Category Archives: Classic Album Reviews

Here we review some of our favorite classic albums of the past.

Classic Album – Cheap Trick – At Budokan (album review)

Cheap Trick – at Budokan (1979)  CD review It’s one of the strangest stories in rock: Cheap Trick, a band with minimal success in the US, travels to Japan to be greeted with Beatlemania-like pandemonium.  But, where the Beatles were never able to properly capture that live experience,  at Budokan is brimming with excitement and shows a band at the top of their game.  The screaming fans threaten to drown out the music at many points, yet it’s that enthusiasm, coupled with a go-for-broke attitude from the band that oozes from every song.

The record oddily opens with the spoken intro of “alright Tokyo!” – it sounds so much like a Kiss concert record, you half expect the guy to say “you wanted the best…”  The band marches into their typical concert opener “Hello There,” and they roar into action.  Cheap Trick may have been known to American MTV viewers as oddball clownsters, but they were a hell of a live band.  The album is full of loud, crunching guitars, thunderous drumming and melodic choruses; there’s not a slow tune on here.  Many of the band’s studio songs were good, but here they’re elevated to spectacular.  There’s a reason “I Want You to Want Me” became a hit in its live rendition, while “Surrender” has a killer ending.  And, who’d think that Cheap Trick could transform an old Fats Domino tune into a blistering rocker in “Ain’t That a Shame”?  Although this album has been reissued many times, each with additional bonus tracks – the best way to enjoy this is in its original, lean 10-track format.  It’s all killer and no filler.  –Tony Peters

Classic Album – REM – Murmur (CD review)

REM – Murmur (1983) 

1983 was the height of MTV and New Wave synth pop: Duran Duran, Michael Jackson and the Eurythmics were dominating the charts.  While all those bands now sound dated, Murmur, released at the same time, is timeless.  Full of jangly guitars, warm melodies and unintelligible lyrics, it was the complete opposite of the slick music passing for pop at the time.

The choice of instrumentation is the real key here.  REM was a typical guitar / bass /drum band – yet Murmur is dominated by acoustic instruments; pianos and guitars, adding a wider palette to their music.  The production is understated; much of the album has a “recorded in the living room” feel.  There are no synths and no “big-Eighties” production.

What makes this work is the blending of Byrds-influenced guitars with just a sprinkling of punk.  Take for example “Laughing,” which starts with an introduction not unlike something from the B-52’s, but then segues into a beautiful track full of strummed guitars.  “9-9,” with its knifing guitar work and talking in the verses, is probably the closest thing to punk on the record.  The re-recorded “Radio Free Europe” is slower and more melodic than their original 1981 version.

Much has been made over the years of singer Michael Stipe’s indecipherable lyrics – about all you can usually make out is the chorus and a line here or there.  Yet, what he’s saying doesn’t really matter – his voice is just another color in the earthy mix.  Recorded at a small studio in North Carolina, this album would send shock waves through the rock world.  Murmur showed that college music could be marketed to the masses and it encouraged a multitude of people to pick up their instruments and play.  It still sounds fresh today.  – Tony Peters

Classic Album – Rolling Stones – Some Girls (CD review)

Rolling Stones – Some Girls (1978) CD review – The Stones were looked at as old farts by the mid-Seventies.  Their last effort, Black and Blue, was a bloated mess, and new musical styles were popping up everywhere.  On one side, disco was beckoning people to party on the dance floor, while on the opposite end, punk was tossing aside the old guard and getting back to basics.  Somehow, Some Girls manages to take elements of both new trends, yet still sound like the Stones.

The record opens with “Miss You,” the finest disco single by any rock artist (sorry Rod Stewart!).  Bill Wyman shows his versatility – it’s his slinky bassline that drives the song.  But, what makes the track work is that, unlike other dance songs of the day, it’s dark, both lyrically and musically, especially in the spoken-word middle breakdown.  That’s followed by the lean rocker “When the Whip Comes Down” – the Stones haven’t sounded this energized in years.  They also turn in yet another Temptations’ cover in “Just My Imagination,” that is both gritty and tender.  “Beast of Burden” has a reggae overtone and “Respectable” is a furious rocker.  Keith Richards has  his best vocal since “Happy” in the autobiographical “Before They Make Me Run.”

They even have time for a swipe at tele-evangelism in the country spoof “Faraway Eyes.” The album closes with the funky, attitude-driven “Shattered,” with Mick Jagger adlibbing at his sneering best.  If there is one recurring theme, it’s New York City, which was the epicenter of both the disco and punk movements of the time.  What sets Some Girls apart from their previous albums of the Seventies is the sound; their earlier records were mostly dense and muddy, while here the guitars are bright and crisp, and Charlie Watts’ drumming sounds like it’s been wrapped so tight that it might snap.

Although Tattoo You from a few years later is pretty good, Some Girls is the Stones’ last truly great album.  USELESS BIT OF INFORMATION: For whatever reason, the 8-track version of Some Girls contained extended versions of a couple of songs, including “Miss You” and “Beast of Burden” that actually has an extra verse of the song.   – Tony Peters

Classic Album – Van Halen – 3 (CD review)

Classic Album – Van Halen – 3 (1998)

This is, without a doubt, the biggest misstep in the history of rock n’ roll; a proverbial flaming turd — one which the band has never fully recovered from.  And, it sounds just as bad today as it did back then. 

Van Halen had successfully replaced one lead singer already in the flamboyant egomaniac David Lee Roth, so the band thought they could easily do it again with Sammy Hagar.  Boy, were they ever wrong.

Enter former Extreme frontman Gary Cherone, who had had success with the hair ballad “More Than Words.”  One listen to Van Halen 3 and you immediately realize how valuable Hagar was to the band.  It sounds like a Van Halen record; the bass, drums & flashy guitar are all there.  But, what’s absent is any semblance of melody or even song structure for that matter.  This is 12 tracks of directionless noodling.  It sounds like a band jamming in the garage, working on songs that aren’t there yet.  Even when there is a hook (albeit a big clunky one) in the single “Without You,” it seems disjointed, as if unrelated parts were forced together.

Cherone is a big disappointment here too; instead of relaxing and being himself, he’s too busy imitating either Hagar (for most of the record) or Roth (on “One I Want’).  And when they’re stretching the boundaries a little, as in the digital beats of “Once,” it just goes nowhere.  What’s more, the songs are WAY too long – three of them clock in at over seven minutes.  Are they begging us to cry for mercy?  Then finally, there’s “How Many Say I,” which, no matter how heartfelt the lyrics, makes one thing perfectly clear:  Eddie Van Halen should stick to guitar playing and let someone else do the singing.  Yikes, he makes Dylan sound like Pavarotti.

All the previous VH studio albums went multi-platinum, and all the Hagar ones went number one, while 3 meagerly went gold and mercifully disappeared within three months.  The band that had dominated the rock world for some twenty years had been ground to an unceremonious halt.  If I were Eddie, I wouldn’t want this awful album to be the final record of my career.  Of course, I’m not him – I wouldn’t have gotten rid of Sammy in the first place.  – Tony Peters

Classic Album – The Who – Sell Out (CD review)

The Who – Sell Out (1967) CD review –

The Who’s career began with singles – loud and ferocious, like “My Generation,” then morphed into brainier territory with 1969’s rock opera “Tommy.”  In between those two distinct styles comes Sell Out; still, the most fun the band ever had on record.  Their third album, Sell Out, is an ingenious re-creation of a mid-1960’s radio show, complete with jingles and fake commercials performed by the band in between songs.

The LP opens with “Armenia City in the Sky,” the closest the Who ever got to psychedelia, followed by their spoof-commercial for “Heinz Baked Beans,” with a marching band and various members asking “what’s for tea,” which is a real hoot.  You get the school-boy humor of “Mary Anne With the Shaky Hand,” and the coming-of-age “Tattoo.”  Both “Odorono” (another fake commercial), and “Our Love Was, Is,” show that leader Pete Townshend had grown melodically and lyrically in a short amount of time.  Then, there’s perhaps the finest 4 minutes the group ever laid down in “I Can See For Miles.”  There’s a dark tension in the way the song builds; Townshend’s cutting power chords and Daltrey’s aloof vocals set up a call and response with Keith Moon’s frenetic drumming.

The amazing thing is that everything mentioned here occurs on side one.  Oddly, there are no jingles and just a smattering of fake commercials on side two; perhaps the band was rushed and couldn’t properly finish the album (they were churning them out at break-neck speed back in those days).  It’s not to say that the second side is not worth hearing; quite the opposite.  The acoustic “Sunrise,” breathtaking in its simplicity, sounds like nothing the band did previous.  And, there’s the mini opera, “Rael,” considered a “warm up” for Tommy, which would come 18 months later.  Soon, the band would be receiving high-brow praise, and performing at distinguished venues like Carnegie Hall.

Sell Out shows, for a fleeting moment, the Who not taking themselves so seriously. There are several versions of this disc available: The 1995 remaster contains nine bonus tracks, including several unreleased songs like “Glittering Girl,” and “Girl’s Eyes,” where Townshend was working on the Tommy motif.  There is also a 2009 “Deluxe Edition” containing an extra disc with the entire album in a punchier, mono form, plus even more bonus tracks.  –Tony Peters

Classic Album – Kiss – Hotter Than Hell (CD review)


Kiss – Hotter Than Hell (Casablanca, 1974) – CD review –

Hotter Than Hell?  Flaming turd is more like it.  This is, quite possibly, the worst-sounding album in the history of recorded music.  Okay, that’s excessive, but you get the idea.

Kenny Kerner and Richie Wise had done a not-so-good job producing the first Kiss LP; that record is muddy and tinny — it’s obvious the producers had no clue how to harness a loud band like Kiss.  But inexplicably, they were asked back for the followup.  Instead of trying to improve on their debut, Hotter Than Hell sounds worse.  The opening guitar riff of “Got To Choose” is tinny; it sounds like it was recorded over the telephone.  Peter Criss sounds like he’s drumming on cardboard boxes throughout the record, even his cymbals have no shine to them.  The guitars are muddy; there’s no punch to them and no meat either.  Ever have a cassette player where you accidentally left the Dolby button on and everything sounded muffled? That’s Hotter Than Hell.

It’s a damn shame too; this is some of Kiss’ finest moments.  “Coming Home,” if it had been recorded properly, could’ve been a breakout hit for the band, while “Parasite” has one of the best riffs Ace Frehley ever created.  Listen to the guitar at the beginning of “Watching You”; it’s downright laughable how awful it sounds.  It’s no wonder that many of the songs here would benefit greatly from a live setting in Alive! where they could actually breathe, and be the songs they were meant to be.  No knock on the actual songwriting or performances here; it’s the god-awful production sound that ruins it.  If ever Kiss considered re-mixing their back catalog, this should be the first in line.  –Tony Peters

Classic Album – Beatles – Abbey Road (CD review)

Beatles – Abbey Road (Apple) – CD review –

Breaking up never sounded this good.

The Beatles had just come off the worst recording experience of their lives; the grueling sessions for the Let it Be movie preserved on film the bickering and fighting that was becoming the norm for the once Fab Four.  Many bands faced with similar circumstances would’ve called it quits right there.  Instead, John, Paul, George & Ringo reconvened one more time to record Abbey Road, and it is quite possibly, their finest moment.

Yeah sure, Sgt. Pepper blah blah blah.  I find that I come back to Abbey Road far more often than Pepper.  While the former is wrapped in dated studio trickery, the latter is full of great songs.  Abbey Road also sounds nothing like previous Beatles’ records; it’s got a warm, lived-in feel, that’s far more reminiscent of early Seventies rock than anything they’d done before.  Plus, the clever use of early keyboard technology, as in the solo to “Because” add to it as well.  It doesn’t hurt that George Harrison turns in two of his finest songs in the dreamy “Something” and the optimistic “Here Comes the Sun.”  The multi-layered harmonies on the aforementioned “Because” is staggering.

While Lennon sounded downright bored on the Let it Be sessions (“Dig It” was a turd), here he turns in the biting, Dylanesque “Come Together,” and the proto-heavy metal “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).”  The remainder of the LP is all Paul McCartney; it was his idea to string the little bits of songs into the song cycle on side two.  And, while “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam” are not on par with Lennon’s better songs, McCartney makes them work in this setting.

“The End,” however conscious an attempt at a swan song, still is one of the greatest moments in the Beatles’ storied history: beginning with the only drum solo Ringo ever laid to tape, followed by the other three all trading short guitar licks: McCartney, Harrison, then Lennon.  It’s quite obvious who is who:  Paul’s solos are clean, George’s slinky, and John’s primitive, yet full of emotion.  I’m not sure you can name another band that knew this was their last effort, yet still was able to make it a great one.  — Tony Peters

Classic Album – The Cars – debut (CD review)

The Cars (1978) – – CD review –

The debut album from the Cars still sounds fresh, and you can’t get away from the songs; they get played on classic rock, oldies, AC, even all-eighties stations dig back for their songs; and for good reason.

The Cars is a perfect blend of the seventies rock that was out then, and the eighties New Wave that would soon rule the charts.  There’s enough guitar grit in the crunchy power chords and Elliot Easton’s rubbery solos to keep the rock guys happy, but there’s also just enough element of odd in Greg Hawkes keyboards, and especially in Ric Ocasek’s and Benjamin Orr’s vocals, which sound British, even though they were from Boston.

I don’t know how many times “Just What I Needed” gets played, yet it still jumps out of the speakers.  Smartly, side one opens with all three singles (“Good Times Roll,” “My Best Friend’s Girl,” and “Just What I Needed”) in a row.  And, any red-blooded male will have a soft spot for “Moving in Stereo,” later featured to great effect in Fast Times at Ridegmont High (Phoebe Cates, anyone?).

It’s easy to want to give credit for the great sound and arrangements on the record to stalwart producer Roy Thomas Baker.  However, a 2002 reissue of this album featured these songs in demo form, showing that the Cars had these songs already in tip-top shape.  The only thing Baker added was a fine layer of gloss and his signature Queen-like background vocals.

The album is sequenced so the songs follow with little or no space between them, especially on side two, where the songs actually fade into one another.   This was neither dinosaur rock nor weird New Wave but a perfect mix of both.  The Cars would keep this mix together for their followup, the decent Candy-O, and then plunge headlong into New Wave and keyboards would dominate their remaining albums.  They would score bigger hits, but the Cars still stands as their greatest achievement.  — Tony Peters

****

Let me set the scene for this one: it’s my tenth birthday and I have just gotten my first stereo system! That alone would have been enough, but when your best friend shows up with a copy of “The Cars“ debut album for your gift, it is a birthday I will never forget. The best friend in the story you ask? The one and only Tony Peters! What a great pick too.  This kid knew good music before he could walk. Benjamin Orr, the bass player, grew up in Lakewood, Ohio and went to school with my aunt. He was Benjamin Orzechowski at that time. They just called him Benny 11 letters. Every track on this album is great.   This album begs to be listened to in its entirety and the last two tracks “Moving in Stereo”and “All Mixed Up” demand it. This album is sure to be a favorite for anyone.  — James McCann

Classic Album – Foreigner – 4 (CD review)


Foreigner – 4 (1982) – CD review
– Foreigner’s last great album, 4, finds them in transition; they’d always used synthesizers sparingly (see “Starrider” from their debut), but now the instrument was being used to great effect.  Take, for example, the excellent “Waiting For a Girl Like You”: this isn’t the typical power ballad; with its descending keyboard line, it creates a haunting mood.  More recognition needs to go to chief writer, guitarist Mick Jones, who crafted some of the greatest rock songs of all time.

“Jukebox Hero” could be the best “boy becomes a rock star” song since “Johnny B. Goode,” with its thumping rhythm that builds to the anthemic chorus.  The album’s best song (and possibly Foreigner’s greatest moment) is “Urgent,” built around a simple, repetitive riff, pulsating keyboards and single-note guitar solo, the song creates a hypnotic effect.  Then comes Motown legend Junior Walker for the sax solo and he takes it into the stratosphere.  Rumor has it that he recorded it in one take.

“Luanne” and “Break It Up” are good rockers and “Girl on the Moon” is another underrated mood piece.  While not perfect (the opening song, “Night Life,” is a clunker, and an odd choice to start the record),  4 does showcase a band at the peak of its powers.  With its next release, Agent Provocateur, the band would plunge headlong into big eighties production and synth drums, and the results would be disappointing. –Tony Peters

Classic Album – Black Sabbath – Sabotage (CD review)

Black Sabbath – Sabotage (1975) – CD review –

My Uncle… “Evil Uncle Jeff,” bought a UK copy of Black Sabbath’s Sabotage when it was released in the United States in the early days of CD players. Jeff saw that it was time and introduced me to life as a hard rocker, using this classic album to light my path. Not only do I feel that this is Sabbath’s most underrated album, I would argue it is the best Black Sabbath album ever.

This disc will take you on a 43-minute journey that you might not come back the same person from. I wondered if it was just me, or does this music have power? So, I played the album for some friends, who are hardcore rap fans. These guys had no idea what was about to happen: just like had been done for me, we passed the pipe around the room, then I pressed play. It may be that this album is just herb-friendly, but there are five more Sabbath fans, thanks to these great cuts. I always feel overwhelmed by the transition from the upbeat lyrics of “Symptom of the Universe “ into the dark beginning of “Megalomania.” In fact, until three minutes into the song, just about anyone would feel downright low.  But when Tony Iommi’s guitar kicks in… your mood will soar.

This is the only Ozzy-era Black Sabbath album to not reach platinum sales, maybe because it’s not radio friendly and should be listened to as a whole. One warning – I borrowed this CD from “Evil Uncle” Jeff and he has never gotten it back: hold on to yours tightly.  –James McCann