Five Years of Best-of Lists

December 19th, 2014

Way back when, I used to subscribe to Rolling Stone. I remember when The Who released their album It’s Hard; the magazine fawned all over it, giving the disc five stars. I’m a Who fanatic, but I’m here to tell you: It’s Hard was not a five-star effort.

I thought about that recently, as I was compiling my best-of-year lists for this blogzine (Those lists of reissues, new albums, music-related books and DVDs will run next week). In the immediacy of discovering music, sometimes we (and by we I of course mean I) am prone to a wee bit of hyperbole. One tries to guard against it, but sometimes the excitement causes excessive praise of the sort that time eventually proves  unwarranted.

And with that reality in mind, I decided to take a look back. I’ve been running this blog for five and a half years now, and I’ve put together end-of-year lists for each of the previous five years. And so I wondered: how would those choices hold up? Today – some two, three, four and five years on – did I still think those albums held up? Did the stand the test of time for me? Do I still listen to them?

For the most part, yes. I’ve published more than 1450 reviews, interviews and essays in this space, and most of what I initially loved, I still enjoy immensely. Here are some of my favorites:

2009

The Twilight Hours – Stereo Night. A couple of the guys from Trip Shakespeare made an unassuming yet wonderful (if little-known) album that is sure to please fans of their old band (as well as closely-related Semisonic). I’ll be interviewing one of them very soon in connection with some Trip Shakespeare reissues from Omnivore Recordings. This disc is well worth seeking out.

Pugwash – Giddy. Another stellar band that doesn’t get their due, Thomas Walsh‘s group from Ireland makes timeless pop. Omnivore (them again!) recently released a compilation in hopes of breaking the band Stateside; I’ll have a feature/interview on them soon. This 2009 album was Andy (XTC) Partridge‘s Ape label’s attempt to get the band some well-deserved notice.

2010

The Orange Peels – 2020. This album from the flagship group on Allen Clapp‘s Mystery Lawn Music remains a favorite. I like everything they’ve done before and since, but 2020 is, for me, the finest effort to date from this pop group.

Nick Curran – Reform School Girl. This one makes me sad: not long after its release, Curran was diagnosed with cancer, and he passed away in 2012, far too young at 35. Reform School Girl is a barbed-wire mix of influences from Jerry Lee Lewis to The Sonics to The Shangri-Las to The Misfits. Easily one of the rockingest albums in my entire (vast) music collection. A stone classic.

Spock’s Beard – X. For me, this album is the high-water mark of the California progressive outfit’s career. With their original lead vocalist gone, they pressed their drummer into service as lead singer, and he fit the role perfectly (If that reminds you of the Genesis story, well, there you go). He’s since moved on, and while the band continues, they’ve not quite hit the heights of X since.

2011

DC Fontana – La Contessa. This group combines a sort of British take on soul jazz with a rock sensibility, reminding me a lot of Brian Auger’s Trinity with Julie Driscoll. The vocalist with the Driscoll-esque pipes and demeanor has since parted ways with the band (is this a recurring theme in today’s roundup of albums?) but some fantastic, high- energy, sexy music remains.

Dennis Coffey – Dennis Coffey. After giving birth to some of the funkiest guitar work on record in the 70s (check “Scorpio”), Coffey faded from prominence. He remained busy behind the scenes, and came roaring back with this album, one on which a bunch of guests actually make the record even better. Nothing new on record from him since, but then this would be nigh on impossible to top.

The Penguin Party – Sex Furniture Warehouse. Droll English humor applied to the concept of life as a middle aged man: that’s a winning formula in the hands of this outfit. On a par with the best work of Nick Lowe, Graham Parker, and even Ray Davies.

2012

The Poster Boy – Melody. From Budapest, Hungary (no, really) comes a debut that is both reminiscent of and a near-equal in quality to the debut album from Crowded House. They have since altered their musical approach a bit, but this disc is pure pop of the highest order.

The Explorers Club – Grand Hotel. Uncannily like The Beach Boys at their peak, with shades of early 70s AM pop deftly mixed in. At the time of this release, the group was based in Charleston SC, and included several members. Leader Jason Brewer disbanded the group and relocated to Nashville. He eventually reactivated the group in a smaller configuration, and the long-delayed followup to Grand Hotel will (reportedly) see release in 2015. When it does, I’ll let you know; I stay in touch with Brewer because I know he’ll create something worth hearing.

The dB’s – Falling Off the Sky. After years of inactivity (though its members stayed busy), The dB’s roared back with what – for me – is the finest album of their career. Falling Off the Sky is adult pop, and I mean that in the very best sense of the word. Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey are some of the finest lyricists working in music today.

2013

Steven Wilson – The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories). The third solo album from the staggeringly active Wilson, this album reveals new charms on each successive listen. Here Wilson pays homage to his 70s progressive rock heroes, but he does so by crafting wholly original music. His follow-up is due in early 2015.

E. Normus Trio – Love and Barbiturates. Is it post-rock? Is it avant-jazz? I can’t answer that, but I can tell you it’s fascinating. I’ve since gotten to know the guitarist in the group (as it happens, they’re based in Asheville) and I’ve even got the the chance to play music with him (but not this kind!). Worth seeking out for the adventurous.

Yuck – Glow and Behold. Janglepop meets shoegaze, and the results are excellent. They’re pretty ace live onstage, too, though some of the nuance of the studio is inevitably lost.

Duane Allman – Skydog. This one is staggering in its scope: six discs documenting the all-too-brief musical career of the legendary guitarist. Lots of goodies are buried within this set, including one track by a virtually unknown singer/songwriter named Bobby Lance. More on Lance in 2015.

Watch for my Best of 2014 lists, coming to this space presently.

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Album Review: Mike Bloomfield, Al Kooper, Steve Stills – Super Session

December 18th, 2014

In 1968, the concept of a “supergroup” was still fresh; Lillian Roxon even wrote about it – and its possibilities – in her Rock Encyclopedia. Al Kooper devised what became Super Session as a collaboration between him and guitarist Mike Bloomfield, late of Paul Butterfield Blues Band and Electric Flag. When the notoriously unreliable Bloomfield flaked halfway through the project, Kooper brought in Steve Stills to finish the album. Tasty (and generally tasteful) playing is all over the nine-track record. This release includes the long-delayed 5.1 mix version; Kooper’s liner notes tell the story. A sixties artifact everyone should hear.

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Album Review: Ian Hunter — Strings Attached

December 18th, 2014

Hunter came to fame in the 1970s leading Mott the Hoople; he enjoyed a brief period of prominence again in the late 1970s as a solo artist. This 2CD set finds Hunter reinterpreting his own Mott and solo material within the context of a mostly-acoustic setting, aided by a lovely string orchestra. His raspy, well-worn voice melds surprisingly well with the high-toned classical trappings; the result is a warm and inviting set of songs. This reissue of a 2003 set is a delight; The Mott classic “Rest in Peace” seems to have been written to be performed in this manner.

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Album Review: Conte Candoli — Sincerely, Conte

December 18th, 2014

This is a straight CD (and vinyl) reissue of a 1954 jazz date featuring the recorded headlining debut of trumpeter Conte Candoli (though curiously, the album cover – also a straight reproduction of the original – spells his first name wrong. Candoli leads an energetic quartet – lots of showy drum work here, courtesy Stan Levey – through an uptempo selection of tunes. Candoli and band are interpreters of the work of others; here you’ll find lively readings of numbers from the Gershwins along with other standards. It’s another high quality Bethlehem reissue from the Naxos folks; collect ‘em all!

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Album Reviews: Hugh Hopper — Memories and Frangloband

December 18th, 2014

Bassist Hugh Hopper gained fame – or what passes for fame within the narrow confines of jazz-rock and progressive circles – as a member of Soft Machine. He passed away in 2009, and it happens, Hopper was apparently quite the busy guy. His estate is now involved in a good bit of closet-cleaning, and the results are being released on a ten-disc series. The first of these, Memories, is a survey of the material found on the second through tenth. It’s varied and interesting, though little of this music was intended for release. Frangloband documents some of Hopper’s last recordings.

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Album Review: Landmarq — Origins

December 18th, 2014

It’s a bit of a head-scratcher when a collection like this crosses my desk: a retrospective of a band I’d never heard of. Origins is a career-spanning look at two distinct eras. The second (covered on the first disc) features a Clare Torry-sounding Tracy Hitchings fronting a band that sounds a bit like Spock’s Beard. The early material on the second disc features vocalist Damian Wilson. Only two members stuck around the whole time. Lots of Peter Bansk-ish keyboard work, which is always welcome in these parts. The D&D motif of the album is goofy, but the music is solid.

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Hundred Word Reviews: December 2014, Part 4

December 18th, 2014

I’m working the pile down, even as more interesting titles show up on my desk. Here are five more brief (100 word) reviews of new music in a wide variety of styles. These titles are all reissue and/or archival releases.

There’s one more day’s worth of these hundred-word reviews, and then it’s on to some end-of-the-year features.

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Album Review: Wadada Leo Smith et. al. — Red Hill

December 17th, 2014

Lots of people I know – the ones who like jazz, anyway – tend to prefer Miles Davis‘ music best from the era around Birth of the Cool. Me, as a rock guy, I’m much more fascinated with the work he did around the time of Jack Johnson. And this avant jazz album from trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith sounds to these ears like that exploratory-era Miles, without John McLaughlin (or anyone, for that matter) on guitar. I can’t define this music much more sharply, but if you dig the musical references, you’ll quite likely appreciate the music on Red Hill.

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Album Review: Interstatic — Arise

December 17th, 2014

Jimmy Smith more or less invented the concept of organ trio. But it’s unlikely he had anything in mind like Interstatic. Imagine a bluesy, jazzy trio with Hammond, guitar and drums, playing unclassifiable instrumental music. The foundation is straight-ahead – not a lot of uncomfortable time signatures here – but the solid bottom end gives plenty of space for some expressive organ and guitar work. That said, “Caerbannog” is nearly as hard to follow as it is to pronounce. Strong ensemble playing means that everybody’s doing their own thing, but it all holds together, just. Challenging, and somehow still accessible.

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Album Review: Antoine Fafard — Ad Perpetuum

December 17th, 2014

One doesn’t often think of melding progressive rock elements with jazz fusion; at least not if one wants to break even on an album release. But that’s the approach favored by bassist Antoine Fafard. Combining the best of (dare I say) smooth jazz with rock’s muscularity, Fafard is aided in his efforts by drummer Vinnie Colaiuta (Frank Zappa, Missing Persons) and, on one track, the multifarious Gary Husband (a frequent John McLaughlin collaborator and a jazz star in his own right). If Joe Satriani played keyboards and leaned a bit more in a jazz direction, he might sound like this.

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