Released this month in 1976! Boston ~ Boston

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Boston is one of the best-selling albums of all time, and deservedly so. Because of the rise of disco and punk, FM rock radio seemed all but dead until the rise of acts like Boston, Tom Petty, and Bruce Springsteen. Nearly every song on Boston’s debut album could still be heard on classic rock radio decades later due to the strong vocals of Brad Delp and unique guitar sound of Tom Scholz. Tom Scholz, who wrote most of the songs, was a studio wizard and used self-designed equipment such as 12-track recording devices to come up with an anthemic “arena rock” sound before the term was even coined. The sound was hard rock, but the layered melodies and harmonics reveal the work of a master craftsman. While much has been written about the sound of the album, the lyrics are often overlooked. There are songs about their rise from a bar band (“Rock and Roll Band”) as well as fond remembrances of summers gone by (“More Than a Feeling”). Boston is essential for any fan of classic rock, and the album marks the re-emergence of the genre in the 1970s.

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Released this month in 1996! Three Snakes and One Charm ~ The Black Crowes

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With Amorica, the Black Crowes began developing a distinctive sound, shading their Stonesy Southern boogie with a variety of rootsy and psychedelic overtones. But where Amorica was rich with kaleidescopic colors, Three Snakes and One Charm is stripped-down and direct. Sure, it has a punchy, muscular sound that is, if anything, more eclectic than its predecessor, but the production is distressingly monotonous and the songs lack strong hooks. Even with its faults, Three Snakes and One Charm is a winning album, mainly because the Black Crowes’ musicianship continues to deepen — the musical fusions and eclecticism are seamless, particularly from lead guitarist Rich Robinson. Their musicianship would be even more impressive if the songs were equal in quality.

Released this month in 1974! Fulfillingness’ First Finale ~ Stevie Wonder

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After the righteous anger and occasional despair of the socially motivated Innervisions, Stevie Wonder returned with a relationship record: Fulfillingness’ First Finale. The cover pictures his life as an enormous wheel, part of which he’s looking ahead to and part of which he’s already completed (the latter with accompanying images of Little Stevie, JFK and MLK, the Motor Town Revue bus, a child with balloons, his familiar Taurus logo, and multiple Grammy awards). The songs and arrangements are the warmest since Talking Book, and Stevie positively caresses his vocals on this set, encompassing the vagaries of love, from dreaming of it (“Creepin'”) to being bashful of it (“Too Shy to Say”) to knowing when it’s over (“It Ain’t No Use”). The two big singles are “Boogie on Reggae Woman,” with a deep electronic groove balancing organic congas and gospel piano, and “You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” an acidic dismissal of President Nixon and the Watergate controversy (he’d already written “He’s Misstra Know-It-All” on the same topic). As before, Fulfillingness’ First Finale is mostly the work of a single man; Stevie invited over just a bare few musicians, and most of those were background vocalists (though of the finest caliber: Minnie Riperton, Paul Anka, Deniece Williams, and the Jackson 5). Also as before, the appearances are perfectly chosen; “Too Shy to Say” can only benefit from the acoustic bass of Motown institution James Jamerson and the heavenly steel guitar of Sneaky Pete Kleinow, while the Jackson 5 provide some righteous amens to Stevie’s preaching on “You Haven’t Done Nothin’.” It’s also very refreshing to hear more songs devoted to the many and varied stages of romance, among them “It Ain’t No Use,” “Too Shy to Say,” “Please Don’t Go.” The only element lacking here, in comparison to the rest of his string of brilliant early-’70s records, is a clear focus; Fulfillingness’ First Finale is more a collection of excellent songs than an excellent album.

Happy Birthday Hank Williams!

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Hiram King “Hank” Williams, Sr. (/hæŋk wɪljəmz /; September 17, 1923 – January 1, 1953) was an American singer-songwriter and musician. Regarded as one of the most significant and influential singers and songwriters of the 20th Century, Williams recorded 35 singles (five released posthumously) that would place in the Top 10 of the Billboard Country & Western Best Sellers chart, including 11 that ranked number one.

Born in Mount Olive, Butler County, Alabama, Williams moved to Georgiana, where he met Rufus Payne, a black street performer who gave him guitar lessons in exchange for meals or money. Payne had a major influence on Williams’s later musical style, along with Roy Acuff and Ernest Tubb. During this time, Williams informally changed his name to Hank, believing it to be a better name for country music. He moved to Montgomery and his music career began there in 1937 when WSFA radio station producers hired him to perform and host a 15-minute program. He formed as backup the Drifting Cowboys band, which was managed by his mother, and dropped out of school to devote his time to his career.

When several of his band members were conscripted into military service during World War II, Williams had trouble with their replacements and was dismissed by WSFA due to his alcoholism. Williams eventually married Audrey Sheppard, who managed the singer for nearly a decade. After recording “Never Again” and “Honky Tonkin'” with Sterling Records, he signed a contract with MGM Records. In 1948 he released “Move It on Over”, which became a hit, and also joined the Louisiana Hayride radio program. One year later, he released a cover of “Lovesick Blues”, which carried him into the mainstream of music. After an initial rejection, Williams joined the Grand Ole Opry. He was unable to read or notate music to any significant degree. Among the hits he wrote were “Your Cheatin’ Heart”, “Hey, Good Lookin'”, and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”.

Several years of back pain, alcoholism and prescription drug abuse severely deteriorated Williams’s health; he divorced Audrey and was dismissed by the Grand Ole Opry, which cited unreliability and frequent drunkenness. Williams died in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day in 1953 at the age of 29 from heart failure exacerbated by pills and alcohol. Despite his short life, Williams has had a major influence on twentieth-century popular music, and especially country music. The songs he wrote and recorded have been covered by numerous artists, and have been hits in various genres including pop, gospel, and blues. He has been inducted into multiple music halls of fame.

Released this month in 1987! Appetite for Destruction ~ Guns and Roses

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Guns N’ Roses’ debut, Appetite for Destruction was a turning point for hard rock in the late ’80s — it was a dirty, dangerous, and mean record in a time when heavy metal meant nothing but a good time. On the surface, Guns N’ Roses may appear to celebrate the same things as their peers — namely, sex, liquor, drugs, and rock & roll — but there is a nasty edge to their songs, since Axl Rose doesn’t see much fun in the urban sprawl of L.A. and its parade of heavy metal thugs, cheap women, booze, and crime. The music is as nasty as the lyrics, wallowing in a bluesy, metallic hard rock borrowed from Aerosmith, AC/DC, and countless faceless hard rock bands of the early ’80s. It’s a primal, sleazy sound that adds grit to already grim tales. It also makes Rose’s misogyny, fear, and anger hard to dismiss as merely an artistic statement; this is music that sounds lived-in. And that’s exactly why Appetite for Destruction is such a powerful record — not only does Rose have fears, but he also is vulnerable, particularly on the power ballad “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” He also has a talent for conveying the fears and horrors of the decaying inner city, whether it’s on the charging “Welcome to the Jungle,” the heroin ode “Mr. Brownstone,” or “Paradise City,” which simply wants out. But as good as Rose’s lyrics and screeching vocals are, they wouldn’t be nearly as effective without the twin-guitar interplay of Slash and Izzy Stradlin, who spit out riffs and solos better than any band since the Rolling Stones, and that’s what makes Appetite for Destruction the best metal record of the late ’80s.

Released this month in 1972! The Slider ~ T. Rex

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Buoyed by two U.K. number one singles in “Telegram Sam” and “Metal Guru,” The Slider became T. Rex’s most popular record on both sides of the Atlantic, despite the fact that it produced no hits in the U.S. The Slider essentially replicates all the virtues of Electric Warrior, crammed with effortless hooks and trashy fun. All of Bolan’s signatures are here — mystical folk-tinged ballads, overt sexual come-ons crooned over sleazy, bopping boogies, loopy nonsense poetry, and a mastery of the three-minute pop song form. The main difference is that the trippy mix of Electric Warrior is replaced by a fuller, more immediate-sounding production. Bolan’s guitar has a harder bite, the backing choruses are more up-front, and the arrangements are thicker-sounding, even introducing a string section on some cuts (both ballads and rockers). Even with the beefier production, T. Rex still doesn’t sound nearly as heavy as many of the bands it influenced (and even a few of its glam contemporaries), but that’s partly intentional — Bolan’s love of a good groove takes precedence over fast tempos or high-volume crunch. Lyrically, Bolan’s flair for the sublimely ridiculous is fully intact, but he has way too much style for The Slider to sound truly stupid, especially given the playful, knowing wink in his delivery. It’s nearly impossible not to get caught up in the irresistible rush of melodies and cheery good times. Even if it treads largely the same ground as Electric Warrior, The Slider is flawlessly executed, and every bit the classic that its predecessor is.

Released this month in 1971! Master of Reality ~ Black Sabbath

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The shortest album of Black Sabbath’s glory years, Master of Reality is also their most sonically influential work. Here Tony Iommi began to experiment with tuning his guitar down three half-steps to C#, producing a sound that was darker, deeper, and sludgier than anything they’d yet committed to record. (This trick was still being copied 25 years later by every metal band looking to push the limits of heaviness, from trendy nu-metallers to Swedish deathsters.) Much more than that, Master of Reality essentially created multiple metal subgenres all by itself, laying the sonic foundations for doom, stoner and sludge metal, all in the space of just over half an hour. Classic opener “Sweet Leaf” certainly ranks as a defining stoner metal song, making its drug references far more overt (and adoring) than the preceding album’s “Fairies Wear Boots.” The album’s other signature song, “Children of the Grave,” is driven by a galloping rhythm that would later pop up on a slew of Iron Maiden tunes, among many others. Aside from “Sweet Leaf,” much of Master of Reality finds the band displaying a stronger moral sense, in part an attempt to counteract the growing perception that they were Satanists. “Children of the Grave” posits a stark choice between love and nuclear annihilation, while “After Forever” philosophizes about death and the afterlife in an openly religious (but, of course, superficially morbid) fashion that offered a blueprint for the career of Christian doom band Trouble. And although the alternately sinister and jaunty “Lord of This World” is sung from Satan’s point of view, he clearly doesn’t think much of his own followers (and neither, by extension, does the band). It’s all handled much like a horror movie with a clear moral message, for example The Exorcist. Past those four tracks, listeners get sharply contrasting tempos in the rumbling sci-fi tale “Into the Void,” which shortens the distances between the multiple sections of the band’s previous epics. And there’s the core of the album — all that’s left is a couple of brief instrumental interludes, plus the quiet, brooding loneliness of “Solitude,” a mostly textural piece that frames Osbourne’s phased vocals with acoustic guitars and flutes. But, if a core of five songs seems slight for a classic album, it’s also important to note that those five songs represent a nearly bottomless bag of tricks, many of which are still being imitated and explored decades later. If Paranoid has more widely known songs, the suffocating and oppressive Master of Reality was the Sabbath record that die-hard metalheads took most closely to heart.