The best, weirdest and worst instrumentals by The Alan Parsons Project

Over the course of its ten albums, The Alan Parsons Project released 20 instrumentals, though more on their first five albums (four of which start with an instrumental and the fifth, The Turn of a Friendly Card, starts with a pseudo instrumental that runs about two minutes before the vocals begin).

What follows are lists, because I love lists!

Top 5 Favourite Instrumentals

  • In the Lap of the Gods (Pyramid)
  • Lucifer (Eve)
  • The Gold Bug (The Turn of a Friendly Card)
  • Pipeline (Ammonia Avenue) and Paseo de Gracia (Gaudi) (tie)
  • Secret Garden (Eve)

Honorable Mention: Sirius (Eye in the Sky). This song is probably indelibly tied to sports team introductions now, but it’s still a terrific and dramatic intro to Eye in the Sky. “Mammagamma” from the same album is also very good, if a bit slick.

What all of the above songs have in common is atmosphere. “In the Lap of the Gods” is mysterious, soaring and melodramatic (see more here). “Lucifer” starts with somewhat unnerving strings and sound effects (including Morse code), fades, then comes back with a staccato drum and ringing guitar, before adding in the requisite choir. “The Gold Bug” does feature vocals without words, but these really serve as another instrument in a lovely, layered song. “Pipeline” is perhaps the most conventional on the list, but it’s so incredibly smooth it feels wrong to omit it. “Paseo de Gracia” ties–this closing instrumental is the only one to have a Spanish flavour, with horns and more fine guitar work by Ian Bairnson. “Secret Garden” also features worldless vocals (again by Chis Rainbow) and has a sunny, almost Beach Boys sound to its harmonies.

Top 3 Weird Instrumentals:

  • Total Eclipse (I Robot)
  • Chinese Whispers (Stereotomy)
  • The Fall of the House of Usher (Tales of Mystery and Imagination)

Honorable Mention: The two instrumentals from I Robot that aren’t “I Robot”.

“Total Eclipse” is the only Project song solely credited to conductor Andrew Powell, and it’s this weird, almost discordant song that sounds like a portent of doom, perhaps reflecting how ancient people feared eclipses. “Chinese Whispers” is an odd, short piece featuring a vaguely Asian-sounding acoustic guitar, with Eric Woolfson’s daughters providing murmured vocals. “Usher” is the longest song the Project did at over 15 minutes, and it’s divided into movements that encompass sound effects of a storm, the house collapsing, choirs and everything else. It sounds entirely different from everything else on all ten of their albums. The two “I Robot” instrumentals, “Nucleus” and “Genesis Ch. 1 V. 32” are largely mood pieces.

Probably the Worst Instrumental:

  • “Hawkeye” (Vulture Culture)

It’s not bad, per se, it’s just very bland. Without any orchestration, it leans heavily on sax and keyboard, which also helps date it as a very 80s song.

R.E.M. albums ranked, 2023 edition

Check here for the last time I ranked R.E.M.’s 15 album oeuvre, way back in 2013: Ranking R.E.M. albums from 1983 to 2011

It’s now been 12 years (!) since R.E.M. packed it in. Their first album, Murmur, was released 40 years ago (!) when vinyl was more than hip, it was one of only two real formats for buying music (the other was cassette tape–the kind that any tape deck eventually ate).

Here is my re-revised list of R.E.M. albums–from #1 to #15.

First, the chronological list of albums as released:

  • Murmur, 1983
  • Reckoning, 1984
  • Fables of the Reconstruction, 1985
  • Lifes Rich Pageant, 1986
  • Document, 1987
  • Green, 1988
  • Out of Time, 1991
  • Automatic for the People, 1992
  • Monster, 1994
  • New Adventures in Hi-fi, 1996
  • Up, 1998
  • Reveal, 2001
  • Around the Sun, 2004
  • Accelerate, 2008
  • Collapse Into Now, 2011

My 2023 ranking (numbers indicate position relative to the 2013 ranking):

  1. Automatic for the People, 1992 (-)
  2. Lifes Rich Pageant, 1986 (-)
  3. Murmur, 1983 (+2)
  4. Monster, 1994 (-1)
  5. Out of Time, 1991 (+4)
  6. New Adventures in Hi-fi, 1996 (+1)
  7. Green, 1988 (+6)
  8. Reckoning, 1984 (-2)
  9. Fables of the Reconstruction, 1985 (-1)
  10. Collapse Into Now, 2011 (-6)
  11. Up, 1998 (+3)
  12. Document, 1987 (-1)
  13. Accelerate, 2008 (-3)
  14. Reveal, 2001 (-2)
  15. Around the Sun, 2004 (-)


  • Only three albums didn’t change positions, and they are at the extremes: #1, 2 and 15.
  • The gap between #14 (Reveal) and #15 (Around the Sun) is the biggest between any two albums. ATS is easily the worst album R.E.M. put out. It should probably be at #20.
  • The biggest slide is Collapse Into Now, their final album, dropping from #4 all the way to #10. It’s a fine album and a worthy send-off, but it just doesn’t shine as bright as the others ahead of it, in retrospect.
  • Four of the bottom five albums are four of their last five–not a good trend for a long-lived band!
  • Green leaps from #13 to #6. Why? While it may not have been the band’s artistic peak, it captures them in an experimental mood, expanding their sound and–importantly–sounding like they are having a lot of fun while doing it. Especially after Automatic for the People, the band appeared to have sent its collective sense of humour into the universe’s largest black hole.
  • Murmur and Monster, despite being very different albums, are basically interchangeable, ranking-wise.
  • Sometimes I like it when R.E.M. rocks out (Monster), and sometimes less so (Accelerate), although to be fair, the latter is an excellent album to jog to.
  • If the second half of Up (#11) was stronger, it would probably rank near the top five.
  • In hindsight, Document is a good but not great album. I feel like the band was shifting gears and the album catches them midway through. If you think of it as the first half of Green, it makes more sense, in a way.

Also, when you look at the albums in chronological order, you may ask yourself: Did R.E.M. alienate a large part of its fan base with Monster being the follow-up to Automatic for the People? Yes, yes they did! Observe:

  • Monster (which I think is one of their most inventive and creative albums–if you like that feedback-laden, wall of sound approach) was the utter opposite of Automatic. It still sold well, probably propelled at least in part by momentum.
  • New Adventures in Hi-fi probably hit many people as a weird blend of the previous two albums, with loud rockers like on Monster, combined with hushed meditations like on Automatic–and being neither fish nor fowl, it began their first real decline in sales.
  • Up: With Bill Berry (drummer) leaving the band, they began to experiment more openly, using sequencers, drum machines and noodling around with atmospherics, resulting in an album that was part R.E.M. and part whatever-they-were-turning-into.
  • Reveal is a weird one, too. It mixes sunny, Beach Boys-style songs with classic R.E.M. (“Imitation of Life”) and goes fully experimental on other songs, like “Saturn Return”. The production is intricate, and the sound is dense. This is not an album designed to hit the top of the pop charts.
  • Around the Sun: Or “What a band completely uninterested in being a band anymore when they are 3/5ths of the way through a record contract sounds like.” This one managed to put off everyone: the experimentation was replaced by a bunch of limp songs that generated no heat, didn’t sound like classic R.E.M.–or any other version–and featured lyrics by Michael Stipe that were so straightforward they were just bland. An impressively lacklustre outing.
  • The last two albums turned things around, preventing them from destroying their legacy, but it was pretty obvious after Collapse Into Now that they were done.

My 2013 ranking:

  1. Automatic for the People
  2. Lifes Rich Pageant
  3. Monster
  4. Collapse Into Now
  5. Murmur
  6. Reckoning
  7. New Adventures in Hi-fi
  8. Fables of the Reconstruction
  9. Out of Time
  10. Accelerate
  11. Document
  12. Reveal
  13. Green
  14. Up
  15. Around the Sun

R.E.M.’s remastered Monster (2019 25th anniversary edition)

The last time I ranked R.E.M.’s albums, I put Monster at #3 (of 15 studio releases). I hadn’t listened to the remastered 25th anniversary edition until now. I am as timely as I ever was!

The album consists of four discs (for those who remember physical media):

  • The original album
  • A collection of outtakes and demos from the Monster sessions
  • A remix version of the album
  • A collection of live songs recorded in Chicago in 1995 (Monster came out in 1994)

It’s a veritable cornucopia of R.E.M. stuff, but I want to focus on is that third disc, the remix of the album. I’ll have more thoughts later, as I’ve only just listened to the album, but it’s a bit bonkers.

Scott Litt, the original producer, was allowed to handle the remix, and he apparently had some big regrets in how he handled Monster back in 1994, chiefly being:

  • Burying Michael Stipe’s vocals deep in the mix
  • Overemphasizing the feedback, tremolo and fuzzy guitars, which was popular at the time due to the rise of grunge (in retrospect it was kind of the “onion on the belt” of the early 1990s)

Both of these are true of the 1994 original release, but each was a deliberate choice. On the other five albums Scott Litt produced with the band, including one that came after Monster, Stipe’s vocals (and his singing in general) is clear and in the front of the mix. With Monster, there was a conscious effort to give R.E.M. a different, “bigger” sound, as well as one that was looser, muddier, with the illusion of being sloppy, although the production was actually quite meticulous.

This makes the album unique among their releases. They never recorded anything that sounded quite like it before or after.

The remix feels like a completely different album at times. All the same songs are here, but the presentation at times is so dramatically different that they feel like they came from somewhere else. Stipe’s vocals are indeed pushed much more to the front, providing a clarity to his words that is at times almost startling. But Litt goes further, sometimes using completely different vocal takes entirely. “I Don’t Sleep, I Dream” ends with a completely different extended outro. The reverb in “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” is simply gone. There are even a few bits here and there that seem to be trying to brighten the overall mood.

It’s all a little weird.

Some songs emerge relatively intact. “Strange Currencies” was always pretty straightforward, and the remix version is mostly the same, apart from Stipe’s vocals being pushed up that much more in the mix.

Is this a better version of Monster? My impulse is to say no, not better, just different.

One of the effects of the new clarity of Stipe’s vocals is to slightly diminish the feel of the characters he’s portraying in some songs. He sounds more like himself now, which is great in a general sense, but a bit of flavor is lost as a result. It’s trippy to hear how utterly clear the vocals really are, though.

“Let Me In”, with the fuzz all but removed, sounds far more plaintive, and again I think this weakens the flavor of the original, but the new crispness of Stipe’s delivery somewhat compensates.

There are a few choices that are puzzling. “Tongue” now fades out for no discernible reason. Little flourishes that didn’t exist before have been added here and there, to no real effect. “Crush with Eyeliner” begins with Stipe singing “lalala” sans instruments It’s quirky, but leaves me wondering why it was added.

I will say I love that this remix exists alongside the original. Seeing bands (and producers) rework their material is always enjoyable, even if the results aren’t necessarily better–sometimes specifically if they aren’t better. This is a distinctive alternate take on Monster and makes it “fit” better with the albums that came before and after it. Whether that was the right choice is really just a matter of opinion.

Compilation craziness

For some reason (well, sale prices helped) I’ve gone on a compilation-buying binge lately, having grabbed the following greatest hits/best of collections:

  • Elton John, Diamonds
  • Madonna, The Immaculate Collection
  • Neil Young, Greatest Hits
  • Elvis: 30 #1 Hits
  • Don Henley, Actual Miles: Henley’s Greatest Hits

A bit of an eclectic mix and my first purchases of anything by Madonna, Elvis or Don Henley (if you exclude The Eagles). The songs collected on these albums span 60 (!) years, from 1956 to 2016. All of Elvis’s output alone is more than 40 years old, what with him having died in 1977 and all.

I suppose I truly became a gay man when I bought the Madonna collection. I’d come across both “Live to Tell” and “Papa Don’t Preach” on YouTube recently and remembered how catchy those old songs were and then I suddenly owned them. The whole album is a confident, concise set of well-crafted pop songs. Even “Like a Virgin” doesn’t sound as dirty as I remember it. Maybe I’m thinking more of the video, where Madonna writhes around on the floor in a wedding dress. She’d probably put her back out doing the same thing now.

The Elvis collection is a paean to how short singles used to be, with the majority of the songs clocking under three minutes and some under two. The delivery, especially on some of the earliest tunes, is still delightfully saucy more than half a century later.

Neil Young’s collection is alternately beautiful, angry and heartfelt. The ending tracks of “Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World” and “Harvest Moon” is like getting punched in the gut, then being gently kissed after.

Henley’s music is a bit disappointing in how much it’s a product of its time, with the tracks heavy on the 80s synths. Some genuinely good work, though, even if the sound is dated (does not include “The Garden of Allah”).

John’s collection is massive and sprawling, covering 46 years on its own. That he is still able to write solid songs nearly five decades later is kind of amazing. I wonder if he ever goes, “Neener neener” to Billy Joel when they tour together (Joel released less than half as many albums over his career).

Anyway, maybe I’ll buy something this year that is actually recorded this year. In the meantime I’ve got nostalgia up to the armpits.

The Bridge is not a great album and I sort of like it

The Bridge - Billy JoelI finally picked up Billy Joel’s 1986 album The Bridge in fancy digital format, previously owning and then selling the CD (I needed the money at the time–this was a long time ago when selling used CDs was actually somewhat worthwhile). For some reason, it sells for a few dollars more than his other albums, as if subtly trying to tell you to avoid it or conversely making it seem more valuable and thus, irresistible.

Given the actual album content, it may be more the former.

Joel was prolific throughout his career until this album, which came out three years after An Innocent Man. His next two albums would come out three and then four years apart before he essentially hung up recording forever (with a few minor exceptions).

With The Bridge the first hints of a creative dry spell are seen with Cyndi Lauper lending a co-writing credit (and vocals) to “Code of Silence.” On the other hand, Joel also uses the album to do whatever the hell he wants, a fitting reflection of the indulgent 1980s. Fortunately, his ability to write effortlessly catchy tunes lifts much of the material. He straps on a guitar for no apparent reason in “A Matter of Trust” but the song is catchy enough. He adopts a falsetto and goes big band in “Big Man on Mulberry Street,” does a duet with idol Ray Charles in “Baby Grand” (while engaging in some ill-advised Ray Charles-style vocal affectations) and apes The Police in “Running on Ice.”

The low points come in the songs where he is addressing or singing about women. Sometimes the result is forgettable fluff like “Modern Woman,” one of his most skippable songs ever. Other times the songs are bogged down with tacky lyrical turns. In “This is the Time” Joel sings:

I haven’t shown you everything a man can do
So stay with me baby, I got plans for you

This is gross, really.

“Temptation” seems to be a defense of his then-relationship with Christie Brinkley, a lyrically weak and musically lazy ballad.

But among these lesser songs, there’s some good stuff, too. Sure, “Big Man on Mulberry Street” is over the top but it’s also a fun pastiche. While the lyrics are strangely generic, “Code of Silence” is still evocative and Lauper’s contribution to the song works well. “Getting Closer” is an energetic, er, closer, and while “Running on Ice” gets a little too wrapped up in its portrayal of Joel as a poor, overworked but so very sophisticated urban man, the song is pleasingly energetic.

This is easily Billy Joel’s most inconsistent album since his work in the early 70s and I wouldn’t blame anyone for stopping their collection at An Innocent Man (or even The Nylon Curtain), but there’s enough solid material here for me to give it a tepid recommendation.


Guilty pleasures

A few weeks ago I moved a notch higher on the “yep, gay” scale when I bought Barbra Streisand’s album Guilty. Actually, it was more like I had gone up a notch back in 1980 when the album originally debuted (I had it on 8-track, of course), then dipped when I got rid of my 8-track tapes because it was a horrible crime of a music playback medium. So really, I’ve just returned to my 1980 level. As befits someone getting older, I’ve recently gone trolling through the music of my youth, buying a clutch of albums from the olden days when CDs were new and novel (or yet to exist). Here are a few quickie reviews of each in this modern and scary year of 2016 (all albums save Guilty I had not owned previously):

Guilty (Barbra Streisand), 1980. Collaborating with Barry Gibb and his brothers, at times this album sounds exactly like what you’d expect–a Bee Gees album fronted by Streisand. Some of the musical flourishes are very much of their time but in the end Streisand’s vocals elevate the production. “Woman in Love” is the highlight here. The lyrics are merely serviceable, the music, apart from a dramatic organ chord, is nothing special, but Streisand’s singing is powerful.

Boston (Boston), 1976. There’s a lot more organ on this album than I expected. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s just a thing. This is arena-friendly rock, its power chords anchored by Brad Delp’s dexterous, soaring vocals (which turned “More Than a Feeling” into a massive hit). The music flirts with a more prog rock sound at times but never strays far from being manly man rock and roll. It’s fun and a bit silly.

Reckless (Bryan Adams), 1984. The album is appropriately described on its iTunes page as “so overstuffed with classic-rock-radio perennials, it practically qualifies as a greatest-hits collection.” This is Adams refining his sound and style and getting everything right. The album barrels along, with a pause for the ballad “Heaven” so you can catch your breath before it speeds off again. It’s all catchy as hell and Adams rough-edged vocals add just the right amount of grit to this rollicking effort. It’s an album whose ambition is to be nothing more than solid rock and roll and it delivers big time.

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (Elton John), 1973. Amazingly, this was already John’s seventh album, a sprawling double disc (remember “discs”?) that shifts musical styles throughout, effortlessly switching from prog rock to reggae and on to simple ballads and arena rockers. Some of the subject matter is a bit odd (Roy Rogers?) but the sheer variety and the way John confidently blazes through every song holds it all together. As with Guilty, it is often John’s vocal work that lifts the material to a higher level.

It’s still rock and roll (and jazz and pop and sort of punk) to me: Billy Joel albums ranked

This is an incomplete ranking as it doesn’t include any of Joel’s live albums nor does it feature his first three releases, Cold Spring Harbor (1971), Piano Man (1973) and Streetlife Serenade (1974) or his classical album, Fantasies and Delusions (2001). That still leaves nine studio albums, spanning the years 1977-1993.

I discovered Joel when a lot of people did, when he hit it big with The Stranger in 1977. The first album of his I owned (back when vinyl wasn’t cool, it was just the format every record store sold) was 1978’s 52nd Street, which went on to win a Grammy for Album of the Year. I loved what I heard and bought every album after until he retired from recording new music in 1993.

Billy Joel knows melody. He knows hooks. He knows how to write super-slick pop songs that can transcend that slickness to become something more. He also indulges himself regularly, a veritable Renaissance Man on some albums, shifting from Broadway-style show tunes to smoky ballads to jazzy riffs and effervescent pop. Sometimes it feels like he’s gleefully showing off and it works. Sometimes, less so. Here’s how I rank those nine albums, from best to worst.

First, let me say this is trickier than it seems because while I definitely think there are weaker albums in this mix, the better ones are fairly consistent, meaning the top five are almost interchangeable (while being quite different from each other, a nice trick).

  1. The Nylon Curtain (1982). After his divorce, Joel channels The Beatles and gets serious. He stretches out vocally and writes on weighty topics, covering the Vietnam war, the collapse of the industrial economy in the U.S. and more. It’s an album filled with anxiety and regret, of faint hopes and dashed dreams. It’s not exactly feel-good material. But at its best the music shimmers and soars and Joel moves from one style to another with purpose. The first half particularly stands out, with “Allentown”, “Pressure” and “Laura”–another one of Joel’s poison pen letters to a demanding, damaged and imaginary (I hope) lover.
  2. Glass Houses (1980). This is almost the literal opposite to The Nylon Curtain, a big arena-friendly album in which Joel tries to rock out. I say try because this is still pop, but it’s meatier than usual. There’s usually a little filler on every Joel album, but Glass Houses is incredibly tight, its scant 35 minute run time moving quickly from one song to the next. There are a few ballads here and they are lovely, but the album is driven by propulsive songs like “All for Leyna” and “Sometimes a Fantasy.”
  3. 52nd Street (1978). The first half is particularly strong, starting with the in-your-face “Big Shot” and ending with the jazzy tones of “Zanzibar.” The second half features some fine music, too, but the epic “Until the Night” is undercut by Joel’s lyrical weaknesses. His musings on women feel dated or old-fashioned if you’re feeling charitable.
  4. The Stranger (1977). In some ways this is a better album than 52nd Street but it’s hurt by having several weaker songs padding it out. Some might call it heresy but I have never liked the schmaltzy “Just the Way You Are” and the closer “Everybody Has a Dream” is probably the least memorable finale on Joel’s albums. On the plus side, the Broadway-style production of “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” is great fun and “The Stranger” is a perfect blend of music and lyric, right down to the creepy whistle that opens and closes the song.
  5. An Innocent Man (1983). A love letter to his then girlfriend Christie Brinkley, this throwback to the sound of the late 50s and early 60s is Joel at his most joyful and relaxed. The songs are like a bowl of candy, sweet little confections, from the rousing “Uptown Girl” to the somewhat preachy yet undeniably catchy “Tell Her About It.” My favorite is probably the wistful title track.
  6. Turnstiles (1976). There are a number of good songs on this album and I happen to find the cynical tone of “Angry Young Man” amusing specifically because of Joel’s delivery (which I think was deliberate) but a number of the tracks are also featured on the live “Songs in the Attic (1981) and they are more vital in their live versions, notably “Say Goodbye to Hollywood,” which benefits from the string section being excised and “Miami 2017” (whose doomsday vision of the future only has one year to become reality).
  7. River of Dreams (1993). His last pop album of new material and coming 22 years after his first, River of Dreams finds Joel angry in “The Great Wall of China” and “No Man’s Land” then showing a tender side as father in “Lullabye.” There’s more filler than usual here but as a send-off, it’s not bad at all.
  8. Stormfront (1989). I rank this lower than River of Dreams simply because more of the songs are less memorable and it’s rather dated now. “We Didn’t Start the Fire” is catchy but superficial and “When in Rome” is one of my favorite Joel songs to skip. For some reason it just grates.
  9. The Bridge (1986). A number of songs here are quite catchy but the album is rife with affectations, mostly in Joel’s vocalizations. He performs a duet with Ray Charles and mimics Ray Charles. He adopts a falsetto in “Big Man on Mulberry Street” because he can and “Modern Woman” is a song I simply can’t stand. The whole album feels indulgent, further brought down by weaker tracks that surround the set pieces.

Grandpa music

Some of the music I jog to is over 50 years old. Does that seem weird?

If someone in 1940 could have jogged to music, would they have jogged to music from 1890? Did they even have music back then? Maybe they just beat sticks on rocks or rocks on other rocks. Perhaps these rocks sometimes rolled away, leading to the birth of rock and roll.

Anyway, it occurred to me that I have largely entered the phase of life where nostalgia and seeking comfort in things from olden times begins to dominate, and this is reflected in my recent music purchases. I will point out I have at least moved from purchasing my music on 8-track cassette to digital format. Here are my last three purchases, the newest of which was released 28 years ago, predating the birth of some of my co-workers.

Breakfast in America – Supertramp (1979). My defense is I never previously owned a Supertramp album, this one is considered a classic, and there’s something about the sweep of the Wurlitzer electric piano and guitar in the chorus of “The Logical Song” that I find especially groovy. But yes, the album is 36 years old. Carter was still president.

Kick – INXS (1987). My defense is I never previously owned an INXS album. I never particularly wanted to, either, but Kick is one of those albums where a band, through some combination of luck, circumstance and talent, manages to put together a collection of songs that are nearly perfect in achieving what the band wanted. The album is loaded with pop gems and is a lot smarter than you’d expect from such a slick bunch of songs. The videos, most of them recorded in Prague, are just as confidently-shot as the music was produced.

In the Eye of the Storm – Roger Hodgson (1984). The first solo album from Supertramp co-founder and co-lead singer. The album and lead single “Had a Dream” were both hits in Canada and the single is what drove me to pick up the album. The whole album is quite good and feels like Supertramp with some of the art rock sensibilities sprinkled back in. “Had a Dream” builds through a long effects-laden intro and is as cynical as it is catchy. The video ponderously delivers its message, perilously toeing the line between “serious” and accidental self-parody. At one point a fetus is floating in space, 2001-esque, and then, matching Hodgson’s scream on the song, there’s a flash of lightning and the baby suddenly becomes Hodgson, floating naked and screaming in space. It’s possibly even worse than it sounds. Other parts of the video feature Hodgson fake-running while wearing nothing but a loincloth. I don’t know, either. Maybe it was a dream he had.

I shall call it: The Alan Parsons Project (ranked)

Between 1976 and 1987 The Alan Parsons Project released ten albums, not bad for a band that was never really a band. As so often in my youth I was late to the scene of this prog rock outfit that featured catchy pop songs often backed by a full orchestra, coming in on their seventh album, 1984’s Ammonia Avenue (thanks to the video for “Don’t Answer Me”.) I bought their next three albums and then the project broke up, with Parsons going off to actually tour the songs he’d been recording for the past decade and his partner Eric Woolfson turning to musicals. I always kind of hoped they’d reunite one last time for another project but that never happened before Woolfson’s death in 2009.

I’ve also been a sucker for pop music backed by an orchestra, but it can be done well and it can be done very badly. The Alan Parsons Project, thanks in large part to Andrew Powell’s orchestrations, managed to wed the two types of music together in a complementary manner. I’m not a musicologist so I can’t really describe it better than that.

In any case, here’s how I rank their ten albums.

  1. Eye in the Sky (1982). The first half of this album is a seamless, perfect blend of every strength the project had, opening with the evocative (and to sports fans, very familiar) instrumental “Sirius” before moving on to the hit “Eye in the Sky” and closing with the semi-epic “Silence and I.” For an example of how effective Powell’s orchestrations were, listen to the guide vocal by Eric Woolfson of the same track on the remastered album, which doesn’t include the orchestration. The second half of the album is less substantial but still includes the excellent instrumental “Mammagamma” and closer “Old and Wise.”
  2. The Turn of a Friendly Card (1980). This album serves as a kind of blueprint for Eye in the Sky, but the strengths of the albums are reversed, with the latter half of Turn being the stronger. There is a tone of melancholy and regret that flows through the songs, even if they are sometimes close to danceable (“Games People Play”). The opener “May Be a Price to Pay” opens with a stirring trumpet fanfare. How can you not like that?
  3. Tales of Mystery and Imagination (1976). Many would consider it heresy to not put this at #1 (including Parsons himself) but I feel this album doesn’t quite line up all the pieces of the project as effectively as later albums would. Still, it carries the theme of Poe’s work effectively and the remastered version that restores Orson Welle’s narration and adds a bridging “cathedral organ” turns the effort into a whole rather than two halves. While the project would never mount an epic instrumental like “The Fall of the House of Usher” again, it’s interesting to have here, even if it doesn’t mesh overly well with the other more pop-oriented songs.
  4. Ammonia Avenue (1984). This is more or less Eye in the Sky, Part 2, but it’s such an incredibly slick effort you can’t deny the attempt to recapture the previous album. There are standout tracks, from the wall of sound of “Don’t Answer Me” to the stirring title track. Maybe one of the strengths of the album is that none of the songs particularly feel like filler.
  5. Pyramid (1978). Some consider this effort slight but I’m a sucker for the theme and like Ammonia Avenue, I don’t feel there are any weak tracks. Perhaps to its detriment there also aren’t any real standouts, either, but the whole album is less than 38 minutes long, so it’s never a major commitment. My favorite songs here are opposites: the dramatic (melodramatic?) instrumental “In the Lap of the Gods,” complete with shouting choir and the utterly silly “Pyramania,” featuring the project’s only tuba solo.
  6. Eve (1979). This is an odd album in that most of the songs are openly hostile to women, yet the album ends with two sung by female vocalists that come across as apologies for everything before them. I doubt the album would be recorded with the same lyrics today. That said, the instrumentals are again excellent, with “Secret Garden” featuring an effervescent Beach Boys-inspired harmonizing and the opener “Lucifer” setting an appropriately dark tone for what’s to come.
  7. I Robot (1977). More heresy, as this is often ranked as one of the project’s top albums but I’ve always found some of the tracks too meandering and unfocused, particularly the instrumentals (excepting the title track). “Don’t Let It Show” (later covered by Pat Benatar, of all people) and “Breakdown” are my favorites here.
  8. Stereotomy (1986). By the mid-80s the project seems like it’s running out of steam. Powell’s orchestrations are minimal here and while the title track and instrumental “Where’s the Walrus?” are fine, a lot of the remainder, like “In the Real World,” feel by the numbers.
  9. Gaudi (1987). Again the orchestrations are very light here, though deployed effectively, especially the horns on the closing instrumental “Paseo de Gracia” and the opener “La Sagrada Familia.” The theme of Gaudi’s work and life elevates the album somewhat but it feels more like flourishes here and there rather than part of a cohesive whole. Some of the songs are slick but forgettable (“Too Late”, “Money Talks.”)
  10. Vulture Culture (1985). Andrew Powell was working with a number of project members on the music for the film Ladyhawke and as a result this is the only project album that features no orchestration. In its place is keyboards. Lots and lots of keyboards. The songs are solid but unspectacular, the whole thing feels nothing more than “nice.” The remastered re-release includes the acoustic track “No Answers Only Questions,” a song that would have rounded out the rest of the album on original release.

When musical excess works: 69 Love Songs (box set)

By happenstance I happened across a post in the Random Thoughts and Questions thread on Broken Forum where someone mentioned a song they had been listening to called “Papa Was a Rodeo”. They had linked the YouTube video (as I have below) and at first I gave it little thought. Most people on BF don’t post about music in the random thoughts thread because there is another dedicated to posting all about your favorite bands I’ve never heard of and will never listen to.

Papa Was a Rodeo is a song from a band that falls into this category, an indie group called The Magnetic Fields.

I returned back to the post because the name of the song did kind of intrigue me and I found the name of the band interesting.

The first thirty seconds of the song I was struck by how tuneless the singer’s voice seemed. Something kept me listening, though, and I realized the slow, stately rhythm of the song had hooked me. (I later found the frontman of the group Stephin Merritt has an untrained voice.)

One catchy song does not a great band make yet I still found myself buying the box set featuring “Papa Was a Rodeo”, a sprawling three disc album called 69 Love Songs. The nice thing about buying your music digitally is I don’t have to worry about losing any of the discs or misplacing the box.

I kind of miss having the box, actually.

The album covers a wide range of musical styles and features multiple vocalists, though Merritt dominates. The lyrics are dry, sardonic, bitter and even occasionally tender. This is a perfect example of having a hunch, taking a chance and having it pay off. I haven’t even gotten to the third disc yet and love this giant mess of songs about love (which is different than love songs, as Merritt would remind you). Definitely recommended.

Back in the music time machine with Queen

As expected, I used more of my iTunes funds to dig up another relic from my youth, this time the 1980 album The Game by Queen. I originally had this on vinyl and I remember the album slip was very silver and shiny.

How does it rate on the Neil Diamond sparkle shirt scale 33 years later? Let’s find out.

Sparkle shirt. Sparkly!

Queen, The Game
“What I knew of Queen in 1980 consisted of a few hits, notably “We are the Champions” and “We Will Rock You”, both of which I found slightly annoying even while admitting they were effective arena/power-anthem songs. I was, however, a huge fan of their silly mini-epic “Bohemian Rhapsody” and played my sister’s 45 enough to get her peeved at me. This was back when media could actually wear out, so her reaction was not entirely inappropriate. She’d also had a lot of her vinyl trashed by being left out in the rain by one or both of my brothers during one of their infamous sibling battles so she was maybe more protective than usual about her music collection. But I digress. I liked the song and yet Queen was never really on my radar.

In 1980 the band released The Game which was the start of a new direction for the group, mainly through the introduction of synthesizers and an overall softer sound. I recall their next album, Hot Space, was condemned in one review as being “over-produced” and The Game was definitely the first step toward that. At the time I wasn’t aware of any of this, all I knew is that “Another One Bites the Dust” was catchy as all get-out and a huge hit and was followed by the equally catchy Elvis callback “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”, the video (pre-MTV) of which features the least convincing display of machismo ever:

With two solid radio hits I picked the album up and generally lurved it, though it falls into that curious collection of albums I really enjoyed and yet never purchased anything else from the same artist ever again. It remains the only Queen album I’ve ever bought.

Listening to it today some aspects are dated, mainly the way the synths are used, along with reverb and other sound effects. They mostly distract from the music, adding little to the songs.

The songs themselves cover a pleasing variety of styles in the span of a brisk 35 minutes. “Don’t Try Suicide” may still be the catchiest yet most cynical anti-suicide song ever, with lyrics like “Don’t try suicide, nobody cares/Don’t try suicide, nobody gives a damn”. “Rock it (Prime Jive)” features drummer Roger Taylor’s weird growling vocals and Brian May provides an appropriately smooth voice for his ballad “Sail Away Sweet Sister”. The focus remains on Freddie Mercury and he struts through the rest of the tracks with the confidence of a veteran performer (The Game was Queen’s eighth album). There are really no bad songs on the album, though “Rock It” comes across lyrically as a bit inane (Taylor also wrote “Radio Ga Ga”).

While at times a bit dated and dotted with unnecessary flourishes, The Game remains a strong testament to the talent of Queen. I can listen to it now and separate it completely from my time in high school when I originally bought it, which speaks to the overall quality of the music.

8/10 Neil Diamond sparkle shirts

I shall call it The Alan Parsons Project

I’ll go into more detail at some point but for now here is my ranking of the 10 albums released by The Alan Parsons Project, from 1976 to 1987. It is telling that the best albums are the earlier ones. The Alan Parsons Project is an example of a band (in as much as they were one) devolving its sound into one that became slicker and less interesting with each album before finally getting back to the wacky and evocative sounds of their earlier work.

  1. Eye in the Sky (1982). The first half of this album is some of the most beautifully-crafted progressive rock recorded.
  2. Tales of Mystery and Imagination (1976). By turns weird and wonderful. It sounds almost alien today.
  3. The Turn of a Friendly Card (1980). An entertaining precursor to Eye, stately and always catchy.
  4. Pyramid (1978). A short album with no filler and perhaps the broadest range of material, with the mood ranging from melancholic to bombastic and even playful.
  5. Eve (1979). Not exactly an anthem to women, the lyrics are the most cutting of any Project.
  6. I Robot (1977). A bit dated now but the best tracks hold up well.
  7. Ammonia Avenue (1984). The follow-up to Eye apes that album in a number of ways but has its own standout tracks, especially the title track and the ‘wall of sound’ in “Don’t Answer Me”.
  8. Stereotomy (1986). A decent attempt to return to form that mostly succeeds.
  9. Gaudi (1987). The pop part of the Project was getting a little too glossy by the final album but the closing instrumental is stirring.
  10. Vulture Culture (1985). Not a bad album but not particularly memorable. Without the orchestra a number of songs feel plain. Oddly, the bonus track “No Answers, Only Questions” which is a spare acoustic number, is one of the best.