There is no disputing the richness of Year of the Cat, that wonderful breakthrough album from Al Stewart. Put a needle down anywhere (figure of speech) and wherever that needle lands, it’s playing a great song. Yeah, I’ll go out on the proverbial limb and say that the Year of the Cat is Stewart’s best album. Period.
From it’s opening song, “Lord Grenville” through the title tune closer, you’re breathing rarified air from an artist, who before Year of the Cat, was putting together some rather brilliant albums. Stewart even followed up Year of the Cat with more goodness heard on Time Passages, with “Song on the Radio”, the title cut, “Time Passages”, and that album’s scattered pleasant tunes.
I do my best to not get crazy by slipping into the all too easy mistake of calling a pre- (or post) YotC album Stewart’s best. And if I do, one listen to the album brings me back from the many ethereal Stewart-crafted worlds that I’ve become temporarily trapped in.
But to be honest, Year of the Cat was not my first Al Stewart love. That came several years earlier with Past, Present & Future. I first heard “Nostradamus” on FM radio, and became intrigued enough to check out the album. I loved the cover and so found myself with a copy of the album. I enjoyed the music. However, it was his next album, Modern Times (1975) that captured me. I had enjoyed the previous album enough to have my ears perk up when the radio played “Modern Times”, which I fell in love with immediately.
Modern Times did more to make me an avid Al Stewart fan than the earlier album. Not a bad song on the set. The music had taken a pronounced turn from Past, Present & Future making me a hunter of all things Al. But the love I had with the title track still carries deeply with me today. “Modern Times” tells a story of friendship in a better time. But as the story progresses, it becomes evident that the memories had soured for the found again friend in a bar. It is a resonating tune that holds fond memories dear to the heart. But not everybody. The song is magic if not a bit sad.
After Stewart’s fame with Year of the Cat, he released the popular Time Passages and still climbed the charts. “Time Passages” with its stunning saxophone throughout, was as good a song as anything on Year of the Cat. But, while the album is definitely great, it’s no YotC. And neither is 24 Carrots despite its brilliant craft of more than a few of the album’s tunes including “Midnight Rocks”.
As Stewart’s recording career moved on, many fans did not follow although that might be thought of as a loss for those that didn’t stick with the Scotsman. Subsequent albums include Russians and Americans (1984), Last Days of the Century (1988), A Beach Full of Shells (2005), and Sparks of Ancient Light (2008), to name a few. All have their merit. All have their gold.
If I were to pose such a question as which is Al Stewart’s undeniable classic album, the response is very likely to be 99% Year of the Cat. And yes, you’d be right. So let’s approach the albums of Al Stewart from another corner. Instead, let’s exempt Year of the Cat from the poll, although you can give it all the love and praise that you want, if you want. Instead, let’s poll and find the second best Al Stewart album.
I’m guessing that folks that became fans because of Year of the Cat will fall in with Time Passages, while those that discovered Al Stewart a bit earlier, may very will provide the accolades for one of the pre-Year of the Cat discs.
While I have great love for many Al Stewart tunes after YotC, I have a greater love for Modern Times (the entire album). It’s an album I return to quite frequently. In fact, it’s something that I have been playing quite a bit in the past week along with Year of the Cat, and Time Passages.
So, I turn to over to you. Which Al Stewart album, excepting Year of the Cat, is Stewart’s most representational album? I go for Modern Times.
“On a morning from a Bogart movie, in a country where they turn back time…”