Led Zeppelin “Celebration Day” (2012)

     Since they disbanded in 1980, fans like me have always held a glimmer of hope that Led Zeppelin would reunite at some point with their remaining members so that we could experience their collective greatness live one more time.  Unlike most of the titanic acts of their time, this has occurred on a very rare basis.  The first time was at Live Aid, which was exciting and disastrous at the same time, and then after that, a short reunion appearance in 1988 at Atlantic Records’ 40th Anniversary Concert.  In both cases, Robert Plant’s voice was plagued by fatigue and cracking like many of their shows in the late 1970s, and Jimmy Page was not at the top of his game either.  Of course, Page & Plant had their run of tours and recording in the 1990s, but even that was impacted by the notable absence of bassist and keyboardist John Paul Jones.  In 2007, the stars finally aligned one more time, and for several months Page, Plant, and Jones rejoined forces with Jason Bonham, son of their late drummer John Bonham, for an extended rehearsal session that led up to a single concert on December 12, 2007.  For all of that work, they only performed once, but it was a full set and truly was the most amazing way to say hello and goodbye to all of their fans, young and old.  That performance was captured on film and record for the 2012 release “Celebration Day”, and remains a lifetime musical highlight for me.

     When the film was released to theaters, my son joined me on opening night, and I will always appreciate his willingness to keep me company during this unprecedented moment.  Unlike most older bands, it was just the four of them.  No “supporting musicians” added to the group to fill out the sand, it was just the four artists left alone to preserve and restore their legacy as the greatest rock band of the 1970s.  I dedicated a rainy afternoon and watched the entire film, which flows in exact sequence of the album and actual concert.  There has been no shortage of animosity between the original three, but their collective love for Jason Bonham and the experience of reuniting brought out their best performance and they clearly truly enjoyed the moment.  Over 18 million fans applied online to buy tickets for this one show, at London’s O2 Arena, and they all got their money’s worth and more.

     The show opened with their first song from their first album, “Good Times Bad Times”.  The opening chords shook the building, and completely set the stage for what would follow.  The second song was “Ramble On”, another song they almost never performed live, and near the end, Page, Jones and Bonham had the first of their notable moments where they gathered in a circle and displayed their collective brilliance, all these years later.

     The classic chorus sing along “Black Dog” followed, and as he does when he performs solo, Robert Plant stayed within his range, lowering the key from his untouchable years but still sang with power and pure clarity.  “In My Time of Dying” brought out the blues, and they then played another first-time song, “For Your Life” from Presence.  Even my favorite band has songs I don’t love, and for me that will always be “Trampled Underfoot”.  That said, this version was as spirited and likable as any I have ever heard.

     The setlist only gets stronger as the show goes on, and both “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” and “No Quarter” were truly stunning.  For this show, Plant insisted they eliminate the marathon solos and jams, and the result was concise and tight versions that were closer to their original versions.  This less self-indulgent performance was easily digested by all fans, and I think could have served them well in the past.  During one moment on “No Quarter”, you can see Page just looking over at his band, smiling wryly as he clearly realized how big and how special this night was.  Next followed a trio of songs that were the centerpiece of their live shows in the 1970s, “Since I’ve Been Loving You”, “Dazed and Confused” and “Stairway to Heaven”.  Plant acknowledged that they had to play those tracks, and although he is well known for his aversion to “Stairway”, he performed it with the honor and grace this classic deserved.

     The main set rolled along with a powerful performance of “The Song Remains The Same” (it truly does), and “Misty Mountain Hop”.  The first of those was one of the few moments during the show where I realized they would never quite be the same without John Bonham, but his son was absolutely amazing in this show, and by far their best and only choice to play drums.  He even sang harmony vocals on “Misty Mountain Hop”, and added a lot to the entire show.

     If you were only going to watch one song from this show, it would have to be the set closer “Kashmir”.  This song stands as their greatest overall song, and the delivery of this track was absolutely massive.  It always brings me to the brink emotionally, and you could see many fans moved to tears by this thunderous finale.

     The band came back with two more encore songs, starting with the greatest guitar riff of its day, “Whole Lotta Love”.  The show finally ended with a blistering burst on “Rock and Roll”, and it truly has been a long time, been a long time, been a long, lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely time.  As much as the world wanted more, Plant retreated to his tour with Allison Krauss, and even though the other three considered touring without him, common sense prevailed, and to this day, “Celebration Day” stands as the last performance we will ever see from Led Zeppelin.  Words can’t properly express how important this band has been in my life, and I remain forever grateful they gave us this one last performance, a show and event of a lifetime.  No extended money grabs and no questionable tours held up by supporting musicians, the glory of Led Zeppelin was fully restored forever with a single show.

Bruno Mars “Unorthodox Jukebox” (2012)

     Today brought a much-needed light and airy album, “Unorthodox Jukebox”, the second album from Bruno Mars.  I have said it many times before, but sometimes there is just no substitute for fun, catchy, pop songs with alluring hooks, and that is exactly what this album delivers.  I consider Bruno Mars to be one of the premier performers of the past ten years, and his run of success really accelerated with this album.

     In total, there were five singles released from this album.  Two of them were major hits that I instantly recognized, “Locked out of Heaven” and the lamenting love lost ballad, “When I Was Your Man”.  Those are great songs indeed, but as I always hope for, some of my favorites turned out to be songs I didn’t recognize, even if they may be familiar to the more in-tune Bruno Mars fanbase.

     My top pick is “Treasure”, which was released as a single to not quite the same degree of commercial success.  This is just a perfect summertime hit, no matter what time of year you hear it, and I don’t know how anyone couldn’t love this song.  My next favorite is the island-calypso-reggae feel of “Show Me”.  This song is also a perfect soundtrack for a steamy hot beach day, and an instant add to my “Island” playlist.

     “Young Girls” and “Gorilla” were also released singles, and equally easy on the ears.  This album in total is just an absolutely ideal dose of simple pop magic, and Bruno and his songwriting team demonstrate notable prowess in creating these infectious tracks.  In total, the album is only 35 minutes, but I highly recommend it as fantastic add to any gathering you are enjoying, even if it is a gathering of one.

Kendrick Lamar “good kid, m.A.A.d city” (2012)

     I felt compelled to give extra consideration to today’s album, “good kid, m.A.A.d city” by Kendrick Lamar.  Kendrick is either at, or very near, the top of my son’s all-time list of hip-hop performers, and even as my limited exposure and reaction to his music before this was mixed, I knew this experience mandated an extended contemplation.  I can report favorably as I found a lot to like in this album, more than I had expected, and I now have a much greater appreciation for the high degree of regard there is for his music to this day.  This release is the #115 rated album on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

     There is a lot of low-fi mellowness to this record, particularly in the beginning, and the first two tracks, “Sherane a.k.a. Master Splinter’s Daughter” and “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”, set an autobiographical and subdued tone as the album begins.  The second song was intended to be a collaboration with Lady Gaga, but that did not ultimately occur due to creative and business challenges.  There are demo versions online with Gaga, and it would have been great if this could have been realized, as they do sound great.

     For me, the album really elevates on the third song, “Backstreet Freestyle”.  The intensely deep bass beat hits like a hammer, and for the first time, I’m coming at Kendrick Lamar with a similar appreciation as his fanbase.  The greatness continues with “The Art of Peer Pressure” is a softer yet funkier groove.  Then comes the third awesome song in row, “Money Trees”, featuring Jay Rock.  I think this song in particular showcases the smooth and highly capable MC style of Kendrick. 

    “Poetic Justice” is interesting as it features a sample of Janet Jackson, and many of us will recall the film of the same name featuring Jackson and Tupac.  This song brings Drake on for a verse, and the two pair up well on this slow-jam groove. Another favorite from this album is “m.A.A.d city”, featuring MC Eiht, with its eerie and powerful main verse.  This song is a mandatory volume blast and addition to my hip-hop playlist.

     The Compton foundation is strong on this record.  Dr. Dre appears and is a key production force in “Compton” as well as “The Recipe”, which was the first single, even as it was only a bonus track on some versions of the record.  The despair and connectivity back to the world of Death Row is a presence, but it has a fresh and contemporary feel on both of these songs.  I love both of them, and they only add to what is already a great record.

     Overall, this album greatly exceeded my expectations, and given the magnitude of importance it holds in the world of hip-hop, I shouldn’t be that surprised.  I’m grateful for this much deeper dive into the music of Kendrick Lamar, and the many future listens I hope to share with my son.

Drake “Take Care” (2011)

     I know that Drake is one of the biggest selling superstars of the past fifteen years.  I also know many hip-hop fans, including my son, look at his music with varying perspectives.  As I listened to “Take Care”, released in 2011 and rated as the #95 album on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums, I was just not able to really connect with this record, even after several listens.  I told my son it was a bit monotonous, and felt a little like hip-hop muzak.  Obviously, there are millions of fans around the world who would disagree with me, so I will accept my place as an outlier here.

     Drake’s sound is a blend of singing and rapping, and my biggest issue, like on many records, was that the songs lacked much in the way of alluring beats or compelling hooks.  Most of my favorite elements on this record are the many collaborations.  I was pleasantly surprised that Chantal Kreviazuk, a talented pianist and singer, makes an appearance on the first song, “Over My Dead Body”.  On “Crew Love”, we get our first introduction to “The Weeknd”, and I definitely enjoyed his work with Rihanna on “Take Care”.  Kendrick Lamar surfaces on the “Buried Alive Interlude”, and another favorite moment is the wonderful Nicky Minaj, an artist I need to explore further, on “Make Me Proud”.  Rick Ross and Lil Wayne also appear on multiple tracks.

     Aside from enjoying those collaborations, there just wasn’t much about this album for me to keep pursuing.  I’m sure there will be more Drake before this journey ends, so I will hope for a more infectious collection of tunes to follow.

Lady Gaga “Born This Way” (2011)

     When Lady Gaga first emerged on the scene, my first reaction was that she was much more style than substance.  It took more attention and actually attending a live concert (seeing Gaga from the seemingly sterile corporate luxury box was an interesting contrast) for me to fully appreciate what an incredibly talented performer she is.  “Born This Way”, her second studio album, is the #484 rated album on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, and it built upon the impactful success of her first album.

     Like I said, her live performance is what fully converted me as a fan, and in comparison to many of the pop peers of her day, I fully recall her yelling out while dancing complex routines and singing dynamically, “None of this is fucking lip-synching!!”  Lady Gaga was a full-on performance bad-ass, and my image of this was only further augmented when I saw her routinely perform “You and I” solo on piano.  As a songwriter, musician, singer and dancer, she was about as close as I saw to a female version of Prince.

     The album itself has its high points and moments of monotony.  Several of the high-energy dance songs seem to blend together, as if the entire album is just an extended aerobics class.  Three of the songs that were released as singles stand out above the rest.  Many people accused the title track of being too close in sound and style to “Express Yourself” by Madonna, and Gaga herself also suffered from the same comparisons as an artist.  My thoughts are this… one, I love both songs, and if there is some similarity, all the better.  Two, there is enough distinction between the two to eliminate any true plagiarism concerns, and three, the two songs end up going together great back-to-back if I’m out running or even in a well-constructed mashup.

     “You and I” is a classic power-rock ballad, and who better to produce a power-rock ballad than Mutt Lange?  I really do love this song as well, and although it may be overplayed and a bit cliché for some, it is still a big hit for me.  “The Edge of Glory” is a theatrical closing track that is a perfect Lady Gaga song, and distinct enough to stand out from the rest of the album.

     I haven’t always loved what has come from Lady Gaga since this release, but I remain steadfast in my appreciation for her talent, drive, and social conscience in a musical genre that often lacks all three.  She is here to stay, and we are all better for her musical gifts as a performer.

Adele “21” (2011)

     There are several megastars of the 2010s, to include Taylor Swift, Drake, Bruno Mars and Ed Sheeran, or Ed “She-heer-an”, as my friend Bobby would say, but none sold records quite like Adele Adkins, known simply as Adele.  Starting with her first album “19”, she has established a trend of naming each album for her age as it was recorded and released, and in a very impressive fashion, “21” was a massive hit that was the #1 selling album in both 2011 & 2012.  I think we were all taken aback by the unique soulful quality of her voice, and her remarkable talents as a songwriter were also on full display with this powerhouse release.  Besides being a commercial blockbuster, it was highly recognized in the industry awards circuit and is rated as album #137 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.  I recall many of my friends discovering her as a new artist, and I still vividly remember a bold response on social media from my friend Jim, who isn’t always easily impressed, particularly by something this commercial in its exposure.

     I think the biggest barrier I eventually ran into with Adele’s music, and it is not that uncommon with an artist this big, is that I eventually hit the wall of “Adele” fatigue.  Her CD was in my home like it was almost everyone’s, and between that and five released singles, the first three of which all hit number one, along with an overlap of many genres, that meant you couldn’t turn around without hearing an Adele song.  As an artist, I’m sure that is the ultimate achievement, but I did eventually reach some level of burnout with this record, especially the big-name hits, so it was a refreshing return to come back to some of the deeper cuts which stood out as my favorites listening to it more than a decade after its release.

     We all know “Rolling In the Deep”, which was the first and biggest hit, and oddly enough, probably my least favorite of her hit singles from this album.  “Someone Like You” taps into her post-breakup depression that flows through most of this record.  “Set Fire to the Rain” is perhaps the most dramatic and intense song on the record, and another of those songs that when you first heard it, it was hard to believe how talented and young Adele was at the time.  “Rumour Has It” was a bit more of a funky chant, but very well received, and the ballad “Turning Tables”, which was probably the least exposed of her five singles, also happens to be my favorite among those songs.

     As I noted, the best part of coming back to this album was finding some songs I had lost sight of previously, and my favorite song on the album is “I’ll Be Waiting”, maybe the most up-tempo R&B song on the record, and the piano and horn opening really sets the stage for a great song.  Other hidden gems include “He Won’t Go” and “One and Only”, and I had also lost sight of her outstanding and beautiful cover of “Lovesong” by The Cure.

     This album remains one of the biggest sellers in musical history and opened the door for a landmark career that remains at full speed to this day.  With her soulful voice and creative talent that greatly exceeded her natural age and experience, along with her British heritage, I can’t help but compare her to Amy Winehouse, and I’d like to think Adele is helping us to carry on and fill the massive void of Amy’s tragic death.  No matter what generation, the world still appreciates the simple beauty of a heartfelt song by a beautiful singer, and that’s exactly what we have on “21”.

Kanye West “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” (2010)

     The next album from Kanye West proves to be another unexpected masterpiece in my eyes, with “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”.  Like many of us who are a few steps or more away from modern hip-hop, Kanye remains a difficult person to appreciate, and my skepticism certainly carried over to his music, but even more so than “The College Dropout”, I absolutely love this record and fully appreciate why it is rated as #17 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

     Kanye lays the foundation with amazing beats and production, and while his rapping is the centerpiece, this record is marked by some amazing and unexpected collaborations.  For every time that I listened to “Dark Fantasy”, I struggled to figure out who was singing “Can we get much higher”?  I never would have guessed, but now it makes perfect sense that it is actually Jon Anderson from Yes.

     “Gorgeous” has a great hook that comes from Kid Cudi, and it is a sinfully funky main verse.  “Power” was the first single released, and was a triumphant return after Kanye’s much-discussed dustup with Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV Music Video Awards.

     As good as those songs are, the album hits its highest peak with the next two songs.  “All of the Lights” is a brilliant song with an undeniably magnetic chorus by Rihanna, with piano and vocals coming from Elton John, as well as John Legend, Alicia Keys, Fergie, Drake and several others.  It is a spectacular song. 

     After that exhilarating pop peak, Kanye and his crew literally punch you in the face with one of the most overwhelming and intense beats I have ever heard in hip-hop with “Monster”.  This song has quickly become one of my all-time favorites, and while Kanye, Rick Ross and even Jay-Z do their jobs appropriately, the true all-star performance on this amazing song is delivered by Nicki Minaj.  She is a complete and total badass on this song; there is no other way to say it.  Some day when I’m fully liberated to play a top-notch sound system at its very loudest, this will be one of the first songs I pick.  Another unexpected star of this song, as well as other tracks on the album, comes from none other than Bon Iver, the “folk” band I featured a few albums back.  I mentioned then they worked with Kanye, but I never expected such a high-profile connection between these remarkably diverse artists.

     “Devil in a New Dress” is built on top of a great Smokey Robinson sample, and the result flows perfectly for another phenomenal track.  “Runaway” is a haunting, extended track built around an extremely descending piano note sequence, and is an introspective look at the inner demons Kanye has always battled.  I thought I recognized this from the beginning, but the vocal chorus not only mimics “Iron Man” by Black Sabbath, the linkage is strong enough that Ozzy, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward find their way into the songwriting credits.  “Blame Game” is a unique song to say the least, pairing Kanye with John Legend, with an oddly effective incorporation of a sexually inspired comedy monologue by Chris Rock.  How it all works, I don’t really understand, but I finally get why so many people, including my son, look at Kanye West as a disturbed genius in the art of musical creation.  Another unexpected reappearance by a past artist in my blog, as Gil Scott-Herron surfaces with Kanye on the last song, “Who Will Survive in America”.

     Of all of the albums I have listened to, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” will stand out as one of the biggest, unexpected favorites.  I have said it so many times, but it is worth restating one more time.  The gift of unearthing treasures like these, even if they were widely celebrated by the rest of the modern music world, remains the most impactful component of this journey.

Eminem “Recovery” (2010)

     I feel like “Recovery”, the next Eminem album on the journey, probably flew a bit under the radar, even as it was the #1 selling album of 2010.  It doesn’t have a signature song like some of his earlier albums, but it is another strong effort and as best as he can, he attempts to present a slightly more positive mindset on life and the world around him.

      My favorite track is probably the opener, “Cold Wind Blows”, even though it wasn’t one of the singles released.  “Talkin’ 2 Myself” is one of the life turnaround tunes as Eminem is trying to look at himself as much as he does the outside influences he typically demonizes on his earlier music.  “Won’t Back Down” is a collaboration with Pink that works well, although there are a couple of lyrics I have to wonder if she signed off on before she agreed to this track.  The street-tough side of her probably loved it.  “W.T.P”, which is an acronym for White Trash Party, is a pretty infectious chorus and I was singing it to myself for most of the weekend.  “Going Through Changes” samples Black Sabbath, which is a nice twist and another attempt to look on the bright side of life.  “Not Afraid” is in the same vain, and was the first released single from the album.  I enjoyed hearing Lil Wayne make an appearance on “No Love”, which samples “What Is Love” by Haddaway, a song most of us associate with Will Ferrell and “A Night At the Roxbury”.

     My other favorite track on this record is probably “So Bad”; it has my favorite beat and slow-jam groove on the record.  “Love The Way You Lie” is another A-list collaboration with Rihanna, and they match up well which isn’t a big surprise for two of the biggest superstars of their era.  This is the last stop on the Eminem parade in my blog, but his impact as an MC and durability as an artist were absolutely appreciated along the way.

Taylor Swift “Fearless” (2008)

     Not surprisingly, this journey has led us to the first really big album success from Taylor Swift, her second record overall, “Fearless”.  I have always respected Taylor Swift for her creative control and integrity as a songwriter and performer, and unexpectedly, that’s where this blog is going to ultimately take me.  When she originally recorded this album, she was a young artist with some creative control, but not unlimited ownership of her own music, which became a landmark issue for her and many other artists.  This is understandable when you realize this was the #1 selling album of 2009.

     My first reaction when listening was the consistent hook that every single song held on this record.  Not every song that was recorded came out as a single, but I think almost every song on this album could have been a hit single if marketed as such by the label.  At this point in her career, Taylor was in the midst of crossing over from country to pop, and there is plenty of both to be found on “Fearless”.  I did naturally gravitate to the two songs I most clearly recognized, “Love Story” and “You Belong With Me”.  And maybe it is just me, but do those two songs have a very similar melody at the chorus?  Maybe I was just melting in the Florida sun as I listened to this on my morning run, but those two songs had a lot in common, which isn’t a bad thing.  Other songs that stood out for me were “Fifteen”, which was almost 40 years ago for me, and “Breathe”, which was her collaboration with Colbie Caillat.  I will acknowledge that none of this material is highly complex or serious, but it is what it is, very well performed pop music.

     I was almost ready to put a wrap on this record when I vaguely recalled that Taylor Swift was re-recording some of her own material for the purposes of taking a larger ownership stake in her music the second time around.  As I researched it, “Fearless” was in fact on this list, so I listened to “Fearless (Taylor’s Version)” the second time around.  She did a very credible job of re-recording these songs in a nearly identical manner, although there are some subtle differences in production quality and the maturity of her voice.  I respect her intent here greatly, and from this point forward, I will be sure to tag her current version of any song I can into any of my streaming playlists.

     This brings me to a topic I haven’t really taken on yet, the business of musical streaming.  I do think it is pretty sad what a fractional amount of revenue the artist gets for the widespread distribution of their music, and here is my proposed solution.  It is somewhat ridiculous that I and several family members can listen to an unlimited number of songs for a relatively low monthly fee.  I would add tiers of access, with a higher monthly fee.  For example, last year I was in the 95th percentile of users on my streaming service.  Clearly, I listen to a LOT of music.  Frankly, I would pay a lot more than I do for this purely unlimited access.  For those who don’t have the same interest I do, and either don’t want to pay a higher fee or can’t afford to, yet they still want to avoid those annoyingly repetitive commercials on the free service, set their monthly fees equal to usage.   One to one-hundred songs a month is $X.95, one-hundred to one-thousand songs is $Y.95, and so on.  These artists deserve more than they are getting paid, and we are still getting a major bargain in comparison to what we would pay to own all the music on CD or vinyl that we listen to each month.

     OK… that’s enough problem-solving for today.  Cheers to Taylor Swift for her music and her independent drive, they are both worthy of respect and admiration.

Lil Wayne “Tha Carter III” (2008)

     By 2008, the world of hip-hop had taken on a mainstage role in popular music, and it retains its dominant force to this day.  The best-selling album of 2008 was “Tha Carter III”, the latest in a series of self-titled albums from Lil Wayne, aka Wayne Carter, a highly successful rapper from New Orleans.  In addition to its commercial success, “The Carter III” is album #208 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

     Although my son appeared to be surprised by this outcome, I really enjoyed this album a lot.  I don’t find Lil Wayne to be near the top of my favorite MCs list, and there is something mildly cartoonish about him as he reminds me of what would happen if Snoop Doog was freeze-dried, shrunk-wrapped and given a grill.  That absurdity aside, this album is full of great beats, and is overflowing with powerful collaborations in songwriting, performance and production.  Among the superstars who are in the mix here are Jay-Z, Kanye West, T-Pain, Babyface, Busta Rhymes, and even Robin Thicke, and the overall allure of this record lines up with this collection.

     Without any real familiarity, it turns out that the songs I gravitated to the most were the big hits from this album.  My top pick is “Mr. Carter”, which is a play on the shared last name of Lil Wayne and Jay-Z, and I absolutely love the hook of this song.  My next favorite is probably “Lollipop”, which was a huge hit and obviously a club showcase that lives on to this day.  It also sounds the most like what I associate with Lil Wayne, heavy on autotune as a vocal production technique.  “A Milli” has this hypnotic and recurring backing track but it really works, and I enjoyed this song, like many others, from the first time around.  “Mrs. Officer” is a subdued and really funky groove, featuring Bobby V. and Kidd Kidd.  It is as much R&B as it is hip-hop, but it is a great tune.  As pointed out by my son, the Kanye influence is strong on the song “Let The Beat Build”, and it is another highly infectious hook.

     The last song, “DontGetIt” prominently features a sample of Nina Simone and her 1964 song “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”.  It is an interesting objection to excessive black imprisonment, primarily for drug transactions, and it also takes several shots at Reverend Al Sharpton.  I raised the potential conflict of interest in a musical culture that frequently glorifies crime and violence, but considering that isn’t really Lil Wayne’s message, I will leave that debate and discussion for another time.  It is dramatic and powerful ending to a diversified and distinctive album that I find fully worthy of its success and critical appraisal.