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  • Writer's pictureNeil Rajala

EC SHOWDOWN! Five 8th Albums

I opted for as little control as possible over this post. Random numbers, unforeseen circumstances, roll the dice or spin the wheel - and let the mystical, cosmic powers of the universe decide which records I'd be writing about.


I decided to do an album showdown, comparing the X number release of two or more artists. So which number? I rolled a pair of dice and came up with double fours, a hard eight to you craps players. Eighth album it is. How many records? Another roll of the dice, two and three - I'd be ranking five records. The next step was to make a list, without giving it too much thought, of any band or artist I could think of that released at least eight albums in their career. I came up with a list of 50, over several genres and time periods, in just a few minutes. Finally, I used the random number generator on my phone five times to choose the records I'd be comparing.


These are my five eighth albums being ranked, from bottom to top, according to the infinite wisdom of the random universe. No shortcuts, I'm wasn't relying on memory if I'd heard one a lot of times. They all got at least one fresh listen before I decided on a final order, and the five didn't end up quite the way I expected.


5: ROD STEWART, Foot Loose & Fancy Free (1977) - This one ended up the way I expected. It started at gut reaction #5 and stayed there, although a fresh listen gave me a slightly higher regard for it. The production and arrangements are, for the most part, compressed and flat, with none of the compelling textures of Rod's classics. The musicians are mostly studio pros-for-hire, a few of whom ended up in his slick touring band. Rod's in pretty fine voice throughout, but his performance feels wasted in such a mediocre environment.


"Hot Legs" isn't as bad as I remembered, it probably would've fit fine on the speedy side of Atlantic Crossing. "You're In My Heart" is worse than I remember. The ballad that triggered a gag reflex in his hardcore fans back in the day, still does. “I Was Only Joking” is the better ballad, but was a smaller hit. “You’re Insane” and “Born Loose” are two of Rod’s most useless rockers, and that’s saying something, considering what was to follow. The weird, Vanilla Fudge/Jeff Beck Group vibe of  “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” is probably the most interesting thing about Foot Loose & Fancy Free, but it’s a creative outlier. I used to think of this album on a par with Blondes Have More Fun, but a fresh listen convinced me that one's actually much worse.


EARWORM: "I Was Only Joking" - Parts of the record struck me as not as terrible as I remembered. This song was the only one that struck me as much better than I remembered.


4: EMMYLOU HARRIS, Roses In the Snow (1980) - A lovely record. Emmylou surrounded herself with stellar bluegrass musicians and brought in distinctive singers like Johnny, Willie, Dolly, and Linda to sing with her. The arrangements are smart and tasteful, the melodies bright and polished.  Maybe too much so?

 

Roses in the Snow sounds like some bet-hedging to me. The arrangements are soft, all pastel colors. The boom and bite of great bluegrass is smoothed out and cleaned up to sound more like radio friendly pop/country. It strikes me as indecisive and, to my ears, never quite finds the right balance between commercial and creative.

 

Of course, Emmylou sings like an angel from the first to last note. The songlist is heavy on traditional folk music and classic old country - always great to hear. I've listened to Roses in the Snow more times than I can count, but it's rarely my first choice when I want to hear her. She's capable of bolder peaks and more fun.


EARWORM: "The Boxer" - One of her finest cover songs, in a career full of exceptional cover songs.


3: TOM PETTY & THE HEARTBREAKERS, Into the Great Wide Open (1991) - If I’m honest, Tom and his band are my favorite artists on this list. So why only number three? Because Into the Great Wide Open isn’t very close to the top of my favorite TP&TH albums.

 

Tom was coming off the enormous sugar-high of Full Moon Fever and the two Traveling Wilburys records, all produced or co-produced by ELO’s Jeff Lynne. What more logical move than drafting Mr. Lynne to produce the next Heartbreakers album? There were visions of mid-tempo rockers and dollar signs, no doubt.

 

Into the Great Wide Open starts off gangbusters – “Learning to Fly,” “King’s Highway,” the title song, and I’d throw “Two Gunslingers” in there. From there, the rest of the album has never really stuck. I’ve heard the album many times, but when I look at the song lineup, after those four songs I can’t call most of the rest to mind. There’s a glossy, medium tempo, rocking flow to the whole thing, Lynne’s signature sound. It all makes for a pleasant, sometimes stirring, listen, but the lyrical barbs and pricklier arrangements that make Tom’s deep cuts stand out just aren’t there for me.  


EARWORM: "Kings Highway" - Any of those first three, really, but you know the other two by heart.


2: FLEETWOOD MAC, Mystery To Me (1973) - Interpersonally speaking, Fleetwood Mac has often been a dumpster fire. The 1973 version who made this exceptional record featured the core trio of Christine, Mick, and John, a guitarist from California not named Lindsey Buckingham, and a second guitarist who got booted from the band during the tour for sleeping with Mick Fleetwood’s wife. A precursor to the cocaine-fueled emotional backstabbing of Rumours.

 

Mystery to Me is right in my Fleetwood Mac wheelhouse. I prefer nearly everything with Danny Kirwan and/or Bob Welch to the Buckingham/Nicks era (Rumours excepted). Danny was gone for this one, but Bob and Christine stepped up as inspired songwriters and singers. Welch’s California pop/rock sensibilities were replacing previous lineups’ blues and psychedelia, but this is no Fleetwood Mac or Rumours - Mystery to Me isn’t nearly as tightly wound as those two. The rocking is looser and more organic, the music wanders and experiments a bit more, but every time you think they might be getting bogged down, an outstanding hook, guitar line, rhythm track, or vocal jumps out and grabs you. Welch’s sublime “Hypnotized” even got some traction on the US singles chart, long before anybody had heard of Lindsey and Stevie (if you're thinking you don’t remember it, I bet you do). The songs, as a whole, are as beautifully crafted as the ones on the Danny/Bob/Christine Bare Trees (another big favorite Mac) but even more fun to listen to. Christine rarely rocked as hard again as she does on "Believe Me," and a pretty great cover of the Yardbirds' "For Your Love" is the cherry on top.


EARWORM: "Hypnotized" - See? You remember.


1: ALICE COOPER, Welcome to My Nightmare (1975) - I debated whether or not to include this one. Technically, Welcome to My Nightmare is Vince Furnier’s first solo album under the name Alice Cooper, after seven albums where Alice Cooper referred to the band he fronted. I eventually decided not to split that hair - all of the albums in his entire career have been credited to Alice Cooper, and nobody ever referred to him by his given name. So I’m calling it a lineup change and moving on.

 

WTMN is Alice at his most theatrical, most cartoonish, most devilishly larger-than-life. It’s a concept album about the nightmares and anxieties of a young man named Steven. It's an ideal storyline to tie together an over-the-top accompanying primetime TV special featuring Vincent Price, reprising his terrific monologue from the album - and lotsa dancers in outrageous costumes. The album could have caused fans to yell “sellout!” It could be seen today as a turn toward goofball commercialism by a guy you knew had it in him (that came later). Welcome was saved from all of that scorn and second-guessing by its eleven top-shelf Alice Cooper songs.

 

Alice (we can call him that now) had been working with producer Bob Ezrin for most of his career by 1975. Ezrin was the architect of the memorably off-kilter, haunted house sound of the classic band’s records. He knew how to do catchy and creepy at the same time. He does it again here, but wider screen on both counts. Replacing the biting grittiness of the AC band with the bombast and drama of Lou Reed’s Rock ‘n Roll Animal touring band was a genius pairing of musicians and songs.


And the hooks. Did I mention the irresistible hooks? The title song, “Department of Youth,” “Cold Ethyl,” “Devil’s Food,” even the oddball ode to menstruation “Only Women Bleed” all pack an impressive earworm. The Alice Cooper Band was always a killer (pun intended) singles band - 1974’s Alice Cooper’s Greatest Hits is as pleasure packed as any CCR compilation. The songs on WTMY stand alongside the best of the classic stuff. Alice’s spiraling addictions would take his career into some dark places following the success of Welcome to My Nightmare, it would be his last unqualified commercial success, but there’s no denying this is a sparkling, surprising career peak.


EARWORM: "Department of Youth" - Woulda fit on Billion Dollar Babies, or at least Muscle of Love. High praise in my book.


These five were more straightforward classics than they could've been had the random numbers landed differently. No jazz, no real country, no R&B or soul, and nothing more recent than 1991. I can see a followup, with the eighth records handpicked to create more intentional diversity, and possibly more challenging comparisons. Brian Eno vs. Dwight Yoakam, maybe?







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