As the various outlets for disseminating music have become more electronically driven (blogs, YouTube, FaceBook, video games, etc.), fandom has become more segregated. The changing of the judging guard may just be the thing that’s caused American Idol-fed youth to start paying less attention to the pop-culture juggernaut, the always self-aggrandizing Kanye West is being hailed as some kind of musical genius by armies of critics, and upper reaches of the pop charts continue to be cluttered by the presence of lightweights like Katy Perry and Ke$ha. Being from a generation that admired the talents of those willing to pick up an instrument and put some elbow grease into writing songs, it’s only natural that my picks might lean toward the older side of the demographic spectrum (although that Cee-Lo Green has a way with a breakup song that ranks right up there with Harry Nilsson and Todd Rundgren). That said, enjoy my album, singles and reissue/box-set picks that also include plenty of Honorable Mentions. And please do feel free to comment honestly and often.
The Holmes Brothers – Feed My Soul (Alligator) Anchored by siblings Sherman and Wendell Holmes (with help from time-keeping running buddy Popsy Dixon) and produced by longtime friend and admirer Joan Osborne, Feed My Soul ends up being the musical equivalent of comfort food. Amid the stellar musicianship, messages that are straightforward and simple get tucked in be it the need for love in everyone’s life (the harmony-soaked “Something is Missing”) or the hardship that comes with social change (a surprisingly funky “Dark Cloud”). Alongside the gospel-infused soul of the title cut, other originals worthy of repeated listening include the Holmes Brothers into organ-kissed jazz (“I Believe You I Think”), Curtis Mayfield-flavored R&B (“I Saw Your Face”) and juke joint blues (“Rounding Third”). Equally impressive is a vibrant reimagining of The Beatles’ “I’ll Be Back” and a gorgeous reading of the Johnny Ace doo-wop classic “Pledging My Love.” It all ends up being a melodic meal worth returning to repeatedly
The Black Keys – Brothers (Nonesuch) The Black Keys may be in the shadow of fellow Midwesterners, The White Stripes, but it’s only because Jack White is juggling involvement in side projects, being a producer and acting part-time. For Brothers, The Akron duo reunited with Danger Mouse and although the latter’s production style continues to lend the kind of esoteric nuances found on the Keys’ last record, 2008′s Attack & Release, the new songs carry a grittier funk undoubtedly influenced by the band’s decision to record at iconic southern soul studio Muscle Shoals. Tchad Blake infuses a skuzzy patina into a mix bubbling over with shambolic fuzz guitar and buzzing organ runs that work to perfection whether Auerbach is testifying about a devil woman (the ominous stomper “Next Girl”), shaking a figurative black cat bone (the hoodoo acid blues of “She’s Long Gone”), or laying his heart on the line (the serpentine “The Only One”). It all ends up being the end-result of the best two-man game in town
Shelby Lynne – Tears, Lies & Alibis (Everso) Shelby Lynne abandons the restrictions of major-label servitude by self-releasing her eleventh studio record after Lost Highway took a pass on it. What they missed out on was a collection of blue-eyed soul and honky-tonky that gets plenty personal and vulnerable. Lynne invests these songs with the kind of honest and frank perspective that enables her to insightfully equate the simplicity of an Airstream trailer and a Tiffany jewelry box amidst the complexity of today’s technology-crazed world. Elsewhere, she sings of betrayal, life on the road and the comforts of returning to familiar environs. It ends up being a wonderfully personal journey unfettered by the machinations of major label suits.
Los Lobos – Tincan Trust (Shout! Factory) Four decades on, Los Lobos continue trucking along, touring and adding to an already-impressive canon. And while voters to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame continue to ignore this raza rock answer to The Band, Los Lobos reappeared with its 14th studio album. Solidly written character-driven stories continue to drive the sextet’s songs on be they homeless survivor (the moody title track), lovestruck farmers (the forlorn twanger “The Lady and the Rose”) or conquistadors meeting Native Americans (the atmospheric ode “27 Spanishes”). Cesar Rosas gives a nod to the band’s roots via a self-penned cumbia (“Yo Canto”), norteno (“Mujer Ingrata”) while David Hildalgo chimes in with a bitching rave-up instrumental (“Do the Murray”). There’s also an eclectic cover of the Grateful Dead’s, “West L.A. Fadeaway” that goes well with “All My Bridges Burning,” a songwriting collaboration between Rosas and Dead lyricist Robert Hunter.
The Black Crowes – Croweology (Silver Arrow) Over two decades of existence, The Black Crowes created an eight-album strong canon that’s criss-crossed the American roots genre. On the brink of their second indefinite hiatus, the Crowes retired to Los Angeles’ Sunset Sound Studios with producer Paul Stacey, and revisited their considerable back catalog. While most groups would merely strap on acoustic guitars, bang out a dozen “hits” and hit the road for a quick money-grab tour, this sextet instead created radically different rearrangements for this economically-priced package. The resulting 2-CD set is a live-in-the-studio selection of material that embraces well-known radio warhorses (“Jealous Again”) and well-loved catalog gems/concert staples (“Morning Song”). Gospel inflections, N’awlins-flavored nuances and plenty of bluegrass nods are some of the colors the Crowes paint with. Throughout vocalist Chris Robinson is in fine fettle. He’s a harp-blowing bluesy barker on the old-timey “Downtown Money Waster,” and a soulful pleader on the always-moving “Sister Luck.” Regardless of whether this is a mid-career stopgap or fan-friendly farewell, Croweology stands as its own solid part of the Black Crowes’ musical legacy.
Ozomatli – Fire Away (Downtown) With its fifth studio album, the Berg-produced Fire Away, Ozomatli has continued trafficking in a mish-mash of styles that embraces aspects of salsa, dancehall, hip-hop, funk, meringue, reggae and New Orleans R&B and jazz. There’s the bouncy funk of “Elysian Persuasion” whose basslines and call-and-response chants would have Bootsy Collins proud to claim ownership. Elsewhere, the crisp riffs and cool crooning of “45” will have lovers of snappy soul fawning while the brassy polka-meets-cumbia infectiousness of “Caballito” will prompt plenty of impromptu hip shaking and toe-tapping. Best of all is Ozo’s most controversial cut, “Gay Vatos in Love,” a catchy amalgam of doo-wop, early rock & roll and Latin soul that proposes love for all regardless of sexual orientation. It’s all part of the socially-conscious pot-stirring that’s become Ozomatli’s trademark up to and including their part in an artist boycott against the controversial SB1070 immigration mandate passed in Arizona last year.
Grupo Fantasma – El Existential (Nat Geo Music) One of the tightest sounding bands around regardless of genre, Grupo Fantasma is a horn-driven juggernaut that mixes genres like cumbia, reggae, rock and funk as ably as better known peers like Ozomatli and Antibalas. The Texas outfit’s fourth studio album leans serves up smoking heaps of sizzling salsa and heartfelt boleros overflowing with enough punchy brass, insidious rhythms and call-and-response harmonies to make you think you stumbled across some vintage Fania sides. It’s the kind of musical big tent affair that finds legendary Latin music producer/arranger/pianist/composer Larry “El Judio Maravilloso” rubbing shoulders with Curt Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets.
The Gaslight Anthem – American Slang (Side One Dummy) Falling somewhere between The Hold Steady and Jesse Malin, The Gaslight Anthem have an obvious Bruce Springsteen affectation that reverberates throughout the ten songs that make up the band’s stellar third studio outing. Frontman Brian Fallon has the requisite pained Springsteenian howl that he puts to effective use on the anthemic title cut and “Bring It On,” a rallying cry steeped in the notion of believing in yourself. Elsewhere, the fingersnapping “The Diamond Church Street Choir” has musical genes drawn from the street-corner swagger of The Wild, the Innocent and the E-Street Shuffle while the galloping urgency of “Orphans” reflects this Jersey outfit’s musical debt to The Replacements. Thankfully, these tattooed street poets still possess enough originality to avoid being a Backstreets-type tribute band disguised as a third-generation punk band.
Mose Allison – The Way of the World (Anti-) Despite informally swearing off formal recording a while back, producer extraordinaire Joe Henry coaxed the soft-spoken Mississippi native back into putting some tracks down. The result was The Way of the World, Allison’s first studio recording in 13 years. Well worth the wait, these dozen cuts feature Allison’s gentle croon and a laconic yet crisp touch on the ‘88s. Eighty-two years young, the ivory-tickling singer-songwriter still carries a sharp wit with him whether he suggests “Let’s give God a vacation/And start making sense today” on the quirky “Modest Proposal” or matter-of-factly points out “My brain is losing power/1,200 neurons every hour/My brain, cool little cluster/that’s my brain” on the snappy shuffle “My Brain.”
Ryan Bingham & the Dead Horses – Junky Star (Lost Highway) It’s easy to understand why Ryan Bingham won a Best Original Song Oscar for “The Weary Kind,” one of many killer cuts that resonate throughout the 2009 musical drama, Crazy Heart. Bingham’s creaky vocals possess a lived-in quality that brings to mind Tom Waits and Steve Earle. On his third outing, Bingham reunites with soundtrack producer T-Bone Burnett, whose hands-off approach makes for a stark and atmospheric listening experience. The 20-something Texan paints scenarios of inner peace through a rootless existence (the harmonica-soaked “The Wandering”) and a murder ballad delivered from the victim’s point of view (a powerfully delivered “Hallelujah”). Junky Star is an earthy antidote for those wishing to escape Nashville’s slicked-up assembly line of homogenized crossover country.
Vampire Weekend – Contra (XL)
Patty Griffin – Downtown Church (Credential Recordings)
Drive-By Truckers – The Big To-Do (ATO)
Corinne Bailey Rae – The Sea (Capitol)
Johnny Cash – American VI: Ain’t No Grave (American)
Sheryl Crow – 100 Miles to Memphis (A&M)
Bettye LaVette – Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook (Anti-)
Melissa Etheridge – Fearless Love (Island)
Neil Young – Le Noise (Reprise)
Shooter Jennings & Hierophant – Black Ribbons (Rocket Science Ventures)
The Posies – Blood/Candy (Rykodisc)
John Mellencamp – No Better Than This (Rounder)
Robert Plant – Band of Joy (Es Paranza)
Alejandro Escovedo – Street Songs of Love (Fantasy)
Merle Haggard – I Am What I Am (Vanguard)
Tom Petty & the Heartberakers – Mojo (Reprise)
Band of Horses – Infinite Arms (Columbia)
Dead Weather – Sea of Cowards (Third Man Records)
Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings – I Learned the Hard Way (Daptone)
Peter Wolf – Midnight Souvenirs (Verve Forecast)
Tom Jones – Praise & Blame (Lost Highway)
Raul Malo – Sinners & Saints (Fantasy)
Mayer Hawthorne – A Strange Arrangement (Stones Throw)
JP, Chrissie & the Fairground Boys – Fidelity! (Rocket Science Ventures)
Mavis Staples – You Are Not Alone (Anti-)
Jimmie Vaughan – Plays Blues, Ballads & Favorites (Shout! Factory)
Various Artists – True Blood: Music from the HBO Original Series-Volume 2 (Atlantic)
John Prine – In Person & On Stage (Oh Boy)
Jenny and Johnny – I’m Having Fun Now (Warner Brothers)
PT Walkley – What’s What EP (PTWalkley.com)
Keane – “Stop For a Minute” (Interscope)
Broken Bells – “The High Road” (Columbia)
Arcade Fire – “Ready to Start” (Merge)
Michael Franti & Spearhead – The Sound of Sunshine (Capitol)
Fistful of Mercy – “Father’s Son” (Hot)
Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros – “Janglin” (Vagrant)
Ozomatli – “Gay Vatos in Love” (Mercer Street)
Florence & The Machine – “Dog Days Are Over” (Island)
The Black Keys – “Tighten Up” (Nonesuch)
Cee-Lo Green – “Fuck You” (Elektra)
TOP 2010 REISSUES/BOX SETS
R.E.M. – Fables of the Reconstruction [25th Anniversary Edition] (EMI)
Recorded with Fairport Convention producer Joe Boyd over in England, R.E.M.’s third album was a dark collection of psychedelic folk that spawned the commercial singles, “Can’t Get There From Here” and “Driver 8.” The bonus disc captures the band live in an Athens studio prior to hopping on a plane to work with Boyd and the result is a set list of demos for the forthcoming album that rocks far harder than the final studio versions.
The Rolling Stones – Exile on Main Street [Deluxe Edition] Considered by many to be one of rock music’s greatest albums, (in addition to being the best record the Rolling Stones ever banged out), Exile on Main St. always carried a certain mystique with it. Chalk that up to the scuffed-up fidelity of the original recordings or that the Stones cut basic tracks in the bowels of a French villa during all-night sessions fueled by drugs and drink. But what really put a stamp on this collection of songs was Keith Richards steering the group back towards its roots music origins—a fact reinforced by Mick Jagger’s minimal participation and latter-day disdain for Exile. Casual fans may know classic rock radio staples “Tumbling Dice” and the Richards-sung “Happy,” but it’s more obscure fare that is the true manna here. Between the sweet mix of blaring horns, guitarist Mick Taylor’s fiery playing and Nicky Hopkins’s rollicking piano playing, songs like “Rocks Off” and “All Down the Line” solidified that whole “Greatest Rock-and-Roll Band” moniker affixed to the Stones. Blues and country also ended up being a huge inspiration, from the boogie-woogie cover of Slim Harpo’s “Shake Your Hips” to the lilting twang of “Sweet Virginia,” a cut resurrected from 1969′s Let It Bleed sessions. But the Stones’ nod to gospel music makes for an intriguing turn on gems like the harmony-soaked purity of “Let It Loose” and the equally uplifting “Shine a Light.” Sin and sanctity meeting was never more ironic given the band’s overall debauchery and Richards’ slide into heroin addiction that was going on in the French countryside. The ten bonus songs included here were essentially left untouched with a minimum of overdubs and retakes applied. The best of the lot are head-bobbing shuffle “Dancing in the Light” and the lightly thumping “Good Time Women,” which is actually an early version of “Tumbling Dice.”
Slayer – The Vinyl Conflict (American Recordings/Sony Legacy) Befitting the totemic place Slayer holds as one of thrash metal’s most iconic acts is this limited-edition, high-end box set. The band’s ten albums have been released on 11 slabs of 180-gram audiophile vinyl in a manner more often associated with high-end jazz and classical music reissues. Housed in high-quality litho-wrapped jackets and then boxed in hardcover slipcases is the band’s entire Def/American Recordings catalogue: Reign in Blood (1986), South of Heaveneasons (1988), Seasons In The Abyss (1990), the double-record Live Decade of Aggression (1991), Divine Intervention (1994), Undisputed Attitude (1998), God Hates Us All (2001), Christ Illusion (2006), and World Painted Blood (2009).
Iggy & the Stooges – Raw Power [Legacy Edition] (Columbia/Legacy) Produced by David Bowie, Iggy & the Stooges’ 1973 opus was lambasted by many who claimed Bowie’s touch diluted the edginess and bombast the band brought to the table. It was controversial enough that Pop was tapped to remix the original tapes in 1997 with the result being far more aggressive and distorted. This Legacy Edition resurrects and tweaks the original Bowie mix and while it would have been more interesting for Legacy to include the Pop mix for a side-by-side comparison, Legacy instead chose to include some studio outtakes and an October 1973 show recorded in Atlanta.
Bill Hicks – The Essential Collection (Rykodisc) [2-CD/2-DVD] Nearly 17 years after his death from pancreatic cancer, Bill Hicks continues to prove his importance as a comedian far ahead of his time. Like all great comics, Hicks was a truth-teller whose diatribes against anti-intellectualism, the evil sway commercialism and advertising has over society and the watering-down of pop culture continue to resonate nearly two decades after his death. Packed into this weighty compendium episodes of an Austin bootleg series, performances and interviews from his early years and a download card for a full album’s-worth of original songs the aspiring musician cut.
Judas Priest – British Steel : 30th Anniversary Edition [1-CD/1-DVD] (Columbia/Legacy) With its sixth studio album, Judas Priest hit the perfect commercial note with radio hits like “Breaking the Law” and “Living After Midnight” while also providing the opening salvo for the New Wave of British Heavy Metal that was set to grab the hearts and minds of American metal fans. And while the two bonus tracks, “Red, White & Blue” and “Grinder” are the same as the remastered version of the album that came out nearly a decade ago, this version also includes a live DVD of an August 17, 2009 show recorded at Florida’s Seminole Hard Rock Arena during the band’s British Steel 30th Anniversary Tour in which they played the album in its entirety each night.
Jimi Hendrix – West Coast Seattle Boy: The Jimi Hendrix Anthology [4-CD/1-DVD] (Experience Hendrix/Legacy) This exhaustive chronological and career-spanning set traces Jimi Hendrix’s start as an R&B sideman for the likes of Little Richard and the Isley Brothers up through previously unreleased 1970 recordings when he was an international superstar. Sprinkled throughout are demos and alternate versions of songs from his studio albums in addition to a number of live performances a a Band of Gypsys Fillmore East concert from New Year’s Eve 1969. Also included is the DVD of Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child, a 90-minute documentary that tells Hendrix’s story in his own words via interviews, private correspondence, sketches, lyrics and other personal effects from deep in the Hendrix family archives.
Bob Dylan – The Original Mono Recordings [9-CDs] (Columbia/Legacy); The Bootleg Series Vol. 9-The Witmark Demos (1962-1964) [Columbia/Legacy] Following in the footsteps of last year’s Beatles mono reisssues, Zim’s first eight albums get the same treatment in this box set earmarked for Dylan completists. They’ll undoubtedly also scoop up Volume 9 of Dylan’s Bootleg Series. What makes this 2-CD set so intriguing is that it showcases Dylan’s time as a flack for a publishing house, a common enough occurrence where fledgling songwriters hoped their material would hit the charts by way of someone else’s interpretation. The two years Dylan worked for M. Witmark & Sons yielded a number of eventual classics—”Masters of War,” “Girl From the North Country,” “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright”—and a number of other obscure cuts that have popped up on bootlegs over the years. The crisp remastering makes these songs far more compelling than their bootlegged cousins as does having a front-row seat to hear Dylan’s maturing into a major creative force.
Badfinger – No Dice; Magic Christian Music; Straight Up; Ass (Apple) Power-pop cornerstones that they were, this Welsh outfit had the misfortune of sounding a little too much like the Fab Four, (understandable that all members of the group were involved with the Badfinger’s creative process in some, shape or form at one point). Never mind the cloud of bad mojo hanging over the group that included massive financial malfeasance wrought by crooked manager Stan Polley and the eventual suicides of founding members Pete Ham and Tom Evans. But before everything went south, the quartet gifted the world with the soundtrack to the Magic Christian (featuring the McCartney-penned “Come and Get It”), the 1970
Bruce Springsteen – The Promise: The Darkness On the Edge of Town Story [3-CD/3-DVD] (Columbia) Born to Run may have catapulted Bruce Springsteen to global superstardom, but the crushing hype accompanied by a messy lawsuit by a former manager made the two years leading up his next studio outing in 1978 a time of despair and creative restlessness. When Darkness on the Edge of Town finally came out, Springsteen reaffirmed his greatness as a storyteller by giving the world classics like “Badlands,” “The Promised Land” and “Prove It All Night.” Left behind were 21 songs he’d banged out during a time when the aforementioned lawsuit kept him from doing any kind of label-sanctioned recording. Recorded on a rural New Jersey farm, some of these songs ended up with other artists, (“Fire,” “Because the Night”) but most reflected the early rock and roll influences of Phil Spector (“Gotta Get That Feeling”), Jerry Leiber and Doc Pomus (“Spanish Eyes”). This set includes a digitally remastered version of Darkness, the two CDs that make up The Promise: The Darkness On the Edge of Town Story and DVDs containing a documentary about the making of this project, 90 minutes of never-before-seen mid-1970s footage, a 1978 Houston show and a 2009 performance of Darkness in its entirety. There is also a replica spiral notebook showing Springsteen’s blueprint for the album. For those with a more limited budget, there is a 2-CD set featuring just the unreleased songs.
Syl Johnson – Complete Mythology [6-LPs/4-CDs] (Numero) Not as obscure as Arthur Alexander or Howard Tate, Syl Johnson nonetheless languished in the shadow of R&B icons James Brown and Wilson Pickett during the 1960s and later Hi Records label-mate Al Green in the early 1970s. This beautifully-compiled 6-LP/4-CD set features material recorded by the guitar-slinging soul shouter between 1959 and 1971. A bit overwhelming for the Johnson novice, this cache of material gives rhythm and blues fiends plenty to feast on whether it’s the 1967 semi-hit “Different Strokes” that’s been sampled by a number of hip-hop acts, the brassy Joe Tex answer record “I’ll Take Those Skinny Legs” or the moody Mayfield-flavored concept side “Is It Because I’m Black?” The 81 songs that make up this anthology are an impressive chunk of Johnson’s hefty canon well worth digging through.
Stevie Ray Vaughn and Double Trouble – Couldn’t Stand the Weather [Legacy Edition] (Epic/Legacy) The 1984 sophomore bow by Stevie Ray Vaughn and his rhythm section Double Trouble put the former David Bowie sideman on the map. Blessed with a distinctive fat guitar tone and the kind of six-string dexterity playing both lead and rhythm styles that often found him sounding like spiritual forefather Jimi Hendrix, Vaughn was quick to pay homage to influences as well as spit out his share of seminal original material. The original ten songs that make up this song include the rapid-fire instrumental opener “Scuttle Buttin’,” jaw-dropping title track and an earth-shaking reading of “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” whose authenticity makes it one of the greatest Hendrix covers of all time. Also includes is the crisp, in-the-pocket reading of the W.C. Clark shuffle “Cold Shot,” (which also spawned a heavily-rotated video on MTV at the time) and “Stang’s Swang,” a nifty little self-penned original that owes much to the influence of jazz guitarists Grant Green and Wes Montgomery. This reissue is also bolstered by a mix of previously released and unreleased cuts and the entirety of an August 1984 show recorded at the Spectrum in Montreal.
The Rolling Stones – Limited Edition Vinyl Box Set (ABKCO/Universal)
Billy Squier – Don’t Say No (Shout! Factory)
Kris Kristofferson – The Publishing Demos: 1968-1972 (Light in the Attic)
Paul McCartney & Wings – Band On the Run [Deluxe Edition] [3-CD/1-DVD] (Hear Music)
Miles Davis – Bitches Brew: 40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition [CD/DVD/LP]
David Bowie – Station to Station [Special Edition] (EMI)
The Dixie Chicks – The Essential Dixie Chicks (Columbia/Legacy)
Dave Brubeck – Legacy of a Legend (Columbia/Legacy)
Weezer – Death to False Metal; Pinkerton [Deluxe Edition]
Tom Petty – Damn the Torpedoes [Deluxe Edition]
John Lennon – Signature Box [11-CD] (Capitol)
The Cure – Disintegration (Rhino)
Orange Juice – Coals to Newcastle [6-CDs/1-DVD] (Domino)
John Mellencamp – On the Rural Route 7609 [4-CD] (Mercury)
Thin Lizzy – Vagabonds of the Western World; Thin Lizzy; Shades of a Blue Orphanage [Remastered & Expanded] (Decca)
Tom Petty – Damn the Torpedoes [Deluxe Edition]
Dandy Warhols – The Capitol Years (1995-2007) (Capitol)
John Lennon – Signature Box (Capitol)
Syd Barrett – An Introduction to Syd Barrett (Capitol)
David Bowie – Station to Station [Special Edition] (Capitol)
Jethro Tull – Stand Up [Expanded Collectors Edition] (Capitol)
Concrete Blonde – Bloodletting (Shout! Factory)
Apple Records Reissues
While this vetting of the Apple Records Vault involved sonic cleaning up and repackaging of numerous non-Beatles artists that include James Taylor, The Radha Krishna Temple and Jackie Lomax, the below reissues represent the best of what this boutique imprint had to offer:
Billy Preston – That’s the Way God Planned It; Encouraging Words (Apple)
Doris Troy – Doris Troy (Apple)
Oasis – Time Flies…1994-2009 (Big Brother/Columbia)
The Buzzcocks – Another Music in a Different Kitchen; Different Kind of Tension; Love Bites (Mute)