684. Steely Dan, Gaucho (1980)
For a band renowned for the meticulousness of their recordings, Steely Dan endured a remarkable amount of messiness on the way to Gaucho, their eighth studio album and their final effort until a reunion launched more than a decade later. Coming off the 1977 album Aja, easily the biggest commercial success of the band’s career, Steely Dan stalwarts Walter Becker and Donald Fagen decided to seek out a new corporate benefactors since their longtime label ABC Records was clearly on its last legs. The duo signed with Warner Bros., but they then became enmeshed in a nasty legal scrap when MCA Records purchased the remnants of ABC and insisted they held the rights to release any new Steely Dan material. MCA eventually prevailed.
Becker also experienced a slew of personal problems that complicated his professional duties. He was using drugs at a daunting level, sustained significant injuries when he was struck by a car in a New York City street, and his girlfriend at the time, Karen Roberta Stanley, died of an overdose at his home. Whatever attempts Becker might have made to seek refuge in the comforting familiarity of the studio were thwarted by the contentious atmosphere he and Fagen generated with the New York City studio musicians they relied upon to realize their exacting vision of the songs they wrote. Wherever Becker and Fagen turned, things were not going well.
For other bands, such excessive tumult might manifest as a raggedy record, but Gaucho is as firmly lacquered as any other Steely Dan outing. The dull fusion jazz flow of the title cut is entirely characteristic. It’s unquestionable that the craft of the song is impeccable, but it’s remarkably soulless. Similarly, “Babylon Sisters” is so laid back it becomes borderline inert, and “Third World Man” unleashes floodwaters of tepid rock. Steely Dan eventually came under some scrutiny for the misogynistic attitude embedded in their lyrics, a tendency that worsened later, but is present in the creepy “Hey Nineteen.” The lyrics have a nasty dismissiveness as the pouts about the lack of cultural acumen in a girlfriend more than ten years younger than the singer: “That’s ‘Retha Franklin/ She don’t remember Queen of Soul/ It’s hard times befallen soul survivors/ She thinks I’m crazy but I’m just growing old.”
Gaucho was another hit for Steely Dan, notching enough sales to go platinum and yielding two Top 40 singles. In other respects, their fortunes did not improve from the grim times of the recording process. Becker was sued by Stanley’s family, who contending her overdose death was a direct result of his influence. That case was decided in Becker’s favor, but a different legal action caused more trouble. Keith Jarrett sued the band for plagiarism, claiming “Gaucho” stole from his 1974 track “Long As You Know You’re Living Yours.” When asked about the similarity between the two songs by Musician magazine, Fagen basically fessed up: “Hell, we steal. We’re the robber barons of rock ‘n’ roll.” Officially, Jarrett now holds a co-writing credit on Gaucho‘s title track.
683. Prince, Around the World in a Day (1985)
The week that Prince released Around the World in a Day, his seventh studio album, its predecessor, Purple Rain, was still in the Top 40 of the Billboard album chart. Partner to the film of the same name, Purple Rain pushed the diminutive Minnesotan into the stratosphere of music stardom. The album landed five singles in the Billboard Top 10, two of them topping the chart, spent more than two years on the album chart, and won Prince two of his first three Grammys (in the same ceremony, he picked up a trophy for writing Chaka Khan’s “I Feel for You”). The month before Around the World in a Day was released, Prince picked up an Academy Award for Best Original Song Score, Purple Rain managing to best The Muppets take Manhattan and Songwriter.
Despite the massive success of Purple Rain, Prince wasn’t really feeling any pressure to top himself, mostly because he purposefully threw himself into the creative process for Around the World in a Day so quickly. Any temptation to eagerly replicate the sound that had proven irresistible to listeners was elided by getting to work before the enthusiastic response registered.
“You know how easy it would have been to open Around the World in a Day with the guitar solo that’s on the end of “Let’s Go Crazy”?” Prince said to Rolling Stone. “You know how easy it would have been to just put it in a different key? That would have shut everybody up who said the album wasn’t half as powerful. I don’t want to make an album like the earlier ones. Wouldn’t it be cool to be able to put your albums back to back and not get bored, you dig? I don’t know how many people can play all their albums back to back with each one going to different cities.”
The city Prince travels to on Around the World in a Day is awash in luxurious psychedelia. The title cut opens the album with a blissed out swirl of sounds, providing a hint of the implied travelogue with tingles of Middle Eastern musical influence. Hit single “Raspberry Beret” engages in a similar seductive swirl, as does the sideways funk of “Tamborine.” Prince courts overt oddity with the restless sonic shifts built into “The Ladder,” and the thumping “America,” which warps “America the Beautiful” to his bidding. The album closes with the tiger prowl of “Temptation,” stretching more than eight minutes and incorporating an art rock diversion that could have come from one of Laurie Anderson’s steamer trunks. Not everything seeks to bend time and space, though. “Condition of the Heart” is comparatively simple, a cooing ballad built on delicate piano and plush surrounding production.
Obviously, Prince didn’t need to openly chase mass approval to win it at this point in the career. Around the World in a Day topped the album chart and sold more than two million copies. Two of its singles peaked in the Billboard Top 10 (“Raspberry Beret” was boxed out of the top spot by Duran Duran’s “A View to a Kill”). Only measured against Purple Rain could the album be viewed as a disappointment.
682. The Who, The Kids are Alright (1979)
Jeff Stein had zero experience making movies when he approached the Who about making a documentary. A fervent fan of the band since he was a teenager, Stein envisioned editing together live performance footage captured over the years to convey the power of the band onstage. Though initially reluctant, lead guitarist and bandleader Pete Townshend acquiesced when Stein suggested such a film could essentially serve the same promotional purpose as a concert tour, buying the Who a little relief for the rigors of life on the road. The resulting film, The Kids are Alright, debuted at the Cannes film festival in 1979 and went into general release a couple weeks later.
The double album soundtrack naturally adhered to the film’s scrapbook approach, pressing onto record many of the showcased live performances. It includes a version of”My Generation” culled from The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1967 (which opens the film), and an especially fierce “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” from a 1965 appearance on Ready Steady Go! A trio of live songs from Woodstock are in the mix, as is a brisk, boisterous “Happy Jack” from the famed 1970 concert at Leeds University. To help fill out the film, Stein convinced the band to perform for his cameras at Shepperton Studios, a show represented by, among others, an absolutely thunderous live version of “Baba O’Riley.”
At a time when the Who was shifting into venerable rock icon status, The Kids are Alright provided a handy greatest-hits-style retrospective that also made the argument that band was one of the great live acts in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s not a bad result for a project by a neophyte filmmaker inspired entirely on his own fannish enthusiasm.
681. Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band, Nine Tonight (1981)
For rock acts across the nineteen-seventies and into the nineteen-eighties, one of the key markers of success was the label support to issue a live album as a two record set. Detroit’s Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band first checked that box with Live Bullet, released in 1976. Actually the first record that included Seger’s backing band in the official billing, Live Bullet became the group’s highest charting album to that point, clearing the path for their next three studio albums — Night Moves, Stranger in Town, and Against the Wind — to each reach new pinnacles of commercial success. Seger had never before placed a single in the Billboard Top 40. He saw nine cross that threshold from the trio of studio albums, and two more just missed. Armed with a cluster of new fan favorites, the time was right to again indulge in the double live strategy.
Drawn from 1980 concerts in Detroit and Boston, Nine Tonight is largely a dutiful tracking through the recent hits. Fourteen of the album’s seventeen originated on one of the three preceding studio efforts. A strong cover of “Tryin’ to Live My Life Without You,” a minor hit for Otis Clay, is one of the outliers. It served as a single, climbing all the way to #5 on the Billboard chart, something of a rarity for a live track. There are some other strong cuts on Nine Tonight — the version of “Old Time Rock & Roll” here is leaner and tougher than the original, and “Betty Lou’s Gettin’ Out Tonight” is raucous enough to resemble the psychobilly genre then still emerging — but, like a lot of live albums, it mostly comes across as a mere memento, most effective as a reminder for ticket buyers of the nice time they had sweating alongside their fellow disciples in an echoing arena.
To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs.