Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
[Welcome to Forty Year Friday, the weekly series on my favorite albums of 1977]
These are the final four albums celebrating their 40th anniversaries that I’ll be highlighting, followed by a list of others that deserved to be included in this series.
Artist: EMERSON, LAKE & PALMER
Album: WORKS VOLUME 1
Many music critics attribute the (temporary) demise of progressive rock at the tail end of the ‘70s to the overblown nature of artists like Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. There’s no denying that both groups took their sounds to the outer reaches of the musical universe, but among the many things I love about them, and prog-rock in general, is how they pushed boundaries without regard for prevailing trends. While Yes was dealing with a revolving door of band members, the super-trio of keyboard whiz Keith Emerson (formerly of The Nice), founding King Crimson bass/guitar/vocalist Greg Lake and drumming maestro Carl Palmer (previously with The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown and Atomic Rooster) were taking the concept of rock music inspired by classical compositions to a new level by briefly touring with an orchestra, until it nearly bankrupt them. That tour was in support of their fifth studio album, the sprawling 2-record set known as Works Volume 1. Each member had his own solo side while the final two tracks were group recordings. Emerson’s “Piano Concerto No. 1” is aptly titled; an 18-minute orchestral piece that doesn’t break any new ground but has some unsurprisingly impressive piano work and numerous buoyant melodies. Lake co-wrote some strong songs with his former King Crimson bandmate, Peter Sinfield, including the bombastic ballad “Lend Your Love To Me Tonight” and the haunting & gorgeous “C’est La Vie.” Palmer’s strongest contributions were “The Enemy God Dances WithTthe Black Spirits” (featuring tight drumming & percussion with dramatic orchestral accompaniment), “L.A. Nights” (highlighted by a pulsating rhythm and Joe Walsh on guitar & scat vocals) and “Food For Your Soul” (orchestral big band swing with a killer drum solo). The two group pieces are among their best: a chugging shuffle cover of the Aaron Copland classical piece “Fanfare For The Common Man” and the 13-minute orchestral prog masterpiece, “Pirates.” Works Volume 1 was not their most cohesive record but it was never meant to be. That’s one of its many charms.
Artist: CAT STEVENS
Best known for his unique brand of acoustic-based songwriting, Cat Stevens had previously incorporated modern synthesizers into his music for albums like Foreigner and Numbers, but it wasn’t until his tenth album (and eighth since he became the bearded troubadour that scored numerous hits throughout the ‘70s), Izitso, that they became such an integral part of his sound. Without his longtime sidekick, guitarist Alun Davies, he & frequent collaborator, keyboardist/arranger Jean Roussel, along with a long list of top-notch studio musicians, crafted a set of songs that are “classic Cat Stevens” with an added contemporary sheen. “(Remember The Days Of The) Old Schoolyard,” his final Top 40 hit, is bouncy synth-pop with nostalgic lyrics. I love the guitar riff, funky groove & tight rhythm section on “Killin’ Time” and the whimsical instrumental “Kypros,” with its slightly Latin rhythm and Greek melodies. It’s nice to hear him let loose, lyrically speaking, on “Bonfire,” a peppy & jazzy song about sex. He shifts from ballad to driving pop (and back again) on the autobiographical “(I Never Wanted) To Be A Star.” The midtempo pop tune “Sweet Jamaica,” with hints of Elton John and Philly Soul, is lightweight in the best possible way. Izitso seems to be an overlooked album in his discography, likely because it arrived a couple of years after his multi-platinum Greatest Hits and a year prior to his self-imposed exile from the world of Western pop music. It deserves a much higher profile.
Artist: MICHAEL FRANKS
Album: SLEEPING GYPSY
I’ve been a jazz fan since high school but for some reason I’ve never really enjoyed jazz vocalists, with a few notable exceptions. It might be the same reason I love classical music but don’t have an affinity for opera singing. I guess with jazz it’s usually about the music for me, so when I find a jazz singer I like it means they offer something unique to my ears. One such singer is Michael Franks, whose warm & super-smooth voice has been paired with some amazing musicians for more than 40 years. It’s his work from the ‘70s & ‘80s which has made the biggest impact on me, after being introduced to his music by the record store manager who hired me for my first job in the music industry back in 1983 (for which I’ll forever be in her debt). Sleeping Gypsy, his third album (and second for a major label), finds him working with three members of the legendary (Jazz) Crusaders, guitarist Larry Carlton, sax player Wilton Felder & keyboardist Joe Sample, along with sax greats David Sanborn & Michael Brecker, one-time Joni Mitchell drummer John Guerin and several Latin musicians, all of whom provide a solid musical canvas for Franks’ vocals as well as impressive soloing whenever the songs call for it. The album opens with what I consider the definitive Michael Franks song, “The Lady Wants To Know,” which perfectly evokes the laid-back sound of the swinging ‘70s (or at least how I pictured that era when I was in my pre-teens). I absolutely love the refrain of “Daddy’s just like Coltrane, baby’s just like Miles.” There are several other notable tracks here, including “I Really Hope It’s You” (light jazz-pop with great self-harmonies & understated guitar soloing), “B’wana-He No Home” (a cool vocal melody and lovely piano & sax solos), “Don’t Be Blue” (peppy with tasteful electric piano & sax) and “Antonio’s Song (The Rainbow)” (a lush Latin ballad with sweeping strings which is likely a tribute to one of his heroes, Antonio Carlos Jobim). There’s an excellent 2-CD Michael Franks compilation on the market, which would be the ideal introduction for most newcomers, but if you want to check out some of his individual albums you’ll be well-served by starting with Sleeping Gypsy.
Artist: AL DI MEOLA
Album: ELEGANT GYPSY
Al DiMeola was still a teenager when he joined Chick Corea’s Return To Forever, one of my favorite jazz-fusion groups, and his lightning-fast guitar runs had the jaws of fellow guitarists & other musicians hitting the floor. After three albums with RTF he struck out on his own, and his second solo album, Elegant Gypsy, is generally acknowledged as an essential fusion release. What could have been a shred-fest is instead a diverse collection of melodic instrumental music that draws on jazz, rock & Latin styles. Of course there’s plenty of awe-inspiring musicianship, with contributions from keyboardists Barry Miles & Jan Hammer, drummers Lenny White (his RTF bandmate) & Steve Gadd, bassist Anthony Jackson and percussionist Mingo Lewis. Album opener “Flight Over Rio,” written by Lewis (the only song not composed by DiMeola), shifts from the synth-laden subdued rhythm of the first 90 seconds to Santana-esque Latin jazz-rock with searing guitar. “Mediterranean Sundance” is a beautiful Flamenco-style Spanish guitar duet with Paco de Lucia, with whom he would release the classic Friday Night In San Francisco live album four years later (joined by fellow guitar legend John McLaughlin). “Race With Devil On Spanish Highway” is fast-paced with Latin accents, super-fast guitar runs, a crunchy bass-and-guitar riff and some more peaceful passages. At more than 9 minutes, album closer “Elegant Gypsy Suite” is the longest track, a showcase for amazing playing from everyone and an impressive arrangement. I’m far from an expert on DiMeola’s complete catalog as I only own a handful of his other albums, but I strongly recommend Elegant Gypsy…his biggest seller and only Gold record…for anyone checking him out for the first time.
These albums, in alphabetical order, didn’t quite make the cut. Which ones do you think should have gotten their own posts, and what other albums from 1977 did I completely overlook?
Aerosmith – Draw The Line
The Band – Islands
Be Bop Deluxe – Live! In The Air Age
The Beatles – At The Hollywood Bowl
Jeff Beck – With The Jan Hammer Group Live
Bee Gees – Here At Last… Bee Gees… Live
Blue Öyster Cult – Spectres
Brand X – Moroccan Roll and Livestock
Can – Saw Delight
Culture – Two Sevens Clash
Hall & Oates – Beauty On A Back Street
Heart – Little Queen
The Jam – In The City and This Is The Modern World
Judas Priest – Sin After Sin
Kraftwerk – Trans-Europe Express
Little Feat – Time Loves A Hero
The Steve Miller Band – Book Of Dreams
Randy Newman – Little Criminals
Ted Nugent – Cat Scratch Fever
Rainbow – On Stage
The Ramones – Leave Home and Rocket To Russia
Linda Ronstadt – Simple Dreams
Triumph – Rock & Roll Machine
UFO – Lights Out
Weather Report – Heavy Weather
Dennis Wilson – Pacific Ocean Blue
Steve Winwood – Steve Winwood
It has been an absolute thrill for me to revisit so many great albums from 1977 throughout the year, and it seems like I’m not alone in thinking that it was an incredible 12 months of music. Finding the time to write about these records each week hasn’t been easy, as 2017 was a (self-imposed) challenging year for me, but I set a goal in January to cover as many of these releases as I could, and I’m proud…and amazed…that I somehow managed to discuss 63 albums over the course of 45 posts. Thank you to everyone who stopped by and shared their thoughts during this series. I love the conversations we’ve had, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts on these final selections. Still not sure what’s in store for next year so for now I’ll bask in the glow of a job (well?) done.