Can We Still Be Friends? Revisiting the Most Acclaimed Pop Albums of the 1970s

[Blogger’s note: In this series, I’m taking the Wayback Machine to a bygone musical era that began with the public break-up of the Beatles and ended with the first Top 40 singles by Prince. My source is Rolling Stone’s best 100 albums of the 1970s, culled from the magazine’s 500 all-time greats by an obliging Reddit user. I’ll focus on selected albums from the list and, if I may be so bold, award Test of Time Points based on how well they’ve held up over the decades, from 1 (stale as old toast) to 10 (still poppin’ fresh) in each case. Enjoy, and rock on!]

#93: Parliament – Mothership Connection (1975)

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Growing up in America in the mid-1970s, back in the pre-Spotify Stone Age, my go-to sources for new music were the three Rs: radio, record stores, and the roller rink. (Wait, is that four Rs?) Radio gave me my fix of the top pop hits of the day – “Philadelphia Freedom,” “Jive Talkin’,” etc. And as the record stores in my vicinity seemed to be staffed solely by long-haired potheads, I likely experienced my first taste of Pink Floyd and Yes in those hippie havens. But the roller rink is where I got schooled in funk and soul. Savvy ‘70s rink DJs knew that if they wanted to get us kids away from the snack bar and out onto the slick floor for an “All Skate,” they just had to drop the needle on “Getaway” by Earth, Wind & Fire, or “Love Rollercoaster” by the Ohio Players, or Parliament’s crossover smash “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker).” I couldn’t get enough of these rousing rink faves then and I’ve held them close to my heart ever since, even though I haven’t been on eight wheels in decades. Continue reading

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Absolute Beginner: The Adventures of a Middle-Aged U.K. Newbie

[Blogger’s note: I was born and raised in America, moved to Canada for love in the early 2000s, and recently relocated again, in my 50s, with my British-born spouse to the southern coast of his homeland. This is an occasional series about learning new tricks in Merry Old England.]

Keep the Change – No, You Keep the Change! The Tricky Business of Tipping in the U.K.

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Illustration by Jeff Cohen

The spouse and I ventured to Winchester one Sunday this spring to see a favourite singer-songwriter perform at a rustic pub near the town’s train station. While waiting for the show to begin, I sauntered up to the bar and ordered a lager, forking over a fiver to the sullen barman behind the taps. He slid the pint towards me and deposited the change, a 50-pence piece, into my outstretched palm. “Mind if I leave this with you?” I asked, hand still thrust toward him. He peered at me with a marked expression of distaste, as if I’d replaced the shiny coin in my grasp with an eviscerated dung beetle, or a ball of freshly foraged belly button lint, or a teeny-tiny MAGA hat. “I’d… rather you not,” he huffed, and folded his arms tightly across his chest as if to further protect himself from our toxic transaction. “Well, okay then,” I muttered, sheepishly pocketing the pence. I slunk away feeling like I’d committed some grievous faux pas akin to clipping my toenails during a church sermon, or publicly declaring that I actually enjoyed the Game of Thrones finale. Continue reading

Can We Still Be Friends? Revisiting the Most Acclaimed Pop Albums of the 1970s

[Blogger’s note: In this series, I’m taking the Wayback Machine to a bygone musical era that began with the public break-up of the Beatles and ended with the first Top 40 singles by Prince. My source is Rolling Stone’s best 100 albums of the 1970s, culled from the magazine’s 500 all-time greats by an obliging Reddit user. I’ll focus on selected albums from the list and, if I may be so bold, award Test of Time Points based on how well they’ve held up over the decades, from 1 (stale as old toast) to 10 (still poppin’ fresh) in each case. Enjoy, and rock on!]

#96: The Cars – The Cars (1978)

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Can I get through this review without resorting to automobile-related adjectives, metaphors, and/or puns? For you, dear reader, I shall attempt to steer clear abstain.

Unlike the band at #100 on the RS list, which launched its career full of quirky promise then grew artistically over several successive albums, the Cars peaked with this high octane dynamic and catchy first outing. At a time when rock was going through a bumpy transition from the bombast of superstar acts like Queen and the Who to the terse, punk-tinged sounds of the new wave era, one dweeby-looking Boston quintet managed to cruise in both lanes appeal to fans across the board. Classic rock aficionados heard echoes of Queen in the layered backing vocals on the hits “Good Times Roll” and “My Best Friend’s Girl” – no surprise, since producer Roy Thomas Baker worked wonders with both bands. And the robotic singing, succinct synthesizer melodies, and coolly detached personas of the group members, particularly gangly bandleader Ric Ocasek, appealed to new wavers, suggesting Gary Numan with meatier guitar hooks. (The punchy intro to “Just What I Needed” remains one of the great attention-grabbing riffs of all time.) The strong follow-up album, 1979’s Candy-O, nearly equalled its predecessor, lacking only the original’s showroom floor shine element of surprise. But then the lustre began to fade. (I’ll give that one a pass.) Ocasek and company would continue to have Top 40 hits throughout the 1980s, including “Shake It Up” and “Magic,” but the albums themselves never again matched the consistency and – I give up – drive of this still spry debut.

Test of Time Points (out of 10): 8
Blogger’s Success in Avoiding Car-Centric Clichés: Licence Revoked

Can We Still Be Friends? Revisiting the Most Acclaimed Pop Albums of the 1970s

[Blogger’s note: In this series, I’m taking the Wayback Machine to a bygone musical era that began with the public break-up of the Beatles and ended with the first Top 40 singles by Prince. My source is Rolling Stone’s best 100 albums of the 1970s, culled from the magazine’s 500 all-time greats by an obliging Reddit user. I’ll focus on selected albums from the list and, if I may be so bold, award Test of Time Points based on how well they’ve held up over the decades, from 1 (stale as old toast) to 10 (still poppin’ fresh) in each case. Enjoy, and rock on!]

#100: Talking Heads – Talking Heads: 77

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One of the principal architects of American new wave music, along with Blondie, Devo, and a select few others, NYC’s Talking Heads upended the pop paradigm in 1977 with this groundbreaking debut. Frontman David Byrne’s agitated nerd persona, pretty much fully formed from the get-go, was a real game-changer at a time when Donna Summer and the Bee Gees ruled the airwaves. The top tune here is of course “Psycho Killer,” which rivals The Doors’ “Riders on the Storm” as the most sinister jukebox classic of the rock era. That career-defining track alone likely lifts this album into the nether regions of the RS list ahead of the Heads’ two later ‘70s releases, More Songs About Buildings and Food and Fear of Music, both of which are superior in my opinion. While the 11 tracks on 77 all thrum with energy and wit – “The Book I Read” and “Don’t Worry About the Government” are among the standouts – in hindsight the musicianship and melodies sound a bit rudimentary compared to the subsequent globe-spanning work by this ever-evolving band. Still, as rock ‘n’ roll introductions go, this is a tantalizing taste of things to come.

Test of Time Points (out of 10): 7

Death by Streaming? My (Possibly Final*) List of the 10 Best Albums of the Year

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1. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever – Hope Downs

Call it the Little Album That Could. Unlike the two previous annual list-toppers posted on this blog, the first full-length effort by Australia’s Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever was not a slam-dunk for best of the year. Hope Downs is neither the final masterpiece by a beloved rock icon who’d had a career full of them, like 2016’s worthy winner, nor, as was the case with 2017’s champ, an audacious, brainy comeback inspired by the death of said icon. No, it’s simply fun, jangly indie rock, played with shiver-inducing vitality and a lack of fuss, the way God intended. Ten great songs, imbued with the familiarity of bygone groups that I adore, by a scrappy Melbourne fivesome with an unwieldy moniker and a knack for killer hooks. And in the complicated climate of 2018, that ended up being enough. Continue reading

Death by Streaming? My (Possibly Final*) List of the 10 Best Albums of the Year

2. Laura Veirs – The Lookout

sdrYou know how Harvest Moon is only, like, the ninth or tenth best Neil Young album, and for sure one of his least ambitious, but there are certain times – I’m thinking Sunday at twilight, sitting on the porch and sipping an adult beverage as the sun sinks below the horizon—when its gentle country-folk ditties are all you want to hear? That thought came to mind as I was getting to know The Lookout, the latest solo outing by Colorado singer-songwriter Laura Veirs. Not just because gentle country-folk is well-represented here, by “Seven Falls,” “The Canyon,” and several other exquisitely crafted songs. (Though a few, such as “Watch Fire,” which features feathery counterpoint vocals by Sufjan Stevens, skirt the edges of indie-pop.) It’s also because, while this is most assuredly not the hippest album of 2018 – Veirs is the kind of lyricist who is unafraid to pen a sentimental line like “Man alive, I’m glad I found you” – I can’t think of one that sounds lovelier. Continue reading

Death by Streaming? My (Possibly Final*) List of the 10 Best Albums of the Year

3. Field Music – Open Here

27747790_10215571744268124_6901869236334913515_oSerendipity bonded me to the English pop-rock combo Field Music, led by Sunderland brothers David and Peter Brewis, on a sunny afternoon last winter. I’d only recently become aware of the 15-year-old group, having read a rave review of its sixth album, Open Here, in a magazine, and listened to the catchy, lyrically potent single “Count It Up” online. Curiosity piqued, I ambled down to my favourite Portsmouth record shop-slash-eatery Pie & Vinyl to see if perchance the album was in stock. I entered the shop to find, amongst the pies and the vinyl, none other than the Brewis bros performing an in-store set to a rapt audience. I was only able to catch the last song, but I grabbed a copy of Open Here and got them to autograph it. (Dig their marker scrawls on the cover in the accompanying photo.) In that moment, I felt that fate was telling me I’m meant to be a fan. Continue reading

Death by Streaming? My (Possibly Final*) List of the 10 Best Albums of the Year

4. Parquet Courts – Wide Awaaaaake!

cofOn paper, the sixth outing by critically adored Brooklyn band Parquet Courts doesn’t seem to support the argument for the album as a cohesive art form. It careens in nearly as many musical directions as there are tracks, kicking off with the Clash-like call to arms “Total Football” before swerving from Pink Floyd-scented psychedelia (“Mardi Gras Beads”) to bass-heavy disco-funk (“Wide Awake!”) to cinematic ‘60s pop (“Death Will Bring Change”) along the way. Yet perhaps more than any other album on my best-of-2018 list, it needs to be absorbed as a whole. Heard out of context, the frenetic verbal onslaught of the second track, “Violence,” might give the impression that the four group members are overly caffeinated, earnest-to-a-fault art-punks. (A random scan of previous releases would likely not dispel this notion.) Likewise, on its own, the mellow-rockin’ “Freebird II” might peg them as a Modern Lovers tribute act with a secret fondness for Lynyrd Skynyrd. But as produced by Danger Mouse, who has worked with artists as disparate as the Black Keys, Norah Jones and ASAP Rocky, it all sounds strangely of a piece. Continue reading

Death by Streaming? My (Possibly Final*) List of the 10 Best Albums of the Year

5. Elvis Costello & The Imposters – Look Now

cofIt was love at first listen. My devotion to Elvis Costello started when I wandered into a suburban Atlanta record store at the tender age of 16 and heard This Year’s Model blasting out of the sound system. I snapped up that album, Costello’s second, then and there, and returned to buy his equally brilliant debut, My Aim Is True, the next time I got paid. Dutifully, I purchased each successive release for many, many years, and saw him play live on three concert tours. Other than David Bowie, no solo artist takes up more space in my record collection. But as with any lengthy relationship, ours has had its rough patches. I’m lukewarm about Costello’s forays into genres outside his pop-rock wheelhouse, including classical music (The Juliet Letters) and country (Almost Blue). And sometime after 1989’s Spike, which featured his biggest U.S. hit, “Veronica,” the intensity of my ardour began to wane. In the years since, it’s dulled to a pleasant, comfortable-shoe familiarity. These days, I test-drive his latest efforts via streaming before committing to an LP or CD. I’ve never entertained the thought of “breaking up” with him – he’s meant too much to me in the past for that to happen. But the old magic has gone astray. Continue reading

Death by Streaming? My (Possibly Final*) List of the 10 Best Albums of the Year

6. Greta Van Fleet – Anthem of the Peaceful Army

cofAre these guys for real? That was my first impression upon hearing Greta Van Fleet’s full-length debut, a suspiciously spot-on paean to 1970s arena rock. “Age of Man” kicks off the album with an intro of pretty strings and flutes, evoking wandering minstrels at a Renaissance Fair. Then Joshua Kiszka’s voice, which rivals Rush’s Geddy Lee and Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant in its lofty pitch, pierces the pastoral mood. “In an age of darkness, light appears,” Kiszka, 22, screeches, sounding for all the world like a leotard-clad, codpiece-stuffing rock star from the era of lava lamps and gatefold album sleeves. The rest of the band – Josh’s twin bro Jacob Kiszka on guitar, younger sibling Sam Kiszka on bass, and family friend Danny Wagner on drums – enters with a prog-rock wallop and we’re off with a sound that borrows a bit from Rush and similar groups and a whole lot from Led Zep. It’s all alarmingly reminiscent of a bygone musical style that fell out of fashion the moment the Ramones played their first gig at CBGB’s. So, these many years later, in an age when irony is king, one can’t help but ask, seriously, are these youngsters pulling our legs? Continue reading