Monday, January 14th, 2013
Album #49: “The Stranger” — Billy Joel (1977)
I was genuinely surprise to see the competition for this next slot. There was never any question “The Sound of Sight” would be on this list, or that it would kick off the countdown, so this position was the last opening for those records on the bubble. Should I pick Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” the angsty rock opera with mind-bending album art by cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, or another favorite with an iconic cover: Electric Light Orchestra’s “Out of the Blue.” Or do I choose another high concept album, Thomas Dolby’s “The Golden Age of Wireless,” whose forlorn reverb kept me company many a late night in the studio during art school.
Finally, I decided to go with Billy Joel’s breakthrough album, “The Stranger.” You have to understand, while I always enjoyed Joel’s lounge act just fine, he was THE all-time favorite of my brother the pianist. (In fact, in a famous bit of family lore, my parents had to talk Brent out of quitting school and running off to New York to play piano in a bar just like Billy Joel did!) Even if Billy Joel’s singles weren’t ubiquitous in the Top 40 at the time, he was in heavy rotation in our house. Of all of his albums, “The Stranger” finds Joel at his pop-music best, before his high-minded ambitions outstripped his song-writting abilities in the 1980s. And as an awkward eighth grader trying to figure out girls, I greatly appreciated the double-sided coin of “Vienna” and “Only the Good Die Young” Joel tossed to listeners.
While I eventually grew tired of rock operas, even the very idea of rock operas, I still love the pop operetta Joel serves up in his “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.”
Monday, January 7th, 2013
Album #50: “The Sound of Sight” — Ray Martin & His Orchestra (1964)
Does anyone remember stereo? I’m not talking about an audio element now so common it’s often dropped from the list of product features — I’m talking STEREO! Stereo as THE selling point of a record, stereo as a noun, stereo as a pickup line (“Hey, wanna come back and check out my —”), stereo as actual entertainment in and of itself. As sales of home sound systems took off in the 1950s and ’60s, record companies put out dozens of albums specifically designed to show off the proud new owner’s speakers. Some tracks where as simple and silly as a recording of a ping-pong ball bouncing back and forth, while others recreated the experience of listening to marching bands pass by on the street. My dad had several of these records, and when we were kids my brother and I would lay on the floor in between the speakers and marvel at the stereo.
The most ambitious of these concept albums was “The Sound of Sight” by composer Ray Martin. Martin, a producer at EMI and the British equivalent of Henry Mancini, had written songs for numerous movies and TV shows in England, and used his experience to great effect in this epic LP. Dubbed “Music For An Experiment in Imagination,” “The Sound of Sight” was the soundtrack to 9 fake movies, each a different genre, each telling a story complete with sound effects and dialog — and all in STEREO! Westerns, tearjerkers, costume epics, film noir … Martin even included a cartoon short detailing the misadventures of a cat & mouse. No mere gimmick, many of the themes Martin penned were as good if not better than many actual soundtracks.
Finally, The Sound of Sight came with what is arguably the greatest album cover ever* — a fold-out wrap-around by cartoonist extraordinaire Jack Davis, with hundreds of characters exploding into view. You could look at this thing for hours and still come back to find little details you missed. (It was this cover, along with Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, that made me want to become a cartoonist.)
You can check out the album’s blazing film noir take below — with the awful pun “Hoodunit” as its title— and a large version of the cover here. See you in the pictures shows!
*I will accept votes for Herb Albert’s “Whipped Cream & Other Delights,” but that’s it.
Friday, January 4th, 2013
I love lists. When I was a kid, I devoured every edition of the Guinness Book of World Records, bought all three volumes of the Book of Lists, and listened to American Top 40 every week. One New Year’s Eve I almost missed the ball drop because a local radio station timed Casey Kasem’s year-end countdown to end at midnight and I HAD to know what the #1 song was when they announced it (Debbie Boone’s “You Light Up My Life” if you’re curious … and yeah, I was as disappointed at hearing that as you no doubt are.) Heck, I even used to keep an AT40-style list of girls I liked in middle school, even though I was too shy and awkward to talk to most of them.
Over time I kept running tallies of favorite games and movies, and was always annoyed if a critic simply listed things in alphabetical order. Best of and Worst of Collections of are all well and good, but a numbered collection is even better. I wanted to know WHY they thought something was better than something else, and rankings will always win out. It’s silly, because I know so much of it is personal taste, and that quantifying quality is rarely an exercise in comparing apples to apples. (And the horse-race aspect of, say, weekly box office receipts may indeed be damaging to the very idea of quality and creativity. How often IS the top grossing movie actually the best movie of the year?) None of which takes away from the fact that one of your all-time favs may actually be a trashy piece of fiction — as long as you KNOW its trashy and love it anyway.
So yeah — I love lists. And recently, when LOCUS asked readers to vote for their favorite sci-fi and fantasy novels (AND short stories and novellas and novelletes) of the 20th and 21st century, I found myself compiling yet another set of personal lists — and being challenged by what I found. And then I started thinking that next year I turn 50, and that I had all these lists around, many of which reached 50 or more entries … so I’ve decided to do a countdown to my birthday next year with a list of my all-time favorites — music, movies, books, games — one item each weekday for the next 50+ weeks.
Won’t you please join me on this horribly self-indulgent quest? Stop on back throughout the next year for the 50/50 countdown, and see if you agree with anything on my best of list. I look forward to the feedback /and snarky comments.
Monday — Albums
Tuesday — Books
Wednesday — Movies
Thursday — Games
Friday — Songs
Coming Monday: My #50 record has THE GREATEST ALBUM COVER OF ALL TIME. Be here to find out why.