Fragile, 1971. If you can't imagine any Yes album being essential, this one just might change your mind. Band tracks are interspersed with short solo pieces, and while the solos are hit and miss, they demonstrate what each member brings to the mix. Lead singer Jon Anderson's tape-loop-heavy concoction demonstrates, probably, a fondness for Revolution #9, but maybe also Steve Reich; Anderson's pseudo-koan lyrics are front and center. on those tape loops. Bassist Chris Squire's spot may be more notable for the work ethic involved in multitracking a zillion bass lines than for anything else. Keyboardist Rick Wakeman tries to do a Wendy Carlos thing with some Brahms, demonstrating that he should probably create, in Brian Eno's phrase, frames for other peoples' pictures, (as he did with his delightful piano work on David Bowie's album Hunky Dory) rather than pictures of his own (bear this in mind before buying any of Wakeman's showoffy solo albums). Guitarist Steve Howe does a lovely tribute to Jose Feliciano. One of the things I find most invigorating about Howe is that he crafted a rock guitar sound that was rooted in everything BUT the blues. Drummer Bill Bruford's brief burst of rhythmic danger is titled "Five Percent For Nothing" in honor of a former manager with a contractually obligated cut of the band's take, but it could be titled "Audition For King Crimson," the edgier band for which Bruford would soon leave Yes.
But the group efforts are what make the album. Roundabout is the signature song, but South Side of the Sky, which could have coasted all the way on its rollicking riffs, includes a lyrical (but lyricless) piano-and-voice interlude and some thoughtful lyrics about death that I still find reassuring. Long Distance Runaround could almost pass for a Thelonius Monk composition.
Close to the Edge, 1972. When I discovered this album I spent a lot of time around high leafy trees, craggy cliffs, organs, choirs, sailboats, yellowing fantasy paperbacks, bibles and Beatles albums, sunbeams and moonmist. This album seemed to pack it all together in 40 minutes of Stravinsky-loving symphonic rock. The cheerful obscurantist lyrics bring a bit of Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons to the mix, and some lines wouldn't seem out of place in John Ashbury. If you only buy one Yes album, this is the one.
Tales From Topographic Oceans, 1973. An Anglo attempt at a Bitch's Brew that seems to go down smoother with stoners than it does with the rest of us, this blend of english folk and Epcot multiethnic jazzless jazzing around is 2 LPs long, but doesn't have 2 LPs worth of inspiration; merely 2 LPs worth of ambition (and rawk star ego). I can relate. Its repetitions have grown on me over the decades; by turns simpleminded and convoluted, struggling for expansiveness yet bound up in indulgence, it mirrors my own mind.
Relayer, 1974. This album cast a spell on me once, and I came to regard it as the last Great Yes Album. Now I see the seeds of everything I don't like about Yes sending up shoots here. The lyrics are plainspoken but banal (We go sailing down the calming stream/Drifting endlessly by the bridge... did they hire Thomas Kinkaide as a consultant?) and the straightforward ideology (war is bad, mystical illumination is good) doesn't enrich the music the way the bewildering lyrics of prior recordings did. Perhaps the irritable public reaction to Topographic Oceans put them off modernist verse. Much of one song is just a syke-a-delick guitar solo, skillfully done but not an interesting solution to an interesting problem. There's a lot to love, though. The music is lush yet jarring, Telecaster instead of Les Paul, jazz touches instead of classical flourishes. It's producer Eddie Offord's last full album with them, and he weaves a rich tapestry of layered sounds. The closing sung passage has incomprehensible lyrics (by which I don't mean I defy anyone to explain them, but that I can't make out the words) that weren't documented on the lyrics sheet; a welcome final burst of inscrutability.