Artist: The Clash
Released: July 27th, 1979
Highlights: Clash City Rockers, Remote Control, Complete Control, Jail Guitar Doors
Back in 1977, the year on which the British version of The Clash’s debut hit the UK market, the album was seen as the stellar beginning of a promising punk band. In retrospect, however, the record gains some quite unique contours that make it rather special. After all, it marks the only time they would go on to write and perform a set of songs mostly confined by the rules of that rebellious musical movement. Never again would they produce an album of such political weight and acid rhetoric.
Musically, the brand of punk displayed here moves away from the one crafted by the Ramones and Sex Pistols due to its larger focus on punchy rhythmic riffs than on constant guitar attacks. In addition, the very distinctive songwriting and singing styles of Jones and Strummer gave The Clash a good deal of versatility even when limited by the punk barriers. While the former leaned towards borderline pop structures and choruses, the latter was angry and purely emotional.
Therefore, while numbers like “Hate & War”, “Complete Control”, and “Jail Guitar Doors” were inclined towards the first catchier spectrum, others such as “White Riot”, “What’s My Name?”, and “I’m So Bored with the USA” were vicious attacks. Through fifteen songs, the band criticized the lack of job opportunities available for the English youth, built a humorous protest against London’s public transportation system, and called for the rebellion of punk bands against their labels and the uprising of citizens against their authoritarian bosses and money-hungry political leaders.
Amid that punk avalanche, it is also possible to find evidence of what The Clash would transform into as their career progressed: a group that would be willing to embrace multiple genres and succeed in writing great songs to fit those varied styles. The cover “Police and Thieves” and the highlight original “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais” flirted with reggae and ska, adding an extra layer of flexibility to the first work of a band that would become the most versatile of them all.
Artist: Led Zeppelin
Released: March 28th, 1973
Highlights: The Rain Song, No Quarter, The Ocean
Following a string of four incredible albums released during a very productive three-year span that saw Led Zeppelin treading the line between blues traditions and rock explosions, “Houses of the Holy” pictures the group experimenting with new sonic grounds that would eventually culminate in the stronger “Physical Graffiti”. The record plays like the selected output of a musical laboratory, and – given its exploratory nature – ends up, unlike its predecessors, featuring both hits and misses.
“Houses of the Holy” is far from being bad. The overall package is, in fact, stellar. However, the fact it comes around as a concise eight-track effort increases the weight of the few thuds it carries. Its weaknesses, though, do not cloud the fact it is an undeniable achievement in eclecticism: each tune shows the band tackling a different style and songwriting pattern, shaping the album up as their most varied effort up to that point.
It opens up with the fast-paced hard rock of “The Song Remains the Same” and segues into “The Rain Song”, a gorgeous ballad with an orchestral mellotron that chronicles the changing seasons and compares them to human emotions; one of Plant’s finest lyrical achievements. The grand album-opening trio is completed by “Over the Hills and Far Away” a folky ballad that turns electric after a beautiful introduction. The other two magnificent cuts the album offers are its closers: the sprawling psychedelic “No Quarter”, which is powered by the merging of Jones’ keyboards and Page’s guitars; and “The Ocean”, a riff-centered tune that would be right at home in “Led Zeppelin II”.
And then there is “Dancin’ Days”, “The Crunge”, and “D’yer Mak’er”. The former is a harmless pleasant attempt at a dancier brand of rock, but the remaining duo is simply lackluster. Although they could be considered tongue-in-cheek shots at funk and reggae, respectively, they fall miles below the standard set by the rest of the album and the group’s past output. Though they do not destroy a gem, they cause a few visible dents, diminishing its value and leading it to rank in the lower half of Led Zeppelin’s catalog.
Artist: Bruce Springsteen
Released: September 11th, 1973
Highlights: 4th of July Asbury Park (Sandy), Incident on 57th Street, Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)
Although “The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle”, Bruce Springsteen’s second record, is not fully permeated by a cohesive plot, it could be seen as a concept album. In fact, as far as perfectly joining theme and music goes, it might as well be the finest example of a work that is able to convey, solely through its instrumentation and song construction, the scenario it is attempting to paint. It is an album of urban motives, set in the midst of the metropolitan chaos of New York and New Jersey, and the music is equally hectic.
Moments of pure calm bliss are interrupted by groovy horns, wailing guitars, and thick keyboards. Rock and Roll rhythms clash and merge with jazz jams. Slow lonesome piano notes suddenly turn into the fuel that powers massive fast-paced rock attacks. And solo vocal lines are occasionally swapped for loose street choirs. The word “E Street” stamped on the album’s title is not merely for show, it is rather telling, for the seven pieces that compose this work mark the point when the E Street Band came upon their signature metropolitan sound.
Springsteen’s lengthy lyrics, which on the first record often seemed like aimless – yet engaging – rhyming, fit like a glove with the scenes they support. The match is so smooth it is hard to know whether the words were crafted with the city theme in mind, or if the combined images were naturally born out of Springsteen’s style. He spills his characters onto the streets and mixes them with busy surroundings, and in that bustling landscape they find love, lust, adventure, fantasy, sadness, and even beauty.
There is the youthful energy and universal celebration of “The E Street Shuffle”, the serene romance amidst the wild 4th of July pier parties in “Sandy”, the street-smarts fireworks of “Kitty’s Back”, the whimsical take on a decadent carnival in “Wild Billy’s Circus Story”, the misery of a hopeless one-night stand on “Incident On 57th Street”, and the wall-imploding and raucous power of love in “Rosalita”. It all culminates with the nine-minute epic “New York City Serenade”, a perfect beautiful way to encompass the portrays of the six songs that precede it and where Bruce, like a perfectionist painter, puts the final brushes on this timeless urban opera of mythological proportions.
Artist: Joni Mitchell
Released: March 1st, 1970
Highlights: For Free, Ladies of the Canyon, Big Yellow Taxi, The Circle Game
“Ladies of the Canyon” does not reach for the quality heights which Joni Mitchell would achieve on the masterful stretch that begins with “Blue”, its eventual successor. However, it displays a clear growth both in songwriting and arrangements; a leap that would pave the way towards her more consistent albums and the constant flirts with jazz she would embrace later in her career.
The melodies here are, for the most part, far more remarkable than nearly everything that is present in “Song to a Seagull” and “Clouds”, and the hooking changes that reside in some numbers make for a more dynamic listen on which the verses gain breathing room in relation to the choruses. That wider sonic range is also greatly aided by the manner in which the songs are executed. Although Mitchell’s signature elaborate guitar playing is still the backbone of the record, six of the songs are led by a piano, including the wonderful “Woodstock” which rests on top of a beautiful electric layer, and pretty much every single track has extra instruments added to great effects.
Lyrically, her work remains top-notch. Where Dylan and Springsteen were hyperactive composers who were unable to focus in one subject for too long and created hordes of characters in order to build a scene, Joni is meticulous. She channels her sensitivity as a painter in order to build deep character studies and paint portraits to grand detail. As a prime example of that gift, “Morning Morgantown”, the album’s sensible opener, is such a vivid description of a town’s morning routine that listeners will be able to see it by simply closing their eyes. They might even be able to smell the tea.
“For Free” is a downright gorgeous contemplation of a street musician, and an honest ode to the overlooked talent of those artists. “The Priest” deals with one’s questioning of faith more brilliantly in four stanzas than many do on an essay. “Big Yellow Taxi” is a light-hearted take on ecological issues and fits like a glove beside “Woodstock” and its quiet celebration of counterculture. Fittingly, for an album whose title song gives a nod to incredibly talented females who left considerable timeless artistic marks, “Ladies of the Canyon” showcases another woman coming to the end of her maturation cycle and getting ready to deliver works that would make her immortal.