THE MUSIC

 ESSENTIAL ARTISTS

I consider myself a student of film. I watch a lot of movies. I read about them. As a photographer, I’m always looking at how cinematographers use visual elements as part of the filmmaking. As a writer, I look at how words and the rhythm of dialogue becomes part of a movie. Then I watch them again to see what I missed.

ERIC CLAPTON

There was a time when I was a Blues snob. I had started getting into the music, buying albums, reading about the artists. I wouldn’t listen to anything else. I had followed the path of Eric Clapton, who was once so snobbish on the Blues, that if you had never heard of Robert Johnson, Clapton wouldn’t even give you the time of day. I went to see a Clapton concert when all he played were Blues songs, and scoffed at the fans who left when Clapton wouldn’t play “Cocaine.” But I softened my tone, saw Clapton again a few years later when he played all his standards, and realized that I could find the Blues in all kinds of music, and it was OK to listen to all kinds of music. I still couldn’t get into country, even though a lot of it does derive from the blues. But to me, Clapton still holds a revered place. I understand he isn’t the best singer around, not is he the best songwriter. But when so inspired he can write some beautiful things, although they seem to come at the expense of his heartache, such as his unrequited love for Pattie Boyd that inspired “Layla,” or the death of his young son that led to “Tears in Heaven.” In between there are several middling albums, like “August” and “Behind the Sun.” The truth is, he probably did his best album work when he wasn’t the frontman, whether it was playing with the Yardbirds or Delaney and Bonnie, as part of the supergroup Cream, or in the amalgam that was Derek & the Dominos. But I’ve never really been a Clapton “album” person. Clapton is at his best live, whether it be sitting down with longtime collaborator J.J Cale and stomping out an Elmore James tune, or going off on a 10-minute riff in the middle of “I Shot the Sheriff.” Purists will call Clapton solos nothing more than ramblings. I appreciate the mastery of the instrument. Contrary to the critics say, there IS musicianship that takes place in the jams. There is a beauty to them. I picked up the Clapton album “Live in the 70s” many years back. Now most people don’t normally sit and listen to 15-minute tracks, but this is just Clapton doing what he does best - play the guitar. It’s not the best time of Clapton’s life, dealing with all sorts of addictions and anxieties, but the beauty is still there, and I love it, just as I do listening to the Allman Brothers play for 23 minutes on “Whipping Post” or 33 minutes on ”Mountain Jam.” They are instrumental symphonies. Of course, I still love watching or listening as Clapton puts his own spin on traditional Blues, especially when he brings on fellow guitarists, playing with the likes of BB King, Robert Cray, or more recently, Derek Trucks. There aren’t too many Clapton tracks I skip on a playlist. I’ll listen to “Old Love,” “Wonderful Tonight,” “Lay Down Sally,” and others.

LISTEN

FIRST

CROSSROADS 2: LIVE IN THE SEVENTIES

This is strictly a personal choice. I love the live feel, the long jams that only add to the familiar Clapton tracks. This is what he does best, and here he is at the height of his powers. The four-disc set is the follow-up to the comprehensive Clapton studio compilation covering his entire career. This set is recorded from concerts over a four-year period from 1974-78, when he has come out of his heroin fog and is regaining his confidence onstage. The four discs do vary a bit in quality. The second disc is my favorite, led off by a unique, compact version of “Layla.” The highlights are a pair of solo-driven tracks with “I Shot the Sheriff” and “Badge,” both at more than 10 minutes in length, but both demonstrating Clapton’s playing range. He goes from finger-busting full-volume runs to subtle yet complex soft chords. He has a great band behind him and he doesn't hesitate letting them step up and showcase their talents. The disc concludes with Clapton’s take on Sonny Boy Williamson’s traditional “Eyesight to the Blind.” It’s a similar take as the way he played it in the Who rock opera “Tommy.”  This track, which also showcases Carlos Santana, evolves into “Why Does Love Got to be So Sad?” and ends up lasting 24 minutes.

WHAT'S NEXT

461 OCEAN BOULEVARD / SLOWHAND

These are considered Clapton’s two best solo studio works, and cover a wide spectrum of Clapton’s abilities. “461 Ocean Boulevard” from 1974 is Clapton’s first offering coming out of his three-year heroin addiction. It’s a quieter album, and includes only three original Clapton songs, all introspective. Backed by by his Tulsa-sound band, it is probably the best song-making album of his career.  There are some blues standards, and the reggae cover of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff,” which is his only U.S. No. 1. In 1977’s “Slowhand” are found three of Clapton’s biggest hits with “Cocaine,” “Wonderful Tonight,” and “Lay Down Sally.” You can sense that after the success of "461 Ocean Boulevard" that he is more confident being a frontman and legend. He doesn't have to prove his musicianship. It's OK to be a  rocker.

FAVORITE

FIVE

TRACKS

SONG                                   FROM THE ALBUM

Layla................................... Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (Derek & the Dominos)

Old Love............................ Journeyman    

Crossroads ........................Wheels of Fire (Cream)       

I Shot the Sheriff ..............461 Ocean Boulevard                  

Badge ................................Goodbye (Cream)

LED ZEPPELIN

My road to Led Zeppelin took a bit of a winding route. I basically wandered through different types looking for something that caught my interest. I started getting into blues music in college and followed that path back to Zeppelin and other blues-based rock. Back in high school, I had thought Zeppelin was the music for the stoners and never really paid attention. Of course, it was music for stoners, but it was something much more. By the time I started listening to them, I was past tracks like “Black Dog” and “Rock and Roll” and get to what I think is the better stuff, like “Misty Mountain Hop,” “Going to California” and “When the Levee Breaks.” Picking favorite songs from the group is difficult. For me, it needs just the right amount of each of the elements of the band. I don’t want Robert Plant to get too crazy with vocals, and while I want Jimmy Page’s amazing guitar work, it shouldn’t be over-the-top. I’ll take John Bohnam’s unparalleled drums all day long, and I want the underrated genius of John Paul Jones to show. Even that leaves a huge depth of songs to choose from. The Beatles may be considered perhaps the perfect band at the perfect time, but there might not be a better combination of four musicians.

LISTEN

FIRST

LED ZEPPELIN IV

No need even to fool around here. There’s a reason this album is considered the band’s greatest. It just is. You’ve got a first side that is absolute Zeppelin energy for any regular fan with three of their biggest hits in “Black Dog,” “Rock and Roll,” and little ditty called “Stairway to Heaven.” The fourth track is “Battle of Evermore,” so even the weakest track ain’t bad. But then you go to the second side. For the Zeppelin purist, the connoisseur, the devotee who appreciates the band’s blues base and the subtleties of all four masters working together, there may not be a better four-song grouping. There’s “Misty Mountain Hop,” the one track I keep going back to as my top Zeppelin single. Then there’s “Going to California,” a beautifully-styled piece that shows the band’s total range. And there’s “When the Levee Breaks,” another on my go-to list, a blues-bending tour-de-force. The fourth track is “Four Sticks.” While it may not be among the critics’ favorites, I love to hear John Bonham just let loose. It certainly has its place on my list.

WHAT'S NEXT

PHYSICAL GRAFFITI

With a band as huge as Led Zeppelin, trying to rate albums and songs is nearly impossible. Critics have their favorites based on certain criteria, and fans have theirs based just on what they like. My choice came down to two albums. I have to give a huge nod to “Led Zeppelin II,” which is just a monster album. It’s got a lot of blues-based, Zeppelin-treated works, which is a big part of why I listen to Zeppelin. It’s a non-stop crush, a grip-it-and-rip-it. The reason I list “Physical Graffiti” a tick ahead is because of the range the band shows throughout the double album. Only “Kashmir” and “Houses of the Holy” stand out as top individual tracks, but the band shows off what it really can do. It has the hard-edged Led Zeppelin sound. It also has the middle eastern and orchestrated “Kashmir,” and a funk style in “Trampled Under Foot.” There are also acoustic tracks, country stylings, and even prog rock. “Physical Graffiti” takes Led Zeppelin from merely great to legendary.

FAVORITE

FIVE

TRACKS

SONG                                        FROM THE ALBUM

Misty Mountain Hop                 Led Zeppelin IV
Going to California                    Led Zeppelin IV
When the Levee Breaks            Led Zeppelin IV
Kashmir                                       Physical Graffiti
Black Dog                                    Led Zeppelin IV

THE BEATLES

Of course I knew about The Beatles growing up and could sing all the songs, but they never made it into my collection until CDs first came out. I picked up Rubber Soul and Revolver and from then on I was a student. There is a library full of books on the group and the songs, and almost as many documentaries, but the one I think best is “The Compleat Beatles” from 1982. It is only out on VHS because Paul McCartney bought the rights for the documentary when he was putting together his own documentary “Beatles Anthology,” which even at six hours is not as good as the 1982 film. As for the Beatles’ music, there’s not much more to comment on that hasn’t been written. Listen to the albums in order and enjoy the eight-year journey of the greatest musical group ever. Picking just five individual singles is difficult. These just happen to be personal favorites. “Eleanor Rigby” has what I consider the most brillliant lyric in modern music, “wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door.” The songs “Hey Jude” and “Yesterday” stand apart as masterpieces. “Strawberry FIelds” is filled with John Lennon’s amazing word imagery, while “Blackbird” is simply a beautiful song. My wife was a high-schooler during the Beatles’ heyday, and I became husband-of-the-year when I got her tickets to see Paul McCartney in Indianapolis. Even at 70 years old, McCartey played for three hours without a break, and it was the best show I’ve ever seen.

LISTEN

FIRST

REVOLVER

I know. You don’t have to tell me. This is supposed to be “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” But picking the best Beatles album is like choosing the the best color on fleet of Rolls Royces. They’re all gonna be great.  Starting with “Rubber Soul,” the music of the Beatles entered a whole new arena of popular music that had never been heard before. They were already a great pop band with a fresh sound. But with “Rubber Soul,” and then “Revolver,” the music was made to be listened to. It was innovative with instrumentation, lyrics, mixing, layering of sounds. The process would reach its zenith with “Sgt. Pepper’s” in terms of polish and concept. It also had the advantage of following the building wave from “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver.” But listening to them side-by-side today, “Revolver” certainly deserves to at least stand side-by-side with “Sgt. Pepper’s.” Harrison’s “Taxman” opens the album, and marks the point where he steps out of the Lennon-McCartney shadow. The sound and style are a decade ahead of their time. That is followed by “Eleanor Rigby,” perhaps the greatest single track by the band (with all due respect to “Hey Jude”), with personally the finest lyrics. The string octet is beautiful, especially the mellow sounds of the cellos and violas. Then comes “I’m Only Sleeping,” which continues Lennon’s sound-as-art concept, fueled by his ever-increasing intake of mind-bending drugs. Two others follow with “She Said She Said” and “Tomorrow Never Knows.” There’s also “Yellow Submarine.” Who couldn’t like that? If Ringo can sing it, so can you. The second side has a little bit more of a pop feel, but again, songs like “Good Day Sunshine” and “Doctor Robert,” while they seems bit dated now, were years ahead of their time. “Got to Get You Into My Life,” has an R&B/funk feel with its full horn and and organ backing that only adds depth to the album.

WHAT'S NEXT

SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND

OK, here it is. The greatest album ever made, in the eyes of just about everyone. from concept to conclusion, it is a masterpiece. Every track has been analyzed by musicologists and lyricists and psychologists, and every kind of “-ists” there are out there. I’m not really concerned about the use of “Lydian mode chord progression,” or “major key double-plagal cadence.” It’s a great album to listen to. You’re brought into the band’s “concert” by the title track, right into Ringo’s charming “With a Little Help From My Friends,” and then to “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” filled with its word imagery. The story of the making of “Being for he Benefit of Mr. Kite!” is just as amazing as the song itself, with the work of producer George Martin to create the calliope sound and feel of a country fair. The second side brings two of McCartney’s standards in “When I’m Sixty-Four” and “Lovely Rita,” then ends, fittingly, with “A Day in the Life,” which takes the listener through a journey of dream-inducing sound and lyrics, many drawing from local news of the region. From the cover photo, to the range of sound and words, “Sgt. Pepper’s” changed not only music, but considering the time in which it arrived in 1967, changed culture as well. The individualism of each of the band members leading up to this album only increased after, and they inevitably drifted apart. The genius was still there, but the time of working together was over.

FAVORITE

FIVE

TRACKS

SONG                                        FROM THE ALBUM

Eleanor Rigby                               Revolver
Hey Jude                                        (Released as a single)
Yesterday                                      Help!
Strawberry Fields Forever          Magical Mystery Tour
Blackbird                                       The Beatles (White Album)

ALLMAN BROTHERS

The first time I ever heard about Gregg Allman was when he married Cher. Cher’s music was well-known in our house. We watched Sony and Cher’s TV show. The Allman Brothers didn’t get too much radio play, so they were out of my sphere. Like Led Zeppelin and others, I didn’t really start listening to the full band catalog until I started tracking traditional blues back into rock music. They were more traditional than Zeppelin, but nonetheless, just as listenable and just as brilliant in their interpretations of classic blues songs. I was familiar with mainstream singles like “Melissa” and “Midnight Rider,” but I had seen that “Live at the Fillmore East” had been called one of the best albums of all time, so I decided to give it a listen. The long-form live tracks really hooked me. I began learning about connections within the artists at the time, finding out that Duane Allman played with Eric Clapton on “Layla,” and that he had played with just about everyone, and had done it all before his untimely  death at the age of 24.

LISTEN

FIRST

LIVE AT THE FILLMORE EAST

I’m one of those people who love (mostly) live albums. I know there are those who don’t. But with a band like The Allman Brothers, they are at their best in the live setting, where the long jams really can showcase the overall talent of the band, and on this album they are at the top of their game. There are just seven tracks on the double LP. In full disclosure, the bar across the street from the newspaper where I worked had the album in its jukebox, and on Saturday nights after our midnight deadline, we’d go over and play pool and listen to music. You’d get five songs for a buck, and when we played the 23-minute “Whipping Post,” and get our money’s worth, but really tick off anyone else wanting to hear their songs.

WHAT'S NEXT

EAT A PEACH
Almost all the greats are here. The beautiful “Melissa” to the 33-minute “Mountain Jam.” In between are the two terrific covers of “One Way Out,” an Elmore James classi, and “Trouble No More,” from Muddy Waters’ catalog. Then there’s the spectacular “Blue Sky.” Just sit back and listen as Duane Allman and Dickie Betts play off each other, then as Duane takes over solo and then plays off into his own sunset.

FAVORITE

FIVE

TRACKS

SONG                                     FROM THE ALBUM
Southbound                             Brothers and Sisters
One Way Out                            Eat a Peach
Desdemona                              Hittin’ the Note
Trouble No More                      Eat a Peach
Melissa                                       Eat a Peach

AL GREEN

I was never really an R&B or soul fan, with the exception of a few tracks here and there, like Otis Redding’s “Dock of the Bay,” the Temptations and such. But as I listened to more traditional blues, I also would end up with a few Sam & Dave or Wilson Pickett tunes. As I added these to my collection, I found I was adding quite a few Al Green songs. I just loved his silky smooth soul sound. He’s been prolific for more than 40 years, and he produced some very good gospel soul albums through the 80s. Also in the 80s, he teamed with Annie Lennox on the wonderful “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” for the movie “Scrooged.” The Reverend was still making terrific music into the 21st century.

LISTEN

FIRST

AL GREEN'S GREATEST HITS

I try to avoid the greatest hits albums, preferring to hear individual albums in the way that artists want them put together. But in this case, this 1975 compilation is the exception. His top hits are all here, and it’s a terrific collection.

WHAT'S NEXT

LAY IT DOWN
In his 29th studio album recorded in 2008, Green shows he can still bring it, and this album harkens back to his early days. The silky voice is still there, and he teams with current stars on four of the tracks, the best being  “Take Your Time” with Corinne Bailey Rae and “Stay with Me (By the Sea)” with John Legend.

FAVORITE

FIVE

TRACKS

SONG                                        FROM THE ALBUM

Take Me to the River                   Al Green Explores Your Mind               
Let’s Stay Together                      Let’s Stay Together
Love and Happiness                    I’m Still in Love With You
I’m Still in Love With You             I’m Still in Love With You
Tired of Being Alone                    Al Green Gets Next To You

THE POLICE

The Police were on my radar before they jumped into superstardom with “Synchronicity.” They were already big with “Roxanne,” “Can’t Stand Losing You,” “Message in a Bottle,” in heavy rotation, along with “Walking on the Moon,” which featured the beautiful bass line that I’m a sucker for. The “white reggae” of “Regatta de Blanc” just had a sound that was something different. I wore out the album “Ghost in the Machine,” and it’s still close at hand when I’m in the mood for doing full-album playlists. I have probably listened to “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” more than any single song. Of course, “Synchronicity” is filled with hits, and “Every Breath You Take” is strong, and any song that evokes the Loch Ness monster combined with Jungian concept like “Synchronicity II” is worthy of mention. It’s a decent tune, as well. “Synchronicity” is the most polished and professional of the band’s albums, and showcases all their expert musicianship. But by that time, the members of the Police were barely speaking to each other, getting into numerous fights, and recording each of their tracks in different rooms. They really couldn’t stand each other. I think everyone wishes The Police had stuck together after “Synchronicity” to see what else they could do, but they probably got about as much as they could considering they were a band pretty much in name only. Egos and musical styles never really meshed, except when it came to production. I like a bit of the jazzy stuff Sting would go on to produce, but it still doesn’t match the clever rawness of the work the band put down earlier.

LISTEN

FIRST

GHOST IN THE MACHINE

These are three talented musicians, and while they didn’t really get along, they could produce some great music. In the beginning, they built off the raw energy of punk, added in some reggae with mixes of other styles here and there, and added lyrics gleaned from philosophers. It came together best in this album, coming just before the egos took charge and produced the stylish, but hollow, “Synchronicity.” “Ghost in the Machine” features my favorite all-time track, “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic.” It has the great bass line, terrific running piano, an island hop, and Stewart Copeland’s lively beat. “Spirits in the Material World” has a similar feel to it, while “Demolition Man” pushes the tempo when you need it. The Police have many songs about loneliness and isolation and apocalyptic themes. (“So Lonely,” “Message in a Bottle,” “When the World is Running Down …”) My favorite of the bunch is “Omegaman.” A terrific album all the way through, showcasing the best of The Police before they stopped talking to each other.

WHAT'S NEXT

OUTLANDOS d’AMOUR  /  REGATTA de BLANC  /  ZENYATTA MENDATTA

I tried separating these first three albums. I listened over and over, and just couldn’t pick one over the other. All three capture the best of what The Police were. From “Outlandos” came “So Lonely,” “Can’t Stand Losing You,” the karaoke-inducing “Roxanne,” and the underrated “Next to You.” “Regatta” produced “Message in a Bottle” and “Walking on the Moon” along with  a brilliant “Bring on the Night” and a really good instrumental title track. “Zenyatta Mondatta” has the hits in “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” and “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da,” but also includes a number of underrated tracks — “Driven to Tears,” “When the World is Running Down …,” and “Shadows in the Rain,” along with the fun “Canary in the Coalmine.” So you can understand why I had to include all three albums here.

FAVORITE

FIVE

TRACKS

SONG                                                      FROM THE ALBUM

Every Little Thing She Does is Magic    Ghost in the Machine
Bring On the Night                                  Regatta de Blanc
Omegaman                                               Ghost in the Machine
Shadows in the Rain                                Zenyatta Mondatta
Every Breath You Take                             Synchronicity

DEPECHE MODE

The Police were on my radar before they jumped into superstardom with “Synchronicity.” They were already big with “Roxanne,” “Can’t Stand Losing You,” “Message in a Bottle,” in heavy rotation, along with “Walking on the Moon,” which featured the beautiful bass line that I’m a sucker for. The “white reggae” of “Regatta de Blanc” just had a sound that was something different. I wore out the album “Ghost in the Machine,” and it’s still close at hand when I’m in the mood for doing full-album playlists. I have probably listened to “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” more than any single song. Of course, “Synchronicity” is filled with hits, and “Every Breath You Take” is strong, and any song that evokes the Loch Ness monster combined with Jungian concept like “Synchronicity II” is worthy of mention. It’s a decent tune, as well. “Synchronicity” is the most polished and professional of the band’s albums, and showcases all their expert musicianship. But by that time, the members of the Police were barely speaking to each other, getting into numerous fights, and recording each of their tracks in different rooms. They really couldn’t stand each other. I think everyone wishes The Police had stuck together after “Synchronicity” to see what else they could do, but they probably got about as much as they could considering they were a band pretty much in name only. Egos and musical styles never really meshed, except when it came to production. I like a bit of the jazzy stuff Sting would go on to produce, but it still doesn’t match the clever rawness of the work the band put down earlier.

LISTEN

FIRST

GHOST IN THE MACHINE

These are three talented musicians, and while they didn’t really get along, they could produce some great music. In the beginning, they built off the raw energy of punk, added in some reggae with mixes of other styles here and there, and added lyrics gleaned from philosophers. It came together best in this album, coming just before the egos took charge and produced the stylish, but hollow, “Synchronicity.” “Ghost in the Machine” features my favorite all-time track, “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic.” It has the great bass line, terrific running piano, an island hop, and Stewart Copeland’s lively beat. “Spirits in the Material World” has a similar feel to it, while “Demolition Man” pushes the tempo when you need it. The Police have many songs about loneliness and isolation and apocalyptic themes. (“So Lonely,” “Message in a Bottle,” “When the World is Running Down …”) My favorite of the bunch is “Omegaman.” A terrific album all the way through, showcasing the best of The Police before they stopped talking to each other.

WHAT'S NEXT

OUTLANDOS d’AMOUR  /  REGATTA de BLANC  /  ZENYATTA MENDATTA

I tried separating these first three albums. I listened over and over, and just couldn’t pick one over the other. All three capture the best of what The Police were. From “Outlandos” came “So Lonely,” “Can’t Stand Losing You,” the karaoke-inducing “Roxanne,” and the underrated “Next to You.” “Regatta” produced “Message in a Bottle” and “Walking on the Moon” along with  a brilliant “Bring on the Night” and a really good instrumental title track. “Zenyatta Mondatta” has the hits in “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” and “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da,” but also includes a number of underrated tracks — “Driven to Tears,” “When the World is Running Down …,” and “Shadows in the Rain,” along with the fun “Canary in the Coalmine.” So you can understand why I had to include all three albums here.

FAVORITE

FIVE

TRACKS

SONG                                                      FROM THE ALBUM

Every Little Thing She Does is Magic    Ghost in the Machine
Bring On the Night                                  Regatta de Blanc
Omegaman                                               Ghost in the Machine
Shadows in the Rain                                Zenyatta Mondatta
Every Breath You Take                             Synchronicity