With an artist like Patti Smith, it is virtually impossible to decide which might be her classic. Of course, most will sidle up near her debut, Horses. But as perfect as that album is, it’s a shame to think her perfection stopped right at the beginning. In fact, I refuse to say such a thing. Her last, not counting her covers album, Twelve, from 2007, was Trampin’, released in 2004, and Banga in 2012.
I feel as strongly about Trampin’ as I did for Horses, which I loved. But, I loved Radio Ethiopia even more. When 1978 brought Easter, I was chomping at the bit to get a hold of a copy of it. When the following year brought Wave, I was equally as ferocious in acquiring a copy. But, as much as I loved those albums (I DID!), they were slightly too polished for me. I still went to Radio Ethiopia as my go-to Patti Smith album, with Horses nipping at its heels.
Then Patti went on hiatus. We had to kinda forget about her.
When Patti released her fifth album, Dream Of Life in 1988, I felt let down. I consider it to be her weakest album. But some eight years later, Patti Smith reached deeply into the pool of anger after losing everyone around her including her husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith, she released Gone Again. Gone Again, is a powerful album, perhaps more powerful than anything she has recorded. There was something primal going on in the title song. It’s visceral. Death was being confronted in ways I have never heard anyone do.
Since that album, Patti has released Peace and Noise, Gung Ho, Trampin’, Banga, and her covers set, Twelve.
The Albums of Patti Smith
Horses (1975) –
From the opening slam of “Gloria: In Excelsis Deo” to her epic 3-part, “Heroin”-like classic, “Land”, to the closing notes of “Elegie”, Horses was a strong album released during a time of music finding its way. In between, those mentioned songs, Patti provided glistening pearls with the poetic perfection of “Kimberley”, “Birdland”, “Break It Up”, and the communally inspired, “Free Money”. Horses has rightfully earned it designation as a (the) Patti Smith classic.
Radio Ethiopia (1976) –
When this album opened with “Ask the Angels”, I died! With that kind of energy coming out of the speakers, who could refuse Patti Smith from here on out. Who? And yet, most everyone did. The album sold poorly and everyone was sounding the death knell for the poetess who, in my estimation, was already walking on water. ”Ain’t It Strange” followed the opener and gave me a wind of Horses. It could have been an outtake from the Horses sessions. I still say it was. ”Poppies” speaks perfection in blends of styles; bluesy in a punkish way. The mix of heady poetry with a grand musical contribution makes “Pissing In a River” a memorable song. ”Pumping” is punk, “Distant Fingers” is mesmerizing, and “Radio Ethiopia” is f’ing epic and brilliant. What was wrong with Radio Ethiopia. Nothing! Oh, did I forget “Abyssinia”? I did! It was every bit as potent as some of the songs fromHorses. Better.
Easter (1978) –
Easter is a great album. We won’t make a mistake with that here. But it represents a different Patti Smith. You can hear it right away in “Till Victory”. If I had to wince a bit, it has to be at the expense of produce Jimmy Iovine. Horses was produced by the incomparable John Cale and the edginess shows. Radio Ethiopia was produced by Jack Douglas, and the harsh brilliance shows. Easter speaks of fame, which it got because it rose higher than even Horses did in the charts. Patti is still in there though, even if she was “re-directed”. Her cover of Springsteen’s “Because The Night” is the definitive version of that song even though you can hear Springsteen oozing from nearly every note of it. I’m in love with the poetic all-to-brief “Babelogue”, with its “I haven’t fucked much with the past, but I’ve fucked plenty with the future” line. Patti gave plenty of goodness in Easter, but it is NOT my go-to album even though Patti Smith sought – and found – “the nerves under my skin”.
Wave (1979) –
The Todd Rundgren-produced Wave gave me reason to be more hopeful. While it’s still too much polish for a rough and tumble Patti Smith (who could kick my ass because I’d let her), it spoke of a defiance. ”Frederick”, the entrancing “Dancing Barefoot”, a cover of the Byrds’ classic, “So You Want To Be A Rock And Roll Star”, and the interesting, “Wave” were some of the best from this album.
Dream Of Life (1988) –
Jimmy Iovine came back to produce this album, and his obvious influence is felt here. It’s very polished with a dated ’80s sound to it. You don’t even have to go very far to hear it. It shows up on the opening, “People Have The Power”. I won’t deny that Patti didn’t have some fine moments on this album. Song-wise, there is a lot to be interested in here. I enjoyed “Going Under”, and “Paths that Cross”. I just feel the album to be her weakest moment. It’s as if she’s clearing the sleep from her head. She was, after all, coming back from a long professional slumber. Dream Of Life DID do something, however. It re-established her into the arena she belonged in. And then she disappeared…again.
Gone Again (1996) –
Patti Smith has come back after Dream of Life and EIGHT years. During that time, everyone around her crossed paths with death. Patti was angry. From the first song, “Gone Again”, Patti had reaffirmed her place that she left behind after Radio Ethiopia. The same energy is there. With the beginning track of the album, Gone Again is awash in shining brilliance. ”Beneath The Southern Cross”, the phenomenal “About A Boy”, and yes, every other song on this album are stunning tunes that put me back at the breasts of Patti Smith. The Jeff Buckley assistance of the extended “Fireflies”is unreal. (Buckley would die soon after this album’s release). A classic!
Peace And Noise (1997) –
Patti Smith took the production reins for this album. The songs are excellent but it’s no Gone Again. What Peace And Noise is is a collection of songs that Patti felt comfortable in recording. She had her own say. It’s a personal album. With an album cover almost as beautifully potent as Gone Again, Peace And Noise provided musical greatness with “Spell”, “Blue Poles”. and “Death Singing”, a fearful finger point at the specter that collects souls at whim. Peace And Noise is Patti Smith‘s Bob Dylan album. She needed to do this one; she deserved to do this one.
Gung Ho (2000) –
After a three year absence, Patti Smith returned with something more familiar. Gung Ho explores stories, something that Patti has done all of the time, but less poetically then in the past. On “Lo and Beholden”, one of the album’s better tracks, she tells a version of a biblical story, the story of Salome, whose dance led to the beheading of John The Baptist. I loved “Strange Messengers”, probably because she opened it up more than she was willing to do for the rest of the album. ”The Glitter In their Eyes” was nominated for a Grammy, although I can’t see why. Gung Ho was a good album, not great. Still, it was better than Dream Of Life. Gung Ho was Patti Smith at her time and place.
Trampin’ (2004) –
Again, absent for a few years, she returned with one hell of an album, much closer to the Patti Smith of decades ago. She opens with power on “Jubilee”, gives beauty on “Mother Rose” and “Peaceable Kingdom”, sets fires with “Stride Of The Mind”, creates perfection with “Cartwheels”, and delivers two epics with “Gandhi”, and the unreal “Radio Baghdad”. She easily proves that she can be the Patti Smith that we all know and love. Is it a classic in the sense of Horses, and Radio Ethiopia? It could be. Brilliance that can raise your hairs on the back of your neck.
Twelve (2007) –
This was an indulgent release. I understand her need to sing favorites in her own voice, but I still consider the album unnecessary. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t like it. Plenty did. I just wasn’t thrilled with it. Songs that I thought I might like, “Everybody Wants To Rule the World” just didn’t feel right. Patti is best an engine when she’s revving on her own fuel. When you put a substitute in the tank, well, the performance and mileage varies. If you liked it, I have no problem with it. I’ll say no more.
Banga (2012) –
Going back to originals, Patti Smith provided a New Millennium feel but maintaining a Patti Smith aura to her new album. With eight years in between Trampin’ and this one, Patti turned in an acceptable album. It’s good. But it could have been better.