Saturday, 10 May 2014

Toto - Hand Picked

Image Source: Smooth Vibes

Toto is a band made up of some of the most prolific session musicians in the Los Angeles music scene. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s they played on countless albums of all genres, but probably the most famous was Boz Scaggs' massive million seller "Silk Degrees" in 1976.

Being musicians for hire before forming the band made them critics targets. As William Ruhlmann writes in the Allmusic Guide:

Toto's rock-studio chops allowed them to play any current pop style at the drop of a hi-hat: one minute prog rock, the next hard rock, the next funky R&B. It all sounded great, but it also implied that music-making took craft rather than inspiration..."

There is an element of truth in that: in a career spanning over 30 years, there's very few recordings they have made that sound distinctive and idiosyncratic. It's too easy to confuse their music for something by Boston, Kansas, Journey, Foreigner or, in some cases, Little River Band. They know exactly how to make music that is user-friendly, radio-friendly, catchy and familiar that is not daring enough to be challenging for the listener, but familiar enough to be catchy, marketable enough to sell records by the bucketload.

It is competently played, slickly produced and, at times, bland and soulless. That said, there are moments where the music is sensational.

Musically they were perfect for commercial radio, and considering this their commercial fortunes were quite unpredictable. Their first record sold millions, while the far superior (in my view) follow up "Hydra" only went Gold in the US. Third LP "Turn Back" fared worse, while "Toto IV" sold 10 million. Subsequent records never hit those lofty heights every again.

The band were capable of playing almost any style of music you could ask for. They could do outright pop fluff like "Rosanna" (one of a long line of pop songs where the female protagonist is named in the title, like "Angela", "Lorraine", "Hollyanna", "Goodbye Eleanor"), solid rock like "Hold The Line", and then turn out a totally sublime and moody piece like "Africa" - probably the most identifiable song they ever recorded.

And then, on occasion they could turn out a song like "99" and manage to confuse the hell out of everybody. A stunning piano piece, it is apparently a love song to Maxwell Smart's sassy female offsider. Few people apparently got the hint and it killed their fortunes at radio at the time. Luckily they had their session work to fall back on....

The selections in the playlist below are cherry picked from Toto's first four LPs. This playlist has its roots in a mid-priced compilation called "Hold The Line" that I owned on cassette for years. The album selects tunes from the band's first three albums, including the massive hit title track, a few lesser singles and a swag of interesting album tracks. When I transferred the cassette to CD, I dropped a few lame tracks, added a bunch from "Toto IV".

The great thing about a Spotify playlist is that the length is not confined to the limitations of a physical medium. I have only ever heard the first few albums, and I intend to add to this list as time goes on, once I go back and listen to the rest of their catalog. Subscribe to the playlist to hear the rest of the playlist as it continues to be built.

Tracks 1-3 from "Toto"
Tracks 3-9 from "Hydra"
Tracks 10-11 from "Turn Back"
Tracks 12-18 from "Toto IV"

Take a listen and let me know in the comments what tracks need to be added.

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