This week marks the first anniversary for this column in The Morton Report, and looking back at all the albums written about in Bentley's Bandstand, a small wave of joy is unleashed. So much great music, so many incredible memories. So just like last year, following is a list—alphabetical of course—of the 10 releases so far in 2012 that have risen to the top of the stack of favorites. As the world of recorded music struggles to find economic survival, let there be no doubt — the artists are still hitting the note. Have fun and happy listening.
Amadou & Mariam, Folila. A Grand Mali seizure for sure is happening all over this knocked-out album of African frou-frou, where the married couple turn their sightless gaze over the whole world of music and find endless surprises wherever they look. Aided by an intriguing list of fellow explorers, including Santigold, members of TV on the Radio, Theophilus London and others, there is no corner of the African continent that doesn't get the full-on treatment. What's really intriguing is how the pair recorded the album once in New York, and then took the tapes home where they put a sorcerer's touch on everything. That's what really knocked the work up a notch, and took the music into the spheres.There may be other albums that go deeper into far-flung traditions, but for sheer inventiveness Amadou & Mariam have found the mother lode, and sound like they know it.
Dr. John, Locked Down. No stranger to incarceration, New Orleans poobah Dr. John is ably abetted by producer Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys in a highly esoteric assault on all things gris-gris and gumbo. The result is an irresistible bayou run into the swamp and beyond, where the singing piano man is completely at home with God and the gators. Whether it's uptown struts or downtown nuts, Dr. John has just the right prescription to take everyone to the other side. No one gets inside the heart and soul of the Big Easy like this man, and it's high time they at least named a street after him way down yonder, if not an entire neighborhood. Funk is in the house, and he brought his syncopated ya-ya sticks with him. The way a studio full of Nashvillians throw down on this Dr. Johnathon makes the head shake in awe at the universal power of Crescent City music, and the man who helped build it these past 50 years. It ain't nothin' but a wheel, maybe, but what a wheel it is.
Ruthie Foster, Let It Burn. Working outside the pop spotlight, Ruthie Foster still manages to outshine just about all the other singers taking a run in the sun. She does it with righteous originals, right-on covers, and even the odd choice of hit. How else to explain these burning versions of "Aim for the Heart," David Crosby's "Long Time Gone" and Adele's "Set Fire to the Rain?" There isn't another person in music who can beat that reach. Producer John Chelew thankfully pays homage to the offbeat just enough to keep things rolling, rounding up players like George Porter, Jr. and Ike Stubblefield. And like all Foster albums, there's that time-stopper right in the middle. This go-round, it's a gorgeously seductive version of Johnny Cash's hit "Ring of Fire" that makes a standard brand new. Hallelujah.
Charlie Haden and Hank Jones, Come Sunday. There are moments when words are not needed, and one of those is when masters like bassist Charlie Haden and pianist Hank Jones converge. When they do, they play to the heavens, and when their songs just happen to be spirituals, well, the heavens often open up. Hank Jones passed away shortly after this session, but not before he demonstrates how the piano is supposed to be played. Each note hangs in time like a small sculpture, and put together with all the other notes finds a way to express grace that few ever equal. Haden is always right there, too, offering the support of a trusted voice and fellow traveler. They take the music to a place of grace, and know exactly when they get there. Bless them both.
J.D. McPherson, Signs & Signifiers. What are the odds an Oklahoma roots-rocker would come up with the album surprise of the year? Leave it to J.D. McPherson to walk that line and catch everyone off guard. He takes as a basic the rolling rhythms of places like New Orleans, Crowley and Lake Charles, Louisiana, fills them with Kansas City jump blues, Houston honky tonk hop and Memphis rock and roll, and acts like he's singing his way out of prison. He's got two homeboys backing him up, along with a fistful of guest players, and not one single extraneous noise to be found anywhere. If that doesn't sound like nirvana, then proceed directly to the boy band section of the record store and seek self-delusion there. For others, McPherson is ready to find the levee and burn it down now.
Chuck Prophet, Temple Beautiful. For someone who's been playing in bands this long, somehow Chuck Prophet sounds like he's fresh out of Guitar Center, his first guitar in hand and ready to nail his songs up on the highest wall. This time around, Prophet takes on his San Francisco home, running in those steep streets, hiding in the magical fog and ripping from the Tenderloin right on up to Nob Hill and Grace Cathedral. When someone is able to so emotionally capture everything around them, well, that's what they call high art. No one has come this close to bringing to life the Bay Area jewel since Ron Nagle's exquisite Bad Rice release in 1971. Seriously. Those fog horns you hear in the distance are real.
Bonnie Raitt, Slipstream. It is likely no accident one of America's finest artists has made the best music of her life after turning 60, because Bonnie Raitt has always worked the corner of Heartbreak and Pain. Sure, there have been plenty of rocking memories but remember she started as a female blues guitarist in the early '70s when there really weren't many others. The way she staked her turf showed this was no amateur. After a well-spent career that included a Top 40 hit of Del Shannon's "Runaway," Raitt found her second act on Nick of Time, and made clear she was here to stay. On Slipstream, there is such a confidence of ability and deep-down feeling, whether it's on Bob Dylan songs, her unerring ear for lost gems or an exhaustive supply of songwriting buddies, this one-woman whirlwind shows no signs of slowing down. Just the opposite, really. Long may she run.
Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, Here. There is enough harmonic convergence going on with this Ojai, California-anchored group to make Shirley MacLaine moist. Singers Alex Ebert and Jade Castrinos have entered the cosmic plane with their dozen plus-pieced aggregation, and the mix they're able to conjure includes groovy psychedelic patterns, folk-rock simplicity and sometimes just enough elements of electronic kick. It all comes so naturally that there's never any strain, which is one big key to finding the real yellow brick road. The only thing missing is the sound of rustling trees, but if you listen hard enough the wind passing through the room brings Here home. Join the march now just in case that Mayan calendar comes true.
Paul Thorn, What in the Hell is Going On? What are the chances of a blue-eyed soul masterpiece starting with a Lindsey Buckingham song? When you're Paul Thorn, it's as simple as buttering a biscuit because the Tupelo, Mississippi native turns everything he touches into a down home delight. Thorn's new collection veers all over the map for covers, like a mad man on a back roads picking spree that turns up nothing but treasure. From Buckingham the song list includes Allen Toussaint, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Elvin Bishop, Free, and even relative newcomer Eli "Paperboy" Reed. And that's only a few. Paul Thorn's backing band is as badass as the set list, and any album produced by Sweet Tea and Black Eye Pea is bound to hit the monkey nerve. Case closed.
Nick Waterhouse, Time's All Gone. Don't be fooled by the Frank Sinatra suit and black-rimmed glasses. Nick Waterhouse is no runner-up in a Rat Pack wannabe contest. He's a southern California soul man who draws much of his mighty passion from Stax, Duke, Jewel and even old Them recordings. Even better, he never lets his keen lens on the past stop him from living completely in the present. It's just that he's not fooled into thinking modernity is a new religion. How else to explain how Waterhouse's debut album came out of left field with such a full-tilt mojo powering its passion? This man might not have made a pact with the devil, but there's a pretty good chance he did get some kind of special consideration from a friendly loan shark. He's got the goods.