B&V’s Best of 2021: Our Favorite New LPs & Vault/Live Releases

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“Time is a jet plane, it moves too fast…” – Bob Dylan, “You’re A Big Girl Now”

This year, like many before it, seemed to both fly by and at the same time drag on. I looked up and suddenly realized it’s the end of the year… it snuck up on me again. Traditionally for me, this time of year, once we’ve cleared the big Christmas holiday, always seems to bring with it a time of reflection. With New Year’s Eve – a holiday I’ve always considered Amateur Night (and I’m a fan of St. Patrick’s Day, speaking of amateurs) – comes a sense that time is passing and in some cases, slipping away. At least the introspection has stopped me from all the Holiday gorging myself. I’ve been wandering around the house with two full cheeks of food like a chipmunk for about a week now, but I digress. What was it Jackson Browne sang, “I’ve been aware of the time going by, they say in the end it’s the wink of an eye.” Maybe it’s all like Siddhartha, the Herman Hesse book, and we’re all just sitting by the river, watching it flow…always changing but yet seemingly the same. It appears I may be a little too into the reflection this year.

There seems to be a pervasive attitude among a lot of people that 2021 was just “2020 Redux.” I would argue with that. This year I was able to return to seeing my beloved Chiefs play at Arrowhead. 2020 was the first year in quite a few that I attended zero home games. Unless we all pull together progress will remain slow… I was able to travel a little this year – some in the service of my corporate masters, which I was actually looking forward to as a traveling sales guy – and some of it personal, mostly to points west to see my daughter. Hopefully you guys all got to see loved ones this year as well and didn’t have to resort to “virtual” roadtrips. Most importantly I got to see a couple of concerts. The Rock Chick surprised me with tickets to see Joan Jett and Cheap Trick (what a double-bill!) and we went out to Colorado to see 311. I can’t tell you how healing it is to spend an evening with like-minded strangers, standing in the dark in front of a stage listening to rock n roll music.

I have to say, I thought 2021 was much, much better than 2020. Although it wasn’t without tragedy. We lost a legend this year in Rolling Stones’ drummer Charlie Watts. I’m still not over that one. The man played with such an effortlessness. He made what he did look easy and believe me it wasn’t. He was the heartbeat of the Rolling Stones and one has to wonder if they’ll get over that loss. Although they did tour this year and you’d have to think those guys are in that “high risk” demographic. When I think about 2021 in general, but especially in terms of music, I thought it was a good year but I expected a great year. I thought with everybody off the road in 2020 we’d see a lot more new music than we got this year. We didn’t get that new Guns N Roses LP, although we got a few “new” singles, “Absurd” and “Hard Skool.” We didn’t get a new Stones album.

Despite those complaints, what we did get this year in terms of new music was really strong. We had new stuff from young bands like Dirty Honey and Greta Van Fleet. We had a number of new albums from veteran artists that epitomize why we founded B&V in the first place. The archives were opened up in 2021. It was a great year for live stuff and box sets. This year was a big anniversary year for many albums, especially those from 1971. As usual, I decided to end 2021 on a high note by listing out our favorite or “best of” list of new albums and in conjunction our favorite live/archival/vault releases. We did something similar last year, and the years prior. Per usual, these are listed in chronological order so please don’t consider this a ranking from 1 to 10.

B&V 2021 Best New Albums

  1. Cheap Trick, In Another WorldWhen this came out, much like 2021 itself, I was a little let down vs their prior LP, We’re All Alright! Expectations are a tricky thing. The more I listened to this album the more I dug it, much like Pearl Jam’s Gigaton last year. This is a solid, ass kicking rock album. I got to see these guys in concert and they played “The Summer Looks Good On You” and it inspired me to go back and start listening to this LP again. These guys have been delivering so consistently for so long it’s easy to overlook a great rocker like this one… “Stop Waking Me Up” should have been on my playlist ‘Songs About Sleeping.’
  2. Black Keys, Delta KreamI’ve been on these guys bandwagon since Rubber Factory. I was completely taken by surprise that they put out an album of blues covers highlighting the Mississippi Hill Country blues made famous by Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside. “Crawling Kingsnake” was the highlight but there are ton of great, bluesy tracks here.
  3. Billy F. Gibbons, HardwareThe longtime ZZTop front man released his third solo LP and it’s the most “ZZTop-y” album he’s delivered. He does what he does best whether its dirty riff rock like “My Lucky Card” or bluesy ballads like “Vagabond Man.” This may be his best solo LP yet. The final track, “Desert High” is one of the best things he’s done.
  4. Jackson Browne, Downhill From EverywhereJackson just keeps putting out great, late period albums. He’s still writing wonderful songs like “Still Searching For Something” or the great ballad, “A Little Too Soon To Tell,” with a dash of politics, “Until Justice Is Real.” He’s an important voice and this was a treat of an album.
  5. David Crosby, For Free – Crosby is in the midst of a great late career renaissance. I got on the bandwagon on Sky Trails, but For Free is another great record. He collaborates with Micheal McDonald on “River Rise” and Donald Fagan on “Rodriguez For The Night,” which is my favorite track… because we’d all “sell our soul to be Rodriguez for a night…”
  6. Lindsey Buckingham, Lindsey Buckingham – I was a little overwhelmed at work when this gem came out and didn’t write about it. This was the album that got Buckingham fired from Fleetwood Mac when he asked for more time to promote it vs go on tour with the band. There are some of Lindsey’s best solo tracks on this album, the best of which is “I Don’t Mind.” “On The Wrong Side,” “Blue Light,” and “Santa Rosa” are all great songs. My only complaint is Lindsey needs to invite some other musicians into the studio to make the sound a little fuller vs playing everything himself.
  7. Chrissie Hynde, Standing In The Doorway: Chrissie Hynde Sings Bob DylanI’m shocked at how many great cover albums came out this year. Hynde, known for her pugnacious rock n roll with the Pretenders, strips it down to acoustic guitar and piano here for an inspired set of covers, mostly from Dylan’s later career. Mesmerizing album.
  8. Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Raise The RoofIt took over a decade but Plant/Krauss finally delivered this stunning sequel to Raising Sand, highlighting the beautiful alchemy created by their intertwined voices. Pure harmonic sorcery.
  9. Sting, The Bridge – It is so utterly satisfying to hear an artist who I had, sadly, left for dead come back to life. “If It’s Love” is the best pop song he’s done in ages. I keep listening to this LP, I can’t stop. A true late career gem from Sting.
  10. Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Barn – Neil Young reunites with Crazy Horse for the second LP in a row and really delivers on Barn. From hushed acoustic tracks (“Song of the Seasons”) to full on garage-rock tracks (“Human Race”), this is the best thing he’s done in a while and I loved the last LP, Colorado.

B&V 2021 Best Vault/Archive or Live Albums

  1. Neil Young, Archive Vol 2 – An amazing chronicle of Young’s career from 1972 to 1976, ‘The Ditch Trilogy’ years. A must have for any Young fan.
  2. Black Crowes, Shake Your Money Maker 30th Anniversary – This might be my favorite box set of the year. The bonus tracks are great, but the full concert included is worth the price of admission.
  3. Fleetwood Mac, Live – Deluxe – The original Fleetwood Mac Live album but with twice the music. I’ve always felt the original double-LP, live record was underrated.
  4. Mick Fleetwood & Friends, A Celebration of Peter Green – Speaking of Fleetwood Mac, drummer Mick Fleetwood put together a great tribute for Fleetwood Mac founder Peter Green that plays like a great blues jam at a hot blues club. Steven Tyler, Billy Gibbons and Kirk Hammett all show up… The only sad part is Green was a no show… and passed shortly afterward.
  5. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Deja Vu 50th Anniversary – Revisiting the landmark 1971 album with a bunch of demo’s and the seeds of many of the tracks that ended up on their solo records. I was surprised how much I loved every bit of this.
  6. The White Stripes, White Blood Cells – Deluxe – The album that broke them far and wide… plus a concert from that tour which is icing on the cake.
  7. George Harrison, All Things Must Pass – 50th Anniversary – Another 50th anniversary… George’s magnum opus complete with great demo’s, both acoustic and fleshed out with the band. Truly a glimpse into the creative process that was ATMP. I really dig the acoustic demo’s where he lays out the mostly all fully realized tracks. He really was stifled in the Beatles.
  8. Bob Dylan, Springtime In New YorkA box set from Dylan’s oft-overlooked early 80s during the recording of the LPs Shot Of Love, Infidels and Empire Burlesque which proves that this period needs another listen.
  9. The Beatles, Let It Be – Super DeluxeA bunch of outtakes from one of my favorite Beatles’ albums. The Super Deluxe really fleshes the album out. A must for any Beatles fan. I can’t keep humming and air-guitaring to “Get Back.”
  10. The Rolling Stones, Tattoo You – 40th Anniversary Tattoo You was assembled from outtakes from earlier recording sessions, so they returned to that formula to add 9 more bonus tracks. There’s a Super Deluxe edition that has a full concert from the tour. This was an iconic album for all of us who were too young and missed them in the 60s… This was a special box.
  11. Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band, The Legendary 1979 No Nukes Concert – I thought I’d throw in a bonus album, this concert document that I didn’t have time to write about. Most of the E Street Band’s legendary 1978 concerts in support of Darkness On The Edge of Town were three hours long… This abbreviated set for the No Nukes show was only an hour and a half and it’s like the band, who had been in the studio laboring over The River, sound like they’ve been shot out of a cannon. It’s chalk full of hits. It’s perfect for a casual fan who can’t groove for three hours.

That’s our top of the pops for 2021. I hope you guys enjoyed this music as much as we did here in the B&V labs. I hope everybody has a safe and happy New Year’s. I’ll be doing what I do every year. We’ll head out to dinner with friends and home and asleep by probably 10. Like I said, it’s Amateur Night. Even when I was young and faced the hope of some fabulous, un-forseen New Year’s Eve liaison… it never panned out, but I digress. I, for one, am looking forward to 2022. I hope we’ll see you here at B&V next year! Thanks to all of you who have joined and contributed to our little musical dialogue!

Cheers and again, Happy New Year!

Review – Standing In the Doorway: Chrissie Hynde Sings Bob Dylan, A Surprise Gem

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I think Chrissie Hynde has just always been cool. Born in Akron, she moved to London to work in the Malcolm Mclaren/Vivienne Westwood boutique SEX and was smack dab in the middle of the burgeoning punk rock scene. I think she was even involved in an early incarnation of the Clash. Finally she formed her own group, seminal rock band The Pretenders with James Honeyman-Scott (guitar), James Farndon (bass) and Martin Chambers (drums). We all loved the Pretenders. I can still remember sitting in study hall in junior high school and hearing “Brass In Pocket” for the first time. There was this gorgeous blonde girl who was a year older than me – and what teenage boy isn’t fascinated by an older woman? – and she was walking across the room with a Coke in her hand… dirty blonde hair slightly out of control (and this was before the Big Hair 80s) as Chrissie sang, “I’m gonna make you, make you, make you notice…” Oh, I noticed. I always think of that blonde gal when I hear that song…never knew her name, but I digress.

Sadly after their great second LP, the creatively titled Pretenders II, they sacked bassist Pete Farndon who later OD’d. Right after they sacked Farndon, lead guitarist Honeyman-Smith also died from a narcotic misadventure. Heroin and coke are treacherous my friends. But Hynde (rhythm guitar/vocals) soldiered on with Chambers still on drums. Three years after that second LP, the last with the original line-up, they released Learning To Crawl (1984). I remember my old college roommate Drew bringing that one back from the record store. It was virtually the soundtrack to that semester in college. Drew played the crap out of that record. That’s what inspired me to go back and finally purchase their first two albums. I’m still very glad to have that precious vinyl.

I’ve only seen the Pretenders once in concert. And, I’m embarrassed to say it’s only because they were opening for the Stones. Not that I’m embarrassed about seeing the Stones, I’m embarrassed that I’ve never made more of an effort to see the Pretenders as headliners. Chrissie was awesome that night. She introduced a reggae song they were going to play by saying, “Mick and Keith and the Stones have introduced us to so much great music, but I don’t think they get the credit they deserve for helping to introduce the world to reggae music.” Like I said, Hynde is just cool. They were a great opener that night and Hynde’s voice is still amazing. Her vocals are tough yet sexy.

I reconnected in a big way with the Pretenders when they released their last LP, Hate For Sale. I thought that was a great, late career record from them. It went into high rotation here in the B&V labs in much the same way Learning To Crawl did back in Drew’s college room. Alas, due to Covid the Pretenders were unable to tour behind Hate For Sale. When they do, I’ll be standing at the ticket counter with my money in my hand… Hynde was like a lot of us, I suppose, and was stuck at home last year. The story goes she heard Dylan’s epic single, released last year, “Murder Most Foul” and was inspired to explore his catalog. She started recording acoustic versions of Dylan’s tunes at home and sending them to Pretenders’ current lead guitarist James Walbourne. He’d add something and send it back. Collaborating has served them well.

I think Hynde put a lot of these performances out on the Pretenders’ website over the course of last year… or maybe it was their YouTube channel. There are so many avenues artists have to get their work out, I have trouble keeping track. I did hear at some point early this year that Hynde was going to release a Dylan covers LP. But, speaking of being unable to keep track, while I was anxiously awaiting Hynde to release this Dylan covers LP, it had actually been released already… in May. Either I had my head stuck up my proverbial rear-end or Hynde’s publicist is for shit. I was reading something about Dylan recently and in the comments someone said, “Chrissie Hynde does a great version of “Blind Willie McTell” on her Dylan’s cover LP.” Argh, I couldn’t help but think… how’d that one get by me?

Coincidentally I’ve been listening to Dylan quite a bit lately. He’s just released Springtime In New York, Volume 16 of the Bootleg Series and like Neil Young’s Archives Volume 2, I’ve been immersed in that for the last few weeks. It’s no secret around B&V that I’m a huge Dylan fan, of all his music not just the Bootleg Series. I am such a fan that I also love cover versions of Dylan’s songs. With Chrissie Hynde’s (relatively) new LP, Standing In The Doorway: Chrissie Hynde Sings Bob Dylan, I’ve had a confluence of a lot of things I love: Dylan, covers songs and Chrissie Hynde’s vocals. I do so love a cover song. It’s like a two-for-one. You get to enjoy the performance by the artist covering the song but it also evokes the memory of the original. To find out that Hynde did that rare thing – recorded an entire album of covers and in this case, rarer still, to record an entire LP of songs by another artist – I had to jump in with both ears.

This starts and ends for me with Hynde’s voice. She uncovers the vulnerability and in some cases melancholy in these songs in a whole new way. The entire album is awash in velvety acoustic guitars that feel like they’re gently massaging my temples. There are no drums or messy adornments here. It’s the raw emotion of the track focused on Hynde’s vocals. This is a great record to accompany a late night bourbon. I absolutely love her song selection on this LP. She didn’t gravitate toward big “hits” from Dylan’s catalog. This isn’t her doing “Like A Rolling Stone” or “Mr. Tambourine Man.” For the most part, she dug deeper into his catalog and, much to my delight, mined a lot of gold from his later catalog. She chose some of Dylan’s most intimate and intensely personal tunes. It all makes for an absolute gem of a record.

Of the nine tracks, only three would be considered to be from Dylan’s “Classic” period. “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” is beautifully rendered here. It’s all Byrds-y chiming guitars. “Tomorrow Is A Long Time,” a song made famous by Rod Stewart, is a beautiful finger-picked track. The last track is from the seminal LP, Blood On The Tracks, “You’re A Big Girl Now.” I think Hynde just knocks “Big Girl Now” out of the park. I felt the sadness or pathos of a breakup in this song to my core. Hynde’s voice milks the regret out of this song for all it’s worth. It’s a real highlight. Her voice is like the warm hug of an ex lover saying a final farewell.

Perhaps because I’m spending so much time with Dylan’s work in the 80s lately, I was delighted to see that the bulk of this material dates from that time. “In The Summertime” is a great opener and in Chrissie’s hands comes across as a warm greeting. It’s downright joyful. “Sweetheart Like You” has always been one of my favorite Dylan songs. Rod, who is no stranger to covering Dylan, also did this track. I wake up every morning with Chrissie singing in my head, “She used to call me sweet daddy when I was only a child…” Again, the emotions she wrings out of the song has me cheering for more. “Blind Willie McTell” is a wonderful addition here. Hynde acquits herself well on one of Dylan’s greatest tracks. I also really liked “Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight.” One of Dylan’s most personal tracks, “Every Grain of Sand” is also deeply moving in this version as well. It feels like Hynde – who has seen a lot – is in the confessional…

This is one of those little, fabulous records that will never get much attention. But to hear how committed and into these performances Hynde is makes it quite a gem. I keep listening to this record and find myself looking up at the speaker having discovered some new nuance Chrissie pulled out of the lyrics. I urge everyone to check this one out. It’s good for the soul. And lets all thank God Chrissie Hynde is still out there making a wonderful noise.

LP Review: Pretenders ‘Hate For Sale’ – A Late Career Classic With Attitude!

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“He’s got a curly tongue and a curly tail, but mostly he’s got hate for sale” – Pretenders, “Hate For Sale”

Could any of us expected, this far down the line, this gift of a fabulous Pretenders’ album? I, for one, needed this record!

I was an early adopter on the Pretenders. Their seminal debut album Pretenders came out when I was in high school and I bought it immediately. I think of the album cover as iconic. I have always considered the Pretenders to be a punk band, but since their first record didn’t come out until 1979 in the UK and 1980 in the US (and I’ll admit I thought it was 1978) perhaps they were post-punk or even New Wave or Next Wave? Labels be damned in this case. Ohioan guitarist/singer/songwriter Chrissie Hynde was living in London in the 70s immersed in the punk scene when she formed the original Pretenders’ with James Honeyman-Scott (guitar), Pete Farndon (bass) and her once and future drummer Martin Chambers (if I can sneak in a T.H. White reference).

The songs on that first album still blow me away. The Kinks’ cover, “Stop Your Sobbing” was the first single, but that isn’t the track that sticks out in my mind – although it is great. The opening salvo “Precious” was a call to arms. When she sang in “Tattooed Love Boys” the lyric “I shot my mouth off and you showed me what that hole was for…” I was smitten. “Kid” and “Mystery Achievement” remain favorites today. Although I’m going to admit – with a touch of embarrassment – the song that drew me in was the big hit single, “Brass In Pocket,” an admittedly “pop” tune.

There’s a reason that song hooked me. I was a sophomore in high school and in my Study Hall (aka “free period”) there was a girl who was a senior. She was tall with long legs and dirty blonde hair that always seemed to be in a fashionable mess. As a lowly sophomore I never had the temerity to even look her in the eye let alone speak to her, she was a vaunted senior, high above me socially – such is the fear and inexperience of youth. There were two sides of Study Hall, the silent side for well, studying, and then the social side. I know this can’t be true but I have this memory that they played music on the social side of Study Hall. While it may be apocryphal, I have this memory of her walking toward me in an angora sweater, to her gaggle of friends – who I viewed with a mix of awe and fear – while that song played in the background…its like the whole world slowed down… My memory is like a scene from Fast Times At Ridgemont High. There’s just something about a strong woman like Chrissie Hynde singing and that senior who was also pretty damn strong that stuck in my psyche. Paging Dr. Freud.

The Pretenders’ success continued on their strong sophomore effort, creatively named Pretenders II, in 1981. “Message Of Love” and “The Adultress” continued the riff rocking theme established on the first album. Especially commendable is the guitar playing of James Honeyman-Scott. Then tragedy struck. The band fired Pete Farndon because of his drug addiction…namely heroin. I read somewhere that Honeyman-Scott was the one who insisted on Farndon’s dismissal but who really knows outside the band? Ironically, two days after sacking Farndon, Honeyman-Scott died from what Wikipedia calls “cocaine-intolerance,” which sounds like an O.D. Less than a year later Farndon drowned in his own bathtub. That’s Allman Brothers level tragedy. And then, as the saying goes, there were two – Chrissie Hynde and drummer Martin Chambers.

Somehow, Hynde and Chambers were able to shoulder on. It took three years, but the follow up, 1984’s Learning To Crawl with Robbie McIntosh manning the guitar and Malcolm Foster on bass may have been their biggest album. It had the huge songs “Back On the Chain Gang,” and “Middle of the Road.” The latter song finds Chrissie confessing, “I’m going home, I’m tired as Hell, I’m not the cat I used to be, I’ve gotta kid I’m thirty-three.” I have to admit, after that stunning success, I sort of lost track of the Pretenders. I was always aware they were out there. I’d hear the occasional hit on the radio like “Don’t Get Me Wrong,” but I wasn’t paying the same level of attention to them. I also knew that there had been numerous line-up changes, including Chambers coming and going. When they were inducted into the Rock Hall of Fame – Chambers thanked the “drummers who’d been keeping my seat warm” and Chrissie quickly jumped to the mic and said, “I had to remain true to the music.”

It would be easy to describe Hate For Sale as the Pretender’s best album since Learning to Crawl or quite possibly since Pretenders II. Its really that good – in this case, believe the hype. However, that does discount some of the fine music the Pretenders have put out since the early, salad days. Their last album, 2016’s Alone produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach felt more like a Chrissie Hynde solo project. The record companies like to press artists into “staying with the brand” and force people like Billy Corgan or Chrissie Hynde into putting out solo albums under the moniker of the old band. However, if you go back to 2006’s Breaking Up the Concrete you’ll discover a great Pretenders’ record. Despite Chambers being replaced by famous session drummer Jim Keltner, Concrete felt more like a “band” record.

That band feel carries the day on Hate For Sale. It’s really nice to see Martin Chambers back on the drum kit for the first time in ages – although he does play drums on tour, its nice to see him back in the studio with Hynde. I think they have a chemistry that can’t be duplicated. Joining Hynde and Chambers are James Walbourne on guitar, Nick Wilkinson on bass with Carwyn Ellis on keyboards. Hynde’s wit and wisdom are fully present in these lyrics. What I really like is that she cowrote all the songs with Walbourne which again, gives this more of a full band feel. The rockers are energetic and punchy. The ballads are beautiful and wistful. This is truly a complete Pretenders’ record without a dud on it.

The title track opens the record. They actually have a false start that they kept on the song. It sounds like a band jamming, losing the thread but being tight enough to pull it back together. I thought it was kinda cool. “Hate For Sale” is punky, energetic with a great riff. It’s the perfect kick off to this album… and even has some nice harmonica. “Turf Accountant Daddy” is another strong rocker with a big riff and galloping gait. “I Didn’t Know When To Stop,” with crashing drums and guitars (and again, harmonica) has a great guitar solo and simply rocks. I also liked the atmospheric “Junkie Walk,” with its fuzzed out guitars and heavy riff. I actually added that one to our Heroin playlist, B&V Playlist: Chasing the Dragon – Songs About Heroin.

“The Buzz” was the first single from the album and it’s a great pop-rock tune. Hynde provides us with her typical great vocal on the track. The woman is a legend. It’s their best single in a long, long while. “Lightning Man” is a great reggae tune. I saw the Pretenders open for the Stones in Chicago years ago and Hynde said on stage, “The Stones have brought us a lot of great things but one of the best was spreading reggae to a bigger audience.” The Pretenders certainly deliver on this track – I put it on my Rockers Playing Reggae list, B&V Playlist: Rockers Playing Reggae: It’s Not Just For Vacation Any More. “Didn’t Want to Be This Lonely” may be my favorite track here. It just sticks in my head. It’s got a great rockabilly feel and Bo Diddley beat. I find myself mumbling “I didn’t want to be this lonely but losing you was a relief…” Ah, mixed emotions. “Maybe Love Is In NYC” is another bang up track. With all of these great songs, this record should be as big as Learning to Crawl. 

There are the classic, Chrissie Hynde ballads, sung with full emotion. “You Can’t Hurt A Fool” has another great Hynde vocal. “Crying In Public” is a heart wrenching track with Hynde singing over piano. Ballads aren’t for everybody, but I dig these two. The Pretenders do everything they do well perfectly on this album.

Hate For Sale is the kind of late-career gem that B&V was created to extoll. It’s just so great to hear a classic band pull it together and release something this vital and alive this far into their career. I’d love to see some of this played live, but alas, pandemic. I urge every rock fan out there – or Pretenders’ fans out there – to check out this rewarding album.

Be Safe!