Great Googlay Mooglay!
A completely idiosyncratic music list...
A friend of mine axed me to draw up a list of albums I've particularly liked over the years. I figure he didn't need anyone to tell him to buy "The Classics" so I concentrated on stuff that's a little bit less obvious, including some real obscurities that I've come to love. It's in order by album title, sorta. Well, not really. It's in whatever damn order I felt like putting it in. Sorta.
Oh, and for advice on the classics, there's nothing wrong with Rolling Stone's Top 500 albums of all time. Pick your era and genre and they seem to have done a nice job pulling together the obvious choices. I think I own 17 of their top 20.
One thing to note about my list: it's 100% albums I own (or at least know really well), and since I was born good-looking instead of rich, I certainly don't own every potentially wonderful album in the world.
There are some also some artists I really enjoy who aren't on this list, either because the choices seem really obvious (Jimi Hendrix, Creedence Clearwater Revival) or because they have a vast discography that I don't really have a handle on (Frank Zappa).
Thanks for: Fact-checking assistance from the fabulous Ed Ward (all errors are his fault!)and general inspiration and research on the song "Last Clean Shirt" from The Mad Peck and Big Al Pavlow. Lots of encouragment was given by the folks on the WELL's bigballs.ind conference (named after the Bob Wills' song, not the one by Spinal Tap), and proofreading by the notoriously picky Ned Wall (all typos are his fault!).
Ok, so in no particular order...
- A Glint at the Kindling by Robin Williamson -- former Incredible String Band guy. A concept album about Williamson's boyhood and his awakening to a fascination with the Celtic past. Seems to go in and out of print in various editions. The version titled "A Glint at the Kindlng & Selected Writings" contains some wonderful additional material once sold as a cassette tape at his concerts (the highlight is an almost 20-minute tone poem/rant/sound collage about Edinburgh). Not dreamy new age folk stuff at all -- sly, funny, sometimes sad, and intense. Williamson does not play it safe or hold back, and commits the terrible sin of sincerity.
- Complete Concord Recordings by Mel Torme and George Shearing. Very lovely stuff indeed, with Torme's wonderful voice and Shearing's perfect piano. Mostly mellow, but without being at all schmaltzy.
- A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean and Living and Dying in 3/4 Time by Jimmy Buffet. Buffet's made a lot of music over the years, but for my money, these two early albums remain the best. So sue me, Parrotheads! You should not die without having heard "The Great Filling Station Holdup."
- Aero-Plain and Morning Bugle by John Hartford. Very similar albums of supremely intelligent and beautifully played country folk, ever so delicately perfumed with hippie-era magic — that smell could be burning rope, but I don't think so. Hartford is best known for writing "Gentle on My Mind" and for his work on the wonderful soundtrack to "O! Brother Where Art Thou?" but these two albums are treasured by all lovers of his music. Unfortunately, both are currently out of print and expensive on the used market.
- All Time Greatest Hits by Lynrd Skynrd. This is a band you were blown away by if you were in high school in the mid 70s, and may not know at all if you're older or younger. This nicely remastered selection of hits is a good starting place if you don't know them, and may be all the casual fan needs. "Free Bird!" aside, if you think of them as just another Southern Rock band you may be charmed and surprised by the humor, intelligence, and passion of their music.
- Bags & Trane John Coltrane and Milt Jackson. I don't know much about jazz, really, but I know what I like, and I like this. And as long as we're discussing improbable but great pairings of horn geniuses with vibraphone virtuosos, get Hamp & Getz too.
- Between the Breaks ... Live! and Home in Halifax by Stan Rogers. Rogers' premature death in a 1983 commercial airline fire was an incredible loss and these two live albums will tell you why. "Between the Breaks" is one of my favorite live albums, period, for its incredible intensity and the wonderful songs (mostly written by Rogers). "Barrett's Privateers" has become something of a classic, and "First Christmas Away from Home" tends to show up on "saddest song ever written" lists, but that's only the start. Buy it. "Halifax" is not as "blow you away" intense, but it captures him later in his career playing before a friendly audience and in great form. It features some excellent songs from the last years of his life and while more uneven, it's also longer than "Breaks," so you still get lots of good stuff. I should warn that Rogers is so sincere that he makes Robin Williamson look like Richard Nixon. Canadian, you know.
- Anything by Ruby Braff and Ellis Larkins. There exists a land very close to "cocktail jazz" and yet full of real music. Ellis & Larkins' various recordings really hit the mark. If the wife wants something easy on the ears but you don't want to be bored silly, go for it. They go in and out of print, but I've never heard a bad one, so just get whatever's available at the moment. Larkins played piano & Braff coronet. Their two "Duets" albums would be a good starting point.
- The Legend of Johnny Cash by Johnny Cash. This is a career-spanning single-CD best of (there's also a 3-CD box with a similar title). Great in its own right, but also good for pointing you to different eras of his music you might want to explore further. Opinions vary on the stuff he recorded for Rick Rubin late in life, but personally I like it a lot.
- The Complete Palomino Club Recordings by Jerry Lee Lewis. Catches the amazing Mr. Lewis in the full glory of his vigorous 1970s middle age, belting out country, a bit of rock, and some old chestnuts like "A Picture From Life's Other Side." For Jerry Lee fans only, and I don't say that because I don't like it. In fact, it may be my favorite Jerry Lee record, the one that most captures his spirit. For me, hearing Jerry Lee sing "Over the Rainbow" like a damned soul who never expects to get there is about as good as it gets. But if you don't like Jerry Lee, you might not like it for the very reasons I like it. This is Jerry Lee in “warts and all” mode, sometimes sounding a bit the worse for wear, like the great god Pan at the end of a long weekend. But then, if you don't like Jerry Lee Lewis, honey, you can kiss my ass!
- Couldn't Stand the Weather and Texas Flood by Stevie Ray Vaughan. Vaughan didn't leave a huge body of work due to his struggles with addiction and his absurd early death in an aviation accident, but these two are wonderful throughout. OK, wonderful except for the Hendrix covers. One of my favorite blues artists for the spirit and fun in his music. Not to mention the killer guitar chops and intense vocals.
- Cowboy Celtic by David Wilkie (group sometimes also billed simply as Cowboy Celtic). They have other CDs out, which I should really check out, but this one is great. Since there were in fact many people of Irish and Scots-Irish origin in the Old West, the combo of cowboy and celtic turns out to be very natural, and the playing is great. Mostly instrumental music with occasional vocals. This was a hot favorite around the house for ages, and we still drag it out frequently.
- Crazy & Mixed Up by Sarah Vaughan. Vaughan, probably my favorite female jazz vocalist, often complained about having to record overly pop-oriented material. In this one, she got to do it her way with a small group and no strings or gimmicks. She said that it was her favorite album, and I can see why. Her eponymous "Sarah Vaughan," another small group record featuring Clifford Brown, is also right up there for fans of the unadorned Sarah.
- Cruel Sister by Pentangle. I'll admit it, this is just the Pentangle album I know best, having only recently bought the others. But what a wonderful group they were. Less familiar to American audiences than Fairport Convention, they tend to be lumped with other British folk revival bands of the late 1960s. Unfair, I'd say. They do play traditional tunes, but they were playing chess when everyone else was playing checkers. Jazz and Indian influence abounds, and Jacqui McShee's vocals are mesmerizing. There's no filler on this album, but particular standouts are "Lord Franklin" and "Jack Orion," the long jam-like song which took up the entire second side of the original LP. The title track recounts a particularly gruesome folk tale and is suitable for scaring small children.
- Down Every Road by Merle Haggard. It's pretty much worth buying everything recorded by Merle Haggard, but this excellent boxed set is a great place to start. If you associate Haggard mainly with "Okie From Muskogee" (a song he wrote with tongue firmly in cheek), you're in for a surprise. One of our great songwriters, and an expert player and band leader who has always incorporated jazz influences in his music (country & western swing remained popular in California into the early 60s, long after it was forgotten in most of the U.S.). This box made a complete convert out of a friend who had never owned a country record in his life.
- Symphonion Dream by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Everyone's got "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" (what, you don't?), but this little gem never got the notice it deserved. Alternately sweet, dreamy, and raucous. A particular standout is Johnny Horton's "Battle of New Orleans" sung like an actual Louisiana swamp rat might have done it.
- Dominoe Joe by the Dusty Chaps. Good luck finding this one, buck-o! The second of their two Capitol albums (1977 or 1978, depending on who you believe). Never released on CD. The first album had some amusing moments, notably a cautionary tale about contraband transportation titled "Don't Haul Bricks on Route 66." But "Domino Joe" -- where the heck did that come from? A completely segued country swing opera about a charming drinker and gambler who swaggers through the landscape of urban cowboy era Arizona only to fall victim his own milieu. At least in the mid 1970s, before the suburbs rolled over everything, the South and West still had a good deal of their regional flavor. Unfortunately, some wonderful works portraying these regions tended to be dismissed as hokey and stereotypical by big-city critics who didn't understand that they actually described a way of life that was still alive (the playwright Preston Jones' wonderful "Texas Trilogy" is a case in point). I'm not sure if the big-city critics even noticed "Domino Joe" but it must have been heartbreaking for the band to have produced such a stunning work of genius only to have nobody notice except, well, me. Actually, as I recall, I once had a Black customer buy it when I played it at the record store I was working at back then, so I guess at least two of us noticed.
- The Essential George Jones: The Spirit of Country by George Jones. Jones' discography is vast and unruly, like his musical career, but this two-CD career-spanning collection is a very fine introduction. You get the critical early sides ("White Lightning," "The Race Is On"), a selection of George & Tammy duets, and all the great weepers from his 70s/80s peak, including the mind-breaking "He Stopped Loving Her Today," one of my very favorite country songs. I also like the way it ends, with "The King is Gone (And So Are You)" a great bit of fun that a more self-important collection would have left out. If Merle Haggard is our finest modern country songwriter, Jones is our finest modern country singer. That stuff they record now is all pop music for girls and doesn't count.
- Do You Believe in Magic? and Hums of the Lovin' Spoonful by the Lovin' Spoonful. And sure, you might want to throw in "Daydream" though it's a little less swell. The Spoonful will always be under-estimated in rock history for a number of reasons. Their music was the more or less final flowering of jug band music, which proved to be sort of an evolutionary dead end. They were apolitical and acoustic at a time when rock was going political and electric. The group broke up in acrimony (after producing some really dubious final records) because of a dope bust. And then their music (once hugely popular) was out of print from almost the time it left the charts until about 5 years ago, trapped in the weird Buddha/Kama Sutra records black hole. Even by the early 70s, their records were hard to find, and by the mid 70s virtually unobtainable. On radio, only "Summer in the City" survived, hammered to death by idiotic radio consultants. Anyway, those are all the reasons you may not know the Spoonful's music that well. It's worth knowing. Think of them as the paradoxically gentle NYC brothers to the Mamas and the Papas (with whom they shared history and connections). The same killer songwriting, but instead of an L.A. pop gloss, a down-home feel, although the city roots are sometimes obvious (like saying that Memphis's "yeller Sun records" was from Nashville, which is up there with talking about Chicago's Empire State Building). Anyway, really fun music, although not all has stood the test of time (you might skip past "Four Eyes"). And it ain't just the hits either; these albums have depth. The almost unknown album cut "Coconut Grove" (now a ritzy Miami burb, then a bohemian haven) is one of my favorite songs of the era.
- Capitol Collectors Series by Ella Mae Morse. An Amazon reviewer who was a kid during Morse's 1940s heyday says it as well as I could: "I want to let all know this one thing: no one sang boogie woogie better than Ella Mae Morse. White nor black. Period. She was the swingingest singer around back in my schoolboy days, and if she were still alive today (she died in 1999) she would be declared a national treasure." Ms. Morse (who briefly sang for Benny Goodman's band before he discovered she was 13!) is definitely one of the overlooked wonders on the road to rock & roll. I have the Bear Family box, and it's excessive. The hits will do you. Oh, worth mentioning that some of her most famous tracks were cut with the excellent pianist/band leader Freddy Slack, himself another great missing link on the rock & roll highway (known, to the extent he's known at all, for the Rolling Stones' cover of "Down the Road A Piece" - although they might have heard the Amos Milburn version, which is in my opinion inferior to Slack's). Anyway, to continue digressing, Slack was a white guy who sounded very Black, which has no doubt confused people and may make some of his work politically incorrect. The whole boogie woogie fad burned brightly and briefly during WW II. 1944 seems to have been the peak year. It's not clear why boogie woogie suddenly exploded at that particular moment, since "stride" piano, a very close relative, had been around for decades, but the frenzy produced some great music, and certainly fed into rock & roll, most obviously in the person of Jerry Lee Lewis (but listen close to those Chuck Berry hits for the piano work of the late Johnnie Johnson — it wasn't all about the git-box).
- Fields of November/Old and New, Back Home in Sulphur Springs, Blackberry Blossom, "Directions," and Whiskey Before Breakfast by Norman Blake. There may be other great Norman Blake albums I don't know, but these are the heart of his hardcore Americana recordings of the 1970s (most were originally on the fabulous Flying Fish label). Sadly, "Directions," issued on the late John Fahey's Takoma label, has never been issued on CD, though recently some Takoma stuff has started coming out, so we can hope. Blake was a high-end Nashville session player back in the 60s and 70s. He worked on the Smothers Brothers' TV show and played on John Hartford's wonderful Warner Brothers albums. He reportedly eschews the trappings of modern life, and it shows in his music, which is drawn from the spirit of the hill-country 19th-century South. He's also a great songwriter of mostly mournful songs. In fact, this whole body of work is pretty much on the mournful side, although he can kick up his heels now and then. I've always thought of Blake as being the absolute top of the folkie food chain. A fabulous guitarist and an affecting singer.
- A Quiet Normal Life: The Best of Warren Zevon by, of course Warren Zevon. Zevon was (and is) the subject of obsessive fandom, and I'm sure there are those who will be offended by my listing a best-of. This is certainly the least you should get, and if fandom leads you to explore further, definitely do. No home should be without "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner." Having read the recent oral biography of Zevon, I'd have to say that being Warren Zevon sounds like it was a lot of work, but he certainly produced some great songs, and there was also a sensitive, self-mocking side to his work, which you can see a bit of here. This is Arista-era stuff only ("Werewolves,", etc.) and I know his later stuff has many champions; I just don't know it.
- Five Leaves Left by Nick Drake. Drake's life sounds like something dreamed up by a not-very-good novelist. Tortured young artist produces three critically acclaimed albums (this is my favorite, solo guitar and voice), sells squat, dies an apparent suicide, and then becomes a huge seller almost a generation after his death when one of his songs is featured in a TV commercial. I wish Nick Drake could have lived to see his music appreciated. This is just gorgeous, meditative music, with wonderful lyrics. I develop favorite songs, then I listen some more and my favorites change. I like this album better than "Pink Moon," partly because it's such a treat to hear just Drake's voice and guitar. The other album, "Bryter Layer," I don't know (translation: haven't got around to buying it yet).
- The Frat Rock Series by the famous Various Artists. I've always loved various artists collections, and at least the first few volumes in this set (focusing on the classic "Animal House" era), are great -- party music to the max. I can't vouch for the rest (I don't really know what passed for Frat Rock in the 1980s), but there's a lot of wonderful music in the series. These were produced before it became standard to stuff 15 or 20 tracks on a CD featuring short pop songs, so they aren't always great values, but definitely worth getting a couple.
- Fred Astaire's Finest Hour by Fred Astaire. There are a bunch of Astaire collections, but this one collects some of his most satisfying recordings — material he recorded in the 1950s with Oscar Peterson’s ever-wonderful trio. Astaire was beloved by the songwriters of his era for his perfect articulation and rhythm, but I'll warn you — you may not get it at first. His singing might best be described as rhythmic melodious talking - his success in Hollywood and on Broadway was definitely not a great loss to opera. But having heard so many people rave about him over the years, I stuck with it, and now I really enjoy him. My wife also went from "take that stuff off!" to being a fan.
- The Priceless Jazz Collection by Johnny Hartman. Ok, this is just an inexpensive (but nicely mastered and programmed) best of, but it's a bargain and a nice introduction to his music. How Johnny Hartman was not one of the most famous jazz singers of his era I do not know, because he was certainly one of the best, and his music is instantly accessible. I don't know anything about his life, and for once even Wikipedia doesn't help much, but his voice is deep, sonorous, and yet delicate at the same time. Sort of like Billy Eckstine, only much better. No shit. I ended up with this CD because they put it on the player at a British jazz store I was poking through once. "Who is that?" "You don't know Johnny Hartman?" "No, but I'll take it!" Several of the tracks are from the album he recorded with John Coltrane.
- Got No Bread, No Milk, and No Money, but We Sure Got a Lot of Love and The Road to Torreon by James Talley. First I should say that these are just the two James Talley albums I happen to own and there are probably other great ones hiding in his discography (when I win the lottery next, I'll buy the lot). I latched onto "No Bread" a million years ago when I was working on a college radio station, and I sure did my bit to make it a hit (which, unfortunately it wasn't). An incredible collection combining elements of Western Swing, country, and folk with a lot of heart and a lot of fun and more than a bit of nostalgia and sadness (it's in part a portrait of the small-town Oklahoma of his childhood). Why the song "No Opener Needed" wasn't a huge hit for somebody if not for Talley, I dunno. A few years later, then-President Jimmy Carter mentioned James Talley as his favorite singer, but even that didn't get Talley's career off the ground. Many years later, when Talley had left the music biz, I stumbled across a Bear Family re-issue of "The Road to Torreon," which was actually his first album, recorded before "No Bread." Like "Bread," it's about a particular place and time, in this case the poor Hispanic communities of New Mexico in what was then the present (the early 1970s). Because the subject matter is darker, it's a more somber album. In fact parts of it are heart-wrenchingly sad. Talley at least ties Stan Rogers in the sincerity derby. Guy doesn't have a fake bone in his body. Recently, he's gotten back into the music business, reclaimed his masters, and now has his entire body of work for sale. Go for it. I might be a little obsessed with James Talley. A couple of years ago, I tried to find Meehan, Oklahoma, the nearly vanished town of his boyhood, and well... I found the sign, anyway. Even the locals in backwoods Oklahoma couldn't tell me where the hell it was, and I don't know what they made of some city guy in a rental car asking where he could find Mehan. Probably thought I was in the awl bidness.
Talley also has a bunch of other albums –new and old– available on his website. I finally saved up my pennies and bought a few, but haven't had time to listen carefully yet.
- George Thorogood & the Destroyers by the very same. Every single George Thorogood album I've heard except this one (his first) is extremely tedious, played with lots of energy and no small amount of skill, but no soul or sense of fun. In fact, while I certainly bear Mr. Thorogood no ill will, I really detest his music. Except this one. Why is this one different? Soul and a sense of fun. Maybe it's because nobody had told George he was a genius yet. Maybe it was because he'd just spent a couple three years playing his heart out in bars and dives up and down the East Coast. Whatever it was, it's magic. On this one he has the chops, he's got the soul, and he's got the moxie that obviously kept the barflies rackin' 'em back. There are many great songs on the album, but certainly the tour de force is "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer," which is the old Amos Milburn hit somehow mixed together in a blender with "Rent Party Rag" and a good measure of the aforementioned libations. Oh, this album also became a huge seller, and essentially made Rounder Records (after one more album on Rounder he went to a major, but them Rounder guys were smart and didn't blow the money). So through Rounder, it's been responsible for bringing us a lot of other great music.
- On the Beach and Tonight's the Night by Neil Young. Hey, who could resist Neil Young's two weirdest and most depressing albums! How depressing? Well, "On the Beach" is such a downer that it was out of print for 20 years because Neil said (in an interview I read) that it depressed him too much. And "Tonight's the Night" has been well described as a drunken wake for two friends lost to drug addiction: roadie Bruce Berry and Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten. This isn't to say that they sound the same, or that you'll necessarily like one if you like the other. "On the Beach" is the droning, whiny Neil Young of your worst nightmares - but in a good way, with wonderful (to Neil fans) insane lyrics and the late Rusty Kershaw's stoned elliptical fiddle sinuously wrapped around every track. "Tonight's the Night" is quite different, made more or less live (but not in front of an audience) at Studio Instrument Rentals in L.A. and reportedly not originally intended for release. If "On the Beach" whines, "Tonight" burns with intensity between brief interludes of peace and hopefulness, with Nils Lofgren's tortured guitar in the role that Kershaw's fiddle takes in "On the Beach." I love these albums equally, though they are very different. I guess I'm not the only one who feels that way, because if you go to Amazon and view "On the Beach" it invites you to buy it with "Tonight's the Night" and if you go to their listing for "Tonight's the Night"... If you're not a Neil Young fan, don't even dream of buying these albums. Stick to "Harvest."
- In a Silent Way by Miles Davis. Everyone's got "Kind of Blue" (what, you don't?), but to me, this is almost as fascinating an album. Yeah, it's electric, but it's the very beginning of his electric period, so the overall sounds is actually pretty similar to its more famous cousin. I once put this album on "repeat" and listened to it for 7 or 8 hours.
- Have Moicy! by Michael Hurley (or The Unholy Modal Rounders, take your pick). What can you say about an album that has a track titled "I Love Robbing Banks?" ("...tell the teller thanks...") I personally think Michael Hurley is a genius. What Michael Hurley thinks, I couldn't say, but when I was feckless and my eyes were spec-less, I used to follow him around on tour through the coffee houses and bars of Southern New England in the finest Deadhead manner. His songs are like nothing else, although there's certainly a connection to the Fugs and the Holy Modal Rounders. Zany (and sometimes very sad) poetic folk with crazed fiddle playing on the top ("I think Uncle Pen took some of the brown acid!"). He understands comedy and he understand tragedy. It's a wonder that this album can be had for list price and doesn't cost $150 as a rarity. I'd go for it, personally.
If you like “Have Moicy!” grab some more! His recordings are scattered across a large number of mostly obscure labels, but a surprising number are now available for download on Amazon and eMusic. Michael’s own site always has some interesting stuff for sale too.
- Hejira by Joni Mitchell. Everyone's got "Blue" and a couple of her earlier folk-oriented albums (what, you don't?), but I always recommend this one to people who aren't fans of her later work. I don't think the songwriting is entirely even or first rate. But it's doomed bass player Jaco Pastorius's best album, and worth buying for that reason alone. By many accounts he was more or less the musical director of the album (and even if that's not true, it certainly sounds as if he was). His dreamy but powerful bass perfectly compliments Mitchell's songwriting, which was becoming less literal. Pick hit is probably "Amelia" even though aviation buffs know that Ms. Earhart was a pretty average flyer who just happened to have a rich and famous publisher for a husband.
- Jumpin Jive by Joe Jackson. The Brits are among many nationalities who seem to love jazz more than it is loved in the land of its birth, and this album is an endearing example. Jackson was laid up with bad case of glandular fever (what we Yanks call mononucleosis) and a friend bought him some Louis Jordan albums to cheer him up. It worked, and this album was the result. The songs on this album were all either made famous by Jordan or are in a very similar vein, and they're played so well and with such spirit that I still love and enjoy them even though I now know the originals very well. One or two people I know have complained that the songs lack the "authenticity" of Jordan's versions, but given that Jordan was showbiz all the way, what could that possibly mean in this context? Besides, this album brought Jordan's music back to public awareness, unfortunately after his death. So it's good fun and good karma all around.
- Killer Country by Jerry Lee Lewis. A nice single-disc compliation of Jerry Lee's studio country sides. Lewis is best known to rock fans for his Sun material (which to my knowledge has never been re-issued in a decently mastered single-disc CD, so your only option is the Bear Family box, vol. 1), but after the career troubles resulting from his marriage to a 13-year-old cousin (folks, it happened all the time in the South back then -- the lady who cut my hair in Dallas in the 1980s was married at 14), he cut arguably as wide a swathe through country. Nice selection of tracks, including the hits, one clinker I could do without to illustrate what he sounded like when he was uninspired, and a couple of great oddities: "They're All Too Ugly Tonight" and a wonderful scratch vocal version of "My Life Would Make a Damn Good Country Song." "I took enough pills for old Memphis town, and I drank enough whiskey to float any ship off the ground..."
- Mule Variations by Tom Waits. "Most Accessible Later Tom Waits Album" is sorta like "World's Tallest Midget," but that's what this is. After abandoning his neo-Beat/wino persona (which was getting a little threadbare), Tom Waits got married, stopped drinking, and started putting out a lot of fascinating stuff that isn't always that much fun to listen to. This album has its share of difficult listening - he starts it out with the funny audio poke in the eye "Big in Japan" - but it also has a buncha tracks that are immediately appealing, including the affecting "Georgia Lee," the end-of-the-trail "Pony," and the great little horror-movie vignette "What's He Building," written by word-jazz maven Ken Nordine. Me, I often skip past two or three of the louder tracks, but then I'm not the avant garde type. Of his extremely strange albums, the one I like best is Bone Machine, but don't say I didn't warn you.
- Wicked Grin by John Hammond is another fine way of making the later-day Waits easier to listen to. Hammond (the son of the famous producer) has quietly produced a lot of fine music over the years without ever attracting much notice. Hammond is a Waits pal, and apparently their wives came up with the idea of Hammond recording an entire album of Waits songs. Good idear! Hammond does a very nice bluesy job with some earlier Waits tracks like "Heart Attack and Vine" but to me the real virtue of this is how he approaches some of Waits' more recent material. His version of "Murder in the Red Barn" leaves Waits' own in the dust, and I may also prefer his crowd-pleasing version of "Get Behind the Mule," with its almost hokey whip cracks (paging Frankie Lane!). Every Waits fan should own this record. In fact, everyone should own this record. In fact, I'd like to teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony...
- The Song is You Frank Sinatra with Tommy Dorsey. Frank Sinatra has a dauntingly huge discography, which I'm about to cut down to a reasonable size for you. If someone had told me when I was a long-haired hippie that I would own more albums by Frank Sinatra than by any other performer, I would have thought he was on something. But what can I say? 45 discs last time I counted. I'd start with this out of print but still affordable boxed set, which includes all of his studio sides with the Dorsey band and a CD of radio airchecks. This is a very young Sinatra here, with most of his trademark phrasing in place, but with a pleasingly light tone, a perfect blend with the woodwinds of Dorsey's band. There's definitely some 1940s pop hokum here (which I mostly like, but opinions may vary), but overall its a wonderful collection, something every serious Sinatra fan should own. This might be my favorite Sinatra era, although it's certainly true that he continued to develop his singing technique and had access to more consistent material later in his career. Peculiar fact: Tommy Dorsey, "the Sentimental Gentleman of Swing," was actually a hard-drinking skirt chaser and party animal who (sadly) choked to death on his own vomit after an evening of pills and booze. And here you thought that Keith Moon invented all that stuff.
- In the Wee Small Hours by Frank Sinatra. Sinatra's romance with Ava Gardner may have broken his heart, but the heartbreak certainly inspired a lot of great tear-jerking music. This is the first of his Capitol "concept albums" and his first collaboration with Nelson Riddle. And it's a wonderful, delicate, downbeat gem which would make everyone's A-list of Sinatra career highlights.
- Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely by Frank Sinatra. Very much a bookend with "Wee Small Hours" and if anything even better. Sad torch/saloon songs again. Nelson Riddle again. This one has a few more songs that remained classics in Sinatra's repertoire ("Angel Eyes," "One For My Baby"), includes the wonderful "Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out to Dry," and closes with a reprise of his Dorsey-era hit "Where or When." Faultless music which every American, nay every chordate and most inverterbrates should own.
- Songs for Swingin' Lovers by Frank Sinatra. As Frank Sinatra moved out of his heartbreak period, he created two styles of music: the "hard swinging" Sinatra with lots of brass, and the mellower "soft swinging" Sinatra, still uptempo but with fewer hard edges, more sinuous rhythms, and light on the brass. I far prefer the soft swing, of which this album is the best example. One of the charms of Sinatra is that his phrasing sounds so natural that it seems like anyone could do it. I dare you, just try to sing along with "It Happened in Monterey." Only when you try to match Sinatra beat for beat do you realize what a marvel he was. If you want to check out the hard-swinging Sinatra, you might start with "Ring-a-Ding-Ding," but since I don't much like that stuff, I'm not your best guide to it.
- Sinatra at the Sands by Frank Sinatra (w/ the Count Basie Band). This document of the Rat Pack era Sinatra is another A-list favorite of Sinatra fans. Hard swinging but not hard edged. I don't love the Basie band as much as Frank did, but they certainly sound great here (with Quincy Jones as musical director). You get a heapin' helping of Sinatra's famous (infamous?) jokes and asides, including a bizarrely wonderful monologue about his life and some great tunes selected from his entire career.
- September of My Years by Frank Sinatra. This is probably the last great record Sinatra made, shortly after founding his Reprise label. His heartbreak concept albums of the 50s always avoided mawkishness, but this one doesn't. It can be floridly sentimental, but always in an affable way. Sinatra's voice is still good, but darker. If open sentimentality drives you nuts, you might want to skip this one, but a certain amount of bombast and self-mythologizing were at the heart of most of Sinatra's later work, and never did he turn it into finer music than on this album.
- The Capitol Years by Frank Sinatra. This 3-CD box will do a nice job of filling out your collection of Capitol era Sinatra, lest you think that weepy concept albums were the whole deal.
- Music From the CBS Mini-Series by Frank Sinatra (and a few guest stars). The mini series is long forgotten, but this out-of-print collection (available cheap used) is excellent for filling in the remaining gaps in your Sinatra mini-collection. I mean, how can you have a Sinatra collection without "New York, New York" and "My Way," right? Plus, since the series covered Sinatra's entire career, you get some other great stuff, and as a bonus a nice Bing Crosby tune and Benny Goodman/Gene Krupa doing "Sing, Sing, Sing" (written by Louis Prima!).
- It's Rough Out Here by Al King. Yes, it's Al King, not Albert King (or B.B. King, or Freddie King, or Nosmo King, or...). I bought this album after hearing a couple of tracks on our local Pacifica station. It made such an impression on me that I can still remember what I was doing at the time (I was in a drive-through at the Taco Bell down by the Expo Mart in Chantilly, if you must know). According to the liner notes, Mr. King had an early fling in the record biz as a young man (judging by pictures I've seen, early to mid 1950s). He got burned big time on the money end of things (boy, there's a story I haven't heard before) and decided to bag it. I don't know much more about his life than that, other than the fact that the late 1990s apparently found him gigging around Oakland, CA. There are no guitar fireworks, shrieks, or wails here. The tone is slow, warm, and relaxed. King has a mellow, sly and expressive voice and his lyrics are direct and often funny. He and his band work together like they'd known each other for decades (which likely they had). It's just delightful music in every way. I am eternally grateful to the small label that captured this music (Al King died shortly after the record was made). Every time I listen to it, I wonder how many other wonderful artists there are out there who decided not to bother with the greased pole of the music business.
- Rock 'n Roll Gumbo by Professor Longhair. Segue by great musicians captured by small labels just before their deaths. Professor Longhair cut a number of sides for Atlantic in the old days, and had a hit with "Bald Head." By the 1980s, when some French guy tracked him down to record this album (yay French!), he was living in obscurity (except in New Orleans, where they never forget anybody who can play music). Even though his uninsured house had just burned down a few days before the session, the Professor plays with incredible energy, passion, and technique, and the unusual decision to include Texas blues guitarist Gatemouth Brown really works -- his stinging guitar is a perfect counterpoint to the Professor's latin-tinged piano. I'd talk about standout tracks, but they're pretty much all standouts. Highly recommended.
- Junco Partner by James Booker. And segue by crazy New Orleans piano players. James Booker was killed too young by various bad habits, but he really shines on this album. Booker's virtuoso playing features the "Latin tinge" Jellyroll Morton talked about, but he also throws in classical influences, most amusingly in his "Black Minute Waltz" ("top this, Whitey!").
- Jonathan Edwards by Jonathan Edwards. If there's an album that captures the hippie ethos as people actually lived it better than this, I've never heard it. A beautiful album full of great songs. The good-spirited "Shanty" became an FM hit back when you could play songs about drugs on the radio, but is one of the least memorable songs on the album. Play this once, and the next morning you'll find yourself singing something from it in the shower.
- The Last Great Concert: My Favorite Songs, Vol. 1 & 2 by Chet Baker. I read a bio of Chet Baker a few years ago, and it sounds like Warren Zevon was low-maintenance by comparison. When this album was recorded, Baker was basically a down-and-out junkie only a few days away from falling (or being pushed) to his death from a hotel window. He was 58 years old and had no teeth, someone having knocked them all out years ago (probably for a pretty good reason, if the biography was to be believed). He was not exactly getting calls from Carnegie Hall. But improbably, some German Jazz impresarios rented a concert hall, hired an orchestra, and recorded this live performance. Just as improbably, Baker showed up, and played beautifully. His vocals, well, sound like those of a 58-year-old junkie with all his teeth kicked out, but I don't mean that in a bad way. The overall effect is gorgeous, sad, and hauntingly beautiful. My wife thinks it's too depressing and won't let me play it when she's around, but it's really a remarkable piece of music. And c'mon, you need something to play for those times when "On the Beach" seems too relentlessly cheerful.
- How Will the Wolf Survive? By Los Lobos. These guys have a huge body of work, which I know only some of, but this one pleases throughout. Chicano-flavored rock, I guess you could call it, but it ranges from the tenderness of "A Matter of Time," to the boisterousness of "I Got Loaded," a song that's so perfect an evocation of 50's R&B that you're sure it must be a cover of some old 78, but it's not.
- My Favorite Things, The Gentle Side of John Coltrane, and A Love Supreme by John Coltrane. I'm assuming you don't like squeaky and squawky music, or if you do, you don't need me to tell you about John Coltrane. Coltrane recorded a lot of music in his too-short life, but these three are a good starting point. "My Favorite Things" is one of his most enjoyable, even relaxing recordings, but it's not just mood music -- even jazz snobs like it. Jazz snobs probably hate "The Gentle Side of John Coltrane" for its title if nothing else, but it's a wonderfully programmed selection of his mellower stuff, including two you really gotta have, "Alabama" and "In a Sentimental Mood." Whoever compiled it couldn't resist throwing in one squawker at the end (can you tell I hate "free jazz?") but you can just skip it. Finally, "A Love Supreme," thought by many fans to be his greatest recording, is a little more challenging (starts mellow, ends weirder), but really is an incredible, hypnotic piece of music. If you can't stand the second half, just listen to the first half, like we used to do when albums had two sides.
- Rifles of the I.R.A. by The Wolfe Tones. Opinions may vary about "the troubles" in Ireland, and the story told here is definitely from one side only, but leaving the politics aside, this is great, stirring music -- and it's not just a giant political harangue. These are some great tunes, well sung. And yeah, it probably does help if you have some Republican sympathies.
- Star Time by James Brown. A friend of mine ran into Mr. Brown a couple of times way back when. He used to do an oldies show on the radio and had James as a guest a couple of times. When I asked him what James was like, he said he was one of the smartest men he ever met -- the kind of guy who'd meet you once and remember your name 10 years later. And apparently, we owe the existence of this box partly to Mr. Brown's mental acumen. His early stuff was recorded for King Records, a low-rent Cincinnati operation infamous for not knowing what to do with its back catalog and refusing to let anyone else do anything with it either. But James did what nobody else on King seems to have managed -- got control of his masters. So on this box, you get not only his wonderful 70s stuff on Polydor, but the early recordings that made James famous in the early 60s. Also, even though it came out extremely early in the era of CDs, the box was mastered quite decently (probably because its origins were English rather than American). This is James across the span of his classic years, all in one lovely 4-CD set. The only complaint I've ever heard about it was from someone who was upset that you get extended versions of some of the songs instead of the single versions. Yeah, like I want the radio edit of "Cold Sweat" instead of the 7:30 version. James may have faltered in his later years, lost in drugs, drinking, and legal problems, but buy this set and glory in the wonder that was the Godfather of Soul, the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, the... ok... you might also want the classic Live at the Apollo for a taste of what his early 60s live set was like.
- Songs for Drella by Lou Reed and John Cale. I gather these are the songs from a stage show that Cale and Reed did about "Drella" aka Andy Warhol. It's a really enlightening portrait of Warhol, whom I always considered a pretty repellent and weird public figure. Maybe I still feel that way, but after listening to this, I feel like I understand what he was about a little better. It's intense, sometimes funny, sometimes affecting -- it's very clear that Cale and Reed were not going through the motions.
- Nighthawks at the Diner by Tom Waits. I've always loved this genial, funny live concert (recorded in front of a friendly industry audience, one gathers from some of his asides). It's great that this got released for all of us who did not get to see him live when he was in his beatnik/wino phase. You really get the atmosphere of a small club concert, including Waits' rambling intros to each song. The song selection is not a "greatest hits," but songs picked to fit the mood, which tends more towards irony than sadness even on some of the more mournful tunes. Waits was soon to grow tired of this persona, but he was having a blast with it here, and I always enjoy giving it a spin.
- The Best of Woodstock by the much-beloved Various Artists. This one perfectly solves a dilemma. You let your old Woodstock LPs drift away or never had them, and you really don't want to shell out for one of the Woodstock mega-boxes, but... it sure would be nice to hear some of them tunes again. This album does a brilliant job of picking the songs from Woodstock that really stand on their own merits. You get CS&N's "Wooden Ships," Richie Havens doing "Freedom," the famous "Fish Cheer," and proto-shredder Alvin Lee's career-making version of "I'm Going Home." Plus "Going Up the Country" by Canned Heat, Jimi Hendrix's "Star-Spangled Banner..." My only quibble is that to jam everything else on, they cut some of the long but fun intro from Santana's "Soul Sacrifice." Otherwise, this album satisfied all my Woodstock-related musical yearnings for one low price.
- Self Portrait by Bob Dylan. Boy people hated this album when it came out, and apparently the disrespect continues: when Columbia re-mastered all of his early albums, this was the only one they didn't bother with. Releasing an album of covers, coffee-house favorites, and Tin Pan Alley songs was a strange move for Dylan, especially after his motorcycle-accident-related silence. Some Dylanologists suggest he may have done it to deliberately frustrate people's unrealistic expectations. After years of playing Icarus, he needed to escape from his too-succesful efforts to create a personal legend. I dunno. I don't understand why Dylan does anything he does. But I think that if you look at this album as a found object, instead of as (for example) a hideously disappointing follow-up to "Blonde on Blonde," it's actually kinda delightful. Nice versions of "Early Morning Rain," "Days of '49" (a song the house band would have known at any saloon in the Old West), "Little Sadie" (twice!), and a fabulous take on "Copper Kettle" which reminds you that the song is about resistance to tyranny as much as it's about making moonshine.
- Desire by Bob Dylan. I'm not going to cover Dylan's classic albums, because they're on all the lists. This one falls between "Blood on the Tracks," an acknowledged return to form, (what, you don't own it?) and what I think even Dylan might admit is a large and uneven body of later work. It would be easy to overlook, but this is a very solid album throughout (most of the songs were co-written with Jacques Levy). Yes, there are those who hate "Joey," which takes a decidedly positive spin on the natty Mafioso Joey Gallo (apparently thanks to conversations with Gallo pals Jerry and Marty Orbach -- yeah, that Jerry Orbach), but I actually think the song is great. Certainly not an objective look at Gallo's life and work, but a great song, in a "print the legend" spirit. Plus you also get the haunting "One More Cup of Coffee," the driving story song "Hurricane," (which stands up quite nicely), and the hideously over the top "Sara," a love song to his (soon to be ex) wife, which I actually enjoy even though every time I think I'm not going to be able to stand it. And several other good songs, including the internal rhyme fest "Black Diamond Bay." Plus you get the unique sound of the "Rolling Thunder" era band. Neat stuff.
- Tulare Dust: A Songwriters' Tribute To Merle Haggard by the ever-present Various Artists. I don't own a lot of tribute albums, partly because it's so hard to keep track of which ones are great and which ones really suck. This one, however, is really great. The idea was to get together a bunch of folk/country performers who are themselves first-rate songwriters and have them pick a favorite Merle Haggard song. About half of the songs are merely good, and the other half are real standouts. My personal faves are "Shopping for Dresses" by Steve Young, "Holding Things Together" by Dwight Yoakam, and Lucinda Williams' frighteningly intense "You Don't Have Very Far To Go."
- Lost in the Ozone, Hot Licks, Cold Steel & Truckers' Favorites, and Live From Deep in the Heart of Texas are the three best albums by what I thought was perhaps the best band of the mid 1970s, Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen (ok, maybe the Allman Brothers, but they had recurring problems with mortality). The band is sometimes compared to the pleasant but much less accomplished Asleep at the Wheel but the LPA's music blends much more boogie woogie and country into the Western Swing. The Commander, George Frayne, is a monster on the piano, and the band had musical talent to spare and a great singer/frontman in Billy C. Farlow. They scored a hit with a cover of "Hot Rod Lincoln" and got some airplay with "Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar," but the LPAs never broke through to huge commercial success, as chronicled heartbreakingly in The 1976 book "Star-Making Machinery" by Geoffrey Stokes.
How come? Well, no matter how good they were, and they were great, I just don't think it was reasonable to expect that a horde of crazed virtuosos playing an idiosyncratic mix of 1940s boogie woogie, reefer-steeped C&W, and western swing were going to become the next Grand Funk Railroad. Too bad these guys didn't run into the right marketing professor, because I've always thought they could have turned their medium-sized but fanatical fan base into a good living, if not a killing. Oh well, when art & commerce meet, the results are often unfortunate, but the music's still great to listen to. The album I'd most recommend is "Hot Licks" which is currently out of print and selling for $150 (!) used on Amazon. But the other two are also stellar. "Ozone" is not famed for its recording quality, but it's full of great stuff, including "Hot Rod Lincoln," and the immortal (everyone should have this!) "Down to Seeds and Stems (Again)." "Deep in the Heart of Texas" is an amazingly spirited set which really shows off Billy C's talents and also features some of the most crazed steel guitar playing you'll ever hear on "Git It." It was originally to be a double album, but was cut to a single because of the 1974 Arab oil embargo. A great band that just couldn't get a break.
- Before We Were So Rudely Interrupted by The Animals. This one's out of print, but not particularly rare (I just bought one for $23). I will never defend it as the greatest album of all time, but it's a surprisingly good 1977 coda to the Animals' career, with original members present and everyone in fine form. I just think it has a certain loose funky charm. Yes, it's a little uneven, but there's some great music here, including the highly amusing low-life anthem "Last Clean Shirt," written by Leiber & Stoller and apparently a minor hit in Europe for a group called the Rockin' Berries. Unfortunately, the album disappeared without a trace in 1977 -- obscure label, no tour, no promotional support. Too bad. It's fun to listen to and it sounds like they had fun making it.
- Into the Purple Valley by Ry Cooder. And yeah, I've linked to the expensive Japanese remastered version of this one for a reason -- it was a gorgeously recorded album for its era, and you really don't want the crappy WEA version, which was released early in the CD era and sounds like it was mastered from an 8-track tape. One of Cooder's first forays into Americana and beyond (he drags in a tune from Trinidad) and still one of his best. The songs are held together by a general association with the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl and are awesomely selected (boy Cooder must have a hell of a record collection!). For whatever reason, Cooder favored short albums in these years (even by the standards of the LP era), but even at about a dollar a minute, this one's well worth it. There are other good early Cooder albums (check out "Paradise and Lunch") but this one takes the prize.
- Songs of Leonard Cohen by Leonard Cohen. Oh, sure, now they remaster it, when I finally sprung for the damn thing after waiting 20 years for a remaster! Bastards! Oh well, the original LP sounded like crap too -- let's hope they actually went back to the studio masters for the remastering. Now what was I saying? Leonard Cohen has done a lot of great music over the years, but this is one of those singular items, sorta like the Jonathan Edwards album above, that hits a mood (in this case a really dreamy one) in a way that just can't be duplicated. It's a classic. Although I can't speak to the extra tracks on the new version, since I just bought the damn old version, which sounds like ass, thank you very much. "Songs of Leonard Cohen with extra tracks!" sounds a bit like "The Mona Lisa with extra brush strokes!" but maybe I'm just grumpy because I bought the crappy regular version after waiting 20 years, and now this! So anyway, it all hangs together in a spacy mood, with rather spacy accompaniment, and it's wonderful, and it was used as the sountrack of the late Robert Altman's very strange and spacy western "McCabe & Mrs. Miller," which I highly recommend even though it's constantly raining (except when it's snowing) and everyone mumbles and talks over each other's lines.
- The Allman Brothers at Fillmore East by The Allman Brothers. OK, I said I wasn't going to include "classic" albums, but using the word classic in the Leonard Cohen review reminded me that I couldn't possibly not mention this album, which is one of the most inspiring artifacts to come out of the rock era. If by some horrible misfortune you have never heard this album, it captures the live Allmans at full throttle with their original roster still intact. While most famous in its day for the canonical version of "Whipping Post" it is great from opening note to closing note. One thing that's very clear in this recording is the sophistication of the Allman's music, which set them apart from most of what fell under the heading of Southern Rock. There are Southern roots in evidence, but it's also clear that they've been smoking that wacky tabbacky and listening to John Coltrane. Most of the cuts are quite long, and they aren't just playing the same notes over and over. These are long improvisations that really work and never fail to amuse. And if you think of Greg Allman as a lame old hoser with a beerbelly who used to be married to Cher, his singing here will show you why you've read somewhere that he was once regarded as one of the great blues singers in history (in truth, they always said "the greatest white blues singer" but what nonsense -- this music knows no color). I always find that the mumbled, hippie-era spoken intros provide a funny contrast to the overpowering glory of the music. It's as if you went to an architect's presentation and he said "Well, now I'm gonna show you a slide of a little thing I did over in India. It's called, er... uh... the Taj Mahal." This music has been repackaged in many ways. The link is to the original album, remastered -- no extra tracks, no nada. I think that's the way you want to hear it, although your mileage may vary.
- Sold American by Kinky Friedman. It must be amazing to have as much talent as Kinky Friedman. He produced this incredible record, then kinda wandered off into an era of fun, overindulgence, and music of variable quality (apparently he thought if he cleaned up his act a little, he'd make it big in Nashville -- sure, like all them other guys with Jewish Afros on the Opry in the 70s!). And then, after giving a buncha interviews talking about how he hated the music business (and wanting to save what was left of his nose, I'm thinking), he quit the biz completely, only to surface in a year or three as a writer of best-selling mystery novels. They aren't bad either. In fact, they're really good, although eventually the relentless wisecracking got to me. So anyway, this album. It's fabulous, it's heartbreaking, it's wonderful. It's Kinky before he tried to second-guess what the music industry wanted from him, and I wish he'd made half a dozen more albums like it. The songs range from the wickedly funny (or just horrible and wicked if you have no sense of humor) "Ballad of Charles Whitman" to the elegiac title track, to "Ride 'Em Jewboy," which has a funny title and very sad lyrics. People might tend to remember one or two songs from this album (maybe the profane "Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed") but it's hardly a one or two song album. It's amazingly solid, and like Michael Hurley's "Have Moicy!" we should be grateful that this isn't an expensive collector's item. Nice sound on this re-mastered 30th anniversary edition, although as is so often the case, the producer made the right original decision on the extra tracks. Always fun to have another version of "Tramp on the Street," but pretty pedestrian stuff.
- Viva Terlingua by Jerry Jeff Walker. Jerry Jeff certainly had some high-living, falling off the barstool years (decades, actually), and maybe that accounts in some strange way for the bizarre state of his CD catalog. Some really marginal things are in print (even his one-hit-wonder band "Circus Maximus") and there seem to be about 9 best-ofs, but of his three essential 1970s records on MCA, this is the only one that has ever been in print on CD, and I'm talking since the dawn of CD time. For reference, or in case you're an MCA executive, the other two are Jerry Jeff Walker, LP, MCA - MCA-37004 and Walker's Collectibles LP, MCA - MCA-450. In a world where Atomic Rooster has been brought out on SACD, it's kinda hard to figure why those two albums remain o.p. Well, anyway, I guess if I had to pick one of the three to be in print, Viva Terlingua would be it. It's a great combo of live and studio tracks, with the tongue in cheek "Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother" front and center, a long and excellent version of fellow madman Ray Wylie Hubbard's "London Homesick Blues," and... well, there really isn't a track on the album that's not A+ excellent, including the drunkard's anthem "Gettin' By" and a moving take on "Desperadoes Waiting for a Train." The musicianship is excellent, with the good-spirited "Where's that tempo? It's around here somewhere!" feel Jerry Jeff was known for in those years. On "The Wheel" you get a little slice of what might almost pass for prog rock. So yeah, now that I think about it, this is certainly the best of the 3 classic Jerry Jeff albums, but only by a hair. I love Jerry Jeff, and if I had more money I'd have been a regular for years at his annual birthday bash. A funny thing to know about him is that despite being the pure essence of Texas, he actually grew up in Oneonta, NY, not far from where I was born in far upstate NY. Of the other stuff that is in print by Jerry Jeff, my top picks would be "A Man Must Carry On" Volume 1 and Volume 2. This is a generous live set (originally a double album) that catches him a bit past his peak, but has a lot of good music on it, including the wonderful "Rodeo Cowboy."
- "Here to There" by Frummox. Among other things, this album provides us with an occasion to laugh at one of Robert Christagau's more wrong-headed reviews: "Pretentious cowboy music? Yes, pretentious cowboy music. C-." Uh, well, Bob, actually... This group had the misfortune to record on ABC records, and the even greater misfortune of recording on Probe, an ABC specialty label that seemed to exist for about 6 weeks. Frummox was made up of obscure country/folk legends (oxymoron alert!) Steve Fromholtz and Dan McCrimmon. "Here to There" is basically a two-song record, but the two songs are both of incredible stature (and considerable length). The first is "Texas Trilogy" which recently inspired a book published by the University of Texas Press (take that, Robert Christagau!). It is a three-part story song painting a picture of life in the small Bosque County town where Fromholz spent childhood summers with his grandmother. The song has remained a favorite in Texas ever since it was first issued (even though it's been out of print for about 99% of that time). Christagau's big city scoffing was par for the course -- sitting in Manhattan, maybe all this stuff seemed pretentious and fake, but it is in fact a very true-to-life description of a reality that was still going strong in 1950s Texas. The second song is less famous, but just as good. "The Man With the Big Hat," recounts drinks shared with a last-of-a-dying-breed cowboy in a famous then-rural bar known as Harold's Cave Creek Corral in Cave Creek, Arizona. It's real place, but when I went there quite a few years ago, it was already in the process of being swallowed up by suburban Phoenix. Again, I'm sure it all seemed trite and fake to Christagau, but... So, here are your options: 1) Wait for the album to be re-issued (there are rumors, but that's been true for years); 2) Buy the book, which includes a disk with a beautifully re-mastered copy of "Texas Trilogy" (and it's a nice book); 3) Get This Australian Album and get two not very well mastered versions of both songs, plus some other stuff. I did both 2 and 3, and am still in effect doing 1, but if I hadda pick one choice, I'd go for the book and the beautifully mastered "Texas Trilogy." If you want more music in a Frummox vein, the two Biscuit City albums of Dan McCrimmon are your best bet -- Google tells me they are around, but only in vinyl (Biscuit City, a very nice small folk label, went the way of so many very nice small folk labels). I haven't heard them since my copies were stolen in the early 80s, but I remember a great version of "Spanish is a Loving Tongue" and lots of fine pretentious cowboy music. I'd love to see them re-issued, but apparently there are no plans to do so (this info courtesy of Dan's daughter, who found this page by the power of the almighty Google).
- Willis Alan Ramsey by Willis Alan Ramsey. Boy, here's a strange tale, and a guy who should get down on his knees and give a prayer of thanks for BMI and ASCAP now and then. When still a 23-year-old college student in 1972, Ramsey wrote and recorded this beautiful album of slightly folky Texas country. It included a huge hit "Muskrat Love", (which actually is not awful at all in the original -- the dreaded Captain and Tennille scored the hit) and another song that was recorded by Jimmy Buffet, whose records continue to sell in the billions and billions ("The Ballad of Spider John"). And then... he did nothing. It's been 35 years as of this writing, and Ramsey has never released a second album (although he's always said to be at work on one!). This is truly one of the odder tales in American music, but the album's not just an oddity, it's packed full of great tunes, mostly gentle in tempo and many with a sly sense of humor (if you've lived there, you'll love "Northeast Texas Women"). A legendary album that easily lives up to the legend.
- Mini Rolling Stones primer! I'm of an age where of course you know all the Stones early albums, at least if you knew someone with a cool older brother or sister. But it occurs to me that some of those albums were now released over 40 years ago, which means they are to younger people today like Rudy Vallee's 1920s recordings were to me when I was a kid. So if all you know is "Satisfaction," here's a quick primer. Real quick. Of the early R&B-flavored records, you want England's Latest Hitmakers, 12x5, The Rolling Stones, Now!, Out of Our Heads, December's Children (And Everybody's), and Aftermath. Of the middle stuff, you want Beggar's Banquet, Let it Bleed, Get Yer Ya-Yas Out!, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main Street. Of their later stuff, you want only Some Girls. If you want to pick a few, grab any 2 or 3 of the early ones, Beggar's Banquet, Let it Bleed, and Exile. And maybe Allen Klein is a crook (prevailing opinion seems to say yes) but ABKCO (Allen B. Klein Company) recently re-mastered all of the early and middle stuff and they sound great. And just a word (and this applies to Beatles records too) -- when I was a kid, people used to buy UK versions in the hope of getting better sound quality, but now that it's all the same, you generally do not want UK versions of 60s albums, because it was then UK practice not to include hit singles on albums. And now that I've mentioned the rule, I'm going to tell you to break it: the UK version of "Aftermath" is far superior to the US release (although true to form, they left off "Paint It Black," which had already been a hit single). The Mad Peck adds that part of what makes the early Stones albums so great is that someone (presumably Jagger, Richards, or both) had great "ears." Some of the R&B and Soul songs they cover were pretty familiar, but many are really oddball rarities or songs that only became famous after they were recorded by the Stones. Rare tracks or big hits, they're all great, and they really cover the waterfront, from mainstream soul/pop hits like "Under the Boardwalk" to the deep Chicago Blues of "Little Red Rooster."
- The Trinity Session by Cowboy Junkies. These guys are still together after all these years. This is their second album, and it was a monster. Beautifully recorded, languid versions of old country songs like "Walking After Midnight." It slays. Hank Williams meets the Velvet Underground on a quiet Sunday morning. The follow-up album was so bad that it's one of very few albums that I've ever actually thrown out. I hear they've produced some nice stuff since, but I don't know it.
- 40 Greatest Hits by Hank Williams, Sr. Ok, this is actually the only album on this list I don't own (so far). How come? Because I've listened to Hank Williams' music so much that it's like it's imprinted in my DNA. That said, sure, I should either buy this one or the similar "20 Greatest Hits" because it would be fun to hear 'em all once again. My favorite is probably "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," which is very very nicely covered on the Cowboy Junkies' album above. With the possible exception of Jimmy Rodgers, Hank is generally considered the greatest of all country artists, and for good reason.
- Mini John Prine primer! Ok, so I don't know all of his music, but even though many of Prine's most famous and most covered songs are on his first album, there's a lot more great music in his catalog. Here's a few I'll recommend without reservation. John Prine is the first one, and yes it's great, with the famous "Angel From Montgomery" one of my very favorite songs, period. And there's also "Sam Stone," and "Paradise," and "Illegal Smile," and...OK, maybe he never churned out monster songs in such profusion again, but his follow-up Diamonds in the Rough is a great, very country-flavored album, a bit dark and tortured in spots. It's a great piece of work, even if it didn't really yield any "classic Prine songs." Two songs reference the then ongoing Vietnam War, "Take the Star Out of the Window" literally and "The Great Compromise" metaphorically. I played the last as the last song on the last radio show I ever did -- it worked pretty well as a commentary on the declining state of radio. His third album, Sweet Revenge, was a bit less tortured, and included several songs that are still in his concert repertoire, including "Please Don't Bury Me" and "Grandpa Was a Carpenter." Moving along and skipping an album or two, Bruised Orange is a rather odd piece of work, created as his career was temporarily on the downslide. At first, I thought it was a piece of crap, frankly. But then it grew on me. And grew on me. And then some more. And it ended up becoming one of my favorite Prine records. With the exception of the good-timing "Iron Ore Betty" the mood's mostly downbeat or wry. I love "Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone" with its odd stop-and-start rhythm. Another favorite is "Fish and Whistle" which he claims he attempted to write as the world's worst song when his producer insisted on one more track to finish the record. The chorus is worth quoting because it's so perfectly Prine-ish: "Father forgive us for what we must do, you forgive us, we'll forgive you, we'll forgive each other till we all turn blue, then we'll whistle and go fishin' in Heaven." I'll admit to not knowing most of Prine's later work (although I recently saw him live and he was fantastic -- an almost 3-hour show!). But definitely check out In Spite of Ourselves, all duets of classic 60s country songs with a selection of his favorite female vocalists, including Iris Dement and Lucinda Williams. An offbeat idea, given that Prine's not exactly Mario Lanza, but the duets really work, and the selection of songs is wonderful.
- New Boots and Panties! by Ian Dury. This one's more English than a bacon butty. So English you might almost file it under "World Music." And it's one of a number of gifts we owe to the second British invasion of the late 70s, when the punk/new wave explosion made everyone desperate for British product and washed some interesting things to our shores. Dury, unfortunately, passed on a few years ago, but continued to gig in his native country long after the punk era was forgotten. This album really shows off his talents as both a songwriter and a singer. The fare ranges from the silly and wonderful "Billericay Dickie," which manages to rhyme "Janet" and "gannet" (not to mention "Nina" and "Cortina"), to "My Old Man," which is sentimental and deadpan at the same time. "Sweet Gene Vincent" (he was a fan fave in England) is really memorable too, giving you a palpable sense of how much Vincent meant to Dury. The album is a little uneven, but the overall package is great, and while the second disc of demos doesn't do much for me, for once the extra tracks giveth. You get the Carter-era radio hit "Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll" and a great name-check song with a music hall feel titled "England's Glory" which might actually be my favorite Dury song. One of the things I like about Dury is that while he could certainly play the clown, there is also a real honesty and emotional vulnerability in his music. You almost want to say "Ouch!" after hearing "My Old Man." And he definitely has a much better Cockney accent than Dick Van Dyke.
- My Aim is True by Elvis Costello. A lot of people just flat-out hate Elvis Costello. I've never figured out why. They don't like his singing voice, or they're still mad at him for that drunken comment about Ray Charles. I dunno. This is his first album, and it grabs you from the first note of "Welcome to the Working Week." One thing I've always liked about this one is that Costello's writing here is so direct and his use of words so economical. As he became more successful and older, his songwriting grew more poetic and metaphorical, which is fine, but the songs here are as subtle as a series of flying mallets. I personally would buy any album that included the line "She's filing her nails while they're dragging the lake." And so should you.
- This Year's Model by Elvis Costello. I almost didn't include this one, because it's not quite at the same quality level as the others (in my opinion). It's also a little repellent, in a way. Our hero has gone from being a geeky oddity to a hot commodity. He's hanging out with the beautiful people. And you know what? Some of them are mean and shallow, and love still hurts, and vast success and wealth at an early age doesn't solve all your problems. Gee I know I have the world's tiniest violin around here somewhere... So thems are the reasons I'm not 100% behind this album, but it simply has too many great songs to ignore. And his anger, even if we raise an eyebrow at it now and then, gives the music an astonishing intensity. "Radio, Radio" is a wonderful example of biting off the hand that feeds you and spitting it out, and is truer today than when it was written. "Lipstick Vogue" is great, as is "(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea." There are also some songs that aren't quite as good, but this one rocks out and is a worthwhile album. Overall, I'd say this is a great album to buy if you like Elvis Costello, maybe not quite so essential if you're a more casual fan.
- Armed Forces by Elvis Costello. Another great album of furious songs, but by this time, Elvis had figured out that it wasn't just high-society London that was fucked -- the whole world was fucked. The songwriting is more consistent, and sometimes glorious, as on, say "Oliver's Army," an un-fond backward look at the British Empire. You also gotta love that Elvis, who had often been stereotyped as a cynic (in my opinion wrongly), closes the album with the great anthem "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace Love and Understanding." If you want one album of Elvis when he was the angriest young man in showbiz, this would be your album.
- King of America by Elvis Costello. This album explores Elvis's Celtic side a bit (after all, the guy's real name is Declan Patrick MacManus) and has a number of songs that focus on England's discontent, most beautifully "Little Palaces" (he almost spits the words out). In "Suit of Lights," he also describes a man held captive by his own legend -- a bit close to home. Romance is back as a topic, too, with two real standouts in "Our Little Angel" and "Indoor Fireworks." The only jarring note is struck by "Eisenhower Blues" an obscure (and not really all that good) topical blues song about a 1950s recession. He bellows the lyrics, revealing every shortcoming in his voice, but hey, artists get to be eccentric now and then. Overall, an excellent album.
- Spike by Elvis Costello. This is what we call "a mature work." The world is no longer as simple as it was in "This Year's Model," (or even "Armed Forces") and the music has grown quieter, more complex, more polished, and darker too. This is a long album (the original barely fit on one CD -- all his stuff was re-packaged with "bonus CDs" a few years ago) and I won't comment on every song. My two favorites are "God's Comic," as surreal a take on the transitory glories of showbiz as you'll ever find, and "Tramp the Dirt Down," which combines a heartbreakingly beautiful Celtic melody with a thorough shredding of Maggie Thatcher (translated into American idiom, the title would be the less elegant "Piss on Your Grave"). On an album with so many songs, yeah, there are some I like better than others, but since I've called a number of albums "uneven" I think I'll go for "even" on this one -- starts out good and remains so.
- The Jesus of Cool (aka Pure Pop for Now People) by Nick Lowe. If you've read this far, you're probably thinking "This bastard! He bought up a bunch of now-rare albums when they were cheap, and now he's recommending we buy them for 150 bux when he paid $12.95." OK, well, here's one where you can score yourself -- when I first wrote this page, it was out of print and selling for over $100 used. And now it's back in print again at a very reasonable price. Many great songs on this one, although certainly the cut for the ages is "Marie Provost," based on the life and death of silent-movie star Marie Prevost: "She was a winner, but became the doggies' dinner..." Uh, well, indeed. When the Alpo runs short, a dog's gotta do what a dog's gotta do. Big virtues here are great production, great arrangements, excellent musicianship, and a relentlessly cheery approach to sometimes depraved material. "The Jesus of Cool" was the original UK title, deemed too inflammatory for the U.S. release.
- Mojo Nixon & Skid Roper by the same. OK, here's another rarity. If you can afford to shell out the better part of a hundred bux to buy this, could you please dupe a copy for me? I've got a pal who has it, but he doesn't have a CD burner, believe it or not. This is Mojo Nixon before he became the tamed pet of MTV (for a while), and it's deranged and beautiful. Gotta love an album that starts out with the lyric "I saw Jesus at McDonald's at midnight!" Also included, the timeless "I'm in Love With Your Girlfriend," which as it happens had a special poignancy to me when I first heard it. And "Mushroom Maniac," in which Mojo seeks enlightenment among the cow patties and ends up having a heart to heart with the King of the Cows, the big man. This is the real deal, about as nutty as it gets this side of Eugene Chadbourne. And given how crazy it all is, a really consistent record. (Update from October, 2007 -- Amazon is now selling this as MP3s).
- Of Rivers and Religion by John Fahey. Fahey grew up not far from where I now live, in Takoma Park, MD, and was yer basic stereotypical self-destructive artist. He was a longtime alcoholic who died prematurely as a result, and a brilliant guitarist who blended American folk idioms with something truly his own. He ended up down-and-out in a homeless shelter for a number of years before being "rediscovered" late in life and had no patience for the likes of you and me. Fahey had a prolific recording career in the late 60s and the 1970s, producing a series of odd, elliptical acoustic guitar masterpieces which owe a debt to country blues players and to songsters like Missippi John Hurt. This one was actually on a major label (Warner Brothers) and was a partnership with legendary producer Van Dyke Parks. Fahey refused to play any of his early material after his "rediscovery," and specifically disavowed this album as a piece of crap. He had no idea what the hell he was talking about. This was the first of two Warners records featuring Fahey with relatively full studio production. The follow up, "After the Ball" pretty much is a piece of crap, or more kindly, a failed experiment -- too much production, not enough Fahey. This one gets the blend just right. Fahey is in charge, and the extra instrumentation enhances rather than smothers his vision. The songs are indeed about rivers or religion, including "Steamboat Gwine 'Round De Bend" and "By The Side Of The Road." This is another album which might be a ridiculously expensive collector's item, but isn't, so snap it up while it's around.
- More Fahey wonders: I can also recommend The New Possibility, a perfect album to have around when you just must play a Christmas record -- it's wonderful and appeals to both sophisticates and non (and does not contain a version of "The Little Drummer Boy"). If you want to delve into Fahey's earlier guitar work on Takoma (his own label), most of it is now back in print, and it's sort of a "take your pick" proposition. You might try The Legend of Blind Joe Death, or simply go browsing -- there's lots of wonderful music in his catalog. I've always been highly partial to Vol. 4: The Great San Bernardino Birthday Party despite (or actually because of) it featuring one passage in which the tape is run backwards. Fahey deserved to have an easier life. But being an active alcoholic, yup, that will mess you up pretty good (even though alcohol, as we all know, is not a drug!)
- Pepper's Pow Wow by Jim Pepper. Wow, hell must be freezing over, because this album has actually come back into print (on re-issue label Wounded Bird) and I just got my copy from Amazon. Pepper was a Native American jazz musician, best known for "Witchi Tai To," a song based on a peyote chant (and present on this album). "Witchi Tai To," is one of those songs that became an instant classic -- and then instantly disappeared, leaving us only with numerous cover versions that never quite seem to do the trick. Apparently, Pepper was also a very nice guy and a respected teacher, judging by the number of kind words about him scattered around the web 15 years after his premature death from cancer. You can read more about him on Wikipedia if you're interested. Anyway, this album was released in 1971 and already rare by the mid-70s (issued on Herbie Mann's rather short-lived Embryo label). "Witchi Tai To," is definitely the major attraction (and easily worth the price of the album by itself) but there's some nice stuff on the rest of the record too. And one free jazz piece, and we all know what I think about that.
- "Crow Dog's Paradise" by Chief Leonard Crow Dog. I have this amazing artyfact on LP, but unfortunately not converted to digital. It gives you some idea of how high the great tide of the counterculture washed at one point -- a major-label album (well, Elektra, but they were affiliated with a major) with a gatefold and numerous color pictures containing the musings and music of a Sioux peyote leader. I grabbed it out of a bargain bin in the late 1970s for 49 cents. Amazingly enough, after that copy was stolen (by a roommate with some substance abuse issues) I found it again for a buck 99. I dunno, maybe it was the same copy. I later learned that Crow Dog was both part of a famous Sioux family (an ancestor of his assassinated Red Cloud) and a major American Indian Movement activist. Shortly after this album was released, he did time in a federal pen as part of the whole FBI/AIM war of the 70s. I realize that the odds of obtaining this item are pretty remote, but I thought I'd mention it because it's just fun to know about. The album has some interesting lectures by Crow Dog (refreshingly free of political cant, and delivered with that hard to pin down, but universal pan-tribal Indian accent) and some nice music and chanting. For what it's worth, the peyote religion has always struck me as being one of the world's more benign beliefs, but in its infinite wisdom, the U.S. government has made it illegal for white people so I remain unchurched. Oh, and like everyone else these days, Chief Crow Dog now has a website.
- "The Blaxploitation Series" by the ever-scintillating Various Artists. Ok, I'm afraid I'm about to recommend some hard-to-find stuff again, but this series, produced by Global Television in the UK in the late 1990s, does an incredible job of gathering a huge body of great music from the era of "Blaxploitation" movies -- "Superfly," "Shaft," "Across 110th St.," etc. The movies have actually stood the test of time better than most would have thought at the time, but we always knew the music was great. The compilers went for music with the right feel rather than a literal-minded adherence to using only songs from movie soundtracks, and they did a great job. Sound quality is also excellent. These guys did sell a bit, so if you're diligent and scout around (maybe on UK websites), you might turn them up. I realized they were going out of print and hunted down every last one. Really generous collections too -- lots of great stuff. The series includes: Blaxploitation, Vol. 1, Blaxploitation, Vol. 2: The Sequel, Blaxploitation: The Payback, Vol. 3, Blaxploitation Harlem Hustle (this is Vol. 4, although that's not in the title), and The Best of Blaxploitation (no new material on the Best of). Grab every one you can get.
- Shady Grove by David Grisman and Jerry Garcia. In general, I'm not going to get into Grateful Dead recordings, because Deadheads already have them all and non-Deadheads will just buy "American Beauty" and "Workingman's Dead." But here's a Dead-related recording you'll love even if your Dead interest meter is firmly pinned at zero. The album features mostly "folk scare" standards which both men must have been very familiar with from their formative years, for example: "Whiskey in the Jar" and Mississippi John Hurt's "Louis Collins." What makes this album stand out is that somehow the virtuoso playing (and they both sound great) does not get in the way of the power of the songs. You'd think an album with the likes of "The Handsome Cabin Boy" and "Casey Jones" would sound like a parade of embalmed folk favorites, but it doesn't. Each song sounds fresh, powerful, and a little dangerous, and Grisman and Garcia sound like they're having the time of their lives.
- The Song of Crazy Horse by J.D. Blackfoot. I've always found the long story-song of the title to be quite stirring and memorable. Plus ya gotta love an album which is focused on a very earnest tale of Native American triumph and tragedy but also includes a version of "Flushed you From The Toilets Of My Heart." The bio on his website reveals that Blackfoot (real name Benjamin Franklin Van Dervort) used to be in the insurance business before he got the music bug. I probably owe my knowledge of this song to KZEW-FM in Dallas, TX, which for several years in the late 70s and early 80s proved that people with ears can program a commercially succesful radio station without playing crap. One reason so much of the music on this list is 20 years old or more is that the state of radio is so terrible. I'm sure there is still good music being made out there, but I haven't figured out how to find out about it.
- The Best of Louis Jordan by Louis Jordan. Oops, a bit of an oversight to recommend Joe Jackson's "Jumpin' Jive" up above without including anything by Louis Jordan, who inspired that album. This is a nice single-CD collection that includes all of your Jordan "must haves." There are also some excellent boxes from Europe, where copyrights expire in 50 years. Jordan might be the most important (and popular) artist you've never heard of. He was a pioneer of "jump blues," a lively dance-oriented music which brought blues, boogie woogie, and swing together -- the basic ingredients of what only a few years later became rock and roll. Much jump blues was aimed at the black audience, but Jordan was a huge commercial success with both blacks and whites, and while some of his comic lyrics trade on black stereotypes to some degree, there's nothing demeaning about his music. You'd have to be on the far side of 80 to remember Jordan's glory days as an adult, but thanks to the wonders of recorded music, we can still hear "Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens." Go for it. Joyous, wonderful music. Jordan faded fast with the onset of the rock & roll era. His music had a bit too much swing and not quite enough boogie woogie to pull off a second career in rock like Big Joe Turner. Also, Jordan's music was music for grown-ups. Well, for grown-ups who were sitting around getting drunk. Jordan's best lyrics were full of sly humor that would go a million miles over the head of the young audience of early rock.
Last Updated October 2, 2010