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…)
Best 10, plus one, I’ve heard this year:
1. Hard Bargain, Emmylou Harris: A longtime fan, I was still stunned by the beauty and poignancy of this record. Dark but not despairing lyrics that hold a wealth of experience and ring true. Spare instrumentation expertly chosen, and a clear, full production by Jay Joyce. Harris, whose voice — gorgeous and penetrating — is one of the best in not only country but contemporary music today, has consistently released quality albums, but this is the best of recent vintage.
2. Revelator, Tedeschi Trucks Band: A delectable brew of blues, R&B and southern soul. Tedeschi’s voice is suited well for the material and Trucks is stellar on his signature slide or single string guitar playing. Augmented by a fine horn section, the material, from slow burners to infectious grooves, brings out the best in the musicians with opener Come See About Me, Until You Remember and Learn How To Love standouts from a quality set.
3. Buddy Miller’s The Majestic Silver Strings: Miller leads a dream guitar band of Marc Ribot, Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz with guest singers, including Ann McCrary, Patty Griffin, Lee Ann Womack, Emmylou Harris and Shawn Colvin through a roots-style outing with western, country, jazz and rock overtones. The playing is a joyful listen, as expected, on material in part from Lefty Frizzell, Libby Cotton, Tex Owens and traditional pieces.
4. Mayhem, Imelda May: May’s follow-up to the big success of debut Love Tattoo sees her stretching out from her rock-a-billy base to show jazz and R&B leanings. Don’t worry there’s plenty of ’50s and early ’60s rocking material on hand. She’s been attracting a lot of attention for her collaborations with Jeff Beck in the past two years, but her own steamy, proficient delivery shines here.
5. Let England Shake, PJ Harvey: With each new album it seems Harvey perfects her playing on an instrument or learns a new one and for this one it’s autoharp, last seen with the Lovin’ Spoonful in the late 1960s. Much has been made of the lyrics on this record being more outwardly directed and socially conscious rather than a reflection or Harvey’s inner self. That’s true, but it’s Harvey’s wonderful vocals, melodies, instrumentation, arrangements and production that make this another compelling addition to her strong catalogue.
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…)
In the first half of the year, I’ve been listening to three CDs quite a bit, all beautifully executed but quite different from one another. They are easily three of the best records from the first six months of 2010 and three you should give a listen.
The Chieftains’ San Patricio gives a featured billing to Ry Cooder, an occasional collaborator with the Irish group who writes, plays, sings, produces and arranges on this unusual yet intriguing mix of Celtic and Mexican music based on a fictionalized version of the story of Irish soldiers fighting with the Mexican army.
San Patricio is somewhat reminiscent of Santiago, another Chieftains’ effort from 1996 on which they blended Celtic sensibilities with Galician music from northwest Spain.
The group showed the direct link between the two musical heritages while including collaborators Cooder, Linda Ronstadt and Los Lobos, among many others.
The music on San Patricio is joyous, celebratory, heartfelt, forboding and ultimately upbeat and forward moving. The highlights are many, including the opener La Iguana with sensuous vocalist Lila Downs, who also appears on El Relampago; Ronstadt’s tender La Orilla de Un Palmar; the Cooder compositions The Sands Of Mexico and Cancion Mixteca (Intro) along with the song proper by Jose Lopez Alavez; March To Battle (Across The Rio Grande), which features a narration by Liam Neeson; and traditional numbers that feature Los Folkloristas and Los Camperos deValles.
It’s all a rich tapestry of the blending of these two musical styles that share so much in common.
The Irish soldiers, led by Captain John Riley during the war with Mexico (1846-48) were discriminated against and treated brutally by the American troops. So much so they defected to join a people with whom they had much more in common.
Although the thread of story on this record is entirely fictitious, there is no doubt music must have been a big part of the Irish soldiers’ experience as it is imbued so deeply in both cultures. A wonderfully realized example of what we now call World Music but is simply an inspiring work under any title. (continue reading…)
It seems truly unbelievable that a record company such as Lost Highway could reject an album by Shelby Lynne, particularly when it is as compelling and heartfelt as Tears, Lies & Alibis.
But it happened. It goes on more than you would think with top artists. As Lynne mentioned during her set at The Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, Mass., Friday, she was through with the world of corporate companies and has released Tears, Lies & Alibis on her own label, Everso Records.
Now, she said, she can release an album anytime she wants to and promised a Christmas album this year, something she has been trying to convince a record label to do for 20 years.
Amid all this life-changing turmoil, Lynne is touring the country in support of Tears with a three-piece band that includes Nashville guitarist John Jackson and Lynne’s producer and bass player, Brian Harrison.
At the Iron Horse they ran through a beautifully arranged set that featured songs from the new album and material from her previous albums, all of which since 2000’s I Am Shelby Lynne have showcased her extraordinary voice and songwriting skills, with an eclectic mix of country, rock, folk, Southern soul, blues and more.
Fortunately, the videos above and below, shot by one of her crew, show off Lynne’s performance at the Iron Horse. So, you can get an intimate and immediate display of her talents. She also often talked extensively between songs and some of the raps were very funny.
Hearing her music in this stripped-down setting was revelatory and a wonderful showcase for Jackson’s prodigious picking skills, particularly on slide that he makes sound like a pedal steel. Jackson is on the new album as well as Harrison, so between recording and playing live now for several weeks, the three were tight and played with a strong feel and connection to the music and each other. (continue reading…)
In the 1970s heydey of the singer-songwriter, southern Californian Karla Bonoff emerged as one of the genre’s brightest lights. A gifted songwriter, whose melodic and well-structured tunes were often made more famous by other artists, Bonoff also produced a string of memorable albums and toured with her own band extensively.
She never achieved the kind of recongition some of the artists who covered her material did — Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt, Aaron Neville, among many others — but her interpretations of her songs often struck home much more profoundly, as she displayed a beautifully crystal clear voice that could handle all of the demands her compositions make of a singer.
Although she has toured frequently, I never remember her coming to Connecticut. Happily, she stopped in Norfolk Thursday night at the Infinity Music Hall, and along with longtime collaborator Kenny Edwards and the remarkable guitarist Nina Gerber, Bonoff presented about an hour-and-a-half of truly inspired performances of some of her most well-known songs and some even her most avid followers were probably not that familar with.
I always associate piano with Karla Bonoff’s songs, but for most of the night she played one of two acoustic guitars and used the baby grand on about five or six tunes. Edwards alternated among mandolin, acoustic guitar and electric bass and Gerber played a white Fender Strat, often bringing to mind the style of the late Clarence White, from one of the last incarnations of The Byrds, who made his Tele sound like a pedal steel much as Gerber does with her Strat. (continue reading…)
In the fall when I purchased tickets for the Grace Potter and the Nocturnals show at the Infinity Music Hall this past Wednesday (Jan. 20), I really didn’t know too much about either Potter or her band.
I was looking for a show so we could go back to one of our favorite venues in Connecticut. The come-on promo at Infinity’s web site is what inticed me, plus the timing was right, the night and so forth.
After getting the tix, I explored the Net a bit and found a number of videos of the band, although I didn’t know at the time the band would be slightly reconfigured when the date came around. I was impressed. I found Potter obviously has a set of prodigious pipes, and although still fairly young, 27, has been playing for a quite a while — the band was formed in 2002 —and evidently has been touring relentlessly.
Her range is striking as she effortlessly hits stratospheric notes and although her voice has its own special quality and character, there are moments when she recalls Janis Joplin in phrasing and inflection, only with a smoother, more proficient delivery and attack than Joplin ever exhibited.
The music is blues- and soul-based rock with elements of country, reggae and American roots music at times. The band is strong throughout, but this is definitely a unit whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts, meaning they gel beautifully as a group. And, of course, they have an extraordinary frontwoman/singer, who plays a lot of Hammond B-3 and some guitar throughout the night.
No question Potter is what makes this outfit special. She writes interesting blues-drenched tunes with direct, quirky and glib lyrics. I was basically hearing everything for the first time, but I didn’t note a clinker of a tune in either of the two sets the band played.
The setlist and photos come from fans who are evidently much more familiar with the group than I and there is the feeling from them that this night was one that started cool and finished hot. It appeared from here that the set started hot, cooled in places and then was taken up a level during their return for the second set. Though many of the songs were memorable even at first listen and built on fiery, infectious grooves, I can’t think of one that was better than the opener, I’ve Got The Medicine That Everybody Wants. (Check out the video below from July, 2009). The only tune that felt out of place and curious was the cover of Take My Breath Away from the movie Top Gun, not because Potter didn’t sing it wonderfully, but it’s simply not much of a song. (continue reading…)
As I’ve mentioned a few times in the past year I’m an avid fan of Wolfgang’s Vault.
The site never ceases to surprise me by unearthing rare, interesting and previously unavailable concerts from its vast treasure hold.
This one is truly an unexpected delight, Jackie DeShannon and Ry Cooder playing as an acoustic duo at the legendary Ash Grove in Los Angeles on September 3, 1963, long before either had achieved any type of widespread notoriety. DeShannon was 19 at the time and although she had released a string of singles, it was before her opening stint on the first Beatles tour of the U.S. in 1964 and her first hits, Needles & Pins and When You Walk In The Room.
I’ve come to really love her earthy, soulful and gospel-inspired vocals from this era of her career. As for Cooder, he’s 16, yet still shows an amazing virtuosity on acoustic guitar. One of the great players of our time.
Despite being a fan of both artists, I never knew this show existed on tape or that these two made any type of collaboration during this period, which is what makes the Vault such a valuable resource and an unending source of enjoyment. Below is a track from the show. The concert can be accessed here.
To listen to the entire show, you’ll need to register at the site, which is an easy process and free.
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…)
One of the most talented musicians and songwriters of the late 1960s and early ’70s, Stephen Stills is also a confounding one.
It’s hard to think of an artist who had a better streak of songwriting from 1966-73 while playing with Buffalo Springfield, Crosby Stills & Nash and CSN & Young, followed by a stunning first solo album, an almost-as-good second and a year-and-a-half with the eclectic rock-country-Latin mix of Manassas.
Then decades of ups and downs, a few hints to rival past triumphs but mostly downs. Unfulfilled promise? Perhaps that’s a little harsh. Stills did give us a wealth of creativity during that roughly seven-year span.
Since 2007, Stills has released three albums from his vault, most recordings about 40 years old. And all three are better than anything he’s produced since. First Just Roll Tape, an extraordinary demo of songs he dashed off following a Judy Collins session in New York, several to appear on the first CS&N album.
Then Demos, in a similar vein, from CS&N, with his contributions undoubtedly the highlights. And now Pieces, early Manassas tapes, with some solo work and early jams with members of The Flying Burrito Brothers mixed in, a collection so good it makes one wonder why it’s taken so long for this material to see the light of day.
The group Manassas grew out of Stills’ frustration with CSN&Y and his contacting ultimate rock ‘n roll sidekick Chris Hillman (Byrds, Burritos) to get together and jam in Miami with members of the Burritos post-Gram Parsons.
The tracks from these sessions are mostly at the tail end of Pieces, Panhandle Rag, which shows off Byron Berline on fiddle and Hillman’s blazing mandolin, Uncle Pen — a Bill Monro tune on which Berline takes the vocals — Do You Remember The Americans and Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (And Loud, Loud Music), a Burritos live staple. (continue reading…)