Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Five Years of THE WIRE

Two new soundtrack collections from HBO's great series "The Wire," now in its fifth year and still unbelievable. "...and all the pieces matter" includes four versions of the opening credits song "Way Down in the Hole," including Tom Waits'; unfortunately, the Season 5 rendition by Steve Earle is absent. I prefer the companion volume, "Beyond Hamsterdam: Baltimore Tracks from The Wire." Among the highlights is Ogun featuring Phathead, "What You Know About Baltimore." This track appears on both CDs, as do eight of the other Baltimore tracks, though in shorter versions.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Albums I Liked in 2007

AGAINST ME!: New Wave. They haven’t softened up, yet “Borne on the Waves…” has some of the loveliest harmony singing I’ve heard in forever.
DAVIE ALLAN AND THE ARROWS: Fuzz for the Holidays. Little Steven rescued these guys from obscurity.
ARCADE FIRE: Neon Bible. More accessible than their previous masterpiece. Also, I downloaded an NPR concert and didn’t remember any of the older songs.
THE BAD PLUS: Prog. Tears for Fears, David Bowie, Rush, and Bacharach-David get the BP treatment this time, and their original compositions are starting to sound better and better. David King’s drum solo on “Thriftstore Jewelry” is a highlight, as is the tour de force closing number “1980 World Champion.”
SAM BAKER: Pretty World. A superior storyteller… unforgettable characters and colorful lyrics. Also what songs these characters sing… interesting.

“THE BEATLES”: Hate. Best answer album since We’re Only in It for the Money.
TERENCE BLANCHARD: A Tale of God’s Will.
MICHAEL BRECKER: Pilgrimage. The late saxophonist took a more organic approach on his final album.
CAROLINA CHOCOLATE DROPS: Dona Got a Ramblin’ Mind. Can’t get enough of these young ol’ timers.
JOHNNY CASH: Live from Austin, TX. In a pinch, I’d go with the DVD--same program, and yet the Tommy Cash duet I remember from a CMT broadcast is missing here, too. Recorded during Cash’s supposedly nonproductive Mercury Records period.
ELIZABETH COOK: Balls. On her third excellent disc, Cook hooks up with my main man Rodney Crowell. Maybe this time people will listen!
CHRIS CORNELL: Carry On. Nice of the ex-Audioslave singer to find room for some Morello-inspired weird guitar solos.
DION: Son of Skip James. Even better than the great Bronx in Blue.
BRYAN FERRY: Dylanesque. Another fine Dylan covers album. See also, last year’s Maria Muldaur.
NIK FLAGSTAR & HIS DIRTY MANGY DOGS. Half-live, half-studio, all attitude.
FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE: Traffic and Weather. Perfectly lovely pop-rock should appeal to anyone who loves Squeeze’s Singles 45s and Under. Or the Beatles.
ROBBIE FULKS: Revenge! Double-live “fast and cheap” does everything it should for the non-fan—it makes me wanna seek out his earlier stuff. Love that heartfelt take on the Cher hit “Believe.”
FUNKADELIC: By Way of the Drum. Not quite the Holy Grail, but it’ll do. And that’s a helluva good version of “Sunshine of Your Love.”
GENESIS: Live Over Europe 2007. The sound of five middle-aged proggers laughing all the way to the bank.
GILEAH AND THE GHOST TRAIN. Even better than her debut, a moody and introspective and lyrically imaginative foray into matters of the heart.
ELIZA GILKYSON: Live from Austin, TX (DVD). Great to discover this old-timer, a favorite of my main man Dave Marsh.
GOGOL BORDELLO: Super Taranta! Best gypsy punk band ever.
PATTY GRIFFIN: Children Running Through. She just never does anything bad, huh?
JUAN LUIS GUERRA 440: La Llave de Mi Corazon. Mostly not in English, save for the lovely duet con Chiera Civello, “Something Good.”
MERLE HAGGARD: Working Man’s Journey. The half new songs are good, especially the last two, “Songman” and “Stormy New Orleans.” But that doesn’t excuse remaking another half-dozen for what must be the umpteenth time… still, nice to hear Hag sing anything. And he didn’t include “Okie from Muskogee”! YAY!
THE HIVES: The Black and White Album. A couple of inspired collaborations with Pharrell, the rest up to the high standards of their first two long-players. Plus a couple weird ones.
IAN HUNTER: Shrunken Heads. The title track perfects the Dylanisms Hunter has strained for since his Mott days. Plus another great song inspired by Katrina.
JASON ISBELL: Sirens of the Ditch. “Dress Blues” is so outstanding the other 10 songs suffer by comparison. But this is one hell of a strong solo debut from the guy who helped make DBT’s last three albums as great as they were.
CHRIS KNIGHT: The Trailer Tapes. “Rita’s Only Fault” is great… everything else comes pretty close.
MIRANDA LAMBERT: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Coming on twice as strong as she did on her very strong debut disc.
BETTYE LAVETTE: The Scene of the Crime. This album destroyed two long-held misconceptions: (1) That it is not possible to steal a song from George Jones, and (2) Aretha has no competition for Queen of Soul.
JERRY LEE LEWIS: Live from Austin, TX (DVD). So good I actually watched it twice and would probably get the sold-separately CD version.
Little Steven’s Underground Garage Presents CBGB Forever. Wotta grab bag.
NICK LOWE: At My Age. Nothing as grabby to me as his fine rendition of “Poor Side of Town” from 2001’s The Convincer, Lowe’s last long-player. But it’s always great to hear the guy, no? (Also, the NPR “All Songs Considered” concert.)
STEPHEN MARLEY: Mind Control. Even better than his brother Damian’s disc, and that one was great.
MAROON 5: It Won’t Be Soon Before Long. You don’t realize how good these guys are until you’ve suffered through the endless parade of mediocre bands inspired by the success of the 5’s first disc.
BRIAN McKNIGHT: Ten. Ignored by me throughout the ‘90s and wrongfully so. McKnight’s at his best when he’s channeling Marvin Gaye, but the Rascal Flatts collaboration is worthy, too.
JOHN McLAUGHLIN, JACO PASTORIUS, TONY WILLIAMS: Trio of Doom. Wish it was longer, but how can you go wrong with these three cats?
JOHN MELLENCAMP: Freedom’s Road. Heartland rocker still has something to say about it.
M.I.A.: Kala. How exciting! How 2007!
RONNIE MILSAP: My Life. Good to see him back on a major label and sounding as soulful as ever…also sort of country, wow.
CHARLES MINGUS SEXTET with ERIC DOLPHY: Cornell 1964. Not quite the match to recently discovered Monk-Coltrane and Dizzy-Bird concerts, but pretty damn good.
YOUSSOU N’DOUR: Rokku Mi Rokka (Give and Take). Another triumph. Also, his version of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy" on Amnesty Int'l's Lennon tribute is worth getting.
WILLIE NELSON/MERLE HAGGARD/RAY PRICE: Last of the Breed. Willie’s always better when he has someone pushing him, Ray’s always better with Willie, and Hag is just plain good no matter what.
THE NIGHTWATCHMAN: One Man Revolution. Tom Morello minus the guitar pyrotechnics turns out to be very goddamn potent. Honest-to-gosh protest songs with traces of hope.
NINE INCH NAILS: Year Zero .Noisy, angry, beautiful. How did I avoid NIN for so long?
OKKERVIL RIVER: Golden Opportunities Mixtape. Free EP with interesting cover choices from Randy, Joni, Jimmy Webb (!).
OZZY OSBOURNE: Black Rain. Hard to believe it’s his first album of new material since he became a reality TV star.
OZOMATLI: Don’t Mess with the Dragon. Amazing how they mix all those styles without sounding calculated. (Also the iTunes exclusive Live from SoHo.)
POISON: Poison’d. Leave it to these guys to do what Def Leppard couldn’t—make a damn great covers album that has the rock and roll spirit all over the place.
JOHN PRINE & MAC WISEMAN: Standard Songs for Average People. Wonderful throwback.
RADIOHEAD: In Rainbows. Their most accessible disc in more ways than one.
CHUCK RAGAN: Los Feliz. Intensely sung acoustic live recording, and as much as I like his own songs, that’s one hell of a version of “Fixin’ to Die.” (See also: Eli Cook, Robert Plant.)
RASPBERRIES: Live on Sunset Strip. They really were great, even in 2005 when they wisely opted to ignore Eric Carmen’s solo career.
RILO KILEY: Under the Blacklight. Their major label debut finds them flirting with all kinds of unexpected influences, and all the more enjoyable for it.
ROBERT & JAMES: Standing in the Sun. DeFuniak Springs, Fl. duo get over on eight exquisitely crafted tunes about the Lord.
SONNY ROLLINS: Sonny, Please. Dangerously close to the non-intrusive background music his best work resembles in no way at all, but it’s always a treat to hear the old guy play. And it beats anything on the smoove jazz station.
RUSH: Snakes & Arrows. Can’t believe I like them. Maybe ‘cos Geddy’s not as screechy as he was 20 years ago.
SCORPIONS: Humanity Hour 1. Thanks to the song doctor, it’s their strongest album in years.
RYAN SHAW: This Is Ryan Shaw. A young guy who not only understands old-school R&B—er, soul—well, pop, actually… he can put it across like you never heard it before. It takes balls to cover Jackie Wilson.
BLAKE SHELTON: Pure BS. Earl Thomas Conley fan, frequent Mullet Festival guest, good songs…what not to like?
THE SHINS: Wincing the Night Away. More catchy indie pop, not quite up to Chutes Too Narrow, but what is?
THE SHYS: Astoria. Music that bleeds!
SLANG: Soul Love An’ Groove. See Ozo.
MINDY SMITH: My Holiday. Lovely Christmas album, guitarist Bryan Sutton a real plus.
GEORGE SOULE: Take a Ride. Excellent Southern soul man.
SPOON: Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. A return to greatness unattained since the magnificent Kill the Moonlight. Plus a bonus hidden disc with a bunch of meandering horseshit.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN AND THE SESSIONS BAND: Live in Dublin (CD and DVD). Startling reinventions of older songs, first-rate performances of Seeger sessions tracks. High point is the rock and roll punch of “Open All Night.”
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: Magic. A notable return to one form or other.
ANNA STAFFORD: String Music. Saved by minimal production, tight song structure, pop smarts.
OTIS TAYLOR: Definition of a Circle. Another breakout classic from this great bluesman.
3 TENORS OF SOUL: All the Way from Philadelphia. Achingly gorgeous… music for the Jackie Brown-Max Cherry nuptials.
This Bird Has Flown: A 40th Anniversary Tribute to the Beatles’ Rubber Soul. Not exactly new, but…
T.I.: King .Interesting new voice (for me), “What You Know” a great hit single.
STANLEY TURRENTINE: A Bluish Bag. A new album of sorts, lots of great unreleased stuff.
VELVET REVOLVER: Libertad. The rare second album by a rock supergroup that improves on the first.
VIVANATIVA: Dulce Sudio. Music Latina at its best.
THE WaCo RAMBLERS. Walton County, Fl. outfit can pull off this old-time country stuff as good as anybody.
PORTER WAGONER: Wagonmaster. Pure country, outstanding production by Marty Stuart. 16 songs, not one of ‘em a clinker.
We All Love Ennio Morricone. Celine Dion and Metallica and Bruce Springsteen (a rare instrumental) on the same album? It works due to the strength of the material. Oh, and also that Morricone is one of the greatest composers in the world.
LUCINDA WILLIAMS: West. Her strongest set since Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.
TOMMY WOMACK: There, I Said It! Any guy who remembers Opryland and hopes his little drummer boy will save the world someday is a guy worth hearing, repeatedly.
NEIL YOUNG: Live at Massey Hall 1971. Second in the archives series, a fine live acoustic show but hardly a revelation. I prefer the grungy and noisy Neil.
NEIL YOUNG & CRAZY HORSE: Live at the Fillmore 1970. The grungy, loud and noodling Neil and band that I prefer to the sensitive acoustie.
YUSUF: An Other Cup. Definitely not the work of a suicide-bomb-strapped terrorist.

Compilations & Reissues:
Big Waves: Five Decades of Surf Rock. Another fine compilation from Starbucks (!), notable for the inclusion of newer tracks in the genre as well as the old reliables.
DEF LEPPARD: Hysteria (Deluxe Edition). Benefits from better sound and a whole lotta bonus tracks that are worth hearing. The live covers and the really weird B-side “Release Me” beat anything on the Leps’ recent oldies album.
BO DIDDLEY: The Definitive Collection. Nothing from Gunslinger, but everyone needs to own that album, too.
ARETHA FRANKLIN: Rare and Unreleased…
GENESIS: 14 from Our Past. Starbucks jumps on the 2007 money train, with one from each (studio) album, except the much-reissued (and awful) first one. Bonus is the inclusion of “Happy the Man,” a Gabriel-era track otherwise only available on a pricey box set.
GENESIS: Genesis (CD/DVD).
GENESIS: Invisible Touch (CD/DVD).
GENESIS: A Trick of the Tail (CD/DVD).
GENESIS: We Can’t Dance (CD/DVD).
GENESIS: Wind and Wuthering (CD/DVD).
CHRIS ISAAK: Best of Chris Isaak. Omissions aside, this makes a strong case for the guy who had the nerve to wear Elvis’ leather suit.
ROBERT PLANT: Dreamland (Bonus Tracks). His solo career has been vastly undervalued, especially with all the talk of Zep reunion. This is an interesting approach to the covers album phenomenon.
P.O.D.: Greatest Hits (The Atlantic Years). Finally, a Christian band that kicks ass.
ELVIS PRESLEY: The Essential Elvis Presley. Another comp, but this time they included ”Hurt,” “Follow that Dream,” and “Viva Las Vegas.” Therefore, it cancels out all the others. See you at the used CD shop!
Salsa Explosion: The Sound of Fania Records. Finally, a Starbucks compilation that offers stuff you don’t already have on a bunch of other CDs.
SCORPIONS: Gold. 34 reasons to believe they were indeed the inspiration for This Is Spinal Tap.
Stax 50th Anniversary Celebration. 50 tracks on 2-CDs, lots of great ones and some nice obscurities. “Shaft” you know, but when was the last time you heard the Bar-Kays’ “Son of Shaft”?
FRANKIE VALLI AND THE FOUR SEASONS: Definitive Pop. All the stuff you could possibly want by these guys and more (does anyone really want to hear “My Eyes Adored You” again?).
FATS WALLER: If You Got to Ask, You Ain’t Got It! Now this they should teach in school. Fuck FCAT.
WARREN ZEVON: Stand in the Fire (Bonus Tracks). Inexplicably missing from CD all these years, a powerful document of the songwriter and rocker. Includes four bonus tracks—like they needed to bait us, yeah!
WARREN ZEVON: Excitable Boy (Bonus Tracks). Hardly his best album, but his most popular, and such a treat to hear even the least of these songs again. Now howsabout a remaster of album one, Rhino?