Monday, December 30, 2019

Albums of 2019: A Year of Surprises

If one word can summarize my music listening for 2019, it would be surprise.

Almost literally from the start of the year, the music I took in surprised me. The first weekend of January, my family drove to visit relatives. On the way, of all things, my son suggested we listen to Alice Cooper's Welcome 2 My Nightmare, the 2011 sequel to his 1975 album Welcome to my Nightmare. I was floored by how good that album is, with music spanning genres, and consummate musicians bringing their A Game to the music. That album not only set the stage for a great year of music, but sent me and my son on a musical journey to discover new music by legacy rock acts.

Legacy Rock Still Produces Great Music

By our definition, legacy rock are the old guard, the OG, rock stars that started in the 1960s and 1970s yet still make music. We tend to focus on albums produced in this century. I asked him what kicked off this focus on legacy rock acts. He said it was a combination of KISS: Sonic Boom (2009), Alice Cooper: Paranormal (2017), and, to some extent, Chicago XXX (2006). Songs in particular were Chicago's "Feel" and "Caroline,", KISS's "Yes I Know" and "Never Enough," and Alice Cooper's "Genuine American Girl" and "Paranormic Personality." A Christmas album that added to this was Twisted Sister's "A Twisted Christmas."

After hearing these albums, he got to thinking what other legacy rock acts made music in this century. Many of the selections were by bands who hadn't made music in awhile. Others, like Bon Jovi and Def Leppard, never stopped. He searched. I did, too. And we have now compiled some great albums that I never knew about. Maybe you didn't either.

Among the albums I enjoyed this year but released prior to 2019 were the following:

Alice Cooper - Welcome 2 Nightmare - A soundtrack to a Broadway musical I really want to see. Each track is a different style, all with a similar theme. I don't know a lot of Cooper's music, but this is by far my favorite.

Eagles - Long Road Out of Eden - This band is one I really loved in high school and college, but then just faded away. It was like I could only listen to so much  Eagles music in my lifetime and I had reached my limit. It got to where I'd change the station if any of their songs came on the radio. Then there is this album and I was reminded just how good they are. The Harmonies! Wonderful record and, sadly, the last with Glenn Frey.

Foreigner - Can't Slow Down - When a legacy band has to replace an iconic singer, most try to mimic the departed singer. Kelly Hanson does an exceptional job at the new songs. Yeah, he sounds like Lou Gramm's brother, but Hanson brings himself to the mix. The songs are really good at keeping what made early Foreigner good and updating it to this century. This one (2009) came fifteen years after their last album, the very definition of a legacy rock band releasing new music.

REO Speedwagon - Find Your Own Way Home - The first of two by a band I hadn't listened to in decades. This studio album arrived late in the year and right before the Christmas music started (and I rarely go back to non-Christmas music in this time of the year) but, again, this is proof that bands like this need to keep releasing new music. "Find Your Own Way Home" is a wonderful song with added weight because it comes from the point of view of an older  singer.

REO Speedwagon - Christmas With REO Speedwagon - This is one of four new Christmas albums I got this year. It's a nice record full of standard songs, highlighted by a pair of new-to-me songs: Children Go Where I Send You and I Believe in Santa. That latter is a great song that captures the spirit of the season and that of a parent and childhood.

Cheap Trick Christmas - Were it not for Chicago, this would be my favorite Christmas album of 2019 (even though it came out in 2017). Three originals--led by "Merry Christmas Darlings," a happy, joyful song that stops halfway through and just plays the sounds of a party, complete with children's laughter--are mixed with tunes that don't always get re-recorded. Wizzard's "I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday," Slade's "Merry Xmas Everybody," The Kinks' "Father Christmas," are perfect for Cheap Trick. Heck, we even get the Saturday Night Live's "I Wish It Was Christmas Today." But it is "Remember Christmas," by Harry Nilsson (From the Son of Dracula movie; yeah, really) that really surprised me. Love this album for its harder-edged yet still fun take on seasonal songs.

Legacy Rock Still Inspires

Frontiers Music keeps the flame of melodic and AOR rock alive. Back in January, I downloaded their sampler and was happily surprised by just about every song. But two songs propelled me to buy full albums by two of the bands.

Perfect Plan - All Rise - This band from Sweden could easily have been making music in the 1970s and 1980s. Their sound is right from the mold of hard rock bands with keyboard. Think Queensrhyche, Europe, (another Swedish band), Deep Purple, Foreigner, and more. Lead singer Kent Hilli has the pipes to keep up with the elders of rock with a voice reminiscent of Lou Gramm mixed with Geoff Tate and, frankly, just his own style. Speaking of styles, the different songs hearken back to earlier bands and styles, but Perfect Plan provides a good filter, making them all uniquely their own. A nice, heavy, melodic hard rock album.

One Desire - One Desire - If Perfect Plan draws from the harder-edge bands of the past, then One Desire takes a slight left, pulling from Journey, Asia, Toto, and Trans-Siberian Orchestra. One Desire slides closer to the hair metal side of the 80s which is perfectly fine with me. Love that stuff, and One Desire picks up that vibe and runs with it to the 21st Century. Lead singer André Linman is as melodic a singer as Geoff Tate and Steve Perry and James LaBrie (Dream Theater), and the songs are equal to his powerful voice. "Falling Apart" is a quintessential power ballad, but it was "Hurt" (the one song on that sampler) that made me sit up and take notice.

A Year of Surprises

Not only was 2019 a year of wonderful surprises at discovering albums released prior to this year, but we got some fantastic material actually released this year. None more surprising than Bruce Springsteen's Western Stars. The Boss ditched the E Street Band for an orchestra and produced Western Stars, a wonderful album that was exactly what I wanted to hear this year. "Hello Sunshine" was the lead single. I listened to it about eight times on the last Friday of April--release day. I don't know why, but I got emotional on first listen. Happened multiple times that morning. Something about that song, the music, the words, that really struck my heart.

When the album was released in June, it just proved again and again that Western Stars is one of my all-time favorite Springsteen albums. The one-two punch of "There Goes My Miracle" followed by "Hello Sunshine" might be my favorite sequenced pair of songs in his entire discography.

Western Stars was my favorite record of the year until Chicago released Chicago 37: Christmas 2019. My son didn't think a holiday album should be the best of the year, but as I told him, Chicago 37, with it's nearly full album of original songs, is a Chicago album that just uses the trappings and vocabulary of Christmas to craft a new album.

After fifty-two years as a band, thirty-seven albums, and my personal thirty-four years as a fan, I experienced something unexpected when I listened to Chicago Christmas 2019: it surprised me. For better or worse, when I listened to XXXIII for the first time, I could actually guess the horn breaks and musical choices. Ditto for Chicago XXX. Some of that is in play here, but not as much.

Maybe it's my age (I'm fifty-one), maybe it's the more melancholy vibe to some of the songs, but Chicago Christmas 2019 hit me squarely in my heart. The holidays always are emotional, running the gamut from nostalgia of childhood to the more mature emotions of being a parent. Somehow, this collection of songs captures that spirit in an unexpected way, making it my favorite album of 2019.

Other new albums that surprised me are:

Midland - Let It Roll - This sophomore album by this Texas band is the best country album I've heard in a long, long time. We listen to the local country radio station to and from church every Sunday. We often joke that modern country is really just pop music with the occasional fiddle and steel guitar thrown in. Which makes songs like the ones Midland plays stand out. Their songs sound like country. Back in 2017, their song "Drinkin' Problem" was the key to me discovering them. Bought that album and eagerly awaited the new 2019 record. In all my years of buying music, I have never gone out to a store on release day to buy a country album. Let It Roll changed that. Excellent album. Every song is a winner. Have to admit that "Fourteen Gears" would fit easily in a playlist with Western Stars songs. And "Mr. Lonely" served as inspiration for my latest novel.

Up until Chicago 37, this was going to be the runner-up to favorite album of the year behind Springsteen. It easily is my favorite country album of the year. Both of them count as my favorite country albums of the decade.

Tesla - Shock - Up until 2019, I had never owned a Tesla CD. I could name exactly one song--"Love Song". I enjoyed it, but I don't think I've thought of Tesla in decades. The best definition of legacy rock bands making new music. Turns out, Shock is a dang good record. These guys still rock hard, as evidenced by the title track and "Tied to the Tracks." But they can also craft wonderful radio-friendly songs like my favorite from the album, "California Summer Song." Tesla is coming to Houston next year. Think I'll go see them.

Whitesnake - Flesh and Blood - If I basically never knew Tesla, I absolutely knew Whitesnake. "Here I Go Again" is one of my favorite hair metal songs of the 1980s. Still, I hadn't given Whitesnake or singer David Coverdale hardly any thought in years. So when it was announced Whitesnake would release a new album in 2019 and with the new focus on legacy rock, I certainly would give it a listen. Holy moley! These guys haven't lost a step! Granted, the mold of this music isn't too different than their 1980s heyday but I don't care. It is exactly what I want from a Whitesnake album. Lead single, "Shut Up and Kiss Me," is a perfect fist-pumping, head-bopping, driving with the windows down song, but it's "Always and Forever" that proves to be my favorite song from the album. It is basically the main song from a 1980s teen movie directed by John Hughes, the kind that would play as a montage when the students of a high school from all social strata--the jocks, the cheerleaders, the nerds, the emos--come together to decorate the gym for the big end-of-school dance. Yup.You can hear it now, can't you? Doesn't mean it's not a fantastic song.

Jason Scheff - Here I Am - My discovery of Chicago came in 1985, the same year founding member Peter Cetera left the band. As such, Scheff was in the band when I started seeing them in 1987. He was in the band when they released my favorite 1980s-era album--Chicago 19--the brilliant Stone of Sisyphus, the great big band CD, and three of the four Christmas albums. When he left, I was saddened. He was my guy.

So when he finally released his second solo album in November, I was so excited. I was a little  surprised it included five Chicago songs, but he makes them his own, especially "Will You Still Love Me." But it's the new material I really love, especially the title track and "Wonderful Day," basically a Chicago song. His voice is bright and clear and powerful. My wife, who is Chicago Adjacent (that is, she likes them but not to my level) even commented how good Scheff sounds.

The Verdict

The year 2019 was great for new and new-to-me music. And with more legacy music already on the schedule for 2020--new Ozzy! New Springsteen? New Cooper?--the new decade is going to kick off great.

Here's a link to my favorite songs of 2019.

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