JEFFREY ST. CLAIR
1. Sonny Sharrock: Black Woman (Water)
Sonny Sharrock was the Coltrane of the electric guitar. Indeed, after hearing Coltrane’s haunting work on Kind of Blue, Sharrock decided to devote his life to jazz. A severe case of asthma prevented him from following his idol as a saxplayer, so he took up guitar and through his early work in the Herbie Mann Group became one of the most influential and wildest players of the 60s and 70s. He began experimenting with distortion and screaming feedback years before Jimi Hendrix, bending and shattering notes into electric showers of sound. Miles Davis hired Sharrock to provide a “Hendrix-like sound” for the Jack Johnson sessions and then nastily refused to credit him when the record appeared. When Miles later begged Sharrock to join his fusion group, Sharrock told him to fuck off. (The snub has been corrected to a degree by the release of the Complete Jack Johnson Sessions where Sharrock is the undeniable star.) Black Woman is Sharrock’s first recording as a leader and, although his final album, Ask the Ages (with Elvin Jones and Pharoah Sanders) is probably his best record, this where you can hear the ground being broken with fiery clusters of notes from Sharrock’s guitar and the beautiful, wordless singing of his wife Linda.
2. Sam Rivers: Contours (Blue Notes)
A high point of free jazz, this 1965 recording by saxophonist Sam Rivers, backed by Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass and Joe Chambers, is a masterpiece of improvisational dissonance that against all odds ends up being deeply lyrical, too.
3. Joe Ely: Streets of Sin (Rounder)
This gritty cd was recorded a few years back by the venerable rocker from Lubbock, but Joe Ely’s song “We Got a Flood on Our Hands” still sounds pretty timely to me.
You don’t never miss
What you ain’t got
Till you wake up some morning
And you’ve lost the whole lot
We got a flood on our Hands
The rains gonna keep comin down
4. Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros: Streetcore (Epitaph)
Released a few months after Strummer’s heart stopped beating, this is the former leader of The Clash’s last recording and one of his best, with caustic original compositions, such as “Long Shadow” (a tribute to Johnny Cash), and the Clash-style rocker “Get Down Moses”, as well as a faithful cover of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.”
5. Richard Thompson: Grizzly Man (Soundtrack)
Growl. Chomp. Belch.
6. Floyd Dixon: Marshall, Texas is My Home
I could tell you that even on songs with titles like “Chickens Crowing” and “Nose Trouble”, blues shouter Floyd Dixon plays some of the most sophisticated and complex blues piano ever recorded. But you probably wouldn’t believe me. So listen to these tunes from the mid-1950s for yourself, then apologize for your lack of faith.
7. Alejandro Escovedo: More Miles Than Money (Bloodshot)
A live recording from the mid-90s by the most courageous musician in America, whose music swerves from punk to hard rock (check out his blistering cover of my favorite Stones song “Sway”) to ethereal borderland soul backed by strings.
8. Marcia Ball: Let Me Play With Your Poodle (Rounder)
There’s at least one advantage to listening to honky-tonk queen Marcia Ball on cd: her legs don’t distract you from what she’s doing with her hands.
9. Gil Evans Orchestra: Plays the Music of Jimi Hendrix (RCA)
In 1970, Miles Davis sent his closest friend, the celebrated arranger Gil Evans, to see Jimi Hendrix with the idea of the two legends recording an album together. Evans carried with him a score that Miles had written for Hendrix. Hendrix couldn’t make heads or tails of Miles’s ideas, since he didn’t read music, but he agreed in principle to a session (though he balked at Davis’s demand for a $50,000 advance). Tragically, Hendrix died before the recording date could be arranged. But Evans (and Davis, too) never stopped thinking about how to incorporate Hendrix’s iconic sound into his own music. In 1975, Evans put together an orchestra of 19 musicians to record 14 of the guitar titan’s songs. Perhaps, only the mind of Gil Evans could have envisioned tubas and French horns tackling the surreal pulses of “Voodoo Chile” while keeping true to the spirit of the song. The result is one of the strangest and most beautiful recordings in American jazz.
10. Mary Wells: The Two Sides of Mary Wells (DBK Works)
When Motown’s diva Mary Wells runs 12 white pop songs (ranging from Satisfaction to the Girl from Ipanema!) of the 60s through her soul machine, they come out as infectious kitsch. Diana Ross, who always wanted to be a white pop singer, eat your heart out.
1. The Dixie Chicks: Home
Say, this band was pretty good. Whatever happened to them?
2. Uncle Tupelo: No Depression
Country music of the ’90s: It’s where the rock music of the ’70s went to die. If it sounded like Journey, it entered the mainstream, and if it sounded like the Clash, it was “alternative.” Uncle Tupelo was alternative.
3. Rick Moranis: The Agoraphobic Cowboy
Yes, this is the guy from Ghostbusters and SCTV. He’s not much of a singer, but he has a knack for writing sharp, comic songs in the Shel Silverstein/Kinky Friedman tradition. The most unexpectedly enjoyable CD I’ve come across in ages.
4. Ry Cooder: Chavez Ravine
Far as I can tell, this is the first concept album about eminent domain since the Kinks were in their prime.
5. Leo Kottke: Mudlark
A guitar virtuoso plays eclectic acoustic rock.
6. Millie Jackson: Feelin’ Bitchy
Jackson is a soul singer known for her raunchy rants, and she delivers a doozy in “All the Way Lover.” Fun as that is, my favorite track on this album is her far-from-twangy cover of Merle Haggard’s “If We’re Not Back in Love By Monday.”
7. Brian Wilson: Smile
Forget prog-rock — this is where rock’n’roll becomes classical music.
8. Henry Cow: Leg End
On second thought, don’t forget prog-rock. This early outfit of Fred Frith’s is usually filed under that category, but it has little in common with the pompous showboating of Keith Emerson or Rick Wakeman. It’s closer in sound and spirit to free jazz.
9. Funkadelic: Funkadelic
“I recall when I left a little town in North Carolina, I tried to escape this music. I said it was for the old country folks. I went to New York, got slick, got my hair made — I was cool. But I had no groove.”
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. The Pretenders: Loose Screw
Released in 2002 on Artemis Records, this one is full of reggae and dance rhythms. Not as consistently great as some of their earlier albums, it still features some strong material, notably “You Know Who Your Friends Are” and “The Losing.” Hynde deliberately drops the F-bomb into the two most likely radio hits, “I Should Have” and “Complex Person,” perhaps in an attempt to remind us of her punk roots.
2. The Pretenders: The Pretenders
Speaking of which, this is one of the all-time great rock/punk albums. Forget about “Brass in Pocket,” this disc gets its energy and greatness from tunes like “Tattooed Love Boys” and “The Wait,” which show off James Honeyman-Scott’s blistering guitar work. The range of songs here is incredible.
3. Eric Johnson: Live from Austin, TX
Taped live for Austin City Limits in 1988, Johnson runs through his hits. The two Hendrix covers: “Love Or Confusion” and “Are You Experienced?” are nice moments, and the rest of the album is about what you would expect: Johnson’s signature array of guitar tones and speedy playing.
4. Andrew Vladeck: Andrew Vladeck
Andrew sings, plays electric slide banjo, and fronts a big band (with horns, keyboards, backup singers and the works). SOUNDVIEWS likens his music to “a dog riding in a car with its head out the window,” and it’s an accurate description. Vladeck’s songwriting is deftly hilarious and earnest. “Justice Is Served” pokes a little fun at jury duty, and “What We Gonna Do!?!” chronicles a desert breakdown on a cross country trip
(“it all seemed much smaller driving 90 miles an hour”) but the real standouts are “Only Human (Ring the Bell)” and “3,000 Miles.”
5. The Wallflowers – Red Letter Days
“We’ll make a lover out of you yet” sings Jacob Dylan, and he might be right-this is an album that grows on you over time. Dylan’s writing is personal and intimate, but “Everybody Out of the Water” does take one political jab-maybe-as he urges, “admit it now/your information sucks” against an apocalyptic backdrop. Fans of their earlier work won’t be disappointed.