|I only need to look as far as the average person's view of the band Chicago to get a real sense of how shallow and shortsighted we are as a 21st century Western people. Chicago rivals any band of any era in any country. They were at least as talented and innovative as The Who, Zeppelin, The Kinks, Cream, Santana, Mountain, or any band in the years immediately following The Beatles/Hendrix explosion. They were probably more ambitious than any of those bands, as each of their first three studio releases were double albums. Yet they rarely enter discussions of "the greatest bands". Sadly, they never will, as their existence as a band has run much too long for their own good. If they had faded after a handful of brilliant albums from the late 60's through early 70's', they would be highly respected instead of tossed off.
Regardless, if you take the time to read this, and better yet, listen to the songs I suggest, you'll come out rewarded with an appreciation of an amazing and original band.
From 1969 to 1972 Chicago released five stellar albums, with not a single misstep. Very few bands can come close to the level of sophistication and creativity of Chicago during this period. Go ahead and take a listen. Their first five releases are blistering. Originality is off the charts. Same goes for arrangement, experimentation, and pure musicianship. Chicago was comprised of seven very smart, well-educated individuals and it's reflected in the music and the lyrical themes.
Beginning with their first album, Chicago Transit Authority, released in 1969, Chicago was clearly unlike any other band performing.
Chicago Transit Authority - 1969
Chicago Transit Authority is simply an amazing debut album. Catchy as hell, but also experimental, passionate, and very well recorded. Check out "Free Form Guitar" for a lesson in how to shred and further proof of how underrated and misunderstood these guys are. Jimi Hendrix once told the band that their guitar player, Terry Kath, was a better player than himself. As a singer, Kath was nearly as soulful as Ray Charles. Listen to "Introduction" to hear this. To get a sense of how they were feeling about social and political issues of the day listen to the final two songs on the album - "Someday" and "Liberation".
Chicago (II) - 1970
The second album, Chicago (commonly known as Chicago II), is possibly even more ambitious than the debut. The arrangements and production are tighter, and it is even more experimental. While I prefer the energy of the first album, the flow of Chicago II is brilliant. This is partly do to the extended song cycles "Ballet For a GIrl in Buchannon" and the anti-war suite "It Better End Soon".
Chicago III - 1971
Chicago III picks up right where Chicago II left off as the band pushes themselves into new areas, such as funk-rock and country. Some songs on the album are abstract enough to simply defy categorization. Listen to "Progress?" to see what I mean. The energy level, diversity, and arrangements are more or less on par with the first two albums. The overall tone is maybe slightly more serious. I've always viewed II and III as a kind of quadruple album, they run together in such a seemless way.
Chicago at Carnegie Hall (Chicago IV) - 1971
Their first live release was a monster. This is a 4-LP set with posters, voter registration information and forms. At first glance it looks pretty daunting, but the energy of the performances carries the listener along disc after disc. Most of their best material through the first three releases is contained here. Almost all of the songs are extended in length by some blazing solos and slight rearrangement. Sound quality is not on par with the rest of their catalogue unfortunately, but at least the listener gets a taste for the live Chicago show circa 1971, when they were still at the peak of their creativity.
Chicago V - 1972
Chicago V is the bands most concise, creative, and powerful statement. The reason that it's the most creative and powerful is due to the fact that it's not a double album. They had to pack everything into a single LP. The album kicks off with the scorching "A Hit By Varese", which is more or less a big flip-off to bubblegum pop, golden oldies, and anything that the band saw as not pushing music forward. The title references Edgar Varese, who was one of the leaders of 20th century experimental music composition and performance. "While The City Sleeps" and "Goodbye" are two more of the vital cuts on the album. Chicago would never again match the level of craft and musicianship on V. Chicago VI does contain a few great cuts, but in relation to their previous releases, it pales. Chicago VII comes in with three phenomenal instrumentals - "Prelude to Aire", "Aire", and "Devil's Sweet". These are essential Chicago. The rest of VII doesn't match up, and after this they begin to slide into pop and away from pushing boundaries.