If there’s anything more difficult than achieving success in popular music, it’s sustaining success. The overwhelming majority of artists and bands never sign to a national record label. Only a small percentage of signed artists ever sell enough music to make the charts. Of those that do, the majority make their mark and disappear with careers that last less than five years. For that reason alone, artists and bands that have enjoyed careers lasting ten, twenty, or thirty years and more deserve respect and attention.
Rock and pop music is primarily marketed to and created by young people. With a few exceptions, established artists who pass middle age and continue to create music are often overlooked or ignored. Ironically, while the artists may be aging, their music remains ageless. Over the last few months, a wealth of “classic” rock and pop stars released new, notable albums that belied the age of their creators and deserved an audience.
In case you missed them, here are four of the best:
Panic of Girls; Blondie (Eleven Seven/EMI)– The New York-based group Blondie was one of the most popular and successful bands of the late 70s to early 80s new wave era. What truly set the band apart from its contemporaries, however, was the group’s penchant to successfully dabble in a wide variety of musical styles. They were the first, if not only, new wave band of the time to experiment with disco (“Heart of Glass”), hip-hop (“Rapture”), and reggae (“The Tide Is High”).
Led by original members Deborah Harry (vocals), Chris Stein (guitar) and Clem Burke (drums), and rounded out by Leigh Foxx (bass), Matt Katz-Bohen (keyboards), and Tommy Kessler (guitar) the band successfully recaptures the eclectic style of its Eat to the Beat era on Panic of Girls. The album is anchored in well-written power-pop like the punchy album opener “D-Day” or the first single, “Mother” (an ode to a popular New York nightclub of the 90s). With its propulsive synth lines and Burke’s spot on drumming, “What I Heard” sounds like it could’ve been cut in the same sessions that produced the classic Blondie albumParallel Lines. Harry’s voice remains strong and clear throughout the album.
The group revisits its love of reggae with a playful version of Sophia George’s 1985 U.K. hit, “Girlie Girlie,” and a reworking of Brooklyn-based band Beirut’s wistful “Sunday Smile.” “Wipe Off My Sweat,” co-written with Cuban artist Paradise N. Efecto, features a harder Latin groove and a tasty trumpet solo by Beirut bandleader Zach Condon.
Not everything on Panic of Girls hits its mark. “Le Bleu,” a song sung entirely in French is apparently intended to recall the style of French songwriters Brel and Gainsbourg, but meanders about aimlessly. “Words In My Mouth” is better, but suffers from the same lack of direction.
It’s been seven years since Blondie’s last album, The Curse of Blondie. Given the strength of material featured on Panic of Girls, here’s hoping the next album arrives much sooner.
Move like This; The Cars (Hear Music) – The Cars were one of the best, and most popular bands in the 10 year period between 1978 and 1988. The band broke up at the end of that run to pursue solo careers. Tragically, bassist and lead singer Benjamin Orr died in 2000 of pancreatic cancer. Guitarist Elliot Easton and keyboardist Greg Hawkes formed The New Cars (with Upper Darby native Todd Rundgren and Kasim Sulton) in 2005, but the project met with mixed results.
The remaining original members – guitarist and lead singer Ric Ocasek and drummer David Robinson – have now reunited with Easton and Hawkes for Move like This. To say that the band has recaptured its classic sound is an understatement: move like this picks up right where the band left off over 20 years ago. Hawkes, Easton, and Robinson propel songs like “Blue Tip” and “Too Late” with familiar mechanical rhythms, power chords, and synth fills that maintain a modern edge. Ocasek’s unique vocals still sound slightly disconnected – and fit The Cars’ musical style perfectly.
Album highlight “Sad Song” reworks the guitar intro and handclaps from “My Best Friend’s Girl” into a four-on-the-floor rocker that’s nearly as good. In a similar fashion, “Free” channels keyboard solos from Cars’ classics like “Bye-Bye Love” and “It’s All I Can Do.”
Orr’s songwriting and vocals, which always provided a more traditional, melodic counterpoint to Ocasek’s quirkier style, are definitely missed. Ocasek does an admirable job handling the vocals on the ballad “Soon,” but it’s the type of song at which Orr would have excelled .
At only 10 songs, Move like This leaves its audience wanting more. It also proves that The Cars still have plenty of gas in the tank.
In Your Dreams; Stevie Nicks (Reprise) –In the press release accompanying In Your Dreams, Stevie Nicks’ first album in 10 years, Nicks is quoted as saying: “This was one of the most extraordinary experiences I’ve had making a record. It is the first album that I have had this kind of collaboration since the making of Rumours… It was everything I always wished making a record would be.” Since major-label releases by major artists are often accompanied by their fair share of hype, it was clear that the album was being marketed as a “return to form” for Nicks.
Surprisingly, In Your Dreams not only meets expectations; it surpasses them. Nicks’ solo work outside of Fleetwood Mac has always been uneven. She’s capable of writing some of rock music’s most poetic lyrics and matching them to memorable melodies, but she seemed to thrive best in Fleetwood Mac’s group environment, where her individual musical excesses were reined in.
In Your Dreams was written and recorded at Nicks’ Los Angeles home and is co-produced by Dave Stewart (Eurythmics) and Glen Ballard (Alanis Morissette). Perhaps Stewart’s guiding hand was needed to extract this gem from Nicks. She literally sounds reborn – her voice is as clear and strong as it was on anything she ever sang with Fleetwood Mac.
Most of the material on the album was written over the past few years, but some songs – like the album’s first single, “Secret Love” and the Edgar Allan Poe-inspired “Annabel Lee” – date back as far as the early 70s.
Album highlights include “For What It’s Worth,” an acoustic mid-tempo ballad that’s as good as anything on Tusk, the aforementioned “Secret Love” and the up-tempo title track, which proves Nicks can indeed still “rock a little.”
Elsewhere, Nicks draws inspiration from literary sources in “Wild Sargasso Sea” (from the book and movie of the same name) and “Moonlight (A Vampire’s Dream)” (inspired by the film New Moon), as well as places in “New Orleans” and “Italian Summer” and events in “Soldier’s Angel.”
With only a few slight missteps, In Your Dreams might be Stevie Nicks’ most consistently strong album to date.
Seeds We Sow; Lindsey Buckingham (Buckingham Records) – Ever since the modern incarnation of Fleetwood Mac rose to popularity in the mid-70s, the band’s most valuable player has been Lindsey Buckingham. Buckingham’s contributions – solid songwriting, emotional vocals, fluid, finger-style guitar playing, and state-of-the-art production – are largely responsible for making albums like Rumors and Tusk the pop music milestones they are.
All of those attributes align once again on Buckingham’s new solo album, Seeds We Sow. While it’s by no means a stripped-down acoustic set (the route Buckingham took for the most part onUnder the Skin), Seeds We Sow has a very intimate feel to it. It’s an album that’s meant to be listened to with headphones – the better to appreciate every detail of Buckingham’s musical tapestry.
Buckingham is an excellent traditional pop songwriter, but what sets his music apart from the crowd are the unexpected, sometimes quirky layers he adds to his songs – the echo effect in “Stars Are Crazy” or the intense vocal surge on the chorus of “In Our Own Time.”
Fans of Buckingham’s Fleetwood Mac contributions or his earliest solo work will find much to like on Seeds We Sow. Songs like “Gone Too Far,” “Illumination,” and especially “That’s the Way Love Goes” would have fit well on Fleetwood Mac albums of the late 70s and early 80s. Buckingham’s voice hasn’t lost any of its range or power, and his guitar playing remains top-notch. He shows off his trademark finger-style playing throughout the album, and even pulls out a terrific shredding solo on “One Take.”
With seeds we sow, Buckingham has created an album that will be appreciated by Fleetwood Mac fans, Lindsey Buckingham fans, and if there’s any justice, lots of new fans.