Van der Graaf Generator “Pawn Hearts” (1971)

Here’s a band operating on their own plateau, located in the center of a triangle formed by King Crimson, Pink Floyd, and the sacrificial altar of Crom, Pawn Hearts is not so much three distinct tracks as one elongated inner monologue of madness courtesy of Peter Hammill and company. While there’s those who would portray dementia through scatterbrained ramblings, Pawn Hearts is all the more harrowing and impressive in it’s focus and lucidity, it’s makeup of dense keyboards and saxophone sounding both ancient and timeless, with Hammill’s overwrought expression giving the proceedings an air of theatricality without resorting to parody. If at times the journey through these catacombs winds up at a dead end, particularly during moments of the side-long “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers,” there are too many glorious moments here to ignore, and the lack of reliance on stock progisims set this one apart. —Ben

Pink Floyd “Relics” (1971)

“Relics” is a collection of very early Pink Floyd singles and rare tracks, covering the band’s first couple of years from 1967 to 1969. Consider it “Pink Floyd: The Early Years,” if you like. Five tracks come from the group’s first three albums: the classic, trippy instrumental “Interstellar Overdrive” and the half children’s song/half freak-out number, “Bike” (both from “Piper At The Gates Of Dawn”), the breezy “Remember A Day” (from “A Saucerful Of Secrets”), and a pair of tunes from the “More” movie soundtrack: the eerie “Cirrus Minor,” and the thunderous rocker, “The Nile Song.”

All superb stuff, but the main selling point of “Relics” are the six rare Floyd tracks that make up the remainder, such as the classic early singles “Arnold Layne” and “See Emily Play,” both great little blasts of late-60’s psychedelic pop, the jaunty “Paintbox,” and the lovely, mysterious atmosphere of “Julia Dream.” Also included is the original studio version of “Careful With That Axe, Eugene,” an outstanding Floyd instrumental that’s probably more famous in it’s live version from the “Ummagumma” album. Although the live version of “Eugene” IS more monstrous and powerful, as the Floyd were able to slowly build it up and expand on it in concert, the slightly-faster studio version is nothing to sneeze at either, and the band give it a studio performance that’s very impressive, skillful, and passionate. And finally, there is what is quite possibly the happiest, most upbeat song in the entire Pink Floyd catalog, “Biding My Time.” Although the song starts out softly, before long the band turn it into a full-throttle jazz-rock rave-up, complete with horn section! Sounds to me like the Floyd had a grand ol’ time in the studio when they recorded this number, and it shows. Love it!

Pink Floyd’s “Relics” may indeed be, as the album cover says, “a bizarre collection of antiques & curios,” but oh, is it good. Floyd fans everywhere should definitely add this album to their collection. —Alan

Gregg Allman “Laid Back” (1973)

With The Allman Brothers Band tearing up the charts, it was probably only natural that Gregg Allman would have wanted to test his own capabilities by taking a stab at a solo career. Though he’d apparently started recording the album shortly after brother Duane’s death, it took more than two years for Allman to complete the effort. Produced by Johnny Sandlin, musically 1973’s “Laid Back” was a modest surprise in that it showcased a set that was far more diverse than his blues-rock repertoire with The Allman Brothers. In fact, anyone expecting to hear blistering, twin lead guitar Southern rock was going to be left scratching their heads. Mind you, Allman’s voice remained instantly recognizable, though his patented Hammond B3 organ was largely absent from the proceedings. And that’s where the similarities ended. While you couldn’t label this a pop album, it’s hard to imagine the Allman Brothers recording anything with intricate orchestral arrangements like ‘Multi-Colored Lady’ or ‘All My Friends’. Similarly, the upbeat cover of Oliver Sain’s ‘Don’t Mess Up A Good Thing’ was a far cry from The Allman Brothers patented driving rock genre. One other comment, with the exception of the Oliver Sain cover, virtually the entire set was soaked in a sense of loss and sadness.

Side one’s biggest surprise came in the form of Allman’s bouncy cover of Sain’s ‘Don’t Mess Up A Good Thing’. I’d be hard pressed to pick another song where he sounded as happy and pleased with himself. It would have made a great single.

The thought of Allman doing a Jackson Browne cover set off alarm bells in my head (damaged Southern rocker covers damaged West Coast singer/songwriter), but the concerns were unwarranted given Allman turned in a cover of These Days that was beautiful and aching and mournful slice of self-doubt and regret. The performance stood as a highlight across Allman’s entire career and simply beat the crap out of Browne’s own version.

Backed my strong reviews and an extensive American tour (documented for his next release), the album sold well, peaking at # 14 on the US charts. All told, probably still my favorite Allman solo venture. —Scott

Pete Townshend & Ronnie Lane “Rough Mix” (1977)

This would be ex-Faces Ronnie Lane’s next-to-last record. (He would release only one more solo album, 1979’s See Me, before multiple sclerosis no longer permitted him to record.) Together with Pete Townshend they create a memorable album.

Rough Mix kicks off with the most Who-like of the albums tracks–“My Baby Gives It Away,” which is propelled by the drumming of Stones’ drummer Charlie Watts. Townshend’s vocal performance is fine, but he doesn’t have the instensity that Roger Daltry could have added to the song. Only two other tracks rock as hard as the opening track. The instrumental “Rough Mix,” which features Eric Clapton’s lead guitar and the organ work of John “Rabbit” Bundrick, who would go on to tour with the Who in 1979. The other is Ronnie Lane’s “Catmelody,” a jumping number featuring Stones sideman Ian Stewart on piano.

The rest of the album is a mostly accoustic affair. One of the album’s many standout tracks is Lane’s absolutely gorgeous “Annie,” which features his former Slim Chance members Graham Lyle on guitar and Benny Gallagher on accordian. Equally lovely is Lane’s “April Fool” with Clapton on Dobro. Townshend also turns in one of his prettiest melodies and excellent acoustic guitar playing with “Keep Me Turning.” The album closes with the melancholy “Heart to Hang on To” with Lane and Townshend sharing vocal chores, and the Don Williams country classic “Till the Rivers All Run Dry.”

This is one of Townsend’s strongest non-Who projects and Lane’s contributions are stunning. If you enjoy either of these artists you will enjoy this collaboration. Highly Recommended! —Steve

Deep Purple “Come Taste the Band” (1975)

With Blackmore off chasing Rainbows, Deep Purple finally get a grip on this whole hard-funkin’ thing that had been brewing since Burn. Unlike the past two MKIII efforts, every track on Come Taste the Band (save for the snowblind ballad “This Time Around”) is seriously steeped in heavy groove, and it’s this consistency that makes the album work. There are no throwaways, every song purposefully jammin’ up a storm, the road weary “Comin’ Home,” high-rollin’ duo of “Lady Luck” and “Dealer,” and Hughes led party rocker “Gettin’ Tighter,” all notables. Personal favorite here though is the monolithic “Love Child,” with it’s syrupy, leaden riff, it’s a devastating highlight. Heck, even new kid Tommy Bolin serves up a cool instrumental cut in “Owed to ‘G’,” his adventurous Strat-strangulation and deft slide work a perfect fit for this one-off album. Come Taste the Band just oozes power and life start to finish, and shouldn’t be written off due to it’s distance from the classic Deep Purple sound. —Ben

Camel “Moonmadness” (1976)

After something of a detour in the all-instrumental Snow Goose, with Moonmadness Camel deliver a song oriented but no less progressive album that houses a faultless set exhibiting their impossibly relaxed and warm sound operating at a peak, as in the dual nature of “Song Within A Song” or the floating “Air Born,” songs which are comfortable, focused, and confident in their identity. Andy Latimer really steps to the front with a zen-like, effortlessly expressive guitar style that melts stone with it’s sheer beauty, fingers connected to the heart as well as the head, be it on softer passages such as in “Chord Change” or the full-bodied howling that closes “Another Night,” while the instrumental finale “Lunar Sea” simply blows the doors down with it’s twisting interplay and powerful lead work. One cannot discount the contribution of the rest of the band as well, Bardens with his most colorful pallet of synthesizer sounds, Ferguson and Ward totally in tandem, laying down syncopated grooves that help drive this one to the top of the heap. Moonmadness is an ideal place to start a Camel journey, not just in the merit of the individual songs but in the fact that Camel’s essence is so tangible here, looking forward or backward in their discography there’s a bit of Moonmadness everywhere. —Ben

John Entwistle “Smash Your Head Against the Wall” (1971)

John Entwistle’s first solo project away from The Who, “Smash Your Head Against the Wall,” comes as a revelation of sorts; while his songs had been sporadically featured on Who albums up until its release, Entwistle wasn’t quite given the songwriting kudos he deserved (his bass playing certainly wasn’t an issue!) This album changed THAT notion, for sure..;) It’s 100% solid, and a lot darker than the contemporary “Who’s Next;” in fact, just imagine 9 songs of the general spirit of “My Wife,” and you’ve got yourself an idea of what this album contains subject-wise.h

Stone Roses “Stone Roses” (1989)

It still amazes me to this day how four young lads from Manchester somehow managed to come together and make such a bold statement of an album, and bring a new movement kicking and screaming into the public consciousness. Enter The Stone Roses with their self-titled debut. It starts with some random industrial noises before suddenly, Mani comes in with a heavy, prolific baseline, John Squire provides an jangly intricate passage himself, as they build up to something monumental. Then suddenly those two drum beats from Reni hit. And that riff starts. You know you’re in for a ride from the beginning. “I Wanna Be Adored” is one hell of an opener to this statement.

One misgiving that many have with this band is the the gruff, out of tune voice of Ian Brown. Brown’s voice, while not technically perfect, embodies a cocky, swaggering personality and adds it over the album, which consists of 11 excellent jangly pop songs with influences from the 60’s. There are so many wonderful moments, the bassline of “She Bangs The Drums”, the jangly guitar line of “Waterfall” and the uplifting choruses of “(Song For My) Sugar Spun Sister”, the intro to “Made Of Stone”, and the tempo change in “This Is The One”.

But the band save the best till last with the epic closer “I Am The Resurrection”, the song is effectively a two parter, the first part yet another excellent jangly pop song like the rest of the album, but just as the song is about to finish, Mani’s bass becomes just that little funkier, and suddenly a five minute dance jam proceeds between the three instrument playing members, which effectively signals the breakthrough of Madchester into the public consciousness and re-emergence of Manchester on the musical map after the breakup of The Smiths. It is the moment that cements this as one of the essential albums of the late 1980s. —Mouzone

Masters of Reality “Masters of Reality” (1988)

The self-titled debut from this New York group Masters of Reality (1988) traverses between Black Sabbath (hence the title), Cream and AC/DC with a touch of the Doors and Beatlesque wit. Produced by studio marvel Rick Rubin and some additional help from founder/vocalist/guitarist Chris Goss, this is one the most creative rock records of the eighties. While it garnered some success on college radio it never really rose above cult status. Three years prior to the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind, bands like REM were already beginning to usher in a welcome change from the hair spray and glitter metal of the eighties with jangly guitars and folk sensitivity delivered with a punk rock aesthetic . Masters of Reality were responding to the bloated extravagance with a record full of bluesy psychedelic embellishments by crafting hefty guitar riffs, some refined piano/organ passages along with Goss’ sultry voice-who sounds like a cross between Jack Bruce and Jim Morrison.

The songs, all penned by Goss and guitarist Tim Harrington, contain varying subject matter ranging from hookers (The Candy Song) to hippy giddiness (Getting’ High) alongside the stream of conscious (Doraldina’s Prophecies). In addition to Goss/Harrington’s clever songwriting, they have a cohesive band

to set the words in motion. There’s the swampy steel string slide opening to the electro-folk anthem (John Brown), some fuzzy blues licks on another cut (Sleepwalkin’) and a jump blues acoustic number (Lookin’ Too Get Right). There’s also an ominous, almost doom metal guitar interlude tucked in the middle of the record (Theme for the Scientist of the Invisible). Another high point is the classical piano intro that leads into the heavy prog leanings of the album’s closer (Kill the King). There are plenty of other gems on this record as well; all mixed with quirky pop structures mingled with obscure lyrics and some serious rock-n-roll making this record a misplaced archetype. –ECM Tim

Country Joe & The Fish “Electric Music for the Mind & Body” (1967)

Electric Music is perhaps the greatest psychedelic album of all time. Different aspects of the psychedelic experience are represented here from the crazed caotic energy of “Superbird”, the deeply meditative and stoned “Bass Strings”, the soulfully flowing “Section 43”, to the sheer fun of this album. During a psychedelic experience, one is often able to percieve or rather hear colors in music. Electric music is replete with them and examples can be found on the organ solo of “Love” to Barry Melton’s guitar solo on “The Masked Marauder”. The mix of different tones on this album has been seldom paralled especially in the digital ninties. Chicken Hirsh’s resonant tom tom drums, Bruce Barthol’s rich bass, David Cohen milky organ and Barry Melton’s guitar provide a nice rich timbre palete throughout the album particular evident on the instrumentals “Section 43” and “The! Masked Marauder”. Barry Melton’s vocals on “Love” sound like Satchmo on acid and add to the fun of this masterpiece. Country Joe once told me that the songs were arranged so that you would forget the tune you just hear before the one you were hearing. He also said that the band “tested” the album out themselves. Now if that’s not quality control I don’t know what is. An analog masterpiece for those curious to know what music sounded like before the digital age. A high recommend! —AC

Neu! “Neu!” (1972)

Rock as ambience, stripped of song but retaining the simplicity of a good hook, Neu! marks the meeting point of acid-dazed psychedelic improv and post-classical minimalist composition. “Hallogallo” and “Negativland” are this album’s supreme achievements: the former synonymous with the now oft-used rhythmic term motorik, the latter combining this metronomic minimalism with a jarring musique concrete that incorporates industrial noise, transforming the group’s dreamlike drone into something more tonally consistent with a nightmare and anticipating everything from Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures to Scott Walker’s Tilt. In between these two highlights is the cymbal-drone experiment of “Sonderangebot,” the hazy, beautiful ballad-like “Weissensee” (which in a way anticipates the minimal, atmospheric post-punk of albums such as Seventeen Seconds by the Cure), and “Im Gluck,” whose studio-simulated rippling water is both restive and unsettling. The closing track, “Lieber Honig,” is an odd shift in tone that introduces fragile vocals and arguably constitutes the one misstep—though that depends on your mood. And mood is the crucial element to appreciating this album to its fullest. The group’s use of the studio to create a unique space in which to listen is what is most impressive about Neu! The spatial organization of the instruments gives breathing room in which the attention is allowed to drift from one part to another, actively constructing the sound of the whole and making for a different listening experience each time.

Obviously one of those proverbial albums that sold next to nothing but inspired those who heard it to make their own records, this also bears influence throughout the music since, its unique spell cast over just about everything good that followed it. —Will

The Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1 (1988)

Very few “supergroups” live up to the lofty title accorded them. So it’s no surprise that one of the most beloved  high-profile collaborations in rock history was met with some skepticism shortly after its largely unannounced arrival almost a quarter of a century ago. Counting among its motley crew a Rock ‘n Roll Legend, a Beatle, a Spokesman of A Generation, and a ’70s and ’80s AOR icon (oh yeah, and also the guy from ELO), the very existence of The Traveling Wilburys seemed too good to be true. Yet the Wiburys’ debut defies all odds and exceeds all expectations for the simple fact that it doesn’t try to do either. Sure, one can admire the great playing and fine craftsmanship in every song, but at the end of the day Vol. 1 is just a bunch of goofballs–albeit monumentally talented ones–hanging out in the studio, smoking joints, playing music, and having a good time. The fact that this translates so well into catchy, ultra-durable, and sometimes even emotionally potent pop is the album’s most miraculous achievement.

Even after two decades, “Handle with Care” remains Vol. 1’s most popular track, and for good reason; despite its purported dashed-off, round-robin-style composition in George Harrison’s kitchen the night before it was recorded, it’s a surprisingly deep piece of songwriting. Given more gravity by Harrison’s lead vocals and the rest of the gang’s call and response choruses, it’s perhaps the most honest and accurate aging rock star confessional ever committed to tape.  Tom Petty’s presence  is mostly relegated to the background (which would not be the case on the Wiburys’ inferior, Roy Orbison-less follow-up, Vol. 3) but his turn on  “Last Night” provides the record’s quirkiest moment. But it’s Dylan who contributes the lion’s share of humor to an album already brimming with it. Has Aerosmith ever written a song more laden with outrageous innuendo than “Dirty World”? And even Weird Al would be hard-pressed to come up with a more devastating Bruce Springsteen  parody than “Tweeter and the Monkey Man”. From a career standpoint, the timing of Orbison’s sudden death just a few weeks after Vol. 1’s release could not have been worse, but his majestic crooning on “Not Alone Anymore” ensured that he’d at least leave this mortal coil on a high note. Even Jeff Lynn, a performer and producer not always known for his minimalism or restraint, contributes an uncharacteristically stripped-down rocker, “Rattled”; moreover, his bandmates help him keep his glitzier production flourishes in check, allowing Vol 1—some dated synths and occasionally intrusive horns aside–to still sound like the same homespun and unpretentious masterpiece that it did back in 1988.

So the next time you’re scratching your head, figuring out what you want to listen to because you think you are sick of everything you own, give this oldie-but-goody a whirl. Dust off the battered CD (the one in the case with the broken hinges) and crank it up, or… dig the cassette out of the box in the attic (you know the one) and pop it in the still-functioning boom box in the garage, or… if you were lucky enough to pick this up on vinyl during its first (and only) pressing, slap it on the turntable, lower the needle, bathe yourself in the charm and bonhomie of this unrepeatable musical moment in time, and be reminded of a fact you have long forgotten: You love this record! – Richard P