John Lennon & Yoko Ono – Double Fantasy

It is easy to imagine a teen movie plot as follows: A group of guy friends are having an amazing time during summer break. Pretty girls are everywhere and always interested in them, and every night is an adventure. Life is good. But then, one of the guys starts dating a girl who all the others despise. The others can't see what is so great about her. She has destroyed the group dynamic, and offers no redeeming qualities that they can discern. The group attempts to break up the pair to no avail (with plenty of hijinks along the way), but by the end of the movie she has proven her worth in some grandiose and unlikely way.

After listening to the album Double Fantasy by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, I think this movie plot almost describes what happened to the Beatles when Yoko Ono met John Lennon. The Beatles had a really great thing going: hit album after hit album, adoring fans, and any woman they wanted. But when Yoko Ono came on the scene, things went sour, and the group became dysfunctional. The other three did not like the effect Yoko was having on John, she distracted him and pulled him away from the group. Except there was no happy ending, and the Beatles disbanded. Unlike in Hollywood, not all guys are shallow and can tell when a woman is a bad influence on one of their friends (also, in real life friends do not stay friends forever).

In short, Yoko Ono is a talentless singer with a little girl's voice who performs songs terribly. I suppose her physical artwork might be better (which is what she was doing when she met John), but that is the kind of art she should have stuck with. As far as I can tell, on this album the songs are either sung only by John or Yoko, but never together. John's songs range from merely OK to quite good and memorable. In between are Yoko's songs, which are like audible sandpaper. Maybe John was an evil genius and realized that placing his songs next to Yoko's songs would make his songs sound that much better, but I suspect this was not the case. Love can be stupid.

The reason this album is high on the charts is that just a little over 30 years ago, in early December, John was killed. Before that, the album was poorly received and wasn't getting much traction in sales or on the radio. It is unfortunate that it took his death for the album to reach #1, but that is what happened. It is testament to his popularity that the album sold so well, despite Yoko's presence on the album.

Below are the notes I took listening to this album, verbatim. I can't make it any more pleasant and polite than this:

1 - good, you've heard it before.
2 - awful. terrible. pornoaudioic.
3 - bleh
4 - Terrible. Yoko again. Wow.
5 - John again, so not terrible.
6 - voice reverb/echo on Yoko, double terrible. "oving on" sounds like "looking on" with the "L" dropped. Speech impediment, or ESL?
7 - dreamy and OK, but not stellar.
8 - good, quality, you've heard it before.
9 - more ono, more suckage.
10 - OK, John.
11 - pointless, useless voice trembles, awful falsetto (Yoko, of course)
12 - about/to Yoko, but it's by John, so it's OK
13 - best Yoko because she is hidden behind the music.
14 - Ugh. Yoko.

It is always easier to write a negative review, and who-boy, this week was easy! I think I never quite understood just how awful Yoko was until I listened to this album, and now I think I have a better understanding of why everyone blames Yoko for the end of the Beatles. They did have some right to be angry, and that is one of the emotions I felt listening to this album. If you want to listen to this album, skip any and all songs by Yoko, and listen only to John's, some of which are worthwhile.

It's hard to over-emphasize how bad Yoko was. Check out this video made of Bill Burr talking about a time that John and Yoko played with Chuck Berry. The language is R-rated, but the point he makes is valid.

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The Police - Zenyatta  Mondatta

It's hard to form a fresh opinion (but I'll try!) about the album Zenyatta  Mondatta by The Police because I've heard this album many times before without fully realizing it. I've owned The Police complete box set since high school, and as it turns out, the order of the last eleven songs on disc 2 is identical to the tracks on Zenyatta  Mondatta. This means that to a large extent I formed my opinions about this album a long time ago.

The Police have roots in punk rock, which is evident from their early work (see disc 1 of the box set), but by this album, their style definitely shifted away from that. This album has a few kinds of songs: the political "Bombs Away", "De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da"; the cute "Man In A Suitcase"; the creepy/literary "Don't Stand So Close To Me"; and the rare instrumentals "Behind My Camel", "The Other Way of Stopping". It is certainly a more mature style, that overall I prefer over the intellectually lighter punk songs.

In fact, this album kind of hits the sweet spot for me between their early punk and their later, extremely political work. This is due to the lead singer of The Police, Sting, who is very active in these sorts of things around the world. However, just like Christian music, too-political music stinks because it's preachy and bland.

I would recommend this album, and the whole box set, too.

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Eagles – Eagles Live

I do not attend many live music performances. But I'm knowledgeable enough to know that there are some bands that are worth seeing in person because they bring something special to a live performance. For a jam band like the Grateful Dead, where no two performances are identical (or even reproducible), a true fan knows that a studio record is missing the full Deadhead experience. This is why the bootleg market for Grateful Dead concert tapes is (was) so big for so long. Some other bands may not make each performance as varied, but fans still want to see the band in person because it's more personal and memorable. For bands like this, releasing a live album per show, something that Pearl Jam has done in the past, allows a fan to buy a recording of the show they attended as an audio keepsake.

In light of the above, I don't quite understand the appeal of live albums like Eagles Live. The songs are as identical to the studio versions as I've ever heard from a live album. The crowd noise is minimal, as are the musings by the band to the crowd between songs. The one embellishment I can catch is "Winslow, Arizona" is switched to "Southern California" in Take It Easy (the concert took place in Long Beach, which I only learned through the Wikipedia page). The personal and unique touches of a live performance are almost absent from this recording. I don't see the point of a live album if it doesn't offer something that a studio album doesn't.

What is it with acrimony within rock bands? Apparently, the members of Eagles were so angry with each other that the final touches of this album were done with the help of at least five lawyers. At least the cover of this album, without the band on it, avoided the mistake The Doobie Brothers made.

Bottom line: Skippable. Get an Eagles studio album instead. And then go watch The Big Lebowski.

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Pat Benatar – Crimes of Passion

This is the second album I've listened to with a female lead singer, and Crimes of Passion by Pat Benatar is by far a better album than the first. Of the two, this album is much more entertaining, lively, and worthwhile.

The album includes the hit "Hit Me with Your Best Shot", a confident song about female empowerment that is much more convincing than any of Babs stuff. "Treat Me Right" is similarly strong. "Hell Is for Children", about child abuse, became a bit of a radio hit and may have helped lead to the 1980's theme of musical telethons such as "We Are the World" in 1985.

My recommendation is that this album is worth checking out. If you listened to the Streisand album, I think this is especially good advice.

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The Doobie Brothers – One Step Closer

In the movie The 40 Year Old Virgin the main character works in an electronics store, similar to Circuit City or Best Buy. Along one side of the store is the ubiquitous wall of TVs, all playing the same video for purposes of comparison between different sets. The store manager has decreed that the same video (and accompanying audio) will be played on repeat, all day long, every day, for the last two years. The video is of a performance by Michael McDonald of his song Yah Mo B There, which drives many of the employees crazy.

Michael McDonald was the lead singer for The Doobie Brothers for the album One Step Closer. Listening to this album a few times this week has felt a little like being an employee of the fictional store. It's the kind of smooth rock that has very little substance and gets played in elevators or dentists offices. Only seriously messed up people like this kind of music, which describes the store manager exactly. But it doesn't describe me (I hope!).

The album has exactly one thing going for it: a rare xylophone solo on "Thank You Love." I haven't heard a xylophone solo since music class in grade school.

If you follow the Wikipedia link to the page about the band (above), you'll find out that the band was in a very fractious mood during the making of this album. Many of the band felt overshadowed by McDonald and disliked his musical influence on the band. The tension in the band is obvious in the cover photo. Slumped shoulders, blank expressions, crossed arms, one member is almost entirely hidden, and McDonald is off to the side (in the white shirt) leaning away from the others. This is the kind of picture one gets from sullen teenagers, not adult musicians wanting to sell millions of copies of their record.

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AC/DC – Back in Black

According to Wikipedia, AC/DC's Back in Black is the second most sold album, behind Michael Jackson's Thriller. Interestingly, it peaked at only #4 on the US album charts, and none of its individual songs ever reached the top 10. To sell nearly 50 million copies without reaching the top of the charts indicates that this album has had great longevity in the last 30 years. This is likely due to its many genuine hits that continue to get played today. As an example, many of the songs off this album are included on the Iron Man 2 movie soundtrack, which continues to reinforce the popularity of this album.

If I'm in the right mood, I like AC/DC. That mood has to be a not very quiet mood, as AC/DC should not be played softly. Overall, I like this album. I had already heard most of the songs on the album, as will have most of my readers (see above). This also means that this album can be safely missed, for the most part, because sooner or later, you'll hear one of the tracks anyway.

Update 7 Dec: I failed to mention that this is the first album I've reviewed that doesn't have the image of the musician(s) on the cover art. The band had their specific reasons for this (see the Wikipedia link above). I find it interesting that contemporary albums often do not have the image of the artists on the cover, but that 30 years ago a band had to have a specific reason to do this.

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Stevie Wonder – Hotter Than July

As far as I can tell, the voice auto-tuner did not exist when Stevie Wonder made this record. However, there are a couple tracks where either his voice has been somehow altered in post-production, or he's doing some weird things on his own. And I mean weird: I think it's more distracting than musically worthwhile.

Most songs on the album are what you would expect from Stevie, mostly Motown, with a bit of influence from Reggae. I have listened to Stevie's "Greatest Hits" album which includes a few songs where he experiments with rapping. Thankfully, "Hotter Than July" does not include any Rap songs by Stevie (he's not a good rapper).

A minor quibble: This album was released in late September 1980, well after the summer heat that is beading sweat on Stevie's face ended. I think that it should have been released earlier (or later) in the (next) year, because listening to this in late November feels a bit out of synch with the calendar. I haven't sweated due to the weather in months!

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Kenny Rogers – Greatest Hits

This album hits all the typical country themes: a woman leaving a man ("Lucille"), American military ("Reuben James"), inter-class (or perhaps race) love and intolerance ("Long Arm of the Law"), prostitution ("Ruby Don't Take Your Love to Town"), gang rape and revenge ("Coward of the County"), and love (every other song on the album). What strikes me is how similar these topics are similar to those in rap music, but since it's sung by a white guy with an actual tune behind it, it's somehow more socially acceptable. Perhaps it's because most of the non-love songs here are in the third person, while in rap it's often in the first.

Would I recommend this album? Eh, I'm fairly ambivalent about that. The first sentence above notwithstanding, the album isn't actually as country as I'm making it out to be. I'm generally not a fan of country, so this is actually a small amount of praise. It might be worth a listen just so you can say you've heard Kenny Rogers sing about the topics above. Or you could not, and go on with your day with the knowledge you're not missing much.

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Bruce Springsteen – The River

The River, by Bruce Springsteen, is a double album that reached the number one spot 30 years ago this week. Springsteen is one of my favorites, he ranks first in my list of number of plays on

I can't say that this is one of my favorite Springsteen albums, but I don't dislike it. It's the beginning of the path to Nebraska, an album I definitely have to be in the right mood to listen to. I think that's why this album isn't quite what I normally want out of Springsteen. I generally want upbeat, rocking songs out of Springsteen, and this only partially delivers. But, I'm comparing Springsteen with Springsteen, and all Springsteen in my opinion is better than most contemporary popular music (e.g. recent Black Eyed Peas). Which is to say that, this album should be listened to, unless, of course, you have bad taste in music and actually like current popular music (e.g. Justin Bieber).

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Queen – The Game

This week I listened to Queen's "The Game", which was in second place behind Barbra Streisand's "Guilty" this week. This album has two genuinely big hits on it that still get plenty of airplay: Another One Bites The Dust and Crazy Little Thing Called Love.

One of the songs I like is "Don't Try Suicide" which is simultaneously macabre and sarcastic. Well, actually, it isn't a great song or tune, but I like the idea of a ridiculous song about something so serious. In this way it's similar to "Suicide is Painless" from the M*A*S*H movie and TV show (although the words are missing in the TV show). "Sail Away Sweet Sister" is a harbinger for the future of hair metal power ballads in the 80s. The number one hits mentioned above are still fun, if a bit over-played, still, 30 years later.

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Barbra Streisand – Guilty

I've decided to begin listening to the number one album from 30 years ago each week and then write a little bit about it here. Why isn't terribly important, other than it will hopefully be mostly entertaining, always enlightening, and occasionally fruitful. However, here are a few reasons. I recently had my 31st birthday, and birthdays are always opportunities to ponder the passage of time. Presumably, I should have then decided to look back 31 years, but that makes the math harder (and thinking hurts) so I'll keep it at 30 years. Looking at the current top list of albums, much of it is stuff I definitely wouldn't listen to on my own volition. I doubt that in 30 years it will be judged to be any higher quality. In this sense, I could do this exercise with current music. But by going back in time I'm, exposing myself to new music that isn't currently on the radio (for the most part), so it has extra novelty. I already know the general direction of popular music over the last 30 years, so it will be interesting to see the progression in more detail with this foreknowledge.

I haven't fully fleshed out the rules of this. For example, if an album is number one for more than one week, I think I'll drop down to the second place album, or beyond. There will be other rules about if I've already listened to an album (for example if it oscillates up and down from number one).

This week I listened to Barbra Streisand - Guilty. The fact that this is the first album in this experiment made it very difficult to begin. I was not a fan of her work, and my opinion hasn't been improved.

First some observations about this album. The cover shows Barbra with Barry Gibb, of the Bee Gees. They sing duets on two of the nine of the tracks, which seems to be an awfully low ratio for him to be featured on the cover*. Also, he doesn't really sing in his trademarked joyful falsetto, which is more false advertising. To me, that's 100% of his appeal, so without it, who cares? Furthermore, I'm not clear what anyone is guilty of in this album, besides being boring and uninspiring.

A few of songs have enough to them that the could serve as adequate background music during a Roger Moore Bond film, but certainly not during the introduction to a Bond movie. Most songs are Celine Dion-esque and are about strong women looking for love, but probably only appeal to women that are nothing like that. I'm missing the genetics and personality to appreciate it.

I'm planning on at least making a real effort to see this idea through for a while, but this is an inauspicious beginning.

(* Ok, apparently Barry Gibb wrote all of the songs, so his contribution is greater than 2/9ths.)

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