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.”