Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Top 10 CDs of the Decade - Part 2

Last week Bloggerhythms posted the first part of the top 10 CDs of the decade and counted down numbers 10 through 6. In case you missed it here is part 1. Today we continue with the final 5.

5. The Corrs - Home (2006)Nothing I'm writing here about The Corrs is new. I've said before the band would have done far better artistically if they had stuck to their roots and played what is obviously their first love, Celtic music, but then they probably wouldn't be millionaires. Here, as a tribute to Jean Corr, their late mother, they celebrate both her memory and their heritage. The siblings took the songbook of Jean's band and added their trademark sound to the twelve tracks (most of them in an acoustic setting) to record Home, the best work in their catalog.

4. The Cat Empire - Two Shoes (2005)
There isn't another band in the world as unusual as The Cat Empire. Bloggerhythms always gives points for uniqueness, especially if it's well done, and Two Shoes is uniformly excellent. This Australian party band recorded this set in Havana, Cuba without any guitars. One of their lead instruments is a trumpet. Heavy on ska, jazz, and R&B, with a little hip-hop thrown in for color (one of their percussionists lives behind his turntable), this sextet deserves to be huge. Olliver McGill, their outstanding pianist, could hang with any jazzmen on the planet. Their followup, So Many Nights, released last year, is not quite as eclectic but also worthy of your time.

3. Jimmy Lafave - Cimarron Manifesto (2007)

Jimmy Lafave just might be the most unknown singer-songwriter deserving of a wider audience. He gets better with each CD yet it is hard to believe he will ever top Cimarron Manifesto. Lafave is one of those singers with an earthy but pleasing voice. He writes heartfelt lyrics about love and lost love, and he has a soulful, rambling spirit. He adds some politics and social commentary to his repertoire too. Lafave idolizes Bob Dylan and covers his songs well. This past winter he organized and traveled around the country while headlining a tribute to Woody Guthrie that I had the pleasure of attending. It was one of Lafave's rare appearances outside of Texas.

2. Shelby Lynne - Just A Little Lovin' (2008)

Since the turn of the century Shelby Lynne's career has been of the highest quality. Four out of the five discs she released since then could have made this list. It was hard to pick just one. Lynne is a clever and often irreverent songwriter with a golden country voice that has garnered her respect way beyond Nashville. This CD, a sparsely produced tribute to the late Dusty Springfield, also shows how superbly she can interpret other people's music. Is it better than her previously released, mostly self-written, works? Not necessarily, but she deserves the runner-up spot on this list because of her diverse talents. Lynne's consistency wins her the Bloggerhythms award for artist of the decade.

1. Black 47 - Trouble in the Land (2000)

I didn't discover Black 47 until over a decade into their career. This CD was the band's first music I ever heard. I immediately fell in love with lead singer Larry Kirwan's lyrics and his band who combined reggae, punk, and Celtic folk music with some straight ahead rock. They are New York City street rebels with an Irish heritage that shows up everywhere in their music. It's #1 here because this wonderful disc spawned my love of Celtic rock in general and it's the album that had the most influence on my musical tastes these past ten years. It set in motion affairs with The Saw Doctors, The Young Dubliners, The Corrs, and even the Pogues. There is also a terrific local Philadelphia band, Blackthorn, whose latest CD, Push & Pull would come in at #11 if the list was expanded.

Among the other great CDs and bands that you should have listened to over the last ten years are The Mother Truckers, a quartet form Austin, TX who released three discs of great Rolling Stones influenced country-rock. Another Texas band, Los Lonely Boys, are blues-rockers who have already become stars. Check out all of their CDs, including their pair of live discs.

Seamus Kelleher, Blackthorn's lead guitarist, issued a very nice solo debut, Four Cups of Coffee.

Also, make sure you hear Diane diStasio's debut. She is an opera singer who has taken the pop-rock route with amazing ease on Vox Eterna.

Hall & Oates issued the finest Christmas disc of the decade, Home for Christmas.

Finally, here are two interesting and very different "best of the decade" lists from Music Obsessive and The Review Revue.

Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! See you in early January.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Top 10 CDs of the Decade - Part 1

Another decade is rapidly drawing to a close so its time to ask where the past ten years will find itself in the annals of American history? When someone speaks about "The Roaring 20s," "The Sexy 60s," or "The 70s," (also known as "The Me Decade") people instantly conjure up certain images and news events associated with those time periods. Will this decade eventually do the same and acquire a nickname that will stereotype it forever? Is there a common cultural theme to identify the first decade of the still young century? If you have a good moniker for where we are today please let me know.

As always, there was lots of news. The decade marks the election of the first mixed race President of the United States, but for most Americans, the single most important historical event was the tragedy of September 11, 2001 and its aftermath that we are still living with today. The past ten years were not the best years for war, the best for peace, or for many people's standard of living, and American trash culture has definitely taken over our newspapers, movies, TVs, and news programs. All of that makes it easy to say goodbye to the entire era.

Now that I may have put you in the doldrums it's time to lighten things up and what better way to do it than with music.

The big news of the decade was not the art form itself. It was how people purchased and listened to music. CD sales, soaring at the beginning of the decade, declined greatly because this became the age of the ipod, mp3s, file sharing, and portable music on-the-go. Vinyl has become retro-cool. If you knew where to look there was a lot of good stuff available on all three formats.

Rap and rock continued to rule. Eminem was easily the biggest selling artist of the decade but a band who had it's first hit forty-seven years ago, The Beatles, had the top selling album.

So, we've reached that time again, time for overly opinionated and self-righteous music fans like me to tell you what you should have been listening to over the last ten years. It's time for Bloggerhythms to present part one of its ten best releases of the decade.

10. Sterling Harrison - South of the Snooty Fox (2007)

South of the Snooty Fox is a true soul record in the spirit of Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett given to us by a hard luck singer who was discovered to have cancer shortly after recording it in 2001. It was intended to be Harrison's big break but his illness stopped its release. He died in 2005 and the disc was finally issued posthumously in 2007. Singing was Harrison's whole life. Before making this album he recorded sporadically with no success while singing in small clubs for over fifty years. The small audiences who came to see him in Los Angeles swore he was the greatest singer of all time. Jimi Hendrix once played in his band. This is a true soul music masterpiece.

9. California Transit Authority - Full Circle (2007)

After his dismissal from the rock band Chicago in 1991 their original drummer Danny Seraphine went into a funk and he didn't really play drums very often for about fifteen years. His friends eventually talked him into starting a new band, and when he finally organized a group, he did so with relish. Full Circle is a thirteen track, jazz-rock fusion disc covering nine of Chicago's early songs, each one a very interesting alternate version. Seraphine can still play his butt off. With help from Keith Emerson's organ on "I'm a Man" and Tower of Power's Larry Braggs on lead vocals this disc is better than anything Chicago has released in over thirty years.

8. Brandi Carlile - The Story (2007)

This twenty-eight year old rocker from rural Washington State not only has a sensitive singer-songwriter side she also has a terrific voice that can change from folky, earthy, sweetness to a bluesy, powerful, rock 'n roll toughness in the same song. She and her two partners, the Hanseroth twins, are also jaw-dropping songwriters. In concert, Carlile plays mostly serious songs but still uplifts the audience with her winning stage presence and pleasing personality. The title track is undoubtedly the song of the decade and her recently released third CD, Give Up the Ghost, rivals The Story for a place on this list. Carlile is rapidly becoming a star in the world of adult alternative music. Listen to Carlile sing "The Story".

7. America - Here & Now (2007)

The 70s soft-rock duo issued their best album since the decade that made them famous. They found a little bit of the eclecticism they used on their eponymous debut LP and their followup, Homecoming, and sprinkled it all over the middle-of-the-road music they put out after their first two albums. The result is this gem of a disc that surprised me and nearly everyone who heard it. The CD's producers, James Iha formerly of Smashing Pumpkins and James Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne, treated this music with the reverence they obviously feel towards it. They did not try to update America's sound but instead allowed both Dewey Bunnell and Gerry Beckley to do what they do best. The results are outstanding.

6. Robert Lamm - Subtlety & Passion(2003)

This is the second CD on the list with a connection to the rock band, Chicago. Lamm took the classic Chicago sound, horns and all, to make an album that sounded just like his band did back in its 70s heyday. He got some help from the current members of his famous outfit and even unarchived an old and previously unused Terry Kath guitar solo for the song "Intensity." There is nothing new or groundbreaking on S&P, just well written, arranged, and played music from the man, who along with Kath, was Chicago's heart and soul.

Next up? Numbers 5 through 1. Here is part 2.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Billboard's Greatest Christmas Hits - Volumes 1 & 2 (1989)

Rhino's Billboard's Greatest Christmas Hits, Volume 1 (1935-1954) and Volume 2 (1955- Present) contain twenty classic songs, ten on each disc. All were top 40 hits or million sellers over the decades since they were recorded. Most have become perennial classics, heard every December, until you can't stand it anymore.

Volume 1 contains Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" and Gene Autry's original versions of Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer and "Here Comes Santa Claus." Also included are "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," from twelve year old Jimmy Boyd, a one hit wonder in 1952, Eartha Kitt's "Santa Baby," and "All I Want For Christmas (Is My Two Front Teeth)" by Spike Jones.

Volume 2 is even better due to the presence of much loved Christmas songs such as Bobby Helms' "Jingle Bell Rock," "The Chipmunk Song," Elvis's "Blue Christmas," Brenda Lee's "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," "Nuttin' for Christmas," by Barry Gordon, and Elmo & Patsy's "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer."

These two discs highlight the fun side of Christmas, but beware. Each one loses a star because they are very short. All of the music featured here could easily fit onto one CD. The combined playing time for both discs is under 60 minutes. Because each one is offered at regular retail prices consumers are victims of a major ripoff.

Monday, December 07, 2009

The Beatles - Christmas Messages (1963 - 1969)

For seven straight years beginning in 1963, even before they were famous in America, The Beatles recorded annual Christmas messages exclusively for their fan club members as a holiday thank you. They were issued on seven-inch, flexible, vinyl sheets that were very thin, very bendable, and easily damaged. These flexi-discs, as they were called, could not be used on record changers.

Over the years the messages have been bootlegged in countless ways and, as far as research indicates, there has never been a legal release outside of the the fan club. Members were finally sent copies on real 33 RPM discs after the boys from Liverpool went their separate ways. The LP cover shown here is from that album.

Many Beatles fans managed to hear these records over the years, and with the Internet being what it is, there are now several websites where anyone can easily download all seven messages. This website, The Beatles Source, is one of them. Just click on the record label for each year to hear that season's ridiculous piece of anarchy.

The records were never made with any pretensions of creating high art. They are mere screwball comedy bits. While many people consider them to be highly entertaining it is easy to find just as many fans who believe they are the stupidest recordings ever laid down on vinyl. Because all four Beatles had an unforced sense of humor the scripted moments often felt relaxed and spontaneous. John Lennon even pokes fun of the fake spontaneity on the 1964 record. The messages from early in their career are the best ones because all four Beatles were in the studio together singing, joking around, and carrying on with each other. Not coincidentally, by 1968, the very same year their internal squabbles began to destroy the group, each member went into the studio and recorded their parts independently from each other with the engineers splicing the fragments together into a cohesive whole. While there is no interaction between the band members at all guest star Tiny Tim sings "Nowhere Man" accompanied by his ukulele on the 1968 flexi-disc and John and Yoko appear together on the '69 finale.

Listening to all seven messages in a row can be a bit tiring spread out over forty-four minutes, especially because the later ones are not as compelling, but the quartet's humor, camaraderie, and love of being Beatles was easily apparent on the early editions. Listen for yourself and laugh a little this holiday season.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Putumayo Presents: New Orleans Christmas (2006)

Putumayo has always released a lot of high quality American jazz compilations as part of their international focus on music and Putumayo Presents: New Orleans Christmas is no exception.

Just from reading its title there should be no surprise that New Orleans Christmas is a jazz and blues CD. All eleven tracks feature artists who are natives of the Crescent City or have a long time affiliation with the town's jazz scene.

One of the many jazz veterans who appear on the disc is Lars Edegran, an unknown to the general public even though he has had a long and impeccable career in the business. Edegran is a former Academy Award nominee, garnering the honor in 1979 for the soundtrack to the Louis Malle film, Pretty Baby. On "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town" a big band frames Big Al Carson, a popular New Orleans R&B singer for a rousing version of this often tired old classic. Singer and trumpeter James Andrews does his best Louis Armstrong on "Christmas in New Orleans." He has recorded with Allen Toussaint and Dr. John. The Dukes of Dixieland contribute "Holiday Time In New Orleans."

For those who prefer more modern sounds there is Ellis Marsalis, the father of the famous jazz brothers. Here he adds a more modern touch to "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" with some fabulous piano work as the leader of a trio that includes his youngest son, Jason, on drums. Singer John Boutte comes from another local musical family and spices up a nice arrangement of "White Christmas," a track that also showcases some nice electric, jazz guitar.

Most of the CD sounds more dated than the latter two examples do, and while everything is superbly played, produced, and arranged, you must like the style and free-wheeling spirit of this great music town to fully appreciate these songs. If you do, you won't find much better party jazz on a Christmas album anywhere.