Great Albums: Moondance (1970)

I already knew of Van Morrison, long before he released a solo album. In 1964, I bought a single by the band Them, from Northern Ireland. Van Morrison was the lead singer of that group. The song was their version of the old Blues classic, ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’, and the B-side was ‘Gloria’. In 1967, Van Morrison embarked on a solo career, though his first album was hardly noticed. The second, ‘Astral Weeks’, received critical acclaim in 1968, but poor sales at the time. I heard the album and enjoyed some of it, but didn’t buy it then. I was only 16, and immersed in Soul Music as well as an early appreciation of Jazz.

Two years later, ‘Moondance’ was released. This grabbed me immediately, with its fusion of musical genres. It had everything in one package, with a Jazz mood on some songs, as well as a nod to Irish culture, and Rhythm and Blues. There was a horn section too, and more orchestration. Just the title track gave instant indication of the quality to come. As soon as it had finished, I put the needle back, to hear it again.

The next track was just as good, though very different in feel. ‘Crazy Love’ began with plaintive vocals from Van, and gentle guitar. Then the backing vocals drifted in, and I drifted away…

Track four was so good, I played it around half a dozen times on the bounce. It remains my top track on this album, and one of my favourite songs ever from Morrison. A classic distinctive vocal that could never be confused with any other singer; the singalong chorus beautifully harmonised with the backing singers, and some wonderful lyrical construction. If you are not in the mood to dance, this is just the perfect song for listening enjoyment.

The last track on side one had echoes of the Folk-themed ‘Astral Weeks’. But the couple of years devoted to writing new songs really shone through. Gentle guitar, slow build-up, and poetic lyrics delivered ‘Into The Mystic’. The perfect end to the first side.

After spending a great deal of time on the first side, I was reluctant to turn over to side two. But there was no disappointment to come, just more great songs. Five tracks again on that side, including the meaningful ‘Brand New Day’. A song where we can all feel the emotion seeping out of the vinyl.

A relatively short album of just ten tracks, but one that had a great effect on me at the age of 18. I have never tired of listening to it to this day, even though I later bought ‘Astral Weeks’, along with almost every album Van has released since. After an illustrious career that has seen him win countless awards, and even a knighthood for services to music, he continues to perform today, aged 72.

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Great Albums: Otis Blue (1965)

Otis Redding was killed in a plane crash, in 1967. When he died, I was only 15 years old, but I had been a fan of the Soul singer for three years already. He had only recorded six albums up to that point, and I owned them all. My favourite was ‘Otis Blue’, an album I played constantly, though I was only 13 when it came out.

One short track is now often associated with Aretha Franklin. But it was written by Otis, and featured on this album.

Many of the tracks on this record were cover versions of songs written by others. Otis added his own distinctive voice, without changing the feel of any of them. Here he is with Sam Cooke’s ‘Change Gonna Come’. I love this song so much.

There was a nod to British rockers The Rolling Stones too, with a belting version of ‘Satisfaction’.

Recording on the Stax label, Otis toured with many of the other groups and artists associated with Stax. Carla Thomas, Booker T, Eddie Floyd, William Bell, and others. He was also influenced by the Motown sound of course, and one track written by Smokey Robinson gave us this well known ballad.

But one track co-written with Jerry Butler set the bar high for Soul singers, and was the essence of the ‘Blue’ mood that gave this album its title. I really have no idea how many times I have played this over the years.

Otis had already released his version of ‘Try A Little Tenderness’ in 1966, which for a while was seen as his signature song. After his death, ‘Dock Of The Bay’ gave him his first US number one, and became the song that most now associate with him. When I came home from school that day in 1967, and heard the news, I cried genuine tears. I felt we had lost one of the greatest Soul singers, a man who would have undoubtedly gone on to bigger and better things.

Great Albums: Rumours

By 1977, Fleetwood Mac had undergone a complete transformation. Ten years earlier, they had formed as a Blues band, driven by the obsessive Peter Green. Their combination of raw blues and unusual instrumental tracks guaranteed them an early following, and when Christine Perfect joined in 1970, they had a female vocal too. But personality issues within the band led to the departure of Peter Green, and in 1974, Americans Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined the group, as lead guitar and lead vocal, respectively.

This resulted in a complete change of direction. The Blues roots were discarded for a more commercial pop sound, with Nicks’ vocals as the centrepiece of most songs. An album release in 1975 saw them appeal to a totally new market, and a much wider audience, and this was followed in 1977 by ‘Rumours’.

This new album was an immediate success, all over the world. Not only did it take the number one spot in the UK, it also topped the US charts, as well as in Australia and Canada. They may have changed their style, but they had undoubtedly hit upon a winning formula.

The album just didn’t stop selling. Over thirty weeks in the US charts, platinum and gold discs in many countries, it became a recording phenomenon. In the age of vinyl, it seemed as if everyone you ever met had a copy, including me.

It had something that appealed to almost everyone at the time. If you didn’t like one track, you were sure to like the next one. Selling over forty million copies, and becoming one of the biggest-selling records ever, it earned its place in history.

Perhaps the crowing glory of ‘Rumours’, and still played widely today, this track showcased Stevie Nicks’ vocals perfectly, and sums up the appeal of this unique album.

It has since been released on CD of course, later remastered and reissued, in 2013. Still selling in considerable numbers to this day, forty-one years after I bought it.

Great Albums: Solid Air

By 1973, I had managed to mostly avoid Folk Music. With the exception of Bob Dylan, and a few emerging British progressive bands, I rarely listened to either Folk or Traditional music, of any kind. So, I had never heard of John Martyn, a British Folk singer from Scotland. Until one night when I visited the home of a close friend, a man who played guitar in a band himself, and boasted an eclectic taste in music.

He was excited to get me to listen to a new album he had just acquired, and gave me the cover to read, as he lined it up on the turntable. I skimmed over the sleeve notes with little interest, as I had never heard of the man who had made this record. But I respected my friend’s judgement, and sat back to hear what all the fuss was about.

The first track had the same title as the album, and I immediately realised that this was indeed something wonderful, and very different to so much around at the time.

By track five, I was completely hooked, and I knew that I would be in the record shop the following day, to buy my own copy. There was a merger of multiple genres going on. Songs that felt like Jazz and Blues rolled into one, with the Folk background evident, but not intrusive.

It didn’t flag at all, not a single duff track. Some songs were faster than others, but the spirit of Martyn could be felt in every line. By track seven, I was swept away by this new sound, and that track delivered a touching and poignant love song. I was smiling at my friend and his girlfriend, and they was smiling back.
We all knew that was a very special moment.

The album brought a new audience to John Martyn, and great critical acclaim too. He received a lifetime achievement award in 2008, and continued to tour and perform until his death in 2009, aged just 60.

Great Albums: Pretzel Logic

By the time this album was released in 1974, I already owned both the previous albums by Steely Dan. There was ‘Can’t Buy A Thrill’, containing such great tracks as ‘Dirty Work’, and ‘Reelin’ In The Years’, followed by ‘Countdown To Ecstasy’, with longer tracks like the sublime ‘My Old School’. This was one of the first American bands that really caught my attention, as I was buying a lot of Soul Music at the time, as well as records from the likes of David Bowie, and Van Morrison.

When I read that they were to release a new album, I didn’t even wait to listen to it. I ordered it in advance from my local record shop, and got it the day it came out. I was convinced that it would be up to the same standard, and that I wouldn’t be disappointed. It was, and I wasn’t.

Donald Fagen’s vocals were as perfect as ever. The unusual and original songs he wrote with Walter Becker didn’t follow any genre, or accepted construction methods. And no two songs were alike, something that had attracted me to the band in the first place.

Their sound never shouted ‘West Coast’, or for that matter ‘East Coast’. It contained songs that were often poetic in execution, with lyrics that generally meant something too. Once I had heard all the tracks, I played side one again. By the end of the day, I could sing along to almost every song, and recognise them from the opening chord. Critical reception for this new release was unlimited. The music press liked it, other recording artists loved it, and the fans were overjoyed. It had nods to almost everything anyone liked; Rock, Jazz, and Blues too.

They also enjoyed a huge hit with the most popular single released from it. One of my favourite tracks ever recorded by anyone.

Steely Dan continued their successful career, releasing six more studio albums, and two live recordings. These included ‘Katy Lied’, ‘Gaucho’, and Aja’, in addition to no less than ten compilations and greatest hits releases. I bought all of the studio albums, and carried on loving everything this band produced, including the later solo albums by Donald Fagen.

They officially split up in 1981, later getting back together in 1993, and continuing to work until Walter Becker’s death, in 2017. Since then, Donald Fagen has continued to perform.

Great Albums: Corinne Bailey Rae

In 2006, this young lady released her eponymous first album. If you read this blog a lot, you might recall that I have featured one of her songs before, in my ‘Significant Songs’ series. From the moment I heard some tracks on the radio, I was undeniably hooked. This was a new British talent, a singer/songwriter of amazing emotional perception, and one who could translate that emotion into wonderful lyrics and songs.

As I listened to the album, I went from happy to sad, then back again. I was literally staggered. This was undeniable talent, of the highest order. I confess to have being very pleased to live in a country that had produced such musical magic. The album went straight in at number one, a spot justly deserved.

Listening to the album, the quality just got better and better. I remember thinking to myself that this was something special. Perfect vocals, wonderful arrangements, and great lyrics. I imagined that Corinne would top the charts, and be the great new talent of the early 21st century.

Have you ever been in love? if you have, then you cannot fail to connect with perhaps the album’s most prefect track. One of the best modern love songs ever written, in my humble opinion.
‘Just Like A star’. Flawless, and overwhelming.

But fate had sadness in store for this talented young woman. Her husband, Jason, was found dead, following an overdose of methadone combined with alcohol. After a long break grieving her loss, she released a follow up album, ‘The Sea’, in 2010. Despite critical acclaim, it seemed that it was too late for her. She had lost that early momentum. By the time of the third album in 2016, Corinne seemed to have been forgotten by both the industry, and the public.

But she left this sublime legacy, in her first ever recording.

Great Albums: Lungs

2009 is quite recent to state something is a ‘great album’. But where Florence Welch is concerned, I will make an exception. Recording as Florence and The Machine, that might give the impression of a large group. But it was only her, and one other woman, her collaborator Isabella Summers. Mind you, lots of producers and other musicians were involved in the production of this startlingly original album.

Florence treads a rare path, one inhabited by the likes of Kate Bush, Bjork, and few others. A female vocalist, singer/songwriter who was completely original, and as refreshing as a shower in a remote waterfall. Appearing apparently from nowhere, she went from obscurity, to overnight acclaim and fame. Before the album was released in 2009, some singles were released the previous year, serving as teasers for the public and critical reception that was to come.

With her mane of red hair, Florence was good to look at, as well as being obviously talented as a singer. She was young, feisty, and very English. ‘Lungs’ was an immediate success, spending months in the charts, and peaking at number two. In 2010, it won the Brit Award for best album, and Florence was undoubtedly on her way. I already owned the album by then, and I was lapping up the originality, and the superb vocals on offer.

Like many before her, Florence embraced the chance to create great videos to promote her songs. Making the most of her looks, and slightly ‘hippy’ style, she went from strength to strength, based on just this one album. One track was even used on a film soundtrack, widening an already excited audience.

Like other artists before her, Florence realised the beneficial effects of changing her image, promoting her femininity and sexuality, and hitting the record-buying public with imagery, dance, and sheer talent. ‘Lungs’ also tipped its hat to the old days of disco, with a cover version of Candi Staton’s ‘You’ve Got The Love’. This modern version crowned the album with class, and did something very rare. In my opinion, for what it’s worth, she surpassed all previous recordings of that classic dance track. In my life, I have rarely heard such a flawless vocal performance.

Florence carried on after ‘Lungs’ with the follow-up album ‘Ceremonials’, in 2011, and the third album ‘How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful’, in 2015. That album topped the US charts, but was less well-received in the UK. Florence continues to record and perform, but it is fair to say that she never repeated the overwhelming success she enjoyed with that first album.