Stevie Wonder – Music of My Mind
A bridge between Stevie’s hit-making wunderkind days and the epochal envelope-pushing of his mid-’70s masterpieces, Music of My Mind languished on my CD rack for a decade, always passed over for the darker, more ambitious Innervisions, the conceptual grandeur of Songs in the Key of Life (my knee-jerk pick for The Greatest Album of All Time) or a killer single like “Signed, Sealed & Delivered I’m Yours” (tied with “God Only Knows” for my knee-jerk pick for The Greatest Song of All Time). But for whatever reason, it’s found its way into heavy rotation for the first time, and thank god for it. In a way, it’s the ultimate Wonder album, an organic fusion of the carefree bliss of the early years and the heady funk and spiritual R&B of albums to come. The seven-minute-and-change sunshine funk masterpiece “Love Having You Around” opens things, setting the tone for a record dominated by themes of the joy and tenderness that true love brings. The songwriting and production is jarringly advanced from the poppier stylings of Signed, Sealed & Delivered, released just a year previous. And when the mournful notes of the closing track “Evil” fade from your speakers, leaving you to contemplate what shadowy force empowers the enemies of love, it becomes obvious that on Music of My Mind, Stevie Wonder was “Little” no more.
Metallica – Master of Puppets
Master of Puppets was my favorite album when I was 14. A few years later, I fancied myself a music connoisseur, a period during which I sold back a pile of dangerously awesome metal albums, including my entire Metallica collection. Having recently re-purchased this timeless piece of relentless, blistering thrash, I’ve gotta give my 14-year-old self some props. The title track is gloriously self-indulgent, shifting tempos, rhythms and time signatures with hairpin accuracy, with James Hetfield’s anti-war sentiments bludgeoning listeners with as much force as Kirk Hammett’s legendary riff. Damn, there isn’t a weak cut here. “Battery” and “Damage Inc.” are bloody-fingered, double bass drum-punishing assaults that put headbangers on cloud 9; “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” is a high-drama metal opus that makes insane asylums seem almost cool; the prog-rock instrumental “Orion” needs no growling or screaming to glue metal fans to their seats. When I first fell in love with Master of Puppets, its fusion of wild sonic hellfire and advanced rock craftsmanship had a mainline to my soul. But I also loved Jackyl in those days, which means my soul was also kind of stupid.
Randy Newman – Live
This album was my first exposure to the man who would become my favorite singer/songwriter (sorry for all the hyperbole in this post, it’s just turning out that way. Plus, I’m wicked drunk on Zima right now). And while one of Randy Newman’s inimitable qualities is his imaginative orchestral arrangements, I’ve always preferred the way he sounds on this release, a selection of tracks recorded at a pair of 1970 Newman solo performances at the NYC club The Bitter End. He performs cuts off his first two albums (like the twisted sexual satire “Mama Told Me Not To Come” and the I’m-lonely-in-a-crappy-apartment ballad “Living Without You”), material off of the forthcoming wonderment Sail Away, and a pair of sweet, ingenious songs about awkwardness in the bedroom that never appeared anywhere else – “Tickle Me” and “Maybe I’m Doing it Wrong.” And as pretty as the strings are on the original recording of “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” it doesn’t hold a candle to Newman’s performance of it here, which embodies a sky streaked with grey with tear-welling poignancy. Capturing the sweet and sardonic sides of this artist with fly-on-the-wall starkness, Randy Newman Live is the kind of record that makes you thank god the tape was rolling.