Thursday, December 27, 2012

BEST OF 2012

While waiting for the lockout to end and for the streets and sidewalks to be cleaned, here's some new (and not so new) music I've spent some time with in 2012:

Aerosmith - "Music From Another Dimension!" - Not really. It's Aerosmith. The boys are back, save for a quick nod to Steven Tyler's Idol days as Carrie Underwood gets a guest vocal.  Rock on.

Alabama Shakes - "Boys & Girls" - Old style soul with a rock and roll back beat. Best band to come out of U.S. south since Drive By Tuckers. Britanny Howard sounds like she was born with a voice from the Stax gods. Not a better song all year than "Hold On".

The Avett Brothers - "The Carpenter" - Difficult to follow up a gem like "I & Love & You" but the Brothers mostly pull it off with help from producer Rick Rubin.

The Beach Boys - "That's Why God Made The Radio' - Unlikeliest comeback of the year as Mike Love and Brian Wilson actually did manage to share a stage for three hours a night through a full tour and enough time in the studio to put out an album worthy of the Beach Boys status. It was fun while it lasted. Love reinforced his stature as one of rock's crankiest types by firing Wilson at the end of the tour.

Big Brother And The Holding Company Featuring Janis Joplin - "Live At The Carousel Ballroom 1968" - For those who've always wondered why so many fans of 60s music made a big deal out of Big Brother you get your answer in this wonderfully preserved and presented document from June 1968. It comes from the vault of the late Stanley (Bear) Owsley, who was more well known as a manufacturer of LSD but was, in fact, the early sound engineer for the Grateful Dead and The Carousel. This is epic stuff. You want the true sound of San Fransisco rock and roll circa 1968 get your hands on this CD. Big Brother & Janis parted ways shortly after this concert. And within two weeks The Carousel Ballroom morphed into Bill Graham's Fillmore West.

Ryan Bingham - "Tomorrowland" - Bingham has added a harsher, more aggressive sound to go with his already harsh voice and considerable songwriting skills. More than a nod or two to Bruce Springsteen on a couple of songs.

Billy Bragg & Wilco - "Mermaid Avenue the complete sessions" - You know the story by now. Nora Guthrie, daughter of Woody, had just discovered over a thousand song lyrics left behind by her dad. Avoiding the obvious (Arlo Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen) Nora reached out to Billy Bragg and then Wilco to turn the lyrics into complete songs. The collaboration resulted in "Mermaid Avenue" and a follow up. This re-release adds a third disc of previously unreleased material plus a fascinating DVD documentary on the making of the initial album. No question the unsung hero of the entire project was the late Jay Bennett, Wilco's tormented producer and multi-instrumentalist.

Johnny Cash - "The Soul Of Truth Bootleg Vol. IV" - Easily the most compelling of the Cash bootleg series, it features Johnny as gospel singer including an entire unreleased album from the mid 1970s.

Johnny Cash - "We Walk The Line" (CD/DVD) - An 80th birthday celebration held in Austin last April. Some highlights include a passionate cover of "Folsom Prison Blues" by Brandi Carlile, Buddy Miller 's take on "Hey Porter", Lucinda Williams' brave version of "Hurt", The Carolina Chocolate Drops concert stealing moment on "Jackson" and Waylon's kid, Scooter Jennings and Jamey Johnson - standing in for Johnny - to complete a latter day Highwayman reunion with Willie Nelson & Kris Kristofferson. Lowlights include host Matthew McConaughey leading the all star band in "The Man Comes Around".

Eric Clapton - "Slowhand" (35th Anniversary Edition) - It's Clapton at his MOR and J.J. Cale -influenced best. Bonus tracks include a previously unreleased cover of Gordon Lightfoot's "Looking At The Rain". Second disc is an April 1977 concert at Hammersmith Odeon featuring an incendiary version of "Further On Up The Road". There's some good stuff in here but Clapton is still years away from the robust vocals that will eventually match his guitar skills.

Gary Clark Jr. - "Blak And Blu" - Multi talented guitar slinger and singer. He's got it going on. The real deal. But please stop with the Hendrix comparisons.

Jimmy Cliff - "Rebirth" - Beautiful return to form by the reggae master himself with tunes as meaningful today as when he showed Bob Marley a thing or two back in the 60s.

Leonard Cohen - "Old Ideas" - Any other 78 year olds putting out music as deep and beautiful as this? Proof of the greatness of this album is Leonard singing about half of it live on stage alongside so many of his classics and not one of them sounded out of place.

Ry Cooder - "Election Special" - The suddenly prolific Cooder taps into the mood of his country pre-election 2012. And he kind of nailed it. He said he put out the album because he was angry. It shows, as he takes aim at BP, Wall Street, Mitt Romney, The Tea Party and even some Democrats. The tour de force is "Take Your Hands Off It" ("Get your dirty hands off my Constitution now...)" As it turned out, Cooder need not have worried so much. About the election.

The Doors - "Live At The Bowl '68" - The album is one thing. The Doors, barely three records into their career, at their performance peak. But you really have to see (and hear) this on Blu-ray. The footage is astounding. The concert took place at the Hollywood Bowl - in the Hollywood Hills high above Hollywood Boulevard - July 5, 1968. The quintessential L.A. band playing a venue that was mostly reserved for classical and jazz music giants, save for The Beatles and The Rolling Stones (Robbie Krieger recalls sitting way up high to watch Mick prance around the stage). Krieger, drummer John Densmore (a real treat to listen to as part of the "making of" special feature) & organist Ray Manzarek are all locked in tight, as is Jim Morrison, especially so considering he dropped acid just before taking the stage. Morrison is healthy, mesmerizing, dark, and playful. Watch him before the days when the booze made him sag in every way. Producer Bruce Botnick performed some magic to get this out. A real gem.

Alan Doyle - "Boy On Bridge" - Seems like Mr. Doyle has been building for his first solo outing. Well worth the wait. Terrific songwriting and performing with help from producer Hawksley Workman and input from Colin James, Jim Cuddy, Doyle bud Russell Crowe and noted composer Mike Post (yes that TV theme guy). GBS now have a couple of more anthems to play with.

"Chimes Of Freedom: The Songs Of Bob Dylan" - A four CD collection to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Amnesty International. Close to 100 artists each take a page out of the Dylan songbook. Personal favourites include Rise Against's blistering version of "Ballad Of Hollis Brown", Charlie Winston singing "This Wheel's On Fire", Steve Earle with Lucia Micarelli on the haunting "One More Cup Of Coffee (Valley Below) and yes Miley Cyrus ("You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go").

Bob Dylan - "Tempest" - The word play is brilliant. The vision is once again apocalyptic. The music is rooted in the early 20th century but, frankly, missing a gear. On the other hand, the fact that an artist of Dylan's stature continues to produce great work into his sixth decade of performing is something to behold.

More tomorrow.

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