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Friday, April 13, 2012

Turn Up the Radio

A little diversion from the usual today. It's Friday the 13th, and I'm off to Chicago tonight for the (non-sports related) weekend. Way back in the days before I had a combination satellite radio receiver / MP3 player, it used to be tough to find good music on my frequent road trips. Anyone who has driven across Indiana frequently enough knows that there was never much beyond a couple of country stations and some religious programming. Beginning in 2001, when I bought my current car, I finally had a CD player to keep my ears happy. So, I thought I'd share with you some of my favorite CD's for the road. Being a child of the 1980's, I'm sticking strictly to music from that wonderful decade.

I chose these particular discs on two basic criteria: the top end (great tracks) and the bottom end (were the lesser tracks worth a listen?). Here is a baker's dozen for you.

13. Please (Pet Shop Boys - 1986): At the top end, we've got my two favorite Pet Shop Boys songs, "West End Girls" and "Opportunities." Solid tunes such as "Love Comes Quickly" and "Suburbia" follow. While things do drag a bit from there, the disc ends with a bang. Neil and Chris finish with the criminally underrated "Later Tonight" and "Why Don't We Live Together." This disc is a great choice if you want a classic 1980's Brit-pop selection.

12. Footloose (Soundtrack - 1984): This album was #1 in the U.S. for more than two months consecutively, spawning six top-40 singles. Very few soundtracks have such a perfect connection to their accompanying films. Of course, the title track (by "King of Soundtracks" Kenny Loggins) is the high-water mark. A nice mix of very different songs ("Almost Paradise," "Dancing in the Sheets," "Holding Out for a Hero") provides this disc with some staying power. The other #1 hit, "Let's Hear it for the Boy," tends to wear on me after a while, but that's the worst I have to say here. Even the weakest songs here ("The Girl Gets Around" and "Never") aren't bad, although I do confess to switching discs after Track 7 sometimes.

11. The Joshua Tree (U2 - 1987): I confess to being one of the 14 people on Earth who are not overly impressed by U2. Still, this album is outstanding. It begins with 7 excellent tracks, from the three monster hits to "Red Hill Mining Town" and "In God's Country." Even the two-minutes-too-long "One Tree Hill" isn't bad, and "Mothers of the Disappeared" brings the disc to a nice finale.

10. Night and Day (Joe Jackson - 1982): This one would have placed higher, but Jackson's best songs are relatively spread out over his prolific releases in the late 1970's and early 1980's. This one's a quick nine songs, featuring perhaps his best two ("Steppin' Out" and "Breaking Us in Two") consecutively in the middle. While this one does grind a bit toward the end, some nice, little-known tracks make the first 30 minutes an excellent listen.

9. Polka Party ("Weird Al" Yankovic - 1986) Hi, my name is Mike, and I'm an Al-oholic. I know that some people don't get into Weird Al, but I think he is one of the most talented artists of the past 25 years. This disc has a great mix of direct parodies and style parodies, with one of the best polka medleys on any of his albums. The disc starts with a spot-on James Brown on "Living With a Hernia" and also includes another take-off on a big movie song, "Here's Johnny." The latter is an ode to Ed McMahon, but the sound is a great match for the original hit from the Short Circuit Soundtrack. Yankovic original "Dog Eat Dog" will make you think you're listening to classic Talking Heads. The polka medley features many hit songs of the mid-80's, and the disc finishes with perhaps the best Yankovic original ever, "Christmas at Ground Zero."

8. Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars (Edie Brickell and New Bohemians - 1988): I don't usually get too folksy with my musical tastes, but this is an exception. Aside from the ubiquitous "What I Am," this is not an upbeat collection. Songs such as "Little Miss S," "Air of December," and "Circle" are desolate, haunting, and exceedingly beautiful. As the disc wears on, the melancholy (think Morrissey meets Arlo Guthrie) gets to be a bit much, but there's truly not a bad song throughout.

7. Top Gun (Soundtrack - 1986): The film has such a musical current running through it that it's not surprising to note that listening to the soundtrack instantly takes me to certain scenes. Of course, Kenny Loggins makes an appearance with "Danger Zone." The album's biggest hit ("Take My Breath Away" is actually one of my least favorite selections, but virtually everything else is sing-along quality. The final track, "Top Gun Anthem" (by Harold Faltermeyer of "Axel F" fame), is amazing and inspiring. This disc puts me back in the cockpit, the volleyball court, and Kelly McGillis's bedroom, and those are some fine places to be.

6. She's So Unusual (Cyndi Lauper - 1983): Lauper's debut album is a mix of styles, from the plaintive "Time After Time" to the playful and titillating "She Bop." This disc also features the major hits "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" and (my personal favorite) "All Through the Night." While the final two tracks (comprising only 4 minutes of the disc) are less than stellar, the rest is filled with big hits and pleasant surprises. For a hidden gem, go with the first track, "Money Changes Everything."

5. Raising Hell (Run-DMC - 1986): The four power tracks on this one are right at the beginning ("Peter Piper," "It's Tricky," "My Adidas," and "Walk This Way"), but this one stays strong throughout. Tracks 5-6 ("Is It Live" and "Perfection") are so-so at best, but the remainder of the disc is well worth a listen. Check out Track 10, "Dumb Girl" for a lesser-known winner.

4. Beauty and the Beat (The Go-Go's - 1981): The vocals of Belinda Carlisle couple with the excellent songwriting and instrumentation of Charlotte Caffey and Jane Weidlin to make this one a pleasure from start to finish. Of course, most will remember the hits "Our Lips are Sealed" and "We Got the Beat." No song, however, captures the early Go-Go's edge and image like "This Town" does. Truly, there's not a loser in the bunch. Watch out for "Automatic," a song that deserves to be much better known.

3. Disintegration (The Cure - 1989): The two biggest hits ("Pictures of You" and "Lovesong") come early on the disc, along with excellent lead track "Plainsong." While Robert Smith thought the album too much of a departure from his vision for the band, I think it's the one with the fewest dead spots and flaws. My only complaint is that a few of the songs at the end (including the very good title track) run on a few minutes too long. Still, when I'm in the mood for The Cure, no disc id better.

2. Rocky IV (Soundtrack - 1985): Each of the first four soundtracks in the Rocky franchise was excellent, but this one is the most uniformly outstanding. It's a great mix of rock songs by the famous (James Brown) and the forgotten (Robert Tepper), plus some of Vince DiCola's usual instrumental mastery. DiCola's two tracks, "War" and "Training Montage," are some of the most inspiring instrumentals I have ever heard, and they catch the feel of their respective parts of the movie perfectly. "Eye of the Tiger" (originally from Rocky III) makes a return appearance, and Survivor adds the excellent "Burning Heart." It's tough to find much better on those late-night drives, when I need a push to keep me going.

1. Licensed to Ill (Beastie Boys - 1986): Aside from the middling "Time to Get Ill," every track here is a borderline or certifiable classic (See track list below). If you want fun party music, you absolutely can't go wrong here. This one has withstood numerous start-to-finish playings, and I still love it every time.

"Rhymin & Stealin"
"The New Style"
"She's Crafty"
"Posse in Effect"
"Slow Ride"
"(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party)"
"No Sleep Till Brooklyn"
"Paul Revere"
"Hold It, Now Hit It"
"Brass Monkey"
"Slow and Low"
"Time to Get Ill"

Writing this post has made me reconsider my usual satellite-based road trip music for this trip. I think I'll be taking some of these along for the ride. Eleven years and 183,000 miles after my first car CD experience, these still hold up beautifully.