Category: Rating The Albums

Hello Earth: A Discographic Journey Into Kate Bush

photo by gered mankowitz

Has Kate Bush ever made a bad album? Is she an acquired taste? Should she be looked upon with the same reverence as The Beatles? If someone you love doesn’t like her, can their opinion be trusted? Is she underrated? Overrated? Join historian Matthew Restall and I (Hope) as we dig madly, deeply, and excessively into the discography and ponder all its treasures ‘n’ trolls. It’s in the trees, it’s coming!

MATTHEW: As you, Hope, recently referred to Kate Bush on PuR as your lord and savior, it seemed appropriate for us to praise her—and appraise her remarkable catalog of albums—in this the year she turns 64 (this very month). This also gives us a chance to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of her seminal album The Dreaming (but is it one of her best?!), and to protest her third unsuccessful nomination to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (2018, 2021, 2022) (but really who gives a monkey’s? Not Kate, surely!).

We were also half way through the conversation below when Kate had an explosive, unexpected moment. As I write, “Running Up That Hill” is #1 in the UK and seven other countries, in the US Top Five, and the biggest worldwide hit of her career. I have no problem with a BBC DJ referring to the song as “from the Stranger Things” soundtrack, with no mention of it being 37 years old or of its masterful parent album, Hounds of Love; on the contrary, I like the way that grants Kate a kind of timelessness. But for us, and perhaps for you too, dear reader, context matters much—both the historical context of the 45-year Bush career, and our own personal context as fans. What follows below, then, is some of that context.

HOPE: Back in 2003, Tricky, a pretty inventive artist in his own right, offered some words about Kate to MOJO magazine that I have never forgotten and continue to adore;
“Some of the greatest singers in the world…you can spot their influences. But Kate Bush has no mother or father. I’d be an average musician, like everyone else, if it wasn’t for her. I don’t believe in God, but if I did, her music would be my bible. Her music sounds religious to me. She should be treasured more than The Beatles”.

I especially love the last line. It’s not a hot take, it’s a proud and heartfelt plea. And I get it. Kate Bush is a singular, once-in-a-generation artist, the rarest of rare birds, completely out there, in possession of an almost incomprehensible talent yet utterly relatable, a mouthpiece, sage and pal to the glorious population of weirdos that love her ( including maybe you reading this, definitely us writing this, and for sure Big Boi from OutKast).

Kate’s ongoing Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame rejection is bullshit. But to be honest, I regard the RRHOF the same way I do The Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! and Guinness Book museums. Induction seems now to be determined by whoever yells the loudest. And fact is, Kate Bush is not one of those people who needs this type of official validation to cement her legacy. She’s inspired generations of damn fine artists (including Tori Amos, Joanna Newsom and Florence Welch), given millions of people the strength to get through their darkest hours and made transcendently wonderful songs that sound like literally no one else’s. So you know, f*ck the RRHOF. What she does is just between you and her anyway, a museum display isn’t gonna change anything. Wow, we’ve barely started and already I’m ranting like a nut. Okay, just keep breathing, out, in, out in.

Wow, wow, wow, wow, wow, wow, un-freaking-believable.

We Both Matter Don’t We?: As you mentioned, Matthew, about a month or so after we started writing this something strange happened…or rather something Stranger Things happened. Kate’s 1985 classic “Running Up That Hill” was used to soundtrack a climactic scene in the Season 4 premiere episode. And over the day that followed, the song completely blew up, subsequently ascending to the top of the Apple Music chart, and then national charts around the world, garnering millions plays on Spotify and YouTube, inspiring masses of TikTok videos and triggering the publication of trillions of listicles ranking Kate songs.

Unsurprisingly, some of the existing Kate fanbase weren’t happy about her newfound popularity. The main sticking point, as it traditionally is in these scenarios, was that she “belonged” to the original fans who’d been there from the start, who experienced her career in real time, whose discovery of her was more organic and, arguably, more authentic. These proprietary feelings led to a bit of finger-wagging and gatekeeping on social media, the core message of which was “if you weren’t there at the beginning or before Stranger Things, you don’t belong here, you’ll never really get it and f*ck off”.

When it comes to music, it doesn’t matter where, when or how you came in. Songs, albums and bands find you when they sense you are ready to welcome them. It’s not science, it’s just some fortuitous, otherworldly force that hits the switch and says “now”. And sometimes it happens in silly ways to a lot of people at once, like through a film or freakin’ tv show or a TikTok video. But as stupid and obvious as it sounds, music is meant to be heard.

And so if you’re an old fan, stand proud, you got to experience Kate in a way that most of the new acolytes never will. How lucky you were! You will always have that! But the fact that a whole new generation is now discovering her is a really brilliant thing. Hell, I myself didn’t discover her until 1983, which is ridiculously late by hardcore fan standards! I guess what I’m saying is Kate was an anchor and inspiration for so many of us sensitive, shy, weirdo kids back in the day, let her be that for those same kinds of kids now. It’ll only make the world a better place. P.S. For some reason, I’m already pissed about the fact that her newfound popularity as a result of the “Running” explosion is probably going to catapult her into the Hall Of Fame next year, because it shouldn’t have taken something like that to tip the scales (dammit). No really, I’m fine.

Be Kind To My Mistakes: Just a note on the format of this essay: Matthew and I are going to be taking turns offering up our Kate assessments and our names will appear before our respective comments. We are going to rate each album individually (on a classic 1-10, hate-to-love scale), and will feature complete ranking lists at the end of the essay.

The Albums

MATTHEW: Although she gave us two albums her first year (1978), and then two in a single year decades later (2011), Kate Bush has only released a total of nine original studio albums in 44 years (as of 2022). She works at her own pace, and that pace is unpredictable—which is all part of the fun and fascination of Kate fandom. In our chronological discussion below, we’ve also included her only compilation or hits album, an album of studio re-recordings, and her sole live album—making a grand total of 12 ranked albums, discussed by us in chronological order.

The Kick Inside (1978)

MATTHEW: (UK #3, Top Ten in seven nations, did not chart in the US): Kate Bush is a hypnotist. The combination of her strangely theatrical singing, melodic piano playing, imaginative storytelling, and evocative channeling of emotion is utterly mesmerizing. I was captivated at the age of 14, as “Wuthering Heights” took the UK by storm and instantly made Kate a star—and rightly so. And I was amazed by the collection of weirdly perfect pop songs that is The Kick Inside. Who was this extraordinary teenager, young and old, ordinary and odd, relatable and otherworldly all at the same time? I’m still stunned by this album, especially the way the first side (the first 6 of the 13 songs) builds from “Moving” to “Wuthering,” with “The Man With the Child in His Eyes” never failing to move me. It packs an emotional punch that makes it hard to describe in any kind of evaluative, objective way. Perfect pop of sublime beauty? That’s about the best I can do; because the thing is, I don’t want to describe it, I just want to listen to it.

HOPE: It’s gotten to the point where every time I hear “The Man With the Child in His Eyes”, my first thought is “a 16 going on 17-year-old made this”(!!!). I too remain stunned by this album’s staggering sophistication and the otherworldly imagination on display. It’s freakin’ outrageous.

Kick is seriously front-loaded, its first side home to four straight-up classics (the unpredictable, melodic, goofy, wonders ”Moving” and ”Strange Phenomenon” as well as the aforementioned, seminal ballad “The Man With…” and the behemoth “Wuthering Heights”). What is there to say about “Wuthering Heights” at this point? It is not merely one of the greatest pop songs (of the ‘70s/20th century/ever), but a siren call to let your freak flag fly… literally. There is an annual event that takes place in an assortment of cities around the globe known as “The Most Wuthering Heights Day Ever” where wonderful humans join together to recreate the song’s original video. Its beautiful, sloppy loved-up ludicrousness puts every flashmob that’s ever been to shame. Know what, just watch here and here.

The second half of the album has always dragged a bit for me. It starts amazingly enough with the bouncing, pop-rocking “James & The Cold Gun” and the seriously fabulous Laura Nyro-esque, just Kate ‘n’ her piano “Feel It” (this song is SOUL)…but to my ears it really flags after that, with a cloud of saminess hanging over the remaining tunes.

Despite it being home to two of Kate’s most fabled creations, I wouldn’t recommend Kick as the album to start for someone wanting to explore her music for the first time ( honestly it wouldn’t even be in the Top three). Like Emmylou Harris and Joni Mitchell, it took a minute for Kate to get to cruising altitude vocally. All of them sounded more fulsome after they’d gotten a couple of albums (and life years) under their respective belts. Like them, she just got better and better.

This is a 19-year-old. Permission to feel blown away and useless is granted.

MATTHEW: I do see why Side Two drags for you, Hope, and I’d always suggest a Kate newcomer start with Hounds of Love and The Whole Story, then one of the two albums from this century. But I’d then encourage them to go back to the beginning, because Bush is one of those artists with a singular yet continually evolving creative vision—and it is fascinating to see it start here, with the intertwining of her external influences and internal emotional life. With respect to the latter, Side Two of Kick is built around a trio of ruminations on sex and love that captivated my 14-to-16-year-old self. “Feel It,” “Oh To Be in Love,” and “L’Amour Looks Something Like You” were teenage (female) expressions of eroticism and romance that lacked the leering shame-tinged angst of typical (male) pop-rock songs on the subject. As such, they were—and still are—priceless. But of course that was a real-time experience. I can see that in retrospect (and at our ripe age, Hope), such songs might be mere curiosities. (And how Kate is this? There then follows “Them Heavy People,” a pop song about religion! It was a single only in Japan, where it reached #3.) In the end, this is still a dazzling debut, and one of my top three Kate albums.
Album Rating: Hope, 6/10; Matthew, 9/10

Lionheart (1978)

MATTHEW: (UK #6, Top Ten in four nations, did not chart in the US): I always resented being told that a sophomore album was a disappointment. When it came out, I liked Lionheart as much as its predecessor (just as I liked Communique as much as Dire Straits), and having the so-called experts correct me smacked of bullying by the taste police—be they older boys at school or music press critics, both groups prone to small-minded misogyny and other forms of bigotry. My not-very-brave reaction to being called a girl for listening to girl music sung by a girl was to, well, keep listening. Take that, you faux punk fans! I taped The Kick Inside and Lionheart on opposing sides of a C-90, and played them equally. In retrospect, I can see that, as a whole, Lionheart is not as strong as the albums that came before and after it. But I still bristle at that knee-jerk criticism.

HOPE: Not to feed into the machine but this is my least favorite Kate album. The whole thing has a bit of an over-the-top show tune flavor I’ve never been able to get into. For me the barrel bottom is dually occupied by the sub-Kurt Weill-ness that is “Coffee Homeground” and screechy sub-Patti Smith “rocker”, “Don’t Push Your Foot On The Heartbrake”. On the good side are “Symphony In Blue”, a semi-sweet, mellow, mushy early Roxy Music-Queen deep cut hybrid and the crazy, wonderful “Wow”. Oh “Wow”, you bug-eyed, plush, anthemic, cheeky cheezeball you. Anyway, I love the song’s utter lack of self-consciousness, like it doesn’t care who’s looking at it (yes, I just anthropomorphized a song and I’m sorry)…which brings me to the “Wow” video, a wow-wow-wow-unbelievable display of hilarious, off the charts charisma and supreme ridiculousness. If you are feeling blue for any reason, I recommend a viewing. From the moment Kate pats her butt while singing “he’s too busy hitting the vaseline” to the up and down look she gives to accompany thet “we think you are really cool” line, its perfect silliness and gigantic heart are healers as good as any medicine.

MATTHEW: My love for Lionheart was probably helped by having no access to those videos (beyond catching them once or twice on Top of the Pops). Instead of theatrical silliness, I was able to hear the album as a continuation of its predecessor’s ethereal beauty, tinged with drama. You are right about the low points, Hope (“Heartbrake” is too screechy, and “Homeground” surely more fun for her to record than for us to hear). But the high points are some of my favorite Kate songs—especially “Wow,” her signature phrase turned pop song, and the bookend tracks “Symphony in Blue” (another great Japan-only single, still such an overlooked gem) and “Hammer Horror” (which won’t make my favorites mix now, but I really loved it at the time). Perhaps you just had to feel the wow in real time?

HOPE: “Hammer Horror” was one of your favorites?! What the hell Matthew! I’ve never cared for that one, though I am hardly the unimpeachable arbiter of what is good and have some dicey Kate faves of my own (winking at you “Reaching Out”, my big bombastic babe, see you a few albums from now!). But seriously, I think because I heard the (better) albums that followed it—Never for Ever and The Dreaming— before I actually heard Lionheart, my standard for what a Kate album was supposed to sound like was completely skewed. As those beauties were my only points of reference, Lionheart was kinda doomed from the start, it was just never gonna sound as good.
Album Rating: Hope, 5/10; Matthew, 7/10

Never for Ever (1980)

MATTHEW: (UK #1, Top Ten in six nations, did not chart in the US): Although still virtually unknown in the US at this point, Kate went from successful to legendary in her home country with Never For Ever—her first #1 UK album, the first album by a solo female artist to hit #1 there, and the first to enter the chart at the top. Also a hit across Europe, in Japan, and elsewhere, this was her first self-produced album, a big step towards total career control. And after the experience of her 1979 tour, she resolved never to hit the road again (not quite “never for ever,” but she’d not give another concert until 2014). After five successful singles from the previous pair of albums, this one birthed three Top Twenty hits in rapid succession in 1980 (topped by a non-album Christmas single at year’s end).

So Kate was suddenly, increasingly massive (everywhere but America), and yet increasingly determined to retreat from the world to be—and make music—with her family, bassist boyfriend, and close circle of friends. Fair enough. And, it would turn out, a massively important decision that still resonates through pop/rock music history. Why? Because she showed that there was a way both to retreat from the sexist abuse of the music industry, the media, and celebrity culture, and to reach global audiences with new music. So, did this third album justify its success? Absolutely!

HOPE: Never For Ever is an absolute cornucopia of weirdness. It is imagination run amuck. The gorgeous “Breathing”— the best fear of nuclear war song sung from a fetus’s perspective ever—and the paranoid God-level-good, pop anthem “Babooshka” are the standouts for me. I also want to acknowledge the underrated elegy for those who’ve passed, the lush as any Chic ballad “Blow Away (for Bill)” with its lovely Sandy Denny and Keith Moon aka “Moony” namechecks. Then, for those of us who crave a tale of illicit fascination-spiritual possession involving the ghost of a deceased adult man living in a child’s body, there is the gloriously unsettling “The Infant Kiss”. Also good and deserving of appreciative nods are kooky “Delius (Song Of Summer)”, and theatrical pop-tastic revenge song “The Wedding List”.

Okay, now let us descend into the murky projections of a desperate teenager listening to Kate Bush in ye olde early ‘80s and looking for clues to bring she and I closer; I hereby admit that upon first listen I took the moody, plush, fantasy vs. reality postcard “Egypt” to be a queer love song. I was completely blown apart and led astray by the “my pussy queen, knows all my secrets” line and the declaration of love in the chorus. To my ears, “Egypt” was a girl. Oh, this thrilled young me. By the time I heard Kate’s actual explanation of the song, how it was about idealizing the actual country and being ignorant to its darker realities, it was just too damn late. I know it’s wrong but “Egypt” is always gonna be my queer Kate song.

And okay, this may be marginally blasphemous but…I’ve never been into the oddball hymn of loss and cult standard “Army Dreamers”. The tune itself is where it falls short for me. But just so you know, that song is not my true enemy on Never, it’s nowhere near. That spot is occupied by the squealing-ly awful, sucky manic mess “Violin” and will be forever. Matthew, I’m curious, did you buy this album straightaway ? Is my aversion to “Army Dreamers” out of line even though I can’t help it?

It’s not you Kate, it’s definitely me.

MATTHEW: I don’t think I was able to buy this album straight away, Hope, but I taped it that autumn of 1980, presumably as soon as I could, because it was so breathlessly anticipated: “Breathing” and “Babooshka,” two of her most inventive and catchy singles, had been hits earlier in the year. I also remember being struck by the originality of “Army Dreamers” (but it’s ok not to like it, Hope!), by the wonderful weirdness of songs like “The Infant Kiss,” by the deft poignancy of “Blow Away,” and by the entire album’s tuneful coherence. For, despite all its sounds and stories (talk about a headphone album!), Never For Ever is relentlessly melodic. Kate’s lyrical and musical imagination seemed—and seem still— limitless and full of surprises. And the album isn’t just inspired, but inspiring, as illustrated by your “Egypt” story (which I adore, and which has forever changed how I hear that song!).

In retrospect, with the hindsight of all nine Bush albums, I can see how much this one showcases the big three themes that inspire her, and which she has consistently explored: literature (sometimes via film), classical music, and nature; but, significantly, all of them English. I’m far from being the first person to observe this, but it is easily lost in the “Running”/Stranger Things chatter: Kate is a profoundly English artist, very much in the tradition of literary and musical English pastoralism going back to the 19th century (even if she is a startlingly original and modern voice in that tradition). I think I sensed that on some level at the time of this album—for example, “Delius,” a song about an English pastoralist composer, inspired by his music but also by a film about him, seemed very Kate—but I certainly could not have articulated it then. I’m not saying that limits her significance. On the contrary, she will surely one day be valued on the same artistic and cultural-heritage level as the Brontë sisters, Tennyson, and Delius.

HOPE: I like that you teenage-taped it, Matthew. That was very Bow Wow Wow “C30, C60, C90 Go!” of you (“I don’t buy records in your shop, I tape them all ‘coz I have Top Of The Pops“!) but I digress. I just want to add my hearty affirmation to something you alluded to; this album is particularly tuneful, easily one of the most melodic in the whole KB discography. To summarize, Never For Ever is flush with unexpected hooks and swoony instrumental flourishes and as such is a total babe.
Album Rating: Hope, 9/10; Matthew, 9/10

The Dreaming (1982)

MATTHEW: (UK #3, Top Ten in three nations, US #157): What did Kate do with the enormous success and unstoppable creative momentum (as Uncut recently called it) fueled by her first three albums? She experimented. Without a thought for how record company execs or teenage fans might react, she went into the studio with her Fairlight sampler (first used by her on the previous album) and a new crew of session musicians, and she dismantled and rebuilt the pop album in wonderfully odd ways. For the first time, she did all the producing, and she took her time (albeit not as much time as she would with later projects). The result confounded her label (EMI), critics, and fans. On the strength of her reputation (and advance single “Sat in Your Lap”) the album charted well, but did not sustain the sales of its predecessors, while four attempts to pull further hit singles from the album failed. Smack in line with that pattern, I bought The Dreaming when it came out, wasn’t sure what to make of it, and then seldom played it. (Hey, I was an 18-year-old pop kid!).

HOPE: Like The Beatles’ White Album and Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, The Dreaming has become the cool Kate album to name-drop as your favorite. More experimental and less bold-facedly commercial, it is by far, her nuttiest, most batshit album (which is saying something considering the three that preceded it). It is, fittingly, one of Bjork’s all-time favorites. But like you Matthew, I confess that it took me decades to wake up The Dreaming’s power as a singular entity. The 20th century saw me solely fixated on the handful of songs I loved and ambivalent about the rest. I now believe, in this year of 2022, that in order to truly appreciate The Dreaming it needs to be listened to as a whole, in sequential order, with all its screaming, stomping, cooing glories coming at you one after the other. Fact is while there are a few exceptional standalone tracks, the majority of the songs are not singularly spectacular enough to stand up on their own and need each other to lean on to live their best lives (kind of like Macca’s London Town album for you old school context nerds and Matthew!).

There’s a core of four songs that supply the ballast for me; the magnificent racket “Sat In Your Lap” (extra points also for its classic cosplaying, roller skating, fabulously absurdist video), dizzying weirdo-waltz of frustration and inspiration “Suspended In Gaffa”, regal hymn of regret “All The Love” and the hot and romantic “Houdini”. Oh “Houdini”, I love you. Telling the story of the great escapes the fabled titular illusionist made with his wife Bess’s assistance and intertwining them with the notion of his making an even greater escape, from the great beyond to reconnect with her, it’s one of the greatest bits of Bush storytelling in the whole discography. The tune and vocal brim with passion and tension and mmm yes, it just f*cking rules.

I feel like the rest of the songs on The Dreaming are held up by the aforementioned “core four”. Yes, “There Goes A Tenner” (though its disturbing similarities to Madness’s “House Of Fun ” remain unsettling) and incredible freaked-out war story “Pull Out The Pin” (vocal shredding mayhem alert!) are great songs. And so are adventurous tempo-jumping, fiddles, pipes ‘n’ penny whistling “Night Of The Swallow” and thumping, thunderous, theatrical closer “Get Out Of My House”, whose coda features Kate’s infamous donkey impression. But they sound so much better to me when they are sandwiched amongst the “core fore”. Listening to the whole album in sequence is like being locked in a theater and watching the weirdest, most romantic, horror-filled piece of stage performance in history.

But seriously Matthew, what tipped the scales for you? Did you get hooked by one song? Do you even think there is one that stands above all others?

MATTHEW: When, in the wake of Aerial, I went back to the early Kate albums, I rediscovered what is my favorite track on The Dreaming, and one of her songs I love the most: “All the Love.” It’s another overlooked gem that is incredibly stirring, an emotional ballad completely devoid of cheesy cliches. Its production quirks and Kate’s lower-register singing anticipate Hounds of Love and beyond—it almost sounds as if it could have been on Aerial!

Just as I was a bit sheep-like in finding The Dreaming too odd in the ‘80s (Neil Tennant called it “very weird” and who was I to argue?), I was similarly sheep-like in deciding in recent decades that it was actually the cool Kate album ahead of its time (called her “overlooked masterpiece” in The Quietus). And now? I agree, Hope: with the possible exceptions of “Sat in Your Lap” and “All the Love,” this album needs to be consumed whole (it’s not just better that way, like Hounds, but needs to be taken as one). And I also think that both my previous opinions were wrongly stuck on the notion of the album as excessively experimental (or “mad,” as Kate herself famously put it). It isn’t, in the end, “very weird.” It is a wonderfully different, intriguingly flawed, very-Bush album. Unequivocally hers, neither her best nor her worst (in the middle of the pack), yet as essential to the whole story as the other eight.

HOPE: My musical foundation was still being built when I first heard this album. To me it sounded as if Kate was “copying” Adam and the Ants, which is of course, stupid. But I literally ascribed all musical adventurousness I heard in the early ‘80s to that same root source. Hearing drums, any drums would instantly trigger thoughts of “Prince Charming”and “Stand and Deliver”in my head. It was a truly ludicrous, uneducated assertion but for a minute of my life I was convinced the sun shone out of Adam’s ass. Clearly I was fixating on the wrong (artistic) ass.
Album Rating: Hope, 9/10; Matthew 7/10

Hounds Of Love (1985)

MATTHEW: (UK #1, Top Ten in seven nations, US #30): As we’ve said before, it matters where you as a listener first entered an artist’s catalog, and what order you then discovered their albums. That is, it matters to you personally and in terms of how you relate to that artist and their catalog. (We obviously agree that with respect to the we-were-here-first fans, it doesn’t matter at all; anyone should be welcome at any time and by whatever means of arrival). Who introduced you to an artist or album can also impact your perception—often for many years. In my case, I was lucky enough to experience early-Kate records in their original order, in real time. Those years were my early teens, and I was as captivated by the music as I was infatuated by its creator. But after The Dreaming, I drifted away, and by the time Hounds of Love came out, I was most of the way through college, my Kate crush feeling like ancient history.

Here’s where the “who” comes in: I happened to be dating an American that year, and for her—like the U.S. in general—Kate was an amazing new artist over whom she instantly went bonkers. The 2022 craze for “Running Up That Hill” (prompted by Stranger Things)? I witnessed something similar in 1985. So, while I turned my American girlfriend onto the earlier albums, she convinced me that Hounds was two perfect pieces of work—Sides One and Two each discrete, coherent, conceptual compositions. She was right, of course. That’s what they are and were designed to be. And I still see—hear—them that way today: as a perfect pair.

HOPE: As a tacky young American in the summer of ‘85, I admit I too was certifiably bonkers for “Running Up That Hill” and could not wait for Hounds to be released. Like everyone else, I fell hard for Side One and its never ending barrage of Everest-sized anthems (“Running Up”,“The Big Sky”, “Hounds Of Love” and the almighty “Cloudbusting”). I fell so hard in fact that apart from my future funeral song, “And Dream Of Sheep”, Side Two aka “The Ninth Wave” didn’t exist for me. I’m not proud of this but at that stage of my life (1985), I was nursing a pretty gigantic, hook-obsessed pop music sweet tooth and had a very short attention span…meaning I was still very much enamored with my Culture Club and Wham! albums. Thus the “Wave” side of Hounds was a step too demanding for me. It gets worse. Though I’ve come to appreciate the genius and ambition of the “Wave” suite over the years, I still only dig slivers of it, specifically, epic lullaby to the planet “Hello Earth” and the aforementioned “Sheep”. I recognize that they are more conventionally melodic than the other tracks that are part of the suite, but there you go; old habits die hard.

“And Dream of Sheep” is just magical. Though Kate has said the scenario it describes is something she finds terrifying (floating alone in the sea at night, wearing a thin life jacket, utterly exhausted, scared and praying to be rescued), the song is extraordinarily comforting. Delicate and dark, built to climb on the back of and cling to (“Come here with me now”, Kate’s Mum intones in the song), it’s also the last song I wanna “hear” when I depart from this earthly plane (no f*cking “Wonderwall” for me thanks).

As far as Side One goes, much as I love “Running” and fondly remember the sweet rush of playing the single in my room for the first time, my absolute first-half fave is the epic anthem of belief, love and rain-making, “Cloudbusting”. Now back in those ‘80s days, if my favorite pop star said they liked something (book, film, artwork etc.), well then, I needed to like it too. I admit my initial interest in Amnesty International and Lolita was set off not by a fascination with human rights or literature but by my unwavering obsession with Sting himself and a desire to “share” something with him. Thus when Kate mentioned in an interview around Hounds release that “Cloudbusting” had been inspired by Peter Reich’s 1973 Book Of Dreams, I just had to have that book dammit.

You know, for a long time I was embarrassed to admit to anyone that a pop star, of all people, had inspired me to seek a particular piece of knowledge. “Why am I reading this book? Because Sting said he liked it”. There was no way I was going to confess that to other kids in school, even though it was no different—more glamorous, even—than a friend or cool teacher recommending a book or author. Fact is, following KB down her inspirational rabbit holes has been a rewarding experience, leading me to such magnificent things as the 1961 film The Innocents, Harry and Bess Houdini, and a species of bird known as the Goldcrest. (I’ve also drawn a hell of a lot of snowmen over the past decade, but we’ll get to that later).

Wanna hear the best ever description of Hounds of Love’s title track? Check out how Slits legend Viv Albertine broke it down in the fab 2014 BBC documentary The Kate Bush Story: “It’s like this repressed sexuality, so sensual, so sexual… like the whole song’s on a leash and you’re tugging it back but you know know it’s just gonna escape, burst and run free”. She so nailed it right?! Take my shoes off and throoooow them in the lake!

Right so, here’s a hot take question for you Matthew (uh oh); do you think that Side One would have worked or sounded as good without the semi-eerie slow burner “Mother Stands For Comfort ” lodged in the middle? I suppose it was good to have a “break” after three beautiful fist-pumping monsters in a row, so all of us could rest…but I wish “the quiet spot” had been occupied by a better song. Yeah, I said it.

MATTHEW: I love that question, Hope, because it’s the kind of nerdy discussion point I have already pondered. I think “Mother” is indeed crucial, as a place to catch one’s breath after the blockbuster intensity of the opening three tracks, and before the visceral heart-filling rush of “Cloudbusting” (just the first five seconds is enough to release the endorphins; the audience reaction on Before The Dawn, for which “Cloudbusting” is the climax, shows I’m far from alone). As for Side Two (or “The Ninth Wave”), it can be best appreciated as a single piece of music, listened to without pause or reference to the track listing—a 26-minute arc of song that is utterly compelling, beautifully constructed, and gorgeous in every way. The artful composition and emotional power of the whole album stuns today as much as in 1985. I hope all those new fans of “Running Up That Hill” immerse themselves in the whole album, from “Hill” to “The Morning Fog.” Some of them will surely come to feel, as I do, that Hounds of Love is essential to life on earth.

HOPE: I don’t think every song on an album has to be single-handedly brilliant for the whole LP to qualify as a masterpiece, which Hounds unequivocally is in its overall vision, execution and performance. For me the determining factors are “how good is the good stuff “ and “do good ones vastly outnumber the just okay/not good’s”. And by that deeply scientific algorithm, Hounds of Love is most definitely, wholeheartedly and unequivocally a masterpiece.
Album Rating: Hope, 10/10; Matthew, 10/10

The Whole Story (1986)

MATTHEW: (UK #1, Top Ten in four nations, US #76): This is the first of three oranges in our basket of Bush apples, and her only “greatest hits” or singles compilation ever. It was EMI’s (Kate-approved) attempt to capitalize on the global success of Hounds, released 14 months earlier. Packed with eleven previous singles and one new song, it offered 49 powerful minutes—extended to 57 minutes over 13 songs on the (superior) video edition. It’s not surprising, then, that The Whole Story was another UK #1 for Bush, charting well all over the world (aside from the US), becoming—and remaining—her best-selling album. But it’s also not surprising that the album was a relative flop in the US: why, shoppers must have thought, re-buy three hits from Hounds with a bunch of old songs that had fallen on deaf ears in America? Well, buy it for Side One alone, I would have argued: It sequenced “Cloudbusting” and the Hounds title track with a re-sung “Wuthering,” the sublime “Man With the Child,” “Wow,” and “Breathing.” Bliss! Brilliant!

HOPE: The Whole Story is a very good compilation. Like ABBA Gold-level good…but it is still one step short of perfection for me. And not for the persnickety reasons nerdy folks like us tend to have. Yeah, “Wuthering Heights” features a newly recorded vocal, but I can live with that. My issue is the inclusion of The Dreaming, which while interesting in the context of its namesake album, isn’t even one of the top five best songs on that LP. Over the years, people have tended to pile on the previously unreleased new track “Experiment IV” and regularly branded it as Whole’s weak link. But I’ve always found it compelling and still hear it as an enticingly slick ‘n’ sinister sister to “Cloudbusting”.

The Whole Story now feels like the end of an era, the culmination of Kate’s mega-pop years and prelude to her “lost in the wilderness and magical rebirth” era. Which means I can finally throw out this question to you, Matthew ( and all of you reading this!). Now while I’d “read the book” on “Cloudbusting”, and seen the film that inspired “The Infant Kiss” back in the day, there were still a lot of Kate songs that I didn’t know the backstory on, or specific inspiration for, until years later.

So at this transitional juncture, tell me, when it comes to Kate, how important is it to one’s listening experience to know what the songs are specifically about? I’ll give a super-broad example; is it necessary, say, to have read “Wuthering Heights’ or seen any of the filmic adaptations (especially the classic 1939 version) in order to truly enjoy the song “to the max”?

Yes, hearing the backstories of say “Suspended In Gaffa” or “Cloudbusting” as mentioned earlier, made me love and connect with those songs even more. But then again, sometimes it’s cool to let your imagination interpret them in whatever way it involuntarily chooses and not get too fixated on the specifics. We know “Houdini” is about freakin’ Harry and Bess Houdini, but it’s also a gripping, ripping pop song that sounds f*cking amazing even if the listener has no knowledge of the story behind it! Even out of context and standing alone with no explanation, “I’d pass the key and feel your tongue teasing and receiving” is still a smokin’ hot line.

MATTHEW: You are right, Hope, about Side Two. Whether you think “The Dreaming” or “Experiment IV” didn’t deserve a slot (and I’m torn on the issue), the fact of the debate says something. But carping aside, the songs showcase Kate’s extraordinary talent sufficiently well to inspire any listener to move on to her real albums. As for whether it is necessary to know the backgrounds to the songs: not at first, I think. As Bush herself has said, listen and allow yourself to make personal interpretations of each song. But then go ahead and dig out the background stories anyway! The real references won’t make yours redundant; they’ll just add a parallel view (like your reading of “Egypt,” Hope).
Album Rating: Hope, 9/10; Matthew, 8/10

The Sensual World (1989)

MATTHEW: (UK #2, Top Ten in two nations, US #43): By the summer of ‘89, as it approached four years since the last new Bush album, I made a mixtape titled Don’t Give Up. I was probably unaware that a new album was imminent. The tape began with that now-classic duet with Peter Gabriel, and then packed onto a C-90 as many Kate faves as possible, from “Wuthering” to “Experiment IV.” The point being: I was primed to be thrilled by The Sensual World, and thrilled I was. From the up-to-date production of the title track and “Love and Anger” (modest UK hits, U.S. flops) to the delicate beauty of “This Woman’s Work,” the album seemed like a gripping evolution of the Bush sound and vision. It was on heavy rotation in my house and car and Walkman/Discman well into the ‘90s, resisting being supplanted by its ‘93 sequel. Not until the second half of the decade did my CD copy of Sensual World begin to gather dust. And yet . . . even as I continued to play it, I was increasingly aware of its flimsiness compared to Hounds, of it being a collection of songs—some great, some not—rather than a consistently superb and coherent opus.

HOPE: There was a time I believed The Sensual World to be one of Kate’s best albums. It was home to a few songs I genuinely, wholeheartedly, obsessively loved; the tuneful, haunting and pragmatic “Never Be Mine ( my fave), the James Joyce inspired title track with its celebration of the sexy tactile world and iconic “mmh yes” refrain…and my personal dark horse, the bombastic, arms aloft, power-hymn “Reaching Out”. These were the culprits that fueled my inflated regard for The Sensual World for a decade plus. My mind was so clouded with lust for those tracks at the time that it killed my ability to be objective about the rest of the album.

As is often the case with this stuff, time has mellowed my heated love for those songs into what I would now characterize as fond feelings of cozy familiarity (shit, that sounds like a married couple saying “we live as brother and sister now” but yeah that’s how it is these days).
The Sensual World is a product of its time, distractingly slathered in that same slick, grandiose late ‘80s “big pop” production style that typified most superstar albums back then (see Genesis’s Invisible Touch, Peter Gabriel’s So, as well as then-newbies T’Pau’s Bridge Of Spies). “Love and Anger” and ”Heads We’re Dancing” feel utterly faceless as a result.“Rocket’s Tail” is a cacophonous mess. There’s a proto-exotic, epic new age vibe hovering over the whole freakin’ thing and dammit, I just can’t get into Sensual World, the album.

If that weren’t bad enough, I have a problem with “This Woman’s Work”.
I acknowledge its status as a beautiful evergreen classic, I mean it is, but it’s taken on a bit of a “Hallelujah” vibe for me over the years. Maxwell’s exquisite live version from 1997 aside, the glut of straightforward covers of the song that have spilled into the world since then have put me off of it (and yes, it feels inevitable that this will happen with “Running Up That Hill” too). I know this is blasphemous, and it isn’t Kate’s fault but, sigh, I just need some time apart to recultivate my craving to hear it again. Yeah, I’ll go sit in the corner now.

MATTHEW: I’m laughing, but with you not at you, Hope! Even after Aerial inspired me to revisit Kate’s back catalog in-depth, it was the 1978-85 albums with which I immediately reconnected emotionally. “Reaching Out” and “Never Be Mine” are still my favorites on this—perfect mid-period-Kate poignant pop, packing loving punches the way Hounds of Love does—and I’m happy to say that “This Woman’s Work” has yet to suffer the “Hallelujah” effect (although I do fear that, Hope, as I do with “Running Up That Hill”). But in retrospect, the album doesn’t hold together as well as Hounds or Aerial (or, to my ears, Kick Inside or Never For Ever). It still sounds like an evolutionary step, but from Never For Ever rather than from Hounds of Love. In other words, she leap-frogged her sequels, with Sensual World as the sequel to Never For Ever, and then Aerial coming as the twenty-year sequel to Hounds. Does that make sense?

HOPE: I am officially fascinated with that concept. The Sensual World is like a “mature lady” version of Never For Ever. Aerial does sound like the long tail of Hounds.That is spot-on. As an aside, just wanna acknowledge how thrilled I am that we love the same two tracks. Did you know that in Uncut magazine’s Kate Bush edition of their great Ultimate Music Guide series, they said that “Reaching Out” is The Sensual World’s “only misstep”? To which I, no WE, say “bullshit”. “Reaching Out” forever.
Album Rating: Hope, 5/10; Matthew, 6/10

The Red Shoes (1993)

MATTHEW: (UK #2, it’s only Top Ten showing, US #28): Speaking as a fan, but trying to be objective, Kate has never made a bad album. Sure, you say, that’s because she sacrifices quantity for quality. That’s true to some extent, but record stores have plenty of bad albums that took years to make. And there’s no bad Bush—not even a vinyl-side of it. That said, one of the nine original studio albums has to be at the bottom of the ranking pile. In almost every ranking by fans and critics that I’ve seen, the bottom is occupied by either Lionheart (which I’ve defended and love, but I get it), 50 Words for Snow (ditto, as we’ll see), or Red Shoes—and I’m in that last camp. It’s not bad, not even close. And it has some great songs on it. But as an album—and Kate has given us some extraordinary album-length creations—it’s just not as coherent and compelling as, well, all her others.

HOPE: I agree. There are no bad Kate albums. “Disappointing” is the worst insult you would ever have to employ when looking at the lesser lights in the discography. Okay so…The Red Shoes disappoints me. And I hate the idea of this album being the first that a new Kate fan might explore. It’s so unreflective of how f*cking great she is. You can hear the guts of good songs sprinkled throughout, but there’s an oddly unfinished, almost demo-ish quality to a lot of them. It’s crucial to note that Kate was under some serious duress during the recording of the album. Both her mum Hannah and long-time guitarist Alan Murphy had passed in the lead up to its recording and she and long-time partner/band-mate Del Palmer were in the process of splitting up. She was understandably distracted…and you can hear it. The fact that Kate felt the need to re-record half of it’s tracks twenty years later, for the Director’s Cut album (which we’ll get to shortly) kind of says all you need to know about how she feels it turned out.

“Big Stripey Lie” and ”Lily” seem half-realized. “Eat The Music” ( “grab a banana”) is freakin’ terrible and still cannot believe it was chosen as the lead single for the U.S.market. Pseudo-funky “Constellation Of The Heart”, which sounds like Kate trying to do her own version of Lakeside’s “Fantastic Voyage”, means well, but dammit, it just doesn’t work. And I find Eric Clapton’s presence on anything to be supremely intrusive and scenery-chewing in the worst possible way (he guests on “And So Is Love”, another track that sounds half-finished). God, I know that all sounds so negative but there are so many superior Kate albums to get involved in. The Red Shoes should always be the last choice after everything else has been exhausted.

Still, like the mythic tale of Pandora’s box with “hope” stuffed in its deepest corner to counter the mayhem that has spilled out before it, there is one absolutely majestic piece of music on The Red Shoes that offers hope (literally). “Moments Of Pleasure” is one of those songs I carry with me every day and is home to a line that is permanently lodged in my heart and never gonna leave (“Just being alive, it can really hurt”). Runners-up are the simultaneously delicate and ass-kicking “Top Of The City”, the bouncy, boisterous title track and its goofy sonic sibling “Rubberband Girl”.

MATTHEW: When Red Shoes came out, I blamed myself. Instead of thinking, what a shame, Kate’s finally made a weak album, I thought, oh I’ve finally failed to fall in love with a Kate album. My reaction was partly a symptom of my fandom (assuming she could do no wrong). But it also reflected the ease with which I was distracted by the new music of the ‘90s—the last decade in which music fashion shifted dramatically from genre to genre, almost year to year. There seemed to be so much that was new on both sides of the Atlantic, and I was keen to keep up. So, I assumed that new albums by acts that I had loved in the ‘80s or earlier were probably good, but they’d have to wait until I had exhausted all the great new ‘90s sounds. In some cases that was true (I prefer ‘90s to ‘80s U2 and REM, for example). But there were also disappointments: Dire Straits, Genesis, Macca, and . . . Kate.
Album Rating: Hope, 4/10; Matthew, 5/10

Aerial (2005)

MATTHEW: (UK #3, Top Ten in five nations, US #48): Coming twenty years after Hounds of Love, with two other albums in between, Aerial is the real successor to Hounds. Both are concept albums, pairing halves that make the albums whole but also stand as separate works (with their own titles). They are sibling progressive pop masterpieces, Bush’s most extraordinary achievements. At 80”, Aerial is almost twice as long, it’s two halves given their own discs (vinyl or CD). It is less intense and more subtle than Hounds, reflecting its creator’s age (47 instead of 27), with Aerial less full of fables and more personal than the earlier album. Kate is now a mother (“Bertie”) and has lost her own mother (the exquisite “A Coral Room”). In fact, I see the first disc (titled “A Sea of Honey”) as a concept album about family, as coherently drawn as the other disc (“A Sky of Honey”), which is a concept album about Nature’s cycle of day and night—the triumphant culmination of Bush’s career-long contributions to English pastoralism, its closing trio of tracks (“Somewhere in Between,” “Nocturn,” and “Aerial”) among the best 21 minutes of her entire catalog.

HOPE: Aerial is not meant to excite but rather to soothe and caress. It meanders and wanders. The average track length is 5 minutes. There’s a comforting sonic saminess to the songs and they all kind of blend into one another. It is the “chillest” Kate album. And while there isn’t an outright, obvious superstar song present, the standard and quality is high. It is also, and I feel like dirt saying this, too long. And so Aerial has always been a bit of a cherry-picking experience for me. Slinky, groovy “Nocturn” and epically evocative “A Coral Room” are the only two deep cuts I revisit on a regular basis (they are both capital G gorgeous). “Sunset” is also jazzily handsome and reasonably groovy in parts. The album’s most hummable, poppified track “King Of The Mountain”, with its visions of Elvis whooshing down a snowy hill on the “Rosebud” sled of Citizen Kane fame, possesses a subtly delicious melodic menace reminiscent of “Experiment IV”. But those songs are the exceptions. Tracks like “Prologue” and “Somewhere In Between” are far more representative of the overall vibe of the album; they are watercolor paintings, lovely to be sure, but oddly distant and hard to latch onto. Shit, was that too mean ?

MATTHEW: Not mean, just how you hear it; I’m fascinated by our different reactions to Kate’s two 21st-century albums, with Aerial resonating with me that way 50 Words For Snow does with you. For me, the “Sky of Honey” disc needs every one of its minutes as it slowly builds to the psychedelic groove of the title track. But I do see how the first disc might seem a tad long. Although I am always irritated by the gendered criticism of tracks like “Mrs Bartolozzi”—that is, men dismissing the apparent banal domesticity of the lyrics. As Caitlin Moran recently noted, men can write cool songs about utterly mundane moments, but a woman singing about a washing machine prompts snide sniggers. Besides, “Mrs Bartolozzi” is about far more than washing clothes. Like most Bush songs, it is layered with narratives that are both personal and metaphorical. When Kate seems simple or silly, she’s deceptively so; to miss that is simply to be deceived.

HOPE: I really do like Aerial, I swear.

Album Rating: Hope, 7/10; Matthew, 9/10

Director’s Cut (2011)

MATTHEW: (UK #2, Top Ten in three nations, did not chart in the US): This one divides fans more than any of the “regular” studio albums; in fact, it may be the only Kate album that is truly divisive. I confess I ignored it in 2011, after reading some dismissive reviews. And because I was generally suspicious of the whole concept (after all, considering Kate’s control over the entire composing and recording process of the original albums, weren’t they all “director’s cuts”?) (I know I am far from the first person to make that observation). But then Before the Dawn inspired me to listen to Director’s Cut with an open mind. And . . . well, over to you, Hope.

HOPE: It’s telling that Director’s Cut is made up solely of re-recorded tracks from The Sensual World and The Red Shoes. Neither album could be categorized as Kate’s finest work. The former was preceded by an impossible to compete with masterpiece. The latter was recorded in the wake of some extreme personal challenges that Kate herself has said affected her ability to focus. And while there are a handful of beautiful tracks on both, as noted earlier, there were also a bunch that were suffocated by hefty, of-their-time production stylings. Director’s Cut is Kate acknowledging that things didn’t turn out quite the way she wanted on those albums. She was magnanimous in her explanation about why she recorded Director’s Cut, saying in a 2011 interview with The Guardian, “For some time I have felt that I wanted to revisit tracks from these two albums and that they could benefit from having new life breathed into them”. But while she’s not being outright negative, there is a hint of dissatisfaction in there; it sounds as if she wasn’t happy with the original recordings.

So you can understand the pull of this project for her. And to be honest, when I first heard about it, I was kind of psyched. I assumed she would approach it in a straight-up unplugged fashion and just strip away all the noise so each song’s beauty could finally shine through. A cliched assumption, but yeah. Sadly that wasn’t what Director’s Cut turned out to be. It was an album of “alternative versions” as in, the new recordings weren’t better, they were just different. What complicated things for me was that three of my absolute favorite deep cuts got the redux treatment and I thought they were pretty damn wonderful to begin with (“Never Be Mine”,“Moments Of Pleasure”, “Top Of The City”). Yes, I like the new arrangement of “Moments”, its sparsity, the subtle, sporadic choral backing, the piano (swoon) but in no way does it top the over-the-top drama of the original.

MATTHEW: You are right that we should all get a second chance, and in my non-music writing I stress the importance of being open to changing one’s opinion (boring biographical aside: when I’m not deep diving into the pop music ocean with Hope, I teach and write on the history of Latin America—often getting things wrong the first time). So, Kate had the right to make this album, and I’m glad she did. That said, I find it to be no more than a curiosity, as interesting and important (or not) as might be B-sides, demos, and rejected studio recordings (of which Kate has given fans precious few over the decades). For my tastes, not a single track replaces its original. Maybe Kate never intended them to be replacements?

HOPE: Yeah, in retrospect, I don’t think these new versions were meant to “replace” anything. This whole endeavor seems really personal, like the execution of certain old songs had been niggling at her for a while. This is no McCartney-Let It be Naked scenario, where he was looking to “correct” history by editing off all of producer Phil Spector’s embellishments i.e. the stuff he didn’t like. No, Director’s Cut feels more like perfectionism gone slightly off the rails. Kate is renowned for not rushing, for molding and shaping every release down to the finest detail before she presents it to the world. The assumption is that nothing leaves the pen until all her artistic standards have been met. That is why this album at first seemed so out of character. That she would feel the need to re-record established tracks seemed to go against the Kate ethos we have come to know.
Album Rating: Hope, 5/10; Matthew, 4/10

50 Words For Snow (2011)

MATTHEW: (UK #5, Top Ten in three nations, US #83): I remember hearing or reading something in 2011 about a new Kate Bush album that was a rehash of older work, and picked this up, expecting some version of what I’d later realize was Director’s Cut. Instead, having come home and popped this in the CD player, I stood in my kitchen stunned. The album was all one had come to expect of Kate creations—surprising, inventive, kooky, beautiful. I had somehow assumed that Aerial was the end. Her last gift. So that made this feel all the more like an unexpected holiday-season present.

HOPE: For me, the best bits of seasonal art are the ones with a hint of melancholia running through their veins. For example, the lovely animated holiday specials A Charlie Brown Christmas and The Snowman. These sweet cartoons, beloved by generations, are built on solid foundations of depression and death (both expressed rather elegantly, it should be said). While wintery-themed masterpiece 50 Words For Snow may not be an actual Christmas album, its Dark December™ vibe is very much aligned with those two TV classics. It’s all Victorian ghosts, misunderstood Yeti’s, and horny snowmen without a sniff of joyful tidings. It is also my favorite Kate album, though its rise to the top was a gradual one.

At first I didn’t care for the title track or “Wild Man”, the two noisiest tunes. Surrounded by several of Kate’s finest and most regal ballads, they sounded like novelty songs (the former with its Stephen Fry guest vocal, the latter with its quirky subject manner and cartoonish-sounding chorus). But over time, they wore me down and I began to appreciate their sticky, weirdo charm. They are the court-jesters, perfectly tempering the tear-jerkers that dominate the album. The ballads—“Among Angels”, “Lake Tahoe”, “Snowflake”— rank among Kate’s finest and are as heartbreaking, evocative and empathetic as anything she’s ever recorded. “Among Angels” feels like a long-lost sister song to the Hounds Of Love classic “And Dream Of Sheep”. “Lake Tahoe” haunts us (its dog-themed verses are positively lethal if you are feeling a bit tender) while “Snowflake” hugs us (and features an eerie-beautiful cameo by Kate’s son Bertie). All three of these songs have made me cry on multiple occasions ( and maybe you too, my fellow sensitive plants). I know some people don’t dig “Snowed In At Wheeler Street” which features Elton John at his most blustery-beautiful, but I love all that “two souls endlessly meeting up-getting thwarted-time-travel” shit and would gladly take a whole album that revolved around that theme.

The album’s centerpiece is “Misty”, the lushly-piano’ed, brushily-drummed 13-minute mini-marathon of messy-hot sex with a snowman (spoiler alert: after the passion has concluded, he melts, leaving not only the requisite wet spot but clumps of branches, mud and grass as well. He’s one dirty, dirty snowman). Kate did a great interview after the album’s release on the BBC Radio 4 show Front Row and though I insist you actually listen to it (here!), I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my favorite bit in it right now. When they get to chatting about “Misty”, host John Wilson states that he saw the song’s main character as “a purely symbolic snowman”. This triggers an exceptionally hilarious comeback from Kate who says, with what sounds like it was accompanied by an affectionate eye-roll, “NO John, HE’S REAL!”. She then goes on to talk about how much she loves snowmen (“I love snowmen!”) and reuses the same plastic hat every year for the family snowman building sessions. On paper, a 13-minute song can look like a slog, but for me “Misty” feels like it’s over in a heartbeat. “HE’S REAL!”

I only listen to Kate Bush when I’m alone (is this weird?). I think this is the reason I’ve always felt discombobulated any time I’ve heard any of her songs playing in a public space i.e. outside my headphones (is this weird?). Apart from an actual Kate show, listening to her in a crowded room feels at odds with the whole experience and notion of Kate Bush for me. It would feel extremely discomfiting to hear, say, “Misty” blaring from a shop soundsystem. Not because of the song’s subject matter but because my relationship to Kate’s music is kind of private and personal (and I imagine this is the case with multitudes of fans). And 50 Words For Snow is the album that I feel the deepest connection to these days, my #1 musical rock to cling to when, to paraphrase “Snowflake”, the world feels too loud. Perfect.

MATTHEW: This is definitely a headphone album, Hope; as Aerial and most of its predecessors were, but in the case of Snow, the reason is less about production and more about intimacy. Of all Kate’s albums, this one comes by far the closest to creating the illusion that you’re in her home studio, listening to her and her band playing—while snow falls gently on her garden. So no, Hope, it’s not weird to listen to it only when alone.

The closing track, “Among Angels,” is my favorite song on here, and I usually play it as the first track: it somehow draws me more fully in than “Snowflake.” I confess that “Misty” sometimes feels too long, and I need to be in the mood for the title track (although I love to confuse or annoy friends and family by putting it on “Christmas” playlists). But my appreciation for it has grown over the years, and I can see how Snow could slowly become a Desert Island disc, essential to the feeding of the soul with select musical creations. Until, perhaps, she gives us one more surprise gift…
Album Rating: Hope, 10/10; Matthew, 8/10

Before The Dawn (2016)

MATTHEW: (UK #4, it’s only Top Ten showing, US #121): We all respect Kate’s refusal to be commodified and peddled as another product by a cynical and exploitative industry. The fact that she is a woman maintaining such creative and commercial control—considering how deeply the music industry has been male-dominated and sexist—makes her all the more admirable and important. But there’s an awkward irony here: we are so used to artists being exploited, to getting what we want from them, to demanding more, that we cannot help but get frustrated by Kate’s parsimony. She was so traumatized by the experience of her 1979 tour, she refused to tour—or even give a single full concert—until 2014. Whaaat?! That should have been career suicide—or at the very least the permanent closing of the US market. But Hounds of Love proved that law could be broken. If you’re Kate Bush, that is. So, Americans got to know her work anyway, and we all had our adult lives (or 35 years of them) to get used to not seeing her live. Then when she broke the drought with an elaborate, theatrical live show reminiscent of the now-legendary ‘79 concerts, she did it with a limited run at London’s Hammersmith Apollo (no tour, no traveling—she could be home every night). No photos or videos allowed, and no shows were filmed. Aaaaargh! But if Kate never gives us enough, she eventually gives us something (she never completely retires, as her late friend Mark Hollis did). So we must be grateful for the wonderfully raw recording of the 2014 Hammersmith show, even if we must combine this rare jewel of a live album with our imaginations in order to transport ourselves into her performing presence.

HOPE: Yes to all of the above. I suspect this album holds a lot more meaning and intrigue for the blessed folks that did see her than it ever will for me, who sadly did not. When I listen to Before The Dawn, I don’t so much get the sensation of “being there” but rather feel like I am missing something. It wasn’t a concert but a genuine theatrical production and so a recording of the sounds is only gonna go so far in terms of capturing its power and beauty (which I only surmised from still pictures and reviews, like you Matthew). I love how you characterize the recording as “raw”, which is such an odd and contradictory notion to apply to a Kate album, but it’s true! That’s not to say it’s sloppy, it is after all, an extremely well-planned piece of musical theater, but there are a couple of wobbly vocal passages in there. That said, I absolutely adore the live ‘n’ faithful reading of “Among Angels” on Before The Dawn. I know for a fact I would’ve have been crying f*cking buckets if I’d seen this live.

Look, I can’t imagine how thrilling it must have been to hear those first bars of “Cloudbusting” or “Running Up That Hill” or “Hounds Of Love” at this show or at any of the others during the residency. I mean even I got a little physical rush when I heard their opening notes on the freakin’ CD (yes CD), so it must have been transcendently powerful to actually experience it live. But once you get past that tiny thrill, something is lost in the translation, in other words, to really appreciate this album it feels like you kind of had to be there. Thus Before The Dawn is a handsome souvenir, especially sweet for those who were present, but for the rest of us, merely a nice addition to the discography and nothing more. I do wonder if I would like this album better if the setlist had featured at least a few tracks off the first four albums. She doesn’t go back any further than the Hounds album and it’s a little bit heavy on the Aerial for me. Oh hell, Aerial, I’m doing it again and I’m sorry.

Buddha said, “He who envies others does not obtain peace of mind”. True.

MATTHEW: You articulated well why I’m also ranking this in the bottom quartile. I seldom listen to it because my response is always bitter-sweet: I’m grateful for this record of the concerts, but I resent how it reminds me of what I missed—not just these rare shows but the decades of performances that never happened. Unfair, I know. We are not entitled to anything—not one minute or pixel—that Kate doesn’t choose to give us. But, still. And I agree that while I love how she offers live versions of basically all of “The Ninth Wave” and “A Sky of Honey”—which I think are prog pop masterworks that will steadily enhance her reputation for many decades to come—I too would have relished her 2010s interpretation of some of her 1978-82 material. Are we being petulant and unreasonable? Maybe I am. After all, three quarters of Before The Dawn comprises renditions of the concept albums about which I have raved!

HOPE: I don’t think anyone, no matter how hardcore a fan they are, should be too hard on themselves for not loving Before The Dawn. Live albums are traditionally pretty mixed bags, no matter how genius the artist is. The coolest thing is always gonna be that she did the damn shows in the first place and that a whole bunch of lucky, longtime fans got to see her in their lifetime. At the end of the day, this album is just a postcard to all of us unfortunate souls who didn’t get to see her that says “Having a great time, wish you were here!”
Album Rating: Hope, 5/10; Matthew, 6/10

Box Sets, EPs & Other Compilations

HOPE: Outside of the main discography we’ve just broken down, are there any essentials among the box sets, EP’s and the one latter-day compilation? The answer is…sort of. In other words, it’s cherry-picking time. The two most notable titles amongst the second-tier KB releases are the 1990 out-of-print box set, This Woman’s Work (featuring the first six albums plus two discs of rarities) and 2019’s The Other Sides, a 4-CD compilation of 12” mixes, B-sides and covers (first released in 2018 as part of the Remastered box sets that I know you have, Matthew). The only reason I bought This Woman’s Work—which was a very expensive box featuring six albums I already freakin’ had,—was to acquire those two rarities discs, upon which lived three particularly coveted and fabulous old B-Sides: the anthemic “Not This Time”, the shimmery ‘n’ soulful “Walk Straight Down The Middle” and tiny beauty “Under The Ivy”. Not to mention, it featured the propulsively pop-tastic “Be Kind To My Mistakes” (KB’s contribution to the Castaway film soundtrack). As I pretty much listened to those tracks to the exclusion of everything else and roughly paid $150 for the box, I figure the individual cost of each of the four songs I like to be around $40 apiece. Sure, they can make your heart race with their hot exteriors, and fancy track listings, but make no mistake, box sets make a lot of promises they can’t keep and are mostly absolute bastards.

As This Woman’s Work only covers the first half of her career and recorded output it is, as of this century, an outdated but collectible Kate Bush starter kit. Its “must-have” status has been seriously diminished by the fact that most of the tracks featured on the rarities discs have since turned up on The Other Sides, the similarly-themed, affordable and more readily available curio collection. Please note, the key word here is “most”.

Despite featuring a hefty 34 tracks,The Other Sides isn’t a comprehensive collection. It is selective. Amongst the missing are a handful of extended versions, several B-sides, and the nutso-comic-cool straggler “Ken” (listen here). The most egregious exclusion for me is “Not This Time”, which I regard as a cruel and criminal gesture. I mean if you’re gonna do something like this, why not gather all the scraps once and for all? The collection also features a disc devoted to the covers Kate’s done over the years. Despite her immense gifts, Kate hasn’t been what one might call “a master of reinterpretation”. Her cover attempts have always fallen a bit flat for me (she being someone who gets covered as opposed to someone who does covers). I especially dislike and resent the unnecessarily jaunty, faux-reggae version of “Rocket Man”. Not only because of what it sounds like, but because of what it could have been (in my head, it’s a slow, sad, and regal ballad with just Kate and her piano).

Lastly, I want to acknowledge the self-titled EP from 1983. It was a 5-song sampler containing a few old singles plus a couple of obscurities and was only issued in the U.S. and Canada. It is not a remotely important release within the discography. Kate herself wasn’t nuts about the track selection. But as it was my official introduction to Kate’s music, I have some irrational and overly sentimental feelings about it. I got it for Xmas in 1983 after an official but oddly vague request for a “Kate Bush album” on my “what I want” list. When Xmas morning arrived I discovered that my Mom had taken a shortcut and had not purchased an album, but rather, this EP instead. I feel like the guy at the record store showed her what they had, and instead of rummaging through the bin herself, she just said “give me the cheapest one” (love you, Mom). And so it ‘twas, that on December 25th of 1983, I acquired my first Kate Bush record and heard my very first Kate Bush song, which was, blessedly, “Babooshka”. Needless to say, I was completely blown away and we’ve been “together” ever since. Yes, it is a bullshit EP put together by a bunch of record company suits— albeit it one with a great bug-eyed still from the “Babooshka” video on the cover—but it’s always gonna have a place in my heart (and yes, I still have it).

MATTHEW: I’m laughing (but again with you, Hope) over your annoyed calculations of the effective cost of those extra tracks on This Woman’s Work. Forgive my smugness: I’ve made similar purchases countless times, but not that particular one. Instead, I taped the tracks on the rarities discs (I have no idea who from). But looking at the tape now, I see I made my own selection, adding “Rocket Man” (which dates from a year later, and whose unpredictably jaunty tone I like more than you do!), and omitting such tracks as . . . wait for it . . . “Not This Time” (I’ve no idea why, Hope, please don’t condemn me for such criminality!).

My punishment is that the song is indeed wonderful, and is indeed excluded from The Other Sides, for which I essentially paid a hundred bucks, as I bought both the 2018 box sets, Remastered Part I (the seven 20th-century albums, Kick to Shoes) and Remastered Part II (the 21st-century albums, Aerial to Dawn, plus the 4-CD Other Sides). I know some fans were miffed that they bought the box set just for the Other Sides discs, only to see them released separately the following year. I love having the full Kate catalog in two boxes, even if I already had most of it in various formats, but I do understand the grounds for such annoyance. And I totally agree that the failure to make The Other Sides comprehensive—I think just one more CD would have rounded up “Not This Time” and other missing rarities, right?—is lamentable and bizarre. All that aside, the box set pair is a warmly recommended treasure trove.

photo by krause johansen

In Conclusion: I Don’t Know Why I’m Crying

MATTHEW: It has always been hard to describe what Kate has achieved and why it matters, and that is partly because she is a unique talent (as Sparks’ Russell Mael put it, she established her own world, and stayed true to it). But I also think that gender plays a crucial role here, one often given lip service (e.g., the frequent observation in the summer of 2022 that she’s now the oldest woman to have a UK #1 single), but not fully considered. When Aerial came out, a (female) critic in The Observer challenged her male colleagues to admit that Bush is a genius, calling the album “arguably, the most female album in the world, ever.” One might argue that she’s the most female artist, ever. Genius she certainly is. And I don’t mean that she is an incredibly talented artist as (or for) a woman, nor that she is a genius who just happens to be a woman; rather, Kate Bush is a genius whose gender has been elemental to the unique world that she created and to which she has kept true. As such, she is far more than just a creator of endlessly fascinating, inventive, and joyful music; she is also one of the most important artists of our music era.

HOPE: Before Kate Bush infiltrated my world in the early ’80s, I didn’t actively listen to women artists. I enjoyed a little Plasmatics and Aretha on occasion, but most of the spots on my childhood and early teen playlists were occupied by boys I could moon over (and, uh, Phil Collins). What was it about Kate specifically that permanently disengaged my hormone-based bias and woke me up forever? I loved the songs of course but looking back, I think I was equally infatuated with the female fearlessness on display. It felt like she didn’t care if anyone thought she was silly or laughed at her over-the-top performance style. She expressed herself with no restraint, no apologies, and no compromises. I coveted her confidence and the absolute conviction she seemed to have in her art.

If you are remotely “outside the norm” or otherly in any way, this brand of boldness is gonna strike a chord with you. God knows it did with me. Kate Bush made songs that celebrated her most personal, idiosyncratic obsessions and shared them proudly and loudly with everyone. She didn’t chase airplay or look to optimize sales potential, she just followed her cast of muses, from rainmakers to washing machines to sexy snowmen, wherever they led. She took as long as she needed to record albums. She toured only when it felt right. She made adventurous, beautiful, funny, weird, and heartbreaking music that sounded like no one else’s, all while delivering a hard kick to the nuts of musical convention. Kate Bush is a beacon (a little light shining), for all the world’s “others”and dreamers (and maybe all of us), a little reminder to let your freak flag fly and not be afraid to be your weird-ass self no matter what anyone thinks. A genius for sure and so much more.

Our Album Rankings!

MATTHEW:

1.Hounds of Love 10/10

2.Aerial 9/10

3.The Kick Inside 9/10

4.Never For Ever 9/10

5.50 Words For Snow 8/10

6.The Whole Story 8/10

7.The Dreaming 7/10

8.Lionheart 7/10

9.The Sensual World 6/10

10. Before the Dawn 6/10

11.The Red Shoes 5/10

12.Director’s Cut 4/10

HOPE:

1. 50 Words For Snow 10/10

2. Hounds Of Love 10/10

3.The Dreaming 9/10

4.Never For Ever 9/10

5. The Whole Story 9/10

6. Aerial 7/10

7. The Kick Inside 6/10

8. The Sensual World 5/10

9.Lionheart 5/10

10. Before the Dawn 5/10

11.Director’s Cut 5/10

12.The Red Shoes 4/10

The Whole Story Re-imagined!

MATTHEW: Instead of just picking our favorite ten or so Kate songs, we decided to imagine a 2022 version of The Whole Story—but as a double album, with as many tracks as we can each sequence onto four imaginary sides of vinyl, with a max total of 90 minutes.
My updated and personal version of The Whole Story has the terribly predictable title of This Woman’s Work. I passed over some longer tracks (e.g., from Snow), and avoided all live, B-side, and cover versions, in order to cram these 21 favorites at 88 minutes onto my double album:

Side One (21:03): Hounds of Love, Babooshka, King of the Mountain, Wow, The Man With the Child in His Eyes, Reaching Out.

Side Two (23:08): Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God), Breathing, Cloudbusting, Wuthering Heights, And Dream of Sheep.

Side Three (23:17): Under Ice, How To Be Invisible, Sat in Your Lap, Moments of Pleasure, Among Angels.

Side Four (20:21): Symphony in Blue, Somewhere In Between, Never Be Mine, All the Love, This Woman’s Work.


HOPE: The title of my revised version of The Whole Story is an absolute cliche but it feels so right to me. Now because I am a former record store employee, while brainstorming a title, I imagined scenarios of customers asking for the album as well as seeing its name listed on our printed charts (I also envisioned an exquisite album sleeve and no it did not involve a sheep I swear). And with that, may I now introduce you to Moments Of Pleasure. It features 23 songs consisting of the required pieces and some deserving dark horses and is sequenced like Matthew’s above i.e. as a double vinyl album. And much as I’d love to have included “Misty” or “Nocturn” they are just a bit too long to sit comfortably here. And yes I went two minutes over the 90 minute limit and so I humbly ask that you cut me some slack (Matthew):

Side One (20:00): Wuthering Heights, Breathing, Houdini, And Dream Of Sheep, The Man With The Child In His Eyes.

Side Two (22:00): Hounds Of Love, Suspended In Gaffa, Babooshka, All The Love, Army Dreamers, This Woman’s Work.

Side Three (27:00): Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God), Never Be Mine, Be Kind To My Mistakes, King Of The Mountain, Among Angels, Reaching Out.

Side Four (23:00): Moments Of Pleasure, Not This Time, The Sensual World, Walk Straight Down The Middle, One Last Look Around The House, Cloudbusting.

Reaching Out!

We’d like to offer heartfelt thanks to each and every one of you who joined us on this discographic journey. We think you’re unbelievable and incredible ❤️ Keep breathing…

photo by john carder bush

I Know What I Like: A Discographic Journey into Genesis 1967-2022

In 2021, Genesis took to the road for what was their final tour, giving their last gig in March of this year. As such, we felt it was time to address the recorded output of these magnificent prog-pop behemoths in the deep, demented, and devoted manner they deserve. 

Welcome to I Know What I Like: A Discographic Journey into Genesis. Please join historian Matthew Restall and me (Hope) as we dissect, discuss, and rate ‘n’ rank the entire Genesis discography, confronting era-related prejudices and offering demonic hot-takes—all whilst gushing with unfettered devotion. There will be beauty and bombast. Conquests and creatures. Snowmen and pigeons. Come ride majestic with us…

Supper’s ready y’all…

MATTHEW: Bands and artists that evolve dramatically over time are a particular pleasure to listen to. Whether it’s groups like Fleetwood Mac and The Bee Gees, or long-serving artists like Bowie, McCartney, and Elton, it’s fun to ponder whether the shifts were due to personnel changes, to new influences, or to the vagaries of creativity and aging. But surely no band in this category divides fans as much as Genesis. When I was a kid (growing up in England), Gabriel-era fanatics and Collins-era fans didn’t just disagree on the albums, they hated each other. Your opinions on, say, Foxtrot vs Abacab, were a personality test, determining whether you were an upstanding fellow of fine taste or a complete c—t.

HOPE: Where you stand on the Genesis discography is usually determined by where you came in or, yup, what gender you happen to be. Because there is no denying that in the days Peter Gabriel was lead singer and creative director, the band’s audience was overwhelmingly male. That was the standard demographic for most progressive rock bands back in the day, from King Crimson to Yes. When Gabriel departed and Phil Collins was officially ensconced as the Genesis front man in 1976, the songwriting began to reflect a more romantic worldview, tamping down on the cryptic, existential tales and ramping up on lonely loved-up anthems. Even more significantly, as the lyrical sentiments became more accessible, the tunes themselves got tighter, more melodic and radio-friendly, which broadened the fanbase considerably. And that’s where this dame came in. The post-Gabriel version of Genesis was the one I first fell in love with. Stuff that hogweed, hand me those ripples. 

But it should be said that like a middle child kicking down, the hardcore fans of the Phil Collins era have hardly been the benevolent “come one come all” welcoming committee one might expect based on their own treatment. As dismissive as the Gabriel crew are to some Collins fans, so too are the Phil-ophiles toward the fans that came to love Genesis in the mid-’80s because of the perkily twee megahit Invisible Touch. I admit I’ve always looked down on the “invisible touch-ers”.  And I have tragically acted out. I saw a guy wearing an Invisible Touch tour tee-shirt at one of the 2021 Genesis shows I attended and took a pic of the back of it—which had an actual track-listing (!)— just so I could text my visual complaint to Matthew. Old habits die hard and no, I’m not proud.

But for today, let’s set all our differences aside. It doesn’t matter when or why you became a fan or whether you are a hardcore devotee or delicate dabbler. Let us now join together to celebrate, contemplate and give thanks to these fabulously fantastical prog-pop weirdos in the manner they deserve, with outrageously indulgent love, respect, dutchess’s, duke’s, snowmen and squonks. Shine on!

Behind The Lines: Just a note on the format of this essay, Matthew and I are going to be taking turns offering up our Genesis assessments and our names will appear before our respective comments. We are going to rate each album individually (on a classic 1-10, hate-to-love scale), and will also list where it ranks in the discography as a whole (1-15 studio albums).

MATTHEW: In addition we will identify what is to us either a “Key Track” or a “Key Cluster” (a contiguous set of tracks) for each album. By “key” we don’t mean the biggest hit or the “best”; after all, this is a discussion of opinion and emotional response, not a claim (gasp!) to critical authority.

HOPE: Exactly! By “key” we mean the song (or songs) that we think best encapsulates the spirit of each album, good or bad. In addition, we will also be addressing the solo and side projects via a lean and mean breakdown following the actual Genesis discography. Our opinions will diverge at points from both each other, and maybe the world at large, but we are gloriously united in appreciation of the legendary Gens.

The Albums

From Genesis To Revelation (1969)

MATTHEW:  I’m going to start by sticking my neck out: Genesis started out as a bunch of schoolboys trying to be The Bee Gees. Hardly an original observation, I know. But here’s the thing. They didn’t do it half badly. The second-class Bee Gee production is made more interesting by hints of the Zombies and the Association, with pre-echoes of the sound they would consolidate on Trespass and Foxtrot. I admit I ignored this album for decades. And when I turned to it this year, I expected to dislike it as much as their final album, assuming the two albums made bag-o’-bollocks bookends, 28 years apart. But I didn’t hate it. It’s clearly not in the top ten (of their 15 studio albums), but nor is it their worst, and nor is it unlistenable (like, say, Supertramp’s 1970 debut). It has even started to grow on me. 

Rating: 3/10.

Ranking: 14/15

Key Track: “Where the Sour Turns to Sweet,” for the admittedly lame reason that the opening lines to this the opening song of the first album—“We’re waiting for you, come and join us now”—make a sweet (ahem, not sour) invitational start to their catalog. It’s where I’d start my own extended version of R-Kive (to which we return at the end).

HOPE This album is pretty sophisticated for a bunch of nerdy teenagers who were for all intents and purposes still figuring out how to be a band. But from a sonic standpoint, it is unquestionably an outlier in the grand discography. As I began to get into Genesis and explore their discography this album held little allure for me because neither Phil Collins nor Steve Hackett were on it and, gonna say it, I knew what I liked. Yes, it is so very Bee Gees, albeit with a side order of Zombies and a sprinkle of Cat Stevens. In fact, “Silent Sun” reminds me a whole lot of Bee Gee Robin Gibb’s 1969 bleating solo chestnut “Saved By The Bell”. The only redeeming thing about the album is that you get to hear the Gabriel voice in bloom, which is best likened to a colt when it first realizes it can run and is awkwardly amazed at what it can do.  

Rating: 3/10

Ranking: 14/15

Key Track: I’m going to say “Silent Sun” because it’s a bit more fleshed out than the rest but, like the album, it never moves beyond curio status.

Trespass (1970)

HOPE: Trespass is a huge sonic step forward from the debut album. Its songs are infinitely more adventurous than those featured on that first LP and Gabriel’s fabulously assertive vocals are a treat. Alas, it is also exhibit A in the overblown medieval fairytale-themed era of the Genesis discography. If I may speak in “prog” for a moment; to all ye romantic pragmatists, there lyeth nothing within the kingdom of Trespass for you. In other words, if you are a “don’t bore us get to the chorus” kind of person, a restless soul with a sweet tooth, you probably don’t-won’t like Trespass. It is a soundtrack for non-cynical fantasist-dreamers who want to be taken on a very particular historical journey. Heading into battle, sword in hand as you rush over the drawbridge? Then “The Knife” is your jam. Want to simulate the sensation of riding horseback through the woods with Robin Hood and his Merry Men? “White Mountain” is here to theme you. You get the idea. Don’t get me wrong, there are some sweet melodic flourishes on Trespassthe anthemic “Stagnation” is full of them—it’s just that they’re offset by a whole lot of self-consciously mystical lyricism and youthfully wanking keyboard-ry. 

Rating: 3/10

Ranking: 13/15

Key Track: “Looking For Someone” exemplifies the kind of drama and tenderness that Foxtrot seems to be reaching for.

MATTHEW: Trespass is certainly a step forward, but I’m in two minds, Hope, as to whether that step is “huge.” Yes, right from the opening lines, it is apparent that Gabriel has found his voice. And it soon becomes apparent from the improved musicianship and production that this is a band evolving fast, and one that has found a new genre—to which it promises to contribute some significant, even classic, albums (a promise gloriously fulfilled within a few years). But the DNA ties to the previous album are far from severed. In some of the more subtle moments (“Dusk,” for example), there are strong echoes of Revelation (and that’s not a bad thing). And while I get why “The Knife” is iconic to many fans (especially those who saw Genesis play in these very early years), it is less my “jam” than the tracks that open each side (“Looking for Someone” and “Stagnation”)—which appeal to me as a less jarring, more deft use of the prog-rock palette to layer the early Genesis sound.

Rating: 4/10

Ranking: 13/15

Key Track: “Stagnation,” an early sign that this band would later lead prog rock into places gorgeous and stirring.

Nursery Cryme (1971)

MATTHEW: Jumping around the Genesis catalog is a good (and fun) way to savor its dramatic variety, but that also exposes the trap of the Gabriel-vs-Collins dichotomy. A far better appreciation for the various contributions of the band’s evolving personnel can be gained if you listen to the fifteen albums in sequence. The experience is a revelation. The personnel changes melt away, as the band steadily develops, album by album. Consequently, Nursery Cryme, as the first album with Phil Collins and Steve Hackett on board, is even less of a step forward (or a step in a different direction) than was Trespass. In fact, it is a remarkably similar foray into early-70s English prog, albeit better at its best and worse at its worst. The opening two tracks, for example, are an exciting preview of what the band would do in later albums—I get why “The Musical Box” is a fan favorite. But much of the rest of the album (especially “The Return of the Giant Hogweed” and “Harold the Barrel”) are more exhausting than exhilarating.

Rating: 5/10

Ranking: 11/15

Key Track: There’s no escaping the mastery and significance of “The Musical Box.”

HOPE: Yup, I concur and have to add that I find the ”Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” vibe of  “Harold The Barrel” to be particularly grating. Flute-flavored fancypants and perhaps the best song ever written about a deadly croquet match and its aftermath, “The Musical Box” is unquestionably the album’s centerpiece. It’s basically a prog party song, a skillfully played racket, with a little bit of everything that offers every member of the band an opportunity to show off and go off. But while I appreciate its madcap charms and get why it’s such a beloved part of the canon, I can’t say that I actually enjoy listening to it more than once a year. And so Matthew, I’m gonna steal your assessment and attach it to Nursery Cryme as a whole: exhausting.

Rating: 4/10

Ranking: 10/15

Key Track: “The Musical Box”

Foxtrot (1972)

HOPE: Foxtrot is both welcomingly accessible and unabashedly prog. And so while there are mentions of kings, queens and carved oak tables, the tunes themselves are pretty hummable and melodic (“Time Table”, “Get ‘Em Out By Friday,” and “Can-Utility And The Coastliners”). That said, when it comes to Foxtrot, there are only two things I care about. The first isn’t even a whole song but rather a smidge of one, namely Tony Banks’s opening mellotron lines in “Watcher Of The Skies.” They are immense. They are the sound of thunder clouds enveloping the earth. They make the rest of the song feel like a long, superfluous animal tail-third nipple. And so yeah, I’ll take endless loops of that. Then there’s “Supper’s Ready,” the batshit-ambitious, 23 freakin’ minute, 7-part, full plate-of-prog epic, a song I don’t love but whose execution and ridiculousness I remain kind of awed by. It features some fabulously melodic 12-string picking, Steve Hackett doing Eddie Van Halen before Eddie ever did, and a f-cking children’s choir, and absolutely deserves to have some prog devil horns raised in its honor.

Rating: 6/10

Ranking: 8/15

Key Track: “Supper’s Ready”

MATTHEW: I agree that Banks’s mellotron opener to “Watcher of the Skies” is a fantastic way to start the album; it always makes me smile. The song closes memorably too, and indeed Side 1 is as good as Side 2—high praise, considering the latter comprises the epic “Supper’s Ready,” with “Horizons” as its tasty appetizer (in his recent book on UK prog, A New Day Yesterday, Mike Barnes insisted that “Supper” was “surely the unofficial anthem of progressive rock”). Although this isn’t Collins’ first album with the band, his contributions on sticks and vocals are—to my ears—truly noticeable for the first time. No wonder Foxtrot is the gold standard for fans who first arrived here. Its theatricality and musicality wear well, perhaps in part because there’s so much youthful invention here—-in contrast to the mature, spotless polish of the final three albums, which have worn very thin. Foxtrot ain’t perfect, and that’s perfectly fine. 

Rating: 7/10

Ranking: 9/15

Key Track: “Horizons/Supper’s Ready.”

Selling England By The Pound (1973)

MATTHEW:  Finally, I’m crying. Well, not actually weeping. But after being slowly yet steadily impressed by the albums leading up to this, I am now moved, stirred, exhilarated. The skillfully balanced mixture of musical ingredients that comprises Side One of Selling England By The Pound—the sheer majesty of it—brings tears to my eyes.  Bookended beautifully by vocals from Gabriel (“Dancing With the Moonlit Knight”) and Collins (“More Fool Me”), the vinyl side soars in the middle with the anthemic “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)” (their first charting single, a UK #21) and with the album’s anchoring masterpiece, “Firth of Fifth.” “I love the guitar,” Tony Banks has said of the song, “the way it takes over the melody in the second half is one of the strongest moments of Genesis.” For me, that moment is more than strong: it’s transcendental, spiritually ecstatic. This is what the band seem to have been reaching for on Trespass and Foxtrot, and to be able to experience them attaining it—over and over, for Side One never gets old—is, well, deeply wonderful. Side Two is almost as good, for there is surely not a weak song on the album. The social commentary on English culture is wry, witty, and at times wonderfully weird, making the album as lyrically engaging as it is musically exquisite.

Rating: 10/10

Ranking: 3/15

Key Track: “Firth of Fifth” (but really all Side One: “Moonlit Knight/I Know What I Like/Firth of Fifth/More Fool Me”).

HOPE: Of all the albums released in the Gabriel era, Selling England By The Pound is by far the easiest to digest, an eccentric-pretentious, melodically accessible, mythically romantic storybook of songs. Side One is a particularly grand and lustrous place and ranks as one of the top three Gens album sides ever-ever. Starting with manic throwback “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight”, leading into classically-tinged epic “Firth Of Fifth”, coming down with gorgeous Phil-helmed ballad “More Fool Me,” and closing out with glorious setlist stalwart and evergreen stadium singalong, ”I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)”, it’s a combination dragon and heart-slayer.

While Selling has got some, let’s just call it “medieval flavoring” and half of the tracks have running times of over eight minutes, it is still by far the poppiest of all the Peter-led albums ( and thus the ideal entry point for curious latter-day fans to start investigating the olden days). And gotta mention one last thing regarding “I Know What I Like”; Hearing an arena full of people shout about being “just a lawnmower” is infinitely more life-affirming than hearing them wail about dying “in an everlasting kiss”. I could never have imagined such a thing unless I’d seen it with my own eyes. Seriously, it’s the freakin’ best (sorry Boss). And so I’m with you Matthew: Selling is weird, witty, and pretty damn wonderful.

Rating: 8/10

Ranking: 6/15

Key Track: “Firth of Fifth.”

The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway (1974)

MATTHEW: Lamb reminds me of Pink Floyd’s The Wall: I recognize its creative brilliance, but its dark theatrical vision is not one I chose to let into my head very often. It’s unsettling. As the best art often is, sure, but do you want it on your bedroom wall? And there’s an irony here: to appreciate why this may be the ultimate English prog rock concept album (the genre’s “ultimate fantasy tale,” as Barnes puts it), you have to listen to its full 94 minutes in one undistracted sitting. But that’s less practical—less often possible for most of us—than enjoying select tracks, or perhaps savoring one vinyl side at a time. Which certainly can be satisfying (I’ll never forget the pure joy of singing the chorus to “The Carpet Crawlers,” along with Phil and over ten thousand other fans, as I did recently at the close to Genesis’s concert in Pittsburgh). But that isn’t the full immersive Lamb experience. To which I find I am always reluctant to commit. I guess you’ve got to get in to get out.

Rating: 7/10

Ranking: 8/15

Key Cluster: “Hairless Heart/Counting Out Time/The Carpet Crawlers”

HOPE: As the Tusk album is to Fleetwood Mac’s legacy, so too is Lamb to the Gens. It is the cool cult classic that either you get or you don’t. And now a message to all the non-believers who have tried (and tried) but still can’t get into it; there is nothing wrong with you. Lamb is seriously demanding. It is consistently on the attack, endlessly, aggressively, unsparingly heaving itself at you with only a few contemplative, peaceful moments to catch your breath, especially when it comes to the lyrical content. From the indulgent and ponderous story, to the 94 minute run-time (!), Lamb asks a lot, a lot of the listener. Okay, time for my self-outing; I am a non-believer. I have tried innumerable times, but have never been able to latch onto Lamb as a whole. It is supremely dense and has often felt and sounded like one endless song to me ( maybe that’s the idea but I still find it impenetrable at points). Like you Matthew, it’s more of an out of context side at a time for me or rather, song at a time. When it comes to Lamb, I mostly just eat the fat roses off the top of the cake, specifically dirty awesome anthem “Back In N.Y.C.”, eternally beauteous “Carpet Crawlers,” and the big-chorused title track. And sometimes I like a little “Hairless Heart” to soundtrack a snowy walk. Still, I haven’t quite given up on becoming a complete Lamb loyalist/whole cake eater. Its reputation and solid assortment of good bits still inspire me to throw it on every now and then. Yeah, I know. If it was gonna happen it probably would have happened decades ago. But here I am, swaying along to “The Lamia,” as I write this and it is sounding very, very nice. Baby steps forever…

Rating: 7/10

Ranking: 7/15

Key Track: Back In N.Y.C.

Yes, Gabriel out of Genesis…

A Trick of the Tail (1976)

HOPE: I confess that I didn’t really get into Genesis until around 1980 when the Duke album was released. And so I experienced no real-time trauma about Peter Gabriel’s departure from the band in 1975 (which came following the band’s tour in support of the previous album, Lamb). Sure, I planned to investigate the Gabriel era at some point, but it wasn’t gonna happen until after I’d gotten every album where Phil Collins was singing lead. And based on what I knew of the Peter years, I suspected I wouldn’t be as into early Genesis as I was into this current incarnation. It seemed just a little too proggy for a restless, hook-obsessed, young American girl who at that time was seriously in love with Sting. She was just not gonna get it. A Trick Of The Tail though, that was another story. 

This album flows. It is a seamless, unskippable fantastical journey that sounds most ravishing when listened to as a whole, in sequence. Warm, noble and endlessly nerdy in sentiment, Tail is equal parts mythical journey and metaphorical wallflower’s diary. There’s a lot to love here, from “Ripples” (the most lustrous singalong anthem about fading beauty ever) to “Entangled” (guitarist Steve Hackett’s swoonsome acoustic tale from the psychiatrist’s couch) to “Squonk” (shyly gritty rock-hymn of ostracism and survival). I do acknowledge that there is one tough piece of meat to contend with, namely the court-jester that is “Robbery, Assault & Battery.” It’s a bit insufferable, but the tune itself is pretty charming and catchy and it magically just kinda jibes with Trick’s vibes. This is a good time to address the longstanding sonic peccadillo of Genesis; nearly every album has a track like “Robbery”: a goofy character-driven, vaguely comic pop song with cringe-worthy lyrics and slightly irritating vocal affectations; it’s just their thing

Rating: 10/10

Ranking: 2/15

Key Track/Cluster: The album itself is the Key Cluster. 

MATTHEW: Fears that Gabriel’s departure would cripple the band were famously assuaged here. Die-hard fans of 1970-74 Genesis would forever lament the passing of a golden age. But I have zero sympathy. Because the remaining foursome released not one but two masterpieces in 1976—both, to my mind, better than Lamb and as good as Selling England (sorry Lamb-lovers, but the 102” of the ‘76 twins blows away that double-LP’s 94”). The balance between melodic but cheese-free ballads and complex extended prog rockers is perfect on both. As explained below, I have a special fondness for Wind & Wuthering, but I won’t argue with anyone proclaiming Trick of the Tail to be the superior sibling—or even the band’s best album. It is a cliché to write of an album’s flow, but here I go (echoing you, Hope): A Trick of The Tail just flows so beautifully, from the first note to the final fade out, slowly building to the blissful climax of the last three tracks.

Rating: 10/10

Ranking: 4/15

Key Track/Cluster: The album’s closing trio, “Ripples/A Trick of The Tail/Los Endos.”

Wind & Wuthering (1976)

MATTHEW: As you said, Hope, where we entered the Genesis camp determines which tent we end up in. Ok, you didn’t use a silly camping metaphor. But you get my point. And my entry point was Wind & Wuthering for a silly reason. Up to 1978, I’d been too young and too put off by the anti-Collins purists to give the band much attention. But when “Follow You, Follow Me” hit the airwaves that March (when I turned 14), I had a change of heart. So, as soon as I had the chance, I bought the album—the wrong one! I have no idea why. “Follow” was on the new album, of course, and Wind & Wuthering was the previous one. But I LOVED it. I’m not going to try to persuade anyone that it’s the best Genesis album. But I’ll argue that it’s one of their best. And it’s my favorite, because it’s woven into my neural pathways. Objectivity is impossible. It’s part of me. It’s my home tent. It’s where I came in. 

Rating: 10/10

Ranking: 1/15

Key Track/Cluster: A tie between “One for the Vine” and “Blood on the Rooftops,” the extraordinary compositions that each anchor one side of the album.

HOPE: I love your” incorrect” trajectory Matthew! I totally get it as we will soon predictably see.  I didn’t acquire Wind until I was several years into my Genesis fandom. And I think if it had had a more garish album cover I might’ve bought it sooner than I did (sadly still a factor at that point in my life). This album has always left me with a sense of “almost” after listening to it.  Every track possesses a beautiful moment but never quite penetrates my heart.  Admittedly I tend to like the bigger-sounding Genesis songs with the gargantuan hooks and as Wind is a more meandering affair in terms of overall song structure, the melodies just feel less memorable (big single “Your Own Special Way” excepted). The only track I ever really spend time with is the evocative and gorgeous “Blood On The Rooftops”, which may be the most underrated ballad in the whole Gens discography. And so while I love, say, Phil’s falsetto bit on “One For The Vine” and think “Afterglow” is overall, a pretty regal and handsome beast, I just can’t quite latch onto them or any of the other tracks apart from “Blood” in a meaningful way. P.S. I hope my feelings about Wind don’t mean the end of our friendship Matthew.

Rating: 5/10

Ranking: 9/15

Key Track:  Blood on the Rooftops

…And Then There Were Three…(1978)

HOPE: In late-1977, guitarist Steve Hackett left Genesis to pursue solo ventures, thereby reducing Genesis to (and then there were) three members (that’d be Tony Banks, Phil Collins and Mike Rutherford). And this album, the first full-length released by the newly streamlined Gens, is pretty dear to my heart. Yes, I’m about to get horrifyingly Hallmark on you, for which I apologize in advance. Now I know this might sound weird, but next to Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas, And Then There Were Three is my favorite holiday album ever. It entered my life as a specially requested Xmas gift and I have a vivid recollection of removing it from its shrinkwrap Xmas morning in front of a roaring fireplace. It is winter in musical form. If twinkly lights and icicles were songs, they would sound like And Then There Were Three. Happy Prog-mas you freakin’ nerd!

Anyway…And Then There Were Three usually finds itself lodged somewhere in the middle of Genesis album rankings, meaning while it’s no one’s outright favorite, it is acknowledged to have some genuinely good songs. My wintry-sentimental attachments aside, I do actually believe it to be the the most underrated album in the discography, the bonafide sleeper (not to mention a damn good starting point for the uninitiated, as are Trick and Duke, the latter of which we’ll get to next). It is for all intents and purposes, the band’s first “pop” album. But while immensely accessible, And Then is still over-the-top epic in execution, meaning it is the perfect soundtrack for both car journeys and viking-themed horseback adventures. Now I’m not sure if this is a hot take, but I find the album’s best-known track, the bubbly “Follow You Follow Me” to be one of its least compelling. It’s cute and infectious but nothing more (it only earns 5 out of a 10 possible reindeer from me). And it withers next to the good stuff. There are booming, fire breathing behemoths (“Down and Out”,“Deep In The Motherlode”,“The Lady Lies”). There are shiny and lustrous ballads (“Many Too Many” and “Undertow”). Hell, even the trademark Genesis pseudo-comedic character study on offer here is absolutely swoon-inducing (“Say It’s Alright Joe”, oh shine on!). But for me the finest song on And Then is Mike Rutherford’s on-the-nose, quiet-loud beauty “Snowbound”. It’s not just the stunning melodicism and wistful words that make it so winning but the exceptional vocal by Phil Collins, who whispers, coos and bellows with extraordinary conviction throughout. Also, I love songs about snowmen (like this). I should note there are a couple of “just okay” songs which drag down my overall rating of the album, specifically “Ballad Of Big”, “Scenes From a Night’s Dream”, but they are still chock full of charm and so my quibbles are minor. 

Rating: 9 reindeer/10

Ranking: 3/15

Key Track: “Snowbound”

MATTHEW: Some Genesis fans might end a friendship over giving Wind & Wuthering a 5/10 (or a 10/10)! Me, I’ll forgive you, Hope. After all, with Wind & Wuthering as the gateway drug, I also then got hooked on And Then There Were Three. And doesn’t that put us back on the same page? But for reasons I have long forgotten, back in the day I put my favorite tracks from Three on mixtapes and listened to those more than the album as a whole. For example, “Many Too Many” is a oft-overlooked pop gem that featured on many a mix of mine. And while I dislike overt Christmas music (no more rock versions of “Jingle Bells,” please, or “Jingle Bell Rock” for that matter) I love songs that can be appropriated for the season—and “Snowbound” always makes my playlists of covert Xmas rock/pop. In retrospect, And Then There Were Three doesn’t quite hold together as smoothly as its 1976 predecessors. Did it lean towards pop and away from prog too much? Take “Many Too Many” again: seemingly mixed to be a single (which it was), rather than an expansive album track, it just begs for more from Banks and Rutherford. Does Hackett’s departure show? Or am I forever misled by my own teenage failing to absorb the album as a whole? Either way, it is a great album, still qualifying in my mind as a top five Genesis classic.

Rating: 9/10

Ranking: 5/15

Key Track: The gloriously anthemic and perfectly constructed “Undertow” (tell me, what do you think you would do then?), tied with “Snowbound.”

Duke (1980)

MATTHEW: Another masterpiece, perfectly balancing the threesome’s prog rock past and their pop rock future. The soaring melodies and satisfying hooks are more in evidence than ever, with none of the irritating moments that would mar later albums. As much as I love other tracks (especially “Duchess”), and although Side One (“Behind the Lines” through “Heathaze”) is one of those perfect Genesis album sides, I think the core of Duke comprises the middle four of its twelve tracks: Collins’ almost-poignant pop-perfect “Misunderstanding,” Banks’ sublime “Heathaze,” the trio-composed smash “Turn It On Again,” and Rutherford’s totally-poignant “Alone Tonight.” Only in wrong-headed retrospect does Duke anticipate the superficial pop of later Genesis and solo Collins albums. Yes, this launched the band into a new world of commercial success (first UK #1 album, first top 20 single in the US with “Misunderstanding”), but that doesn’t mean the album was a step in the wrong direction. On the contrary, the Genesis formula was here assembled with unimpeachable creative skill.

Rating: 10/10

Ranking: 2/15

Key Track/Cluster: “Misunderstanding” (but really all Side One: “Behind the Lines/Duchess/Guide Vocal/Man of Our Times/Misunderstanding/Heathaze”).

HOPE: Duke is a collection of exquisite anthems for and about “losers” (aka, all of us at one point or another), a cornucopia of awesomely tuneful, fatly chorused, oddly rousing heartbreakers built for those who prefer their angst to enter a room and make a scene rather than silently sulk against a wall  (“It’s not enough!”, “it’s driving me mad!”, “I don’t understand!”).  Every stage of romantic grief is honored with its own theme song. There’s unrequited love (“Misunderstanding”), rejection (“Behind The Lines”, “Alone Tonight”), obsession (“Turn It On Again”), as well as some resignation and resentment (“Please Don’t Ask”, “Guide Vocal”). There’s even a bit of decline and doom for fans of early Genesis (“Duchess”, “Cul De Sac”, “Heathaze”). Oh hell, it’s all great. And though I don’t believe there is one singular Genesis album that is markedly better than the rest, Duke is unquestionably the first album I’d recommend to new fans or curious space aliens. It’s just that easy. Lastly, as someone whose childhood dream was to “draw album covers for cool bands” when I grew up, I just want to take a minute to exult Duke’s sleeve art, which was adapted from a 1979 kids book by French Illustrator Lionel Koechlin called L’Alphabet d’Albert and features the titular green-suited Albert gazing moonward  in an exceptionally profound and moving manner that belies his goofy cartoon man appearance. 

Sidebar #1: Tony Banks often cites Duke as his favorite Genesis album (which reminds me, you know who has horrible taste in Genesis recordings? Phil Collins. But we’ll get to that later).

Sidebar #2: In 2019 producer-musician Steve Reidell covered the Duke album, right down to the damn sleeve art. It is sweet and fun as hell. Check it out here

Rating:10/10

Ranking: 1/15

Key Track: “Misunderstanding”

Abacab (1981)

HOPE: In my weirdo head, Abacab and The Police’s Ghost in The Machine are brothers. Bookends. Soulmates. Thrust into the world within weeks of one another, not only did they dominate my turntable at the same damn time but to my ears seemed to emit an eerily similar sonic vibe. Each featured a perkily cynical hit single that bore no physical resemblance to the tracks that surrounded it (“No Reply At All” for the Gens, “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” for The Police). Big swoonsome melodies were outnumbered by anxious drones and moans. Sentiments were cynical.  All of which is to say, neither album was particularly huggable or “fun”. Abacab occupies a bit of no-man’s land in the Gens discography, too popular to be a cult classic yet too gray and disjointed to have genuine universal appeal. No Abacab tracks found their way into the band’s 2021-22 tour setlist (though neither did any songs from Trick, which is a far more egregious crime).  Abacab is a cold factory of an album…and I love it.

While I genuinely dig the subtly aggressive, dolled-up krautrock of the title track, and the urgent horn-fest of “No Reply”, the album’s two best-known entities, they aren’t my Abacab all-stars. My biggest love is reserved for Tony Banks epic of madness or maybe Dr. Who, “Me And Sarah Jane” with its exquisite bridge (“First I’m flying, going round round round”, ooh), lovelorn Rutherford ballad “Like It Or Not” (not a very popular track, but me, I love an ascending guitar line always) and my all-time favorite Genesis song, the soaring, lustrous and bizarro “Keep It Dark” (no, seriously, this is the one). And I also want to offer praise to moody beauty “Man On The Corner,” a genuine dark horse in the Gens canon. This album would be a 10/10 for me if not for the presence of the ghastly “Who Dunnit?” which is some real McCartney II level bullshit. I’ve been moving the needle on this thing since 1981, back when I actually had to get up to do it (a herculean task for a teenager) and will continue to do so for as long as I’m still here.  

Rating: 9/10

Ranking: 4/15

Key Track: “Keep It Dark”

MATTHEW: Although we agree, Hope, on Duke, Abacab always struck me as less compelling. Just as Then There Were Three lacks the coherence achieved by its two 1976 predecessors (despite being almost as good), so does Abacab fail to hold together the way Duke does (despite having some great songs.) The title track is a great opener, a fine example of the pop-prog style perfected by the band in the early 80s. And “Man on a Corner” is a gem often overlooked. But I agree with the comment on the World of Genesis fan site, that “Paperlate” should have been on here instead of possibly the worst Genesis song ever, “Who Dunnit?” That said, for me Genesis’ golden age was 1973-83, and Abacab sits comfortably within that run of eight superb albums.  Its flaws only serve to highlight its strengths (as opposed to increasingly overwhelming the strengths, as happens with the 1986-97 albums).

Rating: 8/10

Ranking: 7/15

Key Track/Cluster: “Man on the Corner/Like It or Not” (back-to-back, deceptively melodic, seemingly-love songs that are actually dark songs of isolation and bitterness—very Abacab).

Genesis (1983)

MATTHEW: For me, there are three Genesis albums with stunning, pretty-much-perfect Side Ones: Selling England By the Pound; Duke; and this one. I still remember buying this on vinyl the day it came out, walking straight from a pub lunch to the nearest HMV with my mate Rob, each of us forking out for our own copy, then dashing back to his to soak, somewhat beer-addled, in “Mama” and in whatever else the three lads had come up with. And I still remember being dazzled by the deft balance of that menacing opening track with the Phil-pop of “That’s All” and the neo-prog brilliance of “Homes” (as we re-titled what is really a single, thrilling 11-minute track). But I also remember the let-down of what an uneven grab-bag Side Two seemed to be, from the throwaway, embarrassing goofiness of “Illegal Alien” to B-side level songs like “Just A Job To Do” (in fact, three of Side Two’s songs were B-sides to the album’s singles). Was it the afternoon hangover kicking in? Perhaps. I admit I have grown to be fond of “Taking It All Too Hard,” the way I like similar pop songs on the next album (e.g., “Throwing It All Away”). And the rest of Side Two grew on me, and still sounds pretty good (I love the reverse-playback effect on “It’s Gonna Get Better”). But all these decades later, I still can’t quite shake the feeling that Side One (10/10) is elevating me like a roaring great pub session, while Side Two (6 or 7/10) knocks me down like the hangover to follow. 

Rating: 8/10

Ranking: 6/15

Key Track: “Home By The Sea/Second Home By The Sea” (but really all Side One: “Mama/That’s All/Home/Second Home”).

HOPE: It was at this point in the story that Genesis stopped seeming “cool” to me. By 1983, I’d been officially swept away by the foxy and glamorous sea of Durans, Furs, and Culture Clubs and the Gens started feeling, and looking, more like Dads to me (unsurprisingly the appearance of this hot new blood killed my old Phil crush. Yeah, I had one.). Don’t get me wrong,  I still genuinely cared about the musical activities of my three Genesis Dads, just not quite enough to wear the tee-shirts anymore (I blame art school in NYC and teen hormones). Thus I still happily tumbled to the record shop to grab my “Mama”, the single released in advance of the album, because I was loyal like that. “Mama” is a hot, noisy factory of a song, hardly the most obvious or enticing piece of candy to relaunch one’s self into the pop charts. But holy shit, it ended up being the band’s highest charting UK single, rising all the way up to #4. Go Mama.

And as it turns out, it was the perfect establishing shot for what I consider to be the “Last Great Genesis Album” (yes, that’s a spoiler alert for what’s to come in this essay). Genesis (the album) has a definite vibe and mood, somewhere between an overheated machine and a hopeful hand on the shoulder. Representing the former are the pulsating, fab-proggy “Home By The Sea”, fab-angsty rocker “Just A Job To Do”,  fab-aggressively sky-busting  “SIlver Rainbow” and the aforementioned  fab “Mama.” On the empathetic end are the delicately self-flagellating and supremely tuneful “Taking It All Too Hard” and  simultaneously eerie and optimistic “It’s Gonna Get Better.” Every one of those tracks gets an emphatic thumbs up. I do hear what you’re saying Matthew about Side One feeling more emotionally energetic than Side Two, but gotta confess that I don’t care for “That’s All”. It’s a bit too cute for me (The Beatles “All Together Now” always pops in my head when I hear it, which is never a good thing ). And now I need to make a shameful true confession. When I first got this album, my favorite song on it was “Illegal Alien”. I didn’t care about the words, I just loved the tuneful tune. Yeegh. I can’t bear to listen to it now, but yeah, that happened. Right, gonna go sit in the corner and face the wall now.

Rating: 8/10

Ranking: 5/15

Key Track: “It’s Gonna Get Better”

Invisible Touch (1986)

HOPE: “Maneater”. “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go”. “Shout”. Every successful ‘80s era band has one. A song that for better or worse has come to define them despite the fact that it is not their finest hour. And there is no greater example of this than “Invisible Touch,” the most egregiously offensive and sinister betrayal of a great band’s history, ability and integrity ever. It is assuredly the song that is playing upon one’s entry into hell. Shit, that was fun. I’ve been waiting to say that forever. And oh yeah, it’s one of Phil Collins’ all-time favorite Genesis songs. Sigh. Right, I just f-ing can’t anymore, so let us now talk about the album this evilness crawled out from…

On the Wikipedia page for Invisible Touch, the album, there is an aerial photo of an empty Wembley Stadium with a caption mentioning that Genesis played four shows there in support of its release. This random (or sneaky clever) reference tells you everything you need to know about the album. Invisible Touch speaks solely in the language of “stadium”. It is a $50 tour tee-shirt and $15 beer of an album. It is vast and vague. I was still in full new wave mode when this album was released, but just as with the previous album, had remained loyal enough to purchase it…and still cared enough to be outrageously disappointed by it. “Tonight, Tonight,Tonight” is what this album could have been: big, melodic and ominous. But no, what we end up with is a sub-par Phil Collins solo album, one that is as synthetic and emotionally empty as that picture of Wembley Stadium. With the exception of the aforementioned “Tonight” and hooky little groover “Throwing It All Away”, the rest is invisible.

Rating: 3/10

Ranking: 12/15

Key Track: “Tonight, Tonight,Tonight”

MATTHEW: I certainly don’t love this album. I struggle to get through it without skipping tracks, and if I stumble across the title track on the radio I shudder and lunge to change the station. And yet, I can’t hate it either. I guess our relationship status is: it’s complicated. Why? On the one hand, “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight,” the album’s best track, is—as you eloquently say, Hope—wonderfully expansive, ominous, and yet tunefully catchy. Furthermore, “Land of Confusion” is quality pop-rock, “In Too Deep” and “Throwing It All Away” are catchy ballads, and I rather like “The Brazilian.” But, on the other hand, there are two problems. One is over-exposure. This was the first album (by anyone) to put five singles in the US Top Five (all peaked between #1 and #4, in fact, and all reached #22 or higher in the UK—where the album was #1). My life was divided between the UK and US in 1986-87, and the hits of Invisible Touch were inescapable on both sides of the pond. It was all too much. The other problem was that the early-80s tension between the band’s sound and Phil’s solo sound is resolved here, but not in an ideal way: Invisible Touch is a Collins solo album to which Banks and Rutherford make excellent contributions. To think of it as a Genesis album is to be forever irritated. But relabel your playlist or CD as COLLINS, INVISIBLE TOUCH, and it becomes easier to accept it as Phil’s second or third best album—and happily his most Genesis-like one!

Rating: 6/10

Ranking: 10/15

Key Track: “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight.”

We Can’t Dance (1991)

MATTHEW: I’ve tried. I really have. But my comment about Invisible Touch being a Phil album (admittedly a rhetorical exaggeration) is even more applicable here. In fact, it feels like an uneasy mix of Phil songs with Mike + the Mechanics ones—sometimes within the same track (e.g., “Driving the Last Spike”). In other words, this is the sound of a band gradually becoming less of one, and more a meeting of solo artists who used to make unique and brilliant records together. The result isn’t terrible, but too often it is irritating (especially “I Can’t Dance”) or dull, packed with Philler, and at 72” hard to get through. 

Rating: 4/10

Ranking: 12/15

Key Track:  A tie between the hits “No Son of Mine” and “Hold On My Heart,” but without much enthusiasm for either. 

HOPE: Oh Matthew, I concur (insert weary sigh here). This album has a distinctly ‘“Phil Collins in the ‘90s” flavor; slick as ice and festooned with big dollops of lyrical cheese. “I Can’t Dance” is a nightmare, irritating, unfunky, and painful (and not gonna talk about the “comic” synched-up strut the guys do in the video, because just f-ing no). The highpoint is unquestionably “No Son Of Mine,” which, while it features a typically shiny early ‘90s production, is still a fabulously infectious earworm and home to a swell, super-sticky Banks synth-line on the backside of the chorus. As for the rest, well, there are some genuinely appealing melodies living on WCD—the perky-subversive“Jesus He Knows Me”, candied hymn “Fading Lights”, rain-soaked ballads ”Since I Lost You” and “Hold On My Heart”— but they are mired by a dated, tinny and clinical production (and some occasionally shudder-inducing lyrical earnestness). Yes, this album is the sound of Phil fronting Mike + the Mechanics and that is not, nor will it ever be, a good thing.

Rating: 4/10

Ranking: 11/15

Key Track: “No Son Of Mine”

Calling All Stations (1997)

HOPE: Phil Collins left Genesis in 1996 (and returned in 2007 but solely for touring purposes). Calling All Stations is an album recorded by Mike Rutherford, Tony Banks, and Ray Wilson, former singer of the band Stiltskin, who was recruited to replace Phil Collins. While this album is credited to Genesis and thus an official part of the band’s discography, it is not a Genesis album. This is an album by the RBW band. Rutherford and Banks are wondrous songwriters and Wilson has a good voice but this thing has no fire in its belly. It is painfully faceless and forgettable, right down to its awful “computerized” front cover. The title track is an okay piece of AOR-style prog and the best song on the album, but I still have no desire to ever hear it again. If this hadn’t been marketed as a “Genesis” album would I feel more benevolent? No. This isn’t even a good RBW band album.

Rating: 2/10

Ranking: 15/15

Key Track/Cluster: There’s no point in pretending. The answer is none.

MATTHEW: There are some good moments here (after all, it’s Banks and Rutherford), but as a whole, this is painfully dull and a little irritating. Considering how divided the fan base was (and still is) over Gabriel or Collins as lead vocal, it would seem imprudent to have imposed a new vocalist on band loyalists. You’re right to ask, Hope, why market this as Genesis? Just as it helps to imagine the previous two albums as Collins solo records (albeit with his Genesis bandmates playing prominent roles), I think Stations goes down easier if you think of it as a Banks/Rutherford record.

Rating: 2/10

Ranking: 15/15

Key Track/Cluster: If I had to pick one, maybe “Shipwrecked,” but only if it was re-recorded with Gabriel singing, which is a hell-frozen-over scenario; so then, to follow Hope’s cue, none.

Extended plays/EP’s

MATTHEW: Both these EPs are worth owning in whatever format you can find (neither are on Apple Music, for example). “Pigeons” and “Inside and Out” are excellent outtakes from Wind & Wuthering, and fans might spend hours debating whether the latter should have been squeezed onto that album (as the departing Hackett wanted), or if both songs should have been included (Rutherford’s vote). Fun times (for us music nerds)! The other track on the 1977 EP, “Match of the Day,” is an embarrassing curio. The 1982 EP is also three outtakes, this time from Abacab, and likewise comprises one song that doesn’t work and two that do (I think “Paperlate” and “You Might Recall” are both better than the weakest moments on Abacab). More fodder for the Genesis-nerd debate over song selections for albums! I’d like to see both EPs re-issued in a single vinyl and CD package, but that seems unlikely as “Pigeons,” “Inside and Out,” and “Paperlate” are all on the Turn It On Again compilation. 

HOPE: I remember buying the Spot the Pigeon EP a year or so after its release, after some NY FM station played “Pigeons” during some Genesis special. I had no idea it existed prior to that (!). Anyway, I love, love the brazenly eccentric and uber-melodic “Pigeons”, a song that despite its common subject matter, is just a little too weird and twee to ever be regarded as a mainstream Gens classic (which is an achievement considering the zoo is overrun with Squonks, Hogweeds and Nemo’s). Not a fan of the other two tracks at all; “Inside and Out” shimmers sweetly enough but the tune isn’t terribly memorable. And while “Match Of The Day” is not the worst Genesis song ever, it definitely belongs in the bottom five (“So put on your hat and scarf, Have a drink, have a larf”… jeezus). 1982’s 3 x 3 EP is a different story as it is home to a couple of supremely solid tracks that  would have turned Abacab into a classic namely “Paperlate” and “You Might Recall” (trade out “Who Dunnit” and “Another Record” and voilà, a classic album is born). Okay, I’m underplaying things right now. “You Might Recall” is actually one of my all-time favorite Genesis songs. No, seriously. The wanting vocals, lush piano lines, the gorgeous tune, just love it to its bones (forever). And “Paperlate”, though essentially a less fancy version of “No Reply At All” is seriously catchy, fun and poppin’.

Live, Live, Live

HOPE: As of this writing there have been six official live albums released. My favorite is the least coherent, namely Three Sides Live, a selection of live tracks recorded on assorted tours from 1976-81 (I should note that the original U.S. version of the album also included the studio tracks from the aforementioned 3×3 EP). It features a handful of recordings from the Nassau Coliseum show in November in ‘81 which is one of the few genuinely “famous” shows I can “brag” about having attended. The ticket was an intensely lobbied for birthday gift from my Mom and my seat was in the second row behind the stage. I wasn’t too upset about the fact that the band were facing in the other direction, as I was just plain happy to be there (and Phil did turn a few times to acknowledge us rearview-ers, bless him). Whilst there, I bought three (jeezus) different tour tee-shirts so I could advertise to everyone in school the next day that “I saw Genesis last night.” If you were a teen in the ‘70s or ‘80s, this shirt routine was as crucial to the concert-going experience as the actual show and I cannot stress this enough. 

In homeroom the next morning, one of my schoolmates noticed my garish but wonderful new shirt and mentioned that she’d gone to the show too. “What did you think?” she asked. “Oh. I loved it” I innocently drooled. She shrugged back, “ I didn’t, he talks too much”, him being Phil. Now while he’d offered up several lengthy and marginally comedic song intros during the show, I hadn’t been remotely bothered by his loquaciousness, because you know, I was in love with Phil. I of course did not share this little truth nugget. I knew she wasn’t gonna get it. And so I just cut my losses and caved in like a souffle. “Yeah, I know” I wussily concurred. 

November 29, 1981, Nassau Coliseum

Here’s Phil sensing my presence behind him and over his right shoulder that special night.

But even if I hadn’t been there, I suspect I’d still be exulting this thing as it is home to absolutely wondrous versions of “Misunderstanding” and “Turn It On Again” (the former from an ‘81 show at The Savoy in NYC, the latter from the aforementioned Coliseum gig) . They showcase Phil at the peak of his vocal powers and feature some raucously fabulous ad-libs. In fact, they are so good they come damn close to obliterating the studio versions.

I’d rank the live albums in this order: (1) Three Sides, (2) Seconds Out, a gorgeous document of the first tour starring Collins on lead vocals that features a thundering version of “The Lamb Lies…” and an especially swoonsome “The Carpet Crawlers”, (3) Genesis Live (1973) which is less about the actual setlist for me, and more about the then 23-year-old Gabriel’s staggeringly impressive voice (though admittedly, I rarely listen to it). The rest of the live releases are for completists only and while I won’t get on a soapbox for it, I will say that (4) Live Over Europe (2007) contains a superb version of “Ripples”. As for (5) The Shorts (1992) and (6) The Longs (1993), they exist. To be honest, when it comes to Genesis live, there are tons of inifinitely superior unofficial/unreleased recordings floating around on YouTube I would encourage you to go forth and explore first. To get you started, have some of this.

MATTHEW: Of these six live releases, I’d rank them very roughly in this order: (1) Three Sides Live, for its energy, coherence, some memorable versions (e.g., as Hope mentioned, “Misunderstanding”; also “Abacab”!), and its nice mix of 70s classics with what was then very recent 1980-81 songs. (2) Another double-LP, Seconds Out (1977) is a riveting selection from their ‘76 and ‘77 tours that likewise has some outstanding live versions of studio favorites (e.g. I think “The Carpet Crawlers” is better here than on Lamb). (3) Their earliest, Genesis Live (1973), is a 5-track single LP that is notable for its great version of “The Musical Box,” perhaps better than the studio original, and the same is arguably true of its Gabriel-on-steroids rendering of “The Knife.”  (4) Live Over Europe (2007) is certainly worth a listen, but only for serious fans, as it lacks the energy and coherence of the above albums, and the trimming down of “Firth of Fifth” always irritates me, as if the inclusion of pre-1980 material were cursory (is that a fair criticism?). And that leaves (5-6), The Shorts (1992) and The Longs (1993), because while this parsing of the catalog is better than Apple Music dividing it into “prog era” (to ‘76) and “pop era” (‘78 on), it still vandalizes the artistic impact of the creative mix of short/long and prog/pop over the decades. For me, one of the great virtues (perhaps the greatest virtue) of seeing Genesis live is experiencing that mix, and how well it works—including the 2021 show I saw in Pittsburgh, a treat made bittersweet by Phil’s apparent frailty.

SIDEBAR: The Last Domino? 2021 Tour Show Reviews!

HOPE: Matthew and I both attended shows on the North American leg of the tour and figured as we were talking about the live stuff, why not offer our highly personal and idiosyncratic reviews of what went down on those, (spoiler alert) magical and bittersweet nights. Okay, let’s start to roar…

MATTHEW: The first third of the show I saw comprised ’80s and ’90s tracks. I began to wonder if the whole tour was aimed at fans like the woman behind me, who, throughout the concert and between every song, yelled “In The Air Tonight!” Bless her heart. But the rest of the gig was split evenly between ’70s and later songs, still too heavy on Invisible Touch for my taste, but executed by an amazing band. Their skill and energy (from Phil’s son on drums to the Phil-filling backing singers to the ageless Banks and Rutherford) made for a thrilling night, but also highlighted how cruelly illness has made Collins prematurely geriatric. Bless him for being there. Like you, Hope, I was moved and grateful.

HOPE: On November 29th, 1981, my Mom dropped me off at Nassau Coliseum on Long Island to see Genesis for the first time. Fast forward to December 6th, 2021, and there I was again, nearly 40 years to the day I’d seen them for the first time, watching Genesis at MSG for the last time (well sort of, I ended up going to the second MSG show too because my heart insisted). While these shows were ostensibly celebrations, it was heart-wrenching to see how frail Phil was, having to perform sitting down and walking with a cane.

I admit I had some problems with the setlist but hey, as an old fan, that was to be expected. Five freakin’ songs from Invisible Touch, three from We Can’t Dance yet no representatives from Trick or Abacab? What the hell? But honestly, I was just grateful to see them, hear them and be part of the crowd showering them with love one last time. And okay, I confess to doing some discreet crying, though mostly of the slow-moving single tear down the cheek variety. I couldn’t help it! Who in hell would cry during the bombastic and booming “Behind The Lines”? That’d be me, because I’m just weird! I’d also like to call out how cool it was to hear “Duchess” and “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway”, the latter especially because it was happening in NYC (I don’t need to tell you how much NYer’s freakin’ love singing about themselves). My number one chill-inducing moment was hearing the whole of MSG bellowing “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight” at the top of their lungs, because just wow. I have no words for how outrageously moving that felt.

Compilations

HOPE: At the turn of the century from 20th to 21st, CD’s were the dominant physical format. I was working in a big mega-music store in NYC during those CD salad days and can confirm that compilations like 1999’s Turn It On Again were the lifeblood of every two-fer sale we ever had. They weren’t for hardcore fans. They were mainly for dabblers who just wanted to bask in the familiar and have something to play in the car or on the boombox at the barbecue or beach. Of course, as Genesis fans are completists by nature and the comp featured a new version of “The Carpet Crawlers” with Gabriel and Collins duetting, many hardcores were forced to cave in and buy it. 

As of this writing the two bestselling Genesis albums on Apple Music are the aforementioned Turn It and the 3-disc Platinum Collection from 2004. The latter is arranged in a way that makes me bristle, as it begins with the ‘90s stuff and works backward…but it remains a good overview for the uninitiated (although it does contain my ex, the devil otherwise known as “Illegal Alien”). All bitchin’ aside though, these two collections do serve a purpose and are pretty focused content-wise i.e. easily digestible.  

The other two collections exist solely to draw attention to bigger, more ballyhooed events thus feel a bit half-hearted. 2004’s R-Kive was released as a companion to the (just okay) BBC doc Genesis:Together and Apart and featured tracks from the band as well as a bunch of solo work. The hits are here, but the whole thing goes off the rails because of its idiosyncratic, unfamiliar to most, solo offerings (Gabriel’s “Signal To Noise”, Collins “Wake Up Call” etc.). 2021’s The Last Domino?, released to coincide with that same year’s tour is another collection built to appeal to the casual fan, especially those who prefer the latter day Gens, but isn’t remotely essential.

MATTHEW: I’d rank these in this reverse order: (4) Turn It On Again: The Hits is, as you say, an easy way to get tracks that are not on studio albums (like “Pigeons,” “Paperlate,” and that version of  “The Carpet Crawlers”).  But with dreck like “Illegal Alien” and “I Can’t Dance” scattered throughout, it’s not for anyone who likes the band enough to buy actual albums, especially a listener who prefers the pre-Invisible Touch records. (3) The Last Domino? is a better selection, but really for casual fans (e.g. who only own Invisible Touch and were dragged by a more serious fan to a 2021 concert and enjoyed it). (2) R-Kive is a bad title but a great idea—a 3-CD chronological sequence of 22 Genesis tracks with a selection of 15 solo numbers—but the selection is odd. That is inevitable, as such things are rather personal, and given that fun task we would all choose a different set of songs. Still, R-Kive can’t decide whether it is a hits collection or a deeper dive, and as a result is satisfactorily neither (I’d love a 6-CD version that traces the band/solo history in depth). (1) The selection on the 3-CD PlatinumCollection is not dramatically different from the other compilations, but it is slightly better and—most interestingly (or annoyingly, if you’re like Hope!)—is a reverse sequencing (from “No Son of Mine” back to “The Knife”). This is the only one I listen to with any regularity, and even then it usually just prompts me to play an actual album or two.

Box Sets

HOPE: The two Archive boxes are built to appeal to hardcores and completists. They are esoteric and honestly, a bit off-the-wall but feature a plethora of cool artifacts that make them worth owning. That said, I definitely prefer the Phil-centric Volume 2 over the Peter-centric Volume 1. Yes, here we go again. I’m sorry.

Archive Volume 1 is home to a live recording of the entire Lamb album,  recorded in 1975 at LA’s Shrine Auditorium as well as some loose bits and pieces of live stuff from ‘73 and a disc of late ‘60s demos. If you are a Gabriel-era stan, then hell yes, it’s a party. As for me, I appreciate its value as a historical document but have never been into it and rarely listen to it (okay, I confess, I never do). I far prefer the company of its younger, cuter brother. Archive Volume 2 features selected tracks from the aforementioned EP’s, plus a few b-sides, live scraps and, most thrillingly, rarities like “It’s Yourself”, a gorgeously shimmery b-side that never made it to A Trick Of The Tail (ooh, seriously ooh), and fat stadium anthem “On The Shoreline”, a song that had it been included on We Can’t Dance would have improved it ten-fold (or at least five-fold). Archive Volume 2 is chock-a-block with intriguing oddballs and makes for a fun, bizarro and rewarding journey.

But the Archive collections were just a tiny prelude of what was to come. 

From 2007 through 2009, there were five wonderfully comprehensive, multi-disc Genesis box sets released. To break it down in layman’s terms, one box was devoted to the Gabriel era albums (1970-1975), then there were two separate ones covering the more lengthy Collins-helmed and beyond era ( 1976-1982, 1983-1998), which were followed by slabs devoted to the live stuff (Live 1973–2007), and filmed output (The Movie Box 1981–2007).  These robust little monsters were packaged in cube-shaped boxes equipped with little pull-up trap doors. Each had a tiny hardback book inside. Each was a different color, meaning they looked like an art project when seated next to one another on a shelf. They were cds and dvds, yes, but they were also toys for Genesis nerds. As for their deeper contents, care was taken. There are remastered versions of all the studio albums as well as remixed versions of the live releases plus extra discs of rarities and videos. Concise, attractive, remastered, recommended. 

MATTHEW: I missed this boat—or rather, fleet of boats—having paid insufficient attention to them at the time, and to acquire them all now would cost four figures. But they are clearly compulsory for hardcore fans, due to the inclusion of goodies like demos, B-sides, and live material not on previous releases. The concept is very similar to the David Bowie “era” box sets, which are superb; I get the impression from your summary, Hope, that these rise to that standard. I doubt I’ll be able to resist any that come my way at a good price (to which you, dear reader, can no doubt relate)!

Solo Albums & Side Projects

MATTHEW: To borrow the title of a minor Mike + the Mechanics hit, everybody gets a second chance.  And for current and former members of Genesis, that really means everybody

HOPE: And to borrow the title of a Genesis song we both love, the result is many too many. When Matthew and I initially talked about doing this piece, we were unsure about how to broach the solo and side-project stuff because there was just so damn much of it. And so, for the sake of everyone’s sanity, we’ve decided to streamline this section.  Instead of an exhaustive breakdown of every individual solo release, we’re just going to offer our own personal overviews of each band member’s solo discography

Peter Gabriel

MATTHEW: We’ve already busted the myth of Gabriel’s exit as the great watershed in Genesis history. But here’s another kick at it: the first two (possibly three) Genesis albums after his departure are more prog and closer to Gabriel-era Genesis than Gabriel’s own solo albums are. Right off the bat, his first record is not prog at all; stylistically eclectic and recognizably Gabriel, but nonetheless a pop/rock album propelled by a catchy pop hit single (“Solsbury Hill”). Of his first four albums (all infamously named Peter Gabriel), my two favorites are that first one (aka Car, 1977) and the third (aka Melt, 1980); I’ve loved them from the start, and even today cannot connect in the same way to the second and fourth (aka Scratch, 1978, and Security, 1982). His best-known and biggest selling album, So (1986), deserves its success; it’s a brilliant and original pop album. Us (1992) is also excellent but less accessible. After that, Gabriel’s soundtrack albums work better than his studio projects. In sum, a fascinating catalog that always remains true to Gabriel’s creative vision (whatever that may be!). 

HOPE: I feel guilty. Because while I recognize that the string of self-titled-nicknamed solo albums Gabriel released from 1977-1982 are adventurous and eccentric pieces of pop music art, I don’t really like the songs…in their original studio form. As nonsensical as it sounds, my favorite Gabriel album, the one I’ve listened to most in my life, is 1983’s Plays Live which features highlights of assorted shows from the tour that had taken place the previous year. From the melancholy pulse of “No Self Control”, to the audience participation in “On The Air”, the live versions have an emotional fire emanating from them that I just don’t feel in the studio versions. Yes, I know it’s weird. And to alienate everyone even further, I also don’t care for So (1986). It is a brilliant and original pop album Matthew, but with the exception of epic opener “Red Rain”, So’s overexposure has killed any of the charm it once held for me. Yes, I’m even tired of  “Don’t Give Up”, and Kate Bush is my lord and savior, so there you go. I may be Satan. 

The post ‘80s Gabriel catalog is a bit hit and miss and more about individual tracks than albums for me (“Digging In The Dirt” from 1992’s Us is still a nasty, brilliant blowtorch of a song, “My Head Sounds Like That” from  2002’s Up is also hypnotically, brutally beautiful). And though they aren’t on the daily hit parade, the Gabriel helmed soundtracks for Birdy (1985) and Passion: Music for The Last Temptation of Christ (1989) are stunners, built for contemplative solo listening sessions and offering perfect musical accompaniment for your most unhinged and mystical  daydreams. Lastly, I need to shout out the Shaking The Tree (1990) hits compilation because it features an exquisitely beautiful re-recorded piano version of “Here Comes The Flood” that mere words cannot possibly do justice to.

Phil Collins

HOPE: Phil Collins’ first three solo albums, Face Value (1981), Hello I Must Be Going (1982) and No Jacket Required (1985) are by far his finest. While Phil’s eccentricities and his sonic ties to Genesis are audibly present on this initial triumvirate of LPs, so too are his sweet, soul inclinations (horns, Motown flavors, verse-chorus-verse). Alas, after this, it was straight off the cliff. It’s weird to call something “excessively commercial” these days (that concept has become as obsolete as “selling out” has), but I can’t think of a more accurate description of what a Collins album sounded like from 1989 on through the 2000s. After those first three records, Phil stopped making wonderfully weird pop-prog-lite music and instead dove headlong into the limo and headed straight to the stadium. There would be no more songs about disturbing eavesdroppers like “Thru These Walls” or embraceable bits of rustic cosplay like “The Roof Is Leaking”. From now on it was a lot of overblown schmaltz (looking at you ”I Wish It Would Rain Down”, also sorry Matthew, I know you love that one!) and faceless synthetic fodder (“Both Sides of the Story”). 1996’s Dance into the Light with its horrific cruise ship party vibe is the least tolerable. I can’t really align Phil’s highly successful forays into kids soundtracks to Tarzan (1999) and Brother Bear (2003) with his standard solo excursions but acknowledge they do possess some nice moments.

I hate being one of those people who characterize an artist’s early stuff as being markedly better than their later stuff as I know what a nerdy cliche it is. But in this case, I think it’s true. Still, holy hell, Face Value, what a treasure.

P.S. One last thing! 1981’s multi-artist Amnesty International sponsored live recording, the Secret Policeman’s Other Ball features proto-unplugged versions of “In The Air Tonight” and “The Roof Is Leaking”…and they are both wondrous.

MATTHEW: Off the cliff? Yes! Unlike Gabriel, the Collins story is more typical of a solo career: a stunning debut album, destined to be a classic that he can never match (I’d even rank Face Value as a notch ahead of So, as the best album by a Genesis member); followed by steadily diminishing returns. That said, not everyone will agree on the shape of that downward curve or on when it reached the cliff edge. For me, the third album, his most commercially successful (No Jacket Required, 1985), smacks a tad too much of the same mid-80s blockbuster sheen that mars Invisible Touch. I prefer the second (Hello, I Must Be Going!, 1982) and fourth (…But Seriously, 1989; the combination of Collins’ vocals, Eric Clapton’s guitar, and the gospel choir on smash hit “I Wish It Would Rain Down” is pure bliss). The fifth, Both Sides (1993) is the last album before the cliff drop, and it’s on the edge (at worst, it is pleasant; at best, it’s his most personal record—forgive the cliché—since Face Value, albeit far from as good). After that …the cartoon soundtracks work better than the remaining studio albums. ‘Nuff said.

HOPE: Lastly, though I genuinely tried, I find the albums Phil recorded with Brand X, the jazz-fusion group he was briefly a part of in the late ‘70s, to be a bit too wanky and impenetrable. I know that’s kind of the point, but yeah, if the glorious Phil wasn’t able to spark the growth of a fusion-appreciation gene in me, I’m pretty sure no one ever will.

Mike Rutherford, Tony Banks & Steve Hackett

HOPE: Like most fans, after I’d scooped up all the Genesis, Collins, and Gabriel albums, I began exploring the rest of the gang’s solo albums. While as a whole they are more of a mixed bag, there are some worthy treasures to be found if you are up for a bit of digging. Mike Rutherford’s 1980 debut solo album was named for and inspired by an obscure, grim sci-fi 1965 novel by Peter Currell Brown called Smallcreep’s Day (I did read it and I did not like it). The blurb on the fabulous Burning Shed label website calls this album “an unexpected traditional Prog masterpiece.” It is not a masterpiece (!) but I will acknowledge there are components within it that are pretty exquisite. The nearly 25-minute (!) suite that occupies the whole of side one has three “mini” songs that are amongst my most-played of the entire Genesis solo album catalog; the  tuneful synth-washed instrumentals “After Hours”, “Smallcreep Alone” and twinkly ballad “Between the Tick & the Tock”. Rutherford delegates the album’s vocal responsibilities to singer Noel McCalla because, well, Mike can’t sing too good. “Overnight Job” and “Time And Time Again” are also damn fine prog-pop songs (both have an appealing Alan Parsons Project flavor). Anyway, if you like Duke, there’s a good chance you’ll dig some Smallcreep’s. Despite his aforementioned limitations, Rutherford bravely takes on the role of lead vocalist on solo album number two, Acting Very Strange (1982).  While his scratchy wail is an, ahem, acquired taste and the songs don’t come near his best work, it is home to fun ‘n’ manic, Pete Townshend-esque banger “Halfway There.”

I don’t hate Mike & The Mechanics and actually find a few of their songs to be quite handsome (ballads “Taken In” and “If I Were You”, synth-pop hit  “Silent Running” specifically). But then, that’s the thing; at their core, they were a singles band, like ABBA or yes, Queen (albeit a less fun and glamorous one). With that in mind, I can’t whole-heartedly recommend one of the 9 (!) studio albums, but I do encourage a nice cherry-picking session for the curious. There are enough cool tracks to assemble a pretty marvelous M&M masterpiece mixtape. 

Steve Hackett is extraordinarily prolific and as of this writing has released close to 30 solo albums, the contents of which are all over the map ( prog-pop, blues, classical, endless mountains of live performances). He also dipped into the supergroup thing and formed GTR in partnership with Yes’s Steve Howe in 1986 ( their sole album went gold in the U.S). 1977’s Please Don’t Touch is my favorite Hackett solo album by miles. Richie Havens provides vocals on two songs and they are absolutely sublime; “Icarus Ascending”, an epic prog-pop wonder, and “How Can I”, a super lovely Beatle-esque acoustic ballad. And gotta mention soul diva Randy Crawford’s star-turn on the lustrous ballad “Hoping Love Will Last” which is right up there with Richie’s contributions. 

Like Collins and Rutherford before him, Tony Banks’s debut solo album A Curious Feeling (1979) is his finest. It’s a consistently solid, mostly filler-free effort and features some fine vocalizing from late singer Kim Beacon (In terms of delegation, Tony couldn’t have made a better or more canny choice). I especially love dramatic, spacy instrumental “From The Undertow,” wistful wonder “Lucky Me,” progged-up ballad “In The Dark,” and handsomely-hooky “For A While” (a should’ve-been Genesis song if there ever was one).  

About Anthony Phillips, Genesis founding member/ lead guitarist from 1967-70: I have never really dug into the Phillips solo catalog thus am not qualified to comment on it. I don’t know, I’m just not as into the early Genesis sound of which Phillips was a prime architect and so haven’t felt super motivated to explore. But hey, if anyone wants to recommend anything in particular, I’m open to having a go!

MATTHEW: I hear you, Hope. As a fan of Genesis, as well as solo Gabriel and Collins, over the decades I have periodically dipped into albums by the other band members. There I have found some great tracks—from hit singles to FM favorites to hidden gems. After all, Banks, Rutherford, and Hackett are incredibly talented and skilled musicians. If pushed, I’d say that the best Hackett albums are his first three (1975-79), the best Banks album is his first (A Curious Feeling, 1979), and the best Rutherford album is Mike + the Mechanics (1985). But with respect to all three of these musicians, I never connected with whole albums or became a genuine fan. Still, I recognize that their catalogs are deep and worth exploring; in fact, I recently discovered the excellent Hackett live album Selling England By the Pound and Spectral Mornings: Live at Hammersmith (2020). I love that the Gen/ex-Gen artists all have fervent followers, and I’m always happy to listen to tracks or albums suggested by fans. Enthusiasm for music should be shared (not contested)!

In Conclusion

HOPE: This was a hard piece to write. Not only because of how vast the Genesis discography is, but because, like a lot of you, I’d lived with their music for so damn long that it was hard to actually explain what was so great about it. How do you accurately describe albums and songs you’ve listened to for decades, hundreds, maybe even, okay, thousands of times? Why do you like chocolate? What’s so great about the ocean? 

Going up to my room as a young one, and listening to a newly acquired Genesis album was always an ecstatic experience for me (hello my fellow nerds and Matthew!). I vividly remember the first time I placed Abacab on the turntable and that sensation of not knowing what to expect or where it was going to go. And isn’t that the best feeling? It’s also one of the greatest things about Genesis, that even as they grew in popularity, they never stopped surprising, and remained consistently, wonderfully weird until the very end. For every song about heartache, there was one about the pigeon population…or an obsession with a sex worker…or a hermitted creature that hides in the woods. 

We’ve had years to get used to Genesis not making new albums. We all sensed the finality at a certain point. But until Phil’s announcement that the band’s London show in March of 2022 was to be their last, it didn’t really hit home that Genesis were over and done for a lot of people, us included. But I have no complaints, just endless love forever. 

And hey, Invisible Touch tee-shirt guy, I’m sorry for judging so harshly; I know in my heart that you are my brother.

MATTHEW: These journeys we make through the deep catalogs of bands like Genesis are really a way to ponder the long and winding road of our own lives (you once said something to that effect, Hope, somewhere here on Picking Up Rocks). But whereas past moments in our lives are just that—passed—the music that accompanied them remains alive, affecting us in different ways as we revisit, relisten, and reflect. The richer that catalog, the more we gain from that process of exploration. And the catalog of Genesis albums, combined with the solo albums of past and present members, is extraordinarily rich. It is a stunning treasure chest. Whether you know it well (and know more about it than we do, as I’m sure many of you do; hello Nigel from Surrey!), or whether you’ve read this far out of mere curiosity (hello woman who thinks “In the Air Tonight” is a Genesis song!), I urge you to lift the lid, climb in, and be dazzled.

Our Top 5 Genesis Albums (in chronological order)!

HOPE: Selling England By The Pound; A Trick of the Tail; And Then There Were Three; Duke; Abacab

MATTHEW: Selling England By The Pound; A Trick of the Tail; Wind & Wuthering; And Then There Were Three; Duke (some days Genesis beats out And Then There Were Three)

Our Top 10 Genesis Songs (in chronological order)!

HOPE: “Ripples”; “Snowbound”; “Say It’s Alright Joe”; “Misunderstanding”; “Turn It On Again”; “Pigeons”; “Keep It Dark”; “Like It Or Not”; “You Might Recall”; “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight” 

MATTHEW: “The Musical Box”; “The Carpet Crawlers”; “Firth of Fifth”; “Ripples”; “Afterglow”; “Blood on the Rooftops”; “Snowbound”; “Duchess”; “Mama”; “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight”

Our Top 5 Solo Songs (in chronological order)!

HOPE: Hackett, “Icarus Ascending”; Mike Rutherford “Between the Tick & the Tock”; Phil Collins, “I’m Not Moving” and “In The Air Tonight” (live version from 1981’s Secret Policeman’s Other Ball); Gabriel“Here Comes the Flood” (1990 version)

MATTHEW: Gabriel, “Here Comes the Flood” (1977 and 1990 versions); Collins, “In the Air Tonight” and “If Leaving Me Is Easy”; Gabriel, “Sledgehammer “; Collins, “I Wish It Would Rain Down.”

We thank Genesis for absolutely all of it ❤️

And thanks to you reader friends, shine on 🌟

The Edge Of Seventeen: The Albums of 1980-1981—Then and Now

“When I was seventeen, it was a very good year,” or so that old Frank Sinatra song goes. In my case this sentiment only applied to the records I bought. Which is of course the most important gauge as to whether or not a year was “good”. Step into the PuR time machine as historian Matthew Restall & I (Hope) bravely venture back to 1980 and 1981, our 16th and 17th years of life (for real). Join us as we revisit the albums that were soundtracking our respective graduations to “adulthood” and compare our favorites. It’s time to address their role in all the humbling escapades and misguided daydreams that unfolded as they played. Do they still sound good? Did they ever?! In the web that is our own, we begin again….

Now The Reason We’re Here…

MATTHEW: Think back to the year you turned 17, to the albums of that year and the year before. Perhaps you agree with us that your relationship to those albums exists on three levels. There is the music you listened to then, and how you felt about it then. How you feel about those albums now is the second level. And the third level comprises albums you missed or ignored or hated back then, but now appreciate or even love. Our conversation below will meander through those levels. Our selections aren’t claims to authority, to listing the biggest or best. Instead, we celebrate the wondrous complexity of our intimacy with music—from the edge of 17 to forty years on.

HOPE: We don’t get to choose when or where we make our entrance into earthly life, which means you get the pop you get. Missed the birth of punk? The fever of disco? Being blown away in real time by Sgt. Pepper, Pet Sounds or Blue? Too bad for you then (uh, me). Here, have some Jefferson Starship, loser. Use this  “Bette Davis Eyes” to soundtrack your pivotal, traumatic teenage years. Let Kenny Rogers teach you about love. And hey girl, “Don’t Stop Believin”. That’s right mofo, it is 1981, you are 16, and this is what you get. This is your musical year zero, the soundtrack to all the overwhelming, nonsensical thoughts exploding inside you as you awkwardly transition into adulthood, reality and mortality.

But seriously, I am not disappointed to have come of musical age in 1980-81. In fact, I feel kind of lucky to have turned 16 and 17 when I did, and hopefully everything about to be spilled will explain why. I wouldn’t trade my Year Zero for any other.  Matthew?

MATTHEW: Sure, there is a part of me that wishes I had been in my late teens in the London of the late-’60s, or during the rave scene of the early-’90s. But in the end it is hard to beat the explosion of musical creativity that made 1977-84 so exciting. So, I feel extremely lucky that those were my 13-20 years. And that 1980-81 were my sweet 16-17 years. If I could go back and change anything, I wouldn’t change my Year Zero; I’d just pay more attention this time.

HOPE: If I had to pick my Top 10 or 20 albums ever, the pop soulmates whom I want by my side for the rest of life’s journey, at least half of them, no exaggeration, would date back to the years of 1980 and ‘81. Yes, that’s a high percentage of faves to be stuffed into such a small span of time. But they were albums and songs that entered my life beginning at the tumultuous age of 16, so it kind of makes sense. I mean, the music that soundtracks your teenage years is traditionally the stuff you’re most bonded to and feel the most sentimental about. Then again, I first became acquainted with them in high school and—gonna be blunt here—I f-ing hated high school. And I wasn’t too crazy about myself at that point either…so why in hell would I still want to listen to stuff that I came to know when things were not so great? It’s because I still feel this weird kind of hope when I hear them, this sweet possibility. When things felt bad, they offered up a little, “hey you never know” and they are still capable of evoking that feeling, it’s just in them.These albums expertly soundtracked countless absurd, unrealistic, never-gonna-happen daydreams, and they played right along, validating and reassuring every emotion. They were the best and definitely the most glamorous friends I had.

Let’s Get Physical…

HOPE: How would I describe the 1980-81 version of myself? An awesome combination of scared and sad. Perpetually concerned for my physical safety (not paranoia, like for real, taking alternate routes home real) and sad because I was a weird, “otherly” nerd—shy, badly coiffed and predictably sensitive with a grand total of one friend. Yes, just the one, thanks. Plus my family was in the midst of some major, traumatic upheaval. Every day I would come from school, grab my snack (Yodel or Ring Ding chased with Hawaiian Punch, uh, yum), then head straight to my room to cry before General Hospital came on. “Why can’t I be like everyone else?” was the repeated mantra I would weep along to in my head. Yes, I know, I know. I’m still impressed to this day at how disciplined I was regarding my misery ritual. I literally trained myself to stop weeping just before the show began at 3pm. Just a tight 15 minutes of tears and then it was soap time.

There was actually a benefit to being a lone wolf, though at the time I didn’t recognize it: I was free. What I mean is since I had no one to impress and there was no direct peer pressure, I could indulge my personal taste with complete impunity and explore all kinds of music without fear of judgement. I was obsessed with Casey Kasem’s Top 40 radio show and every Sunday morning would listen with rapt attention, tape recorder pushed up against the speaker at the ready for any new tunes that caught my ear. Then there was the nascent FM radio as well as a parade of “rocking” magazines with Creem, Rolling Stone and Trouser Press being my main squeezes.

All of which is to say my favorite albums back in the actual years of 1980-81 were very suburban white girl. Okay, she was a weird off-kilter one but she was definitely willing to eat whatever she was served by the major record labels and then some. Nearly every album or song I loved in 1980-81 was attached to a crush of some sort and/or soundtracked some outlandish romantic daydream. To be clear the crushes were not solely on schoolmates but on actual dyed-in-the-wool rock stars. I wanted Sting and Phil Collins (no really) with the same fervor I had for specific  actual human schoolmates I was in real life contact with.

MATTHEW: Our teen lives were, in so many ways, totally different. By 1980, I had been in boarding schools in England for eight years. Was I miserable? Not anymore. Sure, I had suffered as a small child in such schools. Who didn’t? And even in my teens, I had my struggles with self-doubt, with anxiety over the pressure that I felt to succeed academically and fit in socially (being completely shite at every one of the dozen sports we were forced to play). And British boarding schools of the 1970s were violent places (1980 was the year I was given “six of the best” by the headmaster, a formal caning on the bare arse that by today’s standards was a shocking ritual abuse; and yet, violence amongst us boys was far worse).

But all that aside, I mostly loved my final school years (1980-82), and central to that was music. The school came with extraordinary privileges, and that included the opportunity to play in the school orchestra (flute), jazz band (sax), and a series of crappy rock bands (keyboards; sax; the fool). Being obsessed with pop music was normal, and it was acceptable to have both very specific tastes (my friend who was nicknamed Elvis—after Costello, not Presley—mostly just played JJ Cale and Linton Kwesi Johnson) or eclectic ones (I was teased gently, but not bullied, no kidding, for liking everything from Barry Manilow to The Sex Pistols). For all our privilege, we had little cash and limited mobility, but there was a thriving internal market in used stereo equipment, and we feverishly swapped, borrowed,and taped albums. The school where I was in 1980-81 had 800 boys (and 60 girls; yes, that’s another story), and most of them had some records or cassettes or both. So, why did I latch onto some albums and not others? And given how different my life was from Hope’s, were the overlaps and differences in our pop music worlds predictable?

Masterplan, Masterplan, Masterplan ! 

MATTHEW: How did we create the discussion that follows? Not very scientifically. We made very long lists by diving into our memories, our collections, and our devices. We exchanged lists, trimmed them, listened (a lot), and started the conversation that follows here (in edited form). Albums appeared and disappeared, often for no good reason (e.g., Hope introduced me to Dan Fogelberg’s The Innocent Age, which I’d never heard, and I picked up a vinyl copy for a buck and grew to really like it—and then it didn’t make the next cut; The Human League’s Dare was in my top ten for months, and I have no idea why it ended up getting only passing mention). No doubt the choices would be different if we were to start from scratch (to turn it on, turn it on again . . .).

The Albums

Genesis: Duke (1980); Abacab (1981).

PeterGabriel: III (Melt) (1980).

Phil Collins: Face Value (1981).

HOPE: So…I think Genesis got better once Peter Gabriel quit the band in 1975. Significantly better. Once detached from the confines of Gabriel’s cryptic conceptual costumed creations, the melodic impulses of the remaining band members, Mike Rutherford, Tony Banks, Phil Collins and Steve Hackett (he until 1977) were finally able to run unencumbered and free. Based on my “keen” observation over the years, where a person stands in the Gabriel era vs. Collins era is generally determined by their age and gender.  Hence as a wistful, daydreamin’, crushed out  teen girl, I was all about the latter day version of the band—aka the Phil years—that ran from 1976-83.

I should mention that I lusted after Phil Collins. I had a magazine photo of him cooing into a mike with his eyes closed whilst sporting a Vancouver Canucks hockey jersey pinned to my wall. I thought he was a total babe. I know how weird and f-d up that sounds but we’re all friends here. And my adoration went well beyond merely gazing at my pin-up “boy”, oh yes it did. My sketchbooks from the time are filled to the brim with overly flattering pencil drawings of rakish, romantic Phils.

But to be clear, the music is what drew me in and to my ears, the two albums released in 1980-81 Duke and Abacab mark the dual pinnacle-peak-high points of the band’s entire discography. When these albums were released, there was a bit of bitching from purists about their overt poppiness and brazen radio-friendly vibes, especially in regards to Duke’s “Misunderstanding” and the Phil dictated-curated horn-fest of Abacab’s “No Reply At All.” But to my ears, shedding the indulgent, fantastical fairytale-concept album tendencies of the Gabriel years and replacing them with romantic, lovelorn, intrinsically weird but gorgeous pop songs was progress. Goodbye freaking “The Return of the Giant Hogweed,” hello anthemic animal “Turn It On Again” (now that’s progress!). I still adore both albums, but I want to call out “Keep It Dark” and “Like It Or Not” from Abacab  and “Misunderstanding” from Duke in particular; it’s been 40 years since I met them and they still completely own my heart.

A drawing of Phil Collins by teen Hope. Fancy a stroll on my estate luv?

MATTHEW: Genesis was better after Gabriel left? In some circles, Hope, those are fighting words. But I’m with you on this. Sure, there’s much to appreciate in the first six albums (1969-74), and the later albums (1986-97) have their virtues. But for me they all pale compared to the glorious middle six albums (1976-83), of which Wind & Wuthering and Duke are my favorite. There’s been much written on the band’s conscious decision to shift from ‘70s prog rock to ‘80s pop rock, alienating many old fans but gaining millions of new ones—with the great leap being the jump from Duke to Abacab.  To my ears, however, the transition is more gradual through this middle-six period. And that may be why Duke appeals so much: it has a foot in each genre; it’s the sound of a band incredibly accomplished yet still reaching for more.It is also a sibling to the Collins classic, Face Value, with which it shares a track and other well-known elements. Your teen crush on Phil is endearingly hilarious, Hope, and although I can’t claim the same, I certainly fell hard for his debut solo album. From start to finish, I loved it then and still do. Among my school friends in ‘81, the album created a division between devotees of Face and those who insisted Peter Gabriel’s third eponymous album, released nine months earlier, was better. Popularly known as Melt, the album was—and remains—a high point of Gabriel’s career. It was also the first time Collins used the gated drum sound (yes, Phil drummed on a few tracks for his old band mate, and his sticks are the very first thing you hear on Melt); that sound was soon made famous by “In the Air Tonight” (the opener to Face, offered and rejected as a Duke song). If you’re our age, you can easily imagine how my friends and I made and remade Reconstructed Genesis mixtapes, trying to find the perfect Face-Melt and Melt-Face-Duke-Abacab hybrids. Inevitably, we concluded the four were already the perfectly crafted corners of an endlessly captivating musical square. (Yes, we know Rutherford also released a solo album in 1980.)

HOPE: I loved Face Value! I was also so firmly ensconced on the Phil side of the fence when the album was released that it didn’t even occur to me to listen to Melt. I sensed it was cooler to be into Gabriel, I mean he was reverentially referred to as “Gabriel” by the press and music nerds alike, like he was a genre unto himself. But what Phil was serving up was far more edible to me. I rarely listen to the whole Face much at this point. I just stick with a handful of faves. I still especially love the demo-ish bouncing ball that is “I’m Not Moving,” the b-side to the album’s eternally fab first single “I Missed Again” which, as such, got played to death in my eagerness to get my money’s worth of the whole 7”.  And I do quite like Phil’s horn-infused redux of Duke track “Behind The Lines,” as well as upbeat sweetheart “Thunder and Lightning.” And while I respect the cult of “In The Air Tonight,” these days I prefer the solo live version of the song on 1981’s Secret Policeman’s Other Ball compilation album, which also features a wonderful take on Face’s “The Roof Is Leaking,” with Phil play-acting the American rustic pioneer trying to survive to perfection (listen here). (P.S. I really like Rutherford’s 1980 solo album Smallcreep’s Day, but side one is taken up by a 7-song suite that lasts 25 minutes, and the nerdom required to appreciate and sit through that is damn hefty.)

Roxy Music, Flesh & Blood (1981).

David Bowie, Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (1980).

MATTHEW: Our feelings about a band and its catalogue—which albums we love more, which ones we tend to play less or forget—are no doubt influenced by commercial and critical success or failure. But I agree with you, Hope, that a more significant factor may be personal to us (especially us as teenagers): the moment when we discovered a band, when their music clicked with us, when a particular album struck a chord (as it were). For example, I had been a little young for the first phase of Roxy Music (1972-75; I liked the singles but found the albums a little inaccessible). But I was converted by Manifesto (1979), and Flesh and Blood made me a fanatic. It was a #1 smash in the UK that summer, a soundtrack for the season, one that I also played all through the school year that followed—doing schoolwork to it, falling asleep to it, making tapes of it for girls (yes, its smooth, silky charm struck me as a seduction tool—and I wasn’t wrong, albeit mostly in my dreams). The dismissal of second phase Roxy (1979-82) by critics only made me love F & B more, and I’ve always adored it even over its yet-smoother sequel, Avalon, which the critics conceded wasn’t half bad (its critical reputation has continued to grow). Thanks to F & B, I’ve been addicted to Bryan Ferry’s croon ever since.

HOPE: I secretly like coming in at the “wrong place” in an artist’s discography, going down the road less travelled because you don’t know any better…or in this case, when opportunity knocks. I met Roxy’s Flesh and Blood in the Record World bargain bin where a year or so after its initial release there were fat stacks of it at the insanely cheap price of $1.99. It was totally worth it. “Oh Yeah” is just so infectiously gorgeous, as are “Same Old Scene” and the title track. Also, “seduction tool”…you were one classy lad Matthew.

MATTHEW: As David Bowie liked to say (with a mockney accent), “Oh, you don’t know the half of it!”

We are so fickle, as fans, as listeners. Entering the ‘80s, I was a follower of numerous top-selling artists who had emerged in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and whose albums on vinyl or cassette were heavily represented in my small but rapidly expanding collection. I’m thinking of Elton John, Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Foreigner, and Queen. They all released albums in 1980-81, and some I liked a lot (The Game and One-Trick Pony could well have made my short list), some I grew to appreciate much later (The River), some wore thin quickly (4 and Glass Houses), some had one good side and one that I never played (21 at 33), and some helped nudge me away from an artist for many years (McCartney II; see here for Hope and my blog on all the Macca solo albums). And then there was John Lennon’s Double Fantasy, which I felt obliged to like but actually seldom played. But even if I didn’t completely ignore those artists (at least not yet), I ceased to be as enamored of them as I had been just a year or two earlier. If I played them at all, I was far more likely to play an older album; they were no longer at the top of the vinyl pile and at the forefront of my chatter about music with my pals. What has this to do with David Bowie? He was, of course, an exception.
Bowie was a god in my home, worshipped by my sister from childhood. There was Bowie, and then there were all the other musicians in the world. Likewise at school, it was ok to have opinions about bands (after all, we lived to argue about music), but with respect to Bowie, merely “really good” was the most critical position allowed. Until Lodger. I defended the so-called third Berlin Trilogy album. But it seemed to many to reveal that Bowie was a fallible mortal after all. Then, a year later, came Scary Monsters. And a monster it was. It was heard everywhere. In Britain, the album and “Ashes to Ashes” were both #1, and “Fashion” was #5 but felt like the biggest song on the album—as if it was pointing the way forward to something huge (which it was: the entire UK New Wave and New Romantic wave that would flood the UK and then swamp the US charts). It’s a coherent pop album that rocks. It showcases Bowie’s songwriting and singing skills, as well as some perfect guest choices (Robert Fripp’s guitar!). The best Bowie albums felt ahead of their time, directing the future, not merely reacting to the moment. On those grounds, this is one of his best (for me, top five).

HOPE: Oh my God, can I just give a quick nod of approval regarding Paul Simon’s One Trick Pony, if only because it contains my all-time favorite song of his, the heated and lonely prayer that is “How the Heart Approaches What It Yearns”?! Anyway, I did not purchase Bowie’s Scary Monsters until years after it was released because, and this is criminal, I didn’t really get into him until around 1983 (heathen!). And while I liked “Ashes To Ashes,” I wasn’t quite intrigued enough to fork out for the single either (though I now believe it to be brilliant). Truth be told, I don’t really like Scary Monsters, it’s too jagged and anxious and just not melodic and romantic enough for me. I prefer David’s pop-glam-soul stylings. I was and always will be a Young Americans kind of gal. 

MATTHEW: I get that. I have no patience with the haters of Let’s Dance. Slick-pop Bowie isn’t worse than rock-pop Bowie, just different. I even like Tonight. A lot. I listen to it far more than, say, Aladdin Sane; just as I listen to Duke more than early Genesis; and just as I listen to Some Girls and Tattoo You more than Exile on Main Street or any of its predecessors. Why? Partly because I’m a pop kid at heart, and partly because of personal-age timing—which is what this blog is ultimately about, right?

The Rolling Stones: Tattoo You (1981).

HOPE: Okay, so I had a huge crush on this girl in my art class, who in perfect rom-com style symmetry was my main competition for teacherly praise. Unfortunately it was 1980 and at that point in history it wasn’t 100% cool to be open about these sorts of (queer) feelings if you were a kid growing up in conservative leaning suburban environs. Plus I was a shy loser so like no, it was my total personal secret. Of course, as the heart is stronger than the head, there was some seriously passive aggressive “pursuit” happening anyway. How do you get close to your crush if you are a pop nerd? You find out which bands they like, get some albums and then “casually” initiate conversation about said bands. We were already reasonably friendly, meaning she was genuinely nice to my nerd arse and as complimentary about my work as I was of hers (she did this one pencil drawing of Jack Nicholson that was so ridiculously good that I still regard as one of the finest pieces of art I’ve ever seen and rank it right up there with Géricault’s “Raft Of The Medusa”). Anyway, she loved the Stones. Though I owned a few albums, at that point I was mostly indifferent (Beatle girl here). Then in 1981 the stars aligned; the same time I was liking the girl, the Stones released Tattoo You, arguably their last great album. And off to the record store I ran. And surprise, surprise, I really liked it. The eerie and gorgeous “Heaven,” the silly drawl of  “Tops,” and the wondrous “Waiting On A Friend” (still wanna marry that Sonny Rollins sax solo), all were just so damn good. Right, so there was a back room in the art department. It was sort of a storage area but was off-limits and locked most of the time. It had a dirt floor. We weren’t supposed to go in there but one day it was open…and so my crush and I snuck in to have a look. While I had no intention of making a move I did cease the opportunity to bond. As we were fledgling artists in a room full of art supplies it was clear what needed to happen. We would paint our names on the blank cement wall of the secret room for posterity.

I boldly got some paint and made the first move. I painted out in big letters “Rolling Stones” which was basically my way of saying “I love you” without actually saying it. She then shyly took the brush and added “gather no moss,” which, okay, was a clever twist on my desperate attempt at kissing up to her and maybe her own way of impressing me. We then each wrote our names (or was it our initials, can’t recall) and the year “1982” (yeah, it was the year after). Bonded forever (tattoo you baby!) or so I thought. I remember writing in her yearbook soon after “I enjoyed vandalizing the storage room with you !” adding that her future success in the art world was, wait for it “just a shot away” ( the fabled lyric from “Gimme Shelter”). Jeezus, did I work that Stones muscle hard. Anyway, I believed this was the beginning of a beautiful love story (start me up!) but alas it was not to be. We went to the movies once soon after, me with delusions of “forbidden” romance, her with, well, I don’t know. Sadly she didn’t return my calls after this one excursion so, yeah, I was forced to move on (“she’s a mean, mean machine”). 40+ years later, I do wonder if that graffiti is still there, I mean I hope it is. Hey, you still awake? Anyway this album is completely intertwined with that ridiculous memory and I still think it’s sloppy-gorgeous and play it all the time. It continues to be a gift and because of that I both forgive and thank my wannabe dream girl.

MATTHEW: I really hope that graffiti is still there (and that the art-class girl went on to a happy life). I too was in the Beatles camp as a kid, enjoying Stones hits but failing to appreciate the albums until I was older (when they’d stopped making good ones). I had recorded Some Girls and Tattoo You onto the same cassette (Emotional Rescue lost out, no idea why), played it when I was hanging out with Stones fans, and viewed the two as equal (rejecting the claim, then and now, that Tattoo was inferior because it comprised “leftovers” from Rescue and earlier). Then, many years later, I heard “Slave” again, and it blew me away. What a bass line! What a brilliant, hypnotic song! It led me back to the album, and to the band, which I enjoy now in a way I didn’t at the time. (Tattoo You is re-issued in October in six different format packages.)

The Police: Zenyatta Mondatta (1980); Ghost in The Machine (1981).

Dire Straits: Making Movies (1980).

MATTHEW: If Genesis and the Stones were long-established British bands who seemed to go charging into the ‘80s (and surely we could not have known how one would turn pop with wild success, then implode, while the other would settle into a kind of stately mediocrity for another four decades and counting), then bands like The Police and Dire Straits were British bands who seemed to be defining rock at the turn of the ‘80s. Both entered 1980 with two hit albums under their belts (although Sting’s band was bigger, especially in the US, than Mark Knopfler’s—whose stratospheric international success would come after Sting had gone solo). In Britain, these albums and their hit singles were inescapable in 1980-81. If I wasn’t playing them myself, I could hear them coming from some other boy’s room at school (our “rooms” were divided by thin wooden walls that stopped before they reached the ceiling, producing a cacophony of competing rock and pop every afternoon after classes ended).

HOPE: In keeping with most of my favorite albums of the 80-81 era, I was somewhat in love with the artist(s) responsible, in this case Sting (duh). I bought two copies of every magazine he and the band were in so I could cut one up and affix the best pics in a fat scrapbook that I would look at while the records played ( You did this too, right Matthew?). Okay, so while we can all agree that The Police never made a bad album, if I were ranking the five studio albums Zenyatta would come in last for me. I played it constantly when it was new but the two mega singles, “Don’t Stand So Close” and “ De Do Do” really did, and still do, dwarf the rest of the tracks. I should add that my favorite song on the album back in the day was the chirpy-acerbic “Canary In A Coalmine” but that whatever charm it initially held for me has completely worn off. 

While I liked Zenyatta straight away, I wasn’t so sure about the album that followed. The first time I listened to Ghost in The Machine I was seriously disappointed. It wasn’t melodic enough for the sonically immature sugar addict (me). Oh how I’d I looooved “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” the album’s biggest single, but it turned out to be the poppiest confection on the whole thing. It had clearly been used Hansel and Gretel style to get me in the house and I felt cheated. Ghost was, as a whole, a pretty dark, cynical and somber affair which would have been fine had there been monstrous hooks attached to its bleak world view. And so while I did end up playing it pretty regularly, it was still The Police after all, I was never that emotionally invested. 

Fast forward 40 years later and what the holy hell, it is now my absolute favorite Police album. It appears that age has made my aural palate more sophisticated (sort of) meaning unlike teenage me, fat candied hooks are no longer mandatory in order for me to enjoy something (mostly). And in the context of all Police albums,  the obligatory ego-sating tracks offered up by Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland are by far their finest, especially the former’s “Omegaman,” a gorgeous tornado that is arguably one of the best Police songs ever period. Fun fact: I saw them twice (!) on the Ghost tour, purchased concert tees with the album cover logo and had no idea the red graphic represented-depicted the bands faces until years later because I am stupid.

The LED lights depict the faces of The Police. For years I thought they represented a sideways view of each band member holding his respective instrument. Tragic.

MATTHEW: For me, The Police never made a bad album, but nor did they make a perfect one.  All six (1978-83) were close to each other in quality, two-thirds of the tracks excellent, a third just ok. I too prefer Ghost over Zenyatta, Hope, but only just. Some will find this outrageous—or maybe just too obvious—but I always thought Sting’s contributions were superior to the tracks contributed by Summer and Copeland; I even made mixtapes that comprised the best Sting songs on Police records, giving them names like Regatta Mondatta. For that reason, these Police albums weren’t on my final short list. Whereas Making Movies was high on that list, because I was a massive fan of the first four Dire Straits albums (1978-82). I won’t say more here about Making Movies, as Hope and I have rated all the Straits albums in a separate blog on PuR, which you can read here.

HOPE: As for Making Movies, while I was enamored with the groovy weirdness of “Skateaway” (both the song and its super foxy video), it took a minute for me to appreciate it as a whole. And apart from a couple of filler tracks,  it’s damn good. Still despite its wistful horniness, something I could sadly relate to in 1980, it played no role in my life until the following decade. I think I subconsciously considered it to be a record for boys, if that makes sense. There was more instrumental noodling than pop-ified soulful desperation. And back then, it was all about the latter (which all the stuff we’re writing about here has made painfully obvious to me).

Daryl Hall & John Oates: Voices (1980); Private Eyes (1981).

HOPE: I’ve already spilled a lot of words regarding my love for H & O within this website you are bravely perusing right now. In 2020 I wrote a piece called Maneater: A Love Story, which you can read here, where I rated all their albums, exulted the achievements of John Oates and attached homoerotic subtext to assorted songs and performances in an extremely cringeworthy fashion. Upon reading it, two members of a Hall & Oates Facebook group commented that I was “long-winded” which I’ve decided to spin into the more positive characterization of “passionate” because the piece was fueled by years of pent-up emotion so you know, I had a lot of stuff to say (insert wind sound here). Anyway, within that piece, I wrote a whole lot about both Voices and Private Eyes which respectively represent the bronze and gold medalists of the entire H & O discography (with 1982’s H2O being the silver recipient). I love every jittery-electro-new wave-soulful-anxious-plush pop bone of both albums and still listen to them both on a regular basis. I should clarify, these albums are in no way “twins.” Voices is a leaner, weirder and art-ier affair, a mix of infectious singles and FM radio ready bizarro deep cuts, while Private Eyes is a slick, shiny, neon hook factory, home to many a luscious chorus but with a bit less quirk than its predecessor. As cartoonish as they can seem (“because your kiss is on my list”), they still to this day reduce me to a daydreamin’, besotted 16-year-old every time I hear even a smidgeon of either of them.

MATTHEW: I’ve listened to a lot of Hall & Oates in the last year, Hope, thanks to your “long-winded” (no!) piece on PuR, and have come to appreciate their unique brand of witty, quirky, catchy, American-variant New Wave pop. When they get the formula right—as they do on the eight US hit singles on these two albums—they really get it right (the classic H&O combination of slick sound and slightly comic lyrics on “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” never gets old). But that was partly why I never got deeply into these albums. I still have the tape I made of Private Eyes (yes, it’s the best of these two) and H2O, but I am pretty sure I transferred the singles to mixtapes and played those more, largely ignoring the albums. Another reason why my connection to these albums was superficial: my friends and I weren’t quite sure what to make of them. There seemed to be some sort of inside joke to the relationship between Daryl and John, conveyed in the songs perhaps, but we weren’t getting it. So, if I was going to take a break from English synth pop and play North American pop-rock, I was more likely to listen to the awesome A side of REO Speedwagon’s Hi Infidelity (1980) or to Journey’s Escape (1981)—both sledgehammer rock albums without a hint of subtle wit or elusive inside jokes. 

HOPE: And that’s the thing, right? Girls were more into Hall & Oates than boys were. They weren’t meat and potatoes “rocking,” their double entendres tended to be a bit clever and Daryl was exceedingly pretty, hence they were regarded with suspicion …meaning if you were a guy who was into them, you were suspect too. And I get it, but that suspicion was a crucial part of what made the Hall & Oates engine run as hot as it did for us chicks, especially me (I wrote about these “feelings” in painful detail in my aforementioned essay too because, you know, we have no secrets here).  For the record I was not remotely charmed by REO…but I did have a major Journey epiphany post 1981 which you can read about here. Honestly, I kind of love them now. Yeah, I said it.

Christopher Cross: Christopher Cross (1979).

MATTHEW: As this came out in December of ‘79, it’s impact was 1980-81 (beating another end-of-‘79 release, The Wall, for Album of the Year Grammy in ‘81). I loved “Ride Like the Wind” enough to buy the album on cassette. But what really got me into it—or rather, who—was my girlfriend’s Spanish aunt. We visited her in Madrid in the summer of 1980, when she flogged her cassette of the album without mercy, joyfully singing along in her Madrid accent. That should have made me hate it, but to my 16-year-old mind, the aunt was incredibly hot, and my crush spilled over onto the record. I’ve never stopped listening to it, and I think it holds up very well—thanks in part to the superlative skill of the two dozen musicians who contributed to it. My crush fizzled fast, but I still fancy the slick Christopher Cross.

HOPE: Right, I am never not going to think of “hot Spanish aunt” anytime I ever hear this again now, ha…which based on the frequency with which I listen to this thing will be freakin’ tomorrow. I love this shiny, sleek. impeccably performed piece of romantic West Coast candy and Cross’s mellifluous, bellowing voice beyond all reason. I too, have never stopped playing this album, I mean, there is not one bad song on it. Plus he duets with late cult hero Valerie Carter on “Spinning” which is beyond sublime to me.  And if that weren’t enough, in an interview with Songfacts, Cross said “Ride Like The Wind” was based on the “big jam in the middle of Paul McCartney’s ‘Nineteen Hundred And Eighty Five’ (from 1973’s Band On The Run album)”…and that he wrote the lyrics whilst tripping on acid during a drive from Houston to Austin, Texas…all of which I can totally get behind.

Stephen Bishop: Red Cab To Manhattan (1980).

Robbie Dupree: Robbie Dupree (1980).

Rupert Holmes: Adventure (1980).

Marty Balin: Balin (1981).

HOPE: I was a total sucker for the melodic bearded straight boy slickness that dominated the U.S. Top 40 in 1980-81. Technically this stuff falls into the nerdy sub-genre of West Coast, but these days it’s more commonly referred to as “Yacht Rock” (read why I hate that characterization here). Stephen Bishop: Red Cab To Manhattan, Robbie Dupree: S/T, Rupert Holmes: Adventure, and Marty Balin (of Jefferson Airplane/Starship): Balin all spent substantial amounts of time lodged on my turntable. While these albums weren’t technically built for teenage girl consumption, they all did some serious winking in that direction. In Marty Balin’s video for his Top ten hit “Hearts” (here), it’s abundantly clear he wants ladies of all ages to covet his mature rock elder statesman arse (literally). In what was now officially a disturbing trend, I drew a pencil portrait of the Balin album sleeve to honor my “love.” I wish to God I still had it, if only to shake my head and wonder what the holy hell I was thinking.

All four of these albums not only feature a fair amount of sex (rear entry metaphors, frigidity cures, no I’m not making this up) but are rife with some seriously quirky storylines (prison, murder, suicide). There are also, unsurprisingly, a lot of allusions to women who have yet to graduate from their respective educational institutions. And if that weren’t enough, all of these fantastical, scary notions are wrapped in the most melodic wrapping paper imaginable (hooks, hooks, hooks) with nary a rough edge to be seen. Of the four albums, Bishop and Holmes are by far the weirdest and most musically adventurous while Dupree and Balin serve up more traditional sounds (as well as supply a bit more filler). I should note that my absolute favorite track out of everything on offer here is Dupree’s wistful pop horndog and former top 20 hit  “Hot Rod Hearts” which I feel is necessary to share a verse of:

Schoolgirl brushes her hair back

Blue jeans can’t hide the bare facts

Bad boy knows where to find her

Runs the light, sneaks up behind her

Yeah, you get it.

MATTHEW: When you told me these four were on your list, Hope, I listened to them all, expecting one or two to ring a bell. After all, I was vaguely familiar with each of them, I could name (and hum) each one’s biggest hit, and I was (and still am) by no means averse to a little Yacht—I mean, West Coast. But I can honestly say I’d never heard these albums before. Considering I was in school in England, that’s not surprising, as these four had a hell of a time getting airplay or sales in the UK. As far as I can tell, no Balin or Bishop or Dupree single or album charted there. Ever. Rupert Holmes had more success in the UK: his huge 1979 US hits, “Escape” and “Him,” also went Top 40 in the UK; and their parent album, Partners in Crime, did well enough that I had a tape of it. But its follow-up, Adventure, was as invisible in Britain as all the records by those other three artists. So, listening now, what do I think? In terms of their quirkiness, both lyrical and musical, I’d rank them Holmes, Bishop, Dupree, Balin. And in terms of listenability, the same. Because although there’s a gem or two on each album (as you say, Hope, hooks galore, and lots of smoothness), it’s the odd combination of moments of sweetness with moments of (sometimes creepy) sex-obsession that ultimately make these entertaining. Perhaps I favor Holmes over the others because I’m familiar with Partners in Crime, but he seems to be in a superior category of inventive songwriting. I doubt I’ll spend much future time with Balin or Bishop or Dupree, but Holmes deserves regular revisiting—and not just Adventure but the full 1974-81 run of seven albums ending with Full Circle (1981) (which didn’t make your short list, Hope?).

HOPE: Sadly, I’m not a fan of Holmes’s Full Circle. It totally missed the bullseye tune-wise for me which is surprising considering the timeline. Still, I do love its f-ing terrifying album cover (see here).

James Taylor: Dad Loves His Work (1981).

Jackson Browne: Hold Out (1980).

HOPE: Dad Loves His Work is technically JT’s divorce album (he and Carly Simon officially separated a few months after its release) but at least half the tracks fall into the trademark JT “aw shucks” storytellin’ category so it’s not remotely a pity party. I admit I know this album backward and forward but it’s only because like anyone who came of age pre-CD and streaming, I was too lazy to get up to move the needle and skip songs I didn’t like while the record was on the turntable back in the day. And so I would just let it play through hence I knew the lesser lights as well as the shooting stars. And to be frank I have no patience for the lesser lights at this stage of my life. I really only listen to the album’s most romantic and optimistic confection “Believe It Or Not” and harmony-fest “Hard Times” on a regular basis. They still rule. I also kinda like “Summer’s Here” which is basically a pastiche of a JT song with its allusions to flip flops, cold beer and swimming pools (you can say “yeegh” here, I totally get it). I think it just reminds me of my hazy childhood backyard (minus the pool, beer and flip flops) which is a good enough reason to play its corny ass.

MATTHEW: I do love that analysis: that in the vinyl age, we grew to like albums because we were too indolent to get up and shuffle in our flip-flops over to the turntable. Can you, dear reader, relate to that?! I certainly can.
I was a greatest-hits-only Taylor fan until Hourglass came out (I know, 1997, very late to the party), and soon after that I saw him play at Tanglewood, and I was blown away. I went back through his whole catalogue, discovering real gems and a few clunkers—like this one. I always loved “Her Town Too,” but never connected to the rest of it. And when I realized what the album title meant, I thought, “what a wanker!” Talk about weaponizing the children. Oh right, so Carly didn’t love her work too? As for Jackson Browne: “Stay” (from the previous album, Running on Empty) had been his first (and still his only) Top 20 hit single in the UK.  I loved it and the album too (which I picked up during a summer in the US; it was not a hit in Britain).  But Hold Out failed to grab me; I suspect I gave it only one or two listens and moved on (my loss?). (By the way, I had tickets to see Taylor and Browne play in New Orleans together in the spring of 2020. Thanks, pandemic, for blowing that, you viral bastard.)

HOPE: I’m not going to defend that album title!  Right, so Jackson Browne, yet another hot boy who caught my eye (I was easy pickings back then). Honestly it took me years to really appreciate Browne’s Hold Out, meaning I filed it away pretty quickly after buying it. Yup, it turned out the album didn’t sound as good in my teenage bedroom as it did in the record store at the mall (wasn’t that always the way?). Mind you I wasn’t alone in my disappointment as the reviews weren’t all that kind either, with Rolling Stone’s characterizing it as  “the weakest record he’s ever made.” Despite that it became his first full length to reach number one (and wasn’t that always the way?). But I was aligned with the critics on this one, thought it sucked and filed it away in my little record cabinet. Anyway, at some point in the ‘90s, I decided to revisit this “weakling” called Hold Out, which was still in pristine condition from lack of human contact…and what the hell, I loved it. It took fifteen freakin’ years for me to finally appreciate its lustrous ruminations on lost love, lost friends and lost souls and the oddly upbeat arrangements they were swathed in. Hold Out shouldn’t technically qualify as anyone’s favorite JB album especially as the five that preceded it were pretty exquisite. It’s 7 songs that truth be told all sound kind of similar. It’s awash in that very particular late ‘70s LA studio sheen that to some might seem a bit, I don’t know, ball-less. Yet it is unquestionably my most beloved Browne-work. To quote a line from one of the album’s two (!) title tracks, “I love you. Just look at yourself, I mean what else would I do?” 

Kenny Loggins: Alive (1980).

HOPE: My local library had a vinyl section where you could check albums out just like books. I could not afford this two LP behemoth at the time of release and so would regularly borrow it. Yes world, you could keep your Live At Leeds, At Budokan’s, and Fillmore East’s, none of them held my attention the way this slick, insidious bearded monster of an album did. For one thing it really brought home Kenny’s heartthrob status, something I’d only been tangentially aware of until then. I mean I thought he was hot ( someone please hose teen me down already) but to hear real life ladies actually screaming for him was inexplicably revelatory. And make no mistake, Kenny is well aware of his ‘hot troubadour’ status and works it hard throughout Alive, deliberately infusing every ballad with breathy wonder and supremely calculated moments of falsetto (I’m onto you Loggins, you manipulative and foxy bastard). This album oozes a very particular West Coast energy, like a light cloud of weed smoke wafting through a breezy arena, and is full of that very particular pin-up romance nerdy teen girls like me were/are extremely vulnerable to…and I still f-ing love it.

MATTHEW: Listening to this album for the first time is like walking into a room full of people, someone’s telling a story that is making everyone laugh, and you have no idea what’s going on. But you really want in on the fun. Live albums were big business in the ‘70s (improved tech made them sound better, they were cheaper to make than most studio records, they helped bands meet contractual obligations, and they lured fans to gigs). The trick of the mix was to keep audience response audible without drowning out the music. In the end, it was hearing the sound of collective rapture that made those albums compelling—and that’s what drew me to David Live, Frampton Comes Alive!, Wings Over America, Live Killers, and that Bee Gees album (Here at Last…) about which you’ve written eloquently, Hope. So, although I missed Loggins’ Alive, hearing it now for the first time and recognizing only half the songs, I get it. Everyone in the room is laughing. And that makes me want to laugh too.

AC/DC: Back in Black (1980).

Pat Benatar: Crimes of Passion (1980); Precious Time (1981).

MATTHEW: Talking of seeing bands live . . . our first rock concerts, the ones we caught as teenagers, become woven into our still-developing brains. Regardless of how much we cared about those bands then or since, their music at that moment forever has some meaning. That, of course, is why I’ve made AC/DC and Pat Benatar an unlikely pair here. For reasons long forgotten, my first two rock concerts were these two artists, both in England in 1980.

AC/DC made albums for me and my friends. At least, that is what it seemed like to us, from High Voltage (released in the UK when I was 12) through Highway to Hell (out the year I turned 15). Not us specifically (we weren’t that deluded), but us as schoolboys, gleefully picking over the puerile lyrics, air-guitaring and mimicking Angus Young’s duckwalk up and down the school corridors; after all, we were already wearing more or less the same uniform he wore! Bon Scott’s death early in 1980 was a shock, as was his replacement by Brian Johnson and the release of a new album that summer. Too quick and too soon? Any such thoughts evaporated the minute we heard Back in Black. We couldn’t believe how good it was. It was one catchy riff and one arena-ready chorus after another. As for that concert: my younger sister and I took a train down to Southampton that November, and as we walked to the theatre the pubs started disgorging roaring drunk AC/DC fans, who climbed on—and then broke up—the flimsy chairs as soon as the opening bars of “Hells Bells” opened the show. I had expected a rock concert to be loud, but not quite that loud and full of such mayhem, and I hadn’t anticipated how bad it would smell.

HOPE: You will be thrilled to know that the smell was alive and well decades later (I’ll explain in a minute). In 1980, AC/DC were just a logo to me. I didn’t hate them, I was just kind of indifferent. I wasn’t interested in “rocking,” no, I was more into swooning like a lovesick cow over whomever, and AC/DC was not sonically suited to soundtracking my flowery fantasies. It wasn’t until the 21st century (yes, it really took that long) that I woke up to the infinite power of “Hells Bells” and came to appreciate all the dumb sweet horny sleaze that Angus and crew had to offer. My awakening/epiphany was the direct result of an AC/DC show I saw at Madison Square Garden in 2008 which to this day remains the loudest concert I have ever seen there. It was absolutely soul-rattling. Having to wear earplugs in an arena seems ludicrous but I literally had to, the sound was deafening. That night the volume, alcohol and mystery drugs worked seamlessly as one, generating the most physical mayhem amongst audience members I have ever witnessed at a show to this day. I saw multiple people “being sick”, involving lots of hair being held and innumerable backs being rubbed. There was literally an attendant walking around with a mop before and after the concert. Upon seeing this I naively asked my friends, “why are they mopping the floor right before the show, what’s there to clean up? Oh, okay.” I watched in amazement as a woman a few rows in front of us was taken out on a stretcher, while the band were playing, after she’d become incapacitated after partying just a little bit too hard. It was all very disorienting and disgusting and it totally smelled…but it was also awesome. The next day, with my ears still ringing I finally, finally bought Back In Black. I finally f-ing understood that AC/DC were in fact life.

AC/DC at MSG in 2008. Call 911. And go get a mop.

MATTHEW: Superb! I love that your 2008 concert experience wasn’t that far removed from my 1980 one. Different time and place, same riffs and odors. A year after that concert, AC/DC released For Those About to Rock, and I caught that tour in London. Neither the album nor the show were bad, but it wasn’t quite the same. I was 18 by then, and you know how much difference two teenage years can make.My memory is of seeing Benatar live in Reading in the 1979-80 school year. But I can find no record of her ever playing in Reading, and in fact prior to 1983 she only played two shows in the UK, both in London in 1980. So much for memory. That still makes Pat my first rock concert. And it explains why I don’t recall the audience (in retrospect, surely a tame bunch compared to the malodorous Mongol horde that were AC/DC fans).  All I recall is the thrill of seeing Benatar up there in person, live, singing in real time, not on my record player! What made it all so good—the live show, the first three albums (of which Crimes of Passion was and still is, for me, the best)? Was it that Benatar was just so damn hot (like a less grubby version of Joan Jett, still sexy-tough but probably a little more polite)? Was it her voice (it seriously rocked but also had astonishing range; four octaves, I think)? Was it Neil Geraldo’s wailing guitar? Was it the Inka-temple-stone tightness of the rhythm section? I wasn’t sure back then, although whatever it was seemed less in evidence as her subsequent ‘80s albums became less rock and more pop. I did eventually feel guilty about my teenage lusting, especially after I read her autobiography and understood how much she battled the toxic sexism of industry executives. But it also became clear why the early albums were so compelling: the tension in the romance between Benatar and Geraldo was channeled into their writing, singing, and playing: what I was hearing in her voice and his guitar was a sonic mating ritual.

HOPE: Don’t feel guilty Matthew. If we’ve learned anything from this essay thus far it’s that teenagers, regardless of gender, are disgusting horndogs. I wasn’t really interested in Pat in ‘80-81 but that had less to do with her than it did with my preference for male artists at the time. I think I just had trouble relating to things entirely from a girl’s point of view at that stage and was still knee-deep in my cute boy rock star crushing years. Clearly someone had a little growing up to do. On top of that, I’d only ever regarded Pat as a “singles artist” (the most dismissive and inherently judgemental of all pop characterizations). But because they were on your list Matthew, I was inspired to listen to both Crimes Of Passion and Precious Time end to end for the first time in my life. I knew the singles of course but hearing them in the context of a whole record was ear-opening. Turns out that Crimes is a pretty great album! And its sinister and occasionally predatory AOR anthems “Treat Me Right”, “You Better Run” and “I’m Gonna Follow You” remain smokin’ hot. My affection for “Hell Is For Children” also has no bounds (hell, hell is for children !). As for Crimes, I love the top half of the album but think the quality falls off a cliff about halfway through. 

MATTHEW: Sinister, indeed. “Hell is For Children” was too convincing. It gave me nightmares (and I mean that quite literally). But I still listen to it, and it still gives me chills. I also love how Benatar threw that energy into the cover of “Helter Skelter” on Precious Time (you’ll never convince me that it wasn’t this, not the Beatles original, that inspired the Siouxsie and the Banshees cover), and—even bolder—her cover of Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” on Crimes of Passion. That might have seemed a foolhardy choice, and her rock-ballad treatment is certainly ham-fisted compared to the whimsical weirdness of the original. Yet I dug it and still do. When she calls Heathcliff her master, you know she’s just rope-a-doping him (nobody is Pat’s master).

Stevie Nicks: Bella Donna (1981).

Kate Bush: Never For Ever (1980).

HOPE: Stevie’s best solo album? Yes. Home to a teeny bit ‘o filler? Well, yes. And honestly, I felt this way even back in the day but the good songs were so good that I was distracted by their magnificence and not as pained by the lesser lights. Half of this album is FM radio, dark and gorgeous goodness (title track, “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around”, “Edge of Seventeen”, “How Still My Love” and the luscious, mystical ‘Outside The Rain”)…the other half is not of the same heartstopping ilk. The polarizing but unctious-sweet “Leather and Lace” aside, there are no masterful hooks or instantly imprinted instrumental flourishes among the rest of the tracks. But the good stuff is just unimpeachable  and “Edge of Seventeen” can never be played too loudly. 

MATTHEW: I agree that half of this is amazing, that those songs sound as good now as they ever did, that it is literally impossible to play “Edge of Seventeen” too loud, and that the rest of the album is just fine. But in ‘81, I taped the singles and let the album pass me by, not getting into it until two or three years later, when I was dating an American girl who was obsessed with Stevie. When that ended, I let Bella Donna drift away. You know those albums you love through someone else’s love for them? Somehow that slight sense of remoteness remains. I also think that whenever in ‘80-81 I felt like listening to an ethereal, otherworldly female artist, I was drawn to a younger, weirder, English one—who had been an object of much fascination (and not a little lust) since her arrival with two albums a few years earlier: Kate Bush. Never For Ever, her third LP, was #1 in the UK (her first four albums didn’t chart at all in the US), buoyed by three Top Twenty singles (also no-shows Stateside). Listening to it alongside Bella Donna, it is more dated, odder (closer to experimental pop than Stevie’s deliberately mainstream pop-rock, although not as experimental as Bush’s next album), but more brilliant. I’m a sucker for albums that save the best for last, and Never For Ever ends with two of the best songs ever by this extraordinary and eccentric talent. (Two fun facts: Never For Ever was the first UK #1 album by a female solo artist; and the Bush-Gabriel connection started here—she thanked him on Never For Ever for “opening the windows” and she appears on two Melt tracks.)

HOPE: Can I confess something pop musically shameful? Kate Bush didn’t officially enter my listening life until late in 1982. I’d seen her name in magazines but as you allude to Matthew, she wasn’t well-known in the U.S. at that stage. But get this, the first Kate track I ever heard in my entire life was the lynchpin of Never For Ever, the brilliant “Babooshka”!  That was the song that cemented my fandom forever and ever “ya-ya”.

The Pretenders: Pretenders (1980); Pretenders II (1981).

Grace Jones: Warm Leatherette (1980); Nightclubbing (1981).

MATTHEW: We are putting Grace Jones in with Chrissie Hynde’s band for the not-very-imaginative reason that they were female singers with tough images (like Benatar, and Debbie Harry—whose band’s 1980 Autoamerican did not make our short lists—and in contrast to the ethereal images of Nicks and Bush). Oh and Hynde’s “Private Life,” part of what makes Pretenders such a riveting debut album, was covered by Jones on Warm Leatherette, and was that album’s breakout single (top 20 in the UK). We are cheating a little here, as “Stop Your Sobbing,” “Kid,” and “Brass in Pocket” were all 1979 singles in the UK (the last of them #1); but the album didn’t come out until a few days before 1980 (it debuted at #1), when the US finally got the album and singles. Pretenders has justifiably been lauded ever since in lists of best albums of all time. In 1980, it was great catchy pop-rock, but—like Hynde herself—it had an edge that made it cool. I loved it, and still do. I can’t hear “Precious” without hearing a small dorm room crammed with teenage boys yelling “Fuck off!” when Chrissie yells it near the end of the song. For reasons long forgotten, I ignored  Pretenders II when it came out, only learning to appreciate it when in 1986 I bought an old Ford station wagon in Los Angeles (my first car). The ‘70s boat with fake-wood side panels also had an in-dash 8-track, so my pal Brett E. gave me his box of old 8-track tapes; of the three that were still playable, Pretenders II was the best, and I grew to love it too (albeit not as much). Such are the random reasons why we ignore or adore albums.

HOPE: I should tell you that  the thought of driving around LA in the ‘80s in a dodgy wood panelled station wagon with “Message Of Love” blaring out of the 8-track (ka-chunk) is a coming of age movie scene that I want to be a part of. Okay, so my younger brother was a huge Pretenders fan and unabashed Chrissie worshipper. One of the tenets of my personal  pop rulebook was that whoever got to a band first was entitled to sole possession of that band for the foreseeable future. And so, as my brother got into them first in 1979, The Pretenders were essentially his property (as The Police were mine). I wish I were kidding but it’s true. I basically stood outside the gates until the mid-’80s, at which point he’d shifted his sonic allegiance to Black Flag. Once he’d left the fold, I bought both Pretenders and Pretenders II. They are both grand, but as II features my all-time fave “Day After Day,” gonna lean that way as far as preference. As the years have passed, I’ve become more and more enraptured by James Honeyman-Scott’s guitar lines on both albums, his lead on the aforementioned “Day After Day” in particular, which somehow manages to be both cacophonous and ravishingly gorgeous.

MATTHEW: Jones’s version of “Private Life” introduced me to her, and I embraced Warm Leatherette as a cool cult album (cult because the other singles flopped and the album didn’t break the Top 40), and a great covers album (especially Roxy’s “Love is a Drug” and Petty’s “Breakdown”). But it never quite transcended being just that—a covers album. Whereas Nightclubbing, despite also being mostly a collection of cover versions, felt like a Grace Jones record. And what a record! Side A sounds as fresh and gripping as it ever did, with the irresistible “Pull Up to the Bumper” (which still hits me like a happy pill) and Jones’s unbelievably groovy take on “Use Me” occupying the middle slots. Side B is almost as good, with Grace outdoing Piazzola on “Libertango” (a #1 single in Belgium!), outdoing Sting on “Demolition Man,” and ending with a sublime jazzy version of a Marianne Faithfull song. Jones would go on to have a big mid-’80s, and some of these songs would see renewed chart life on the hit compilation Island Life. (Did you ever lose a record, even one you loved? I’d no idea where my dinged-up, well flogged original copy of Nightclubbing went, so thanks to my mate Dan Z. for recently picking me up a vinyl copy, found in a thrift shop, for a few bucks!)

HOPE: The first Grace record I ever owned was the 1985 single of “Slave To The Rhythm,” which is what inspired me to explore the rest of the catalog, so yeah, late to the party. I like both Warm Leatherette and Nightclubbing but only in the smallest of small doses; which is to say, between the two I only ever listen to one song, namely her handsome version of “Breakdown”—which also happens to be one of the finest Tom Petty covers ever. I confess that my favorite Grace album is the Island Life hits compilation and yes I am a straight up dilettante bastard.

Please don’t be mad at me Grace.


George Benson: Give Me the Night (1980).

 Imagination: Body Talk (1981).

HOPE: I know George Benson’s Give Me the Night, a whole album of soul-jazz for grown people, by heart. Now while I get why teen me would love the sleek, discofied title track, I’m not sure what attracted me to the rest. I rarely if ever listen to this thing these days, like maybe once a year if that, yet weirdly, creepily, there are bits of it that haunt my mind on a regular basis. The eerie opening in “Star of a Story (X)”, the nauseatingly cloying lyrics of “Love Dance” (‘we loved, we slept, we left the lights on’), the sing-songy chorus of “Love x Love” appear in my head with alarming frequency. I think I just played this thing so damn much that its loved up contents have become permanently embedded in my brain circuitry. Insidious.

MATTHEW: Around this time (my mid-teens), I was getting into both R&B and jazz (especially the fusion jazz of the turn of the ‘80s), so the way Benson had a foot in each genre really appealed to me. I rather liked how I had him to myself (along with jazz fusion stuff like Spyro Gyra and Weather Report), as they were far from what my English schoolboy friends considered hip. But that also meant this album soon settled at the bottom of the cassette box. I still have my Japanese-edition tape, which I played this year for the first time in over three decades. It feels a tad dated (yes, Hope, those lyrics!), but much of it is still wonderfully catchy.

Sitting right next to the likes of Benson and Spyro Gyra in my rack of tapes were bands like Chic, The Gap Band, The S.O.S. Band, Earth Wind & Fire, Cameo, Shalamar, Steve Wonder, Diana Ross, and Yarborough & Peoples—all US acts that were loosely classified as R&B. They all had some chart presence in the UK, all putting out albums in 1980-81, and I listened to them all. But for all those artists, those albums were not their best, and I tended to mine them for favorite tracks to put on mixtapes. The exception was Imagination, an English act—and perhaps that made a difference, as they appeared far more regularly on shows like Top of the Pops—whose first two albums I loved, playing them in their entirety over and over.  Body Talk was the debut (In the Heat of the Night came the next year), and it was packed with catchy funk-pop. The band’s Leee John (yes, triple e) wrote eccentric sleeve notes (I still have my vinyl copies of both albums), and their look was a sort of camp Afro-Caribbean-English take on Roman senatorial sexiness.  Odd and wonderful.  And yet, I have no recollection of their subsequent albums. Of all the albums on my short list, Body Talk is probably the one both most played in ‘81 and most ignored since then. I callously dropped Imagination not long after leaving school. But from the opening bass line of the title track, Body Talk transports me back to . . . well, dancing atrociously in my dorm room.

HOPE: Here we go again; I didn’t even know who Imagination were until 1983! It wasn’t until my anglophilia was in full flight and I was reading magazines like Smash Hits and No.1 that I got familiar and started listening. And so, I stumbled on this album retroactively after falling in love with their ‘83 full length, the still fab Scandalous. As for Body Talk, it was all about the closing track, the seriously swoonsome “In and Out of Love” which is still a total babe.

Robert Palmer: Clues (1980).

MATTHEW: It’s not really fair to say that Imagination was an English band playing American music (part of what made them fascinating was how they differed from, say, Cameo).  But I certainly pondered that analysis back in the day, and had similar thoughts about Robert Palmer.  In fact, before Clues, I thought Palmer was American, just another Boz Scaggs—who had likewise had a few pleasant hits, but whose albums I had thus far ignored. But the two singles off Clues, “Johnny and Mary” and “Looking for Clues,” really got my attention. They were minor hits in the UK but total flops in the US, where Palmer had generally done much better than in his native country, so this was a kind of reversal and homecoming for him. I bought the album, finding it an addicting half-hour oddity. Palmer, I realized, was a Brit, but one obsessed with American music. Yet half of Clues sounded like a cross between Scaggs and Gary Numan. In fact, “I Dream of Wires” was a Numan song, and the album’s closer was co-written by Palmer and Numan. Whaaat? I loved the album’s schizophrenic character. It matched my own split-personality album collection, a perfect bridge between Numan and John Foxx on the one hand, Tom Petty and Hall & Oates on the other.

Almost a decade later, in Los Angeles, I gave Palmer a ride. He sat in the back and chain-smoked; “Don’t tell Peggy,” he muttered, as if she otherwise wouldn’t know, Peggy being his friend whose husband I worked for and who’s Jag I was driving. He was amused that Peggy now had a very young English chauffeur. When I explained that wasn’t exactly my job description, he asked what I was doing in LA. I blurted out, stupidly, “looking for clues.” Then I apologized. He just smiled, sucking on his cigarette like a lifeline. We rode the rest of the way in silence. Fifteen years later, Palmer died of a sudden heart attack. He was 54. After that, I started playing Clues again

HOPE:  Haha, oh my god, you told him you were “looking for clues”?! I am not laughing at you Matthew, I am laughing with you. This is another one I didn’t get until a few years later but I found it too weird and slippery to really latch onto. I wanted to like it because it felt, okay, “futuristic” aka cool and superior to me, but the songs were just a bit too chilly and it never did sate my sweet tooth.

MATTHEW: On this one, you should laugh at me. And you’re right about the chilliness. I think that was the Numan vibe that Palmer was trying to tap into. Which takes us to the genre by which I was most obsessed and passionate about in 1980-81, English synth-pop. This was my equivalent to your West Coast musical comfort food, Hope, reflecting how far apart we were at the time—as teenage personalities but also as pop consumers in markets that overlapped very little, before the Second British Invasion started in 1982. My fixation ranged from short-lived acts like The Buggles (whose 1980 The Age of Plastic narrowly missed my short list here) to bands with long, successful careers whose debuts got my attention to some extent, but whom I would fall for heavily as the ‘80s wore on. Like Depeche Mode (1981’s Speak & Spell barely anticipated the thrilling pop perfection of their later albums), XTC (I disliked 1980’s Black Sea, not converting to a fan until the late-‘80s), and Joy Division/New Order (I got the significance of 1980’s Closer and 1981’s Movement, and listened to both, but their darkness was a bit much for me—no way was I playing those albums alone in the dark). And there was Numan himself, whose two 1979 records (one under Tubeway Army, one under his name) I loved, my vinyl copies heavily played but still in good condition; and yet for some reason I didn’t take to Telekon, his 1980 release, and barely followed him after that.  All of which is a roundabout way of saying that amidst all this foundational synthpop, for reasons long forgotten, the albums that really grabbed my attention were the following.

Ultravox: Vienna (1980).
John Foxx: Metamatic (1980).
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark: Architecture and Morality (1981).

MATTHEW: What usually happens when a lead singer or key band member leaves to go solo? Very seldom does both the band and the solo artist produce records that are better than what they did together. And even rarer still do those records prove to be classics of their time and genre. But that is what happened when John Foxx left Ultravox, and immediately created his masterpiece album. Talk about chilliness, Hope! Metamatic is a brilliant and artful exercise in crisp, cold dystopian synthpop. For me, it out-Numaned Numan. In a great way. Are friends electric, indeed. Meanwhile, Ultravox recruited Midge Ure (a member of Visage, whose s/t debut came out in 1980, featuring one of my favorite singles of the time, “Fade to Grey”). Uretravox (as my school friend Noel called them; imagine a French accent) promptly made what is often hailed as the band’s best album and one of the best of the era. Vienna is a riveting mix of post-punk guitar pop, synthpop, and experimental electronic pop—from the thrilling seven-minute opening instrumental to the ethereal title track (to be matched only by Japan’s “Ghosts” as an unlikely, genre-defying, band-defining hit single). I didn’t just love these two albums (Metamatic and Vienna), I was utterly intrigued by the ways in which they are so different and yet somehow two sides of the same coin. (The tape I made of them was played so much it is now unplayable.) I think I know what you’re going to say, Hope, and you’re right: Metamatic sounds today like a lost artefact of a distant moment in pop music history; whereas Vienna holds up as a roadmap for where synthpop was headed.

By the way, the sumptuous 40th anniversary reissue of Vienna includes a great remix by Steven Wilson, also available separately. And yes, fans, I know that both Ultravox and Foxx put out albums in 1981 as well. The former’s Rage in Eden was also very good, but I liked Quartet (which followed in 1982) more. And the latter’s The Garden didn’t quite capture the originality of Metamatic. By definition, perhaps it couldn’t? After the diminishing critical and commercial returns of four early-’80s albums, Foxx called it a day—to return many years later with a fascinating series of career stages (but that’s another story).

Matthew’s now unplayable mixtape. A+ that for penmanship, jeezus.

HOPE: More albums that expose the musical divide between 17 year old music nerds growing up on different continents aka Matthew was significantly cooler than I was (am). I literally became acquainted with these artists and albums ass-backwards. It was a dose of OMD’s Architecture first, then Ultravox, then Foxx whom I had no idea had even been a part of that band (nor did I until a couple of years later). And when I finally did “discover” Foxx, it was via his extremely out of character and most overt pop album, 1983’s The Golden Section. Yes, I was a bull in the synthpop china shop, clearly. I loved Ultravox’s “Vienna”, the song,  back in the day but couldn’t quite get into the album, which I did actually buy…and I still kind of can’t. And until you mentioned Foxx’s Metamatic, Matthew, I’d never actually been compelled to listen to it, though I can’t definitively say why. Listening to it now though, it sounds distractingly dated. I think my deep-seated issue with these albums is that I like my synthpop  a little, I don’t know, uh, sexier? I was never into Kraftwerk or Numan. And though I was intrigued enough with Ultravox to keep buying records, I was still pretty selective and tended to stick to the singles. On the other hand I loved  the 1981 albums by their sonic peers, namely Human League’s Dare and Soft Cell’s Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret. Both were full of sticky, infectious (and in Soft Cell’s case intriguingly seedy) radio-ready pop songs. And on top of that, here we go again, the front men were both hot babes (The League’s Phil Oakey and The Cell’ s Marc Almond whom yes, I found super fine at the time, swear).

Having said all that, I must give credit where credit is due; OMD were undeniably my synthpop gateway drug. They were the  band that literally introduced me to “the sound” and set the foundation. They were the ones. At some point in 1981 there was an ad in Rolling Stone magazine offering a free four-track EP by an “exciting” new British band called Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. To which I said, free record by English band, yes please and sent in my request. It came in a nondescript black sleeve and featured “Souvenir”, “Georgia” and “She’s Leaving” from Architecture and Morality.  As ludicrous as it seems, hearing OMD for the first time was a revelatory experience. Their moody, synth-drenched desperation was wildly different from anything I’d heard Casey Kasem play during his weekly top 40 show to that point. I thought they sounded like, wait for it, the future. This kind of extreme, hyperbolic reaction to seemingly normal pop songs was typical for teen me.  A few years later, after hearing the Cocteau Twins song “Lorelei”  for the first time I actually wrote in my diary, “this song is what I think it sounds like in heaven” (though truthfully, I may have been onto something there, time will tell). Anyway, that randomly acquired free record led to years of hardcore musical anglophilia, it truly, truly did.

MATTHEW: Classic Pop magazine’s recent list of the best forty synth-pop songs of all time included “Vienna,” Foxx’s “Underpass,” and OMD’s “Enola Gay.” But Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark did not jump straight to that synthpop masterpiece (a hit single of happy programmed beats and melody about the bombing of Hiroshima! Whaaat?). They put out two albums in the UK in 1980, and I was hooked from the start. The first (titled Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark) came out in the spring term, the second (Organisation) in the autumn term, and I had a C-90 tape with one on each side—recorded from a really weird awkward math-genius kid who had them on vinyl, and who was obsessed with the technology that OMD lads Andy and Paul had used to make the albums. Neither were released in the US, where instead a selection of tracks from both albums was put out in 1981 as O.M.D., a commercially understandable move (“Enola Gay” is the first track) that flattened and obscured the fascinating pinball-machine development of the OMD sound. The exchange that Andy and Paul had with an A&R man at Virgin has been much quoted (he asks, “Come on, guys, are you Stockhausen or ABBA?” To which the boys respond, “Can’t we be both?”), but it nicely simplifies their efforts to place catchy synthpop songs beside experimental electronic tracks, with obscure lyrics or none at all, and still achieve a coherent album. Even where they veered too close to Stockhausen (as on Organisation and the brilliant 1983 relative-flop, Dazzle Ships), the experiment is as enjoyable as when they leaned more towards ABBA—as in the triumphant Architecture and Morality, with not one but two hit singles about a 15th-century female French warrior-saint. (So melodically ABBA-esque, perhaps, but not even the excellent and dark final ABBA album, 1981’s The Visitors, which bounced on and off our short lists, ventured into such unpredictable territory; see our run-down of the whole ABBA catalog here.) 

HOPE: I can totally imagine that weird awkward math-genius kid staring out his window with a telescope, scribbling calculations and building a transmitter with radio parts while his OMD album plays in the background in 1980. It’s just so perfectly geeky and beautiful.

Electric Light Orchestra: Time (1981).

The Alan Parsons Project: The Turn of a Friendly Card (1980).

MATTHEW: When Time came out, I had long been a huge ELO fan. I had mixed feelings about the preceding albums—the disco-pop-leaning Discovery (I think I loved it at 15, then decided to disdain it at 16) and the Xanadu soundtrack that was half-ELO half-Olivia Newton-John. But the two before that, A New World Record and the masterful double LP, Out of the Blue, were instant favorites that I have never stopped playing. At first, then, I was disappointed that Time moved the band even further from its orchestral-rock roots. But Time’s eccentric mix of New Wave synth-pop and rockabilly, all in a concept album package, soon won me over. I still love how Jeff Lynne gave the time-travel theme a nostalgic twist: the central character pines, in 2095, for the year 1981. Hilarious and ahead of its time. Time was a retrofuturist album, two years before that term had even been coined. Now that’s cool.

HOPE: Wow, I have to tell you Matthew, I loved Discovery! I still do, I mean I listen to at least half its tracks on a regular basis. Alas, I cannot say the same for Time, which makes me sad because I love the album’s plotline and Lynne’s eagerness to embrace synthesized modernity. My problem has to do with its overall lack of melody. To my ears there just aren’t enough of the trademark ELO hooks.  I think “Hold On Tight”, the LP’s lead single was/ is one of their worst (I apologize for my brutality but yeah). I know this thing has a cult following but dammit I just can’t feel it. Am I the devil? Yes, but I feel bad about it .

MATTHEW: Devil or not, you’re right about “Hold On Tight.” It is the low point of Time, and one of ELO’s most annoying singles—whereas “Ticket to the Moon” is, for me, blissfully brilliant. Time may be ELO’s only full-blown prog-pop album, a genre I have always loved, and hence my fervent following of The Alan Parsons Project from their Poe-themed 1976 debut through to the mid-’80s (when my fickle fandom faded a little). The Turn of a Friendly Card (a concept album about gambling, of all things!) was one of the Parsons prog-pop albums I played a lot. It was always a mystery to me why The APP consistently sold more in the US than the UK. Or was it that their MOR/AOR smoothness placed them close to the West Coast (aka Yacht Rock) style that was so huge in the US and almost invisible in Britain?

HOPE: I think that’s just it. The prog fanbase was overwhelmingly male and maybe APP leaned just a little too close to the softer West Coast side of things. Their sound was more sentimental and less clever if that makes sense. I also assume that things that were big in the U.S. were regarded rather suspiciously by UK music nerds, yes? I mean you guys were firmly ensconced as the musical tastemakers the whole world over so what the hell did we know. I genuinely liked the mega singles on the APP album, “Games People Play” (what a chorus) and “Time” (which was big around the time my grandmother passed and so she always, always comes to mind when I hear it). But I was not remotely curious about anything else on offer. I need to pay a compliment though. I love how side one of Turn Of The Card featured four pop songs as bait to trick unfamiliar new fans into buying it and then shafted them with a 16 minute prog-style “suite” on side two. That is just devious as fuck and I love it.

MATTHEW: I’ve been dying to see Parsons in concert for decades, somehow failing to get it together, but that “devious” line makes me want to catch his next small-venue gig, come hell or high water, just so I have a chance of cornering Al in the lobby and sharing it with him.

And now please enjoy our 16 minute suite on the evils of gambling.


Japan: Quiet Life (1980); Gentlemen Take Polaroids (1980); Tin Drum (1981).

Duran Duran: Duran Duran (1981).

MATTHEW: It is hard to know where to begin, as I am currently writing a book, titled Ghosts, that is partly about David Sylvian and his band, and my head is full of details, stories, opinions, and—yes—feelings about Japan. Central to what makes the years surrounding 1980-81 so compelling is the period’s dynamic instability of genre, with so many bands hell-bent on creating something new, something distinct even from their own previous albums; and few can rival Japan for the astonishing two-year burst of evolving creativity manifested in these three albums. (Quiet Life technically came out at the end of 1979, but didn’t reach most markets until 1980.) The obvious masterpiece is their swansong, Tin Drum, which is stunningly original, a rare case of an album whose unique blend of influences and styles unmoors it from its era. There is simply nothing else like it. Only by listening to the previous Japan albums, in sequence, does one hear Tin Drum as an early-’80s processing of Bowie and Roxy/Ferry antecedents (with an inventive use of African and Chinese motifs). GTP wears its influences more obviously, yet has a stark beauty that anticipates Sylvian’s solo output. That said, Quiet Life is my favorite, as I discovered it and the band right as I turned 16, when they were still cult status. By chance, I spent that summer in Tokyo, to find that Japan were (partly due to their name) big in Japan (and nowhere else), and that sealed that irrational teenage sense that this was a band for a select international following—me included. I’ve returned to these three Japan albums repeatedly for decades (along with Sylvian’s superb solo albums of the ‘80s), and always found them to be rich and revealing.

HOPE: To introduce hot UK bands to us American hicks US in the early ‘80s, record companies would sometimes issue compilations gathering selected tracks off said artist’s existing UK album releases as well as any free-standing singles then unite them to create sampler albums and EP’s. They would then offer them at a bargain price so you, the intrepid American pop fan, might be enticed to take a chance. And so my first encounter with Japan was via a 1982 US only compilation titled Japan that drew songs from GTP and Tin Drum (yup, didn’t know about them in real time and didn’t even hear Quiet Life until the mid ‘80s). Not that I was aware this thing was a compilation, it was just the only record in the Japan section at the mall and it was new. And I’d been cheekily lured to it by a now infamous piece of pictorial propaganda. Rolling Stone had recently featured a fetching photo of a guy named David Sylvian of the band Japan in its gossipy Random Notes section and had referred to him as the “World’s Most Beautiful Man.” That was all it took.

I realize how horrifying it might seem to both Sylvian and the purists to have been introduced to Japan in this ramshackle and dirty lowbrow way.  But it was actually not a bad entry point as the compilation featured both the spectral and seminal “Ghosts” (hands down the least poppy pop song to ever have landed in the UK top five) and the plush “Gentlemen Take Polaroids.”  I subsequently picked up the proper studio releases from whence they came and the rest as they say, is history. To this day I remain utterly fascinated and enthralled by the work of the most beautiful man in the world.

David Sylvian in autumn.

MATTHEW: (Well, Sylvian was gorgeous, let’s be honest.) Now, why is Duran Duran sitting here with Japan, and why is it on my short list, rather than The Human League’s Dare or Spandau Ballet’s Journeys to Glory, #5 and #1 in 1981 in the UK respectively? As much as I loved those latter two albums, I still occasionally play my original vinyl copies, and I happily followed both bands into their declines and inevitable nostalgia-resurrections, neither became the musical and cultural phenomenon that the Double Durans immediately promised to be—and, sure enough, continued to be for half a century (yes, I’m assuming they’ll still be going in 2030; fair enough, right?). But there’s a more specific reason: the influence of Japan is all over the Duran Duran debut—from the look that would become the New Romantic trademark, to John Taylor’s bass lines, to the approaching-helicopter synth sound that begins “Quiet Life” and “Planet Earth,” to the closing track’s nod to the experimental instrumental side of synthpop. And the truth is that while I appreciated the new post-punk bands like Echo and the Bunnymen (whose first two albums came out during this time) and The Teardrop Explodes (whose only albums came out in these two years), and understood and agreed that The Jam and Elvis Costello were cool, my heart was with synthpop and the dawn of New Romanticism—and I played Duran Duran and Rio until I knew them inside out, rendering objectivity forever beyond reach. (By the way, stick with the original 1981 UK release of Duran Duran or the 21st century re-issues, and avoid the early-’80s US releases on which record company vandals removed “To the Shore” and even added the post-Rio “Is There Something I Should Know?”)

HOPE: Duran came to my attention via the “Hungry Like the Wolf” video, which the then brand new MTV played to death in 1982…meaning I didn’t discover them until their second album Rio…meaning I didn’t get the self-titled debut until after that. And honestly, I wasn’t nuts about it…and I’m still not. Rio is such a gloriously garish massively chorus’d monster, I think it’s impossible for the debut to stand next to it and not seem less realized, especially from a melodic standpoint. 

Weird factoid: I went to see Duran when they toured in support of the Seven and the Ragged Tiger album in 1983, at Nassau Coliseum on Long Island. The only thing I remember about the show is that before it began, they played Squeeze’s East Side Story album in its entirety over the P.A. Even then I thought it was an oddly laddish and unglamorous choice to get an arena full of teenage girls pumped up. And though it sounded sweet enough, hearing it reverberating through the soon to be hysterical, lust-filled arena made me realize something that is still true to this day: I would only ever like Squeeze, I would never truly love them.

Squeeze: Argybargy (1980).

HOPE: I came to this via my brother’s love for its goofy deep-cut “Farfisa Beat” which they used to play on WLIR (beloved, life-altering NY alternative radio station). I bought him the cassette and ended up hijacking it for my personal enjoyment, having been enticed by the irreverent evergreen holiday theme song “Pulling Mussels (From A Shell).” I would take my little boombox into the backyard and use the album to time my very focused sunbathing routine (end of Side A= time to turn over). I know, could I have been any more teenage ‘80s girl™. Thus Argybargy will always remind me of summer which is kind of appropriate. The album has a herky-jerky and anxious quality and in Squeeze’s sonic case, turned out to be the storm before the calm as the band began to lean harder on their balladic side on the albums that followed. The thing that makes no sense is that my favorite song on Argybargy was not one of the now classic singles but an obligatory piece of filler called “Wrong Side Of The Moon.” It was co-written by Jools Holland who also sings lead on it in his soulfully froggy voice and the song is a bouncy, piano-based goofball with a distinctly novelty-esque quality. It was never meant to be anyone’s favorite song on the album. In fact, its presence may have been a way to sate Jools who wanted something of his on the record…yet here we are 40 years on and it is the only song from this thing I still listen to on a semi-regular basis ( uh, a few times a year). In conclusion, Argybargy is a really good album to most people and is regularly namechecked within ‘new wave best of’ and ‘all-time greatest ‘80s’ lists. Then there’s me, always and forever on the wrong side of the freakin’ moon.

MATTHEW: In the summer of 1986, Squeeze played at my university equivalent of a graduation prom; called a “ball,” it was a massive outdoor party that ended at dawn. At the time, I was amazed that Squeeze were hired, uncertain if it reflected the absurd privilege of my educational upbringing or the distance to which the band had fallen since their imperial phase—of which Argybargy was a part. I even chatted with them briefly in one of the drinks tents, but was too drunk to remember more than a vague feeling that they were mildly appalled by what posh twats we were. If (fuzzy) memory serves, the set was short but included the two great singles that begin Argybargy (“Pulling Mussels” and “Another Nail in My Heart”), along with their other hits to date. Which suited me just fine, as I was a big fan of Squeeze as a singles band. I realize how much real fans deplore such a view, but at the time, the albums were a little too frantic for me (“herky-jerky and anxious” is a good way to put it, Hope). I did enjoy the ordinary-life narratives of the songs, making the albums short story collections of a kind. Ian Dury appealed in the same way (although his 1981 album Lord Upminster was a flop and I never gave it much chance), as did Elvis Costello, who released three (!) albums in 1980-81—but, as with Squeeze, I listened to them for the narratives and enjoyed the singles, but ultimately the albums themselves never really stuck.

Plasmatics: Beyond the Valley of 1984 (1981).

HOPE: It is quite possible that this album is terrible. But it’s less about songs to me than it is about a specific feeling it evoked in me back in ‘81—namely wouldn’t it be amazing to walk the world as fearlessly with as much self-belief and attitude as Plasmatics lead singer-focal point-queen Wendy O.Williams? She was so likeable (watch this interview), so earnest, genuine, confident and brave that the music was secondary; it was all just a vehicle to showcase Wendy’s innate charisma. I wanted to feel like Wendy seemed to, to literally embody my own art and have unwavering belief in its goodness while using it to push back on the scumbags (and when you’re 17, everyone is a scumbag). Listening to this album was as close as I could get to any of that. Beyond the Valley is cartoonish broad strokes, awkward turns of phrase and general dumbness held together by not quite melodic enough power chords. And with her raw, raspy out of breath delivery, Wendy always sounds like she is running and trying to sing at the same time. It’s ridiculous. Even at the time of release I could only take it in small doses…but still I thought about Wendy constantly, wishing I could be as cool as her. And so I forced myself to spend time with this album. The fascination didn’t last though. After that “magical” year I lost the urge to play it and still only spin it on rare occasions. I think this is because I needed to see Wendy as much as I ever needed to hear her, maybe more. A TV interview or in the video for “It’s My Life” where she climbs a skimpy rope ladder to climb aboard a moving plane; that’s the stuff that hit home, that I treasured. I bought Beyond The Valley with genuine hope, I wanted to love it…but maybe the best thing about it was how cool I felt actually buying it, like I was as fierce and wickedly fabulous as Wendy herself for a minute!

MATTHEW: This album is indeed kind of terrible, but it is also exactly what it claims to be: a New York punk rock album on which the only instrument played by the legendary lead singer is a chainsaw. Awesome! I completely missed this at the time, discovering Wendy O. later as a fascinating cultural icon, way too late for my teenage self to have an emotional reaction equivalent to Hope’s. Forty years on, the album strikes me as an entertaining insight into where punk was in the US at that moment. That’s a bland assessment, but for someone else out there, this is surely the album that evokes the inner turmoil of being 16 and 17.

Time to acknowledge our overlords…

HOPE: For the sake of transparency I have to say though I loved albums, I also bought a lot of singles. As an obsessive listener to Kasem’s weekly top 40, I fell prey to many pieces of loose candy, songs that existed as singular entities where I had little to no interest in owning the album they came from. Oh I loved Gary Wright’s pleading, synthesized, “Really Wanna Know You” (for the record Brian Wilson loves this song too), Ambrosia’s “Biggest Part Of Me” (oh the bridge, the bridge) and Chilliwack’s “My Girl (Gone, Gone, Gone)” to name a few, but my spidey sense told me to keep my distance. Years later when I heard these albums in full I knew I’d made the right decisions. 

MATTHEW: As nobody said in 1981, LOL. I loved Casey Kasem’s chart show too, on the few occasions that I was in the US in my teens. And I really loved the UK chart shows. In fact, my calendar revolved around them as if they were religious holidays and I was a monk—from the Tuesday lunchtime announcement of the new singles chart on Radio 1, to Thursday’s half-hour run-down on TV’s Top of the Pops, to the Sunday evening chart show on Radio 1. I’d fake illness, go hungry, or go AWOL from class to catch those. The latter was a no-frills, chat-free, one-hour run-down of the Top 20, doubling in length in 1978 to embrace the Top 40 (imagine my joy!). I taped that first Top 40 show (it began with Earth Wind & Fire at #40!). In fact, I made mixtapes from those chart shows for decades (ok, nerd confession: I started at age 8 with a transistor radio the size of an iPhone and was still doing it, by then with MP3s, in the early 21st century).  Point is: when I dig out those old tapes, I am reminded of how my singles and albums worlds were (like yours, Hope) a Venn diagram, separate but overlapping. The singles charts were one way in which I heard new music, sometimes inspiring me to hunt down a song’s parent album, sometimes (like Hope’s “spidey sense”) not. And albums were the other way, but those tended to come to me through other people—my sister, school friends, people I wanted to be friends with, girls (mostly) that I wanted to get with. Those contextual connections echo in the music, still. That’s why our lists are different, not just mine and Hope’s, but all of our and your real or imaginary lists of favorites—from the ones you still play to those you forgot you loved. And isn’t that the fun of it?

In Conclusion: I See You, You See Me

HOPE: I look back at my 1980-81 self with both utter bewilderment and extraordinary empathy. And I like to think that’s a pretty universal assessment when it comes to all of our teen years. I don’t know that pop music provided answers to all my existential questions back then but it sure as hell kept me going through the sometimes black days and confounding desires. When I would listen to these albums back then, they made me feel oddly brave and special, like some singularly majestic creature from another universe. I know that sounds hyperbolically nuts but how could you not feel that way when “Edge of Seventeen” was playing in your bedroom at earthshaking volume? How could you not think, “I am awesome right now”? Sure it may have only been within the confines of the room but that was the only place I could relax and let my imagination run wild, where I was the coolest kid going. As insecure as I felt, all that music filled my heart with consolation and possibility and that is still how I feel when I hear a lot of it…which means if any of you are around me when “Private Eyes” starts playing, I can’t promise I won’t lose it in some manner (crying, screaming, other) and potentially embarrass us both no matter where we happen to be.

Know what else ? The realization that there was a kid on the other side of the world at the same time as me whose favorite albums and songs meant so damn much to them is just the coolest.

MATTHEW: Yes! This conversation has been a happy convergence of parallel universes. The music connects us across time and space—I know, that sounds terribly corny, like a lame Coldplay lyric—but it’s true and wonderful and necessary. And by us, I mean you too, dear reader. 

This essay is dedicated to all you former and forever teenage pop nerds.
We think you are the coolest.

Yes I Wanna Know : Killer or Filler ? An ABBA-nalysis

Let The Music Speak: Just a note on the format of this essay, Matthew and I are going to be taking turns exposing our innermost thoughts on the musical offerings of the otherworldly beings known as ABBA and our names will appear before our respective comments. Our opinions will diverge at points from both each other and maybe the world at large but our love for Agnetha, Frida, Benny, and Björn is strong enough to last when things get rough.

HOPE: Contrary to popular belief, not all ABBA songs are delectable pieces of candy. No, what they are is spaghetti. Meaning while there are plenty of good pieces that stick to the wall, there are also many inedible bits that land with a damp thud in a pile on the floor. When it comes to ABBA songs, there are only two official classifications that can be applied; it’s either a majestic piece of art or it’s caulking, it’s packing peanuts. There’s no in between.

Okay, so all that stuff you just read summarizes what my general feeling about ABBA has been over the years, that they are a straight-up singles band who never actually made a genuinely classic studio album.

And the sales numbers of Gold were what I would frequently serve up to support this opinion. The 19-track compilation of hits has sold 30 million plus copies to date worldwide and is by far the most popular title in the entire ABBA catalogue. It remains as definitive, succinct and perfect an artist compilation as there has ever been. Not a moment is wasted on Gold, its contents are all Oreo creme and the jelly inside the donut with nothing extraneous to hack through. It is designed for pure pleasure. But I always interpreted its success as a covert statement, the world collectively shouting don’t bore us, get to the chorus.

The traditional ABBA studio album was not a safe place for a “just okay” song to reside. Oh pity the lesser ABBA song, forced to compete in the most thankless and brutal pop music beauty contest known to mankind. On an ABBA studio album there were no runners-up, only winners and losers.
But then again, were the singles just so transcendently good that they made the just okay stuff sound worse than it actually was? Or were ABBA simply hamstrung by a format of presentation, namely the long-playing album, and simply forced into filling space with inferior songs because they had to?

MATTHEW: Is ABBA dog poop? That was David Crosby’s now-infamous two-word verdict in a 2018 Tweet. When pushed, he doubled down and added “utter complete pop dog poop” and “not one decent song ever.” I’ll resist the temptation to sink to Crosby’s level and use short words to sum up his catalogue, and instead note that his inclusion of the word “pop” is significant. For some people, it makes no difference whether the word has one or two o’s. But it does to us. We love pop in all its glorious variations and manifestations (right, Hope?), and ABBA are unabashedly, fundamentally a pop band. One might argue that they are the ultimate pop band. After all, the Swedish quartet’s songs are rooted in schlager, the traditional folk-pop of central and northern Europe whose origins stretch back many centuries (now that’s deep pop); and no other band channeled their schlager roots so transparently and successfully into glam-pop and disco-pop—and even a little prog-pop and electro-pop. ABBA’s eight studio albums were released between 1973 and 1981, but the 1992 hits compilation Gold is the world’s 23rd best-selling album ever, and by this summer will have spent a record-breaking 1000 continuous weeks on the UK album charts (where it is the second best-selling album ever, after Queen’s Greatest Hits). But if we accept that 30 million people (and counting) have a point, and Crosby is an ignoramus, that still prompts Hope’s question: Were ABBA a singles band, hamstrung by the album format that didn’t really suit them? Were their albums mere vehicles for hit singles, each with a few killer tracks padded out with filler? Will our conclusion be, thank you for some of the music?

HOPE: Those are the questions we will answer here, going through all eight albums, as they were originally issued, classifying every track as either Killer or Filler (keepin’ it pure and accurate!). Although we are not evaluating the various updated re-releases with bonus tracks, we do ponder and consider the free-standing singles in the context of those albums, as well as the handful of key tracks that were only available as part of compilation albums. So, is there such a thing as an ABBA deep cut? Do any of the studio albums qualify as “classic”? Is it Killer or is it Filler? Let’s find out !

*Update!: Since the original publication of this piece, ABBA have released a new studio album! I know. Believe me we were as shocked as you when the news hit the fan. Being the nerdy completists we are, we knew we would have to address the new recordings or else we wouldn’t have been able to live with ourselves. Check out the ABBA-DDENDUM (what else would it be) following the conclusion for our thoughts on Voyage!

The Albums

Ring Ring (1973)

HOPE: Ring Ring (1973) This album is actually credited to “Björn Benny & Agnetha Frida” who at this stage were essentially a side project with no grand master plan. With that in mind, part of me wants to cut them some slack. Ring Ring wasn’t meant to be a definitive artistic statement, the group were just trying on hats and uh, yeah, throwing spaghetti…which is why the album features a whole lotta BS aka Björn Singing. Still there is some cohesiveness from a sonic standpoint as the songs do tend to stay in a particular lane on Ring Ring i.e. the corny, all ages, non-threatening middle one, pushing no buttons apart from the one that kicked out sugary gumballs (which were not remotely as cool as the foxy red hot candies offered up by the young lust inciting chart monsters of the time like The Sweet, Bowie and T.Rex). There are a few good songs on Ring Ring, the goofy, schlocky euro-Ronettes title track, “Disillusion” with its overt “Fire And Rain” style instrumentation and “I Saw It In The Mirror” which, nerd reference alert, bears a sweetly striking resemblance to an actual Badfinger song, “Dear Angie”. But the enemy forces outnumber the heroes here; the chorus of “Me And Bobby And Bobby’s Brother” is the devil himself. As for the patronizing, retrograde “I Am Just A Girl,” I just can’t.

Killer: Ring Ring, Disillusion, I Saw It In The Mirror.
Filler: Another Town, Another Train; People Need Love; Nina Pretty Ballerina; Love Isn’t Easy(But It Sure is Hard Enough); Me And Bobby And Bobby’s Brother; He Is Your Brother; She’s Just My Kind Of Girl; I Am Just A Girl; Rock ‘N’ Roll Band.
Verdict: This album was an experiment, a new adventure, a bunch of songs by 4 people with no conjoined identity, manifesto or sound. Ring Ring is filled with filler and if we were to rank the studio albums from best to worst, this one would be the caboose.

MATTHEW: Ring Ring (1973). Although this wasn’t even released in the US and UK until the 1990s, it did well enough in Australia and continental Europe (#1 in Belgium!) to launch ABBA. The 12 songs, averaging a second under 3 minutes each, are corny ditties rooted deep in the schlager folk-pop tradition. During the group’s late-70s heyday, this stuff seemed comical—at best, amusing juvenilia (like Bowie’s 1968 debut), at worst, an embarrassing joke. In retrospect, it isn’t that bad, and there’s a certain charm to the relative simplicity of the songs. But they tend to plod along and quickly wear thin, their goofy happiness nowhere near as compelling as the disco-pop, divorce ballads, and other sub-genres that gradually take over later albums (with the possible exception of “Disillusion,” which hints at a darker direction; and is the only ABBA song written solely by Agnetha). For me, the most interesting thing about this album is how much it is rooted in the big ‘60s careers that every band member enjoyed, especially Björn, whose Hootenanny Singers were one of Sweden’s biggest bands in their 1964-72 heyday. Side Two of the album looks back to those late-’60s careers far more than it looks forward to late-70s ABBA, especially “She’s My Kind Of Girl,” which isn’t even an ABBA song—it was a hit single for Benny and Björn in Sweden in 1970, reaching #1 in Japan in 1972. I’ve put it in the Killer category because, like “Disillusion,” it is an enjoyable curiosity; but both songs only just slip in there, as does “Ring Ring” (their first stab at a Eurovision song; its remix with sax for the next album is much better).

Killer: Ring Ring; Disillusion; She’s My Kind Of Girl.
Filler: Another Town, Another Train; People Need Love; I Saw It In The Mirror; Nina, Pretty Ballerina; Love Isn’t Easy(But It Sure is Hard Enough); Me And Bobby And Bobby’s Brother; He Is Your Brother; I Am Just A Girl; Rock ‘N’ Roll Band.
Verdict: I agree with Hope that this is the bottom of the ABBA barrel. It has no ABBA classics, and it is barely even an ABBA album—as reflected in its original Scandavian release under that awkward “Björn Benny & Agnetha Frida” (BBAF?!). That said, I’d rate it equally with the next album, Waterloo, because it is more coherent. It is not a singles album, lacking that contrast between a couple of hits filled out with packing material. It knows what it is—a meeting of four musicians and their pasts—and is not trying to be anything else.

Waterloo (1974)

MATTHEW: Waterloo (1974). From its opening glam-pop chug, and the first “My! My!” from Agnetha and Frida, you know the title track is a leap forward, revealing for the first time a successful mixing of the ABBA formula. “Waterloo” (the song) has it all: incredibly catchy pop with one foot in a related genre of that moment (glam), the seamless blend of the women’s voices, the men’s signature key change, and—crucially—lyrics that paradoxically suggest something a little darker. It is too soon in the band’s double-couple marriage-to-divorce arc to get heartbreak lyrics, so instead we get a massive, bloody battle (Napoleon’s 1815 defeat) as a metaphor for the start of a romance; the music suggests a happy surrender to love, but the words are full of disturbing phrases such as “you won the war” and “couldn’t escape if I wanted to.” It’s brilliant. It also takes me right back to my childhood discovery of pop music, complete with the weekly anticipation of Top of the Pops, the wonderful weirdness of The Eurovision Song Contest, and “Waterloo” as its 1974 winner (and the best song to win it ever) constantly on my tiny transistor radio.

So, how do the other ten songs hold up against this opener? Not so well. “Waterloo” is followed by the ghastly cod reggae of “Sitting in the Palmtree” and “King Kong Song,” probably the worst ABBA song ever. “Watch Out” isn’t great glam-pop, it’s just crap-glam. The rest of the album is admittedly not all bad: “Hasta Mañana” makes me smile, as schlager-pop at its amusing best, complete with the irresistible melody and that oh-so-ABBA mid-point key shift; and I love the sleeper song on here, “My Mama Said”—its lyrics have the triteness of most early ABBA songs (and all of this album aside from “Waterloo”), but it has a killer bass line, deftly treated Agnetha/Frida vocal harmonies, and is just begging for a Voulez Vous-era remix. Two of the filler songs here are right on the killer/filler line, with ”Dance (While the Music Still Goes on)” too clunky with potential to make it, and “Gonna Sing You My Lovesong” just making it for the sheer sweet catchiness of the chorus melody. “Honey Honey,” the minor-hit second single, also just crosses the line into killer category. The UK/US release of the album had a much-improved remix of “Ring Ring” at the end; slightly glammed up, it handily joins the title track as bookends to a real mixed-bag of an album.

Killer: Waterloo; Hasta Mañana; My Mama Said; Honey Honey; Gonna Sing You My Lovesong; Ring Ring (remix).
Filler: Sitting In The Palmtree; King Kong Song; Dance (While The Music Still Goes On); Watch Out; What About Livingstone; Suzy-Hang-Around.
Verdict: Although this has ambitions to being an album that stands on its own two feet, it is ultimately a vehicle for singles—and only one of them a real hit. At its best, it is way ahead of the debut album, but overall it is more uneven and thus ties for worst ABBA album.

HOPE: Waterloo (1974). Ah yes, I too remember hearing “Waterloo” for the first time as a child, although it was via the video being shown on a kids TV show here in the U.S. called Wonderama. The song and its visual accompaniment remain transcendently wonderful (watch here). As for the rest, I sooooo agree with you Matthew that “My Mama Said” is the sleeper. What blows me away about it is how mind-bogglingly prescient its sound is; it’s straight up proto-disco, albeit with some weird Steely Dan-esque flourishes, and sounds like a demo version of Silver Convention’s megahit “Fly Robin Fly” which dropped only a year later. Frida serves up a particularly sweet vocal on the fabulously melodic “Gonna Sing You My Love Song” which resembles the world’s kitschiest Carole King song and is either about unrequited love or being the proverbial “other woman” depending on your emotional worldview. The song isn’t traditionally Abba-esque in its construction but it is damn good and I just plain sloppy love it. The rest of the album’s tracks are expendable, from the heinous faux reggae of “Sitting In The Palmtree,” to the ill-advised attempt to rock on “Watch Out” to the excruciating “King Kong Song” which yes Matthew is quite possibly the worst thing ABBA ever recorded. Please make it stop.

Killer: Waterloo; My Mama Said; Gonna Sing You My Love Song; Ring Ring(remix).
Filler: Sitting In The Palmtree; King Kong Song; Hasta Mañana; Dance (While The Music Still Goes On); Honey Honey; Watch Out; What About Livingstone; Suzy-Hang-Around
Verdict: There are three good songs on Waterloo album. They are better than the three good songs on the debut album which is why Ring Ring is the sole occupant of the basement flat in the ABBA album rankings…but it’s really, really close.

ABBA (1975)

MATTHEW: ABBA (1975). This is a step forward from Waterloo, but not yet a leap. The hit singles are better, and there are more of them, bringing ABBA to the brink of their imperial phase. But we are still obliged to lurch from the sublime to the silly, from Killer to Filler. Take the six songs of Side One. Tracks 1 and 4, “Mamma Mia” (to which I’ve been rather overexposed—I know you agree, Hope—but yes, there is no denying its pop craftsmanship) and “SOS” (which is even better, its elements refined to the point where it has a timeless shine to it), are obliged to sit amongst forgettable filler of the kind that rarely appears in later albums (e.g., the cringey cod reggae of “Tropical Loveland”). Side Two is, ironically, less jarring because it lacks anything close to the brilliance of “Mamma Mia” and “SOS,” its singles being second-tier ABBA hits like “I Do [x5]” and misses like “I’ve Been Waiting For You” (which crosses into killer category by virtue of Agnetha’s emotion-packed voice) and “So Long” (which crosses that line on a generous day). But Side Two is weighed down in the middle by the boys, and their inclusion of “Rock Me” (one of two dire numbers sung by Björn) and the prog-lite absurdity of Benny’s instrumental “Intermezzo no. 1” (a B-side at best). It is so clear by this point—ah, the sharpness of hindsight!—that the magic of ABBA lies in the layered, overdubbed harmonies of the women’s voices, but the men cannot yet resist the temptation to keep a few tracks on each album for themselves. It is also clear that ABBA’s borrowing of elements from genres like glam only work when the result is ABBA-glam-pop (like the chorus of “SOS”) not ABBA imitating Slade or The Sweet (like “So Long,” the first of six singles taken from the album, and one of the three that were not big hits).

Killer: Mamma Mia; SOS; I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do; I’ve Been Waiting For You.
Filler: Hey Hey Helen; Tropical Loveland; Man In The Middle; Bang-A-Boomerang; Rock Me; Intermezzo No.1; So Long.
Verdict: This is clearly a better album than the first and second, buoyed by two classic pop singles, a big step closer to real-album status. But as most of the album is filler (and much of it dire stuff), it keeps the band in singles album territory (and 7 of these 11 tracks were released as singles somewhere). Admittedly, in January of ‘76, “Mamma Mia” hit #1 in the UK (it peaked at #32 in the US), and “SOS” had reached #6 a few months earlier (#15 Stateside), meaning ABBA had shaken the one-hit curse of “Waterloo.” And for an astonishing 15 weeks in 1975, three singles from ABBA had taken it in turns to monopolize the #1 spot in Australia (“I Do [x5],” then “Mamma Mia,” then “SOS”). But could that success be repeated elsewhere? After all, in the UK, “Mamma Mia” was the sixth single from the album, following a trio of weak albums and more flop singles than hits. No longer one-hit wonders, ABBA were now a band that made lots of singles—a few of them really great—but not real albums.

HOPE: ABBA (1975) I am thoroughly tired of “Mamma Mia” but its poptastic virtues are undeniable, as is its iconic video which as of this writing has been viewed 218 million times on YouTube (watch here). But make no mistake: the song is also an absolute polarizer; the video also has 44,000 thumbs down votes by pop-hating grinches whom I also somewhat identify with (save me a seat on the fence will you). The schlager-slathered “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do” is a staggeringly immense piece of cheese but endearing enough and “So Long” is a fun soundalike half sibling to ‘Waterloo.” But forget all that. The uncontested star here is lush, sophisticated heartbreak anthem “SOS” which also stands as the official introduction of “ Sad Agnetha™ ” to the ABBA mythology, a persona that was to be showcased and exploited on every album from this point forward. As for the rest, it’s a tough trawl with many tracks emitting an unpleasant novelty vibe…though I admit to a slight fascination with “Man In The Middle”, a brazen attempt at a Stevie Wonder style song, and how resolutely un-funky it is considering its inspiration.

Killer: Mamma Mia; SOS; I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do,I Do; So Long.
Filler: Hey Hey Helen; Tropical Loveland; Man In The Middle; Bang-A-Boomerang; Rock Me; Intermezzo No.1; I’ve Been Waiting For You.
Verdict: While this album continues the trend of the previous albums and is dominated by cartoonish filler ( and thus not a good album), the four tracks that qualify as “killer” signify a real sonic turning point. The sophisticated singalong heartbreak of “S.O.S.,” in particular, acts as a one song mission statement on what the group were actually capable of.

Arrival (1976)

MATTHEW: Arrival (1976). Whether you hate or love “Dancing Queen” (and I can feel only admiration and gratitude for the song, having danced drunkenly to it a hundred times), there’s no doubting that it is a gold nugget of a disco-pop song. It is their best-selling single worldwide, #1 in over a dozen countries (their only US #1), top five in almost every market on every continent. Its first live (and televised) performance for the King of Sweden and his Queen-to-be the night before their wedding has from the start been part of its legend. As for the rest of the album, there’s good news and bad news. The good? Its hit singles are even better than on the previous album, with three bona fide smashes (four if “Fernando” is included; see below), all packed with hooks and elevated by Agnetha/Frida vocals—including “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” the brilliant sophomore appearance of a sub-genre that nobody has ever done better than ABBA: divorce pop. Sure, Fleetwood Mac turned intraband breakups into an entire album. But that’s divorce rock. I’m talking about creating a whole new art form out of the perfect pop paradox: lyrics of emotional anguish set to upbeat pop tunes. “SOS” was the sub-genre’s debut, and although Frida’s “Knowing” vocal hits home hard, it is Agnetha’s ability to “cry with her voice” (as producer Michael Tretow put it) that makes ABBA’s divorce-pop classics such deliciously wrenching doses of schadenfreude.

The hits on Arrival made it ABBA’s biggest studio album, launching their four-year imperial phase. This is the first of five straight UK #1 albums. Starting now and running right through the turbulent years of punk and disco, AOR and New Wave, ABBA were the biggest band in the world. (Classic Pop editor Steve Harnell’s recent gush is worth quoting: “It’s a perfect snapshot of a group brimming with optimism and alive to the diverse opportunities of sophisticated pop.”) So how can there be bad news? Well, let me digress into my own memory of this album. I was a 12-year-old English schoolboy when this came out. My friend James and I taped it from his mother’s vinyl copy (yes, these are the kinds of phrases that appear in a discussion of ABBA). We spent hours debating the relative merits of Agnetha and Frida (he boringly always ended up voting for Agnetha, I irritatingly could never decide). This is therefore the first ABBA record that I remember as an album; when “Knowing Me, Knowing You” ends, I anticipate the opening keyboard chords of “Money [x3].” But there the familiarity ends, because we would fast-forward over the remaining four tracks. And there’s the bad news: half of Arrival is feather-weight filler of the kind that made their first three records singles albums. Yes, the filler is better (“Tiger” is odd in a good way, and “When I Kissed the Teacher” is an amusingly bizarre choice for an opening track—it belongs on the same creepy playlist as Elton’s “Teacher I Need You” and the Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close To Me,” but isn’t nearly as good). But it is still filler (I know Björn later apologized for “Dum Dum Diddle”—Hope has the quote coming up—but I still cannot forgive its inclusion before “Knowing Me, Knowing You”). In most markets, Arrival had ten tracks, but in Australia & NZ it had an eleventh, “Fernando”—which was the band’s biggest hit single to date. So, we are trying to have our cake and eat it here, by evaluating the 10-track album while also tossing in “Fernando” (in parentheses). After all, Australia was the first market to make ABBA truly massive.

Killer: Dancing Queen; My Love, My Life; Knowing Me, Knowing You; Money, Money, Money; Tiger; (Fernando).
Filler: When I Kissed The Teacher; Dum Dum Diddle; That’s Me; Why Did It Have To Be Me; Arrival.
Verdict: Their best singles and their best album to date, justifying the launch of a colossal global presence. But if Björn and Benny, as the songwriters, really were keen to become “a good album act” (as Björn put it in 1975), they were their own worst enemies, continuing to juxtapose unique, classic pop singles with, well, some dum dum diddles. So close to a real album, but not quite achieving the—ahem—arrival.

HOPE: Arrival (1976) The famous backstory of “Dancing Queen” is that when Benny played Frida the instrumental demo of the song she was so blown away that she burst into tears at its magnificence, which is completely understandable. And then of course she and Agnetha graced it with a vocal performance that took it even higher; that moment after the songs intro when the two stretch that elongated opening “ooh” into “you can dance” may be one of the greatest moments in pop music history. Right, so “Dancing Queen” is worthy of every pop superlative known to mankind but know what, so is its Arrival roommate “Knowing Me Knowing You” a living breathing god of a break-up song right down to its super schlager-esque post-chorus guitar break (it also features the Best Björn Backing Vocal Ever™). On the flipside let’s hear what Björn himself had to say about “Dum Dum Diddle” in the brilliant band bio by Carl Magnus Palm from 2001, Bright Lights, Dark Shadows: “It might as well have been ‘Dumb Dumb Diddle”. Frida weighed in on its merits as well offering a classically cutting “I don’t like it”. And so that’s your nadir right there. The rest of the tracks qualify as just okay. Slick and well-constructed but not necessarily memorable with the exception of “When I Kissed The Teacher” which is memorable but for all the aforementioned wrong reasons. And even if the insidiously catchy“Fernando” had been included, it wouldn’t have tipped Arrival into great album territory; the filler would still outnumber the killer.

Killer: Dancing Queen; Knowing Me Knowing You; Money,Money,Money; Tiger; (Fernando).
Filler: When I Kissed The Teacher; My Life, My Love; Dum Dum Diddle; That’s Me; Why Did It Have To Be Me; Arrival.
Verdict: Again, filler outweighing killer…but this goes back to what I alluded to in the intro: the good tracks are so good, specifically “Dancing Queen” and “Knowing Me Knowing You”, they make the lesser songs sound a thousand times worse. That said, Arrival is still only half an album.

ABBA:The Album (1977)

HOPE: ABBA—The Album (1977). That title says it all. Abba—The Album may well have been the band’s first full-length release that sounded cohesive enough to call itself an album. Equal parts sophisticated and weird, The Album features ABBA’s two best rock(ish) songs (“Eagle”, “Hole In Your Soul”) as well as two straight up classics (“The Name Of The Game” with Agnetha absolutely killing on the verses and the swirling, hook hotel that is “Take A Chance On Me”). It also contains three songs from a mini-musical called The Girl With The Golden Hair that the group incorporated into shows during their 1977 tour. “I’m A Marionette” is the best of the aforementioned showtunes that while it sounds like it should be soundtracking a skating routine taking place at the Moscow Olympics in 1980, is full of bizarre, never boring tempo changes and a cool West Coast style guitar break. And I may be ensuring a front row seat in hell for saying this but I can’t freakin’ stand “Thank You For The Music” despite its nice Agnetha vocal. It reminds me of the Whoville Xmas song from the old Grinch TV special, but not in a good way.
Nerd reference alert X-treme edition: There are two songs from the ‘80s that I used to really like that in retrospect appear to have brazenly borrowed bits from a couple of The Album’s tracks, hmmm…:
1.Malcolm McLaren’s spoken intro to his 1984 classic “Madame Butterfly” bears more than a passing resemblance to the one in “Move On”.
2.Really sounds like Blancmange nicked some “Hole In Your Soul” for their also fabulous “Lose Your Love” from 1985. Yeah, hmmm.

Killer: Eagle; Take A Chance on Me; The Name Of The Game; Hole In Your Soul; I’m A Marionette.
Filler: One Man, One Woman; Move on; Thank You For The Music; I Wonder.
Verdict: An extremely consistent effort featuring the highest number of quality songs on an ABBA album thus far. But while The Album has a more solid foundation than its predecessors, there still remains a significant gap between the great (2 songs), the good (3 songs) and the unexceptional (4 songs).

MATTHEW: ABBA—The Album (1977). Finally, a real album! This is, for me, a quantum leap forward as a coherent creative achievement; their best album, and the only one—yes, I’m sticking my neck out here—that is all killer, no filler. “Eagle” sets a confident tone with its soaring singalong chorus and its proggy balance of synths and multiple guitars, while the a cappella opening of “Take A Chance On Me” lets us know that this is album is going to be packed with surprising hooks and inventively bespoke production (er, there’s a piccolo trumpet solo on #1 hit “The Name of the Game”!). This is obviously not prog rock, and it may be too much of a reach to call it prog-pop, but it certainly leans that way, and is the only ABBA album to do so. The songs stretch out more, their production is more sophisticated and ambitious, and it is almost a concept album. Defend that bold claim? Ok! The theme of the last trio of songs, billed as that The Girl with Golden Hair “mini-musical” Hope mentions, is about reaching for fame and then feeling trapped by it. The elements of that simple story arc also appear in the previous six songs, like sneak previews of the emotions laid out in the mini-musical—with romance/marriage and artistic fame serving as metaphors for each other. The personal lives of the two couples were now on relentless display (the Abbamania of their Australia tour earlier in the year, harrowing tales of fans traveling to Sweden to walk into their homes, Agnetha craving privacy for her pregnancy but the band under intense pressure to record and tour); and thus the stage musical feel of that closing trio works as a concept within a concept. (I can see I’ve not convinced you, Hope, but it’s worth a try—and the album is worth another listen!)

Killer: Eagle; Take A Chance on Me; One Man, One Woman; The Name Of The Game; Move On; Hole In Your Soul; Thank You For The Music; I Wonder (Departure); I’m A Marionette.
Filler: none!
Verdict: The ABBA pinnacle: a great pop record with four excellent singles and a further five tracks that add to the album’s coherence rather than just filling it out. There’s no silly schlager shite on here; it’s a complete 40-minute pop-pleasure experience that never gets old. (But could they keep it up…?)

Voulez-Vous (1979)

MATTHEW: Voulez-Vous (1979). How do you follow a prog-pop album that sold millions worldwide? Well, it’s 1979, so you make a disco-pop album. And here’s the thing: it works! Because Voulez-Vous is still very much an ABBA album. It’s not just disco, it’s disco-pop with ABBA mixed-bag lyrics, schlager roots, catchy melodies, irresistible Agnetha & Frida harmonies, and that signature key change to carry us to the final chorus. Like The Album, there is nothing silly on here, no “Dum Dum Diddle”-type filler. Also like its predecessor, Benny and Björn had a rough few months coming up with songs—this time the main problem was Björn and Agnetha’s imploding marriage—and those difficulties seem to have forced them to work harder and raise the bar higher. Björn later confessed that once he and Agnetha had decided to split, the tension in the studio was lifted, and the album came together. Ironically, it lacks a divorce-pop classic (the best of them would come on the next album). Ok, the children’s choir on “I Have a Dream” may be one layer of cheese too far, and “Lovers” is frankly awful. But the album as a whole wears well, not thin, even down to the non-single album tracks (“If It Wasn’t For the Nights” is a true deep-track delight). It’s a shame that “Summer Night City” and “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)” were not included on the original album (they were pre-album singles, and were then added to later CD and streaming releases); they’re the best of up-beat late-period ABBA, one muscular rock-disco (reminiscent of the same year’s “Hot Stuff”), the other a strong candidate for the band’s catchiest dance track (deserving of its status as a straight wedding favorite and a gay anthem!).

Killer: As Good As New; Voulez Vous; I Have a Dream; Angeleyes; The King Has Lost His Crown; Does Your Mother Know?; If It Wasn’t For The Nights; Chiquitita; Kisses Of Fire.
Filler: Lovers (Live A Little Longer).
Verdict: A real album? Absolutely! This is a coherent, high-quality disco-pop album, packed with upbeat radio- and club-friendly ABBA-bangers, with each vinyl/cassette side pinned in the middle with an expertly crafted schlager-cheese ballad. It is as much of an album as, say, its Bee Gees contemporary, Spirits Having Flown (which is arguably the most coherent Gibb album, sharing some musical characteristics with Voulez-Vous—whose title track was partly recorded in the Miami studios used by the Bee Gees during this era). Even the one filler track is not terrible; I just wish it had been used as a B-side and that “Summer Night City” and “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” had been included instead (yes, such a swap would have still fitted on a single vinyl record), as that would have made this hands down ABBA’s best album. As originally released, it shares that crown with its predecessor and with their swan-song album.

HOPE: Voulez-Vous (1979). Being a curmudgeon means when given a choice of listening to kitschy, happy, cartoonish ABBA or heartbroken, world-weary, adult ABBA, I tend to gravitate toward the latter. The weird part is that while Voulez-Vous leans heavily on the former, I think it may actually be one of the best ABBA albums, meaning the overall standard of quality is pretty high. For one thing it’s home to 3 of the absolute most beloved and popular ABBA songs ever, the title track, “Chiquitita” and “I Have a Dream”, as well as one of the cuter runts of the ABBA singles litter, ”Does Your Mother Know.” Though I should clarify that while I recognize the supreme craftsmanship on display in those tracks, as a curmudgeon, I’m not really in love with any of them. In fact I believe that as far as ABBA hits go, they are all strictly B-team. The most intriguing tracks on Voulez-Vous are actually, wait for it, the deep cuts, the unicorns that prior to this essay I didn’t believe existed. “If It Wasn’t For The Nights” is a fab piece of soul-disco, with an embraceable ‘70s Spinners vibe, full of clever melodic twists and home to a wickedly brilliant vocal arrangement. The manic “Kisses Of Fire” with its tripping chorus, and the propulsive, disco-fied “As Good As New” are also ridiculously fun ( listen to Agnetha throw down in the coda of “As Good…”, yes girl, yes). Yup, when it comes to Voulez-Vous the album, I’d much rather hang out with the non-single weirdos than the popular kids. P.S. I agree Matthew, oh if only “Summer Night City” and “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” had been included on Voulez-Vous, sigh. Not only are they both kinda bangers but maybe we would’ve been spared the shrill nightmare that is “Lovers (Live A Little Longer)”.

Killer: As Good As New; Voulez Vous; Does Your Mother Know; If It Wasn’t For The Nights; Chiquitita; Kisses Of Fire.
Filler: Angeleyes; The King Has Lost His Crown; Lovers (Live A Little Longer).
Verdict: A solid album, with a minimum of filler, and perhaps one of the lightest and least demanding in the discography. What keeps it from being great? Well it lacks a key element, namely the anchor/foundation of a classic ABBA heartbreaker (or two). Where are our divorce pop anthems (right Matthew)?! Throw a couple of those into the mix and Voulez-Vous would be heading into the maybe great album zone.

Super Trouper (1980)

MATTHEW: Super Trouper (1980). Melancholia is one of the cliches that foreigners attribute to Swedish culture, but it is a very real thread running through this album. Its causes are no mystery; they are displayed in the openers: the alienation of fame (the title track); and marital breakdown (here inspiring the band’s divorce-pop masterpiece, “The Winner Takes It All”). “On and On and On” rounds out the power trio of poignancy and pop production with which Super Trouper begins. But after that, it soon slips into being a sequel not to Voulez-Vous but to Arrival. ABBA works best when they retain a connection to their schlager roots without fully embracing them, but most of Side Two (especially “Happy New Year,” “Our Last Summer,” and “The Way Old Friends Do”) have more than a foot—more like nine toes—in the simple melodic sentimentalism of schlager. They should have put club banger “Lay All Your Love on Me” on Side One, and “Andante, Andante” (the least sexy song about tantric sex ever) on Two, subtitling the side “Nostalgia.” That said, I’m surely one among millions of Europeans who drunkenly sang along full throttle to “Happy New Year” whenever midnight brought January 1st in the early ‘80s—and likewise me and my friends can’t have been the only teenage partygoers to lie down on the ground and play dead to the song’s final line. The song may not do this album a big favor, but it sure as hell beat singing “Auld Lang Syne” and “Mull of Kintyre” yet again.

Killer: Super Trouper; The Winner Takes It All; On And On And On; Me And I; Happy New Year; Lay All Your Love On Me.
Filler: Andante, Andante; Our Last Summer; The Piper; The Way Old Friends Do.
Verdict: A flawed album, but still a real album. Comparable in mixed-bag quality to Arrival, but whereas the earlier record’s contrast between killer singles and dire filler made it a singles album, Super Trouper is consistent enough—as wistful as it is tuneful— to be an album.

HOPE: Super Trouper (1980). This album is frustrating. The first three songs,the sweet ‘n goofy title track, heavenly heartbreaker “The Winner Takes It All” and punchy gumdrop “On And On And On,” all hint at great things. Also present and welcome are the resolutely fun disco banger “Lay All Your Love On Me” and majestic synth-pop oddball “Me & I”. Plus this album is home to some of Björn’s most wonderfully batshit lyrics, inspired by everything from Stephen King’s novel of fascism and influenza, The Stand ( “The Piper”) to a type of spotlight (the title track) to bi-polarity (“Me & I”). Unfortunately the five good song heroes are countered by an equal number of vile enemies. There is a particularly cloying, syrupy melodic quality and unpleasant novelty vibe to the baddies and the aforementioned “The Piper” ( title says it all), “Andante, Andante” (“let your body be the velvet of the night”, wtf) and “The Way Old Friends Do” (just ugh okay) are all afflicted. I hear these songs and completely understand why ol’ David Crosby isn’t feeling this ABBA thing, because honestly in those cases, neither am I.

Killer: Super Trouper; The Winner Takes It All; On And On And On; Lay All Your Love On Me; Me And I.
Filler: Andante,Andante; Happy New Year; Our Last Summer; The Piper; The Way Old Friends Do.
Verdict: This one is pretty black and white, definitively half killer, half filler, though I should add there is only one genuine classic present on Super Trouper, “The Winner Takes It All”.

The Visitors (1981)

MATTHEW: The Visitors (1981). Is it fair to say this is the sleeper album in ABBA’s catalogue? After all, if the millions who assume ABBA was a singles band know any studio album of theirs, it would be Arrival; certainly not this. Yet it is not only a bona fide album, it does what the best old albums do: it reflects the moment in which it was created (in this case, pop’s embrace of new electronic instrumentation and production) while resting on enough songcraft to hold up decades later. It has a distinct feel to it, but remains an ABBA album, complete with an upbeat pop hit (“Head Over Heels”), a masterful divorce-pop classic (“One of Us”), a few tracks to remind us how badly Benny & Björn were dying to write musicals (“I Let the Music Speak” is almost operatic), a sweet slice of Agnetha-sung sentimentality (“Slipping Through My Fingers” is ABBA’s “She’s Leaving Home”), and even a goofy and creepy reminder of all those early summer variety show songs that filled early ABBA albums (“Two For the Price of One”). Of all eight albums, The Visitors is the one that keeps growing on me most, after all these years.

Originally a record of 9 tracks, 4 of which were singles, this was one of the very first albums released worldwide (in 1982) on CD. It was followed by two singles (“The Day Before You Came” and “Under Attack”), part of a possible ninth album that never happened; as of 1981, the band comprised two divorced couples, and the whole thing was rapidly becoming untenable. So the 9th album never happened, and those two final songs were included on a 1982 compilation called The Singles. They’re also included, along with a pair of B-sides, on some later reissues of The Visitors (such as the version on streaming services now). It is a shame “The Day Before You Came” was not written and recorded in time to be included on the original Visitors, because it is an extraordinary song: almost six minutes of building verses with no chorus, hypnotic and haunting, dark and dystopic, a triumphant meeting of divorce-pop and early ‘80s electro-pop. Is it about the band? Or about God?! Or about divorce, seen through a nostalgia for the mundanity of life before the relationship ever began, thus tossing a blanket of pain over it all—even the joy of romance and early marriage? If so, it is the capstone of ABBA’s run of divorce-pop masterpieces, from “SOS” to “Winner” to “One of Us,” but musically closer to contemporary synth pioneers like John Foxx and Gary Numan (closer, not close!). Substitute “Price of One” with “The Day Before You Came” and The Visitors might well be ABBA’s best album.

Killer: The Visitors; Head Over Heels; When All Is Said and Done; Soldiers; I Let the Music Speak; One of Us; Slipping Through My Fingers; Like An Angel Passing Through My Room.
Filler: Two For the Price of One.
Verdict: Without any doubt, a real album, and a swan song of which to be proud. Elegantly poignant, surprisingly rewarding, with more deep tracks than filler. Even the singles are sophisticated. As much as I love The Album, I’d be hard pushed to argue with someone trying to persuade me this is better.

HOPE: The Visitors (1981). “Here’s to us, one more toast, and then we’ll pay the bill, Deep inside, both of us can feel the autumn chill” sings Frida in “When All Is Said And Done”. That line pretty much encapsulates what is happening on The Visitors, the final ABBA studio album. The album is often characterized as the official ABBA divorce record as both couples had officially split by this point (reductive but true). But to go back to that lyric in the first line, the album isn’t only documenting ABBA leaving each other, it’s the physical manifestation of the behemoth beloved ABBA breaking up with their old sound and identity. The Visitors isn’t a moonlight snuggle session in “Tropical Loveland”, no, it’s being surprised by KGB or STASI agents trying to force their way into your home (the title track). With its chilly synths, spare arrangements and world weary world views of the sort present on early Ultravox albums, The Visitors sees ABBA exiting their bouncy castle bubble and stepping forthrightly toward the future (in their own lustrous ABBA way of course, meaning as icy as it is, every single track remains inherently radio friendly).

And so The Visitors is a curious egg, a disorienting place where Barbra Streisand on Broadway style vocal flourishes ( “I Let The Music Speak”) rub shoulders with dreamy acknowledgments of Robert Palmer’s fab early ‘80s eerie electronic era (“Like An Angel Passing Through My Room”). It is also home to two of the finest and most undervalued ABBA singles in the band’s history; rousing anthem of amicable parting “When All Is Said And Done” and self-pity oompa loompa sing-along “One Of Us”. Alas while both are resolutely fine, neither ever seem to appear within the bands Top 10’s on the streaming services or YouTube. Even more egregious is the fact that the former didn’t even feature on Gold. Oh sure there was plenty of room for “Does Your (freakin’) Mother Know” but no room at the inn for the undeniably gorgeous “WAISAD”. Yup. Over the years it’s become abundantly clear that frank, forthright ABBA doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance against frothy, frivolous ABBA, no matter how sweet a tune the sentiments are wrapped in. Mamma mia.

It’s unfortunate that both the bona fide cult classic “The Day Before You Came”—which features basically the Best Björn Lyrics Ever™—and infectious little wonder “Under Attack” were not part of The Visitors. Beyond the fact that they’re great songs, the album itself has always felt oddly short to me at 9 songs. And “Under Attack “ in particular would have injected a welcome bit of melodic candy into the darkness. And as you so perfectly and cuttingly noted Matthew, it wouldn’t be an ABBA album without at least one piece of vintage cringe present, that being the twee and excruciating “Two For The Price Of One”. As it is about a ménage involving a Mother and her (adult) daughter I feel strongly compelled to share an ironic and slimy observational sidenote; it’s not a patch on David Crosby’s 1971 song on the same subject “Triad”. And so on the ménage pop front, if you are keeping score, it is in fact Crosby-1, ABBA nil.

Killer: The Visitors; Head Over Heels; When All Is Said And Done; Soldiers; I Let The Music Speak ; One Of Us; Slipping Through My Fingers; Like An Angel Passing Through My Room.
Filler: Two For The Price of One.
Verdict: The Visitors is an intrinsically sad, often weird, completely hypnotic piece of pop music art. A downbeat and drug-free Rumours. A poptastic and efficient Here My Dear. It is a really good album. Yes, I said it. Album. I bow to its sugar icicle tears.

Now it’s history: Our Final Verdicts…

MATTHEW: So, were ABBA just a singles band? When I started this conversation with you, Hope, I guessed I would reluctantly conclude “yes.” But I was surprised by the second half of the catalogue: all four records are real albums, each with its own distinct feel, filled not with filler but with great album tracks (many of which just happened to be smash singles). I’m glad you didn’t ask me to rank them, as I find it impossible to separate out the best three, tied at the top: The Album, Voulez-Vous, and The Visitors; with Super Trouper a clear fourth. As for the first half of the studio catalog, I’d rank them in reverse order of release, with Arrival fifth, then ABBA, and Waterloo and Ring Ring at the bottom. Hope, what’s your ranking and verdict on singles-album vs real-album?

HOPE: It’s weird because in the pass/fail sense I do ultimately consider them to be a singles band…but I admit after really spending time with everything there is some grey area. As you point out, Matthew, the overall quality of the albums started to pick up from 1976’s Arrival onward. The Visitors is a damn fine album, easily my favorite followed by Voulez-Vous in second. I’d consider those two to be full-fledged albums, satisfying, immersive and virtually filler free. The others though are too inconsistent to qualify as great albums. I’d rank ‘em like this: The Album, Super Trouper, Arrival in that order with the triumvirate of ABBA, Waterloo and Ring Ring sharing each other’s clothes and bringing up the rear.

MATTHEW: Our verdicts prompt the question, why do ABBA have that singles-band rep (even with us)? I think that the weakness of the first three albums laid the groundwork for that image; after all, they were albums that packaged singles with filler. Then Arrival sealed it, by being a mixed killer-filler bag that sold so well—bought for its huge singles by consumers who could hardly ignore the filler (unless they had a good fast-forward feature on their tape decks). If any doubt remained a decade after ABBA split up, it was quashed by 1992’s Gold, one of the most successful singles compilations in music history. The phenomenal success of the Mamma Mia! musical and movie surely led fans back to Gold and its follow-up More Gold, not to the studio albums. As for serious fans awakened by the rehabilitation of ABBA in the 90s, they were likely drawn less to the old studio albums and more to the 1994 4-CD box set, Thank You For the Music, which—in my view—reinforces the singles band image by throwing in dodgy B-sides along with all the singles. Ironically, their comeback reinforced that old prejudice. So, if you know Gold, but we’ve made you curious, I’d suggest trying the albums in reverse order, starting with The Visitors and going back to Ring Ring (which is also not far off our loose ranking, if you crunch our two final verdicts); and if you don’t get further back than Arrival, we wouldn’t judge you. What do you think, Hope?

HOPE: What’s funny is that when I was a kid, before I’d ever heard of the term “singles band”, even if I liked an ABBA song I was never motivated to buy a whole album. Not even once. I only ever bought the 45s. And believe me when I tell you I seriously loved “Take A Chance on Me”, playing it repeatedly as I pranced around my room. Why wasn’t I interested in hearing or owning the album it came from? I had no such reservations over say ELO or the Bee Gees or any of my other kid faves. Yet something always held me back from investigating any further, a faint inner voice whispering no girl, it’s not gonna get any better than that 45 you’re holding.

And that voice wasn’t technically wrong. When it comes to ABBA the singles were the finest jewels they had to offer, their most meticulously built and perfectly crafted creations. And so in terms of the eight studio albums, nothing comes close to Gold as a listening experience because nothing can, the deck is stacked with endless transcendence, it’s impossible for them to compete.

On the surface ABBA seemed frivolous and fun which, fair or not, implied that albums were not the priority. And the first three albums support this (understatement). They weren’t interested in securing a lingering emotional investment from the listener or spreading their wares over a whole album side to slowly seduce and convince people. Every ABBA song was a now or never proposition, a characterization that they never really shook. Don’t bore us, get to the chorus. You can feel it in every fiber of “Waterloo”. There was no cohesive Dark Side Of The Moon style mission statement being made on an ABBA album, all that mattered was the spaghetti that stuck to the wall. The quality disparity between the songs seems to uphold this idea. And that general perception never really went away, in fact Gold pretty much cemented it for all eternity.

But you know what else? The Visitors is a great freakin’ album. Weird yet welcoming. Sad but celebratory. And there are some wickedly cool deep cuts within the other seven studio albums that land firmly on the “killers” side of the ledger. But as rewarding as it was for Matthew and I to experience those hidden in plain sight treasures, it was equally as fun to marvel slack-jawed at just how f-ing good those hits were. I am listening to “When All Is Said And Done” as I write this and even after all these years, it is still making me involuntarily shake my head in awe and wonder.
Dig in dancing queens…

ABBA-DDENDUM !

Voyage (2021)

MATTHEW: Voyage (2021).

Killer: I Still Have Faith in You; Don’t Shut Me Down; Just a Notion; No Doubt About It; I Can Be That Woman; Bumblebee; Ode to Freedom
Filler: When You Danced With Me;Little Things; Keep an Eye on Dan
Verdict: There’s good news and bad news here (as befits an ABBA album). The good news is that there are four stone-cold instant ABBA classics, sounding like long-lost gems from their late-’70s albums or hits from the early ‘80s albums that never happened; they are the first four I’ve listed above as “Killer.” I tried inserting them into a playlist of their classic 1992 compilation, Gold (I imagine it as Gold, Old and New, or maybe Still Golden; perhaps you can do better!), and these four new songs slip seamlessly right in. As has been noted in most of the reviews, the old boys of ABBA deliberately tried to be “trend blind,” so we are spared the embarrassment of phoned-in guest appearances by the pop starlet or hip-hop hero du jour. As a result, those four songs make it seem as if four years, not four decades, has passed since the last album. And, hey, doesn’t that make us all feel younger? Now for the bad news: there are six more tracks that don’t pass the gold test; we can be generous and say that three are silver, and three are bronze. The three silvers (“Woman,” “Bumblebee,” and “Ode”) I have also included as “Killer,” because I like them and they certainly belong on my imaginary More Gold, Old and New (More Gold came out in 1993). But the three simply don’t go anywhere: that is, they start well, but then instead of building, instead of giving us those corny ABBA chord changes or a bridge packed with catchy harmonies or any of the other sonic tricks in the BB bag, the songs just end. And suddenly, it does feel as if it has been four decades. As for the three bronzes: well, there is a dog in at least three songs on Voyage, so having one in the title and chorus (“Dan”) takes the album’s dominant theme of post-divorce domesticity a tad too far. As does the aspartame Christmas song (“Little Things”), whose placing as track 3 (after the grating “When You Danced”) is unfortunate. Shuffle them both to the end and they become more tolerable. In sum, this isn’t up there with the best ABBA albums, but nor is it down there with their weaker early ones. It falls somewhere in the middle, notable for its Killer and Filler, as one would expect. So, do I still have faith in the AAs and BBs? Absolutely. Bring those ABBAtars to life!

HOPE: Voyage (2021).

Killer: I Still Have Faith in You; Don’t Shut Me Down;Just A Notion; I Can Be That Woman; No Doubt About It;Ode to Freedom
Filler: When You Danced With Me; Little Things;Keep An Eye On Dan;Bumblebee
Verdict: I’m with you Matthew, so much so that our Killer and Filler picks only differ by one damn song! To be honest I was okay with the fact that ABBA were done and would likely never release a new album again. While no album by anybody is technically “necessary”, their existing catalog is of such a particular standard and has achieved such ubiquity that a new album seemed kind of, I don’t know, pointless. And so when Voyage was announced my first reaction was concern, as in, do you want to possibly besmirch the legacy you created with something sub-standard knowing all the attention this thing’s gonna get? But then I remembered the millions of post-break up ABBA fanatics, many of whom were not alive during the band’s heyday, and ultimately thought it was kind of cool that they were going to get to hear new ABBA music in real-time.

This album is…okay. I too utilized my inner default button while listening, mine being a “pretend it’s 1977 and these are new ABBA songs” button. And yes, there are a few that stand tall in that context ( and that could comfortably slot into Gold as you say Matthew).

Opening track “I Still Have Faith In You” with its stark and supremely moving Frida vocal and laid back twin cheeseballs “Don’t Shut Me Down” and “Just A Notion”, are all fabulous and worthy of spots on future reissues of Gold or, as we are officially calling it here, Still Gold (go Matthew). To my ears, these three songs are the stars of Voyage. Amongst the “Killers”, I have semi-grudgingly included both “No Doubt” and “Ode” because while neither are exceptional, they meet the general quality standard required of a good ABBA song. The former has a compellingly cool tempo change, the latter a sweetly wistful string arrangement ( though it does veer dangerously close to the flame of an Olympic torch lighting ceremony theme song ).

My “it could go either way” choice is wtf gaslighting ballad “I Can Be That Woman” which is as weird and disturbing a song as ABBA have ever released which is the sole reason I am categorizing it as “Killer”. Its power trio of pathetic microaggression, Tammy the dog and Agnetha singing”screw you” cannot be denied.

Bringing up the rear are “When You Danced With Me” (a painful hybrid of Big Country and “It’s A Small World”), “Bumblebee” (another track with that unwelcome Olympic opening ceremony theme vibe), “Little Things” ( a b-side studio scrap at best) and the genuinely cringeworthy “Keep An Eye On Dan” (ugh).

Is Voyage the last new music from ABBA we will ever hear ? Frida has insinuated that it may not be. In a recent interview with BBC2 she said, “I have learned to say never say never. We have probably said this must be the last thing we do – think of our ages, we are not young any longer. But you never know – don’t be too sure.”

Never say never…

This Is My Investigation: Rating the Albums of Dire Straits

Matthew Restall, author of the brilliant Blue Moves book in the 33 1/3 series & I (Hope) have a running list of artists whose respective catalogues we want to break down (figuratively) because our commitment to nerdiness is boundless. Welcome to the latest installment of this madness, This Is My Investigation where we will attempt to rumble through and rate the discography of dad rock kingpins Dire Straits. Wheels on…

The Game Commences: Just a note on the format of this essay, Matthew and I are going to be taking turns offering up our Dire assessments and our names will appear before our respective comments. Our album rating system is the classic best of 10, the pinnacle being 10 (it’s brilliant ), the bottom being 1 (it’s terrible). Our opinions will diverge at points from both each other and maybe the world at large but we are united in appreciation of the behemoth known as Dire Straits.

Here’s Mark Knopfler shredding, just because…

MATTHEW: With a catalogue of only six studio albums—and not a single one of them bad—Dire Straits may seem like an easy band to chat about and rate (hey, we just wrote 16k words rating the entire Macca catalog so we deserve a break! Read that here). And maybe that would be the case, were our opinions matched by those of most record-buyers and music critics—who helped make one of those six records, Brothers in Arms, responsible for a third of the band’s 100 million worldwide album sales. But they don’t. So there.

HOPE: I have a weird relationship with Dire Straits. They aren’t one of my all-time favorite bands…but I do genuinely like them. Okay, true confession; I am not a guitar aficionado. Not an axe girl. Which is to say that while I’m appreciative of great playin’, elongated solos generally aren’t my thing. Fact is Mark Knopfler’s virtuosic skills have never been the most appealing thing about Dire Straits for me nor the magnetic force that made me want to listen; it’s always just been the songs themselves. I like their cinematic moodiness and how the average running time of a typical track is a fulsome 5 minutes allowing for complete headphone immersion. Put simply, I like how you can get lost in them. That’s what I like about Dire Straits.

The Albums

Dire Straits (1978)

MATTHEW: Dire Straits (1978, UK #5, US #2, Top Ten in nine nations, #1 in two of them, sold 10m): 8/10. Deceptively simple and solid, this stunning debut is crafted to be so timeless that at the peak of the punk-vs-disco era, it simply sounded right, and still sounds right today. There isn’t a duff track on it, and arguably not even a duff note. Side B—“Sultans of Swing” to “Lions”—is an amazing 22 minutes, brimming with restrained energy. It was cued as Side A on most cassette editions, including the one I flogged into submission the year it was released. I was then 14 years old, torn between The Sex Pistols and ABBA (how was it possible to love both? Was something wrong with me?!), and therefore relieved and grateful for an album that offered refuge from the “cool” minefield. Neither too edgy nor too poppy, but still hip and tuneful, Dire Straits was safe but not dull. It only gets 8/10 from here because in retrospect, and compared to what followed, its safeness seems relatively…well, safe. The potential of all its influences and elements is incipient here, yet to be explored and developed—from the elements I love, such as prog-rock long-form rock jams and moody blues-based ballads, to those I don’t (but others do), such as rockabilly and country.

HOPE: Dire Straits (1978): 4/10. Bluesy, dusty and endlessly twanging Dire Straits is built to soundtrack both lengthy journeys across desert highways or slow walks through either saloon or pub doors. But okay, I find this album a bit samey (Hey Matthew, is that the same as “dull”?). On the upside,“Wild West End” possesses an appealingly horny charm, its laid back ogling offering a more romantic spin on the sentiments expressed in Pete Townshend and Ronnie Lane’s more sinister observational anthem from the previous year “Street In The City”(listen here). And “Lions” has the sweetly appealing gait of a Thin Lizzy deep cut. But of course the undeniable star of the album is “Sultans of Swing”, the band’s signature song and eternal sonic specter (literally, as its infectious guitar figure haunts a solid handful of other DS songs in the discography)…still, as cool as those 3 tracks are, I just, can’t, quite, latch, onto the rest.

Communiqué (1979)

MATTHEW: Communiqué (1979, UK #5, US #11, Top Ten in eight nations, #1 in two of them, sold 7m): 9/10. Along with millions of others on both sides of the Atlantic, I was primed by my love of the first album to either be disappointed by the sequel (ooh, just not as good?) or thrilled by it (another great album so soon?). For me, it was the latter: I thought this was a brilliant sophomore album, and from the very start I loved it even more than the first; I still do. Without a “Sultans of Swing” to overshadow the album, it struck me as having more balance, a sibling to the first album, for sure, yet hinting ever so slightly at a musical development that—little did I know in ‘79—would be fully realized in the two albums to follow. Recorded in Muscle Shoals, as the last album before Mark’s brother David quit (he left during recording sessions for the next one), the album has a warmth of tone unique to the band’s catalogue. In retrospect, the tendency to rank this at the bottom of the catalogue is mystifying; some critics seemed to see the lack of a hit single (“Lady Writer” failed to repeat the success of “Sultan”) and the album’s release on the heels of the debut as signs that this was a second-rate rush-job.

Listening to the two albums now, I see zero drop in quality. In fact, the more I listen to them together, the more convinced I am that Communiqué is the better of the two, an evolutionary step forward in song-writing. I see why you find some of the debut album boring, Hope (even if it doesn’t bore me), but I think there’s nothing nondescript in this one. There’s a tension here both in the story-telling (Knopfler is a troubadour at heart) and in the guitar-picking laid-back groove that runs from the opening lick of “Once Upon a Time in the West” to the blissfully soporific lilt of “Follow Me Home.” And in the middle, the menacing masterpiece that is “Where Do You Think You’re Going?” Unlike you, Hope, I adore a ridiculously long guitar jam, and I wish the minute-long solo that ends this song was more like ten minutes (even if the change in tempo disturbingly suggests that the narrator has gone from threatening to actually chasing; oh yes, this is narrative pop-rock at its best!).

HOPE: Communiqué (1979): 4/10. These early albums feel like a journey to get to the next place, developmental in a sense. The western film theme/pub sound is still fairly dominant here which is to say my favorite track is the (slightly) weirdest one, closer “Follow Me Home” (crickets, lapping waves, sinewy, subtle and dark, yeah, I’ll have that). And “ Where Do You Think You’re Going?” possesses a pretty nifty riff and a nice snarling vocal from Knopfler…but both this and the self-titled album are just not sticky enough for me, not melodically memorable and are ultimately a little too meandering to inspire endless listening. There are a few genuinely good tracks on each but to my ears they both wither in the wake of what came after. P.S. My inner musical conspiracy theorist believes that Gordon “Sting” Sumner brazenly pilfered the guitar figure from “News” for “Fragile”.

Making Movies (1980)

MATTHEW: Making Movies (1980, UK #4, US #19, Top Ten in six nations, sold 7m): 8/10. I adored this when it came out, and I have often returned to it for the same reason: it is a bigger, brighter, more melodic version of the formula from the first two albums. The addition of keyboardist Roy Bittan (from the E Street Band) feels like a natural step forward, and is it my imagination that there is a hint of Springsteen/E Street on here? On a different day, I might rate Making Movies a 9. Today, it’s an 8/10 because I’m bothered by something that has periodically nagged at me for forty years: isn’t this a concept album about lost love, five great songs over 30 minutes, but with two misfit tracks at the end to bring it to 38”? It’s infuriating because that first half-hour is sublime, an evolution of that troubadour style into poignancy and beauty. Stick to the first five tracks, all classics, and skip the last two clunkers.

HOPE: Making Movies (1980): 9/10. Unlike the previous 2 albums, there are no songs on Making Movies that would work to soundtrack a Western duel. No, this album is fueled by more modern day machinations…in other words, meet the new Dire Straits featuring less twanging and more grooving. The album is a perfect intermingling of wistfulness and desire ( and okay, a handful of horniness) and so yes, it could rightfully be characterized as Springsteen-esque. My first interaction with this album came not via beloved evergreen epic “Romeo and Juliet” but with the now iconic video for “Skateaway” starring the late Jayzik Azikiwe as Rollergirl (watch below). Not only did I think she was simultaneously one of the coolest and hottest humans I’d ever seen, I found the song itself intoxicating and appealingly weird, unpredictable and groovy. It also features one of my absolute favorite Knopfler scenery chewing talk-singing vocal performances. But to be clear the 4 songs that surround it are equally sweet ( need to call out that coda in “Romeo and Juliet” with its “you and me babe how about it?” because yes, it just plain rules). The last 2 tracks “Solid Rock” and “Les Boys” are straight up sub b-side scraps and so, in my heart, Making Movies will always be a handsome, top down 5 song EP.

Love Over Gold (1982)

HOPE: Love Over Gold (1982, UK #1, US #19, Top Ten in eight nations, #1 in five of them, sold 8m): 7/10. Why do I sort of love Love Over Gold ? Allow me to oversimplify and generalize : 1-It sounds good in the rain, 2- There are only 5 songs, each of which are 5 minutes plus making it ideal for complete aural immersion, 3- As such the whole thing feels very cinematic, epic and widescreen making it a fine soundtrack for lengthy daydreaming sessions. “Telegraph Road” is both fist-pumpingly melodic and tear-jerking poignant…and for a song that is the musical equivalent of War and Peace in terms of length (14 plus minutes), it still feels like it’s over in a heartbeat. Oh “Private Investigations”, I think you are very beautiful, standing under that streetlight, all monumental and majestic, full of resignation and sadness. But hey, hey, not ignoring you “Love Over Gold”, you are also ravishing and lovely especially your literally 3 minute rainswept instrumental outro/coda. Sidenote; to this day I still get a kick out of hearing the seeds of “Private Dancer” the future megahit Knopfler wrote and gifted to Tina Turner in the song’s chorus.

Why do I only sort of love Love Over Gold i.e. not full on?…well there are 2 tracks I’m not nuts about namely the album closer “It Never Rains”, a just okay, kinda perky sub-standard Springsteen-style song and, ugh, “Industrial Disease”. I’ve tried to rationalize its inclusion by reminding myself that The Police did this kind of thing on all 5 of their otherwise immaculate studio albums, namely including at least one genuinely cringey “comedic” song amongst the stellar ones. The half full mentality says the cringers ultimately make the better songs shine even more brightly…but when an album is only 5 songs in length and 2 of them are not great, their presence becomes painfully magnified. This is why my love for Love Over Gold will always have a heart-shaped asterisk next to it.

MATTHEW: Love Over Gold (1982): 9/10. Why do I unabashedly love Love Over Gold? Sometimes one is lucky enough to experience love at first listen; and that’s how it was with this record. I can still remember the first time I heard “Private Investigations”: I was listening to BBC Radio 1 in my mother’s MG, flying between the hedgerows along a tiny country road, and Tony Blackburn played the song twice in a row, because it was that good, and he didn’t care that his program manager was yelling at it him; then he said, if you like this song, you’re going to love the other track on Side A, its over twice as long! Old Tony was right. That’s the epic “Telegraph Road,” of course, and I’ve not stopped playing their combined 21” (Side A on the record) for almost four decades. The whole record is masterful.

Well, except perhaps for Side B’s “Industrial Disease,” which hinted too strongly (for my tastes) at the retro-rockabilly virus that would infect the later albums. At first, I skipped it, to go straight to the bliss of the title track and “It Never Rains.” But then I caught one of the final concerts of the Love Over Gold tour—in London in the summer of 1983—and “Industrial Disease” was great played live (as you can hear on Alchemy; see below). That helped me to see how the song serves a useful purpose, as a sort of lightweight relief in the middle of the wonderful but arguably earnest prog-rock pretentions of the two tracks before and two tracks after. That said, I’ve never completely embraced its inclusion on the album. As you note, Hope, there are echoes of “Private Dancer” in this album’s title track, making rather confounding Knopfler’s rationale for giving to Tina Turner what would become the title track to her comeback album. Wouldn’t the song have been a great way to start Side B of Love Over Gold, instead of “Disease”?!

Brothers In Arms (1985)

MATTHEW: Brothers in Arms (1985, UK #1, US #1, #1 in ten nations, sold 31m): 6/10. At 30 million units sold, and one of the ten best-selling albums of all time in the UK, this is their biggest record by far, typically cited as their best. But while it has some great tracks—like the beautiful title song—it is marred by intolerably artless and irritating tripe like “Walk of Life,” which turned me off the band for so long they’d broken up by the time I forgave them. Apparently, the producer wanted to toss “WoL” in the B-sides bin, but he was overruled by the band; if he’d had his way, he wouldn’t have been forced to edit down every track on Side A except “WoL” for the vinyl version, which only added insult to injury. The offending single is preceded by “Money For Nothing,” which is a classic example of an overexposed song: it is a brilliant rock/pop single, I understand why it remains so popular, and I don’t skip it when I’m playing the album; but I would be fine with never hearing it again.

“WoL” is then followed by “Your Latest Trick,” the fifth (!) successful single from the album, and a wonderful example of that soft rock style that would characterize Mark Knopfler’s solo records (and indeed the B-sides were both Knopfler solo recordings). I love the trumpet and sax licks by the Brecker brothers. And that is the thing with Brothers: it lurches between the annoying and the sublime, the overexposed and the timeless. Instead of a further step towards prog-ish, blues-rock theatricality, this was a step sideways from the theatre to the arena. I realize that this is a treasured artifact from the childhood or youth of millions, but for me this was always less compelling and coherent than any of its four predecessors, all of which I always preferred.

HOPE: Brothers in Arms (1985): 5/10. Goodbye adventurous idiosyncratic weirdness, hello expensive stadium-ready sleekness. It’s disappointing that Brothers, an album nowhere near as good as its 2 predecessors and the most sonically polite and plush release in the entire Dire Straits discography is the album that has come to define the band. I wholeheartedly agree with your 3 points Matthew; the title track is lovely, “Walk Of Life” is literally tripe and “Money For Nothing” has absolutely worn out its welcome. As for the rest, “Your Latest Trick” with its “sexy sax”, the swaying palms of “Why Worry”, the faux Peter Gabriel vibe of “Ride Across The River”, the positively Clapton-ish (ugh) “So Far Away” are not a patch on painterly, riveting tracks like “Private Investigations” or “Skateaway” or “Love Over Gold”. Lastly we need to address the elephant in the room, namely the legendary Knopfler headband, immortalized in glowing neon glory in the “Money For Nothing” video and whose ascent as key cultural artifact peaked right about here. Along with the Mercury and Oates mustaches, MJ glove, ZZ Top keyring and Madonna’s giant crucifix necklace, it is unquestionably one of the ‘80s most iconic pop accoutrements, in other words, #knopflersheadband.

On Every Street (1991)

MATTHEW: On Every Street (1991, UK #1, US #12, Top Ten in nine nations, #1 in eight of them, sold 9m): 6/10. The success of Brothers in Arms kept the band touring so heavily that it essentially broke them up (they were officially “inactive” or disbanded, depending on what you read, from 1988 to 1991). This therefore sounds more like a Mark Knopfler solo album for that reason; sadly, that means none of the prog-ish ambition of the early 80s, but more of the country incipient on the late 70s ones, with a touch of the retro-rockabilly that infected the 1982-85 material. Still, aside from two of its five singles—“Heavy Fuel” & “The Bug”—being as annoying as the two big hits on Brothers, this is a fine swan song, intricately crafted and played; I completely ignored it at the time, not bothering to give it a chance for over a decade, but I’m glad now that the band had one last go of it (I love “Planet of New Orleans,” for example).

HOPE: On Every Street (1991): 3/10.There’s an old scrapbook of memories vibe to this album; it sounds like a sentimental tribute to younger days. I like the bones of the title track (tune, words) but the woodwind infusion feels intrusive and the overall orchestral feel brings to mind trawling grassy mountain tops with a walking stick as opposed to roaming the lonely city which to my ears always feels at odds with the lyrical sentiment. The retro-rockabilly tracks, the self-consciously noirish blues of “Fade To Black” as well as the Eddie Cochran/Roy Orbison flavored throwback “Ticket To Heaven” are also lacking that intrinsic mystical something for me. In conclusion On Every Street is pleasant and tasteful and features the usual virtuosic musicianship…but it’s missing all the epic weird, romantic storytelling and dirtiness that made the first 4 Dire Straits albums if not all equally awesome, compelling and listenable.

MATTHEW: Some readers will have called me a crazy fool for ranking Communiqué over Dire Straits, and others will throw their arms up at my ranking On Every Street even with Brothers in Arms. But as I go back and forth between the two, I cannot escape the conclusion that the latter two really are very close to being as good as each other—and, incidentally, very close in quality to Mark Knopfler’s best solo album (that is not a film soundtrack), 2000’s Sailing to Philadelphia.

HOPE: You know what I’ve always kind of wished, that more women artists would cover Dire Straits songs. I love the idea of turning certain tracks sideways and yeah, just think it would sound so damn cool. While there’s been some “Romeo And Juliet” action ( most notably by Indigo Girls, listen here) there hasn’t been much coverage in relation to the deep stuff. Would love to hear a little “Private Investigations” for one…go on girl(s).

MATTHEW: Yes! Brilliant idea! (But not including Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer.”)

Live Albums, Compilations and Side Projects

MATTHEW: There are also three live albums worth considering. Here they are, in order of their release, which also happens to be how I rank them, from must-own to don’t-bother. Alchemy, 9/10, (1983 concerts, 1984 album, UK #3, US #43, Top Ten in eight nations, #1 in one of them) is one of the best live albums of all time, with a stunning 10-minute version of “Sultans.” This would be the album to take to the Desert Island if only one from the band were allowed. Drawing heavily on Making Movies and Love Over Gold, Alchemy comes close to rendering both redundant. The CD version (remastered in 2001) is preferable to the LP one, because it includes “Love Over Gold” and none of the edits and fades necessitated by vinyl. I give it 9 instead of 10/10 because I always thought the use of “Going Home”—the Knopfler solo hit from the Local Hero movie soundtrack—was an odd way to end the album; and, when it was reissued, why not include from the outtake bin the full “Portobello Belle,” an edit of which appeared on the 1988 Money For Nothing hits compilation?

Ok, maybe I’m nit-picking. And maybe I’m over-compensating for my personal connection to these live versions, because I was almost at the Hammersmith Odeon concerts where they were recorded. Instead, I saw them at the Dominion (also an old London theatre) a couple of nights earlier. Half the audience left after the encore (including my girlfriend), but then the band came back out with Phil Lynott (of Thin Lizzy) and played an amazing half-hour second encore. (My memory of some details may be fuzzy; if you were at the London gig where Lynott joined Dire Straits—not the legendary Rainbow Theatre one in ‘79, but this Love Over Gold one—let us know!)

On the Night, 7/20 (1992 concert, 1993 album, UK #4, US #116, Top Ten in eight nations, #1 in two of them), on the other hand, is somewhat pointless, because Alchemy is better, and this begins by showcasing three weak songs that were late-period hit singles (unfortunately, in my view, but fortunate for Knopfler’s bank balance)—“Calling Elvis,” “Walk of Life,” & “Heavy Fuel.” That said, the 10-minute version of “Elvis” is far superior to the studio version, and the rest of the album is pretty awesome. In all their incarnations, Dire Straits were a superb live act, and so it is great to have these concert versions of late-period classics like “Brothers in Arms” and “On Every Street” (which obviously weren’t yet written when Alchemy was made).

The third concert album, Live at the BBC, 5/10, (1978 concert, 1995 release, UK #71, did not chart US), strikes me as being for fanatics only (and I’m clearly not fanatic enough). It comprises decent live versions of six tracks from the debut album, but not to the standards of Alchemy; one so-so song written by both Knopfler brothers that was never studio recorded because it evolved into the far better “Lady Writer”; and an early version of “Tunnel of Love” (played live in Germany in 1980, despite the album’s title, so an odd misfit).

There’s also a 1996 live set, but it was only released as part of a 1998 “best of” compilation, so see our paragraphs on comps albums below.

HOPE: Alchemy, 7/10, (1983 concerts, 1984 album). Back in ‘83/84 I was eagerly attending exactly the sort of shows you might expect a teenage girl to see. Duran Duran. Culture Club. Psychedelic Furs. As you can probably imagine the crowds at these events were as hyped up as living breathing humans could possibly be, totally high on pop music and lust and screaming their freakin’ heads off. In the context of things, that behavior made total sense, the whole experience felt sugary, hot and exotic. Which is why when I first heard Alchemy I was a little taken aback at how expressive and vocal the audience was. The whistling, the hooting, the clapping. I was fascinated that people could get as worked up over a Knopfler guitar solo as I would get watching Simon LeBon “dance” or Richard Butler “twirl”.I was mystified that they could love something that didn’t involve “pin-up-ability” so intensely ( I clearly had some growing up to do). But to this day, that’s what charms me most about this album, I mean just listen to how completely invested and loved up the crowd is during “Telegraph Road”; it’s really kind of beautiful. I adore this version of “Romeo And Juliet” (the instrumental coda is particularly swoon-worthy)…and especially dig how it segues into “Love Over Gold” which then leads on into “Private Investigations”. The 3 greatest Dire Straits songs played consecutively and the unabashed, spoken out loud love on display ?…yeah, I’ll take it.

As far as On the Night, 4/10 (1992 concert, 1993 album) goes, it seems like a completely superfluous release. It’s nowhere near as embraceable as Alchemy and the damage inflicted on “Romeo And Juliet” by my personal nemesis, the aforementioned dreaded “sexy sax” is absolutely criminal. On the whole, things are just a bit too slick, shiny and stadium and I would definitely categorize it for fans only…as I would Live at the BBC, 3/10, (1978 concert, 1995 release), an archival curio which as Matthew says is “decent” but not remotely compelling.

MATTHEW: Finally, what of the compilation and hits albums, and Mark Knopfler’s solo output? There are three compilations, the first of which, Money for Nothing (1988) is worthless save for one track: half its tracks are edited down, with the full-length originals all superior; only the live version of “Portobello Belle,” left off all versions of Alchemy, is worth accessing here—for hard-core fans. The compilation was replaced in 1998 by Sultans of Swing: The Very Best of Dire Straits, which made the same error, with 6 of its 16 tracks edited down. Half of its tracks are from the last two solo albums, mostly the singles that—in my view—aren’t the best songs on those albums. So, again, worthless. But (a big but), there were deluxe editions in ‘98—with a second CD, containing 7 tracks from a 1996 Royal Albert Hall concert—and in 2002, when a DVD was added to that second CD. The live set cannot match Alchemy, and is similar to On the Night, so it’s not bad and certainly not worthless—but really of interest to serious fans only.

The third and so far latest compilation is Private Investigations: The Best of Dire Straits and Mark Knopfler (2005). The addition of solo numbers is interesting, but beware of the single CD and vinyl versions; yet again, these contain some edited versions, and are thus also worthless. To make room for solo songs (four on the single CD version), the first two Dire Straits albums are ignored beyond “Sultans.” The 2-CD version is better, although it likewise ignores the first two albums, and includes the inferior edit of “Private Investigations”—sadly ironic, considering the album’s title. It offers 9 solo tracks, and they are a reasonable introduction to Knopfler’s 22 albums outside Dire Straits—that’s nine solo albums, from 1996 to 2018 (so far), nine film soundtrack albums, from 1983 to 2016 (again, so far), and four collaborative albums (two in 1990 and two in 2006—a studio and a live album with Emmylou Harris). Note that roughly a third of all those were made before Dire Straits dissolved, with most of that early work being soundtracks. There isn’t therefore a clean break between Knopfler’s Dire Straits, solo, and soundtrack work (his best soundtracks are arguably the 80s ones, during peak Straits years); nor is there one in terms of styles. We haven’t rated the non-Straits albums, as they are a different species. But there is DNA overlap. As a generalization, the solo albums are singer-songwriter records in the related genres of country and British/Irish folk music. The best of them—for me, that’s Sailing to Philadelphia (2000) and The Ragpicker’s Dream (2002)—come closest to Straits albums at times, but never that close. And when they do, they sound more like the late-period Straits songs that anticipate Knopfler’s solo work. I think that’s called Dirony. (Sorry!)

If there must be a “best of” compilation, I’d prefer it be 3 CDs, the first all Straits, the third all solo work, with the middle CD mixing the two with some of the songs that overlap in style—-like “Fade to Black” from the final Straits album, and solo gems like “What It Is” from Sailing to Philadelphia, and “Terminal of Tribute To” from Tracker (2015). I’d want on that third CD the Sailing title track, plus “Hard Shoulder” from Get Lucky (2009), and “A Place Where We Used to Live” from The Ragpicker’s Dream (2002). Heck, how about a 4th CD of live tracks, and a 5th of soundtrack pieces. But such a 3-CD (or 4 or 5!) compilation doesn’t exist, so you might as well buy the no-frills Dire Straits Studio Albums box set, a $30 bargain, put on your red head band, and start drinking Portobello Road gin (yes, it’s Knopfler’s brand, complete with a mini red headband on the neck); after a few Local Hero G&Ts, you may see the virtue in also buying Alchemy and a handful of Knoppy’s solo and soundtrack albums. Now that—to cite a track from his Princess Bride soundtrack—is “A Happy Ending.”

HOPE: I concur with Matthew’s points in regards to the compilations! Dire Straits were never a singles band and are just so ill-suited to that type of overview (square peg meet round hole). The ideal way to experience a Dire Straits song is within its natural habitat surrounded by its actual herd via the actual studio albums (with Alchemy serving as the mike drop at the end).

As far as the Knopfler solo stuff, it’s a true mixed bag and admittedly I’ve never latched onto any of the albums as a whole…but there are a couple of tracks within them I find particularly exquisite: The infectious and sticky portraiture of “The Scaffolder’s Wife” from the Kill To Get Crimson album (2007) and the aforementioned and beauteous “Hard Shoulder” which sounds like both an earthbound spin on “Wichita Lineman” and a tribute to old chestnut “Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying” at the same damn time.

Album Ranking Summary

MATTHEW:
9/10: Communiqué, Love Over Gold, Alchemy
8/10: Dire Straits, Making Movies
7/10: On the Night
6/10: Brothers in Arms, On Every Street
5/10: Live at the BBC

HOPE:
9/10: Making Movies
7/10: Love Over Gold, Alchemy
5/10: Brothers in Arms
4/10: Dire Straits, Communiqué, On The Night
3/10: On Every Street, Live at the BBC

In Conclusion…

And what have you got at the end of the day?
What have you got to take away?

HOPE: When Matthew first suggested we explore Dire Straits I was worried that I didn’t feel strongly enough about them to be able to appraise them fairly or accurately. But of course that crazy (inevitable) thing happened where the more I listened, the more things started to resonate, the more invested I became in the experience. And here I am digging Alchemy in a way I never have before in my life. And playing “Hard Shoulder” and imagining I’m in a ‘60s movie on a greyhound bus watching the rain beat against the window. And so there you go, you got me Mr.Knopfler, mission accomplished.

MATTHEW: Yeah, Knoppy got me too! I thought my opinions were fairly set, especially as my views on music from my teens and college-age years (1977-86) are so infused with emotional and personal associations. But in the course of our deep-diving, I have discovered anew the narrative richness of the Dire Straits and Knopfler catalogs; I’ve heard musical moments I’d missed or forgotten; and I’ve come to better appreciate both Knopfler’s genius as a guitarist and songwriter, and the talents of his band mates. If our conversation leads you to anything remotely close to that, then OUR mission is accomplished! Now where’s that bottle…

The Wonder Of It All: Paul McCartney’s Solo Years (Part 4-The 21st Century)

Over the course of 2020, my friend Matthew Restall, author of the brilliant Blue Moves book in the 33 1/3 series & I (Hope) started spontaneously breaking down Paul McCartney’s entire post-Beatle discography as if we were writing an actual essay (like you do, if you are a nerd). Well, turns out we were. Welcome to The Wonder Of It All, a 4-part series featuring our endlessly unspooling, unhinged, proudly contrarian, ridiculous & heartfelt correspondence regarding the Macca solo catalog. Ram On…

It’s A Fine Line: Just a note on the format of this essay, Matthew and I are going to be taking turns spilling our McCartney guts and our names will appear before our respective comments. Our album rating system is the classic best of 10, the pinnacle being 10 (it’s brilliant), the bottom being 1 (it’s terrible). Our opinions will diverge at points but we are as one in our love of Macca.

2000-2020: Driving Rain to III…

MATTHEW: Cliche alert: happy artists make trite art, and the best stuff is made by miserable bastards. Happy Adele? Snore. Broken-hearted Adele? Now we’re talking. Yet I never believed that Macca had a silly love songs problem in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. Nor did I imagine that the root of such a problem, had it existed, was his long and happy marriage. After all, I love “Silly Love Songs.” But then Paul’s happy streak hit some unimaginably tough twists and turns. In the decade following Flaming Pie, his “Lovely Linda” lost her hard-fought cancer battle, George Harrison died, and Paul’s new marriage ended after just a few years. Was there enough misery in there to temper the silly love and inspire some stirring new songs? Oh yes. Three albums of them. Three great albums. Three of his best.

And that wasn’t all. Sir Paul’s creative output this century has been extraordinary. And considering these are his senior years (he turned the Fab age of 64 in 2006), his productivity seems superhuman. We may be less enamored of his ‘10s than his ‘00s pop albums, but we’re still bowled over by the sum total.

Driving Rain (2001)

MATTHEW: Driving Rain (2001), 9/10: When Paul released his Pure compilation in 2016, Paul Sinclair of Super Deluxe Edition took a look back at Macca’s solo career; I usually agree with Sinclair’s opinions, but he judged Driving Rain as “frankly awful,” the worst album in the catalogue, with not one good track on it. I was stunned. Because I LOVE this album. I still remember the first time I played the CD, in my car; I sat in the parking lot at work unable to bring myself to stop listening. Macca was channeling his grief over Linda’s passing and his joy over meeting Heather through his well-honed pop filter, and the result was totally captivating. For me then, and now, there’s not a duff song on here. And despite its length, it doesn’t tail off at the end, only getting better. The sole blemish is the hidden extra track, recorded and added at the last minute in response to 9/11 (“Freedom” is indeed “frankly awful”). I don’t remember Rain getting bad reviews when it came out, but I do recall it selling poorly, and scathing reviews of it are not hard to find (Ultimate Classic Rock, like the aforementionedSDE, ranks it as Macca’s worst, #21 of 21). I guess there’s no accounting for taste; in this case, mine. I hear an hour of strong, intimate, engaging tunes, and I honestly feel bad for those who don’t.

HOPE: Driving Rain (2001), 8/10: Driving Rain remains one of the most hated and maligned albums of Paul’s solo years. And let’s be frank, whether or not people want to admit it, the disdain for the album has less to do with the actual songs than the person who inspired their creation, Paul’s then new wife Heather Mills. To which I say, who cares. He was in love and this album has some absolutely kick ass songs; why should it matter who the source of inspiration was? If you are craving sticky and swoon-some style melodies like the kind that dominated most Macca albums in the ‘70s and early ‘80s then you should absolutely spend some time with Driving Rain. It is full of fabulous hooks, from the punchy loved-up title track to the gloriously Nilsson-esque “Your Loving Flame” to the rainy day balladry of “From A Lover To A Friend” to the Wings flavored “Magic”. Point is, there’s a lot to love here, a helluva a lot more than there is on the far more heralded Flowers in the Dirt. And for historical purposes, I will concur with Matthew in regards to “Freedom” and state that while it has genuinely good intentions it is also unequivocally terrible.

Chaos and Creation in the Backyard (2005)

HOPE: Chaos And Creation In The Backyard (2005), 7/10: Chaos And Creation is one of the most traditionally Beatle-esque albums of Paul’s solo career, its best tracks sounding like not so distant relations of Macca’s White Album contributions. It is also home to a straight-up, deep cut classic and what I regard as Paul’s absolute finest 21st century track. “Riding To Vanity Fair” is a clear-eyed, pragmatic and world weary ballad that’s flexible enough to accommodate the story of a friendship ending or the inability to be friends after a relationship has imploded. Either way, it’s an unadulterated, underrated beauty in the tradition of mist-inducing ballads like “Dear Friend” and “Love In Song” and I still swoon when it enters the room. While the album’s opening track and first single “Fine Line” is supremely bouncy and features an undeniably nifty piano based hook, the best tracks on Chaos are the ones with the most mournful melodies (“At The Mercy” and “How Kind Of You”). Chaos is a cloudy, wanting and lovely thing.

MATTHEW: Chaos And Creation In The Backyard (2005), 10/10: Paul has said that during the period of this great trio of albums (Rain, Chaos, and Memory), he never tossed out a song because his personal life had taken a new turn. So the songs take us to various points on his emotional roller coaster, but we cannot always be sure which ones; we can only guess at whom or what he is mourning, which love he is giddy over, what loss he is processing. For me, that—plus Paul’s undying gift for melody—makes Chaos one of his very best albums. As Hope says, it’s Beatle-esque, with all the praise that implies. Ten of its tracks are in my Macca Top 100, and I might as well have put the whole album in. Without the eccentricities that made most of his previous albums either annoyingly or charmingly quirky (depending on your taste or feelings for the record), this one is consistent, coherent, and compelling. Mature Macca’s masterpiece.

Memory Almost Full (2007)

HOPE: Memory Almost Full (2007), 5/10: When you listen to a new Macca album, whether you mean to or not, you are subconsciously comparing it to everything that’s come before. And if you are a crazy Macca-head you are also instantly attempting to put it into context. When I listened to Memory Almost Full for the first time, my matchmaking mind almost instantly honed in on its closest sonic relative, the less than stellar Press To Play. Go on and play them back to back. It’s all of a sudden gotten very 1986 in here right ? And while Memory is never boring, it never genuinely shines. Its best moments by far are where Paul gets weird. Both “House of Wax”, an eccentric, epic, slow moving cousin to Speed of Sound’s “Beware My Love” and “222”, a spiralling hypnotic sketch of song replete with tempo changes and the always welcome Macca falsetto, are fascinating and super fine slabs of oddball Paul.

MATTHEW: Memory Almost Full (2007), 7/10: I thought Chaos was just as good as Rain, but I was aware by the time Memory came out that the first was generally considered to be rubbish and the second great. So this third album of the decade was going to be rubbish, right? Not so much. Far from rubbish, it is a dozen strong songs, lots of melodic hooks, no unfinished fragments or self-indulgences of the kind that marred some other Macca albums. It’s in my McTop Ten. That said, it is a step away from the confessional intimacy of Rain and Chaos, and a step towards the so-so modern pop of Paul’s 2010s albums. It is best when it sounds more like a sibling to Chaos—for example, in “You Tell Me,” “Vintage Clothes,” “That Was Me,” “Feet in the Clouds,” “The End of the End.” I didn’t realize until a few years ago that all those songs were written and demo-recorded BEFORE Chaos was made. It shows. Perhaps if those demos are included in the Archive Collection reissue, whenever that comes, they’ll underscore how much this album might have been a Chaos twin. That said, I’d not want the final five tracks (which Paul has called a medley) to be any different (I’m generously pretending the album ends with “End,” not the 2-minute back-alley dentist visit that is “Nod Your Head”).

New (2013)

HOPE: New (2013), 6/10: New is an unpredictable and blessedly weird creature with moments that bring to mind everyone from Queen to The Killers to MGMT. It’s a dirty window of an album with a fair amount of “riffing” and “shredding” and ultimately more about sounds than songs. The Macca voice goes down an octave, the amps get turned up and things get wonderfully eccentric. You couldn’t call it outright Indie Paul, but there is something distinctly off-kilter in the construction of songs like the pounding “Road”, fuzzy singalong “Queenie Eye” and electro-peculiar “Appreciate”. You don’t necessarily see what’s coming, the hooks aren’t obvious and the instrumentation isn’t rote ( it should be noted that 2 of the aforementioned songs are co-writes with esteemed producer Paul Epworth). The song that best personifies New’s accessible weirdness for me is “Looking At Her” with its incongruous, where the hell did that come from synth-line. It’s the aural equivalent of giant neon brick being thrown through your living room window and is just yes, yes, yes.

MATTHEW: New (2013), 6/10: The modern pop tendencies of Memory Almost Full are almost fully realized on New (and are fully so on its sequel). The tortured Paul of the previous decade was gone, and while I’m happy for him, it meant the return of playful Paul—and songs that were more fun to create than they are to hear. If that makes it a hard album to love, one to pull songs for mixes more than to enjoy from start to finish, it also makes it endlessly interesting. Hope puts it perfectly: its the sounds, rather than the songs, that surprise and bewitch. “Alligator” and “Appreciate” are just the right balance of weird and melodic. The hidden 13th track, which sounds right out of the Rain/Chaos era, always arrives as an odd but welcome twist (and much better hidden after “Road” on the original release, instead of after the dispensable extra tracks on the so-called Deluxe Edition).

Egypt Station (2018)

MATTHEW: Egypt Station (2018), 4/10: I heard a couple of damning reviews of this, Macca’s 22nd studio album of originals, when it first came out. I tried to ignore them but I was put off by “Come on To Me” and “Fuh You,” which seemed just plain bizarre coming from a 76-year-old; the latter sounds like Coldplay production with Enrique Iglesias lyrics, but sung by an old geezer who refuses to do a clean version. I concluded that the slow downward trajectory from Chaos to Memory to New had continued with Egypt. Two years later, I still think there has been diminishing returns since Chaos. But my reaction to the two singles mentioned above smacks of ageism. Surely he’s earned the right to sing “I just wanna fuh you” to anyone who wants to hear it, regardless of how old he is! Besides, there’s one GREAT song on here (“I Don’t Know” is an instant Macca classic), and there are some pretty good ones scattered throughout the full Egypt sessions, enough to fill two sides of vinyl. The fact that one has to wade through an hour and a half of music (the original album’s hour, plus the bonus tracks and follow-up singles) to find one’s fine forty minutes is, well, all part of the pleasure and privilege of having access to so much Paul pop. He’s been doing it for six decades, and shows no sign of stopping. Let’s hope he never does.

HOPE: Egypt Station (2018), 3/10: I concur with Matthew heartily on multiple points; “I Don’t Know” is a freakin’ great song, vintage melodic Macca. And yes, the album is too damn long ( thanks streaming, you bastard). As far as the ageism, well, guilty here too…but then again is there such a thing as age appropriate music, should there be ? Rock stars are forever young right ? “Fuh You” does have a bit of a Grandpa posting stuff on TikTok vibe but it feels much truer to who Paul is at his core than something like Kisses On The Bottom ( his standards album which we discuss in the side projects section below). Still if Egypt Station makes one thing abundantly clear, it is that Indie Paul as heard on its predecessor New is infinitely more listenable than Modern Day Pop Paul as heard on a number of tracks here. There’s a fair amount of filler but the quirky, weirdness of electro-chant ”Back in Brazil” is pretty winning. And the bizarro “Caesar Rock”, a marriage of the sludgy and yes “Soily” sound of early ‘70s Wings and Talking Heads is a head-spinning and ridiculously fun melange.

McCartney III (2020)

MATTHEW: McCartney III (2020), 5/10: We had already written on all 22 studio albums above, when Paul announced that during “rockdown” he’d hammered out another totally-solo album—entirely written, performed, and produced by him, in the vein of 1970’s I and 1980’s II. As you can imagine, and no doubt like you and many thousands of others, we were excited, intrigued, apprehensive. So how did it turn out? Well, exciting and intriguing. There are some genuine new gems here; I really like the “Winter Bird” tracks that open and close the album, and I love the two deeps—“Deep Deep Feeling” and “Deep Down” (the sequencing on the vinyl version has them both on Side B, making that a fine 24 minutes of mature Macca, perhaps enough to push this from a 5 to a 6/10 as it grows on me). But III is not without the quirky flaws that divide opinions on I and II (“Lavatory Lil” is music hall juvenilia of the kind that has amused Paul since Beatle days, but to my tastes is—and here am I hypocritically sinking to the same level with a predictable metaphor—a turd to be flushed). In other words, it’s a typical Macca album, both brilliant and infuriating, an imperfect but very welcome reminder of how lucky we are to still have among us the extraordinary talent of King Paul (yes, after half a century of memorable solo albums, I think he deserves a promotion).

HOPE: McCartney III (2020), 5/10: We are totally in sync on this one Matthew ! The 2 deeps, “Deep Deep Feeling” and “Deep Down”, the former with it’s gorgeous darkly melodic piano line reminiscent of those on Back the the Egg ( as well as Chaos classic “Riding To Vanity Fair”) and the latter with its dirty Ram style groove, are unquestionably the finest tracks on III. And my runners-up are the birds that bookend the album (“Long Tailed Winter Bird”, “Winter Bird/When Winter Comes”) both of which are sonically splattered with vintage McCartney 1 and Ram mud. Still, the good stuff is countered by a lot of just okay stuff and one dyed-in-the-wool nightmare (“Lavatory Lil”) so III is not the latter day classic some might have hoped for ( including me). Not sure why, but I was expecting III to be more akin to McCartney II, full of electronic noodling and spacey intervals, in fact I was feeling pretty open to that idea so it was kind of surprising to hear him reverting to more traditional patterns. But that’s Paul. Predictably unpredictable. Able to raise a smile or induce a tear at will. Still the uncontested forever master of melody. And of course still pumped to make music (and play drums!). It’s a beautiful thing.

Compilations, Live Albums and Side Projects (1970-2020) !

MATTHEW: Now to the hits and “best of” compilations, of which there are surprisingly only four (considering how many artists with a far smaller catalogue have squeezed far more compilations—or, more often, their labels have): Wings Greatest (1978), All the Best! (1987), Wingspan (2001), and Pure McCartney (2016). I think Paul is to be commended for not flooding and confusing the marketplace with compilations. He seems to give them thought and attention, and perhaps is mindful of the many live albums he released between 1990 and 2019.

Wings Greatest (8/10) was odd for not including all of Macca’s hits to date, but that would have required a double LP, whose cost and pricing Capitol weren’t willing to risk. Still, 5 of its 12 tracks had never appeared on a McCartney album, and it comprised 11 great hits and “Mull of Kintyre” (sorry, but I was living in England when it was #1 for 9 weeks, became the biggest selling single to date, and was inescapable; I’m still recovering). My cassette copy was fairly well flogged in the day.

By the time All The Best! (6/10) was assembled, there was no avoiding putting out a double album of 20 tracks (or 17 on CD, and a different 17 on the US vinyl and CD version). All three versions put me off a little by including the duets with Wonder and Jackson, edited versions of some songs, and (outside the US) the Rupert and the Frog soundtrack song. I made my own mix and almost never played the original compilation

By comparison, this century’s two compilations are superb. Wingspan (9/10) covers roughly the same period as All The Best! but does it so much better, its 40 tracks (yup, it has the advantage of 2 CDs) chosen, divided in two, and sequenced perfectly. I really flogged it. Finally, Pure (10/10) drew on Macca’s entire career since 1970, and by sequencing tracks non-chronologically it created some interesting juxtapositions. The 2-CD version is good but the 4-CD 67-track version is better, throwing old hits up against recent gems and surprising album cuts (like “Winedark Open Sea”). I made my own version of 100 tracks, but I actually play the Pure CDs more.

HOPE: Wings Greatest (9/10) I got this album for Xmas in 1978 and admittedly have a huge sentimental attachment to it. As far as engaging my child brain it worked effectively on many levels. It came with a poster (!). It meant I finally had the perfectly ponderous “Junior’s Farm” on vinyl (!!). I liked the whole thing meaning I could happily play both sides without skipping tracks (!!!). And the one song I most wanted to skip happened to be the last one, “Mull of Kintyre” which made things exceptionally convenient (tilt!). “Mull of Kintyre” fun fact ; when the single was first released in the U.S. it came in a plain sleeve. Imagine my dismay when only a few weeks later I saw it at Korvettes department store with a damned picture sleeve featuring a heretofore unseen photo of Paul, Linda and Denny. There was no way I was going to buy the same record again but I totally wanted the sleeve. After considerable shifting and shuffling, with 2 older sales ladies only feet away, I managed to “pour” out the 45 into the bin and pilfer the sleeve. I literally heard one say to the other as I casually toddled off, “did she take something?”. I did and let me offer my sincerest apologies to both of you ladies wherever you are. If it’s any consolation I still have and treasure it.

All the Best! (5/10) My rating on this is retroactive because I admittedly didn’t buy it upon release ( bad fan). By that point I was obsessed with making mixtapes and so the only thing I really coveted off of it was the new song it included “Once Upon a Long Ago” (which irritatingly was not included on the American version of the album and so I ended up having to fork out for an import version of the single). “Once Upon…” featured the classic “Paul in the ‘80s” combo of cringey lyrics married to a lustrous, unspeakably gorgeous melody. Since the latter is more important, I totally love and forgive it. As a result I only ended up getting the (U.S. version) album a few years after it came out and solely for the sake of completion. Looking back at its contents now, All the Best! was clearly constructed for the masses with its glut of single edits and is thus more straight-up product than artistic statement. At this point it’s simply an artifact of another time.

Wingspan (9/10) is an infinitely better overview and curated with far more care though I admit I was far more excited about the brand new collectibles attached to it, namely the documentary and book of the same name ( truly engaging documents both). I was working at Virgin Megastore in Times Square at the time of its release and was able to blast it over our giant sound system for a nice patch of time. Hearing “Back Seat of My Car” echoing through that cavernous space with hundreds of people milling around was as transcendently and ridiculously beautiful as it sounds. Pure (8/10) is essentially a readymade, officially sanctioned playlist. Despite the presence of a few unwelcome interlopers ( “Bip Bop”, “We All Stand Together”) it’s pretty thoughtfully laid out and the cover featuring bearded ‘70s Macca is hot. Is it necessary or essential ? No, but it’s immeasurably better having Paul make the playlist than some ignorant, emotionless algorithm.

HOPE: It was inevitable that Paul’s relentless touring would spawn some live recordings but we had no way of knowing just how many (aka too many). Apart from the precious, emotionally charged document that is Amoeba Gig (the 2007 secret show at the brilliant, legendary LA record shop) the rest of Paul’s latter day live catalog is pretty superfluous. Tripping the Live Fantastic ’90, Unplugged ’91, Paul is Live ‘93, Back in the U.S. ‘02, Back in the World ‘03 and Good Evening New York City ‘09 are cool souvenirs if you were at any of the shows, but none are truly essential or a patch on the revved-up oldie, 1976’s Wings Over America.

MATTHEW: I agree that the eight (!) live albums of 1990-2009 (that’s counting separately the two 1990 versions of Tripping the Live Fantastic) are enjoyable extras, with only the Amoeba Gig being essential listening. Tellingly, the only one I listen to regularly is GENYC, because it evokes the live shows I saw a few years before and after then. I also like how it connects the solo work to his Beatles songs (as the other live albums do, but none of the compilations do). And of course the live albums tap into the energy that mature Macca has sustained to a stunning degree.

MATTHEW: We’ve mentioned some of the classical and electronic pop projects in passing, but let’s round up everything not yet rated and summarized. After all, in addition to the 22 studio albums, 4 compilations, and 9 live albums covered above, there are 5 studio side-projects, as well as 7 classical and 5 electronica albums (according to the tally on Wikipedia)—for a grand total of 52 (in 50 years)!

The side-project albums, as I just called them, are the forgettably dodgy Thrillington (1976) instrumental album; Give My Regards to Broadstreet (1984), the ill-conceived soundtrack album that we justifiably dismissed earlier; and two albums of old rock ‘n’ roll covers. CHOBA B CCCP (1988) and Run Devil Run (1999) are interesting curiosities, no doubt adored by some fans, but not albums I ever choose over his original studio albums. As for the electronica albums, they are more varied than that genre tag suggests: experimental projects like Twin Freaks are one-listen-only curiosities; but the trio of albums made by Paul with Youth, as The Fireman, are worth exploring. I miss Paul’s quirky charm on these three albums, but it’s absence makes them more consistent. The best of the trio is Electric Arguments (2008), and it’s the closest to a Paul solo album. The most recent side project is Kisses on the Bottom (see below). My enjoyment of Pie also prompted me to buy Standing Stone, which came out the same year. It remains my favorite of Macca’s classical albums. The others are interesting and pleasant, but Stone is more original, complex, and rewarding (I particularly love the second movement with “Sea Voyage” at its heart).

HOPE: Ah yes, the dreaded “side projects”, the scourge of every completist on a budget. 1976’s Thrillington album featured instrumental, ballroom flavored versions of songs from the wondrous Ram. Unfortunately, despite its stellar source material, it sucks. Ram is a dirty, glorious mudball of an album and Thrillington conveys none of its charm. The terrible soundtrack Give My Regards to Broadstreet (1984) did possess a singular piece of precious cargo in the form of handsome mega-ballad “No More Lonely Nights” but its inclusion on the All The Best! comp a few years later stripped it of that lone virtue forever. The 2 rock oldies cover albums CHOBA B CCCP (1988) and Run Devil Run (1991) were clearly passion projects for Paul and while he sings with genuine fire on both I don’t ever feel the desire to listen to them. As a melody addict, the meat and potatoes rock of the ‘50s and early ‘60s isn’t quite tuneful enough for me. Yes, this is what happens when children are raised solely on ‘70s AM and ’80s FM radio, you get a whole generation of kids with a ridiculously large sweet tooth and no appreciation of musical history (or, okay, maybe it’s just me).

I agree with Matthew’s assessment on the electronica excursions and that Electric Arguments (2008) feels the most like an actual Macca album. He included the album’s rousing single “Sing The Changes” as part of his setlist on the ’09 tour and I can confirm it sounded shockingly good in the stadium environment, filling the impersonal space with something akin to actual joy.
The gaggle of classical albums Paul’s kicked out over the years within the decade are home to a handful of genuinely transcendent moments. Working Classical (1999) features some seriously moving orchestral versions of old classics (“Junk”, “My Love”) as well as several sweet originals (“Spiral” is lovely). But the best of the classical excursions is unquestionably Standing Stone (1997) most especially the aforementioned epic, cinematic and okay, slightly militaristic “Sea Voyage”. It remains my absolute favorite Paul-strumental, even over “Singalong Junk” or “Hot As Sun” and continues to occupy a galleon-size space in my heart.

HOPE: Kisses On The Bottom (2012), 2/10: Back in 2007, Daryl Hall gave a revealing interview to Pitchfork and said this about Rod Stewart’s string of successful standards albums; “You can be Rod Stewart, and be Clive Davis’s dog, and have a career at the expense of your artistic soul. I have nothing but negative things to say about that, because I respect him as a singer, and I hate what he does. He sold his soul. And I take that personally.” A very cutting observation there but also painfully true. And having watched the Rod do a show at MSG during that era where he donned a dinner jacket for the first hour, then reverted back to sleazy rock star for the latter half, it was clear where his heart was i.e. not in the jacket. This will sound nuts, but I didn’t want Kisses On The Bottom to be successful because I hated the idea of Paul falling into a Rod style quagmire. Of course as a songwriter who loves/lives to jam, it wasn’t likely but hey, I don’t think Rod ever saw himself heading down that path either. The album is an inessential curiosity.

MATTHEW: Kisses On The Bottom (2012), 3/10: I too feared this was the start of a whole new “standards” post-career, with multiple volumes to drive multiple nails into the coffin of Sir Paul’s credibility (a la Sir Rod). It’s certainly pointless (and even has a pointless, less-good remake of “Baby’s Request” from disrespected Egg). It’s best song, “If I Take You Home Tonight” isn’t even on here (it went to Diana Krall, who made it a stand-out track on her brilliant Wallflower album). But it isn’t terrible, it has one good new song (“My Valentine”), and I’d rather listen to it all the way through than his worst 80s-90s albums (mmm, maybe). (It’s a good way to mollify people asking for Christmas music, without having to suffer actual Christmas music; how’s that for damning with faint praise?!)

In Conclusion…

HOPE: I know. You are exhausted from reading this 4- part epic. We are too. If you are not already hammered from having a drink every time we uttered the words “Archive Collection” then please, relax and have a drink. You freakin’ deserve it for making it this far. And Thank You for indulging us, seriously, THANK YOU.

Right, because I can’t let sleeping dogs lie, I wanted to close this insanity with our personal Top 5’s for both songs and albums…but Matthew told me it would be impossible to narrow our picks down to only 5 songs. And he was right. 5 isn’t gonna do it. And so with that in mind, we now humbly offer our Top 10 songs in alphabetical order ( and our Top 5 albums in the order of all our aforementioned grades).

MATTHEW: Hope, you asked me for my Top 5 Macca songs. Too hard! I can get it down to ten (with the proviso that such a list changes from week to week—as you and any fan will understand—and this week it happens to heavy on ‘70s singles). Here’s that Top 10 in alphabetical order:

MATTHEW’s Top 10 songs

1.Arrow Through Me

2.Back Seat of My Car

3.Band On The Run

4.Beautiful Night

5.Goodnight Tonight

6.Live and Let Die

7.Maybe I’m Amazed

8.Riding To Vanity Fair

9.Silly Love Songs

10.With A Little Luck

MATTHEW: As for my Top 5 albums, many Macca fans would agree with the first and last of those five, but far fewer would understand my other picks! Yours are a similar mix, aren’t they, Hope? My Top 10 is rounded out with albums stretching from 1970 to 2007, reflecting the staggering fact that Macca has not only been churning out songs for sixty years, but most are good and many are great.

MATTHEW’S Top 5 Albums

1.Band on the Run

2.London Town

3.Back To The Egg

4.Driving Rain

5.Chaos And Creation In The Backyard

HOPE: While my favorite songs are generally determined by whatever headspace I am in at a given time, I will say that my picks stay relatively steady for the most part. And while I’ve listened to the ones I’m about list hundreds upon hundreds of times at this point in my life they never stop feeling like home. In alphabetical order they are…

HOPE’S Top 10 songs

1.Arrow Through Me

2.Back Seat Of My Car

3.Don’t Let It Bring You Down

4.Jet

5.Listen To What The Man Said

6.Little Lamb Dragonfly

7.Once Upon A Long Ago

8.Riding To Vanity Fair

9.Some People Never Know

10.Take It Away

HOPE’S Top 5 Albums

1.Ram

2.Back To The Egg

3.Tug of War

4.Band on the Run

5.Driving Rain

MATTHEW: We’ve tried to be critical and discerning, as well as fawning and fanatical in our reviews of his albums. That is partly to make our comments less predictable, partly because our opinions have been formed by personal experiences, and partly because the full Macca catalog is deep and wide, varied and complex, packed with experiments and surprises—some less welcome than others. Too often, the missteps have been used to dismiss the Macca legacy, when the real cause of that attitude is a lazy and unjust perpetuation of the old blame-game: blaming Paul for the Beatle breakup, for being happily married and relishing ordinary life when John offered angst and drama, for surviving when John was martyred, for making everyone else seem inadequate by being tirelessly productive. Sure, across the hundreds of songs, there are highs and lows, but the highs are scattered across the decades. This is not a tale of brief brilliance followed by slow decline. There are gems everywhere, and at any minute another one could surface. It’s extraordinary. When you add in the songs he wrote with The Beatles, the sheer magnitude of his impact on popular culture over the past six decades—his contributions to the daily lives of many millions of us—it is staggering. As Ian Leslie recently posted on The Ruffian, there are only three emotions that Sir Paul and his music most justifiably evoke: “awe, gratitude, and love.” How lucky we are to live in the Age of Macca!

HOPE: I concur with EVERYTHING Matthew just said! Digging deep and dissecting the Macca solo discography has been an absolute joy for us. Despite having heard most of the aforementioned albums ten trillion times, we still somehow rediscovered songs we’d previously ignored as well as came to appreciate the ones we already loved even more. We hope that this crazy thing has maybe, just maybe inspired you to dig, revisit or just plain explore the vast and wondrous Macca solo catalogue.

Gonna give the last word to the tiny machine below, the first iPod I ever owned (2001-2009 r.i.p.). Take it away dear friend…

The Wonder Of It All: Paul McCartney’s Solo Years (Part 3-The ’90s)

Over the course of 2020, my friend Matthew Restall, author of the brilliant Blue Moves book in the 33 1/3 series & I (Hope) started spontaneously breaking down Paul McCartney’s entire post-Beatle discography as if we were writing an actual essay (like you do, if you are a nerd). Well, turns out we were. Welcome to The Wonder Of It All, a 4-part series featuring our endlessly unspooling, unhinged, proudly contrarian, ridiculous & heartfelt correspondence regarding the Macca solo catalog. Ram On…

I Can See The World Tonight: Just a note on the format of this essay, Matthew and I are going to be taking turns spilling our McCartney guts and our names will appear before our respective comments. Our album rating system is the classic best of 10, the pinnacle being 10 (it’s brilliant), the bottom being 1 (it’s terrible). Our opinions will diverge at points but we are as one in our love of Macca.

1990-1999: Off the Ground & into the Pie

MATTHEW: Considering how productive he was in the ‘70s (9 original studio albums) and ‘80s (5 of them), it is striking that Macca made only two albums of new material in the ‘90s. Yet the reasons for this being the least productive of his five solo decades are obvious: a series of huge world tours; and Linda’s long battle with cancer. Which excuses the weakness of Off the Ground and makes the strength of Flaming Pie all the more notable.

Off The Ground (1993)

MATTHEW: Off the Ground (1993), 2/10: This was Paul’s only pop/rock studio album between 1989’s Flowers and 1997’s Flaming Pie, but he was as busy as ever: he released the first of what would be several album collaborations as The Fireman; the first of half a dozen classical albums; and around the time when Off the Ground was being written and released, he put out no less than three live albums (Tripping the Live Fantastic in ‘90, Unplugged in ‘91, and Paul is Live in ‘93). All that activity, the live albums and massive world tours they captured or reflected, made OtG somewhat irrelevant to his public profile and career. It was certainly irrelevant to me; I was still listening to most of what Paul had created during the first 18 years of my life (1964-82), but I had given up on everything since then. I wasn’t alone; OtG did poorly (except in France, Germany, and Japan—a knock-on effect of his touring, perhaps). In retrospect, it is not an irredeemably terrible album; it has its moments. But, like PtP, it isn’t great; it lacks a single really great song (although I do like “Winedark Open Sea”), and we know that Paul can write those in spades.

HOPE: Off the Ground (1993), 1/10: As Matthew states so succinctly above, OtG lacks a single really great song. The only track I ever spent time with was, yes, “Winedark Open Sea”, a decent enough slow groove…but it’s still not worthy enough to make a post-Beatle Macca Top 100. Paul’s never made an album that could be scored as a straight-up zero out of 10 as his inherent melodic gift is always somewhere in the fabric of every full length he creates…which is to say there will always be at least a minute of head-spinning pop beauty on whatever he does. But out of all the latter-day Macca releases, those sweet bits are by far the hardest to find on OtG.

Flaming Pie (1997)

MATTHEW: Flaming Pie (1997), 8/10: I’d pretty much given up on Macca by this point, no longer listening to anything recorded by him after Wings disbanded. But “Beautiful Night” got my attention: it captured those elements of melody and inventiveness that made Paul’s pop so brilliant. I loved it and still do. It took me to Pie, a year or two later (yeah, I was a tad slow, but it was that mid-30s crazy busy career and family time for me), and suddenly I was one of those Beatle/Macca fans between youth and middle age revisiting and rebuying albums. (As I was getting back into ELO too, the Jeff Lynne varnish on much of the album appealed to me.) So how does Pie stand up now? As we write, the Archive Collection reissue recently came out, getting attention and praise. And the album is pretty damn good. In fact, I still love the first six tracks (nicely sequenced from “The Song We Were Singing” to “Calico Skies”); the title track grates a tad, and in the second half there are a few of those collaborative tracks that Paul had more fun making that I have listening to (often the case with his 80s-90s albums), but they are offset by gems like “Heaven on a Sunday,” “Little Willow,” and “Beautiful Night.” For me, this is by far his best album of his varied 80–90s middle period.

HOPE: Flaming Pie (1997), 5/10: True confession. In the years leading up to Pie I’d fallen completely under the spell of Britpop, utterly besotted with everything from Elastica to yes, unabashed Beatle worshippers, Oasis. And so when Pie was released I was not really receptive to it, as I was so entrenched and enraptured by big brash Britpop with its massive singalong chorus’s and druggy, sexy looks. And so I listened to Pie a few times, cherry picked the couple of songs I liked, popped them on a mix cd and filed it away. But over the years I’ve come to appreciate it a bit more. I get why some people find that Jeff Lynne production stamp irksome on the albums he produces but it’s not as intrusive here as it was on say, George Harrison’s Cloud Nine. The songs I like best on Pie actually remind me of vintage Wings tracks namely “Great Day” which sounds like a not so distant cousin of Red Rose Speedway’s groovy, dirty “Big Barn Bed” and “Heaven On A Sunday”a sort-of soul song with a really fine vintage Speed Of Sound guitar break hiding in it (from Paul’s son James ). Pie is a slow burn of an album, the kind you need to play on repeat for a while before it infiltrates.

End of Part 3

Coming in Part 4, the 21st century! Plus a whip ’round the Macca side projects and compilations. Get comfortable, it’s a big one…check it out here

The Wonder Of It All: Paul McCartney’s Solo Years (Part 2-The ’80s)

Over the course of 2020, my friend Matthew Restall, author of the brilliant Blue Moves book in the 33 1/3 series & I (Hope) started spontaneously breaking down Paul McCartney’s entire post-Beatle discography as if we were writing an actual essay (like you do, if you are a nerd). Well, turns out we were. Welcome to The Wonder Of It All, a 4-part series featuring our endlessly unspooling, unhinged, proudly contrarian, ridiculous & heartfelt correspondence regarding the Macca solo catalog. Ram On…

Once Upon A Long Ago: Just a note on the format of this essay, Matthew and I are going to be taking turns spilling our McCartney guts and our names will appear before our respective comments. Our album rating system is the classic best of 10, the pinnacle being 10 (it’s brilliant), the bottom being 1 (it’s terrible). Our opinions will diverge at points but we are as one in our love of Macca.

1980-1989: Macca II to The Dirt

HOPE: The ’80s were a markedly confusing and dark time for many of the music world’s more established and beloved artists. With the new decade came a dramatic, seismic shift in pop sights and sounds. Sure there were the inevitable sonic advances in recording and such but the shift was mostly down to this one particular thing, an immense, all consuming behemoth called MTV that took near complete control of music culture (as well as my own teen brain). The garish, glossy videos they showed 24/7 became as crucial to an artist’s success as radio airplay, the visuals and visages as important as the songs themselves. Yup, once MTV hit, like some musical equivalent of Logan’s Run, any musician over 30 suddenly seemed genuinely old indeed. The acoustic sounds that had been so mega and pervasive only a handful of years before now seemed criminally dated.

The need to sound “modern” to stay relevant proved to be problematic for many of the established rock and pop superstars of the ’60s and ’70s, resulting in some truly disastrous sonic (enter sexy saxes) and sartorial decisions (hot mullet action). Of course there were artists who were able to transition and/or evolve with enormous success as the ’80s progressed like Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen and even, surprisingly, The Kinks. And there were others who while not necessarily progressive sound-wise, resoundingly found their niche as the decade evolved (Linda Ronstadt). But alas others stumbled. Hard

Which is to say welcome to Paul McCartney’s ‘80s. The decade began with Paul’s being arrested and detained for bringing a cache of weed into Japan where the Wings tour was set to begin. He was subsequently deported and plans to continue the tour were aborted (and as such the USA never got to experience the Back to the Egg live, to which I say dammit Paul, dammit). Once summer hit though, things in Macca world took a marked turn toward the better as Paul’s new single, an oddball pseudo-new wave chant called “Coming Up” ascended to the #1 spot in the singles chart. The success of that song then supercharged sales for the ponderously weird and uncommercial album it called home, 1980’s McCartney II, helping drive it up the charts to similar heights. Then on December 8 of that same year, everything changed.

The tragic death of John Lennon invariably threw an intense spotlight on Paul and left many wondering how he might ultimately address this immense loss within his music…or if he would at all.  The answer came in the form of an album that he’d begun recording prior to John’s death, 1982’s Tug Of War. Within it he spoke eloquently and emotionally about John ( in the song “Here Today”) while also delivering one of the finest full lengths of his entire post-Beatle career. Little did we know at the time that it would serve as the high water mark for all of Macca’s ‘80s output. The quality of the releases that followed Tug Of War whipped wildly from intermittently strong to outright terrible

Check out any career-spanning album ranking list and you will invariably find the 2 studio albums that came in the wake of Tug Of War, namely Pipes of Peace and Press To Play as well as the soundtrack to Paul’s ill-conceived (disaster) film Give My Regards To Broad Street firmly lodged at the bottom. And in the case of Broad Street, it’s a 2-fer as it’s also arguably one of the worst films of the ‘80s. While we can cast a legitimately critical eye at these albums with their mullets, smarmy, thumbs aloft videos and clunky attempts at modernity, we also can’t entirely dismiss them for there are in fact some true gems living within their grooves. But be warned, if you choose to listen to Macca’s ‘80s albums in their entirety, you are gonna get dirty.

McCartney II (1980)

MATTHEW: McCartney II (1980), 4/10: derided as a featherweight failed experiment at the time, especially in the US (where it’s chart showing was Paul’s lowest since Wild Life), it is hailed today as a bold, experimental, unappreciated gem. So which is it? Both and neither: it’s an experiment that works at times, but ultimately isn’t experimental enough. The electropop tracks are very 1980, but in a good way; they stand up pretty well (although surely “Frozen Jap” is an unnecessarily offensive title, even if Paul was still grumpy about his recent drug arrest in Tokyo airport). But they would have been more compelling if sequenced together—perhaps as a semi-instrumental Side B (like Bowie’s Low and Heroes). Instead, as if he was wary of asking fans to embrace something too novel, Paul interspersed them with more conventional songs. Two of those are great (the singles “Coming Up” and “Waterfalls”), but the other four are like forgettable outtakes from the pre-Egg Wings era (and “Bogey Music” comes unforgivably close to completely ruining Side B). Left off the album was “Blue Sway,” which would have been one of its better tracks (it is on the Archive Collection edition, which also has the excellent live Wings version of “Coming Up” and the extended—too long!—versions of the electropop numbers).

What’s the solution? The best I can come up with is a double EP (3-4 tracks on 4 sides, grouped by style, allowing for both versions of “Coming Up,” “Blue Sway,” and some longer edits). But a double EP was almost never done by anyone, for good economic reasons. Not a great idea. So maybe the solution is that we must be content with playing around with the original track and outtakes from what is a flawed, confused but ultimately worthwhile addition to the catalogue.

HOPE: McCartney II (1980), 5/10: The release of this album was preceded by the single ”Coming Up” a song with a cute modern haircut and no discernible melody. I’ve never liked it and at the time wished it hadn’t gotten to # 1 because I was genuinely worried Paul would take it as a sign to write more songs like it (I miss the days when that was the kind of shiz I was actually worried about). I know McCartney II has received a lot of latter day love for its prescience and supposedly ahead of its time electropop experimentation which I kind of get…but to my ears there aren’t enough fully fleshed out songs to latch onto. Which is to say several tracks feel like incomplete sketches and/or straight up noodling (“Front Parlour”, “Darkroom”, “On The Way”), not to mention that things get seriously cringey in a couple of places ( “Frozen Jap”,”Bogey Music”). On the up side, I love the ethereal and woozy “Waterfalls”; though it’s the most prototypically Macca-style song here, maybe the least adventurous, it is by far the most memorable track on all of McCartney II. And I want to award honorable mentions to a couple of deep cuts from the same cloth, “One Of These Days” and “Summer’s Day Song”. While not up to the melodic standard of “Waterfalls”, they are similarly hazy and hypnotic and often insidiously sneak into my Macca playlists when I’m not looking.

I was hoping that I would have an epiphany regarding McCartney II once I spent time with the Archive Collection edition, but apart from discovering the plush nighttime in the city groove of bonus track “Blue Sway”, nothing had changed; I liked the same 3 aforementioned songs I always did and felt nothing for the rest. I agree with Matthew’s assessment that while Macca sometimes colors outside the lines on McCartney II, he doesn’t go far enough to make it genuinely interesting…but think that applies the other way too, as in he skates around his melodic tendencies without digging in; there just aren’t enough hooks here and brilliant hooks are what define the best Macca songs and set him apart from the songwriting herd.

Tug Of War (1982)

HOPE: Tug of War (1982), 9/10: If you are a hardcore Macca fan chances are you have a pretty tough skin. When haters want to trash post-Beatle Paul they tend to wave the same tired pieces of dirty laundry in the air to make their point. And the Exhibit A of total suckery is always the same. Yes, “Ebony and Ivory” is ridiculous. When they premiered the song on one of the big NYC radio stations back in the day I remember being embarrassed on Paul’s behalf after it had finished. Still, while it’s clumsy as hell and I don’t care if I ever hear it again, I know it’s heart is in the right place and the tune itself is kind of sweet. But yes, I get the hate. We all do. I just wanted to get that out of the way before we talk about all the beauty and joy surrounding it.

Critics were falling all over themselves to praise ToW upon release…which even in my youth I recognized as unusual having become so accustomed to their bashing him. In fact it sort of seemed like the extra praise was their way of offering Paul sympathy and love after what happened to John. I admit I thought this, like oh now you think Paul is good, feeling ever so slightly pissed at his prior treatment and their convenient new magnanimity. But then again, ToW was pretty great.

I love the overall sequencing on ToW…how the handsomest stuff is served up first and how the lesser lights are discreetly tucked away ( those being the other sadly pedestrian Stevie W collaboration “What’s That You’re Doing” and the Carl Perkins duet “Get It”). And there couldn’t have been a better opener than the epic and wistful title track. I love, love “Take It Away”, it is one of my all-time favorite solo Paul tracks, right down to it’s fantastical video with John Hurt as “some important impresariooooo”. The harmonizing in the coda is straight up heavenly and I could listen to it playing in an endless loop forever. “Wanderlust” often gets singled out as the album’s finest ballad, but I’d nominate the rainy “Somebody Who Cares” with its slightly mournful melody for that accolade (plus it sounds like “Waterfalls” little brother). I think ToW is a great record, literally, in that it is so perfectly suited to be absorbed on a turntable, having to be flipped over. It’s never boring and remains utterly listenable in every way.

MATTHEW: Tug of War (1982), 7/10: In the early 80s, I was a fanatic, chart-obsessed English consumer of pop music, and thus a witness to the stumbling of ’70s rock and pop stars that Hope describes. I was also part of their problem, quick to give up on the likes of the Stones, Floyd, Supertramp, Elton John—and Paul McCartney. I was not alone in dismissing these artists as no longer uncool even while still listening to their “old stuff”; that sounds contradictory, but their nostalgia status was part of their uncool-ness. Macca was really up against it, lumbered with the albatross of Beatles uber-nostalgia and the deeply unfair resentment of Lennon mourners. Back to the Egg and McCartney II were still cool to me because I read their experimentalism as Paul not caring what we thought. But the run of albums from 1982-86 suggested he cared too much, trying different duet partners, different producers, veering into children’s music, capitalizing on old Beatles songs but with inferior new versions. The embarrassing “Ebony and Ivory” seemed to set the tone for the decade. It tainted ToW for me at the time, and each subsequent album (not to mention the Rupert the Bear moment) seemed to confirm and further lower my expectations.

None of that was particularly fair, and as a result I failed to give Tug of War a fighting chance. But I came back to it in the late ‘90s, when Macca lured me back with his creative renaissance and when I no longer cared what was cool or uncool. And yes, both Stevie Wonder duets are still embarrassing (calling each other “girl” and squealing “What’s That You’re Doing” to each other would have been less awkward had it been deliberate). But in retrospect ToW sounds like a sequel to pre-Egg Wings, with a few new collaborators, and the same mix of catchy melodies, pseudo-oldies (“Ballroom Dancing” was leftover from Egg days, I believe, and sounds like it—that’s a compliment!), disposable oddities (“Get It”), memorable ballads (“Wanderlust” is great, and “Here Today” is by far the best ode to Lennon by any of the Fab survivors), and solid singles (I love “Take It Away” too). ToW was a hit then, it held up well, and it positively shines in comparison to what followed it.

Pipes Of Peace (1983)

HOPE: Pipes of Peace (1983), 6/10: When I went to purchase this album upon release the guy at the counter told me it was “shit” (turned out he was 10 years off and had the wrong album but I digress). PoP is for all intents and purposes a watered down version of ToW , in other words, not awesome but a long, long way from the shiz pile. I do want to note that while the albums pair of duets with Michael Jackson “Say, Say, Say” and “The Man” have become problematic for me because of MJ’s well-documented issues, I do believe they are 2 of PoP’s strongest tracks. In fact “The Man”, was my absolute favorite track on PoP for ages. I found its lightness, slightly eccentric lyric and hook impossible to resist; it sounded like a pop-ified version of “San Ferry Anne” off of Speed of Sound. And Paul’s vocal on the track is downright exquisite, just absolute sweetness. I also confess that the “Say Say Say” video enhanced my experience of the song as it provided ample opportunity to swoon over how hot Paul was ( of course at the time I was a teen and Paul was over 40 but let’s just look at it as a tribute to how well he was aging). And I have to shout out plush, corny, epic, arms wide open on a mountain anthem “Through Our Love”; it is pure ’80s glory-osity and just plain rules. Now the bad news…and excuse me for acting “like a dustbin lid” for a second if you will ( please listen to track 3 of PoP if I just confused you with that characterization). While PoP has some undeniably engaging hooks threading through it, it also has filler, the latter half of the album making for a particularly tough trawl ( up until “Through Our Love”). Which is a shame because the first 6 tracks are genuinely lovable in their own individual, idiosyncratic ways.

But what I want to say most regarding PoP is that it makes me genuinely sad. Not for its inconsistency but because I miss this version of Paul, when his default button was set to “melody”, where every song was seemingly built for that thing called “radio”. And so while it isn’t perfect, PoP remains a sweet document of the straight up “Pop Paul”, a throwback to his ‘70s styles which were never to be seen again after this in such a fulsome way. And hey, NYC record store guy, wherever you are, I think you were wrong.

MATTHEW: Pipes of Peace (1983), 5/10: I’m tempted to give this a lower rating because of the Jacko duets, but that’s far from being Paul’s fault and the songs aren’t bad. Actually I did rate it down for that. Sorry. There’s also the “Tug of Peace” mashup, which reminds me of the turd that was sequenced after “Amazed” on the first album; only this is worse, because it’s a turd pile one has to leap over to get to the closing ballad—which is pretty good. In fact, the whole album is only a little less good than ToW. Which really damns it with faint praise (and a very unoriginal evaluation on my part). But it’s surely less of a drop-off than Bowie’s Tonight was to Let’s Dance (although I admit I prefer both of those to both of these). I think “The Other Me” and “So Bad” and “Through Our Love” are underrated pop nuggets that sound great in Macca mixes. I put my favorite dozen tracks from ToW and PoP in a playlist along with “No More Lonely Nights” (from the Give My Regards to Broad Street fiasco) and the result is a fine hour of Paul pop. I did that last week, and I rather wish I’d done it decades ago.

Press To Play (1986)

MATTHEW: Press to Play (1986), 2/10: Hope says PoP makes her sad; Press to Play makes me very sad. It’s the first Macca album that in real time struck me as an end. I thought, poor Paul. He still has the skills, but the creative genius is gone. The fact that buried in the very middle of an otherwise almost unlistenable album is one of his best ballads—“Only Love Remains,” a modest UK hit soon forgotten because Paul’s magical chart run of two decades was over—only makes Press to Play more depressing (depress to play? Oh dear. I apologize). In fact, to give it a full chance and dig a bit deeper, there are some good moments in here, in parts of songs (in “Feel the Sun,” “Footprints,” “Pretty Little Head,” and a couple more); but the songs as a whole aren’t great, and great is what Paul has given us too many times for this to get played much again.

Nothing from the album made it into any of the versions of All The Best, the big hits collection released the following year—which made #2 in the UK but only #62 in the US, perhaps reflecting the damage done by Broad Street and Press.

HOPE: Press to Play (1986), 2/10: Matthew, believe me when I tell you, Press to Play makes me sad too…but even more than that, it makes me angry knowing what Paul is capable of. There are flourishes of divine melody on PtP and melodically epic ballad “Only Love Remains” is an underrated gem…but, and it genuinely pains me to say this, the lyrics throughout the album are atrocious. I admit that at the time of release I found the video for PtP’s first single “Press” pretty irresistible for reasons that had zero to do with the song. Watching classic “cute” Paul mugging, grinning and running his hand through his lustrous hair as he surprised commuters on the tube was kind of all kinds of charming & I totally wished I’d been there, on that train. Pause. Damn. As I have been writing these blurbs, it’s become clear to me that MTV had a cult-like influence over me and seemed to rule my entire waking existence in the ’80s. Shit, maybe those angry PRMC ladies were onto something. Right, so back to “Press” the song. The tune was nice enough, but the chirpy, winking sexuality in the lyrics was embarrassing especially in light of what Prince was kicking out with such wit and brilliance at that same juncture. And I found the “I love you very, very, very much” bit in the song to be particularly grating ( it’s right up there with Kiss’s “crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy nights” on the irritation scale). Oof. Fittingly (?) the album closes with the overwrought “However Absurd” which sounds like a substandard Rutles song, right down to its title. PtP is Paul on autopilot and simply put, it just kind of sucked.

Flowers In The Dirt (1989)

MATTHEW: Flowers in the Dirt (1989), 5/10: With only one original studio album in the six years since PoP, and it relatively unsuccessful, this was a potential comeback record. It did well enough (#1 in the UK), and was generally considered a “return to form” (forgive the cliche); but of its four singles, only “My Brave Face” was Top 25 hit on both sides of the Atlantic. Hope says there is nothing essential on here and I agree (I like “We Got Married” and “Motor of Love,” but they’re hardly essential). The Elvis Costello collaboration was heavily publicized, but it sounds far more like a Crowded House album than a Costello one—reflecting the influence of Mitchell Froom, lead producer (after Paul) and also producer of the first three Crowded House albums (1986-91). I was a huge CH fan at the time, so the comparison helped me like this more—but not as much as the CH albums. It still is, for me, in that quite-good category with VaM and PoP. It gave me hope that Macca would make a few great albums in the ’90s…but it would turn out to be merely the high point of a low patch lasting most of the ’80s and ’90s.

HOPE: Flowers in the Dirt (1989), 3/10: It’s true that to my ears there are no essential tracks on Flowers. It was certainly a step up from its studio predecessor PtP but nothing stuck to the wall for me. It’s one of my least played Macca albums. I was working at CBGB’s Record Canteen at the time this came out and as I was playing it one day, one of my co-workers, who like me was in her early 20’s said, “Wow, I think my Mom would like this album”. While she hadn’t meant it as an insult and was just making an observation, I admit that it changed how I heard Flowers for a minute. To make matters worse, she’d made the remark while my favorite song off the album was playing, the catchy, poppy and goofy “Figure of Eight”. Flowers was indeed polite, clean, undemanding and overly cloying ( “Put It There, ”How Many People”, ugh). Which is to say it didn’t feel especially cool. In other words, your Mom and Dad would very likely enjoy it ( this despite the participation of Elvis Costello and Mitchell Froom who gave the whole thing some credibility amongst both critics and nerds). I’ve periodically revisited Flowers hoping something might resonate but it’s just never happened. My best memory of this release is that it preceded the first Macca tour of the U.S. since 1976 (!) and thus prefaced my first opportunity to see him play live. It didn’t matter that it was from the back of a stadium in New Jersey in the presence of the asshole guy I was seeing and Paul was a barely discernible dot on the horizon, the important thing was that after what felt like a lifetime of waiting, I was there, in the same “room” as Macca, finally .

End of Part 2

Coming in Part 3, a dissection of Paul’s ’90s discography. Let the resurrection begin. Read it here

The Wonder Of It All: Paul McCartney’s Solo Years (Part 1-The ‘70s)

Over the course of 2020, my friend Matthew Restall, author of the brilliant Blue Moves book in the 33 1/3 series & I (Hope) started spontaneously breaking down Paul McCartney’s entire post-Beatle discography as if we were writing an actual essay (like you do, if you are a nerd). Well, turns out we were. Welcome to The Wonder Of It All, a 4-part series featuring our endlessly unspooling, unhinged, proudly contrarian, ridiculous & heartfelt correspondence regarding the Macca solo catalog. Ram On…

So Glad To See You Here: Just a note on the format of this essay, Matthew and I are going to be taking turns spilling our McCartney guts and our names will appear before our respective comments. Our album rating system is the classic best of 10, the pinnacle being 10 (it’s brilliant), the bottom being 1 (it’s terrible). Our opinions will diverge at points but we remain as one in our eternal love for Macca.

HOPE: By 1976, something weird was brewing in Beatle world. Thanks to the consistent radio plays, latter-day exposure to the Beatle movies and the influence of millions of older siblings, cousins and babysitters, a new generation of fans were starting to discover them. And so began the first pop music perfect storm. These newbies were kids who’d been born in the late ’60s and beyond and hadn’t experienced the band in real time. They were frequently referred to as “Secondhand Beatle Fans”, a short-lived, semi-official moniker that was both condescending and lovingly true.

One of the best parts about becoming a Beatle fan in the mid-’70s was that not only were there innumerable older albums to consume and catch up on, but a constant stream of new releases by the now solo Beatles to look forward to. This was something of a divine gift for the Secondhand fans, for while they couldn’t experience the excitement of buying a newly recorded album by The Beatles and being part of the cultural zeitgeist that surrounded them, they could still enjoy something that felt like theirs, something new. And when it came to kicking out new music, the most motivated and driven ex-Beatle by far was Paul McCartney aka Macca. He proved to be staggeringly prolific out of the gate, kicking out 9 studio albums plus a triple lp live album between 1970 and 1979 alone, as well as a stellar array of stand-alone singles.

Paul was just plain unavoidable in the ‘70s, which is to say, he was f-ing everywhere, emanating from every radio, appearing on countless magazine covers, invading every city to rock every coliseum and filling the charts with a continuous stream of, well, stuff. Paul’s star wasn’t flatlining, it was manically ascending, his music becoming as omnipresent as that of The Beatles as the decade unfolded. This goes some way toward explaining and understanding why the post-Beatle Paul McCartney catalogue meant so much to the latter day generations of Beatle fans. It was as close as they could get to experiencing the Fab Four in real time. Like the tagline for the short lived 1977 Broadway show Beatlemania so hopefully and desperately declared, “Not The Beatles, But An Incredible Simulation!”. That was Paul McCartney in the ‘70s. And as it happened, it was a damn good simulation…so good that you could sometimes forget about that other band he was in, especially if you were a kid at the time.

And with that, welcome to THE WONDER OF IT ALL : Paul McCartney’s Solo Years !! Join Secondhanders Matthew and I (Hope) as we bravely trek through 50 years worth of the post-Beatle Macca discography, dissecting its contents, grading the albums and generally over-sharing for context (half truth, it’s mostly because we get exceedingly emotional when discussing Macca). We will be exulting the underdogs, nudging the sacred cows and venturing into the darker corners of the catalogue fearlessly, heartlessly exposing what lives there (yes “Mumbo”, consider that your official warning). And oh yes, one last thing, we will occasionally spew cutting references to the McCartney Archive Collection, the ongoing deluxe reissue project begun in 2010 in regards to their nonsensical, non-chronological order of release which has been a major source of frustration for Macca nerds ( feel free to turn it into a solo drinking game). Yes, there’s something here for everybody, young and old, dabbler and obsessive and we hope you like it.

MATTHEW: Yes, throughout the 1970s, the Beatles were omnipresent and inescapable.  There was always something in the papers, on the TV, or on the radio from or about the Four, either from when they were Fab or from their post-Fab musical and personal lives.  As Bob Stanley noted in his book Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!, for most of the ‘70s, “the States were still pretending the Beatles hadn’t split” (p.247, also see my 33 ⅓ book on Elton John’s Blue Moves, p.61; forgive shameless plug). Although Beatlemania (and that Beatlemania show) was, ironically enough, bigger in the US than the UK, the phenomenon was similar on both sides of the Atlantic.  Re-released Beatles songs and new solo releases charted quickly and sold well.

At the top of that heap of new music was everything by Paul, Linda, and Wings.  Between 1970 and 1979, they released ten albums (two under the McCartney name, seven studio albums under Wings, and a Wings live album; we are not including the Wings Greatest compilation).  Eight of the ten reached #1 or #2 in the US and Canada (five of them did in the UK), charting and selling millions all over the world. In terms of quantity—the number of albums and the number of units moved—Paul outdid his former bandmates many times over. In our view, he outdid them too in terms of quality.  All those albums and singles yield hours of melodic pop marvels.  But critics were less generous.  Many of them were unenthusiastic, if not downright rude and derisive, about most of these albums; in fact, with the exception of Band on the Run, all these records were generally given a rough ride by reviewers.  Why?

Much ink has been spilled on that question and on similar ones, but we are going to stick to one, simple theory that helps take us to the task at hand (rating the albums): Paul refused to release a perfect album, and that got under the skin of critics. The first trio of albums were so obviously and blatantly LPs that Paul wanted to make, for himself and Linda—without giving a monkey’s about anyone else or what they might think or want. According to this theory, nothing on these first three albums pandered to bandmates, managers, producers, record company suits, fan clubs, record store buyers, or critics. Some people in that last category took it personally. The fourth album did, at last, seem to be reaching for critical and commercial approval, but it wasn’t good enough for the critics. Then, when the fifth album did prove to be perfect (at the very least, close to it), that only enraged them more. As if Macca could have made a Band on the Run every year, and he was deliberately, bloodymindedly choosing not to!

Well, the critics were right—in a way.  The albums weren’t perfect. As Rob Sheffield notes a couple of times in Dreaming the Beatles, some of the songs, even whole albums, had an unfinished feel to them. And I must admit that I found that a little confusing at the time. I was a kid during this decade and missed the early albums in real time. I was 6 and living in Madrid when McCartney came out, so I was already a Beatles fan but was oblivious to their breakup and the solo sequels.  But in the five years between Band on the Run and Back to the Egg I was in school in England—and increasingly obsessed with pop music.  I loved the steady stream of Wings hit singles, and acquired the albums as I could, at first a year or two behind their releases, and then—with the last two of the decade—in real time.  By then I had accepted the imperfections of these albums as part of their charm. Their flaws were minor, endearing, and above all forgivable, considering that the other ex-Beatles had, by 1979, produced so little—and so much of it total shite—by comparison. After all, if Wild Life was Paul being selfish and inconsiderate to fans, what about (as of 1979) Ringo’s dismal seven albums, or George’s failure to make anything close to All Things Must Pass, or the fact that John gave up mid-decade completely?

1970-1979: From Cherries to the Egg

MATTHEW: The first three post-Fab Paul albums always seemed like a trilogy to me. Although released under three different names (McCartney; Paul and Linda McCartney; Wings), they all came out within a 20-month period in 1970-71, and they seem to stem from that short creative period (even if some songs had late-60s origins). They also bear that period’s unfiltered hallmark—for better or worse. Without John, Ringo, or the Georges (Harrison and Martin) to reject, rework, develop, or approve his draft compositions, Paul clearly felt deliriously free to simply jam out the bits and pieces constantly emerging from his fertile mind, pop them onto acetate, and let Bob be his uncle.

When it works, it feels thrillingly like sitting in Paul and Linda’s kitchen, drinking their wine, while they make up songs. The invention of Indie Rock? That more likely emerged from the use by multiple artists of cheaper, smaller recording technology. But I see why some critics (and fans) have given Macca that credit.

As for the trilogy: not as bad as many critics claimed in the ‘70s, but also frustratingly flawed. Each one has a handful of songs that are not only among Paul’s best, but hold up well in the catalogue of pop’s greatest, full stop. But then Macca can’t resist tossing them in with tracks that should have gone straight into the B-side bin—or the bucket of half-baked ideas to be revisited later.

McCartney (1970)

HOPE: McCartney (1970), 6/10: I know for a long time people thought this album to be the product of clueless hubris, but honestly its homespun sloppiness feels so genuine and heartfelt to me; it’s the sonic embodiment of muddy boots, wet dogs, worn wool sweaters and Linda’s home cooking…which is to say, it’s an unbelievably warm and cozy record. And I should add, it’s aged surprisingly well. But, but that’s not to say it isn’t scarred by filler. While it’s home to blindingly beautiful romantic constellations like “Every Night” and “Junk”, it also contains some outright shiz, namely “Ooh You”, “Momma Miss America” and the exceptionally awful “Kreen-Akrore”. No matter how much of a Macca contrarian someone is, no one should be willing to die on a hill for those 3 demons. And I know it’s semi-blasphemous to say but here goes; I prefer the raw emotional live version of “Maybe I’m Amazed” that came later on 1976’s Wings Over America over the original here with its fat, intrusive organ.

At the end of the day though, the bad tracks are outnumbered by the good. “Man We Was Lonely” is a total sweetheart of a song, a soundalike sibling to The Beatles’ “The Two of Us”. And I quite like the acoustic, candy-coated instrumental “Hot As Sun” though admittedly it has something to do with a weird, sentimental childhood memory. At some point in the late ’70s, one of our local TV stations in NY started using it as the theme music for the Popeye cartoon show that was on at 7 am before we went to school. Yes, “Hot As Sun” was the daily prelude to an hour of spinach-fueled revenge scenes…which is both utterly bizarre and strangely perfect.

MATTHEW: McCartney (1970), 8/10: Cherries (as I’ve always called it) is for me the best of the first three: a half-hour of beautiful, tuneful, whimsical pop (“Every Night” and both versions of “Junk” are Paul-pop bliss), culminating in the insta-classic “Maybe I’m Amazed” (yes, the live version is better, but it doesn’t replace this one).  If only he’d stopped there or waited until a couple of the better songs from the next album were already written (or included “Another Day,” which had been written during the Let It Be sessions the previous year). Instead, he takes us to the 35” mark with a stunningly crappy final track (was he taking the piss? Having a laugh? He must have been, right?).

Two of the themes that run through our whole blog essay are the issue of track selection and sequencing, and the impact on the listener of her/his personal history with an album. Both of those come together for me with Cherries, as my father gave me the pre-recorded cassette of the album when I was a boy; it was a cherished item in my small, fledgling tape collection, and I still have it. But the tracks were re-sequenced by the label (“Amazed” on Side A, the two “Junks” together on B, etc.). When, near the end of the ‘70s, I heard the proper sequence and made a tape from the record, I realized how much of a difference it made; a beloved but admittedly bumpy album became smoother and better.

Ram (1971)

HOPE: Ram (1971), 10/10: I love Ram. Love it. Okay, I will admit there is one song I don’t really care for and yes I’m talking about you “3 Legs” you freakin’ monster, but since it’s short and sandwiched between 2 stellar songs, “Too Many People” (anxious, angry and devilishly beautiful) and “Ram On” (delicate and swoonworthy), it’s easy to ignore. But I have nothing but endless adoration for the rest of Ram. For one thing, it’s home to one of my absolute favorite McCartney songs ever (Beatles included), the plush, gorgeous and semi-carnal “Back Seat of My Car”. It’s simply off the charts on the swoon-meter (and majorly so on the mono version that’s included as part of the deluxe Archive edition of the album, listen here). “Smile Away” and “Monkberry Moon Delight” are batshit crazy, and I love songs where unhinged, old school rock ‘n roll Paul crashes into melodic and tuneful Paul ( more of that to come later). And throughout Ram, Paul cements his status as the KING OF CODA. “Back Seat”,”Long Haired Lady”, “Too Many People” and “Uncle Albert”, all end with completely new hooks and twists. I mean who on earth has ever, will ever do it as well ??? No one, that’s who.

MATTHEW: Ram (1971), 7/10: For me, Ram is neither front nor end loaded. It scatters its great songs throughout the album, making it easy to overlook the weaker ones. As with Cherries, there’s a full half hour of music on here that sustains countless listens (“Dear Boy,” “Uncle Albert,” “Heart of the Country,” and “Back Seat of My Car” among the highlights—yes, the latter is indeed gorgeous and romantic and freakin’ perfect)! And a riveting example of the melodic codas or outros that Paul does SO well. That means it (just) makes my favorite 10 Macca albums. But unlike Cherries, savoring that half-hour requires skipping tracks. Or doing the digital equivalent of what I did decades ago with a C-60 cassette, on which I put 11 of Cherries’ 13 tracks on one side, and 7 of RAM’s 12 on the other. A killer hour.

Wild Life (1971)

HOPE: Wildlife (1971), 2/10: All that talk about this being one of the worst Macca albums of his career ? It’s true. I cannot comprehend why this was given the deluxe Archive treatment over London Town or Back to the Egg, 2 far superior records ( Archive Collection complaint # 1). Out of the ten songs on offer, I only listen to 2 with any regularity; stunning, bitter rainy day ballad “Dear Friend”, and gorgeously poptastic “Some People Never Know”. Both are superb Macca songs by any standard. The only possible way I could imagine enjoying the other 8 tracks would be if Paul and I were sitting on a porch on a breezy afternoon and he was strumming his acoustic guitar and singing them to me and me alone. That’s the only scenario in which “Bip Bop”, “Mumbo” or “I Am Your Singer” might sound “good” or at least marginally appealing ( doors open Paul, in case you want to try changing my mind).

MATTHEW: Wild Life (1971), 4/10: this has a pretty great Side 2, culminating in a pair of fine Macca songs, “Tomorrow” and “Dear Friend.” But then it is followed by another absurd piss-take closer—this time, mercifully short, but unfortunately a reprise of the painful track that opens the relatively weak Side 1 (ok, weak is being nice; its atrocious; I can never get through “Mumbo” without lunging for the skip button). I’d rate Side 1 a 1/10 and Side 2 a 7/10; so my final ranking splits the difference. That’s probably being too generous as, in the end, there are only two true keepers on here; and considering the plethora of perfect pop songs that Paul penned in the 70s, that’s pretty sad. 

The next two Wings albums, in my mind, are a pair—most obviously because they both came out the same year (1973), but also because they came to me on the opposing sides of a C-90 cassette about a year later (when I was 10, courtesy of Carol, an honorary teenage cousin—I called her parents uncle and auntie).  Band on the Run overshadowed Red Rose Speedway commercially and critically—and on my tape deck.  Carol had added “Live and Let Die” to the end of the BOTR side of the tape (for years I assumed it was actually the album’s final song).  007 is a hard act to follow; “Red Barn Door” ( aka “Big Barn Bed”) just didn’t cut it. So, nine times out of ten I didn’t flip the tape, but pressed rewind or put on something else.

Red Rose Speedway (1973)

HOPE: Red Rose Speedway (1973), 7/10: I have a real affection for this album and while it’s not entirely successful ( “Loup” is pure evil), it’s infinitely superior to Wild Life. And it’s home to another one of my all-time fave Macca songs, “Little Lamb Dragonfly” ( I will take as many epic hook-filled ballads from Paul as he can serve up). I confess I’m a complete sucker for Macca tracks where he employs his trademark improv quirk; all those “do-do-do’s” on The Beatles “Mother Nature’s Son”, “ooh-ooh-oohs” on “Back Seat” and “la-la-la’s” on “Little Lamb” and on and on. I even like the ham-fisted medley (“Hold Me Tight/Lazy Dynamite/Hands of Love/Power Cut”) that closes this album which is clearly bits of other potential songs awkwardly sewn together. Plus there’s another wonderful “tuneful screamy” here,”Get On the Right Thing” that I can’t get enough of. The album is slick and slight but its hidden gems justifiably kick up the score for me. And though I know it was the thing back in the day in the UK to release stand alone singles that didn’t land on actual albums, I think the double A-side from ‘72 featuring  “Hi Hi Hi” and the candy-coated “C Moon” would’ve fit quite nicely on RRS, the latter in particular.

MATTHEW: Red Rose Speedway (1973), 6/10, lacks history for me, and although it has grown on me through many recent listens, I still find it rather flat. It has ups and downs, like its three predecessors, and there’s nothing awful on it. For some, it is probably as good as Ram. For me, it’s a notch or two above Wild Life but falls short of Ram. I understand why EMI opposed making this a double album; with the exception of one or two tracks (I rather like “Country Dreamer,” for example), the rejected numbers were even less memorable. It’s as if instead of developing unfinished songs further, Paul just kept writing more of them. The “Kiss/Dragonfly/Pigeon” trio in the middle of the album have particularly grown on me, but they need something more compelling around them. For example, with many of these Macca ‘70s albums, one wishes in retrospect that some of the between-album singles had been substituted for the weaker tracks. RRS, for example, had one big hit (“My Love”), but (as Hope says) imagine how much better it would have been had it included the earlier single “Hi Hi Hi” and its B-side “C Moon,” and the later single “Live and Let Die”!

Band On The Run (1973)

MATTHEW: Band on the Run, (1973), 10/10, on the other hand, deserves its accolades. It is one of those albums that simply works. The Paul & Wings ingredients are the same, but the formula is tweaked, and the result is finally the record that one imagines the previous four might have been. Play the late Beatles albums to someone who (somehow) has never even heard of them, then play BOTR and say it was the Fab Four’s 1973 record, they’d surely believe you (they might ask why only one Beatle sang, but musically they’d accept it).  As a result, it thus never ages. Like Abbey Road, it is immortal.  RRS sounds like the early 70s. BOTR sounds like a great rock/pop record. I admit I’m pretty much over “Jet,” which has become tiresome after a thousand listens; and the original UK album version without “Helen Wheels” is better. Nor is it my absolute most-loved Wings album (that’s still to come). But there’s surely no doubt that it’s the best album Paul made in the 70s (and one of his best two or three ever).

HOPE: Band On The Run (1973), 9/10: BOTR is like Sgt. Pepper to me. As in the first Beatle album I owned as a kid was Pepper and in turn BOTR was the first Macca solo album to find its way into my meager collection. I played it endlessly, front to back and it invariably became the gauge by which all other Macca records I got would be compared to. But as Pepper has gradually descended down the Beatle album-ranking lists over the years making way for the likes of Revolver, White Album (and lately Abbey Road), somewhere along the way the charms and virtues of other Macca albums, including Ram, came to knock BOTR off the top spot as far as frequency of listening and overall love for me. In fact, there are at least 5 other Macca albums from the ’70s I listen to with more frequency than BOTR. But my feelings are driven solely by over-familiarity, it is still a ridiculously wonderful pop album and is deserving of every accolade it gets! 

 I think the real stars of BOTR are not the piano pounders, but the gentler animals, specifically “No Words” and “Bluebird”; both are melodically stunning and I absolutely adore them to this day. Still, I have to offer a true confession that you ain’t gonna like Matthew… which is that the song I play the most is, okay, it’s freakin’ “Jet”. Ah Mater, I’ll never get tired of yer.
I do think though, that the overwhelming praise for BOTR did a bit of a disservice to what came both before and after it release-wise. For years critics held to the claim that every post-Beatle Macca release was significantly inferior to it. Patently untrue but they clung to that opinion for eons, cutting Paul no slack until the release of Tug of War in 1982. It still kind of irritates me, it felt like there was a concerted effort to drag him down, but I digress! BOTR deserves a near perfect score and if I were to offer one artifact to a space alien unfamiliar with solo Paul to investigate, it would unquestionably be this.

Venus And Mars (1975)

MATTHEW: The next three Wings albums are very much a trio that go together, all released between May ’75 and December ’76, with the third being a live album that promoted the previous two. For some reason, I don’t remember listening much to Venus and Mars and At The Speed of Sound at the time; but I still have my cassette tape of Wings Over America, which I played a lot. Looking back, that kind of makes sense, as WOA arguably renders its two predecessors redundant.

HOPE: Venus and Mars (1975), 6/10: Nerd fact, when iPods were launched in the early ’00s, you could get the back of the device engraved with whatever personal wording you wanted. I chose the lyric “Venus and Mars are alright tonight” because what the hell else was I going to do; like christening a boat, I had to bestow my new precious, incredible life-altering device with an equally meaningful “name”. V&M is not my favorite Macca album but I do find a lot of it to be exceedingly embraceable. But bad news first. “Rock Show” is a bit silly, not the tune but it’s genuinely cringeworthy lyrical content, “behind the stacks you glimpse an axe” being a particularly egregious line. I think Paul was aware that he wasn’t perceived to be as hard and tough soundwise as The Who or Led Zeppelin at that time but still reeeeally fancied the idea of the proverbial “kids” thinking Wings ROCKED ( of course by the time they did officially, convincingly ROCK on 1979’s Back to the Egg the kids could not have cared less).

When I was kid I loved kitschy retro “You Gave Me the Answer” which I find completely insufferable now (I would actually play act Paul and I dancing to it which is as humiliating as it sounds ). I do adore “Love in Song”, think it’s a total sleeper, so handsome and full of rain. And the sad soul of “Treat Her Gently-Lonely Old People” qualifies it as a keeper as well. At the end of the day though  “Listen To What The Man Said” is the indisputable star of V&M, just an unimpeachable melody and production (and it still has the ability to make me sigh out loud). If I’d have been rating this album as a kid I would’ve awarded it a 10/10 solely because of the stickers and poster it came with. That stuff was as important to me as the actual record. I immediately slapped the stickers on my school notebooks and while they served as a nice compliment to my masterfully drawn ELO logos, I feel an insane, undeniable twinge of regret that I no longer have them.

MATTHEW: Venus and Mars (1975), 6/10: I see why “Rock Show” flopped as a single; it doesn’t rock well, it lacks the charm that imbues so many Macca songs, and it wears thin very fast. I suspect it put me off the album back in the day. But even now, Venus and Mars strikes me as a very mixed bag. I like “Love in Song” and “Letting Go,” but there is simply nothing great here until the end.  The closing cluster is REALLY great (“Call Me Back Again,” “Listen to What the Man Said,” and “Treat Her Gently/Lonely Old People”; I’m going to pretend the “Crossroads” TV theme was not tacked absurdly on the very end). But those fine 15 minutes remind me of how disappointing the rest of the album is. And to return to my point earlier about between-album singles: “Junior’s Farm” would have made a great substitute for “Rock Show”!

Wings At The Speed Of Sound (1976)

MATTHEW: At the Speed of Sound (1976), 7/10: For decades, in my mind this was as good or bad as Venus and Mars, but I recently realized how much better Speed of Sound is. For starters, Sides A and B kick off with great singles—“Let ‘Em In” and “Silly Love Songs.” The whole of Side A stands up well. It closes with a nice pair of mellow Macca ditties. And as for Paul’s controversial inclusion of songs written and sung by other Wings band members: when it works, it works really well (“The Note You Never Wrote” is excellent, perhaps the best Denny Laine song on any Wings album); but when it bombs, it bombs big (“Cook of the House,” cute enough as a B-side, as it was to “Silly Love Songs,” where it should have remained).

HOPE: At the Speed of Sound (1976), 7/10: I’m pretty sure this is the first Macca album I bought in real time. And to be frank I wasn’t sure what to make of it with its overly democratic song distribution. Which meant it didn’t rank highly for me in the beginning because all I wanted was Paul. But like you Matthew, as years went by I came to love it especially the cryptic and cloudy “The Note You Never Wrote”. There is something very overcast and gloomy about the whole record that appeals to me, I feel the presence of a very particular sonic vibe on tracks like “San Ferry Anne”,”Time to Hide” and “Wino Junko”, as well as the 2 stellar singles “Let ‘Em In” and “Silly Love Songs”. And I think “Beware My Love” is a total powerhouse, one of his best ever rockers, I mean the construction of it is just so clever. And Paul’s vocals on those “I must be wrong’s” are absolutely killer! All hail screamy Paul.

Wings Over America (1976)

HOPE: Wings Over America (1976), 5/10:  While WOA is generally fun I have problems with how the setlist is arranged as well as some of the actual choices. There are at least a dozen tracks from post-Beatle Paul that are more worthy of inclusion than the dreaded “You Gave Me the Answer”,“Richard Cory” or “Spirits of Ancient Egypt”. Having said that, the version of “Listen To What the Man Said” on offer here is absolutely smokin’ and I especially love when Paul introduces the Thaddeus Richard sax solo with a “take it away Thaddeus”. And what is there to say about “Maybe I’m Amazed” at this point, I mean what an absolutely spectacular vocal good lord

MATTHEW: Wings Over America (1976), 7/10: comparing live albums to studio ones is always an apples/oranges challenge (and a cliché to point that out!), especially a triple live album to single studio ones. But this one is so closely tied to specific studio albums that the task is made easier. Although it came out of the summer 1976 tour that promoted Speed of Sound, WOA overwhelmingly favors Venus and Mars above all others. If we count the V&M title tracks as one, and we discount the 1-minute “Crossroads” outro, WOA includes almost all of V&M, 9 out of it’s 11 songs. In contrast, there are only 4 songs from Speed of Sound (and 5 each from Band on the Run and from the Beatles catalogue). But here’s the thing: the live versions of the V&M tracks are better than the original ones; even the dodgy “Rock Show” is elevated by being in a medley with “Jet.”  The use of songs written and sung by band members other than Paul somehow works better live than in the studio. And there are just the right number of Beatles songs. Ok, the result is not amazing (don’t hate me if I prefer the other big hit live album from 1976, Frampton Comes Alive!), but it is pretty damn good.  My old cassette got played hard (admittedly it was an Indonesian bootleg with the tracks muddled up and tracks like “Answer” and “Egypt” missing), and I’ve gotten my money’s worth from the 2013 Archive Collection CDs too.

London Town (1977)

MATTHEW: We both recognize how much our—and anybody’s—appraisal of an album is tied to our personal history with it, to deep-rooted emotional connections and associations that interfere with our vain attempts to be objective.  Well, that factor plays more of a role with my feelings—yes, FEELINGS—about the last two Wings albums than with any other albums in the entire Macca post-Beatles catalogue.  London Town came out right after my 14th birthday; I was 15 the summer that Back to the Egg was released. I bought them both right away, flogged them without mercy, and absolutely adored them. I still do. They are, hands down, my favorite Wings LPs and my favorite Macca LPs. I listen to them now, trying to understand why they have reputations as reflecting the decline and collapse of Wings, why Paul has slighted them by not releasing Archive Collection editions, and I just can’t. It makes no sense. They are full of energy and creativity and melody and so many masterful pop music moments. Why, Paul, why?  These records are so freakin’ GOOD!

HOPE: London Town (1978), 7/10: I think LT is a stone-cold crazy record. It’s the most disparate bunch of songs Paul had ever assembled on any of his solo albums to that point and despite the title has no discernible theme. The weirdest and most disturbing thing is that the song I think most about on this album, find myself mindlessly singing to myself most often, isn’t even one of the genuinely good tracks, it’s “Cafe on the Left Bank”, an insidious piece of filler I refuse to accept that I like. But then again that’s part of why I’m so completely charmed by LT as a whole. It’s like a bunch of TV commercials gathered together masquerading as a pop album. All that isn’t to suggest that it isn’t home to some stunners. “With a Little Luck” remains eternally gorgeous and I love “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” with its dark melody tied to what’s meant to be an uplifting lyric…but cherry-picking songs does LT a disservice. These songs quite literally need each other, 90 % of them can’t stand up on their own. No, LT sounds best when listened to in sequence, each song leaning against the other like the bunch of sloppy drunks they are. Please Paul, time to top up and let the endearingly problematic LT into the Archive room ( Matthew and I will get the door).

MATTHEW: London Town (1978), 10/10: I am incapable of being objective about this album. It is so deeply familiar, and every single track just right and in the right place. Giving it less than a 10/10 would just be pandering to you, Hope, or (God forbid) to the cretinous critics who trashed it with knee-jerk derision just because it was made by happy Paul not angsty John. Like Speed of Sound, it’s two sides begin with smooth, well-crafted, comfort-food singles (the title track and “With a Little Luck”). But LT is better than Speed of Sound for being all-Paul (9 tracks) or Paul co-writing with Denny Laine (5): tuneful, inventive, varied in style but not overly so, quirky but not whacky. It isn’t even missing a non-album single (“Mull of Kintyre” stay where you are). Intellectually I can accept that Band on the Run is better, but if I could only take one Macca album to the proverbial desert island, it would be this one.

Back to the Egg (1979)

HOPE: Back to the Egg (1979), 10/10: Egg is a loud, beautiful, blazing down the highway, mess of an album and I think it’s the most criminally underrated release of Paul’s post-Beatle career: the catalogue’s true sleeper. With its fat riffs, sludgy chords and throat-shredding vocals, Egg is most certainly Satan’s favorite post-Beatle Macca album. Okay, let’s just call it what it is, PAUL’s METAL ALBUM. Out of all the grungy noise-makers, I feel most worshipful toward the maniacal “Spin It On” and Cheap Trick-ish “So Glad To See You Here“. But I also love the dirty power pop of “Getting Closer”, which I think is one of his most underrated singles. And let’s talk about “Arrow Through Me”, one of the all-time greatest McCartney songs ever ever ever, a sublimely melodic lament and deep catalog dark horse which can never be exalted and appreciated enough. That hook is positively sublime.

The album was the recipient of some savage reviews which has led to Paul distancing himself from it, talking it down, and most significantly from a hardcore fan perspective (as of this writing) depriving it of the deluxe treatment within the acclaimed and exhaustive Archive series (wishing you took us up on that suggestion of a drinking game now right?). In what universe is Wild Life more deserving of the fancy pants treatment than Egg? Egg is loud, lyrically cartoonish, romantic, weird, occasionally somber and staggeringly melodic; what’s not to love ? It’s one big confusedly-beautiful piece of noise. And for the record, I loved the freestanding single that came out just prior to Egg featuring the lush disco-lite “Goodnight Tonight” as well as it’s perky b-side “Daytime Nighttime Suffering”. I know Paul didn’t feel they fit the vibe on Egg and hence didn’t include them on the finished album but honestly I don’t think anything is “missing” from Egg as a result of their exclusion. To be frank, at the time, it didn’t occur to me that they could or should have been on there. I was just happy there were multiple new Paul records to get! And, added bonus, Egg is also the ideal gauge for verifying whether someone shares the same worldview as you and is ultimately worthy of your lifelong friendship.

In the late ‘80s, I had a job at the CBGB Record Canteen, the decidedly sleazy and noisy shop located next door to the club. One day, my boss asked me to help train a new girl they’d hired. She and I were both very young and cynical and so circled around each other music nerd style, tentatively dropping band names and monitoring one another’s reactions. We somehow got on the subject of McCartney ( though to be honest, I’m sure I brought him up), and without prompting, she said that she particularly loved Egg. That was it. Egg was the magic sign that let me know she was cool and we are still friends to this day. It is truly magical.

MATTHEW: Back to the Egg (1979), 9/10: The fact that you & I agree on this, Hope, but Paul and his critics apparently don’t, logically makes us wrong. But here’s the thing: we’re not! Because this is a weird and wonderful Wings concept-album experiment that simply works; despite being far more varied and quirky than London Town, Egg has a momentum and energy that holds it all together and carries it breathlessly through its 42 minutes as if it were half the length. It’s nod to the punk/New Wave movement that was peaking at the time is just right: neither forced nor half-hearted, it infuses the album with a hard rocking edge that no other Macca album before or since matched. As Hope notes here (and in a stirring ode to the album elsewhere on Picking Up Rocks), some of Egg is HEAVY. But the hints of metal don’t mean it skimps on melody. The riffs are hefty but buoyant, driving multiple singalong moments. “Getting Closer” and “Arrow Through Me” are primo Paul pop singles; the bass line and hook in “Arrow” are like a shot of bliss right to the heart.

Having gushed thus, I can’t resist one caveat. Macca albums almost always beg to be resequenced or edited, as there were usually non-album singles far better than his dodgier album tracks. Exceptions are Band on the Run (the UK version is perfect) and London Town (for me, if not for many others, perfect as is). But Egg is not an exception, as it’s sessions also birthed non-album Top 5 (US & UK) hit single “Goodnight Tonight” and it’s also excellent B-side, “Daytime Nightime Suffering.” In 1980 I made a tape with both those on the album instead of the non-songs “Reception” and “The Broadcast.” Ok, I still listened to the original version more. But my edited version is pretty great. (In case you’re curious, “Tonight” follows “Arrow,”  starting Side B, and the Grammy-winning “Rockestra” closes the album.) By the way, I also think Egg suffered from a record label change and competition with back catalogue: in the US, Paul switched from Capitol to Columbia after LT; Capitol’s response was to release Wings Greatest, which was packed with hits, five of them previously unavailable on an album. It thus competed with Egg, released only six months later. (Elton John’s Blue Moves suffered similar competition for the same reason; that’s the last plug for my book, I promise.)

End of Part 1

Coming in Part 2, we examine Paul’s ’80s discography. You might wanna put on a seatbelt. Ready? Read it here

Maneater: Grading the Albums of Daryl Hall And John Oates, A Love Story

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But if there’s a doubt maybe I can give out a thousand reasons why…

(“Say It Isn’t So” 1983)

I love Daryl Hall and John Oates. At this stage of my life, I’m pretty certain that I’ve listened to the Private Eyes album in its entirety thousands of times. And within that, the number of times I’ve played “Did It In A Minute” and “Italian Girls” in particular is, by any normal standard, sickly excessive. I’m not trying to scare anyone though the fact that I could easily live out the rest of my days without hearing another Dylan or Nirvana song but would invariably suffer painful withdrawal if I couldn’t hear “Kiss On My List” might. I remain enraptured by most of the same stuff everyone else is I suspect, the endless melodic genius of the tunes and Hall’s ridiculous vocal prowess chief among them but must acknowledge the standard cliche that applies here, namely that Daryl Hall & John Oates provided much of the soundtrack to all the wonder, fear and horror of my impressionable childhood and teen nightmare years. And though the songs weren’t necessarily coming from the viewpoint of a nerdy suburban girl who liked to draw for hours while sitting in a walk-in closet, they spoke to me on some visceral level that I’m incapable of explaining coherently beyond the stuff I just described. Deep down it’s way, way more than all that.

Grading the Albums of Daryl Hall & John Oates aka Why the Hell Am I Doing This? In the words of late, legendary writer Toni Morrison, “If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it“. Now to be clear here, I am in no way comparing myself to a real and extraordinarily gifted author, it’s just that this statement kind of explains why I’m doing this. I’ve always wanted to read a piece breaking down the Hall & Oates catalog and ephemera and so figured I’d just make one for fun, for love, and for all the past, present, and future H & O acolytes otherwise known as my people.

Disclaimer (or maybe warning):  I confess that this essay features some of my personal history as it relates to the music of Daryl Hall and John Oates. I had to draw on a few experiences to establish the context in several instances but have tried to keep things under control ( tried ). Believe me when I tell you that I am infinitely more interested in breaking down the moody, noir-ish magnificence of the “One on One” video than sharing self-important kindergarten anecdotes because seriously who cares. And I’ll just refer to them as H & O from here on in for ease of everything. While I’m going to reference some factual history as it relates to the overall sound and imagery, in no way is this mess you are reading meant to serve as an actual history of the band. It’s a fan’s view of the sound, lights, and colors emitting from H & O as seen through besotted and terminally faithful nerd eyes ( which hopefully one or two of you share ).

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Oh no, not sidebars:  Yes sidebars, but mostly in spirit, because they aren’t situated physically on the side, they are just stuffed directly inside this essay thing. These “sidebars” feature ludicrous conspiracy theories, potentially embarrassing anecdotes as well as impossibly misguided counterpoints to popular opinions. The truly unhinged and wtf sidebars happen once we hit the ’80s so I hope you will stick it out until then.

Listen to This!:  I attached links to the song titles mentioned within the album reviews so you can hear them as you read. It’s kind of like a poor man’s version of a museum tour. Plus there are links attached to some of the names mentioned within so if you want, you can get a little additional background.

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DARYL HALL & JOHN OATES ( established 1970 ™): Need to get factual and dry for a second which I want to apologize for in advance. I promise there’s some shit-talking right around the corner. Anyway, since coming on the scene in the early ’70s, H & O have sold over 40 million records, had six # 1’s, 34 chart hits, 7 platinum, and 6 Gold albums. Those are crazy numbers when you consider they happened at a time when you had to buy actual records or tapes in order to hear stuff at your leisure and the only number that was counted technically was that initial time you played it i.e. bought it. Streaming has skewed and forever altered the meaning of numbers but the point is H & O have been insanely successful (and for the record, H & O’s play counts across all the platforms add up to pretty staggering numbers ). But the singles are only half the story. Let’s talk about that for a second…

“Singles remind me of kisses, albums remind me of plans”

(“If I Didn’t Love You” by Squeeze 1980)

Singles vs. Albums:  Squeeze’s genius lyricist Chris Difford really nailed the difference between singles and albums in that line, perfectly and poignantly. While H & O are very famous for their kisses ( singles and no pun intended, swear ), their plans ( albums ) are generally not spoken of in reverential terms. You won’t see them on those ubiquitous “Greatest Albums of All-Time” lists unless maybe it’s one solely focused on the ’80s, but even then it’s unlikely ( not cool enough, I’ll get to that shortly ). H &O’s full-lengths are generally regarded as storage facilities for singles that are surrounded by inferior filler/packing material. While that logic applies to ABBA, it does not apply to H & O ( while some may suggest otherwise there is no such thing as an ABBA deep cut, either it’s a transcendent single or it’s caulking, there’s no in-between ).

The fact that H & O’s singles were so successful has clouded the perception of what they actually were at their core. They were an album band. They were a deep-cut manufacturing company, only theirs weren’t meandering, last-minute filler but in fact, all sounded like #1 singles from some alternate universe.

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“Maybe I should feel guilty…”
(“It’s A Laugh” 1978)

The Scourge of the “Guilty Pleasure”: I’ve never listened to Daryl Hall and John Oates with irony. Not just because I never thought I was personally cooler than whatever album I was listening to ( I wasn’t ), but because when I first heard most of the songs, I was still innocent, trusting, and naive enough to take them at face value. Which is to say, for all its apparent rhyming silliness, “Kiss on My List” wasn’t a joke to me. It was a key member of my teenage crush soundtrack team along with evergreen anthems like The Police’s “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” and “Misunderstanding” by Genesis.

Of course, some experience the H & O visuals and aural soundscape a lot differently. The utter ’80s-ness of the videos, coyly comical lyrical content, and lush Oates mustache, have ensured their permanent residence in the musical “guilty pleasure” pile. They are considered either with a nod and a wink full of bemused irony or as a punchline. But that kind of thinking has no place here. The concept of “guilty pleasure” is, at its core, bullshit since none of us can help how we’re wired. It’s best to just own up, embrace stuff and not give a shit what people say because honestly, who cares. Obviously “Maneater” isn’t the mortal, soul-baring equal of “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. But “She’s Gone“, well that’s another story.

What are we grading here ?:  All 18 official studio albums as well as any key live or compilation albums that were released within the timeframe that H & O were still releasing new studio albums, plus the 2009 box set. I’m going to use the standard 1 to 10 grading scale, 1 being rubbish, 10 being perfect.

About the compilations:  I’m sorry but I have to share one more nerd thing. There are a whole lotta hit compilations, too many, which has inevitably resulted in a lot of repetition. I really want to accentuate the studio album experience here and will only be talking about the compilations I feel are the most significant and/or were the most culturally relevant at the time of their original release.

Also won’t be getting into some of the latter-day, 21st century live albums which while generally fine, serve mostly as archival documents and souvenirs.

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“It’s you and me forever”
(“Sara Smile” 1975)

Initial Contact:  The first Hall & Oates record I ever bought was the 45 aka 7″ of “Rich Girl”. From that point on I was officially hooked though I had no idea at the time that meant for the rest of my life. I also vividly remember spending most of my meager allowance on the Circus Magazine depicted above. I know. It was unquestionably worth forking over hard to come by kid cash to the mean girl cashier at Family Pharmacy, my childhood magazine haunt. Plus it had a poster of hairy Andy Gibb so you know, it was coming home with me no matter what. At the time I couldn’t decide who I thought was hotter but I admit that John’s shirtless come hither thing coupled with my inexplicable youthful fascination with mustaches gave him the edge at that moment. I did ultimately switch allegiance to Daryl but retained a keen Oates appreciation and this cover is the undeniable foundation of that appreciation.

John-Sex-Jean-Michel-Basquiat-and-Keith-Haring-at-AREA-ClubJohn Sex, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring in 1987. I swear this will make sense in a minute. 

Question- What is “Cool ?”:  I attended the School of Visual Arts in NYC in the ’80s, when visual artists seemed as big as pop stars ( or at least they did to me ). Iconic graphic artist Keith Haring had studied there for a couple of years before dropping out but nonetheless came to do a presentation one afternoon. He’d arrived with fabled and fabulous downtown performance artist John Sex in tow, another SVA alumnus, which was about as NYC ’80s hip as you could possibly get. Keith spoke favorably of his former school, showed slides of his work, answered our student questions, and sweetly drew his trademark radiant baby on anything we put in front of him. But then he did this thing that nearly obliterated whatever goodwill I had for him and everyone else in the room that day.

During his presentation he showed a slide of an album cover he had worked on, some dance thing I can’t recall, and said he frequently got asked to do art for record sleeves but was picky about what he chose to work on. He then mentioned that he’d recently been asked to do an album cover for Hall and Oates. John Sex then jumped in and asked Keith if he’d considered this request. His answer was an emphatic “pfffft, no way“. The obvious implication being that they were lame. Which was made abundantly clear by the tone of his voice as he said it. No way. People laughed. They knew what he meant. It was instinctively understood by every person in the auditorium that day that Hall & Oates were not cool.

Admittedly, everything was working against them in the “this band is cool” column at that point. They were popular. Their videos played in an endless loop on MTV. The songs were catchy and in regular rotation on AM radio ( uncool ). They were in their thirties for God’s sake ( this was regarded as ancient in the ’80s MTV heartthrob days ). And of course, girls liked them more than boys. They were not looked upon as a serious, credible musical entity in any way. And so Keith Haring and my pretentious art school classmates thought them to be corny shit. But they were wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. See no matter how “uncool” they were perceived to be by the cool people in the ’80s, whether they accepted it or not, at that time Hall & Oates were the absolute total 100% sound embodiment of New York City.

No, I didn’t say anything after that dark moment, I just sat there and seethed, arms crossed, playing the role of pissed-off fan-girl. “You all just wait, because 35 years from now I’m gonna call you out on this bullshit”. And here we are. Okay, I feel better now.

P.S. I forgave the late Keith in my heart and remained a fan of his…but I do still think he was wrong.

Sidebar!: I believe the album in question was the 1983 Rock ‘n Soul compilation because the cover art they ultimately settled on amounted to a poor man’s version of a Keith Haring drawing i.e. THIS :

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“Rummaging through antique clothing store racks of quirky Technicolor bowling shirts, musty record stores with row upon row of vinyl inspiration, vintage guitar shops, seeing beautiful girls writing their own fashionable rule books, druggie burnouts on broken stoops and all this wrapped together under a thick aroma of freshly baked pizza and italian bread…the Village offered up multiple sensory orgasms of possibilities around every corner”

“The maneater wasn’t just that woman. It was New York City”

-Quotes from John Oates’s 2017 memoir Change of Seasons

Okay, so Hall & Oates = NYC: Certain bands are as much a place as a sound. The Beach Boys ARE Southern California. Joy Division ARE Manchester. And Daryl Hall and John Oates ARE New York City. Or to be more specific, ’80s New York City. They embodied the vibe as vividly as any of Larry Levan’s legendary nights at Paradise Garage or Wild Style or the seedy “Fascination” video game arcade in Times Square which I was always moderately terrified to walk into. They may have been full-on Philly in their origins but their sound was perfectly in sync with the neon, steaming manholes, cigarettes, and candy-eyed synthesized glamour of New York City.

You’d never know it now but back in the ’80s, 8th street, in the West Village of NYC, was ground zero cool for teen people like myself. It was centrally located near all the best record and clothing stores and home to a giant new wave pop culture-infused head shop called Postermat. That place was a teenage pop fan-MTV addict’s dream. It had glass counter displays stuffed with hundreds of band buttons and pins (Bowie, Specials, The Jam, and on and on). There was a massive tee-shirt wall with images of everything from Little Richard to the Union Jack as well as a cluster of poster racks filled with the usual cult heroes (Elvis, Marilyn, James Dean). 

It was also located directly across the street from the legendary Electric Lady recording studio, the musical home base of Jimi Hendrix during the last months of his life.

Of course, the studio’s historic legacy meant absolutely zero to my ignorant teenage brain. All I cared about was the fact that Daryl Hall and John Oates recorded their albums there ( ultimately their four GREATEST albums ), across the street from Postermat on freakin’ 8th street, where I walked by nearly every day, and they touched this same sidewalk I’m touching now, and oh my god what if they are actually here or on the way. Walking down that street was always a slightly fevered experience because of this. I did ultimately catch them filming part of the “Possession Obsession” video on what I’m certain was the coldest night in the history of mankind but even with my youthful constitution at its maximum strength, it was just too damn cold to stand out there and watch for too long. 

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This is the image that is lodged in my mind when I think of NYC in the 80’s. Daryl and his immaculate hair on 6th Avenue and 8th Street in 1983’s “One On One” video.

One Last Thing, Here It Comes…John Oates, Real Talk: Time to address the elephant. It’s no secret that John Oates has been treated as something of a 6th finger in Hall & Oates by the world at large. As in he’s there but is not necessary. As in what exactly does he do and is his guitar plugged in. It was an idea that picked up steam as the duo became more successful, and Daryl became the primary face in the videos, and the primary voice on the hits.

John’s legendary secondary status reached its pop culture apex on, where else, The Simpsons :

In a Pitchfork interview back in 2007, Daryl was quoted as saying that he and John were “not an equal duo and never had been. I’m 90% and he’s 10% and that’s the way it is “.

And all through my years of fandom, I admit I felt this too. Hot Circus Magazine cover aside, when it came to listening to the albums, the Oates tracks ( the ones he wrote and sang lead on ) were barricades, the opening band before the real thing you were there to see. Still, as it was LP days and moving the needle required physical effort, I mostly just let the albums play all the way through, becoming familiar with the Oates-led tracks by default but having nowhere near the same emotional investment in them. The hooks in the Hall-led tracks were just more straight-up swoon-some and surprising.

Once the Sony Walkman arrived on the scene and fell into my hands ( ed. note: I basically hijacked my brother’s so blessings to him for understanding ), the editing frenzy began and it was mostly Oates tracks that ended up on the cutting room floor. The painstakingly assembled mixtapes I was stuffing in this magnificent new gadget were basically non-stop Hall-fests. Daryl, Daryl, and more Daryl.

The inevitable by-product of this editing, this laser focus on only the songs I loved with nothing in between, resulted in these previously adored tracks losing some of their initial luster from overexposure. Like a beloved teddy bear that’s lost an eye, I just plain over-loved them.

To “fix” this issue, I started plugging songs I’d initially ignored into newly made mixtapes hoping it would reignite my fever for the old songs by recreating that anticipatory feeling of waiting for them I used to get when the record was playing on the turntable. Which is what led to my formal Oates Epiphany. Most of the new additions on these tapes were HIS songs. Don’t get me wrong, I’d kinda liked some of them already but something had shifted. They were now sounding really, really good, like way better than I remembered. Is “Cold Dark & Yesterday” ( Oates ) better than “Did It In A Minute” ( Hall )? In a word, no. But it is damn good. Still, are there days I’d rather hear “Friday Let Me Down“( Oates ) than “Method of Modern Love” ( Hall )? Absolutely, most days in fact. And so when I say I love Daryl Hall and John Oates, I do genuinely mean both of them. It took a minute but the epiphany arrived.

And so to honor and acknowledge  what maybe doesn’t always get the attention, at the end of most of the album reviews there will be a nod to the “Best Oates Moment” i.e. the song(s) where Oates is the primary composer and/or lead vocalist ( FYI: John’s autonomous contributions were somewhat sporadic over the first handful of albums and several thereafter so I will only reference where the above description applies ).

And now…

The Albums

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Whole Oats (1972) 

Grade: 4/10

John Oates refers to this as H & O’s “dump album”, as it features the most worthy songs they’d accumulated in their arsenal up to that time. The theme of the album is just a simple, “Hi, we’re Daryl Hall and John Oates and it’s 1972” and as such is filled with sunny, quirky, AM radio-ready, sucking on hayseed, folky pop songs and no fixed identity. There’s a lot of talk about heading back to the “countryside”, walking “down by the canyon” and of course, “lying on the needle floor” with who else but “the reverend’s daughter”. The overall sound sits restlessly between early ’70s acoustic style Elton John and the cornier side of Harry Nilsson…but underneath this pile of hay are a couple of tracks brimming with promise and foretelling the H & O sound of the future, specifically Hall’s shining vocal showcase “Lazyman” and the album’s closer, the lush, Todd Rundgren-esque “Lilly (Are You Happy)“. They are both soul with the latter also being fire.

 

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Abandoned Luncheonette (1973)

Grade: 9/10

While the hayseed folk-pop of the debut album is still on display within Abandoned Luncheonette, the soon-to-be trademark, lushly-stringed soul sound officially infiltrates the proceedings, due in large part to the influence of the album’s producer, the legendary Arif Mardin. And fact is the most successful songs are the ones where they abandon the folk-pop and go straight-up soul. As for specific songs, what is there to say about “She’s Gone” at this point ( insert reverential sigh here ) with its oddly joyful, over-the-top angst and legendarily demented proto-video. It features not only the finest vocal interplay H & O ever laid down but generously gifted the world with the seminal line “worn as a toothbrush hanging in the stand” ( As “guilty feet have got no rhythm” was to the ’80s, so was that “worn toothbrush” to the ’70s ).  The superb title track, a movie plot in the shape of a song, offers a particularly memorable and soaring vocal from Hall on the chorus. Guitar solos straight out of ’70s cop shows where they are heading to the bad side of town, sophisticated soul ballads; it’s all here. The last-minute of the album is occupied by a chicken in the bread pan pickin’ out dough i.e. a couple of bizarre raving banjo and fiddle solos because, why the hell not.

Best Oates Moment: A 23-year-old John was inspired to write “I’m Just a Kid ( Don’t Make Me Feel Like a Man)” after the experience of being surrounded by even younger people ( girls ) at a show, whom he sensed were looking at him as an old guy even though he himself was technically young. It is lyrically problematic at points with John referring to himself as a “cradle thief”, and his love interest as “little girl”, and then stepping way over the line with “will you survive, will you learn to drive”. It’s hardly 33-year-old Ringo Starr singing “You’re Sixteen” but yeah, it may be slightly dicey. Know what though, best not to think too much and just dig it at face value as the nicely-tuned ’70s rock shuffle that it is.

 

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War Babies (1974)

Grade: 7/10

Generally speaking, even when they were being weird, H & O still made songs that were pretty accessible. Produced by old colleague and super genius Todd Rundgren, War Babies is the most deliberately defiant, sonically experimental, FM radio-ready album H & O ever made and as such, the one with the most “Rock Cred”. As a chick, I can state it’s not really built to appeal to chick ears and seems more focused on attacking key nerve centers in boy brains…which is to say at points it gets dangerously close to Frank Zappa and there is some serious instrumental wanking. When it works it more closely resembles the noodly yet accessible soul-pop excursions of Todd himself, “Is It A Star” being the best example. And while “I’m Watching You ( A Mutant Romance)” sounds like a lyrically clumsy Lou Reed song, it is still oddly compelling. War Babies is ultimately a slick, sleazy, and desperate piece of work, an acquired taste to be sure but absolutely worth exploration for the open-minded H & O fan.

 

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Daryl Hall & John Oates aka the Silver Album (1975)

Grade: 5/10

This album features in “Worst Album Covers of All-Time” lists so often at this point that it’s become a cliche. And the fact is, the cover’s not that bad, it’s androgynously “of its time” though maybe somewhat unreflective of the music within it i.e. if it sounded like say Diamond Dogs or Young Americans it would make more sense. Frankly, as worst H & O album covers go, this wouldn’t even make the Top 5 ( Dear God, it gets so, so much worse ). Of course, the fact that the cover tends to be the main talking point regarding this one says a lot about the album itself, for despite being the home of the evergreen, eternal, undisputedly wondrous ballad Sara Smile, the rest of it is pretty middling and mediocre. But it does establish the temporary sound address that will serve as home base for the next H & O release, namely the string-laden Philly-style soul being purveyed at the time by the O’Jays, Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes and producers Gamble and Huff. In 1974 H & O parted ways with Atlantic ( shit just wasn’t happening ) and signed to rival label RCA in no small part because of manager, and future head of Sony Music, Tommy Mottola’s relentless belief in their potential. They honor him here with a thinly veiled “tribute” song called “Gino the Manager” and yeah, let’s just get out of here.

 

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Bigger Than Both of Us (1976)

Grade: 6/10

The first half of “Bigger Than Both of Us” is solid and soulfully poptastic. “Back Together Again“, “Rich Girl” ( their first #1 ! ), “Crazy Eyes” and idiosyncratic, haunting ballad “Do What You Want, Be What You Are” are superfine to the last and if we were rating just those this would be at least 7 out of 10. But the quality starts to slip after that and the rest of the album regresses into pretty faceless, paint by numbers b-side quality songs. “Rich Girl” remains a perfect piece of ear candy and the fact that mercurial, contrarian legend Nina Simone, of all people, recorded a freakin’ cover of it powerfully attests to its significant charms.

Best Oates Moment: With its quirky and damn swoony chorus, “Crazy Eyes”  is one soulful babe.

 

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No Goodbyes (1977 compilation)

Grade: 3/10

In 1976 to capitalize on H & O’s success since leaving their label, Atlantic re-released “She’s Gone” as a single. Back in 1973, the song had only gotten as high as # 60 in the pop chart but now that H & O had a few hits under their belts, the world was more receptive and appreciative of its emotional, cynical beauty and it soon shot to #6 on the pop chart ( p.s. it should be noted that band of brothers, Tavares, took their own fabulous version to the top of the R & B chart in 1974 so the song wasn’t exactly an unknown entity). And with that Atlantic kicked out No Goodbyes, to cash in on the new success of “She’s Gone” and recoup some dollars. It featured a handful of tracks cherry-picked from the three albums they did for Atlantic but more importantly added three previously unreleased tracks which is why I’m bringing it up here. Those tracks are okay but Daryl himself is particularly sweet on “It’s Uncanny“, an optimistic, Elton John-esque little bounce and as a result it’s been finding its way into live performances in recent years.

 

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Beauty on a Back Street (1977)

Grade: 7/10

Time to ROCK. Sort of. Beauty on a Back Street is the “hardest” H & O album. It is primarily guitar-driven and completely devoid of hit singles. It is home to “Winged Bull“, considered in some circles to be the worst song H & O ever recorded. While that song is not good per se, it’s not the worst ( though Hanoi Rocks, legendary Finnish AOR glam rockers 2002 cover version might lead you to believe otherwise ). It’s just a pretentious, over-ambitious power ballad that sounds like Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” and “No Quarter” mixed together and not in a good way (though admittedly I’m uncertain if there could be one). But it isn’t hurting anybody.

Forget about the bull though, for there are some superbly edgy, truly fine, let’s call them “rockers” populating the top of half of the album. Dark and soulful “Don’t Change“, the Cheap Trick-esque “You Must Be Good for Something“, anthemic shred-festing ballad “Why Do Lovers Break Each Other’s Heart“, old school soulster “Bigger Than Both of Us” ( yes, that was the title of their previous album and as such is a total throwback to their more vintage Philly sound ) and “The Emptyness ” a kind of back-alley Beach Boys song with an extraordinarily OTT Oates vocal that remains oddly endearing. Beauty on a Back Street marks the start of the creative upswing that was to run unbridled for the next eight straight years…after this next cash-in/hopeful gesture thing that is…

Best Oates Moment: The aforementioned “The Emptyness

 

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Livetime ! (1978)

Grade: 3/10

Back in the ’70s everyone was doing it. After kicking out a few studio albums, it was de rigueur for any moderately popular rock and/or soul act back then to release a live album. The live releases were not so much souvenirs of particularly special shows as they were placeholders to maintain momentum between studio albums and avoid falling out of the public eye. But despite the motivation behind them, make no mistake, if the wind was right this kind of thing sold ( Peter Frampton, Lynyrd Skynyrd, McCartney & Wings,etc.). That said, Livetime! was not one of them. On the plus side, the garish late ’70s style album cover is super awesome and the track selection itself is decent with all the big hits represented. On the down-side the overall sound is exceptionally tinny and it includes a straight-up piece of filler in “Room to Breathe”…which wouldn’t be a big deal except for the fact the album is only seven songs in length which only serves to magnify its presence.

Best Oates Moment: While Oates’s vocals on both “The Emptyness” and “I’m Just a Kid…” are ridiculously melodramatic, hearing him give so hard and feel so much for everyone in Hersheypark Arena on that cold December night in 1977 night is all kinds of badass. 

 

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Along The Red Ledge (1978)

Grade: 8/10

Hardcore aficionados often cite Along the Red Ledge as the real sleeper in the H & O catalog, the secret classic…but there is trickery at work here thanks to the dreaded front-loading factor…which is a coy way of saying that the first five tracks are so solid and get you so high that you don’t necessarily notice how weak the rest of this album actually is. Yes, while you’re still tripping on the luscious fumes of the luminous “It’s a Laugh“, “Pleasure Beach“, the worst song H & O ever recorded, is sneaking in the back door of your very ears, riding on the coattails of all the goodness that came before it and hoping you don’t notice how crap it is.

This album is where things started to shift stylistically, seeing the final appearance of the Philly Soul string flourishes while marking the full mobilization of the hook factory. Highlights include the aforementioned “It’s a Laugh”, both cynical and sad with its huge, gorgeous, ascending chorus, and the heartbreaking Beach Boy-esque beauty “The Last Time“. And don’t want to sleep on deep-cut “Have I Been Away“, which is essentially a more melodic precursor of future hit “Everytime You Go Away” and is home to a stunningly acrobatic Hall vocal. And to be fair, the album does end on a hopeful note in terms of quality with the hazily romantic “August Day” so we do get past the iceberg ultimately.

Best Oates Moment:Melody for a Memory“, an epic and occasionally haunting piece of rock music for staring at city lights with some ridiculously fine co-lead vocalizing from both John ( going low ) and Daryl ( going high ).

 

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X-Static (1979)

Grade: 9/10

And now comes maybe the true sleeper in the H & O catalog. X-Static lives a lonely life within the H & O discography, suffering the statistical indignity of “watching” the four albums that had preceded go Gold and the four that followed it go Platinum while achieving no shiny awards for itself, forever cementing its D-List status. Apart from its lone hit single “Wait For Me“, it is mostly forgotten…which is a damn shame because it’s actually really good.

X-Static is full of piano propelled big chorused prototypes of future H & O hits, songs that had they maybe appeared within the next few albums would’ve been hits, in particular, “The Woman Comes and Goes” and “Running From Paradise“, both super melodic, keyboard-driven bangers. The album’s only genuine hit, the aforementioned plush power ballad “Wait For Me“, remains a swoon inducer of the highest order and is the only track from the album that ever appears in a setlist with any regularity.

The album is slightly time-stamped, due to its couple of desperate but totally infectious excursions onto the dance floor. “Portable Radio” and “Who Said the World Was Fair” are essentially rock-disco, though to be clear are much closer in the gene pool to say Paul McCartney’s popped-out version of the sound than to the Studio 54, snorting coke in the VIP lounge Rolling Stones version. But they are both exceptionally sticky and fun.

This album was reissued in 2000 and featured a previously unreleased bonus track “Time’s Up ( Alone Tonight)“, an absolutely bitchin’ uber-melodic kiss-off pop song and co-write between Daryl and producer David Foster, and it’s a damn shame it wasn’t on the original release.

Best Oates Moment:All You Want is Heaven” is a complete hook-fest and offers a gentle tip of the cap to the old Philly soul.

 

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Daryl Hall: Sacred Songs  ( Recorded in 1977, released in March 1980)

Grade: 8/10

Sidebar: The Doomed Tale of Daryl Hall & Robert Fripp Otherwise Known as The Turning Point in the Sound of Daryl Hall & John Oates That Led to their Complete Chart Domination from 1980 Onward 

When you talk about The Beatles, you’ve got to talk a little about their invaluable and debauched residency in the sleazy clubs of Hamburg. From the haircuts to the profound emotional brotherly bonding, their time there was the foundation for nearly everything that happened to them afterward.

Now while this next stuff didn’t happen during H & O’s formative years, it marked a crucial turning point in their sound evolution and sowed the seeds of what happened next i.e. H & O becoming one of the biggest pop bands in the world. Stick with me here…

The Bonding:  Daryl Hall first met Robert Fripp, the main creative force within UK progressive rock legends King Crimson in 1974. Though at that point Fripp had decided to step away from music to explore his spiritual interests ( the official male English Rock star rite of passage of the era. See George Harrison, Pete Townshend, Richard Thompson, etc.), the two remained in regular contact through Fripp’s musical sabbatical.

Let’s Do This:  By 1977 Fripp was feeling inspired to get back in the fray and so he and Daryl decided to embark on a couple of new projects. The plan was to produce and create the first Daryl Hall solo album which would dovetail into Robert Fripp’s own album (also his first solo excursion) for which Hall would provide the lead vocals.

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Oh to be a fly on this wall. Fripp, Gilda Radner and Hall in 1980.

Project #1:  The first Hall/Fripp collaboration and Hall’s first solo album, Sacred Songs is hard to pin down. It’s reminiscent in parts to early ’70s Bowie ( think Young Americans and Station to Station) and full of hazy plastic soul, jagged Fripp guitar solos and ambient interludes. It runs the gamut from hypnotic, post-apocalyptic balladry ( “The Farther Away I Am“, “Why Was It So Easy” ) to anxious New Wave ( Nycny ) to proggy FM radio-ready rock ( “Babs and Babs” ). The best of the bunch is “Something in 4/4 Time“, a gritty piece of power pop that was hopefully a top ten hit in a better, alternate universe. Sounds good right? It is! But it sounded nothing like the H & O albums that had come before it…which turned out to be a problem.

RCA mad RCA were not happy with Sacred Songs. It sounded nothing like a standard H & O album which, to them, created a marketing conundrum. Worried that its overall sound would confound existing H & O fans and “Rich Girl” lovers, and kill whatever existing momentum had been created, they refused to release it, it was, in classicall