Kiss, Music from “The Elder” (1981)

Many claim Music from “The Elder” represents Kiss’s sole “concept” album, their other studio LPs, live discs, and greatest hits packages essentially compilations of anthem-like singles.

That observation minimizes the fact that everything Kiss did was “conceptual” -- from the face paint and theatrics to the endless merchandizing and organization of fans into an “army” fighting for the right to rock and roll all night, party every day, and serve as dependable consumers of Kiss-related products.

In other words, all were “concept” albums, unified by commercially-mindful themes of sex and hedonism. But a slip in sales prompted a mid-career crisis, and Kiss momentarily sought a new “concept.”

They’d reunite with Bob Ezrin, producer of their career-lifting Destroyer (1976) whose recent turn co-producing Pink Floyd’s The Wall elevated his influence. Most attribute the “concept” to Ezrin -- Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons say Ezrin told them “This will be your Tommy” -- with the band’s subsequent, consistent disavowal of the LP further diminishing responsibility.

The story of a boy maturing into an adult hero amid an abstract, hard-to-imagine context vaguely resembles that “rock opera.” But the songs evoke not the Who or Pink Floyd, but early Rush, a band Kiss toured with at the start of its career and whose first records “The Elder” emulates.

A cinematic “Fanfare” introduces the LP as “serious” music, then “Just a Boy” presents a protagonist via Stanley’s Geddy Lee-like falsetto crooning “I’m no hero, but I wish I could be.” The much-decried “Odyssey” follows, an obvious rock “epic” that might be accepted as brilliant if understood as tongue-in-cheek à la Meat Loaf. (It’s not.)

The “story” becomes less apparent with each track. “Only You” and “Under the Rose” are good examples of metal pop, then Ace Frehley’s “Dark Light” successfully butts in with another reminder of the band’s guitar-based ethos.

“A World Without Heroes” halts momentum with Simmons doing a “Beth”-like turn in a ballad including one line from Lou Reed (one of three tracks for which Reed earns co-writing credit). “The Oath” rocks hardest of any track, “Mr. Blackwell” presents a tedious non sequitur about the fashion critic, and the instrumental “Escape from the Island” sounds like punky-prog.

The final, awkwardly-titled “I” is the most obviously head-banging “anthem,” stating a theme of self-confidence (“I believe in me”). A narrated postlude (segregated as “Finale” in early versions) then suggests the boy fully readied to become a “champion.”

None of the songs focuses on sex or partying. In fact, the speaker of “I” insists he “[doesn’t] need to get wasted” in order to have “the balls to stand alone.” Rather, the record finds Kiss earnestly aiming for “mature” artist status (or at least to elicit praise as such), an endeavor they perhaps considered “heroic.”

It’s music emanating from an “elder” perspective, then, predictably misfiring among the band’s younger audience. That an album concluding with chants about self-belief would be disowned by all involved represents a pure form of rock-related irony.

Prince, Dirty Mind (1980)

A lean slice of funky pop, Prince’s Dirty Mind appeared in the fall of 1980, not too long before the wunderkind from Minnesota achieved megastardom with 1999 and Purple Rain.

By then the world knew of Prince, though not much. Prior singles had earned some airplay, with “I Wanna Be Your Lover” (from his second, self-titled LP) providing “crossover” success (as they used to say) by making the top 20 on the pop charts.

Dirty Mind departs from Prince’s first two records, however, both of which mostly stick with funk-leaning R&B with only occasional excursions into pop/rock and/or the risque. More eclectic and adventurous, Prince’s third album unmistakably reveals a gifted songwriter and provocative performer. Not to mention a trouble-maker, too, demanding (and deserving) our attention.

The album’s brevity -- just eight tracks, totaling a half-hour -- formally resembles the get-to-the-point ethos employed by punk acts of the day. The idea of rebellion seems intended by the tracks’ mindful symmetry, too, with Side One consisting of four love-slash-lust songs that refrain from overtly challenging social mores, then Side Two adding four jams linked by ideas of transgression and/or insurgence.

The title track begins the record sparsely. A thumping bass drum and repetitive synth lay a groundwork over which Prince gradually develops an earnest plea to a would-be lover “to let me lay you down.” The hypnotic (or humping) groove climaxes, recedes, and climaxes again, aurally recapitulating a lover’s repeated attempts to get a little farther with his efforts.

“When You Were Mine” follows, the disc’s most accomplished example of straightforward pop. Here the relationship exists in the past rather than the future, the singer mournful over having loved and lost. The next two tracks repeat the pattern, with the upbeat “Do It All Night” reprising the title track’s booty call, then the subdued toe-tapper “Gotta Broken Heart Again” switching back to spurned-lover mode.

As mentioned, flipping the disc introduces a shift in tone. Whereas Side One keeps tracks distinct, all segue on Side Two, further suggesting a thematic link.

At first “Uptown” sounds like just another rave-up until the lyrics reveal an agenda, with the titular location representing a Paisley Park-like utopia where individuals of disparate backgrounds can convene together for the funk of it. Then comes “Head,” a celebration of oral sex in which Prince adds further scandal by luring a virginal bride-to-be from the altar with his charms.

For those unfazed by “Head,” the short, unsettling “Sister” follows, ambiguously lauding and/or lamenting an incestuous relationship with an older sibling. “Partyup” concludes the side with a make-love-not-war call to arms, ultimately resolving into a defiant, urgent chant that “we don’t want to fight no more.”

“Revolutionary rock ‘n’ roll!” is the call during the final track’s coda, underscoring the latter side’s focus. A career iconoclast, Prince kept crossing boundaries and upsetting expectations with subsequent LPs. But the seeds of revolution (the name subsequently chosen for Prince’s backup band) were earlier planted in the fertile ground of Prince’s Dirty Mind.

Judee Sill, Judee Sill (1971)

Judee Sill, 'Judee Sill' (1971)Judee Sill released two full-length albums during her brief time in this world, Judee Sill (1971) and Heart Food (1973). Neither sold well, despite critical acclaim. She started a third LP, but abandoned it for various reasons, including lack of commercial success to that point and various health and drug-related issues. She died in 1979 at 35 after overdosing on cocaine and codeine.

Thus ended a life of pain and hardship. Yet Sill managed to produce some of the most pleasurable music one can imagine. Both records are stunning, with “The Kiss” from Heart Food dizzyingly gorgeous -- a song XTC’s Andy Partridge once called the most beautiful ever written. The posthumous Dreams Come True (2005) collecting tracks from that aborted third record has winning moments as well. But it’s her self-titled debut I return to most.

“Crayon Angels” begins the record with what might seem precious opening lines (“Crayon angels’ songs are slightly out of tune, but I’m sure I’m not to blame”), a softly-plucked guitar identifying Sill’s default idiom as folk. But soon comes talk of God, the astral plane, mystic roses, and phony prophets. And a yearning oboe accompaniment and irresistible melody in which one cannot help but get lost.

“The Phantom Cowboy” follows, continuing the cosmic contemplations in a countryfied vein. “The Archetypal Man” again evokes prairie leisure with its slide guitars, although a wildly baroque vocal over the bridge reminds that no Sill track is simply “country” or “folk” or “pop” but something altogether unique.

“The Lamb Ran Away With the Crown” next challenges with lyrics inspired by Christian imagery and themes of spiritual confusion. Heavy stuff, but delivered in a sweet, syrupy package and concluding with a lovely, multi-tracked fade out recalling “God Only Knows.” Then comes “Lady-O,” a mellow ballad in which Sill describes a woman’s beauty in Petrarchean terms.

Side One closes with the incredible, transcendent “Jesus Was a Cross Maker,” starting with solo piano and measured vocals, then building to a stirring climax with percussion and choir-like backing. The lyrics again seem focused on seeking answers of a spiritual nature and not finding them, although despite the title and more talk of angels, it’s hardly a religious song.

“Ridge Rider” clip-cloppingly opens Side Two, another figure who like the phantom cowboy beguiles. “My Man on Love” is next, a simple-sounding but lyrically complex love song. “Lopin’ Along Through the Cosmos” follows, its story of desultory wandering punctuated by an inspiring message that “however we are is okay.”

The disc concludes with the bouncy “Enchanted Sky Machines” and enigmatic “Abacadabra,” the latter finding the Sill-led orchestra surprisingly taking over halfway through.

Because of her short life, relatively small output, and folk roots, Sill often gets compared to Nick Drake. I like Drake, but Sill’s music takes me to a much different, more hopeful place. She never finds the answers for which she seeks, but her leaving such remarkable evidence of having tried is more than enough to inspire those she’s left behind.

Hoodoo Gurus, Mars Needs Guitars! (1985)

Hoodoo Gurus, 'Mars Needs Guitars!' (1985)The Australian quartet Hoodoo Gurus formed in 1981 and three years later produced a terrific first LP, Stoneage Romeos, that introduced its throwback power pop to an international audience. The 1985 follow-up Mars Needs Guitars! builds on that debut with a stirring sequence of studied garage rock.

The opener “Bittersweet” begins with an arresting fade-in of a driving rhythm guitar over which lead vocalist David Faulkner intones the first of many memorable lines and melodies. The song crashes into its major-chord verse-and-chorus, with Faulkner’s singing becoming increasingly urgent as the song progresses. The last go-round then slides everything up a full step (à la “Penny Lane” or “Surrender”) in a kind of ecstatic release before the fade-out.

“Poison Pen” follows, more pulsating pop with a smartly-deployed harmonica adding some countrified swagger. Here and elsewhere, Faulker’s lyrics are consistently clever and thought-provoking. “Everyone enjoys sharing a rumor / But when it’s aimed at you it loses its humor,” he complains in a kind of rejoinder to a hurtfully public kiss-off. The chorus is then positively literary: “Ink is black, as black as night, / Black as thoughts that shun the light. / Truth will out and maybe then / You’ll put down that poison pen.” Not your run-of-the-mill break-up song, this.

Less unique though still enjoyable, “In the Wild” provides opportunity for Faulkner and lead guitarist Brad Shepherd to trade licks over another satisfying, up-tempo rocker. Things slow down for the sweet “Death Defying,” which could fit well at a barn dance. “Like Wow -- Wipeout” then closes out the side with an ultracool start-and-stop verse that serves as a nod to the surfer-beat style to which the title and lyrics allude.

Side Two opens with the short story-like “Hayride to Hell” telling the tale of a wayward daughter over a Johnny Cash-like boom-chicka-boom that rumbles along like an old truck over a dirt road. Next is the enchanting “Show Some Emotion,” both plaintive and sweet, again showing the band effortlessly tossing off hook after hook. “The Other Side of Paradise” continues similarly with another poppy exploration of desire.

The title track follows, a party song that’s almost a kind of hell-may-care catharsis in its embracing of absurdity. “I’m a primitive man,” bellows Faulkner, a claim we know to be tongue-in-cheek after the sophistication displayed in the previous tracks. Backward guitar, chant-like backing vocals, and spacey sound effects add to the goofiness.

Finally comes “She,” a haunting closer sung by a captive lover. “I was captured, / Bound, enraptured, / Kneeling at her feet,” he explains. “Then she beckoned; / In a second / My life was complete.”

Following the previous track’s jokey reference to the sci-fi B-flick Mars Needs Women, the album’s closer might recall the famous H.R. Haggard adventure novel, one of those “lost world” stories featuring an immortal queen as ruler. Whether the allusion is intended or not, the reverb-laden vocals suitably add a feeling of desperation, and the tune adds still more variety to a remarkable collection.

Billy Joel, The Nylon Curtain (1982)

Billy Joel, 'The Nylon Curtain' (1980)Billy Joel’s eighth album appeared in early 1982, his first studio record since John Lennon’s murder in December 1980. It’s an unambiguous homage to Lennon and the Beatles, with an assortment of pop-infused, melodic tunes with layered production and Joel often sounding uncannily like late- and post-Beatles Lennon.

Thematically, The Nylon Curtain is aimed at baby boomers, with most of its songs’ subjects mattering more to Joel’s then-contemporaries (aged 30 and up) than to the preteen I was when I first heard it. In any case, the record somehow landed with me early on, and has stuck with me since.

The opener “Allentown” delivers an uncomplicated blue-collar-blues-type message about small-town America getting left behind in the wake of so-called progress. Not really identifying much with that, I’ve always applied the frustrations and unease of the town’s inhabitants to anyone unhappy with how life has turned out.

Besides, that “getting very hard to stay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ayeyeayea” is friggin’ irresistible. Only robots avoid singing along.

The grown-up “Laura” coming next utterly confused me as a kid (though the f-bomb landing in the middle intrigued). Now I find it one of the LP’s better tracks, a frustrated meditation on a destructive relationship. “Pressure” follows, smartly matching an urgent sound to urgent lyrics, though its impression is muted for me after oversaturation in the ’80s.

I recall Rolling Stone’s uptight Dave Marsh saying we shouldn’t like “Goodnight Saigon,” the six-and-a-half-minute paean to Vietnam vets closing Side One he insisted was shallow. But Marsh always wanted Joel and everyone else to be Bruce Springsteen. Meanwhile, I liked the song then, and I still do. And again, I can’t help but apply its message more broadly, thinking not just of doomed soldiers but how we’re all going down, eventually. Together or otherwise.

The first three tracks of Side Two aren’t remarkable but carry us along okay. The first two, “She’s Right on Time” and “A Room of Our Own,” are catchy if repetitive, and the downbeat “Surprises” a little tedious.

Then comes “Scandinavian Skies,” which Joel would introduce in concert as “the weirdest one off the new album.” Evoking “I Am the Walrus” and other blue-album-Beatles, the song ostensibly describes an international tour yet oddly conjures up the fog of war. It’s a triumph, as is the closer, a post-modern, self-reflexive ballad titled “Where’s the Orchestra?”

Like pretty much the entire disc, “Where’s the Orchestra?” suggests a kind of existential loneliness caused by the failure of expectations. The singer describes an absurd-sounding experience of going to a show he mistakenly thought was a musical.

A larger meaning, though, is obvious, especially coming at the end of this group of songs -- life fails us, and we find ourselves alone at the end with nothing but stories we’ve collected along the way. The reprise of the “Allentown” melody -- another Beatlesque thing to do -- emerging amid the fade out reminds us of this fact. A brilliant touch, and easily my favorite moment from any Joel LP.

Harry Nilsson, Nilsson Schmilsson (1971)

Harry Nilsson, 'Nilsson Schmilsson' (1971)For some he’s the “wha-wha” guy from Midnight Cowboy (to which he contributed “Everybody’s Talkin’”). For others the name Harry Nilsson evokes “Me and My Arrow” and that funny cartoon about a land of pointy-headed people. Still others recall how the Beatles once dubbed him their favorite American performer.

For me Harry Nilsson’s legacy continues largely in replays of a half-dozen albums from the late ’60s and early ’70s, particularly the eclectic Nilsson Schmilsson.

A perfectly-constructed breakfast bowl of pure pop, “Gotta Get Up” kicks it off. The song has a carnivalesque feel, marked by a driving piano and well-placed accordion, with Nilsson’s vocal during the chorus uncannily squeezing in between beats. A forward-looking beginning to the day/album.

The equally upbeat “Driving Along” follows, though its message is less bright, describing as it does people separating from one another rather than getting together. A stripped down, inspired version of Louis Jordan’s “Early in the Morning” comes next -- nothing but Nilsson’s vocal vamping plus a sparse organ echoing through a large, empty space, the sound kind of mirroring the speaker’s melancholy. (Also fits well with that cover photo.)

Then comes “The Moonbeam Song,” one of three genuine tearjerkers on the LP. Nilsson probably never sounded sweeter, even when describing the “bits of crap” along the bottom of a fence. Mesmerizing stuff. The first side concludes with “Down,” bookending the opener in which we got “up.” Like that first track, this one reminds us of the Beatles, too, especially “I’m Down” which similarly belies the speaker’s apparently depressed state with a rousing, rockin’ rhythm.

Side Two begins with the number-one smash and AM radio staple “Without You.” Originally a Badfinger throwaway, Nilsson turns it into a full-blown romantic epic, unembarrassingly melodramatic and cinematic in scope. Next is “Coconut,” and the juxtaposition couldn’t be more jarring. A faux-Carib novelty tune, Nilsson’s increasingly energetic reiteration of the nonsensical verses and chorus is impossible to listen to without smiling -- the perfect cure for the previous track’s despair.

“Let the Good Times Roll” is the last of the record’s three covers, another old R&B classic that is well-handled, though amid such brilliance seems relatively less notable. The raucous “Jump Into the Fire” follows, the LP’s loudest, most manic jam. At seven-plus minutes, the song always suggests (for me) Mo Tucker’s hard-pounding percussion from the old Velvet Underground, or even “Hallogallo” by Neu!

The meditative, achingly beautiful “I’ll Never Leave You” closes the record. One of those “it always gets me” kind of songs, the lyrics effectively address the transience of life and the importance of making real, meaningful connections during the short time we have. The track also invites the listener to look back over the album as a whole -- and indeed, most of Nilsson’s oeuvre -- and consider how those twin themes of loneliness and love tend to underpin his every expression.

Can’t recommend Nilsson Schmilsson enough. Kind of funny to think Nilsson would give his best album such a self-effacing name.

King Crimson, Red (1974)

King Crimson, 'Red' (1974)By the time King Crimson’s seventh studio LP, Red, hit the racks in late 1974, the influential prog-rock outfit had already been through numerous line-up changes, having been trimmed to what was essentially an ultra-muscular power trio consisting of leader Robert Fripp (guitars, keys, mellotron), John Wetton (bass, vocals), and Bill Bruford (drums, percussion).

The album features important contributions by a fourth member, David Cross (violin, keys), who left the group during its recording, plus a well-utilized horn section adding significant oomph throughout. The album would mark the last studio work by this, already the third different version of the band, after which the Crimson would close up shop for half a decade until Fripp reformed the band in the early 1980s.

A concept-heavy group often found pursuing Fripp’s obscure aesthetic theories, King Crimson can be challenging at times, even for ardent fans. When it comes to the album format, there are a number of Crimson discs I enjoy from start to finish, although frequently there will arrive tracks (or passages within tracks) that almost seem designed to sabotage the listening experience in some fashion. The more-accessible-than-average Red is something of an exception in this regard. Indeed, of all the band’s titles Red is the one I probably spin the most, and always stick with from beginning to end.

Three tracks of roughly equal length -- each hard-rockin’ in an almost commercial way -- easily carry the listener through Side One. The title track, a blistering instrumental, aurally approximates all of the connotations of the color: urgent warnings, dreadful sin, blood simple anger. Prototypical power-prog, the track could readily augment documentary footage of building implosions and/or land speed record attempts.

“Fallen Angel” follows, interchanging soft, mournfully-sung verses describing some NYC street deal gone wrong with an aggressive chorus in which the title is cried out repeatedly. A song about a person riding a bus while dreaming he is in a plane about to crash, “One More Red Nightmare,” then closes the side. “Nightmare” reprises the potent “Red” with more head-bobbin’ heaviness, despite the song’s multiple time signatures. Former Crimson member Ian McDonald’s alto sax adds further punch during the track’s final minutes, just before the song suddenly stops -- like “I Want You/She’s So Heavy” (or, perhaps, a crash landing).

Side Two begins with the eight-and-a-half minute live improv “Providence,” easily the LP’s most avant-garde track. Starting with a lone violin meandering quietly amid a large, vacant-seeming space, other noises (overamped bass, cymbals, various percussion, guitar) gradually populate the area, building to a fusion-y fuss before resolving inconsequentially.

“Starless” closes the record, a 12-minute ballad that begins ethereally with a melancholic mellotron, Fripp’s fuzz pedal, and another earnest vocal performance by Wetton, moves through a lengthy, pulsating middle section building in intensity like a series of sirens approaching, then concludes with a loud restatement of the theme by the ensemble.

Presenting what might be called a darker shade of Crimson, Red is both consistently heavy and consistently satisfying.

Klaatu, Klaatu (1976)

Klaatu, 'Klaatu' (1976)Klaatu is best-known as the band rumored to have been a secret mid-1970s revival of the Beatles. That notion first began shortly after the release of their first album, a self-titled debut landing on Earth seemingly out of nowhere in the late summer of 1976.

Following a similar trajectory as all of those “Paul is dead” stories once did, various clues were cited as evidence that the record indeed was the work of the Fab Four in disguise. It would take a few months, in fact, for the band’s true identity as a Toronto-based trio to be revealed once and for all, at which point the band apparently suffered some backlash for not being more forthcoming sooner.

Klaatu would ultimately record five LPs before disbanding in the early 1980s, though never came close to matching the inventiveness and fun of that sometimes-spellbinding debut. The LP features a nifty symmetry, with eight songs, four per side, all pop-song length other than the two double-length tunes that begin and end the record in bookend-like fashion, both of which evoke sci-fi themes reminding us the band’s name was derived from the 1951 classic The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Tiptoeing in quietly amid the sounds of bugs buzzing and a scratchy record effect, the seven-plus minute “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft” slowly builds into a catchy, melodic anthem of peace between planets. At times -- especially during the early, quiet passages -- the song is almost unbearably precocious, both lyrically with its summer-of-love-sounding sentiment delivered nearly a decade late and musically with that syrupy-sweet mellotron pushing things along. (In other words, it isn’t that strange to learn that the Carpenters once covered the tune.) But in the end the song stands as an utterly unique and accomplished introduction to the band.

“California Jam” follows, an upbeat, bouncing number that includes an a cappella-sung break that evokes the Beach Boys and a c’mon-let’s-go shout of “California!” near the end that could not sound more like Paul McCartney. (Seriously -- it’s uncanny.) The weird, potentially off-putting “Anus of Uranus” follows, a grittier-sounding tune that sounds like it might have been more fun to play than it necessarily is to listen to, although it doesn’t disturb the album’s flow that much.

Side One ends with the very Beatlesque “Sub-Rosa Subway” which tells the story of Alfred Beach who masterminded the first New York subway in the late-19th century. The tune pleasantly marches through the horn-and-percussion-laden soundscapes of “Hello Goodbye,” “It’s All Too Much,” as well as the “Strawberry Fields” and “I Am the Walrus” fadeouts.

Side Two opens with “True Life Hero,” a pedestrian pop song with a not-too-interesting message that features a kind of literal-minded approach to its subject that one finds on the band’s later albums, making them (for me) a little less enjoyable. Next comes “Doctor Marvello,” a spooky little tune that inches along with sitars, backward loops, and other freakiness. (Don’t ask me what’s about, though -- I’ve no idea.)

Then comes the inspired “Sir Bodsworth Rugglesby III,” an odd, novelty-type song that might recall the Beatles’ detours to allow Ringo a turn at the mic. Sung with a growly, faux-Brit accent and backed by joyous-sounding choruses of men and women, the song shares the legend of a wayward explorer, the “only man who’s ever been to hell and come back alive.”

Finally comes “Little Neutrino,” the title of which always makes me think of Stanislaw Lem’s great sci-fi novel, His Master’s Voice (1968). It’s a moody -- even dramatic -- eight-and-a-half minute psychedelicized opus that employs heavily-effected voices, keyboards, and other instruments to build a dense aural bed that successfully evokes the idea of floating through space. A tiny mouse squeak punctuates the final fade, a sound that opens the band’s next record, Hope, as a kind of goofy segue.

As stated, following that segue to the band’s subsequent output will prove disappointing to most, I imagine, although there are a few pop gems scattered among the later titles, too. Still, I’d recommend flipping the disc over and listening to “Calling Occupants” again.

Peter Gabriel, Peter Gabriel (1980)

Peter Gabriel, 'Peter Gabriel' (1980)As most know, well before he sledgehammered his way to pop stardom via MTV in the mid-80s, Peter Gabriel spent the late 60s and early 70s fronting the U.K. band Genesis during its formative prog-rock years.

After leaving Genesis in 1975, Gabriel began his solo career with four studio albums, all confusingly self-titled. While all have nifty moments scattered throughout, Gabriel’s third outing -- the “Melt” record produced by pop-minded Steve Lillywhite (XTC, U2) -- has always stood out for me as the best of the quartet.

The record kicks off with “Intruder,” introduced by a pounding “gated” drum sound played by Gabriel’s former bandmate, Phil Collins (and which would come to be associated with much of Collins’ solo work). What follows is a kind of dramatic monologue by the titular character, creepily whispered over a suspenseful amalgam of percussion, guitars, synth, and piano.

“No Self-Control” follows, a more upbeat but equally anxiety-filled track that rapidly builds into a kind of horror-movie like crescendo, with Kate Bush’s backing vocals adding chills along the way. A short instrumental, “Start,” comes next, briefly combining synths and a Dick Morrisey sax solo in a kind of maudlin yet moving meditation. That segues into the rocking “I Don’t Remember,” a loud, chant-like petition sung by an amnesiac.

Then comes the record’s finest moment, the mini-opera “Family Snapshot,” another dramatic reading, this time sharing the thought processes of a political assassin. The narrative gets a bit literal in places, but is nonetheless effective, and provides the perfect setting for Gabriel’s brand of theatrics. It’s an unforgettable track, starting softly as we meet the character and learn a bit about his motivations, building to a loud climax as he strikes, then returning to a quiet coda to reveal the real reason for the shooter’s desire “to be somebody.” Side One then closes with “And Through the Wire,” a pleasant bit of pop the meaning of which is a bit elusive to me.

Side Two opens with the quirky “Games Without Frontiers,” also prominently featuring Bush on backing vocals. The highly original, anti-war track marches along in a military-like fashion, the association encouraged further by some Bridge Over the River Kwai-type whistling. Next is “Not One of Us,” a sometimes-groovy, sometimes-frightening observation about exclusivity, the pounding, tribal-sounding coda of which aurally approximates a bloodthirsty mob running down a hapless scapegoat.

The brief “Lead a Normal Life” that follows is a pleasant, mostly instrumental track that offers a somewhat superficial, haiku-like portrait of mental illness. The record concludes with the seven-plus minute “Biko,” Gabriel’s commanding condemnation of apartheid that memorializes Steve Biko, the activist who died while in police custody in 1977. The context has fallen away, but the message of protest against authoritarian regimes is still forcefully delivered, a remarkably successful pairing of politics and pop.

A consistently satisfying collection of arty pop/rock, Peter Gabriel (1980) is a real achievement, the product of an artist who after a lengthy apprenticeship had finally discovered a suitable form of expression.

Can, Ege Bamyasi (1972)

Can, 'Ege Bamyasi' (1972)Ege Bamyasi is the fourth album by Krautrock pioneers Can, first released in 1972. This is the one with the picture of a can of okra on the cover -- a playful reference to the band’s name.

Although I also dig Can’s earlier, more obviously avant-garde or “psychedelic” LPs, I tend to play those less frequently than Ege Bamyasi and other so-called “classic”-era discs, records which on the whole are comparatively less noisy and a bit more focused sounding.

That career turn began in part with the band’s prior release, the brilliant double-LP Tago Mago (1971), although that one still has a few a those free-form “freak outs” along the way that interrupt the flow. By contrast, Ege Bamyasi presents seven relatively more accessible tracks, even producing the band’s first top 10 single in Germany.

A short burst of feedback heralds the opening track, the nine-plus minute “Pinch.” The song presents a highly funky, Electric Miles era-type groove over which Damo Suzuki, the band’s Japanese lead singer, improvises nonsensical word associations (in English).

The next track, “Sing Swan Song,” begins with the sound of running water, followed by a soft, lullaby-like tune that gradually fades up to reveal what sounds a bit like an incantation amid its many layers of effects-laden guitars. By contrast, the driving “One More Night” that closes out Side One features crisper-sounding clarity, with harmonics propelling the tune forward not unlike an Eno-era Talking Heads track.

Side Two begins with a moody number titled “Vitamin C” in which Suzuki enigmatically croons to someone about losing his or her vitamin C (a symbol for strength?). The track throbs along, giving Can’s legendary bassist Holger Czukay lots of room to caper about, before finally resolving into the uncanny electronic warbling that becomes the next dish, the ten-plus minute “Soup.” After a few minutes of percussive head-bopping, “Soup” slips back into the avant-garde, with an extended sequence of weird chirrups, crashes, sirens, and shouting.

All is made nice again, though, with “I’m So Green,” a track whose super catchy, toe-tapping vibe evokes thoughts of a band of hipsters sneakily sauntering down some trippy sidewalk. The LP then concludes with “Spoon” -- the single -- which begins with metronome-like clicking over a vaguely Eastern sounding organ, then builds into yet another fun, trance-like slice of Krautrockin’ pop.

Julian Cope, the post-punk rocker who has authored an entire book on the musical genre Can helped to launch (Krautrocksampler), refers to Ege Bamyasi as “the closest to a pop LP that Can ever got,” full of “clear cut songs with grooves of delightful melody and moment, plus a teen-appeal that still leaves me gasping with love for Damo Suzuki.”

There are other Can titles that demonstrate a similar accessibility, but Ege Bamyasi may indeed be the most consistently “poppy” of the bunch. A good place to start, I’d say, if looking for somewhere to open your first Can.