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DESERT ISLAND PICKS: The 10 YES Albums To Take With You

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So this all started when the main editor of Sonic Perspectives asked me if I’d dare writing an article ranking all the YES albums. Wow. Where would you start? 21 studio albums. 50 years of music. I don’t think I could do it. Top 10? Ah, that can change from day to day and how would I even begin to assess them relative to each other? No to that.

Therefore, I re-imagined the request… let’s say you are spending some time on a desert island. You can take any 10 YES albums (and I define that as CDs or double CDs) with you … what would they be? I think I can have a go at that. Live albums – yes. Compilations – no. Those are the rules. Let’s begin.

Close to the Edge (1972)

This is the undisputed first choice. At least one person has written an entire book on this album so what can I say? Well while Fragile was made by the same lineup, this album fully took to fruition everything the band had been working towards up to this point. The title track is simply a masterpiece and probably the best song in the prog-rock universe in my opinion. The sheer breadth and variety, intensity and levity, harmony and discord all contribute to this masterpiece. The band and biographers speak of how it was recorded piecemeal with no real idea as to how it would end – I suppose I have to believe that, but the end result is spectacular. “Siberian Khatru” powers along showing in its studio form the potential for a great live track within. “And You and I” – a song played at, I imagine, every YesShow since, irrespective of the line up is simply superb. From the 12 string tuning harmonics to the soaring steel guitar, with atmospheric Mellotron and harmonies – this is just a fantastic track.

Add in the first appearance of “that logo”, the cover art and gatefold package and this is a benchmark album. Definitely coming with me!

Yessongs (1973)

So, on this island… while Fragile and The Yes Album are both classics, I can get great live versions of those albums’ best tracks on this triple album – better value when your number of albums is limited so Yessongs it is. Mr. Alan White is behind the drums and that’s why I don’t mind that it duplicated the 3 tracks from Close to the Edge – those songs leap into a new kind of life when Alan’s powerful blast replaces Bill’s jazz touch. Bruford features on “Perpetual Change”, “Long Distance Runaround/The Fish”, but White is playing like a man who truly owns the gig. Wakeman adds his touch to the Yes album tracks including a stellar “Starship Trooper” while maximizing the then primitive live keyboard technology to the max. A magnificent “Heart of the Sunrise” means I won’t miss the album version on this island. We also have the various solos, much better in a live context than on “Fragile”. If I could only bring one album to the island it would probably be this – so no question, it’s one of the ten.

Tales From Topographic Oceans (1973)

I still can’t decide. Of all the YES albums this is the one that, for me, is still on my “work in progress” list. Musically the band definitely push towards new ground beyond that found on Close to the Edge but that means it isn’t always easy to listen to. Many fans and band members speak of their love of this album and I certainly experienced that level of appreciation when I saw “Ritual” played live on the Symphonic tour. Similarly, the “Topographic Drama” live album contained superb versions of “Ritual” and “The Revealing Science of God”. ‘Too much padding/ not enough material’ said Wakeman. I’m not sure. What I will say is that it achieves new heights in places, but in other places is almost unfathomable. This one takes its place on the list because I want to take the time to know it better, as I expect it will be rewarding.

Going For The One (1977)

Going For The One definitely deserves its place here. On Tales From Topographic Oceans, it was often hard to find/ hear the seemingly disinterested Wakeman. But now he was back and he wanted to be in the band. The explorations into the spacier jazz fusion aspects disappeared with Patrick Moraz. This wasn’t Yes-By-Numbers but there is no doubt it’s a better testament to the AHSWW line up than “Tales” – and it’s not a backward step. The discipline and structure in these songs are underpinned by the technical virtuosity in perfect equilibrium (which I feel was lost on the subsequent Tormato). The band also tackle some shorter songs and it’s clear that there are energy and excitement in this reunion. The title track has Anderson hitting the top of his range, Howe’s slide going even higher, Squire on counterpoint vocals, Wakeman on pub-piano and White powering the track along. It’s truly an album without a weak point. And what can be said about “Awaken”? Perhaps more than any other this song captures the key elements of YesMusic in their most fully realized sense. It’s a true masterpiece with unusual structures and instruments, overlaid with Anderson’s lyrics which are vague enough to conceal any (understandable) meaning, are just perfect for the song. And if you let me take the Rhino reissue, I will enjoy the outtakes “Montreux’s Theme”, “Vevey” and “Amazing Grace”.

Drama (1980)

I expect that, up to here, most will think my choices are very disparate or even poles apart. Drama sits at the epicenter of the band’s career when the fan’s views of YES really start to diverge. “…No YES Without Jon…” say many. Well, when I first decided to listen to YES, I borrowed 3 vinyl albums from the local library: The Yes Album, Drama and 90125. So from my very first experience of the band, it was clear that members came and went (with only one consistent member between those 3 albums – The Fish), and with that came shifting styles. My interest in pop meant I immediately knew that The Buggles were on this YES album. When I went to record it on to cassette (that’s what you did back then) I was amazed at how short it was… about 37 minutes… but there was so much music packed in, I didn’t mind. “Machine Messiah” began heavier than I expected YES to be, but it was clear that even with a radically different lineup, the signature harmonies, guitar, and keys were all present. I love the energy and economy in this album – Downes keyboard style is much more textural, but he pulls off some killer solos as well. Horn and Downes brought some great hooks with them especially in “Into The Lens”. As keyboard solos go, “White Car” is a much easier listen than “Cans and Brahms”.

It’s wonderful to see that “Tempus Fugit” and “Machine Messiah” are two of the most played YES live songs of recent years, and I think they deserve their place in the canon, and in my island collection.

90125 (1983)

I know there is an element of YES fandom who will conclude I have officially lost the plot! As I’ve said, I’m not a Trooper or a Generator, I’m a fan of YesWhole. I see each line up as a step in the journey and I love the range and diversity of their solo material. I’ll not run over the history of this album because you probably know it, but it’s here for 2 main reasons.

Firstly the songwriting is great. This album was a long time in the making and the songs sound like they were worked on over and over to get them to the right point. We’ve had some sneak peaks on other releases of the pre-Anderson versions or the Rabin demos. When you hear how they ended up you can see what went into this. Whether it’s the whizz-bang rock of “Owner” or the prog elements of “Changes” the songs are perfectly served up. There are big choruses, there are crash, bangs, and explosions – there is even the sound of an eagle being shot (Trevor Horn tells the story that he didn’t like Jon’s “the eagle in the sky” lyric in “Owner” so they put the sound of a gunshot in after the line – listen out for it!).

The second reason this album is here is the production. YES have always fundamentally been a live band and while their albums always had excellent production and various overdubs, the sound of the band on the album was basically the same as the sound live. 90125/ Trevor Horn changed all of this. This wasn’t just a nice sounding album – this was an album that took rock music production to a whole new level. It is a glorious thing to listen to on headphones with, like many Horn productions, a lot of detail that you might miss when you get the live version into your head. Listen for the clean shimmering guitar in the left channel on “Changes”. The whole album is a beautiful construction. My desert island headphones will love this one!

Union (1991)

OK, so I know this is going to start a war. But let me explain. Today we see Union in a particular way – cobbled together, played by session musicians, compromise, hated by the band. But in 1991, I was delighted. After years of YesWest suing ABWH, but not producing any music, there was an album that had more ABWH and some YesWest, plus Chris Squire crossing over between the projects.

With “I Would Have Waited Forever”, the album kicked off with the Bruford/ Levin rhythm section, some great Howe guitar, Wakeman keyboard stabs in the background plus Jon and Chris singing together. The sound was a step on from Big Generator with much better-detailed production – a YES album for the CD era. Hard riffing on “Shock To the System” led to a Howe solo on “Masquerade”. YesWest then appears with the magnificent “Lift Me Up” and the 90125 vocal team are back, along with a stinging Rabin guitar solo and singalong chorus. Tony Kaye’s signature Hammond featured on the proggy intro to “Miracle of Life” and we finally got hear what almost-Yes-vocalist Billy Sherwood would sound like in YES on “The More We Live”. I loved it.

I am sure many will say “But how can you take Union before ?” Well, this album meant a lot to me at the time and I practically played it out. It was an album that was released when I was most into the band, rather than being an older album I went to explore, and at the time I thought it was great – and still do. “Lift Me Up” will be my desert island anthem when the rescue helicopters arrive. Say what you like – it’s coming!

The Ladder (1999)

I am a big admirer of Billy Sherwood and all his contributions to YES, right through to the place he holds in the band today and I hope going forward. I wanted some Billy with me on the island and this is the choice. Open Your Eyes is an album I can live with… it has great moments, but it is a snapshot in time of a lineup that developed and blossomed on The Ladder. From the opening moments of “Homeworld” we hear Billy’s wag-picking taking its place alongside Howe’s slide and lead playing – YES with 2 guitar players working together (see Union tour for the opposite!). Great bass sounds on this album too!

What we have here is the most substantial collection of new YES music, made by a line up who had already had some touring / band experience behind them. Of course, we have to mention Igor Khoroshev, a keyboard player who was almost universally welcomed by fans as the right person for the job, combining the classical and rock influences of the history of YES keyboardists. There is a good balance of prog sensibility and the pop music/ harmonies that were the band’s original underlying influences -hear that in tracks like “Face To Face”, “Lightning Strikes” or “The Messenger”. Yes also stepped back into some longer form music, with the title track and “New Languages”, but stripped it back to the basics for “Nine Voices”. Strong production for the late Bruce Fairbairn means the album sounds lush and clear – a great production. There’s a lot of joy in this album – the vocal harmonies appear to reflect the harmony the band had at that time, short-lived though it turned out to be.

Magnification (2001)

Following on from The Ladder, this album arrived, perhaps, a disappointment to fans. Sherwood and Khoroshev had gone from the band, with no famous faces returning to fill their place, with, instead, an orchestra doing the keyboard parts. I was unsure at the time. The 6 person Yes had expanded the sound and the styles – would the reversion to a four-piece wreck that and… an orchestra instead of keys… I was skeptical.

What I found was that this album had some extremely strong writing and a lot of clever textured arrangements – very few keyboards, but then, the YES sound was always about the arrangement and the combination of sounds whatever the source. I think YES do things on this album that aren’t comparable with anything else in their catalog. The opening acoustic guitars and violin in “Dreamtime”, followed by the brass hits – parts of that song almost sound like TFTO. Is there any other track like “Can You Imagine?” – the first Squire lead vocal in a Yes track. What an epic “In The Presence Of” is, and it is revealed, based on a piano part by Alan White – this was a song that even took on a new life on stage.

For those who have come this far in the article and are still recovering from the shock of my not bringing Relayer, that is because the version I am bringing of Magnification is the Eagle Rock version with the bonus disc which has “Gates of Delirium” and “Close to the Edge” live from the Masterworks Tour, with Igor, with a version of “Long Distance Runaround” with orchestra slotted in. In and of itself it makes a great late 1990s/early 2000s YES live album.

Fly From Here (2011)

So I am down to my last disc… there are a few in the pile. I am a big fan of Jon Davison and everything that he has brought to YES… but I feel his best studio album with the band is ahead of him. Sorry, but Heaven and Earth doesn’t make the trip with me. Fly From Here, on the other hand, does. I would highly recommend you check British author Simon Barrow’s book “Solid Mental Grace: Listening to the music of Yes”. In the book, he says “‘Fly From Here’ is both original and derivative. It sources material from over thirty years ago, but then uses it to pull together a picture of how Yes is, how it performs, and how it works in the now.”… and in my opinion, it does that very well.

The “Drama” tour is one that always fascinated me particularly as it featured two YES songs which never appeared on an album, as well as Trevor being the first band member to sing Jon-songs. There are various versions of the “Fly From Here” original track on the web, and indeed released by Geoff Downes and Buggles, but the band gave it the full prog treatment, creating the longest single YES track (if you take it as one track which I do!).

Once again this album gets major points due to Trevor Horn’s production, and also, as Steve Howe has said in interviews, Horn’s input both vocally but also working with the band to structure the material. As well as the suite, the album also included some strong songs which found their way into the band’s live set at the time. Perhaps only “Into The Storm” sounded truly in the Drama vein, but live versions of it sound great, particularly the “armies of angels” section – “Riding The Tiger” also got a live airing. We also had much more of the vocals of the “Classic” members, with Squire singing his own ballad “The Man You Always Wanted Me To Be” (this was sourced from a then in progress Squire solo album and is strong, if a little out o place) plus a strong duet vocal from Steve Howe on “Hour Of Need”.

This is an album that will keep my desert island earphones alive… although I could be tempted to swap for the Fly From Here – Return Trip version with added Trevor Horn vocals, a bonus track and an extended “Hour Of Need”

So that’s all… Leave It… a tough selection but I think I would be happy, at least in the short term. I certainly know I have all my favorites Yessongs here one way or another. It would be great to also bring along copies of the new studio albums by YES and also by Yes featuring Anderson Rabin Wakeman, but I imagine that could be a long wait.

How apart are my choices from yours?

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