Time to clear the decks with a year-end round-up of albums and a novel released in 2014 that made it through the deluge. Each and every one of these 40 titles is worthy of interested ears and open eyes. And don't forget to pay respect to Father Time on December 13 (12/13/14). It's the last sequential date possible this century. That's got to mean something. Happy holidays, and here's to a most ricky-tick New Year. May your 2015 be clean, green and full of dreams.
Afghan Whigs, Do to the Beast. There hasn't been a more savage rock record released this year than Afghan Whigs' first foray back after 15 years into the land of the living. Leader Greg Dulli knows a thing or two about excess, having carved out a raucous career starting in Cincinnati during the late '80s. Dulli's magic starts with an unending knowledge of early rock and soul music, and a mercurial way to blend everything together so it sounds all his own invention. Then, when things don't seem like they can get any crazier, he ups the ante and takes everything to the moon. To say the Whigs are as good as ever is an understatement. This is a band that laughs at all boundaries and revels in wreaking havoc whenever possible. Long may they roil.
Scott Ainslie, The Last Shot Got Him. Acoustic music can be tricky. If it's not right on the money there's really not much point. Luckily, Scott Ainslie knows where everything goes, and whether he's singing originals by Robert Johnson, Rev. Gary Davis or more traditional classics by Irving Berlin or Harold Arlen, he is a master of bottomless feeling. The guitarist stretches what could have been slightly sedate and instead goes to the well. Ainslie plays a 1934 Gibson archtop guitar, wisely choosing songs that could have been played on the instrument when it was first built 80 years ago. From that concept he pulls everything into his own world, no small feat when it's something like "When I See an Elephant Fly" from the 1941 Disney movie "Dumbo." Just to stay flexible, Scott Ainslie also includes a recent original, "Late Last Night," written when Russian tanks went across the border into the Republic of Georgia in 2008. Keeping everyone guessing is always a good sign.
Tony Allen, Film of Life. Accept no substitutes in the land of Afrobeat. Tony Allen knows this, and is able to create a universe of intrigue on his tenth album. He goes wherever he wants, works with those he considers kindred spirits, whether its Damon Albarn or producers The Jazz Bastards and others, and pleases his own inner twanger. The man from Lagos has taken the journey of self-discovery and comes back with a passionate self-portrait. This is music that knows no time or space, and appeals to every kind of experience. Allen thinks of his drums as an orchestra, and with a cast of 15 other players on various tracks has entered the celestial realm. Praise be to he.
Billy Boy Arnold, The Blues Soul of Billy Boy Arnold. There aren't many harp players who learned from John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson. That branch is winding down, but fortunately Billy Boy Arnold shows no signs of going anywhere. Arnold and guitarist Duke Robillard team up to bear down on some of Arnold's favorite songs, everything from Chuck Berry's "Nadine" to Ann Peebles' "99 Lbs." The key to everything is just how much fun everyone is having. Billy Boy Arnold is 79 years old, and in blues years another 20 could easily be added on to that. Still, the man has all the verve of any other bluesman alive, no matter what age, and does his hometown of Chicago proud on a swinging walk through the park.
Marcia Ball, The Tattooed Lady and the Alligator Man. In Austin, Marcia Ball is like the Colorado River that flows through the center of the city. Totally dependable to always keep things rolling, the Louisiana-bred lady twists rhythm and blues and shades of Cajun music into a rollicking scurry through the swamps and the side streets of the South. In so many ways, Ball just keeps getting better and her new album is a for-sure highwater mark. Between "Just Keep Holding On," which ranks right up there with anything she's ever written, there's also a low-down gem like Hank Ballard's "He's the One" that hints a whole album of these is there waiting for her to record. No matter what Marcia Ball does, though, it's going to be done with a ton of soul and a mess of sass. Wear it out.
Big Star, Radio City / #1 Record. The biggest of mythical bands, Big Star may have only existed a few years and made (more or less) three albums, but their stature never stops growing and the group's influence increases exponentially every year. While some refer to the group as the inventor of power pop, in reality they did so much more. They turned the cult of being unknown into a career, in a way, by disappearing quickly. Alex Chilton went on to rock sainthood, but other Big Star members Chris Bell, Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel also deserve boatloads of credit in creating the myth. These first two albums sound like they were recorded yesterday, and while others have tried to run this race, only Big Star actually won. They wrote songs that exist outside time, and for that will forever be timeless.
Blues Magoos, Psychedelic Resurrection. Can a band go home again, especially if it's been four decades since their last new studio album? Well, that remains to be seen. For Blues Magoos it might not be a flag-waving return to form, but at least there are several moments of grandeur. No one is ever going to top their Top 5 hit "We Ain't Got Nothin' Yet," even when they re-record it themselves for their new album. At least lead vocalist/keyboardist Ralph Scala is on board with other original member Peppy Castro to unfurl some of their original power, and together they and new members have fashioned enough songs to evoke what once was. For a band that never quite got the praise they deserved the first time around, this second shot at success comes just in time. Who knows? Maybe they'll get some yet.
Howell Devine, Modern Sounds of Ancient Juju. For blues lovers, the quest is eternal in trying to find those that hit the monkey without ever sliding over into monotony or downright perfection. Blues is a messy business at its core, and there is no room for anything less. Instead, it's all about feeling and finding that road into the heart where music cures the pain of living and losing. Howell Devine gets there so directly it's hard to believe he hasn't been playing side-by-side with Rice "Sonny Boy Williamson" Miller the past 70 years. There's the perfect mix of old and new songs with a syncopated side order of washboard and Howell Devine's righteous guitar and vocals. Juju is in the house, and it's time to let it out.
Minnie Driver, Ask Me to Dance. Should actors be singers? Or maybe the more relevant question here is should singers be actors? Minnie Driver began singing and playing guitar in London jazz clubs while still a teenager. When a film offer came along acting soon became her larger focus, and stardom waited right around the corner. Still, on her third album she goes the covers route with perfectly timed results. Any album that includes originals by Elliot Smith, Stevie Wonder, Robert Smith, Neil Young, Neil Finn and others shows there's some real smarts in the driver's seat, but even more important is what an expressive voice Driver has. She goes directly to the center of a song, but never beyond it. It's not easy to take John Prine's "Speed at the Sound of Loneliness" to a new place, but that's exactly what this woman does. So no matter what happens on the silver screen, Minnie Driver will always have a home on the bandstand.
Carlo Ditta, What I'm Talking About. There are enough characters calling New Orleans home that sometimes the whole city seems like a big costume party. Carlo Ditta has worn several hats in the City That Care Forgot, including record label chief, but at heart he is a singer-songwriter who loves excavating the deep well of all things Orleans. Ditta has an easeful swing in what he does, but also pours on enough hot sauce to keep everything spicy. So between his originals and covers of classics by Ernie K-Doe, Dave Bartholomew, Aaron Neville and others, this is one high-rolling guide to the Crescent City. Unlike any other guided tours a listener might find choogling up Tchoupitoulas or cruising out St. Charles, Carlo Ditta has his own trick bag full of treats, and is ready to share. Whoa — Burma Jones approved.
Joe Ely, Reverb. By now anyone with a love of American music, especially of the Texas variety that howls like the wind and cannot seem to ever slow down, knows and likely loves Joe Ely. He's been recording since his early days in the Flatlanders, and made a handful of albums that stand next to anyone's. Now he's written a novel, and why shouldn't he? Books are like albums without music, in a way, and for someone with an imagination bigger than Lubbock, it makes sense to expand onto the printed page. Centered around 1967's Summer of Love in his West Texas hometown, Ely heads for the brave new world of imagination and mayhem, and mixes things up like you knew he could. He puts the twang into the turmoil so by the end of this thrilling book it's happily clear that anything goes. Be ready.
The Far West, Any Day Now. Just when the thought of a support group called Americana Anonymous starts to sound appealing, a stealth attack from a band as good as The Far West happens, and all seems right again with the genre. Which isn't to say there aren't too many aggregations in the Americana crowd, because there are, but there's always room for the exception to the rule. And that's this quintet, who strip away all the superfluous pretentions to the rootsy sound, and add enough elements of reality to make the music hit home hard. While the band may call SoCal home, their restless core would let them hang their hat anywhere they wanted. These are seekers who sound like they won't stop until they get where they're going, no matter where that might be, and will take willing listeners to that brand new place.
Ronnie Fauss, Built to Break. Leave it to a true believer to show how things get done. Singer-songwriter Ronnie Fauss didn't start writing songs until after his first son was born. No doubt all those life experiences had been building up inside for years, but once the floodgates opened for the Texan there was no stopping. His second album moves the bar high, sounding like something a 20-year veteran would have created. He's got an eye for detail, an ear for feeling, and a voice that expresses both. Rounding up a band most artists would dream about seals this deal, as well as bringing in guest singers like Rhett Miller and Jenna Paulette. The inner tray contains the saying, "The moral of this story is there ain't no moral at all." Truer words were never spoken.
Grateful Dead, Two from the Vault. In 1968 the pioneering psychedelic band from San Francisco had their channels wide open and were transforming what rock music could be. Between lysergicized improvisations led by guitarist Jerry Garcia, explosive percussive explorations and, yes, Pigpen's bluesy exhortations, it felt like the group was literally storming the castle. This stunning reissue of two nights recorded at Los Angeles' Shrine Auditorium captures the band at their peak, with musical masterpieces like "Dark Star," "Saint Stephen" and "New Potato Caboose" roaring in all their glory. Changes were coming, but for this pair of nights (featured here over four vinyl discs) the kingdom of heaven was close at hand.
Michael Jarrett, Producing Country. Now here's a smart idea: gather together dozens of producers and ask them to speak about hit singles they'd worked on. The range goes from Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley to Dave Alvin and Pete Anderson, and every single memory is worth reading. There is a world of knowledge waiting from listening to those who actually helped make the country soundtrack of America. It's like peeking behind the curtain to find out what Tompall Glaser did during Waylon Jennings' sessions, or how Stephen Bruton shaped Jimmie Dale Gilmore chillers. Reading this book is the equal of a college course in musical knowledge, and even better we get to hear the lessons in the masters' own words. Irreplaceable.
The Jones Family Singers, The Spirit Speaks. Straight out of Bay City, Texas, the Jones Family Singers is a gospel group that sounds like it was sent right down from above to spread their joyful noise far and wide. And if the singers aren't quite nationwide yet, look for that to change as the word spreads. It's almost as if a time warp exists, one that let this family develop a tidal wave of feeling behind their spirituals, which they unleash at will wherever they perform around the country. Have no doubt — this is sanctified music, a sound that is born and nourished in small churches and spreads like a steady wildfire when it starts to escape. Fans become devotees for life once the gospel comes alive, because there is nothing quite like the feeling it shares. It is almost a fluke of nature that a group as strong as the Jones Family Singers exists out of the spotlight, but an album like this is a soul-changer of irresistible beauty. Say amen, somebody.
The Knickerbocker All-Stars, Open Mic at the Knick. It's an uphill trek these days to try and record rhythm and blues that is fresh and vital, maybe because it really does seem like it's all been done before. That style is so reliant on energy and understanding it's near impossible to nail it perfectly in today's world. Don't tell the Knickerbocker All-Stars that. These not-so-mellow fellows, centered around the Knickerbocker Cafe in Westerly, Rhode Island during the '70s and '80s, now dive headfirst into the songbook of Bobby Bland, Guitar Slim, Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson and others in such a way that the word "imitation" never even comes to mind. There is a pure amplitude of realness to all these recordings, whether it's Al Copley, Curtis Salgado, Johnny Nicholas, Sugar Ray Norcia or any of the other musicians, and it's straight from the heart. The clock is ticking and a lot of players have gone missing into the great beyond, but for now, the Knick is open for business and anything goes.
Sonny Knight & His Fabulous Lakers, I'm Still Here. The plight of soul singers in America would put anyone to the test. The chance of success is often an illusion, and even when it happens very little of the bounty is shared with the people who actually create the music. Sonny Knight started singing in the mid-'60s, and through a circular trek ended up back on the bandstand in the '90s. Naturally, he also drove a truck for years. Now, Knight and His Fabulous Lakers, a get-down band with plenty of horns and backup singers, are stars on the Minneapolis-St. Paul club circuit, and if there is true justice in the world will be taking their boogalooing and bodacious grooves worldwide shortly. Sonny Knight sings better than ever, and the joy and jubilation in all his songs is beyond contagious. Give that man a standing "O" immediately.
Daniel Lanois, Flesh and Machine. When it's time to venture in the direction of the cosmos, there can be no greater guide than sonic provocateur Daniel Lanois. No matter what the instrument, whether it's his pedal steel guitar, rare keyboard contraptions or just a pair of mallets on calfskin drumheads, this man knows how to play sound. Lanois has been doing it long enough that he has invented his own language. This isn't child's play, but rather music made from the deepest levels of the human heart, out in the territory where no words are needed. In some ways, these are songs written and performed for movies which haven't been made yet, and if that sounds spacey then so be it. Lanois never lets us down, delivering surprising challenges at every turn. This latest missive hits the outer galaxies and allows a new ethos to come home.
Shelby Lynne, I Am. For someone who's made several standout albums, this is the one that completely kicked in the doors. Shelby Lynne made a name for herself in Nashville without really trying, and even won a Grammy award for Best New Artist in 2001. Still, it's the I Am album that still gets pointed to as one-of-a-kind. Now that it's time for a reissue, Rounder Records not only has six bonus tracks to include, but also a live 2000 show at Los Angeles' House of Blues just to emphasis what a boundary-breaking artist Shelby Lynne has always been. She crosses country and soul, but doesn't get stuck in either. What Lynne really does is tear away conventions of any kind, and lets her singular voice lead the way. She and producer/songwriting partner Bill Bottrell went for it here, and found their vision waiting right in front of them. Still.
Bobby Mack, Texas Guitar—Highway Man. The blues goes on forever, but for someone with Bobby Mack's roots it must sometimes feel like a long time coming. He started playing in public in 1970 around Dallas-Fort Worth, so comes from rich blues soil. It's what Mack does with those influences that impresses, taking a guitar style Freddie King helped refine and jacking it up a notch or two into modern territory. There is no way Bobby Mack will ever be an original, but for what he does there is still plenty of room for to burn down a few cornfields. Best of all, there is also no way he'll ever stop. That's obvious. The blues is in him, and it's got to come out.
Blake Mills, Heigh Ho. If Ry Cooder's lowdown style was run through a Cuisinart, maybe with some extra broccoli thrown in, and then baked in the Los Angeles sun on a flat pan for an afternoon, that's close to what Blake Mills can do. The young Californian can play any style necessary, and the way Mills can slice and dice styles says he's a master-in-the-making. What's still necessary is a little more personal viewpoint, but that's likely to appear any day now. He is endlessly inventive and always keeps listeners guessing what might come next. Though Blake Mills will never be a superstar singer, that's beside the point. Sometimes an artist just has to head for the underground, and let the audience appreciate him there. Basement tours now being conducted daily.
The New Basement Tapes, Lost on the River. Down in a Woodstock-area basement around 1967, Bob Dylan and The Band had set up a lab of the human kind. They tossed around guitars, snare drums, a few keyboards and other paraphernalia like they were so many tennis balls, and what everyone came up with was pure alchemy. Come to find out Dylan had a whole notebook of lyrics that never got completed into songs, until now. And guess who came to dinner to do it? Elvis Costello, Jim James, Marcus Mumford, Taylor Goldsmith and Rhiannon Giddens, that's who. This is an instant-classic album, one that couldn't be dreamed up except by accident. Luckily, the songs stand up so the whole really is bigger than the sum of these parts, and while nothing can ever beat the original Basement Tapes, the inner beauty of what started in the Big Pink house still shines through. A million dollar bash, indeed.
Willie Nile, If I Was a River. There aren't many rockers in Willie Nile's league, at least not those who debuted in the mid-'70s amid the so-called New Wave tsunami. Nile always got tagged as a Bob Dylanish artist, and that's okay as long as he is also heard as his own man. After many releases of rock bliss, Wille Nile strips it all down to just him and a piano, which turns out was his main instrument when he was young. Lo and behold, the New York native has hit on a perfect path to musical plenitude, with songs that beg to be heard in solitary power. He even found the original piano from New York's Record Plant, where Nile was recording in the studio next to John Lennon on the night of Lennon's murder. Everything adds up to Shiver City on Willie Nile's walk on the mild side, a trek it sounds like he's been waiting his whole life to take.
Edward O'Connell, Vanishing Act. Can the swinging scene of Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello circa 1978 live today without sounding dated? Without a doubt, if Edward O'Connell has anything to do with it. His first album released four years ago hinted that something was stirring in our nation's capital, but didn't quite hint what O'Connell has captured today. It's a sneak attack of rock proportions, full of zest and smarts and just plain rock certitude. Without going overboard, the songwriter zaps the synapses of love and luck and everything else that makes life a pulsing puzzle, and does it with an energy that hasn't been quite heard before. For out-of-left-field surprise, color Edward O'Connell pop purity for people now. Nick Lowe would likely approve.
Esther Phillips, Alone Again, Naturally. Bad-asses come in all shapes and sizes, and sometimes they come in the form of singers who just can't help themselves. That's Esther Phillips. The woman could cut glass with her voice, and did not suffer fools for a second. She had several stages of a successful career, but when she came back in the '70s on Kudu Records it was for all the money. Produced by smooth soul Svengali Creed Taylor, Phillips took on songs that cut way past the bone. On "Use Me," "I Don't Want to Do Wrong," and, yes, "Along Again (Naturally)," there was no two ways about it: the lady was going to get down. Listening her do it were lessons in extreme sultriness and Lord help the person who stood in Phillips' way. She sang right up until her death in 1984, and did it with style, savvy and a sense of purpose that went back to her earliest days as Little Esther Phillips in 1950, just 13 years old with a number one R&B hit to her name. Try that on for size.
Sarah Lou Richards, The Woman Behind the Curtain. Not everything recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama needs to worship at the altar of Aretha, because there are some singers in that area who just need to go their own way. They need to head out over the fields where country and soul collide on a path of greatness. Sarah Lou Richards has been known more as a singer-songwriter than a bandleader, which is a fine thing. But today it's important to hear the woman in a new light, one that adds a harder and more electric edge, one produced to undeniable effect by Gary Nichols, guitarist and lead singer in the Steel Drivers. It's a primo pairing, and one Richards fills with trust and truth. There may be a lot of singers today circling a similar sun, but Sarah Lou Richards holds the strongest hand to find her way forward. She has arrived.
Kimm Rogers, Where the Pavement Grows. Singers like Kimm Rogers come from somewhere else. They don't sound like other singers, don't write songs that pay attention to anything that's come before and, in the end, find a way to a land of their own invention. Call it inspiration or anything else, but it doesn't happen often enough, but when it does, attention should be given. Rogers lives near San Diego, but she calls the world home. She has latched her vision to a higher plane, and listening to her find a way to live there is one of the modern wonders. Sometimes she gets heard and sometimes she doesn't, but it's just a matter of time before that changes. Her time is coming.
Naomi Shelton & the Gospel Queens, Cold World. What is the great saying? Everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die. Naomi Shelton is a gospel singer who brings heaven to earth every time she opens her mouth. She calls on the Holy Spirit to fill her voice with light, and no matter what realm she's working in, God enters her house. To stay. Naturally, the good people behind this album at Daptone Records ensure that no superfluous hoo-ha will be allowed in the grooves. While Shelton is driving the caravan, backing singers the Gospel Queens keep the sound copacetic all the way to the altar. Do not miss this trip to the promised land.
Rob Stone, Gotta Keep Rollin'. Chicago blues is hurting, but if harp player Rob Stone has anything to do with it that should be changing shortly. Though he started in Boston and Colorado, the Windy City called and Stone went running, right into the band of legendary drummer Sam Lay's band. Rob Stone's fourth album finally ties all the ends together and lets him show the lessons learned and insights shared. One of the things he learned with Lay was that the band has to be right, or the chance of success is small to nil. With guitarist Chris James and special guests Eddie Shaw, John Primer, David Maxwell and Henry Gray, it's like a Who's Who of who's left in Chicago, and Stone doesn't waste a moment. This is music when the lights go out and only love is left turned on. Naturally.
Thompson, Family. If this isn't a family affair then there's no point in trying. Take Richard, Linda, Teddy, Jack and Kami Thompson, along with relatives James Walbourne and Zak Hobbs, and record ten new songs in various configurations and it's like one big holiday clambake. Exes Richard and Linda Thompson have been performing for decades, and created the all-time classic "divorce" album, Shoot Out the Lights. Son Teddy Thompson decided to try to bring the pack all together and, no doubt with considerable effort, has done just that. The new recordings roll all over the place, with several really hitting the peak. Linda Thompson's "Bonny Boys" and "Perhaps We Can Sleep" are as fine as anything she's recorded, and of course Richard Thompson's guitar is in a class by itself. This is most assuredly a one-time occurrence, and there may even be some therapeutic upside to it all, but without a doubt shows just how talented this Thompson tribe is. All aboard.
Tweedy, Sukierae. How does the leader of Wilco bust a move to take a shot on his own? Why leave a band that can do anything, even lay all the way back. The smartest lick seems to enlist your 18-year-old son on drums, a few musicians not in the Wilco world and then write an album full of songs that could live anywhere. There is no way Jeff Tweedy could do this wrong, but the real thrill is just how good he does it here. Tweedy is a band of its own, as confusing as that might first sound, and doesn't miss a beat proving they can do whatever they try. Television shows, tours, double albums — just call on Tweedy to deliver whatever is needed, and there it is. There isn't any telling what's next, but we've been notified; the blue sky is the limit.
Various Artists, Americana Christmas. When it's time to break out the holiday decorations and let the mind wander to far-off dreams and delights, this is the perfect soundtrack for such festive occasions. Beginning with Luther Dickinson's mesmerizing "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," this is like a sonic festival for feelgooders of all persuasions. How could it not be with John Prine, Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Dwight Yoakam and a slew of newercomers all on hand? And, yes, it's loosely faithful to Americana (which really should be defined as music played by Americans), but there's enough leeway that, really, anything goes. At the end, when The Band performs "Christmas Must Be Tonight," it feels like the circle not only remains unbroken but is still spinning around the sun. Hallelujah.
Various Artists, The Only Folk Collection You'll Ever Need. The best definition of folk music is, of course, music made by folks. This 30-song collection zigs and zags all over the musical map, from the Carter Family high holler calls to Gordon Jenkins and His Orchestra getting all uppity with their selection. But in these grooves is the story of a nation's greatness, and whether it's Bob Dylan, Odetta, the Stanley Brothers, Mississippi John Hurt or the Byrds, it's all just degrees of awesomeness. So for beginners or folk-freaks, count this two-fer as a must have the next time the spirit hits. Singalongs welcome.
Various Artists, You Talk Too Much: The Ric & Ron Story Volume 1. New Orleans music, once wisely described by critic Jay Cocks as "endless antics of absolute insignificance," has stood the test of time over the past 60 years, and in many ways just gets deeper as time strolls on. This collection of 24 songs from the incredible vaults of indie label Ric and Ron Records is mind-boggling. Starting with Professor Longhair's anthem of liberation, "Go to the Mardi Gras," every style of Crescent City cutting-up is included, from Mercy Baby's "Don't Lie to Me" to Al Johnson's "Carnival Time." This really is a round-the-clock frolic, a way of life that has been often imitated but never duplicated. Naturally, Volume II is just as fine if not even finer, and for that we should get on bended knees at the corner of Rampart and Dumaine and thank the Zulu kings of every age and permutation.
Various Artists, Take Me to the River. What happens when some true soul brothers and sisters get together and invite the new breed in to do the popcorn? Well, if the city being invaded is Memphis, anything can go down. Like young rapper Yo Gotti getting next to Bobby "Blue" Bland on "Ain't No Sunshine." Or, say, Otis Clay and P-Nut reinventing Clay's hit "Trying to Live My Life Without You." And William Bell schooling the Stax Music Academy and Snoop Dogg on his "I Forgot to Be Your Lover." The mind melts just how cool this collection is, and never crosses the line into academia. It's all a stone cold groove, which can be chalked up to Memphis being the undeniable home of cool. Even better, there's a full-length movie that is living proof this miraculous mayhem actually happened. Seeing and hearing is believing.
Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble, The Complete Epic Recordings Collection. All things considered, it will likely never happen again: a young Texas guitarist who can grab lightening from the sky, channel it through his Stratocaster guitar and turn the blues into every color of the rainbow. People have been waiting for another, and it's not coming. But because of box sets like this one, everyone can hear one of the very greatest musicians in all his glory. Stevie Ray Vaughan started on the wrong side of the tracks, and then moved them, rail by rail and tie by tie, until all trains ran directly through him. Not only was his guitar majesty a wonder to behold every time he plugged in, Vaughan's vocals astounded from the start and just got deeper and deeper. By the end in 1990, he was playing and singing at a level that only a handful of artists ever achieve. His untimely death created a hole in the soul of all music, and while it will not be filled it can be healed through these recordings that testify to the man's ability to change the world with music. Seriously.
Randy Weston & Billy Harper, The Roots of the Blues. Sometimes jazz musicians just have to toss out the guidebook and go for it. Luckily, that's exactly what pianist Randy Weston and tenor saxophonist Billy Harper do on this wildly moving album. Weston has always been a deeply percussive player, adopting the rhythms of Africa into his work. Harper takes the Texas tenor sound and pushes it to the next level. Together it's like a coolly combative series of duets made in a parallel universe of grooviness. There is no way the jazz youngbloods could find this level without decades more of woodshedding. It takes a lifetime of experience and emotional searching to play this open and inspiring, not to mention just how pervasive the blues will always be in jazz. Always. On standards and originals, this is the sound of a duo taking the express elevator to the music of the spheres. Listen.
Wilco, Alpha Mike Foxtrot: Rare Tracks 1994-2014. What a wild range of recordings, with all kinds of odds and ends, remixes, tribute album offerings and everything else included into one four-disc box. Without doubt Wilco is the Great American Band of this century, having proved themselves during the past 20 years to be a force of nature beyond reproach. To have so many songs gathered together is like some sort of gift from the band to their faithful fans, the ones who've been with Jeff Tweedy and company since Uncle Tupelo tore the sheet. The only way to describe these offerings is with the word "wow," and be grateful the band and Nonesuch Records went to the trouble to do this right. Throw in Tweedy's personal track-by-track memories, and the holiday gift list just got filled.
Pegi Young & the Survivors, Lonely in a Crowded Room. Being married to a living rock legend for 36 years isn't a game for sissies, especially when that mate wants to start their new musical career. On Pegi Young's fourth album, she opens up the door to her own careerdom in a way that goes beyond marital vows or anything else, and proves it's her muse that matters most and she is going to serve it however it demands. She has a band that helps modulate the mood, never overamping or pushing in the wrong direction. Pianist Spooner Oldham is nationwide a soul man of certifiable credentials and permanent power, who even supplies a classic original for Young to sing. Her new songs show a striking growth, and anyone who has the guts to record Irma Thomas' "Ruler of My Heart" has no fear. With the Survivors Pegi Young moves to the open road now, one she's ready to explore on her own. R.I.P. Rick "The Bass Player" Rosas.