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.