Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Santana Album (Part 1)

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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Santana (1969, Columbia)

A +

Fair warning: if you’re only familiar with Santana through their radio hits like “Evil Ways” or “Black Magic Woman” or “Smooth” and are looking to start delving into the band’s studio catalog, be aware that their hits aren’t really representative of their full body of work, and if you’re not a big fan of jam bands or instrumental music, you may want to stick to a best-of package. While the band’s legendary self-titled debut is a landmark disc and is certainly a contender for the title of the greatest Latin-rock album of all-time, it’s also very instrumental-heavy – just under half of the album’s running time, in fact, is devoted to instrumentals. But for those willing to go along with the band’s propensity for jamming, this is an absolutely stellar and fiery disc. The band’s passion and power is apparent right from the get-go, and Carlos Santana’s trademark guitar work already sounds exactly as it will for decades to come, but the band clearly sounds hungry here, which is the fundamental difference between this disc and some of the band’s later, more by-the-numbers efforts. There’s a major pop hit included here – the Top Ten hit “Evil Ways” – but even that song, as fun as it is, feels fairly languid compared to most of the other cuts here, especially “Persuasion,” the heated Latin-rock of “Jingo” and the instrumentals “Waiting” and “Soul Sacrifice,” the latter a major highlight of the original Woodstock festival, while “You Just Don’t Care” ranks among the most heavily blues-flavored numbers Santana ever cut and boasts a fittingly soulful vocal from keyboardist Gregg Rolie. 

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Abraxas (1970, Columbia)

A +

The band’s sophomore affair has an ever-so-slightly less satisfying second half than the self-titled debut but is otherwise every bit as good as its predecessor, and the band has arguably never made a better album side than this disc’s first half. That side is bookended by two fine instrumentals, “Singing Winds, Crying Beasts” and the superior “Incident at Neshabur,” but is rendered a classic primarily for the two middle cuts, a Top Five-charting cover of the Fleetwood Mac blues tune “Black Magic Woman” (fused together in medley form with a rendition of Gabor Szabo’s “Gypsy Queen”) and a Top Twenty cover of Tito Puente’s “Oye Como Va.” [The two hit singles are notably linked together sans any break and are consequently typically played one after the other on most classic-rock stations, even though the tracks are technically banded separately on both the vinyl and CD versions of the albums.] The second side isn’t nearly as classic, but it’s still quite good, particularly the instrumental “Samba Pa Ti” and the Rolie-penned “Hope You’re Feeling Better.”  

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Santana III (1971, Columbia)

B

The third and final album from the group’s original lineup, this tends to be one of the band’s more wildly overrated albums. The album cover itself – merely sporting graphics, the band name and album title appearing only on the spine of the jacket – is arguably the group’s best and is truly a work to behold, but the disc itself is less satisfying. As an album piece, it’s nearly every bit as artful and unified as its predecessors, but most of the individual songs feel a tad rushed in construction and don’t hold up under more careful scrutiny. The instrumental “Toussaint L’Overture” is one of the group’s better instrumentals and “Guajira” one of its better foreign-language cuts, but unlike Santana and Abraxas, there is no knockout single here to help elevate the album to the highest plane, and both of the two Top 40 singles contained within, “No One to Depend On” and “Everybody’s Everything,” lack especially strong hooks and pale wildly in comparison to “Oye Como Va,” “Evil Ways,” or “Black Magic Woman,” feeling suspiciously like leftovers from the first two records. It’s not a bad album, simply a fairly overpraised and mildly disappointing one coming after the greatness of the first two discs. The disc is notable, however, for being the first of only two albums from the group to feature guitarist Neal Schon, who would later graduate to superstardom as the lead guitarist of Journey.  

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Caravanserai (1972, Columbia)

A –

Columbia’s then-president, Clive Davis, famously reportedly told Carlos Santana upon hearing the completed album in full for the first time that the bandleader was committing career suicide, and the ever-astute Davis wasn’t wrong about that. This disc did, in fact, begin a long commercial dry spell for Santana, and it’d be nearly a full six years before the band would score its next Top 40 single. Caravanserai isn’t a bad disc – it’s quite beautiful, in fact – but it’s anything but commercial, not in the least since a full seven of the album’s ten tracks are instrumentals, which leaves longtime lead singer/keyboardist Gregg Rolie with little to do, and both he and Neal Schon would quit the group shortly after the album’s release to go off and form their own band, Journey. The disc also largely eschews the Latin-rock of the band’s first three albums in favor of a new sound that hews closer to jazz-fusion. But as bad a career move as this album was, it’s also an admirably ambitious and artistic affair, and cuts like “Stone Flower” and the instrumentals “Look Up (to See What’s Coming Down),” “Song of the Wind,” and “La Fuente del Ritmo” are nonetheless appealing. Fans of the band’s more pop-minded sides may want to steer clear of this album, but if you like jazz-fusion or enjoy hearing Santana in full jam mode, you’ll almost certainly adore this disc.  

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Welcome (1973, Columbia)

A –

Caravanserai brought a quick end to the group’s fortunes on pop radio and, surprisingly, the group – with Leon Thomas now in the lead vocalist role following Gregg Rolie’s departure – responded not by reverting to its former, more pop-oriented self but by taking the jazz-fusion experiments of the prior disc even further, even covering jazz flutist Herbie Mann’s “Mother Africa” and collaborating with bona fide jazz artists like vocalist Flora Purim (who sings lead on the lovely “Yours Is the Light”) pianist Alice Coltrane (John’s widow) and guitarist John McLaughlin (who both co-writes and appears on the eleven-and-a-half-minute epic “Flame – Sky”). Ironically, one of the few vocal cuts on the disc (only four of the nine tracks have lyrics), “Love, Devotion, and Surrender,” is actually arguably the catchiest song the band’s crafted since Abraxas and could have conceivably been a minor pop hit if the group hadn’t thoroughly alienated Top 40 radio with its prior album. This is a fabulous and beautiful disc, but be advised that this disc is far closer to jazz territory stylistically than it is to rock.

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Borboletta (1974, Columbia)

B +   

Retaining the jazz-fusion and largely instrumental sound of the two prior albums, Borboletta (sporting twelve tracks, seven of them instrumentals) differs in that the song stuctures are a bit more concise, with only a cover of Dori Caymmi’s “Promise of a Fisherman” topping the six-minute mark. Although there are fewer individual standouts here than on either of the two previous discs, the soulful “Mirage” (sung by new vocalist/keyboardist Leon Patillo) is one of the band’s most underrated sides from the early ‘70s and arguably deserved to be the band’s biggest hit since “Everybody’s Everything” (alas, it unfortunately missed the Hot 100 altogether, sadly), and the disc as a whole does make a very intriguing album piece and tends to be very underrated. Jazz buffs should be especially intrigued by the disc, which sports several appearances from Flora Purim, former Weather Report and Return to Forever drummer/percussionist Airto Moreira, and legendary jazz bassist Stanley Clarke.    

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Amigos (1976, Columbia)

A –  

By this point, Santana had shed nearly all of its original members save for bassist David Brown and, of course, Carlos Santana himself. (Original drummer Michael Shrieve had departed after Borboletta.) Likely sensing his band’s increasing commercial irrelevancy, Carlos largely eschews the jazz-fusion and predominantly-instrumental format of his last three albums here (only two instrumentals are present this time around) and steers the band back into pop territory on Amigos. The move paid off, giving the band its first Top Ten album in four years. “Let It Shine” would return the band to the Hot 100, while “Dance Sister Dance (Baila Mi Hermana)” would become a fan favorite and “Europa (Earth’s Cry, Heaven’s Smile)” a major European hit. [Saxophonist Gato Barbieri would later cover the song on his album Caliente! to great success, his cover of the tune subsequently becoming both his signature tune and a ubiquitous fixture on smooth-jazz radio.]  

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Festival (1977, Columbia)

C

Losing original bassist David Brown but bringing percussionist Jose Areas back into the fold after a brief hiatus, this disc isn’t nearly as memorable as a whole as any of the preceding albums (nor did it fare nearly as well commercially as Amigos), but spotty though it is, it gets off to an absolutely fiery start with the opening triple punch of “Carnaval,” “Let the Children Play,” and the instrumental “Jugando,” which all segue from one into the other to form one eight-minute-long breathtakingly frantic Latin-rock workout. Unfortunately, the disc takes a very noticeable dive in quality after that, and the album consequently ends up being the most forgettable of the band’s Seventies efforts.