by Jeff Fiedler
Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.
Moonflower (1977, Columbia)
This half-live/half-studio double-disc affair (featuring Greg Walker as the band’s new lead vocalist) returned the band to the Top Ten on the albums chart and also revived the band’s fortunes at Top 40 radio as well. Not altogether coincidentally, critics tend to dismiss pretty much everything in the band’s catalog from this album through most of the ensuing two decades, but it’s debatable if the band would have lasted much longer at Columbia – or any major label, for that matter – had it not recaptured its former knack in the early ‘70s for producing hit singles, so this disc went a long way towards making the group commercially relevant again. Cleverly, the new studio cuts and the concert recordings – including live renditions of such classics as “Black Magic Woman,” “Soul Sacrifice,” and “Europa (Earth’s Cry, Heaven’s Smile)” – are all mixed in together, a savvy bit of sequencing that helps prevent either the live material or the studio material from sounding like added sales bait. As for the studio material, it’s not Abraxas-caliber, but it’s nearly as good as most of the material from Amigos; the band’s cover of the Zombies’ “She’s Not There” would even return the band to the Top 40 after a near-six-year absence, while “I’ll Be Waiting” and “Transcendence” are both appealing in their own right.
Inner Secrets (1978, Columbia)
With Moonflower and its cover of “She’s Not There” restoring Santana’s former presence on Top 40 radio, the band undergoes a bit of a transformation here, taking a sharp turn away from Latin-rock and becoming more or less an adult-contemporary pop outfit with lots of guitar flash. (They even bring in Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter, best known for their work with the Four Tops and Glen Campbell, as producers and co-writers.) For critics with a strong distaste for soft-rock powerhouses like Firefall, this was almost tantamount to treason, but the general public responded favorably, and those with less discriminating tastes will find that Santana actually does adult-contemporary pop and lite-disco quite well, surprisingly enough. Mind you, Santana is no longer interested in making grandiose album pieces at this stage in their career, so those who prefer their discs to be a bit more conceptual will want to stick to those earlier albums, but as a collection of pop songs, this is not bad at all, and cuts like the rock-flavored “Open Invitation” and the covers of Buddy Holly’s “Well … All Right” and the Four Tops’ “One Chain (Don’t Make No Prison)” are well-done. Best of all, though, is the warm, sultry reading of the Classics IV oldie-but-goodie “Stormy,” one of lead vocalist Greg Walker’s finest moments with Santana; the track is an even better ‘60s cover by the band than “She’s Not There” from the album before it and deservedly reached the Top 40, though it sadly climbed no higher than #32. Sure, this album might not sound at all like the Santana of Abraxas days, but if you enjoy good adult-contemporary-pop fare, you should like this disc all the same.
Marathon (1979, Columbia)
Greg Walker has left the fold at this point, and Alex Ligertwood takes over as the band’s new lead vocalist. This disc continues the mainstream pop/rock stylings of Inner Secrets but eschews cover songs entirely in favor of eleven band originals. Fans of the band’s instrumental jams will likely gravitate the most towards the funky soft-jazz of “Aquamarine,” but the more pop-oriented tunes are fairly good in their own right, particularly the driving rock of “All I Ever Wanted” and the minor Top 40 hit “You Know That I Love You.”
Zebop! (1981, Columbia)
Santana’s first outing of the Eighties – co-produced by the legendary Bill Graham – doesn’t differ greatly from the winning formula of its adult-contemporary discs of the late ‘70s. The biggest difference between this disc and Marathon is that the group brings more outside material to the table this time around – a savvy move considering that nearly all the singles released from the disc are penned by other writers. The disc opens with a cover of the fabulous but oft-overlooked album cut “Changes IV” from Cat Stevens’ Teaser and the Firecat. (The song’s title has been shortened here to simply just “Changes.”) The band also tackles J.J. Cale’s “The Sensitive Kind” and scored a major Top 40 hit with the slightly-reggae-tinged song “Winning,” penned by former Argent lead singer Russ Ballard (who’d gone on to a lucrative career writing hits for other artists, including Ace Frehley’s “New York Groove” and America’s “You Can Do Magic.”) The Ballard-penned cut is one of the band’s most criminally underrated singles and goes a long way towards making this one of Santana’s finest post-Amigos discs for Columbia.
Shango (1982, Columbia)
Say what you will about Santana’s move into adult-contemporary pop, but one thing that did not escape him in that transition was his ear for a good tune, and the band shows some remarkably great taste in outside material on this disc, which also includes the return (albeit in cameo form rather than as a full-fledged band member) of original vocalist/keyboardist Gregg Rolie, who also co-writes and co-produces several tracks here. The band tries its hand at another fine Russ Ballard tune here in “Nowhere to Run” and also covers the delightful “Night Hunting Time” from the criminally underappreciated singer-songwriter Paul Brady, years before Bonnie Raitt began recording his songs on a regular basis and gave Brady his biggest crossover exposure yet. The band also takes a crack at the old Jr. Walker & the All-Stars classic “What Does It Take (to Win Your Love).” Best of all, though, is the band’s cool-as-a-summer-breeze cover of “Hold On” by singer-songwriter Ian Thomas, a legend in his native Canada but almost completely unknown in the U.S., where he’s still best known for his 1973 minor Top 40 hit “Painted Ladies.” It’s arguably the best single in the band’s catalog since “Oye Como Va” – it also makes great fun to listen to in the car while cruising along with the windows down – and really deserves to be rediscovered by radio programmers.
Beyond Appearances (1985, Columbia)
Perhaps the most interesting thing about this mid-Eighties disc is the lineup, which features the return of Greg Walker, who splits lead vocal duties here with Ligertwood, and the unlikely addition of original E Street Band keyboardist David Sancious to the fold. Unfortunately, this is also the most dated-sounding of Santana’s ‘80s discs, not in the least due to the production of Val Garay (best known for helming Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes”), who bathes everything in a wash of glossy synths and drum machines. If you don’t mind the heavily ‘80s-styled production, though, there are actually some excellent songs to be found here. The very underrated Robbie Patton (best known for co-writing Fleetwood Mac’s “Hold Me”) is the pen behind “How Long,” while a young Mitchell Froom offers up “Written in Sand.” There’s also a fine cover here of Curtis Mayfield’s “I’m the One Who Loves You.” But the best tune here is the Garay-penned “Say It Again,” which is much too synth-laden to pass muster with Santana purists but is a pop-music buff’s sheer delight, boasting wall-to-wall hooks and a deliriously fun chorus that you’re guaranteed to have stuck in your head for at least a few hours. It’s hard to believe the song even missed the Top Ten, but it strangely stopped at #46, and it remains far and away the catchiest Santana single to miss the Top 40.
Freedom (1987, Columbia)
Strangely, in spite of all the commercial success that Santana’s reinvention as an adult-contemporary pop outfit brought them, the band suddenly changed course in the late ‘80s after Beyond Appearances failed to perform as well as its predecessors and reverted to its old Latin-rock sound (even bringing back Gregg Rolie as a special guest on several cuts), which, considering how out of vague Latin-rock was at the time, seems like a rather suicidal move. But they haven’t entirely lost their sensibilities for pop, and they’re savvy enough here to co-write with the likes of Traffic’s Jim Capaldi (who helps pen “Before We Go”) and Pablo Cruise’s Cory Lerios (who helps pen “She Can’t Let Go”), while the legendary Buddy Miles co-writes the album’s standout cut, “Veracruz.” But the move was a commercial misstep, and Freedom fared even worse on the Top 200 than its predecessor. If nothing else, though, the disc laid the initial groundwork for the band’s eventual comeback as the quintessential Latin-rock band of its time.
Spirits Dancing in the Flesh (1990, Columbia)
Though Carlos and his band sound perfectly fine here per se, this disc – which marks the return of Alex Ligertwood as lead vocalist – is unfortunately one of the band’s most schizophrenic records, as Carlos seems a bit lost as to what his next move should be, not knowing whether to stick with the Latin-rock sound he revived on the commercial disappointment of Freedom or return to the covers-heavy pop nature of his late ‘70s and early ‘80s albums. Consequently, he just throws a little of everything into the brew, inserting covers of the Impressions (“Gypsy Woman”), Hendrix (“Third Stone from the Sun”) and the Isley Brothers (“That Lady”) alongside Latin standards like “Jin-go-la-ba” and old-school-Santana-styledoriginals. Individually, the tracks sound more or less perfectly fine, but taken together, it’s a bit of a mess.
Milagro (1992, Polydor)
Santana’s first – and, as it would turn out, only – album for the Polydor label is dedicated to the memories of jazz legend Miles Davis and the band’s former manager Bill Graham. As an album piece, it’s far more cohesive than Spirits Dancing in the Flesh and is the band’s most artistically ambitious disc since at least Festival, if not Borboletta. [It certainly hearkens more back to the band’s early, more Latin-rock-oriented days than it does their pop fling of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.] But, interesting though the disc is as a whole, no individual songs particularly stand out and the disc, pleasing though it largely is, ends up being a fairly forgettable affair and one of the easiest albums in the band’s catalog to overlook.