What’s That Sound?: Culminating Works

Not all music fans are built the same.

Some of us are content to just enjoy the songs we pick up here and there with little regard for the name of the band or artist, when the song was made, or from which album it sprung. These people are our friends and neighbors, maybe you live with one (like I do). These are people that love music, that have favorite songs, that feel all the feelings that music provides. They just have better things to do than chase down which artist or band did what on which album in which period of their careers. Or maybe they just like to give that side of their brain a rest when they are enjoying music.

Then there are maniacs like us. We can’t just enjoy a song we don’t immediately recognize. We have to know the name of the band or artist and, and, if at all possible, the source album too, so we are either checking Shazam or eying the host’s playlist if it’s a party. For me, it’s not that I can’t enjoy the music in the moment without my analytical mind kicking in, it’s because, if I find something new that I like, I want to return to it, explore the band or artist, and maybe discover how the song fits into their story. Mostly, I’m just a glutton for great music and if I like something, I know there’s probably more out there.

Music hits me in the gut and can easily knock my soul on its keister. But yes, the analytical mind does hunger for knowledge and it must be fed too and that’s okay.

Picasso had his cubist period, his blue period, his surrealist period, and more. The same is true for many of our favorite musical artists and the dynamics within those periods can help us to understand the context of their greatest works, if that’s your thing. Not required reading, but here are seven profiles of culminating works by a handful of the greats, albums that sum up what a band or artist was trying to do and say within the most significant periods of their careers, where they came from, and where they went next. It’s intended as food for thought but it might also enhance your enjoyment of the music itself to know precisely how and when these pinnacle works were made and how they gave shape to the arc of each of these musical timelines.


“Visions of Johanna”

Bob Dylan – Blonde On Blonde

Ever since he walked himself into the studio in 1964 with a stack of lyric sheets and a couple of bottles of Beaujolais to cut Another Side of Bob Dylan, the Bard from Minnesota has been wriggling out of the straitjacket of the scruffy folksinger persona that once had helped fix itself into the public imagination. That intimate, personal album, his fourth, left the folk world scratching its head; they weren’t at all interested in seeing “another side” of their shining hero who had just previously released The Times They Are A-Changin’, the album of strident topical songs that made Bob Dylan the darling of the old guard, the folkies whose lineage stretched back to the Almanac Singers, the Weavers, and the activist 1940s. But Dylan had already left a message to the traditionalists that he couldn’t stay long as their mouthpiece in the last song on Times, called “Restless Farewell,” his amiable goodbye (or a snide kiss-off depending on how you take it). And indeed, the charming solo acoustic Another Side of Bob Dylan album was a complete about-face from the world of topical songwriting, comprised only of songs about personal relationships and self-discovery, with one standout offering, the stunningly poetic “Chimes of Freedom,” a song that contemplates living through perilous times and the moral ramifications of of just being alive, free, and self-aware.

As confused as they must have been with that iconoclastic album, the old guard was not prepared for what came next. No one was.

In 1965, Dylan strapped on a Fender Stratocaster and embarked upon on a two-year pilgrimage of the mind and spirit, launching what became known as his electric period with “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” an extended electric blues-rap (essentially) with one foot in the Chuck Berry past and one foot in the Hiphop future. More importantly, the song, along with the entire Bringing It All Back Home album it kicks off, is a commitment, a personal manifesto to seek enlightenment through introspection (“Jump down a manhole/light yourself a candle”) and to reject Maggie’s Farm, the expected workaday conformity that once came with adulthood. For the follow-up album, Highway 61 Revisited Dylan brought on explosive lead guitarist Mike Bloomfield, continuing the endeavor and upping the ante with his highest charting single to date, the audacious rock tour de force, “Like a Rolling Stone,” as well as his masterpiece in the series of grand kiss-off songs, “Desolation Row,” which manages to outdo the previous album’s closer, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” in terms of unrelenting power and poetic clarity. Dylan may have set out in 1965 to just play some rock and roll but he ended up throwing down the gauntlet, influencing everyone in music with these two albums, and single-handedly creating a whole new adventurous genre of music known forever after as “rock.”

With Dylan’s next release, the inimitable Blonde on Blonde, he didn’t so much outdo his previous two albums as much as create a capstone for this heady period of his development.

Despite being on a creative roll, Blonde On Blonde’s launch was a bit of a zig zag. Starting out in late 1965 recording in NYC with members of The Hawks (who would change their name to The Band), sessions that produced the raucous single “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window,” further attempts were very hit and miss (more like completely dissatisfying). After trying a number of songs and shuffling players, only one track that would be kept for Blonde on Blonde emerged in early 1966, the majestic “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later).” Not getting what they wanted in New York, producer Bob Johnston suggested moving the project to Nashville, which turned out to be an inspired idea.

Dylan’s studio method has always been to assemble great players, quickly show them the song, and just roll tape, hoping to catch lightning in a bottle. Not a lot of formal arranging going on, or even discussion between players, it’s pretty much all done by feel. When it works it’s pure magic, but when it’s not happening, sometimes the best thing to do is to take Al Kooper and Robbie Robertson and head to Music Row to kick it with the Nashville players, the “cats” that excel at casual brilliance. You can hear what Dylan was going for in “Visions of Johanna,” “I Want You,” and “Stuck Inside of Memphis with the Mobile Blues Again,” spontaneity and focus at the same time. That “thin, wild mercury sound” (Dylan’s description specific to Blonde on Blonde) and a certain lightness that the underpinning of Kenny Buttrey’s drums and Charlie McCoy’s bass could provide. The ferocious garage rock of the first two electric albums is gone, replaced by a more sophisticated, buoyant feel that is in places, even more powerful.

Dylan himself is at the peak of his capacities at this point, with turns of phrases that are both inscrutable and resonant at the same time, singing simultaneously with bluster and empathy with almost every line. Force and gentility. Determination and ease. He embodies both ends of every continuum on Blonde on Blonde. And Dylan’s secret weapon across this double album is his ambitious, highly crafted melodies, something he’s not exactly known for. Listen to how much the gems of this album rely on the wide-ranging, angular, highly inventive, serpentine melodic shapes that Dylan applies, particularly to “One of Us Must Know,” “Visions of Johanna,” “Just Like a Woman,” “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” and “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.” The melodic prowess Dylan showed on “Desolation Row,” in full bloom here, works with the ambitious lyrics, masterful sound, and empathetic playing to make Blonde and Blonde a work of enormous depth and longevity, a fitting, undeniably musical summation of everything he was shooting for in his brief but meteoric electric period, one that would come to an abrupt end with his motorcycle crash, recuperation, and the shift into folk and country music for the next phase of his musical life.


“Something”

The Beatles – Abbey Road

Here’s an album that plays like the most awesome series finale ever made. After the somewhat contentious, rocky experience of making the quirky, patchwork assemblage that would become the Let It Be album, the group didn’t want to go out on that unsatisfying, weird note. So, Paul contacted George Martin enlisting his help in giving the group a proper sendoff. No one knew definitively that this would be the band’s last album, but according to George Harrison, “it felt as if we were reaching the end of the line.” Martin agreed under the condition that he would be allowed to be the producer in full (specifically, he sought Lennon’s acquiescence) and once everyone was on the same page, the Beatles and George Martin started work on what would be Abbey Road, the group’s elegant final album.

It had been a while since the band recorded in earnest as a unit. The Let It Be sessions were essentially recorded rehearsals, and the White Album was kind of a four-way solo effort (although “Yer Blues” was recorded live in a single small room as a band). It had also been a long time, since back in the Sergeant Pepper/Magical Mystery Tour era that George Martin was fully at the producer helm, also contributing orchestral arrangements. Known for the Paul-driven medley that finishes off the album, Abbey Road is actually a triumph for all four Beatles. George Harrison who, with “Here Comes the Sun” and the sublime lead off single “Something” (his first and only A-Side) comes into his own as a true co-equal to the Lennon-McCartney songwriting juggernaut, Ringo contributes “Octopus’s Garden,” his first really good song, and John gets gloriously weird with both the surrealistic “Come Together” and the scream-therapy influenced “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).”

But to focus on their individual achievements would be to miss the point of Abbey Road, which is in essence very much a group effort. Whether it’s George helping Ringo find the best chords for “Octopus’s Garden,” Paul’s elevating “Something” with his virtuoso turn on bass (plus the song’s gorgeous George Martin string arrangement), the meticulously layered group vocals on “Because,” or the fiery 3-way lead guitar trading on “The End,” this is the sound of the four Beatles setting aside their ongoing disputes, joining together to pay tribute to their own greatness.

Sonically, Abbey Road provides a glimpse into the would-be future of the band. The only album of theirs made on a transistor-based recording console (instead of tubes), Abbey Road has the distinctive aural stamp of 70s classic rock, sounding much silkier and more refined than their other albums. But it was not to be, so Abbey Road rightfully stands apart from their catalog in spirit and in sound as well. Ultimately, though it wasn’t formalized until a little later, this is the group saying goodbye to its fans in the most elegant way possible. For many, Abbey Road is indeed the Beatles’ crowning achievement, but the band made sure for all of their fans that their swan song resonated with true fellowship and the power of cooperation, which is ultimately their great legacy. 


“Tumbling Dice”

The Rolling Stones – Exile on Main Street

It’s not a coincidence that this list of culminating works is also a short list of fantastic, must-have albums. This one’s a little different.

The fourth and final stroke of genius in arguably the finest consecutive run of great albums in rock music, Exile On Main Street represents not so much a peak as a lofty plateau. Of the five singles released from the sprawling double album, only two even charted with just “Tumbling Dice” breaking the Top Ten in either the US or UK. But that’s cool because what Exile On Main Street offers is not so much the thrill of a joyride as the sound of a finely tuned engine purring in magnificent idle.

The Rolling Stones spent much of their early years in the gravitational pull of England’s greatest hitmakers, the brilliant, ever-evolving, and remarkably consistent Beatles. But after the unexpected death of Brian Epstein and a rare misstep, the resounding thud of their colorful but underwhelming Magical Mystery Tour TV film in 1967 (weirdly broadcast in black and white on BBC), a psychic space opened up for a whole new post-Beatles chapter in rock, a new way of playing, a completely different feel and sound, which is exactly what the Stones in their prime offered. It was the fulfillment of an entirely different proposition, and starting with the “Jumping Jack Flash” single followed by Beggars Banquet, the Rolling Stones stopped making music in response to the Beatles and started to rock and roll with a sense of purpose and an identity fully their own.

Their first smart move was to drop their long-time producer-manager Andrew Loog Oldheim (who really was more of a publicist than a record producer) in favor of Jimmy Miller, himself a drummer, whose singular interest was a deep groove with a rootsy sound. A renewed interest in American Country and Folk music, the addition of ex-Bluesbreaker Mick Taylor into the Stones, plus rubbing shoulders with musical ambassadors Gram Parsons and Ry Cooder all contributed to a reinvigorated connection to the Blues, R&B, and Soul music, the stuff that originally ignited the band when Brian Jones was its leader. Add to this Keith’s discovery of the five-string open tuning that would fire a whole string of signature Stones songs including “Jumping Jack Flash,” “Honky Tonk Woman,” “Brown Sugar,” “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’,” and many more. Many events and elements conspired and fused together to kick the Rolling Stones into high gear in the late 60s through the beginning of the next decade including politics, drug use, advancing technology, and musical associations to the point that they could seemingly do no wrong. The band followed the sublime Beggars Banquet with the commanding Let It Bleed album, and then their dark masterpiece, Sticky Fingers, all Jimmy Miller productions, all completely essential to any true rock fan’s collection.

The story of Exile begins in 1971 with the band’s decision to take up residence somewhere other than England to avoid being taxed at 93%, the top rate (actually to accumulate enough money to pay off their existing UK tax bill). Under the advice of their financial advisor, the Stones moved to the idyllic South of France, but couldn’t find a suitable recording facility in the area so they parked their truck, the infamous Rolling Stones Mobile Studio, at Nellcôte, Keith’s rented villa, and started recording the bulk of the album in the basement makeshift studio of the mansion there. 

One of the hallmarks of this new Stones era is the essential pairing of Keith’s chunky rhythm guitar and Charlie’s drums, the central groove of Stones music being the main source of inspiration and the primary feature. Another major element is the move to hard drugs within the band, so while avoiding the confines of a formal recording studio meant the band could work whenever they wanted, they ended up only being able to move forward whenever Keith would drag himself to the basement, which was usually midnight or later (so late that sometimes Jimmy Miller would have to fill in on drums, as on “Happy,” “Shine a Light,” and the extended outro of “Tumbling Dice.”). The constant flow of visitors and sketchy junkies wasn’t good for productivity or focus either, but the composite of factors yielded what many consider the band’s finest, most interesting album.

Initially considered by critics to be murky and lacking, we can see now with distance and context that the Exile on Main Street double-LP represents one long, sustained idea. Yes, there’s some filler here, and certainly a lot of what could be best termed mood pieces, but this is neither a work of great ambition nor of clear intention. It’s, rather, a document of a band standing on a windy precipice, one from which they would slowly retreat with subsequently lesser works, Goats Head Soup and It’s Only Rock and Roll, after which the band would lose a pivotal member, Mick Taylor, finding a decent replacement in Ron Wood. From there, the Stones would tiptoe into middle age and soon after make the shift into their current emeritus position. Their one remaining moment of true artistry would come in 1978 with the Some Girls album (and arguably most of 1981’s Tattoo You, which is made of remnants of their post-Exile 70s albums), but as the band’s relevance has faded over the years, the luster of Exile on Main Street has become more burnished and more appreciated for what it is, their most personal album and a monument to their own ethos, deep groove, and the unique sound of the band in their richest period. 


“Cut My Hair”

The Who – Quadrophenia

Pete Townshend has always been an exceedingly visionary and ambitious rocker. From as early as the second Who album whose title track “A Quick One (While He’s Away)” is an extended-length, narrative mini-opera with multiple sections, the band was bursting out of the confines of the three-minute pop song form. Their next release, The Who Sell Out is a full-on concept album that intersperses vapid, peppy radio jingles, expertly mocking the commercial radio format arena that the band was being forced to compete in. By their fourth outing, Townshend was embracing the grand concept album writ large with Tommy, the band’s groundbreaking rock opera that became their signature. And he didn’t stop there.

After Tommy, Townshend doubled down on the grand statement approach by conceiving of but never fully executing the sprawling, ethereal behemoth that was Lifehouse. Where Tommy relied on some existing tropes and symbols (namely, Tommy as a Jesus figure, but also the archetypal roles of the supporting cast), Lifehouse was a complicated, wholly original story based on a futuristic dystopian vision and the intersection of technology, humanity, and the redemptive power of music. That cryptic and somewhat abstract and metaphysical concept album and film project eventually broke down in the making but not before almost driving Townshend mad (explanations of the murky plot line kept shifting – Daltry said that no one in the band could grasp it). The remnants of the themes of Lifehouse were salvaged and pared down to their essence to great effect, however, in the band’s highly curated, deeply influential single-LP masterpiece Who’s Next.

Happily, Townshend did not learn his lesson after the Lifehouse debacle. Instead of retreating to the short pop songs format of the band’s debut, Townshend instead set about to make what is his most affecting, personal, and most successful large-scale work, Quadrophenia. A true rock opera (despite never having been planned to be staged), with strong themes and a sympathetic narrative drawn from the band’s own history in the Mod scene in early-60s London, Quadrophenia is the story of Jimmy, a prototypical Mod, who is buckling under the weight of teen angst, peer pressure and increased amphetamine use to the point where his identity splits into four discernible parts, all depicted in song. Drop the needle onto any point of its four sides and you’ll hear either a powerful, confessional rock song or a tightly focused, beautifully orchestrated instrumental passage. Townshend lands success after success on Quadrophenia and the results are musically breathtaking and emotionally, intensely cathartic.

Though a mere four years separate them, Tommy and Quadrophenia bear the marks of the two different decades that spawned them. Unlike its predecessor which still feels shackled to the 1960s 3-minute AM radio pop song construct, Quadrophenia, an FM classic, resonates as a long-form thematic work that is truly operatic and large in scope. Even though the songwriting here is focused and memorable, the songs all serve the work as a whole, either establishing the different facets of Jimmy moving the plot forward as frustrations mount and the stakes are raised. And unlike Tommy, there are no “rock opera” trappings here. Nothing stagey, belabored, or self-consciously operatic. Townshend and the band seem to have refined and perfected the Tommy/Lifehouse approach because Quadrophenia simply plays like a great double album, certainly one of rock’s best.

With the band playing at the towering peak they established on Who’s Next (Moon’s drumming would soon start to falter from self-abuse, but he’s still in top form here), and Townshend’s thematic writing at its most human and emotionally searching, combined with Roger and Pete both singing with their greatest empathy, plus further Townshend explorations and refinement of guitar and keyboard orchestrations that elevated Who’s Next, Quadrophenia feels like a completion of their grand mission and the apex of the band’s most fertile period. The two albums that remain with Keith Moon on drums, The Who By Numbers (quite good), and Who Are You (only OK), are both collections of short songs, both somewhat retrospective in feel. Quadrophenia remains as the grand statement of a band that is at their very best making grand statements.


“Knocks Me Off My Feet”

Stevie Wonder – Songs in the Key of Life

If you saw the Grammys during the mid-70s, it was pretty boring because Stevie Wonder was winning everything in sight. And no one complained. Stevie Wonder owned the first part of that decade. After creating four genius albums in just two years (1972-1974), Stevie stopped cranking out masterpieces for a second to breathe and to assess his way forward. Opposing the authoritarianism of the Nixon administration and the institutional racism of his home country, Stevie came very close to leaving America, retiring from music and taking up philanthropic work in his ancestral home of Ghana (and went as far as planning a farewell concert in 1975), but instead, Stevie set about to make what would become his crowning achievement in music, the landmark double LP (plus a 4-song bonus EP) eclectic masterwork released in 1976, Songs in the Key of Life.

By the time the supremely talented wunderkind Stevie Wonder turned 21, he was already a hit-making juggernaut at Motown with thirteen studio albums to his name. Letting his original contract expire, as part of his renegotiation with Motown, Stevie’s primary demand was that he retain autonomy of his music. With that creative license, he started making what can best be called progressive soul albums, playing all of the instruments, the music infused with jazz harmonies coupled with thoughtful lyrics with adult themes sung with the soulful, emotional, and vulnerable voice that laid out everyone who heard it. The overall effect was devastating and truly game changing, and by his second outing, Talking Book, also released in 1972 (just seven months after Music of My Mind), Stevie was firing on all cylinders, killer songs one after the other with a potency and magnificence unmatched by anyone but perhaps the Beatles. The next two years saw the release of the brilliant Innervisions and the “grower” of the bunch, Fulfillingness’ First Finale, four outright masterpiece albums in a row, and except for an occasional horn line, guitar, or bass part, all played by Stevie himself. There are not enough superlatives to describe Stevie Wonder’s talent or his ability to translate it into music that somehow pushes boundaries and yet retains the broadest appeal. Here again, the Beatles is the only precedent I can think of.

Four years of undaunted success and the threat to retire from music was enough to get Berry Gordy back to the negotiating table in 1975 and this time Stevie landed much more than creative freedom: a $13 million advance, veto power on any releases (200,000 copies of a planned greatest hits package were brought to the incinerator on his say so), a massive 20% royalty on his records, and a chance to net $37 million as a bonus if he released more than 7 albums within the term of the deal. All of this was unprecedented and the money alone was more than the recent Elton John and Neil Diamond deals combined. 

With new vigor, Stevie worked tirelessly on his 21-song magnum opus Songs in the Key of Life, often going overnight to chase down the sounds he heard and get them tracked on tape. This time Stevie brought in more players to help him flesh out his vision, so there’s more of an ensemble feel to much of the album but the artist himself remains front and center throughout. Mega hits like “Sir Duke,” “I Wish,” and “Isn’t She Lovely” sit with more personal, philosophical songs like “Love’s In Need of Love Today,” “Village Ghetto Land,” and “Pastime Paradise” on Songs in the Key of Life, and the creative highlights “Knocks Me Off My Feet,” the “Summer Soft/Ordinary Pain” medley, and “As” push Stevie’s creative envelope even further. Challenging himself to write across genres and feels, it’s a sprawling, ambitious work that suits the artist at the peak of this, his most fertile period (the album’s 21 songs were culled from an estimated 200 tracks in various stages of completion, nearly all of the rest remain in his vault). Stevie Wonder would go on to write more hits and touchstone ballads like “Ribbon in the Sky” and “Overjoyed,” but he would never again attain the towering heights of that mid-70s period when he reached for the stars with his own sense of discovery, excitement, and confidence. Songs in the Key of Life puts a funky exclamation point at the end of that joyful, creative, and profound era in the life of one of music’s most gifted and visionary artists.


“Powderfinger”

Neil Young – Rust Never Sleeps

The 1970s was a cornucopia decade for Neil Young, so much so that the bounty of that fertile time is still pouring out of the vaults with such powerhouse albums as Hitchhiker (released in 2017, recorded in 1976), Roxy: Tonight’s the Night Live (released in 2018, recorded on tour in 1973), and Homegrown (released in 2020, recorded in 1974-75), all essential works. As far as contemporaneous releases through that rich decade go, I count four bona fide masterpieces and two other damn fine albums. You can throw in Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, the epic first album he recorded with Crazy Horse in 1969, a year earlier than the official start of the decade, but every bit a 70s album too. Suffice it to say that Neil Young was totally killing it in the second chapter of his career when he split from Buffalo Springfield and struck out following his own muse.

You’d think he’d be tapped out by 1979 but instead, that was the crowning year Neil released the Rust Never Sleeps album as well as the indelible, career-spanning live double Live Rust, the soundtrack companion to the Rust Never Sleeps film, also released in 1979. It was also the watershed year that Rolling Stone magazine named him Artist of the Decade, a distinction he may or may not have been vying for, you be the judge (Young barely edged out Bowie who was closing out the 70s cloistered in Germany, recording his esoteric Berlin trilogy). Given that the year before brought the release of Decade, the triple album career retrospective, for someone still in their prime Neil Young seems to have been an artist preoccupied with legacy. But then again, he was from the generation that cast an untrusting eye toward anyone who tried to engage with them that was over 30, plus that was also before anyone could imagine rocking out well into and past middle age.

But, as with everything, it all comes down to the songs and Rust Never Sleeps is packed deep with great ones, almost all of them tied with retrospective themes of personal assessment after harrowing experience. It’s an album of all new material, mostly recorded live, with an acoustic side A and an electric side B (backed by Crazy Horse). My two favorite cuts are both story songs, the solo acoustic “Thrasher,” which reportedly recounts the thinly-veiled tale of his not very amicable split from his friends in CSN, and “Powderfinger,” a poignant civil war allegory told from the grave by an outgunned son thrust into the unfortunate position of having to defend the family homestead from an armed riverboat attack. Throughout Rust Never Sleeps, Neil Young adopts an elegiac tone – “Once you’re gone, you can’t come back.” “The aimless blade of science slashed the pearly gates.” “Remember the Alamo.” “They massacred the buffalo kitty corner from the bank.” “As long as we can sail away.” And except for two amusing punk-influenced numbers on the electric side, there’s a somberness that matches the retrospective feel of this, Young’s last truly great album, unless you count Freedom (1989) or Sleeps With Angels (1994). I do.

Neil Young is a moody, inspired songwriter and a recording artist focused intensely on that elusive quality, vibe. Influential upon generations of bands and artists but no one yet has been able to crack his particular code. His lyrics are often abstract to the point of inscrutability, but not so you’d notice, so gifted is he with language and managing its boundaries. And as retrospective a mood he was in at the end of his richest decade, releasing both Decade and Live Rust, it’s Rust Never Sleeps, this unforgettable single LP of new songs that feels like the capper to an extraordinary decade marked by commercial success, loss and trauma, constant internal exploration, reaching, and attainment unmatched by anyone but a small handful of other artists.


“More Than This”

Avalon – Roxy Music

Roxy Music was a risky, innovative band from London that formed in 1971 and sought to play footsie with existing rock norms — a common occurrence today but pretty groundbreaking at that time, especially in pre-punk Britain. Anchored by the quirky but alluring vocals of frontman Bryan Ferry, an able and incisive rhythm section, and a devotion to high fashion and image-making, Roxy Music also layered in Andy Mackay’s bold saxophone and the experimental synthesizer twiddlings of non-musician Brian Eno. The result was arguably the first “post-rock” band. Roxy Music spoke the language of rock and were happy to embrace the rock market, but their ambitions surpassed the limits of the rock band construct and, more importantly, their effort to deconstruct and skewer anything earnest was seemingly at odds with the hippie conceits that comprised the rock ethos, in its ascendancy at that time.

With clever lyrics, a healthy dose of irony, plus a true talent for making a splash, Roxy Music first garnered the attention of EG Management and subsequently an Island Records recording contract. They made two consecutive bold, iconoclastic albums in the early 70s before Eno split to pursue a solo career, replacing him with keyboard whiz Eddie Jobson and continued making their brand of elegantly subversive, witty Art Rock. A three-album run with Jobson crested with their 1975 soul-inflected commercial (and I think musical) peak, Siren which featured their first big hit in America, “Love Is The Drug,” after which the band left the scene for an “indefinite rest” which ended up being a four-year hiatus (an eternity in the 70s). Siren in itself functions as a culminating work, the band gelling on song after great song, fulfilling the mission goals of refined excellence in songwriting and studio work they had been pursuing since Eno’s departure. A fantastic album that should not be missed and a suitable place to stop and think as a band.

Over the years the group was away, a lot had happened. In 1976-1977, The Sex Pistols and the brush fire that was the punk movement tore through the countryside leaving a glitzy, overdressed legacy band like Roxy Music regrouping on the sidelines, making solo albums, planning some kind of way forward. When a retooled Roxy Music emerged (without Eddie Jobson, Ferry deftly taking over the keyboard duties) in 1979 with the spotty, often brilliant, disco-adjacent Manifesto album, gone was the cheeky ferociousness and fiery musicianship, replaced by a slick, ennui-drenched self-awareness that still somehow worked to project the soul of the band, transformed but intact. The next album, Flesh + Blood saw them in somewhat of a holding pattern in a similar mode, but 1982’s excellent Avalon album, the band’s last, finally revealed what Roxy Music had been driving at in their final arc.

Lushly produced, the opulent, meticulous soundscapes offered on Avalon are a reward in themselves (renowned mixer Bob Clearmountain is known for the pillowy beauty of his mixes and the consensus view is that this album is his crowning achievement). Where the previous two albums were scattershot in their approach, chasing recent trends in dance music and new wave rock, Avalon benefits from lessons learned and seeks to codify the post-punk Roxy Music language. The results are best described as breathtaking. “More Than This,” the first track acts as a legend for the alluring terrain that the band maps out on Avalon. Simultaneously minimalist and densely layered (how do they do that?) space is the currency here – a bed of polyrhythmic guitar arpeggios subtly supporting chiming keyboard sustains surround Bryan Ferry’s most plaintive vocal to date with airy background unison vocal lines weaving through, all over a simple but insistent mid-tempo drum groove. Ace-in-the-hole Andy Mackay’s sax provides signature hooks in places throughout Avalon, keeping the songs firmly in the Roxy world, while the rounded, gossamer synth layers, textural guitars, and hypnotic drums lend a modern, forward-leaning sound to the entire album. Lyrically, the romantic breakup theme of Avalon dovetails nicely with it being the band’s swan song. Wistfulness with a tinge of regret permeates everything, but not without hope. 

Way ahead of their time, Roxy Music in all of their phases influenced everyone around them, but it usually took a dog’s year to become noticeable. Their initial “post-rock” phase inspired generations of musicians to subvert expectations, either subtly (The Cars) or severely (Devo). And yes, it’s awkward to see your favorite pioneers chasing trends instead of setting them (see mid-80s Bowie or Dylan), so it was good to see Roxy Music finally lock into a cohesive mission statement on Avalon, an album and a sound (opulent minimalism, I’m gonna call it) that directly inspired an entire movement, the New Romantics that emerged out of England and provided much of the basis for what is known as the Second British Invasion. This final iteration of Roxy Music was much more accessible, so it makes sense that their influence radiated and echoed back almost immediately. Bryan Ferry went on to a solo career, something he’d been flirting with ever since Eno’s departure, but not before tying up loose ends so successfully with his groundbreaking band, Roxy Music on the extraordinarily beautiful Avalon.


This list is obviously incomplete so please make a case for your favorite culminating works in the comments and as always, thanks for reading!

Mountain Top Photo by Davis Arenas