The alchemy that was the original Van Halen lineup would be almost impossible to replicate. On one end of the spectrum was the late, great Edward Van Halen, an introverted, virtuoso Guitar God who redefined the instrument and never seemed to put it down. On the other side was front man David Lee Roth, The Ultimate Entertainer who never seemed to slow down. The group was balanced out with steady bassist (and underrated backing vocalist) Michael Anthony and drummer Alex Van Halen. These four toured relentlessly in the 1970s and early '80s, opening for -- and more often than not blowing off the stage -- the rock stalwarts of the day. By the time their fifth album, "1984," was released, they were ready to take their place at the top of the rock 'n roll food chain. And this album cemented Van Halen's place among the greatest rock bands of all time thanks to hits like "Jump," "Panama" and "Hot For Teacher." Oh, and the videos didn't hurt, either. The polar opposites of EVH and DLR would result in a fracture after this album, but like most alchemy reactions, it was magical while it worked.
In a time where pop music was dominated by dance-fueled R&B, slick hard rock, and a burgeoning alternative scene, Matthew Sweet's 1991 major label breakthrough album "Girlfriend" was a refreshing throwback to Beatles-esque recording techniques and guitar-jangle melodies inspired by the Byrds. And, boy, did it resonate. Sweet's songs about heartache and longing, combined with an all-star backing band led by Television's Richard Lloyd, resulted in songs like "Girlfriend" and "I've Been Waiting" undoubtedly finding their way on to a ton of mix tapes. Throw in some faith-questioning tunes like "Divine Intervention" and "Evangeline," and you had an album that was gut-punch to American teenagers everywhere.
Looking back now, it's easy to think that from 1983 and for the next couple of years, Michael Jackson singularly ruled the music world. But to think that would disrespect The Police and how massive their fifth album, "Synchronicity" was. And looking back now -- with almost 40 years(!) to reflect -- it's even more remarkable what a juggernaut Sting, Stewart Copeland, and Andy Summers produced. Think about it: It's an album whose title is based on the writing of Arthur Koestler (sure) with songs referencing domestic troubles (ok), the atomic bomb (sure, but everyone was), the Loch Ness Monster (huh?), obsession and stalking (creepy!), divorce (who hasn't?), and, um, mother issues (yeesh). But it also includes the most famous non-love love song ever, "Every Breath You Take," which ruled the airwaves on both sides of the Atlantic and accounts by itself for one-fourth of Sting's income. The fact that the band broke up after this one just adds to the mystic.
If Stevie Wonder had never released "Songs in the Key of Life," we'd still be talking about him as one of the greatest -- if not THE greatest -- musician the United States ever produced. But, thankfully, he did. Look at any "best albums of all time list," and this double-album masterpiece is guaranteed to be close to the top. And for good reason. Yes, it contains hits and standards that we all know ("Isn't She Lovely?" and "Sir Duke" come to mind), but even those are layered with intricate mixes; instrumentation; percussion; new, innovative (for the time) instruments; and engaging and introspective lyrics. More than 100 people contributed to the album, but this album is all Stevie Wonder. (He even plays all the instruments on some songs.) It's his magnum opus. And it's glorious.
One of the most unique and also most successful fans to come out of the Research Triangle area of North Carolina in the early- to-mid-1990s was Ben Folds Five. Led by Ben Folds, this three-piece (yes, just three of them) crafted clever, cynical jabs at mainstream society — as well as at themselves. But the songs were beautiful, catchy, and well-crafted, and were pulled from pop, punk, jazz and even classical music. They would find major success on their next album (and Folds would go on to a stellar critical and commercial solo career) but their debut offers us a glimpse at their wild and free beginning.
Like others in the cursed "27 Club," Amy Winehouse burned bright and hot ... only to snuff out too soon. But what an impression she left, particularly with her "Back to Black" album. The Grammy-winning album is as autobiographical as they come -- and no less haunting. From her signature "Rehab" (where she gives an emphatic "no, no no!" when the idea is suggested to her), to "You Know I'm No Good" and "Tears Dry on Their Own," the album is Winehouse completely bearing all and putting all her warts out for the world to see and hear in her beautiful mix of old-style soul and R&B -- with some English crass along the way.
In the mid-80s. Lionel Richie didn’t just operate in the same orbit as Michael Jackson and Prince — Richie was his a superstar of his own right. And nothing solidified his place on the charts like “Can’t Slow Down.” At a tidy 8 songs, the album still manages to fuse genres: pop, R&B, rock, Calypso, dance and even country. And it was a pop music juggernaut, solidifying Richie (and his sweet ‘stache) among the biggest of the bigs ... at least for a while.
Very few musical “events” transform the pop music landscape – and pop culture – overnight. But Nirvana’s “Nevermind” absolutely did just that. Coming seemingly out of the blue (but really from the Pacific Northwest), Nirvana gave power to the disillusioned children of the ‘80s, the latchkey kids and wannabe punks who were just searching for authenticity. In the blink of an eye, the hair metal, glam and slick production of the late-1980s and early-‘90s became silly and passe’. Cardigans, corduroys and dirty hair was where it was at. But it wasn’t just a look. Oh no. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” remains an anthem of the disenfranchised. “Come As You Are,” “In Bloom” and “Lithium” became alt-rock and mainstream radio standards. And they still are. And that was just essentially side 1 of “Nevermind,” an album of noise and beauty, anger and sadness, and irony and truth. All of those things made up Nirvana.
It's only natural that Matt & Matt kick off Season 4 of Finest Worksongs with a non-charting song of covers by a country artist, right? But Emmylou Harris' 1995 album "Wrecking Ball" deserves any and all recognition. It was a vast departure for the seasoned country songstress; that's gonna happen when you partner with Daniel Lanois. "Wrecking Ball" -- which includes collaborations with Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch and others, did for Emmylou what Johnny Cash's "American" recordings did for the Man In Black: it rejuvenated a career and opened a whole new audience to the splendor of one of music's all-time greats.