Last Saturday, I ventured out to Soldier Field to see U2 play their masterpiece record The Joshua Tree in its entirety. I had been looking forward to this show for months. I even invited my dad and he drove over six hours to experience his first U2 concert.
Of course, I had seen Ireland’s favorite sons play a few times already including a greatest hits show and a concert promoting their latest studio album. However, this tour was different. The Joshua Tree Tour 2017 was designed with duality in mind; to commemorate the past but to also understand its relevance in the present. While this show signified a nostalgic trip for some, the tour set out to make a statement about the complexities of humanity and society. In preparation for the performance, I had to go back and find out not only what The Joshua Tree meant to me as art but also what U2 represented that made them so relatable to me over the years.
My path toward U2 fandom began at age twelve back in the fall of 2000 while I was living in Alaska. Anchorage didn’t really have any record stores or cool hot spots where hipsters could browse indie music stacks and discover the next big underground thing. Not only that, but streaming media online was not as sophisticated and easy to use as it is today, plus my dad wouldn’t let me download music. So, the only musical outlets available to me were whatever played on commercial radio and the limited selections of a local Wal-Mart or FYE.
That fall, U2 released their single “Beautiful Day” and it was life-changing. The sound was big and anthemic; qualities that inspired a budding teenager who had a lot to say and demanded that he be heard. The optimism and humanity within that song truly spoke to me.
Prior to that, U2 was a band that I had only heard of before. I had seen copies of War and The Unforgettable Fire in my mother’s CD collection, but I never listened to them before because what teenager wants to listen to their parents’ music collection? I wanted something new and relevant to me right then and there, despite the irony that this exciting new addition to my life was being delivered by an already established and accomplished band.
The music itself wasn’t the only thing that made me connect with the band. This band had something else going for them, too. They were Irish. That instantly made them more relatable and meaningful to me. As the son of an English immigrant with Irish grandparents, that made U2 so much more special. A bond was established through a shared ancestry that I wouldn’t quite understand until much later.
In a pop cultural world soaked in nostalgia (remakes, reboots, and revivals--oh my!), even reissues can be a saving grace to a long forgotten, often underrated work of art. A band like Fleetwood Mac may not be underrated by any means (and some naysayers, perhaps, find them a bit overrated), but thanks to the nostalgic mentality of reminiscing, one would find that this year alone has found the musical group celebrating a handful of milestone anniversaries.
In 2017, not only has the band celebrated fifty years of making music, they've also celebrated the fortieth anniversary of their best-selling album, Rumours, the thirty-fifth anniversary of their early eighties contribution, Mirage, as well as the twentieth anniversary of their biggest comeback, The Dance.
Since that well-received reunion special, the band has maintained a solid presence in the touring circuit, as well as frequent pop-ups on classic rock radio stations. Just recently, their signature track "The Chain" was used to promote the blockbuster sequel Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and was featured on that film's soundtrack as well.
Yet while most remember the band as a Seventies Supergroup, few often regard their album Tango In the Night as a notable musical foot note of the late 1980s. Coincidentally, that album celebrates its thirtieth anniversary this year, and in recognition of that album's birthday--as well as the sixty-ninth birthday of notable band member Stevie Nicks--let us take look back at an album that remains lesser known yet still influential in the world of pop music.
Alison Krauss has been recording bluegrass, country, and pop since she was a teenager, and her 1995 compilation, Now That I’ve Found You: A Collection, first exposed her to a mass audience years before her appearance on the smash soundtrack to the Coen brothers’ movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?
For millions of country fans, including my mother, Now That I’ve Found You introduced them to one of the most beautiful voices of the last generation. I heard this album when I was a kid, and I was drawn to the quiet, largely acoustic sound, which reminded me of a variation on the ‘60s folk in my parents’ record collection.
Hearing it now after seeing the CD at a library, I’m amazed at how well it holds up. I’ve generally enjoyed this collection more than the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, despite Krauss’s excellent contributions on that album. Now That I’ve Found You is gorgeous and intimate, containing moments of both older and more contemporary styles.
Any discussion of Joan Osborne’s career begins—and often ends—with her one hit, the controversial “One of Us,” a song that was everywhere c. 1995. The problem is that as great as that single is, it doesn’t show off her soulful voice. I’ve seen reviews of her music that express surprise that she can sing at all, but her multiplatinum disc, Relish, includes plenty of surprises for the average listener who purchased it for that one hit.
When I first got into this album around seventh grade, I was listening to a lot of canonical classic rock, and I seriously thought that Relish was one of the greatest albums ever made. I was shocked when I didn’t see it on “best albums of the 1990s” lists. Of course, today, having heard more music from the ‘90s, I can see the relative folly of my youthful judgment, but going back to this album, I’m surprised at how well most of it holds up.
Granted, this is a more retro-sounding album than more acclaimed albums of 1994-95, such as PJ Harvey’s To Bring You My Love and Hole’s Live Through This. But the electric piano straight from ‘70s soul, the swampy harmonica groove of “Dracula Moon,” and the eerie slowness of her cover of Bob Dylan’s “Man in the Long Black Coat” are appealing to me, regardless of whether or not they would be to most rock critics oriented towards innovation.
The album sounds more akin to the swaggering rock ‘n’ soul of the Black Crowes than to most of the Lilith Fair crew of singer-songwriters that Osborne toured with in 1997: there’s a real groove in tracks like the rocking “Right Hand Man” and the T. Rex-sampling “Ladder” that you don’t associate with the music of (admittedly talented) artists like Sarah McLachlan and Tori Amos.
So, this album holds up as a retro (some might say “timeless”) collection of songs. Other highlights include “St. Teresa,” “Pensacola,” and “One of Us,” of course. Just a warning, though: much of the album doesn’t sound at all like that one hit.
Willie Nelson’s mainstream success began with a spare concept album (some would say “rock opera”) that went completely against the grain of country music at the time. Today, Nelson’s Outlaw persona is taken for granted, including in mainstream country circles: CMT (Country Music Television) even voted Red Headed Stranger as the #1 country album of all time.
But in 1975, this album came as a surprise to everyone, including Columbia Records. The label granted Nelson artistic control over his music, and they were shocked when they heard this bare-bones album that cost only $20,000 to make. To everyone’s surprise, the album sold millions of copies and became a beloved classic of the genre, including among rock critics.
Often forgotten, however, is the fact that Nelson didn’t write a lot of the songs on the album. This is surprising because up to this point, Nelson had been known as a songwriter of hits for other artists: in the ‘60s, his songs became hits for Patsy Cline (“Crazy”), Faron Young (“Hello Walls”), Ray Price (“Night Life”), and others. Red Headed Stranger is also full of instrumentals and fragments that move the story along.
When I first heard this album a long time ago, it struck me how scattered this album seems for such a classic: unlike earlier Nelson albums of the time, such as 1974’s Phases and Stages, there aren’t many fully fleshed out songs of even two or three minutes. There are, however, a few exceptions: gems like his classic version of a song Ernest Tubb had made famous three decades earlier, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” and the five-minute, startlingly vulnerable “Can I Sleep in Your Arms” are two standouts.
Today, I love listening to this album, but I’m still somewhat mystified by the concept, as I am with a lot of higher-level concept albums. I have trouble following the storyline, though the album does feel cohesive. This is Nelson’s most acclaimed album, but if I want a collection of songs (as opposed to a concept album), I might prefer Stardust, his highly popular 1978 collection of pop and jazz standards like “Georgia on My Mind” and “Blue Skies.”
Still, this is a classic album experience that rewards time and repeated listening.