Monday, October 23, 2006

WXPN's 885 Greatest Artists Of All Time - The Final Countdown

WXPN began their countdown of the 885 Greatest Artists of All Time, as voted on by their listeners, on October 9, 2006. It all ended this evening at 7 PM. You can see the station's final vote tally here.

The list was extremely diverse and included Mozart, Beethoven, Yo-Yo Ma, Eminem, Outkast, Jay Z, The Monkees, Abba, John Denver, The Clash, The Sex Pistols, Benny Goodman, Dave Brubeck, George Gershwin, Neil Diamond, Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin, Weird Al Yankovic, Def Leppard, Guns 'N Roses, Judy Garland, John Phillip Sousa, Dolly Parton and Marvin Gaye, to name more than a few, as well as all of classic rock's heavy hitters. The list offered lots of surprises including more than a few arists who I never heard of finishing in surprisingly high places on the countdown. For instance, who is Neutral Milk Hotel and why did they finish at #332?

The countdown took fifteen days to complete. The station played one song for each artist starting with number 885 through 501. Then from 500 through 101 we heard two songs from each artist. Beginning at 100 we heard three, and from 50 through 11 WXPN played four songs by each artist. Finally, beginning this morning, the top 10 greatest musical artists of all time, as selected by over 6,000 listener ballots, were counted down featuring a full hour of music for each one.

Here is how the voting worked. Your favorite artist received ten points, number two got nine points, and so on down the line. An additional ten "honorable mention" entries all received one point a piece.

Here is my original article containing my favorites sent to WXPN in August with commentary on my top 10 selections.

Here are my choices again listed here with their ranking on the WXPN survey in red.

1. The Beatles - #1. It's where they belong. According to WXPN the vote total between The Beatles and the #2. artist, Bob Dylan, wasn't even close.

2. The Beach Boys - #53. I believe their overwhelming influence on popular music should have ranked them higher but I know most voters probably don't consider influence as a criteria and voted with their hearts instead.

3. Stevie Wonder - #22. You would think I would be happy with this ranking, but I am not. One of the most talented musicians to ever grace our presence deserved a much higher placement than this.

4. Chicago - #174. Contrary to Stevie Wonder's ranking I'm actually thrilled with this one. Chicago is not the kind of band that WXPN embraces but I'm glad their listeners looked past the 80s version of the band that gave us such dreck as "You're The Inspiration" and realized that Chicago's true personality was the very cool, rocking, horn band of the 70s.

5. Jackson Browne - #37. I have never truly embraced a whole lot of singer-songwriters but Browne excels at what he does. It took awhile for him to grow on me but with songs like "Fountain Of Sorrow," "Before The Deluge" and "Running On Empty" I can't do anything but love him.

6. Billy Joel - #48. Like Chicago, Joel is not an artist WXPN favors but the public knows he was much more than a middle-of-the-road hit singles factory.

7. Michelle Shocked - #650. Shocked is not well known. After eighteen years she still has not found a mass audience but the knowledgeable WXPN listeners apparently appreciate her. I may argue that Shocked belongs much further up the list but the reality is I should just be happy she placed at all.

8. Black 47 - Failed to make the list. I knew from the outset there was absoluteley no chance of Black 47 making the list. The band has limited appeal but it's growing cult following is very loyal.

9. Blackthorn - Failed to make the list. The residual effects of having just seen this great local Philadelphia celtic-rock band live caused me to overrate them at the time I submitted my ballot. While I don't like Blackthorn any less (their currrent CD, Push & Pull, is terrific) this spot should have been reserved for someone more worthy, Crosby, Stills and Nash (& Young).

10. Mark Knopfler - Failed to make the list. Knopfler's band, Dire Straits, did make the list at number #64. However, since I believe he WAS Dire Straits, and he also currently has a great solo careeer both as a singer-songwriter and as the creator of some excellent movie soundtracks, I felt he deserved my vote more than his original band did.

My honorable mention list is as follows.

11. The Allman Brothers Band #25
12. Joan Baez #148
13. Nat King Cole #196
14. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young #34
15. The Eagles #70
16. Los Lobos #151
17. Poco #406
18. Elvis Presley #19
19. Bruce Springsteen #4
20. Steely Dan #27

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young finshed at #34 and Crosby, Stills and Nash, minus Neil Young, ranked #103, a placement I find both puzzling and unfair. I've always looked upon them as the same band with or without Young. If the votes for the two versions were added together they would have had a much higher ranking, something they deserve. There are bands out there who have had the same name throughout their entire career but changes in personnel over time greatly altered their sound. These bands have changed their personalities far more than Young's presence or absence ever had on CSN. For instance lead singer Michael McDonald's replacement of Tom Johnston in the Doobie Brothers made the band completely unrecognizeable from its original version. That wasn't the case when Young joined the original trio. Is CSN really a different band than CSN&Y. I don't think so.

Regardless, the fifteen day countdown was a lot of fun. At times it was frustrating as I found myself scratching my head over the ranking of a particular artist I never heard of, or one whose popularity I don't comprehend, but that is all part of the enjoyment. I also discovered some musical acts who I should explore further. Guitarist Bill Frizzell is one. Leonard Cohen is another.

Be sure to read Music & More by Bill Kates for a more detailed and different perspective on the the entire countdown. For a slightly warped analysis of the whole affair two WXPN fans, who apparently have never met each other, have commented on all 885 artists who made the list. Read Teenage Kicks for a good laugh.

Thank you WXPN for a great two weeks.

Monday, October 16, 2006

King Cole Trio - Transcriptions (2005)

Transcriptions were studio recordings made exclusively for radio broadcast that were never intended to be released to the public via commercial records. Transcriptions began in the 1930's and were used on radio for decades. Even as late as the 60s The Beatles used the transcription process for their British radio show appearances, most of which have since been released on their double-set Live At The BBC in 1994.

Micheal Cuscuna, a long time jazz fan and impressario, explains further in his excellent liner notes for the King Cole Trio's excellent Transcriptions box set on Blue Note Records.
"In the 1930's, when radio featured live music, the playing of commercially available 78 rpm recordings was frowned upon on the premise that the listener was less likely to go out and buy a record that he or she could hear over the airwaves for free. Many records issued in the 30s and 40s even stated on the label: "not licensed for broadcast".

Still, local stations needed more than network shows and local affairs programming to fill their broadcast day. Out of this vacuum came a number of transcription services that took bands into studios and recorded material that would be edited into 15-minute segments for broadcast purposes only. These sessions were usually a little more informal than phonograph record dates and often boasted a higher level of material because artists were not trying to cut the latest song-pluggers tripe in search of a hit.

Most of the transcription services were independent operations, not part of a label. But RCA started the Thesaurus transcription operation in the late 30s and Capitol got into the act in 1945. When the King Cole Trio's transcription deal with C. P. MacGregor expired, Capitol moved to sign them to its new service (they had been signed to Capitol's regular label since 1943). The results of the relationship, which ran from 1946 to 1950, are contained in this 3-CD set."
Old time jazz fans will love this box of radio transcriptions recorded by Nat King Cole and his jazz trio precisely for the informality and the "higher level of material" that Cuscuna discusses. All that is good about jazz piano shines through on these recordings now made available commercially for the very first time.

The trio seldom used a percussionist, nor was one needed because Cole, a bassist, and an electric guitarist easily swing through seventy-one blues titles, ballads, straight jazz pieces, and even some novelty tunes. There are several Count Basie covers including "Lester Leaps In" and "One O'Clock Jump," some Cole originals, and a remake of his hit "Route 66." Ballads include an upbeat version of "Dream A Little Dream Of Me." Cole was a very tasteful, melodic, and gently swinging pianist. His voice was as smooth as silk, and his bandmates were up to their tasks as sidemen.

About a year after the last sessions Cole broke up the trio to become the singer most of us remember today. According to the All Music Guide many looked upon his change in direction with the same disdain Bob Dylan received from the folk community when he went electric in the mid-60s. As great as he is on the trio recordings most people only know Cole as the crooner of pop standards such as "Unforgettable," "Mona Lisa," and "The Christmas Song" (perhaps better know as "Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire") all sung with a full orchestra loaded with strings.

Nat King Cole died of lung cancer in 1965 at age 45. I have loved him since I was a child and have often wondered what he would have accomplished musically had he lived.

Friday, October 06, 2006

The Saw Doctors At World Cafe Live, Philadelphia, PA, October 5, 2006

The Saw Doctors played World Café Live in Philadelphia last night to a loyal crowd who cheered their every note.

The veteran band, featuring founding members Davy Carton (lead vocals and guitar) and Leo Moran (lead guitar and additional lead vocals), is another fixture in a long line of irreverent Irish rockers. However there is a big difference between the Saw Doctors and bands like Black 47 and U2. Carton and Moran direct most of their frequent barbs at the Roman Catholic Church in lieu of the events and individuals resposible for Ireland's tumultuous and often sad political history that the other two bands prefer. There is nothing like "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "New Year’s Day" (U2) or "Bobby Sands MP" and "James Connelly" (Black 47) in their repertoire.

The Doctors are not a jam band in the least. Their songs are all compact, and to the point. They played almost thirty songs in just a little less than two hours. Both Moran and Carton are very personable and the whole band (now including Anthony Thistlethwaite, formerly of the Waterboys, on bass) are good musicians, but a Saw Doctors performance is not about instrumental chops. It is about the songs and the vibe that goes along with it.

As usual, World Café Live may be the best venue in Philadelphia to see a concert. The place has great acoustics. Even with a loud rock band onstage the instruments were crystal clear, and the vocals were not buried under the avalanche of electric instruments. When the seats are removed, as they were for this show, it feels like a rock palace yet it is small enough to have an intimate view no matter where you are standing.

The Saw Doctors have recorded two live CDs. Live In Galway is easily available through all of the usual retail and Internet outlets, and New Year's Day, a limited edition in which all proceeds go to the tsunami victims of Sri Lanka, is available only through the band's website.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Phil Cody - Mad Dog Sessions (2002)

What a pleasure it is to listen to Mad Dog Sessions, folk-rocker Phil Cody’s third CD recorded in 1996, mixed and mastered in 2002, and released on Tiny Head Records to a world that should demand this music be played in heavy rotation on every adult alternative and college radio station in America.

While not blessed with the greatest set of pipes, Cody’s voice nevertheless fits in nicely with his songs and his singing should offend no one. The band functions mostly as an ensemble but there are a few notable solos throughout and everyone playing on the sessions turns in a professional job. Standout performances include Duncan Aldrich’s sax solo on “I Am A Thief” and lots of electric organ and piano by Rami Jaffe, keyboard player for The Wallflowers.

Cody wrote seventeen of the twenty songs on this album. The disc was culled down from a total of 34 songs he and the band recorded over a three-day period. Clocking in at 71:50, a CD of this length would qualify as a double album in the days of the long lost LP. At a time when too many artists fill an entire CD because they can, and include stuff they should leave on the cutting room floor, Mad Dog Sessions is a wonder. You may be thinking that this is too much Cody at one sitting but rest assured he can justify releasing every one of these tracks. No two arrangements sound the same, not an easy feat with a work of this length. His eclecticism is the hallmark of this album.

But the real stars of this album, and the primary focus of any folk-rock work, are Cody’s lyrics. With songs that are alternately humorous and sad, Cody succeeds at setting the proper mood for each song.

The disc opens with Woody Guthrie style social commentary on the historically accurate banjo and harmonica piece "Orphan Train," continues with the upbeat country song "Joe’s Neck of the Woods," and moves on to "Six Diamond Baguettes," about a broken love affair, that is the CD’s best rocker. On "1984" he reminisces about his childhood without getting maudlin or syrupy. There is even little electronic music on the introduction and fade of "I Was A Stepping Stone." A little psychedelic organ and similar lyrical sensibilities decorate "She Chases Rainbows."

Even Cody's taste in cover songs is impeccable. He sings Warren Zevon’s "Splendid Isolation," a splendidly serious song about the protagonist’s demand for solitude in a very busy world, that ironically is my favorite track on the disc. Then he shows us another side of himself closing the CD with a slowed down and mostly acoustic version of Elvis Presley’s "Viva Las Vegas."

I originally wrote a variation of this review in 2002. Unfortuntately since then Cody seems to have fallen off the face of the earth. His website is gone and has been reduced to a confusing MySpace page where you will find no mention of Mad Dog Sessions. Most traces of this CD seem to have vanished with Cody. It can not be found on Amazon and is not even mentioned in his biography in the All Music Guide. In fact the only place where it appears you can find any mention of this great CD is on Rami Jaffe's website. If you can find this disc you must give it a listen.