Various Artists – Our New Orleans: A Benefit Album for the Gulf Coast (2005)
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Our New Orleans


Various Artists – Higher Ground Hurricane Benefit Relief Concert (2005)
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Higher Ground - Hurricane Relief Benefit Concert

Disaster. Relief album. You can pretty much bank on the latter following the former; since George Harrison set the mold back in ‘71, shaming rock stars into publicly giving a shit, you can’t hardly have a bad day anymore without someone somewhere making music to try and help out a little.

This is in no way a bad thing, but these relief albums tend to be nonsensically star-studded, drawing buzz and padding record company ledgers instead of actually featuring the best artists with the best tunes. It’s gotten so that cynical derision has become an acceptable response, which is unfortunate (and unfortunately understandable).

Hurricane Katrina is no exception; to date, no less than three high-profile albums have been released. Of the three, Hurricane Relief: Come Together Now has attracted the most attention, which is really too bad, because it sort of sucks. Not everything on it, of course — take it easy — but whoa boy howdy, are there some stinkers. Chief among them has got to be Sting’s song-length Louis Armstrong impression on the Chris Botti-accompanied “Moon Over Bourbon Street.” Blender called it a “vulgarity,” and that’s about right.

Anyway, I think Come Together Now probably cast a shadow over the other Katrina-inspired albums, and that’s a damn shame, because they’re really, really wonderful. I’ve been listening to them side-by-side all night, and people, I can’t imagine a better, more loving tribute to a city and its music. Which is why I’m sitting here writing this, even though I have a headache and last-last-minute Christmas shopping to do and something called an “inflamed lipoma” on my back that’s making it hard to do anything, let alone spell correctly — because I also can’t imagine any reason why each and every one of you shouldn’t own these albums.

I mean, shit, I’ve never even been to New Orleans, and listening to these songs makes me want to weep. Sometimes with joy — just listen to Allen Toussaint, who fled the city with nothing but the clothes on his back, leading the triumphant “Yes We Can Can” (download), or Shirley Caesar’s terrific “This Joy” (download) — and sometimes with sadness. Norah Jones’ soothing, wrenching take on Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” (download) is an obvious pick, but God as my witness, I never would have realized that James Taylor could rescue “Never Die Young” (download) from its studio version, let alone make it so tenderly, terribly relevant. I could go on all night. But you get the point.

I’m not big on Christmas or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa or any of that other stuff. But I stand in full support of each and every one of us being able to drink from the milk of human kindness as often as we need to, and ’tis the season for that, so in that spirit, sit back, listen to these songs, and think about how great life really is. And buy these records, too.