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.