XTC: The Big Express (1984): I devoured this album when it came out – gulp! – 25 years ago. But in contrast to most early ‘80s pop, The Big Express – with all its proud melodic strength, bell-ringing guitar blasts and doomsday lyrics – sounds like it could have been cut yesterday. In fact, the jagged, polyphonic funk of the finale Train Running Low on Soul Coal still sounds ahead of its time.
King Crimson: Starless and Bible Black (1974): Robert Fripp and company continue to release such a wealth of vintage live recordings via their website (www.dgmlive.com) that one tends of lose sight of the studio works that underscored Crimson’s innovative strengths in the first place. Starless and Bible Black has it all: wondrous pop deviation, expert instrumentation and keen improvisatory insight.
The Chieftains: The Chieftains 8 (1978): You could make a case for naming any of a dozen albums as The Chieftains’ best. While 8 probably isn’t No. 1, it’s close. It offered major leaps for Paddy Moloney as a writer, arranger and overall Irish folk mood maker. The beautiful Sea Image, in particular, made its way some years later into the wondrous James Farnsworth film The Grey Fox. Enchanting stuff.
Jorma Kaukonen: River of Time (2009): Anyone else find it amazing that one of the most blazingly evil sounding electric guitarists of the late psychedelic ‘60s would enjoy a second life today through acoustic folk, blues and country roots music? Maybe that’s because those elements were always there even in Kauokonen’s oldest, darkest music. But they thrive in such an unencumbered acoustic setting as River of Time.
Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band: Express Yourself (1993): A little bit of James Brown, a whole lot of Sly Stone and a touch of Tower of Power make up the expert R&B sides, all cut between 1967 and 1972, on this sublime anthology. This is something of a rite-of-spring album for me. When the weather warms up, nothing beats a Sunday drive with the Watts Band’s sunny soul turned up full blast.