneering, highly stylized crime drama Miami Vice in 1984, one of the most notable aspects was its soundtrack. Mann tapped composer, keyboard player, and producer Jan Hammer to create a distinctive sound for the show, allowing him extraordinary freedom to build the music. Mann also spent huge amounts of money to land new, original songs and license older hits to add to the show’s atmosphere.

Hammer’s Miami Vice Theme, a surging, distinctive bit of synthesizer work, debuted on the Hot 100 this week at #59. It was the second hit from the show, following Glenn Frey’s Smuggler’s Blues [#12]. Frey followed the theme with another smash, the #2 You Belong to the City. These songs and a dozen others formed a soundtrack album that spent 11 weeks at #1, the most successful TV soundtrack ever for a non-musical show. The theme was also Hammer’s only Hot 100 hit, making him a true One Hit Wonder.

When Miami Vice Theme hit #1 on November 9, 1985, it made Hammer one of a handful of chart-topping One Hit Wonders. It was also the last instrumental to top the Billboard charts, bringing decades of instrumental success to a close. Instrumentals were a huge part of the charts in the big band years, and their success carried over into the early years of the rock era. Since the introduction of the Hot 100 in August 1958, two dozen instrumentals have topped the charts. The biggest hits of 1960 (Theme From A Summer Place by Percy Faith) and 1962 (Stranger On the Shore by Mr. Acker Bilk) were instrumentals.

The British Invasion saw a reduction in successful instrumentals, but they were still around. There was a resurgence during the disco years, but by 1981 they were fairly rare. After Vangelis topped the chart with Titles from Chariots of Fire in late 1981, there were a few more minor hits, then a couple of years with no instrumental hits at all. Since Miami Vice Theme hit #1, only a half-dozen instrumentals have made it into the Top 10.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE: There are a handful of songs that are instrumental tracks with minor vocal elements. Some of these are considered instrumentals by the editors at Billboard. Four disco-era #1s — TSOP by MFSB and the Three Degrees, The Hustle by Van McCoy, Fly Robin Fly by Silver Convention, and  Gonna Fly Now by Bill Conti — are such semi-instrumentals. In 2013, trap and bass producer Baauer spent five weeks at #1 with Harlem Shake, another track in this category. If one counts these songs, Baauer finally broke the instrumental chart-topper dry spell after almost 30 years.

Album of the Week, June 7: American Pie by Don McLean

McLeanAPDon McLean hit singer-songwriter gold with his second album. Born and raised in Westchester County, NY, he was an asthmatic child who missed long stretches of school. During that time he nurtured a love of folk music, learning guitar and making friends with established folk musicians like the Weavers. After a brief attempt at college, he began touring heavily, writing songs and honing his craft, mentored by the great Pete Seeger. He returned to college part-time, eventually earning a degree in business administration while bolstering his folk credentials and reputation. His debut album, 1969’s Tapestry, was rejected by dozens of labels before Mediarts picked it up. It got decent reviews but was hardly noticed outside of folk circles. Then two things happened: McLean experienced a truly inspired  songwriting streak and Mediarts was purchased by United Artists. That combination — together with a majestic epic of a title track — resulted in a massively successful album that stands as one of the major highlights of the singer-songwriter boom.

Title American Pie
Act Don McLean
Label United Artists Release Date  October 24, 1971
Producer Ed Freeman
U.S. Chart  #1 U.K. Chart  #3
[U.S. Hot 100]
  1. American Pie [#1]
  2. Till Tomorrow
  3. Vincent [#12]
  4. Crossroads
  5. Winterwood
  6. Empty Charis
  7. Everybody Loves Me, Baby
  8. Sister Fatima
  9. The Grave
  10. Babylon

The title track sets a high bar. Using the death of Buddy Holly as a launching point, McLean explores the history of rock music, the tumultuous challenges of an America coming to grips with itself in the 60s, and the loss of innocence experienced by a man emerging into adulthood. With simple, human moments, brilliantly crafted images, a bit of epic allegory, and a smart sense of history, McLean created one of the best-known songs of the rock era, a track so compelling that radio stations were willing to use up over eight minutes of air time to let the song spin its full magic on the airwaves. The build is perfect and McLean’s vocal is riveting. This one track ensured his place in the rock pantheon.

Amazingly, the powerful chops he developed on the road — honing an intimate performing style that inspired the song Killing Me Softly With His Song — poured out in a series of songs that can stand up proudly next to the title track. Till Tomorrow was one of the last tracks written for the album. A quiet, guitar-based folk song, it ponders the loss of love in the American conversation as Viet Nam and the civil rights movement divided the nation. It’s a lovely bit of intimate protest folk that transcends its time.

Vincent was the album’s other hit, an unlikely tribute to Vincent van Gogh. Using the painter’s masterpiece Starry Night as a touchstone, McLean ponders mental illness, brilliance and passion in a touching ode. Switching to piano, Crossroads paints a picture of a man coming to grips with the disappointments in life. Fundamentally optimistic, it builds slowly, using the redemptive forces of love and hope as its beacon. Winterwood features nice guitar interplay and natural imagery inspired by a scene McLean saw on a drive. It’s a fun love song with a cheerful energy that brightens the album.

Things get pensive again on Empty Chairs, a song of loss. McLean crafts a perfect metaphor for absence, wielding it carefully as he sings a fragile, compelling lyric. It’s a highlight in a stellar set. Switching moods once more, the rollicking Everybody Loves Me, Baby is a satiric delight. Sung from the perspective of a powerful man who can’t get the attention of a woman he finds compelling, it’s a witty romp. Over the top in all the right ways, McLean has a lot of fun with this track, adding to the musical and emotional diversity of the album.

Sister Fatima is a beautiful sketch of a song. Using the fortune-teller as a symbol of faith and hope, McLean ponders their power and the ways they can lead us astray. The closing line floats off, unresolved, leaving the tension appropriately unresolved. On The Grave, McLean presents his most direct bit of protest folk, a harrowing look at warfare. Stark and gripping, it fits perfectly in the tradition of songs like Where Have All the Flowers Gone and And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda.

McLean wraps things up with a traditional song that he learned from Lee Hays of the Weavers. Babylon rose to prominence in the Warsaw ghetto in the 30s, a song of hope for the future during a time of hopelessness. Hays and McLean arranged it as the closing track, “because it fit perfectly with the overall effort.” It’s a smart choice, with the round creating a lasting impact that lingers long after the needle lifts from the groove.

FURTHER LISTENING: Over the next two decades Don McLean continued to produce wonderful folk-pop songs. Changing musical tastes and the daunting task of living up to his masterpiece kept him from sustained chart success, but he has created an impressive, acclaimed body of work. Curiously, his second biggest success came with a couple of early 80s covers: a stirring rendition of Roy Orbison’s Crying and a nice reading of the Skyliners’ Since I Don’t Have You. No single McLean album comes close to American Pie, although his catalog includes some amazing work. The 2003 anthology Legendary Songs of Don McLean is a great career overview.

Album of the Week, May 10: The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd

FloydDarkSideBy 1973, Pink Floyd had established themselves as a solid band, turning out album after album of well-crafted space rock peppered with interesting experiments. They recorded one album and a couple of singles featuring charmingly naive psychedelia before founding vocalist Syd Barrett’s fragile mental health sidelined him. The remaining quartet — bassist/vocalist Roger Waters, keyboard player Richard Wright, percussionist/drummer Nick Mason, and guitarist/vocal David Gilmour (brought in at first to bolster Barrett) — picked up on the bolder instrumental work from that first disc. From 1968 to 1972, they churned out eight albums (including their soundtrack work), becoming a cohesive, impressive musical unit. Nothing in that solid record, however, prepared the public for what came next.

Title The Dark Side of the Moon
Act Pink Floyd
Label Harvest Release Date March 1, 1973
Producer Pink Floyd
U.S. Chart  #1 U.K. Chart  #2
[U.S. Hot 100]
  1. Speak to Me
  2. Breathe (In the Air)
  3. On the Run
  4. Time
  5. The Great Gig In the Sky
  6. Money [#13]
  7. Us and Them
  8. Any Colour You Like
  9. Brain Damage
  10. Eclipse

The Dark Side of the Moon is one of the best — and most successful — albums of all time. What made it so different from its predecessors was a complex blend of factors, all guided by the shared musical vision of a band at their creative peak.

THE APPROACH: Unlike other Floyd discs, Dark Side was largely presented in live shows starting a year before the band entered the studio. Most of the tracks had been tweaked and polished live, giving the Floyd a strong set of recording-ready material. The songs were also crafted around a central theme of the stresses of modern life, making this an early concept album that set the stage not just for Pink Floyd’s future but for a whole subgenre of progressive, thematic rock. Each side was also recorded as a continuous piece of music, underscoring the thematic unity.

THE COLLABORATORS: Pink Floyd began producing themselves — with occasional assistance from early producer Norman Smith — starting with their third release. They tended to play and sing all their own work, relying on minimal outside input other than minor vocal bits. For Dark Side, they brought in engineer Alan Parsons, whose experience on classics like Abbey Road and Let It Be prepared him to help the group realize their musical vision. He also brought in vocalist Clare Torry, whose vocal contributions to The Great Gig In the Sky were substantial enough to earn her a co-writing credit in a court settlement decades later. Other backing vocalists — Lesley Duncan, Doris Troy, Liza Strike, and Barry St. John — added critical texture and color to the sound. Dick Parry’s sax work was also a smart, necessary touch. By expanding the participants and trusting Parsons’ hand, the band enhanced their sonic palette without diluting the power or vision.

THE TOUCHES: In addition to the smart use of added vocalists and musicians, the album features some wonderful effects. Parsons contributed an array of sound effects that he had collected, including the multiple clocks that open Time. The group experimented effectively with their instruments, using treated bass, unusual percussion, and early analog synthesizers to create even more sonic variety. The album also features a series of spoken word contributions, answers to questions that Waters had written on cards and presented to friends, colleagues, and other people in and around Abbey Road studios at the time. The inclusion of these very human moments, carefully woven into the fabric of the songs, emphasizes the themes without detracting from the music.

THE SONGS: None of those other factors would matter much if it weren’t for the songs themselves. Pink Floyd crafted ten brilliant musical moments and sequenced them together to create a stunning whole. Each individual track holds its own but means much more in context. The three instrumentals — fewer than on most Floyd discs — are smart and meaningful on their own, serving as more than rock show-off moments or simple bridge work. The other seven tracks range from powerful, thoughtful epics like Time and Us and Them to poignant snapshots like Breathe and Brain Damage. Round that out with the otherworldly power of The Great Gig In the Sky and the unlikely 7/8 greed-bashing hit Money and the sum of the parts is pretty impressive, not to mention the whole.

THE RESULTS: The Dark Side of the Moon made Pink Floyd international superstars. It was their first US #1 (ironically stalling at #2 in the UK), but more impressively remained on the Billboard Top 200 Album list for 741 weeks. That kind of lasting presence is a testament to how well the music holds up and how powerfully it speaks to listeners more than 40 years after its initial release. The term “classic rock” is a bland reference to almost anything with a blues-derived rhythm section recorded between 1965 and 1979. The Dark Side of the Moon, on the other hand, is truly both things — a bold reinvention of rock and a classic in the musical canon of the rock era.

FURTHER LISTENING: After the brief Barrett years, Pink Floyd’s sound fits into three basic eras.

  • PRE DARK SIDE – the albums that developed the band’s sound and approach during their very busy 1968 – 72 period. It’s fairly easy to trace the elements as they come together during these years. The most successful was Atom Heart Mother and the finest overall album was Meddle.
  • THE CONCEPT YEARS – After 1973, Pink Floyd slowed down quite a bit, releasing only four albums over the next decade. Each is another thematic release, varying widely in effectiveness. Wish You Were Here is a charming, more low-key successor to Dark Side. The Wall is a sprawling, ambitious, slightly tortured epic that works in spite of itself and offers some of the band’s very best music. Animals is the weakest of the lot, although musically cohesive; The Final Cut has standout moments as it shows the fissures that would splinter the band in short order.
  • THE POST-WATERS YEARS – For over 30 years Pink Floyd has soldiered on without founder Roger Waters. While they’ve survived better musically than he has, his absence took a needed spark from the proceedings. Modern Floyd is a pretty solid arena rock band with very talented players.

Album of the Week, May 11: Tracy Chapman

tracy_chapmanIn an age of power ballads and video-driven pop, Tracy Chapman’s debut album didn’t seem likely to make much of an impression. By turns confessional, angry, personal, and political, the disc is a potent mix of singer-songwriter protest music and aching pop love songs. Somehow this timeless, authentic masterpiece found its audience in the waning days of Reagan’s America.

Tracy Chapman was born in Cleveland, OH in 1964 and learned to play the ukulele at the tender age of three. She attended Tufts University (eventually graduating with a BA in anthropology and African studies), busking and playing guitar in the many Boston-area folk venues. A fellow student — who happened to be the son of record mogul Charles Koppleman — passed Chapman’s demos along, securing her a deal with Elektra records. Superstar producer David Kershenbaum was looking for an acoustic project and agreed to helm Chapman’s debut disc. The result was a multi-platinum Grammy-winner that both summed up its time and was powerfully timeless.

Title Tracy Chapman
Act Tracy Chapman
Label Elektra Release Date April 15, 1988
Producer David Kershenbaum
U.S. Chart  1 U.K. Chart  1
[US Hot 100]
  1. Talkin’ Bout A Revolution [#75]
  2. Fast Car [#6]
  3. Across the Lines
  4. Behind the Wall
  5. Baby Can I Hold You [#48]
  6. Mountains O’ Things
  7. She’s Got Her Ticket
  8. Why?
  9. For My Lover
  10. If Not Now…
  11. For You

Elektra wisely decided to let Chapman’s work speak for itself, giving her a solid launch but no glitzy promotion. Her beautiful voice, piercing insights, and strong social conscience were allowed to take center stage, with Kershenbaum providing guidance but not overwhelming the new artist with his experience. He assembled the crack team of Larry Klein and Denny Fongheiser to provide rhythm behind Chapman’s guitar and vocals, adding other sympathetic talents as the songs demanded. The result is clean and crisp but never sterile.

Things kick off with one of the finest protest songs written after the civil rights era. Talkin’ Bout A Revolution is the perfect mix of anger and hope, both demanding and encouraging change. It sets the tone for the album perfectly, showing off Chapman’s musical power and clearly laying out her agenda for social justice. Fast Car, her amazing first single, ups the ante by using an agonizing story to illustrate the need for that revolution. It’s a sadly beautiful song about the way hope gets crushed by reality and the oppressive forces that cause people to act outside their best interests, aching for something just a little better.

Across the Lines is a stark look at ghettoization and racial tension. It could have been written for the Rodney King riots, if it hadn’t been written four years before they even happened. Behind the Wall is a potent a cappella look at domestic violence, weaving in the ugly societal factors that perpetuate the cycle. It’s one of Chapman’s finest vocals, starkly telling a second-hand story with deep personal feeling. Things get more personal with the lovely Baby Can I Hold You, an aching love song. After four powerful songs of social justice, anger, and sorrow, this plea for personal connection is especially powerful, a great example of careful track sequencing.

Mountains O’ Things shows off Chapman’s sense of humor and irony, with a bitter look at the mixed messages of consumer culture. Starting with the dreams of someone clearly low on the economic ladder, she slaps down that yearning with a scathing reminder that materialism is built on the backs of the poor. The song features the rare but clever use of keyboards, creating a dreamlike feel that helps the two threads weave together effectively. She’s Got Her Ticket takes the dream one step further, with its protagonist deciding to literally flee the cycle. Musically, it may be the weakest point on the album, coming off a bit slick, but lyrically it fits perfectly, continuing the narrative the Chapman and Kershenbaum so carefully wove.

Why? brings us back to the more universal level with another angry look at the state of the nation. Chapman sings with lovely, righteous anger, pondering all the ways the Land of the Free abuses its power and ignores the suffering. With a nice twist, For My Lover returns to the darkly personal. Fundamentally the story of a broken couple, it also nicely skewers the inequities of the so-called justice system. Chapman sings with an urgency unusual for her more personal songs, bridging her intimate and universal themes nicely.

If Not Now… continues that pattern, pondering the value of a dream deferred. On its surface, this is a more personal song, but it works perfectly in the larger political framework as well. This track, together with Talkin’ Bout A Revolution and Why? form a triad of brilliant socially conscious folk that hearkens back nearly thirty years, reclaiming an much-needed art form that had grown sadly quiet. The album ends with the earnest, yearning For You, a lovely song of need that shows off the depth of Chapman’s talent and voice.

Tracy Chapman made it to the top of the album charts and featured a surprising Top 10 single. It was nominated for seven Grammies, winning two. Tracy Chapman announced herself as a powerful musical force and reminded listeners that music with a conscience was still worthwhile. Justifiably included on many best-of lists, Tracy Chapman is a significant work that brilliantly frames the issues of its time but remains fresh and relevant 25 years later.

Album of the Week, April 20: Rumours by Fleetwood Mac

RumoursFleetwood Mac founder and guitarist Peter Green must have been prescient. After leaving John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Green took drummer Mick Fleetwood with him. Hoping to entice bassist John McVie along, he named the new project Fleetwood Mac. McVie hesitated briefly, then dived in. Fittingly, nearly 50 years on, the single constant in this volatile and productive band is its rhythm section, the men who gave it a name.

After a period of British success as a straight-ahead blues band (featuring guitarists Jeremy Spencer and Danny Kirwan in addition to Green), the band lost its founder and began to shift toward a pop-rock sound informed by their blues roots. Pianist and singer Christine Perfect provided some studio support, then married John McVie and joined the band. Fleetwood Mac shed guitarists due to emotional and chemical problems, eventually recruiting California soft rocker Bob Welch to fill the gap. After years of revolving door personnel (no two albums after the second featured the same lineup), label and legal problems, and inconsistent sales, Welch left, forcing Fleetwood and the McVies to take stock. They had moved to California and stumbled across folk-pop duo Buckingham-Nicks. The latter pair joined the band, recording the equally prescient restart named Fleetwood Mac and creating the nexus of a rock superpower.

Title Rumours
Act Fleetwood Mac
Label Warner Bros. Release Date February 4, 1977
Producer Fleetwood Mac with Richard Dashut and Ken Calliat
U.S. Chart  1 U.K. Chart  1
[US Hot 100]
  1. Second Hand News
  2. Dreams [#1]
  3. Never Going Back Again
  4. Don’t Stop [#3]
  5. Go Your Own Way [#10]
  6. Songbird
  7. The Chain
  8. You Make Loving Fun [#9]
  9. I Don’t Want to Know
  10. Oh Daddy
  11. Gold Dust Woman

By the time they recorded Rumours, Fleetwood’s marriage was on the skids and both the McVies and Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks had split. The emotional tensions, sudden burst of real stardom, and heavy touring had taken their toll. Fortunately for generations of pop music fans, that dark energy was harnessed into one of the finest — and biggest-selling — albums of all time. With Lindsey Buckingham taking the lead (and some help from talented guests), the band produced the disc themselves, further channeling the internal tensions through their creative lens. Despite having three vocalist / songwriters and an undercurrent of conflict, the band were more cohesive than ever, forming a tight, powerful unit that made the most of their individual contributions to a stunning whole.

Second-Hand News is the perfect welcome. A folky pop tune by Buckingham, its bitter lyrics make it clear where Fleetwood Mac are coming from. At the same time, the very personal words rise work on a stark, universal level. The same is true for Nicks’ Dreams. Surprisingly the band’s only US #1, it blends the raw personal emotion with her naturalist and mystical bent into a dark, emotive storm. On any other album it would be the finest track instead of one among many. Never Going Back Again finds Buckingham taking the wrongs he’s experienced and vowing to grow stronger from it, a nice bit of sequencing that emphasizes Rumours‘ genius.

That determination resonates further in the darkly optimistic Don’t Stop, one of Christine McVie’s best hits for the band. It’s a great celebration of a better day to come, with just enough focus on the darkness that preceded it to fit in perfectly. Buckingham’s masterpiece, Go Your Own Way, comes up next. A powerful acknowledgement that a relationship is done for, the performances are so strong that it resonates as a pop anthem despite its darkness. Buckingham turns in one of his best guitar solos and a remarkable vocal, creating one of the strongest singles of the 70s. Side one of the original vinyl ends with a quiet breath of fresh air, McVie’s contemplative Songbird. It’s a beautiful piano-and-vocal song that remains a standout in her long, impressive career.

Side Two opens with a bang. The Chain is the only song ever credited to the full quintet as writers and is the emotional core of Rumours. Angry, bitter, resigned, and determined, it proclaims all the pain that churned in the band members as they assembled for this album. It also features some of the strongest work of the Fleetwood / McVie rhythm section, an impressive feat that underscores the fact that (for now at least) Fleetwood Mac is a band — far greater than the sum of its individual parts.

You Make Loving Fun is a charming pop love song, almost a throw-away on this album but a great single in any other context. I Don’t Want to Know is a powerful oddity, a Nicks song sung by Buckingham which uses that twist to create some of its great power. Oh Daddy is McVie’s darkest contribution to the album, a quiet bluesy number that shows off her vocal and emotional range impressively. Things wrap up with Nicks’ Gold Dust Woman another hint at her lyrical direction that serves as a perfect closer to Rumours. Brooding and contemplative, it ponders fame and happiness, wishing for a balance that favors the latter. It’s one of her best vocals, further demonstrating how this project brought out the best in all its participants.

Rumours spawned a rare four Top 10 hits and ruled the album charts for most of 1977. With 31 weeks at #1 and eventually over 40 million units sold, it remains one of the most commercially successful albums of all time. Unlike many, it transcends its time and place, creating a wonderful, stirring listening experience that is a fresh and potent now as it was nearly 40 years ago.

FURTHER LISTENING: How do you like your Mac? I’m not a big fan of their blues period, but the work of that incarnation is solid and well-rated by fans of British blues. Of the albums between Peter Green and Buckingham-Nicks, Bare Trees and Heroes Are Hard to Find are the most consistent, showing hints of the pop champions to come. Fleetwood Mac is a stunning album, paling only in comparison to Rumours as the band tries to find the right blend of its members’ individual talents. The latter three albums by the famed quintet all have something to offer: Tusk is eccentric and sprawling with moments of glory; Mirage is a solid pop album that shows the band trying to hold itself together in the wake of solo successes; Tango In the Night is a lumpy pop mess with a handful of glorious songs and some pretty dull filler. After that, the revolving door starts again and only serious fans need worry about most of the output. For casual fans, 1988’s Greatest Hits is a perfect sampler of the most famous incarnation’s hits and the best entry-level anthology available.

Billboard #1s for the Week Ending March 31, 1984

This week’s Time Capsule!

Chart Title Act Weeks
Hot 100 Footloose Kenny Loggins 1
R & B Somebody’s Watching Me Rockwell 5
Country Let’s Stop Talkin’ About It Janie Fricke 1
Adult Contemporary Got A Hold On Me Christine McVie 4
Rock A Fine, Fine Day Tony Carey 1
Album Thriller Michael Jackson 35

LogginsFootlooseThis week sees the lead track from one of the most succesful movie soundtracks of all time top the charts. For his film about a town that prohibited dancing and the rebel who shook it up, screenwriter Dean Pitchford knew exactly who he wanted to sing the theme song. He contacted Kenny Loggins and together they wrote the infectious title track. It entered the Hot 100 at the end of January 1984 and two months later began a three-week run at the top.

It was really the perfect mix. Loggins had already hit the Top 10 with a soundtrack single (I’m Alright [#7, 1980] from Caddyshack.) He would chart five more soundtrack hits from three other films over the next decade. Footloose was a radio dominator for most of 1984, launching an impressive six Top 40 singles, more than most other albums of any sort at the time.

  • Footloose, Kenny Loggins [#1]
  • Let’s Hear It For the Boy, Deniece Williams [#1]
  • Holding Out For A Hero, Bonnie Tyler [#34]
  • Dancing In the Sheets, Shalamar [#17]
  • Almost Paradise, Mike Reno & Ann Wilson [#7]
  • I’m Free (Heaven Helps the Man), Kenny Loggins [#22]

Four of the six ended up in the Top 100 singles of the year. The soundtrack also nudged Thriller out of the #1 spot on the album chart, logging ten weeks at the top.


Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight uses statistical analysis — hard numbers — to tell compelling stories about politics, sports, science, economics and culture.


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