Stuff to Buy for the Holidays 2012: 7 Best Recordings I Bought this Year
I do this list every year, and usually it has 10 recordings on it, and is not limited to recordings released in the current year. This year, I tried to stick with just stuff released in 2012, and it was tough, because the fact a cd is a new release is not usually my motivation for buying it. I usually buy because I am interested in the artist, or someone recommended the cd to me, and I like to wait at least a year for the dust to settle.
There were a couple things released this year I liked a lot – Van Morrison’s “Born to Sing, No Plan B,” and Rush’s “Clockwork Angels” – but did feel excited to write about, so I figured that was nature’s way of telling me to leave them off the list. Also, the best non-2012 cd I got this year was the Allman Brothers Live at SUNY at Stonybrook 9/19/71. Duane Allman and Dickey Betts were on fire at this show – one of the best guitar records you’ll ever hear.
All that aside, here are my favorites from 2012, in no particular order (except for No. 1):
7. Hank Williams – The Lost Concerts
Yeah man – the only existing live (non-radio) performances by Hank Williams. The 1952 Sunset Park show has been around for a few years, but the sound quality is not the greatest, and, by itself, it would have been a tough sell to all but the hardcore collector. (Note: Earlier this week I spoke to Mel Price, who recorded the show in 1952, and he said his original reel-to-reel sounds a lot better than the Cd transfer. And btw, contrary to the Time-life liner notes, Mel did not die in 2010). In any event, the Niagara Falls show from the same year is clear as a bell on CD, so this is a good deal. You get stage versions of “I can’t help it if I’m still in love with you” and Hank’s classic recitation “The Funeral,” as well as some great between-song patter. Bottom line, when the tape was rolling, he never had a bad day – his voice sounds a little different here than in the radio recordings, and also from the studio recordings – and this is only months before he died – but he was still a truly gifted singer and entertainer.
6. John Putnam – The Way I See It
For my birthday this year, my wife bought me a week at Richard Thompson’s Frets and Refrains Songwriting and Guitar Camp in the Catskills. I went in July, met lots of good musicians, wrote some songs, and had an all-around great time. One fella I ended up jamming with a lot came lurking on the sidelines of a song circle the first night of camp, playing some wicked slide. My neck snapped around and I said, ”Wow – hey – who the f*ck are you, dude ?” That turned out to be John Putnam, full-time guitar picker from NYC. We stayed in touch after camp, and he was kind enough to come to a gig I played in NYC recently and give me a copy of his new cd. I’ve been digging it ever since. Highlights include the original lead-off track, Silent Agreement, a killer tune with a brilliant guitar solo that builds like a masterful short story; an instrumental slide version of Day Tripper (in 7/8 and 6/8 time); and an original called Duolian, a paen to the 60s, lost ideals, and a guitar that looks like a garbage can. Highly recommended.
5. Kiss – Monster
Great albums start with great songs, and Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons have written scores of great rock tunes: Rock and Roll All Night, Detroit Rock City, Rock Bottom (see a pattern here ?). But seriously – Got to Choose, Cold Gin, Black Diamond, and on and on…And when they’re on, they’re tough to beat. I liked 2009’s Sonic Boom a lot (the lead-off track, “Modern Day Delilah,” stands among their best tunes), but Monster is definitely a cut above that record. With songwriting help from guitarist Tommy Thayer, they’re crafted a hard-driving record that maintains the classic Kiss sound – circa late 70s-early 80s – with some elements of thrash, punk, and other loud gnarly stuff thrown in. And they can still play their guts out. I’ll be digging this one years from now.
4. Miles Davis and Gil Evans – Sketches of Spain, Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess (2012 Limited Edition Mono LP Reissues for Black Friday Record Store Day)
Miles’s collaborations with Gil Evans are among my all-time favorite jazz recordings. Miles Ahead beautifully reimagines compositions by Duke, Brubeck and others; Miles paints subtle masterpieces on Evans’s smoky, rhythmic canvas in Sketches of Spain; and Porgy and Bess is, quite simply, the quintessential recording of Gershwin’s classic, and about as perfect an album as you will find. Add to this the fact that Columbia (not known for its CD remastering prowess) has done an exceptional job on these vinyl reissues: they sound at least as good as the original mono lps, maybe a little better. I bought these at Soundgarden in Fells Point for $20 each. Not sure if they have any left, but you can find them floating around Ebay for $25-$35 each. Well worth it.
3. James Hand – Mighty Lonesome Man (2012)
When James Hand steps in front of a microphone and starts singing, it’s an occasion. I’ve seen him live at least 10 times, and when he’s at his best, he’s untouchable – a true original, easily one of the great living country singers. We played a double bill in Dallas a year or two ago and he was absolutely on fire, so exciting to watch, just giving everything to the audience. It sounds like this record was cut pretty much live in the studio, so you’re getting the best of all possible worlds: James’s classic voice, his crack band, supporting his vocals perfectly; and his distinctive songs. “Lesson in Depression” is yet another of his I wish I wrote, and the list keeps growing…
2. The Carper Family – Back When
Listening to Austin’s Carper Family always makes me wonder “Uh, how the hell are they doing that ?” They play great, and their harmony is a rare and exceptional thing – when they sing, you know exactly who it is, and it’s awesome. It’s unusual for three people to sound like five people, let alone five interesting people. They also write old timey & country songs that sound like you were born knowing them. So if you can’t figure out which ones are covers just by listening, don’t feel bad – I can’t either. “Didn’t Emmylou record that one back in the 70s ?” “Nope, that’s an original.” “Sh*t – ok, I give up.” And in – no way you can like music and not like the Carpers.
1. Testament – Dark Roots of Earth (2012)
This is the part where the folks who rolled their eyes at my Kiss selection, but kept reading say “Oh, come on – enough !” and go elsewhere. Fair enough – I don’t expect Testament to be everyone’s cup of tea. But a good record is a good record, and this is one of the best thrash metal albums I’ve heard in many a moon: well-conceived, well-written, and spectacularly executed. It has songs to sing along to (the lead-off track, “Rise Up,” is a perfect, crushing opener); political and philosophical lyrics (“True American Hate” and “Native Blood” express lead singer Chuck Billy’s anger at America’s treatment of Native Americans); and an epic ballad (at first, the 8-minute “Cold Embrace” seems to interfere with the album’s momentum, but upon repeated listening it’s clearly a great piece of work). Testament has been playing music for 30 plus years, and right now they’re at the top of their game. This is my favorite record of the year.