There’s so much good new music out there. The best music of 2012:
1. Radio Music Society, Esperanza Spalding: Invigorating blend of R&B, funk and jazz infused with top-shelf musicianship and an enticing lyrical quality. This is perhaps her best yet. Spalding sports a fluid, proficient and pleasing voice that delivers her poignant lyricism over the engaging compositions. Get the Deluxe Edition with a Making of DVD.
2. Locked Down, Dr. John: Black Keys guitarist Dan Auerbach gets an inspiration to record with the N’Awlins legend and they whip up a spooky, funky, voodoo dose of swamp funk mixed with hard rock sensibilities. Some of the best from recent vintage of the good Doctor.
3. Tramp, Sharon Van Etten: One of the truly remarkable and original sounding records from a singer/songwriter whose dense, penetrating lyrics are revealed through inventive arrangements that complement her songwriting.
4. Sunken Condos, Donald Fagen: At his wry, funky, satirical and stinging best. Glossed with a Steely Dan sheen but it still swings like mad.
5. Everybody’s Talkin’, Tedeschi-Trucks Band: Live outing from one of the best ensembles around today. A beautiful combination of blues, rock and pop whipped together with Derek Trucks’ slide lacing through it and the marvelous Susan Tedeschi’s soulful, blazing voice on top. Not to be missed live.
6. Sun, Cat Power: Return of the elusive, mercurial and magnetic singer/songwriter. Her best since The Greatest.
7. Election Special, Ry Cooder: Venerable American music stylist gives his biting political take on the present state of affairs with his usual entertaining, insightful views served with a helping of exquisite string playing.
8. Driving Towards The Daylight, Joe Bonamassa: Another edition in the evolving style and development of one of our best modern-day blues guitarists, who happens to have a soulful voice as well.
9. The Lion, The Beast, The Beat, Grace Potter & The Nocturnals: From the opening strains of the remarkable title track through another set of inspired rock and pop, a step forward and upward from this New England-based group. Their roots are firmly planted in the fertile ground of the 1960s and early ’70s. All framing Potter’s gloriously wild and unrestrained voice.
10. Blues Funeral, Mark Lanegan: Love him for his various collaborations over the years, not the least with Isobel Campbell, but there is something dark and compelling about this bluesy and funereal outing that is addicting. (continue reading…)
Finally a list of favorite albums from 2011. I’ve included the best albums of early 2012 as well. Here are the top albums from 2011:
1. El Camino, The Black Keys: No they haven’t lost their way. No, this isn’t a step back or a step to the side. This is infectious, rocking and raw, though not as raw as their early releases, tuneful and driving. They keep moving forward.
2. The Harrow & The Harvest, Gillian Welch and Let England Shake, P.J. Harvey: It’s a tie. Second choices each. Can’t separate them. Welch and her partner David Rowlings have produced an extraordinary duet album underpinned with roots guitar and banjo and enchanting vocals. The songs are spare country-folk pieces beautifully executed. As for Harvey, I’ve already mentioned this one in an early 2011 best-of list. It continues to grow on me if that’s possible. Highly thoughtful, enveloping musical statement featuring Harvey’s and her friends’ expert muscianship and musicality. There, I’ve used a form of music three times in that sentence.
4. I’m With You, The Red Hot Chili Peppers: Talk about an overlooked album. Oh, I’m sure it sold well. The only problem with this album is that it had to follow Stadium Arcadium, which was a career effort in creativity and popularity. Still, it’s more of the Peppers and the Peppers are quite something.
5. Hard Bargain, Emmylou Harris: This was my top choice for the early list. It’s dropped a few places, not because it isn’t worthy, because the later releases were just that good.
6. Tedeschi Trucks Band, Revelator: Another early choice that stood up. Blues, soul, R&B mix with Tedeschi’s heartfelt, soulful vocals on top and Trucks’ dynamic, penetrating slide running through it all. (continue reading…)
Three varied but commendable releases have graced my CD player and iPod of late from four, what you might call, elder statesman of the music world.
The first, Robert Plant’s Band Of Joy, a follow-up to the hugely successful Raising Sand of three years ago with Alison Krause. This is not a sequel, as that broke down almost before it started, but it shares a lot in common with Raising Sand.
The title is the name of a band Plant played in before Led Zeppelin, but the music bares little resemblance to that never recorded blues-psychedelia mashup and even less to Zeppelin. Plant continues his journey through Americana-based country, bluegrass, blues and Rock ‘n Roll with a small, tight ensemble, featuring Buddy Miller on a variety of stringed instruments and as band leader and co-producer with Plant, and backing vocals from Patty Griffin.
These are mostly covers, but impeccably selected beginning with the opener Angel Dance from Los Lobos that rings with glistening mandolin and acoustic and electric guitars under Plant’s effective low-key delivery, at least low-key in comparison with what he is most noted for as the quintessential rock frontman. The track in underpinned by a churning, almost dirge-like marching rhythm.
The production on most of the album has a heavy sounding bottom that gives each track a dark, menacing drive, but each song also has adeptly placed ornamentation, including mandoguitar, baritone 6-string bass, octave mandolin, banjo and pedal and lap steel that lifts the overall sound up and all of which lends an Appalachian quality to the proceedings.
There is only one original co-written by Plant and Miller, Central Two-O-Nine, and the team arranges two traditionals, Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down and Cindy, I’ll Marry You Someday, both imaginative versions meticulously executed. But Plant loves good songwriters and has an excellent ear for them. (continue reading…)
I had a taste of The List when I saw Rosanne Cash in concert this past July at the Infinity Music Hall in Norfolk, Connecticut.
She performed six selections that night from the album released in September of songs chosen from a list put together by her father Johnny Cash as a musical education for his teen-age daughter in 1973.
The songs on The List are pure country, pure American music as Rosanne puts it, and she brings her special vocal interpretations to them along with wonderful arrangements by her husband John Leventhal, who plays just about all the instruments except for drums.
She also has some special guests in Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Jeff Tweedy and Rufus Wainwright, who put a harmony to Cash’s lead on one song each. The result is an album that started as an education for Rosanne but is now one for the listening audience.
Miss The Mississippi And You, written by William Heagney, is a surprising opener for the album because it’s so unlike anything else on it. It’s the only song arranged with a swing jazz feel, melancholy but light in comparison with much of the subsequent fare. What it shares with the other selections is Leventhal’s basic, pared-down and meticulous arrangement that sees him interweaving guitars and other instruments, as he does on all the tracks.
The traditional Motherless Children is a smouldering, slow-burning house on fire, using beautiful substitution chords with intricate interplay of guitars, mandolin and Larry Campbell’s fiddle, topped with Cash’s expressive vocal. Leventhal takes the first lead in a traditional country style easily riding the rhythm, then closes with a full-bore, hard-edged guitar tone on the tag. The track is a highlight of the album. (continue reading…)
OK, I admit it. I caved. On pre-ordering the first installment of the Neil Young Archive Box Set, that is. I wrestled with this one for a while. And it wasn’t Neil’s testimonial to the Blu-Ray format on his web site that made me more amenable to the lofty prices for this set, which is available in three formats, Blu-Ray, DVD and CD.
But I figured I would wind up buying it at some point anyways because it covers what I find the most interesting aspect of Young’s career, 1963-1972, and it seems that recently the best prices you can find on new releases are available before they are released. Although I have noticed the prices going down a little on the CD and Blu-Ray sets since I ordered.
Also, if you pre-order it in either Blu-Ray or DVD, you receive a preview disc in Blu-Ray of the first disc in the set, labeled Disc 00 (how high tech!?!), just the kind of offer for which I’m a sucker.
This set has been in the pipeline for something like 15 years. Ridiculous, isn’t it? In the meantime, Young has refused to re-master any of his early albums, the ones I believe are his best, because he hates the CD format for sound quality almost as much as he hates digital downloads. (continue reading…)
The Felice Brothers have to rank right up there with all-time camera-shy bands. On their second Team Love release, Yonder Is The Clock, there are no photos and scant information about the band, similar to their eponymous first record for the label.
There is no lack of creative, roots-imbued songs with thought-provoking lyrics though. Channeling Americana as direct descendants of The Band, at its most sparse, and vocally reminiscent of Bob Dylan, the group from the Catskills of three brothers and two friends runs through 13 songs that at times hearken back to what sounds like music that may have been around during the time of the Civil War.
With a core of guitar, accordion, fiddle, piano, drums and bass, augmented on occasion with several horns, they give their music and influences a fresh take, putting a personal stamp of a country-based style. And much like The Band the songs come first in all of the Felice Brothers arrangements.
Lyrically this album is obsessed with death. Perhaps that’s a bit too strong. But all the songs are about death, albeit some with an unnerving sense of humor. If you read the lyrics out loud it’s hard not to start laughing.
From the opener The Big Surprise:
Grab your shovel, let’s get to it
There’s no one way how to do it
And there will be no woes or sad goodbyes
On the day of the big surprise (continue reading…)
PJ Harvey has often said she never wants to repeat herself. As her catalogue bears out, she always changes direction for each new project. Although it’s inevitable that an artist will in some ways repeat herself, she does an admirable job of sticking to her goal.
For instance, her most accessible album, Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea (2000), which although sounded in some ways commercial for Harvey was really anything but when compared to Top 40 fare, was followed by a return to rawness and simplicity in Uh Huh Her (2004), reminiscent of some of her earliest work. Next came White Chalk (2007), completely piano-based, a first for her.
Of course the common vein running through these, as with all her work, is the distinctive, accomplished voice, pure at times or rough-edged and manipulated through electronics at others, a compelling sense of melody that is rooted in her knowledge and appreciation for the roots of modern day rock and the thought-provoking vivid imagery of her lyrics that are never conventional.
A Woman A Man Walked By is Harvey’s second collaboration with John Parish, the first Dance Hall At Louse Point from 1996. They have worked together for a long time, since Harvey’s early days with Automatic Dlamini when she played saxophone for that band and on her solo work, particularly To Bring You My Love (1995), during which Parish played in her touring band. For both of their albums, Parish writes and plays the music and Harvey writes the words. Although I’ve often wondered how much input she must have with melody. I would think some at least. (continue reading…)