Sister Sledge, We Are Family

As disco landmarks go, of course "He's The Greatest Dancer" and "We Are Family" (even at 8 minutes plus!) stand the test of time, as much because of Kathy Sledge's earnest vocals as Bernie Edwards and Nile Rodgers' carefully controlled production which prevents them from spiraling into self-parody. But at the same time the other semi-dance tracks like "Lost In Music" and "Easier To Love" seem suffocated by that restraint, as rich as their backing might be, and "You're A Friend To Me" is positively choked by the leash. The R&B influences play off stronger — "Thinking Of You" is a sultry delight — but there's not enough of it on the other tracks for them to benefit. Higher quality than most others around this time, it's hard to deny all the things that made it good, but if the production had let loose a little more it could have been great. The 1995 remaster has two absolutely potty B-side remixes of "We Are Family," destroying everything that made it enjoyable, and the first redo of "Lost In Music" is likewise a HiNRG dud. But its second 1984 remix, by Edwards and Rodgers themselves, while the overdubs are densely dumb does punch the bpm up just enough to really make it jam. Wonder if they'd just do that for the rest of it. (Content: no concerns.)

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The Who, Face Dances

Kenney Jones never deserved half the crap he got. Unlike Keith Moon, he could hold a beat and his liquor, and he was already on the band's recorded output anyway from the refits of Tommy and Quadrophenia to no one's complaint. The problem was really Pete Townshend, who reserved most of his best output for his contemporaneous Empty Glass — but yet this album still manages to pull it off despite that. The lyrics are typically inscrutable and the song titles don't make sense, but Roger Daltrey sings them straight anyway to their benefit ("Cache Cache" the particular exemplar), and rockers like "You Better You Bet," "Another Tricky Day" and "Daily Records" (and John Entwistle's contribution with "The Quiet One") are as good as any of their older singles. Entwistle doesn't hit pay dirt with "You," though, which is a bit too tart for the other tracks, and "Did You Steal My Money" and "How Can You Do It Alone" are kind of dorky, but Moon's most lasting contribution to the band was attitude rather than drumming and a true pro like Jones easily proves it. The 1997 remaster adds three unreleased tracks, all pretty good but especially an early take of "Somebody Saved Me" — obvious tape warble intact — which is far superior to Townshend's reworking on Chinese Eyes (the two live tracks are best not mentioned). The 2021 remaster has four different live cuts to waste your time, but adds those three gems plus a fourth "Dance It Away" and an alternate take of "Don't Let Go The Coat" with different vocals. Either is worth it. (Content: adult themes, mild language.)

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Eric Johnson, Ah Via Musicom

A slight effort from a man whose skill should imply a better result. When he rocks he really does: not just "Cliffs of Dover," an incomparable virtuoso artifact worth all the airplay it's ever got, but also its junior reprise "Righteous" (apropos) and the undulating sparkle of "Trademark." Unfortunately the slower instrumentals have a little trouble taking off ("East Wes"), "Steve's Boogie" is way too short, and his ill-advised four vocal tracks are inoffensive at best. It's not a total writeoff, but I just wish the lows on this album weren't as low as the highs were high. (Content: no concerns.)

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Pylon, Chomp

Hypnotic, at times baffling and never like anything you've heard before or since, the most accessible release from the elder statespersonpeople of the turn of the Reagan era Athens-alt scene (to be sure a coarsely relative statement). The formula doesn't stray a great deal from Gyrate; Vanessa Briscoe's murky, murmury vocals still diffuse more fog than they dispel, with sharp edges and shrieks like flashlights suddenly igniting in your eyes, and the same sort of taut paranoia propelled by the unstable yet purposeful shuffle of Curtis Crowe's drumming and the deep slap of Michael Lachowski on bass. Rather, the difference is in production and mood: the grit is there, but it's swifter and airier ("Beep," floaty closer "Altitude"), it even flirts with layers (the almost whimsical "Italian Movie Theme"), and the lyrics land more heartfelt than simply angsty ("Yo-Yo," "No Clocks"). But just to remind you they'd never sell out, the centrepiece remains the tinny menacing dirge of "Crazy," and lead-off "K" lets you know any new affectations are entirely under their own control. After all, to let it be pigeonholed as mere post-punk or new wave would ruin the idea. (Content: no concerns.)

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The Clash, London Calling

It's noteworthy to observe that for however many music acts don't know what they want to be at the beginning, a few of the greats do a style sprawl right in the middle. Yes, London Calling has all the punk attitude you expect from their third album, but also spreads on a healthy helping of soul, jazz, rockabilly and even a touch of ska and reggae, and to my great surprise it all goes together brilliantly. You want a revolution? They'll play it. You want strutting and brass? They've got it. Social commentary? Silly jams? Name it. (Pete Townshend-esque guitar smashing? Sure!) The amazing part is how well it meshes; the undercurrent of attitude fuses it all well. In fact, there's so much great stuff here and the deft touch between edgy and entertaining is so adeptly handled that I can't think of a song I didn't like. But that's kind of its weakness, isn't it? It's 19 tracks of everything under the sun, and I do mean everything — like almost every double album ever made it goes on a bit too long even if the going's really good. The 25th anniversary version adds on a disc of premixes which have the same energy but not the same level of production, and except for the handful of unreleased tracks mixed in they're interesting exactly once. (Content: adult themes in "Lovers Rock," violent imagery in "Spanish Bombs," "Koka Kola" and "Guns of Brixton.")

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The Yes Album

The band was in the weeds by this point, in real danger of getting dropped by Atco, and they needed a win. This wasn't really it but slightly more often than not it gets close. Typical of their later output their longform pieces are the best ones, even if the lyrical concepts are clumsy; anti-war "Yours Is No Disgrace" is incredibly poignant and supple, some of their best work ever, along with the oblique but earnest three-part "Starship Trooper" with Steve Howe's satisfyingly heavy guitar self-duet. Unfortunately, they're split by the sloppy "Clap," recorded live for no good reason and thus a famine amidst plenty, and while "A Venture" is charming in miniature "I've Seen All Good People" after awhile gets dreary in length, the kind of overwrought metaphysical chess metaphor that would make Bobby Fischer slit his wrists. Closing track "Perpetual Change" is particularly instructive: full of fascinating moments you want more of, but like your hyperactive nephew keeps erratically running off to other tangents, even audibly near the end when the music abruptly pans into one channel in an idea that probably sounded better to the engineer than it does in my ears. Well, live on to record another day, I suppose. The 2003 remaster adds a studio version of "Clap" which largely eliminates my objections to the album live cut, but the bowdlerized single versions of "I've Seen All Good People" (as "Your Move") and "Starship Trooper" (as "Life Seeker") are unnecessary, and so is the excessive 2014 Panegyric multi-format release. (Content: no concerns.)

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Lou Reed, Metal Machine Music

Four equally divided amorphous portions of noise and feedback that are so interchangeable the extra quad mix channels were allegedly the same tape tracked in reverse. In this sense the locked groove of the original LP seems perfectly logical. What's really crazy is the damn thing is perversely listenable, at least at low volume in the background where it becomes part of the ambience. I don't know if I got the joke, and I'm quite sure RCA didn't, but somewhere Philip Glass is laughing. (Content: um.)

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Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool

There is profound beauty in this album and profound sadness, affected by their woes in the studio (including the ill-fated title track for Spectre, which the studio rejected but appears on the deluxe edition) and the end of Thom Yorke's marriage, yielding almost 52 minutes of swirling fog and ambience. Lyrics wash over you, beat changes add occasional colour, but the resignation and moroseness yields an almost monochromatic soundscape that envelops the entire first side and much of the second. "Burn The Witch" starts credibly enough, the sci-fi lyrics of "Decks Dark" are interesting and "Ful Stop" and "Identikit" break up the viscosity, but for all its high quality technique and emotion it's really an album one could only drown in. Flailing about as you sink under the audio, no bottom beneath your feet as your struggles weaken, your last thoughts as it all fades are the silver sky and the darkness below. I think that's an artistic achievement; I'm just not sure what of. (Content: no concerns.)

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The Brothers Johnson Greatest Hits

An enthusiastic if uneven collection, the chief issue is the sprawling styles. "Free and Single" and (to its great shame) "Stomp!" are fun but a little too much disco and not enough funk, and their new wave 80s output is even less credible: "Funk It" doesn't rise above all the me-too style clones around that time and slow jam "Tokyo" gets aimless, which goes for most of the slower tracks except for the luxurious "Strawberry Letter #23" and maybe the jazzish "Q." On the other hand, "Get The Funk Out Of My Face," "Ain't We Funkin' Now" and especially the exultantly exuberant "Ride-O-Rocket" are funk classics that no party should be without. It hits most of their singles, most good, some weaker, but none of them short on attitude. (Content: no concerns.)

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Crowded House, Intriguer

What impresses me most about this album is how, like a boat deftly piloted between hostile cliffs and crags, it brings you some dramatic scenery without smashing on the rocks. There's enough alternative edge without veering into grunge ("Inside Out"), enough texture without getting caught up in snobbery ("Saturday Sun") or moroseness ("Archer's Arrows," "Either Side of the World"), and sunny beats without drowning in sugar ("Twice If You're Lucky"). Heck, there's even a touch of country without being clichéd ("Elephants"). The slashed wallpaper cover unnerves me and the lyrics sometimes seem better on paper, but Neil Finn's earnest vocals never back down, and the guitar, melodies and luxurious backing deliver especially with Yank import drummer Matt Sherrod coming into his own after Time on Earth. Easily their best work since their first life in the late '80s. The deluxe version DVD includes the music video for "Saturday Sun," some live concert film from Auckland and an extended studio recording session, but unless you've got a jones for a Kiwi concert and don't want to buy a plane ticket, only the live cut "Don't Dream It's Over" gives you something new. (Content: no concerns.)

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Joy Division, Closer

Somewhat more of the same, and even against the throes of Ian Curtis' suicide I'm sorry to say I really expected more than that. The dirges and muddy vocals which seemed so original and organic on Unknown Pleasures come across as almost cynically deliberate the second time around — as an example, lead-off "Atrocity Exhibition" still oozes the same claustrophobic feel but the poppish "Isolation" right after it feels forced and its faux peppy electrobeat incongruous. I mostly blame Martin Hannett for this, but the band went along with it, so it can't all be his fault. And, in fairness, the recording's better this time; the presence of some actual technique makes it a bit more listenable. Fortunately the second side largely redeems the first: "Heart and Soul" manages to groove without being cloying ("A Means to an End" to a lesser extent), Curtis sings deeply and honestly amid piano and drums fed with gritty reverb in "The Eternal" and "Twenty Four Hours" makes the most of its grim milieu with his tunelessly emotive vocals sunk almost unintelligibly into a sharper, stronger rollercoaster riff. These all set up "Decades" well to close it out, even if its somewhat abrupt transitions can't carry itself the full way. One wonders what would have happened if there had been a third album, and he never had to meet his sad demise; New Order doesn't really seem an appropriate sequel nor stylistically its next logical step. The 2007 remaster includes a second live disc, as throwaway as most are, but it does include a solid rendition of "Love Will Tear Us Apart" which really should have made the album instead of banished to a single. But a great single, to be sure. (Content: intense emotional themes.)

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Pink Floyd, The Wall

The decline of the classic lineup started here, along with Roger Waters' terminal ego-driven navel-gazing. It's very difficult to gin up much sympathy for a self-absorbed rocker's unilaterally imposed barrier between him and the world, even if his daddy did die in the war, but minus the wacko fascist flourish the album asks you to treat it as an unalloyed tragedy and it just isn't. Plus, a few shining exceptions like "Comfortably Numb" and maybe "Young Lust" aside, the hulkish pretense of the whole thing means no song stands well on its own (as a single "Another Brick in the Wall Part II" gave schoolkids a great stick to beat their teachers with, but absent its context it's hardly sophisticated criticism). What gets the album past this is its sheer theatricality, one of the few records — let alone double albums — to really meet the concept of "concept," with peerless production values and some genuinely satisfying catharsis. But the rage is too unfocused to be meaningful ("One of My Turns" indeed) no matter how acute, and while your humble jerk critic and every subsequent angsty generation will listen to it for awhile non-stop, eventually you'll grow out of it just like Pink did and I did and Waters didn't. Come for the self-inflicted psychological wounds, stay for the art. The movie (because it was inevitable there'd be one) adds some Final Cut-like linking songs that work well and an excellent extended "Empty Spaces" in the form of "What Shall We Do Now?", though Bob Geldof doesn't really hit Waters' vocal range and the omission of "Hey You" is glaring. Overall the movie version is an improvement, but issuing "When The Tigers Broke Free" as a single had the same issues "ABITW Part II" did, and the soundtrack has yet to appear in its entirety on any re-release even though it's obviously ripe for it. (Content: violent imagery, S-bomb in "Nobody Home" and "The Trial.")

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