Hiding in plain sight
One of the most frustrating things to music lovers like me is when a truly outstanding song is ignored — or, more accurately, it maintains a place well under the radar of the listening public. It might be by a band that never made the charts — God knows there are hundreds of artists whose work never got the exposure it should have. Or, just as likely, it might be a “deep album track” by an award-winning artist on a best-selling album. Either way, it got virtually no attention on the radio and therefore went unnoticed except by the most ardent of fans.
A few months ago in one of my essays here, I featured a dozen “diamonds in the rough” — superlative songs that I felt have been criminally overlooked. It’s time to offer Round Two of these underappreciated jewels from commercially successful albums by major artists. I implore you to seek them out and bask in their gloriousness.
“Golden Lady,” Stevie Wonder, 1973
Beginning with 1972’s phenomenal “Talking Book,” Mr. Wonder pumped out four consecutive albums that were either nominees or winners of Album of the Year Grammy awards. He had been a boy Wonder with multiple hits as a teenage member of the Motown stable of artists, and now he was a one-man tour de force, writing, playing, singing, arranging and producing an extraordinary repertoire of material that not only dominated the charts (“Superstitition,” “Higher Ground,” “You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” “Sir Duke”) but influenced dozens of R&B and funk artists in the ensuing years. Buried on his exceptional 1973 LP “Innervisions” is the joyously melodic “Golden Lady,” which, to my ears, is one of the top four or five songs in his entire catalog.
“Sweetheart Like You,” Bob Dylan, 1983
Dylan’s 50-year career has been marked by unparalleled highs and embarassing lows. For every brilliant “Highway 61 Revisited” (1965), there’s a pitiful “Self Portrait” (1970). He returned with a vengeance in 1975 and 1976 with “Blood on the Tracks” and “Desire,” then fell off the pedestal with “Saved” (1980) and “Shot of Love” (1981). In 1983, he chose to solicit the help of the wondrous Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits to produce and also play lead guitar on the excellent “Infidels” LP, carried by the leadoff song “Jokerman.” The album’s second track, though, is the one that gets under my skin: “Sweetheart Like You” has a simple, guitar-driven melody and multiple verses brimming with wonderful wordplay and imagery as only Dylan can write (“In order to deal in this game, got to make the queen disappear, it’s done with a flick of the wrist, what’s a sweetheart like you doing in a dump like this?…”).
“Kings,” Steely Dan, 1972
If you look back over the debut albums of the major artists of the ’60s and ’70s, most were erratic at best; rare indeed was the group that hit a home run in its first at-bat. “Can’t Buy a Thrill,” the first LP from the wickedly musical minds of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker and company, is definitely one of them. It was hard not to notice the hypnotic “Do It Again” (#6) and the solid rocker “Reelin’ in the Years” (#11) in the winter and spring of 1973, but those who bought the album were treated to eight more songs just as good as those two. My personal favorite is “Kings,” with its vibrant harmonies, frenetic guitar break by visiting virtuoso Elliot Randall and lyrics that may be referring to the imminent departure of Richard Nixon (“We’ve seen the last of good king Richard, raise up your glass, his name lives on and on…”)
“Big Man on Mulberry Street,” Billy Joel, 1986
From roughly 1977 to 1987, the tunesmith from Long Island, New York, had two or three songs in the Top 40 every single year, and seven Top Ten albums. He was prolific with irresistibly catchy songs, from the schmaltz of “Just the Way You Are” to the pop punk of “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” from the Frankie Valli knockoff “Uptown Girl” to the populist drama of “Allentown.” In 1986, Joel’s #7 album “The Bridge” included three hits: “Modern Woman,” “A Matter of Trust” and “This is the Time.” But for me, the LP’s best track was “Big Man on Mulberry Street,” a phenomenal slab of big band/swing with sensational horns dominating the mix. It proved to be the perfect soundtrack for a memorable dream sequence in an episode of the mid-’80s TV series “Moonlighting,” when Cybill Shepherd’s Maddie Hayes envisioned Bruce Willis’s David Addison meeting up with his ex-wife in an after hours Manhattan dive. You might want to visit YouTube and hear this song in tandem with that video.
“We Used to Know,” Jethro Tull, 1969
A couple of years before “Aqualung” and “Thick as a Brick” made Tull an arena-filling concert draw, the 1969 album “Stand Up” was earning widespread praise for its eclectic mix of blues, English folk and hard rock, led as always by the pied piper of rock, flautist/composer/singer Ian Anderson. Tracks like “Nothing is Easy” and the flute-driven instrumental cover of Bach’s “Bouree” got most of the attention, but the track you need to check out is “We Used to Know,” a vintage dose of early hard-rocking Tull carried by Martin Barre’s incredible electric guitar work. I recently discovered that the song’s chord progression is identical to the one from the monumental Eagles anthem “Hotel California,” but Anderson chuckled when asked about it. “I’ve probably lifted a few songs in my day as well. There’s room for everyone.”
“Clear as the Driven Snow,” The Doobie Brothers, 1973
In their early years before Michael McDonald joined and gave them a smoky cocktail lounge sound, The Doobies were a kickass boogie band out of San Jose, with contagious rock riffs on songs like “Rockin’ Down the Highway,” “China Grove” and “Long Train Runnin’.” Their albums also included some quieter, melodic tunes like “Toulouse Street” and “South City Midnight Lady” that featured Pat Simmons’ sweet voice, but they were known mostly for the mainstream rock tunes with Tom Johnston handling the vocals. Perhaps because it combines both of these styles into one magnificent track, “Clear as the Driven Snow” (from the 1973 LP “The Captain and Me”) always stands out to me as one of The Doobies’ finest moments. What a delight that they included it in the set list at their recent concert appearance at the Greek Theater in LA!
“Bare Trees,” Fleetwood Mac, 1972
Three years before Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham joined the band, Fleetwood Mac was struggling along, having evolved from a deep British blues group under Peter Green into a solid pop rock band with quality vocals, songs and hooks from Christine McVie, Bob Welch, and a fragile little guy named Danny Kirwan. His signature vibrato guitar stylings added rich textures to the Mac’s music of this period, although their albums typically failed to crack the Top 40 in the US or the UK. Their strong 1972 album “Bare Trees” topped out at only #70 but included the Welch gem “Sentimental Lady” (which he took into the top 10 five years later as a solo artist) and McVie’s winsome “Spare Me a Little of Your Love.” The standout track, though, was Kirwan’s complex yet catchy title track, which featured the amazingly inventive Mick Fleetwood-John McVie rhythm section underneath Kirwan’s succinct guitar work and singing.
“Monkey Man,” The Rolling Stones, 1969
It was a strange time for the Stones in 1969. Founder Brian Jones had virtually withdrawn from group activities, barely contributing to recording sessions, and was ultimately replaced by new guitar hotshot Mick Taylor. The fact that Jones was found dead in early July in his swimming pool weighed on the band emotionally, but it served to inspire the Jagger-Richards songwriting axis to come up with some of their most memorable tracks. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” “Midnight Rambler,” “Let It Bleed,” the single “Honky Tonk Women” and especially the harrowing “Gimme Shelter” all emerged in the summer and fall, and appeared on the year-end “Let It Bleed” album. Buried on side 2 (remember side 2?) was a haunting piece called “Monkey Man,” featuring the great Nicky Hopkins on piano, some crunching guitar work from Richards, and an astonishing lead vocal by Jagger.
“Only a Dream in Rio,” James Taylor, 1985
After an impressive run of nine Top 10 albums and as many memorable hit singles, Taylor seemed to fall out of favor with the buying public in the early ’80s. The albums he released during this period — 1985’s “That’s Why I’m Here,” 1988’s “Never Die Young” and 1991’s “New Moon Shine” — were packed with excellent, vintage JT tunes, but the chart success didn’t come. In fact, he hasn’t had a hit single since “Her Town Too” in 1981. But no matter — Taylor’s loyal fan base is well aware of the exceptional songs found on these three LPs. Most notable to me (and to Taylor himself) is “Only a Dream in Rio,” which he says “sprang from me fully formed one day after performing to 100,000 people in Brazil.” It offers one of his most joyous melodies and arrangements, with lyrics (some in Portuguese) that speak humbly of the thrill of performing to grateful audiences.
“Another Tricky Day,” The Who, 1981
When drummer Keith Moon died in the fall of 1978, only three weeks after the release of “Who Are You,” there was great uncertainty about whether the band would — or should — continue. They chose to enlist former Faces drummer Kenny Jones and return to the road, but it took nearly three years before they would release another album, the rather erratic “Face Dances,” in April 1981. Still it reached an impressive #4 on the US charts, with a #18 hit single, the lightweight “You Better You Bet.” By far the album’s best track was its closer, “Another Tricky Day,” with Roger Daltrey in superb form on vocals, and some perceptively philosophical lyrics from Pete Townshend: “Just gotta get used to it…we all get it in the end, we go down and we come up again…This is no social crisis, just another tricky day for you…”
I plan to select 10-12 of these “deep album tracks” every so often to write about in an attempt to increase awareness that there are indeed many many hundreds of songs just waiting to be discovered on successful and not-so-successful albums from the glory years of rock. Do you have any candidates for me to consider? By all means, let me know!