Surviving Quarantine with Miles, Petty, and My Top 10 Albums of 2020

Music’s ability to make us feel better was really put to the test in 2020. The healing power of music probably played a key role for most of us as we navigated our new lifestyle in what has officially been deemed “These Difficult Times.”

Before getting to my Top 10 Albums of 2020, my musical reflection on this past year actually reveals two unlikely figures: Miles Davis and Tom Petty. I probably listened to more Miles Davis than any other artist this year. As the line from Office Space goes… “I celebrate the whole catalogue.” But in particular, the Kind of Blue album was something I started to lean on like medicine. Already one of the consensus choices for “best jazz album of all time,” Kind of Blue also seems to have some sort of magical power to sooth that “nervous stomach,” and ease the mild anxiety that inevitably greeted us every morning for most of 2020.

So if the relaxation playlists, meditation music, and yoga soundtracks aren’t getting it done when you need some stress relief, try Miles Davis Kind of Blue (results may vary, may cause good feeling or possible euphoria, check your headphones to see if Kind of Blue is right for you).

Part of why I turned to jazz in These Difficult Times may be because there are no lyrics. No songs about the good old days of… leaving the house and being with other people. Maybe that’s why my number one album of the year in the list below is also an instrumental album. Working from home; taking long walks. Sometimes we need music without words.

Oddly enough, I rediscovered one old album full of words that sounds perfect for 2020. While staying safely stuck at home, I found Tom Petty’s Into the Great Wide Open from 1993 to be like a sketchbook of what we went through this year. Taking a line or two from each song from Petty’s Great Wide Open album and reading them all together as follows, I wish I could send every character from these songs a copy of Miles Davis Kind of Blue to help them feel better:

Trouble blew in on a cold dark wind.
Started out… all alone.
Well, the good old days may not return.
No you can’t hide out.
We wanna hold our heads up, but we gotta stay down.
I don’t wanna end up in a room all alone.
In the dark of the sun will you save me a place? Give me hope, give me comfort, get me to a better place?
We will stand together; Yeah we will stand as one.
When the time gets right, I’m gonna pick you up and take you far away from trouble my love.
Oh I await the day, Good fortune comes our way.
I don’t wanna fight no more.
I don’t mind workin’, but I’m scared to suffer ya know?
I’m takin’ control of my life.
Oh, the days went slow, into the changing season.
When I woke up my brain was stunned, I could not come around.
I’m out in the cold, body and soul.
There’s nowhere to go.
I thought, “Maybe I can make it if I never give in.”
Her imagination ran wild. Could this really happen to me? She could barely hold back the tears.
There was no talk of giving in.
I was feeling burned out; I got tired of it, I know you feel lost.

The world is changing fast, but our love was built to last.
One day all the rules will bend, and you and I will meet again.

While much of this year was spent clinging to old classics and familiar sounds that might serve as comfort food for our ears, these were my favorite new releases of the year:

ALBUM OF THE YEAR: The Sorcerers ~ In Search of the Lost City of the Monkey God

THE TOP TEN ALBUMS OF 2020

The Sorcerers – In Search of the Lost City of the Monkey God
Sometimes you discover an album by accident, because it has a cool-looking cover or a weird title. That’s what happened with this one, and it’s a funky stew of styles and movements for all moods. This instrumental gem is difficult to categorize or describe, so I highly recommend you go listen for yourself.

Run the Jewels – RTJ4

Thurston Moore – Into the Fire

The Flaming Lips – American Head

Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways

Nas – King’s Disease

Bruce Springsteen – Letter to You

Jason Isbell – Reunions

Jonathan Wilson – Dixie Blur

Drive-By Truckers – The Unravelling

Yawning Man – Live at Giant Rock

Honorable Mention, “new” releases from the vault:

Neil Young – Homegrown

Prince – Sign O’ the Times (expanded reissue)

Tom Petty – Wildflowers (expanded reissue)

The Best Albums of 2018

It’s the most wonderful time… of the year. Time for the annual tradition of sharing my favorite albums of the year, just in time for your last-minute holiday shopping or possible targets for all the gift cards you might receive.

Ventriloquism

Meshell Ndegeocello – Ventriloquism
Beautiful collection of covers, re-imagined to perfection. The song selection is almost as masterful as the execution. Every song flipped on its head, and yet somehow more revealing than the originals. Deep grooves here, highly recommended.

Queen Reptile


Sons of Kemet – Your Queen is a Reptile

Crazy rhythms and hypnotic jams.

 

 

BEP
Black Eyed Peas – Masters of the Sun

Yes, this is a real banger. I’ve disliked and dismissed the Black Eyed Peas for several years and albums, but gotta admit, this is a great album. Harkens back to 90s peak boom-bap hip-hop classics. Pleasant surprise.

courtney

Courtney BarnettTell Me How You Really Feel
The best Nirvana album in years.

 

 

elephants


Cypress Hill – Elephants on Acid

Classic hip-hop outfit delivers a superb master stroke, all killer no filler.

 

rare birds
Jonathan Wilson – Rare Birds

There’s a reason this guy Jonathan Wilson makes by Best Albums of the Year list every single year he puts out an album. It’s because he makes great albums.

 

pusha


Pusha T – Daytona

Short and sweet. Seven tracks, 21 minutes. Less is more.

 

 

 

foxking

Foxing – Nearer My God
Can’t really describe this one. I guess at times it sounds like a cross between Dawes and Radiohead. It’s a grower.

 

 

jeff
Jeff The Brotherhood – Magick Songs

Floating between Floyd and Sabbath is a truly magical feat. One of those cool albums you get lost in and forget what you’re listening to.

 

clutch
Clutch – Book of Bad Decisions

These guys never make bad albums, and this one stands out with some funky punches and even a horn section in a few spots. Another monster of an album from the masters of crunchy riffs and big beats.

Black Thought – Streams of Thought Vol. 1
Black Thought – Streams of Thought Vol. 2
Easily a Top 5 MC, one of the greatest rappers ever; an astounding lyricist on the mic. The Roots front man finally making some solo joints as further proof.

Amanda ShiresAmanda Shires – To The Sunset
If you built a bridge between 80s alt rock and the best of Nashville’s modern Americana, it would probably be one of those really, really long bridges that stretch for miles over a huge body of water and it ends up being strangely more fun to drive across than a regular bridge.

JackieandtheTreehornsJcoverbyMIA2018


Jackie and the Treehorns – The J Album

Unknown/indie selection of the year. Rock is not dead. Google this or dial it up on your favorite streamer, you won’t be disappointed (and Jackie will make a 40th of a cent in streaming royalties!).

 

carters


The Carters –
Everything is Love
I don’t really care about their marriage or their unique and immense celebrity… but Beyonce and Jay-Z are still famous for making great jams, and this collaboration album is full of ‘em.

 

black panther

Black Panther Soundtrack Album – Kendrick Lamar and Various Artists
Kendrick even kills it as curator and co-host.

 

 

mccartney


Paul McCartney – Egypt Station

Almost left this off the list. It’s not GREAT great, but it’s still pretty good and way better than expected. Just a couple of clunkers but most of it is really solid. And it’s great that Paul is still putting out new music, good stuff at that. The man is in his 70s.

jackwhiteJack White – Boarding House Reach
Funny thing about this album. No, it’s certainly not his best, but I found the reaction to it fascinating. Since this album is a bit of a hodge-podge of more experimental tracks, the fawning fanbase of critics who’d spent the entirety of this century elevating Jack White to untouchable godlike status immediately reveled in “the new Jack White album sucks!” madness. Classic example of building someone up just so they can tear him down at the first sign of a misstep. I think the album is interesting and full of weirdness in a good way. A mixtape for rockers. While “I’d almost forgotten this album came out in 2018” isn’t a ringing endorsement, thought I’d include it here since approximately zero of the year-end albums lists included our boy Jack, the former critic’s darling who has finally pushed himself beyond their predictable reach.

Live Albums/Archival
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – Live from the Ryman
John Coltrane – Both Directions at Once
Tom Petty – An American Treasure
The Beatles – White Album Super Deluxe 50th Anniversary Edition

The 17 Best Albums of 2017

It was not a great year for music in 2017, in that we suddenly lost Tom Petty, as well as my earliest musical hero and influence: my Dad. On a lighter note, great music is still being made every day and every year. And whether this is read by 1 or 100 or 1000 people, I still feel compelled to spread the good word of great music for all to hear.

Let’s start with a quick nod for Special Musical Achievement in Film. The recent John Coltrane documentary Chasing Trane is a must watch. Just a beautiful tribute to an incredible musician and man who, as chronicled in the film, felt it was his higher calling to bring people joy and happiness through music. “Overall I think the main thing a musician would like to do is give to the listener the many wonderful things he knows of and senses in the universe… That’s what I would like to do. I think that’s one of the greatest things you can do in life and we all try to do it in some way. The musicians way is through his music.”

With that in mind, here are my Top 17 Albums of 2017:

Jason Isbell – The Nashville Sound
Easily one of the best singer/songwriters of this century/generation. However you measure time, fill it with this guy’s songs. If you’ve never heard of him, please just go listen to all his albums starting with this one (after you finish reading this).

Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
Three straight-up classics in a row for Kendrick now, each with their own sound and identity. For his latest trick, Lamar conjured up a “choose your adventure” loose-concept album made to also work when played in reverse order. There’s little question that Kendrick Lamar is the hottest and deepest talent in hip-hop right now. Period. (Maybe that’s why K-dot put a period in the title? Either way, DAMN.)

The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding
If you’re wondering why you keep seeing this album at or near the top of all the year-end best-album lists, just tune in, turn on, and get deep. You won’t drown, I promise you’ll float.

Queens of the Stone Age – Villains
Alt-rock isn’t dead. Art rock isn’t dead. Hard rock isn’t dead. Rock isn’t dead.

Tyler the Creator – Flower Boy
I was never a fan and just didn’t “get” anything about Odd Future, the hip-hop collective led by Tyler the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt. Figured I was just too old, or they were just too weird for weirdness sake and I gave up. Then I tried this new Tyler the Creator album. Wow. With a very unique and interesting sound, musically all over the place, Flower Boy is mildly addictive but won’t cause drowsiness.

Chronixx – Chronology
Next-gen dancehall reggae with enough roots to keep the grooves grounded. My 5-year-old son’s review: “This sounds like the beach.” Standout track: “Big Bad Sound.” This is a talented young cat to keep our ear on in the future.

Leif Vollebekk – Twin Solitude
Quiet, haunting, and masterful.

Run the Jewels – RTJ 3
Perhaps the most dynamic duo in rap, and most consistent. Seems the combo of dual-threat producer/MC EL-P and costar Killer Mike just never miss. All three of their albums are among the best hip-hop of this century and installment #3 doesn’t disappoint.

Spoon – Hot Thoughts
Masterful blend of basic guitar rock with all the sonic trappings of modern technology. Like most Spoon albums, Hot Thoughts is instantly catchy and enough of a grower to keep satisfying after multiple listens. This one is also a sneaky-great “headphones” album.

Tony Allen – The Source
Former Fela Kuti drummer brings the funk on this set of jazz grooves. Also check out his other 2017 release, A Tribute to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.

Jay-Z – 4:44
I was skeptical, and only half-interested. But damn if old Shawn Carter didn’t go and make another great album. Personal, yes, but still with trademark chops on the mic. Very much helped by the consistency of having one producer throughout: No I.D. is the unsung MVP of this one for bringing the beats.

Father John Misty – Pure Comedy
The fact that most people seem to find Josh Tillman (“Father John Misty”) to be some pretentious douche who takes himself too seriously just proves that they in fact don’t even realize that they are the butt of his whole joke. And he’s never been funnier than on Pure Comedy, his third LP as FJM, and third masterpiece recorded with producer and multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Wilson at the helm. Can’t wait to hear what these two cook up for Father John Misty’s next routine.

Margo Price – All American Made
There’s real country music like Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash, and then there’s that fake-ass bullshit in a cowboy hat that they use to sell cola and prime-time football games. This is real country music, of course, but it’s also progressive and refreshingly feministic without distracting from this tremendously talented singer and songwriter who just made her second straight damn-good album.

Damian Marley – Stony Hill
Almost a decade in the making, Jr. Gong’s long-awaited follow up to Welcome to Jamrock finds him atop Stony Hill, a masterclass in reggae styles and vocal dexterity. Another set of crucial tracks to add to his already impressive cannon.

Kamasi Washington – Harmony of Difference
Young saxophonist’s first album was a critically acclaimed TRIPLE album, about 3 hours of music aptly titled Epic. Impressive feat, especially for a debut. How to follow that up in 2017? With a 6-song EP of course. Still clocks in at 32 minutes, not far off what a full-length album was back in the day. Smoother and more palatable than Epic, this concise effort is still somehow as effective.

Portugal The Man – Woodstock
Last time these guys put out an album it topped my list (Evil Friends in 2013). This one is almost as good. Unique and groovy from beginning to end, highlighted in the middle by the feel-good finger-snapping hit of the year “Feel It Still.”

Ryan Adams – Prisoner
Yes, I have to put Ryan Adams on my list every year he does an album.

Is This The Album We Really Want?

We are a Democracy and what we say goes.

As of the time I write this…Roger Waters is 73 years old.

As of the time I write this…Roger Waters is one of the most successful “rock stars” on the planet.

As of the time I write this…Roger Waters is still one very pissed-off man.

And if I were to write this same piece again in a year, two years, five years…Roger Waters will still be one very pissed-off man.

Success, accolades, fame, money, respect, none of these things are going to soften ole Roger. No, Roger still wildly stares at the world and doesn’t like all that he sees. And he is going to let you know about. And subtlety is not his strong suit.

It’s 2017 and it’s safe to say that no one was running around asking for a new Roger Waters album. His most recent solo effort (Amused to Death) was released over 25 years ago and was met with a collective ‘meh’ by fans and critics alike. Since then, he has toured the world as a solo artist (with amazing pick-of-the-litter backing bands), bringing his audiences along for the nostalgic classic rock trip of a lifetime. He’s played Dark Side of the Moon in it’s entirety, he’s re-created The Wall as a multi-media live experience (props, sound effects, and puppets included). Why wouldn’t he? Those are two of the biggest and most widely recognized rock albums in history. No one was going to those shows to hear songs from Radio K.A.O.S.

So what’s the point of a new Roger Waters album? What does he have left to prove? His place in the rock cannon is well secured. Pink Floyd (or what’s left of them) released their final “album” a couple of years ago (pretty much a bunch of outtakes) and no one was comparing that or any other post-Waters Floyd output to the great Floyd albums of the 70’s. So there was no need for Roger to compete with his old mates, no reason to add to the Pink Floyd lore.

Which leads us to Is This The Life We Really Want?, released in June 2017 to a surprisingly receptive and anticipatory audience. Perhaps its a combination of Roger playing Desert Trip in the summer of 2016 for 8 billion people (and probably a paycheck equal in size) and his relentless touring schedule of the past 10-15 years that has led some fans to actually look forward to hearing a new album. Roger has made sure he didn’t disappear into the sunset as many of his brethren have chosen (or were forced) to do. He has kept up his end of the bargain by maintaining a credibility and by putting on highly entertaining, well-produced, and well-performed shows. He wrote an opera! No one would ever accuse him of “mailing it in.” He has the desire to remain relevant and the current political climate is ripe for Roger to chime in and do just that.

Is This The Life We Really Want? is a political album and an angry one at that. The Final Cut was also a political album, the anger replaced by contemplation, suspicion, and loss. Animals was a political album, the anger hidden by deep conceptual correlations between men and pigs, dogs, and sheep. So it’s to no surprise that Is This The Life We Really Want? most closely resembles these two Floyd albums. Producer extraordinaire Nigel Godrich seems to have compelled Roger to combine the best elements of these works with an updated production technique while still holding on to the obligatory Floydian sound effects (heartbeats, ticking clocks, radio/tv stations…check). Godrich is most known for his work with Radiohead and it’s hard not to hear how he infused some of their recording aesthetics into Rogers orbit.

First, there are the strings. Floyd has been using them since The Wall and Roger, more notably, used plenty of them on The Final Cut and Pros and Cons. Their lushness throughout the album are spine-tingling at best, overwrought at their worst. Strings and rock music have a very capricious relationship but Roger has found a way to enable the orchestration to enhance his music without overwhelming it. Throughout Is This The Life We Really Want? it is the strings that add the moodiness, the depth, and the cinematic tension and release.

Secondly, there are the drums. Pink Floyd were never really known for their drumming. Nick Mason is a fine player, his biggest strength being his ability to always play to the song. It’s no secret that compared to his peers at the time, Nick was low on the totem pole of “great rock drummers.” As well, I was never a big fan of the drum sound on Floyd albums. Their early works compressed the drums to almost inorganic levels and their later works over-produced the hell out of them. Here is where Nigel Godrich really shines. By no means is this a “drum” album but the drum sounds here are amazing. I can’t help but think of the Radiohead song “Nude” when I hear Is This The Life We Really Want?. The sparse reverb, the tight kick/snare, the efficient offbeat fills. At no point do you really notice the drums unless you are actually listening for them but it’s nice to hear that Roger finally allowed them their place in his sonic palette.

So here we are, all the way into this write-up and what hasn’t been mentioned? Guitars. If there is one thing that most folks will say defines “The Pink Floyd Sound” it’s the roaring guitar solos. Guess how many guitar solos are on Is This The Life We Really Want?? None. The synthesizer has replaced the guitar in many modern bands and Roger seems just fine with that (sans the occasional acoustic strum/volume swelling sound effect). After all, this is a guy who has now recorded with three of the greatest guitar players of all time (David Gilmour, Eric Clapton, and Jeff Beck) so it’s understandable that he would want to move on from that sound. He doesn’t need it, or, he think’s he doesn’t need it. Part of me has to wonder if perhaps deep down, somewhere in his sub-conscious, Waters has never gotten over the fact that Gilmour is most associated with the classic Pink Floyd sound (or that he went on to put out Floyd albums without him). It’s Gilmour’s solos on “Comfortably Numb” and “Money” that people remember while Roger stews in the background about concepts, naming rights, and it being “my fucking pig!” Was the exclusion of the guitar solo calculated or something that was organic?

Lyrically, well, Roger is Pissed Off. Whereas Animals, The Wall, and The Final Cut all had elements of political rebellion and ire in their lyrics, no one has ever really considered Pink Floyd a “political band” like U2, Public Enemy, or Rage Against The Machine. Is This The Life We Really Want? does not hold it’s tongue on the state of American politics, the environment, famine, war, the refugee crisis, selfies, reality TV, technology, or any of the other obvious modern social ills. “Drug music” right? Let’s get high and talk about the current state of Syria or the never-ending crisis in the Middle East that Roger hopes to solve by releasing politically scathing albums. I consider Roger Waters one of the greatest lyricists in rock music. He has the capacity to paint a picture with words and his clever ability to turn a phrase or drop a one-liner has always been one of his strongest assets. He is also widely considered to be one of the least modest actors in music. When he sings, “If I had been God…I think I could’ve done a better job.” I can’t help but picture his previous band mates coyly smiling to themselves and thinking, “You see, world? See what we had to deal with?” Only Roger Waters would sing such a line without a hint of irony.

Here is a question to contemplate: can an artist bite off themselves? The best moments on Is This The Life We Really Want? are the familiar ones, the songs that sound like classic Pink Floyd. And if there is one song most represented/repeated/bit off of it’s “Sheep” from Animals. A few tracks borrow quite liberally from the Animals upbeat rocker (mainly “Picture That” and “Bird In a Gale”). “Smell The Roses” and “Pigs” share the same DNA and the chord structure from “Mother” is well adapted throughout. We also hear plenty of The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking style acoustic balladry and The Final Cut/The Wall emotive chord structures. You could probably replace the lyrics/melodies on a few of these songs with previous Floyd works and some in the audience wouldn’t have a clue. Roger has successfully bitten off himself and that is not necessarily a bad thing, especially when ‘yourself’ was responsible for some of the most uniquely original music ever created.

If there is one song that sheds some of its Floydian pounds and embarks into somewhat new sonic territory it’s the title track. Lyrically, it’s classic Waters: witty and sharp, damning in nature, and meant to make you crack a slight smile while thinking about just how fucked up what he’s saying really is. Musically, it’s scant use of guitars, sliding bass, and deep strings keep the song idling along at a menacing pace only equaled by it’s lyrical content. Roger loves his lyrical lists (“Brain Damage” comes to mind) and it’s segue into “Bird in a Gale” is perhaps the albums finest moment.

In an era where most of his peers have glided into “soft middle age” (or in their cases, “soft old age”) it’s invigorating to hear a new, relevant, and actually listenable Roger Waters album. He still does have something to say and I, for one, am still willing to listen.

Best Albums of the Year 2016

Unfortunately 2016 will likely be remembered as the year the music died. Bowie and Prince were the headliners, but it seemed like every other week another famous musician was transitioning to the great gig in the sky. Thankfully, the reason we care about these people will never go away: the music. We may have lost a lot this year, but we were also blessed with a great new batch of albums to help us get through this thing called life.

ALBUM OF THE YEAR

deliriumThe Claypool Lennon Delirium – The Monolith of Phobos
Winning combination features Les Claypool of Primus teaming up with Sean Lennon, whose father John Lennon was once in a band called the Beatles. Most often described as “psychedelic rock” this album is so much catchier than that. Sure, it sometimes provides a glimpse of what it might have sounded like if John Lennon replaced Syd Barrett in early Pink Floyd… or if a time machine allowed Flea to play bass with the Beatles. There’s even a track about Bubbles the chimp, Michael Jackson’s old primate friend. Just a lot going on here. On this addictive set of tunes the younger Lennon certainly reaffirms his own chops as a singer and songwriter and provides the perfect soundscape compliments to Claypool’s always busy bass lines. And while Claypool’s lyrical and vocal quirks can keep his Primus albums out of heavy rotation, the smaller doses found here serve to keep an otherwise heavy affair light on its feet. Monolith has proven to be one of those rare albums that’s instantly likeable on first listen and also a grower that keeps you coming back again and again.

RUNNER-UP ALBUMS OF THE YEAR

de-latribe

A Tribe Called Quest – Thank You 4 Your Service, We Got it From Here
De La Soul – …And the Anonymous Nobody
It’s really incredible to be sitting here at the end of 2016 with two of the best albums of the year coming from Tribe and De La. Yea that was the norm in 91, but 91 was a quarter century ago! And this isn’t a sympathy vote or career achievement award. These two albums are both expertly crafted… just straight-up bangers, instant classics. It’s a triumphant comeback not only for the groups themselves, but also for hip-hop Albums (with a capital A) as cohesive works of art.

BEST OF THE REST

drive-by-truckers-american-band-album-cover-artDrive-By Truckers – American Band
Easily the best Springsteen album in decades. But seriously folks, no one does true Americana rock quite like the DBT’s as far as depth of writing meets true grit. Grappling with what it means to be Southern in America has long been the Truckers lane, but they never fall asleep at the wheel. They continue to ask tough questions and find some relief in the screech of guitars and the fine art of storytelling.
bowie-blackstar-vice

David Bowie – Blackstar
This awful year started with this beauty of an album, followed a few days later by the departure of Bowie from planet earth. I wrote about it then, and it’s still one of the best albums of the year now.

radiohead-moonshapeRadiohead – Moon Shaped Pool
Most Radiohead songs sound equally adept at sound tracking either a desperate escape scene or the mundane existence of laundry folding. And that seems to hold true here. I’d like a few more rockers, but I’m not shocked or disappointed to find a new Radiohead album is a mostly mellow affair. That said, “Ful Stop” is certainly a classic “this is what Radiohead sounds like” song.

anderson-paakAnderson .Paak – Malibu
This is one of those great summer albums, as its title and cover suggest. Perfect for the beach or blasting on road trips. Just a funky stew of a variety of styles masterfully pulled off by this mega-talented dude who sounds like a bridge between Kendrick Lamar and Bruno Mars.

jackie
Jackie & the Treehorns – RU4REAL?

Otherworldly guitar rock effort proves that Jackie mastermind Steve Rubin is in fact, if you’ll forgive the obvious pun, for real. Not just as a guitarist but also as a songwriter and producer. Don’t just take my word for it, go download the album.


margo-price-midwest-farmers-daughter-562x560Margo Price – Midwest Farmer’s Daughter

OK this one might be a little too twangy for you but it is some damn good authentic country music with SOUL, not that fake cowboy popstar contemporary crap they serve up at awards shows and before football games. This is righteous and hearty comfort food music, direct descendant of 1970s Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn.


raggaStephen Marley – Revelation Pt. II: Fruit of Life

I think Stephen Marley is one of the best producers working today. The variety of sounds and the different types of tracks he can create is seemingly limitless. And among the numerous and talented Marley offspring, it is Stephen’s singing that has always sounded the most like Bob’s voice. Fruit of Life finds him working reggae and dancehall magic where it meets the road to hip-hop, collaborating with Rakim, Black Thought, Busta Rhymes, and even Wyclef Jean. Brother Damian ‘Jr Gong’ Marley is involved… unfortunately so is Pitbull on the inevitably cheesy filler track “When She Dances.”

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Tedeschi Trucks Band – Let Me Get By
PJ Harvey – The Hope Six Demolition Project
Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression
The Avett Brothers – True Sadness
Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide To Earth
Michael Kiwanuka – Love & Hate
Rich Robinson – Flux
Ras Kass – Intellectual Property
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree
Jack White – Acoustic Collection

DECEMBER’S CHILDREN
These are the albums that came just came out in the final month of the year… I named this section after an old Rolling Stones album called December’s Children. My gut feel is they are good enough to be on the list of best albums of 2016, but sometimes we just fall in love with the shiny new things.

The Rolling Stones – Blue & Lonesome
The Stones putting out an album of old blues covers isn’t exactly shiny or “new,” and it might seem like the least exciting thing in the world, but Mick Jagger’s vocal and harmonica performance is worthy of the song selection, while the raw sound of the… seasoned band is a perfect compliment.

Childish Gambino – Awaken, My Love!
So I’m not like a pop culture junkie and I don’t really watch much television that doesn’t involve football or animation… so I never realized “that guy Donald Glover from that TV show Atlanta” was also the rapper Childish Gambino. Same guy. Anyway, I’d seen a previous CG album on a lot of best of the year lists in 2013 but I never bothered to listen to him because for some reason I thought “Childish Gambino” was a really stupid stage name. I put it on ignore along with any rap artist with a dollar $ign in their name. But THEN amidst the release of his new album, I read that he got that nickname from putting “Donald Glover” into an online WuTang Name Generator. And then I listened to the album, it’s all funk and singing with no rapping… and it’s really good and weird and cool and other lazy words we fall back on to describe the indescribable. Sounds like D’Angelo mixed with Anderson .Paak… if George Clinton was the bartender.

Neil Young – Peace Trail
Guy is still putting out solid new albums in his 70s. He’s still finding new sounds and telling new stories but also tackling many of the same concerns he’s always had. This time around he’s anchored by a sparse acoustic band anchored by veteran session drummer Jim Keltner and a solid batch of songs that capture that “classic Neil” sound without sounding stale. Young admits to being out of touch with the world where everyone’s staring at their phones, but then also mentions buying a robot on Amazon.com. Dude is fuckin nuts but he’s still bringing the goods for our ears.

December 99th – Dec.99th
The Artist Formerly Known as Mos Def is now Yasiin Bey and Dec.99th is a collaboration with producer Ferrari Sheppard. Another “weird/cool” album here that refuses to fit neatly into a category (though I did see a headline calling it “alt.hip-hop,” whatever that is). Chilled grooves meet spooky spoken word style.

Prince – Hit n Run Phase Two
The final Prince album was technically issued in December of 2015… hence its inclusion here as a “December” album since it was mostly received and enjoyed in 2016. The album opens with “Baltimore,” featuring the refrain “If there ain’t no justice then there ain’t no peace.” Five months later Prince was dead. This album certainly stands up among his best 2nd-tier non-legendary classic works, and is a good cross section of the countless things he did so well. I’m still so sad he’s gone, but can’t say the same thing about the year 2016.

THE FULL LIST

For all the people who don’t want to read long blogposts and just srolled down to the bottom to see my list of the best albums of 2016, here it is:

The Claypool Lennon Delirium – The Monolith of Phobos
A Tribe Called Quest – Thank You 4 Your Service, We Got it From Here
De La Soul – …And the Anonymous Nobody
David Bowie – Blackstar
Drive-By Truckers – American Band
Radiohead – Moon Shaped Pool
Anderson .Paak – Malibu
Jackie & the Treehorns – RU4REAL?
Margo Price – Midwestern Farmer’s Daughter
Stephen Marley – Revelation Pt. II: Fruit of Life
Tedeschi Trucks Band – Let Me Get By
PJ Harvey – The Hope Six Demolition Project
Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression
The Avett Brothers – True Sadness
Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide To Earth
Michael Kiwanuka – Love & Hate
Rich Robinson – Flux
Ras Kass – Intellectual Property
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree
Jack White – Acoustic Collection
The Rolling Stones – Blue & Lonesome
Childish Gambino – Awaken, My Love!
Neil Young – Peace Trail
December 99th – Dec.99th
Prince – Hit n Run Phase Two

Star Man Fades to Black: David Bowie’s Brilliant Final Album

bowie-blackstar-viceAmid the frantic beats, atmospherics, and saxophones playing tug of war on the title track that opens the new David Bowie album Blackstar, about halfway through the 10-minute track most of the sound clears and Bowie sings “Something happened on the day he died, spirit rose a meter and stepped aside; Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried.”

Released on his birthday and just two days before his death, Blackstar is dizzying and exciting and strange and oddly cool and I thought all those things even before he died. But now it’s a little more difficult to hear him wailing “good-byyyyyyye” as the reverb increases and the star man sounds like he’s floating back into space or heaven or wherever he was just visiting from.

Secrets are hard kept in the modern age, and yet somehow Bowie could spend months working on a new album with a small group of people and the rumors never leaked. He stunned the world in 2013 when he suddenly had a brand new (and quite rocking) album, The Next Day. It seemed amazing, even a few years ago, that a major artist could be at work and finished with an album without the world hearing any rumors or news about it (let alone a leaked copy of the actual album). It didn’t hurt that it was a well-received return to form, a rare feat a full 10 years after his previous album.

He came close to pulling it off again, but in 2015 it looks like he chose to give the world a few months’ notice that he’d employed a New York City jazz band to back him on a very diverse record to be released January 8, on his 69th birthday.

And just as we were in the midst of unpacking this complex and interesting new album, Bowie was gone.

The world mourns online and it is one of the bittersweet and ironic advantages of the internet: we can all be together when we’re all alone and sad about the passing of a true artist. And among the inevitable retweets of clueless teenagers asking “who tf was david bowie?” there were countless tributes and notes of sadness, as well as attempts at joy (like this, from Dean Podestá @jesuisdean: “If you’re sad today, just remember the world is over 4 billion years old and you somehow managed to exist at the same time as David Bowie.”) Others commented that Bowie left such a huge void, as if an entire color was now gone from the universe. (Here’s a great collection of newspaper/magazine covers mourning the loss.)

I wasn’t a huge Bowie fanatic; I liked pretty much all his hits, knew some of his albums, saw him in concert once, and I understood his significance and influence in rock music and popular culture. And I’m probably one of the people that loved his first Tin Machine album. But even beyond the music, Bowie made being “weird” or just being yourself (and shattering such labels as “weird”) something to aspire to. Funny that there was a time when a kid could get beat up for liking David Bowie. But we don’t live in a world like that anymore, thanks in part to David Bowie. It’s okay to be yourself. It’s okay to be different.

He didn’t just predict the future, he helped us get here. Continue reading →

How to Mask Friends and Influence People: Reviewing My Friend’s Band

Clown-Mask-Card-8.5x8.5-FrontBefore you listen to this Jackie & the Treehorns album, before you share this review, tell me what your friend’s band sounds like.

They’re good, aren’t they? Your friend’s band? They’re always really good, not just because they’re your friends. I’ve always been a bit too fascinated with how we talk about music, why we attempt to write about music and put into words that which can’t and doesn’t need to be explained.

So the next question is how do we listen to and process our friend’s bands? What if it’s our brother, or our best friend, or just dudes we knew in college? And do we overvalue how “great” they are? Cuz let’s face it, some of your friend’s bands aren’t that great. But that’s awesome that you still talk them up.

When you hear your friend’s new demo (or soundcloud thingy or youtube “trailer” for their upcoming album), do you think about how your boy once rocked a C&C Music Factory cassingle in his car and now he’s got this super-serious Queens of the Stone Age hard rock vibe going? Our intimate knowledge of our friend’s life and known favorites and influences surely must taint our view of their music.

Wait, you can’t view music. This is how Jackie & the Treehorns trick you into using the word “taint” in their album review.

The point is, there is this indescribable difference in listening to your friend’s band versus the latest album from an actual famous rock star. For instance, I know Jack White is a minimalist rocker heavily steeped in and indebted to the blues. He’s a longtime champion of a truly “independent” business approach and has an extreme fondness for vintage, authentic recording gear and techniques. I know all of this because that is what he has presented to me on record and through interviews, etc. (And of course all of that is then remixed and regurgitated and re-imagined for me by all the people attempting to write about music.) I don’t actually know Jack White as a person, I didn’t hang out with him growing up in Detroit, I never worked with him as an upholsterer, and I’ve never been in any of his numerous bands or side projects.

But I’ve been in Jackie & the Treehorns. I was the original drummer, and also served as Jackie’s manager and confidant during such dizzying highs and lows of his career that there’s a documentary film about it. In fact, I’ve been in a few bands and side projects with my friend Steven Rubin, the guitarist, singer/songwriter, and mastermind producer behind Jackie & the Treehorns.

I know his influences. (I won’t name check them). I thought I knew his influences. Yes, I can hear some of them peaking out from behind the Clown Mask. And then there are new faces, or old faces with different masks on, and they’re singing too. I didn’t know he knew them. There are things about our friends that we don’t know.

Did you think your friend’s band would sound like this? What did you think they’d sound like? Do you feel guilty if, when your friend isn’t around, you tell people “They’re kinda like 311, but they totally don’t sound like them at all”? Are you a little ashamed that you’ve only made it out to see them ONCE, and you got there a little late, and honestly don’t even know what they sound like? You could always just mumble “sort of a Blues Traveler kinda thing” and hope the person either doesn’t get the reference or thinks it’s a good thing.

Have you ever lied to your friend? Or, more accurately, have you ever just not told the truth about how much you think they suck? Do you have a lot friends in bands? Are you reluctant to spread the good word about how great they are because the other friends you’re telling probably assume you’re only talking about your friend’s band just to let people know you’re the kinda cool person who knows people in bands?

So then what happens when your friend’s band makes a really great album? Your other friends are so tired of hearing about your friend’s band they might as well be called Cried Sheep. It’s not that they don’t care (yea, it’s cool, you know dudes in bands). It’s just that they’re probably never gonna take the 14 seconds to click the one or two links to instantly listen to the whole album for free. Seriously, read that last sentence again: they’re probably never gonna take the 14 seconds to click the one or two links to instantly listen to the whole album for free. Back in the day when no one would get off my lawn, we (the friends of yours who were in the bands) had to beg our friends (you) to purchase a hard copy compact disc of our band and then we inevitably just gave most of them away for free, in exchange for the promise or hope that you would tell all your friends about our band and then also get together with them and PLAY IT FOR THEM. Force them sit through My Friend’s Band’s CD. Thankfully, we don’t have to do that. We can do the here’s the link, go listen for free at the time and place of your choosing thing. But I will tell you this: my friend’s band’s album is really, really good. I’m not just saying that. And he didn’t email me bugging him to write something about it (full disclosure: yes he did). Fittingly, my favorite track is called “In No Condition to Explain.”

Please don’t ask me what my friend’s band sounds like. Aren’t your friend’s bands true originals with a unique style that really doesn’t sound like anyone else? It’s almost impossible to know, but even if it wasn’t my friend’s band, I’d still think this was a great album.

Do you believe me? Will you check it out? Do you mind if I wear a clown mask?

Best Albums of 2014

spoon album coverFor once I’ve actually waited until the very end of the year to do this nerdy music-geek exercise we like to call our Best Albums of the Year List.

Good thing I did: D’Angelo’s long-awaited new album dropped in December, and after seeing this guy named Sturgill Simpson with his ambitiously titled Metamodern Sounds in Country Music on everyone else’s Best Albums of 2014 list, I finally decided to give it a bunch of spins. Both made my list this year.

Before we get to the very best and all the rest of my favorite albums of 2014, let’s start with a few words about The Album itself, and 2014’s best SELF-IMPORTANT ALBUMS:

U2 – Songs of Innocence
Foo Fighters – Sonic Highways
Wu-Tang Clan – A Better Tomorrow
I wrote about the U2 album here, but that was as much about the release as it was the music. And, like with most music, it changes with time, as does our reaction and relationship with it. I think the U2 album is pretty good, but in 2014, in the midst of this evolving internet age, we must either hate U2 and glibly “destroy” any U2 fans and of course their Lord Bono. There’s no middle ground, which is kinda sad. You can’t just casually like U2. You’re either a U2 “apologist” or longtime fanatic drinking the kool-aid. All the nonsense and noise around the criticism eventually obscures the music itself. Yet it’s hard to be too sympathetic when the band and its tactics and PR create and fan the flames of said noise. Remember, this is a band that once named itself The Hype. And they still do The Hype as good or better than anyone.

Personally, I found myself liking the album a little more as it grew on me. But I also started to think differently about The Release, for better or worse. Without revisiting the story of their “giveaway” album that was essentially pushed to iTunes users… the big picture wasn’t just U2 wanting to say their album “reached” 10 Billion people or whatever. And it wasn’t just about the Current State of the Music Business that the alleged biggest band in the world was probably worried they wouldn’t, or couldn’t, sell even 1 Million copies given what’s happened to music sales.

The big picture I see is that so many artists still care about THE ALBUM. Not just singles and random one-off tracks, but the lost art of The Album. That’s why I’m grouping U2 with Foo Fighers and Wu-Tang Clan. Dave Grohl and the Foos built a TV series around their album concept and made one the rollout for the other and damn, forget the fact that the show is supposedly great (I haven’t seen it yet) but the album is really good too. Never been a Foo Fighters fan; I love Dave in all his other endeavors (especially the ones behind drum kits), but no Foos album ever grabbed me. They are so bland and safe and, yea, they rock, but it’s in this generic arena rock sense. Maybe this new album will fade out of memory like their other albums have always done. But again, the point is that Grohl put The Album and the album-building process into the forefront.

Same with the Wu. I already pointed out the album cover coincidence with Foo and Wu, but another similarity is stressing the Album as a piece of art. Not just the ongoing news items regarding Wu-Tang’s secret Only One Copy For Sale album (stunt?), but the actual new widely available official release of A Better Tomorrow. A reunion and swan song of sorts, it almost doesn’t matter that it’s “good” or “solid” or “just okay” or even “bangin.” They finally managed to get everyone together to make an Album. Not just a soundtrack single, or a “Wu-Related” project or solo joint with most of the Clan on some of the tracks. They made an album.

A bunch of other people made Albums this year. These are the ones I spent a lot of time with and loved the most. Apologies if your favorite band or album of 2014 isn’t reflected here. The comments section below is a great place for you to recommend more albums.

THE TOP 5:

Run the Jewels – RtJ2
The duo of El-P and Killer Mike is simply the best thing going in Real Hip-Hop. Their second album: a second consecutive instant classic.

Rich-RobisonCeaselessSightCoverLP_300x300Rich Robinson – Ceaseless Sight
Stunning solo album from the more anonymous of the Robinson Brothers famous for leading the Black Crowes. While Rich wasn’t gifted with vocal abilities of his hippie-jesus brother Chris, his guitar prowess and songwriting more than carry the weight here on this rich set of… Americana? Alt-country meets modern southern rock? Do we need to label it? No, but I’ll simply call it one of the best albums of 2014.

Jack White – Lazaretto
Despite his love of, and loyalty to, vintage equipment and antiquated recording practices, Jack White is nothing short of a master of modern rock. Not to mention one of our generation’s most gifted songwriters, guitarists, and producers. Lazaretto serves as yet another map to his worlds full of music.

Thurston Moore – The Best Day
If you miss Sonic Youth, this is a comforting visit.

The War On Drugs – Lost In The Dream
There’s a reason you keep seeing this weird band name and this album you’ve never heard of popping up at the top of every Best Albums of 2014 list. Go figure it out.

THE REST OF MY FAVORITE ALBUMS OF 2014:

beckmorningphaseSpoon – They Want My Soul

D’Angelo – Black Messiah

Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
Authentic. This is what the so-called music industry and its critics should wish Eric Church to be: real country songwriting and performance, without all the wanna-be Springsteen muscle-flexing or pale versions of Mellencampy small townery. Real folk rock with a twang.

Conor Oberst – Upside Down Mountain

Beck – Morning Phase
I actually like this better than Sea Change. There, I said it.

Sun Kil Moon – Benji

Drive-By Truckers – English Oceans

Pink Floyd – The Endless River (which I wrote about here)

Old 97s – Most Messed Up
I’d all but given up on the last 10 years or so of Old 97s and Rhett Miller releases. As their winning formula got so formulaic that it diluted itself into the background, nothing had the biting humor and real-life honesty and catchy riffs we fell in love with on earlier albums Wreck Your Life and Too Far to Care. Well this new one finally does it, in a You CAN Go Home Again sorta way. A worthy update to the classic model.

Miles Davis – At the Fillmore  1970

Jenny Lewis – The Voyager

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers – Hypnotic Eye

Ryan Adams – Ryan Adams
I’m not the type of fanboy who always puts a Ryan Adams album on my annual Best-Of list every year he puts out an album… Wait, yes I am. That said, while this isn’t my preferred color of Ryan’s chameleon career, and on first listen thought “Welp, this might be the year I leave Ryan Adams off my annual Best-Of list…” I listened again and a few more times and it’s a real grower. Sure, there’s a couple songs that sound like Fleetwood Mac, but at least they sound like really good Fleetwood Mac songs! There’s still a few sad bastard acoustic tunes too, but it’s the slow burn of “Am I Safe,” haunting numbers like “Kim” and “Shadows,” and chuggers like “I Just Might” that give the album some depth.

And Finally, Some Random Old Shit I Was Diggin On This Year:

Donny Hathaway Live at the Bottom Line 1972. Amazing, just go: now.

Jonathan Wilson – His Fanfare was near the top of my 2013 list, but his 2011 debut Gentle Spirit is still in heavy rotation.

Pink Floyd – All of the classic mid-period stuff I’d “gotten sick of” back in college, Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, and Animals. Amazing run that was. And I also had renewed discovery of just how great Meddle is.

Miles Davis – Almost everything from every era. I finally read his infamous autobiography this year and it had me diving in and out of all of Miles’ amazing incarnations. Remarkable body of work.

Wu Fighters vs. Foo Tang Clan

I can’t be the only who’s noticed the similarities between the cover art for the new Wu-Tang Clan and Foo Fighters albums.

Obviously they’re not identical, but they both utilize the exact same concept: an imaginary “city” made up of famous landmarks from several different real cities. Foo Fighters’ Sonic Highways combines the eight cities where they recorded the eight songs, while Wu-Tang Clan’s A Better Tomorrow has an international flavor.

Check it out:

Foo City

Foo City

and…

Wu City.

Wu City

The Endless River: Pink Floyd Floats On

Great Gig in the Sky: Pink Floyd's Endless River.

Great Gig in the Sky: Pink Floyd’s The Endless River.

It’s hard to know through what prism we should even view the idea of A New Pink Floyd Album in 2014. But The Endless River has arrived: the first new Pink Floyd album in 20 years and reportedly their last.

Plenty has already been written regarding the “Post-Waters” era of The Floyd, referring to the mid-1980s departure of bassist and main songwriter/visionary for the legendary British band’s peak run from The Dark Side of the Moon through The Wall and The Final Cut. After legally retaining the Pink Floyd moniker, guitarist David Gilmour took the helm for 1987’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason and 1994’s The Division Bell (with drummer Nick Mason and keyboardist Rick Wright mostly along for the ride in name only for Momentary and much more involved for Division). Many fans and critics bemoaned that this modern-Floyd wasn’t the REAL Floyd without Waters. They weren’t necessarily wrong, if there had to be an ultimate answer to the question of “Which one’s Pink?”

I’ve recently come around to really like both albums, even if the accusations of Floyd-lite or “Pink Fraud” are not entirely false. But Gilmour’s amazing guitar tone, let alone performance, and overall sound quality make the latter-day Pink Floyd worth listening to. And let’s face it, Roger Waters hasn’t made any great solo albums. He made one pretty good one (The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking) and a few painfully average and forgettable ones (a list that technically includes Floyd’s The Final Cut). The only thing missing from the post-Waters Floyd albums is him yelling at us about war and pudding.

Other than a one-off reunion for the Live-8 concert in 2005, more repackaged hits collections, and some remastered catalog reissues, Pink Floyd has been mostly dormant for the last 20 years and keyboardist Wright died of Cancer in 2008. So the sudden news of A New Pink Floyd Album was a bit surprising. Given the band history just summarized, and the considerable time that has passed, if “A New Pink Floyd Album” meant “Let’s throw out something that sounds like Momentary Lapse as an excuse to go on a money-grab tour with just two surviving members,” then it would have been a pathetic disaster. Thankfully, that’s not what this is…

pink-floyd-the-endless-river-cd-pic

The Endless River is mostly instrumental jams left over from what was originally going to be an “ambient” companion disc to The Division Bell. The band has said it’s basically a tribute to Wright, as his pianos and keyboards are central to these tracks, though Gilmour and Mason added some overdubs and reworked a few things to flesh it out. There’s only one lyrical/vocal track, “Louder Than Words,” tastefully (thankfully?) placed at the end. Of all the things “A New Pink Floyd Album” could have been, I must say a mostly instrumental “ambient” record like this is probably the best possible scenario. Without any lyrics and singing to give the listener any outside preconceptions of what the song is “about” or force tired old comparisons to the old Waters material, the simple grooves and chord changes and wailing guitar sounds that were all very much as central to “the real Floyd” as Roger Waters himself, it’s almost like the dying body of Pink Floyd can finally… breathe…

So what does it sound like? Continue reading →

BONO IS IN YOUR YARD HOLDING A BOOMBOX OVER HIS HEAD

St. Bono and the boys were so busy rushing this off to Apple Corp to push to you that they didn't even have to make a cover!

St. Bono and the boys were so busy rushing this off to Apple Corp to push to you that they didn’t even have time to make a cover!

First, this isn’t really a first. Thousands of bands release free digital albums all the time. Even in the realm of major commercial artists obviously we had Radiohead “giving away” In Rainbows almost 7 years ago as part of a “pay what you want” thing… and as for selling it to a corporate sponsor for them to give away, Prince had his Twenty Ten CD given away with a newspaper in the U.K. a few years ago. AC/DC, the Eagles, Justin Timberlake, Prince and several others have cut exclusive deals with the likes of Target and WalMart. Jay-Z had an (intrusive) app to deliver his free album (sponsored by Samsung). And Beyonce and others have done the suddenly announced/released “IT’S HERE NOW” album drop.

U2 selling this to Apple for them to then “give” to us is a bit of a hybrid of those previous releases. I guess the main difference is that they actually PUT IT ON YOUR COMPUTER. Lots of major artists give away tracks for free, or offer streaming previews etc… plenty of free tracks that most people can’t be bothered to “go get” (by clicking a mouse several times).

This is Bono coming to your house and standing in your yard holding a boombox over his head.

Hold me close like I’m someone that you might know” he sings as he crawls into your inbox.

The cynical among us will say we’ve already talked about U2 enough, or entirely too much, over the last 25 years or so… and “who cares,” and that any critical discussion about That New Free U2 Album is just falling for Bono’s trick and giving them the publicity they want. OK. Rock bands might not be the most important subject in the world (to you guys) but within the realm of “The Arts” and “Pop Culture,” if we’re going to chronicle every time Justin Beiber pisses in a bucket, then perhaps it’s okay to give 15 minutes of fame to discussing the new U2 album and its method of delivery.

I mean, leave it to U2 to somehow pull off a “surprise album” that’s been years in the hyping.

Doing it this way saves them from any potential embarrassment of it “flopping” and/or the reality that even U2 isn’t gonna sell millions of copies like the old days. By any measure, conventional sales figures of this album would have looked bad by U2 standards even if still in line with rock-bottom expectations of music sales in 2014. So this gets them publicity and they get to look like they gave it away for free…

This is how U2-level artists deal with the new Music (Lack-of) Business, and of course we shed few tears cuz they’re already rich…. and obviously there’s a few levels of artists trying to get their music heard (from the novice garage bands, to the mid-level professional but still anonymous artists on up to the superstar stratosphere). So now even the U2s of the world have to pull stunts just to get heard and “play for free” (even if their new album giveaway was actually subsidized by a large corporation). It’s just funny that even they have to do this shit.

After the first several listens, I’d say there’s some interesting tracks and some more late-career filler with a few pretty good kinda “raw” moments as well… and a few more examples of Bono going for the Big Huge Sweeping Sentiment lyrics… but it’s still too soon to have a strong opinion. (Ultimately it sounds destined for “not-horrific, better than their last one, but still just OK” status.) Continue reading →

Top 20 Best Albums of 2013

I’m still an album guy. Not necessarily vinyl, but Albums with a capital A to mean a body of work consisting of a group of songs. I’m mostly a digital consumer of music, on MP3 and yes I still sometimes rock CD’s in the car.

It seems nowadays we talk more about how we listen to our music, instead of the actual music itself. We flash badges on social media to signify that we’re with Pandora or Spotify, we subscribe to iTunes or (in my case) Amazon MP3. We see flashy commercials for $200 headphones and share playlists between our phones and auto-post our current listening pleasures on Facebook and Twitter. And I guess it’s assumed most people are listening to their awesome playlists of trending tracks, on random of course.

But I still listen to full albums. I never throw a bunch of songs by different artists into a queue, I listen to each “album” straight through. I’m not saying it’s any better and I’m not here to rant on how things have changed. But lost among the technology discussions and the hand wringing over digital rights and the business of music and the allegedly dying Music Business… let’s remember the actual music. And, for me, The Music comes not in the form of the Hottest Track of The Summer or Latest Trending Single.

When I talk about The Music, I want to talk about albums. The Best Albums of 2013, in fact, according to me and based on what I liked listening to the most. Here are my Top 20 Albums of 2013:

20. Atoms For Peace – AMOK
Flea’s famous funk sounds a bit buried among the Thom Yorke/Nigel Godrich production that mostly sounds like a continuation of Yorke’s first solo album. But the subtle rhythms by not just Flea but percussionists Joey Waronker and Mauro Refoscodo reveal themselves through repeated listening. It might be a better Tide-You-Over-Til-The-Next-Radiohead album than the last the Radiohead album was.

19. Hiss Golden Messenger – Haw
Catchy folk recommended for fans of Dawes and/or Dr. Dog.

18. Nine Inch Nails – Hesitation Marks
Was never really into NIN when they first peaked, but have grown to dig on some recent Trent Reznor projects. And surprisingly this new one is quite “accessible” (which is what critics say when they want to let you know it isn’t just noise… there are actual hummable songs and hooks here).

17. David Bowie – The Next Day
I was never a massive Bowie enthusiast. A casual fan. The best-of’s and hits collections were enough for me. I respected him but admit I was never well versed in the depth of what’s considered all of the best albums. I actually don’t think much about David Bowie. But then with little notice he came back out of left field and what was assumed to be a likely quiet retirement and graceful aging if health permitted. And the album was a rockin’ and infectious gem or a record that I was kinda addicted to listening to for several weeks there. Even if you’re just a little Bowie-curious, definitely worth checking out The Next Day.

16. Inspectah Deck w/ 7L & Esoteric – Czarface
7L & Esoteric have a knack for pumping out modern-day “90s Hip-Hop Classics” if you know what I mean. Their basic production value and overall aesthetic is a direct descendant of the Guru & DJ Premier pairing that gave Gang Starr it’s mass appeal. The catchy beats come in waves as the smilies and metaphors surf atop them effortlessly. On 2013’s Czarface, they’re joined by Inspectah Deck a microphone master and unsung hero from the Wu-Tang Clan to inject even more energy into mix.

15. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Push Away the Sky
On Push Away the Sky we get mellow and creepy Nick. And somehow it’s every bit as effective, affecting, and addictive as rocking and creepy Nick was on Dig Lazarus Dig!

14. Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
At times gimmicky and pastiche, these robot dudes really do know how to make some great-sounding music. Niles Rodgers incomparable guitar work is the MVP here, even if after a while the whole funky 70s vibe does eventually lose some of it’s luster. But beyond the “Get Lucky” sheen there’s a variety of tracks here, including some spoken word by Giorgio Moroder, with the subtle standout being “Instant Crush” featuring a lead vocal by Julian Casablancas of The Strokes. Daft Punk may never pull off those helmets, but somehow they managed to pull off making the robots sound human and the humans sound like robots. And you can dance to it.

13. Black Sabbath – 13
OK if they couldn’t work things out with original drummer Bill Ward, at least they got former Rage Against the Machine beatmaster Brad Wilk to crush these classic-sounding riffs. Considering what a debacle a comeback album like this could have been, it’s a downright enjoyable and rockin’ return to form (of sorts). And yes of course I switched them around so they’d be #13 on this list. \m/

12. Leif Vollebekk – North Americana
Oh, look: It’s this year’s “Haunting, sparse acoustic production meets Dylanesque phrasing” album. And it’s a good one.

11. Avett Brothers – Magpie and the Dandelion
Tremendous live band, and on record they remain sad but true. It’s such bummer music, but you believe every word and the harmonies are so good that you have to keep listening.

10. Clutch – Earth Rocker
If you know Clutch, you know they are the best relatively unknown hard rock band in America. If you’ve never heard of Clutch, you need to get with the program. And this new effort is as good as any place to start. Maybe I’m blinded by the shiny newness of the crunching riffs, but Earth Rocker might every bit as good as previous Clutch classics like Robot Hive Exodus, the self-titled album from 1995, or whatever you think is the Best Clutch Album. By the way, these guys wont just rock your face off, they’re also underrated songwriters. Dig in.

9. Vampire Weekend – Vampires of the City
That rare breed of “critics darlings” who actually live up the hype. Incredibly well-crafted album that may have marketed as a new sound actually succeeds by combining the best features of their first two albums. Cinematic and precise, and somehow still fun.

8. Jason Isbell – Southeastern
Stunning singer/songwriter strips it down, with sensational results. If you think you hate country music, think about checking out this (and every) Jason Isbell album. Short on twang, but long on songs.

7. The Roots & Elvis Costello – Wise Up Ghost
It’s weird. It’s like people are stalking the weird thoughts in my head. Not even that, cuz I never dreamed of putting the Roots and Elvis Costello. But I’ve loved them both very much for a very long time. And yet even I found word of their collaboration to be odd. But hot damn if this isn’t a great set that finds E.C. In his usual whine, but the songwriting and the rich tapestry of grooves of Questlove and the band make this one of the most enjoyable records from Elvis in a while. And, along with their Wake Up! Collab with John Legend in 2011, it’s yet another funky notch in the belt of the Legendary Roots Crew.

6. Pearl Jam – Lightning Bolt
I don’t throw them on here lightly. What I mean is this isn’t a “career” award or anything like that. Their new album is GOOD. Really good. Not that the last two were bad, but they were okay/good. Like at the time we knew they were sorta Pearl-Jam-By-Numbers generic “good” but we convinced ourselves they were actual Good. But Lightning Bolt is Good. Really good. Pearl Jam good.

5. Eminem – The Marshall Mathers LP 2
Apologies to Jay-Z and his buddy Kanye, but as far as megastar rappers who can still put out a great album and rip the mic to shreds to the point that he’s murdering the English language… Eminem sits atop the throne. His more famous counterparts might have bigger social media strategies and yachts and famous wives, but hip-hop has always been mostly about LYRICS. Jay-Z is an iconic rapper but he no longer has anything to say. Kanye’s always been a good producer and still makes incredibly interesting music (the beats and backing tracks) but he’s never been a good rapper. On The Marshall Mathers LP 2, Eminem proves that he still has plenty to say and the astounding verbal dexterity and unparalleled flow with which to do it. Instead of boring us with stories of champagne and caviar, Marshall Mathers doesn’t mind showing us he’s still hungry.

4. Killer Mike & EL-P – Run the Jewels
Probably my favorite hip-hop album of the year. While El-P has a reputation as a space-age futuristic producer (and he is that), he also drops some seriously old-school beats and bangers that rival the best producers in the game. And oh by the way, on this set he harnesses his frenetic flow on the mic and more than holds his own next to his buddy Killer Mike, who again brings his hard rhymes and booming vocal style. This logical progression from last year’s R.A.P. Music album (credited to Killer Mike, and produced by EL-P) find the pair once again proving the “Hip-Hop Is Dead” doubters dead wrong.

3. Queens of the Stone Age – Like Clockwork
This might be the most perfect record of the year. Josh Homme has picked up his axe and this time he’s brought Dave Grohl’s thunderdrums along on a bunch of the songs, and even Elton John (!) shows up. Perfectly crafted rock’n’roll music, Like Clockwork is a timeless classic. [Speaking of Sir Elton, this seems like a good place to throw an Honorable Mention to John’s fine new album The Diving Board.]

2. Jonathan Wilson – Fanfare
Oh, I shoulda made this album #1. Perhaps my favorite album of the year in that this record makes me want to use the word exquisite. It makes me think of words like beautiful and even meticulous. For such an organic and classic analog sound, it’s still so pristine… in the way that poets probably once wrote of pure art. (I guess. I’ve never read much poetry.) It’s the kind of album that demands and deserves a lot of attention. On Fanfare, singer/songwriter and underrated guitar whiz Jonathan Wilson reminds us of his extraordinary gifts as a producer. He was the man behind the boards for well-received albums in recent years by Dawes, Father John Misty, and Roy Harper… and now working for himself he allows his amazing songs to blossom beyond the Laurel Canyon laid back jam vibe and constructs an Album with a capital A. That deep shit that makes guys like me write this stuff singing their praises. His guitar tone. The deep sound he captures off the grand piano. His gift of voice. OK, I need to stop. Just know that this guy is making some very special music.

1. Portugal The Man – Evil Friends
For many years I stopped writing about music. Writing as a “Music Critic” for the student paper throughout high school and college had eventually turned me off for the obvious and predictable reasons. Why are we trying to describe music? Who are we to decide what’s “good” when music is so subjective? And then when albums like Evil Friends would come out from bands like Portugual The Man, I would try to rewrite some form of disclaimer about how it’s silly for us to try to explain what something sounds like. I cant tell you who or what Portugal The Man sounds like. (In fact, their real name is Portugal. The Man, with that period in the middle. Probably just to piss off people like me who write about music. Everyone hates music critics.) But I can tell you that this album is awesome. It might seem a little weird at first, but it’s a grower.

I won’t tell you how to listen to it… or on what platform… just listen. You wont be able to stop.

Revisiting Black Sabbath

Black Sabbath
One of my earliest childhood memories was not of learning to ride a bike or my first day of school or the first time I walked into a professional baseball park. It involved something much less childlike in nature. It was my discovery of Black Sabbath. In particular, the opening notes of the song “Iron Man.”

My brothers and I shared one of those every-school-had-one old school tape recorders. It was the portable audio device of its time. Built-in tape deck, built-in speaker, a little handle to carry it around with. The original boom box. One day, in it, I discovered one of my brothers tapes. Black Sabbath’s Paranoid. I had no clue who this band was, what they sounded like, or why my brother even owned the tape. I brought it into my room, sat it down on the floor, put myself next to it, and hit the play button.

Thump-thumb-thump-thump–dddrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr-dddrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr

I AM IRON MAN!

Holy fuckin shit I was floored! I mean, my mind was literally blown. I wish I had a photo of the expression on my face when I first heard Ozzy’s techo-fuzzed voice. I immediately rewound the tape and listened again.

I AM IRON MAN!

Repeat 13,736 times.

I had never heard anything like it before in my life, and my life was forever changed by it. I couldn’t care less about the rest of the song. That fuckin’ intro was so amazing to my adolescent mind. It’s still amazing to my adult mind. What does that say about my mind?

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The Flaming Lips Bring the Noise

Basic RGBEvery time I listen to a new Flaming Lips album, I question if I really enjoy listening to vacuum cleaners faxing each other.

Considering the Flaming Lips never sound like they are in, or of, the real world, there are times on their new album when the “music” sounds like alarms going off and welders working in machine shops.

The oscillating fans drop their front cages and fall crashing down to grind their blades into the carpet when singer and Flaming Lips mastermind Wayne Coyne starts singing “ooooh… aaahhhh….” I’m not sure I heard any lyrics. These aren’t so much songs as they are fleeting droning dreams, or perhaps nightmares given the album title of The Terror.

None of this is surprising, given the Flaming Lips history of at-times brilliant albums that are also sometimes too weird for their own good. These Lips have always moved faster than our brains. So I was giving The Terror another listen… and at one point wondered “is this still the intro?” and so I clicked over to check and I was 24 minutes in.

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Existian – Molly Album Review

Molly: To know her was to love her.

Molly: To know her was to love her.

I have always tried to live by the motto that music is not a competition. As a  fellow musician once said to me, “it’s not like there is only one record contract out there.” Battle of the Bands and the like were never appealing to me. Why spend your efforts trying to “beat” another band? It creates the opposite of a music “community.”

However, musical challenges are another story. Recently, a friend sent me a link to a record he had just recorded. But it wasn’t your regular ole recording. Well, it was a recording, an album actually, but this album was produced for something called The RPM Challenge via NPR Music. The gist was this: you had one month–February 2013 (28 days)–to write and record a record of all new music.

My friend (whom I must disclose I played in a band–The Black Hand–with a few years back) goes under the moniker of Existian and he recorded a “concept/tribute” album about his recently deceased and beloved dog Molly. It’s a sad and beautiful album at the same time.

With song titles such as “Sweet Molly (I Still Love You)”, “Molly”, “Molly, My Dear”, and “You’re Not There Anymore”, you understand the head space this album will put you in. Anyone that has ever owned and lost a pet knows the heartbreak it can bring. While the world has heard thousands–if not millions–of songs written about love lost between humans, I don’t think the loss of a pet ever touched the sketch pads of Roger Waters or Pete Townsend for a potential concept album idea. Lucky for us, Existian beat them to it.

The record starts with a few retrospective, delicate acoustic numbers before kicking into second gear with folk rocker  “Molly, My Dear”, one of the few tracks that contains drums and bass. Next up, “You’re Not There Anymore”, contains psychedelically panned distorted vocals and PJ Harvey-esque guitar lines. “Fort Belvoir, VA” spins tales of Existian and Molly’s time together and acts as the albums clap-along campfire tribute. The instrumental “Molly vs. Maynard” is a mid tempo, organ-laced rocker that sequences into the sad tale of Molly’s last moments in “Through The Glass”, where Existian speaks of seeing her sad face through the window and whispering his last words to her. The album closes with “Stay”, a downbeat, final declaration of love and apologies to the fallen canine.

Molly lives on in the heart and mind of Existian and his record explores the various emotions that come with loving and losing a pet. It’s a dramatic homage that takes the listener down many paths but always maintains an uplifting outlook. It’s not so much about the loss of Molly as it is remembering their good times together. The songs celebrate her life instead of agonizing over her end.

Listen and download the album below:

It’s The Perps!

ThePerps

For the past dozen years or so I have been collaborating on numerous projects with various musicians, film makers, photographers, and writers. These projects have mostly taken recorded musical form while some ended up as full-fledged bands that many of you might already know about or have seen play live.

Recently I was sifting through my “digital archives” to discover that many of these recordings were never officially “released”. And by released I simply mean they were never made available for any of my friends and family to enjoy (or ignore). This is mostly due to the nature of my inability to ever feel that a creative project is “done”; that it can always be enhanced even further (anyone who mixes music can attest to this). Over time, your self-critiquing slowly subsides and eventually you are able to enjoy listening to your own music. Sorta.

That time, for me, has come in 2013.

I am extremely proud (as are many of my collaborators) to announce that I have created a project that I am calling: 12 FOR 13. At the beginning of each month throughout the year 2013 I will be releasing one of these projects online for free. It might be a full album or it might be a single song. It might be an actual movie or it might be a soundtrack to a movie that doesn’t even exist.  It will cover most every band that I have played in from 2000 through today as well as other projects I have worked on over the years.

First up: The Perps 

The Perps are a duo made up of Bill Resh and myself. Bill and I played in a band together for 7 years in the 90’s called The Circle Six (he was the rapper, I was the guitar player). After that band broke up we started recording together in my studio between the years of 2000 – 2011 and produced close to 40 tracks. We have chosen what we feel are the strongest of those songs and presented them to you here. The best part: it’s 100% free. All you have to do is click, download, listen, and (hopefully) enjoy.

Ladies and gentlemen:

3 Albums I Am Looking Forward To In 2013

PTSA_CoverFar too often we think of the past. Especially this time of year. Best of emails, lists, ideas overwhelm the blogosphere and news shows. What were the best movies, singles, albums, tv shows from 2012? You know what? As much as I love myself some lists I have decided I am going to look forward instead. So I bring you my list of 3 albums that I am looking forward to in 2013.

  1. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Push Away the Sky (February 2013)
    Their past two albums (2004’s Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus and 2008’s Dig, Lazarus, Dig) have been incredible. An example of a band that has aged like a good wine. They just seem to get better with each album. Seeing The Bad Seeds perform at the 9:30 Club during the Lazarus tour I realized just how incredible this band is not only on record, but live as well. If you want intense musicianship, witty lyrics about death, religion, and sex, then look no further. What I have come to expect with each new Bad Seeds album is to not expect anything. From one to the next they seldom sound the same, yet, sound the same if you know what I mean.
  2. Queens Of The Stone Age – Title/Release Date Unknown
    You could argue that no rock band this side of the pond has had a better run of consecutive great albums in the past decade than Queens has. From 2000’s Rated R through 2008’s Era Vulgaris they have not put out anything short of mind blowing. Though they have had some pretty big hits (“No One Knows”, “Feel Good Hit Of The Summer”) QOTSA have sorta flown under the radar or been labeled “that band that Dave Grohl played drums on…for one album.” But if I know anything about band leader Josh Homme it’s that he seldom repeats himself and always surrounds himself with incredible musicians. A great songwriter, producer, and guitarist in his own right, the new album supposedly will contain guest spots from Dave Grohl (on drums of course), Trent Reznor, and Jake Shears from Scissor Sisters. Queens have always been a communal band and one of the few non hip hop acts to embrace guest musicians on their records.
  3. Atoms For Peace  – AMOK (February 2013)
    This “supergroup” and step brother of Radiohead have already done a tour and the live shows have been available online for some time. Though I was not as into Thom Yorke’s solo record as much as I thought I would be, something tells me that him stepping outside his Oxfordshire brethren might open him up some. With Flea on bass and Nigel “how great has my career been” Godrich in tow, I don’t really see how this album won’t at least be listenable.

Best Albums of 2012: Not Just a List!

I knew when the Fall new-album schedule had Bob Dylan, the Avett Brothers, and Patterson Hood releases on the same Tuesday morning that it would be the best September 11th ever.

Sure enough, none of them disappointed.  Bob Dylan returned with Tempest, a gritty and at times scathing stew of blues and folk serving as an amazing reminder of the late-career consistency he’s shown on record in the new century. Great Bob Dylan records are the reason people like me make lists like this every year.

Whether willingly or unconsciously, the Avett Brothers and Patterson Hood (lead driver and navigator of the Drive-By Truckers) are indeed disciples, descendants, and torchbearers of the folk-rock tradition personified and perfected by Dylan. And neither act seems to cower from the challenge, even if they’d scoff at my assertion that they belong in the same sentence as the legendary Dylan.

Seth and Scott Avett are blessed with much sweeter voices of course; and the songs (from the Beatlesque harmonies and tearjerkers to the more rockin’ numbers) on The Avett Brothers’ The Carpenter are perfect showcases for their natural talent.

phood-hlritdPatterson Hood’s Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance might actually be his best album to date. Fronting the Drive-By Truckers, Hood had already built a career as a gifted storyteller and master painter of pictures, and now the solo Heat Lightning flashes it right in our faces. There’s one scene where he shows up just after midnight at a liquor store in the next county cuz it’s Monday now and the liquor laws allow them to start selling again. It’s sad and lonely, but then Hood’s protagonist sees some “friends.” Even sadder, there’s already a line of “zombies” there when they flip the sign to open. This all transpires within the first verse of the first song.

From that first track on, it’s apparent that this will be a strange and telling ride, from that bleak scene at the liquor store in “12:01” all the way to where it “winds around dead-man’s curve where the lady from the Sunbeam bread wrapper was killed in that head-on” in “Untold Pretties.” Easily one of my Top 3 Albums of the year.

The other two were Chuck Prophet’s Temple Beautiful, reviewed here, and Jack White’s Blunderbuss (which I wrote about over the summer in this Heavy Rotation column). Other albums that I blurbed about in the first half of the year that make this Best Albums of 2012 list are:

Dr.John – Locked Down
Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music
Van Halen – A Different Kind of Truth
KRS-One – The BDP Album
DJ Premier & Bumpy Knuckles – Kolexxxion
Father John Misty – Fear Fun

soundgarden king animal artOne of the most pleasant surprises of the year was Soundgarden’s King Animal. They were always a good band, and made a few great records back in the day. But after such a long layoff, I was only expecting a shell of a bland Soundgarden-by-numbers album. I was wrong, this album really is great. The first two tracks might fit that bill of as-expected uninspiring rockers, but from track 3 through the end King Animal sits right up there with the bands’ finest moments from their Badmotorfinger-Superunknown peak.

At the end of the year, December saw the release of an album called Carry On, by a guy named Willy Mason. Never heard of him, but started noticing some good reviews so I checked it out. Really glad I did, as this album is both instantly likable and a slow-burning grower. Terrific songwriting meets production that ranges from trippy and atmospheric to stripped down and raw. Think Beck meets Daniel Lanois. Or just forget my half-assed attempts at catchy descriptions and just go buy Willy Mason’s Carry On right now. It’s like a secret gem. An out-of-the-blue underdog landing on my list of Best Albums of 2012.

The Rest Of The Best:

Jimmy Cliff  Rebirthjimmy cliff rebirth
Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Psychedelic Pill

Jason Isbell – Live in Alabama
Led Zeppelin – Celebration Day (reviewed here)
Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls
Various Artists – Country Funk 1969-1975
Bonnie Raitt – Slipstream
Bill Fay  Life Is People
Band of Horses Mirage Rock

Rush – Clockwork Angels. That’s right, I’m risking what little credibility I might have by putting the polarizing RUSH on this list. Fact is, or my opinion is, this new Rush album rocks. There’s no synthesizers or cheesy electric drums. It’s not just guitar-driven, but the guitars actually sound like guitars. I realize most people hate the sound of Geddy Lee’s voice, and I’ll admit I can only take it in small doses. But this is a solid showing by the aging-but-legendary trio from Canada. I know it’s not cool to admit liking Rush, that’s why I hid this part all the way at the end.

Celebrating Zeppelin

led zep art

“The greatest trick the devil ever played was convincing the world that he did not exist.”

― French poet Charles Baudelaire, a quote later immortalized in the movie The Usual Suspects.

The greatest trick that Led Zeppelin ever pulled was not reuniting. Okay, it’s not a perfect analogy, but poetry, cinema, and a satanic reference…. It just seems so Zeppelin.

The greatest reunion that Led Zeppelin ever played, a 2007 one-off gig in London with Jason Bonham on drums, is now available in the recently released amazing CD/DVD set Celebration Day.

It’s become a semi-annual ritual to speculate on the various rumors concerning a possible Led Zeppelin reunion tour. Maybe they’ll play the Super Bowl, fans think (and TV executives pray), and then launch a massive world tour! And yet every year it never happens, and Robert Plant puts out another acoustic-based album with Alison Krauss. Now, from all reports, including word from Jimmy Page in recent interviews, we’re all getting used to the fact that a Zeppelin reunion tour will never happen.

But a funny thing happened on the way to what is and what should never be: the Mighty Led Zeppelin have somehow managed to satisfy us by not coming back at all. Confused? Well, a Led Zep tour would likely feature ticket prices in the $100-250 range and even if you could afford it, I’m sure the internet machines would tell you they were all sold out a minute after they went on sale, while Stub Hub and all the eBay “ticket brokers” magically managed to land all the good seats. So, none of us would actually get to attend a Led Zeppelin concert anyway.

By releasing Celebration Day, from their stunning performance as part of a show honoring the late founder and president of Atlantic Records Ahmet Etregun, Zeppelin is basically letting us all have the best seat in the house for a mere $15-20 (the cost of the regular CD/DVD set available now, and probably what you would have paid to park at the Led Zeppelin reunion concerts that aren’t happening). Thanks guys!

We don’t have to lament that we missed the tour or had to settle for the DVD… cuz there is no reunion tour. And while Page, John Paul Jones, and Bonham have all sounded like they’d be game to do it, I have to respect the refreshing honesty of Plant, who’s leaving millions of dollars on the table because he admits that his heart wouldn’t be into rehashing the glory of his younger self as part of some massive cash grab. Bummer for hardcore Zeppelin fans, but good for him. (I think his quote was something about no one wanting to hear a man his age singing about juice running down his leg.)

Meanwhile, the forests are echoing with laughter perhaps to the point of tears. Because listening to this set (I haven’t even watched the video yet, but the audio has been in heavy rotation), it’s obvious that this older/wiser version of Led Zeppelin, more-than-capably driven by late drummer John Bonham’s son on drums, put some real rehearsal time into just a one-night only concert. They are absolutely bringing it on every tune, proof that IF they had ever done a full tour they would have blown all expectations out of the water. There wouldn’t have been any cries of over-the-hill disappointment. They would have kicked our asses and melted our faces, just as they still do every time some unsuspecting 14-year-old discovers them.

And that’s what’s so brilliant about this set: it shows and proves that “Hey, we made sure that we would NAIL it for a one-off gig… so imagine how good a reunion tour would’ve been? That’s right, we woulda killed it… but we’re not doing it. So for less than $20, you can see/hear it in all its glory. You’re welcome.”

Page and Jones are as vital as ever. Page has always been a legendary rock god and guitar hero, and still sounds the part. Jones was always been underrated, and his versatility and subtle musicality are on full display here. The older, gentler Plant sounds great; he’s still in fine voice but knows his limitations. He’s not my-ma-MY-my-my-my-ing his way through every single line of every song.

As for the kid on drums (who I think is 40-something years old by now), Jason Bonham is just ON every one of these songs. He is simply badass, in that he knows when to tip his cap to his father’s famous fills (often) while still providing the rock-solid backbone these legendary songs demand and deserve. I assume (and it sounds like) this dude has studied this stuff inside out his whole life, knowing that if/when called upon to sit on daddy’s throne, he’d have to be ready. (Seriously, I’m not sure if being Bonzo’s son makes it easier or harder. Imagine the sheer weight of this assignment.) And it’s not just the drum parts, he’s obviously well versed enough in all the nuances of the other three guys’ parts that he can interact and complement them in the live setting, not just try to recreate the original versions.

To keep with the movie analogies, this is not some bland sequel or terrible remake. If you prefer a sports analogy, this isn’t Johnny Unitas on the Chargers or Michael Jordan on the Wizards. (Speaking of sports, just as the game-day stadium and arena experience has priced most of us out, and huge TV’s and the RedZone channel have made watching at home more enjoyable, perhaps getting the Led out in hi-def in our basement, sad as that might seem, has become the modern concert experience.)

As for the songs, all the usual suspects are here, from the hits to the deep cuts, including one that Plant mentions is a first attempt in public, the crunching “For Your Life,” from the criminally underrated Presence album. At one point you can hear Plant admit between verses, “it still feels pretty good up here.”

In a previous column lamenting the brutal murder of Led Zeppelin at the hands of Classic Rock Radio, I wrote that a Led Zeppelin reunion tour was #1 on my Top 10 Awesome Zeppelin Things That Can’t Be Killed. Well, it looks as though it’s on life support, and yet it’s still cause for celebration.

So, to Page, Plant, Jones, and Bonham, in the words of one song title not included here: “Thank You.”

Heavy Rotation

I’m not gonna call this my Top 10 Albums of 2012 (So Far), because if there’s anything geekier than posting annual Best Albums of the Year lists, it’s doing them in July for the first half of the year. So instead just consider this a Top 10 Best Albums I recommend you add to your rotation for the rest of the summer. And, in one way or another, all of these albums are heavy.

Jonathan Wilson Gentle Spirit cover art by Mike Sportes.

Jonathan Wilson – Gentle Spirit
Okay right off the bat I have to cheat a little bit: this is the only non-2012 album on this list. This one was actually released in August of 2011, with some recordings dating another year or two older. But I’m using the “it’s new to me this year” rule, and it’s one of my favorite recent album discoveries. Phenomenal guitar tone with a voice smooth as silk. Born at the end of 1974, it’s like he was infused with the best of what Neil Young and Jerry Garcia had been offering around that same time. And “Natural Rhapsody” even ventures near Pink Floyd territory. Wilson, who just wrapped up an opening slot for Tom Petty’s European tour, also produced the Father John Misty Fear Fun album listed below, as well as both acclaimed albums by the band Dawes.

DJ Premier & Bumpy Knuckles – Kolexxxion
Premo drops a straight banger here, this time partnered with hard rhymer Bumpy Knuckles, aka Freddie Foxxx. It turns out to be a winning combo, roaring straight out of the hip-hop heyday of the 90’s: classic-sounding Gang Starr beats with Premier’s signature chorus cuts working along side Freddie’s aggressive but underrated wordplay.

Dr. John – Locked Down
Supreme grooves by the legendary master. These jams are fun for all ages. Whenever someone like Dr. John (as if there’s anyone else like him) drops an eclectic gem like this, writers like myself run to their blogs to use the word gumbo. It’s not that we’re lazy and predictable, it’s just that it’s so damn tasty.

Jack White – Blunderbuss
I’m gonna try not to wear my Jack White man-crush on my sleeve, so maybe I shouldn’t say anything at all. If you’d heard that Jack’s first official solo album in his own name was a successful blend of the sounds he cultivated with the White Stripes, Raconteurs, and Dead Weather, then you heard right. It’s both nuanced and immediately likeable, and while most diehards would rank his White Stripes albums in the top few slots of his resume (in some order), dare I already claim Blunderbuss is Jack White’s best album ever, and let’s argue about where to rank the rest.

Killer Mike – RAP Music
Killer Mike mixes Chuck D’s booming clarity on the mic with a voice quality more akin to something between Ice Cube and Big Boi. This one jumps out of your speakers like an instant classic. Produced entirely by El-P, this is a brilliant collaboration that spawned something I would call futuristic/old-school hip-hop. El-P’s beats aren’t too frantic or busy and he somehow manages to make Rick Rubin-style 808 beats sound more like tomorrow than yesterday.

Chuck Prophet – Temple Beautiful
I reviewed this one when it came out, but just wanted to confirm it was not a flash in the pan. Still love this album.

Father John Misty Fear Fun cover art by Dimitri Drjunchin.

Father John Misty – Fear Fun
Singer/songwriter Josh Tillman follows his stint drumming/singing on the Fleet Foxes Helplessness Blues with this oddly interesting piece of art. I don’t know if “Misty” refers to mist and fog or if it’s shorthand for mysterious, but from the mellow to the catchy, Father John paints a beautiful-sounding picture.

KRS-One – The BDP Album
With someone as prolific as KRS, who inexplicably works just outside the spotlight, it could be easy to miss this ultimate return to form. The BDP Album finds KRS picking back up on the Boogie Down Productions vibe in more than just name only. His brother DJ Kenny Parker provides the back drop and Kris does his usual wrecking of the mics.

Van Halen – A Different Kind of Truth
Another one I’ve already reviewed here that I’m still rocking several times a week. I know, I have a problem. But six months later, I’m still reveling in the crunching sounds of a happy, healthy, and sober Eddie Van Halen in top musical form, the surprising pulse of his son Wolfgang on bass, and the not-surprising thunder of drums from Wolfie’s uncle Al.

Dr. Dog – Be the Void
Sometimes I think the albums and bands I love the most “don’t sound like anything else” and have some unique, indescribable sound and quality. But that makes them the most difficult to write about, hence “indescribable.” The best I can come up with for Dr. Dog is that they are like a modern-day psych-folk revival of The Band; recommended if you like Felice Brothers.