Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Lost Art of ... Great Album Sides


I was recently in Newbury Comics' Harvard Square location and I was stunned to see that half the music bins are now devoted to … vinyl LPs! And not vintage, used LPs from the '60s and '70s, but new vinyl records. I still have a turntable, and I kept all my favorite LPs from childhood and college, but I haven't bought a record since the '80s. But with the new vinyl renaissance comes the return of a lost art form: the great album side.
            CDs can cram 75 minutes of music into an uninterrupted flow, and iPods and computers can play on indefinitely. But LPs top out at about 25 minutes per side, so a ten song album has 2 track ones, 2 closing numbers, in effect 2 entirely different programs of music. Sometimes Side 1 is great but Side 2 sucks, sometimes vice versa (and only rarely are both sides of any album truly great). Here are a dozen of my picks for classic album sides. Feel free to argue and add your own!

 The Doors, The Doors (side 1)
1. Break On Through (to the Other Side)
2. Soul Kitchen
3. The Crystal Ship
4. Twentieth Century Fox
5. Alabama Song
6. Light My Fire
The Doors are mostly remembered for Jim Morrison's visionary, shamanistic excesses, but they wouldn't have meant shit if it weren't for the tight, hooky band behind him. It was guitarist Robby Krieger who wrote their break-through single, and keyboardist Ray Manzarek who supplied the musical hooks. Side 1 of The Doors is five killer originals, and a cover of a Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill art song from the 1920s that somehow fits right in. And, oh yeah, for a debut album by an unknown band fresh out of film school, Morrison sounds astoundingly confident.

Steve Forbert, Alive on Arrival (side 1)
1. Goin' Down to Laurel
2. Steve Forbert's Midsummer Night's Toast
3. Thinkin'
4. What Kinda Guy?
 5. It Isn't Gonna Be That Way

When this album arrived in 1978, disco sucked and rock pretty much sucked too, with the dinosaur bands of the '60s and early '70s running out of steam and the punk and nu wave bands just learning how to make music instead of noise. Enter Steve Forbert, an earnest Mississippi kid with a beat-up Martin acoustic and a self-effacing grin. Side 1 is the "Mississippi" side, which, happy or sad, sounds as organic and honest as sweat on a summer's day. Flip the record over, however, and the mood is immediately destroyed by the blaring New York saxophone on "Big City Cat."

Van Morrison, Moondance (side 1)
1. And It Stoned Me
2. Moondance
3. Crazy Love
4. Caravan
5. Into the Mystic

 I warned my first college girlfriend that if I ever showed up with Moondance under my arm she'd know I meant business. I did, and I did, and we did. I'm sure we weren't the first, or the last. Four of Van's best songs, in a row, perfectly sung and played and produced. Make-out music with a hint of spiritual yearning. So glad it wasn't Saturday Night Fever!

 Rolling Stones, Exile on Main Street (side 4)
1. All Down the Line
2. Stop Breaking Down
3. Shine a Light
4. Soul Survivor


Pretty much everything the Stones do better than any other band on one concise LP side. "All Down the Line" is a classic uptempo rocker with great Mick Taylor slide guitar and killer r&b horn lines. "Stop Breaking Down" is the blues they grew up on, fed back through the prism of a decade's worth of decadence. "Shine a Light" is a back alley gospel hymn with great morning-after lyrics and church organ courtesy of Billy Preston. "Soul Survivor" is pure Jagger growl and Richards rhythm. Nobody does it better.

 George Harrison and Friends, The Concert for Bangladesh (side 5)
1. A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall
2. It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry
3. Blowin' in the Wind
4. Mr. Tambourine Man
5. Just Like a Woman

The Dylan side. I'd never owned a Dylan record when I got this album in 9th grade, and it still holds up as a perfect snapshot of Mr. Zimmerman at his best. He had nothing to prove and everything to prove on this evening in 1971 - post motorcycle accident and "retirement," nobody had seen him in years. He'd outgrown his smartass beat persona of the mid-'60s, and his voice is rich, warm and mature but with none of the road damage soon to follow. With simple backing from 2 Beatles (George and Ringo) and Leon Russell on bass.

Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin II (side 2)
1. Heartbreaker
2. Living Loving Maid
3. Ramble On
4. Moby Dick
5. Bring It On Home
As heavy as heavy metal, as bluesy as the blues, but with pop/rock hooks and folk/Celtic underpinnings, Led Zeppelin II cut like a laser, and was a sonic quantum leap beyond any blues rock that had existed up to that point. "Heartbreaker" is pure testosterone, with an actual guitar solo - everybody else shuts the fuck up and listens to Jimmy play. "Maid" is as hooky as anything on AM radio. "Ramble On" has tender folky verses that hint at the Stairway yet to come, and "Moby Dick" and "Bring It On Home" are classic riff rock. Zeppelin moved forward, in many directions, after this, but they never rocked harder.

The Who, Live at Leeds (side 1)
1. Young Man Blues
2. Substitute
3. Summertime Blues
4. Shakin' All Over

Note this is the original vinyl LP side - the CD has extra tracks, which is a nice thought, but they are interspersed rather than at the end, so the CD listening experience is diluted significantly. But the original four song vinyl LP side shows why the Who in their prime were a killer live band -tight as hell, and full of punk/teen spirit years before the Sex Pistols or Nirvana - neither of whom could have covered Mose Allison's "Young Man Blues" the way these guys do. Forget Who Are You - this is The Who.

Elton John, Madman Across the Water (side 1)
1. Tiny Dancer
2. Levon
3. Razor Face
4. Madman Across the Water
 AM radio in the '60s was a haven for 2 minute, 30 second hook-driven hits. But by the early '70s, some longer, more complex records were getting through. Both "Tiny Dancer" and "Levon" were major hit singles featuring rich, beautifully recorded piano and lush orchestrations, and "Dancer" doesn't even hit the chorus until 2 minutes into the song. Add the title track's impressionistic strings and guitar harmonics, not to mention Elton's best singing, and you get one of the most impressive sides of progressive piano pop ever recorded.

Joni Mitchell, Blue (side 2)
1. California
2. This Flight Tonight
3. River
4. A Case of You
5. The Last Time I Saw Richard

Any album side that features "River" followed by "A Case of You" followed by "The Last Time I Saw Richard" wins, hands down, any confessional-singer-songwriter-poet competition you can dream up. Joni's singing here is boundless, the playing sparse and impressionistic, and the writing is perfect. Any guy who's having problems with his girlfriend should listen to this album a hundred times in a row.

Humble Pie, Town and Country (side 2)
1. Every Mother's Son
2. Heartbeat
3. Only You Can See
4. Silver Tongue
5. Home and Away
I'm not a huge fan of either Steve Marriot's Small Faces work, or his late-Humble Pie blues shouter incarnation, and I'm also not a slavish devotee of Peter Frampton's '70s solo albums. BUT, for the short time they joined forces in Humble Pie, they made some stellar music together and seemed to both bring out the out the best in each other and cancel out each other's faults. Town and Country is largely acoustic-guitar based, but features some great Frampton guitar work, and some of Steve's best singing (and vice versa). The song are melodic but still have an edge, and their cover of Buddy Holly's "Heartbeat" is a #1 single that never was. (Note the 1st 2 Humble Pie LPs were released together in the States as the 2-LP set Lost and Found. Get it.)

David Bowie, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (side 2)
1. Lady Stardust
2. Star
3. Hang on to Yourself
4. Ziggy Stardust
5. Suffragette City
6. Rock and Roll Suicide
 This album, in both defining glam and transcending it, lifted Bowie right past 'rock star' to 'object of worship.' Side 2's song cycle, about a Hendrix-esque guitar hero too divine to live, showcases Bowie's ability to create a character and a world and all the emotions therein - the definition of theater. He's also unbound by pop music's usual rules - try tracking the chords and structure of 'Rock and Roll Suicide' once it really gets going. It might be 'wrong' rule-wise, but it's absolutely right.

The Beatles, Abbey Road (side 2)
1. Here Comes the Sun
2. Because
3. You Never Give Me Your Money
4. Sun King
5. Mean Mr. Mustard
6. Polythene Pam
7. She Came in Through the Bathroom Window
8. Golden Slumbers
9. Carry That Weight
10. The End
11. Her Majesty

Okay, this album side was conceived of as an album side - individually the songs aren't that strong (with the exception of "Here Comes the Sun," which remains perfectly charming some forty years later), but it's the flow between the songs that makes this a work of art, and the climaxes (the reprise of "You Never Give Me Your Money" in "Carry That Weight," the drum solo and guitar jam leading to "The End") are as effective as anything recorded in the rock era.

            OK, that's my dozen. Long live the album side!