(Some suggestions for your listening pleasure)
If you haven't heard the music of the artists and groups below you're missing out on some truly awesome music! If you are looking for some new stuff to try out then do your ears a favour and have a dabble in some of the people listed below.
Steely Dan was never really a group, but a songwriting partnership. In the course of their seven studio albums they used an ever-changing team of session musicians to achieve the results they desired, although they were highly competent musicians in their own right (Donald on piano/keyboards and vocals, Walter on bass and electric guitar). Many of America's finest musicians (including Larry Carlton, Steve Gadd, Wayne Shorter, Michael Omartian, Jeff Porcaro and many, many others ...) contributed to their recordings. Donald and Walter's demands for absolute perfection would often drive the musicians close to the point of despair. During recordings for their later albums, they would commonly record many takes of the same song using seven or eight different combinations of musicians, just to achieve the perfect sound. Soloists might be asked to do 30, 40, 50 or more takes ... The hundreds of hours of studio time that went into the recordings certainly paid off. The songs are, in my opinion, among the best that have been written in the last 30 years.
Here are a few pointers to the albums, listed in chronological order:
Guitar players: why not have a look at my collection of steely dan guitar tablature.
For links to Steely Dan web sites, see my musical links section.
Her carefully crafted lyrics and unique guitar style, based on a repertoire of many altered tunings, gave her a distinctive sound. Her songwriting was initially based around the guitar, but would soon broaden as the piano began to feature prominently on her albums. Her first album (either called Joni Mitchell or Song to a Seagull, depending on who you ask!) is a bare-bones, vocal and guitar album, with occasional splashes of piano and other sounds/instruments. It conjures up a remarkable and intense atmosphere. Her lyric writing and guitar playing are more ornate on this first album than on any other recordings. Although Joni was disappointed with the final sound of the album, due to technical problems, it remains a powerful debut.
Her song-writing style has already changed by the time of her second album, Clouds. Though there are a few songs on Clouds that I think are below standard, the album also features some very strong material ("The Gallery", "That Song about the Midway"). Her third album, Ladies of the Canyon, finds her settled into a cosy Laurel Canyon lifestyle. Both piano and guitar feature as main instruments, and the themes covered in the songs vary from street musicians, the lives of the "Canyon ladies", to the Woodstock festival.
She achieved great popularity with her 1971 album Blue. Ironically, Joni was at something of a low point in her life at this time. The pressures of fame and touring had taken their toll, and Joni withdrew from public performance for some time. The follow-up album, For The Roses, depicts her frustration and disillusionment with fame and the music industry. Despite the bitter feelings, the album has a soft and reflective sound, and Joni's songs are beautifully complemented by woodwinds, arranged and played by Tom Scott. After the period of reflection and solitude that accompanied the writing of For The Roses, she returned to California to record the uplifting and generally optimistic Court and Spark, which gave her more critical and popular acclaim. This was followed with a bold step into new territory with her album The Hissing of Summer Lawns. At the time, many fans and critics rubbished the album, though it is a favourite among many dedicated Joni-fans (Prince and myself to name only two!). The style of the album was more jazz-influenced, and many tracks feature complex arrangements of many different instruments.
The jazz influences extended into her next album Hejira, although the instrumentation was simpler and bolder, most tracks featuring just guitar, bass, drums and vocals. Jaco Pastorius contributed some wonderful bass lines to several tracks and has a strong influence on the overall sound of the album. This is probably my favourite album of Joni's; the songs, the arrangements and the lyrics have rarely been equalled in her other recordings.
Joni's later albums:
If you're interested in guitar tunings and chords for Joni's songs (including many of the songs from Taming The Tiger) have a look at my page of guitar tablature.
For links to the two best Joni Mitchell sites on the Web, see my musical links.
Which Hendrix albums do I recommend? Are You Experienced is an astonishing debut album, Axis Bold as Love is more refined, Electric Ladyland is more experimental and varied, but all three are classics. Listen to any/all of them!
I have transcribed a few of Jimi's songs for guitar. Take a look at my collection of guitar tablature.
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For me, the early Beatles hits show off their great strength as writers and performers, but their music really develops into something extraordinary around the time of Rubber Soul. This was the first album of theirs where the song subjects step away from the usual tradition of boy-meets-girl type love song. This is the first album where they begin to use more exotic instruments. Rubber Soul also shows off the effortless strength and versatility of their vocal harmonies. Their next album Revolver marked another giant musical step. Their increasing interest in studio tricks (tape loops, backwards guitar), their strong songs and bold arrangements (George Martin's contributions with brass and string parts are particularly good) resulted in an album of great energy, invention and variety. This is perhaps their finest album.
Their next album, Sgt. Pepper, is probably one of the most famous recordings of the 20th Century. Continuing the trend started in Revolver, they use the studio in an increasingly creative and sophisticated way as a means of layering tracks, conjuring up unusual sounds and building up songs of dazzling variety. Once again, George Martin's creative input as arranger is a crucial and often forgotten element of the Beatles' sound.
Magical Mystery Tour is an interesting follow-up to Sgt. Pepper, though the material is not of the same high quality. The impression is that of a group of very talented musicians taking it just a little bit too easy. There are some superb tracks (I Am The Walrus is a Lennon masterpiece), but other tracks don't match the very high standards established in Revolver and Pepper.
The White Album showed a very different side of the Beatles. Before the recordings, they had all spent many peaceful weeks of meditation and quiet reflection in India with a group of people led by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. With acoustic guitars as the only means of making music, the three guitar-playing Beatles spent many weeks developed their finger-picking skills, and writing songs that that detail their new-found sense of clarity and calm.
to be continued ... !
I have transcribed several Beatles songs for guitar. Take a look at my collection of guitar tablature.
Frank Zappa has produced an astonishing number of albums, covering all musical styles from vocal-based doo-wop to blues to jazz to rock to reggae to classical. It soon becomes pointless to even try to give his style any kind of label. He recorded a lot of great music - some of it very challenging, with "strange" harmonies and unusual combinations of rhythms, some of it extremely easy to listen to with those famous chord progressions you've heard a thousand times before, together with lyrics that you probably havn't heard before or since!
At first it can be difficult to know where to start with Zappa's music - there is so much to choose from! Here are some of my favourite albums; they should give Zappa-virgins some ideas of what to try out first.
Guitar solos and lots of 'em. A triple album which gives you a good idea of how varied FZ's music can be .... and an album that also shows off FZ's remarkable ability on the guitar. Also contains some great toe-tapping challengers!
One of my all-time favourite Zappa albums. This is a compilation of live recordings made with an awesomly talented band. The songs are varied, though the album has more instrumentals (complete with jazz-type soloings and noises) than vocal-based songs. The result is 100% musical entertainment.
One of Frank's recent releases, this one was completed shortly before he died. It takes a lot of listening to, but has some wonderful music. Snippets of extremely funny pseudo-philosophy provide some unusual breaks between songs. Most of the album was conceived on the synclavier, which allowed Frank to produce all those unusual and difficult sounds and rhythms that never quite worked with mere humans. The result is challenging but rewarding music.
This is based on a story revolving around musicians, girls, disease, heartbreak ... and contains some very funny material. Easier to digest than some of Frank's work - this could be a good starting point for those who want to start with something that good fun and not too "weird".
Zappa recorded this album with the German mini-orchestra the "Ensemble Modern". There are some great value entertainment songs like "Welcome To America", some dazzling pieces such as "G-spot Tornado" and some more challenging "what key are we in" type material too.
Guitar Solos. Lots of them. And why not?
One of the best live bands Zappa put together, playing a selection of great material, including "Stairway To Heaven", "Purple Haze" and Ravel's "Bolero".
I have transcribed some of Frank's songs for guitar. Take a look at my collection of guitar tablature.
Neil Young first made his name playing guitar with Buffalo Springfield, but is probably best known for his solo albums which have covered musical territories ranging from country, to R & B, to heavy, noisy electric guitar based rock. He also played and recorded many times with David Crosby, Graham Nash and Steve Stills. One of their best albums together is Deja Vu. He is an artist that is never content to stick with one style for long, but embraces change and the search for new sounds and ideas. His musical career has certainly had its ups and downs, but over the years he has recorded many, many great songs and albums.
Neil Young's solo guitar playing is sometimes picked on as being sloppy, amateurish or just very simple. It's true that, technically, he is nothing out of the ordinary, but in terms of expression and feeling, he is a master. His solos are never thoughtless or throwaway wanderings through the usual guitar cliches. Each solo is a musical journey, with creativity and genuine feeling. His playing is often simple, but what he says with just a few notes and phrases can be extremely powerful. Some of the solos on the live album Weld (particularly on the track "Cortez The Killer") are among his finest. Although in terms of technique, he is a long way from a player like Jimi Hendrix, I feel that the power, invention and spirit of Neil's guitar playing comes closer to Hendrix than most others.
Reccommended albums: Zuma, After the Goldrush, Tonight's The Night, Weld, This Note's For You.
I have transcribed some of Neil Young's songs for guitar. Take a look at my collection of guitar tablature.
One of the pioneers, Thelonious Monk's compositions and piano style have had a defining influence on the sound of jazz. By the time Monk was 20 he was playing in New York clubs with artists such as Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Together, these musicians created a whole new style of jazz: bebop, characterised by strongly chromatic and rhythmic melodies and chord changes.
Over the years Monk played and recorded with many big names in jazz (Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, as well as Gillespie and Parker). Monk's career as a performing artist had its ups and downs - he lost his cabaret card in 1951 after his conviction on charges of drug possession. This meant that, until 1957, he was not able to play in clubs where alcohol was served. But he recorded many albums during the late 40s and throughout the 50s and 60s - his recordings from the late 50s onwards are usually favoured as his best material. His album Brilliant Corners (from 1956) is one of my own favourites. He has contributed many fine compositions to the world of jazz, most notable with Round Midnight.
Monk's piano playing is like nobody else's. His quirky, angular rhythms and sharp, sparse harmonies create a sound that can be somewhat strange on first listening, though his playing also has a very lively and often humorous side. His rhythmic phrasing is unusual, bold, creative and he seems to delight in throwing in peculiar dischords and chromatic notes, just to keep things interesting. His treatment of Fats Waller's Honeysuckle Rose is a delight! He is a creative and thoughtful improviser, and has one or two musical flourishes that he likes to throw in to a solo once in a while - the most obvious of these are the long, sweeping runs he makes that seem to span almost the entire range of the keyboard. Monk also has a softer side, and is more than capable of playing beautifully gentle ballads.
Well, you can try and describe what he sounds like, but after all, the best thing is to actually hear it for yourself! There are a lot of Monk recordings out there to try, so why not dive in?
See my musical links section for a couple of links to Thelonious Monk websites.
Their sound is an amazing blend of eastern and western harmonies. They seem to get the best from both musical traditions, and are equally at ease with the rich, non-semitone intervals commonly found in eastern scales as well as with the simple and powerful major and minor four-part chords more commonly found in western choral music. Most of the vocal phrasing and rhythms have a fairly strong eastern sound; plenty of great rhythms in 5 and 7 time! They love to mix in hand claps, shouts and other vocal effects with the singing, producing incredibly rich and varied vocal sounds. Their music covers the full range of emotions, from tender love songs to lively dances.
At times you can hear vocal harmonies that sound like Queen, or chords that wouldn't be out of place on a Miles Davis track. The way in which they like to add unusual notes to the chords to produce a wonderful mixture of dissonances and consonances is what initially attracted me to their music, and they continue to delight everytime I listen to their music. I have heard them perform just once, and they sounded staggering.
They have recorded five albums: all are thoroughly recommended. Four of the albums are simply called Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares Vols. I, II, III and IV. They have also recorded an album of songs associated with Christmas, this one is called Ritual. If you want to try something new, and enjoy good vocal harmony based music, go out and buy one of these CDs!
Information and audio examples for "Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares":
Well, it is true that their musical styles don't appear to very similar, although they both introduced jazz-flavoured ideas into their music. What they have in common is the fact that they both mastered their respective instruments like none before them, effectively re-inventing the instrument. They discovered sounds and effects that at the time were shocking - revolutionary even. Nowadays, their ideas have been absorbed into the musical mainstream, and echoes of their style can be heard throughout the musical world.
It is reported that in a private performance, given by Debussy in 1905, he worked himself into such a passionate frenzy that he thrust his head under the piano lid and attempted to play the strings with his teeth! How about that for a similarity with Hendrix?
In the mean time, let's just say that Miles Davis has produced an enormous amount of music, covering many styles from be-bop to fusion to funk and hip-hop influenced jazz. You may not like all of it, but it's worth checking out a good sample to get a flavour of the broad spectrum of great music he's been involved in.
So, here are a few recommended Miles Davis albums (in no particular order): In A Silent Way, Bitches Brew, Kind Of Blue, Nerfetiti, Jack Johnson.
Last updated April 2011
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