At my friend Jocelyn Aldworth's request, I went back through my old year-end lists and picked out the stuff I liked best and still listen to most. In no particular order:
A Six Pack to Go - Hank Thompson (1966, Reissued 2004)
Beer drinking songs from the master of Honky Tonk and Western Swing, with a couple polkas from the Brazos Valley Boys thrown in for good measure. Country Music Hall of Fame producer Ken Nelson hit it right on the money - great song selection, great variety of arrangements, killer band of course. This is the one that hasn't left my car in a while.
The Donnas - Gold Medal (2004)
This CD rec'd mixed reviews from the critics when it came out. No such waffly nonsense from me. It's the perfect piece of hook-laden, tough-girl guitar pop, song-driven and smokin' beginning to end. 70s vibe, but with smart lyrics and laid-back vocals: the antithesis of that gal with big hair screaming "Crazy on You" over and over. I've about worn this thing out over the last 9 months or so, and Jane and Josie can sing along pretty much beginning to end. High praise indeed...
Good Things - The Story of Saadia Records (Released 2007)/Barnyard Soul (Released 2006)
"Good Things" contains only ten tunes, about half the catalog from Miami, Florida's Saadia label. However, the music is extremely rare and quite spectacular (original Saadia 45s routinely go for $100 and up each on Ebay). It's late 60s funk/soul at its finest, including crucial performances by label co-founders Frank Williams (who, with his band the Rocketeers, delivers a blistering instrumental version of "Cold Sweat") and Willie "Little Beaver" Hale (known best for his 70s, laid-back funk recordings). Hopefully there'll be a Volume 2.
"Barnyard Soul" (sold as one CD or two separate vinyl lps) is all gritty, mid-late 60s southern soul. Mostly obscure, all guaranteed to get your party in gear. The leadoff track, Lou Courtney's "Hot Butter n All," is a fine attitude adjuster, and the sweaty shouts, raw sax squeals, and deep grooves don't let up. Throw this one on at your New Year's Eve party and watch all semblance of dignity disappear.
Mission Chapel Memories - Dolly Parton (released 2001)
The chesty gal from Sevierville, TN is a monster songwriter, as this collection of tunes from 1971-75 bears out. It includes "Jolene" and "Coat of Many Colors," plus a bunch of other album cuts not previously available on CD, most of which were self-penned. This was when Dolly was still country and could be as honest as she liked. Can’t imagine, for example, her cutting "If I Lose my Mind" nowadays, in which a woman returns home to her mother and details her failed relationship, maybe giving her mom a little too much information... ("Why he made me watch him love another woman/and he tried to make me love another man"). Geez, Dolly, don’t hold back or anything...
This is My Country & The Young Mods' Forgotten Story - The IMpressions (released on one CD by Charly in 2001)
From 1968 to 1974, Rock n Roll Hall of Famer Curtis Mayfield's recorded output (his last three albums with the Impressions, first five solo records, and “Claudine," a soundtrack he wrote and recorded with Gladys Knight and the
Pips) easily rivals Dylan's great period from "Freewheelin" in '63 to "Nashville Skyline" in '69. These two records -comprised solely of CM compositions are mature astonishing works in every way: production, arrangements, and especially songwriting ("This is my Country," "Choice of Colours,' "Mighty Mighty (Spade and Whitey)," to name just a few). If you don't know CM's music, start here, and be prepared to scratch your head at why it took you so long.
We Got More Soul - Dyke & the Blazers (released on CD 2007)
If you thought James Brown was the undisputed master of funk, think again. From 1967-69, this Phoenix, Arizona band had JB looking over his shoulder. This CD includes theband's entire recorded output, including the original version of "Funky Broadway" (covered by Wilson Pickett). The Blazers records were much more raw than JB's, possibly making them less radio-ready at the time, and contributing to their lack of success and still-obscure status. Sadly, Dyke died in 1971 - shot and killed during an argument, not far from Broadway in Phoenix. In hindsight, chalk up another giant boo-boo for the rest of the world, 'cause this is as good as it gets.
Muddy Sings Big Bill/Folk Singer – Muddy Waters (released 1998)
Some may say this 2-fer, containing Muddy's tribute to Big Bill Broonzy, and his only acoustic record (with Buddy Guy on 2d guitar), is non-essential. And I had avoided these records until this year, based on some unfavorable reviews I read. Man, was I wrong !
To begin with, Muddy loved and revered Big Bill, and he has a great time on this tribute record. It's amazing to hear how Muddy – like Louis Armstrong, Jerry Lewis, Ray Charles, and other musicians of their caliber – can effortlessly take someone else's material and make it his own. This record has a "rough and ready" live studio vibe, and the version of "I Feel So Good" is worth the price of the CD alone. "Folk Singer" is also an exceptional recording. Though Muddy became renowned for his electric blues, he grew up in Mississippi playing acoustic blues, and developed a mature, distinctive style at a very young age. (Listen to the Stovall Plantation recordings, included on the Proper box mentioned above, and you'll see what I mean). Muddy tapped Buddy Guy to play 2d acoustic guitar on "Folk Singer," a surprising choice at that time, but a brilliant one. With Willie Dixon on bass and Clifton James on drums, this quiet but powerful record is one of Muddy's best.
Los Lobos Goes Disney - Los Lobos (2009)
On this brand-spanking new cd, one of my favorite bands in the world does serious justice to the House of Mouse. Spanish version of "Heigh-Ho"; "Not in Nottingham" and "Oo-de-lally" (both written by Roger Miller for Disney's "Robin Hood" cartoon); a swinging take on "Cruella DeVil"; a surf guitar-style medley of "When you wish upon a Star" & "It's a Small World," and a bunch of other cool stuff. Family-friendly & slightly psychotic, just in time for the holidays.
At Carnegie Hall - Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane (2005)
This recording was discovered just a few years ago at the Library of Congress - apparently, no one knew it existed. And it's a big deal, because Coltrane's brief stint with Monk was probably the single most important period of Coltrane's development as a musician - it took him from being another excellent player to one with a musical destiny. On this live recording, you hear Coltrane exercising his newly-discovered, gargantuan potential. And you hear it exclusively (save for a thoughtful, humorous rendition of "Sweet and Lovely") in the context of Monk compositions, each rife with beauty. The soloing is mesmerizing, and you can sing along with every melody - that's about the highest compliment I can pay a jazz record.
Johnny B. Goode: His Complete 50s Chess Recordings - Chuck Berry (2009)
You Never Can Tell: The Complete Chess Recordings 1960-66 - Chuck Berry (2009)
Historians argue over the first rocknroll recording - some of the usual suspects include "Rocket '88" by Jackie Brenston (w/ Ike Turner's Rhythm Kings), "That's Alright Mama" by Elvis Presley, "Rock Around the Clock" by Bill Haley & the Comets, and a few others from the late 40s/early 50s. There is little argument, however, as to who set the musical ground rules for rocknroll: Chuck Berry. Not only that, but many of the contenders for "first rockroll record" were cover versions of other peoples' tunes, whereas 50s pop/rock music quickly developed into the idea of a singer/songwriter with an guitar telling stories to teenagers - also Chuck's territory. Time goes by, the storytellers keep getting younger, electric guitars turn to acoustic, guy duckwalking across the stage turns to pensive guy with facial hair staring at his shoes, but the general model remains the same. And Chuck was the first and - for many of us - remains the best. Certainly the all-time master of the electric three-chord haiku. Witness, for example, the second verse of "Nadine": "I saw her from the corner when she turned and doubled back/And started walkin’ toward a coffee colored cadillac/I was pushin’ through the crowd to get to where she’s at/And I was campaign shouting like a southern diplomat/NADINE, HONEY IS THAT YOU ?"...
The 50s box set includes all the big CB hits - Johnny B. Goode, Reelin' & Rockin', Roll Over Beethoven, Too Much Monkey Business, and many more - on 4 cds. It also includes a lot of alternate takes. I'm not normally one for alternate takes, since you generally don't want to hear the same tune multiple times. But in the case of Chuck's music, it's fascinating stuff.
The 60-66 box set is four more cds, just as good and even more fun, because along with the later Chess hits - You Never Can Tell, Come On (covered by the Stones) Almost Grown - it's full of great stuff I've never heard: originals, covers, instrumentals, and 1963 live show (excellent sound quality). He played blues, pop, country, latin, every style you can think of, and it always came out as Chuck Berry.
What Have You Done, My Brother ? - Naomi Shelton & the Gospel Queens (2009)
Lots of little neo-soul labels have popped up over the last 10-15 years, and number of good rhythm sections have developed in support (like Brookly, NY's Dap-Kings, tapped to back Amy Winehouse on her "Back to Black" recording). But most of the music coming out of these labels is groove-heavy: good singers are few and far between, and you rarely hear memorable songs. That said, there is at least one 2009 soul record wherein the musical planets all align, and this is it.
Lyrically, Naomi Shelton & the Gospel Queens' debut is a gospel record. Musically, it's about half gospel (ala late 50s Specialty/Vee-Jay), and half southern soul (ala Stax/Muscle Shoals). There's a small, no-nonsense band, featuring Cliff Driver's tasteful, driving organ, and Dap Kings Tommy “TNT” Brenneck (guitar) and Bosco Mann (bass); quality songs (well-chosen covers, and good originals, several written by Mann); and one of the best singers around, Naomi Shelton. Ms. Shelton has an understated, conversational style - wonderful tone, a little grit - and is completely committed to bringing the song to her audience. This record carries on the spirit of great 60s soul music - not just in production and style, but in genuineness, humility and heart. More heart in these grooves than anything I've heard in a long time.
Halcyon Times - Jason & the Scorchers (2010)
Their first album of new material in quite a while. It's awesome (and I'm not saying that just because I co-wrote the track "Beat on the Mountain"). Heck, that's not even my favorite tune on the record. "Mona Lee" and "Mother of Greed" are tied for first in that department, ML including one of the greatest rocknroll guitar solos of all time by Warner E. Hodges (simple, filthy, and loud !!!). And the rhythm section - Al Collins and Pontus Snibb - good gravy can they lay it down !!!! Listening to this record reminds me why I play music, and man have I been waiting for this one for a long dern time. Thanks fellas!
The Complete 78s, Vols 1 and 2 - Tito Puente (Fania 2010)
All the early 78s (1949-55) by the King of Latin Music, digitized and sounding spectacular ! TP was a street kid who later went to Julliard, and that life experience comes through in his music - a perfect blend of sophistication and simplicity. Mambo, cha-cha - anything and everything to make you want to dance. The melodies and arrangements are exquisite; the rhythms so primal, beautiful, so right every time. File these next to your Ellington, Muddy Waters, Louis Armstrong, Bill Monroe, and Billie Holiday - essential !
El Barrio: The Ultimate Collection of Latin Boogaloo, Disco, Funk and Soul (Fania 2011)
I love this set ! Amazon says: “New York City has always been a hotbed for musical innovation. Each neighborhood has a unique sound of its own. However, the sounds and styles of Spanish Harlem became a music form of their own and as such, something truly special. This box set is the fruits of a massive crate digging focused on the sounds of ''El Barrio.'' The set features four distinct collections culled from Fania's massive archives and includes repertoire from other Fania owned labels such as Cotique and Speed. These chapters in Fania history feature funky Latin sounds, Boogaloo, Latin Disco and Latin Soul. Many of the tracks actually defy genre categorization as they are the perfect blend of a variety of cultures and influences. The artists featured are none less than world renowned musicians such as Ray Barretto, Mongo Santamaria, Fania All Stars, Joe Bataan, Louie Ramirez, and Tito Puente. Also included are the rare and sought after artists such as Johnny Colon, Seguida, Café, Dave Cortez and more all doing their hard to find classics.”
MCA “Authorized Bootlegs” – 11/04/1975, Cardiff Wales & 3/7/1976, San Francisco, CA - Lynyrd Skynyrd (released 2009)
One of the truly great bands of the 70s, “Free Bird” and other baggage aside. These live shows are tremendous. My favorite part is listening to the rhythm section - Artimus Pyle on drums and Leon Wilkeson on bass. They’re forward in the mix on one of these shows – I think it’s the Winterland. Good grief they’re tight ! Two of my favorite BBQing cds.
He's My Rock: Their Early Sides - The Soul Stirrers (P-Vine) (2000)
For the last 20 or so years, America's major record labels have shown their dedication to preserving our cultural heritage by failing to issue these - the most important black gospel recordings of all time - on CD. No great surprise there. And once again, the Japanese show greater dedication to our music than us by jumping into the breach. R.H. Harris invented gospel singing on these 1939-48 recordings, and, by extension, soul music. If you think I'm full of it (and you may) then let's rumble. But first, just ask anyone who's been around my house on a late night when I threw this on as a bracer - no laughing matter when you can conjure up God this easy.
One Kiss Can Lead to Another: Girl Group Sounds Lost and Found (4 CDs) (2005)
Bret McCabe's Baltimore City Paper review at www.citypaper.com/music/story.asp?id=11040 says about all that needs to be said about this 4 CD set. Except that it will take me until at least next Christmas to plumb its depths. It is supremely satisfying pop music, most of which you've probably never heard. This is not the familiar Shirelles/Ronnettes girl group teritory, but instead is stocked with groups like The Goodees, The Pin-Ups, and Reparata & the Delrons. Puts the mas in Christmas.
Chicago Wind - Merle Haggard (2005)
Merle is back on Capitol Records and his second release since returning, 2005's Chicago Wind, is right on the money. Mostly mid and slow tempo numbers, the results are stellar. There are a bunch of new Merle originals, plus a cover of Honky Tonk Man (not the Johnny Horton tune but the one from the Clint Eastwood movie of the same title), and Leavin's Not the Only Way to Go, a little known Roger Miller tune. When the great one leaves us, we'll all look back amazed at the depth and breadth of his creative powers over the last 40 years. As far as sheer number of great country songs, he's certainly up there with Hank Williams - the next deepest catalog is probably Cindy Walker, then there's a lot of tumbleweeds before anyone else comes into sight (feel free to argue this point with me - it'll be fun). Anyways, don't wait till Merle's mouldering to buy this one.
Let's Get a Groove On - Lee Fields (1999)
I scored this out-of-print beauty for about $8 on GEMM, despite the fact it goes for about $40 on Amazon. Lee Fields is a NYC based singer from the James Brown school of funk and he takes his job just about as seriously. There are no surprises here, just full-on party music, no funny business. If you can find it, don't think twice.
The Forge Mountain Diggers (self-titled) (2006)
Ever heard of old-time fiddler David Bass ? I saw him play for the first time at a crowded jam session in Nashville in 2005: after about ten notes everyone stopped whatever they were doing, just to hear the amazing stuff he was playing. A few months later I ran into him playing for tips on the street in Asheville, North Carolina. I stood there like the tourist I was for almost an hour, not wanting to walk away. This band features David, with Alison Williams on banjo and Thomas Bailey on guitar. Furious string band music, cool singing, great production.
Bobby Taylor - The Motown Anthology (2006)
It's easy to see why some collectors are in convulsions over Hip-O-Select's decision to issue every Motown single (good, bad, and otherwise) in a series of 6 CD box sets (they're up to volume six now, with no end in sight). I'm sure those are great, but for now I'm digging Universal's much more affordable UK-issued collections of criminally-underrated Motown acts. Chief among them is this 2CD Northern Soul gem, which includes the classic 1968 "Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers" album (never before on CD and highly prized by vinyl collectors), 'Taylor Made Soul," (on CD only briefly in the 90s), and a host of previously unrealeased BT tracks.
The BT & the Vs album is absolutely stunning: produced by Berry Gordy, Jr., it’s epic, lyrical, Gamble & Huff - sounding stuff, rather than Motown. These tracks, by themselves, put this collection at the top of my list. But you also get 1969's "Taylor Made Soul" - classic Motown, still as fresh as the year it was made. The unreleased tracks are great too, and the fact they remained in the can is a reminder of the depth of Motown's talent. Because this is a UK release, you’ll have to order it over the internet, but it’s sure worth it.
Almost to Tulsa: The Instrumentals - Texas Troubadours, featuring Buddy Emmons (2008)
These guys backed the legendary Ernest Tubb from about 1959 to the early 70s, but call them a "country band" is like calling Tiger Woods a duffer. Beginning with Buddy Emmons' tenure in the band, and continuing with the deadly pedal steel/lead guitar duo of Buddy Charlton and Leon Rhodes, these guys could play anything - western swing, rockabilly, straight ahead jazz – often, all in one tune. Great liner notes by Deke Dickerson, too. Unless you're flush with Jimmy Bryant /Speedy West records, you probably don't have anything in your CD rack or ipod that sounds like this.