Tag Archive: albums


Best-Sellers

According to Wikipedia (‘cause ya know, the internet is never wrong…), but also what I’ve heard most of my life, the best-selling album of all time is Thriller by Michael Jackson. Officially, it has sold 42.4 million copies, but some suggest it may have sold as many as 65 million. Following it distantly (more than 10 mil) is the first Eagles’ greatest hits compilation. It sorta makes sense – The Eagles were a singles band. All their albums were basically collections of filler punctuated by 3 or 4 great songs on each one. When you collect all those great songs in one place, you get the 2nd best-selling album of all time.

After that comes the soundtrack to The Bodyguard. Technically, it’s a “various artists” thing, but let’s not kid ourselves – it’s a Whitney Houston record. She sings the first 6 tracks, and Alan Silvestri (who gets credit on the film for “Music by”) only does track 13. The rest is, again, just filler.

Fourth is Rumours by Fleetwood Mac, which again sorta makes sense. Rumours and the story surrounding it are splitting at the seams with human drama. Go to any supermarket checkout line and the tabloids will show you how much we love a messy breakup playing out in public, and one committed to record is no different. It’s the reason Taylor Swift’s music is so popular; she’s gone through the cycle of dating, breaking up and writing a song about the guy she just broke up with about 6 billion times now. Rumours features not 1 but 2 breakups, and to top it all off, band members and songwriters are breaking up with each other! You have Stevie Nicks’ “Dreams,” which is a 2nd-person account of her breakup with Lindsey Buckingham, followed a little later by Buckingham’s own “Go Your Own Way,” a 2nd-person account of his breakup with Nicks! There’s also keyboardist Christine McVie divorcing her husband, bass player John McVie, and writing a hit single about her new lover, “You Make Loving Fun,” forcing John to play it every night. That’s just mean.

Other top sellers include Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road by The Beatles, and Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall by Pink Floyd, which gives me hope. However, Shania Twain’s Come On Over beats out Led Zeppelin’s IV by half a million. I’ll save my ground-shaking rage at that fact for another time…

And in slot #5, we have Back In Black, AC/DC’s tribute to Bon Scott that not only contains a tip of the hat to Bon, but honors Bon’s memory by being the biggest, baddest, most explosively rocking album AC/DC has ever done or will do. Honestly, I don’t know why AC/DC made more albums after this.

That’s a very good question: why did AC/DC continue? Nothing they did afterwards came even close to the overwhelming, jaw-dropping awesomeness of Back In Black. Hell, only one album in that entire 34-year span even had any hit singles. I don’t know the definitive answer, but consider this. AC/DC made Back In Black in the first place because Bon would have wanted them to continue, so it would be a poor honoring of that to make one album and then call it quits. If they did that, they may as well have not even made Back In Black at all. So under that logic, they’ll have to keep making albums until the day the last AC/DC member dies. And that seems just like the sort of bull-headed rock and roll thing they would do.

Every single song on Back In Black (and indeed every AC/DC song from anywhere in their career) sells itself out completely to the trimming and trappings of loud and overly indulgent rock and roll. This is what AC/DC does – their approach to their music only involves a lead brick on the gas pedal. And while that’s not true of their personal lives anymore since Bon died, they still make their name on their sound being SO huge, SO bombastic and SO overwhelming that there isn’t another band that can withstand them.

This is the only image I could find from the video. You can’t see the mechanical bull, but you get the idea…

“You Shook Me All Night Long” is the first single from Back In Black and also the first AC/DC song I can remember hearing. I was about 7 years old, at the house of a friend of my older sister’s down the street, and we weren’t supposed to be watching MTV, a fact that my sister’s friend’s mom didn’t know. I was kinda blown away – not just by the force and power of the guitars and grittiness of Brian Johnson’s voice, but also by the scantily-clad hotty riding the mechanical bull in the video. The song’s lyrics are simply dripping with innuendo and double entendres which flew way over my 7 year-old head. That mechanical bull stuck with me, though…

“What Do You Do For Money Honey” follows a looooong tradition of songs about prostitutes. Precious few of them take a moral stance. Instead, most of them have an observational tone, letting the listeners come to their own conclusions. AC/DC, like The Rolling Stones before them, perform their hooker song as an ode to the charms and prowess of the woman of the night in question. “What Do You Do For Money Honey” is a pretty direct song concerning its subject matter, but like all hooker songs, never mentions the words “hooker,” “whore” or “prostitute.”

“Shoot to Thrill” is my favorite AC/DC song of all for one simple reason: the final chorus breakdown and “big rock ending” features Brian Johnson throwing himself completely into the song and singing his lungs out. It’s like he’s laying himself on the slab of sacrifice of the altar to the gods of rock and roll. Like Bruce Springsteen did on “Jungleland,” he sings as though he fully believes the world is going to end when the song is done. It’s quite a thing to behold.

And cap track “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution” contains AC/DC’s entire musical philosophy boiled down to an easy-to-digest 4 minutes and 26 seconds version. It’s in the title, and in the spoken word intro: “Rock and roll ain’t no riddle, man. To me it makes good, good sense!” And perhaps the most blindingly simple declaration which sums up the whole enchilada is the closing lyric: “Rock and roll is just rock and roll.” Slam the gavel, court is adjourned.

Next: why darkness and despair are such attractive qualities in a girl.

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Eponymous

"Doesn't that Bible of your have pretty specific things to say about killing?"

“Doesn’t that Bible of your have pretty specific things to say about killing?”

In the pilot episode of Firefly (which was not the first episode aired – curse you, Fox!), Kaylee is waiting outside Serenity trying to attract passengers before they ship out. A man named Book looks at the ship and decides to fly with them, offering real strawberries as his payment. He says he’s a Shepherd (which is basically a catch-all preacher/priest/monk), and he’s “been out of the world awhile; like to walk it for a spell, maybe bring the Word to them that needs it.”

I imagine Peter Gabriel, when he broke away from Genesis after being part of them since even before his adult life began, was much like Shepherd Book. Gabriel quit from Genesis in 1975 after the Lamb tour, and was quite suddenly out on his own without his fellow Genesites. After a short period of inactivity during which he got really bored, he went back into the studio, but this time he didn’t have four other people with an equal share of the decision-making. It was just him. He was out of the abbey and now walking the world “for a spell.”

His first solo album came in 1977, simply called Peter Gabriel. It featured the salient “Solsbury Hill,” which made great strides for Gabriel defining himself as a singular artist. Unlike his fantastical and mythological work with Genesis, “Solsbury Hill” was an autobiographical piece. It addressed the biggest question in his fans’ minds, which was “Why did you leave Genesis?” Watch for the part where he compares himself to Jesus Christ.

Since his next three albums would also be eponymous, this one came to be known as Car for its simple cover art of a man asleep in the passenger seat. The next two would feature Peter raking his fingernails across the cover while looking sinister, leaving white marks where his fingers had been (thus it’s referred to as Scratch) and a simple black and white photo of Peter that’s been messed with while it was developing, making his face look like it’s melting (thus the moniker Melt). His fourth also features an image of Peter, but you wouldn’t know it; the distortion of the image makes his face look like a latex mask. It too is eponymous, but by that time the American market was sick and tired of him not naming his albums, so they named it for him, calling it Security.

Peter Gabriel's four eponymous albums

Peter Gabriel’s four eponymous albums

We as a music-consuming public have a little problem with albums that are named after the artist creating them, especially if it’s not their debut album. When an artist doesn’t provide a way to distinguish one album from another, we make one up. Debut albums with no title make more sense. After all, this is the first statement you’re making as an artist, so it just seems natural that you would begin with “Hi, my name is…”

Peter Gabriel isn’t even the only one to do it multiple times. Yet the public always picks some other feature of the album and refers to that. Metallica is called The Black Album. The Beatles is called The White Album. Led Zeppelin’s first album is commonly called I, and their fourth IV, though that might be because their second and third are legitimately titled II and III. But all Seal’s self-titled albums are named by number, too. And Weezer has The Blue Album, The Green Album, and The Red Album, all of which are officially titled only Weezer. They were planning on not having a separate title for a fourth time in 2010, but they knew that since it simply had a headshot of actor Jorge Garcia on the cover, fans would just call it Hurley, so they gave in.

And in 1988, R.E.M. had a clever little romp when they named their I.R.S.-days greatest hits compilation Eponymous. This probably seems a lot funnier to a wordsmith like me, but I gotta get my jollies where I can.

Peter Gabriel’s first two albums were interesting but very scattered. Car has no idea where it’s going, and despite its bright moments, it also has some pretty deep pits. Scratch has more direction, being one of three albums produced by Robert Fripp in 1978, and part of a loose trilogy (the other two are Sacred Songs by Daryl Hall and Fripp’s own Exposure), but it has neither a defining single or great songs. Melt, however, proved him to be a heavy hitter in the music world, one of the heaviest. He didn’t need Genesis behind him to make great records, and he wasn’t just a One Single Pony in his solo career.

Next: what’s this “real world” of which you speak?

When my wife and I lived in New York City, the church we went to in Greenwich Village was just a short walk from the Hudson River. After church when the weather was nice, we would take a walk down to a pier there and just stare out at the water for several minutes. As I gazed across the river, I saw Jersey City, thinking it was actually pretty amazing that just a quick ferry ride away was a different state. I grew up in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts, where Connecticut was about 45 minutes south. When I was a kid, 45 minutes seemed like a long time to be sitting in a car. Every other state border was characterized as “there be dragons.”

New Jersey is so close to New York City that some people characterize it as “pretty much New York.” I know New Yorkers (like Ted Mosby) get really offended at that, and with good reason. Jersey residents ought to get even more miffed by it. I can think of few things more degrading than having your identity be defined by your proximity to something else. Still, some of the Jersey shore exists in the shadow of Manhattan. Heck, there’s even a subway (the PATH) that goes from certain places in Manhattan to several Jersey destinations, and it’s cheaper than the MTA! It cost less money to cross a state border than to go from West 4th to Rockefeller Center; go figure.

Bruce Springsteen is New Jersey through and through. His song “Meeting Across the River” tells a tale of a Jersey boy going through the Lincoln Tunnel to meet a guy in Manhattan about a drug deal. Mind you, drugs are never mentioned explicitly in the song, and that’s because it’s not about drugs – as is the common theme for the entire Born to Run album, “Meeting Across the River” is about freedom. This time, it’s money that gets you that freedom. The main character wants to score $2,000 and throw it on the bed for his fractious wife to see; maybe then she’ll see he “wasn’t just talkin’.” So money can buy more than just freedom, according to the hopes of the narrator: it can buy respect, too.

AZO0224C_31.tifIt’s worth noting, too, that no mention is made in “Meeting Across the River” of what happens when the drug deal goes down. It’s all before that happens, all optimism and “this is our big chance.” But Bruce definitely isn’t averse to grim reality, even though he dodges it in “Meeting Across the River.” “Backstreets” talk about homelessness and hopelessness, and “Jungleland” is an epic story about gang wars. They both feature sky-high anthemic melodies, instruments right up in the front of the mix, and Bruce singing like his life is on the line. He plays “Jungleland” like he believes the world will end when it’s over. He pours every ounce of energy, emotion and pathos he has into it, and it’s simply amazing he has anything left.

Until the emergence of CDs as the medium-of-choice, albums needed division in order to function properly. In both LPs and cassettes, there was “side A” and “side B” in order to accommodate the flipping of the vinyl or tape. You didn’t have to do that with CDs, though; they just played until the end. You had options, too. Never before could you skip to a certain song by pressing a button a bunch of times. You could also make the songs play in a random order, also at the touch of a button, or program them to play in whatever order you wanted. You could even make the album repeat endlessly. Now we have MP3s and iTunes and we just take those features for granted, but back then it was like we were all astronauts rocketing off into the future.

When division was necessary, though, artists always needed to make sure the music on side A was generally equal in length to that on side B. Some artists took it a step further and used vinyl flips to make artistic statements.

Bruce Springsteen was great at this. Born to Run is structured with this division in mind, both sides existing in a double continuum. They each start off with bright and optimistic tunes (“Thunder Road” and “Born to Run”), being symbolic of morning and new hope. The afternoon comes (“Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” and “She’s the One”), the troubles of the day increase, but you’re still going strong. Then the sun goes down (“Night” and “Meeting Across the River”) and another world emerges, and finally there’s midnight (“Backstreets” and “Jungleland”) that brings pessimism and a dark downward spiral. But new hope emerges with the next side, and also when you start the album over again.

After the tepid success of his first two albums, Bruce was pinning all his hopes on Born to Run. He has said he wanted it to “explode into people’s homes.” He wanted to take over the music world with this album, but he didn’t have dollar signs in his eyes. He wanted to change lives. That initial desire wasn’t fulfilled – there was no explosion – but something much better came later. Now, Born to Run is one of the most respected albums of all time. It’s pointed to by magazines and music critics as one example of how an album should be done. It’s also one of the best loved pieces of music in the last 50 years.

Born to Run may not have exploded into our homes, but it did seep in through the roof, coat the walls, stain the wood and get in the upholstery of our furniture. It’s in our speakers, in our hearts, and always will be.

Next: Pink Floyd wondering aloud “How did we get to this crazy place?”

For Aerosmith, drugs took a boiling point approach. Their lives got louder, faster and crazier until they simply blew up, and it culminated with the tepid reaction to their 1977 album Draw the Line and Joe Perry’s angry departure from the band. It was followed in short order by Brad Whitford also bidding Aerosmith adieu right after their 1979 album Night In the Ruts. Then came the feces storm that was Rock In a Hard Place, their audience’s extremely bad reaction to new guitarists Rick Dufay and Jimmy Crespo (“Where’s Joe f***in’ Perry?!?”) and Steven Tyler’s collapse on stage in 1982 – the rest of the band thought he was dead. Cocaine, hard touring and egos the size of Australia had killed Aerosmith with greatest discrimination.

But back in the mid-‘70s, Aerosmith was flyin’ high, both figuratively and literally. They followed up on Toys In the Attic 13 months later with another rock and roll behemoth, Rocks. Aerosmith were clearly on a roll, and the juggernaut wasn’t going to stop until it burned out. Drugs make it break down a lot faster, and Aerosmith had people putting lines of cocaine in front of them for years now. But this period was the golden state, the very narrow sliver of time when drugs are fueling a band’s creativity while the toll on the body still hasn’t reached an unmanageable level. For a great many bands that time is way too short, and Aerosmith are no exception.

Toys In the Attic and Rocks are the two hands-down greatest moments in the first phase of Aerosmith’s career, before they died their first death and were resurrected with Permanent Vacation. Like I said, the two albums are only separated by a scant 13 months, and are indeed musical twins. Comparing them to see which is better is like pitting siblings against each other with knives, but hey, that’s what music critics do, right?

Both Toys and Rocks are 9 tracks long, and there’s only 2 and a half minutes difference in runtime, so they’re just begging for a showdown. They have similar structures, both containing one menacing rock tune (“Sweet Emotion” and “Back In the Saddle”) and one heavy metal gem (“Round and Round” and “Nobody’s Fault”), and both cap off with a bloated rock ballad powered by piano (“You See Me Crying” and “Home Tonight”). They also both have a monument to sex and philandering (“Walk This Way” and “Lick and a Promise”). Indeed, most songs from one album have a loose parallel on the other.

And if you still say comparisons between the two are unfair, there’s that Rocks actually has a sequel song to a track on Toys In the Attic. The title track of that album is a fast and frenetic song about insanity with a killer guitar drone near the end. Steven Tyler screams like he’s really going insane, marking the first appearance of his signature screeching howl. And Rocks track #3 is a companion piece to that, with a similar musical tone and even a matching name, “Rats In the Cellar.” Whether you go to the attic to retreat into your own mind, or the cellar to party with the vermin, you’ll go insane either way.

But which album is better? I think for that you’d have to look at individual songs. “Nobody’s Fault” has a darker and more urgent groove than “Round and Round,” though “Round and Round” has a better sense of heaviness. “Home Tonight” is a better power ballad than its counterpart, and doesn’t contain the annoying falsetto whine that “You See Me Crying” does. Rocks has more jaunty, dirty numbers in “Last Child” and “Get the Lead Out,” but Toys In the Attic some great teenager anthems like “Walk This Way” and “Adam’s Apple.” Rocks acknowledges the toll drugs were taking on Aerosmith as a whole (“Combination” and “Sick as a Dog”) while Toys is practically silent on the matter. Rocks also features a slightly darker and more wicked tone, while Toys is more fun. It just depends on what you prefer.

In singles, however, there isn’t even a competition – Toys wins hands-down. “Sweet Emotion” and “Walk This Way” are both Toys, while the only very successful single from Rocks is opener “Back In the Saddle”. It’s a good song, no doubt, but can’t stand up to “Walk This Way” and is blown out of the water by the deliciously awesome “Sweet Emotion.” Success of singles definitely isn’t the only thing to take into account – there’s also cohesion as an album. Both Toys and Rocks score high marks on that front, but the presence of TWO iconic Aerosmith songs on Toys push it over the line for me.

Official AO verdict: Toys In the Attic wins out over Rocks, but only just.

The Only Band In the World

I was always wired to love music. As far back as I can remember, popular music just made sense to me. Not just the notes, measures, scales and melodies, but artists, albums, studios, record contracts, worldwide tours, genres, sub-genres, radio stations, airplay, Billboard, even the difference between a single and an EP. All these things came as naturally to me as breathing. Also at an early age, I was searching for something, some artist or band that I could latch onto. There were many candidates that didn’t really stick: the Beach Boys, Petra, Neil Diamond, New Kids On the Block (cut me some slack – I was in 3rd grade and had a big sister). However, all of that crystallized when I discovered Genesis.

As can be expected, the smallest part of the credit for that goes to me. The rest of it goes to my dad and radio, but also to my friend Seth. When we were both 11, he sat me down and made me listen to We Can’t Dance from start to finish (more on that later). That moment was when I took my first step into a larger world, like in Star Wars when Luke deflects the shots from the remote with the shield of his helmet down. Not quite a spiritual awakening, but close.

From then on, Genesis was the only band in the world. Or rather, they were the only band that mattered. Lots of people have similar obsessions; I’ve had several. But wherever my musical hyperfocus has taken me, my Genesis phase was the most intense and all-consuming. Even using the word “phase” cheapens its importance and makes it seem to shrink. For about 3 years, when I wasn’t actually listening to Genesis, I was thinking about them. I made innumerable mixtapes that were different arrangements of Genesis songs, some based on a lyrical theme, some on musical timbre, some even on length. Every ounce of energy that wasn’t put on essential things (like school, church and things like eating and sleeping) was dedicated to Genesis. I thought about the all – the – TIME.

Amazingly, though, this entire Genesis OCD disorder was only focused on part of their career, and what a great many Genesis aficionados would consider their downhill slide. I was only interested in the 3-piece years, 1980 and onward. As far as I was concerned, that was Genesis: Phil, Tony and Mike. There were an island unto themselves. Peter Gabriel and his involvement with Genesis was a non-entity that I wasn’t even aware of yet.

Genesis’ 1978 album …And Then There Were Three

Back then, they didn’t have things like Wikipedia to tell you a band’s entire discography in a few seconds. Combine that with the fact that I was only 11 and my mind could only handle so much at a time, and you get a picture of why they’re pre-…And Then There Were Three days never registered. For a long time, my knowledge of Genesis was limited to what the record store had in stock, and I never had enough time or money to get to anything pre-1978. In fact, I bought a cassette copy of …And Then There Were Three and was so turned off by the dull and confusing cover that I only listened to it once.

By the time I was 14, my tastes had expanded to include R.E.M. and eventually Smashing Pumpkins, and I rocketed into the world of musical awareness from there. But even then, I never left my love of Genesis completely behind me. Even to this day, they’ve never stopped being one of my very favorite bands. It was quite fortunate that I discovered Genesis when I did, and also that I discovered them and not some other band. Thanks to my father’s genes, I find something I like and then sink into it as far as I can, and Genesis has an ocean of depth to sink into. I thought the water was pretty deep when I thought 5 albums was all the Genesis there was (Duke, Abacab, Genesis, Invisible Touch, and We Can’t Dance); little did I know that I was just splashing in the surf.

Concept-ish

My wife is really smart. I’m smart too, in my own way, but she’s smart in a way that’s much more acknowledged by the world. She even has a PhD to back it up. Not only is she a lecturer in chemistry at a very large state-run university, but she’s in charge of an entire lab space that is about 20x the size of our apartment. She has a very analytical mind, and she’s pretty good at ferreting out the truth of a thing as long as the information given to her is accurate. She has a phrase for when something seems legit, but isn’t: it’s a “bunch a’ hooey.”

bonus points/ridicule if you can name all 4 people on this cover

Several things have qualified for the bunch-a’-hooey status in her mind, but in mine, a chief one is the “concept album.” The best bead I can get on the definition of a concept album is that it has a unified idea that it puts forward. Back in February, when I started this blog, I mentioned that all the best albums are like this, that indeed this is something of a requirement for it to be considered an album and not just a collection of songs.

I looked up lists of the greatest concept albums of all time and found things like Sgt. Pepper, The Dark Side of the Moon, and Ziggy Stardust. With those, you could be just prattling off the easiest answers to “best album of all time” and avoiding telling me anything about concept albums. Still others were so obscure they’re hardly worth mentioning. Paste Magazine’s list was 90% you’ve-probably-never-heard-of-them. I forgot for a second that Paste may as well be called Hipsters Only.

Despite the questionable status of the term, it’s generally agreed upon that The Dark Side of the Moon is the best concept album of all time. To the rock music press in general, this is the Mack Daddy Holy Bible of all albums, in some cases trumping even IV and the mighty Sgt. Pepper. I respectfully disagree; it’s not even the best Pink Floyd album. And if the definition of “concept album” is just “it has a theme,” there are albums with much stronger themes that stick to them more.

Reading all this, you would think I don’t hold The Dark Side of the Moon in very high esteem, so I didn’t do a very god job of representing my thoughts. Let me be clear: The Dark Side of the Moon is AWESOME. It’s hard to believe this album was made in 1973; it seems about 10 years ahead of its time. It’s still influencing musicians even to this day. It doesn’t behave like normal albums of music do, but it doesn’t spiral down to esoteric obscurity as you would expect. It innovative and different while still having loads of appeal, which is a difficult trick to pull off.

The Dark Side of the Moon’s theme (it does actually have one) is madness. The album goes through phases that highlight a particular thing that drives people towards insanity. I can’t say it moves from song to song, since Dark Side is much fuzzier than that. There are 9 tracks (and technically 10 songs), but only four subjects are explored, with an intro and outro speaking about insanity in general terms.

The beginning of the first phase, the intro, is just a collection of sound effects that occur elsewhere on the album. “Speak to Me” isn’t really a song; instead, it includes a heartbeat, ticking clocks, helicopter noises, the sounds of a cash register, and some frantic screaming. “Speak to Me” also contains parts of a series of interviews Roger Waters had with members of Pink Floyd’s band crew, as well as people who just happened to be in the studio at the time. Waters started the interviews with mundane questions like “What is your favorite color?” Then he moved on to things like “When was the last time you were violent?” followed by “Were you in the right?” Everyone was a little sheepish with the former, but vehement in the affirmative with the latter. A female interviewee talk about an altercation she had with an older gentleman, saying “that geezer was cruisin’ for a bruisin’.”

This leads directly from a backwards cymbal crash into the next song, “Breathe.” This is what Floyd is known for; soft, spacey music that both excites and woos. “Breathe” discusses madness in terms of doing what’s expected of you by everyone from society to your girlfriend. According to Pink Floyd, that leads to insanity. There must be a lot of insane people out there, then…

Henry David Thoreau, the original punk rocker (I’m only half kidding)

But maybe, just maybe, that’s the point Pink Floyd is trying to make. In another song, “Time,” the lyrics are “Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way.” Henry David Thoreau said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” and the Floyd calls on Thoreau’s tradition of absolute liberty and freedom to pursue any dream that enters your head to combat the attitude of complacency and inactivity. By falling in line, doing what you’re told and fulfilling everyone else’s expectations of you, you may be ignoring yourself and thus losing yourself. And what is insanity if not what happens to you once you lose yourself?

Next: an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone…

ZoSo

IV – Led Zeppelin – 11/8/1971

My interest in popular music started early, with my obsession with Beat the System and my Neil Diamond phase, as well as my early preoccupation with a Beach Boys greatest hits compilation. It grew and grew, reaching critical mass and passing it by, laughing at its lack of imagination.

I remember one of the numerous times I was rifling through my parents’ record collection. I must have been about 10. They were (air quotes) “LPs.” LPs are these black things with a little hole in the middle, and when you put them in a special machine called a (more air quotes) “record player,” music comes out. Ask your parents  grandparents.

I came across several records that ranged from famous (Tapestry by Carole King, Band of Gypsys by Jimi Hendrix­) to esoteric (Chicago’s Hot Streets, Huey Lewis’ Sports) to hopelessly obscure (It’ll Shine When It Shines by Ozark Mountain Daredevils, A Long Time Comin’ by Electric Flag). There was one album by some 70’s gospel group; I can’t remember the artist or title. The cover was a dichromatic picture with an orange sky and a black foreground. It was of five people (presumably the band), just black silhouettes, crouching in the grass, looking like ninjas. All that was visible other than their outlines were their eyes and smiles. It scared the crap out of me.

I remember one specific instance where I pulled an album out of the sideways stack; on the cover was just an old man with a walking stick, bent over, with a bundle of tree branches tied to his back. He was in a picture frame hung on an ancient stucco wall. There was no artist and title on the cover, as I had come to expect. I looked on the spine; nothing there, either, just what looked like the word “ZoSo” written in archaic text, followed by three symbols. On the back, there was just an unexciting building.

I was intrigued, but felt a certain hesitancy. What was this? It didn’t follow the pattern I had established for albums, which put me on guard. Was it even music on this album? Maybe it was some mysterious demonic chant, and if I played it, I would fall into the clutches of the devil! Perhaps even by opening the cover, I would be put under its spell. I felt a kind of electricity running through my system. Just do it! I took a deep breath and opened it.

I didn’t go on a killing spree or rape 1,000 virgins, in case you’re wondering. All that was inside was a painting of an old hooded, bearded wizard standing on a bluff of rock, holding out a lantern to illuminate the darkness. Next to it was a poem (or what I took to be a poem), talking about winding roads and shadows and a lady we all know, ending with the line “to be a rock and not to roll.”

The phrase hadn’t been invented yet, but I had a moment of WTF?

There are very few decisions in my life that I desperately wish I could go back and redo. I can count them on one hand with fingers to spare. One of them is that I didn’t – repeat, DIDN’T – actually play the record. I would have been opened up the Zep a lot sooner, and lived a more awesome life.

I know what you’re thinking – how could I get any more awesome? That thought seems weird to me, too, but it’s true. The earlier a human, any human, is introduced to Led Zeppelin, the better. If I ever have children, I think I’ll put headphones on my wife’s belly hooked up to an iPod playing “When the Levee Breaks” – if she doesn’t take them off and then slap me for being stupid, that is.

Poll: Most Epic Album

What is the most EPIC album of all time?

I’m trying something new today: taking a poll. We’ll see how it goes, but I really hope all you readers will come out for this and respond. Here’s hoping!

My wife suggested that I fully explain what I mean by “epic.” Epic means BIG. Big sound, big themes, big production values, big personality, so much so that it dwarfs other albums. They’re so big that they take up all your attention for a time, making your other CDs feel awkward and small. It’s like the muscle-bound jock standing next to the 90 pound wuss.

Some examples: Back In Black by AC/DC, Escape by Journey, Hysteria by Def Leppard, 2112 by Rush, Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen, A Night At the Opera by Queen, The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway by Genesis, Tommy by The Who, Fear Through the Eyes of Madness by Coheed and Cambria, Lateralus by Tool, Images and Words by Dream Theater, or virtually anything by Led Zeppelin. (this is just an example list, and by no means exhaustive)

So how ’bout it? In your estimation, what is the MOST EPIC ALBUM of all time?

Leave your responses in the comments for this post, or on my Facebook page if we’re friends.

Also, here’s a really interesting webpage, where the above image is from. http://thedesigninspiration.com/articles/amazing-album-covers-mix-and-match/

Tag Sales

It was the summer of 1995; I was 14. It was a quiet, sunny afternoon. At about 3:00, my father came home and walked into the living room all aflutter, carrying a cardboard box. He said he had just come from a tag sale near us. This was a common occurrence during the summer in New England where I grew up. Once a year, most people took stock of the stuff they had acquired over the year and, being dissatisfied with their stuff, their wallets, and themselves, decided they would sell it. This only happens for a single family about twice, but there were enough families where I grew up that a plethora of tag sales happened every summer.

My dad had just returned from one with a real find. He’s an intense music enthusiast. I get my passion for music (and all things) from him; combine that with my mother’s meticulous nature and my near-OCD preoccupation with music becomes clear. Anyway, he showed me what he had acquired at the tag sale he went to, which was a stack of used LPs. Such things, especially gotten at tag sales, are usually not very exciting, but as I looked through them, I could see that they were. A lot of them I had never heard of (Spirit, Electric Flag, Mountain), but others made me catch my breath. December’s Children; Abbey Road; Band of Gypsys; and what Dad said was the first Beatles album ever. In actuality it was Meet the Beatles!, which was the 2nd album to come out in the US, and the 5th overall. To be fair, it said right on the cover that it was “The First Album by England’s Phenomenal Pop Combo.” That just ain’t true.

But the real prize was Are You Experienced by Jimi Hendrix, the first album from the guitar deity. This may not seem more remarkable than the other great finds I just mentioned, but for this. The sticker on one side of the vinyl listed the songs on side A; flipping the vinyl over revealed a duplicate side A sticker. A simple factory mistake, but it makes the value of the copy shoot up incredibly. As amazing as this is, it’s shot down in flames by the next thing: the previous owner penciled in on one of the stickers “Hendrix Side B.” Any value the copy may have had is completely destroyed by a bit of lead powder. It makes me weep.

Unified Whole

The first album of music to enter my life was Beat the System by Petra. Not the most dignified or noteworthy, I know. I only remember flashes of my first experiences with that album, since I was so young. I was 5. But even at that young age I had a strong sense of there being a unifying, binding force that held a thing together, and that was what drew me to the album. That’s something that’s stuck with me to this day; the idea of disparate parts and individual units coming together to form a structured whole.

It was that sense that aided me when I learned in my 4th grade science class about the human organism. Cells, tissues, organs, systems, and so forth; all different levels of things becoming more and more complicated until they finally form a complete, beautiful edifice called the human being. I understood that concept through the lens of popular music, through the album. Because it’s the same concept: notes, measures, verses, songs, and so forth. They represent different levels, get gradually more complicated, and eventually form the beautiful thing called an album. The mastery and grace of it all took my breath away.

I first discovered Beat the System as a cassette in my parents’ collection. My parents are recovering Jesus People. I remember seeing pictures from their wedding; my dad had long brown locks and a full, wild beard. My mother had flowers in her hair, and they were both wearing what looked like ancient white tablecloths. My dad (and he admits this) was dressed in glorified pajamas, and my mom’s wedding gown had a simple, almost earthy characteristic to it. They were both so far gone into the hippie thing that it makes me sigh and smile. Of course, when I say something like that, my dad takes umbrage. “We weren’t hippies; we were Jesus People.”

Jesus People were the Christian equivalent of hippies; for all intents and purposes, they were just hippies plus Christianity. A lot of people in the late 60’s became fed up with the status quo modernist lifestyle and constantly serving “the man;” they became hippies. Soon after, some of them found that the hippie lifestyle was just another form of bowing to “the man.” Their quests of getting out from under his thumb eventually lead them to Christ and into freedom. Enough of them got together that a movement was born.

Arguably the biggest part of the Jesus Movement was Jesus music, and the effect the movement had on Christian music even to this day. The movement gave birth to numerous artists, all of which were in my parents’ music collection. Phil Keaggy, Keith Green, Larry Norman, Barry McGuire, Second Chapter of Acts, Andre Crouch, Paul Stookey, etc. Petra was part of that ilk, though Beat the System came out long after they had left their Jesus People roots behind them.

Petra – Beat the System

Petra had always been rock and roll (petra is even Greek for “rock”), but they added a decidedly 80’s element around their fourth album. By the time Beat the System was released in 1984, they hardly resembled their long-haired origins. The dawn of the personal computer loomed large in the minds of the American public, and it came out in the lyrics of Beat the System. Shortly after it was released, Greg X. Volz abandoned his post as lead singer and bid Petra farewell. It was 1987 by the time I discovered it. I remember after I became obsessed with it, my mom brought me home a magazine with Petra on the cover. The photo was of the new configuration of the band, with John Schlitt as the lead singer. But I couldn’t really read yet, so I thought the title of the magazine was “Petra,” when it was in fact “Premiere.” I vividly remember one incident where I notified my mom that I wanted to listen to Petra – since they had control over the stereo – and, because I was just learning to read, spelled the band’s name out for her. I had the magazine in front of me at the time, and referred to it when identifying the letters to read to her. I said I wanted to listen to P-R-E-M-I-E-R-E, thinking my intentions could not have been clearer. I was quite proud of myself.

Long and short of it, albums are in my blood. They were a touchstone from a very early age, and the concept of albums is one of those cosmic ideas that the universe is founded on. It can be seen in our very bodies, in chemistry, business and education; in cars, buildings, the trees of the field, and the organization of the planets. Ever since people started breaking things into pieces, they were putting them back together in fascinating and innovative ways. That building tendency within all of us is more than just a trait that we’ve developed over our evolutionary history. I think it’s a reflection of our Creator and ultimate divine origins. Taking parts and making a sum is a holy act.

For my part, I don’t see this any stronger than in an album of music.