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Posts Tagged ‘Stairway to Heaven’

I was fortunate to grow up in the era of the Album Oriented Rock (AOR) radio format, which allowed DJ’s to play songs that weren’t necessarily released as singles.  This provided access to a treasure trove of great music that I wouldn’t have otherwise heard.  In the digital download era, listening to an entire album of music is almost unheard of, so that makes the concept of an album cut even more obscure.  Here are a few of my all-time favorite album cuts, which doesn’t include what is arguably the greatest album cut ever, “Stairway to Heaven”.

  • Scenes From an Italian Restaurant – Billy Joel

This dizzying ode to “Brenda and Eddie” contains all of the best elements of Billy’s classic recordings rolled into one song.  Coming from Joel’s breakout album, “The Stanger”, it stands comfortably amongst his best work.

  • Hitch a Ride – Boston

Taken from Boston’s remarkable debut album, this laid back rocker features some spectacular guitar work from Tom Scholz, and manages to stand out on a record full of standout tracks.

  • Shoot High, Aim Low – Yes

Die hard Yes fans often bemoan the success of the band’s revised lineup from the 1980’s, but I would argue that they were still making thoroughly original, and compelling music throughout those years.  This track combines the best of those different lineups, with its shared lead vocals, it’s weaved aural landscape, and some typically dazzling musicianship.  It is a great example of what made this band so memorable.

  • Bitter Creek – The Eagles

At the time the Eagles first formed, Bernie Leadon was arguably their most accomplished member, based on his time with the critically acclaimed, “Flying Burrito Brothers” and his work with Linda Ronstadt.  An exceptional string player, and able vocalist, his decidedly country bent was a significant part of the band’s early sound.  He both penned and sang this haunting tune from the band’s sophomore release, “Desperado”.  But as the team of Henley/Frey emerged, and the band’s sound developed more of a rock edge, Leadon’s influence steadily diminished, until he eventually left the group after the completion of the “One of These Nights” album.

  • Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding – Elton John

At the time of this medley’s 1973 release, Elton, his band, and his songwriter partnership with Bernie Taupin, were all at their peak.  This epic pairing starts off the classic double-album, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” with a bang, and along with “Candle in the Wind” and “Bennie and the Jets” forms one of the greatest albums sides of all-time.

  • Toulouse Street – The Doobie Brothers

Though Tom Johnston was generally regarded as the bands lead singer, Patrick Simmons frequently sang his individual compositions, including the notable hits “Black Water” and “Jesus is Just Alright”.  On this darkly beautiful cut, the vocal harmonies, layers of acoustic guitars, and a lone flute weave together to create an ominous atmosphere akin to a late-night walk, down an unlit alley, somewhere in the forgotten edges of the French Quarter.  

  • Sister Moon – Sting

By the release of Sting’s second solo album, “Nothing Like the Sun”, he had become one of the most popular artists on the planet.  Only a few years removed from the Police’s spectacular, “Synchronicity”, and fresh on the heels of the triple platinum success of, “The Dream of the Blue Turtles”, his voice was all over the radio (and MTV) on both Band Aid’s “Don’t They Know It’s Christmas?”, and the Dire Straits smash hit, “Money for Nothing”.  This second record was by degrees more nuanced and complex than the first, which forecast the pioneering spirit that would ultimately come to define Sting’s solo career.  This straight jazz/blues tune was a throwback to a bygone era, and demonstrated the rapidly expanding range of his artistry.

  • Telegraph Road – Dire Straits

This sprawling fourteen minute opus demonstrates everything that made Dire Straits worthy of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  The writing, arrangement, production, and musical performance are nothing short of spectacular.   Like the movie soundtrack work done by frontman Mark Knopfler, this song creates a sweeping musical backdrop for a world weary tale of trying to pioneer a better future.  Though not their most commercially successful record, it may well be the bands most fully realized recording.

  • Nutshell – Alice in Chains

On the heels of the triple platinum success of their 1992 album, “Dirt”, Alice in Chains booked a few days in the studio to write and record some acoustic material.  Within a week, they emerged with seven songs that were eventually released as an EP (1994s – “Jar of Flies”).  Stripping the band of its thundering arena rock sound, allowed their raw artistry to emerge.  This track highlights both singer Layne Staley, and guitarist Jerry Cantrell, at the peak of their powers.    

  • Landslide – Fleetwood Mac

Though written before Stevie Nicks was actually a member of the band, this classic tune first appeared on 1975s “Fleetwood Mac” album.  Almost 50 years later, most die-hard fans still consider it to be her signature song.  Given that Nicks is enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as both a member of the band, and as a solo act, that is no small accolade.

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I must clarify that I was not attempting to list the ten “most epic” songs of the rock era.  Indeed, there have been many more “epic” recordings than these; especially by art-rock bands like Emerson Lake & Palmer, Genesis, Jethro Tull, Yes and Pink Floyd.  Even bands such as Led Zeppelin and The Beatles had more ambitious works than the ones I’ve listed here; but what makes these songs extraordinary is that they were able to stand on their own merit (in some cases apart from the concept albums that spawned them) and that they achieved a level of notoriety (including substantial radio airplay) that is rare for such intricate music.  Most of them are structured more like classical compositions than the standard three minute pop anthems that generally rule the airwaves and yet these songs still managed to carve a niche for themselves in pop music lore.

  1. Nights in White Satin – The Moody Blues:  Though the use of orchestration within pop music was nothing new, the Moody Blues took that element to a whole new level with their 1967 album “Days of Future Past”.  This song’s darkly poetic lyrics (which seem to tell a tale of unrequited love), combined with the dramatic epilogue of “Late Lament”, form the perfect match for the roiling symphonic waves of the musical accompaniment.  Considering the state of pop music in that era, it seems doubtful that many executives at their record label had this song pegged as a potential chart topper.
  2. Day in the Life – The Beatles:  Taken from the 1967 album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, this song was a defining moment in the Lennon/McCartney collaboration.  Part lament, part wry humor, part political commentary; it hinted at the ever expanding musical landscape the Beatles would go on to explore on 1968’s “The Beatles” (a.k.a. The White Album) and 1969’s “Abbey Road”.  It also created an appropriately grand finale to one of the greatest albums of the rock era.
  3. Bohemian Rhapsody – Queen:  Easily one of the most elaborate recordings of all time, there is no popular song from the rock and roll era that remotely resembles this classic from the 1975 album “A Night at the Opera”.  While each member of the group made invaluable contributions to the songs creation, it was first and foremost a reflection of the band’s enigmatic lead singer Freddie Mercury.  Like Mercury himself, the song is at once theatrical, frenetic, oddly humorous, tragic and ultimately unforgettable.
  4. American Pie – Don McLean:  While Don McLean’s folk balladry may seem out of place on a list of “epic” songs, it would be hard to deny that the intense cultural poetry of this classic doesn’t qualify.  While much has been made of McLean’s use of the phrase “the day the music died” (which is purportedly a reference to the plane crash that claimed the lives of rock pioneers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper), that line is merely a thread in a much broader and richer tapestry.  Though the author has steadily refused to offer a literal interpretation of the song’s lyrics, their vivid imagery remains nonetheless profound and compelling.
  5. Stairway to Heaven – Led Zeppelin:  Though Led Zeppelin is primarily thought of as a hard rock band, their music was just as much rooted in blues, folk, psychedelia and mysticism.  With virtuosic musicianship and Robert Plant’s otherworldly vocals, they seemed to effortlessly flow from genre to genre.  Several of those elements came together on this landmark track, as the song builds from is haunting intro to its exhilarating crescendo.  Like the band itself, there is little that could legitimately be compared to it.
  6. Jungleland – Bruce Springsteen:  This nine and a half minute opus, which creates the emotional centerpiece of the classic “Born to Run” album, takes the listener on an emotional journey like no other rock track.  At points hopeful, haunting, exhilarating, and ultimately heartbreaking, Bruce and his brilliant band create an unforgettable slice of rock opera.
  7. Roundabout – Yes:  When it comes to sheer musical ability, few bands could approach the incredible array of gifted musicians who’ve passed through the membership of the band “Yes”.  At the time this tune (from the 1971 album “Fragile”) was recorded, the group could rightly boast at least three of the finest players in rock music; Steve Howe on guitars, Chris Squire on bass and Rick Wakeman on keyboards.  Their collective talent, combined with Jon Anderson’s distinctive high register vocals, made for a sound that pushed the boundaries of conventional rock.  Because of the dizzying intricacies of their music, it was likely the relatively fluid and lucid quality of this song that made it more palatable to the masses.
  8. Scarborough Fair / Canticle – Simon & Garfunkel:    Like Don McLean’s, “American Pie”, some might disagree with the application of the term “epic” to this arty folk song; but I would suggest that few songs from this period can boast such a lush and complex musical/vocal arrangement (especially within a standard 4:00 minute pop format).  With their voices seamlessly joined, they begin the old English folk song “Scarborough Fair” and then almost immediately begin trading leads to the delicate counterpoint of “Canticle”.  As the song builds, layer upon layer of vocals are weaved over a fabric of guitar and harpsichord.  Both beautiful and haunting, it is a great example of all that made this collaboration so memorable.
  9. Aqualung – Jethro Tull:  Despite a lack of radio-friendly singles, Ian Anderson and his band “Jethro Tull” have enjoyed a hugely successful career, that’s spanned five decades and resulted in records sales in excess of 50 million worldwide.  Anderson’s infamous theatrics, wry sense of humor, unique vocal style and deft musicianship have been at the core of that success.  In what is perhaps their best known song, from their most popular album, this entertaining portrait of the eccentric title character (Aqualung) is the perfect primer for those not familiar with the bands larger body of work.
  10. Us and Them – Pink Floyd: Few albums in the history of recorded music have been more successful than Pink Floyd’s 1973 release, “The Dark Side of the Moon”, which stayed on the charts for 15 consecutive years and has sold over 45 million copies worldwide.  Along with the classic “Money”, this song was one of two singles released from the album.  An unpredictable collage of David Gilmour’s ethereal vocals, Roger Waters manic lyrics, unexpected saxophone solo’s, choir filled choruses and a dazzling array of studio effects; it seemed to be an unlikely candidate for significant radio airplay and yet today stands as one of the bands most popular songs.

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