Required Listening: Patrick Rhone’s Transformative Albums

by Patrick Rhone on January 11, 2012

The following is Patrick Rhone’s first submission to the Required Reading series. It is, after all, Patrick’s fault in the first place. Recently Patrick asked what music I’d been listening to and I gave him a short list. He then suggested this series. I think it’s a terrific idea and his recommendations are, too.


Transformative Albums

I’ve decided to create my own category of musical work. A genre if you will. Many artists, especially those with long careers, have one album that is transformative. That being one where everything comes together just right and acts as a bridge. Often, you may need to listen to a whole body of work to catch it. Such records are clearly better than any of the previous albums and every album that follows is not quite the same. Sometimes, this is the point just before big name producers and record companies get involved to make them more, well, commercial. Other times still, it is the point just before a band becomes a collection of individual rock stars. The hunger satiated. The ambition fulfilled.

So, with this introduction in mind, here are some of those albums that stand out as the greatest in my mind. The selections, like my tastes, are diverse. This is in no way a complete accounting. Yet, these are all ones I feel would be an essential addition to the foundation of any music collection.

  • U2, The Unforgettable Fire — This, to me, is a perfect representation of this category. It is purposefully different than anything the band recorded before or after. Coming off of the relative success of War, the band wanted to take a new direction, less they become just another sloganeering arena-rock band. They hired Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois to produce and help them craft a more ambient and atmospheric sound. The lyrics are less complete – more like sketches than fully realized ideas – yet add to the dreamlike quality they were after. It also spawned their first real crossover and breakout hit, Pride (In The Name of Love), which propelled the band from Indie to Superstardom. To my ears, that stardom might as well be another band member, as its self assured presence is felt on every U2 album to follow.
  • Depeche Mode, Music For The Masses — Another great example. Depeche Mode had enjoyed tremendous success with previous efforts, the hit single People Are People being one. But, all of their albums until this one felt like a collection of under-engineered European techno-pop singles. There was talent there for sure but how could they stand out from the rest? This album is the answer. Beautifully crafted, produced, and recorded. This record sounds complete. With each song placement carefully chosen for overall effect. Also, it is different from anything they had done before but still an evolutionary progression. This record set DM on the path that would lead to the slickly produced Violator and international acclaim. And, while that too is a fantastic record, Music For the Masses is the album that transformed them.
  • R.E.M., Green — For many bands, it is the album before the major label debut that is the transformative one. In the case of R.E.M., it is their major label debut album Green. Sure it is a bit more produced but the mumbling drone of lead singer Michael Stipe is still there. As is the jangling guitars and college-rock power-pop they helped to define. Yet, other elements began to creep in that were different. Is that a mandolin driving the quirky ballad You Are Everything? And an accordion? What about the cello and slide steel in World Leader Pretend? All of these should have been a sign that R.E.M was on the cusp of a new era for the band. One which would lead to the album Out Of Time, a daring and confident work and one much more mature. Green is the last where the flash of youth remains and we are witnessing a graduation to a life less carefree.
  • PJ Harvey, Is This Desire — This album is the result of Harvey’s self imposed exile from music and retreat to her home town. During this time, she largely excluded herself from any outside musical influence. It shows here in her return. Gone was a simple songsmith and angry young girl. Here was born a musical and lyrical craftswoman. The attention to detail shows throughout. And, though the work itself is dark at times, pessimistic even, the light in the tunnel ahead is not that of an oncoming train but that of her strangely optimistic, honest, and slightly over-produced next album Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea.
  • Miles Davis, In A Silent Way — Regarded as Miles’s first Fusion record, it was a shift from his previous, fairly straight ahead jazz, records. Miles introduced electric instruments into the mix and, along with them, elements of rock and funk. Much more improvisation — long melodic journeys to the outer reaches of skill and ability. Elements of danger and loads of excitement. Like watching a high flying act without a net. There are only two tracks on this album, each longer than eighteen minutes. This would set the stage for the rest of Miles journey to influencer, game-changer, and legend.
  • Steely Dan, Pretzel Logic — This album is proof that transformation can be fun. It’s just a fun record to listen to by any standard. Lots of skillful writing, playful musicianship, and complex and clever rhythms. As with all transformative work, the seeds of this effort are evident in every work that came before yet here the blossoms have become abundant fruit. Every great Steely Dan album to follow, and there are some doozies for sure, is just a bit more ripe and too easy to swallow. With this, you want to savor each bite.
  • Joni Mitchell, The Hissing Of Summer Lawns — Joni has taken so many transformative turns in her long career that it may seem hard to pick one. It isn’t. This one is her most interesting and, dare I say, difficult. It seems at a turn almost purposefully inaccessible to casual listeners. This rich work separates simple admirers from the lovers. For the lovers, the payoff is huge yet one that let’s you know you will never have it this good again.


I invite you to share your comments on Patrick’s transformative albums. Join in the conversation below! RTM

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