Tuesday, December 30, 2008

2008 - The Year In Review

In my humble opinion 2008 was a lean year for music and it was tough compiling a good list of my favorite CDs. Long time and reliable stalwarts issued the cream of the crop. So with reservations, and hope that 2009 is artistically more rewarding, here are Bloggerhythms top five CDs of 2008.

1. Shelby Lynne - Just a Little Lovin'
Four of Ms. Lynne's CDs released since 2000 have landed in my top five of the year and the remaining one needs to be in your CD collection too. Lynne's 2008 tribute to Dusty Springfield is also a tribute to the singer-songwriter's talents because this disc proves she can cover other people's work just as easily as she can write and record her own material. This music is head and shoulders above everything else I heard this year.

2. She & Him - Volume One
Actress Zooey Deschanel proves that music may actually be where her true talents lie. On Volume One Deschanel (She) teamed up with singer-songrwriter M. Ward (Him) and issued a truly wonderful debut disc. Paste Magazine's 2008 CD of the year explores early 60s girl group pop, a little bit of country, and a love of older pop music in general. Both Deschanel's vocals and songs are superb. Look for a full review early in 2009.

3. Los Lonely Boys - Forgiven
More great harmonies, more fine pop songs, and best of all, more smokin' electric leads from guitarist Henry Garza prove, that nobody can play mainstream rock better than this trio of brothers.

4. The Mother Truckers - Let's All Go To Bed
With their third CD Austin's country-rockers turn up the volume. This is their loudest album to date and it's also their best. Songs with an obvious Rolling Stones influence ("Streets of Atlanta") mix it up with a cover of Billy Joe Shaver's "When I Get My Wings." Your best chance to see this quartet is by visiting the Texas state capital but The Truckers made a surprise visit east this summer, rocking out at the Bethlehem Musikfest in Pennsylvania, where I caught them for the second time in less than a year. This is ear shredding country music at it's best.

5. Robert Lamm - The Bossa Project
Chicago's heart and soul proves again that he deserves a successful solo career instead of semi-obscurity. This CD is a fine homage to one of jazz's less respected sub-genres but the disc has received accolades from critics everywhere. It was even considered for a jazz Grammy, but unfortunately, it didn't make the cut to the famous award show's final five nominees.

Bett Butler - Myths & Fables
If it hadn't been released in November 2007, too late in the year for me to have heard it, the second disc from this fine jazz singer, pianist, and songwriter would have made last year's top five. Butler's work is so good it needs to be on a "best of" list somewhere. This is not lounge lizard music, nor smooth jazz. It's the real thing.

The Cat Empire - So Many Nights
While it's not quite as eclectic or as rewarding as it's predecessor, Two Shoes, these Aussies prove that they are still one of the most original party bands in the business. There is no need to apologize for the letdown because Two Shoes was so outstanding. This year's entry only pales by comparison.

Dennis Wilson - Pacific Ocean Blue (1977)
Despite the limitations of Wilson's voice this lovingly repackaged solo disc from 1977 shows surprisingly excellent production, songwriting, arranging, and at times a strong Beach Boys influence. Many people were shocked that, of all the Beach Boys, such a quality piece of work came from the man who most people considered to be the least talented Wilson Brother.

Tim Pierce - Guitarland (1995)
Unfortunately, sometimes music doesn't come into our lives until many years after it's release. Studio guitarist, Tim Pierce, whose superb resume includes playing on the recordings of many outstanding stars, recorded his one and only solo album in 1995. Guitarland is a rocking, instrumental album that leans toward the melodic, pop side of rock and roll. It's worth finding this long out of print CD. Bloggerhythms will be posting a full review soon.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Greg Lake - I Believe in Father Christmas (1975)

Greg Lake, the guitarist and singer for early 70s prog-rockers Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, recorded his one and only hit single for Christmas 1975. The song, "I Believe in Father Christmas," has always been one of my holiday favorites.

It's true that "I Believe in Father Christmas" is as pretentious as prog-rock can possibly be. The far superior 45 RPM version of the song uses over a hundred musicians and singers, including the London Philharmonic Orchestra. The album version, without the orchestra and chorus, appeared later on ELP's 1977 album Works, Volume 2. If you like soft-rock and acoustic music you may prefer the LP version. If you're like me, you'll revel in the massive wall of sound that Lake produced for the single.

The instrumental theme that opens and closes the song, and also appears in between the verses, is actually a fine piece of classical music composed by Russian Sergei Prokofiev who is probably best known for composing "Peter and the Wolf". The melody, known as "Troika," comes from a segment of Prokofiev's "Lieutenant Kije Suite" and was written for a Soviet movie in 1934.

According to several websites Lake said the song is often misinterpreted. It is not an anti-religion song. Instead, it's about the over-commercialization of Christmas. In an interview with the British music magazine, Mojo, he said, "I find it appalling when people say it's politically incorrect to talk about Christmas, you've got to talk about 'The Holiday Season.' Christmas was a time of family warmth and love. There was a feeling of forgiveness, acceptance. And I do believe in Father Christmas."

Coincidentally, Wisconsin disc jockey J.A. Bartlett has written an article on the same song for his blog, The Hits Just Keep On Comin.' He takes a more philosophical approach.

Finally, I've been hesitant to offer readers any more YouTube clips because two of the three times I've posted them on this blog the videos were eventually removed. However, I'm going to try one more time. Here is a video using Lake's original 45 RPM single. I hope you agree this song is a wonderful Christmas classic!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Butties -12 Greatest Carols (2005)

Yesterday, while listening to Little Steven's Underground Garage on Sirius XM Satellite Radio, I was suddenly taken in by a version of "Joy To The World" that I never heard before. The song opened with John Lennon's famous harmonica introduction to The Beatles' first English #1 single, "Please Please Me," before morphing into one of the world's most famous Christmas songs. While the lyrics and melody were true to the original carol the arrangement screamed early Beatles. With my interest piqued I conducted an Internet search where I discovered, The Butties, a Beatles tribute band who released a CD, 12 Greatest Carols, in 2005. All of the songs were arranged in a way The Beatles may have recorded them.

The lyrics and melody of "Let It Snow" fit into an obvious arrangement of "Let it Be." "What Child Is This" is paired with "Michelle," while "O Little Town Of Bethlehem" and "In My Life" work well together. Strangest of all, "A Day In The Life" is used as inspiration for a slowed down version of "Jolly Old St. Nicholas."

According to Amazon the CD is out of print but you can still get it through The Butties' website where you can hear sound clips of all twelve songs.

While lovers of the famous Liverpudlians may own copies of their annual fan club Christmas messages, The Beatles never recorded a Christmas song while together as a band. Therefore, while 12 Greatest Carols is hardly essential, it is an interesting what-might-have-been.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Putumayo Presents: A Jazz & Blues Christmas (2008)

Even if you're not a big fan of World Music you have to admit that nobody can put a compilation together better than Putumayo. The love, care, and research the organization works into each of their CDs is superb, right down to the cover art and liner notes. Their new release, A Jazz & Blues Christmas, is no exception.

This brief ten song disc is only slightly longer than thirty-three minutes but its richness will leave jazz and blues fans in anything other than a state of blues. In their detailed liner notes Putumayo says that, "This holiday collection exemplifies the close relationship between jazz and blues. Both genres developed side by side and most of these artists go from one to the other seamlessly."

The artists Putumayo blends together on the disc include some of the giants of music, including Ray Charles, jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis, Charles Brown, and Riley B. King and his long-necked girlfriend who goes by the name of Lucille.

Many unknown artists are featured including Randy Greer whose great uncle, Sonny Greer, played drums for Duke Ellington. His father owned a jazz club in San Francisco and called Dizzy Gillespie and Charles Mingus friends. So, while Greer is not a household name, his pedigree is impeccable. On "Wrap Yourself In A Christmas Package" Greer's smooth but bluesy vocals are accompanied by the Ignasi Terraza Trio from Barcelona, Spain. Other little known acts are Riff Ruffin, retro-swing band Mighty Blue Kings, and Canadian jazz vocalist, Emilie-Claire Barlow whose "Santa Baby" rivals Earth Kitt's original. Before hearing this disc none of these names meant a thing to me. Even now, their brief biographies in the liner notes are the only education I've received about any of them. Once again, here is proof that talent and fame are frequently unrelated.

The music on this album may be earthy but it is also tasteful. There are no weak tracks anywhere. Hitting the skip button on your CD player will not be necessary.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Sheryl Crow - Home For Christmas (2008)

Every Christmas 3,500 Hallmark Gold Crown stores release the greeting card giant's annual holiday CD that is sold exclusively in their shops. Each disc sells for $7.95 with the purchase of three Hallmark greeting cards or $10.95 if you buy one without cards.

Hallmark CDs are not throw away efforts. Their recent seasonal CDs by George Strait and James Taylor were certified platinum within a month of release while discs by Michael McDonald and Barry Manilow went gold. All are limited editions even though you can often find them after Christmas on Amazon. This year the honors go to rocker Sheryl Crow.

Home For Christmas is a ten song CD that shows Crow to be in a more subdued mood than usual and, while still technically a rock record, the disc is more blues and R&B oriented than most of her other work.

Crow opens the disc with the not often recorded "Go Tell It On The Mountain," then adds a perfectly placed horn section to several tracks including soulful versions of "White Christmas," "The Christmas Song," and "Merry Christmas, Baby." She also covers the ancient traditional folk song "All Through The Night." While it is technically not a Christmas song it fits in well with her holiday mood very nicely. A quietly appropriate "I'll Be Home For Christmas" features a string section. Crow also gives us a nice surprise with one original political song, "There Is A Star That Shines Tonight."

Producer Bill Bottrell who anchored her debut, Tuesday Night Music Club, all the way back in 1993 is back at the helm here. Booker T. Jones, the legendary Stax organist, plays on four tracks. With all-stars such as Jones and Bottrell on board for the ride it's obvious that Crow and Hallmark took these sessions very seriously.

Home For Christmas is not an exciting disc, but it is lively in spots, and is definitely more serious than most of Crow's other work. Her efforts should be rewarded by adding this CD to your Christmas music collection.