Friday, January 4, 2013

Favorite Albums of 2012

I was living in the South in the mid-Fifties when the fusion bombs exploded--that is, when the radio channels reached critical mass, as Rhythm ’n’ Blues and Honkytonk Country collided over the airwaves, and the resulting blast left, rising from the no-longer-radio-active rubble of Segregationist racism, these remarkable developments:

1) Sun Records and Rockabilly and all-encompassing Elvis, Sam Phillips’ best hope for “A white boy who could sing Black”;

2) Integrated recording scenes taking root from Memphis to Muscle Shoals, from Stax to Fame;

3) Stunned white teenagers caught up in Black Music’s hot-rhythm excitement, varied sounds reaching from New Orleans (Fats Domino and Little Richard) as far North as Chicago (Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, even a brief sampling of the Blues electricity of Muddy Waters, Little Walter, and Howlin’ Wolf);

4) The gritty heartbreak of Deep Soul, including Black vocalists happy to add Caucasian-country instruments and accents--for example, Joe Tex and Solomon Burke, Johnny Adams and Joe Simon.

No doubt there were other changes, but I want to focus on a related personal note:
even though Elvis’s fourth album was a 1957 special Christmas release, full-length Xmas LPs (“concept” albums, one might argue) by anyone other than a Pop Music icon like Bing Crosby or Perry Como, Andy Williams or crossed-over success Harry Belafonte, were still uncommon within the recording industry.

Singles like “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” “Jingle Bell Rock,” and “White Christmas” (the Drifters’ version) were seasonal hits that didn’t spawn albums. Pagan rockers singing Xmas carols might well be a red flag to the
culture police; Elvis’s LP was half regular gospel tunes, plus a couple of Xmas songs, one or two bluesy numbers and an innocuous take on “White Christmas” that Irving Berlin hated and tried to get banned and recalled!

In the mid-Fifties, I fed on a steady diet of Rockabilly and radio-friendly R&B, but no way could I imagine, say, a Rockabilly Xmas LP by Carl Perkins or the Johnny Burnette Trio, nor even an anthology album of similar tunes. I’ve been pondering such matters after hearing several Xmas LPs during the season just past--one demonstrating that it might well be possible now. (See below.)

It’s also time to compile my “Favorite Albums of 2012” list once again. While there
are too many albums issued these days for me to claim any one release as the “best,” among the hundreds I have heard, these can be strongly recommended.

Usually I choose an album or two for each genre on the list and write a review telling what governed that choice; but this year I’ve arbitrarily decided to minimize. I’m going to try to encapsulate each LP in seven words or less--unless there are two albums reviewed together; then I get up to 14 words. (The records will be mostly 2012 releases, but an older album I finally caught on to during the year might elbow its way in.)

Bob Dylan, Carnegie Chapter Hall 1961 (Euro import BDA CD104); and Bob Dylan, Tempest (Columbia 8725-45760-2). Alpha... omega, FIFTY YEARS! Terrific concert outperforms teapot “Tempest.” (But ride that “Duquesne” Train!)

Shemekia Copeland, 33 1/3 (Telarc TEL-33199-02). Pitches wang dang doodles all night long.

Chris Isaak, Christmas (Wicked Game/Reprise 2-48940). Latin-Rockabilly-Swing, five great originals unleashed.

Exception (suggestion rather than review): Establish your favorite version of Das Lied von der Erde, Mahler’s towering, unearthly farewell.

If there was anything significant going on, I must have missed it. Instead I saw: Pop-success females of feisty independence (meet Miss T.Swift) reigning over all, wisely ignoring the male hitmakers self-satisfiedly sidling on, and close-harmony groups vying for the award citing “most catchy name” (Rascal Flats, Lady Antebellum, Georgia Florida Line, four scores more and maybe the Civil Wars too). Meanwhile, Miranda Lambert’s marriage seems to have robbed her of impertinence and sass. (“Oh me, oh my, oh,/ Would ya
look at Miss Ohio,/ She’s runnin’ around with her rag-top down...”)

June Tabor & Oysterband, Ragged Kingdom (English import Topic TSCD 585). Tabor’s sabre edge shuckin’ the rock-riven Oysters.

Old-But-New (1968): Bill Evans, Live at Art D’Lugoff’s Top of the Gate(Resonance deluxe 2CD set HCD 2011). ‘Round midnight
Bill turns out the stars.

New-But-Old (various years): Gil Evans Project, Centennial: Ryan Truesdell Presents Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans (Artist Share AS 0114). Thornhill? Thorny Miles? Truesdell channels unearthed Gil!

New: Mumford & Sons, Babel (Glassnote GLS-0131-02). Big Country anthems, slyly exalted Christian answers.

Reissue: Peter Gabriel, So (Realworld deluxe 3CD box set PGCDRXUS5). Gabriel’s clarion call
re-Sounds across the heavens.

New: Gramps Morgan, Reggae Music Lives (De Dadason MWD1271). Reggae rules, 13 times. Bust it, Gramps!

Reissues (exception, three albums on five CDs): Various, Out of Many: 50 Years of Reggae Music (VP 3CD box set VPCD1962). Archival Scratch and
(great) Yabby/Tubby releases (Pressure Sounds). Bargain-wise, terrific 50 hits/years, Jah makin’ de worl’ smile an’ dance since ’62.

The Ace/Kent reissue label of England continues to mine the rich mother lode of Southern Soul, digging especially deep in the trampled ground between Memphis and Muscle Shoals, mapping the terrain, tapping the wealth of Soul men and
women--Black and White--singers and songwriters and instrumental aces, many of whom “graduated,” moved on from their early association with Rick Hall’s Fame Studio and label (or found their way to them later on), providing the hits for Atlantic and Cadet, Goldwax and Jewel, Monument and Scepter, Sound Stage and Vee-Jay, not to mention dozens for Fame itself! Among the many splendid discs reaching the States over the last year or so, I admire two in particular:

Candi Staton, Evidence: The Complete Fame Records Masters (Kent 2CD set CDKEN2 353); and Various, Sweet Inspiration: The Songs of Dan Penn & Spooner Oldham (Ace CDCHD 1284). Candi is dandi, Penn/Oldham slicker&quicker--Do Right, Live Good, Slip Around, Lose All.

(Honorable Mention goes to Ace’s Dan Penn: The Fame Recordings, which showcases his Soulful songwriting and vocalizing, but nearly all of the 24 cuts are demos to “sell” his songs. I hope there’ll be
lots more Fame to contend with, whether hits by others or those Penned by Dan.)

The special collector reissues continued in 2012. Among hundreds of CDs, two in particular took pride of place, film scores of “grail” significance:

Jerry Goldsmith, composer/conductor, The Red Pony (1973 television remake, soundtrack on Varese Sarabande VCL 1012 1119). Jerry sees red: Copland by a head.

Basil Poledouris, composer/conductor, Conan the Barbarian (1982 film, soundtrack on Intrada 3CD box set MAF 1723). Orchestral magnificence uplifts barbaric yawp. Influential score.

Near year's end, master of sitar Ravi Shankar died. There was a time when America's idea of "World Music" was a raga by Ravi. And now?

Astonishment still awaits in the grooves of any disc by Persian/Indian group Ghazal. But you won't believe your ears...

Ghazal (Kayhan Kalhor, Shujaat Husain Khan), The Rain (ECM 1840). Kalhor’s kamancheh outspeeds gazelles, dawnlight, raindrops, Ravi.

And finally, of course, once upon a time a quarter century ago, in a galaxy far away...

Paul Simon, Graceland: 25th Anniversary Edition (Sony Legacy deluxe CD/DVD set 88691914712). The world shall be received... and was.

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