Robert Plant, The Principle of Moments

My favorite music: 1983

If there’s one thing the internet lacks, it’s pointless music lists. So to fill that void, here’s a sampling of my favorite albums from some random year. Let’s say, 1983.

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Robert Plant, The Principle of Moments Robert Plant, The Principle of Moments — While I would in no way claim that Robert Plant’s solo output bests Led Zeppelin’s music, a lot of times I simply prefer to listen to Plant. In fact I’d say that Plant has enjoyed one of the most artistically rewarding solo careers of any artist who was part of a popular band that I can think of. The Principle of Moments is probably my favorite Plant solo effort (next to Fate of Nations) — he sounds freed from the constraints of creating larger-than-life rock and the music just crackles with energy. “In the Mood” and “Big Log” are all-time classics.

Iron Maiden, Piece of Mind — Four albums into their career, Iron Maiden had gone through just as many lineup changes. But when drummer Nicko McBrain replaced Clive Burr (trading Burr’s pocket groove for McBrain’s heavy metal thunder), the classic Maiden lineup was complete. With McBrain behind the kit the band released Piece of Mind, their most ferocious LP yet. While not the top-to-bottom classic that The Number of the Beast was, this album boasts some of the best songs in Maiden’s catalog — “Where Eagles Dare,” “Flight of Icarus,” and “To Tame a Land” just to name some. Even so-called filler songs like “Sun and Steel” or “Quest for Fire” are raucous fun.

“Weird Al” Yankovic, “Weird Al” Yankovic — It feels like Weird Al has been making fun of popular music forever, but in fact it all started with his modest self-titled debut in ’83. I can’t imagine this being of interest to someone just getting into his music, but I love all of it. The parodies are strong — “I Love Rocky Road” and “My Bologna” being the best — but the originals carry this disc. “Gotta Boogie” and “The Check’s in the Mail” are absolutely products of their time, but are musically strong. Capping the whole thing off is the absolutely twisted and hilarious “Mr. Frump in the Iron Lung,” a touching tale of the friendship between a young man and his terminally ill pal.

Yes, 90125 — I would have been perfectly happy with another album from the Drama lineup of Chris Squire, Steve Howe, Alan White, Trevor Horn, and Geoff Downes. I loved that album so much. But it’s hard to deny the greatness of 90125, even as slick and thoroughly ’80s as tracks like “Changes” and “Leave It” sound now (or perhaps because of that). This album (thanks in no small part to “Owner of a Lonely Heart”) achieved something most probably thought was impossible — it made one of the champions of ’70s progressive rock artistically and commercially relevant for a whole new generation of music listeners.

R.E.M., Murmur — There’s a small but vocal legion of R.E.M. fans who hold that nothing the band did after Murmur measured up to the group’s debut LP. I don’t buy that, but I can see where they’re coming from. There are just so many strong songs here — especially “Perfect Circle” and “9-9” — and they’re all delivered in such stark, simple fashion. And as I wrote in the second part of my ongoing R.E.M. exploration series, Murmur seems to get stronger as it goes on.

AC/DC, Flick of the SwitchAC/DC, Flick of the Switch — This is the last album AC/DC released in the ’80s that’s worth hearing, although admittedly it doesn’t stack up to Back in Black or For Those About to Rock We Salute You. Still, Angus Young’s thunderous riffing is mostly on the money on this record, and Brian Johnson still sounds energized behind the mic. Overall the tried-and-true hard rock-meets-blues formula feels fresh here, and songs like “Rising Power” and the thundering title track are the best examples of that.

Journey, Frontiers — I knew nothing of the older, more rock and fusion-oriented sounds of Journey before I bought this on cassette in ’83 and I didn’t care. Hell, I still don’t. I love everything about Frontiers — from the arena-ready rockers (“Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)”) to the tender ballads (“Send Her My Love”, “After the Fall”) to the obscure, off-kilter cuts (“Back Talk”). In my mind’s eye, Journey will be forever rocking out on the pier with invisible instruments.

Frank Zappa, The Man From Utopia — One of the most-asked and most difficult questions in music fandom is, “Which Zappa album is the best for a non-fan to start a collection with?” There are a handful of outstanding options, one of them being The Man From Utopia. Zappa plays it relatively straight here — well for him anyway, although the music is unmistakably his. If the crude humor of tracks like “SEX” or “The Jazz Discharge Party Hats” isn’t your style, there’s always the excellent instrumentals “Tink Walks Amok,” “We Are Not Alone,” and “Mōggio.”

Genesis, Genesis — I’m not one of those Genesis fans who gnashes his teeth over any album that isn’t 100% prog rock. They have plenty of really good songs that are relatively straightforward and poppy. And this album (aka Mama) has very good pop songs (“That’s All”, “It’s Gonna Get Better,” and “Silver Rainbow”) as well as very good art rock (“Mama”, “Second Home By the Sea”). Yeah, “Illegal Alien” is a but much to take, but it’s the only really dodgy song here. It’s also a more consistent record than Abacab.

Paul Simon, Hearts and Bones — I’ve never been a huge Paul Simon fan but this album has resonated with me for some time. The title track alone is worth the price of admission, and ranks among Simon’s greatest compositions. The up-tempo tracks are uniformly good, but I go for the more melancholy numbers like “Train in the Distance” or the excellent “The Late Great Johnny Ace,” the latter of which was as much a eulogy to John Lennon as to the titular rock and roller.

Metallica, Kill ’em All — Raw, powerful, visceral. From the fade-in of “Hit the Lights” to the fade-out of “Metal Militia,” Kill ’em All is 50-plus minutes of some of the finest thrash metal ever recorded. Metallica wanted to release this with the title Metal Up Your Ass but was convinced by Megaforce Records to ease up a bit. But musically, there is no compromise on this album. And although guitarist Dave Mustaine was booted from the band just prior to the recording sessions, his fingerprints are all over it in the form of four co-writing credits and numerous uncredited guitar parts. (I’d include a song sample here but, you know, Lars.)

Randy Newman, Trouble in ParadiseRandy Newman, Trouble in Paradise — The sound is sleeker, and the arrangements are a little slicker, but this is Newman near the top of his game. This is worth the price of admission just for the timeless pop paean “I Love L.A.,” but the one-two punch of the melancholy “Same Girl” — his best ballad since “Marie” — and the acerbic yet mechanical “Mikey’s” is stunning.

Kiss, Lick It Up — A lot of people attribute Kiss’s resurgence in the ’80s to them taking off the makeup and getting out of the 1970s. That’s probably true, but I think it was also a case of them finally producing kick-ass rock for the first time in years. With short-timer Vinnie Vincent in the fold, the band effectively straddled the squiggly line between hard rock and heavy metal. Dismissing Lick It Up as mere hair metal is lazy and misses the point — groups like Poison and Cinderella never put out music with as much power or ferocity as songs like “Exciter,” Fits Like a Glove,” or “Young and Wasted.”

XTC, MummerMummer seems to take a bit of a beating from fans and critics who didn’t care for the more pastoral and introspective bent XTC took after Andy Partridge retired from public performing. As it turns out, this is the one album of theirs I never get enough of, and it’s by and large because of the pastoral and introspective moments (“Love on a Farmboy’s Wages” and “Ladybird” are simply divine). Of course if you like your XTC angular and nervous, there’s still the outstanding “Beating of Hearts” or “Deliver Us From the Elements” to satisfy.

Queensrÿche, Queensrÿche — While Queensrÿche’s debut EP did little to distinguish them as a metal act, it was a surprisingly mature and accomplished effort all the same. The entire band is ferocious, but it’s Geoff Tate’s soaring and Halford-esque vocals that push songs like “Queen of the Reich” into the stratosphere. The band’s full-length debut (The Warning) showcased their ambition much better, but the 18 or so minutes of this release are much more aggressive and laser-focused, setting the stage for things to come.

Pink Floyd, The Final Cut — Yeah it’s basically a Roger Waters solo album, so what? While more David Gilmour would have been welcome, it’s clear that the band was done by this point. Even so, this is a powerful album that is made all the more so because it largely bypasses the excesses of The Wall. Waters’ sense of weariness and betrayal is evident throughout the entire record on songs such as “The Hero’s Return” and it makes for riveting listening.

Mötley Crüe, Shout at the Devil — The amount of really good music Mötley Crüe released relative to their stature is not all that much. But this is one of the defining metal albums of the ’80s, and nothing can change that. This is the sound of a hungry and creative band, before drugs and glam metal excess took their toll. Side B runs out of steam just a bit, but there are so many killer songs on here — the title song, “Looks That Kill” and “Too Young to Fall in Love” just for starters — that you won’t even notice. And I still maintain that Tommy Lee’s name deserves to be included in the list of great metal drummers of all-time.

The Police, SynchronicityThe Police, Synchronicity — The transformation from the Police’s first album to Synchronicity is astounding. While some of the punkish aggression heard on Outlandos d’Amour is still present here (especially on the Andy Summers-penned “Mother”), there is a high level of gloss now. Sting is very clearly in the driver’s seat from a creative standpoint, although in retrospect it’s clear that Summers and Stewart Copeland kept him somewhat in check. How else to explain numbers like “Every Breath You Take” and “King of Pain”, which are still essential listening today rather than forgettable soft rock dreck Sting was to become known for?

Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, Texas Flood — I can count the number of blues or blues rock artists I like on one hand and still have fingers left over. And yet there’s something so positively mesmerizing about Stevie Ray Vaughan and his debut album. I guess the only way I can put it is that Vaughan just oozed authenticity. Oh yeah, and there’s that instantly recognizable playing style and guitar tone. How can a song like “Pride and Joy” not make you want to boogie? The best thing about this album is that as popular music was becoming buried in synthesizers and other artifice, this album took three musicians (Vaughan, bassist Tommy Shannon, and drummer Chris Layton) a total of three days to record.

Def Leppard, Pyromania — In retrospect it’s easy to see how Pyromania was just another step on Def Leppard’s road to blandness (under the guiding hand of producer Mutt Lange). But at this point, they still delivered the best pop metal in town. There’s enough crunch to please all but the most hardcore metal fans, and of course there are hooks and melodies to spare. You’d have to have a cold, cold heart not to love songs like “Photograph” or “Rock! Rock! (Till You Drop).” And of course there’s my absolute favorite, “Foolin’.”

Billy Joel, "Tell Her About It"Misc. 1983 songs that I love:

  • U2, “Sunday Bloody Sunday”
  • Black Sabbath, “Zero the Hero”
  • Frank Stallone, “Far From Over”
  • Tears for Fears, “Pale Shelter”
  • Culture Club, “Karma Chameleon”
  • Elton John, “I’m Still Standing”
  • David Bowie, “Let’s Dance” and “China Girl”
  • The Beepers, “History Lesson” (WarGames soundtrack)
  • Ozzy Osbourne, “Bark at the Moon”
  • Madonna, “Borderline”
  • Asia, “Eye to Eye”
  • Paul McCartney & Michael Jackson, “Say Say Say”
  • The Fixx, “One Thing Leads to Another”
  • Duran Duran, “Union of the Snake”
  • John Cougar Mellencamp, “Crumblin’ Down”
  • Dio, “Rainbow in the Dark”
  • Billy Joel, “Tell Her About It” & “Easy Money”
  • The Tubes, “She’s a Beauty”
  • Men at Work, “Overkill”
  • Talking Heads, “Burning Down the House”
  • Herbie Hancock, “Rockit”
  • Steve Hackett, “Bay of Kings”
  • Tangerine Dream, “The Dream Is Always the Same”
  • The Human League, “(Keep Feeling) Fascination”
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Led Zeppelin - 1969

So fresh — 10 Led Zeppelin songs that will never get old

Led Zeppelin - 1969

If you listen to classic rock radio enough, you’d think that the only songs Led Zeppelin recorded were “The Ocean, “Whole Lotta Love,” or “Over the Hills and Far Away.” As much as I love those songs, enough already.

The good news is that despite a lot of Zep’s catalog being way overexposed, plenty of their songs still sound fresh to this day. So here’s a list of 10 Led Zeppelin cuts that will never, ever get old.

1 — “Poor Tom” (from Coda, 1982)

It’s hard to imagine Led Zeppelin III being any better, but this track (recorded during those sessions) would’ve done just that. Above all else — Robert Plant’s understated vocals or Jimmy Page’s delicate acoustic guitar — John Bonham’s ridiculously bouncy drumming makes this track.

2 — “Communication Breakdown” (from Led Zeppelin, 1969)

In direct contrast to the group’s more expansive take on American blues, this song is 100% rock adrenaline. It’s short and brutally effective, with the only bit of rock indulgence being a blistering Page solo — which only enhances the ass-kicking qualities of the track.

3 — “Wanton Song” (from Physical Graffiti, 1975)

“Wanton Song” is all I love about Zeppelin in one package — aggressive guitars, wailing vocals, and a sick, sick groove. Is there a better rhythm section in rock history than Bonham and John Paul Jones? Listen to that drum fill at around the 11-second mark. So sweet.

4 — “Royal Orleans” (from Presence, 1976)

I love Presence, but it is a fairly drab affair. “Royal Orleans” stands in direct contrast to that. It’s bouncy and fun, while still retaining that trademark Zeppelin crunch. And dig those bongos!

5 — “Four Sticks” (from Led Zeppelin IV, 1971)

Can a case be made for any song from Zoso being underexposed? Why yes it can, and this is the one. That chugging, four-chord Page riff on top of Bonham’s impeccably played drums (with four drumsticks of course) was awesome to begin with, but the spacy, synth-driven bridge is the icing on the cake.

6 — “I’m Gonna Crawl” (from In Through the Out Door, 1979)

No bombast, no bloat. This is the last track on what turned out to be Zeppelin’s last studio album. It turned out to be a beautiful elegy for the band’s career. Plant, whose voice had darkened considerably since the ’60s, pours his soul out, while Page (deep in the throes of heroin addiction) contributes an achingly gorgeous solo.

7 — “That’s the Way” (from Led Zeppelin III, 1970)

I don’t use the word “pretty” very much with Led Zeppelin songs, but I can’t think of a better description of “That’s the Way.” It’s sad and tender without being morose or sappy. Page’s pedal steel playing imbues this song with an almost ethereal quality; it’s a sadly underused instrument in rock.

8 — “No Quarter” (from The Song Remains the Same, 1976)

Yes, you read that right, I picked a song from the much-aligned live album. Why? I was only five years old when the group broke up, so I never got a chance to witness the majesty of a Zeppelin show. This album is the closest I could come, and while a lot of it sounds rather tired and ragged, “No Quarter” is a standout. I lost count of the number of times I listened to this track with the lights out and just let John Paul Jones’ brilliant keyboard playing take me to another world.

9 — “The Crunge” (from Houses of the Holy, 1973)

This is one of the few overtly humorous tracks in the band’s catalog, but by no means is it a throwaway. This is the band’s tribute to the great James Brown, and I’d say it’s pretty worthy. Any doubts about Jones/Bonham’s ability to lock into a groove should be dispelled with this one. But just where was that confounded bridge?

10 — “Achilles Last Stand” (from Presence, 1976)

If Wikipedia is to be believed, this is Jimmy Page’s favorite Led Zeppelin song. Who am I to argue? He is all over the thing with his orchestrated guitars. But the pounding heart of “Achilles Last Stand” is Bonzo. Without his power and impeccable timing the whole thing would’ve become a complete mess. It’s an epic rock song without an ounce of flab.

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Deep Cuts: Judas Priest

You don’t even have to be a heavy metal fan to know who Judas Priest is. Over the past several decades, they’ve cemented their status as metal legends time and time again. This year marks the kickoff of the band’s Epitaph World Tour, stated to be the last Judas Priest world tour ever. Who knows if that’s really true (KISS, anyone?), but now seems as good a time as any to examine the band’s lengthy discography and pick out a few hidden treasures.

1. “Burnin’ Up” (Killing Machine/Hell Bent for Leather, 1978) — By the late ’70s the Priest had largely moved on from more complex song structures and the occasional foray into metal balladry. Few songs from this period typify the band’s more streamlined approach than “Burnin’ Up,” a musically muscular and lyrically charged slice of metal. The slow burn of the bridge section builds to an unbearable tension until an oh-so-satisfying release of guitar solo orgasm. Giggity!

2. “(Take These)” Chains” (Screaming for Vengeance, 1982) — After the relatively tame (by Judas Priest standards) Point of Entry, Screaming for Vengeance was an atomic blast of vintage ’80s headbanging. It brought the group to even higher levels of popularity, thanks in no small part to “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin'”. But tucked away in the middle of the album is “(Take These) Chains,” as moody and melancholy as the Priest ever got. But fear not, it still kicks much ass.

3. “Between the Hammer & the Anvil” (Painkiller, 1990)Painkiller is Exhibit A in how a metal band can revitalize their commercial fortunes and their artistic relevance in one fell swoop. Just how strong was the album? This song, an oblique reference to the absolutely insane civil court case brought against Judas Priest over a teenager’s suicide, was relegated to the B-side of the single for “A Touch of Evil.” The entire band sounds rejuvenated after a few less-than-stellar albums, particularly Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing on guitar and new drummer Scott Travis.

4. “Cheater” (Rocka Rolla, 1974) — I love hearing debut albums from bands that went on to bigger and better things. A lot of times those records show a group still wearing their influences on their sleeves. Such is the case with Rocka Rolla and “Cheater” in particular. Rob Halford busts out the harmonica and the band does their best Led Zeppelin/Nazareth/Aerosmith impression on this bluesy tune. Priest almost never released another song like this again, but that’s cool. There’s always that chugging guitar riff to remember.

5. “Judas Rising” (Angel of Retribution, 2005) — Rob Halford split from the Priest in the early ’90s. The band did what many in their position have unfortunately done, which is to hire a sound-alike (Tim “Ripper” Owens) and forge ahead hoping no one would notice the difference. Well no one noticed alright. After two albums with Owens went in the tank, Halford returned to the fold. The lead track from Angel of Retribution is clearly indebted to the band’s past, while still sounding modern. After an intro that evokes the JP classic “Victim of Changes,” we get a wall of shredding guitars, slamming drums, and Halford’s often imitated, never duplicated vocals. It sounds like it could’ve been released just a few years after Painkiller, which is a good thing.

6. “You Say Yes” (Point of Entry, 1981) — It’s not the best song from “Point of Entry,” but it’s as funky as the band ever got and it needs to be heard. It’s actually a close cousin to “Cheater,” so if you didn’t like that you won’t like “You Say Yes” either. The slow burn of the bridge and the move back to the groove is what takes this over the top for me.

7. “Epitaph” (Sad Wings of Destiny, 1976) — It’s hard to make the case that any song from Sad Wings of Destiny, perhaps the band’s most beloved release, is underrated. But I’m going to make it anyway. Glenn Tipton is credited as the sole composer on this number, which features only Rob Halford’s layered vocals and Tipton’s beautiful piano playing (he got his start in music with the instrument). I guess you could say the pair channels their inner Queen on “Epitaph,” a doleful number about facing one’s mortality. Back before Judas Priest locked into their successful metal formula they weren’t afraid to take chances on offbeat songs like this. Their catalog is the richer for it.

8. “Saints in Hell” (Stained Class, 1978) — I never fell in love with Stained Class like I did Sin After Sin or Killing Machine, but damn this song is hot. It’s textbook metal performed by the masters for the first few minutes, and then it gets downright evil. Listen to those echoed guitars, that punchy bass (go Ian Hill!), and that nuanced but driving drumming from Les Binks. That, my friends, is what sinister sounds like.

9. “Jawbreaker” (Defenders of the Faith, 1984) — It wasn’t apparent at the time, but the Priest were running out of steam by the time Defenders came out in ’84. Oh sure it’s a good album, and there are some excellent tracks on it, but dark days were just around the corner. Still, there’s no denying the power and ferocity of “Jawbreaker,” possibly the best song on the LP next to “Love Bites.”

10. “Raw Deal” (Sin After Sin, 1977) — Rob Halford publicly disclosed his homosexuality in the late ’90s, but any fan who had been paying attention should not have been surprised. Take this track for example. In addition to being a great example of a very un-commercial Judas Priest song (it’s really just a much more accomplished take on the music from Rocka Rolla), it’s lyrically a Gay Rights manifesto. Halford sings about Fire Island, spike bars, and so on. But don’t get hung up on the words if that gets in the way for you; revel in the pile-driving performance by the band, including short-term drummer Simon Phillips.

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Venture Bros. wrapup: “Any Which Way But Zeus”

One of the ways you can gauge the strength of a show’s is not how well they produce original plots and storylines, but how they rework old tropes into an entertaining package.  It’s sort of like how Led Zeppelin made the blues into something you didn’t have to force yourself to enjoy.  The Venture Brothers did much the same in its first season by repackaging a litany of hackneyed cartoon plots from the ’60s and ’70s into a wholly fresh enterprise.  Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer migrated away from that more obtuse approach as the series progressed, preferring instead to develop a more intricate, original mythology.

Every once in awhile, however, Doc and Jackson kick it old school and produce a self-contained story that feels more like a fun one-off than a very important episode.  “Any Which Way But Zeus” is one of those episodes, although I don’t think they entirely succeeded in their goal.  I think Doc (who wrote this one) wanted the best of both worlds – a self-contained episode that had the pacing and character development of more myth-heavy entries.

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New release roundup (feat. Midlake, Stone Temple Pilots, and Maya Beiser)

Sigh.  Once again there’s so much music and so little time.  In fact, most of albums on this list can’t properly be considered “new” anymore, but that’s life.

Dave King – Indelicate (Sunnyside Records)

King has already established himself as a jazz percussionist par excellence with the Bad Plus and Happy Apple, but here he decides to carry the entire load himself.   While I’d love to say that Indelicate is a prime example of a talented artist finally allowed to break free from the shackles of the group format, that isn’t really the case here.  King’s muscular and primal rhythmic approach to the drum kit carries over to the piano but it becomes clear fairly quickly that while King has a number of good ideas (among them the simple but engaging “Homage: Young People” and the bouncy “I Want to Feel Good”), he really needs someone like an Ethan Iverson to translate them into something more.  In the end, Indelicate feels more like an experiment than an album and while I’m sure it’s artistically rewarding, it doesn’t really make for a consistently rewarding listening experience.

One notable instance where King trades brawn for subtlety is “I See You, You See Me”, which offers a glimpse that he does have a melodic touch.  I do also dig the unsettling and appropriately named piano solo, “The Black Dial Tone of Night”.

Midlake – The Courage of Others (Bella Union)

It was probably inevitable that I would be a bit let down after the superb The Trials of Van Occupanther.  But really, The Courage of Others is a good effort from the Denton, Texas quintet.  There is a real sense of single-minded purpose on this album, it just lacks the “wow” moments that Van Occupanther had in spades.  Or to be more blunt, it lacks the songs.  The opening cut, “Acts of Man”, plops you in medias res into the album’s palette of subdued but lush folk rock dourness (I swear that on “Fortune” the group channeled the spirit of Peter, Paul and Mary).  There really isn’t a lot of deviation from that formula throughout the record’s 42-minute running time, so you’ll know by the third track if you want to stick it out to the end.  If you’re not inclined to do so, at least check out “Rulers, Ruling All Things” and “The Horn”, which do manage to distinguish themselves.

Stone Temple Pilots – Stone Temple Pilots (Atlantic)

The fact that we even have a new STP album to listen to is in itself a minor miracle.  As band devotees know, frontman Scott Weiland seems to be forever flirting with disaster, and his extracurricular activities have robbed the band of a lot of prime music-making and touring time.  As a result, it’s been nine years since the group’s last effort, the underrated Shangri-La Dee Da.  But in truth, the heart of STP has always been the DeLeo brothers, Robert and Dean, anyway.  The brothers’ knack for hooks is keen indeed, so how have they fared on this eponymous release?

For the most part, pretty good.  The energy is there, and the musicianship is top-notch as always.  The only major change is one of approach.  This record sounds like STP-lite in most places.  The beefy, muscular hard rock of past albums is eschewed in favor of a leaner, poppier sound.  For those needing a point of reference, this record most resembles Tiny Music…Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop in sound, although minus the freaky-deaky musical detours and psychedelic dabblings.

“Between the Lines”, the album’s first single, is vintage DeLeo craftsmanship.  It storms in, worms its way into your brain in under three minutes, and then it’s done.  The album continues in this vein, throwing in a bit of ’70s Aerosmith on the excellent “Huckleberry Crumble”.  At the halfway point comes the first letdown, “Cinnamon”.  It’s generic contemporary pop rock and sounds like something you’d hear on the soundtrack to an American Pie movie.

The group recovers from that misstep, but the album never really regains its early momentum.  You can’t blame that on Weiland, who sounds strong and confident on every song.  Perhaps the missing ingredient on this release is producer Brendan O’Brien, who is replaced behind the board by the DeLeo brothers.  Gone with O’Brien is the forcefulness and aggression that propels much of STP’s best material (even poppier tracks like the classic “Interstate Love Song” have a certain bombast that is essential to their success).  All that said, Stone Temple Pilots is a respectable entry in the band’s catalog and does nothing to diminish my appetite for more from the group.

Backyard Tire Fire – Good to Be (Kelsey Street Records)

On “Roadsong #39”, opening salvo of the fifth studio effort for the Ed Anderson-fronted trio, Backyard Tire Fire adds a whole lot of spit, grit, and groove to their alt-country sound.  Things settle down from there, though, and the rest of the album feels a lot more like the group’s last several releases.  Still, there are some welcome sonic changes, thanks in part to new producer Steve Berlin (of Los Lobos) – the arrangements are more expansive and nuanced, and not as dry and direct.  It was a bit jarring hearing the orchestral-esque backing on “Learning to Swim” at first, but it’s a nice addition on second thought.

Ultimately BTF sinks or swims on the strength of Anderson’s songwriting, which shines in spots on Good to Be.  The aforementioned “Roadsong #39” is a gem, and the poppy choruses on “Estelle” are a pleasant surprise.  There are some songs that feel a little too familiar, though, such as “Food for Thought”, the title track, and “Hell and Back”.  It’s a testament to Berlin that some of the more predictable songs still engage.

Maya Beiser – Provenance (Innova)

The term “rock star” isn’t really applicable to the world of the cello, but if it was then Maya Beiser would be one.  She has toured and collaborated with the likes of Tan Dun, Philip Glass, and Brian Eno, and she’s been the featured cellist on the soundtracks to movies such as The Happening, The Great Debaters, and Blood Diamond.  Beiser’s latest effort, Provenance, manages a neat trick.  It’s chock full of rich textures that unfold slowly, but is always engaging and listenable.  Her quest on the record was to transport the listener back to the golden age of Medieval Spain – a period when Muslims collaborated and lived with Jews and Christians.  Whatever her intentions, this music sounds timeless but never dated.  The last track, a cover of Led Zeppelin’s classic Middle Eastern-tinged “Kashmir”, doesn’t rock quite as hard but adds some additional authenticity that turns it into a fresh take.

Beiser’s skill with the cello is undeniable – she seems to be able to wrench a wide range of emotions from her instrument, to the point that it sounds like a de facto vocalist (her take on the aforementioned “Kashmir” is very reminiscent of Robert Plant’s vocal melody).  This release should appeal equally to fans of contemporary classical, world music, or really anyone who just enjoys listening to great music performed with equal parts skill and devotion.

Trombone Shorty – Backatown (Verve Forecast)

Wow.  Just wow.  This is the album you should force someone to listen to if they complain that there’s nothing good or fresh about today’s music.  Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews has crafted an early contender for album of the year, and he does it by brewing an intoxicating blend of rock, jazz, blues, hip hop, metal(!), and soul.  There’s no lengthy exercises in musical skill, as no track cracks the four-minute mark.  It’s just round after round of exciting and engaging music.  Hell, Andrews should score points just for getting Lenny Kravitz to sound relevant (“Something Beautiful”).   This is a bold, brassy, and beguiling album that will probably be overlooked for much safer fare.  A damn shame, really.

Robert Plant - Big Log

Listening Booth – Robert Plant, “Big Log”

It didn’t take Robert Plant long after the breakup of Led Zeppelin to find his musical footing.  From his superb 1983 sophomore effort, The Principle of Moments, here’s “Big Log”.  The song reached the Top 20 in both the U.S. and U.K., and the video complements it perfectly.

To this day “Big Log” is my favorite Plant track, helped in no small measure by the top-rate guitar playing of Robbie Blunt.  Blunt left Plant’s band in 1985 and has kept a pretty low profile since, doing occasional session work for various artists.

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Exit Robert Plant, enter…

The proof, as they say, is in the pudding but the current word out of the Led Zeppelin camp is that the group (co-founders Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones, as well as new drummer Jason Bonham) don’t much feel like waiting around for Robert Plant anymore and will take to the road without him.

Jones also stated that this new singer will not simply be a Plant sound-alike, in order to avoid seeming like a tribute band.  So the big question is: Who will be the one to step into Plant’s skin-tight bell bottoms?  While the safe choice would be someone with some strong pipes and a decent hard rock pedigree (but not necessarily a big name), a new contest by the good people at Popdose has given me inspiration to think outside the proverbial box.

So indulge me for a moment, while I spitball a few names that may provide just the jolt this new version of Zep needs to stay popular and relevant…

William Shatner – In addition to being the greatest living entertainer, Shatner is of course an accomplished vocalist.  I can just hear it now:  “And she’s…buying…a staiiiirway….to Heaven!”

Clay Aiken – Kinda gives a whole new meaning to “cock rock” doesn’t it?  (oh yes, I just went there.)

Rick Astley – “It’s been a long time since I’ve been Rickrolled…”

Jack White – OK, you may have picked up on the last few suggestions being somewhat less than serious, but I think White would actually be an interesting pick.  He’s got the vocal chops even though he’s not a prototypical hard rock frontman, and having a second guitarist playing Zeppelin would be pretty sweet.

Meme time: Pick an album for every year you’ve been alive

From Idolator via the AV Club comes a pretty cool music meme – compile a list of your favorite albums, with one for each year you’ve been alive. Sounds easy enough, but some years are positively stacked with music I love.  Forcing me to choose among my musical children is just so…cruel.

For me the most bountiful years were 1975-1978, 1980, 1982-1984, 1990, 1997, 1999, 2002, 2006, and 2007.

1975 – Kiss, Alive!
1976 – Led Zeppelin, Presence
1977 – Rush, A Farewell to Kings
1978 – Ace Frehley/Kiss, Ace Frehley
1979 – Pink Floyd, The Wall
1980 – Genesis, Duke
1981 – Rush, Moving Pictures
1982 – Rush, Signals
1983 – Iron Maiden, Piece of Mind
1984 – Iron Maiden, Powerslave
1985 – Kiss, Asylum
1986 – Queensrÿche, Rage for Order
1987 – Anthrax, Among the Living
1988 – Queensrÿche, Operation: Mindcrime
1989 – King’s X, Gretchen Goes to Nebraska
1990 – Queensrÿche, Empire
1991 – Queen, Innuendo
1992 – King’s X, King’s X
1993 – Robert Plant, Fate of Nations
1994 – Queensrÿche, Promised Land
1995 – Faith No More, King for a Day… Fool for a Lifetime
1996 – King’s X, Ear Candy
1997 – Hank Jones, Favors
1998 – Pearl Jam, Yield
1999 – Ben Folds Five, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner
2000 – Doves, Lost Souls
2001 – Spoon, Girls Can Tell
2002 – Koop, Waltz for Koop
2003 – Muse, Absolution
2004 – Mastodon, Leviathan
2005 – The Bad Plus, Suspicious Activity?
2006 – Muse, Black Holes and Revelations
2007 – Field Music, Tones of Town
2008 (so far) – School of Language, Sea from Shore

As I would’ve predicted, there’s some pretty clear trends at play here.  Most of the bands I grew up loving (Kiss, Iron Maiden, Rush, etc.) were at the peak of their powers during my youth, thus their early list dominance.  That also explains why hard rock and metal are heavily represented on this list until the mid 1990s, when they either dropped off my radar entirely or were just not releasing stuff I was all that interested in.  In fact, metal pretty much disappears for good until 2004, when the awesome Leviathan was released.

The other item of note is that I was listening to most of the albums at the front of the list when they came out.  Starting around the mid-’90s, my musical horizons began to expand and I started going back and filling in holes. Were this list to go back a few decades there’d be a ton of Beatles and jazz on it.

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Album review: The Raconteurs – Consolers of the Lonely

I’m not sure if it can accurately be said that the Raconteurs’ new album, Consolers of the Lonely, represents an unexpected left turn. After all, who’s to say that their 2006 debut, Broken Boy Soldiers, isn’t the aberration instead? Either way, fans looking for a repeat of the brilliant, trippy power pop of BBS would do best to just stick with that album. Consolers – steeped as it is in the blues, hard rock, and even vintage country – is an altogether different experience, so I expect the critics and fans to start taking sides now.

The good news is that despite representing a radical departure in style, Consolers has groove and guts to spare, and it feels like a much more cohesive musical statement than BBS. Throughout, the Raconteurs play with supreme confidence and sounds like a comfortable and well-oiled unit. The album boasts a healthy mix of scorchers and engaging slow- to mid-tempo songs. “Salute Your Solutions”, “Hold Up”, and “Five on the Five” in particular rock harder than anything on the first record, while “You Don’t Understand” is a wonderful counterbalance to the fury of the faster cuts.

The band also seems to be channeling the bluesier side of Led Zeppelin and the Who for much of Consolers. “Top Yourself” would sound at home on Physical Graffiti, while “Old Enough” could be an outtake from the Led Zeppelin III sessions. The band does cross the line from reverent to derivative with “Rich Kid Blues,” which is a sadly ineffective amalgamation of Zep’s “Ten Years Gone” and a lot of the Who’s Quadrophenia album. Too bad it lacks the sheer delicacy or power of either.

Without having read the writing credits for this record, my take is that it certainly seems to be a more Jack White-dominated affair. The blood-boiling openers “Consoler of the Lonely” and “Salute Your Solution” are really just White Stripes songs played by a full band, and along with much of the album seem like a thinly veiled (albeit successful) do-over of the disappointing Icky Thump – witness the mariachi flavor shared by the Stripes’ “Conquest” and this band’s “The Switch and the Spur” for instance. The abundance of horns can’t be a coincidence either.

The album closes with the excellent and chilling “Carolina Drama”, in which White delivers the tale of a troubled man named Billy in his familiar cadence while simultaneously evoking the sound of latter era Bob Dylan. It’s the last in a series of twists and turns that mark a consistent and consistently surprising album.

On a down note, despite a multitude of great riffs, very little of Consolers of the Lonely is as instantly memorable as the Raconteurs’ debut. And weighing in with 14 songs, some of the album feels less than necessary. A little editing (I really could’ve done without “Pull This Blanket Off” in particular) would’ve heightened the overall impact a great deal. Still, it’s a bold record from a band that could’ve easily – and justifiably – opted to repeat the winning formula of their debut.

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