Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Santana Album (Part 3)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

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Supernatural (1999, Arista)

A

There is no understating just how massive a comeback Carlos Santana and his band achieved with this disc. Not only had they not put out any album at all in seven years, but the band had never been more ice-cold commercially than it was in the early ‘90s. [The band’s last Top 40 hit, in fact, had been “Hold On” all the way back in 1982.] This was a comeback every bit as unlikely as Tina Turner’s mid-‘80s resurrection with Private Dancer or Bonnie Raitt finally making her commercial breakthrough with 1989’s Nick of Time after nearly two full decades in the business without a radio hit of any real significance. Arista’s Clive Davis deserves much of the credit for this disc’s success; not only did he give Carlos a new label deal (and, astutely, just as the Latin-pop boom was taking off in the U.S. with the likes of Ricky Martin and Marc Anthony) and a new chance at commercial success, but he had the savvy to split the difference between Santana’s two past periods as proven hit-makers, encouraging the band to retain the Latin-rock flavor of its early discs but collaborate with mainstream pop artists like Lauryn Hill, Everlast, Eagle-Eye Cherry, and Dave Matthews. Call it crass calculation if you will, but it’s exactly what Carlos needed – not just commercially but artistically – to recapture his former fire, and, boy, did it ever work – the album itself sold over thirty million, while the band also scored their first-ever Number One singles: the Rob Thomas-penned “Smooth” sat at the top of the charts for twelve weeks, becoming an instant modern-day standard in the process, and the hip-ho-tinged Wyclef Jean production “Maria Maria” (featuring the vocals of The Product G&B) topped the charts for ten. But, hit singles aside, the disc is strong from start to finish (and even closes on a rapturous note with the Eric Clapton collaboration “The Calling”) and is arguably the band’s finest album since Abraxas.

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Shaman (2002, Arista)

B +

There was absolutely no way that Shaman was going to out-perform Supernatural commercially, but on an artistic level, Shaman doesn’t fall all that shy of re-capturing the greatness of its predecessor. Its main failing is simply that it’s too long and contains too many all-star collaborations that don’t work, namely the bombastic P.O.D. duet “America,” the cringe-inducing Macy Gray feature “Amore (Sexo),” and the self-referencing Wyclef Jean production “Since Supernatural.” But trim some of these failed experiments from the disc, and you’ve got an appealingly warm full-length. Neo-soul crooner Musiq Soulchild, Seal, and Dido all make fine collaborators for Santana on “Nothing at All,” “You Are My Kind,” and “Feels Like Fire,” respectively. Chad Kroeger is perhaps the biggest surprise, the notorious Nickelback frontman proving to actually be quite appealing on the adult-contemporary-oriented “Why Don’t You and I.” But the biggest knockout by far here is the Michelle Branch duet “The Game of Love” (penned by New Radicals brainchild Gregg Alexander with his usual co-writer Rick Nowels), which is arguably the finest pop single to ever come out of the Santana machine. It’s only minimally Latin-flavored, but pop songs do not get much better than this; not only is it overflowing with hooks from start to finish, but the retro-yet-contemporary vibe of the piano-driven single cleverly fuses the ambience of such past Santana singles as “Black Magic Woman” with the sheer exuberance and joy of the New Radicals’ “You Get What You Give” and the cozy, down-at-home feel of Carole King’s early-‘70s AM radio fare, and Branch gives what might be the greatest vocal performance of her life on the song, exhibiting both more nuance and more soul than she typically demonstrates on her solo records. Sadly, the song wasn’t nearly as big a hit as “Smooth” – it stopped at #5 – but you could make a very strong case for this being an even superior piece of songwriting and production than that Rob Thomas hit.   

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All That I Am (2005, Arista)

C

Unfortunately, Supernatural was such a hit that Santana and Arista Records kept repeating the exact same formula in an effort to reprise its success, and while Shaman was a worthy follow-up, All That I Am ends up feeling like one carbon copy too many. The band originals contained within, like “Hermes” and “Da Tu Amor” sound like vintage Santana, but the guest spots are an even greater mixed bag than those on Shaman. Los Lonely Boys makes sense as a duet partner for Carlos, but Sean Paul, the Black-Eyed-Peas’ will.i.am, OutKast’s Big Boi, and Joss Stone seem like they’re here more for the sake of star power than for their suitability on a Santana album, and cuts like “My Man,” “Cry Baby Cry,” and “I Am Somebody” just don’t work. But the Anthony Hamilton duet “Twisted” is a keeper, as are as the Steven Tyler feature “Just Feel Better” and the Michelle Branch collaboration “I’m Feelin’ You,” even if the latter song feels like a lesser re-write of “The Game of Love.” But, though those three songs help in a big way to redeem and salvage the disc, it’s clear from listening to this album that Carlos and Clive had exhausted this formula and needed to try something different.  

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Guitar Heaven: The Greatest Guitar Classics of All Time (2010, Arista)

D +

Easily the most embarrassing disc that Santana has ever put out, this disc actually makes Rod Stewart’s Great American Songbook series seem completely tasteful in comparison. First of all, like its three predecessors, this album is heavily reliant on star power, and nearly every last song here boasts a famous guest vocalist. Secondly, this album is essentially the rock guitarist’s equivalent of a standards disc, consisting of nothing but covers, mostly of songs that classic-rock radio already plays the living daylights out of – for instance, Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love,” sung here by Chris Cornell. Though there are some cuts here that are at least intriguing, if not surprisingly decent, namely the Rolling Stones’ “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” (sung by Stone Temple Pilots’ Scott Weiland), Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” (fittingly sung by Rob Thomas), and a lovely cover of the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” featuring the unlikely presence of India.Arie and Yo-Yo Ma, there are far more remakes that don’t work at all, like a cover of Van Halen’s “Dance the Night Away” with Train’s Pat Monahan, T. Rex’s “Bang a Gong (Get It On)” with Bush’s Gavin Rossdale, the Doors’ “Riders on the Storm” with Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington, and, strangest of all, a cover of AC/DC’s “Back in Black” with Brian Johnson’s role being filled by – I kid you not – rapper Nas of Illmatic fame. If you’ve ever wondered what classic-rock radio might sound like with all the guitar solos played by Carlos Santana, you might conceivably find this disc interesting. For anyone else, this record will sound exactly like ten bucks being sucked directly out of your wallet. Avoid.

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Shape Shifter (2012, Starfaith)

B –

Completely reverting back to the band’s roots, this disc is both entirely celebrity-guest-free and almost thoroughly instrumental. [“Eres La Luz” is the only track, in fact, to contain vocals.] Fans of the band’s pop side will consequently find this disc rather alienating, but, as a predominantly instrumental disc, it’s actually quite good, and the band does a nice job of alternating moods, shifting with ease from the driving title cut to the soft sounds of “Angelica Faith” and “In the Light of a New Day” and the heavy Latin vibe of “Macumba in Budapest.” “Metatron” is simply beautiful, while the gently groovy “Never Be the Same Again” is an unlikely collaboration with the Hooters’ Eric Bazilian, who produced and co-wrote the cut. It’s not a complete return to form, but it’s their best disc since Shaman, and fans of the band’s early work should find a lot to like here.  

Corazon (2014, RCA)

B –

Essentially the Spanish-language equivalent of Supernatural, this disc is as loaded with guest stars as any of Santana’s albums for Arista but avoids pop entirely in favor of Latin-rock excursions and Spanish-language cuts. It has its low points – namely, “Oye 2014,” a thoroughly unnecessary remake of “Oye Como Va” with Pitbull – but there are a lot of bright spots here, including “Indy,” sung and written by R&B crooner Miguel; the Gloria Estefan feature “Besos de Lejos”; the hooky “Feel It Coming Back”; the sultry “Una Noche en Napoles”; the rapid-fire “Mal Bicho”; and the ska-like “Saideira.” It lacks the magic of Supernatural or Shaman, but it’s arguably more appealing than All That I Am

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Santana IV (2016, Santana IV)

B –

A reunion of the Santana III-era lineup, original members Gregg Rolie, drummer Michael Shrieve, and percussionist Michael Carabello are all back in the ranks here, as is Neal Schon. Not surprisingly, the disc finds the band picking up almost as if no time has transpired since then, so this disc is very much within the Latin-rock vibe of the band’s early albums, the guest cameo from Ronald Isley on two cuts aside. But fans expecting a return to the greatness of Santana or Abraxas should temper their expectations, because this disc falls well short of being on par with those classics, and for two primary reasons: the disc, at nearly seventy-six minutes, is just too long for its own good, and the songs just aren’t nearly as strong or as memorable as the singles from the band’s early heyday. This is far from being a bad disc, but it’s also not nearly as good as it could – nay, should – have been, either.

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Power of Peace (2017, Legacy)

C +

A full-length collaboration between the band and the legendary Isley Brothers, this disc isn’t nearly as good as you might hope for it to be, if only because it too often feels like a studio jam. The album is jam-packed with cover tunes from the likes of the Chambers Brothers, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the Impressions, Billie Holiday, Willie Dixon, Eddie Kendricks, Swamp Dogg, Burt Bacharach, and others. What the album doesn’t have much of is the very thing you might hope for the most from a meeting between these two bands: new original material. In fact, there are no Isley/Santana co-writes here at all – just one new original from Cindy Blackmon Santana. Naturally, it’s still quite pleasant and highly amusing to hear the two groups playing together, but you walk away feeling as if you’ve merely listened to a better-than-average cover band comprised of all-stars (not unlike, say, Ringo Starr and the All-Starr Band) and you’re left with no better idea than you came in with as to what it might have sounded like for the most legendary of all Latin-rock bands to sit down with one of the most iconic and influential of R&B groups and actually creatively meld minds to see what they could come up with together from scratch instead of merely playing a bunch of mutually-shared favorite songs. Neither great nor bad, this disc is fairly appealing but can’t help but feel like a completely wasted opportunity to do something more artistic and innovative.  

Compilations:

There is no one single compilation that adequately anthologizes the full Santana catalog, unfortunately, largely due to licensing issues. The 2007 package Ultimate Santana attempts to summarize the band over the course of a single disc, but only seven of the seventeen cuts hail from the band’s two decades with Columbia Records, and there’s far too much material included from the band’s comeback albums with Arista. (The packagers have also included four new cuts, including, for some strange reason, an alternate version of “The Game of Love” with Michelle Branch’s lead vocal replaced with the voice of Tina Turner.) Your better bet is to pick up the 2002 Sony double-disc package The Essential Santana, which includes all of the band’s hits for Columbia (including the criminally underrated ‘80s singles “Winning,” “Hold On” and “Say It Again”) in addition to a nicely-chosen assortment of the band’s more memorable album cuts from the ‘70s. The package doesn’t include anything from the comeback albums for Arista, unfortunately, but if you’re already one of the thirty million people who bought Supernatural, then you need only pick up Shaman in order to have all of the band’s best work for that label.

Live Albums:

To hear Santana at the height of their powers as a live act, pick up the legendary 1974 disc Lotus. The triple-disc package was originally only released in Japan, but it was finally released in the U.S. in 1991 as a double-CD and again in 2013 as a 3-LP vinyl package. At over two hours long, there’s a lot of music contained within to digest, but the band has seldom ever played with such fire and passion, and they also do a fine job of balancing their early Latin-rock jams with their then-more-recent jazz-fusion experiments from Caravanserai and Welcome