JEFFREY ST. CLAIR
1. Alvin Youngblood Hart: Motivational Speaker (Tone Cool)
Throughout the 1990s my favorite guitar-player was Luther Allison, who almost single-handedly extended the legacy of Magic Sam and Freddie King. When he died prematurely of brain cancer in 1997, it seemed unlikely that anyone would come along who could so easily meld Allison’s blues proficiency with his unapologetic desire to play hard rock. Then I heard Alvin Youngblood Hart. He is simply the most exciting guitarist of his generation. Each Hart cd has gotten progressively better, more innovative and louder. Hart is a fine singer, but it’s his guitar which does the evangelizing.
2. Ray Wylie Hubbard: Delirium Tremelos (Philo/PGD)
Some music geneaologists might chart the descent of roots/Americana back to an obscure Texas band called the Three Faces West and its chief singer/songwriter, Ray Wylie Hubbard, whose song “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mothers” helped launch his pal Jerry Jeff Walker to stardom. In the mid-70s, Hubbard formed the Cowboy Twinkies, the original cow punk band, playing everything from Led Zeppelin (“Communication Breakdown,” no less) to Merle Haggard and Gene Vincent. Like Billy Joe Shaver, Hubbard is a legend in Texas and unjustly neglected outside the Southwest. Still, after 30 years on the road, Hubbarb proves to be as versatile as ever on this new CD, which moves from country blues to gospel to roadhouse stomp. Being backed by the voices of Eliza Gilkyson and Patty Griffin doesn’t hurt, either.
3. Little Walter Jacobs: Hate to See You Go–Remastered (Universal)
When Little Walter was in the Muddy Waters Band he regularly did something that is almost unimaginable: he overshadowed Muddy himself, especially during live performances. Thus, it is something bordering on a crime against humanity that someone hasn’t released a package set of Little Walter’s complete recordings. After all, Walter Jacobs was not only the most accomplished harp player since Sonny Boy Williamson, but his impact on the recorded blues is as profound as Charlie Parker’s revolution in jazz. My friend Michael Neumann believes that the blues stopped evolving the moment Little Walter died in a brawl in 1968. I don’t agree, but you can hear where he’s coming from.
4. Robert Earl Keen: What I Really Mean (Koch)
Proof that journalism majors can amount to something after all.
5. Maria McKee: Live in Hamburg (Little Diva Records)
Cow punk diva invades Germany. Takes no prisoners.
6. Charlie Rich: The Sun Years (Varese)
Listening to these songs you get the feeling that Charlie Rich could have been the white Ray Charles. These Sun tracks were recorded when it seemed as if Rich could master anything, from blues to country, rockabilly to jazz (often in a single song). Rich went on to make great music over the following decade, much of it in Nashville produced by Billy Sherrill, before booze and Vegas extracted their inexorable toll.
7. Coleman Hawkins: Dali (Stash)
Try to find this live recording of Coleman Hawkins on vinyl. Dali does the cover art, while the Hawk does “Dali,” an unaccompanied tour de force of tenor sax.
8. Rashaan Roland Kirk: Blacknuss (Collectibles)
Somehow Dali and Hawkins became friends in Paris, but the Hawk’s music never evinced the slightest hint of surrealism. To get Dali’s equal in jazz you must turn to Roland Kirk, who played surreal music on surrealistic instruments of his own design.
9. The Mekons: Rock ‘n Roll (Collector’s Choice)
In which the shade of Elvis is conjured up to do battle against Oliver North and company.
10. Wanda Jackson: The Queen of Rockabilly (Ace)
There have been a lot of imitators down the decades, reaching a crescendo of sorts in the Alt Country 90s, but none have come close to matching Wanda Jackson’s raucous energy and unrestrained joy of execution, which is what rockabilly is all about.
1. Lyn Collins: Mama Feelgood
This protege of James Brown performed occasionally up to her death last year, but for all practical purposes her music career lasted from 1970 til she quit Brown’s revue in 1976. In that short period she cut a series of terrific funk records that managed to sound contemporary without losing their gospel roots. A few of them were hits, but today she’s remembered mostly for a few seconds that were sampled from her 1972 track “Think (About It)” and pasted someone else’s 1988 rap hit “It Takes Two.” She deserves better.
2. Allen Toussaint: Finger Poppin’ and Stompin’ Feet
All of these R&B singles were released between 1960 and 1962, and all of them are essential listening. Toussaint is the producer here, and not (usually) the performer, but he deserves equal billing with Irma Thomas, Aaron Neville, Ernie K-Doe, and the other New Orleans legends assembled on the disc.
3. The Del McCoury Band: Del and the Boys
A couple years ago, in a suburb just outside my city, these bluegrass virtuosos played one of the best live shows I’ve seen in my life. They had to share the stage with a mediocre jam band, but that was OK — it gave us a chance to slip next door and grab a burger before the next McCoury set.
4. Jimmy Cliff et al: The Harder They Come
Arguably the most popular reggae album in the United States, I suspect because it showcases the genre’s roots in American R&B. I wish more soul singers would cover these songs.
5. The Pogues: Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash
Never mind the bollocks, it’s the Clancy Brothers! Twenty years after it came out, this angry Irish collision of traditional music, punk temperament, and tough but sensitive songwriting still feels refreshing.
6. Madness: Total Madness
One of the better British pop bands of the ’80s, with a sound rooted in ska but broad enough to touch on everything from Motown to circus music. This isn’t the best collection of their work, but it’s the one I picked up cheap some years back, so it’s the CD I’ve been listening to lately.
7. The Rainmakers: The Rainmakers
More from the ’80s! These libertarian roots-rockers raised some eyebrows with the immaculately irreverent “Let My People Go-Go,” the subsidy-bashing “Government Cheese,” and the anti-busybody anthem “Information.” The band’s sometimes overproduced sound hasn’t aged as well as it could have — or maybe that’s just the wear and tear on my 20-year-old cassette? Either way, the <i>lyrics</i> remain as pointed and as funny as ever.
Jesse Walker is managing editor of Reason and author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America. His blog is The Perpetual Three-Dot Column.
1. Jason & the Nashville Scorchers: Reckless Country Soul (Mammoth)
A rock critic gets sent thousands of unsolicited albums and there were many I never played at all. This 1982 recording was one I first heard in 2002 after I interviewed Jason Ringenberg, a truly humble character, for The Scotsman. I wish I had seen this group. I went home and found three of their CDs. The raw, rowdy passion of Reckless brings a gig I never saw right into my untidy office. A Chicago label boss once said, “Alt-country is what punks play when they grow up.” Quite.
2. Jenny Lewis with The Watson Twins: Rabbit Fur Coat (Rough Trade)
American girls have such seductive voices and sometimes I like to float along with their musical daydreams and confessions. The Watson Twins are causasian gospel singers who add a lot to this subtle soundscape, proving once again that good production is what you leave out. They cover Handle Me With Care, the Travelling Wilburys tune, retaining the Byrdsy/Tom Petty twang of the original.
3. Keith Jarrett: Standards Vol 1 (ECM).
The spirit of God Bless The Child never fails to lift me. I just play that song over and over. I’ve loved riff tunes ever since Paul Bley’s Mr Joy in 1968. And even before that.
4. New Radicals: Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed (MCA).
Gregg Alexander’s multiple talents come over well on this album. I enjoy his smart-ass lyrics and his Jaggery sneers, even if the drum track is a bit artificial and sessiony.
5. Beach Boys: Pet Sounds Sessions (Capitol)
Having listened to Brian Wilson’s What I Really Want For Christmas over the holidays, I dipped into the boxed-set deconstruction of Pet Sounds. Disc 3 is called Stack-O-Vocals and it’s fabulous. Lovely that Brian, the maestro’s maestro, is making music again.
6. Alabama 3: Exile on Cold Harbour Lane (Elemental Records )
This album is funk with a whacky edge and always reminds me of a night out with Jeff Dexter, a former soul DJ and hippie promoter. We planned to see two groups. At Shepherds Bush Empire we caught the best World Party gig I’ve ever seen and A&R man Chris Briggs invited us to the aftershow. Jeff suggested we give Alabama 3 a miss, but some instinct made me say, “Let’s go see another great gig.” So we drove over to University of London Union, where the sevenpiece Alabama 3 were playing after a left-wing conference. We saw a riotous show by this new band and chatted to their pedal steel guitarist B.J. Cole, a friend of Jeff’s since the Sixties. A fair while later Woke Up This Morning became the theme for The Sopranos. Marxists provided the soundtrack for the Mafia.
7. Beck: Midnight Vultures (Geffen)
When my daughter Caroline started at university I carried out a rack of CDs to put them in the back of the car and noticed several of my albums. Without telling her, I pocketed Midnight Vultures and Damien Rice. But the Damien CD was in her Discman. I don’t like Prince that much, but Beck’s Prince album is a gas, gas, gas. A Californian punk whose sound-effects show the same sense of humour as his wordplay : “We like the boys with the bulletproof vests, We like the girls with the cellophane chests, We like to ride on executive planes, We like to sit around and get real paid.” The lurid lime green/fuschia artwork is just right for an album of nouveau plastic funk.
8. Little Feat: Rampant Synchopatio (bootleg)
Superheavy funk by a Los Angeles sextet who made the Stones sound like a bunch of art students. No other rock group has ever played like this or sounded like this. At the time we thought these 1976 tapes had been mixed by Lowell George and given to the bootleggers. Or sold to them.Was that done with the approval of Warner Bros?
9. Antony & the Johnsons: I Am A Bird Now (Rough Trade)
I discovered Antony in June 2005 when Caroline was playing it. At first I said, “Bryan Ferry did all this 30 years ago.” But after grooving on the piano, the strings and the poetic tenderness, I soon realised that Antony is better than that old poser ever was.Roxy Music never reminded me of Nina Simone.
10. B.B. King: Blues Is King … Plus (MCA)
Pogue Darryl Hunt turned me onto this album in 1978, when I was co-managing him in an earlier group. It’s superior to the more famous live-in- prison album of the same era. A black guitarist with a black group playing to a black audience in a club in 1967, it’s just so earthy and real. My favourite blues album starts rocking with Waitin’ On You : Yes, it’s four o’clock in the morning babe, I’m sittin’ here waiting on you, You say you’re goin’ out dancing, But the dancehall closes at two….
Myles Palmer is an author and sportswriter who lives in London with his wife, son and tortoise.
At a loading dock this week, I was blasting one of my “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” discs ( I’ve got about 50 different versions of the song) and another driver inquired, “What the fuck is that — Christmas is over!”
But the spirit remains. For me and the merry gentlemen, any day can be Christmas. Agnostic me will sing out “Christ our Savior was born upon this day” and feel my being transported skyward to… well, at least the top of my van. Here’s my favorite versions:
1) Chuck Leavell: What’s in That Bag?
So you’re walking through snowy woods on a winter night and you see lit candles here and there on the ground. You hear music. You come to a small clearing ablaze with thousands of candles and there is the great Chuck Leavell, formerly of the Allman Brothers, sometimes of the Rolling Stones, formerly of Chuck Leavell, the great Chuck Leavell sitting alone at a 30 foot grand in the snow and he’s powerful, free, inspired, but he’s not playing for you or even himself — he’s playing for the Great Mystery. My all-time favorite. Turn it up all the way.
2) Gypsy Soul: Sacred
Multi-instrumentalist husband Roman Morykit lays down a little bluesy, lot jazzy acoustic delight and every sound out of vocalist wife Cilette Swann’s mouth is perfection.
3) Yellowjackets: Peace Round — A Christmas Celebration
Saxman Bob Mintzer, pianist Russ Ferrante, drummer Marcus Baylor and bassist Jimmy Haslip show their chops and give their props in the most free-flowing engrossing jazz ensemble investigation of the merry gentlemen.
4) Nancy Wilson: A Nancy Wilson Christmas
The underclass of the 1300s — just about everybody back then — couldn’t get down with somber church music, so they invented carols which were sung and danced to year-round. “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” was sung on London street corners at least as far back as the 1500s. Five hundred years later Nancy Wilson gave us this sexy version.
A digression… As many of you know, there’s a bitter schism in the world of Christmas caroling concerning where to put the comma in the song. As with most issues, the controversy is between the idiots and the smart people. The correct placing of the comma is: “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” (not: “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen”) because in olden days “rest” meant “keep.” The gents were advised to be merry, not rest. A red-state reading of Nancy Wilson’s outstanding horn-heavy version would say: “Sit your asses (and oxen and sheepen) down, merry pardners, and take a load off.” A blue-stater might say: ” Gentlemen, get ready for the wisest hottest comforting and joy of your lives.”
5) Eric Loy: Counterpoint Guitar Solos
Much under-known self-taught guitarzan, aggressive, percussive, uninhibited, fun, joyous — Loy puts the “merry” in this sweet swinging take. See Loy play live, with his harp guitar ( two necks, three holes, 24 strings), and pick your jaw up off the floor.
6) Philadelphia Brass Ensemble: A Festival of Carols in Brass
First issued in 1967 ( but seemingly forever in the aether ), this is the real deal, the version imprinted on us when we children were first dragged around on cold December nights to go “shopping” and “visiting.” Effortlessly bringing tears to the eyes and shivers to the spine, this brief take (1:07) conjures up the best of the season: the cold huddled masses, the absent dead, love lost. The theme song for Seasonal Affective Disorder. Only three more months to go!
7) Crash Test Dummies: Jingle All the Way
Rocker Brad Roberts’ basso hilarious vocal unexpectedly gives way to fab flute and jazz. Totally enjoyable.
8) Mercy Me: The Christmas Sessions
The Christian rockers’ photo on the album cover tells the tale: eyes peering out between toboggan hats and scarves across their mouths — tough-sledding Christian insurgents! (Like Bruce Cockburn, I’m wondering where the rocket launchers are… or something like that.) A bonafide over-the-top warchestra with pulverizing drums, a choir and frighteningly earnest singing. Music to smite Shiites (Sunni or later) and steal hydrocarbons by. We (USA) rock — you (world) roll(over).
Briefly: people of goodwill everywhere can agree to hate the kudzu of smooth jazz, but do check out Johnny Kudzuseed’s (Russ Freeman) salsa version (Holiday, 1995). David Grisman doesn’t have the exclusive bluegrass franchise (see also Christmas Grass Too, 2004) but he has done two superlative bluejass versions (DGQ-20, 1996 and David Grisman’s Acoustic Christmas, 1991). Speaking of grass, have a listen to A Most Excellent Reggae Christmas, 2005. (Jah rest ye mellow, gentlemen?)
Randy Shields lives in Dayton, Ohio.