Steely Dan “Can’t Buy a Thrill” (1972)

    One of the more unique sounds of the 1970s is the band Steely Dan.  I will be forever grateful to a friend of mine who indoctrinated me to Steely Dan late in my college years, which was perfect as Steely Dan is basically perfect late-night college music, made by two guys who went to college together.  Their debut album, “Can’t Buy A Thrill” presents some interesting looks as a first release, and is rated #168 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

     I have noticed with many artists, one of two directions we see with a debut album.  For some artists, it proves to be their peak, and while they may do other good things, nothing ever hits the mark quite like that first album.  I can think of many artists on that list.  For others, the first album is a starting point, and while it may have highlights and moments of greatness, it is surpassed by other works as the artist develops and grows with time.  That is the category I will put this album in for Steely Dan.  Led by Donald Fagen on vocals and keyboards, and Walter Becker on guitar, there is some really impressive work on this record.  The opening track, “Do It Again”, is a remarkable first song, with a lot going on with unique percussion and rhythm, an excellent vocal track, and lyrics I absolutely love.  What comes next is interesting, another notable Steely Dan song, “Dirty Work”, but this is one of a very few songs that Donald Fagen does not sing lead on.  David Palmer sings lead on “Dirty Work” and “Brooklyn”, as Donald Fagen was still finding his confidence, both in studio and on the road.  By the next album, Fagen fully assumes the mantle, so these songs are a rarity, even though “Dirty Work” is a great song.  It also features the lush and distinguished backing vocals that become a signature of many Steely Dan songs.

     The other recognizable song on this album is “Reelin’ In The Years”, another interesting and well-told tale by Fagen, prominently featuring Becker’s guitar work.  This has never been a big favorite of mine among their greatest hits, but I do still rate it a solid song.  Songs like “Kings” and “Midnite Cruiser” are more central to the Steely Dan sound, although “Midnite Cruiser” is the other non-Fagen track, with drummer Jim Hodder on lead vocals.

     Steely Dan has always felt like an interesting hybrid of jazz, funk, R&B, and a uniquely white twist on hipster funk, if there is such a thing.  The musical expertise is high on this and all Steely Dan music, it is easy to see why the principles were previously in high demand as session musicians and songwriters.  Again, I’m fairly confident there is even better Steely Dan ahead, but “Can’t Buy A Thrill” is simply, a very accomplished, evolved, and sophisticated debut performance for a couple of guys and their crew not too far removed from their own college experience.

Stevie Wonder “Talking Book” (1972)

   You may recall that earlier in 1972, we discussed “Music of My Mind” by Stevie Wonder.  Later in the same year, he released “Talking Book”, which I would assume most people, myself included, consider this album to be a significant step forward in the caliber of his rapidly expanding solo, “adult” music journey.  Once again fully under his complete artistic control, both in songwriting and musical performance, this highly successful record is rated #59 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, and is #10 on the Top 10 Greatest Soul albums of All Time.  For those of you paying attention, that is our 3rd consecutive Top 10 album within a genre, over three different genres, from funk to folk to soul!

     The album opens with the mellow Stevie classic, “You Are the Sunshine of My Life”, and like much of the album, most of the instrumentation is Stevie’s keyboards.  The clavinet is particularly prominent on this record, more so later in the track listing.  We then begin to blur the lines of soul, funk and R&B on “Maybe Your Baby”, and not surprisingly, here comes the clavinet.  This is a great song, one of the best on the album.  “Tuesday Heartbreak” is another funkier song on side one I really like, and “You’ve Got It Bad Girl” is more of what we have come to expect with the classic Stevie sound.

     Side two is another clavinet classic, and perhaps the most iconic Stevie Wonder song of them all, “Superstition”.  From the opening drums, this song is instant magic.  Covered by many, imitated by many more, including even my beloved Led Zeppelin on “Trampled Underfoot”, but nobody comes close to matching the groove Stevie lays down on this song.   The rest of side is more on the slow side, with an interesting revisit to the opening chords of “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life” at the beginning of “Lookin’ For Another Pure Love”.

     I wasn’t a big fan of “Music of My Mind”, but “Talking Book” is one of the peak moments for Stevie Wonder in his incredibly accomplished career, and if you have never given it a listen, you probably should.

Sandy Denny “Sandy” (1972)

    Another interesting transition, from the #1 funk album to the #4 folk album, today we have the album “Sandy” by Fairport Convention vocalist Sandy Denny.  Although there is probably not a genre here that I am less familiar with than folk, any Led Zeppelin fan like myself recognizes Sandy Denny as the guest vocalist on “The Battle of Evermore” on the fourth Led Zeppelin album.  This album was a very pleasant surprise, and frankly, much more diverse in sound than most of the folk albums I have listened to.  With only two exceptions, all of the songs were written by Sandy herself, just another impressive element of this record.

     The opening track is a beautiful song, “It’ll Take a Long Time”. The streamed album version I listened to also included a live version of this song at the end, which was not on the original album. Following the aptly named “Sweet Rosemary”, we actually have the slightly funky “For Nobody to Hear”.  Other songs I really enjoyed included the country sounding “Tomorrow Is A Long Time”, the gorgeous melody “Listen, Listen”, and “Bushes And Briars”.

     Sadly, Sandy Denny’s life was in stark contrast to the peaceful joy of this album.  Tormented by an adulthood filled with substance abuse and mental health struggles, she ultimately died shortly after she gave birth to a daughter, after falling down the stairs and suffering a fatal brain injury.  This serves as an excellent reminder to each of us.  No matter how well it may appear how things are going for someone, it never hurts to check in on those you love and see what you can do to help them, and when they do the same for you, embrace that love and know that there are many people who truly care for you.

Curtis Mayfield “Superfly” (1972)

    How often do I get to listen to the #1 rated funk album of all time, at least as proclaimed by  I guess for the purposes of this exercise, today is that day.  “Superfly”, the soundtrack album from the 1972 album by Curtis Mayfield, is so designated, and also is the #76 album on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

     For me, my taste in funk runs a bit rougher, with a deeper mix of bass and percussion than what I typically hear from Curtis Mayfield.  This feels more like a hybrid of R&B, soul, and funk, but with all of that said, it is a pretty solid album.  Opening with “Little Child Runnin’ Wild”, Curtis and his smooth falsetto takes us out on the dangerous, drug-filled streets for this album.  Next comes “Pusherman” and “Freddie’s Dead”, which is definitely one of the funkier tracks on the album.  This song is definitely more in my core genre of true funk.

     As a soundtrack album, there are multiple instrumental songs, showcasing the ability of Mayfield as a musician and songwriter.  My absolute favorite song on this album is “No Thing on Me (Cocaine Song)”, it has a pretty infectious melody as the song celebrates freedom from the controlling oppression of drugs.  The album closes with the title track, and this record definitely tells a story even if you have never seen the film, which I have not.  Mainstream funk music peaked in the early 1970s before disco and then hip-hop consumed the majority of popular black music, and this timepiece is a perfect representation of the sound of this era.  Superfly… indeed.

The Doobie Brothers “Toulouse Street” (1972)

    For most of my relatively long classic rock fandom, I have never been a big fan of The Doobie Brothers.  In recent years, I have given them more of a listen as I continue to try to span further in my search for music.  This interest has also been augmented by my son’s unusual but entertaining fascination with Michael McDonald, who was not with the band when today’s album, “Toulouse Street” was recorded.

     This original version of the band featured Tom Johnston and Patrick Simmons doing the heavy lifting on vocals, and I was pleasantly surprised how much I liked it.  The record opens with the instantly recognizable “Listen to the Music”, which I of course did, followed by another well-known hit, “Rockin’ Down the Highway”.  Next comes a cool ode to Jamaica, “Mamaloi”, followed by the acoustic soft song title track, which I really liked a lot.  “Toulouse Street” also happens to be one of the two cross streets for my favorite music club in the world, Tipitina’s, in uptown New Orleans, so the vibe and affection for this album is natural.  Side one wraps with the funkier track “Cotton Mouth”, which I enjoyed and seems to align with the name of the band.

     Overall, side two didn’t grab me quite as much, and it contained the only song “Disciple” that I really didn’t care for, but the rest of it was still a good listen and did include their rendition of “Jesus Is Just Alright”, another Doobie Brothers classic.  I’m happy that I found some more new songs for the playlist and enjoyed this one a lot.

David Bowie “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” (1972)

    At the house I am staying at this weekend, there is a picture of David Bowie on the refrigerator.  Seems appropriate that today’s album is “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”.  I also recall my son having a poster of this album cover in his dorm room at college.  This classic release from Bowie, which is a concept album framed around the fictional music superstar Ziggy Stardust, is the #40 rated album on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

     This is a great record, with several familiar tunes and many others I didn’t know before but also love.  I really love the opening track, “Five Years”, and it flows perfectly into the second song “Soul Love” which is equally great.  Later on side one, we have “Starman”, one of the most infectious Bowie melodies I have ever heard.

    As the album rolls on, songs like “Lady Stardust” and “Star” continue the theme before we hit the two-song powerhouse of “Ziggy Stardust” and “Suffragette City”.  The title track truly captures Bowie’s eclectic sound and his unique ability to make something alternative and different sound so perfectly rock and roll.  And with “Suffragette City”, we have my unequaled favorite David Bowie song of all time.  The guitar riff in this song is outstanding, and the up-tempo pace of this song always gets me going.

     I don’t know if I will hear a Bowie album I like better than this one, although I’m guessing this countdown will give me that chance.  This is definitely one record that fully lives up to the hype and the high rating.

Eagles “Eagles” (1972)

 One of the more intriguing elements of this exercise for me will be including the primary releases of the Eagles, perhaps the most successful country-rock-pop act of the 20th century.  Their ability to sustain success in album sales and concert ticket sales has few comparisons, and I will be eager to see how their music evolves by listening to their full albums.  Today is their debut release from 1972, simply titled “Eagles”, and was rated as album #207 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

     Not unlike the Beatles, the Eagles were ultimately dominated by two primary personalities and voices in the act, singer and guitarist Glenn Frey and drummer and vocalist Don Henley.  Their lineup evolves significantly through the course of this album, but their original lineup also included Bernie Leadon and Randy Meisner.  Like the Beatles, typically whoever wrote the song usually served as lead vocalist.

      My overall take on their debut album?  It was ok, but clearly not the peak of their capabilities as an act.  There were three successful singles from the album, but the rest of the content did not contain what I would consider any “hidden gems”.  I have always liked two of the three successful singles, and the third, “Witchy Woman”, by Don Henley, has never done much for me, even though oddly enough it charted higher than either of the others.

     Perhaps their earliest signature song opens the album, “Take It Easy”.  Telling the tale of “standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona”, Glenn Frey took an unfinished Jackson Browne song and turned it into an Eagles classic.  Frey also sung the other landmark song from this album, “Peaceful Easy Feeling” which also captures their early blend of country rock, even though both Frey and Henley allegedly battled with producer Glyn Johns for an edgier rock sound.

     The rest of the album is not that memorable to me.  The Meisner and Leadon songs don’t do anything for me, and for all of his leadership in the band, Henley only had one other song, “Nightingale”, which was a late and uninspired addition to the album.

      The Eagles have proven to be enduring and popular on a level matched by few acts, although I don’t think anyone could have fully predicted that from this album.  I look forward to watching this story unfold.

Aretha Franklin “Amazing Grace” (1972)

    When I first realized the next album on my list was going to be a live gospel album from Aretha Franklin, I knew it was going to be good, but even my own expectations were exceeded on this powerful album.  Rated as album #154 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Albums of All Time, this showcase, named after the one and only “Amazing Grace”, literally blew me away.  Recorded as a live performance at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, Aretha and her accompanying musicians, including another appearance by legendary drummer Bernard Purdie, are backed by the Southern California Community Choir in a full-on live, in-church performance.

     Take all of the ingredients of a vibrant black American Baptist church, with the emotional, passionate and powerful sermons, and add on top of it, probably the greatest soul singer in American music history, and it’s going to be a blockbuster.  Among the many treats of Aretha Franklin is her gift on the piano to compliment her overwhelmingly powerful vocals.  The first song starts with the building rhythm and chords of “Mary, Don’t You Weep”, and as the choir comes in on the beat, followed by Aretha, it really is spine-tingling.  As good as that is, it gets even better on the next performance, when Aretha goes back to the catalog of Carole King to borrow “You’ve Got A Friend” and blend it in with “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”.  Once I realized what was happening here, I just had to shake my head.

     Next comes a rousing up-tempo version of “Old Landmark”, followed by the slower “Give Yourself to Jesus”.  When my son was learning to sing in a vocal group many years ago, the director told the kids when they really wanted to take a song to its soulful next level, it was time to “go to church” with their singing.  Gospel music has been a part of American music for hundreds of years, and this album has to be one of the high points ever realized.  If you want to make it even better, watch some of the video footage, as the show was ultimately released in a documentary performance of the show.

     The whole congregation is a part of the show when Aretha and the choir blow the doors off with “How I Got Over”.  As one would expect, the title track also delivers a complete wallop.  I think I still rate Aaron Neville’s version of Amazing Grace as my all-time favorite, but like many songs on this album, “Amazing Grace” turns into a ten-minute cleansing of the soul and lifting of the spirt.  It really is spectacular.

     Another unexpected surprise was the Liverpool football classic, “You’ll Never Walk Alone”.  Originally written for the Rodgers and Hammerstein show “Carousel”, the song was passionately adopted by the Liverpool Football Club after the song was recorded in 1963 by Gerry and the Pacemakers.  It is truly a remarkable scene to see a stadium full of football fans belt it out in unison, and Aretha’s poignant piano-only performance, solo with no choir until the second half of the song, captures a similar magical feeling.  To take this album a step further, even her father, a musically-centered minister also makes an appearance, sharing in the spreading of the gospel of Jesus Christ with Aretha and the rest of the choir, musicians, and congregation.

      I have said before, I am not a religious person, nor do I consider myself deeply rooted in any spiritual sentiment.  That being said, it is still remarkably moving to see a common passion, a common movement, and a common force centered around the love of their faith and their music, presented for all of us to take in and celebrate in kind.  There have been only a handful of moments I have truly had to catch my breath through all of these albums, and this is the second or perhaps even the third time it has happened to me with an Aretha album.  What a treasure she was, and will always be.

Elton John “Honky Chateau” (1972)

    Today we have the first Elton John album I include, even though it is actually his fifth studio release.  “Honky Chateau” was rated as the #251 album by Rolling Stone on their Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, and it certainly is a consistently strong album, reflective of the songwriting expertise and consistent musical talent of Elton and his lyricist Bernie Taupin.  This was also the first album to include his primary traveling band on the studio tracks, to include Davey Johnstone, Dee Murray and Nigel Olsson.

     The album naturally opens with “Honky Cat”, which is a funky, ragtime song reminiscent of the many New Orleans piano-singers from that era.  If you have never paid attention closely, Elton is a phenomenal piano talent in addition to his highly capable singing.  Followed up by the bluesy ballad “Mellow”, this is Elton at his prime, avoiding some of the overtly pop sounds of his later career.  Not surprisingly, the other highlight on side one is the space ode “Rocket Man”, which I have always enjoyed pairing up with “Space Oddity” by David Bowie.

     Side two opens with another ballad, “Salvation”, another really strong piece with beautiful backing vocals as a song that gains momentum throughout its performance.  I honestly never realized Elton had a song named “Amy”.  Anybody who really knows me well will see the irony in that fact.  And true to form, it is not one of my favorite songs on the album, it just doesn’t have the same impact as most of the other tracks and lays a bit flat.  However, what follows is the best song on the album, Elton’s ode to New York City life, “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters”, which he emotionally performed at “The Concert for New York” following 9/11. 

     Elton John is an artist I have had the good fortune to see many times in concert.  He is a true titan in the world of singer-songwriters, and his career in that genre is essentially without parallel.  It was great to go back into his catalog, listening to his work at his most authentic and highest quality.

The Rolling Stones “Exile On Main Street” (1972)

    The Rolling Stones just continue to hit high marks in their run of albums from the late 1960s, heading into the early 1970s.  The era of Mick Taylor replacing Brian Jones continues to fuel some of their best guitar rock work, with today’s album possibly their most consistently strong album, “Exile on Main Street”.  Despite a limited number of legendary Stones classic hits, this album is their highest regarded album by many, and is the highest rated album they have on the Rolling Stone Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, coming in at #14.

     This double album is rocking from the get-go, opening with “Rocks Off” and “Rip This Joint”, two in-your-face guitar rockers that are just the beginning of the signature sound of this album.  Next comes the old blues track “Shake Your Hips”, credited to Slim Harpo but dating even further back to John Lee Hooker, and the similarity of the riff on this song to “LaGrange” by ZZ Top, which would not come out for another year, is striking.  Clearly, tracing the origins of almost any blues song is a complicated journey.  Two songs later we have “Tumbling Dice”, probably the most successful, and surely, one of the best Stones songs on this or any album.  The mix of vocals and guitars is just perfect on this track.

     Other standout songs include the country-based “Sweet Virginia”, “Torn and Frayed”, “Loving Cup”, and the Keith Richards lead-vocal “Happy” which just extends the excellence of this album into side 3.  Even a song named “Turd On the Run” works here, and the Stones go way, way back in the blues machine with Robert Johnson’s “Stop Breaking Down”.  If I had to pick one song from the entire album I don’t love as much, it might be “I Just Want to See His Face”, an unusual blues jam that reminds me a bit of “Hats Off to Roy Harper” from Led Zeppelin III.  I also don’t love the next track, “Let It Loose”, but out of 18 overall songs, that is a great ratio.

      “Exile on Main Street” is a true example of the Stones at their best.  As always, the lineup is rich with session musicians, with a fantastic deployment of horns and additional vocals on many tracks.  While the band starts with Mick & Keith and their rhythm section, it takes a village to make a great Stones album, and this one is no exception.  This is a phenomenal album.