The BourbonAndVinyl Top Albums of 2017: From Allman to Plant to Neil Young

IMG_1192

I staggered through the living room last night, weary from the struggle that is my job, on the way to the sink for more water, when I saw the Rock Chick had the TV on. I get my water from the kitchen like a child avoiding bedtime because it’s just better than bathroom water, but I digress. Sadly, the news was on the TV. I have been conspicuously avoiding the news this year…none of it is good. I was stunned to see that it was Pearl Harbor Day in the U.S. I know Thanksgiving is supposed to be the “official” start of the holiday season – and besides St Patrick’s Day, it’s one of my favorites (I show up, eat, drink and then fall asleep watching football) – but for some reason it didn’t register to me that the holidays were upon me. Or should I say, the dreaded holidays, but that’s another post. Pearl Harbor Day, which was also my Sainted Grandmother’s birthday, always drives home the point that it’s fucking December, baby. I can’t believe the year of 2017 has sped by with such amazing rapidity. It seems like just yesterday I was celebrating David Bowie’s birthday in January. And now I find myself almost terminally behind on Christmas shopping. It’s going to take some real Houdini level stunt for me to pull off Christmas this year… but that’s my problem.

It was again a tough year for rock and roll. Among this year’s losses were guitarist J. Geils, rock and roll pioneer and Founding Father Chuck Berry, and founding Allman Brother’s Band keyboardist/vocalist Gregg Allman. Amongst the toughest of this year’s losses was the tragic suicide of Chris Cornell, the extraordinary lead singer of Soundgarden and Audioslave. That one is going to leave a mark. Such a gifted singer and wonderful human being. The one that really stunned me and left me in a funk that hangs over me even today was the loss of Rock Legend Tom Petty. Every time I see or hear someone do a Petty cover in tribute, the Rock Chick catches me tearing up. I was lucky enough to see Cornell and Soundgarden mere days before his loss and Petty on his farewell tour a month or so prior to his loss. Not a farewell I wanted but at least I got to see these old “friends” of mine once more… The lesson was not lost on me this year, buy the ticket – see the show. Live in the moment people, and cherish each one. More recently we even lost AC/DC rhythm guitarist/songwriter Malcolm Young… and while he’d been suffering from dementia for some time, the loss was not any less painful. I know there were many more we lost, alas, too many to list here. I wonder which acts will rise to fill the Rock void…

But amongst all that tragedy there was hope and there was light and most importantly there was some great music. Tis the Season for every publication from Rolling Stone to my mother’s neighborhood news letter to come out with their “best of” lists, ranking all the past year’s music. We’re no different down here at B&V, we just do it with a glass of strong drink in our hands. As you know, we focus on rock and roll here, so if you’re looking for Taylor Swift’s name here, you best move on. As I compiled the “best of” list, a couple of things jumped out at me. First and foremost, several of these acts had just put out albums last year. I like this trend, like it was in the 70s, of acts putting out records every year. Hell, Van Morrison put out 2 albums this year, within 2 months of each other. Very 70’s if not 60s of him, indeed. And while this is on the surface, a list of “best of” LPs, I’m including a couple of EPs and even a single. This is music you’re not going to find on the radio, but like last year, I’ll tell ya, however you get your music now – Spotify, CD, Satellite Radio, hopefully vinyl – you should seek this music out. I am not doing a stack ranking here. This is just good music… I’m just not into that competition thing this year… I’ve ranked these albums in a haphazard, alphabetical manner. Find this music, pour something strong if you’re so inclined and enjoy!

The BourbonAndVinyl Best Albums of 2017

  1. Gregg Allman, Southern Blood – A farewell note in the same vein of Bowie’s Blackstar or Warren Zevon’s The Wind. I especially liked the single, “My Only True Friend.” This was a gripping listen.
  2. David Bowie, No Plan (EP) – This isn’t an album, but this EP packaged the last three songs from Bowie’s Blackstar sessions (along with the previously released song “Lazarus”) that had only been previously available on the cast recording from “Lazarus,” the play he’d been working on. It was a nice Bowie Birthday surprise and I’m hoping there’s another waiting for us this coming January.
  3. Lindsey Buckingham & Christine McVie, Lindsey Buckingham & Christine McVie – Tired of waiting for Stevie Nicks to record some tunes to complete an intended Fleetwood Mac project (Mick Fleetwood plays drums, McVie bass here), Buckingham and McVie put out the music they’d recorded under the duo’s title. They don’t have the baggage Lindsey and Stevie have and it turns out they’re a great pair.
  4. Cheap Trick, We’re All Alright – A gleeful rocker from Cheap Trick was a wonderful surprise, considering they’d just put out a strong album in 2016. This band is on a roll and I’ve really enjoyed this late career resurgence.
  5. David Crosby, Sky Trails – Following 2016’s homage to If I Could Only Remember My Name (the roughhewn Lighthouse), Crosby returned with this beautifully sung album. There’s a Joni Mitchell cover and a Steely Dan influenced tune. An overlooked gem of a record.
  6. Depeche Mode, Spirit – This one might be my pick for “album of the year.” From the political, “Where’s the Revolution,” and “Going Backward,” to the personal, “You Move,” Depeche deliver a slinky, sexy, dark state of the union address.
  7. Liam Gallagher, As You Were – I find Liam as unpleasant as the next guy, but he’s delivered the best post-Oasis album of anybody from that band with As You Were. This was the Rock Chick’s favorite of the year, although she’s a bigger Oasis fan than I ever was.
  8. Greta Van Fleet, From The Fires – Billed as a “double-EP,” this album might be criticized for being somewhat derivative but I love where these kids are coming from. Anybody influenced by Zeppelin in these days of hip hop and electronic pop is ok with me. They even cover Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
  9. Mick Jagger, Get A Grip/England Lost (Single) – Yes, this was merely a two-sided single but it’s a great political broadside to his home country. Oh, and the songs kick ass.
  10. Little Steven, Soulfire – A big, bombastic, 70s, arena-rock, absolute blast of a listen. I was so happy to see Little Steven restart his solo career. It’s nice to see him step out of the shadow of his famous best friend… “Down and Out In New York City” is my favorite track here… although it’s hard to pick just one.
  11. Van Morrison, Roll With The Punches – The first of two LPs Van put out this year, merely twelve months after the very strong Keep Me Singing. While mostly blues and R&B covers, this is a laid blues party with Van singing his ass off like he wrote these tunes. He’s got a lot of friends here, but his most inspired choice was inviting Jeff Beck to play guitar.
  12. Randy Newman, Dark Matter – Newman’s first new album in almost a decade proves he’s still got the wit and sense of humor to take on any topic from politics to the personal. “She Chose Me” is one of his most beautiful ballads. He’s like Mark Twain with a piano.
  13. Robert Plant, Carry Fire – Like it’s primal title suggest, Carry Fire finds Plant in rootsy, exploratory mode, where he combines rock, folk, Welsh folk, and African music into a sound gumbo that is a delight to experience. His singing is right out front and I love where his voice is at this point in his career. A truly stunning album and like Depeche Mode’s LP, possibly my candidate for album of the year.
  14. Queens of the Stone Age, Villains – Josh Homme and company’s hard rock, swinging dance party. “The Way You Used To Do” is my favorite song of the year. A great, hard rock record from start to finish.
  15. The Rolling Stones, On Air – A BBC Recording (Deluxe) – The Stones from way back, from 1963 to 1965. Hailed for returning to their roots on Blue And Lonesome, this compilation of BBC live recordings are the Stones’ roots unfolding before your very ears… back when Brian Jones was as important as Mick or Keith. These recordings crackle with a youthful energy that is a wonder to behold.
  16. Bob Seger, I Knew You When (Deluxe) – This was a near miss of a classic record from Seger, but there are enough great moments here to recommend it. It’s a blast to hear Seger cover, of all people, Lou Reed on “Busload of Faith.” This is Seger’s best album since The Distance. 
  17. Bruce Springsteen, Live Archival Recordings – Springsteen has been quietly releasing a new live, archival recording every first Friday, each month. It’s the only reason that I’ve found to celebrate the turn of a calendar month. From early releases of the rarely heard 1977 tour, to another great show in Houston on the 1978 tour these live recordings are something special. The 1996 release from The Ghost of Tom Joad solo tour was another recent release. If you’re not checking these live albums out, you’re missing out.
  18. U2, Songs of Experience – The long awaited sequel to Songs of Innocence. Bono’s recent brush with death inform these lyrics, and they’re some of his best. I can’t stop listening to this album, their best since How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. 
  19. Roger Waters, Is This The Life We Really Want – It took 25 years between solo albums, but Waters has delivered his best album since The Wall. This magnum opus is truly his solo masterpiece. I only regret I didn’t get to see it live, which a friend of mine told me was like going “to church.”
  20. Neil Young, Hitchhiker – Neil went back to the archives to release this stunning acoustic album, recorded in one night back in August of 1976… the full moon really worked some magic. While many of these songs came out on later albums and in different versions, hearing them all in this original setting is the way God and Neil intended them to be heard. Neil’s just launched his own streaming, archival website which will likely provide me with hours of rock n roll spelunking joy…

 

There you have it folks, 2017 in a classic rock nutshell. Happy Holidays.

Advertisements

LP Review: The Rolling Stones, ‘On Air’ – An Exciting Look Back To The Early BBC Performances

MI0004342817

They say it’s your first love that leaves the deepest impression. As far as relationships are concerned, I’m not so sure that’s true (I met the Rock Chick when I was 36…my personal records prior to that are sealed up tighter than the JFK files), but in the realm of rock and roll, for me, The Stones were my first love and definitely left the deepest impression on me. My musical tastes and record collection have grown and branched out in every conceivable direction over the years, but the roots have always been with the Stones. Everything that I really love has a solid basis in the blues. I wouldn’t even know what the blues are if it weren’t for the Stones.

I wasn’t really a fan of music as a kid, music was my brother’s thing. My brother and I tend to be polar opposites. I was but a child for most of the 70s and the only time I turned on the radio was to listen to a Royals baseball game, back when I still cared about baseball. My brother had a stereo and had started a record collection long before I ever did. I’d always wander by his room and hear the sound of guitar and drums pouring out from behind his locked door and just shake my head and keep walking. My brother was a big Beatles fan. Later he followed that up by getting deeply into George Harrison’s solo work. It took me years to get into George Harrison’s solo music, which is amazingly rewarding… but my brother, who also plays guitar, was so far ahead of me, he was cranking up Living In the Material World when he was 10.

All of this changed, of course, when I first heard the Rolling Stones 1978 LP, Some Girls. I asked my parents for a stereo for Christmas – back then you could get a turntable/cassette player/receiver and a couple of speakers for pretty cheap – and dipped into my lawn-mowing money to buy my first ever album, Some Girls. I practically wore that album out… I do remember the first time I listened to the whole album on the headphones, in my sainted Grandmother’s living room, and Mick sang that notorious lyric about women who wanted to “fuck all night…” I was staring at my Grandmother and I just about did a back flip when Mick sang those words, I was so stunned. Luckily the headphones protected Grandma from that… But besides that rather startling moment, hearing Some Girls for the first time was like having someone attach jumper cables to the base of my brain and pump the gas for 45 minutes. I was hooked. I’d sing along to “Shattered” at full (and off-key) throat.

One of the things I loved about Some Girls was the interplay of Keith Richards’ and Ronnie Woods’ guitars – “the ancient art of weaving” as Keith calls it – the guitars played off and around each other like they were sawing down a tree. As my lawn mowing income grew, I continued to buy more Stones’ albums. I started with the Ronnie Wood-era… Black and Blue and Love You Live were early additions to my record collection. When Emotional Rescue came out in ’80 I bought it the day it came out. Say what you want about some of the disco-leaning songs on that record, I still loved it… and there was a great, great blues tune on that record, “Down In The Hole.” And who wouldn’t love the lyric, “riding on a fine Arab chaaaaarger…”

I eventually discovered the Mick Taylor-era of the Stones music which is largely regarded as their “golden-era.” Mick Taylor had been a guitar virtuoso with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and when he joined the Stones, he largely took over the blistering leads and allowed Keith to become, as he calls himself, “the riff-miester.” Those albums, including Exile On Main Street and Sticky Fingers were some of the greatest albums ever recorded. After experiencing those albums, my Stones spelunking slowed down… For whatever reason, when it came to the early, Brian Jones-era Stones, I stopped after Beggars Banquet and Aftermath. I had some of that early music on a greatest hits album, but I never delved any further into the Stones early years. While I dug the blues, I viewed the Stones early stuff as “formative”…. there were too many blues covers and not enough original material for my immature tastes.

Naturally, I was wrong. Years later, I corrected this egregious mistake and bought all those early Stones records, which I consider as utterly essential for any rock fan… I went from England’s Newest Hitmakers all the way through Between the Buttons. While Mick Taylor gets the accolades for his guitar work with the Stones, I don’t hear a lot of people talk about Brian Jones much anymore. The guy could play slide guitar like a Chicago-born bluesman. His work on “Little Red Rooster” is all the resume Brian Jones ever needed… Many people, like I did when I was a teenager, dismissed the Stones as a blues-cover band during their early years. That may be true, but doing that blues-cover apprenticeship was the crucible for everything that came after it.

I was thrilled last year when the Stones returned to their roots and recorded a full on blues-cover album, the sensational Blue And Lonesome (reviewed: LP Review: The Rolling Stones, The Superb “Blue And Lonesome” – They Come Full Circle). While that album was heralded as a “return” to their roots, this week the Stones actually released the actual roots… On Air (Deluxe) compiles 30 songs (on the 2 CD version) from the Stones early appearances on the BBC. These appearances have been largely bootlegged over the years, but this is the first official release. The sound quality is better here than on the bootlegs I’ve heard, but some of the tunes are rough enough to give the project a bootleg vibe.

The ‘Live At the BBC’ series has seen some great albums compiling the live performances of many great groups on that venerable radio station. I was always a huge fan of the Led Zeppelin BBC Sessions, it was truly revelatory. The other albums from the series that are must-haves are from The Who and, of course, The Beatles. The Beatles Live At the BBC for me, was an important and under represented part of the Beatles story – The Beatles as a live, performing band… For whatever reason the Stones decided not to title this album BBC Sessions, much like when they did their own ‘Unplugged’ and called it Stripped. When you’re the Stones, I guess you do your own thing. The album is subtitled “A BBC Recording.”

Like those early, Brian Jones-era albums, On Air is an essential purchase for Stones fans, and fans of rock/blues rock in general. It’s so much fun to listen to these scruffy, dirty kids play the blues. The song selections on here, other than “Satisfaction” are largely covers. You hear blues, a healthy amount of Chuck Berry covers, Bo Diddley-covers and some R&B. These recordings crackle with an electricity and energy of youth. Charlie Watts’ drums in particular grabbed me. He is truly the engine of this band. Mick’s (and probably occasionally Brian’s) harmonica is sensational. I hadn’t really noticed but Brian and Keith Richards guitars intertwine in much the same way that Keith and Ronnie’s did a decade or so later. Brian Jones’ guitar on “I Wanna Be Your Man” is a raw, ragged slide guitar masterpiece.

Of the 30 performances captured here, eight of the songs are tracks that the Stones never committed to tape in a studio. It’s great to hear “Memphis, Tennessee” and their take on “Roll Over Beethoven.” All of the performances here hail from 1963 to 1965, before I was born… I don’t know if there will be a second release for the years 1965 to 1967, but I sure hope so. Anybody who wants to understand where that great late-60s, early 70s Stones music came from, look no further than here… (With the exception of some of the country stuff Gram Parsons introduced the band to, but I digress… ) Blues, big riffs, harmonica. It’s all here. Jagger sings a razor line on each of these tunes. The whole band just sounds great.

If you’re looking for something special for the stereo this year to drowned out the odious Christmas music, this is your solution. The Rolling Stones original line-up, before the arenas, before the massive tours, before the squabbles – Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones (when he was just as important as Mick), Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts were indeed a force of nature and something to behold… Rock and roll school is open, and class is in session. Turn this one up loud.

 

LP Review: U2’s ‘Songs Of Experience,’ Battling Ambition and Expectations

MI0004335873

Expectations can tough for anybody. I was a league bowler as a kid and I can still remember the pressure I felt when the team needed a strike to win the tournament. It felt like the whole bowling alley was watching me… The expectations and pressure were such that I rolled a gutter ball. I can’t imagine what the pressure on a band like U2 or Bruce Springsteen must be like. U2 is a group whose music is so transcendent, whose music has lifted the world up and whose music is so important to so many people it’s gotta be hard to live up to that. They are, as my friend The Accountant and I say, the soundtrack to our lives. With every new U2 album the expectations for a masterpiece rise to a dangerous level. It’s like the entire bowling alley is watching them… I know, in particular, Arkansas Joel and the Rock Chick always have such high expectations that U2 can’t possibly fulfill them. Their love for U2 is so intense that they are naturally set up for a disappointment with every new release that isn’t The Joshua Tree. 

Ambition is also a tricky thing. I love that line from one of U2’s songs, “Ambition bites the nails of success.” Make no mistake, U2 is a very ambitious band. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard different members of the band say, “we don’t want to be a crap band,” whatever that means. Their entire career can be looked at as the conflict between their ambition for popularity and their artful tendencies. Every album is almost a reaction to the last album’s reception. After the criticism that accompanied Rattle And Hum (which was overblown, that was a great album and “Heartland” remains one of my favorite songs), they retreated to Berlin and took an artistic left turn for Achtung Baby. They were still the serious rock band they’d always been, but they painted over it with a veneer of irony. Unfortunately the irony got carried away on Pop, which was one of their few weak albums. So, they reacted – they recorded the very serious All That You Can’t Leave Behind – an album that is always associated with 911, but was actually recorded before that. It was their reaction to the death of their friend Michael Hutchence of INXS and they’d purposely stripped away the irony because of the reaction to Pop. “Beautiful Day” is one of their best tunes and they almost left it off the album because it sounded “too much like a U2 song.” Thank God for Larry Mullen, Jr who intervened and insisted it be put on the album. Every band needs a Larry Mullen, Jr.

Part of the problem with U2’s ambition is that in order to gain the popularity they seek, they try too hard to be current vs doing what they do well, which is rock. How else can anybody explain the presence of Kendrick Lamar on two tracks here. His rap at the end of “Get Out of Your Own Way” and the beginning of “American Soul” are not only unnecessary but distracting. I’m not adverse to hip hop, I’m not that old, but it just didn’t make sense here. The list of producers on this album is longer than the stationary of most law firms. One can’t help but think U2 are trying too hard. I’ve heard the sound of this album compared to Imagine Dragons (and unfavorably at that). I can also hear a little Cage The Elephant here, but that’s probably just me. That’s the problem with multiple producers – they influence the sound of the band instead of the reverse of that. I’d like U2 to lock themselves in a room with Steve Lillywhite who produced their early stuff and just rock. If I was producing U2, I’d unplug most of the Edge’s effects pedals and turn his guitar up. When he flat out plays guitar he lifts the music beyond the ordinary much as he did on U2’s last masterpiece, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb.

Bono’s lyrics on Songs Of Experience are nothing short of remarkable. The album has that same All That You Can’t Leave Behind sense of despair, hidden under big, sing-along choruses. Bono had a brush with death and it’s informed his lyrics. I even found the liner notes he wrote to be moving. Like Leave Behind, I think Songs of Experience happens to capture the current zeitgeist of most the world. Things are turning dark out there and these ruminations fit that mood. Bono has said these lyrics/songs were written as letters to those he cared about, or perhaps more accurately described, love letters.

With all of that said, I will say this is a good U2 album. It is not a masterpiece, but it’s good, probably very good. I think time will be very kind to this album. It’s flawed, as I said. The attempts at currency are a misstep, but when he occasionally plays his guitar, the Edge drives the music to fantastic places. “You’re The Best Thing About Me” remains my favorite song here. But I also really like “American Soul,” Bono’s love letter to America. “The Blackout” is a rocky, slinky affair that conjures thoughts of Achtung Baby. These guys are so good when they just rock out. I even like “The Showman (Little More Better)” a groovy little acoustic driven number. Its a joyful moment.

There are two great songs that address the refugee issue in Europe, “Red Flag Day” and “Summer of Love.” They are in the middle of the album and provide it with a real emotional center. There is a lot of love on this album… Of the ballads, I really like “The Little Things That Give You Away.” I think every musician whose ever made it from Motley Crue and GnR to U2, had a woman who let them sleep at her place… Bono chronicles his experience in a great song to his wife, “Landlady,” where he sings, “you always paid the rent…” I also found “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In It’s Way” to be particularly moving but I’ve always liked U2’s serious ballads.

So what are my complaints here? The album is on the mellow end. The Rock Chick, like most people, likes her U2 loud and rocking. And when they do – “Best Thing About Me,” and “American Soul” she was all in. But for the most part these songs are rumination on love and death and they are on the downbeat side. Other than “The Blackout” I’m not sure I could play much of this album at a party, which isn’t necessarily the measure of a good album, but I think most people get what I mean. The production is a little too glossy for me. And, as I’ve mentioned, I would have liked to have heard the Edge’s guitar featured more prominently on this record. U2 shouldn’t be aiming to get played in clubs, they should be looking to get blasted out of the t-top of a Camaro. U2 need to ignore what is current, and stop grasping to compete with Taylor Swift on the charts. If they’d return to their core skills as a rock band, they’d find what they seek. I remember when Mick Jagger’s first solo album came out. Keith Richards savaged it, rightly so. Keith said Mick was throwing away his critical reputation by shaking his ass and wanting to compete against Madonna or Prince. Sage words, Keith, sage words.

U2 has all it needs to conquer the world again. And while this album probably won’t do that for them, it will fill stadiums and get people singing along. If I was U2, I’d just listen to anything Larry Mullen, Jr suggested as a musical direction. Follow the drummer, people. What I’d tell U2 is, “Free yourself to be yourself, if only you could see yourself.” If only…