B&V’s Best of 2020: New LPs And Live/Vault/Archival Releases, Bad Year/Good Music

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I can’t believe 2020 is almost over. Most years I blink and the year is gone. I can’t really say that about this year. In a matter of two days I’ll be scribbling a “1” over the “0” in the date column on my checks… “Oh it’s 2021 not 2020, sorry.” Yes, I still use checks… you kids and your “apps.” At least this year, in Christmas cards, I didn’t have to read everybody’s not-so-humble bragging about what they did in 2020. This year we’re all just glad we survived. While 2020 was a long slow slog in most areas, it was actually quite a nice year for music. I find myself, in my prior year end retrospectives quoting Don Henley, “It was a pretty good year for fashion, a lousy year for rock n roll.” I certainly can’t say that this year. I will say there is one glaring exception to my 2020 rosy music view: concerts. I miss live music so much I can’t stand it. I’m hopeful, like I never was at the beginning of 2020 about anything, that in 2021 I will be standing in a darkened room in front of a band with my hands in the air, screaming wildly. If Springsteen and the E Street Band’s SNL performance is any indication… I think these musicians are ready to go and are going to come out firing once “the coast is clear” as they say.

It was, if I may say so, a great year at BourbonAndVinyl. I want to say a big Thank You to all the readers, commenters, and followers out there – both those joined us this year and to all of you have been around a while as well. I started this thing with a dialogue with fellow music (and bourbon) lovers in mind and this year that concept came to fruition. With musicians off the road this year, so many acts chose to put out new music or cull through their archives. I found myself writing a lot more than in previous years… sorry if that was a little overwhelming… I get excited about music and I have to share. If you’ve enjoyed B&V this year – tell a friend. All music lovers are welcome. Hopefully I’ve turned you on to something you might have missed which is our goal here at B&V.

There were huge losses this year in rock n roll, too many to enumerate. I was saddened to see Bill Withers pass away this year. “Ain’t No Sunshine” is still one of my favorite tracks. I’ve been hearing “Lovely Day” a lot on commercials lately. Glad to see Bill get some recognition. I was rocked this year by the loss of two titans of rock n roll in the B&V universe. Losing drummer/lyricist Neil Peart of Rush really rocked me. I can still remember the first time I air-drummed to 2112 in junior high school. Rush was so huge here in the heartland, Peart’s loss reverberated through everybody. Making things worse, this year we lost one of the greatest guitarists to ever strap on the instrument, Eddie Van Halen. That one left a mark. Van Halen’s music is such an integral part of my listening as young man it’s almost a part of who I am. Hard, edgy and yet funny at the same time. I loved that band from Van Halen to Fair Warning to 1984 to For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. Eddie’s guitar playing was always the price of admission for me. He redefined the instrument and that doesn’t happen much, perhaps once every generation or so. His presence, warmth and smile will be missed.

So plentiful was music in 2020 it’s hard to think of an artist who didn’t put out something new or something from the archives. I barely scratched the surface this year. Elton John put out a box set entitled Jewel Box that was a 10 hour journey through demo’s, deep album tracks and rarities. It was great, albeit mellow, but I felt it was for fans only so I didn’t write about it. The King, Elvis Presley put out a 4-disc box Elvis In Nashville (clearly a play on the title his big LP Elvis In Memphis) that collected all of the country/country rock tracks that Elvis recorded over the course of 3 days in Nashville in 1970. Those songs made up the bulk of three albums including the wonderful Elvis Country. The first two discs had all the actual songs, without any studio sweetening but with the second two discs being demo’s – I love the studio chatter of Elvis hanging with musicians – it felt like a fans only kinda thing. It’s a rare year where I can pick/choose the stuff I write about… skipping Elton and Elvis, wow what a year.

There were some fun singles too. The Black Crowes re-released their Christmas classic “Dirty Santa.” I can only hope the brothers Robinson will record a new album in 2021. B&V favs Starcrawler released their cover of Petty’s “I Need To Know” with Heartbreaker Mike Campbell joining in. Greta Van Fleet released their first single “My Way, Now” from their upcoming album… All this is points toward a good 2021!

Here are my favorites from 2020. The first list is new music, stuff that musicians newly recorded. Below, I’ll furnish my list of vault/archive/live albums – where artists either went back and dug out previously recorded material or compilations and also any live albums that caught my attention. I wrote about a lot more than I’m listing here, these are just my favorites. They aren’t in any particular ranked order, it’s pretty random. Enjoy!

B&V’s Favorite New Albums of 2020

  1. Ozzy Osbourne, Ordinary Man – Ozzy returned after a decade’s absence with a great new record. With producer/guitar whizz Andrew Watt helming the project and RHCP’s Chad Smith on drums, GnR bassist Duff McKagan on bass as the backing band, you knew this would be great. Cameos by Slash and Elton John were icing on the cake, Review: Ozzy Osbourne’s ‘Ordinary Man’ – A Simply Extraordinary Album!.
  2. Pearl Jam, Gigaton – Like Ozzy, it had been a long time since these guys had released anything (7 years). I was a touch lukewarm on this record when it came out. It is definitely a “grower.” The more I listen to it the more I like it. The second half of the record gets a little mellow but those are some of my favorite songs. I’d love to see these guys live again, it’s been years, Review: Pearl Jam’s First LP In 7 Years, ‘Gigaton’ – My Conflicted Thoughts.
  3. Fiona Apple, Fetch The Bolt Cutters – It had been 8 years since genius Fiona Apple had released an album – I’m seeing a trend here in 2020 – but Fetch The Bolt Cutters was worth the wait. I think it may be the perfect “lockdown” album, thematically at least, Review: Fiona Apple, ‘Fetch The Bolt Cutters’ – Genius Unleashed.
  4. Bob Dylan, Rough And Rowdy Ways – Another artist with a huge gap since his last studio record – 8 years. Dylan had been releasing Sinatra cover LPs for much of that time so it was nice to hear self-penned stuff again. It was preceded by the mesmerizing 18 minute long “Murder Most Foul.” Great, late-period Dylan, Review: The White Stripes ‘Greatest Hits’ – A Lovingly Curated Romp Through Their Career.
  5. Pretenders, Hate For Sale – Original drummer Martin Chambers returns and he and Chrissie Hynde deliver the goods on this punchy, rocking album, LP Review: Pretenders ‘Hate For Sale’ – A Late Career Classic With Attitude!.
  6. Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, Letter To You – Bruce contemplates his own mortality, inspired by the death of the last surviving member of his first band, the Castiles. I loved Western Stars, his 70s southern California noir but it’s great to hear him back with the E Street Band, Review: Springsteen’s ‘Letter To You’ – Contemplating Mortality On E Street.
  7. AC/DC, Power Up – I would have never thought Angus would be able to pull Brian Johnson, Phil Rudd, and Cliff Williams back into the fold and record another spectacular album. Power Up may be my pick for album of the year – if I still picked albums of the year… Review: AC/DC’s Spectacular Return, ‘Power Up’.
  8. The Dirty Knobs, Wreckless Abandon – Former Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ guitarist and “co-captain” and current member of Fleetwood Mac, Mike Campbell’s side project finally releases their debut album. There are a lot of echos of Petty here but make no mistake, this is a guitar album. It’s a lot of fun, Review: Mike Campbell’s New Band The Dirty Knobs, ‘Wreckless Abandon”.
  9. Chris Cornell, Nobody Sings Like You Anymore, Vol 1 – I was tempted to put this in the “vault” list but this is all unreleased stuff that was recorded and sequenced by Cornell. He obviously planned to release it but alas didn’t live to do so. All well chosen covers, this LP underscores what a tragedy it was when his voice was silenced, Review: Chris Cornell Posthumous Release, ‘No One Sings Like You Anymore, Vol. 1’ – A Nice Surprise From An Old Friend.
  10. Paul McCartney, McCartney III – A homespun gem more in the manner of McCartney than McCartney II. This felt like a really welcome Christmas gift, Review: ‘McCartney III,’ A Homespun Gem.

B&V’s Favorite Vault/Archive/Live Albums of 2020 

  1. Neil Young, Homegrown – Another brilliant 70s era “forgotten” album from Neil. This guy has more unreleased classic albums than most artists have actual albums. This is included in the upcoming (for general release, it’s already been released to collectors) box set Archives II. If you can’t spring for the whole box set, this is worth picking up on its own, Review: Neil Young’s ‘Homegrown’ – The Lost Masterpiece, In The Vaults 45 Years.
  2. Liam Gallagher, Unplugged – The former lead singer of one of the Rock Chick’s all time favorite bands Oasis, Liam Gallagher finally redeems himself in the Unplugged genre with a great little live album, Review: Liam Gallagher, ‘MTV Unplugged (Live At Hull City Hall)’ – Unplugged Redemption?.
  3. The Rolling Stones, Goats Head Soup Deluxe – The Stones revisit one of their sleazy-rock 70s classics. Light on bonus studio stuff it contains the great live concert recording Brussels Affair, a must for Stones fans, especially you Mick Taylor-era nuts out there, Review: The Rolling Stones, ‘Goats Head Soup Deluxe’ Box Set.
  4. Tom Petty, Wildflowers…and All The Rest – Petty’s vision of Wildflowers as a double LP finally realized. Some lovely stuff was left in the can, Tom Petty: ‘Wildflowers & All The Rest – Deluxe Edition (4 CDs)’ – A Petty Masterpiece Lovingly Revisited.
  5. Prince, Sign O The Times Deluxe – Prince’s creative peak? Maybe… There are so many great tunes that never saw the light of day in this box, it’s perhaps his last masterpiece, Review: Prince, ‘Sign O’ The Times – Deluxe Edition’ – An Embarrassment of Riches.
  6. Ozzy Osbourne, Blizzard of Ozz, 40th Anniversary – In my review I quibbled about the lack of unreleased studio tracks (really just one new track) and disjointed live stuff, but this is such a landmark album, everyone should check this out. Leave it to Ozzy to appear on both these lists in 2020, Review: Ozzy’s ‘Blizzard of Ozz, 40th Anniversary Expanded’ – Is It Worth It?.
  7. Lou Reed, New York – One of Lou Reed’s true masterworks. If you don’t have the album, you need this. If you do, you need this for the live tracks – the entire album played live, Review: Lou Reed ‘New York: Deluxe Edition’.
  8. U2, All You Can’t Leave Behind 20th Anniversary Box – An album with special meaning for the Rock Chick and I… I already had the bonus tracks but if you don’t they’re definitely worth a listen. The concert included from the tour, in Boston is incendiary, Review: U2, ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind (20th Anniversary Edition)’.
  9. Pearl Jam, MTV Unplugged – Only 7 songs long but soooo worth it. I’ve waited and hoped for years that Pearl Jam would finally release this spectacular performance, recorded shortly after their debut album. This is such a legendary performance…Review: Pearl Jam Release ‘MTV Unplugged’ (Finally!).
  10. Keith Richards, Live At the Hollywood Palladium – Keef takes his wonderful backing band, The X-Pensive Winos out on the road. This expanded edition gives us three additional tracks recorded that night. It’s just a great, live album, Review: Keith Richards + The X-Pensive Winos, ‘Live At the Hollywood Palladium’ Box Set.

If there is an album I missed on these list in your opinion, please share in the comments. I’m always open to new music and I do hate to think I missed something…

I hope everybody held it together during this rough and tumble 2020. Hopefully our little B&V corner of the rock n roll universe helped keep you moving down the road this year. I wish everyone a happy, safe New Year. I don’t think we’re out of the dark yet, but I think there is light at the end of the tunnel… and with any luck, it’s not an oncoming train.

It’s a dark ride, take care of each other out there. I’m certainly looking forward to a better 2021.

Review: Fiona Apple, ‘Fetch The Bolt Cutters’ – Genius Unleashed

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Since it had been eight years since the last Fiona Apple album, 2012’s The Idler Wheel, I’d never have dreamed she’d drop the ultimate lockdown album a few weeks ago. While most of these songs were written prior to our current world situation, with its themes of breaking free, it’s perfect for right now. I think we’re all feeling a little confined these days… It’s like U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind, an album the band wrote (in part) about the loss of Michael Hutchence. The themes of loss and sadness became universal after 9/11. I think Apple’s new album will come to define this time period in much the same way. The new album, Fetch The Bolt Cutters, even features several tracks where you hear dogs barking in the background. Now that I work from home, I can’t tell you how many conference calls and Zoom meetings I’ve been on where someone’s barking dogs in the background are the star of the call. My wife’s cat even meowed on a call I was hosting yesterday… such is our new reality.

It may surprise some of our faithful readers to find out that I’m a fan of Fiona Apple. More accurately, I’m a big fan of hers. I got on her bandwagon almost from the beginning. In 1996 I was dating the last in a series of psychopathic women and we finally ended the dismal affair that fall. Believe me, I wasn’t the most stable person at the time and I was attracting a certain type. I own my piece of the whole thing, but I digress. I remember going to the CD store with my friend’s younger brother. At that stage of the game, on the end of each row of CDs, the store had a “listening station” where you could actually hear an album before purchasing it. It was what we thought was cutting edge at the time. It certainly helped keep me from buying some duds back then.

I was standing at one of the listening stations, listening to tunes in an attempt to stave off my latest broken heart. Music and booze were my salves even then (bourbon and vinyl to the rescue). While the latest breakup was a very good thing, I had enjoyed the summer of going to my cruel and deranged ex’s lake house… always look for the upside. My friend’s younger brother walked up and handed me Fiona Apple’s debut CD, Tidal. “You’ve got to listen to this…” Her album was loaded on the listening station so I switched over to it. While I gazed into those beautiful, haunted blue-grey eyes, “Sleep To Dream” exploded into my ears and hit my lower brain stem. Oh, yes! I walked out of the store that day with that album in my stack of CDs. That album probably has her biggest hit, “Criminal,” but for me her signature song has always been another track on the disc, “Shadowboxer.” The image of someone punching the air in anticipation of an opponents next move was indelible…”Once my lover, now my friend, what a cruel thing to pretend.” This (then) 19-year old was a genius. This is what I’d imagined an album by Sylvia Plath would sound like had she been a singer and not a novelist/poet. ‘The Bell Jar’ set to piano? I felt like I was reading her diary. And… in the situation I found myself in back then, it was like she’d read my diary too.

By 1999, when her second album, whose title set a Guinness Book World Record for length which I’ll abbreviate here to When the Pawn… came out, Apple was a well known artist. Some of her public behavior had caused quite a stir. By that time I had taken control of my own life and had exorcised a lot of my own demons which included not dating unstable women. I enjoyed When the Pawn… which again explored the themes of relationships, failed and otherwise, in songs like “Get Him Back,” “Limp,” or “Get Gone.” That album disappeared somewhere… and perhaps because I was in a happy place, I never replaced it which is a shame. I went back and listened to it again and it was remarkable. I don’t think Apple has ever put out a bad album.

It was six years later when Apple came out with Extraordinary Machine. I fell in love with the title track. By the time the album came out I was happily married to the Rock Chick and in a great, great place. A friend burned me a copy of that album but looking back I think it was the original version… Fiona had gone into the studio with Jon Brion, who produced her first two records, and didn’t like the sound. She went back into the studio with a different producer to recut the tracks. However, someone leaked the original Brion production and I think that’s what I had. Having listened to both recently, the official release was indeed definitive. I remember Dave Matthews having a similar issue around the material that became Busted Stuff. The Napster era was indeed a weird time.

After that, I became oblivious to Apple’s work. I wasn’t even aware, or at best was only vaguely aware of 2012’s The Idler Wheel (another long poem title, abbreviated here). As prep for this post, I went back and listened to it for the first time and was blown away. It’s a quiet album, mostly featuring her voice and piano with Charley Drayton providing some interesting percussive elements. I had never heard any of this – proof that radio has failed us all. I will admit, hearing the whole album I couldn’t help but think of what Petty sang years ago, “The A&R man said, “I don’t hear a single”…” I get it, you gotta have a hook to get played on the radio. It’s a brilliant record nonetheless and certainly worth everyone’s time.

And now, Apple has released what is perhaps is her masterpiece. The title comes from the television cop show, ‘The Fall’ featuring a rather fetching Gillian Anderson… love the accent. She recorded the album in her home. I can’t tell if she produced it or she produced it with her talented backing band: Sebastian Steinberg (bass), Amy Aileen Wood (drums), and David Garza (vibes). Every member of the band plays multiple instruments, but I only listed their primary one. And as I mentioned, this is an album of a troubled soul looking for freedom. It’s certainly breathtaking. There is a lot of “homemade” percussion here. I think they were rapping on any surface they could strike here. There are times when even the piano sounds like it’s being used as a percussive instrument. I realize that a lot of you will struggle with the sound of some of this album. The more I listen to this album, the more it makes sense to me. Nothing will really prepare you for the aggressive sound of this record – it’s certainly not The Idler Wheel – especially the vocal gymnastic Apple goes through.

The opening track, “I Want You To Love Me” starts off as a lovely piano based ballad but Apple descends into an almost Yoko Ono like screeches and chirps. It’s your first hint that this is going to be a different album. “Shameika” is a great song about bullying. I love the chorus, “I’m pissed off, funny and wrong.” The song is a whirl which feels like the fear of being bullied set to sound. I also particularly like the line, “Sebastian says I’m a good man in a storm,” inspired by a band drug bust. What’s cooler than a band drug bust? On the title track, the lyrics just spill out of Apple, like she’s just freed herself after a long captivity… she’s in a hurry to impart the message… “fetch the bolt cutters I’ve been in here too long.”

There are so many tracks I love here. “Under the Table” recounts a dinner party Fiona made a bit uncomfortable for some inappropriate asshole, “Kick me under the table all you want, I won’t shut up, I won’t shut up.” Thank God she won’t!! “Relay” features lyrics she wrote when she was 15, “Evil is a relay sport, when the one whose burned turns to pass the torch.” It reminds of a Springsteen lyric, “poison snake bites you, you’re poison too.”

There are a number of stand out tracks on the back end of this record. My favorite, and perhaps my favorite on the album is “Ladies.” I love the way she sings the title over and over…”Ladies, ladies, ladies…” “Heavy Balloon” is one of the greatest songs about depression that I’ve ever heard. “Cosmonauts” is an intense emotional track, which ends with Apple screaming. It’ll grab your attention. “For Her” gets the prize for the most arresting lyric, “You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in.” Wow, that’s raw. The emotion is palpable.

I highly recommend everyone hear this album. This woman is an absolute genius which sadly means some won’t get it. I’m not saying you have to be a genius in order to get it – God knows, I’m no fucking genius. This album is at turns challenging, inspiring and believe it or not, funny. I know Apple has a lot of demons, nothing I want to go into, but I hope this album signals she’s in a better place. She’s more than a pop artist, she’s an important artist. People will be listening to this album, deciphering it, analyzing it in a 100 years.

Stay safe out there folks. Me, I’m filling a tumbler of vodka and fetching the bolt cutters…