August 1997

[BUSTIN OUT OUR BEST]The Best Recordings of This (or Any) Year

It's August--the perfect time to plug a few favorite recordings before the indoor listening season begins. So read on and find out what the SoundStage! crew has been spinning this year.

Bruce Bassett (bruce@soundstage.com)

Led Zeppelin - Led Zeppelin: This album makes my A-list of all time, not because it is the best work Led Zeppelin ever did, because that is highly debatable, but because it sowed the seeds for great things to come. Although they came onto the music scene without much fanfare, in retrospect it is easy to recognize why this band would become as big as they did. Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and John Bonham team up to unleash what can only be described as musical synergy. The band drew its influences heavily from Chicago blues (as evidenced clearly by the two Willie Dixon covers, which are fantastic I might add) and the current rock'n'roll of the day, but without a doubt this is the music that would later be termed Zeppelinesque. Jimmy Page mixes it up with trail blazing guitar riffs, acoustic pickings and the crunchy guitar sound found on "Communication Breakdown," while Robert Plant offers up his powerful, emotion filled vocals, John Paul Jones pounds out the melodic bass line and John Bonham amazes by doing more with a four piece drum kit than what most accomplished drummers can do with eight! This is one of those albums you can hear again and again and each time gain a further appreciation of what this band became.

Dire Straits - Love Over Gold: Love Over Gold is one of those albums I have to "listen" to. By that I mean I have to be relaxed and focused solely on the music. This is not an album that you just throw on as background music, or at a party, or if anyone else is around for that matter. To truly appreciate this music, the wide dynamic range, the unique thumb picking style and soothing story teller voice of Mark Knopfler and his masterful musical arrangements (particularly "Telegraph Road" and "Private Investigations") you must take the following steps:

  1. Make sure no one else is around to disturb you.
  2. Get all of the tweaking out of your system before you settle in.
  3. Set the volume level for a minimum of 90 decibels at the peaks.
  4. Be seated and adjust yourself so you are comfortable enough you will not have to move for the next 45 minutes (note: if you have to use the bathroom, go now!).
  5. Close your eyes (this is very important as it heightens your aural sensitivities) and empty your mind (if you're anything like me this isn't hard).
  6. Press play and become one with the music.

If you follow the aforementioned steps I personally guarantee musical exultation.

Alanis Morrisette - Jagged Little Pill: What can I say about Alanis that hasn't been said already? Probably not too much so I won't even try. I will tell you, however, why I like this disc sooo much. Alanis successfully marries hip hoppety back beats (the kind that are pervasive in dance music and that all "real" music fans adamantly deny that they like) and hard edge rock and roll. The resulting marriage is one of a mega million sales success and no wonder, if you take all of the people in the world who like dance and hip hop, everyone who likes rock and let us not forget, all of those young women who have been done wrong by a man and can "feel" Alanis's pain, and you have a pretty large target market!

As much as I dislike being on the Jagged Little Bandwagon I have no choice because this is an excellent creative effort that swallowed me down from the very first time I heard "You Oughta Know."

Dave Duvall (dave@soundstage.com)

Here are my deserted-island, long-time winners:

Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters - Still River: If 11 minutes and 34 seconds of "Rego Park Blues" doesn't reach deep into your heart, making you a feel the blues and experience pure talent at its most instinctive level, then it's time to pack it in. I asked for three minutes of it in the Meadowlark room at Hi-Fi '97, and ended up with a roomful of audio dudes digging the entire cut. I love to turn folks onto Ronnie's guitar work, with Bruce Katz on piano and Hammond B-3 (spooky organ work!), Rocket Rod Carey on bass, and Per Hanson on drums.

Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon (from the Columbia box set Shine On) This 1992 remastered version is close to sounding like everything I'd ever want squeezed out of it. Much clearer than the MoFi or the mass produced versions. Haven't heard the 20th anniversary edition, but if it by chance has removed the one last layer of veiling that I hear even on the box set disc, then someone tell me so I'll start hunting it down. When "Money" shifts gears from a funk-groove and barrels into a slam-bam musical whirlwind, my feet and head time and again go absolutely ape-shit. Come on now, who doesn't love this one? The true definition of "rock classic."

Cowboy Junkies - The Trinity Session: Anybody who's read one of my reviews probably knows that I could listen to Margo Timmins sing 'til the proverbial cows come home. Cuts like "Misguided Angel," "200 More Miles," "Sweet Jane," and the Hank William's classic "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" typify how the Cowboy Junkies have revamped country music into something much more accessible to the mainstream. Recorded at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Toronto, Canada and using only a Calrec Ambisonic microphone, this recording is the real deal in ambiance retrieval. Though recorded ten years ago, with digital recording still in it's infancy, few discs I've heard rival the sonics on this one. Buy it for the music; relish the sound.

And God forbid if someone ever makes a CD of the Rolling Stones Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out sound as good as I remember my old vinyl copies did way back when!

See Ya. Dave

Doug Blackburn (db@soundstage.com)

My three 1997 favorites are being selected for a number of reasons, one of which is "nobody else will probably mention these albums." They are not necessarily of the very highest sound quality. But the sound quality is at least very good. Musically they never fail to impress.

Van Dyke Parks & Brian Wilson - Orange Crate Art: A look at a nostalgic, never-quite-existed California. Van Dyke Parks (a "Beach Boy" for one or two albums in the late 60s/early 70s) wrote the music and did some arranging. He asked Brian Wilson (the original Beach Boy who wrote probably every Beach Boys song worth remembering) to assist with arranging and to do the vocals. The results are soaring, "pretty" rock. Big scale stuff without an edge. A little sappy, a little idealistic, but irresistible. Sound quality keeps getting better and better as the system improves, not something that happens with many CDs. In fact a recent re-listen prompted including this CD in my group of favorites. I thought this CD was "listened out" for me, but it came back stronger than ever. Van Dyke Parks has had his ups (Clang of the Yankee Reaper and Jump!) and downs (Tokyo Rose) over the years, this is probably his best effort. Brian Wilson is in amazing form--the vocal harmonies are impossible to resist. All the old Beach Boys hooks are updated and treated to much better sound quality than is available on the old Beach Boys recordings.

Brian Wilson - Brian Wilson: This solo effort from the late 80s appeared on LP and CD. Both are findable but you'll probably have to look for used CDs and LPs. This selection is on my list to make another point. Brian Wilson is not getting his "due" these days. This music is as good or better than anything the Beach Boys EVER did, but it has gone relatively unnoticed and unappreciated. I believe this is one of the great American Rock Albums. Sound quality is very good, but not stunning. It is almost impossible to believe/understand how profoundly screwed up Brian Wilson was mentally before this album was released. He could barely communicate. Somehow he has pulled himself up and out and done something stunning here--followed by the album with Van Dyke Parks. If you have not heard this album and you are a fan of Beach Boys music...this album will feel familiar but it is better and more mature that earlier stuff with the Beach Boys. Though "Baby Let Your Hair Grow Long" sounds like it could have come from 1967, the other songs have even MORE of the genius that Brian Wilson was recognized for in the 60s.

Los Lobos - Kiko: This was also released on CD and imported LP. Both are available, though the LP might be tricky to locate. Both sound good, the LP, again, is just a little better sounding, but the CD is plenty good enough to enjoy. This is a masterpiece of Roots Rock. David Hidalgo, Cesar Rosas and the rest of the band pull off a tour d'force of compositional and performance excellence. The men of Los Lobos should be National Treasures. They are "nice guys" with a minimum of flash and posturing. You can tell when you see them live that they love what they are doing. And it comes to them to so naturally you almost don't notice just how great the music and performances are. You get a CD chocked full of great tracks, not a single "skipper" in the bunch. The band eclectically mixes Mexican instruments with "American" instruments. They stir bajo sexto with guitar, baritone sax, accordion, et al in combinations that change from track to track. Music is definitely Roots Rock with elements of Mexican folk, Cajun, Tex-Mex, and sometimes Caribbean. The results are irresistible. If you find this one to your liking, explore similar Los Lobos music on The Neighborhood and more exploratory Los Lobos music on Colossal Head.

The Duke Ellington Jazz Party in Stereo: A reissue on Classic Records (original is a Columbia 6-eye) almost made my list this year, but I wasn't willing to give up a spot to make room for it. Fan-freaking-tastic jazz, with fake-sounding "studio" applause between the songs, but don't let that stop you from hearing one of the best jazz records of the classic period (late '50s - early '60s). The sound on the Classic reissue is worth the cost.

Doug Schneider (das@sstage.com)

The Clash - London Calling: No album, as a matter of fact no combined total of any of my other TOP FIVE albums, has seen as much spin-time as London Calling (except for Humans, see next). Most of my endless listening sessions were done between the ages of 15 and 20, and this album has left a sonic tattoo on my brain. One day when they need to lobotomize me I hope they leave the piece that says, "The Only Band That Matters."

From the scorching title track through the rockibillyish "Brand New Cadillac," and spattered throughout with classics like "Hateful," "Death or Glory," "Spanish Guns," and too many more to list, the music has stood the test of time, and each track is as listenable today as when released. Is it a rock classic? Yes! Is it one of the best rock albums of all time? Oh yes. Are Strummer and Jones frontmen of near-legendary status? Yes! Are they the only band that matters? Almost!

Sonically, the vinyl walks all over the CD in every way. The CD sounds thin and lifeless by comparison. Regardless, the music is so good that I'd listen to it on AM radio.

Bruce Cockburn - Humans: Between 79 and 80, London Calling and Humans formed a life-long musical memory. Humans sees Canadian singer, songwriter, musician Bruce Cockburn at his acoustic and musical finest. Cockburn's career leading up to Humans was pure folk performed acoustically. Humans shows the musical mastering of his craft. Subsequent to Humans Cockburn traded in his acoustic guitar for electric, but to my ears has never equaled the intensity, the emotion, and the musicality of Humans. If I had to go to my grave with one album, this may be it. Enough said.

Sarah McClachlan - Freedom Sessions: Freedom Sessions is living, breathing, musically fulfilling proof that less is more. Sessions is actually the pre-studio work to McClachlan's commercially successful Fumbling Towards Ecstasy. It is stripped down, mainly acoustic, and performed by fewer musicians with virtually no studio gimmickry. Most of the songs may be the same on each disc, but you'd never know it. Fumbling was good, but Sessions is incredible. The tracks on Freedom Sessions were never intended to be released, but I think Sarah and the others knew that something got lost on Fumbling that was captured and preserved in the raw outtakes of Sessions. How many other potential albums are out there just like this?

The sound on Freedom Sessions is phenomenal. Some may balk at the mis-miking, the errors, and whatever else shows through, but it is raw, live, utterly transparent and closer to the real performance than any other recording I have heard. There are few discs available that that have this kind of "You Are There" feel. Can Sarah ever follow it up? I sure hope so.... Freedom Sessions is my Humans for the nineties.

Greg Smith (gsmith@westnet.com)

The Alan Parsons Project - I, Robot: It was 1984, and I was really upset. For the previous few years, I had been listening constantly to a prerecorded cassette of I, Robot swiped from my father. Well, nobody ever said cassettes like that lasted, and that copy bit the dust. Happily, I now had access to an early CD player, so I replaced that fragile tape with a trusty new CD that plays perfectly to this day. When I first listened to it, I was amazed. The title track that opens the album has layers upon layers of sound mixed in, from synthesizer notes to a wailing chorus. At that point I had listening to this recording hundreds of times, yet putting the CD in was a revelation. There were so many pieces I'd never heard before, lost in the poor cassette recording. That day would kick off a quest to find what else I was missing out on due to fidelity constraints that continue to haunt me and my wallet to this day. Yup, that's right, my whole audio obsession dates back to a playing of this album.

And what is here to provide such motivation? It's hard for me to pick parts out at this point, it's so tightly interwoven with my life. I, Robot is an album you can get lost inside of in so many ways. There are four instrumental tracks with complicated melodies that can pull you outside of this mundane world to visit somewhere just a bit different from your normal existence, a place where technology wanders on to somewhere it shouldn't necessarily have gone. As the song lyrics put it, you head to "some other place, somewhere, some other time." The liner notes describe the story as "the rise of the machine and the decline of man, which paradoxically coincided with his discovery of the wheel..." Pretty deep for a rock album, huh? The songs with words support a number of topics on this theme. Is the hit single from this album, "I wouldn't want to be like you," about a man looking at a robot or vice-versa? Who can say.

This album wouldn't be so worthy of note if it also wasn't filled with superb musicians. Of particular note is my personal favorite guitarist, Ian Bairnson, who hits some of the most chilling guitar notes I've ever heard here. And you get no less than seven lead vocalists, along with ten backup vocalists and the entire English Chorale and New Philharmonia Chorus. It's a wonder they can even fit all this on one CD, I tell you. About the only bad thing I can say about I, Robot is that the music sounds a bit dated in spots; there are certainly some obvious 1977 influences. Regardless, this is by far my favorite album, and even today I still hope there is a subtle detail or two left to discover inside of it.

Robbie Robertson - Robbie Robertson: It's good to be Robbie Robertson. See, when you're him, famous from being in The Band and other such work, you get all kinds of people stopping by to help out with your solo album. It's not even a couple of minutes into the first song when he's got Peter Gabriel singing along with him. He's got all of U2 as his backup band for two songs (you know you're good when Bono lets you sing lead and he follows along). And on the back end he's got the potent combination of Bob Clearmountain mixing and Bob Ludwig doing the mastering. Now that's all good company to be in when you're trying to put an album together; why, you'd have to be Warren Zevon to get more people then that helping you out. Not that Robbie really needs all that much help, anyway. No matter who else is playing along what really catches your attention are the mesmerizing vocals he has throughout. As far as I'm concerned, he's never done anything better than this (Band fans will no doubt argue that point, but I remain unconvinced). None of his other solo albums match the intensity that flows through every song.

And the recording is almost impeccable, with the exception of some of the stuff recorded at the U2 mobile unit which leaves a bit to be desired. All the instruments, from the monster drum that rattles everything I own at the beginning to the great guitar sound that has always been Robbie's trademark, are captured and woven together incredibly well. This is one of those things that is not only enjoyable to listen to, but serves as an excellent test of the equipment you're playing it back on. Mobile Fidelity makes a special, top notch mastered version of this available on gold CD for about twice what the regular release costs; their version succeeds in sucking that last little bit of quality out of the master tapes, but the regular release is certainly in no great need of improvement (until I heard it myself I was somewhat doubtful that it could get any better).

Toy Matinee - Toy Matinee: When visitors stare at my CD collection and ask me to play something they haven't heard before, Toy Matinee is usually what I pull out. I've been describing the combination of Kevin Gilbert and Patrick Leonard to people for years as "the best band you've never heard of," and that still holds true today. It's the lyrics that keep me coming back; anyone who can write a perfect rock song like "Last Plane Out" (a minor radio hit for the band in some parts of the country) and slip words like "harbingers" into it without seeming pretentious is obviously talented. Every song is a story in itself. "Last Plane Out" seeks passage out of a modern-day Sodom near collapse that sounds suspiciously familiar. There's a whole collection of tragic women doing everything from endless one-night stands ("Queen of misery") to deserting the song writer for a shady Elvis impersonator ("Ballad of Jenny Ledge," supposedly based a real Gilbert experience). You got your happy families ("We always come home"), and your twisted, broken, molested families ("There was a little boy"). Even a tribute to Salvador Dali ("Turn it on Salvador"). What more could you ask for, right? Gilbert's vocals are among my favorite of any performer, and he plays a mean. The rest of the band is superb, including my favorite non-singing bass player, Guy Pratt. The whole lot is put together with fantastic production work by Bill Bottrell. The sound quality is reference level for rock music, both for clarity and wimpy-equipment-busting power; this is one of the select few discs I invariably take with me when I want to make someone's system scream for mercy.

There's something seriously wrong with the way music is distributed nowadays that an album this good has sat in obscurity. I've picked up tons of copies in cutout bins, even in a dollar store. I give them away to people on the sole provision that if they don't love it they'll give it back to me, and I haven't seen a return yet. But even if you have to pay full price, you won't be disappointed.

Jim Saxon (jimsax@soundstage.com)

Various Artists - Earwitness Transcriptions: During a recent visit to Madrigal Audio Laboratories, I was exposed to a disc called "Dead Penis." Only after the phrase was repeated several times did I realize that Jon Herron of Madrigal was referring to "dead pianists." This term is Madrigalese irreverence for a collection of piano music recorded earlier in the twentieth century by some of the greatest piano players of time, who are now all, unfortunately, dead. These masters had the foresight to record on the most accurate medium of their day, the transcription piano. The resulting "piano rolls" have been vault-guarded until a properly restored analogue of the original recording pianos could be found. Fortunately, for the world of music reproduction, the folks at Madrigal found just such a piano, had it tuned to perfection, and then recorded the most entertaining and educational release of pianism this humble scribe has ever heard, Earwitness Transcriptions (produced and distributed by Madrigal Audio Laboratories, Inc., P.O. Box 781, Middletown, Ct. 06457; Internet address: www.madrigal.com).

Granted, I am no expert on music, piano or otherwise, but even a dolt such as I can appreciate the difference in piano technique between Josef Hofmann and Vladimir Horowitz, both of whom are featured on the double-disc release, along with Paderewski, Rubenstein, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Grieg, Busoni and other greats of the era. The performances are scintillating, the sound quality is impeccable, and the accompanying booklet which provides biographical data and explains the differences in piano playing, then and now, is a short-course in music appreciation.

The only caveat is that playback level must be set to equal that of a live performance in your room. If volume is set too low, psychoacoustic effects result in lack of bass tonality, and the sound is a bit too tinkly. At the right level, however (which is almost loud), the piano sounds as if it is in the room. On a decently dynamic hi-fi system, every cut on the disc has moments that startle. Such piano-playing virtuosity may still exist, but in the corporate world of processed perfection, today's recorded performances sound stifled in comparison. Madrigal merits huge thanks from audiophiles and music lovers everywhere for giving us an opportunity to hear the kind of uninhibited playing that made "rock stars" of pianists at the turn of the century.

A side benefit of this disc: If you ever find yourself in a bar arguing about who was greater, Hofmann or Paderewski, this disc will enable you to compare the two "side by side." Of course, I'd rather avoid that kind of a bar, if possible. At $30 retail for two discs, Earwitness Transcriptions is a bargain worth seeking out. Think of the money you can earn, settling bets.

Various Artists - Trance Planet: To me, the term "world music" has signified a handful of discs purchased with noble intentions, listened to once and then banished to the plastic carousel of broken dreams. Included in the "sin bin" are such classics as West Indian steel drum calypso, Bolivian flute and bird sounds, Soweto so-so acapella and several one-off recordings by Brazilian back-up musicians. As a result of such wayward investing, I had practically stopped buying World Music.

That is, until a twist of fate led me to a company called Triloka Records (www.triloka.com), whose three-disc Trance Planet collection offers authentic, well-recorded and soul-satisfying music from around the globe. The irony in finding the collection is that I thought I was buying New Age recordings at the time. As any novice to New Age knows, the field is treacherous--millions can be lost in the process of winnowing the wheat from the chaff.

When selecting Trance Planet, I had intended on something to calm me down, since hammer hits to the head were no longer working. I soon learned the opposite was true. The volumes' diverse rhythms and unusual vocal tonalities energized me. When working as now, I would repeat the discs over and over, sort of like a test rat pushing the cocaine lever until he explodes. Come to think of it, maybe the "trance" bit is real. If so, the Triloka collection reaches parts of the psyche that most New Age misses.

Examples of exotica found on Trance Planet include an Armenian oboist (don't laugh), a German who sings in Persian, an Algerian who raps in French, Native American and Israeli percussionists with distinct grooves, a Malinese diva, a Mozambique band whose music can be heard on a Microsoft commercial, and a male soprano from Russia whose spooky rendition of "Ave Maria" will make baritones cringe in fear. That's just a partial listing of the cuts on Volume Three (69712-4110-2), which is a good place to start one's investigation of the Triloka catalog. In fact, before sampling more World Music, delve into any volume of Trance Planet first. The prime selections contained therein might lead you to purchase the source albums, or at least help you to avoid more of the dead record syndrome.

Vivaldi - Six Concertos for Diverse Instruments, Philharmonia Baroque, Nicholas McGegan, Conductor. Reference Recordings. From the man with no musical brain comes another no-brainer that should be on everyone's very short list of classical music this year. Consider these reasons for plunking down sixteen bucks and tax: (1) Can't go wrong with Vivaldi; (2) World-renowned orchestra (according to RR) and a famous conductor with hits on Harmonia Mundi to his credit (I knew that); (3) 88.2 kHz, 24-Bit HDCD Masters are used in a valiant effort to make digital sound good. Let's not gloss over point (3). If your CD player has the HDCD filter, the sound of this disc beggars description but I'm paid to try, anyway. Width, depth, placement and size of instruments within the SoundStage! is more reminiscent of actual instruments in a real hall than almost anything on compact disc. Harmonic definition is as rich as digits can make it. I could go on but if you pick your own hyperboles and apply them, you'll have a decent review. As DAS might say, this disc is goooooood.

Buy a bunch and give them to friends. They will call you up to gush. Wouldn't you like that? I would, but The Workin' Man, Dave Duvall, probably wouldn't. If he sends you the disc, leave him alone.

John Stafford (stafford@soundstage.com)

I find it difficult to name my favorite recordings because there are so many that I like at different times and with different moods. Take, for instance, retro 80's music. Is it good? Not really, but I enjoy it quite a bit because it takes me back to my University days when fun was fun and beer didn't sit around in the fridge all night. That hardly qualifies it as something worth preaching to the un-converted, though. What turns my crank is something that is good from start to finish, has the ability to hold your attention all the way through and can stand the test of time. Being well recorded is also a necessity.

Many people complain that there are often obscure things on these types of lists, but I like it when someone recommends something that I have never heard of. If the description appeals to me, I'll quite often look for it and give it a try. I don't always like it, but more often than not, it's how it find some of my favorite music.

Teenage Head - Frantic City: This is a surprisingly well recorded album from the Toronto punk scene in the late 70's. To be precise, the band is really from Hamilton, about 50 miles west of Toronto, as were many of the Toronto punk bands. I was never a hard core punker, but I like the more commercial stuff like The Clash, The Ramones, and some Sex Pistols (although Johnny Rotten's syndicated radio show "Rotten Day" is totally pathetic). Teenage Head is of that ilk and was local (for me) to boot. In fact, one of the songs on Frantic City--"Brand New Cadillac"--was covered by The Clash. This is a high energy album with two big surprises: the band can play their instruments, and the lead singer, Franky Venom, can actually sing! I hesitate to put this on a list for the Internet because it may be difficult to find outside of Canada, but it's worth it if you can find it.

Keb' Mo' - Keb' Mo': I first found out about this disc on the Internet on the Hi-Fi Pages' Favorite Recordings' list. It is a "country blues" disc which is very well recorded, probably because there is very little need to overdub and equalize "a guy and his guitar." Most of the songs on the album are original, but there is a terrific cover of Robert Johnson's "Come Into My Kitchen" which is also one of the few songs with a full band. Keb' has a very tuneful voice which is somewhat rasping, but perhaps smoky is a better description. I have played this disc for friend after friend who has come over and it has never failed to satisfy.

Miles Davis - Kind Of Blue: Audiophiles saying that Kind Of Blue is one of their favorites is kind of like kids saying that Michael Jordon is their favorite basketball player. It's so popular, it's almost annoying. Almost. The first time I heard Kind Of Blue I was astounded by the simplicity and the depth of the music. I had been dabbling in jazz and new age for a while with the likes of David Sanborn and Gerry Goodman and thought I was into some killer music. I then borrowed some records from a friend which included Kind Of Blue. The music, performance and sonics blew me away... and then I found out when it was recorded! To me, it's the embodiment of jazz and I don't care how trite people may think I sound when I say that this album is the greatest jazz recording ever.

John Upton (jmu@soundstage.com)

The Sex Pistols - Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols: The Sex Pistols may not have invented the punk rock sound or the punk rock "message," but they combined these elements in a way, at a time, and on an album that has made the band one of rock and roll's immortal groups. The eleven songs featured on Never Mind the Bollocks… (many of which were previously released as singles) sent shock waves throughout the record industry, changing the face of rock and roll forever. Bristling with uncontrolled outrage, buzzsaw guitars, and a truly unforgettable voice, the Sex Pistols sound threatened, challenged, and outraged like few, if any, bands had done before. Coarse? Certainly. Offensive? Sure. Unpolished? Proudly. The greatest rock and roll album of all time? Without a doubt.

The Clash - London Calling: Recorded at the peak of their collective creative ability, London Calling, The Clash's best offering, is a testament to the pioneering musical spirit of the punk rock revolution. This genre-bending collection of songs, including the hard driving "London Calling," the jagged, neo-reggae "Guns of Brixton," and the rockabilly-infused "Brand New Cadillac," shows The Clash unafraid to step away from their white noise roots and into unexplored musical territory. Produced with an audiophile-quality sound which the band used to great advantage, London Calling is that rarest of beasts- a well-recorded album filled with excellent music.

The (English) Beat - I Just Can't Stop It: Orange County, California was a hotbed of Ska and Ska-influenced music long before No Doubt's breakthrough album. I was deeply immersed in the whole mod/ska movement when it made its way here from England back in the early '80's, and while I could have selected from any number of excellent two-tone records from that era to fill my final pick, the debut album from The (English) Beat gets the nod. I've listened to I Just Can't Stop It countless times over the past 15 or so years and never seem to tire of its propulsive rhythms, reggae-tinged guitars, and rather inventive songwriting. Now if I could only find an original U.K. pressing....

Marc Mickelson (marc@soundstage.com)

Robin Holcomb - Robin Holcomb: To call a musician a poet is to heap on thick praise, although in essentially every case I've come across it's an unfounded conclusion. Poetry is about words having music as they project their meaning, distinct music. With this in mind, I would argue that Robin Holcomb is a poet--so finely wrought are her lyrics that they could stand alone on the page. Coupled with the spare and haunting melodies on Robin Holcomb, the words resonate--a fine poetic word--with deeper, greater beauty. A supreme late-night, lights-outs, beer-by-your-side (or scotch) thrill.

Rollins Band - Weight: Many people find deep meaning in Henry Rollins' plaintive and often angry lyrics. I find them, and the consummate playing that pushes them along, to be guilty pleasures. At best, Rollins is more therapist than philosopher--which may be more important anyway--but the daring honesty of his songs makes him special. And songs like the existence-affirming "Shine" and the darkly funny "Liar" (at least I think it's funny) prove that he's onto something. This disc begs to be played loud. Give in.

Freedy Johnston - Can You Fly?: It is Freedy Johnston's last two albums, This Perfect World and Never Home, that have brought him critical success and a wider audience, yet it is the CD that directly precedes these, Can You Fly?, that shows him at his most melodic and lyrically charged. The songs on Can You Fly? run the gamut--from down-home country rockers, to introspective folk, to near surf music--but all are amazingly memorable. I bought my copy of Can You Fly? at a used-CD store, some poorer soul leaving it behind for three or four bucks. Since then, I've been tempted to commit a high act of audio altruism by purchasing a new copy of Can You Fly? and then selling the used copy back to the store where I bought it. In my mind, I'd accomplish two things: support great music with my dollars and give someone else the opportunity to find a cheap treasure.

Mike Masztal (mikem@soundstage.com)

When I was asked to pick my three favorite albums, I figured it would be a simple task. After all, as one who enjoys rock, jazz, classical, and world music, coming up with three picks would be a piece of cake. WRONG! I have many fave albums in all genres of music, so things weren't going to be so easy. As a 42 year old (hanging on to 25), I decided to pick albums based on the amount of time they spend on my play list. All three just happen to be guitar albums.

Eric Johnson - Ah Via Musicom: The excellent second album of the multi-talented, ex-Christopher Cross band guitarist. Here Johnson expands on the content of his first solo release, Tones. Familiar tunes of this disc are "Cliffs of Dover" and 'Trademark." His mastery of the guitar is evident with the breadth of style he plays. Wes Montgomery jazz on "East Wes," country pickin' on "Steve's Boogie," Texas rock on "Trademark" and good old rock 'n roll on the rest. As one of the "true talents" of the guitar, it's too bad he only seems to be able to put out a disc once every five years or so.

Al DiMeola - Kiss My Axe: This was a no-brainer. Al's my all-time favorite. I've been a major fan since I first heard him with Return to Forever back in '74. As a solo artist, he continually raised the mark on fusion jazz. Many of his early releases are fusion classics, namely, Elegant Gypsy and Casino. Through the years, Al's experimented with other forms of jazz as well as some world music, but his forte lies in fusion. This '91 work is his last fusion work, but also his best. This disc surely belongs in any guitarist's or jazz fan's collection.

Ottmar Leibert - VIVA!: Read my review in July's SoundStage! Music of Merit. One of the best guitar albums I've heard...period. I can't think of anyone (with a modicum of taste) who wouldn't enjoy it. At a recent Atlanta demo of Wisdom Audio's $25,000. Adrenaline speaker system, I played this disc to see what these speakers could really do. The designer/president, Tom Bohlender, liked it so much, he ran across the street to a music store and bought a copy to use during the rest of the two day demo.

Todd Warnke (todd@soundstage.com)

Let's see, instead of the usual 10 albums for my Desert Island Discs, Doug, much like George Carlin, has ordered that I reduce my list of "stuff" even further. Three discs! Well, I could cheat and just mention artists with out picking exact albums. Or I could pick only box sets. Or…

Okay, number 1 is Miles Davis' Kind Of Blue. I know, how "standard repertoire" of me. No esoteric, unheard of, under-recorded, starving artist. Yet before we go too far down that lane, take another look at KOB. Each tune offers the tart to sweet spread of Coltrane to Cannonball. We also get the centered playing of Paul Chambers on bass and Bill Evans on piano, with a little Wynton Kelly for good measure. As for Jimmy Cobb on drums, just listen. And above, below, outside and inside it all is the measured trumpet of the Dark Prince himself. My will states that as I'm buried they are to play "So What." For me, that sums it up.

Number 2. Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run. Obvious you say? Sure, and for obvious reasons. It's a stunning album. Every theme that Bruce has played with is on this album. The desperate try for fading chance in "Jungleland," love as the only possible redemption in "She's the One," the pure drive to take life full on in the title track, and the resignation that the underdog is eventually forced to face in "Meeting Across the River." Operatic, driving, moody, sinuous, redemptive, contemplative and just plain rocking, the music, far from merely accompanying the lyrics, serves to frame each verse and highlight the inner detail. If it's been a while, get it out, get in the car (alone), head out your personal Highway of Dreams and crank it. Don't come back until you're 5 times wiser, 10 times more determined and 20 years younger.

Number 3. Okay, now I cheat. Since they were released on the same day, it is obvious to everyone that Joni Mitchell's Hits and Misses are really flip sides of the same album. Screw the HDCD encoding (even though it's good), sound is not what this is about, although the same could be said about the first two albums as well. No, this is about love and need. Love lost. Love found. The need to love, and the need for self. It's about sweet and sour love. Angry love. Erotic love and charitable love. It's about the obscene love and need for things, power and control as well as the quiet, desperate love, fear and need we all feel when most quiet, honest, naked and alone. This is real.

So there they are. What links them, other than my obviously demented mind? Well, each artist has evolved over a career. As they have changed, grown, learned, failed and blundered they have honestly recorded and revealed themselves. I can pick any work by any of these three people and be changed by the time the album has ended. In my book that makes them masterpieces.

...END

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