Defining a musical genre is trickier than one might think. I’ve been poring over my music collection trying to come up with a phrase that evokes the characteristics of the music I’m writing about, but I’ve had no luck so far. Describing the style in musical terms is also pretty tough, considering the wide range of musical expressions within the style. Artists and producers bring their own influences and sensibilities to the table – some are jazz crooners, some are fusion fiends, some are full-on rock singers in sheep’s clothing, and there’s a lot of soul going on, blue-eyed or otherwise.
All I know so far is this: After listening to this music most of my life so far, I can pretty much tell when I listen to an album whether it was recorded in Los Angeles between 1975 and 1985. Sometimes I can tell just by looking at the cover. There’s a certain California vibe to it all, the late seventies/early eighties sound is easy to spot, and the cast of characters in the studio invariably bring their own special brand of style.
So I’ve decided that I’m not really writing about a musical genre, as much as I’m writing about a body of music produced in a geographically limited area, for a limited time, by a limited group of people. In other words, I’m writing about the output of the Los Angeles studio scene from roughly 1977 through 1983.
Just in case you’re not familiar with the music in question, and you feel the need to know what the fuss is about, I’ve compiled a list of CDs that are easily available at several online retailers. If you give one or more of these albums a reasonable amount of attention and nothing sticks, maybe this music isn’t for you. I wouldn’t give up too easily, though. Once you work your way through the layers of retro sound and attitude, there’s a lot of great music to be found.
Here are the first five albums, in no particular order:
Airplay: Airplay (1980)
By 1980, David Foster and Jay Graydon were hitting their stride. Fresh off a huge hit single and songwriting breakthrough with Earth Wind & Fire’s “After the Love Has Gone”, the duo were given the chance to shine on their own. The result is a showcase of the talent in their circle of friends and colleagues. Strong melodies and arrangements as well as amazing musicianship throughout helps make Airplay the must-own CD for any serious fan of the genre.
Standout tracks: Nothin’ You Can Do About It, After The Love Has Gone
Toto: Toto IV (1982)
Three brothers, two of their high school friends, and a couple of session aces picked up along the way, Toto built their chops backing major touring and recording artists before striking out on their own in 1978. Their double platinum debut album proved a hard act to follow, but they hit it out of the park in 1982 with “Toto IV”. Panned by the critics and adored by the public, IV received six Grammy awards and spawned five hit singles. A true classic.
Standout Tracks: Rosanna, Africa
Pages: Pages (1981)
Childhood friends Richard Page and Steve George lit up the LA scene with their sensitive, soulful songs and fusion-informed sophisti-pop as the nucleus of Pages. Unlikely candidates for mass appeal, the pair were most successful as the background vocal darlings of the session world. That is, until they went out and bought DX-7s and industrial strength hair products, formed Mr. Mister and wrote “Broken Wings” and “Kyrie” in the mid-eighties. Their last album under the Pages moniker stands as testimony to their amazing songwriting skills. Produced by Jay Graydon and featuring top-shelf session players, their second eponymous effort should not be missed.
Standout tracks: O.C.O.E. (Official Cat of the Eighties), Sesatia
Michael McDonald: If That’s What It Takes (1982)
Missouri native McDonald moved out west and immediately made a splash as touring keyboardist and background vocalist for Steely Dan. When the ‘Dan disbanded their touring ensemble to focus on their studio endeavors, McDonald was picked up by San Jose rockers The Doobie Brothers. He made his mark right away, penning the title track for their 1976 album “Takin’ It to the Streets”, which gave the Doobies a much-needed hit single. By the turn of the decade, fans and critics alike were screaming for a solo album, and they were not disappointed. Though not as crisp-sounding as some of its contemporaries, “If That’s What It Takes” makes up for it with deep, soulful grooves and quality playing throughout.
Standout tracks: I Keep Forgettin’ (Every Time You’re Near), Love Lies
Al Jarreau: Breakin’ Away (1981)
A preacher’s kid from Milwaukee, Al Jarreau grew up singing in the church choir. After paying his dues at wedding receptions and jazz clubs, he was spotted by a Warner Bros. Records representative in 1975, and promptly launched himself into an international career that’s still going strong. After a few initial jazz-tinged albums, he hooked up with producer Jay Graydon and found widespread commercial success, spearheaded by the singles “Mornin'” and “We’re In This Love Together”. “Breakin’ Away” earned Jarreau two Grammys and remains his biggest selling album. Rolling Stone called it “an engaging mixture of strutting slow songs and jazzy set pieces”, and claimed it placed the artist “dead center in Los Angeles’ haut monde melting pot of pop-funk fusion music.” Who am I to disagree?
Standout tracks: Breakin’ Away, My Old Friend
That’s the first batch. Go ye forth and get educated.
UPDATE: Read part 2 here.
Disclaimer: One of the criteria for selection is availability. That means that some of my favorite genre milestones will have to wait for the collector’s guide list. Also, a lot of albums have one or two fantastic songs without being a great album as a whole. I have a feeling these albums will be discussed at length later.