So it’s the time of the season, when I get into that reflective mood and begin working my way backwards over the year’s music, books, movies, etc. And 2015 was equally as rich as 2014 was, so I thought I’d share some of what I feel are the highest of nearly-innumerable high points over these last twelve months. I acquired quite a lot of music – some purchased, some sent for review; I saw as many shows as my schedule would allow and read as much as my free time would give – which, of course, also means that my own new album is slower in coming along than I’d hoped (actually, it’s just stalled at the station for the time being), but it’s worth it. And this year-end review is to help turn some of you on to these good/great/amazing things, in case you hadn’t heard about them previously. So let us begin:
TOP 3 ALBUMS FOR 2015: these were the three albums that I listened to most often, after their respective releases. There were a plethora to choose from – and that is very much an understatement; each one had an essence; a quality that stays with me right now and I return to them frequently. But for the top three – first would be Brooklyn’s EZTV, the classic power-pop wonder trio who knocked me out when I first saw them open up for The Dream Syndicate. Their premiere bow, Calling Out, arrived just as I was about to board a plane for New Orleans, and subsequently, became the soundtrack for my trip. More importantly, this recorded work shows exactly what I said they were capable of doing when I heard them live. Varying degrees of classic power-pop but done with a highly personal and connecting touch.
On the flipside of the power-pop coin, the other band would be A Fragile Tomorrow and their masterpiece, Make Me Over. You’ve heard the title track and lead-off single; you’ve read the reviews and the buzz continues to grow and expand, especially after their tour with The Indigo Girls – seeing their name on the Madison Square Garden electronic marquee made me very proud for them. In the time between 2012’s Be Nice Be Careful and Make Me Over, there has been a tremendous growth in sound via the absorption of so many influences – and utilizing those influences to enhance and mature with their own sound.
Allison Moorer’s Down To Believing was a collection of songs I simply fell in love with upon first listen. The emotion, the quality of songwriting and the firepower in the performances easily put this CD at the top of my favorites. From the title track to the cover of Credence’s “Have You Ever Seen The Rain?”, at points, Ms. Moorer will have you wiping tears from your eyes.
AND THE OTHERS FROM THE YEAR’S BEST: Paul Weller has, by and large, managed to keep me interested and attuned to what he does during his now 24-year solo career. Like his previous two musical lives, its had its ups and downs, but he roared back, louder and harder than before with this year’s Saturns Pattern, itself a leap forward from the groundbreaking Sonik Kicks. A new label, a greater American audience than before and a tour – with a performance that left me in joyful tears – these were Weller’s most energetic and career-spanning shows I’ve seen as of yet and 38 years since his first appearance on a recorded medium and he’s as strong, if not stronger, as ever.
Another surprise knockout was the mega-lineup Orange Humble Band, driven by ex-Lime Spider Darryl Mather, who was aided and abetted by no less than Jody Stephens (Big Star/Those Pretty Wrongs), Ken Stringfellow (The Posies/Big Star), Jon Auer (The Posies/Big Star), Rick Steff (Lucero), etc and their guests (Van Duren, Dwight Twilley, Susan Cowsill). Their May release, Depressing Beauty was just one dynamic head turner that encapsulates all I love in music – pop, rock, psychedelic, ballads, classic ’60’s pop – all of it is here, with equally hypnotic songwriting and vocal gymnastics. One of the finest things to hit my ears and certainly one of the high places in my year-end list.
There are several more that rose to the occasion; two of which are intertwined: Chris Stamey’s glorious Euphoria and The Old Ceremony’s Sprinter. Both on Yep Roc Records; both albums feature the work of Chris Stamey and Django Haskins (who are cornerstones of the “Big Star 3rd” live performances) and both have a remarkably colorful and wide musical palate from which the soundscapes are painted from. The mixtures of pure twang-pop, neo and classic psychedelia, country and baroque are heavenly at moments and spiritual in others.
A lot can be said of the same for New Jersey’s The Grip Weeds and The Weeklings. Both albums appeared on the Jem imprint and both are direct links to The Beatles. The beauty and cleverness of The Weeklings is that they took Beatles songs that were never released by the Fabs (albeit, recorded by others) and made them sound like the real thing – done in such a pure and masterful way, at the outset, you don’t realize it’s not The Beatles, while mixing in their own deft originals. The Grip Weeds, who have been around for a very long time, use their Beatles/’60’s garage influences to the hilt but still manage to sound very now and not at all dated. Plus, their splendid cover of George Harrison’s “The Inner Light” gets very high marks. Also, you have to love a band who took their name from a character played by John Lennon in a 1966 film and then gave their new album the title from the movie, How I Won The War.
There were some who took issue with Grace Potter’s Midnight, which saw the Vermont roots-rocker step away from her band, The Nocturnals, and go in a clearly radio-friendly pop direction with an emphasis on high-end production, etc. Surprisingly, I very much like and embraced this album as I feel she’s exploring a new territory that she clearly was able to conquer. The songs are catchy; her voice works on all the tracks for the different feel and the melodies are there. You can’t fault an artist for taking chances and wanting to grow and shift, so I do, indeed, place Grace Potter on this list for a quality product.
The last two are American-oriented, acoustic-based and became fast favorites of not only myself but of “Overnight America” host Jon Grayson, whose opinions I hold very highly. He was/is in complete agreement with me about the wonderful Sofia Talvik and the hypnotizing John Statz. Both artists put out remarkable albums this year – Ms. Talvik with Big Sky Country, which continues to delight and Mr. Statz with Tulsa. Both are ripe with storytelling, haunting melodies, pure American acoustics and sounds/lyrics so vivid, they can be seen as you listen.
BEST COMPILATION: This year, I have to give it to Herman’s Hermits and the spot-on Bear Family release, The Best Of Herman’s Hermits – The 50th Anniversary Anthology. Remastered, some songs appearing for the first time in stereo and in their “full versions” plus lost or “forgotten album” tracks – this album reminds you of what a charismatic band the Hermits were and over time, how they developed as songwriters (check out the Blaze original tracks).
BEST REISSUES: Although this was a year filled with re-issues and repackages, I’ll keep it to the three I listened to the most after obtaining them: Paul McCartney’s Tug Of War, Love’s Reel To Real and the first three Who albums restored to their original mono vinyl releases – right down to the old Brunswick, Reaction and Track labels.
The Love CD is the real find; their last studio album in the ’70’s and a direction shift one wouldn’t have imagined from this once leading psychedelic band. Filled with funk, soul, groove and punch, this is one of Love’s finest hours. I’m still curious and wonder how an album so solid could have been by-passed by the record buying community of the time; it fit every criteria for 1974 and yet, sank without a trace… A shame.
And of course, The Who… The vinyl reappearances of My Generation (the U.K. edition), A Quick One (the U.K. precursor to the U.S. Happy Jack) and the glorious The Who Sell Out simply catapulted me back to the age of 14 when these albums were the most important to ever come into my life. To revisit them they way I first heard them was as thrilling now as it was then – except now, I’m 50 years old, Keith and John are long-deceased and Pete and Roger are celebrating their 50th anniversary as The Who. Nonetheless, these three albums should be the cornerstone for teaching your children about rock & roll, playing guitar, first steps to songwriting and are for all time, essential listening:
Two singles also appeared this year and fittingly, they come from the same area; they are also both very near and dear to my heart. Jody Stephens of Big Star teamed up with Luther Russell and introduced us to Those Pretty Wrongs, releasing a superb debut 45 on Burger Records, “Lucky Guy” and “Fool Of Myself”; both songs capture two different shades of power pop glory:
Vicki Loveland and Van Duren issued the highly-personal and emotionally-charged “Johnny Boy”, a fitting tribute to Messrs. John Hampton and John Fry, both of whom were Ardent Studios mainstays (Mr. Fry was the owner/founder) and universally respected members of the Memphis music community. Both of these lovely gentlemen died within a week of one another last December and Loveland Duren saw fit to honor their memory with one of the most perfect, tender and heartfelt things I’ve ever heard:
There were also several E.P.’s that appeared this year; the one which knocked me out was from Nashville’s Them Vibes, who arrived with T.V. A balls-out, in-your-face rock & roll kick in the head from the first hard-twanging note that pulls you along for the ride – and you better be able to hold your breath, because they go 100 miles per hour…
There were plenty of boxets that were also anticipated and released this year. For me, the most pivotal ones were the singles boxes issued by Universal for The Who – at this point, three have found their way into my hands: The Brunswick Singles, The Reaction Singles and most recently, The Track Singles. All have been restored to the way the original singles looked; the sound is beyond proper description (enter fanboy hyperbole) and it is – much like the re-release of the albums – a joy to hear these songs the way they were intended – loud and as powerful as you can imagine. And of these three, it is the Brunswick singles I think I’m most enamored with, simply because these were the first and the most raw of the young Who.
There were two variations of the Ork Records boxsets (if you need background, please check out the Numero Records Group website); first on Record Store Day, a box of 45’s in their original picture sleeves was issued by Numero Records Group in very limited edition (I was very fortunate to get one) – some of the singles I already had, but it was wonderful to get better quality sleeves and not-played-over-the-years editions. In early November, a 4-lp or 2 CD package was issued; beautifully encased in a slipcover with a bound book, this compilation brought together not only the Ork singles, but some of their “satellite” releases (such as Alex Chilton’s classic “Bangkok”, etc.) and some amazing and previously unreleased material. Rather than try to explain the absolute necessity of Ork Records and the indelible mark they made by their first releases, I implore you to seek out these collections and get them.
Finally, for my money and time – and emotional value – the best film about a band that I had the good fortune to see this year was About The Young Idea: The Story Of The Jam. The story is well known – without The Jam (or The Who), I wouldn’t be here, doing what I’m doing and have done. It is my lifelong love, respect and appreciation for Paul Weller that has continued to drive me (along with one or two others) and I’m happy to say – as objectively as I can muster – this documentary was done right on all levels. It told the story of The Jam’s meteoric rise and split at the height of their successes; it was done in a linear manner and the various testimonials and interviews all were flavored from a personal standpoint; none of it came off as being anything less than recollections from people who genuinely loved this band. And hearing the perspectives of Paul Weller, Bruce Foxton, Rick Buckler and founding guitarist Steve Brookes (who left before the band took off) were warming, from the heart and filled, thankfully – as far as I could tell – without regret. Yes, it was heartbreaking when they split, but they did it while they were THE #1 band at the moment and went out with their collective head held high.
Not a bad year by any means; certainly not for this writer. Hopefully, I’ll still be around at this time next year to deliver my look back to you all again. In the meantime, I hope you get a chance to check out some of these various artists and releases and find a space for them.
And happy holidays to all!