1. Gang of Four — Return the Gift (V2)
The best of the post-Clash Brit punk bands. Almost too smart for their own good, the Gang of Four’s arch lyrics are redeemed by the thrashing guitars, the throbbing bass and their affinity for funk. At times their music sounds like a found art collage, splintered with the accidental noises and rhythms of urban streets. Return the Gift finds the Gang of Four back in the studio re-recording and remixing a dozen or so of their best songs from the 80s. The Gang’s old nemesis Margaret Thatcher has just been rolled into the hospital. If some nurse or orderly could pipe this riotous version of “To Hell with Poverty” into the Iron Lady’s room it might just finish her off: “In this land right now some are insane, and they’re in charge / To Hell with poverty, we’ll get drunk on cheap wine.” The closest punk ever came to the exuberant anarchy of Parliament.
2. Joe Zawinul and the Zawinul Syndicate — Vienna Nights (BHM)
The Austrian keyboardist Joe Zawinul was a fine hard bop pianist for Cannonball Adderly’s band before he began playing around with a Fender Rhodes and changed the face of jazz. Miles Davis joked that he brought Zawinul into his group because he liked the sound of his name, but it was Zawinul’s spacey and melodic compositions which Davis seized upon for one of the most groundbreaking records of the 1960s: In a Silent Way. Miles took more credit for that record than he really deserved: Zawinul’s keyboards and Wayne Shorter’s sax shaped that record. So Zawinul soon went his own way, eventually founding Weather Report with Shorter, which would become the best of the fusion bands creating a sound that was something like a improvising electronic orchestra. When Zawinul arrived in the States in 1958, he immediately made an impact in the music scene, joining Maynard Ferguson’s band. But he also threw himself into the Civil Rights Movement, where he became friends with Jesse Jackson, for whom he wrote two songs “Walk Tall” and “Country Preacher”. Jesse even contributed a proto-rap as an intro to “Walk Tall,” included on the Adderly group’s Country Preacher album for Blue Note. Now 73, Zawinul continues to make stunning new music with his group the Zawinul Syndicate, as displayed in this 2005 recording live from Zawinul’s Birdland club in Vienna. The band, featuring the exotic voice of singer Sabine Kabongo, moves through synth-bop, Latin funk and world beat numbers to an elegant rendition of Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday”. (Ellington, by the way, was one of the first jazz musicians to experiment with an electric piano). One of the most exciting jazz records in many years.
3. Lightnin’ Hopkins — Lightnin’ Strikes Twice (Little Darlin’)
The only blues artist who may have recorded more songs than Sam Hopkins was John Lee Hooker. Like Chuck Berry, Hopkins distrusted anyone associated with the music business and refused to sign any kind of contracts. Berry demanded to be paid in cash for each concert. Lightnin’ Hopkins demanded to be paid in cash for each song– before he recorded it. Hopkins learned the country blues directly from some of its founders. Blind Lemon Jefferson and Texas Alexander taught him to play guitar, although the sound he made with it is all his own. One Houston oil baron paid $25,000 for a guitar so he could sound like Lightnin’, of course he never came close. That poser was in good company, though. When Miles Davis returned to blues in the 1980s with his neglected cd Star People, he said in the liner notes that he wanted to make his trumpet sound like Hopkins’ guitar. In the early 1960s, jazz producer Aubrey Mayhew tracked down Hopkins in his small house in poor neighborhood of Houston. Hopkins consented to record 12 new songs, as long as he was paid up front. “I only play when I need the money.” When he showed up at the studio, Mayhew had a band waiting for him. Hopkins sent them home. “I play by myself,” he said, as he sat down on a folding chair and opened a bottle of gin. Hopkins warned Mayhew that the songs, which he often improvised on the spot, might not have his usual sound because he was playing on a borrowed guitar. “This guitar don’t know me and it may not talk the way I want it to.” Yet, these 38 songs are vintage Hopkins, with some of the funniest titles in the blues, including: “Chicken Mary,” “Baby Don’t Tear My Clothes,” “Chicka Choca Shalali,” “I Wish I Was a Baby,” and “Chicken Minute.” Yeah, chicken (in all its variant meanings) was something of a fetish for Hopkins.
4. Rhonda Vincent and the Rage–Ragin’ Live (Rounder)
In baseball, Rhonda Vincent would be called a five-tool player. The Missouri bluegrass diva writes great songs, plays the mandolin, guitar and fiddle and owns one of the soaring voices in American roots music. Vincent’s band, the Rage, is the best in bluegrass, lead by banjo icon Kenny Ingram. The highlight of this set, recorded live in Missouri, is her seething version of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.”
5. Paul Desmond–Bossa Antigua: Remastered (RCA)
Dave Brubeck’s best albums were really Paul Desmond records, shaped and colored by the sharp melodies of his alto sax. When Brubeck took off periodically to teach or fiddle around with orchestras, Desmond dove into the studios with his own band, often featuring the guitar virtuoso Jim Hall, a disciple of Charlie Christian. Desmond and Hall could and did play nearly anything, from bop to swing, soul jazz to a soft and deeply grooved brand of electronic fusion. Here they tackle the bossa nova sound with impeccable results. Stan Getz never did it any better.
6. Audioslave–Live in Cuba (DVD/CD) (Sony)
Thanks to Ry Cooder and the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon, most Americans are under the impression that Cuban musicians are older than Havana’s cars. (Of course, this is a more generous view than Ken Burns’ history of jazz, which concludes that it was an archaic form of music from the 50s and 60s made by long dead black men.) Cubans have been listening to and performing rock since the 50s. Sometimes in clubs, sometimes in more underground settings, as is the case in all countries. A lot of Cuban rock has been critical of the Castro regime; it wouldn’t qualify as rock music if it didn’t buck authority. In the 1960s, the government tried to suppress the underground music, with about as much success as J. Edgar Hoover, Richard Nixon or Tipper Gore in their various efforts to intimidate US rockers, jazz players and rappers. Since then things have been freer and the music, from Latin funk to heavy metal, has thrived. Last spring Audioslave (the fusion of Rage Against the Machine and Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell) breached the US embargo and played an outdoor concert before a frenzied crowd of 60,000 in Havana’s Anti-Imperialist Plaza. Audioslave’s singer Cornell engaged in a bit of grandstanding by saying that they were the first American rock band to play in post-Revolution Cuba. Not true. I’m no fan of Bonnie Raitt’s music, but she performed in Havana in 1999 and Carole King played there in 2003, followed shortly by Joanne Osborne and Jimmy Buffet. Even so, Audioslave played louder than any of those courageous souls and this DVD, and accompanying CD, captures the whole riotous 2.5 hour concert, which closes with a ruthless version of “Cochise.” It will take Nike execs a few years to devise a way to coopt any of these songs.
7. Dixie Hummingbirds–The Best of the Dixie Hummingbirds (MCA)
The Dixie Hummingbirds are a black gospel group from Virginia, which hit it big with “Loves Me Like a Rock” two decades before Paul Simon rode the song on one of his comebacks. Many gospel groups tend toward a similar sound, but the music of the Hummingbirds is unmistakable. The Birds’ sound is marked by Ira Tucker’s sweet voice, their sense of humor (they loved to parody other acts, particularly the Blind Boys of Alabama) and Harold Carroll’s stinging lead guitar, which he wields with more firepower than most rock bands. “Christian Automobile” is one of the funniest and hippest gospel songs ever recorded.
8. The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem–Irish Songs of Drinking and Rebellion (Legacy)
Along with the music of Woody Guthrie, Charley Patton and Robert Johnson, these are the boisterous songs that inspired the young Dylan. You can see why. As Patrick Clancy says in the liner notes, “If you hear a lot of singing from your neighbor’s home at midnight, just know there is drinking going on.” And perhaps a little plotting against the man. Is Whack Fol the Diddle!the Irish equivalent of A wop-lop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom?
9. Last Charge of the Light Horse — Getaway Car
Energetic and subversive rock with literate lyrics reporting from the ruins of the Bush economy by a new Long Island band with Texas roots. If the Labor Movement in this country had a lick of sense, it would make a video of “Cartwheeling” and splash it before the nation during halftime of the Super Bowl, before people nod off during the Stones’ geriatric set. Last Charge is propelled by a rumbling father-and-son rhythm section and the speed-demon lead guitar of Jean-Paul Vest, which just might remind you of the late Freddie King.
10. John Lennon — Acoustic (Capitol)
Yoko Ono assembled this assortment of outtakes, doodles and live performances a couple of years ago. Lennon composed mostly on the piano, but the guitar pieces here have the feel of music in the midst of creation and re-invention, especially the chilling and raw version of “Cold Turkey.” This CD also contains the live version of “John Sinclair”, about the ordeal of the White Panther, Beat poet, blues historian/musician and sometimes CounterPuncher, who in 1969 was sentenced to 10 years in prison for possessing two joints. Lennon’s defense of Sinclair prompted J. Edgar Hoover to open an FBI file on the singer, which eventually swelled to hundreds of pages. One of the best of the posthumous Lennon releases.
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. Ice Cube-The Predator (Priority Records)
It is ironic that despite having traveled from the CIA to NWA, to a solo career then on onto his stint with the group Westside Connection, Ice Cube is arguably more known for his film career than for his noteworthy rapping and writing skills. Director/producer Oshea Jackson contributed significant musical works before Hollywood beckoned. Sampling The Isleys and The Moments, the track “It Was A Good Day,” which is found on this album, is arguably is one of the best songs Cube ever recorded. The Predator has been through so much drama, that he can say “It Was A Good Day,” merely because he didn’t have to use his AK. Ice Cube shows how it is the simple things in life that bring content, although at the end of the day, it always seems that trouble somehow always looms ahead. On the album, he talks about issues that effect the community, and assisted by Muggs, he explains why “We had to Tear this Motherfucka Up.”
2. Ice Cube–Lethal Injection (Priority Records)
Politically charged and searing, this scorching album delivers a platform in the form of 12 soulful and gritty tracks. “What Can I Do?” is an admonishment from Ice Cube, addressing the lack of opportunities that are available to anyone who has a felony conviction on his criminal record, or who has no education. During the song’s intro, a voice is heard, saying, “In any country, prison is where society sends its failures, but in this country, society itself is failing.” Ice Cube, through his delivery on the various tracks on Lethal Injection, warns the listener not to fail himself.
3. Ice Cube–Amerikka’s Most Wanted (Priority Records)
Upon his bitter split from the platinum-selling, seminal gangsta rap group, N.W.A., a sense of competition pervaded between the two camps. It was within this atmosphere that Cube brought Amerikkka’s Most Wanted. With N.W.A.’s producer, Dr. Dre, already established as the best hip-hop producer on the West Coast, Cube made a brilliant move for his debut album, in acquiring the production team that was hailed as the best on the East Coast, the Bomb Squad, the stellar unit that produced hits for Public Enemy. Comprised of Eric Sadler, Hank and Keith Shocklee and Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Flavor Flav, with the Squad, this early East-West collaboration would up the ante. “The Product” of the ghetto looks pessimistically at the future and sees no hope, as a result of what he sees around him, and from receiving no encouragement; expectations of him run low, and therefore, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. “My life is fucked, but it ain’t my fault, ’cause I’m the motherfucking product.” This is really “The Product,” about whom Cube asks, “Am I the nigga you love, or the one you love to hate?” This is the challenge that Cube presents, as he makes the listener wonder, who is it that is really the most ready to Kill At Will?
4. Patti Smith–Horses (Sony Legacy)
This 30-year anniversary double disc set contains the original disc, and a live performance of the tracks recorded in June of 2005. Coming in the midst of more arguments about the punk rock poetess not being inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, one of the beauties of punk was that it didn’t need to be validated.
5. Ladysmith–Black Mambazo (Heads Up Records)
The Grammy winning vocal ensemble from South Africa delivers 13 tracks, including several duets with the likes of Emmylou Harris, Zap Mama and Taj Mahal. Led by Joseph Shambala, Apartheid is drowned out and destroyed by powerful voices like these.
6. Disturbed–The Sickness (Giant Records)
Edgy and raw, the sonic aggression of Disturbed will chase away whatever ails you. Agitated rhythms push and fight their way throughout this disc. Although “Down With The Sickness” is their trademark song this album, the entire disc is well worth the beat down. Aggravated riffs and will not only make you go numb, they’ll “Stupify.” Violent auditory fetishes never sounded so good. This heavy metal platter, full of pleasures as it is, will help even the undead wake up and shake it up.
7. Body Count–BodyCount (Sire/Warner)
Before Hollywood snatched Ice-T away, his heavy metal band, Body Count, helped piss off more people than his streetwise raps (most notably Tipper Gore, who was already on a self-inflated, and very personal mission against Ice). The version that I’m listening to is no longer in print, because it contains the song “Cop Killer.” A second version of the album was released in the midst of the furor over the song, which replaced the track with a collaboration between Ice-T and Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedy, ironically titled “Freedom Of Speech.” Body Count no longer exists, but police brutality does. Ice rocks the house with tracks like “KKK Bitch,” “Evil Dick” and “Mommas’Gotta Die Tonight.” This is message music at its best, and Tipper, you can still go fuck yourself.
8. AC/DC–Back In Black (ATCO Records)
Heavy metal Aussies shoot to thrill on this album, sending up the message that “Rock And Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution.” Angus Young teaches us that you never know what’s in a man’s shorts, and the lesson is well taken. Heeding the call of “Hells Bells,” this album produced by “Mutt” Lange still rings as hard as the day it was released. Let AC/DC put some love into your stereo, and you can have a drink on me. Rockin’ since 1973, after the death of their late vocalist Bon Scott, this band is as vicious as ever. High voltage doesn’t come with much more power than this.
9. Redbone–The Essential Redbone (Sony)
Formed by Pat and Lolly Vegas, these two Native American brothers from El Lay played on their heritage when forming their image and music. Capturing Latin, American Indian, and rock rhythms, the group hit their commercial peak in the early and mid Seventies. Worth revisiting, the functified “Witch Queen Of New Orleans” puts a spell on you, as does “Maggie.” Come and get your love with no reservations. You can still hear a message from a drum.
10. Sly Stone–Anthology (Epic Records)
Sylvester Stewart recorded lyrically relevant music that still stands the test of time. And lame presidential administrations He can still take you higher, and will tell you that you can make it if you try. We wanted him to stay, so he’d be around today, workin’ in the studio, but dammit, it just didn’t happen that way. In Sly’s world, “Everybody Is A Star,” and you can still get down, even if you just “Sing A Simple Song.” This is an album that takes a “Stand.” He says he wants to take us higher, and after listening to this album, we believe him.
Phyllis Pollack lives in Los Angeles where she is a publicist and music journalist. She can be reached through her blog.
1. Peter Case — Full Service No Waiting (1998)
Great songs, especially the opening track “Spell of Wheels,” about a group of small-time crooks leaving Kansas City at night, in the snow, and surviving a scare on the road to Minnesota. Andrew Williams’ intimate production puts the band in your living room.
2. Radiohead — Hail to the Thief -(2003)
No one ever made music like this. Can’t get comfortable with it, and can’t stop listening. No idea what the lyrics are about, and it doesn’t matter. “There There” is a highlight.
3. Wilco — A Ghost Is Born (2004)
“When the Devil came, he was not red — he was chrome”
4. Bob Mould Band — LiveDog98
A live overview of his solo career, through “Last Dog and Pony Show.” Songs that were good on the original albums become great. “I Hate Alternative Rock” pretty much sums it up. Loud and hard. Not for the faint of heart.
5. Miracle Legion — Drenched (1995)
If you haven’t yet discovered Miracle Legion, now might be the time. “Drenched” was their first album on the Morgan Creek label, and the slickness of the recording suggests that the label and producer might not have understood what made this band great. But “Snacks and Candy,” about the murder of Yusef Hawkins in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn, is chilling. Sung in a gleeful rush, Mark Mulcahy’s narrative is from the point of view of one of Hawkins’ white attackers, which makes it all the more gut-wrenching.
6. Aimee Mann — Lost in Space (2002)
Eleven songs exploring addiction from various viewpoints. “Hate the sinner but love the sin — let me be your heroin.”
7. Scout — This Soft Life (2003)
Not as many great songs as 1990’s “It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time,” but “Come On & Go” and “Here Come the Waterworks” show off Ashen Keilyn’s voice and writing skills to full advantage.
8. Paul Westerberg — Eventually (1996)
“eyes like two hubcaps at the bottom of the river” — The guy can write great songs, when he feels like it.
9. Jen Scaturro — i am jen “Broken” EP
I’m not generally a fan of electronic music, but these home recordings are compelling. “Today I learned something about myself,” sings Scaturro, and then lets the weight of that sink in. “Broken in All the Right Places” is a light-hearted take on plastic surgery.
10. The Who — The Who By Numbers (1996 reissue)
1. Jessica Vale, The Sex Album (Explicit)
Weird disco music composed/extracted from “highly manipulated” field recordings of people having sex. I guess the subjects knew they were being recorded. People who think disco has something to do with sex might enjoy Vale’s project. Anyway, it’s nothing like MY idea, which was to get recordings of Clinton playing sax, Nixon and Truman banging away on piano, and Pope John Paul II fumbling at the guitar, and play along with them, at them, and against them, till we get a few things undone.
2. Cater the Unstoppable Sex Machine, 1992: The Love Album (Capitol)
Where else are you gonna hear such tunes as “Only Living Boy in New Cross” and “Is Wrestling Fixed?”
3. Enya, Amarantine (Reprise/WEA)
All the proof anyone needs that Enya is the evil anti-Madonna. It’s amazing how much she sounds like her blond nemesis! Take the Material Girl out of the disco, fill her full of newage (rhymes with brewage), stick her in a long red dress that makes her look like some new insect, and this is what you get. Definitely not cut on the bias. I was hoping she’d come out in front of a band this time. But it’s selling faster than the insurgency in Iraq is growing, and I’ll probably end up liking it in spite of myself. What I really want from the creator of “enyanomics,” who has sold an average of over 10,000 CDs per day since 1988, is half an hour to talk gear with her.
4. Bill Neely, Texas Law and Justice (Arhoolie)
Unlike “contemporary Christian” singers, Bill Neely comes right out and warns you fair and square about “Satan’s Burning Hell,” and informs you kindly that you’ll find “No Pockets In A Shroud” when it’s “Sun Setting Time In Your Life.” And you thought Steve Earle was radical!
5. Johnny Hartman, I Just Dropped By To Say Hello (Grp)
One of the top male vocal jazz albums of all time. When Hartman sang a ballad, it stayed sung. For one thing, he never tried to “sound jazzy,” thank heavens. Great support from Illinois Jacquet, playing sax as though the instrument were invented in a dream.
6. Archie Roach, Jamu Dreaming (Hightone)
The legendary Australian aboriginal singer-songwriter was in fine voice on this CD. “Walking Into Doors” is the most powerful man-to-man plea for an end to male violence against women that I’ve ever heard. “She’s sick and tired of walking into doors,” and it ain’t a woman’s job to stop this crap, mate. For that you need to go find a man.
7. Bad Livers, Dust On The Bible (Quarter Stick)
Jewish bassman Mark Rubin and his cow-town punkabilly bluegrass pardners go forth and launch a raid on unsuspecting church folk. It started me to wondering, how many people have recorded “Workin’ On A Building” now? Everybody from Elvis to the Cowboy Junkies to the Swan Silvertones and the Johnson Mountain Boys.
8. Red Clay Ramblers, It Ain’t Right (Flying Fish)
“I don’t want to sing in Satan’s choir” (a fine old gospel drinking song) and the stupendous “Regions of Rain” (where “some cop’s on my ass over one lousy joint” and “maybe a bribe under cover of night will buy me a flight out of here”) make this a must-have.
9. Lennie Tristano, Concert in Copenhagen (Orchard)
Solo performance by an under-rated pianist who was playing “free” jazz a decade before Ornette Coleman.
10. Chet Baker and Stan Getz, The Stockholm Concerts (Polygram)
My favorite Chet Baker (non-vocal) recording. The best cuts from this three-CD set are available on a single CD called “Line For Lyons,” if you can find it.
Leon Despair can be reached at leondespair [AT] gmail [DOT] com.