Well, let me tell you that it hurts so bad

Periodically, I use this space to pay homage to artists who I believe are worthy of focused attention — artists with an extraordinary, influential, consistently excellent body of work and/or a compelling story to tell.  In this essay, I examine the woman who helped pioneer the marriage of country and rock, shone a light on the unrecognized works of struggling songwriters, proudly sang music that celebrates her Mexican roots, and was the first of the pop stars to revitalize interest in the jazz pop of the Great American Songbook:  Linda Ronstadt.

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I remember once reading a great line in the critique of a new album by some amazing singer (I think it was Annie Lennox), and the critic said this:  “Her pipes are so outstanding, I think she could sing me the New Jersey phone book and I’d still love it.”

linda-ronstadtLinda Ronstadt has recorded such a broad variety of music in her 40-year career, and done so in such convincing fashion, that I wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised if she had indeed attempted to sing the phone book, or a cookbook, or a history book.  Good grief, she has successfully wrapped her voice around so many genres — from country ballads to traditional Mexican rancheras, from New Wave rock to Sinatraesque torch songs, from Motown classics to Southern California folk rock — there’s no reason to think she couldn’t have found a way to make even textbooks sound melodious.

“I don’t think there’s anybody who has tried more different styles and nailed it than Linda has,” said her longtime musical collaborator Bonnie Raitt.  John David Souther, Ronstadt’s one-time paramour and cherished friend, added, “Her range is huge, and there’s not too many people who can pull it off the way she has.”  The great Dolly Parton put it this way:  “Linda can literally sing anything.”

Or, more accurately, she used to be able to sing anything.  In 2011, Ronstadt chose to retire from the business, and although she didn’t say so at first, it was because she was suffering from what was first diagnosed as Parkinson’s disease but is, in fact, a Unknown-147degenerative malady called Progressive Supranuclear Palsy (PSP), which robbed her of, among other things, the ability to control her vocal cords.

She withdrew from any public appearances, but by 2018, when asked to participate in a documentary about her life and career, she relented, and the result, “Linda Ronstadt:  The Sound of My Voice,” is a thoroughly enthralling video journey, narrated largely by Linda herself.  I strongly recommend you seek it out to re-familiarize yourself with her and learn more about her remarkable life.

Ronstadt came from a Tucson, Arizona, family of music lovers.  “My father had a lovely baritone voice and loved Mexican love songs,” she recalled.  “My mother was big on Gilbert and Sullivan.  My brother was a soprano soloist in a church choir when he was a boy.  My sister was a Hank Williams fanatic.  My aunt preferred classical music and opera.  So I was fortunate to have all these different influences, and I soaked them up like a sponge.

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Linda at home, 1962

“We sang all the time.  We sang at the dinner table, we sang in the car, we sang with our hands in the dishwater.  It was kind of isolated living on a 10-acre ranch outside Tucson, so we had to make our own entertainment.  The radio was my best friend.  We picked up plenty of amazing music.  We got Louisiana Hayride. We got ’50s pop radio.  We got plenty of songs from south of the border.  I loved them all.”

At age 15, Ronstadt started a vocal group with her brother and sister they called The New Union Ramblers, performing at community get-togethers and school events.  But her sister married young and started a family, and her brother became a police officer, so Linda decided to head out on her own to pursue her musical dreams.

In the early ’60s, the place where everything seemed to be happening was Los Angeles, so she headed to the West Coast at 18, split the $80 rent with two roommates in a Santa Monica beach cottage, and started frequenting the various venues where people with similar interests hung out.  The beatnik dives.  The Ashgrove, famous for traditional folk artists.  The clubs on the Sunset Strip.  And, of course, the Troubadour.

At first she waited tables and washed dishes — “I had no problem with that, I’d been doing it my whole life” — and performed in The Stone Poneys, a trio with musician Kenny Edwards and songwriter Bobby Kimmel, just acoustic guitar, mandolin and three voices.  “We practiced every day and played out whenever we could,” she recalled, “and it was a pretty eclectic mix of songs we would try, even back then.”

In 1965, when The Byrds took Bob Dylan’s folk song “Mr. Tambourine Man,” added jangly electric guitars and a rock beat and made it the #1 song in the nation, “all the record labels scurried around looking for new acts,” Ronstadt said.  “Everyone wanted to try to define what it was going to be, this cross-pollination of country, pop and rock.”

The Stone Poneys had cut a couple of demos, including a charming country tune written

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Linda in Malibu, 1966

by Mike Nesmith of the Monkees called “Different Drum.”  Capitol Records heard it and liked the song but not the arrangement.  “They wanted to re-cut it,” she noted, “and we were thrilled, but then we showed up at the studio and everything changed.  They had an orchestra in there!  I’m thinking, ‘This is not the way I envisioned it,’ but it’s a good thing they didn’t listen to me because it became a big hit.”

Capitol offered a record deal, but not to The Stone Poneys.  The deal was for Linda as a solo singer.  “Kenny headed off for India, and years later played bass and guitar on several of my albums.  Bobby started McCabe’s, a combination guitar store and music venue that’s still a Santa Monica landmark.  Meanwhile, I was essentially a harmony singer with no material.  People thought I was brave…but I was nervous.”

It wasn’t long before Ronstadt was making appearances on “The Johnny Cash Show” and “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour,” and sat with Dick Cavett and Johnny Carson, despite the fact that her early albums didn’t sell well.  On her 1969 debut, “Hand Sown…Home Grown,” she leaned away from folk and more toward country and rock, and radio stations weren’t sure what to make of her.  Same goes for “Silk Purse” (1970) and “Linda Ronstadt” (1972), which had diverse song lists that ran the gamut from Hank Williams’s “Lovesick Blues” to the Goffin-King oldie “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” and from Jackson Browne’s “Rock Me on the Water” to Livingston Tylor’s “In My Reply.”

Because she wasn’t a songwriter, Linda made it her business to keep her ear to the ground in order to discover the great new songs being played on Open Mic Night at The Troubadour.  “What a treasure trove that place was,” she recalled with a sigh.  “Kris Kristofferson.  James Taylor.  Tim Hardin.  Laura Nyro.  Neil Young.  JD Souther.  Joni.  Jackson.  Elton John!”

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Ronstadt performing at The Troubadour with Jackson Browne (left) and The Eagles’ original lineup

The Troubadour was also where she met the guys who would constitute her first touring band:  A drummer from the band Shiloh named Don Henley and a guitarist from Longbranch Pennywhistle named Glenn Frey.  The two bonded on that tour and ended up amicably parting ways with Ronstadt so they could start their own group you may have heard of:  The Eagles.

Ronstadt had strong opinions about the songs she wanted to record, even if the record label didn’t always agree.  “I loved singing upbeat R&B tunes like “Rescue Me,” but I also wanted there to be room for some of the superb young songwriters I was hearing, like Randy Newman (“Sail Away”) and Henley and Frey (“Desperado”),” Ronstadt said.  “And it took me until my fifth album before I could convince anyone to let me record Anna McGarrigle’s ‘Heart Like a Wheel.'”

Speaking of which, it was her 1974 LP “Heart Like a Wheel” that really put Ronstadt on Unknown-144the map.  As I see it, it was a perfect storm — the right singer at the right time, with the right songs and the right producer.  Peter Asher became her manager and regular producer, taking tunes like Clint Ballard’s “You’re No Good,” Lowell George’s “Willin’,” Phil Everly’s “When Will I Be Loved,” James Taylor’s “You Can Close Your Eyes” and McGarrigle’s title cut and turn them into polished gems that radio program directors ate up.  “Heart Like a Wheel” reached #1 on both the Pop and Country charts.

This began a five-year string of chart-topping LPs (“Prisoner in Disguise,” “Hasten Down the Wind,” “Simple Dreams,” “Living in the USA”)  that made her the undisputed queen of country rock…or was it pop rock?…in the Unknown-143’70s.  On the singles charts, the songs that performed best for her were remakes of well-known hits (Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day” and “It’s So Easy,” Chuck Berry’s “Back in the USA,” Smokey Robinson’s “The Tracks of My Tears” and “Ooh Baby Baby”), but frankly, I always found myself more drawn to the gems by up-and-coming songwriters Ronstadt championed, like Karla Bonoff (“Someone to Lay Down Beside Me,” “Lose Again”) and Warren Zevon (“Poor, Poor Pitiful Me,” “Hasten Down the Wind,” “Carmelita”).

She defied convention wisdom several times in her career.  The first time was in 1978 R-1473431-1338954045-8748.jpegwhen she covered newcomer Elvis Costello’s New Wave tune “Alison,” then recorded three more Costello songs on her first real departure, the rock album “Mad Love,” which featured lots of electric guitars and even a synthesizer.  Her gamble had mixed results; the album reached #3 on the pop charts but failed to chart at all on the country charts.  In fact, Ronstadt never made a dent in the country charts as a solo artist ever again.

But no matter, as she had other fish to fry.  First she turned heads by starring in the Broadway production and film version of “The Pirates of Penzance,” of all things, winning great reviews and a few award nominations.

Then came her boldest move.  Ronstadt had always admired the works of George and Ira Gershwin and Hoagy Carmichael (cynically disrespected by young hipsters as “elevator Linda-Ronstadt-Whats-New-1983-music”) and wanted to do a whole album of that kind of material.  “She decided this was what she wanted to do, and more important, was authentic at doing,” said Souther.  “She was told, ‘No, don’t do this, it’ll ruin your career.’  But she did it anyway.”

To my ears, the trio of albums she recorded with Nelson Riddle and His Orchestra in the 1980s was possibly the finest singing Ronstadt ever committed to vinyl.  The way she curls her voice around “Someone to Watch Over Me” or belts out “What’s New” is simply magnificent, better, even, than her pop rock chart-toppers.  Millions of music lovers agreed with me; “What’s New” reached #3 in a year dominated by Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and Men at Work’s “Business as Usual.”  Time magazine calling it “one of the gutsiest, most unorthodox and unexpected albums of the year.”

Said Linda in 2005, “I was so focused on folk, rock and country that I got a bit bored and felt the need to branch out, and this would be the first of many hikes down roads not typically taken.  I now realize I was taking a tremendous risk, and that (label honcho) Joe Smith’s opposition was a matter of him looking out for the company, and for me.  But when it became apparent I wouldn’t change my mind, he gave in, adding, ‘I love Nelson images-86so much!  Can I please come to the sessions?’  When the albums became successful, Joe congratulated me.  I resisted the urge to tease him and say ‘I told you so.'”

Her handlers also attempted to dissuade her from her equally radical left turn toward the Latin music of her childhood in 1987.  It proved less popular, at least on the mainstream charts, but “Cancions de mi Padre” broke records in the Spanish-speaking markets and brought Ronstadt much inner happiness.  “That music is anchored in my blood, in my soul,” she said.

Next came “Trio,” a hit-and-miss collection of country tunes with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris that had been in the works since they first attempted recording together in the late ’70s.  As you might expect, it topped the country charts but also PartonRonstadtHarris,jpgreached #7 on the pop charts (which sparked “Trio II” seven years later).

In 1988, while attending a New Orleans concert by the great Aaron Neville, Ronstadt was singled out and invited to the stage to sing with him, and they both felt it went so well that they agreed to record four songs together, which proved to be the highlights of her next hit LP, “Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind.”  Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil’s Grammy-winning “Don’t Know Much” rightly snared most of the attention but, as usual, Linda wisely saved space for several fine new songs by Jimmy Webb and Karla Bonoff.

Her popularity began to wane a bit in the 1990s.  She failed to match the chart success she’d achieved thus far (“Feels Like Home” fared best, stalling at #75), but the LPs featured a wide range of beautiful interpretations of forgotten or ignored gems such as Burt Bacharach’s “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” Goffin-King’s “Oh No Not My Baby,” Tom Petty’s “The Waiting,” Brian Wilson’s “In My Room,” Bruce Springsteen’s “If I Should Fall Behind” and Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.”  Her final release, “Hummin’ to Myself” (2004), revisited the American Songbook catalog with subtle beauties like “Cry Me a River” and “I’ll Be Seeing You.”

images-88As she gradually lost her ability to sing, Souther said, “To have this marvelous instrument that could hold the notes, hit the notes, shape the notes, and then to no longer have it…it must have been quite a reckoning.”

But as Asher put it, “I know of no one who could handle that kind of difficult adjustment in a more logical and thoughtful and intelligent way than Linda.”

At first Ronstadt was despondent about it, but soon grew philosophical.  “I lost a lot of different colors in my voice  There’s a lot of things you do in singing, you turn your voice to different planes to make different sounds, and gradually I couldn’t do any of that anymore.  Singing is really complex, and I was made most aware of that by having it vanish.  I still sing in my mind, but I can’t do it physically.”

“You know, I’m grateful for the time I had.  I got to live a lot of my dreams, and I feel lucky about that.”

 

Making great music after all these years

In Part 3 of 3 segments examining the music I enjoyed during the 2010-2019 decade, I take a look at a handful of albums written and recorded by vintage artists from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.  You’ve got to give these folks credit that they can still produce quality work some 30, 40 or 50 years after first breaking into the music business.

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I’m going to let you in on a little secret.

Some of the biggest names in rock music history — those who came of age and put out their most iconic records in the ’60s, ’70s or ’80s — were still writing and releasing great new music in the 2010s.

Some of my readers are big fans of the great old stuff but very likely haven’t been paying attention to new album releases for many years.   If you liked Steely Dan or The Kinks, for instance, you should be thrilled to discover recent solo albums by Donald Fagen (“Sunken Condos”) and Ray Davies (“Americana”).  They’ve been out for six and three years, respectively, but few people know it.

Here at Hack’s Back Pages, we aim to correct that.  I, for one, think we should celebrate the stamina and the willingness these artists have shown to continue sharing their marvelous talents with us long after they’ve got anything left to prove.  I have the utmost respect for artists like Paul Simon or Paul McCartney who are still creating quality songs as they approach 80 years old!

There’s a Spotify list at the bottom.  Enjoy!

“Before This World,” James Taylor, 2015

815yadd7NjL._SY355_Taylor has had such a long, mostly successful career, from the over-the-top hits of his “Sweet Baby James” and “Mud Slide Slim” LPs in 1970-1971 through a mid-’80s slump to the Grammy-winning “New Moon Shine” and “Hourglass” in 1991 and 1997.  He seemed to run out of steam with his ho-hum 2002 release, “October Road,” which hinted that his songwriting muse had abandoned him.  Although he has maintained a presence on the road with his yearly tours, he released no new studio recordings for a dozen years.

Then, suddenly, “Before This World,” a welcome surprise in 2015.  Turns out he did have a case of writer’s block, so he sequestered himself in a waterfront apartment in Rhode Island for months and, bless him, gave birth to SO many entertaining songs here!  He can still come up with something whimsical like “Angels of Fenway,” a loving tribute to the favorite baseball team he and his grandmother once shared, and then turn on a dime and conjure up a harrowing piece such as “Far Afghanistan,” which examines the grim historical truths of that Godforsaken country:  “They fought against the Russians, they fought against the Brits, they fought old Alexander, talking ‘bout him ever since, and after 9/11, here comes your Uncle Sam, another painful lesson in the far Afghanistan…”

Mostly, the LP is full of the warm melodies and friendly tempos for which he has always been known — “Wild Mountain Thyme,” “Before This World,” “Watching Over Me” and the refreshingly gorgeous “You and I Again,” which examines the rekindling of a relationship that suffered a rocky period:  “You were tending your own fire, we were biding our time, both of us waiting for the moment when our backs would come together, you and I… And so although I know we are only small, in the time we have here, this time we have it all, you and I again, this time, this time…” 

“Thick as a Brick 2,” Ian Anderson, 2012

thick-as-a-brick-2-1Ian Anderson, now 72,  has been one of the most fascinating characters in rock.  Articulate storyteller.  Flute virtuoso.  Supreme showman.  And about as prolific a songwriter as you can name.  Between the Jethro Tull catalog and his solo work, he has personally written more than 250 songs on two dozen albums over a 50-year career.

In 2011-12, Anderson got the creative idea of revisiting his classic LP “Thick as a Brick” to explore what might have become of the fictional child poet Gerald Bostock who had been jokingly credited as having written the words to “Brick.”  In the lyrics to “Thick as a Brick 2,” Anderson suggests five possible roads the character might’ve traveled:  a greedy banker, a troubled homeless man, a soldier in the Afghan War, an evangelist preacher, or an ordinary small-town shopkeeper.  Anderson muses philosophically, “We all must wonder, now and then, if things had turned out – well – just plain different.  Chance path taken, page unturned…”

Musically, he uses the same song structure you’ll recall from the 1972 original — seven or eight major sections that, when laced together, constitute one hour-long song.  Some themes recur in different tempos and arrangements — the main rock theme heard in “Banker Bets, Banker Wins,” for instance, shows up again later in “Wooton Bassett Town.”  Anderson and his musically proficient sidemen have successfully collaborated 40 years later to provide a worthy sequel to the iconic “Brick.”

By all means, don’t sit this one out.

“Americana,” Ray Davies, 2017

Unknown-87The proud, prolific founder and chief songwriter of The Kinks is often regarded as a quintessentially British tunesmith, but he has also professed a keen interest in American music and culture, and has lived in the U.S. (New York and New Orleans) at various times.  In 2015, he published his memoirs, entitled “Americana:  The Kinks, The Road and The Perfect Riff,” which focused on his on-again, off-again relationship with the United States.  Two years later, he released “Americana,” an extraordinary album that continues the story set to music.

It had been nearly 20 years since the final Kinks album and the band’s breakup (which everyone saw coming, thanks to the Davies brothers’ notoriously tempestuous relationship).  Ray’s uncannily creative songwriting kept things afloat, and its quality didn’t waver much through a long career that enjoyed only occasional commercial success.

“Americana” bowled me over.  Davies can still write a great melody, and it’s a treat that, at 72, he can write enough of them to fill a whole album.  The instantly likable “Poetry” sounds like an outtake from the best Tom Petty album, while “The Great Highway” is more reminiscent of early ’80s Talking Heads.  The songs take us on a journey through distinctly American scenes:  “Rock ‘n Roll Cowboys,” “A Long Drive Home to Tarzana,” “Silent Movie,” “Wings of Fantasy.”  The title track does a beautiful job of showing his awe at the breadth and beauty of this country, despite its troubles:  “I wanna make my home where the buffalo roam, in that great panorama…  In the steps of the great pioneers, over air, sea and land, still I can’t understand how I’m gonna get there from here, wherever it goes, it’s gonna take me somewhere…” 

“So Beautiful or So What,” Paul Simon, 2011

sobeautiful_coverAlthough Paul Simon has been writing some of the most iconic songs of our time for more than 50 years, he is far from prolific.  There were only five Simon & Garfunkel albums, and since going solo 45 years ago, he has released only 12 studio LPs of new material.  Clearly, though, he has made up for in quality what he lacks in quantity.  “Still Crazy After All These Years,” “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon” and especially “Graceland” are among the finest albums of the past several decades.

But even in his 60s, Simon continued to create fantastic songs.  The inventive music and compelling lyrics found on his tantalizing 2011 release “So Beautiful or So What,” is a wonder to behold.  Once you get caught up in the rolling, hypnotic rhythm that drives the excellent title song, you just don’t want it to end.  I remember being knocked out by an amazing live performance of the song by Simon and his band on “Saturday Night Live” that year.  He has said his songwriting process always begins with a rhythm, usually something new or unusual that catches his attention.  Here’s solid proof of that.

Consider, also, the intriguing track “The Afterlife,” which ruminates on what actually happens when we reach the pearly gates.  Leave it to Simon to suggest that we’ll have to cope with paperwork and crowds, as if we’re at the motor vehicle bureau:  “After I died, and the make up had dried, I went back to my place, no moon that night, but a heavenly light shone on my face, still I thought it was odd there was no sign of God just to usher me in, then a voice from above, sugar coated with love, said, ‘Let us begin:  You got to fill out a form first, and then you wait in the line…'”

“Standing in the Breach,” Jackson Browne, 2014

81q+HAmjLWL._SL1500_Browne at 71 is still very much a passionate man, a gifted songwriter and a pleasing singer and guitarist-pianist.  From 1972 to 1986, he cranked out seven excellent LPs full of memorable tunes like “Fountain of Sorrow,” “Running on Empty,” “The Pretender,” “These Days,” “Of Missing Persons,” “For Everyman,” “Lives in the Balance” and “Rock Me On the Water.”  He made his mark with deeply personal tunes about relationships but later evolved to comment on the perplexing human condition in the world arena.

He hasn’t stopped making albums in the years since his heyday — there were new ones in 1989, 1993, 1996, 2002 and 2008, some of them very good.  So it’s a shame they didn’t reach the level of awareness and sales success just because his core audience had moved on or retired.  Browne’s music has pretty much always been worth the time it takes to investigate it.

Six years ago, he came out with “Standing in the Breach,” a decidedly political record that forces us to look at some of the unpleasant truths in our world today (“they say nothing lasts forever, but all the plastic ever made is still here”), but it does so with a positivity that offers some degree of hope (“We’re a long way gone down this wild road we’re on, it’s going to take us where we’re bound, it’s just the long way around…”). Musically, it’s a really nice collection of melodies and some top-flight musicianship from the likes of Greg Leisz on guitar, Benmont Tench on keyboards and Bob Glaub on bass.  Browne’s vocals, I’m pleased to report, remain an important strength in these proceedings as well.

“Egypt Station,” Paul McCartney, 2017

220px-Cover_of_Paul_McCartney's_'Egypt_Station'_albumIf you’re like me, you’ve had a love-hate relationship with Paul McCartney’s solo career.  Thanks to consistently strong albums like “Ram,” “Band on the Run” and “Tug of War,” you’ve kept coming back to check out his latest release, only to be disappointed when there’s only two or three decent tracks to be found.  That’s happened way more often than not, partly, I think, because he got lazy as he went along, turning dozens of half-finished ideas into unsatisfying recordings.

Finally, though, in 2017, he took the time to assemble “Egypt Station,” a remarkably consistent collection of compelling songs.  The album is bursting with McCartneyesque melodies, alternately playful and deadly serious — “I Don’t Know,” “Hand in Hand” “Dominoes.”

There’s also a fun oddity provocatively titled “Fuh You” which tries to slide the f-bomb by, and “Back In Brazil” is a surprisingly successful electro-samba excursion.  “Do It Now” recalls 1982’s “Here Today,” his paean to former partner Lennon, only this time it’s an older-and-wiser Paul pontificating on the kind of emotional resolutions you seek when you realize how short life is.  “Despite Repeated Warnings” shows McCartney at his most politically charged, worrying about the apocalypse.

He’s now 77, and you have to wonder if he’s got any more in him after this.  In my opinion, someone needs to advise him that, regardless of the high quality of the songs here, his voice is a far cry from its earlier brilliance (see “Confidante” for clear evidence).

“Sunken Condos,” Donald Fagen, 2014

71jhWg27W8L._SL1425_Donald Fagen’s superb legacy as a co-founder of Steely Dan is well documented, but his solo LPs haven’t always received the same kind of attention.  He and his late partner Walter Becker had been quite prolific, churning out amazing new albums every year for most of the ’70s, but then Becker had some personal problems, and Fagen went out on his own, opting to put out new music at a much more leisurely pace. ” The Night Fly” in 1982 (mistaken by many as a new Dan LP) and the disappointing “Kamikiriad” in 1993 were his only output in the Eighties and Nineties.

The twosome reconvened under the Steely Dan banner in 2000 on “Two Against Nature,” which won an Album of the Year Grammy on the strength of songs like “Cousin Dupree” and “Jack of Speed.”  It was followed in 2003 by a lesser collection of tracks called “Everything Must Go,” which turned out to be the final entry in the Steely Dan repertoire.  Fagen had another solo flop in 2006 with the comparatively weak “Morph the Cat,” but he and Becker continued to maintain the sterling nature of the Steely Dan brand with their regular touring commitments almost every year in the 2010–2015 period.

Curiously, when assembling concert set lists during this period, Fagen largely ignored his excellent fourth solo album, “Sunken Condos,” a strong set of originals that deserves a place of prominence in the ranking of Fagen’s total musical output.  There are several of those trademark funky jazz tunes like “Miss Marlene,” “The New Breed” and “Slinky Thing,” with sexy guitar riffs and smart horn arrangements aplenty.  He sounds like he’s channeling Stevie Wonder in his galloping cover of the old Isaac Hayes chestnut “Out on the Ghetto,” and best of all, there’s “Weather in My Head,” a mid-tempo blues with marvelous words that use extreme weather events — typhoons, sea-quakes, floods — to describe the emotional damage when a relationship crumbles: “They may fix the weather in the world…but what’s to be done, Lord, ’bout the weather in my head?…”

“Hypnotic Eye,” Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, 2014

TPATHCover1Nearly 40 years after their powerful debut album, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers still had the chops, the savvy and the songs that resulted in “Hypnotic Eye,” an album every bit as good as his brilliant LPs from the ’80s and ’90s.  In fact, the bulk of the tracks are a welcome return to the styles he exhibited on those first few records.  “Red River” is reminiscent of the great anthem “Refugee,” and “Full Grown Boy” could be a sequel to “Breakdown.”

Other songs show a more mature Petty.  The six-minute closer, “Shadow People,” builds nicely from a haunting beginning to a fuller sound with lyrics that eerily foreshadow his death:  “Well I ain’t on the left, and I ain’t on the right, I ain’t even sure I got a dog in this fight, in my time of need, in my time of grief, I feel like a shadow’s falling over me…”

The album debuted at #1 upon its release, and while that achievement in the downloadable age doesn’t carry the same significance it once did, it nonetheless stands as proof that his music remained popular even as the business around him changed.  Listening to this album again this week was a wistful experience, for it drove home the reality that we won’t be hearing any more new music from this fine band.  Petty worked his ass off, giving his all, and the grueling pace and concurrent lifestyle took their toll.  We lost him earlier than we should have…but we’ll always have the albums, including his excellent final one.

“Songs of Innocence,” U2, 2014

9f26c213d063779ce64558305bb3c0e5Five years in gestation following 2009’s “No Line on the Horizon,” due to writer’s block and group dissension about the recordings, this compelling album was finally released in 2014 to rave reviews, despite an unfortunate backlash from their marketing move to automatically download it to every iPhone, whether consumers wanted it or not.

But this is U2, who have a formidable track record, so let’s listen to the music.  “Songs of Innocence” is actually Part One of a two-part outpouring of new songs that concluded two years later with the lesser “Songs of Experience.” Lead singer Bono had been uncertain about the band’s ability to stay relevant in changing times, but he needn’t have worried.  “Songs of Innocence” in particular is a fantastic LP, no doubt about that.  The songs focus on themes of childhood memories and loves and losses, growing up in Dublin in the 1970s, using lush rock arrangements to tell their stories on what The Edge calls “the most personal album we’ve ever written.”

Critics praised the album as “more compact and direct, eschewing the global scale of U2’s previous material for intimate and personal perspectives.”  The band pays tribute to early musical inspirations on some of the harder rocking tracks like “The Miracle of (Joey Ramone)” and “Volcano,” while other tunes like “California (There is No End to Love)” and “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight” present U2 at their most melodic.  The best of the bunch is “Every Breaking Wave,” with its allusions to the need for intimacy and stability in a relentlessly challenging world:  “If you go your way and I go mine, are we so helpless against the tide, every dog on the street knows we’re in love with defeat, are we ready to be swept off our feet and stop chasing every breaking wave?…”

“Who,” The Who, 2019

The-Who-WHOIf you read Pete Townshend’s autobiography, “Who I Am,” you’ll learn that he struggled with self-esteem issues all his life, yet somehow managed to write hundreds of incredible songs, some of which dealt with the stuff that had troubled him — alcoholism, anger, fear, isolation.  From “My Generation” to “Behind Blue Eyes,” from “However Much I Booze” to “How Many Friends,” Townshend amassed a spectacular body of work with The Who and on his solo records from the mid-’60s into the 2000s.

The Who lost drummer Keith Moon early (1978), and then bassist John Entwistle in 2003, and Townshend and singer Roger Daltrey, despite their differences, have soldiered on through endless “farewell” tours in the years since, performing mostly their greatest hits.  Then, lo and behold, just a few months ago, we were treated to a new album simply titled “Who,” and holy smokes, what a huge treat to hear great new songs by Townshend at age 74!  The raised-fist glory of “Street Song,” “Hero Ground Zero” and “Rockin’ in Rage” harken back to the days of “Who’s Next” and “Quadrophenia,” while the melodic strains of “I’ll Be Back” and “She Rocked My World” remind me of the gems heard on Townshend’s dives into his home vault on the “Scoop” solo collections.

Through the years, Townshend has been a rather articulate philosopher who tries not to take himself too seriously.  He described the new album this way: “There’s dark ballads, heavy rock stuff, experimental electronica, sampled stuff and Who-ish tunes that begin with a guitar that goes yanga-dang.”  You can hear his matter-of-fact belief system on “All This Music Will Fade,” the album’s marvelous leadoff track and single, with lyrics that underscore the throwaway nature of pop music:  “I don’t care, I know you’re gonna hate this song, and that’s fair, we never really got along, it’s not new, not diverse, it won’t light up your parade, it’s just simple verse, all this music will fade…”