Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Best cd's of 2015

Hey now, here is my list of the best cd's to grace my ears in 2015. The cd's are listed in alphabetical order. I normally don't include live recordings, especially by bands who allow taping (as the internet is flooded with shows), but there can be exceptions... My #1 favorite cd for 2015 is a 3 way tie between The Bad Plus Joshua Redman, Steve Earle, and John Scofield. As always, this list and comments are my opinion, and mine alone...  If I left something off that you feel is a must hear, please note it in the comment section below or email me your recommendations.

Top 15

* The Bad Plus Joshua Redman

This was recorded after the Bad Plus and Joshua did a week long residency at NYC's Blue Note. 7 original tunes and 2 Bad Plus re-do's... This music is killing, fairly avante garde and free-jazzy at times, and beautifully recorded.

* Jim Campilongo & Honeyfingers / Last Night, This Morning

Western Swing meets Gypsy Jazz! This crowd-funded release by acclaimed Telecaster master Jim Campilongo does not disappoint. Are you a Speedy West/Jimmy Bryant duo fan? Django Reinhardt? If so, give this cd a listen.

* Consider the Source / World War Trio Parts II & III

I discovered this band roughly 8 years ago while on a work junket to Dallas. Instrumental music with elements of jazz/fusion, prog, metal, jamband, world music, and middle eastern music. This double cd set was also a crowd-funded release and is amazing. There is a lot of fretless guitar on this album, which contributes heavily to their very unique sound.

* Steve Earle & the Dukes / Terraplane

I've come to realize Steve Earle can do no wrong.

* David Gilmour / Rattle that Lock

Great music, plenty of DG's trademark guitar playing and tones, I like this cd more than last year's Pink Floyd release. Check out the video single released by Dave: https://youtu.be/7PwQrEbEnrM

* Warren Haynes (featuring Railroad Earth) / Ashes & Dust

So Warren Haynes decided to record a folkie/Americana album, what better band to recruit than Railroad Earth? The answer is none, he could not have chosen a better band. This cd is mostly originals, some new and some old, with a few covers thrown in too; including a fine rendition of Fleetwood Mac's "Gold Dust Woman" with Grace Potter on vocals (https://youtu.be/XAhVcc89e_0).

* Jorma Kaukonen / Ain't In No Hurry

Jorma is sounding mighty fine these days, at the ripe age of 75... He is the epitome of that 'like fine wine' quote. I can visualize Jorma sitting in a rocking chair, on a porch at his cabin on his ranch, pickin' these tunes. Best Jorma recording since 2002's "Blue Country Heart."

* Los Lobos / Gates of Gold

This is the latest kick ass Los Lobos cd, the Wolves have been on a roll for quite a while ;-)

* Papa Mali / Music is Love

I'm a big Papa Mali advocate. As great as the bands are that he has been involved with lately (The 7 Walkers, the M&M's), he really shines on his own albums... Papa Mali is all about peace and love and music, and that vibe is projected strongly on this smile-inducing collection of cover tunes.

* Native Construct / Quiet World

This trio of talented Berklee students is a recent discovery for me, and this is their debut cd. Their official genre is progressive metal; but they jump around so much, stylistically, that this might be a bit much for some people. Personally, I consider this cd a masterpiece. Influence wise, I hear obvious traces of Mr. Bungle, Queen, Dream Theater, and Frank Zappa.

* John Scofield / Past Present

Sco on semi-hollowbody guitar, saxaphonist Joe Lovano, drummer Bill Stewart, and Larry Grenadier on upright bass. This cd is more traditional as far as a Scofield recording goes. No Warren Haynes or Phil Lesh inluenced jams, and no noticeable use of phrases/samplers/etc.

* Kurt Vile / b'lieve i'm goin' down

Kurt Vile is another recent discovery for me. He was a founding member of the War On Drugs, but he amicably left the band long before they released their breakout cd in 2014, "Lost In The Dream." This is moody chill introspective singer songwriter music. His wiki says "influenced by Pavement, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Tom Petty, and John Fahey." I also hear traces of Steve Earle and Bob Dylan.

* Widespread Panic / Street Dogs

This album caught me off guard, I was not expecting it to be so good. In my opinion it's their best studio effort since 1999's "'Till the Medicine Takes." WSMFP!

* Steven Wilson / Hand. Cannot. Erase.

Steven Wilson is the hardest working man in rock and roll; yes, even compared to Warren Haynes.... When not working with closely with Robert Fripp re-mastering the King Crimson catalogue, or remastering Yes and Gentle Giant and Jethro Tull albums, or recording/touring with his main band Porcupine Tree, or recording music with one of his other side projects (Blackfield, No-Man, Bass Communion, Storm Corrosion), he finds time to release solo gems such as this... If you like  the bands/artists mentioned in the above run-on sentences, then you will like this :-)

* The Word / Soul Food

The Word is North Mississippi Allstars (including Chris Chew on bass), plus John Medeski on keyboards, and Robert Randolph on steel guitar. 14 years after their initial debut cd came out, they have finally released this very fine follow up effort. 21st century sacred steel!

Honorable Mentions:

* Faith No More / Sol Invictus

The first FNM release in 18 (!) years. It's better than their last couple cd's and the band still sounds fresh. Mike Van Patton's voice still sounds very strong, especially considering "The Real Thing" came out in 1989. I have to assume there are a lot of effects on his vocals. Regardless, FNM is back!

* AJ Ghent Band / Live at Terminal West

As noted at the top of this post, I usually don't put live albums on my best of lists. However, I made an exception in this case because it's AJ's debut release and all original tunes. Genre wise I would say somewhere between rock and rhythm & blues/soul music. AJ was previously in Col. Bruce Hampton's Band; and his father is the sacred steel guitar icon Aubrey Ghent, who played at Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi's wedding. This disc includes a DVD too. Introducing the future of steel guitar...

* Goatsnake - Black Age Blues

Goatsnake is a revered doom metal band whom I discovered via this disc. They are considered a supergroup, with ties to the desert rock scene. They're recently returned from hiatus, their last cd was released in 2000. If you like early Black Sabbath you will like this cd.

* Buddy Guy / Born To Play Guitar

At 79 years young, Buddy is one of the last living old-school blues men from the 20th century; in my opinion he is a national treasure. It blows my mind that 50 years into his recording career, Buddy is still recording albums of such magnitude. He hasn't slowed down a bit or missed a beat. As far as contemporary blues albums go, this cd is completely relevant... And from a guitar player perspective; whether shredding, playing with his teeth, or saying "more with less," Buddy Guy continues to blow away much of the competition, young and old alike.

* Ben Monder / Amorphae

This ECM Records release is atmospheric, textural, experimental, music; at times a bit Frisellian. Ben on electric and electric baritone guitars, Pete Rende on synthesizer, Andrew Cyrille (4 tracks), and Paul Motian on drums (2 tracks). Tunes in solo, duo, and trio formats. I believe the Paul Motian tracks (Recorded in October 2010) might be, as of today, his most recent posthumous drum tracks. Note: Ben plays guitar on the new David Bowie cd, which will most likely appear on my best of 2016 list next year.

* North Mississippi Allstars & Anders Osborne / Freedom & Dreams

Yes, NMAS and Anders have joined forces. NMAS has been on my "hot list" since I first heard 'em in 2000, while Anders came on my radar roughly 4 years ago and has since morphed into one of my favorite live performances.... This cd is worthy of repeated listenings. I like the Anders penned tunes best; Katrina, and Lonely Love. Note: The above Amazon link is for MP3 downloads, it seems a physical cd currently is only available from the Anders Osborne website: http://squ.re/1OJmH5G

* Planet of the Abts / All Things the Valley

Another very proggy album from Gov't Mule's rhythm section, plus guitarist/keyboardist/singer T-Bone Andersson, and special guests including Warren Haynes and Danny Louis. This, same as their previous release, sounds more like Yes or Pink Floyd then it does Gov't Mule.

* Ben Seawell / South Winds Jostle

I'm biased on this cd due to a personal connection. I know Ben as a friend, and as a NYC jazz bass player; but he plays multiple instruments here, and also sings, and this is far from a jazz cd. I hear traces of the Beatles, Brian Wilson, Steve Earle, Prince, and Joe Jackson; among other notes. Also, not one band but many different sidemen on different tunes, including (to name a few) Doug Wamble, Frank Kimbrough, Henry Butler, Becca Stevens, and Leo Nocentelli. I highly recommend this disc.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Best cd's of 2014

First, let me state my position on live cd's in regards to this list. I normally don't list live recordings of bands that allow taping, as the web is already flooded with available copies of their shows. I also don't list archive recordings when the bootleg version has been widely available for years. All that being said, 2014 was a good year, and bittersweet, when it comes to live releases. Here are a few live releases worth seeking out:
Crosby Stills Nash & Young 1974 - 3 cd's and 1 dvd.
Gov't Mule - Dark Side of the Mule - Recorded in Boston on Halloween 2008. This was current bass player Jorgen Carlsson's 2nd live gig with the band, and they cover Pink Floyd (2 backup singers from last PF tour too). I got the deluxe version which includes a dvd.

The Allman Brother Band called it a day in 2014, after 45 years... Did I mention bittersweet? Anyway, I would say any of the live recordings from 2014 (available from Hittin' the Note) are pretty killer; but I am partial to shows I saw, and these are the 3 I would recommend starting with - These 2 shows that ended the March Beacon run, when Brother Gregg was absent due to Bronchitis, and consequentially Kofi Burbridge and Rob Baracco both played keys/piano the entire shows, and they were augmented with guest singers as well (Jimmy Hall, Junior Mack), plus the usual assortment of guests on guitars and horns. These dates of these 2 shows are 3/21/2014 and 3/22/2014. However, the main must-have 2014 ABB show, especially if you only get 1 show, is the final ABB show, also at the Beacon;10/28/2014, a truly epic 3 set tour de force.

Okay, onward to my picks. Please note these opinions and comments are mine and mine alone, yours may differ and that is okay. If I left something off that you like a lot, let me know about it below in the comments, or send me an email. Now, back to my list... Here it is, in alphabetic order:

Best cd's of 2014

* Three Bells (Mike Auldridge - Jerry Douglas - Rob Ickes)
Dobro legend Mike Auldridge died in Decmber of 2012 after a decade long battle with prostate cancer. This cd was recorded shortly before his demise, and along with Mike features 2 other dobro maestri; Jerry Douglas and Rob Ickes. There are 11 tracks, mainly originals written by the 3, plus a handful of standards. It was produced by Jerry Douglas, partly to document the three of them together on disc, and partly as an exercise in supporting Mike during a difficult time. The result is beautiful, and you needn't be a bluegrass aficionado to dig this music, even though it's likely to be found in the bluegrass section of your cd/album store.

* The BIG Something - Truth Serum
This is the 3rd studio cd by Burlington NC's BIG Something, and their 3rd effort produced by John Custer (who has produced some notable albums by NC bands Corrosion of Conformity, Cry of Love, and Dag, including the Dag masterpiece, Righteous). This is more of the same, with nods to jambands/funk/70's prog/fusion/electronica. Strangely, not 1 but 2 of the tracks remind me of Frank Marino - Megaladon (the vocal style brings to mind Frank's Dragonfly); and the instrumental track, Sirens, could be from a Mahogany Rush cd. This is their best cd yet, and I believe this band is on the verge of blowing up nationally.

* Wil Blades - Field Notes
Organist Wil Blades has been on my radar for about 8 years now, I discovered him via Will Bernard. He's a protege of Dr. Lonnie Smith, and he's a Chicago native based in the San Francisco bay area. This is Wil's first recording of a organ trio with him as bandleader (Hammond B3 and clavinet), and this is modern old-school organ trio jazz with plenty of groove. He's accompanied by Tortoise's Jeff Parker on guitar, and New Orleans drummer Simon Lott.  This album was financed by a successful Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign. Fans of Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, and Lonnie Smith, etc, will find plenty to like on this disc.

* Luther Dickinson - Rock 'n Roll Blues
I'm wholeheartedly digging this fine disc. It's stripped down lo-fi acoustic blues, roughly 35 minutes in length; guitar, upright bass, drums, and fife. Lyrically, this is Luther's autobiography, describing his punk/DYI beginnings to becoming a working musician. Musically, it's quite different from the North Mississippi Allstars; but very strong nonetheless, which is no surprise to me, as Luther Dickinson is immensely talented.

* Marty Friedman - Inferno
I first heard of metal guitarist shredder extraordinaire Marty Friedman, when he appeared on the 1987 Shrapnel Records release, "Cacaphony - Speed Metal Symphony" along with shredder Jason Becker. He later achived fame on a large scale as a member of Megadeth from 1990 through '99, including the Rust in Peace disc which is considered by many to be Megadeth's finest hour and one of the great thrash albums of all time. He fell off my radar when he left Megadeth, and I came across this cd while browsing the bins at Amoeba Records back during the summer. I was surprised how solid a disc this is. Rodrigo y Gabriela guest on one track, Tony Franklin appears on bass, Jorgen Munkeby shreds on the saxophone, and there are some lines/parts written by Jason Becker (Definitely check out Not Dead Yet if you're not familiar with Jason's story). If you're into instrumental metal guitar music, you should check out this cd.

* Bill Frisell - Guitar in the Space Age
Bill Frisell, Greg Leisz, Tony Scherr, and Kenny Wolleson. I consider this a continuation of his John Lennon cd from 2011. There are 2 Frisell originals here, and the remaining 12 are covers, some well-known, of various different songs/artists. The range of genres here is fairly diverse; from Link Wray to Brian Wilson to Speedy West & Jimmy Bryant to Duane Eddy to Junior Wells to Ray Davies, etc... Considered by some to be a nostalgia disc on the tame side; and yeah it might be tame compared to Naked City and some of the other more out projects he has been involved in (he still does the out stuff too, 2013's "Silent Comedy" for example), but nonetheless I still consider it a fine disc worthy of repeated listenings.

* Greyhounds - Accumulator
I was recommended this cd by a couple different people, then heard they were on tour as openers with the Tedeschi Trucks Band. So, I googled Greyhounds and found this Austin duo are currently active members of Mofro. Sold! Multi-Instrumentalists Anthony Cole on drums and organ; and Anthony Farrell on guitar and keyboards. This duo has actually been playing together since 1999, long before joining Mofro... This is their first release (of a 3 cd contract) on Memphis'es Ardent label, and consists of previously released tracks from their earlier self-released albums, all updated, plus a couple of new songs. They are known to record using very cheap pawn shop instruments, thus they achieve a certain authentic lo-fi sound. This is soulful funky swampy southern-ish rock that brings to mind Allen Tousaint, Dr. John, and Gregg Allman's solo material. Here is the official video of opening track, What's On Your Mind. I look forward to their next release.

* Charlie Haden / Jim Hall (self-titled)
This previously-unissued recording from the 1990 Montreal International Jazz Festival documents these 2 recently deceased jazz icon's first live full length set together, as a duo. At the time, Hall was 59 years old and Haden was approaching 53. Consider this a memorial, and if you're a fan of Jim Hall and/or Charlie Hayden, this is a must listen. If you're unfamiliar with either, and interested in checking them out; this is as good a place as any cd to start with. Tied with Hard Working Americans for my favorite cd of the year!

* Hard Working Americans (self-titled)
Todd Snider sings lead vocals, Widespread Panic's Dave Schools on bass, Duane Trucks on drums, Ryan Adams and Chris Robinson's guitar-slinger Neal Casal, and Great American Taxi's Chad Staehly on keyboards. Although the members probably don't love the term, they're pretty much considered a super-group. Their live band is augmented with Jesse Aycock on lap steel. On this debut release they cover 11 songs by well-known song-writers, and the common lyrical theme is hard working Americans of course. My favorite track is Randy Newman's  Mr. President, Have Pity on the Working Man. This is an excellent cd and they're currently one of my favorite bands to see live. Tied with Charlie Haden/Jim Hall for my favorite cd of the year!

* Medeski Martin & Wood + Nels Cline - Woodstock Sessions Vol 2
While MMW's collaborations with guitarist John Scofield are heavy on funk and groove, this collaboration with Nels Cline leans more towards MMW's live forte (experimental/avant garde/weirdness); that is no surprise, since this was recorded in front of a live audience at a recording studio. 2 hours of music was captured, then edited and mixed into this 64 minutes of music, which they're referring to as a live performance/recording session hybrid. Whatever it is, it's very badass. More of the Nels you would hear with his own band, the Nels Cline Singers, versus his playing with Wilco. This cd is OUT, I say check it out, although not for the faint of heart :-O
Also worthy of repeated listenings is Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood's 2014 release, Juice.            

* Opeth - Pale Communion
I've been a fan of this Swedish band for years. This is their 11th studio effort, and in my opinion they have now officially shifted genres, from progressive death metal to straight up progressive rock. This is their 2nd consecutive disc with clean vocals (3rd overall); and honestly, I don't miss the cookie monster vocals, at all. Aside from the clean vocals, this is pretty much Opeth as usual; complex written instrumental sections, guitar and keyboard solos and leads and harmonies at lightning fast speeds, and plenty of acoustic guitar parts to demonstrate their apt use of dynamics.

* Bruce Piephoff - Soft Soap Purrings
Disclaimer: Bruce is a personal friend and my brother Scott Sawyer plays electric guitars on this cd and is also a co-producer; so I'm biased, it is what it is. However, I was not involved in the production of this cd and have no qualms listing it here :-) This album, like his previous disc, was financed by a successful Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign. Bruce has been a staple of the North Carolina arts scene for decades. Based in Greensboro, Bruce has recorded (including this newest release) 22 albums/discs of original music, published a couple books of poetry, and still gets out and performs live on a regular basis. Bruce's storytelling and lyrics are rich in imagery. I consider him a modern Day Bob Dylan or Woody Guthrie, and I don't use either of those references lightly. The fact that Bruce hasn't achieved fame/notoriety on a grander scale boggles my mind. This disc has a little bit of everything, as far as genres go - Americana, spoken word, roots rock, folk, jazz; and it features an A-List of NC's finest musicians. Check out Dakota, a spoken word track on the disc. Lastly, this disc was on the initial Grammy ballot this year, although it didn't make the final ballot. Still, no small feat.

* Pink Floyd - The Endless River
The Endless River is essentially unreleased tracks from the '94 Division Bell sessions, 20 hours mixed down to an hour of mostly spacey ambient music that came to be known as "The Big Spliff" and was intended to be released an a companion disc to  the Division Bell; but it was never released. Post 2012 there was some additional tweaking in the studio, including guitar and drum overdubs, and 1 track was augmented with vocals, sung by David Gilmour and written by his wife and muse, Polly Samson. This a Division Bell 20th anniversary release, and tribute to Pink Floyd keyboardist Richard Wright who died back in 2008. Same deal as the last 2 cd's, Momentary Lapse of Reason and Division Bell; Roger Waters does not appear on this recording in any way, shape, or form. Those who are firmly entrenched in Roger Waters' camp may not care for this cd. Me, I am in David Gilmour's camp and I'm very happy this was released. There's plenty of Gilmour's trademark guitar and a fair amount of lap steel, Nick Mason sounds great and there is some tribal drumming on the disc remisiscent of earlier PF; and being a tribute to Ric Wright, there is plenty of great keyboards throughout. If you dug the late 80's/early 90's PF then you'll dig this. I bought the deluxe set that came with a hardcover book, postcards, and high resolution audio (blu ray) disc with an additional 39 minutes of music; and that is what I linked to above. Here is a link to their official video: http://youtu.be/Ezc4HdLGxg4

* Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters - Lullaby and... The Ceaseless Roar
As a long-time Led Zeppelin devotee, it amazes me how Percy reinvents himself every few years, and consistently puts out high quality music. This one is no different than the last few cd's he has recorded; very different, stylistically, compared to anything else he has recorded. I'm not sure what genre this falls under - Psychedelic British Folk/World music?  If you're strictly into Led Zeppelin and his earlier more "Zeppelin-ish" solo efforts, then it's possible this might not do it for you. If, like me, you're also a fan of Robert Plant's later solo efforts, post Fate of Nations disc; you won't be disappointed here.

* Rich Robinson - The Ceaseless Sight
This is Rich Robinson's (of Black Crowes) third solo effort. I like it better than his last one, which is no small feat (2011's Through a Crooked Sun was a GREAT disc). These Robinson brothers are quite gifted. Between Rich's solo releases and the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, they have released a plethora of great music since the Crowes went on hiatus. Like the CRB albums of the last few years, this is somewhat reminiscent of the Crowes; but where the CRB leans more towards 70's Jerry Garcia Band, this album leans more toward 70's Rolling Stones. Rich is known to play a lot of different guitars, and on this disc he indeed gets many different sounds and tones. Also, the disc is peppered throughout with great keyboards by Marco Benevento and Steve Molitz. I like this cd a little better than brother Chris'es 2014 release {noted below).

* Peter Rowan - Dharma Blues
I've been a big Peter Rowan fan for decades, starting with Panama Red and the Free Mexican Airforce. These days I call the bay area home and because he is a neighbor, figuratively speaking, I get the chance to see him perform live semi-regularly. According to the liner notes, he's been on a spiritual journey these last few years, is a practicing Buddhist, and this disc lyrically is a reflection of that jouney. This is beautifully recorded mellow music that falls somewhere in the mix of Americana/world music/folk/bluegrass. Jack Casady plays bass on the disc and Gillian Welch sings on 3 tracks.

* Steelism - 615 to Fame
Of all the cd's listed here, this one was the biggest surprise, albeit a pleasant surprise. Jeremy Fetzer from Ohio on the Telecaster, and steel guitarist Spencer Cullum Jr from Essex, UK bonded while sidemen in county singer Caitlin Rose's band. Half recorded in Nashville, and half recorded at Muscle Shoals, they collaborated on a handful of original instrumental tunes (plus one Pete Drake cover) and added drums and bass, and also some guests on a few tracks: various strings, accordion, keyboards; and this is the result. Musically, is is difficult to pigeonhole this onto one genre... It is not country, although parts are definitely country-ish, I'd say it's rock. Some of it reminds me of Danny Gatton's Redneck Jazz Band - I'm not saying these guys have Danny's or Buddy Emmon's chops, I think it's just hearing steel guitar in this context that draws the comparison.

* The War on Drugs - Lost in the Dream
This is the third full-length album by Philadelphia band The War on Drugs. It took a year to record/produce this disc, and the attention to detail is evident. Musically, to me, it's indie rock with a dose of Americana and some 80's classic rock too. Think Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers meets Dire Straits meets Pink Floyd. I highly recommend this cd and also their live show. This was a breakout disc and breakout year for War on Drugs.

* John Wesley - Disconnect
Guitarist John Wesley has been on my radar for a decade or so. He's a part-time sideman in Porcupine Tree; he's credited on 3 of their studio releases and has toured with them as 2nd guitarist/vocalist. Musically I would say more indie/alternative/classic rock flavored... I still consider it progressive rock, but less prog than PT or Steven Wilson solo. Rush'es Alex Lifeson takes a solo on Once a Warrior.

* Jack White - Lazaretto
Jack White's latest masterpiece. I do like his solo efforts best, of all the different bands/projects he's involved with. This cd debuted on Billboard at #1, and it's definitely on more best of 2014 lists than anything else I've mentioned here.

Honorable Mention

* High Beamz - Be Nice, or Go Home
Great local (Bay Area) music, guitarist Chis Zanardi's ever evolving project, and he wrote all the tunes; edgy funk/fusion/rock instrumental music. Chris has been on my radar 6 or 7 years now, via his previous band Five Eyed Hand. . On this outing, in addition to Chris is James Whiton on upright electric bass, probably best known as bass player in Eric Mcfadden Trio; but he also played on Tom Waits' 2011 release, Bad As Me. Also Cecil P-Nut McDaniels on midi-horns, Sam Phelps on organ, and Erin Cassidy on drums. Chris gets a lot of different sounds/tones/textures on this disc, and the whole band stretches out and sounds great. I highly recommend this cd.

* Chris Robinson Brotherhood - Phosphorescent Harvest
Chris Robinson is a MFing rockstar, with conviction (a hippie/deadhead too, so it seems). He is in it for the long haul. To go from playing in front of tens of thousands of people as front man of the Black Crowes, to basically starting over with a new band and playing very small venues (comparatively) where you're not making a lot of money; a lot of "stars" have too much ego to concede to that scenario, but not Chris. This is the 3rd CRB studio cd to be released since 2012, and they're pretty much touring non-stop too. This cd is more of the same, very reminiscent of 70's Jerry Garcia Band/Grateful Dead, a little country-rock, and rock and roll, with heavy doses of psychedelia; although not quite as trippy as 2012's Big Moon Ritual. Regarding CRB live: Chris is playing guitar as well as singing and his picking seems to be just a little bit better each time I see him, and his lead guitar player Neal Casal continues to rip excellent solo after solo as usual.

* Red Dragon Cartel (self-titled)
Jake E Lee's triumphant return. Yes, Jake E Lee of Ozzy's band (Bark at the Moon) and Badlands. He'd mostly been in seclusion the last couple decades. Eddie Trunk of the Metal Show sought him out for an episode, and not long after this cd was recorded, and it's surprisingly solid. Nothing new here; rock & roll similar to styles of music he's played on previous recordings with the aforementioned bands (80's rock that straddles the lines between metal and blues rock). Jake hasn't lost his touch. Cheap Trick's Robin Zander sings on one track.

* Sturgill Simpson - Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
I heard about this cd from several people in recent weeks, true outlaw country, and I just recently picked up a copy. I haven't had a chance to digest the music completely, but I can say this gives me hope for the future of country music...  Also, any cd that thanks Terrence McKenna and Aldous Huxley in the credits just might be an interesting listen ;-) He is on the 2015 Grammy ballot for best Americana album.

* Hank Williams III - Ramblin' Man
This is a compilation album put out by Hank's former label, Curb Records. This is an unauthorized release, I'm pretty sure Hank isn't receiving any $ for it; and I've read he doesn't want you to buy it and he endorses BitTorrent downloads, so do search on thepiratebay or demonoid if you've got a login :-O The cd is 8 songs, only 25 minutes in length; but what a sweet 25 minutes it is. All the songs were previously released on other cd's. The versions of his grandfather's Ramblin' Man and Merle Haggard's Okie feature the Melvins, plus Hank on vocals, and Henry Bogdan (bass player from Helmet) on steel guitar. The Ramblin' Man is brilliant; as good as his grandfather's version in my opinion. There are also covers by Johnny Paycheck and ZZ Top, and a couple tunes by his hellbilly/metal band, Assjack.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Best cd's of 2013

Okay, here is my belated list of my favorite music of 2013... All my opinions are mine and mine alone. If I left something off that you like a lot, let me know about it below in the comments; or write your own blog ;-)   This year's descriptions will be shorter than in some years past; due to the fact that we're already into February, March, April of 2014 and this is just now being written/published. As usual, I did include links to all the cd's listed here. 

Also, I won't list my bro Scott Sawyer's new cd, Dreamers, because I have a producer credit on it (conflict of interest?); but if I wasn't involved in the production, it would definitely be on the list. It's mostly original jazz tunes, 3 covers (Irving Berlin, Bob Dylan, Nick Drake), a great band and some wonderful guest appearances by Kate McGarry, Bruce Piephoff, and Tony Williamson. Jason Richmond recorded/engineered it, and it was mastered by the great Gavin Lurssen. CD Baby link is here: http://bit.ly/1nBgavp – It's also on iTunes and Spotify... 

Also, I normally don't mention re-issues... But I highly recommend the 4 cd version of the Allman Brothers band's Brothers and Sisters album, http://amzn.to/Q0E6vx – The same album as always, plus the 1973 Winterland show (very nicely remastered compared to past bootleg versions), and also a disc of outtakes and alternate tracks. A must have if you're an ABB fanatic like me. Same statement applies to the Skydog 7 cd box set, http://amzn.to/1km4smO, released in 2013, produced by Galadrielle Allman (Duane's daughter – She has also written a book I highly recommend – http://bit.ly/1hdPvmB).

Now, back to what I was saying... Here it is, in alphabetic order:

Best cd's of 2013

* John Abercrombie Quartet – 39 Steps 
Guitarist John Abercrombie has been making music on record since 1970 and is a heavyweight in the jazz world. I discovered him as a teenager, via his brilliant Gateway Trio cd's, which paved the way for me to transition from metal head to jazz head. This cd is on ECM Records and he is joined by Marc Copland on piano, Drew Gress on double bass, and the great Joey Baron on drums. If you're not familiar with John Abercrombie, this is as good as place as any to start; although you also can't go wrong with any of his Gateway Trio cd's either (there are 4).

* Scott Amendola and Charlie Hunter – Pucker 
Drummer Scott Amendola has been on my radar for over a decade now; whether by way of touring/recording with Bill Frisell, Nels Cline, Will Bernard, Wil Blades, or Charlie Hunter... Charlie, not by coincidence, has been one of my favorite performers, both on the stage and on disc for over that same aforementioned decade now. His duo lineup has come to be my favorite of his band configurations (aside from the great but sadly brief Pound for Pound lineup, which also featured Scott), and this duo recording is no exception. Whether it's Charlie or Scottie's name in front, the result is the same pure groove. These 2 have been playing together for a long time and it shows.

* BIG Something (self titled) 
Produced by John Custer; who has produced some notable albums by NC bands Corrosion of Conformity, Cry of Love, and Dag (including Dag's masterpiece, Righteous). If I had to pick a category for them musically, I'd say jamband; but there strong elements of funk, 70's prog-rock and fusion, especially the keyboards; and some of the horns make me think early Red Hot Chili Peppers. This is their 2nd release produced by John, and this band already has a very dedicated fanbase. I expect a bright future for the BIG Something!

* Black Sabbath - 13
First off: The fact that the rift between Bill Ward and the remaining 3 has progressed to it's current state sucks major ass. All Bill Ward mention/images have been removed/photoshopped from the official website, aside from the band history tab, and from a fan perspective that is just plain pitiful. Okay, on to the review: This cd was delayed over a year due to Tony Iommi's cancer diagnosis/treatment. Drummer Bill Ward is out, replaced by Brad Wilk of Rage Against the Machine. Most of this album sounds like material from their first 4 albums. They have stayed very true to their heavily blues influenced prog-rock roots. Their first album was released 44 (!) years ago, 1970. Ozzy, Tony, and Geezer are all in their 60's; and considering that, this cd sounds amazingly fresh. Ozzy's voice sounds good, and unlike Ozzy's recent solo cd's, this is NOT heavily compressed sludge designed for iPod listeners; the cd actually sounds very nice blasting out of my JBL's.

* Eric Burdon – 'Til Your River Runs Dry
I was never a huge Eric Burdon or Animals Fan; although biggest of props go to Animals bass player Chas Chandler for “discovering” Jimi Hendrix. Yes, this is the same Eric Burdon who recorded House of the Rising Sun 50 (!) years ago. I bought this cd because I knew Eric McFadden and Wally Ingram were all over it. It turns out Jon Cleary also plays some guitar on it. I consider this mostly a blues album, at times with a strong Nola vibe; and a surprisingly very strong effort. After buying it I researched it online, and more than one reviewer deemed it the best Eric Burdon album ever released.

* Steve Earle and the Dukes (& Duchesses) – The Low Highway
Steve's 1995 release Train a Comin'  is on my top 10 all time favorite album list. Not all of Steve's releases since then have blown me away. This however, I do rank among his best and in the top tier of the vast Steve Earle catalog.

* The Big E: A Salute to Steel Guitarist Buddy Emmons
Buddy Emmons fans belong to a special club. If you're a fan, you'll love this cd and appreciate it for what it is. I'm not gonna name all the famous musicians who play on it, because there are too many to list here. But rest assured, Nashville is well represented. The entire cd is great. My favorite tunes are Country Boy, with Vince Gill on Tele and vocals and Paul Franklin on steel guitar; and Night Life, featuring Raul Malo on vocals and Randle Currie on steel guitar :-) If you're not familiar with Buddy Emmons, I would recommend checking him out ASAP; starting with his Steel Guitar Jazz cd, and/or Danny Gatton's Redneck Jazz Explosion.

* Michael Lee Firkins – Yep
Every year I seem to latch onto at least one cd from the Magna Carta or Shrapnel record label, which for better or worse are labels I'd guesstimate 95% of cd sales are from old white guys who came of age in the late 70's, 80's, and early 90's ;-) before grunge arrived and temporarily silenced guitar “shredding.” So, Michael Lee Firkins is a virtuoso guitarist (standard and slide) based in Marin County, Northern California. He is yet another fantastic artist worthy of wider exposure. This is a Magna Carta release; and like his previous releases of recent years, this one has an star band backing him: Chuck Leavell on keyboards, Matt Abts on drums, and Andy Hess on bass. Unlike his previous efforts, this cd is NOT all instrumental, there are some songs with vocals. All tunes are originals, no covers. Fans of blues rock guitar, Jeff Beck, Gov't Mule, ZZ Top, etc, will enjoy this disc very much.

* Gov't Mule – Shout!
Warren Haynes stepped up his game with this latest release, which is on the Blue Note label. I rank it among my 2 favorite Mule recordings, which are Dose and Mighty High. What sets this apart from his other releases is that it is 2 cd's with the same songs – One cd with guest singers on each song, and another cd with Warren singing everything. Although the guest vocals are top shelf and sound great (Dr. John, Ben Harper, Toots Hibbert, Elvis Costello, etc), after repeated listens I have found that overall I prefer the disc with Warren handling all the vocals.

* Ben Harper with Charlie Musselwhite – Get Up
Album of the year. Number 1 in my book. A blues album, pure and simple. It won a blues Grammy this year. Honest soulful music and lyrics. Ben and Charlie knocked this one out of the park and I can't wait to hear their their next collaborative effort.

Christian McBride & Inside Straight – People Music
The liner notes state Christian formed this acoustic jazz combo in response to Village Vanguard club owner Lorraine Gordon’s instructions that if McBride wanted to perform there again, he had to do so without his electric “rock ‘n’ roll band.” The lineup is Christian on upright bass, augmented by vibraphonist Warren Wolf, pianist Peter Martin, alto saxophonist Steve Wilson, and drummer Carl Allen, with drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. jumping on board for a few tracks as well. It is what is is. It's safe to say If you dig straight ahead jazz you'll probably like this, a lot.

* JJ Grey & Mofro – The River
Mofro has been on a roll these last few years. This is another Alligator Records release. More of the same swampy Southern rock funk soul music they're been playing for the last decade or so. JJ's lyrics and descriptive imagery evoke, for me, vivid memories of times spent in Nashville and Northern FL. This is the first Mofro studio release featuring Todd Smallie on bass, formerly of the Derek Trucks Band.

* North Mississippi Allstars – World Boogie Is Coming
The NMA are on a roll, I also loved their previous release back in 2011. I guess it's now safe to say Chris Chew is officially no longer an Allstar, bummer. I make this statement based on the fact that since their last release they were touring as a duo, and Chris shows up on this latest cd with a guest artist credit. This is their bluesiest effort yet, but still unmistakeably the NMA. There are 3 NMA originals, and the rest are mostly classic Mississippi blues and/or traditional covers. Robert Plant blows harmonica on a couple songs.

* Anders Osborne – Peace
Anders is still riding that wave; his 3rd cd with Alligator Records, his 3rd consecutive cd of very high caliber music. I'm not going to describe what it sounds like, again; but if you've been reading my blog these last few years, then you may recall I am a big Anders Osborne fan. If you missed my references the previous times, I'll just say it's psychedelic rock music with Nola origins.

* Joel Paterson – Handful of Strings
Joel is a monster guitarist, relatively unknown, based in Chicago. He plays jazz regularly at the Green Mill, and is equally at home playing blues - He is also a full time member of the Cash Box Kings (Blind Pig Records artist). Joel recorded this all instrumental cd in the heavily overdubbed style of mostly early Les Paul recordings, but also some blues and rockabilly flavored tunes too. He plays all the instruments; which are guitar, lap steel, pedal steel, bass, and snare drum.

* Marc Ribot's Ceramic Dog – Your Turn
This is the 2nd Ceramic Dog cd. I dug the first one too. This one is more rock less experimental than the previous, shorter more structured tunes; but still plenty of avant garde, free jazz, punk, and other genres hybridized together. The cd is half instrumental / half songs with lyrics. My favorite tunes are Masters of the Internet, Take 5 (this berserk version must have Dave Brubeck spinning in his grave), and We are the Professionals; which could pass for the Beastie Boys in their prime.

John Scofield – Uberjam Deux
The first Uberjam cd was back in 2002. Musically, the tunes are just a little less experimental than the last one. Still very funky. The band is Sco on guitars, Avi Bortnick on guitars/samplers, Andy Hess on bass, John Medeski on keys, and Adam Deitch and Louis Cato on drums. I was a big fan of the first Ubderjam cd and this follow up exceeded my high expectations.

* Robert Randolph Presents: The Slide Brothers
This cd blew me away upon first listen. Today's top Sacred Steel genre pedal steel and lap steel guitar masters step outside the House of God Church, and play some blistering versions of classic rock and blues tunes (including Allman Brothers, Clapton, George Harrison, Elmore James, among others) plus a few unexpected gems thrown in too (a Fatboy Slim song for example). If you're a blues fan or steel guitar fan, this is a must-hear cd.

* Steven Wilson – The Raven that Refused to Sing: And Other Stories
The busiest man in the prog-rock universe found the time in 2013 to record/release his 3rd solo effort and his best album yet. The cd was co-produced by Alan Parsons (who contributes 1 burning guitar solo), and also features Govan Guthrie on lead guitar. 6 songs, 3 of which are plus 10 minutes long; this cd is chock full of indulgent displays of musician virtuosity/wankery that prog-rock geeks such as myself love ;-)

* The Wood Brothers – The Muse
Chris Wood (of MMW - On upright bass, harmonica, and vocals) and brother Oliver Wells (on guitar and vocals) are the stars of this show. Produced by the great Buddy Miller. There are also various other musicians on certain tracks (including Buddy on baritone guitar on one song). I would consider this roots rock music, strongly rooted in the blues. Their cover of I Got Loaded (by Los Lobos) is as good, if not better, than the original version. Oliver's voice sometimes brings to mind Levon Helm. I highly recommend this excellent cd!

Honorable Mention

* The Black Dahlia Murder – Everblack
An acquired taste. I've been a fan of this melodic death metal band from Michigan since I saw them open for King Diamond roughly 9 years ago. The brutality continues.

* Fareed Haque – Out of Nowhere
I've been a Fareed fan since my friend Laurie turned me onto his Blue Note cover version of the classic CSNY album, Deja Vu, back in the late 90's. Since then he has stayed very busy and is best known as guitarist of Garaj Mahal, a jamband whose 11 year run ended in 2011. He is a virtuoso on the instrument, and is as versatile live as any guitarist I have ever seen. He has idolized Pat Martino since he was 9 years old, and this should definitely be considered a return to his roots. 

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Best cd's of 2012...

Greetings, and my apologies for the extreme delay in finishing this list of my favorite cd's of 2012.  It's been a very busy few months, and there was so much great music released in 2012, and it took me longer than normal to compile this list. You may disagree with this unhip middle-aged white guy's choices, and that is okay :-)

Note: Those who know me personally may notice an omission of the Zep Celebration Day set. Well, I did LOVE it, they sounded great; but if I am going to crank up some live Led Zeppelin, it's most likely going to be from 1969, or possibly 1977, not the '07 reunion. Another omission is the Gary Clark cd - I have only heard it a few times, but it didn't blow me away. Lastly, the Black Country Communion cd didn't kill me either; as much as I dug their last 2 cd's, this one just doesn't do it for me.

Also, because it's already Spring of 2013, let me preface this list with my favorite music of 2013 so far :-)
* Robert Randolph Presents: The Slide Brothers
* Ben Harper with Charlie Musselwhite - Get Up!
* Jimi Hendrix - People, Hell and Angels
* Steven Wilson - The Raven that Refused to Sing

Okay, thanks for your patience - Here it is, in alphabetical order:

Best CD's of 2012

* Will Bernard Trio – Outdoor Living
Jazz/funk guitarist Will Bernard’s latest disc is a trio recording with his buds Wil Blades on keyboards, and Simon Lott on drums; funky not quite jazz, with Nola leanings… They’ve logged quite a few road miles together and it’s evident on this recording. The band does get ample stretch-out time; it’s not just a guitar work out. This is Will’s first “post Tom Waits” release, and I look forward to his next creative endeavor.

* Mike Daly – Rock of Ages
Mike Daly is a new discovery for me… He has been Hank Williams Jr’s pedal steel guitarist for the last 18 years; but don’t hold that against him ;-)  I am joking; although in the Hank Williams dynasty, a generation was skipped in the greatness department, in my personal opinion (then again, Junior’s shoes are easier to fill than Senior’s). According to some internet assisted research, I found he has worked with many, including Travis Tritt, and also Whiskeytown, and also Ryan Adams. In other words: Mike is another one of many unsung heroes from Nashville. This cd is unlike any pedal steel guitar album/cd you have ever heard. It’s all instrumental covers of 60’s and 70’s classic rock hits by the likes of Led Zeppelin, the Allman Bros, Traffic, Clapton, the Beatles, Jeff Beck, etc. There is no traditional electric guitar on this cd…  There IS some 6 string acoustic guitar, both finger-picking and slide, some acoustic Weissenborn guitar, and acoustic mandolin; but all electric guitar sounds on this recording were played with a tonebar… It is very well produced; multi-tracked guitars with many different tones and textures. His great band is comprised of more Nashville pro’s whom I mostly haven’t heard of (except Jimmy Hall, from Wet Willie); yet this is very far from the traditional country music that steel guitar and Nashville is normally associated with. On a side note, I spent my high school years there and realize Nashville has always had a rock scene; and there is a lot of music to enjoy there, besides the country genre exclusively.

* Floratone – Floratone II
Floratone is Bill Frisell (guitars), Matt Chamberlain (drums), Lee Townsend (production), and Tucker Martine (production). This (and the first Floratone cd) started out as duo recordings of Bill and Matt, were then pieced together/produced  by Townsend and Martine, then treated to more overdubs from Bill and Matt and additional instrumentation from others; including sidemen in Frisell projects for decades (Ron Miles, Evyind Kang). It’s mostly the same lineup as previous cd, subtracting guest Viktor Krauss but adding guests Mike Elizondo and Jon Brion. This cd has a little more of a band feel than the previous cd. It sounds even better with headphones or turned up loud on good equipment. Lots of different genres of music covered here; if I had to categorize it, I would go with avant-garde… My favorite moments, of which there are several, are when they veer off into Syd Barrett territory.

* Sam Frasier (self-titled)
Sam is based in Greensboro, NC and has been a fixture of the arts scene there for probably 3 decades now… The cd is song based, all original music, with Sam on acoustic/electric guitars and lead vocals; and the other musicians are based in the Piedmont area and well known and heard locally. Musically, it’s hard to pigeonhole, I would say maybe roots rock with some acoustic leanings; lyrically, it’s mostly songs about love and relationships. As far as influences go, I hear traces of acoustic Hot Tuna, Neil Young, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Tom Petty, Joe Walsh, and the less commercial side of the Eagles. The cd is only about 40 minutes long, and it left me wanting more.

* Jimmy Herring – Subject To Change Without Notice
This was produced by John Keane, and backing Jimmy are musicians mainly from the Atlanta area, all well known in jamband and Zambi circles; plus a couple guests: Bela Fleck on banjo (the Bela track, Curfew, is one of the highlights of the cd), and also Bill Evans on saxophone… Beautiful stuff here, great guitar tones and playing (both shredding, and hitting the note), and he plays some nice slide guitar too. I hear a strong Dixie Dregs influence overall; also Jeff Beck’s 70’s instrumental albums, and a bit of 70’s fusion ala Weather Report. This is my favorite Jimmy Herring recording, post Aquarium Rescue Unit, of the many things he has done. I can’t wait to hear his next solo release.

* David Hidalgo/Mato Nanji/Luther Dickinson – 3 Skulls & the Truth
A bluesy Texas boogie guitar cd starring David Hidalgo from Los Lobos, Luther Dickinson from the North Mississippi Allstars, and Mato Nanji from Indigenous; and produced by Mike Varney, from Shrapnel records. This is a nasty raucous affair, best heard at high volume; reminiscent of Stevie Ray and early ZZ Top. Some of the Shrapnel catalog has been on the generic side despite big names, and I was surprised at how very solid this cd is… Actually, ZZ Top has a new cd out in 2012 too, and this one is better; I do realize music isn’t competition, but this is a “best of” blog.

* Charlie Hunter – Not Getting Behind Is The New Getting Ahead
Charlie keeps stepping it up a notch and changing his game a little bit every couple years. He’s been on a tear these last few years from a live perspective, especially if you’re into blues. This might be his bluesiest cd yet… This is Charlie on 7-String guitar and Scotty Amendola on drums. Like his previous 1988 duo recording, it is hard to believe this is just 2 people. If I hadn’t seen him do it live on stage, countless times, I would probably be a doubter. The stuff he is doing nowadays, the harmonics and panning Frisellian volume swells, while simultaneously playing bass, it’s simply amazing; and it sounds pretty good too :-)

* The Meldavians – Farewell to Arigemon
Bias Alert: My bro Scott Sawyer plays all electric guitars on this cd. The Meldavians is keyboardist Dave Fox’s brainchild. Dave comes from the jazz/avant-garde world, and this band is a vehicle for his compositions, and lyrics to be sung by Melissa Reaves, who also plays acoustic guitar and loops (and contributed 3 songs), and is a MFing rockstar with as much stage presence/charisma as I have ever seen, period (Melissa has toured as Robert Plant’s opening act, and has often been compared to Janis Joplin). Dave is based in Greensboro, Scott is based in Raleigh, Melissa is based in Boone half the year; and on bass, drums, and percussion is a mix of different musicians on different tracks from mainly NC’s jazz world, and this band could be considered a NC supergroup. The music is good old American rock & roll, steeped in blues with some Nola leanings and a bit of prog avant-garde weirdness (GOOD weirdness). The strongest influence I hear is Little Feat (Dave’s keyboards), but I do hear some Zep, and dare I say it; some Janis Joplin. It was produced by Dave and John Plymale, and it briefly had 3 Grammy nominations on on this year’s official Grammy nomination ballot (55th annual), although not enough votes were cast to make it the final ballot… Did I mention that the Meldavians are Aliens from the planet Teronus? I’m serious; you can read about in Dave’s companion book that was released when the cd came out :-)

* My Three Sons (self-titled)
Pete Petty on guitar and the great Kenny Soule/Bobby Patterson rhythm section (Dag, the original Go There). Funky instrumental power trio from NC, with a retro sound reminiscent of late 70’s/80’s fusion bands.

* Anders Osborne – Black Eye Galaxy
Another masterpiece (I don’t use that term lightly) from the enigmatic freak Swede-Nola-Convert. This is his 2nd album on the Alligator label, less blues more rock and psychedelia than his outstanding 2010 effort; but equally scintillating and chock-full of great songs and plenty of burning guitar work. Anders is one of the most exhilarating rock guitarists to creep onto my radar in the last few years, and I highly recommend this superb cd.

* Public Enemy – Evil Empire of Everything
This is PE’s 12th cd in their 25 year history. It seems like another lifetime when I first heard It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (Thank you David Harvard!), and realized great music actually was possible with DJ’s and samplers and drum machines. I am very particular about Hip Hop - Outside of Cannibal OX, Eminem, Immortal Technique, and Wu Tang; I basically haven’t gotten into any hip hop artists that became relevant after the late 90’s, and even then, the old-school artists I really got into were few and far between. I wouldn’t know a Kanye West or 50 Cent or Lil’ Wayne song if it smacked me in the face. This is PE’s 2nd release of 2012. Generally, the earlier released Most of my Heroes Still Don’t Appear on No Stamp got more press and better reviews than this one; but I disagree, this one is heavier and angrier (it is post Trayvon Martin). There is plenty of their trademark PE funk; Chuck D still sounds pissed off and his rhymes are expressive, he has not lost his edge. Flava Flav has a couple songs, and they’re actually good, way better than his shitty reality TV show. Professor Griff is there too, only Terminator-X is absent as far as the original PE goes… There are also quite a few guests; Ziggy Marley, Henry Rollins & Tom Morello, and a whole slew of next generation rappers. Sergeant Hawkes from the 1991 track Get the Hell Outta Dodge even makes an appearance! There is also quite a bit of live instrumentation, including the great Clyde Stubblefield on drums. This is by far the best cd PE has put out in quite a few years.

* Chris Robinson Brotherhood – Big Moon Ritual
Aside from the Jimmy Page/Black Crowes Tour, this is my favorite cd of any of the Black Crowes side projects thus far… Chris is lead singer and also plays a lot of guitar, but no brother Rich on this band. Instead, guitarist Neal Casal, best known from his days with Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, joins him. It’s laid back jammy rock and roll. I hear an obvious Black Crowes sound, but I also hear a lot of 70’s classic rock – The Stones, Zeppelin, Allman Brothers, and 70’s era Jerry Garcia Band. The cd is all original music, my favorite tune is Rosalee. There was also a companion cd released a few months later, The Magic Door, which I haven’t yet heard.

* Freddie Roulette – Jammin’ with Friends
Another cd from lap steel guru extraordinaire Freddie Roulette, with a backing band comprised of veterans from San Francisco’s rock and blues scenes; including Harvey Mandel, David LaFlamme, Barry Melton, Pete Sears, and Kathi McDonald (Kathi’s last recording). It was produced by drummer Michael Borbridge, not promoted very well, and consequentially it barely made a ripple when it was released… But, I am a fanatic, thus I heard about it and snagged a copy right away ;-)  Nothing groundbreaking here, just some blues by a uniquely inimitable master of his craft.

* Royal Southern Brotherhood (self-titled)
Devon Allman (son of Gregg) on guitar and vocals, Cyril Neville on percussion and vocals (no intro necessary), Mike Zito on guitar and vocals (a KILLER slide player from St. Louis I was unfamiliar with prior to this band), Yonrico Scott on drums (Derek Trucks Band), and New Orleans/Atlanta heavyweight Charlie Wooton on bass; and produced by Jim Gaines, who has produced hundreds of albums including Stevie Ray’s Grammy winning In Step. It sounds about like what you would expect; a blend of the Allman Brothers Band (I do hear Gregg, in Devon) and the Neville Brothers, swampy rock and roll with a lot of guitar solos. There are plenty of great musical moments all over it. This cd exceeded my expectations and was a very nice surprise. They cover a Grateful Dead song, Fire on the Mountain; and my favorite tracks are Sweet Jelly Doughnut, and the ABB-like instrumental tune, Brotherhood.

* Rush – Clockwork Angels
I have been a Rush fan since I was 14 when Permanent Wave was released (in 1980). I consider that their peak album; and by the time Signals was released a few years later I began to lose interest in the direction they had taken as a band. Since then they have released a string of albums that for me, were mostly bland and mediocre; with the exception being Hold Your Fire – I thought that was a pretty decent album. So, I am really digging this new one. I will even go so far as to proclaim it the best Rush album since Moving Pictures. If you prefer the earlier Rush that was heavier and featured more guitars/less keyboards, then you will not be disappointed with this latest greatest effort.

* Storm Corrosion (self-titled)
This is a collaboration between Steven Wilson, Porcupine Tree’s guitarist/frontman, and Mikael Akerfeldt, guitarist/frontman for Opeth; a Swedish progressive death metal band. It sounds closer to the mellower side of Opeth than it does Porcupine Tree, but not too much like either band. Some of it reminds me of early Pink Floyd from an experimental psychedelic standpoint, and I also hear maybe a bit of Radiohead and early Genesis. There is quite a lot of acoustic guitar, a string section, and the great Gavin Harrison of Porcupine Tree plays drums. This is dark beautiful music, with overall excellent production; as expected, like anything Steven Wilson’s name is on. I got the version that contains a 2nd disc, blu-ray (audio) 5.1 surround mix with some bonus tracks.

* Joe Walsh – Analog Man
It’s a new Joe Walsh album, enough said; co-produced by Joe and Jeff Lynne, and his first solo effort in 20 years. I have always considered Joe Walsh one of the great underrated rock guitarists of all time. He is sober these days, for better or worse, but his music is still nice and quirky, the lyrics are humorous and good social commentary – He isn’t as unplugged as he’d leave you to believe from the title track’s lyrics; he does still has a clue. Also, he has a star-studded cast of musicians/singers all over the cd; including David Crosby, Graham Nash, Greg Leisz, Little Richard, Dale Peters, Joe Vitale, and Ringo Starr. Welcome back indeed!

* Keith Waters – Carolina Tracks
Bias alert #2: My bro Scott Sawyer plays guitar on this cd. Keith is a pianist based in CO, but originally from NC; he is a professor and also a writer, and is best known for his written critical analysis of the studio recordings of the Miles Davis Quintet 1965 – 1968… Anyway, this music fits firmly in the jazz genre. All musicians on the cd are jazz heavyweights from NC, and the 3 songs that are not original are covers by NC jazz artists/legends Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, and Loonis McGlohon; and… Proceeds from the recording will be used to support a scholarship for a NC high school student to major in music at a NC college/university. Excellent performances abound, and it was engineered by Jason Richmond in Durham, NC. Yes, this cd is definitely a North Carolina affair. My 2 favorite tracks are Denied, and Vigil (for D.V.).

* Jack White – Blunderbuss
I didn’t get Jack White the first few times I heard him. The earlier White Stripes albums didn’t knock me out; but by the time the 1st Raconteurs album was released in ’06, I had seen the light. This is his first release since his high profile amicable divorce last summer.  Like his previous “break up” record, the White Stripes’ Get behind Me Satan, this album lyrically is mainly about love lost; but it’s not all despair, there is still an air of happiness. It is more polished than the WS, but not over-produced; with plenty of guitar and other instrumentation as well, and the Nashville influence is subtle but obvious. This is my favorite Jack White recording so far, of the many cd’s he has played on/produced.

* Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Psychedelic Pill
Ahh, good old Neil. You either don’t get it and wonder how people can stand his high pitched vocals and sloppy leads; or you think he is brilliant, his voice and guitar work instantly indentifiable trademarks, and like fine wine he keeps getting better with each passing year… I used to be the former, now I’m the latter. I am a little biased though, because the 2 Neil/Crazyhorse concerts I did see were epic and dare I say it, revelatory… Anyway, this is standard for what you’d expect from a Neil Young & Crazy Horse record: Very long jams laden with copious amounts of overdriven guitar and feedback :-)  2 cd’s with a total of 9 songs, 3 of them over 15 minutes in length, with the longest tune being almost 28 minutes! This is Neil’s best effort since 1994’s Sleeps with Angels.

Honorable Mention:

* Bad Brains – Into the Future
This is another album that caught me off guard; a pretty solid effort considering they have been doing it for 30 years and are not young men; and punk has always been a young man’s game. It is the original lineup, and musically speaking, they are as tight as ever. Granted it’s not I Against I, and some of it is a little formulaic, especially the reggae tunes; but these dudes are all approaching retirement age, and this disc puts a lot of their peers to shame

* Flea – ‘Helen Burns’
This is an odd quirky 30 minute EP, named after a character from (the novel) Jane Eyre. Musically, it is very much unlike the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Flea describes it as a “mostly instrumental, weird and arty record, the music is mostly just me creating soundscapes that are very emotional for me, but certainly not for everyone! Just me tripping out at home. I am putting it out to raise money for the Silverlake Conservatory of Music; a community based non-profit music school that I am an integral part of.” What I hear sounds like a mix of early 70’s progressive rock (the keyboards), a movie soundtrack, and electronica. Aside from Flea, Patti Smith sings on 1 track, the Silverlake Choir sings on 1 track; and drummers Stella Mozgawa, Chad Smith, and Jack Irons all make appearances. Flea plays bass, keyboards, trumpets, synthesizers, and percussion and drum machines.

* Medeski Martin & Wood – Free Magic
Normally I wouldn’t include a live MMW cd here in my best-of-blog, because they are taper-friendly and consequentially the internet is saturated with MMW live audience recordings… However, this disc is all tracks from a 2007 acoustic tour, and it can be harder to capture a good audience recording of MMW acoustic (versus electric); and also, the cd ends with a nice version of the Charles Mingus classic, Nostalgia in Times Square, never before recorded by MMW... There is a reason why John Scofield recently proclaimed MMW his favorite live band.

* Smashing Pumpkins – Oceania
I’m surprised I like this album as much as I do. I was heavily into this band in the beginning, but started losing interest after their 3rd and 4th albums - The 1st couple, Gish and Siamese Dream, I consider them both masterpieces. I’ve never been a huge Billy Corgan fan - I always dug his singing, but I was more into James Iha’s guitar playing; and Corgan’s bursting ego is what pushed me away from the band. Now, 12 years have passed since the band broke up and they parted ways, and both Iha and Corgan have both released new cd’s (Iha’s is titled Look to the Sky)… Corgan has retained the Smashing Pumpkins name (all new band members), and I have to say Oceania is by far the better of the two. If you’re a big fan of the earlier Smashing Pumpkins cd’s, then you should check this one out if you haven’t already.

* Tremonti – All I Was
I’ve never been a Creed fan, I’ve never heard any Alter Bridge, and he’s a founding member of both hugely successful bands… I’ve always been a bit of a metal-head though, and what drew me into checking out this cd was Mark Tremonti’s appearance on Eddie Trunk's Metal Show; where he proclaimed his love for metal, thrash, and King Diamond. I was already aware of his Paul Reed Smith signature model guitar; next I googled him and saw the many different awards/polls he’s won in various guitar magazines, and I read some reviews of this cd and snagged a copy. I Like it. While it’s not a thrash album, it is metal, with plenty of stunt guitar work, and my favorite parts are the songs with the noticeable early Metallica and Pantera influences. He is definitely a badass, no doubt hugely inspirational to the next generation of aspiring shredders. He also handles the lead vocals and sounds okay, no cookie monster leads vocals, thank you. I am not familiar with drummer and bassist, they are a tight rhythm section. Overall: This is a fine debut album that (I’m sure) Tremonti’s fanatics had been clamoring for.

* Van Halen – A Different Kind of Truth
In my opinion, and despite the fact Michael Anthony’s background vocals are missed; this is the best VH album since Fair Warning, which I consider their “peak” recording. No, I am not a huge fan of Diver Down or Van Hagar. This cd sounds just like the VH of old and is surprisingly fresh.  My only complaint is their terrible heavily compressed mix/mastering job; it seems this cd was engineered for MP3/iPods with shitty earbud speakers. The Grateful Dead had their “Wall of Sound” while Van Halen has their “Wall of Sludge.”

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Best cd's of 2011...

Disclaimer: Below is a list of my favorite music of 2011. This list and individual reviews are my opinions only, and yours may vary, and that is okay. Also, there are a couple things I would've listed here, but excluded them instead for the reasons noted:

* Bruce Piephoff - Still Looking Up At the Stars
I have a production credit on this, so I can't include it in my top 20 with a clear conscience (conflict of interest). I can say though, this cd is fan-f*cking-tastic, and I listened to this disc more than anything else this past year. It's introspective music with vivid lyrical imagery that would probably be in the folk section of your record store, but crosses over into many other genres (country blues, electric blues, roots rock, free jazz/spoken word, Latin jazz); and it was produced by and features heavily my bro, Scott Sawyer. I am just as proud to be associated with this cd as I was with Scott's "Go There" cd which featured Kofi and Oteil Burbridge, and everyone who heard that one knows how great a cd it is… So, if you know me, and trust my judgment when it comes to great music, and like to and have the means to support the working artist, buy yourself a copy if you haven't already :-)

* Medeski Martin and Wood - 20
Each month during 2011, MMW released new, never-released tracks, for a total of 20 tracks to celebrate their 20th year anniversary. It's roughly 105 total minutes in length; and if it would've all been released at one time as a "hard copy" cd, instead of 20 individual tracks to download, then it definitely would have made my top 20!

Here we go… Without further ado, my top 20 cd's of 2011, in alphabetical order:

* Gregg Allman - Low Country Blues
As a longtime hardcore Allman Brothers Band fanatic, this is the cd on this list I consider myself most qualified to critique. Gregg Allman has had a very long career (40 plus years), with his share of mostly ups and a few downs. Now 14 years since the last studio recorded cd, and a year since receiving a liver transplant, Gregg Allman has released this fine effort. First off, it was produced by T-Bone Burnett, who seems to have the Midas touch when it comes to making albums (10 time Grammy winner!). This cd is no exception - The musicians are Gregg on vocals, B3, and some acoustic guitar, T-Bone on guitar; along with Doyle Bramhall III, Dr. John, and T-Bone's "go to" rhythm section of bassist Dennis Crouch and drummer Jay Bellerose, and a horn section. Gregg Allman is 64 years old, his voice is weathered, and when he sings the blues you believe him. This cd is song oriented, a nice contrast to the long jammy improvisations of the Allman Brothers live concert experience. One song Gregg co-wrote with Warren Haynes; the rest are covers of tunes written by the likes of Muddy Waters, Skip James, Little Milton, BB King, Amos Milburn, Otis Rush, and Sleepy John Estes. Gregg doesn't flub any of the lyrics like he has become prone to doing (on stage) these last few years, and I only wish the Allman Brothers Band would release a studio album of this caliber in 2012. This cd has been nominated for a Grammy, best blues cd of 2011.

* Tab Benoit - Medicine
Blues from the Bayou... This music is beautiful, tasteful, sometimes dirty, Cajun blues; drenched in soul. Tab's voice reminds me of Jimmie Vaughan and his brother Stevie, he is spokesman for the Voices of the Wetlands Activist group; and some of his lyrics are regarding Louisiana's rapidly shrinking wetlands, while he also sings of love, joy, loss, and heartbreak. This is Tab's best effort yet, not that his other releases haven't been top shelf; but this is more or less a Nola supergroup of a band - Tab on guitar and vocals, Anders Osborne on guitar (and he co-wrote 7 of the 11 songs), Michael Doucet on fiddle, Ivan Neville on Hammond B3, and Brady Blade on drums. This band rocks it - Anders Osborne continues (see my best of 2010 list) to play guitar like a man possessed, and is on the verge of "breaking out" and each and every one of Michael Doucet's notes is perfect!

* Black Country Communion - Black Country Communion 2
This is a very strong sophomore effort from the supergroup that is Joe Bonamassa on guitar, Glenn Hughes on bass and vocals/from Deep Purple Mark III, Jason Bonham/son of Bonzo on drums, and Derek Sherinian of Dream Theater on keyboards. Like their previous cd, this is more 70's style hard rock that fits firmly in the Zeppelin/Deep Purple camp. If you're looking for something new sounding, you've come to the wrong place. If you prefer the classic rock sounds of the 70's, sit back and enjoy the ride. Their style may be seasoned, but they do it with much finesse. This is great summertime crank-up-your-car-stereo music, and I suspect a Black Country Communion concert would be filled with air guitarists!

* The Black Dahlia Murder - Ritual
This is the heaviest, rawest, most punk inclusion on this list. I have been following this Michigan band off and on for the last decade. Their sound seems to have gotten more melodic over time; but it's still very heavy death metal, with lots of cookie monster vocals, and at times it is aurally brutal. I consider this BDM's best cd yet. The production to me sounds better than their last couple albums, the tunes are a little more "finished" sounding. This is the 2nd Black Dahlia Murder cd with new guitarist Ryan Knight, and they have really stepped it up.

* Endangered Blood (self titled)
This is a NYC downtown acoustic jazz supergroup of sorts; Trevor Dunn on contrabass, best known for Mr. Bungle and also his work with John Zorn and Mike Van Patton. Longtime friends and collaborators Chris Speed (tenor sax) and Jim Black (drums), who have worked extensively with such NYC heavyweights as Tim Berne, Uri Caine, Dave Douglas, and Kurt Rosenwinkle. Lastly, Oscar Noriega on alto sax and bass clarinet, who is best known for his recent work with Paul Motian, Lee Konitz and Tim Berne. All tunes were written by Chris Speed with the exception of TS Monk's Epistrophy. This music is hard to describe, it's all blowing, no chords; but despite their name, the entire cd is not wall-shaking free jazz - Although there is a substantial free jazz vibe, there are also bits of straight-ahead and contemporary jazz, and some rock.

* Bill Frisell - All We Are Saying
Bill Frisell is a true Beatles fan, obviously… That thought springs to mind immediately when you hear him playing this collection of John Lennon tunes. This is another of his projects where jazz meets blues meets pop meets folk meets Americana. This band has uncovered many fine jewels deep in the terra firm of these songs I've heard hundreds of times. Lots of unworldly tones, swells, and twangy guitars can be heard on these very interesting arrangements; where sometimes the melody is so subtle it's almost hidden and other times it's very pronounced. I was one of the lucky few that caught this set live with the same lineup (Bill on guitar, Greg Leisz on steel guitar, Jenny Scheinman on violin, Tony Scherr on bass, Kenny Wollesen on drums), which makes this cd even more special to me. Bill Frisell can do no wrong. Also worthy of a listen or three is Frisell's other 2011 release, Sign of Life, music for his 858 Quartet > http://amzn.to/ysApgO

* Morgan Agren / Henry Kaiser / Trey Gunn - Invisible Rays
Trey Gunn on bass and Warr guitar (an instrument similar to the Chapman Stick), Henry Kaiser on guitar, and Morgan Agren on drums. Morgan is from Sweden and has been associated with Zappa family side projects since the mid 90's. Henry Kaiser is a bay area guitarist who has played with everybody everywhere (first musician to record in Antarctica), and is recognized world-wide as a leader of the second generation of free improvisers who came of age in the '70s. He's been doing soundtrack work for the last decade too (He collaborated on Warner Heezog's "Grizzly Man"), and he's also a professional video camera operator (his underwater sequences have been used in "Wild Blue Yonder"). I actually met him randomly when he was filming Bill Frisell @ Yoshi's a couple years, ago for a documentary that I haven't seen officially released yet… Anyway, his playing and use of effects at times reminds me of both Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew. Trey Gunn was a member of King Crimson from 1995 through 2003 and also was involved in various KC related projeKcts. This music is very intense, a later 2000ish King Crimson like frenzy with a large dose of avant-garde experimentation. The opening track is nearly 23 minutes in length. This is another cd for the musically adventurous, I Love it!

* Warren Haynes Band - Man in Motion
What a surprise, another Allman Brother is on my list this year. Like Gregg's new one, this cd (his first studio band recording that is not Gov't Mule, in 18 years) has also been nominated for best blues cd of 2011 Grammy, which I find a bit odd, as Warren was going for more of a soul/R&B thing on this cd. While the cd is great and worthy (to me) of making this list, it's not a blues cd. However, genres aside, there is plenty of formidable guitar playing all over this cd, as expected… Also, the casual Warren Haynes fan might not have realized that he is also a great vocalist and songwriter, as he amply demonstrates on this cd. His band is top shelf as well, Ron Holloway on tenor sax in particular sounds great! So, yeah, not as heavy as a Mule cd - This is mainly soul and R&B with sprinkles of funk, blues, and gospel - but still a gift to the legion of Warren fans out there, and a great listen for all.

* Eric McFadden - Bluebird On Fire
This latest Eric McFadden cd is a bluesy cd; but stylistically all the songs are very different. This is no surprise if you're familiar with his guitar playing, as Eric is a virtuoso musician (and a great singer/lyricist) equally adept in many, if not all, music genres. The supporting cast on this cd is no joke either: James Whiton on a song, Dave Schools on 5 songs, and Norwood Fisher (Fishbone) on 3 songs; and that's just the bass players! EM is vastly underrated, he consistently releases great music, and his live shows are always off the hook (and the best deal in the bay area). On this latest cd, I hear traces of Johnny Cash, Nick Cave, John Lee Hooker, Jimi Hendrix, and a little Scotty Moore, to name a few… Bluebird On Fire is all killer, and no filler! My favorite tune is the meltdown that is It Takes a Man.

* Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood - In Case the World Changes Its Mind [Live]
John Medeski (keyboards), John Scofield (guitars), Billy Martin (percussion), and Chris Wood (bass). Intense, dark, crazed, electric, out, textured, discombobulated… These are adjectives that come to mind while listening to this excellent live double cd set. Most music heads I know are either: (A) fanatical about MMW, or (B) don't care for MMW… Then regarding the hardcore MMW-heads (I've interacted with on listservs and email lists), a lot of them don't like Sco with the band, they prefer just the trio; or if there must be a guitarist, Marc Ribot… Sco's musical personality seems to be too loud for some folks, they like Ribot because his voice is less prominent in the MMW plus 1 mix. Anyway, while I love seeing the Trio, I am also a huge John Scofield fan, and for me, MSMW is a match made in heaven. Sco has said in recent interviews that MMW is his favorite band, period, and this sounds to me like a band having a lot of fun on stage. But jazz purists and fans of John Scofield's traditional straight-ahead side, be warned; this isn't your grandfather's jazz, this is very jammy groove-heavy avant-garde stuff… I bet Wynton Marsalis hates it.

* Megadeth - Th1rt3en
50 year old Dave Mustaine is one of the most intense and interesting personalities in today's musical universe, metal or any other genre. Megadeth has been making music since 1985; and despite Dave's ups and downs, and whatever personnel changes have occurred over the years, nothing has deterred Dave from executing his mission - which is to consistently deliver the tightest loudest shred-guitar-heavy bone-crunching most real metal imaginable. The nickname world's state-of-the-art speed metal band has been used to describe Megadeth's sound, as well as the critic penned term intelligent metal and this cd is no exception. If any of you are worried that Dave's recent religious conversion has dulled his perspective or his lyrics, worry not, that has not occurred. Megadeth has been, and still is, simply the best working metal band for the last couple decades. Also, I highly recommend Dave's autobiography "Mustaine: A Heavy Metal Memoir" published in 2010.

* Buddy Miller's Majestic Silver Strings (self titled)
Buddy Miller has been pretty huge in Nashville since the mid 90's. He's been on my radar for a few years now, but my first time seeing him was a very special night of this band (mostly) playing this material at Yoshi's in Oakland, in April of 2011. That was followed a few weeks later with Robert Plant's Band of Joy at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, with Buddy Miller on guitar. I've since listened to some of Buddy's back catalog, and I have deduced that he has been more than a minor influence on Bill Frisell's technique this last decade, as Frisell's Americana excursions have become more frequent. This cd is a Nashville/Downtown (NYC) Superband Masterpiece. Buddy Miller, Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot, and Greg Leisz on strings, that same Bellerose and Crouch rhythm section that plays on the above-listed Gregg Allman cd, and different guest singers (including EmmyLou) appear on this cd. Ribot's contributions to this music are prominent, this could easily be a Marc Ribot cd instead of Buddy Miller's. It also includes a DVD with a 21 minute documentary on the making of the cd, plus one live song on video. The music is mostly old country music covers along with a couple Ribot and Frisell penned tunes. Track 6 is a brilliant rendition of Roger Miller's Dang Me with Marc Anthony Thompson/Chocolate Genius on lead vocals - If I had to pick my favorite song of 2011, there it is. This is not straight up country music, traditional country music fans and Buddy's wider fanbase might not get it; but fans of Ribot and Frisell and guitar in general will dig this music immensely.

* North Mississippi Allstars - Keys to the Kingdom
NMAS cd's have been hit and miss for me. I thought Shake Hands With Shorty and also Electric Blue Watermelon were both excellent cd's that will continue to get spins in my stereo for the foreseeable future, and same thing applies to this latest release; which is pretty much 2 son's eulogy for their father. It's not the furious electric guitar jams of past NMAS albums, it's more stripped down roots rock and unplugged, with guests from Jim Dickinson's generation, not Luther's and Cody's… Alvin Youngblood Hart is on board for a song, Mavis staples, Spooner Oldham, and Ry Cooder. Ain't no Grave (with Ry) is as heartfelt and poignant a goodbye as I have ever heard. Although death is one of the subjects of this cd's lyrical content, overall it is a celebration of life. Most of this material was written while Jim Dickinson lay dying in a Memphis hospital, and Luther's wife was pregnant with their daughter; and in the months following Jim's death they went in the studio and recorded this cd. Consequentially, it's the most personal collection of songs this band has released, and this cd ranks among the best of the NMAS.

* Opeth - Heritage
Swedish progressive death metal band Opeth's 10th studio release has certainly generated a lot of online discussion/debate. The cookie monster growls are gone; thus they have shifted away from their signature death metal sound, to something more reminiscent of 70's progressive rock. Think 70's Yes, 70's King Crimson, Deep Purple, Pink Floyd; and Mikael Akerfeldt's non-death vocals remind me of Greg Lake. This equates to a huge bummer for a lot of entitled metal fans, who feel the band owes them something; whereas the other camp of fans mostly dig the music and the experimental nature of this cd. It was mixed by Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree, who also produced the 2003 Opeth cd, Damnation... Not coincidentally, Damnation was also too mellow for a lot of Opeth's fanbase; I thought it was great. Anyway, Heritage still has plenty of Opeth's trademark lightening fast intricate musical passages, and they demonstrate their masterful use of dynamics/space and silence with plenty of contrasting electric and acoustic instrumentation. This is the best Opeth cd yet, and I look forward to hearing what they do next.

* Primus - Green Naugahyde
Primus is back! Their 1st studio cd in 12 years sounds like what I expected it to sound like, a whole lot of Les Claypool wackiness :-) Plenty of indulgent very badass bass, some songs about fishing, very tight musical interludes that reek of Frank Zappa and 80's King Crimson, and the odd lyrics and quirky vocal delivery of Les Claypool; it's all there! I'm not a hard core Primus fan, my favorite cd's by the band are from early on in their career - Suck on This, and Sea's of Cheese - Green Naugahyde is just as good if not better .

* Red Hot Chili Peppers - I'm With You
I discovered the RHCP via Mother's Milk, I then went back and discovered their early catalog, the 3 cd's featuring founding guitarist Hillel Slovak (great music!) and by the time Blood Sugar Sex Magik came out, I was fanatical. For me, Blood Sugar was the RHCP's musical peak. Afterward, guitarist John Frusciante left the band and was replaced by Dave Navarro for the luke-warm One Hot Minute cd. Frusciante was back for the next one, Californication, and the RHCP fell off my radar after that. By the Way just didn't press my buttons. It sounded like rehashed versions of material they had previously recorded, and was a little too mainstream for my tastes; and what little I heard of Stadium Arcadium sounded like more of the same. When a band's albums begin to bore me, even a band I love, they generally fall off my radar then… Anyway, now in 2011, I'm happy to report the Peppers are sounding fresh and energized, following an extended hiatus; during which Flea returned to school (University of Southern California) to study music theory, composition, and jazz trumpet. John Frusciante is gone, again, and Josh Klinghoffer is the latest Chili Pepper guitarist. For what it's worth, Josh is a friend and collaborator of Frusciante's, having appeared on 4 of his cd's between 2004 and 2009. His style is less frenetic than Frusciante's, not quite as edgy. That has a lot of RHCP fan crying foul. I personally feel it's their best work since Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Less flashy guitar has them in a more experimental funk post-punk direction that is reminiscent of their early days. The hiatus and college experience seem to have inspired Flea; his bass playing is sounding better than ever, and his musical voice is strong and pronounced enough in the vibe to compensate for Josh's understated guitar work. The more I listen to this cd the more I like it.

* Tedeschi Trucks Band - Revelator
'Are there any other Allman Bros related cd's nominated for a best blues cd of 2011 Grammy this year?' Actually, yes, there is! There are 2 Allman Brothers on the Tedeschi Trucks Band's Revelator cd, Derek Trucks on guitar and Oteil Burbridge on bass, and indeed, it has been nominated for a Grammy, best blues cd of 2011... Add Kofi Burbridge on keys and flute, and already you have a slam dunk! No, this is not a Stax Records release, although it could easily be mistaken for one. This was recorded in Derek and Susan's home studio in Jacksonville, FL with an 11 piece band. Less jazz/out than the Derek Trucks Band, and less straight blues ala Susan Tedeschi Band, means a nice common ground that is mostly roots rock, retro soul and R&B, and copious amounts of Burbridge funk. Same as Derek's previous DTB cd's, I like the instrumental songs best (Shrimp and Grits, and the final hidden track). Hardcore Derek Trucks Band fans: I do feel your pain. I miss their live shows too. However, this cd does stand up to Derek's recent releases, plenty of killer guitar and ethereal tones all over it, plenty of Kofi and Oteil, and this is definitely not some sort of Yoko Ono like project… It is a real working touring band, and this is the next chapter in this current phase of Derek Truck's continued evolution towards guitar god status, for which he is destined. Also, for the record, in a live setting, Tedeschi Trucks Band is burning up the stage!

* Trombone Shorty - For True
I first stumbled upon Troy 'Trombone Shorty' Andrews when his band played the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in Golden Gate Park in 2010. I don't have HBO and don't follow Treme, otherwise these fat funkified grooves surely would have been on my radar. Anyway, I was pretty blown away by their HSBF performance, and went on to buy the cd Backatown, and that cd wound up making my best of 2010 list. This cd is the same funky Nola sound, with his same band (Orleans Avenue), along with some special guest musicians: Jeff Beck, Warren Haynes, Kid Rock, Lenny Kravitz (he was in Lenny's touring band in '05), Stanton Moore, and Rebirth Brass Band. This is happy music, and if it doesn't make you tap your foot or shake your ass, then you must not have a pulse!

* Tom Waits - Bad As Me
Tom Waits is such a prolific artist, his album/cd output is vast, I'm pretty sure I haven't heard all of it. I do know that my favorite Tom Waits cd's are Nighthawks at the Diner, Mule Variations, and Rain Dogs… Is there any better whiskey drinking music than Rain Dogs? This is Tom's first cd new of new material in 7 years. The roll call of musicians backing him on this cd is impressive, it includes: Marc Ribot, Keith Richards, David Hidalgo, and Will Bernard on guitars - Flea, James Whiton, and Les Claypool on bass - Tom's son Casey Waits on drums, and Charlie Musselwhite on harmonica. Even with all these wonderful musicians on this cd, Tom's voice and storytelling/lyrical imagery is still without a doubt the star of the show. The music is equal parts blues and ballads. The subject matter/lyrical content is too broad and simple yet sophisticated, for me to begin to expound on… Let me just say, listening to this cd is like reading a newspaper with everything written by your favorite classic American literature authors; and its message/statements/observations are very relevant to what is going on today, socially and politically. This is my favorite cd of the year.

* Steven Wilson - Grace for Drowning
Steven Wilson is the busiest guitarist on my radar, even busier than Warren Haynes. Here is a list of most of the stuff he currently is involved in:
1. Porcupine Tree's front man and creative force.
2. His side project, Blackfield (they released a cd in 2011).
3. His side project No-Man.
4. His side project Bass Communion
5. He mixed Opeth's 2011 cd, Heritage.
6. He is currently doing the 5.1 surround sound remixing of King Crimson and Jethro Tull's back-catalogs of music.
…And on top of all that, he still found time to release what I consider to be a progressive rock masterpiece. This was initially meant to be 2 separate cd's, but instead it was released as a double cd set. There are special guests galore: Tony Levin, Trey Gunn, Pat Mastelotto, Steve Hackett, and Jordan Rudess, to name a few. It's somewhere in between Porcupine Tree's heavy side and Bass Communion, which is more ambient. It reeks of King Crimson and Dream Theater (see the featured guests), early Rush, and even Pink Floyd to some degree. I know, same description could be applied towards Porcupine Tree, although I tend to think PT has gone less experimental in the last 10 years or so; less of the Floydian sound that the Radioactive Toy and Voyage 34 era's had going on. Anyway, back to this Grace For Drowning cd - It is possibly my favorite Steven Wilson cd yet, definitely my favorite SW cd since PT's Deadwing (2005).

Honorable Mention

* The Cars - Move Like This
The Cars 1st studio album in 24 years! The original bass player/lead singer Benjamin Orr died in 2000, from pancreatic cancer. The remaining 4 original members are all on this cd (bass now provided by keyboardist), Ric Ocasek now on lead vocals. Amazingly, it picks up right where they left off, with the same short hook-laden songs with their now signature (to me) synthesizer heavy sound… This music instantly transports me back to the early 80's when I was a young teenager and the Cars were all over the radio and MTV. I don't listen to commercial radio, so I don't know whether or not this is getting any airplay, but it wouldn't surprise me if this cd has some radio hits.

* Jane's Addiction - the Great Escape Artist
JA's first cd since 2003's Strays got a lot of mixed reviews from press and fans. I considered Strays pretty good, with more elements of metal than their run of albums from 1987-1990. On this new one, the Great Escape Artist, they've gone back to a more art-rock sound; but it's definitely minimalist compared to any other JA recording… While listening to Nothing Shocking for the first time was akin to unexpectedly being kicked in the teeth, the Great Escape Artist listening experience is more subdued. I guess the band has mellowed/matured in the last 25 years. It makes sense to me, I was a little wilder at 22 years of age, and lacking wisdom, compared to me at 45… I still hear the Zep influence, but I also hear Radiohead, and maybe some early U2. After the initial listen, I've been going back to this cd often. Less Dave Navarro flash, but he still gets his moments to shine; same thing applies to Stephen Perkins tribal drumming, and Perry Farrell still has something to say.

* Oz Noy - Twisted Blues, Vol. 1
Oz is an Israeli guitarist who relocated to NYC in '96, and since then has been a fixture in the scene there, playing regularly at venues like the 55 Bar and the Bitter End. Oz is a musician's musician; like Mike Stern, Allan Holdsworth, etc, the majority of Oz Noy fans are guitar geeks. I hear a lot of John Scofield influence in his playing, as well as Jeff Beck and Stevie Ray Vaughan. There are a lot of great musicians playing on this cd; including Vinnie Colaiuta, Anton Fig, Will Lee, John Medeski, Reese Wynans, and Eric Johnson to name a few. I would classify this music as blues fusion.

* Planet of the Abts
Planet of the Abts is a Gov't Mule side-project, born this year when Mule was on hiatus while the Warren Haynes Band toured. The band is Mule's rhythm section (Matt Abts/drums and Jorgen Carlsson/bass), along with Jorgen's friend T-Bone Andersson on guitars and keyboards; and Mule's Danny Louis blows some horns on the opening track. I bought this cd at the live show, and it greatly exceeded my expectations. I hear a strong Gov't Mule influence, obviously, and Led Zeppelin too; but also a strong progressive rock flavor that I didn't expect, like a hybrid of Wish You Were Here era Pink Floyd and Ozric Tentacles. This cd was a nice surprise, I highly recommend it.

* Todd Rundgren - Johnson
Runt's 21st album! This is a collection of Robert Johnson tunes. There is nothing new here, just TR's stripped-down interpretations of these classic RJ songs, with very little polishing. If I didn't know it was all just TR (guitar and drums) and Kasim Sulton on bass, I would've guessed this was recorded live in the studio. The blues purists probably don't appreciate this cd as much as the guitar heads - Todd definitely tips his hat not only to Robert Johnson, but also to RJ's British blues rock disciples like Eric Clapton and John Mayall; speaking of which, at 63 years old, Todd Rundgren still has a set of pipes on him, his voice sounds great, especially singing these old blues songs. Also, I didn't recall him being such a proficient guitar player, this is a nice reminder.

* George Thorogood and the Destroyers - 2120 South Michigan Ave.
First off, never in a million years did I think that George Thorogood would appear on this list. He became irrelevant to me not long after his I Drink Alone video (1985). I checked out this cd after reading a positive review of it somewhere on the web. 2120 South Michigan Ave was home to Chess Records, and it was the Stones song with that same title, that turned a young George Thorogood onto the magic that is Chicago Blues. This collection is mostly a bunch of covers from the classic Chess blues catalog, along with 2 originals; and Buddy Guy sitting in on 1 tune, while we're graced with Charlie Musselwhite's harmonica on 2 more. The cd was produced by Buddy Guy's drummer, Tom Hambidge, and the band's love and respect of the Chess label's history rings through loud and clear. I have no idea what his recorded output has been for the last couple decades; and I must say I am amazed at how natural he sounds, singing these songs you've heard countless versions of, countless times before. This is the cd that George Thorogood was born to record.