A First Glance at Albums Hitting the Big 50 This Year

With a new year upon us, I thought this would be a good opportunity to preview albums that are turning 50 in 2023. Taking a closer look quickly confirmed my expectation that 1973 was yet another great year in music. Based on Wikipedia, I came up with an initial list of 40 records released that year. I’m going to touch on six of them. A Spotify playlist at the end features songs from those albums, as well as one tune from each of the remaining 34 records.

Pink FloydThe Dark Side of the Moon (March 1, 1973)

Pink Floyd’s eighth studio album The Dark Side of the Moon remains among my favorites by the English rock band. Released in March 1973, it was primarily developed during live performances and premiered before the recording sessions began. In fact, as reported by Variety and other music outlets, last month, Pink Floyd quietly released 18 of these concerts on streaming services before the recordings hit 50 years and would have lost copyright protection. The Dark Side of the Moon, a concept album around themes like conflict, greed, time, death and mental illness, is Floyd’s best-selling record and one of the most critically acclaimed albums in music history. Here is Time, with lyrics by Roger Waters (bass, vocals) and the music credited to all members of the band, who also included David Gilmour (guitar, vocals), Richard Wright (keyboards, vocals) and Nick Mason (drums, percussion).

Steely DanCountdown to Ecstasy (July 1973)

Steely Dan’s sophomore album Countdown to Ecstasy, released in July 1973, was recorded when they were still a standing band. In addition to masterminds Donald Fagen (acoustic and electric pianos, synthesizer, lead and backing vocals) and Walter Becker (electric bass, harmonica, backing vocals), the line-up featured Denny Dias (electric guitar), Jeff “Skunk” Baxter (electric and pedal steel guitars) and Jim Hodder (drums, percussion, backing vocals). Countdown to Ecstasy followed the departure of David Palmer and was the group’s first album where Fagen sang lead on every song. After their third record Pretzel Logic, Fagen and Becker turned Steely Dan largely into a studio project, relying on top-notch session musicians. One of my favorite tracks on Countdown to Ecstasy is My Old School, which like all other tunes was co-written by Becker and Fagen. Baxter’s guitar work shines and is among his best.

Stevie WonderInnervisions (August 3, 1973)

Innervisions, Stevie Wonder’s 16th studio album released in August 1973, is part of his so-called classic period, which spans six records, bookended by Music of My Mind (March 1972) and Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through “The Secret Life of Plants” (October 1979). Following his 21st birthday on May 13, 1971, Wonder allowed his contract with Motown to expire. He returned to the Detroit label with Music of My Mind and a much more lucrative contract that also freed him from the artistic straitjacket of the past. Wonder’s lyrics changed and started to explore social and political topics in addition to standard romantic themes. Musically, he began exploring overdubbing and recording most of the instrumental parts himself. Innervisions and the excellent Living for the City perfectly illustrate these changes.

Lynyrd Skynyrd(Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd) (August 13, 1973)

August 1973 also saw the release of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s first album (Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd). And what a debut it was, featuring classics like Gimme Three Steps, Simple Man, Tuesday’s Gone and the epic Free Bird. You wouldn’t necessarily guess it, based on the album’s relatively moderate chart performance when it came out. In the U.S., it reached no. 27 on the Billboard 200. Elsewhere, it climbed to no. 20 in Switzerland, no. 44 in the UK and no. 47 in Canada. But over time, the picture looks better. As of July 1987, it was certified 2X Platinum in the U.S. The album also made Rolling Stone’s list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time and was ranked at no. 381 in the most recent revision from 2020. Here’s the aforementioned Free Bird, co-written by the group’s original lead vocalist Ronnie Van Zant and guitarist Allen Collins.

Elton JohnGoodbye Yellow Brick Road (October 5, 1973)

Elton John truly ruled during the first part of the ’70s. With Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, a double LP and his seventh studio album, he scored his third of six consecutive chart-toppers in the U.S. on the Billboard 200. The album also topped the charts in the UK, Canada and Australia. It spawned four singles, which charted in different countries. In the U.S., Bennie and the Jets became John’s second no. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, while the title track topped the charts in Canada and New Zealand. I decided to highlight the magnificent opening medley of Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding. As usual, John wrote the music to lyrics by his longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin. What an opus!

Paul McCartney and WingsBand on the Run (December 5, 1973)

The final album I’d like to call out here is what I consider the Mount Rushmore of Paul McCartney’s post-Beatles period: Band on the Run, his fifth after the break-up of The Fab Four and the third with Wings. By the time recording in Lagos, Nigeria began, drummer Denny Seiwell and guitarist Henry McCullough had departed. This left Wings as a trio, which in addition to McCartney included his wife Linda McCartney and Denny Laine. As such, Paul ended up playing bass, drums, percussion and most of the lead guitar parts, with Laine providing guitars and Linda keyboards. Both also sang backing and harmony vocals. After recording the majority of the album’s basic tracks and some overdubbing in Lagos under difficult conditions, Wings returned to England and finished the album in George Martin’s AIR Studios in London. After initial modest sales, Band on the Run became the top-selling studio album of 1974 in the UK. More importantly, it revitalized the critical standing of Paul McCartney whose earlier post-Beatles records had received a mixed reception. Band on the Run’s opener and title track, credited to Paul and Linda, is a longtime favorite of mine.

I’m planning dedicated posts on each of the above albums and possibly others released in 1973, timed to their respective 50th anniversaries. Last but not least, here’s the above-noted Spotify playlist.

Sources: Wikipedia; Variety; YouTube; Spotify

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Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book Turns 50

On October 27, 1972, Stevie Wonder released his 15th studio album Talking Book. While I missed the actual anniversary date, I did not want to skip this milestone. Not only does Talking Book represent a gem in Wonder’s long music catalog and marked the beginning of his “classic period”, but it also was an artistic turning point. This post borrows from a previous review of the album I published in May 2017.

Even though Stevie Wonder was only 22 years when he recorded Talking Book, he already had a 10-year recording career under his belt. Remarkably, he took the bold step to abandon the Motown template of radio-friendly songs that had brought him fame. As reported in this excellent NPR segment from 2000, the album proved his independence as an artist, his first real growth as a boy becoming a man…making all of the artistic decisions himself and relying less on Motown head Berry Gordy for direction.

The sound of Talking Book was largely shaped by Wonder’s keyboard work, especially his use of synthesizers. “I felt that the Moog synthesizer enabled me to reshape the oscillator, having control of the ataxias and sustained release,” Wonder explained to NPR. “I was able to really create various sounds, bass sounds and was able to bend notes the way that I heard them being bent, create different sounds of horns, string sounds and string lines and really arrange them in the way that I felt I wanted them to sound.”

A multi-instrumentalist, Wonder played most of the instruments himself, including drums, Fender Rhoades; Clavinet; Moog bass synthesizer; T.O.N.T.O., a massive multi-module synthesizer, and harmonica. Notable guest musicians included Jeff Beck (electric guitar), Buzz Feiten (electric guitar), Ray Parker Jr. (electric guitar) and David Sanborn (alto saxophone).

For the most part, the lyrics on Talking Book deal with love and heartbreak. A notable exception is Big Brother, where Wonder followed contemporary artists like Marvin GaveCurtis Mayfield and James Brown with socially conscious lyrics – an approach he would further embrace on his next studio album  Innervisions with songs like Too High and Living For the City.

Let’s get to some music with the beautiful opener of side one (speaking in vinyl terms), You Are the Sunshine of My Life. Wonder’s Fender Rhoades electric piano and the congas played by Daniel Ben Zebulon give this beautiful mid-tempo ballad a very relaxed feel. Wonder got some support on vocals from singers Jim GilstrapLani Groves and Gloria Barley. The tune became the album’s second single and Wonder’s third no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. In March 1974, it also won him the Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance.

Next up is You and I (We Can Conquer the World), another love song. In addition to singing lead vocals, Wonder played all instruments, including piano, T.O.N.T.O. synthesizer and Moog bass. The tune has been covered by multiple other artists, such as Barbra Streisand, Joe Cocker and Macy Gray. According to Songfacts, it also holds the distinction of having served as the wedding song for former U.S. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, who are both huge Stevie Wonder fans.

Side two of Talking Book starts off with what became Wonder’s second U.S. no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and a signature tune: Superstition. That said, the album’s lead single ruffled some feathers. Jeff Beck who participated in the recording sessions for Talking Book came up with the opening drum beat. Wonder improvised the guitar-like riff, playing a Hohner Clavinet. They created a rough demo of the tune with the idea that Beck would record the song for his next album. However, by the time Beck did so, Wonder had recorded the tune for Talking Book, and at the insistence of Berry Gordy who saw a hit, it had been released as a single. In addition to Wonder (lead vocals, Clavinet, drums, Moog bass), the recording featured Trevor Lawrence (tenor saxophone) and Steve Madaio (trumpet). Apparently, Beck wasn’t happy and made some comments to the press Wonder didn’t appreciate. Eventually, he released his version of  Superstition on his 1973 eponymous debut album with Beck, Bogert & Appice.

Here is the above-mentioned Big Brother. It’s another tune entirely performed by Wonder (lead vocals, Clavinet, drums/percussion, harmonica, Moog bass). An excerpt from the lyrics: …Your name is big brother/You say that you got me all in your notebook/Writing it down everyday/Your name is I’ll see ya’ (Your name is I’ll see ya’)/I’ll change if you vote me in as the Pres’/ President of your soul/I live in the ghetto/You just come to visit me ’round election time…

The last track I’d like to call out is I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever), one of two tunes on Talking Book Wonder co-wrote with Yvonne Wright, a frequent collaborator for various of his other ’70s albums. Once again, it was solely performed by Wonder who in addition to singing lead and background vocals played piano, Clavinet, drums and Moog bass. The tune has been covered by Art Garfunkel, George Michael and British female vocal duo E’voke, among others.

Talking Book was produced by Wonder with some help from Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil, with whom he had also worked on his preceding album  Music of My Mind. Following is a Spotify link to the album.

Talking Book became a major chart success, especially in the U.S. where it climbed to no. 3 on the Billboard 200 and was Wonder’s first album to top the R&B chart. Elsewhere, it reached no. 12 in Canada, no. 16 in the UK, no. 24 in Norway and no. 34 in Australia. The record was also well-received by critics. In a review at the time, Rolling Stone’s Vince Aletti called it, “an exceptional, exciting album, the work of a now quite matured genius and, with Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Sly’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On (an answer album?) and Wonder’s own Music of My Mind, one of the most impressive recent records from a black popular performer.” AllMusic’s John Bush characterized the album as “a laser beam of tight songwriting, warm electronic arrangements, and ebullient performances.”

In 2003, Rolling Stone ranked Talking Book at no. 90 in its list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. In the most recent 2020 revision, it moved up to no. 59. The album was also voted no. 322 in the third edition of Colin Larkin’s All Time Top 1000 Albums, published in 2000.

Sources: Wikipedia; NPR; Songfacts; Rolling Stone, AllMusic; YouTube; Spotify

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

Since the sudden death of my beloved mother-in-law Carmen Anaya Acevedo last week, I essentially took a break from blogging, including Best of What’s New. It just didn’t feel right. Meanwhile, new music didn’t pause, which is good news. This week’s installment could have easily been longer, but I’d like to keep these posts to four to six songs.

I’m particularly excited about new music by Stevie Wonder, one of my favorite artists, who last July announced he needed a kidney transplant. The surgery happened in December, and apparently Wonder, who turned 70 in May, is doing well. There’s also new music by Tom Petty, Americana rockers Cordovas, as well as three additional artists including a German alternative rock band. Let’s get to it!

Tom Petty/Leave Virginia Alone

Leave Virginia Alone is a tune from Wildflowers & All the Rest, the substantially enhanced reissue of Tom Petty’s second solo album, which came out on October 16. Written in 1995, the song was first recorded by Rod Stewart for his 17th studio album A Spanner in the Works from May that year. While Stewart’s version, which I hadn’t heard before until now, isn’t bad, I much prefer Petty’s take. The track also appeared separately as a single on October 1. I really miss Tom Petty, and it’s great to hear his voice.

Cordovas/Destiny

Cordovas are an Americana rock band from Memphis, Tenn. formed in 2011. The members are vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Joe Firstman, Sevans Henderson (keyboards), Lucca Soria (guitar, vocals) and Toby Weaver, another vocalist and multi-instrumentalist. Destiny is a track and the lead single of the band’s new album Destiny Hotel released on October 16. According to the band’s website, the album expands on the harmony-soaked roots rock of Cordovas’ ATO Records debut That Santa Fe Channel, a 2018 release that earned abundant praise from outlets like Rolling Stone and NPR Music. I covered it here at the time.

Stevie Wonder/Can’t Put It in the Hands of Fate (feat. Rapsody, Cordae, Chika & Busta Rhymes)

Can’t Put It in the Hands of Fate is one of two new tunes Stevie Wonder released on October 13, coinciding with the 36th birthday of his oldest son Mumtaz Morris. He is joined by hip hop artists Rapsody, Cordae, Chika & Busta Rhymes, which definitely makes this a song that’s outside my core wheelhouse. But I actually love it! Lyrically, it’s almost a present day version of You Haven’t Done Nothin’ or Living For the City, both tunes Wonder recorded in the ’70s. “In these times, we are hearing the most poignant wake-up calls and cries for this nation and the world to, please, heed our need for love, peace and unity,” he stated, as reported by Jambase. According to Billboard, Wonder will also release a new full-length album to be titled Through the Eyes Of Wonder. His last such album A Time to Love dates back to September 2005.

Jeremy Ivey/Hands Down in Your Pocket

Jeremy Ivey is a Nashville-based singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. According to Apple Music, he established himself in the early 2010s as a member of the country-soul band Buffalo Clover alongside his wife, singer/songwriter Margo Price. When Price’s career took off in 2016, Ivey served as her guitarist and sideman before signing a deal with Anti- and launching a solo career of his own with 2019’s The Dream and the Dreamer. Hands Down in Your Pocket is a tune from Ivey’s sophomore solo album Waiting Out the Storm, which was produced by Price and came out on October 9. “I think that having the opportunity to put out my own records, I’ve got a lot of pent-up inspiration,” Ivey told Apple Music. “Because there are just certain freedoms that I can take when I’m singing the song that I can’t take when I’m writing it for someone else to sing.”

Yola/Hold On (feat. Sheryl Crow, Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby & Jason Isbell)

Yola, born Yolanda Quartey, is an English singer-songwriter from Bristol, England. She was the lead vocalist of English country and soul band Phantom Limb and recorded two albums with them in 2008 and 2012. In February 2016, she released her solo EP Orphan Offering. A full-length debut album Walk Through Fire followed in February 2019. Yola has also sung backing vocals for numerous artists, including Massive Attack, The Chemical Brothers and Iggy Azalea. In addition, she was a guest on the 2019 eponymous debut album by country super group The Highwomen, together with Sheryl Crow. Yola’s latest single Hold On, released October 9, features Crow on piano, Jason Isbell on guitar, as well as The Highwomen’s Brandi Carlile and Natalie Hemby on backing vocals. As reported by Pitchfork, a portion of the tune’s proceeds will benefit MusiCares and the National Bailout Collective.

Die Happy/Story of Our Life (feat. Daniel Wirtz)

I’d like to wrap up this post with new music by alternative rock band Die Happy, formed by Czech singer Marta Jandová and guitarist Thorsten Mewes in 1993 in Ulm, Germany. The current line-up also includes Ralph Rieker (bass) and Jürgen Stiehle (drums). Die Happy’s debut album Better Than Nothing appeared in 1994. They have since released 13 additional albums including their most recent Guess What from April this year. Story of Our Life featuring Daniel Wirtz, a German rock singer-songwriter, is on the bonus version of the album and was released as a single on September 18.

Sources: Wikipedia; Cordovas website; Jambase; Billboard; Apple Music; Pitchfork; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: Stevie Wonder/Innervisions

“Innervisions gives my own perspective of what’s happening in my world, to my people, to all people. That’s why it took me seven months to get together – I did all the lyrics – and that’s why I think it is my most personal album. I don’t care if it only sells five copies – this is the way I feel.” (Stevie Wonder, The New York Times, July 20, 1973)

On May 13, Stevie Wonder turned 70 years old. Yesterday, I came across his moving acceptance speech at the 1989 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Both of these events prompted me to post about one of my longtime favorite artists. Instead of a playlist, which I’m sure I’m going to do at some point, I decided to write about Innervisions. This album from August 1973 may well be Wonder’s equivalent to Carole King’s Tapestry or Steely Dan’s Aja, i.e., a career-defining true masterpiece.

Stevie Wonder at Madison Square Garden in March 1974

The comment from Wonder in the lead paragraph appeared in a New York Times story that reported about an interesting PR tactic to create some buzz among journalists two weeks ahead of the album’s official release. A group of blindfolded journalists boarded a bus in New York City’s Times Square and was brought to a nearby recording study. Upon arrival, each member – still blindfolded – was assigned an individual guide, allowed to taste various foods, touch various musical instruments and dance to the music of Innervisions, which was playing in the background.

And, yes, Wonder was there as well. Though he was delayed coming in from Texas, but thanks to a police escort from the airport, he just made it in time to receive the group of journalists at the studio for this unusual album preview listening party. “The idea of the blindfolds was to try to give people an idea of what’s happening in my mind,” Wonder explained. “When you look at something, your hearing is distracted by your eye.” While doubt the temporary blindfolds allowed the participants to enter the mind of a musical genius, Wonder and his PR folks certainly deserve credit for coming up with a creative tactic.

Which brings me to Innervisions, Wonder’s 16th studio album. Rightfully, it’s widely considered to be a landmark. According to Wikipedia, it made Wonder “the first artist to experiment with the ARP synthesizer on a large scale”, adding this had a huge impact on the future of commercial black music. Based on this apparently well researched post by The Music Aficionado, it sounds like it would be more accurate to describe Wonder as one of a number of artists who were experimenting with ARP synthesizers in the early ’70s. But I don’t think this context diminishes the significance of the record!

Innervisions also marked an important step in Wonder’s transition away from primarily romantic tunes to musically and lyrically more mature songs. Arguably, that journey began with Music of My Mind, Wonder’s 14th studio album released in March 1972, which some consider the first record of his “classic period” that culminated in Songs in the Key of Life from September 1976.

Stevie Wonder in 1973

Innervisions tackles a broad range of issues, including drugs, racism and religion, and only includes three love songs. In fact, there’s a quote from Wonder I read somewhere and now can no longer find (I hate when that happens!), where he essentially said people no longer want to hear love songs. Looking at this comment today, I think it’s important to keep in mind the context of 1973 America, a country that was struggling with racism, poverty, and a rampant drug epidemic, not to mention a crook in the White House – sound familiar?

Okay, time to get to some music. Let’s kick it off with the album’s opener Too High. Like all of the other eight tracks, the tune was written, arranged and produced by Wonder. It’s also one of four songs, on which he played all instruments, in this case a Fender Rhodes electric piano, harmonica, drums and Moog (synthesizer) bass. I’m too high/I’m too high/I can’t ever touch the sky/ I’m too high/I’m so high/I feel like I’m about to die, Wonder sings, leaving no doubt this ain’t some romantic ballad. BTW, just to be clear, I’m with Paul McCartney here: Nothing wrong with a silly love song!

Next up is what to me is the stand-out track on the album: Living for the City, the cinematic tale of a poor young African American man from Mississippi who innocently ends up in a rotten jail in New York City just after he had arrived to what he had thought would be his big city dream. The tune was also released separately as a single in November 1973, reaching no. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 and topping what was then called the Hot Soul Singles chart (now known as Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs). Songfacts quotes Wonder: “I think the deepest I really got into how I feel about the way things are was in ‘Living For The City.’ I was able to show the hurt and the anger. You still have that same mother that scrubs the floors for many, she’s still doing it. Now what is that about? And that father who works some days for 14 hours. That’s still happening.”

Higher Ground is the first track on the (vinyl) album’s B-side. According to a track-by-track review in Billboard, it’s a call to action (maybe the grooviest ever?), where he encourages people to “keep on learnin’,” outs politicians that talk while their “people keep on dyin’,” and those doing nothing to “stop sleepin’.” Adds Songfacts: Guided by a mix of Christian morality and astrological mysticism, Wonder believed he was writing a “special song” whose lyrics suggested a coming day of judgment. “I did the whole thing in three hours” he told Q magazine. It was almost as if I had to get it done. I felt something was going to happen. I didn’t know what or when, but I felt something.” One thing’s for sure: That song, which also became the album’s lead single in July 1973, grooves like hell! Evidently, people noticed. The tune climbed to no. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was another chart-topper on the Hot Soul Singles.

One of the “lighter” tunes is Don’t You Worry ’bout a Thing, which has an upbeat Latin vibe. According to Songfacts, Stevie Wonder encourages his lady to be fearless in exploring all life has to offer because he’ll always be by her side. Although he claims to speak fluent Spanish in the intro, saying “Todo está bien chévere” (“Everything’s really great” or “Everything’s cool”), Wonder didn’t really know the language…The Spanish lyric was inspired by a Puerto Rican woman that Wonder met in a record store. He recalled: “I remember the night I was going to do this song. And I just so happened to meet this girl named Rain. And she was beautiful. And she worked at this record shop – this record store. And I’m like saying to her, hey, you know, it’s amazing. You know, she sings. You know, she’s Puerto Rican. I say, yeah, OK, well, you know, I’m doing a little thing and like a little something called ‘Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing.’ What can I – I mean, give me something, something. I’ll let you come to the studio if you have anything to say. I’ll say some things, and it will be a wonderful day. And she said, ‘todo esta bien chevere.’ And that’s how I got that in a song. And, you know, we fell in love, and it was a beautiful thing.”

The final tune I’d like to highlight is the album’s closer He’s Misstra Know-It-All. He’s a man/With a plan/Got a counterfeit dollar in his hand/He’s Misstra Know-It-All, Wonder sings. Playing hard/Talking fast/Making sure that he won’t be the last/He’s Misstra Know-It-All, he carries on. Makes a deal/With a smile/Knowing all the time that his lie’s a mile/He’s Misstra Know-It-All…The above Billboard review calls the song “a cautionary tale about a hustler.” According to Wikipedia, It has been alleged has been alleged that this is a reference to United States’ President Richard Nixon. Considering the album’s context and other songs, this looks like a safe bet to me.

Three days after the release of Innervisions, Wonder was involved in a bad car accident that nearly killed him when he was hit by a log into his forehead. He was hospitalized with a severe brain contusion that caused him to be in a coma for four days. It took Wonder more than a year to completely recover from his injuries. Kind of creepy, especially if you consider his above quote about Higher Ground.

And, yes, Innervisions sold more than five copies. While I didn’t come across specific sales figures in the U.S. and elsewhere, the album reached Gold status in Canada and the U.K. It peaked at no. 4 on the Billboard 200 and hit no. 1 on the Top R&B Albums chart, which since 1999 has been called Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums. At the 1974 Grammy Awards, the record won Album of the Year and Best Engineered Non-Classical Recording. Living for the City captured Best R&B Song. Innervisions is ranked at no. 24 on the 2012 edition of Rolling Stone’s list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

Sources: Wikipedia; The New York Times; The Music Aficionado; Songfacts; YouTube