THE LAST TEN ALBUMS I LISTENED TO (Winter 2018, Countdown)

10) Bob Dylan John Wesley Harding (1967)

I’m learning. This is probably the most perverse album ever released by a major star. Dylan’s previous three albums had all produced Top 40 singles (as would his next).

Despite Harding selling well, it produced no hit singles (though Jimi Hendrix later took “All Along the Watchtower” for a ride up the charts with a Cover from God), and seems to have been conceived as some kind of throwback to the days when nobody could imagine Dylan having hits of his own. You could hear it as the same kind of spitball to his rock and roll audience as “going electric” had been to his folk audience.

I’m a sucker for Dylan’s Rock and Roll Voice, not as much for his Folkie Voice.

Maybe for that reason it took me years to hear this–and this last year for it to become a go to.

Or maybe the times they’ve just a’ changed.

9) Arthur Baker Give in to the Rhythm (1991)

Baker was a big name in the early days of the remix craze. Since I’ve never been into remixes, I’m not sure why or how I came to have this laying around for years. This is the first time I’ve listened to it in ages–maybe the third time ever. Mostly, I like it without loving it, a reaction I often have to music that was made more for dance-floors than headphones. I wonder, though, if a single side ever sunk in, whether it would unlock the key to the rest? As it stands, I’d rather listen to Madonna remixes, which are the only ones I’ve ever found revelatory.

8) Various Artists Louisiana Roots: The Jay Miller R&B Legacy (1998)

Jay Miller was an avowed segregationist who nonetheless ran an integrated studio throughout the early years of rock and roll in the Jim Crow South and recorded a number of classic r&b sides of which this is a generous selection.  Like a lot of off-shoot projects that acquire a gut-bucket reputation based on the idea that relatively obscure music must be tougher than what reaches the mainstream, this one has more nuance and a lighter touch than you might expect. I can’t say much of it is transcendent but it’s consistently enjoyable and, given the predilections of Miller’s politics, a testimony to mankind’s thoroughgoing perversity. You’d never guess how he felt based on the sounds he made!

7) Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes If You Don’t Know Me By Now: Best of (1995)

One of the great collections of 70s soul. They could probably sustain one twice as long, but, given the number of long (12″) cuts, this is still generous and a fully realized journey. Of course, Teddy Pendergrass is the main show, but the Blue Notes were also the recipient of some of Gamble and Huff’s most startling arrangements (I wrote about “Wake Up Everybody” here), including “I Miss You” which, in its full version is almost unbearable, coming as it did at the moment when Black America seemed within sight of achieving a level of integration that transcended mere law and politics. You can still hear that possibility whispering close here. Once in a while, you can hear it shouting…and wonder just how it was we missed out on the Promised Land and came up with this unholy mess instead.

6) John Lennon Lennon Legend: The Very Best of (1997)

Lennon’s first two solo albums stand on their own and his box set isn’t a slog. The album released just before his death remains hard to hear through the haze of murder and grief it seemed designed to disperse. Hence, when I want to hear him without the Beatles, this is usually where I go. It doesn’t all work. As agitprop “Imagine” gets by on its melody (and the fact Lennon had a sense of humor about how far he was from living out its ideals), but his voice is just about all that redeems “Instant Karma” or “Cold Turkey.”

That aside, this is still a fine document of a man caught out of time. Lennon was the Beatle who most believed in all that “All You Need Is Love” stuff. It’s not surprising that he found the 70s a nasty shock, or that–in interviews and on record–he kept reaching back to something he could never quite find. It’s also not a surprise that, with “Nobody Told Me,” a posthumous hit that was his strongest side in years, he seemed to realize he would never find what he was looking for, even if he kept a phalanx of bodyguards and lived to be a hundred.

5) Various Artists Brown Eyed Soul: Vols. 1-3 (1997)

I’m counting these as a single entry, because that’s how I listen to this set, one of Rhino’s best, and that’s how I hear it. As a single experience.

“The Sound of East L.A.” is the music Chicano audiences listened to from the late fifties to the early seventies and someone took care in the sequencing and programming for each volume here to reflect an experience that’s of a piece–and is only enhanced when you listen them all over the course of an afternoon or evening or (like me) in the early a.m. How close it is the actual listening experience of those who lived in those communities in the time covered I can’t say (though I haven’t heard anyone complain). But the mix is beguiling–heavy on off-key doo wop, light soul (think Brenton Wood), garage bands (think Cannibal and the Headhunters and Thee Midniters, both local heroes) and slow-groove funk (think the mellow side of War)–and if it catches you in the right mood, you can find yourself wanting to be part of any world that would respond to this music as though it were the key of life.

Well worth tracking down for those who still think about acquiring music in some form more permanent than a microchip.

Pick to Click: “The Town I Live In” where Thee Midniters make like a west coast Rascals…and, for those three minutes at least, concede nothing.

4) Brenda Lee I’m in the Mood for Love: Classic Ballads (1998)

To say Brenda is underrepresented in the CD era is to concede that the sun rises in the east. This collection barely scratches the surface of her greatness as a ballad singer. But it’s what we have, and, to quote Spencer Tracy “what’s there is cherce.” It’s highlighted by killer original versions of “The Crying Game” and “Always on My Mind” and includes cuts from throughout the sixties, arranged out of sequence so that you can’t miss how centered her style was–how much 1968 was connected to 1960 in her voice if nowhere else. A thousand nuances, then, and always unmistakably her. It’s a perfect album and my only complaint is there could and should be another dozen like it.

3) Robert Johnson The Complete Recordings: Centennial Collection (2011)

The essence of Robert Johnson at this distance is how much his voice calls into question whether the arrow of defeat and humiliated pride that’s been driven deep in the heart of Black America can ever finally be withdrawn.

And if the question is left only to his voice, the answer will always be no.

That’s as true on a supposed novelty number like “They’re Red Hot” as it is on “Hellhound on My Trail” or “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day,” which even the nonbelievers can’t pretend are jokes.

2) Various Artists The Disco Box (1999)

A fine overview that isn’t quite what it might have been. Disco can sustain four CDs and then some as a listening experience (as well as a dancing one). But the compilers at Rhino were always historically minded, so a pedestrian cut like Carol Douglas’s “Doctor’s Orders” is bound to take precedence over records that were real grabbers simply because it was a touchstone of the form’s early days and a big hit.  There’s a bit more of that here than I’d prefer as there’s no reason for a box of this significance to have any filler.

Even so, it sustains almost in spite of itself. The form was always more than its critics acknowledged so a run of soft spots (usually chant records or metronomic “mood” instrumentals) is inevitably followed by a commensurate handful of irresistible highs. And, often as not, the chant records are as great as “Keep it Comin’ Love” and the instrumentals are as non-metronomic as “Fifth of Beethoven.” Besides, with due respect to Barry White* and the white disco of “Dancing Queen” and “December 1963” (all absent here) and short-shrifting the Bee Gees (maybe understandable given they’re not exactly lacking appreciation elsewhere, including from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame which has ignored, say, Barry White), the form’s very greatest vocals are here: Vicki Sue Robinson on “Turn the Beat Around,” Candi Staton on “Young Hearts Run Free,” Jimmy Ellis of the Traamps on “Disco Inferno” and Evelyn “Champagne” King on “Shame,” which in its 12″ version, (not presented here–another complaint is they always settled for the single) calls out the same questions Robert Johnson does…and gives back the same responses.

Bonus understanding this time around: recognizing how great a vocal arrangement this is. You live, you learn.

1) Edgar Winter Best of (2002)

Outside his two big hits, “Frankenstein” and “Free Ride” Edgar’s reach mostly exceeded his grasp. The fine bands he assembled tended to be stronger than his writing–just not quite strong enough to overcome the lack of inspiration in Winter’s own lyrics and singing (Dan Hartman was another story).

Still, he and his group had an interesting niche–a rare white funk band who retained a foothold in the burgeoning concept of Classic Rock.

And kudos to the programmer.

You could do a lot worse than close down a “last ten” with this. Speaking of arrangements….

Til next time!

*NOTE: White is represented as an orchestra leader, but not as a vocalist.

EAR TO THE GROUND…CATCHING UP WITH THE PAST, HOPING IT’S NOT ENTIRELY GONE BECAUSE, COME THE FUTURE, WE’RE SURE GONNA NEED IT (Segue(s) of the Day(s) 9/5 and 9/6/15)

Usually, my listening is pretty free form. Once in a while, I focus.

Yesterday and last night, between and around a catch-up work day and watching tennis on the internet, I listened to three cds that have been laying around for a while. The mix between heard and unheard was about even (had some of this on vinyl from back when) and they ended up illuminating each other because they emanated in whole or in part, from rock and roll’s pre and early dawn.

I started with this…very familiar though I never listened to so much of it in one neatly organized package…

MUDDYWATERS

Then I proceeded to this, on which the only thing I’d heard was a couple of sides by Charlie Feathers…

METEORIMAGE

And, long after the stroke of midnight, I ended on this, which was a long-ago vinyl favorite I finally managed to upgrade to CD…

FATHERSANDSONS

Blues, rockabilly, gospel.

Moreover, the blues and the gospel were hard-core, foundational, touched with genius, while the rockabilly (with some straight period country thrown in) was marginal (though occasionally thrilling).

But the light kept on shining, even through the margins.

The earliest gospel on Fathers and Sons is from 1939, though most is from 1945-56. The Muddy comp covers his late forties, early fifties sides comprehensively. The Meteor sides were made between 1954 and 1957, by which time the revolution was in full swing.

I kept being struck by two qualities throughout, one surprising, one not.

Unsurprising: Singers matter. And great singers are much harder to come by than great anything else (guitar players, song writers, visionary producers…none of them really matter quite as much until they are paired with the right voices).

Surprising: An awful lot of this didn’t quite go where we’re accustomed to thinking it went. Or at least it didn’t stop there.

Listening to Muddy, I was struck by how little his singing affected the English blues bands who worshipped him in the sixties and how much it did affect the Southern Rock singers who, in many cases (and Ronnie Van Zant’s case in particular), found their way back to him through Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones.

Listening to the Meteor collection, which ranged from almost pop-ish country to the hardest rockabilly, I was struck by how slavishly the “authentic” artists stuck on the fringe of the fringe (in Memphis, but not on Sun), were pursuing hits–and by what somebody or other thought might make one. If the ethos found a future it was in the neo-country revival of the eighties and nineties epitomized by Dwight Yoakum, who may never have heard a single one of these sides.

Listening to the gospel sides, the line to soul is straightforward, as expected. But coming so close on the heels of Muddy’s conversion of blues from the country to the city, it became clear that a lot of what we think of as white “soul” or blues shouting–or maybe we should call it screaming–is actually rooted in gospel giants like Archie Brownlee and Julius Cheeks, who sourced Wilson Pickett and the other soul shouters Mitch Ryder and Lonnie Mack chased in turn, as surely as the Soul Stirrers’ unmatchable Rebert Harris sourced them (played father to their sons as the marketing department would have it).

Which I guess is just a long way of saying that the racial confusion/collusion that was rock and roll’s great strength and enduring enigma arrived early and often and remained volatile and unpredictable throughout.

I guess you could say the various fathers’ sons were predictable enough, at least some of the time. But the grandsons were liable to fetch up anywhere at all…

Begetter…

Begot…

Begetter…

Begot…

Begetter…

Begot…

All this is worth remembering now that we’ve come back around to the New Gilded Age, the New Puritanism and the New Jim Crow.

It’s worth remembering that they can all be beaten, though I confess it’s still an open question as to whether they can all be beaten at once. We used to be smart enough to take them on one at a time.

(Went to bed on Burning Spear and Jay Miller by the way. But that’s a whole other story.)