JEFFREY ST. CLAIR
1. Miles Davis: Cellar Door Sessions (Columbia)
Finally exhumed from Columbia’s catacombs, this 3-cd package captures the Miles Davis Band’s weekend of performances in December 1970 at Washington, DC’s Cellar Door jazz club with Keith Jarrett on Fender Rhodes piano, Jack DeJohnette bashing the drums, John McLaughlin on a screaming electric guitar, Wayne Shorter on sax and Miles on an electrified cornet. The jazz equivalent of Dylan going electric.
2. Don Byron: Nu Blaxploitation (Blue Note)
Don Byron may be the most accomplished clarinetist since the great Eric Dolphy and, like Dolphy, Byron, is a restless player, always seeking out new genres of music. He has a peculiar fascination with klezmer music and has done some surreal improvisations in that format. But here Byron, with his band Existential Dred, is in full funk mode (the cd is dedicated to the 70s funk band Mandrill), reaching a feverish pitch in their fractious cover of Hendrix’s “If 6 Was 9”. But the musical highlight of the CD is probably the deep grooving, 15-minute “Schizo Jam”, featuring Biz Markie and Byron bursting forth with a blizzard of notes. In the tradition of Archie Shepp, Byron infuses his music with radical politics, as on the hip-hop number assailing the NYPD’s killing of Abner Loima, which is far more trenchant than Springsteen’s timid “41 Shots,” where poet Sadiq chants: “Loima, Loima ran from little Papa Doc/To find himself a piece of the rock/He was crushed under the pressure of hate/Shut down this historic fate.” There’s also a furious attack, both verbally and musically, on the LAPD in a song called, naturally, “Furman.”
3. Patty Griffin: Living with Ghosts (A&M)
Patty Griffin is one of the best singer/songwriters to come along in years. It may be heresy to say so, but I don’t crave her more recent albums (where her soaring voice overwhelms the songs like a kind of gorgeous tsunami) nearly as much as her debut, Living with Ghosts, which was recorded in a demo-like fashion featuring only Patty’s wonderful voice and an acoustic guitar. Griffin reportedly shunned the results as being too “pop oriented”, which just shows you that sometimes an artist can be the worst critic of her own work. One of the best albums of the 90s or any decade.
4. Jeff Beck: You Had It Coming (Sony)
Okay, Beck (that is Jeff Beck) is one of rock music’s great ego-maniacs. But he is also one of the two or three most influential guitarists since Robert Johnson and, unlike the other two tired veterans of The Yardbirds, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, Beck continues to stretch out into new terrain from jazz and funk to blues and some of the heaviest metal guitar you’re ever likely encounter.
5. Dave Brubeck Quartet: Jazz: Red Hot and Cool (Columbia)
This 1954 live recording from Manhattan’s Basin Street Club opens with a cover of the Rodgers and Hart standard “Lover” where drummer Jim Dodge sets the beat in 4/4 time. Then Brubeck enters playing in 3/4 time. He is followed by the smoky tones of Paul Desmond’s alto, also in 3/4, accompanied by bassist Bob Bates. All the while, Dodge pounds away in 4/4. Brubeck called this approach “playing three against four” and the rest of this album, as well as the ones which would follow (notably Time Out), offer other experiments in time and counterpoint. But the beauty of the Brubeck/Desmond partnership is that these inside jokes and innovations never intrude on the music–but they’re there if you like digging for them. Call me a homer, but my favorite tune on this cd is the rompish version of “Indiana.”
6. Gram Parsons: Sacred Hearts and Fallen Angels: a Gram Parsons Anthology (Rhino)
Gram Parsons almost single-handedly invented country rock, but he shouldn’t be held solely accountable for the manifold sins of those (the Eagles, Pure Prairie League, et al) who followed in his wake. Parsons had heart, Don Henley doesn’t. And that makes all the difference in the world, a distinction you can clearly hear in “Hickory Wind” or “Sin City.” This two-CD collection of 46 songs charts Parsons’ career from the International Submarine Band to the Byrds to the Flying Burrito Brothers and his own tragically abbreviated Fallen Angels Band.
7. Los Lobos: Good Morning, Atzlan! (Hollywood Records)
Los Lobos returns to its roots as a hard-driving Latin funk band, deeply informed by R&B, and fronted by one of the best living blues singers, David Hidalgo.
8. Guy Clark: Cold Dog Soup (Sugarhill)
Clark is often feted to as the best songwriter in Texas. You won’t get much of an argument from me about that, except to note that such a label tends to discount his skills as a musician and singer, gifts which are in full display on this 1999 recording where, in addition to some excellent new compositions, particularly the haunting “Red River,” he returns the favor by covering some of the songwriters who’ve lifted from him, such as Steve Earle, Richard Dobson and Anne McGarrigle.
9. John Cale: The Island Years (Polygram)
The best solo recordings by the brains behind the Velvet Underground. In Bushtime, Cale’s mid-70s song “Fear is a Man’s Best Friend” suddenly gains a new relevance. Cale’s menacing cover of Jonathan Richman’s “Pablo Picasso” transforms one of the funniest songs ever written into one that sounds like it’s being sung by a serial killer. Perhaps Cale was on edge because, yes, that’s Phil Collins whacking away on the drums?
10. Monroe Brothers: What Would You Give in Exchange for Your Soul? (Rounder)
Answer: a chance to see Charlie and Bill perform these songs live.
By the time Jeffrey St. Clair was 18, he’d been 86’d from more bands than Dickey Betts. Complaints can be registered to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Twink: The Broken Record (Seeland)
Mike Langlie mashed up hundreds of ancient children’s records to make this weird, funny, sometimes eminently danceable CD. One of the best albums of 2005.
2. Marty Stuart: Souls’ Chapel (Universal South)
When Stuart plays Pop Staples’ guitar on this album, it’s not just a gimmick: The spirit of the Staple Singers hovers over all these spare, tight, and bluesy gospel numbers. Another entry for my best-of-2005 list.
3. Wilmoth Houdini: Poor But Ambitious (Arhoolie)
Before Belafonte, calypso was gritty stuff: songs about murder, prostitution, racial politics, and a brand of braggadocio that wouldn’t be out of place on a modern rap record. You can consider this Trinidad’s hip hop of the ’20s and ’30s.
4. Al Green: Call Me (Right Stuff)
His version of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” is the best Hank Williams cover ever.
5. Terry Allen: Lubbock (on everything) (Sugarhill)
Move over, Roy Acuff — there’s another wreck on the highway:
Yeah a truckload of art is burning near the highway Precious objects are scattered all over the ground And it’s a terrible sight if a person were to see it But there weren’t nobody around
6. The Kinks: Soap Opera Live
The Kinks’ penultimate music-hall album — the critics called them “rock operas,” but they were far closer to vaudeville than to Verdi — was 1975’s underrated Soap Opera; it’s what “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” might look like if it were reimagined by Philip K. Dick and scored by Noel Coward and Link Wray. (And Charlie Rich: The chorus to “You Make It All Worthwhile” is a direct steal from “Behind Closed Doors.”) This bootleg is culled from several live performances of the show; it’s for Kinks aficionados only, but I’m an aficionado and I adore it.
7. Ben Harper: Fight for Your Mind (Virgin)
Speaking of stealing tunes: Ever notice that Harper’s “Please Me Like You Want To” sounds an awful lot like “Sweet Home Alabama”?
8. Bob Dylan: Self Portrait (Sony)
Cut it by about a third, and it would be a pretty good album. But it’s the crap that makes it great.
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. Marty Balin: Balince (Rhino Records)
Balince is a bewitching set of period pieces from Marty Balin, who like Ron Wood and Joni Mitchell, also paints and draws. Although most of the press surrounding the Jefferson Airplane and its later incarnation, Jefferson Starship, centered on Grace Slick, Marty Balin’s silky smooth contributions to both groups were undeniable, if not inescapable. This compilation of work from the soulful troubadour features works from the Airplane’s post-virgin flight, “Surrealistic Pillow,” to more recent, previously unreleased solo tracks.
2. Ringo Starr: Choose Love (Koch Records)
Once more, love is all you need.
3. Rob Halford: Resurrection (BMG)
Rob Halford has the one voice in heavy metal that can both crack glass and kick ass at the same time. On his debut solo album, Resurrection, Judas Priest’s front man from Birmingham, England, punctuated with the ballad “Silent Screams,” flaunts more killing floor bangers. While “Silent Screams” may be an oxymoron, so is Halford, himself, a gay musician, in the machismo world of metal. The Priest, which has had massive, multi-platinum success for thirty years, has also had their share of drama that includes an asinine lawsuit brought against them, which was wrought with accusations of suicide-inducing backwards messages. The First Amendment, along with Judas Priest’s attorneys, prevailed, however.
4. Geto Boys: Geto Boys (Def American)
Hailing from Fifth Ward, Houston, Texas, this trigger happy rap trio caused record producer Rick Rubin to sever his ties with his distributor, Geffen Records, when the label refused to press and distribute the album because of its hardcore tracks like “Mind Of A Lunatic” and “Let A Ho Be A Ho.” Rubin, who has produced the likes of Black Crows, Johnny Cash, Mick Jagger, proved himself to be one of the group’s staunchest supporters.
5. Geto Boys: We Can’t Be Stopped (Rap-A-Lot Records)
The album cover photo features group members Willie D and Scarface wheeling a hospital gurney carrying Bushwick Bill, whose eye was shot out that night by his girlfriend. This is not a staged photo. It really happened. Despite its shock value on the album packaging, the disc features one of the most prolific hiphop songs ever written, “Mind Playing Tricks.” Songs like that and “Trophy,” a dis to the Grammy Awards, helped take the group to another level, into the world of gold and platinum.
6. Three-6 Mafia: Chapter 2/World Domination (Relativity Records)
Opening the album, while sampling the theme from Mash, this group from the Dirty Dirty comes clean, as they ride with the brothers from the Mafia, as well as Ms. Gangsta Boo. The Three-6, along with their assorted posse, has released a respectable slew of albums, and this one exemplifies their no-holds-barred approach to expression. Their later album, Sippin’ On Some Syrup, landed in Billboard’s top ten albums. Southern fried hiphop, indeed.
7. Nils Lofgren: Code Of The Road/Greatest Hits Live (Right Stuff/EMI/Capitol Records)
Having recorded with Neil Young, and then Bruce Springsteen, as a part of the E Street Band, this album sets out to prove Lofgren is more than a sidekick. The road worthy guitarist released this set of live, self-penned tracks, which includes “Keith Don’t Go,” presumably a tribute to Rolling Stone Keith Richards.
8. Sex Pistols: Filthy Lucre Live (Virgin Records)
Johnny Rotten and company reunites for sentimental look back. Unfortunately, by the time these live tracks had been recorded, however, Sid Vicious had already died, as had his legendary girlfriend, Nancy Spungeon. Despite the death count, Rotten decides to go down in flames here. Like Neil Young said, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.”
9. Soundtrack: The Wizard Of Oz–Green Deluxe Edition (Rhino Records)
This is some really heavy stuff. If you can’t dig it, be gone, before someone drops a house on you, too.
10. T Rex: 20th Century Boy: The Ultimate Collection (Hip-O Records)
If you believed the lie of terrestrial radio, you would think that all T-Rex ever did was “Get It On (Bang A Gong).” Tyrannosaurus Rex, also known as Marc Bolan, was actually born with the name Marc Feld. Tragically, it all came to an end at the age of thirty when his girlfriend accidentally drove into a tree. Bolan would personify, if not certainly escalate, the concept of glam rock. His cult-like following still keeps his music close to heart.
Phyllis Pollack lives in Los Angeles where she is a publicist and music journalist. She can be reached through her blog.