Todd Rundgren: Something/Anything? (1972)
This is a fine example of what was going on in the Seventies. To listen to it now is to wonder how it wasn’t a massive hit – it’s assured, it’s hyper-accessible, the songs implant themselves in your mind. And yet it barely made a ripple. It just had too many other brilliant albums to compete with. It does, admittedly, come across as somewhat ambitious. Each side has its own character, including a kind of song-suite on the fourth side. But it could easily get by on just the first six songs, which are as pure an evocation of economical and inventive pop writing as 1972 was likely to see. “I Saw the Light” sounds exactly like a Carole King number, and each successive song on Side One conquers a popular modern style with ease. Of course, Rundgren is a such a talent that it’s hard to overstate his abilities. He is solely responsible for everything on the first three sides, the instruments, the writing, the production, everything. His collaborative work on side four is seamless as well. That it doesn’t come across as indulgent is a miracle – in fact, it gives off an aura of gleeful, impish, wide-eyed experimentation, a sense that anything is possible and that making music is a hell of a lot of fun. It’s a difficult album to get a grip on, as the shifts in style are unpredictable, and there are a lot of them; but that’s part of the charm. And after a while they all sound like standards, they’re that polished.
I Saw the Light
Hello It’s Me
Stevie Wonder: Songs in the Key of Life (1976)
Now, I’m not going to pretend this one has been overlooked. It was one of the most anticipated albums of the decade, and one of the most celebrated once it arrived. In terms of how the decade is perceived now however, it’s a fair way behind some of the real megahits as a ‘name-check’ album, which is why I think it needs a bit of a nudge. And I happen to love it to bits. It came at the tail end of a string of five other top-quality Stevie Wonder releases spanning the early Seventies, and was the most ambitious and all-encompassing of the lot. To provide a small indication of the achievement: nestled amongst “Sir Duke”, “I Wish” and “Pastime Paradise”, all showpieces of flashy excellence, is the quieter “Knocks Me Off My Feet” – modest, lovely, personal, heartfelt, and the equal of any of them. And there are another handful of love-themed songs just as heart-tugging as that one. Every track adds something to the experience. Opener “Love’s in Need of Love Today” deals with love more universally, with some beautiful gospel-tinged backing. “Saturn” yearns for a better world to some stately prog-rock-ish grandeur. I’m just plucking out lesser-known tracks here. I can barely describe what a life-affirming experience Songs in the Key of Life is. Talking Book and Innervisions were towering achievements, but this has all that with the stamp of authority.
Randy Newman: 12 Songs (1970)
In the late Seventies he was known for the misunderstood “Short People”, and now of course he’s celebrated as a songwriter for films and mercilessly lampooned in shows like Family Guy. But prior to that Newman was a bit of a merciless satirist himself. Sail Away gets the plaudits, but this is where he was at his best, and had to stretch the least to make his points. He climbs so far inside his characters that most of the time you can’t spot the cynicism – it’s arguable that there isn’t any in songs like “Let’s Burn Down the Cornfield” or “If You Need Oil”, just straight characterisation, which is a little creepy when you consider the subject matter. And “Suzanne” really treads that fine line as it takes the point of view of a stalker. Ultimately, it’s the realism he brings to these songs, the ability to make you understand the point of view of his misfits and losers, that’s the triumph. It can be quirkily humourous too, as in “Mama Told Me Not To Come” and “My Old Kentucky Home”, though the humour is a little dark. The arrangements of the songs are unfussy, which is a real advantage, and they make for pleasant listening if you don’t listen too close. But listen close, you won’t regret it.
Mama Told Me Not To Come
My Old Kentucky Home
Roxy Music: Siren (1975)
Assessing the early Roxy Music albums is no easy task; they’re a little elusive. Their debut was ground-breaking, and Brian Eno’s influence was still present on For Your Pleasure. The next two found them transitioning through a kind of Teutonic iciness into the lusher romanticism of their later work. So the styles contrasted, and each individual release has an appeal not found in the others. Perhaps Country Life managed the balance between art-rock and streamlined pop best; but Siren, the first album to abandon the pretensions altogether, is totally satisfying in its commitment to the bitter melancholy of the jaded romantic. It’s a transitional album too, beginning the trek toward lighter, dancier sounds. It’s the last time Bryan Ferry would totally immerse himself in heartache and bleakness, and he unloads it all here. “Love is the Drug” establishes the tone firmly from the start, articulating the hopelessness and addiction of nightclub life. And after running through a series of narcotic highs and lows – “End of the Line”, “Whirlwind”, “She Sells”, “Could It Happen To Me” all commit to doomed attitudes in their own ways – the album closes with the mournful, resigned admission of love being “Just Another High”. These are sad songs of hollow emotions, and it’s their honesty and nakedness that make them so compelling.
Love is the Drug
Devo: Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! (1978)
True to their credo Devo got steadily worse with each new album. New Traditionalists, their fourth, was still worthy, but after that they weren’t up to much. That was about the point they ran out of things to say. But at the beginning, they were brash and sharp and brilliant and bristling with ideas, and nowhere is it better articulated than on their debut. It is at heart an appropriation of rock and roll archetypes into a not-very-serious dehumanist vision – where the musical ideas are not particularly surprising, the lyrical attack and the intellectual energy certainly is. “Satisfaction” is the dead give-away; the transformation of a prototype rock standard into a paranoid, stuttering manifesto. It’s also there on tracks like “Come Back Jonee” (girl-group rebel song gone feral), “Praying Hands” (evangelist hysteria) and especially “Gut Feeling (Slap Your Mammy)”, which builds from quiet guitar phrasing to a hyped up frenzy by the time the vocals kick in, and then winds the tension up further with a shift to shouted phrases at the end. There’s really nothing standard or traditional about this album at all. It comes close to the spiky hectoring of Gang of Four, it apes the impersonality of early Talking Heads, but really it occupies a commercial niche all its own; cartoonish, sloganistic but quite vital.
Joni Mitchell: Blue (1971)
Mitchell had already established herself with a number of songs by this time – “Woodstock”, “Both Sides Now”, “Big Yellow Taxi”, “The Circle Game” – and had produced a couple of great albums already. But Blue set the bar even higher. She achieved depth and poignancy here by delving deeply into her own personal life, and the result was a clear-eyed, brutally honest confessional, dwelling not only on heartache and homesickness and the lingering melancholy of lost hopes and desires, but also the light-headedness and optimism and hopefulness that leads us down those paths. Opener “All I Want”, buoyant on James Taylor’s delicate guitar work, plays off the loneliness of self against the expectations of a relationship, and I think that’s something we can all relate to. From that point on Mitchell continues to seek out weak points and prod at them – the ways in which we cling to others as a bulwark against our own self-reproach and emptiness – in song after song, right through to the exhausted regret and resignation of closer “The Last Time I Saw Richard”. It took me a while to warm to this album – well, Mitchell’s singing style to be honest, which floats and trills around some pretty high registers at times – but that was my loss, and now I can’t imagine her approaching her music any other way. It’s perfect.
All I Want
Parliament: Mothership Connection (1975)
I had to wind my way back to this album from the G-Funk of Dr Dre, after concluding that what I most loved about The Chronic wasn’t the attitude or the menace, nor the lyrical slyness of Snoop, but the infectious grooves of “Let Me Ride” and “Nuthin’ But a G Thang”. After putting that together with what I knew of George Clinton (“Atomic Dog” basically) and having heard of Parliament/Funkadelic, I was nudged by degrees toward this wonderful piece of cosmic lunacy. In contrast to Dre’s dark macho aggression and hinted malice, this is just a gleeful free-flowing come-on, an invitation to party on the Mothership. Clinton assembled around him the creme de la creme of Seventies soul and funk, and the result is a series of complicated, interweaving grooves and themes that sound so easy and straightforward to the ear that it’s like magic. And not just magic, but magic that you, the listener, are a party to – it really does feel that you’re right there inside it, grooving along with them. Opening track “P Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up)” acts as a kind of funky orientation session, a languid rap laying down the rules and letting you know what’s in store. From that point, you’re on your own. Totally infectious, very cool, an extra-terrestrial freak-out right to the end.
Mothership Connection (Star Child)
Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off The Sucker)
Big Star: Radio City (1974)
The one thing this album lacks is the sweet sincerity that their debut, #1 Record, had. Tracks like “Sixteen”, “When My Baby’s Beside Me”, Give Me Another Chance” and “Try Again” have a fragile, naked simplicity that bequeath that album a pristine charm almost impossible to replicate (though many bands have tried). That’s the Chris Bell influence, and he’d pretty much ceded the field to Alex Chilton and gone completely by this time. Radio City makes up for for that loss with demented gusto. The songs – strong as they are – all feel like they have key components missing, springs popping out of them, and they’re only holding together through their own momentum, the band hurrying toward their conclusion before the whole thing falls apart. It’s exciting stuff, listening to creative urgency and chaotic entropy vie with each other for supremacy. “O My Soul” sets the tone with unpredictable shifts of mood and a structure that seems to have been put together at random; but all delivered with a manic energy. Once we get a few songs in a certain normality returns, but never completely. The pure power-pop of tracks like “You Get What You Deserve”, “Back of a Car” and “September Gurls” comes off just a little skewed and tense. It’s good, it keeps the listener alert.
Way Out West
Kraftwerk: The Man Machine (1978)
Ok, not the most seminal of their releases – that honour would have to go to Autobahn or Trans-Europe Express – but I think the most humanistic and emotionally accessible, and almost as influential as the earlier works, considering the impact it had on the New Romantic movement. There’s always a sense with Kraftwerk that they’re looking to employ mechanisation to explore human feelings, so where you might expect their approach to evoke themes of alienation, they actually kind of… well, make you love robots. In most of the tracks here, the keyboard sounds have a yearning, keening quality, lingering on notes and finding a counterpoint in Ralf Hutter’s restrained but evocative vocals. Even the precise, economical “The Model” indulges in it a little between verses. Kraftwerk are quite clearly enthralled with the possibilities of technology and the clean, clinical lines a modern, mechanised world can produce, and you feel that warmth in “Neon Lights”, an ode to the shimmering lightscape of the modern city. They actually find it all very romantic, and if an avant-garde electronic outfit can be said to communicate as ‘human’ a concept as romanticism, that’s what Kraftwerk do here.
Wire: Pink Flag (1977)
It’s punk, it’s post-punk, it’s art rock. It’s difficult to place this album in any of those categories. It’s too spiky and clean and musically adventurous to sit comfortably alongside punk artists like the Sex Pistols or the Damned. But the economical approach and directness and speed and attack make it a bad fit for art rock as well. Smart punk, angry art – really, nothing adequately describes what’s going on here. All the songs are stripped completely to the bone, comprising only what’s necessary, which makes them in most cases very short – only 6 of the 23 on my version get beyond two minutes. But after a few listens it’s obvious the songs feel complete, there’s nothing they’re lacking (I still find it amazing that “Three Girl Rhumba” is only 1.24). There’s still room for instrumental breaks, repeated lines to end songs, moody openings, where they’re needed. In the context of the album, relatively longer tracks like “Pink Flag” and “Strange” come across like magnum opuses. They’re needed too, because many of the tracks flash by so quickly you can barely grasp them on first listen. You’re halfway through the next one before you know where you are. It makes for a thrilling experience, and I probably don’t need to mention how influential Wire and Pink Flag were on the post-punk environment.
Three Girl Rhumba