JEFFREY ST. CLAIR
1. Wilson Pickett: It’s Harder Now (Rounder)
When Wilson Pickett recorded this CD for Rounder in 1999, it had been 10 years since the soul legend had put out a record. His voice hadn’t deteriorated that much. At 60, Pickett could still hit most of the keys he did as a youngster, belting out “I Found A Love” for the Falcons or his astounding string of hits for Stax in the 1960s, from “Mustang Sally” to the haunting “In the Midnight Hour.” By the 1990s his unmistakable voice had acquired a slightly rougher edge, the songs reaching back deeper into the blues. These are songs of experience. Perhaps only Marvin Gaye ever sang with more authority about sex. I said “perhaps,” didn’t I?
2. Rob Wagner Trio: Lost Children (Valid Records)
Recorded a few weeks before Katrina sank New Orleans, Lost Children is the third release by the acclaimed New Orleans saxophonist Rob Wagner from Valid Records. It is a haunting record in the style of Joe Henderson or Wayne Shorter. Wagner’s music has a New Orleans flavor, but it’s not the kind of jazz you’ll find fratboys on Bourbon Street getting plastered to. This is new music, fresh, dissonant, alive. Katrina blew band apart. Wagner is now in New York, playing flemenco and klezmer gigs. Bassist James Singleton landed in LA where he is playing with the Astral Project and drummer Ocie Davis took refuge in Virginia. The musicians have been scattered, but Valid Records is back in business and the music of the city lives, breathes and screams for you attention.
3. Peter Feldman and the Pea Patch Quintet: Grey Cat on the Tennessee Farm (Hen Cackle Records)
Born in Germany, Peter Feldman came to the states shortly after World War II and soon fell in love with the Old Time Country music of the Smoky Mountains. Feldman became an accomplished banjo picker and even enticed Bill Monroe to give him pointers on how to play the mandolin. Like Dylan, Feldman was entranced by the music of Uncle Dave Macon, one of the first big country stars. Macon sang politically-charged songs and played the banjo with the same kind of theatrical zeal that T-Bone Walker later displayed on the guitar. For Grey Cat on the Tennessee Farm, Feldman assembled some of the best roots musicians around (including fiddler Byron Berline and picker Bill Bryson) to play 18 Macon songs in a bluegrass style. The result is a beautiful recording and a true labor of love.
4. Clifford Brown: The Beginning and the End (Columbia)
There’s some debate about whether or not the last three songs on this CD were recorded at the Music Inn in Philadelphia on that fateful night in 1956 when Clifford Brown died in a car crash on the treacherous Pennsylvania Turnpike. If these weren’t Brown’s last performances, the renditions of Miles Davis’s “Walkin'” and Charlie Parker’s “Donna Lee” certainly have the feel of a musician at the very top of his form. The two songs that open the cd are blistering R&B numbers recorded in 1952 when Brown was the hot young trumpeter in Chris Powell’s Jamaican band. Brown’s tragically premature death was as big a blow to jazz as Hendrix’s demise was to rock.
5. Hound Dog Taylor: Release the Hound (Alligator)
When I was 16, I stole my father’s 240z and sped from Indianapolis to Chicago to see the Cubs lose to the Cardinals at Wrigley in the afternoon and Hound Dog Taylor and the Houserockers play deep into the July night at some westside dive. We ended up sleeping on a bench in Grant’s Park and I didn’t get the keys back again for several months. You have to ask me if it was worth it? Hound Dog died a few weeks later. These live recordings from the early 1970s faithfully capture the inimitable sound of Hound Dog’s sleazy slide guitar and endless electic boogie as I heard them on that surreal night in 1975.
6. Dexter Gordon: Our Man in Paris Remastered (Blue Note)
Born in LA, Dexter Gordon learned his craft by playing for some of the giants of the swing era: Fletcher Henderson, Lionel Hampton, Billy Eckstein and Louis Armstrong. But his own recordings from the early 1950s were the coolest species of bebop, the epitome of what would become the West Coast sound. Heroin took its toll later in the decade and Gordon fled to the sanctuary of Paris to kick the habit and rehab his career. This set finds him in fine form with his fellow refugees Bud Powell and Kenny Clarke, accompanied by the great Parisian bassist Pierre Michelet. No one ever coaxed a sultrier tone from a saxophone.
7. Jay Chevalier and Shelley Ford: Rockin’ Country Sides (Hydra)
The long lost king of Louisiana rockabilly. Check out the unforgettable “Castro Rock”
Down in Cuba, where they raise sugar cane,
got a brand new dance, it’s a crazy thing,
named after a man by the name of Fidel,
just stand in one place and shake like hell …
8. J.B. Lenoir: Vietnam Blues (Evidence)
J.B. Lenoir was the most politically explicit of blue singers, attacking not only the Vietnam War, but also the Korean War, as well as the murderous war on black civil rights organizers in his home state of Alabama. Lenoir worked for years as a janitor at the University of Illinois in Champagne. Imagine Keith Richards toiling away as a chimney sweep in Cambridge.
9. Rachel Z.: Everlasting (Tone Center)
Rachel Z. earned her stripes playing keyboards in Wayne Shorter’s band. That’s pretty exalted company in my book. Here Rachel goes solo, playing soul jazz covers of rock songs. Most of the tracks are deconstructed to the point of almost being unrecognizable, except for a few brief tell tale quotes. The exception is a faithful-to-the-point-of-parody version of Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun.”
10. B.B. King: The 1950-51 Modern Recordings (Ace)
BB King announced this week that his next tour would be his last. This is what BB sounded like at the beginning, when he’d just turned 20. After this recording of “3 O’clock Blues”, electric blues never sounded the same.
1. Wilson Pickett: A Man and a Half
2. Clarence Carter: Snatching It Back
“Making Love (At the Dark End of the Street)” is the best sermon ever set to wax.
3. Jimmy Smith: The Sermon
The second best sermon ever set to wax — and it doesn’t even have any words.
4. Tom T. Hall: Greatest Hits
The living master of the funny, easygoing, but sharply observed story-song. Someone please convince this man to come out of retirement.
5. Cowboy Copas: Copasetic
Copas’ country-pop records were popular in the ’40s and ’50s but are almost entirely forgotten today. Some of these songs have aged better than others; the best by far is “Feelin’ Low,” a high-lonesome single from 1952.
6. Various Artists: Dylan Country
Country stars have been covering Bob Dylan for over 40 years now. This anthology of their efforts is uneven, but it collects some of the high points, notably Waylon Jennings’ “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” Glen Campbell’s “If Not for You,” and Jennifer Warnes’ “Sign on the Window.” The most charmingly weird matchup between singer and song comes when a bemused Buck Owens performs a slightly garbled version of “Love Minus Zero/No Limit.” I don’t know what meaning, if any, he read into the words, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t what Dylan originally had in mind.
7. Jerry Garcia and David Grisman: Not for Kids Only
A well-titled CD: Someone gave us this collection of kids’ songs when our daughter was born last summer, and we’ve been playing it for ourselves as much as for her ever since then. The best track is “Teddy Bear’s Picnic,” which in this arrangement sounds like it might turn into “St. James Infirmary” at any moment.
8. Bill Cosby: Bill Cosby Talks to Kids About Drugs
I found this ineffable album online . After one acquaintance listened to “Questions and Answers,” he commented that it ought to be called Bill Cosby Tells Kids How to Use Drugs. Another possibility: Bill Cosby’s Record Company Is On Drugs. Jesus fucking Christ, what were they thinking?
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. Joey Ramone: Don’t Worry About Me (Sanctuary Records)
Joey fucking lives. As fate would have it, this stealthy and reflective work is the only solo disc he ever released. This album is like Proverbs; there is so much truth contained inside its tracks. “Mr. Punchy” could have been a character in The Who’s Tommy. I have known a few Mr. Punchy’s during my lifetime, and to my occasional regret, I have, at various times, gotten a little too close, at least within punching distance, to more than just one of them. My favorite Ramone pontificates on some of the not so lovely things that are happening in the world today. “I Got Knocked Down (But I’ll Get Up)” is all too real. “Sitting in a hospital bed, frustration going through my headI want my life.” Despite the fucked-up things that are going on in this world, the malignant people, and his fighting an illness that would soon take his life, he still brings so much beauty to the rest of us when he does it his way on “What A Wonderful World,” which was previously a hit for Louie Armstrong. What comes through here is Ramone’s sheer faith and strength, fighting for survival, and trying to find beauty and meaning, while spending what would ultimately be the last of his time here in a pretty fucked-up world. Finding that beauty, and spreading it around, despite it all, that is real power. It ain’t how much money you have to flaunt at people, how much you can fuck your daughter over, abuse your kids, go around and threaten people, have a self-inflated ego, pretending to be morally or otherwise superior, while creating a fraudulent sense of self-righteousness to hide it all, and conspiring as to how to inject some more misery in other peoples’ lives. Real power is about faith, strength, fighting for survival, not just for yourself, but for others, and spreading beauty, grace and all the good things that make this life worth it to other people, despite all odds. And that, to me, is what real rock and roll is about. And that is why the Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” is one of the greatest rock and roll songs ever written. Sit down and listen to that song, and then listen to this album. You will understand the concept. When I write this, I mean this with all my heart: My life makes more sense to me because Joey Ramone lives.
2. Earl Thomas: Intersection (Memphis International Records)
Earl Thomas comes with all the right moves when he arrives at the crossroads, where he creates an intersection rock, blues, soul and rhythm and blues. On this ten-song disc, one of its great delicacies is his soulful version of the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar,” to which he injects some serious mojo into that Glimmer Twins track. On “Higher Ground,” Thomas sings, “The rules of the jungle made me who I am.” Despite any such constraints, a functified version on the album of T Rex’s “Bang A Gong” shows the delectable possibilities that come from his breaking all the rules, and when he creates his own.
3. Cactus: Cactology (Rhino Records)
One of the original power drummers of rock, Carmine Appice has long been a master of the sticks. Thinking of Carmine always makes me laugh, namely because he’s told me a few really funny stories. I tell you, rock and roll tales that are even better than those Led Zeppelin fish stories. Despite his staggering sense of humor, this album is some very serious rock and roll. Bluesy, hard and heavy, this album is downright wicked, because of Appice, Tim Bogert, Rusty Day and Jim McCarty. The album features a hefty sixteen pages of liner notes; you get a gram of rock here for the mere price of a disc. Classics like “Parchman Farm,” “Rock and Roll Children” and “Long Tall Sally” take you back to when rock was about a jam, and its tracks did not have to be constructed to fit into a corporate format. Appice has managed to have a long and varied career, and his work with Cactus is a real fine sample of it.
4. Eric Burdon: Soul Of A Man (SPV Records)
Eric Burdon has released hits over the years including “See See Rider,” “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” and “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place.” Then there were his days with his group War, with singles like “Spill The Wine” and “Tobacco Road.” Despite these recordings, he will always be most likely known for his rendition of the cautionary tale, “House Of The Rising Sun.” Like other great artists who comprised the best of the British Invasion, in early in his career, Burdon covered American blues and R&B songs, opening for acts such as John Lee Hooker and other purveyors of the Blues. On this album, he conjures the spirits of his musical mentors. Blind Willie Johnson wrote the album’s title track more than a century ago. Johnson’s mother died while he was still a toddler, and his father remarried. Soon afterwards, however, he caught Willie’s stepmother cheating on him, and in a fit of rage, he consequently beat her up. Seeking revenge, she threw lye into seven year-old Willie’s eyes, so as to intentionally blind his young son. Blind Willie became a guitarist and songwriter; most of his recordings were religious in nature. He clearly had his own soul searching to do, as indicated by the lyrics of this particular song. Blind Willie Johnson’s quest for answers may have been long out of sight, but certainly not out of mind. With this title track, Burdon reaches out to Willie’s departed soul, and takes on the rest of Johnson’s quest for the musical answer sought in this song.
5. Patti Scialfa: 23rd Street Lullaby (Sony)
Whether it’s E Street or a 23rd Street Lullaby, it’s always the right place. I’ve played this album over and over, and I always look forward to the next time I’ll hear it.
6. Aerosmith: Live At The Joint (Columbia Records)
Just because you dabble once in a while, it doesn’t mean you’re addicted. It ain’t like a nasty habit, if just an occasional bump. If it gets you off, that’s all you really needed.
7. Iggy Pop: Skull Ring (Virgin Records)
If Iggy threw a party, who would he invite? All you gotta do is crash this party, and find out here. These sixteen tracks make excellent party favors, with Iggy serving as the perfect host. Now if we could just get the Stooges out the other room often.
8. Wilson Pickett: Best Of Wilson Pickett (Atlantic Records)
Theses compositions are the blueprint of a legend, one of the greats, the likes of whom, you can be assured will never be duplicated.
9. Ghetto Girlz: Ain’t Takin’ No Shit (Heatwave Records)
If you can beg, borrow or steal this out of print classic hiphop disc, or even just snag its featured single that once graced the airwaves, say somewhere like at http://www.vinylexchange.co.uk/GIRLZ by all means, do so. This estrogen-filled answer to the trigger happy Geto Boys’ “Mind Playing Tricks On Me,” (transformed as “My Man’s Playing Tricks On Me”) is one of the most obscure, but humorous, hiphop comedy singles of all time.
Phyllis Pollack lives in Los Angeles where she is a publicist and music journalist. She can be reached through her blog.