Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
[Welcome to Forty Year Friday, the weekly series on my favorite albums of 1977]
Here are four more wonderful records that reached the forty year milestone in 2017.
By 1977 multi-instrumentalist singer/songwriter/producer Todd Rundgren was already 10 years into a recording career which included nearly a dozen albums & several hit singles, as well as production/engineering work for The Band, Grand Funk Railroad, Badfinger, Hall & Oates, New York Dolls and numerous other artists. That same year he also produced Meat Loaf’s Bat Out Of Hell, which I previously wrote about in Forty Year Friday here. After releasing two albums under the moniker Todd Rundgren’s Utopia where he explored synth-heavy progressive rock, the newly re-christened Utopia emerged with a lineup that would last through 5 albums in as many years: bassist Kasim Sulton, keyboardist Roger Powell and drummer John “Willie” Wilcox. Each member contributed songwriting & vocals on their first album but Rundgren was the focal point, and prog-rock was still their modus operandi. Highlights include the chugging synth-and-vocal-laden “Overture: Mountaintop And Sunrise/Communion With The Sun,” the quirky Queen/Sweet glam-pop of “Magic Dragon Theatre,” the heavy stomping rock of “Jealousy” (with great synth & guitar solos) and all 18+ minutes of “an electrified fairytale” called “Singring And The Glass Guitar” (featuring extended solos from all four musicians).
Album: OOPS! WRONG PLANET
Utopia followed up Ra later that same year with the more streamlined sound of Oops! Wrong Planet, and the band was now more of a democracy rather than merely an outlet for Rundgren. Unlike its predecessor, which featured multiple long tracks, no song here exceeds 4-1/2 minutes. The other band members each handle lead vocals on two songs, and Sulton duets with Rundren on three others. Although it’s not as whimsical & over the top as Ra, it’s also not a middle-of-the-road affair, straddling the lines of rock, soul, prog & quirky pop. There are plenty of highlights here: the glam-stomp of “Trapped,” the tightly arranged melodic rock of “Love In Action,” the pretty ballad “Crazy Lady Blue” with Roger Powell on lead vocals, the melodic prog-pop of “The Marriage Of Heaven And Hell,” the slightly funky “Abandon City” (with a great hook at “you better run for your lives”) and the gorgeous soulful ballad “Love Is The Answer,” which became a huge hit for England Dan & John Ford Coley two years later.
Artist: BAD COMPANY
Album: BURNIN’ SKY
How does a world-conquering band respond when their first three albums reached the Top 5 and went platinum or multi-platinum? For Bad Company, the British quartet of vocalist Paul Rodgers, guitarist Mick Ralphs, drummer Simon Kirke & bassist Boz Burrell (augmented by Burrell’s former King Crimson bandmate Mel Collins on saxophone), the answer was “give ‘em more of the same.” Often viewed as a huge disappointment in comparison to the three classics that preceded it, Burnin’ Sky is much stronger than its detractors would have you believe, even though it’s not quite as consistent and they started to repeat themselves a bit. However, when you have one of the all-time great rock vocalists and a killer guitarist still at the peak of their powers, even lesser material is worth hearing. It may have “only” cracked the Top 20 and sold less than half of their previous albums, but there’s a whole lot to love here: “Burnin’ Sky” (with its tight groove, sparse bass line, bright choruses & a killer guitar tone), “Morning Sun” (a pretty midtempo ballad with tasteful guitar work & Rodgers’ glorious voice), “Leaving You” (nothing new but I love the slow loping rhythm & the all-around great performances), “Heartbeat” (a chugging bluesy rocker), “Too Bad” (a riff-heavy stomping rocker) and “Man Needs A Woman” (a midtempo rocker with Collins blasting away on the sax). For some inexplicable reason, Atlantic Records decided not to include a single song from this album on the first-ever Bad Company compilation, 1985’s 10 From 6, whose title suggests 10 songs from their first 6 albums when it’s actually “10 from 5.”
Artist: JAMES TAYLOR
For his 8th album, and first for Columbia Records, James Taylor didn’t downplay his soft-rock sensitive singer/songwriter reputation, but he did expand his sound into a few new territories and delivered possibly the most consistent set of songs in his career. Aided by his usual crew of musicians, many of whom were ubiquitous on recordings throughout the ‘70s (like guitarist Danny Kortchmar, bassist Leland Sklar, drummer Russ Kunkel & saxophonist David Sanborn), as well as guest vocalists Carly Simon (who was in a relationship with Taylor at the time) and Linda Ronstadt, the simply-titled JT has become the best-selling record of his career, and it’s not hard to understand why. The joy on display…in his voice, his songs & the overall sound of the record…is infectious, even on the quieter tunes. It’s one great song after another, starting with the bouncy Top 20 single “Your Smiling Face” and on to “Honey Don’t Leave L.A.” (an old Kortchmar song that’s more propulsive rock than Taylor is usually known for), “Another Grey Morning” (jazzy soft-rock), “Bartender’s Blues” (a country ballad about a bartender finally telling someone about his own woes, which was later covered by country legend George Jones), “Handy Man” (a subtly arranged cover of an old song from the late-‘50s that became a big pop & adult contemporary hit), “Looking For Love On Broadway” (a pretty song with a nice guitar figure), “Traffic Jam” (a fun & brief jump-blues with just voice & percussion) and one of my favorite James Taylor songs, the hymn-like “Secret O’ Life” (which suggests that “the secret of life is enjoying the passage of time”). I always feel more at peace whenever I finish listening to one of his albums, and the latter song does this for me more than any others.