Thinking Is The Best Way To Travel
Moody Blues Albums Ranked Worst To Best
by Benjamin Ray
Through their long career, the Moody Blues went through three distinct phases: first as yet another blues-rock-psychedelic mid-’60s British Invasion band, then as a psychedelic prog-pop band from 1967-72, then as an adult pop band in the 1980s. Their career since 1991 has pretty much been limited to nostalgia tours, compilations and the occasional live album from their “classic seven” heyday. The British quintet created some fine, everlasting singles during their time, and though they rarely managed an entire album without including at least three embarrassing or boring songs, the best of their music has secured them a place in any discussion of the founding fathers of progressive and psychedelic rock. They rarely wrote long or self-important songs with extended solos, choosing instead to pile on layers of sound to create a lush, melodious atmosphere. Though the ’80s songs stripped away this approach, the best singles retained a melancholy grace that fit the band. This list will rank the band’s 16 studio albums from worst to best.
16. Sur La Mer (1988)
If I could put this lower, I would. Completely awful, cheesy beyond belief in lyrics and performances, the album was so bad that even Patrick Moraz left after it was foisted on an unsuspecting public. About the only reason the disc is remembered is the very long pop single “I Know You’re Out There Somewhere,” which recalls better hits from previous ’80s discs and features a robotic neo-disco beat to boot. Also of note is the complete absence of Ray Thomas; if he contributed anything here, I sure as hell can’t find it.
15. Strange Times (1999)
I suppose this is where the Moody Blues would always end up, crafting an excessively boring, extremely mature album full of love songs, with the occasional swelling string section to underscore the serious atmosphere. But it’s disheartening to hear a band that used to generate at least some excitement be so deadly dull, and the moments when they try to recapture the spirit come off as corny dad rock, or men in turtlenecks sipping tea and saying “Remember when?” That said, the pulsating electronic drum machine on “English Sunset” is a complete surprise and actually makes the song – a yearning for home – quite fun.
1 4. Keys Of The Kingdom (1991)
In 1991, when Pearl Jam and Soundgarden ruled the hearts and minds of the youth, the Moody Blues thought another album was a good idea for their parents, and so they put out this dreck. “Say It With Love” is one of those midtempo faux-rockers that the band thought passed for hip, with lyrics like “I’ve been thinking, the way people do / ‘Bout the things that matter to me and you.” Much of the rest is worse, not quite as bad as Sur La Mer, but close, with only Ray Thomas’ out-of-place “Celtic Sonant” reminding listeners that he was still alive.
13. The Other Side Of Life (1986)
Reasonably interesting for its two singles, the dark, driving pop of the title cut and the bouncy “Your Wildest Dreams,” both smart singles and the last two good ones the band ever released. The rest of the disc succumbs to the worst ’80s excesses of cheesy synthesizers, bland/corny lyrics (“Like a rock / I’m gonna roll to you”), electronic drums and a definite lack of inspiration. Seriously, the backing tracks to the godawful “Talkin’ Talkin’” and “Rock And Roll Over You” sound like ’80s video games.
12. Octave (1978)
Regrouping after their necessary hiatus, the band moved temporarily to California to suit Mike Pinder, and while the quintet was able to repair its working relationships, the spark and magic of before was all but gone. Pinder wasn’t involved much in this album anyway and wound up leaving the band for good while it was being made, and the 10 songs lean pretty heavily on a soft rock sound of wide-eyed songs about love and searching. Granted, the sound of old had no place in the punk, disco and arena rock world of 1978, but the Moodies hadn’t thought much about their new approach beyond “let’s bring back all the old fans,” many of whom were bored even before the end of Side A. Granted, “Steppin’ In A Slide Zone” is a pretty good song and showcases where this album could have gone, “Driftwood” is a lovely tune with the signature Moody melodies of before, and “The Day We Meet Again” has the same sort of scope and feel as Seventh Sojourn, but these are the only three highlights on the disc.
11. The Magnificent Moodies (1965)
A fascinating relic. Rarely has a band completely switched gears so quickly – Genesis is the only band that readily comes to mind – after releasing their first album. The Time Traveler box set eliminates this phase of the band completely, though co-founder Denny Laine would go on to find fame as part of Paul McCartney’s Wings a few years later. For fans of British Invasion blues-rock like the Animals, this is a lesser entry in the canon but still entertains in spurts, especially the cover of “Go Now” and the exciting “Bye Bye Bird.” One can hear the beginnings of the foundation being laid for the band’s next phase in songs like “From The Bottom Of My Heart,” but by and large, this one is pretty forgettable.
10. December (2003)
Pared to a trio, the Moodies released a holiday album with the same sound and approach as Strange Times. This one is a better album simply because the band’s consistent lyrical themes and low-key approach works far better on a Christmas disc. Most of the songs are originals, with a couple of covers, but the project is unlike most holiday albums and might be worth checking out for people looking for an adult non-carol yuletide disc.
9. The Present (1983)
An attempt to replicate the surprise success of Long Distance Voyager to lesser results, The Present falls into the same trap as Octave, where the songs sound good and have some decent melodies but very little that sticks with the listener. The melancholy synth-pop of “Blue World” and “Meet Me Halfway” are a fine album opener – in fact, two of the band’s best ’80s songs – but the album peters out after that, with only a handful of decent tunes worth revisiting.
8. In Search Of The Lost Chord (1968)
Although the bulk of the Moody Blues’ catalog is quite enjoyable, it is very dated, and few albums more so than this psychedelic hippie fest. Spoken-word introductions, overlong songs with lots of exotic instruments and an emphasis on mysticism, drugs and brotherly love firmly dates this among the worst excesses of the late ’60s. As usual, when the band cuts out the horseshit, they can deliver solid songs, such as the rocker “Ride My See-Saw,” the well-written, trippy “Legend Of A Mind” and the lovely “Voices In The Sky.” Of special note is forgotten album track “The Actor,” which features some of Justin Heyward’s best singing, and a song the band would dust off for the Lovely To See You live album decades later. Pity the rest of the album doesn’t reach these four heights.
7. Long Distance Voyager (1981)
Of all the bands that needed to change their sound to survive the ’80s, the Moodies was chief among them, and it turned out to be a surprisingly natural progression from Mike Pinder’s Mellotron to Patrick Moraz’s synthesizers. “The Voice” is an intelligent, catchy pop song, “Talking Out Of Turn” is lush and evokes the sounds of the past while bringing them into the new decade, and “Gemini Dream” is corny neo-disco fun. There’s a melancholy maturity to the music, but it serves the songs well, because the guys play to their strengths and avoid the excesses of old (although the stomping “Veteran Cosmic Rocker” is a little cheesy, it should be great fun for longtime fans of the band). This is the last good album statement from the band and worth checking out when digging into the catalog.
6. A Question Of Balance (1970)
Attempts to recreate the grandiose sound of the band’s first four psychedelic albums proved a problem when playing live, so for their next effort the Moodies scaled back their approach to somewhat simpler songs that could be played on stage. This resulted in the excellent single “Question,” all driving acoustic guitars and a simple but heartfelt lyrical conceit, the driving “Tortoise And The Hare,” the lovelorn divorce musings of Ray Thomas’ “And The Tide Rushes In” and the solid “It’s Up To You.” The Mellotron is pushed to the background, although it adds dramatic import (along with an overdriven guitar) to the bridge of “How Is It (We Are Here).” Things fall apart on the second side with the extremely sad “Melancholy Man,” the extremely awful “The Balance” (one of the worst songs of 1970) and the extremely twee “Minstrel’s Song,” but the first half of the record makes up for it.
5. Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (1971)
This disc is a bit of a mixed bag. Certainly, “The Story In Your Eyes” is one of the band’s best straight-out rock songs, the lush sweep of “One More Time To Live” underscores the band’s dramatic abilities (especially in the chorus), “My Song” is the band’s signature overlong tedious prog-rock instrumental (mostly) and “Emily’s Song” is a lovely ode to John Lodge’s daughter. On the flip side, “Nice To Be Here” is the wimpiest piece of British twee, so bad it makes Donovan seem like Ozzy Osbourne, and “Procession” is an excessively pointless opener designed to fill space, though I imagine it was the band’s attempt at a “2001”-style history of the human race. As far as the album tracks, “Our Guessing Game” and “You Can Never Go Home” are fairly strong, and “After You Came” is all over the map, Graeme Edge’s attempt to write three songs, throw them into one and end on a heroic guitar solo. The sum total feels like less than its parts.
4. On The Threshold Of A Dream (1969)
Realizing In Search Of The Lost Chord was a dead end, and having some time and freedom to write new material, the Moodies puts together one of their more interesting, creative efforts, even if it isn’t wholly successful. “Lovely To See You” continued the tradition of punchy psych-rock single to lead off the album (after the stupid “In The Beginning”), and the first half of the disc is similarly British Invasion-style psychedelic pop that seems remarkably straightforward, especially on “Send Me No Wine” and “So Deep Within You.” The second half of the disc is given to pensive, wide-eyed songs like “Are You Sitting Comfortably,” “Never Comes The Day” and both parts of “Have You Heard,” although the pretentious, serious instrumental “The Voyage” was unlike anything the band had done before or since. Pinder really shines here, switching from ominous Mellotron swaths to a piano workout, creating a doom-laden piece unlike anything other bands were doing at the time save for King Crimson.
3. To Our Children’s Children’s Children (1969)
The band takes a simple concept about aging and life’s journey and matches it to their most ornate record yet, their second album of 1969 and a fan favorite. Certainly, “Gypsy” is in any Top 5 discussion of the band’s best songs, while the downbeat ballad “Watching And Waiting” proved to be popular with fans, even as it tried unsuccessfully to rewrite “Nights In White Satin” to a degree. “Higher And Higher” would have been cheesy in any other context, but the spoken-word interludes and chugging rhythm perfectly evoked the sentiment following the moon landing, and the song can’t help but be triumphant. The disc is split in two, with the first half focusing more on growing up and exploring (“Higher And Higher,” “Eyes Of A Child,” “Beyond” and the second half on loss, aging and questions (“Gypsy,” “Candle Of Life,” “Eternity Road”). You have to be in the right mood for this one, as it’s not quite as approachable as the band’s other works, but it yields rewards for the right frame of mind.
2. Days of Future Passed (1967)
A progressive rock masterpiece and considered by many the band’s finest hour. Where the Beatles had flirted with adding an orchestra to Sgt. Pepper’s, the Moodies flat-out hired the London Festival Orchestra and, with the help of producers and engineers from the record company, fused their new songs with the orchestral introductions and interludes. The resulting disc is stunningly original, expertly weaving the classical with the British Invasion pop, the latter of which was among the best of the band’s career. The first half of the disc leans more toward wide-eyed innocence and sprightly classical themes, coming to a head on “Peak Hour,” a pounding rocker (for these guys, anyway). The second half works through the hit “Tuesday Afternoon,” the melancholy guitar-picking of “Forever Afternoon,” the fantastic psychedelic rocker “Twilight Time” (featuring some of the band’s best wordless vocals) and the timeless “Nights In White Satin,” which just sounds better with age. A few weak links pop up in the twee “The Morning” and those awful opening and closing spoken poems, but darned if that orchestral buildup and gong that close the album don’t send a shiver down your spine.
1. Seventh Sojourn (1972)
The final album of the “classic seven” lineup is the band’s finest hour. Seventh Sojourn works as a concept album about the death of the hippie dream (“Lost In A Lost World,” “When You’re A Free Man”), finding hope in new love (“New Horizons,” “For My Lady,” “You And Me”), reflecting on one’s place during a time of transition (“Isn’t Life Strange,” “I’m Just A Singer (In A Rock And Roll Band)”) and still finding time for the inner child (“Land Of Make-Believe”). The entire album has a gray melancholy about it matching the cover art, and the lyrics and music are more personal and less embellished with pointless overdubs. “New Horizons” is the most beautiful love song Heyward wrote since “Nights In White Satin,” “Lost In A Lost World” is ominous and difficult, sucking in the listener and leaving on a note of despair, and the sad “When You’re A Free Man” artfully weaves guitars and keyboards in a paean to Timothy Leary. The epic “Isn’t Life Strange” is a great way to say goodbye – it sounds like a breakup song – but that honor goes to the flat-out rock and roll of “I’m Just A Singer,” which essentially dispenses with all the New Age horseshit and hippie dreams of the last five albums and tells the kids to fuck off, find their own path in life and stop turning to rock stars for advice. As that last cymbal crashes, you can actually feel the band giving up and walking away, which they actually did for six years. This is a fitting epitaph to not only a career phase but to youth, a movement and an ethos.