Category Archives: music

ranking queen’s 15 studio albums.

Freddie_Wembly-1In preparation of the upcoming Queen biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, I thought I’d take the time to list all 15 Queen studio albums, from least favorite to most favorite. I’ve been listening to this band in some form or fashion since I was about four years old. No joke! It was around 1980 that I really latched onto Queen. That’s the year Another One Bites the Dust ruled the America, followed shortly by Queen’s Flash Gordon soundtrack.

You may disagree with some of my choices. You may agree with others. If you’re only a passing fan, you may say, “what album?” It’s all good. This is my list. Your mileage definitely may vary. Chances are pretty good that I’ll change my mind in a week. Whether you agree or not isn’t really the point. Mostly, I want fellow Queen fans to share their thoughts. I’m always interested to hear other people’s favorites. At any rate, here goes…

Kevin’s List of Queen Albums, Ranked

1995 Made in Heaven15. Made in Heaven (1995)
“All you do is take. All I do is give. All that I’m askin’ is a chance to live.”

Released four years after Freddie’s death, Made in Heaven is simply beautiful in some places and heart wrenching in others. It’s not a compilation of previously unreleased tracks. It’s the product of Brian, Roger and John returning to the studio without Freddie. Knowing that, makes it that much more wrenching.

But Freddie’s voice is full of life and passion; sometimes desperately so. That’s no more evident than on the gospel-inspired track, Let Me Live (the only Queen track to include all four members’ voices). Not a bad album, but I don’t think Made in Heaven was intended to be a classic. It feels more like a gentle farewell.

1980 Flash Gordon14. Flash Gordon (1980)
“He’ll save with a mighty hand. Every man, every woman, every child, with a mighty flash.”

This soundtrack flat out ROCKS! The movie is a campy, schlocky good time, too. And Queen’s original soundtrack certainly augmented the onscreen action. Most of the tracks are vignettes that scored the film, so it’s really not like any other Queen album. But Flash’s Theme is still pretty bad-ass!

1982 Hot Space13. Hot Space (1982)
“Insanity laughs, under pressure we’re breaking.”

In fairness, this is not a bad album. It’s sort of messy and disjointed. The band was sort of at a low point when they recorded it. Prior to 1980, Queen albums never included a synthesizer. With Hot Space, they tried to make up for lost time.

Yeah, Under Pressure is included, but that was thrown in well after its initial release on a greatest hits album. A couple true gems here—Put Out the Fire and Body Language—but overall, an acquired taste.

1986 A Kind of Magic12. A Kind of Magic (1986)
“Who dares to love forever, when love must die?”

Speaking of soundtracks, several songs on this album appeared in the Highlander film, including Princes of the Universe and the fantastic Who Wants to Live Forever.

One Vision, which was released a year prior—and featured in the film Iron Eagle—was thrown on this album, too. Even though half of this album is marginal, this was the album that springboarded Queen on a massive world tour (to everywhere but the U.S., that is).

1989 The Miracle11. The Miracle (1989)
“It ain’t much I’m askin’ if you want the truth. Here’s to the future, for the dreams of youth.”

Arguably their creepiest album cover ever, I remember buying this album the day it was released. I always liked the sound and feel of The Miracle, especially the subtle rocker, I Want it All and the quirky The Invisible Man.

But I also remember a weird sense of foreboding when I listened to The Miracle. The lyrics to several tracks felt introspective; like something of the beginning of a long goodbye and Queen was taking a moment to reflect. And it wasn’t subtle. Scandal and Was It All Worth It pretty much laid it out there for the taking.

This is long before the internet, mind you. Freddie’s health was likely already deteriorating at this point, but no one really knew. In hindsight, The Miracle seemed to be hinting at the inevitable.

1973 Queen10. Queen (1973)
“Do you think you’re better every day? No, I just think I’m two steps nearer to my grave.”

One word describes this self-titled debut album: RAW. Everything Queen would become can be heard in its infancy on this album. The opening track, Keep Yourself Alive, is 45 years old and is still an over-the-top anthem. Standout tracks like Great King Rat, Liar and Jesus showcase Queen’s musical prowess, dramatic lyrics and rules-breaking mentality to song production.

As much as the album rocks, it’s sort of like the band is saying, “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

1991 Innuendo9. Innuendo (1991)
“Inside my heart is breaking. My make-up may be flaking, but my smile still stays on.”

Released about nine months before Freddie’s death, Innuendo feels like a band aware of its legacy and trying to pay homage to it one last time. Even without that knowledge when the album was released, Innuendo felt very somber. It still feels that way to me. Clocking in at 6-1/2 minutes, the title track is a clear and obvious callback to those epic 70s Queen tracks like The Prophet’s Song or March of the Black Queen.

While Freddie’s terminal condition would not be known for months, the band seemed to be bracing its fans for it. Tracks such as These Are the Days of Our Lives and The Show Must Go On are respectively a love letter and a reminder to keep a stiff upper lip. But it’s not all somber and sober. Delilah is a Freddie-penned opus to one of his beloved cats. Still, Innuendo makes me sad to listen to, to this very day.

1978 Jazz8. Jazz (1978)
“Are you gonna let it all hang out? Fat bottomed girls, you make the rockin’ world go ‘round.”

Those opening lines to Fat Bottomed Girls may not be so kindly received today (same goes for the nudie poster included with the original pressings), but goddamn this song is a fun singalong! Jazz was Queen’s final album of the decade and finds them moving away from the long, epic tracks, but still very much experimenting with new sounds and styles.

Jazz still very much delivers the hopelessly singable, defiantly melodramatic power anthems that define Queen’s style. Bicycle Race, Don’t Stop Me Now and the aforementioned Fat Bottomed Girls. For my money, though, Mustapha is my favorite song from Jazz. Get on your bikes and ride!

1976 A Day at the Races7. A Day at the Races (1976)
“Get your party gown, get your pigtail down. Get your heart beating baby!”

If you’ve forgotten how hard Queen can rock, the opening track on Side 1 of this album will remind you. Tie Your Mother Down comes blazing out of the gates. At least visually, A Day at the Races acts as a bookend of sorts to the 1975 release, A Night at the Opera, and contains the vintage hit: Somebody to Love.

The most underrated gem on this album is Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy.

1984 The Works6. The Works (1984)
“But life still goes on. I can’t get used to living without, living without, living without you by my side.”

Less cohesive than Queen’s most classic albums, The Works is a bit messy with a few forgettable tracks. But the hits more than make up for the forgettable ones. Radio Gaga, Hammer to Fall, Tear It Up and I Want to Break Free. Not a bad effort for a band that was rumored, at the time, to be going its separate ways.

And lest we forget, Radio Gaga was one of the songs Queen played during its enduring Live Aid performance and yielded some of the most lasting visuals from this concert.

Live Aid

1980 The Game5. The Game (1980)
“When you’re feeling down and your resistance is low. Light another cigarette and let yourself go.”

Yes. You know Another One Bites the Dust; Queen’s biggest U.S. hit as well as its other biggest hit: Crazy Little Thing Called Love. But The Game is solid from end to end. Pound for pound, The Game might be Queen’s strongest album.

Clocking in at 36 minutes, all eight songs are absolute gems. Anchored by John Deacon’s bass, Dragon Attack may be Queen’s grooviest, most badass song ever. And then there’s Freddie’s vocal on Play the Game. And then there’s Roger’s vocal on Rock It (Prime Jive). And just when you think it can’t get any better, they close with Save Me. Listen to The Game once and all you want to do is play it again; completely forgetting it contains two of Queen’s biggest hits (because the rest of the album kicks so much ass).

1975 A Night at the Opera4. A Night at the Opera (1975)
“Nothing really matters, anyone can see. Nothing really matters…nothing really matters to me.”

This is when Queen shifted into another gear and found its voice. Creatively, A Night at the Opera is truly unparalleled. Bohemian Rhapsody is and always will be Queen’s opus and serves as the album’s centerpiece. But let’s not forget Death on Two Legs, 39, Love of My Life, You’re My Best Friend and the underrated I’m in Love with My Car.

The one track I truly love that most people have never heard: The Prophet’s Song. It’s every bit as dramatic and intense as Bohemian Rhapsody. But yes, Bohemian Rhapsody. How do you top that?

1974 Sheer Heart Attack3. Sheer Heart Attack (1974)
“It’s the same situation just cuts like a knife. When you’re young and you’re poor and you’re crazy.”

In a way, this album reminds me of Bruce Springsteen’s The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle. No, not in style, tone or songs. Rather, Sheer Heart Attack is the last of Queen’s early period; when they were experimenting with album-oriented rock songs and starting to find their collective voice as a hit factory.

As the album that precedes A Night at the Opera, Sheer Heart Attack stands on the precipice of Queen’s leap to super-stardom the same way Springsteen’s E Street Shuffle was the last stop before his landmark Born to Run and all its success. Killer Queen is the hit on Sheer Heart Attack, but it’s hardly its best song. The entirety of Side A presents Queen in all its shock-and-awe beauty. A band that, at its heart, wants to rock bookends this side with two rockers (Brighton Rock and Now I’m Here).

In between are four songs blending into a nearly-seamless medley that flexes all of Queen’s muscles; the best of which (if you ask me) is Roger singing Tenement Funster. And that’s all before we get to Side B, anchored by the heavy metal thunder of Stone Cold Crazy.

1977 News of the World2. News of the World (1977)
“He spends his evenings alone in his hotel room. Keeping his thoughts to himself he’d be leaving soon.”

Some days, this comes in at my No. 1. Some days. We Will Rock You and We Are the Champions are two of Queen’s most enduring stadium anthems. There isn’t a person in the world who doesn’t know the STOMP-STOMP-CLAP rhythm or the chorus to We Are the Champions.

Unfortunately for the world, that’s pretty much all they know about this timeless album. News of the World is a beast of a record, lousy with hits, riffs and classics. Roger’s Sheer Heart Attack, John’s Spread Your Wings and Brian’s It’s Late—my personal favorite—are ferocious songs. Seriously, how did I not pick this album as my favorite? Oh yeah, because of…

1974 Queen II1. Queen II (1974)
“I reign with my left hand I rule with my right. I’m lord of all darkness I’m queen of the night.”

This record…Jesus! Where to begin? Casual Queen fans probably have never heard a single song from Queen II. There are no greatest hits and nothing they play live these days (with the exception of Seven Seas of Rhye), but Queen II is something of a Rosetta Stone of all the hits that would follow. The underpinnings of those stadium anthems, the dramatic lyrics and elaborate production can be heard on Queen II’s raw and passionate songs of monsters and royalty and otherworldly imagery.

A concept album conceived in two acts: the White Side and the Black Side, Queen II is mostly a showcase of Brian and Freddie’s songwriting. The White Side (side A) is all Brian May compositions with one Roger Taylor entry—The Loser in the End (with an absurdly awesome drum “groove”)—to close it out. It’s sometimes heavy, sometimes melodic and sometimes gentle. White Queen (As it Began) showcases Brian’s ridiculous guitar playing with a luscious vocal from Freddie.

And then, Freddie provides the answer with the Black Side. Launching with Ogre Battle, the Black Side begins in fifth gear. It’s Freddie’s song, but Brian’s guitars are cranked to 11 and make you want to run through a wall. Continuing the medieval theme, The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke and Nevermore are winding us up for Freddie’s response to Brian’s White Queen song: The March of the Black Queen. This is, without a doubt, one of Queen’s finest compositions. Beginning as a slow burn, The March of the Black Queen quickly transitions into an epic wild ride of operatic vocals, heavy metals thunder and monstrous kick drum. And just when you’re so fired up you want to drive your car through a wall, Freddie slows it down, But take a breath, it’ll pick right back up. For 6-1/2 minutes, The March of the Black Queen takes you into battle and then brings you back home safely. Just in time for Queen II to close out on the whimsical Funny How Love is and Seven Seas of Rhye.

Queen II is a goddamn treasure.

Live Killers

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“i heard it on my radio…” happy birthday, brian may.

Yesterday was Brian May’s birthday. He turned 70. How does a stately, freshly-minted septuagenarian British astrophysicist celebrate this milestone birthday? In the middle of a North American tour with Queen + Adam Lambert, of course. May’s birthday fell on an off day between gigs. He just played Toronto, now on his way to Detroit.

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Brian May at The Joint, Las Vegas, 6 July 2014.

I saw Queen + AL about three years ago when they rolled through Las Vegas. They crammed their monstrous arena show rig—well, a portion of it, at least—into the 3,000-seat Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. My buddy Brit and I went to their second of two shows at The Joint.

You’ve heard me talk about this show more times than you care to remember, I’m sure. But it was a pretty big deal for me. I’ve been listening to Queen for as long as I can remember. No, really.

“…and everything I had to know, I heard it on my radio…”
One of my earliest memories of listening to Queen was sometime in the mid-70s. I was five years old or so. I think my parents were having a party or something. Since Shawn and I were little, we had to go to bed fairly early so the grown-ups could keep the party going. Mom and Dad let me sleep in their room with a radio on.

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This is a pretty close version of the clock-radio my parents had when I was a kid.

I distinctly remember Dad asking me if I wanted the radio on. It was a vintage “digital” clock-radio. You know the kind—white, molded plastic with the analog-style digits that would flip over like a Rolodex. With the lights turned off, the clock numbers glowed a hazy, green hue. I was little and afraid of the dark, so Dad left the bedroom light on. I was also a night owl from a very young age. Sleep has never come easily for me at bedtime. So I remember vividly lying awake in bed—wide awake, staring at those numbers on the clock tumble over—trying to focus on the radio to drown out the faint noise of people downstairs. I don’t remember any songs that played that night, but for one. It was a song I’d heard before in bits and pieces. It always caught my attention and I thought I might like it, but I’d never had a chance to really listen to it. Until now. The opening was already familiar to me…

“Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy…”

In that instant, in that moment, I became a Queen fan. Bohemian Rhapsody is the first song I could identify as a Queen song. What was it that I liked so much about it? Was it the lyrics? Was it the harmonies? The guitars? What was it? Who cares?! No, nothing about that song made a lick of sense to me. None of it. But gimme a break. I was five years old. What did I know about Bismillah and Beelzebub? I didn’t care. I just knew I liked the song, and maybe that’s the real point about music appreciation. You don’t have to quantify it. If you like it, that’s all that matters. And I knew I really liked Bohemian Rhapsody!

“…when I’m holding your wheel, all I hear is your gear…”
Not too long after that, I began going through my dad’s record collection, plundering for Queen albums to play. He had A Night at the Opera and Jazz. I played those records endlessly. He also had a couple songs from Queen I dubbed onto a cassette or 8-track that I’d dig out and play on occasion. I always liked the drum parts on Liar and Keep Yourself Alive (still do). One song Dad played quite a bit back then was I’m In Love With My Car, a Roger Taylor cut from A Night at the Opera. Of all the Queen songs I listened to in my youth, I tend to associate that one with Dad more than any other. Was he a car nut? Yes and no. I think he just liked the song a lot.

Mom has her favorite Queen song, too, I should mention: Don’t Stop Me Now. She’s always said it’s a great driving song. She’s right, but be forewarned: playing Don’t Stop Me Now while driving may lead to a lead foot and a speeding ticket (you’ve been warned).

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Dad’s stereo in the 70s looked an awful lot like this. We got a lot of mileage out of that thing, too.

If you’re wondering why in the hell our dad would let Shawn and I monkey around with his precious stereo system, it’s a good question. Truth is, we had to work our way up to it. We got our own record player when we were six or seven years old. And we were taught very early on that albums are to be treated delicately; especially Dad’s albums! Many times, he’d cue up the records. Over time, he eased us into using his system. And whenever Dad upgraded his hi-fi, he bequeathed the old system to us. If you knew our dad, then it doesn’t shock you at all that Shawn and I are audiophiles. Anyway…

“…that’s why they call me Mr. Fahrenheit, travelin’ at the speed of light…”
The next Queen record I got was Live Killers (it was for my brother Shawn and I, actually). Our parents bought it for us at a family outing to the mall (Hampton Mall, I’m pretty sure; not Fashion Square Mall in Saginaw). I remember coming home from the mall and we put the record on the turntable and gave it a listen as a family. I don’t really think Mom and Dad originally intended on sitting there and listening with us, but they did anyway. I was maybe nine or ten years old at the time and this was my first experience with a live album.

Another year or two later, my parents bought me A Day at the Races for my birthday. They went to Detroit for the night and I think they bought it during a mall excursion down there. I think it was Christmas 1980 when Dave Wade (a family friend) got me The Game. At the time, this was a very popular album; probably the height of Queen’s popularity in the States while Freddie was still with us.

“…he spends his evenings alone, in his hotel room…”
Throughout 80s, I rounded out my Queen collection with my paper route money. I remember, to this day, buying News of the World, taking it home and playing it for the first time. My ritual with new album purchases was pretty much the same. I’d drop the needle, sit on the floor in our spare room (that’s what we called our “play” room) and listen with the album sleeve in my lap. I can still feel that semi-shaggy white carpeting and see the dark brown woodwork all along the baseboards in that room.

587abcd3c795f89809a0361d8ff22662.1000x1000x1Over the next three decades, I swapped my Queen vinyl for Queen CDs. Lately, I’ve been buying Queen on vinyl again. Go figure. I guess I’ve gone full circle.

Somewhere in the middle of all that on a Sunday night in early/mid 1992, my buddy Mike and I go to movies to see Wayne’s World. And what greets us in one of the opening scenes?

“Mama…just killed a man. Put a gun against his head, pulled my trigger now he’s dead.”

“…I’ve been with you such a long time…”
Hearing Bohemian Rhapsody while Wayne, Garth & crew were riding in Garth’s Pacer was like an unexpected visit from an old friend…and a pure joy to watch. Freddie had already died by the time the movie was released so he never got to see it, but Brian always said Freddie would’ve loved Mike Myers’ and Dana Carvey’s tribute.

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Anyway, Brian May’s birthday this week got me to reflecting on that earliest of Queen memories (and a few others). If you ever wondered—and I’m sure you didn’t—my lifelong love of Queen started with an old clock-radio in my parents’ bedroom, thanks to Mom and Dad having a party.

Happy Birthday, Brian May. May you live forever.

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“…a big record that felt like life…”

Concert Review
Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band
Thursday, 17 March 2016
Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena

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Bruce Springsteen, working the crowd at the LA Memorial Sports Arena, Thursday, March 17, 2016.

Diehard Bruce Springsteen fans often refer to his live shows in terms more befitting a papal mass or an old-fashioned tent revival. Questions regarding faith notwithstanding, there is most certainly something spiritual happening at Bruce’s epic, marathon live performances. That was certainly the case on Night Two of the E Street Band’s three-night bon voyage party at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena on St. Patrick’s Day. “The dump that jumps” is closing its doors for good and Bruce gave it a fitting sendoff on this night with a 3-1/2 hour set of airtight rock n’ roll—anchored by the band’s end-to-end performance of Springsteen’s landmark 1980 album, The River—that blew the roof off the old joint.

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The LA Memorial Sports Arena; aka: The Dump That Jumps.

Opening with a raucous Meet Me in the City, a release on the sprawling River box set last year, Springsteen held sway with the vibrant audience like a conductor warming up his orchestra for a performance. “Are you ready to go down to the river?” Springsteen asks during the song’s bridge, warming up the crowd for the centerpiece of the evening’s performance. Unlike other tours, where Bruce is introducing new material interspersed with his classic gems, The River Tour is an opportunity to look back and reflect on the album that, in many ways, cast the dye for what would become the E Street Band’s indelible footprint for the next several decades.

“I wanted to make big record, a big record that felt like life—like life for an E Street Band show,” Springsteen said, introducing The River set. “I wanted a record that contained fun, dancing, laughter, jokes, politics, sex, good comradeship, love, faith, lonely nights and, of course, tears. And I figured if I could make a record big enough to contain those things, maybe I’d edge a little bit closer to the answers and the home I was trying to find.”

What followed next was a two-hour romp through the 20-song River album, opening with a spirited The Ties That Bind that felt every bit as vibrant and joyous as it did in the early 80s. Following a script that was written more than 35 years ago, the next hour was pure, pedal-to-the-metal arena rock including the familiar Hungry Heart (during which the 66-year-old ringleader crowd surfed like a kid) and Out in the Street. While the first hour was truly an off-the-chain rock show, the most poignant moment came during Independence Day; a song about Bruce’s often strained relationship with his father.

The E Street Band certainly proved all night it’s never too old to turn it up and rock the joint. Crush on You, Cadillac Ranch and Ramrod provided the requisite fun we expect from Springsteen shows, punctuated by guitarist Steven Van Zandt’s guitar work and Max Weinberg’s driving rhythms while Bruce prowls the stage, works the pit and connects with the fans. Despite the loss of Bruce’s right-hand man, Clarence Clemons, the power, energy and spirit of “The Big Man” was carried on through Clemons’ nephew, Jake Clemons. Jake channeled his uncle in every sax solo throughout the night; never more evident than in the evening’s penultimate number, the epic Tenth Avenue Freeze-out.

Though there was no shortage of rockers on this night, Bruce and the band were in finest form during the darker ballads that dot the landscape of The River. It is these darker songs where The River’s depth is truly felt. All that raw emotion from the 1980 album is retained and augmented in these live performances. The arrangements are, essentially, the same, but the passage of time has provided depth and experience that paints a new color on the lyrics and melodies. Bruce’s vocal on the title track was darker and more haunting than we hear on the vinyl. Roy Bittan’s opening piano interlude to Point Blank sets a tone of desperation. The wistful sadness of Stolen Car (one of Springsteen’s first songs written about “men and women” in his own words) is replaced by a somber perspective colored by three decades of life.

The 20-song River set begins as a joyous, boisterous romp and ends as a careful, measured walk through deep, emotional—and, sometimes, uncomfortable—territory. Wreck on the Highway serves as the closing bookend to The River, providing emotional resolve and a sense of survival more than closure.

“I was sitting with a friend of mine last night and he said, ‘time comes to us all’,” Springsteen said during the closing notes of Wreck on the Highway. “The River was about taking of that time and how we each have a finite amount of it to do our jobs, to raise our family, to do something good.”

By itself, the performance of The River is a complete show, but Bruce wasn’t done yet. He and his nine-piece band shifted gears and, without any breaks, launched into a 90-minute sprint through standards including Badlands, The Promised Land, Backstreets and Thunder Road. Alongside wife Patti Scialfa, Bruce delivered a heartfelt Brilliant Disguise; an oft-forgotten ballad from his 1988 Tunnel of Love. It was interesting to see the couple perform this song 28 years after their first time on that Tunnel of Love Express tour, where the sexual tension was amped up to ’11’.

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, Springsteen mixed in a pair of Irish-inspired crowd favorites: the defiant Death to My Hometown and the hopelessly joyous American Land. Soozie Tyrell especially revved up the 15,000 in attendance on this St. Patrick’s Day with her violin, punctuating the holiday with a bit of Irish folk-rock flare.

With house lights back up, turning the concert hall into something of a backyard jam, Bruce launched into the always-epic Born to Run. Dancing in the Dark followed, and has become one of my favorite Springsteen songs as it has evolved into an all-hands-on-deck staple. On this night, it was a family affair as Bruce danced with the late Danny Federici’s daughter and brought out her brother and Clarance’s son to sing and dance along.

The final song of the evening, a cover of the Isley Brothers’ Shout, was something of an E Street show infused with bar band silliness and pure joy. There are better renditions of this classic song, no doubt. But how often do you get to hear Bruce doing his Curly Howard impression? You heard me.

And with that, the 15,000 faithfuls in “the dump that jumps” just witnessed the heart-stopping, pants-dropping, hard-rocking, earth-quaking, booty-shaking, love-making, Viagra-taking, history-making, legendary…

E…STREET…BAND!

Setlist

Meet Me in the City

The Ties That Bind
Sherry Darling
Jackson Cage
Two Hearts
Independence Day
Hungry Heart
Out in the Street
Crush on You
You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)
I Wanna Marry You
The River
Point Blank
Cadillac Ranch
I’m a Rocker
Fade Away
Stolen Car
Ramrod
The Price You Pay
Drive All Night
Wreck on the Highway

Badlands
Death to My Hometown
The Promised Land
Backstreets
Brilliant Disguise
The Rising
Thunder Road
American Land
Born to Run
Dancing in the Dark
Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
Shout

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for the love of born in the u.s.a. springsteen’s biggest seller is also his least admired.

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Born in the U.S.A. holds something of a unique position among Bruce Springsteen’s fans. The 1984 album is Springsteen’s most successful by a country mile, topping out at more than 30 million copies to be the 23rd best selling rock album in history. A critical smash as well as commercial one, Born in the U.S.A. was a constant hit factory in the mid-80s. It was also Billboard’s 1985 No. 1 album.

With seven of the album’s 12 songs entering the top 40, Born in the U.S.A. is indelibly embedded into the soundtrack of the 80s:
• Dancing in the Dark
• Cover Me
• Born in the U.S.A.
• I’m On Fire
• Glory Days
• I’m Going Down
• My Hometown

Full of raucous rockers and hopelessly infectious hooks and lyrics, Springsteen was all over the radio airwaves and MTV broadcasts while conquering the globe on a mammoth world tour.

Bruce Live

For many Bruce fans, like me, this album was the gateway into lifelong fandom for his music. Now here’s the funny part: it’s probably the least respected, least discussed and least played among Springsteen fans. It has less to do with its commercialism, too, honestly. By itself, Born in the U.S.A. is great, fun, toe-tapping rock record. But stack it up next to other albums in Bruce’s catalog and it gets dwarfed rather quickly. Born to Run, The River and even The Rising are hailed as bigger, better classics by fans and critics alike. However, upon listening to Born in the U.S.A. again, today—32 years after its release—I’m here to reclaim it as one of Bruce’s finest moments.

Perhaps the reason it gets lost in the shuffle is because, as far as Springsteen albums go, it’s a bit disjointed. Sure, it’s full of big, stadium-rock songs and a couple powerful ballads—several that Bruce still plays in concerts, to great response from his audiences—but there’s no overarching theme or tone that have become staples of Springsteen records. Pluck out albums from different ends of Bruce’s catalog—Darkness on the Edge of Town or Wrecking Ball, for example—and there were obvious threads running through both that tie everything together. Springsteen fans are accustomed to it. With Born in the U.S.A., the songs are great, but play more as a collection of singles more than a contiguous story.

Now, in fairness, the songs are great and, in many ways, darker than people probably remember. Songs of isolation (Dancing in the Dark), anger (Born in the U.S.A.), economic blight (My Hometown), lost love (Bobby Jean) and brotherhood (No Surrender). But in the 80s, people seemed to completely miss the message. That was no more evident than general response to the title track. A song about the struggle of Vietnam vets when they came home was mistaken for some sort of Sousa march. Even Ronald Reagan thought it was a flag-waving, patriotic anthem. I was 13 years old the first time I heard the song. Even I knew what it was about. It’s a great song, but its message got lost in the chorus’ sing-along-ability, I suppose.

Springsteen’s been mostly redeemed for this, really. His fans don’t hold it against him. And Dancing in the Dark has evolved into one of the band’s signature romps in concert. But I doubt Born in the U.S.A. will ever get the respect it deserves. It’s ironic, because the album truly is 100 percent filled with A-side material. To that end, it’s like a greatest hits album. In fact, that’s the best way to describe it. Greatest hits records are disjointed by design, but full of great music…and disrespected by many artists and audiophiles alike.

Dancing in the DarkWhile Born in the U.S.A. was the album that made me a lifelong Bruce Springsteen fan, Dancing in the Dark is the true Patient Zero. I was hooked from the very first time I heard it, which was on a summer afternoon in 1984. I was in my bedroom when the song came on the radio. “Here’s a new song from Bruce Springsteen,” said the DJ. I wasn’t thrilled, initially, because I never really liked Hungry Heart when it came out a few years prior (sacrilege, I know, because I now love that song). As I listened to Dancing in the Dark, I thought, “this is pretty cool, actually.” It wasn’t anything I expected. Soon thereafter, Dancing in the Dark was in heavy rotation for me; still is, really. As a kid, it was just a fun, infectious rock song. The older I get, the more the song resonates with me. I’m sure that’s a common refrain among Bruce fans. And, really, how can you dislike a song that introduced Courteney Cox to the world?

Courteny Cox

I’m sure, if you pin down Springsteen fans and ask them about it, they’ll all tell you the same thing: they love Born in the U.S.A., but it’s not even in their Top Five. While I may not include it in my own Top Five, I’ll always hold Born in the U.S.A. in high regard. Believe it or not, Born in the U.S.A. is every bit as strong an album as Springsteen’s best albums. Better than The River? Well…

 

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put the needle on the record.

Record PlayerI’ve had this record player for nearly two years. It was generous payment for spending five days in Boise, Idaho, helping a friend settle a family estate. That record player rumbled around the back of a Ryder rental truck from Boise to Indiana. Shortly thereafter, I relocated to Vegas. In January 2014, the record player was loaded onto a Mayflower truck and spent another five days making its way from the Midwest to my front door in Vegas.

It was one of the first items I unpacked and plugged in after the movers departed. Unfortunately, all the moving about damaged the player. The platter was scraping on something when it played, creating an annoying noise that I couldn’t fix. I determined it was “broken” and stashed it out f sight. I didn’t throw it away; too much sentimental value, I figured. I just didn’t feel right about trashing it.

Fast forward to this week. I decided now is the time to not only reestablish a relationship with what little of my vinyl collection I retained, but to start rebuilding the beat. Monday night, I popped into a record store for the first time in decades. Not a CD store; a record store!

Let's Go Trippin'! When my brother and I were little kids, we got our first record player. Too bad we didn't have any of our own records, so we played all our parents' records from the 60s. This one was in heavy rotation for a long time.

Let’s Go Trippin’! When my brother and I were little kids, we got our first record player. Too bad we didn’t have any of our own records, so we played all our parents’ records from the 60s. This one was in heavy rotation for a long time.

While thumbing through the stacks of new and used records, I was transported back in time to my high school days in Bay City, Michigan. Hours of my misspent youth were wiled away at Camelot Records inside Hampton Square Mall. I’d always gravitate to the ‘Q’ section to see if anything new or different from Queen showed up. Eventually, I’d wander over to the dollar cut-out bins, because you never know what sort of forgotten gem might turn up. It was in those cut-out bins where I found four early-80s Alice Cooper albums.

Meanwhile, back in 2015, I was waxing nostalgic over the new pressings of Bruce Springsteen, Black Sabbath and the Beach Boys. I also marveled at seeing vinyl representations of great, new music I’d only heard in digital form. I nearly purchased Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but opted for vintage Springsteen—a new pressing of Greetings from Asbury Park, New Jersey and a used copy of Born In The U.S.A. (an album I owned 30 years ago)—and a new copy of John Coltrane’s Blue Train.

Once I left the record store, I realized I needed a turntable. My impromptu shopping excursion yielded nothing, so I went home and fished the ol’ Crosley out of storage, determined to take a stab at making it functional.

Lo and behold, got it working!

It’s not as impressive as it sounds. First, I spent about an hour taking the back off the player, only to realize everything inside was bolted down and I couldn’t get at anything; not with these hot dog fingers. Even if I could, what the hell could I do? I figured that was the end of it. And then I noticed a great, big screw attaching the deck to the base of the record player. Once I tightened that screw—Presto! Now, it works like a champ.

To christen the player, I dropped the needle on my just-purchased Born in the U.S.A. The familiar crackle of the dust in the groove made me smile a bit (note to self: gotta buy a record cleaning kit). As the opening chords of the title track poured out of the tiny speakers, I was once again going back in time to 1984. I played the hell out of that album when I first got it!

And then the needle found its way into a giant scratch and was stuck playing the same groove over and over, rendering this record unplayable. I guess you get what you pay for with a $1.50 used record, no?

Over the next few days, I’ll set up the turntable properly, maximizing its use. In addition to planning frequent trips to Zia Records (and other record stores in town), I’ll be busting my current vinyl collection out of retirement.

I’d like to say, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” to borrow a line from one of my favorite films, but that’s not necessarily true. It’s more like getting back together with your high school girlfriend, 30 years later. Of course, that’s absurd, too. One would’ve had to have a high school girlfriend to begin with to make that analogy stick.

Let’s just say I’m happy vinyl’s popularity has come full circle. Seems kinda fitting, given we’re on the edge of my 45th (!) birthday.

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friday five: five launchpad projects for entertainment superstars.

Before we start, let me preface this by saying I intentionally omitted sketch comedy shows from this list. In my mind, sketch shows like Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show and The Sid Caesar Show are supposed to be launchpads for budding talent. We could have a separate list for this category to cover the many great sketch shows throughout television history that launched careers. But that’s not what we’re covering in this list.

I’m focusing strictly on films television and music that, intentionally or not, were incubators of talent and unforeseen future success long before any of those who were involved were A-listers. Perhaps it was pure coincidence, but I’d like to think these projects are what got them noticed and kickstarted their massive success.

School Ties (1992)
school-tiesPut it this way: Matt Damon was a supporting actor in this Brendan Fraser vehicle. I think we know how he’s done since then. School Ties, a 1960s boarding school period piece, featured a slew of young, male actors who would go onto bigger things. While it’s easy to forget, Fraser’s star hadn’t risen yet, prior to this movie. He would go onto become a 90s actions movie star in the Mummy flicks as well as play a major role in the 2004 Academy Award winning film, Crash.

Who else was in School Ties? Chris O’Donnell, Ben Affleck and Zeljko Ivanek, to name a few. Ivanek certainly didn’t rise to the level of movie stardom like Affleck and O’Donnell, but this film was really the starting point of a long and ongoing career for Zeljko as the wormy guy you hate in virtually every TV show created. And it all started in School Ties.

As for Affleck and O’Donnell, think about this: they would go on to play Batman and Robin in separate franchises of the DC Comics characters. Who saw that coming???

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
Fast TimesThis classic is somehow forgotten in the pantheon of 80s high school movies; probably because it’s not a John Hughes film. Nevertheless, Fast Times may be the best of that era, of that genre. It’s not a stretch to say it launched the careers of Sean Penn, Judge Reinhold and Jennifer Jason Leigh. But start poking around the supporting cast and you stumble across a couple of Oscar winners: Forest Whitaker and Nicolas Cage, along with Eric Stoltz, Anthony Edwards and Taylor Negron.
Fast Times Forest
Fast Times Cage
Lest we forget its writer, Cameron Crowe. This was his maiden voyage. And oh yeah, you might’ve heard about a certain scene involving Phoebe Cates and a red bikini.

American Graffiti (1973)
American Graffiti_3The cast, at the time, boasted a few working actors and maybe one or two known commodities. Sure, everyone knew Ronny Howard (yes, that’s how he was billed) as Opie on the Andy Griffith Show, but this was one of his first “grown-up” roles. I think we know how it turned out for him.

Harrison Ford in American Graffiti.

Harrison Ford in American Graffiti.

Beyond Howard, look at who else was in the cast: Richard Dreyfuss, Mackenzie Phillips; even Suzanne Somers had a small, but meaningful part in the movie. And there was this guy named Harrison Ford in a bit part. I wonder if he ever turned into anything.

And oh yeah, who co-wrote and directed American Graffiti? George Lucas. His next film was Star Wars. Gotta wonder if he even gets to make that movie if American Graffiti isn’t a hit.

N.W.A. – Straight Outta Compton (1988 Ruthless Records)
NWATwenty-seven years ago almost to the day, this groundbreaking hip hop album was released. It is not hyperbole to suggest it changed everything. When N.W.A. burst on the national scene in 1988, they were “gangsta rap.” They were real-life street kids who turned their experiences into a monster-selling album. They were dangerous. And people couldn’t get enough of them.

Without N.W.A., there is no hip hop scene like we see today. True, N.W.A. wasn’t the first hardcore rap act to break out, but they busted down the door and everyone followed behind them.

Beyond the music industry influence, look at where founding members Ice Cube and Dr. Dre are today. One is a successful actor and film producer and the other is an executive with Apple and is widely regarded as one of the best music producers in the business. Nobody saw any of that coming the first time they heard Straight Outta Compton.

As a hip hop act, N.W.A. was short-lived; splintering apart and eventually breaking up in 1991. There were public feuds in the intervening years (which largely came to a halt when founding member Eazy-E died in 1995), but N.W.A. as an act were pretty much done. Their collective time as a group was brief, compared to other influential music artists, but there’s no denying Straight Outta Compton is the birth mother of Cube’s and Dre’s careers as well as an entire genre of music.

Mean Streets (1973)
Mean StreetsAlternate title: When Marty met Bobby. Unlike other projects mentioned here, Mean Streets does not boast a plethora of young actors and actresses who broke out after this film’s release. But Mean Streets is pivotal because it was the first time a budding young director named Martin Scorsese worked with an actor by the name of Robert DeNiro. Truly, the rest is history.

Scorsese and DeNiro have combined for some of the greatest American films of the 20th century, and it all started with Mean Streets. What came next?

Taxi Driver. Raging Bull. Goodfellas. Cape Fear. Casino.

It is not an overstatement to call Scorsese the greatest living American filmmaker and DeNiro the greatest living American actor. Their résumés—both collective and individual—speak to that. But their greatness is not defined solely within their work. They, too, have elevated the careers of many other actors and filmmakers over the years. Undoubtedly, Joe Pesci, Leonardo DiCaprio, Sharon Stone, Ray Liotta, Lorraine Bracco and many, many more have benefited from working with Scorsese and/or DeNiro. And the flashpoint for it all was Mean Streets. Oh yeah, do you know who else was in that movie? A guy named Harvey Keitel. I wonder if he ever went on to do anything substantial.

Honorable Mention
Freaks and Geeks (1999 – 2000)
Freaks and GeeksInitially, I was going to say Knocked Up was the launchpad, but it wasn’t. Before Judd Apatow and co. went on to massive careers after that 2007 comedy movie, there was Freaks and Geeks; a canceled-too-soon TV show that gave birth to many successful Hollywood careers. Apatow wrote and directed several episodes. We know the rest of his story. But what about the cast? Jason Segal, James Franco and Seth Rogan all have become Hollywood A-listers. Linda Cardellini, John Francis Daley, Samm Levine, Busy Phillips and Martin Starr all have found steady work on a slew of highly successful television shows.

No matter how well everyone continues to do, Freaks and Geeks fans still feel cheated out of what could’ve been a great series.

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friday five: rock bands that did just fine with a new lead singer.

FF_Help Wanted
In rock n’ roll, loss of a lead singer usually signals immediate death. Sure, drummers and guitarists are important to the band (bass players? Hmm….), but unless your name is Keith Richards or the Edge, the band will move on without you and probably not miss much of a beat. But lose the singer? The voice? That’s like Jennifer Grey’s new nose: We still like you, but we miss the old nose.

To resurrect one of my all-time favorite Internet memes, The Friday Five, here’s my list of five bands who went out and got a new nose and survived and thrived. Of course, this list is highly subjective. That’s the beauty of The Friday Five. It’s there for you to agree, disagree, add, respond and so on. Without further adieu…

5. Journey
FF_JourneyI admit I’ve never been a huge fan of Journey. Steve Perry was shown the door in 1998 and, after nearly a decade of wandering aimlessly, the rest of the band found their replacement in Arnel Pineda. Now, to me, Journey has become nothing more than a cover band of itself, but Journey fans don’t seem to miss Perry too much. So, yeah, Journey makes this list. Barely.

4. Survivor
FF_SurvivorYou remember Survivor, don’t you? Of course you do. In 1982, everybody new Survivor, thanks to their sports/rock anthem, Eye of the Tiger. Its inclusion in the movie, Rocky III, launched Survivor to instant stardom. Survivor would go on to become a staple on MTV and rock radio throughout the 80s.

Incredibly, Survivor established the majority of its success with a different lead singer. David Bickler handled vocals on Eye of the Tiger, the band’s first No. 1 hit and only international No. 1 song. Soon after its success, Bickler was shown the door and Jimi Jamison entered. With Jamison handling vocals, Survivor released a string of hits: I Can’t Hold Back (No. 1), High on You, The Search is Over and Burning Heart. The 90s and beyond were not kind to Survivor (as with most 80s bands), but there’s no denying their success with Jimi Jamison.

3. Queen
FF_QueenFor the better part of two decades, Queen sat dormant, thanks to the sad death of Freddie Mercury. Sure, they gigged and recorded with Bad Company’s Paul Rodgers a few years ago, but no one really paid any attention. And then along comes Adam Lambert. The groundwork was laid back in 2009, when Lambert, as American Idol finalist, performed with Queen on the show’s season finale. The chemistry was obvious.

Fast forward five years and Queen + Adam Lambert embark on a massive world tour, including Queen’s first shows in the United States since 1980. And the crowd went wild. If I’m not mistaken, they sold out pretty much every U.S. show they performed. No one can replace Freddie. But with Adam Lambert, Queen found a frontman capable of carrying the Queen torch for a new generation of fans.

2. Van Halen
FF_Van-HalenThe greatest rock ’n roll soap opera this side of KISS. Dave vs. Sammy is a debate that will rage on forever among Van Halen fans until the day they die. Whether you love him or hate him, though, Sammy Hagar’s 11 year stint at the band’s lead singer was a rousing success. Not bad, considering Hagar was following a wildly successful era when Van Halen had truly reached the peak of its critical and commercial success with David Lee Roth. No question, the 1984 album was a monster. How could a new singer follow that? Roth’s departure left a daunting hole in the band that no one believed could be filled by anyone other than Roth. Hagar stepped in and the band played on to continued success. Four No. 1 albums. 16 million in record sales and four massively successful world tours with Hagar cemented his bona fides as a Van Halen frontman.

Of course, this soap opera didn’t end there. Sammy’s no longer in the band—and Van Halen could also make the list of Bands Who Failed Miserably With New Lead Singers (I’m working on it) when they brought in Extreme’s Gary Cherone—but those Sammy years were pretty good for VH.

1. AC/DC
FF_ACDCNo rock band that I can think of has lost such a huge part of their signature sound and rebounded so strongly with a new lead singer better than AC/DC. Bon Scott died in 1980, just six years after the band formed. He left behind a magnificent legacy of rock music: Dirty Deeds, Highway to Hell, Big Balls, Whole Lotta Rosie. Jailbreak, It’s A Long Way to the Top and much, much more. That, alone, is an impressive catalog. AC/DC still makes the Rock HoF with that list, if they pack it in after Scott’s death. But how did they respond? With a new lead singer and one of the most essential rock n’ roll albums of the century: Back in Black, the fifth best-selling album of all time

How would the fans react? Would they embrace him? Thirty-five years later and counting, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. Johnson’s résumé of hits has been astounding: Back in Black, Hell’s Bells, For Those About to Rock, Thunderstruck, You Shook Me All Night Long, and on and on and on. There isn’t a person in the world who hasn’t heard at least one AC/DC song, thanks in large part to Johnson’s work as the band’s singer. Not bad for a replacement singer.
still-of-mark-wahlberg-in-rock-star-(2001)-large-picture

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