The Obligatory “Top Ten of 2016” Post

The obligatory Top Ten of 2016 post – it is what it is. And what it is, more or less, is split into halves: 2016 releases and older stuff I picked up throughout the year.  There’ll likely be full reviews of a lot of these titles to follow over the next wee while.

Top 10 of 2016

Albums

Some 2016 releases I haven’t been able to check out or pick up yet including at least a couple of heavy hitters, most obviously David Bowie’s Blackstar and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Skeleton Tree.  There are undoubtedly others.  I was sadly underwhelmed by Iggy Pop’s Post Pop Depression, ZZ Top’s Live Greatest Hits From Around The World (as perfunctory as its title) and The Cult’s latest but I’ll give them all a second chance at some point.  The same can’t be said for Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth.  It’s had its second chances.

Albums: Top 5 2016 releases

5.  The Claypool Lennon Delirium – Monolith of Phobos
Endlessly entertaining psych-prog.
4.  The Monkees – Good Times!
Their first new album since 1996’s Justus and it’s rather good.
3.  Jeff Beck – Loud Hailer
Beck hooks up with London duo Bones to make what is easily his most compelling album since Guitar Shop.
=1.  Tedeschi Trucks Band – Let Me Get By
A lush, soulful, roots-rock diamond of an album.
=1.  The Rolling Stones – Blue and Lonesome
A covers album, no less; a wonderfully jagged-edge contemporary take on Chicago blues (reviewed HERE).

Albums: Top 5 “finds” of 2016

5.  Dave Arcari & the Helsinki Hellraisers – Whisky In My Blood (2013)
Yer raucous, rootsy alt.blues.
4.  Donovan – Barabajagal (1969)
Properly groovy psych-folk (with contributions from Jeff Beck).
3.  Prince and 3rdEyeGirl – Plectrumelectrum (2014)
One of Prince’s best latter-day releases, much of it straight-ahead heavy rock.
2.  James Gang – Rides Again (1970)
No matter how much music you listen to over the years, there’s always a stone classic that’s passed you by.  Damn!
1.  Eli Radish – I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier (1969)
Outlaw Country forerunner, a set of covers of wartime songs (from the American Civil War through to Vietnam) given the Woodstock-generation treatment.  I’d been ages looking for this one and it was worth it.

Movies.  

I didn’t get to see half of what I might have wanted to; cinema is a too-expensive night out these days.  I’ll no doubt catch up on home releases (anyway, this blog is meant to be about physical formats, right?).

I’m sick to death of superhero movies, though.  I made the mistake of double-billing Batman v Superman and Captain America: The Winter Soldier in one seemingly endless night; watched through heavy eyes, it turns out they’re exactly the same film.

Movies: Top 5 2016 releases

5. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
Underrated comedy drama based on a true story starring Tina Fey as a TV reporter in Afghanistan.
4. 10 Cloverfield Lane
A tense and enjoyable wee sci-fi suspense thriller (even if the basic set up was pillaged from the pages of Métal Hurlant).
3. Hail, Caesar!
Brash, bright and loud – the Coen brothers at their least subtle with a very funny send up of McCarthy-era Hollywood.
2. The Nice Guys
A quality addition to Shane Black’s long list of quality buddy-comedy /thrillers.
1. The Lobster
Mental, though eh.

Movies: Top 5 “finds” of 2016

5. The Vanishing (1988)
Superior Dutch/French thriller which takes some surprising turns.  Until the dodgy ending, right enough, which unfolds as if from a rejected script for Tales of the Unexpected.
4. Empire Records (1995)
Hollywood knock-off of Clerks is way more entertaining than it has any right to be; a throwback to old rock’n’roll movies and ’70s fare like FM.
3. Bread (1971)
Obscure British movie trying to appeal to that elusive “hippies who are big Robin Askwith fans” demographic.  Lots of great footage of little-known rock bands of the day.
2. St. Ives (1976)
J. Lee Thompson directing Charles Bronson as a writer-cum-private-eye, with Jaqueline Bisset being all sexy-like. Can’t go wrong.
1. Calvary (2014)
Bleakly funny, if ultimately just bleak.  Brendan Gleason, though.  Wow.

The Rolling Stones: Blue & Lonesome (2016)

So.  Actual rock gods The Rolling Stones are in the studio recording new material when they get stuck.  They break into an off-the-cuff version of Little Walter’s Blue and Lonesome (luckily the engineer, unbidden, hits “record”) and have such a dashed good time with it that they decide to carry on in that vein and record a blues album.  This they do, without the luxury of overdubs, in three days.

Since 1989’s Steel Wheels you’d hear of each new Rolling Stones album that it’s “their best in years” (usually qualified with that old chestnut: “their best since Exile on Main Street“).  Well, it’s a no brainer this time that it is indeed their best in years – compilations aside, they haven’t released a studio album since the mostly-excellent A Bigger Bang twelve years ago.

Blue & Lonesome is an outstanding album of raucous, unpolished takes on various Chicago blues numbers.  They make no attempt to ape the originals – why would they?  They’re the fucking Rolling Stones.  Pioneers of the British Blues Boom, as important to British blues as Howlin’ Wolf et al. were to Chicago’s.  Honest to goodness legends and the grand old men of the scene – older by a distance than the originators of these songs were at the time of the original recordings.

Long past the stage as musicians where their idiosyncrasies first coalesced into their signature styles, the aural nastiness that seemed to have entered the band’s DNA by the mid-’70s is on full display here, most obviously in Keith Richard’s loose-limbed rhythm and gnarly as-and-when leads but also the aggressive snarl and sneer of Mick Jagger’s lead-guitaresque harmonica. His vocals too, tempered by age, are better here than ever, so much so that you don’t even miss what is usually a Stones album highlight – Keith doesn’t take a lead vocal on this one.  Ronnie Wood’s playing, always more conventional than Keith’s, still has a “broken bottle” edge to it while Charlie Watt’s drumming, of course, remains the bedrock.  Stalwarts of the Stones’ touring band, Darryl Jones and Chuck Leavell add a little session player sheen (though even that’s been scuffed up over the last few decades on the road), while Eric Clapton is press-ganged from his own sessions in an adjoining studio to supply some pleasingly rough-and-ready slide on Everybody Knows About My Good Thing and more expectedly fluid leads on I Can’t Quit You Baby.

The Stones always had more of an affinity with the likes of the Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters bands than most of the British Blues Boomers who followed.  The Mayall and Yardbirds schools were all about extended soloing and Freddie King worship but the Stones were more akin to that Willie Johnson/Hubert Sumlin approach.  Nowadays I think it’s the “alt.” side of blues that has more in common with those players and the Stones today are closer in attitude and execution to that than the “purists” (thankfully), here filtering the spirit of the original performances through post-British blues, post-rock’n’roll and over half a century of living the life.  Of course, I’m sure in time we’ll see a few pelters aimed at this album from the blues-nazis … oh well.  Mangy old corgis nipping at the ankles of an oblivious silverback gorilla.

The twelve songs here are well chosen, culled from the the catalogues of Wolf, Waters, Eddie Taylor and others.  Only two really qualify as obvious blues standards – quality renditions of Wolf’s Commit a Crime (memorably covered already by the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan and The Groundhogs) and Otis Rush’s I Can’t Quit You Baby (probably best known in its Led Zeppelin incarnation though I sneakily prefer John Mayall’s version and the belting, late-career Gary Moore take). The remaining ten cuts will likely be new territory for the casual listener.  There’s at least a couple I was only dimly aware of (not being the biggest fan of, say, Magic Sam or Little Walter) and I was completely unfamiliar with one of the album’s highlights, Everybody Knows About My Good Thing and its originator, Little Johnny Taylor.  I look forward to rectifying that.  The album really is almost uniformly cracking but other highlights, if I had to choose, include Lightnin’ Slim’s Hoodoo Blues and Blue and Lonesome – that surreptitiously recorded one-take catalyst left here untouched. It’s got a bruised grandeur all its own while threatening to fall apart at any second.

Jagger/Richards is among the great songwriting teams and although it’s been a long time since they last reached the social significance of their late ’60s/early ’70s heyday, they have continued to write excellent songs, most recently with the 2012’s Doom and Gloom.  Also, they do rootsy ballads like no-one else and I might have hoped for some of that on Blue & Lonesome.  So it’s hard to entirely ignore the fact that this is a covers album and, time will tell, but I’m not sure it will be regarded as a truly great Stones album with that lack of original material.  After all, I can’t imagine that too many serious “best of the Stones” lists would include their first couple of covers-heavy releases.  They were significant in that they were the starting point for the British Blues Boom, but not great albums in the way that Let It Bleed, or Beggars Banquet or … yeah, okay, Exile were.  Not even close.  The obvious comparison to the new one is their debut, The Rolling Stones, as it’s arguably their only other all-blues release and features just a handful of (unremarkable) originals.  It’s a more than worthy listen – and it would be tough work to ignore the pleasures of Route 66, Carol etc. but for me Blue & Lonesome is the better bet.  I’d rather be listening to old masters with those gloriously idiosyncratic styles and nothing to prove than to an ambitious, inexperienced young band finding its feet.  Plus the sound of Blue & Lonesome is grittier, with a much harder edge than on the early mono recordings – a near-perfect piece of production by Don Was & the Glimmer Twins.

At forty-three minutes or so, the album seems to have been recorded with vinyl in mind (the band having been guilty in the past of over-egging their latter day CD releases with bloated running times).  Unfortunately the mystifying decision was made to split it over two records, making the vinyl release unnecessarily expensive. There’s also a deluxe version of the CD, boxed with a book and so on, which is more expensive still.  So, standard CD it is.  Disappointing cover design aside, it’s a nice piece of kit, coming in a three-panel digipak with a booklet featuring sleeve notes in the form of an interview with Don Was and quotes from the band with some cool photographs.  Crucially, it also contains background information on each song, giving the listener a jump start on checking out the originals.

Worse case scenario, history will view Blue & Lonesome as an engaging footnote to an illustrious career.  Best case?  It could just prove to be the Stones’ American Recordings.

stonesbl

Prince: Chaos and Disorder (1996)

ritualobjectsofsightandsound.wordpress.com - chaos and disorder

In amongst everything being written about Prince (my thoughts here), this album hasn’t had much of a mention – even this review was largely written up before the news of his death.  A pity, as Chaos and Disorder really is an unjustly overlooked gem which is well worth searching out, particularly if you’re a fan of his rockier tendencies.

Part of the career-damaging run of contractual obligation releases towards the end of his symbol/AFKAP phase, Chaos and Disorder was not a success.  It spawned only one minor hit single and barely troubled the album chart here in the UK.  However, of all those releases, from 1993’s Come to 1999’s The Vault: Old Old Friends For Sale, this is by far the most interesting.

Opening the album, the title track is in-your-face heavy funk rock at its best, the arrangement having started life as the end-jam from early live versions of Peach.  Lyrically though, it’s a social commentary-led close cousin to the likes of Sign O’ the Times and Lovesexy‘s Dance On.

Prince as guitarist is to the fore throughout – Zanalee is straight-up blues rock while The Same December and Into the Light are spiritual psych-pop numbers which would not sound out of place on Around the World in a DayDinner With Delores, the aforementioned hit, is more of the same, a great wee track cut from the same cloth as Starfish and Coffee.

Of the eleven tracks only the more overtly commercial, poppier funk number I Rock Therefore I Am and the bizarrely cod-country tinged Right the Wrong don’t quite cut it but there’s still enough outrageous instrumentalism going on to keep things interesting.  The closing track Had U (a slight song, built on a Mellotron-like guitar and vocal), is ostensibly a relationship number but we know it’s really about Warners, with the last words on Prince’s final album under his original contract for the label being “fuck you – had you”.

PCADA

1996 tape in good order, £8 online (late 2015).  Unavailable in any format for a while but look out for that cynical reissue programme anytime now …

 

 

ZZ Top: Fandango! (1975)

Following 1973’s Tres Hombres and released in 1975, Fandango! was ZZ Top’s fourth album. Again produced by Bill Hamm, here the 34 minute running time is divided between a live side and a studio side.   The studio cuts are a match for Tres Hombres in quality but the live element stops it quite equalling its predecessor’s status as a classic.

The three live tracks that make up the first side are good, rough and raw.  Kicking off with Texas Blues perennial Thunderbird (curiously credited to ZZ Top though it’s a Nightcaps cover) and Jailhouse Rock, it’s a covers-heavy set with the only originals a retread of Rio Grande Mud‘s Backdoor Love Affair and a new song Back Door Love Affair No. 2, both here in a medley with Willie Dixon’s Mellow Down Easy and John Lee Hooker’s Long Distance Boogie.  These are enjoyable enough, hard rocking numbers but it’s all fairly heavy-handed, particularly in Backdoor Medley, and the overall effect is one of “you had to be there”.

The six track studio side, however, is a thing of wonder – it’s no mystery that half of the cuts here made it to 1977’s The Best Of ZZ Top. The side kicks off with the brilliantly titled Nasty Dogs and Funky Kings which is a perfect piece of ’70s rock.  Then there’s Blue Jean Blues.  One of the great electric blues ballads, its melancholy air serving as a backdrop for one of the finest blues leads you’ll hear.

Balinese offers up a slice of straightforward Southern rock before the loose-limbed Mexican Blackbird, with its killer slide and affectionately unromantic lyric  (“If you’re down in Acuna and you ain’t up to being alone/Don’t spend all your money on just any honey that’s grown/Go find the Mexican Blackbird and send all your troubles back home”).

Heard It On The X is a propulsive paean to the Mexican radio stations of the ’60s, all of which were known by call signs beginning with an X.  Tush is one of those songs that always seems to have been there (it was probably the Girlschool version I knew first). A stone cold classic.

The part live/part studio format isn’t one that’s easy to get right. ZZ Top tried it again in 1999 with the underrated XXX.  Cream did it in the ’60s with Wheels of Fire, though that was a double with one disc studio and one live; in the ’90s, both Sabbath and the Stones garnished live albums with a couple of studio cuts (Reunion and Flashpoint respectively) but the only other “half-and-half” release which really got it right, that I can think of, is Loudon Wainwright III’s Unrequited (released, like Fandango!, in 1975.  Maybe it was a thing).   The two types of performance and recording often don’t really gel and that’s the issue with Fandango!  The studio side is so damn good you can’t help but want more.

ritualobjectsofsightandsound.wordpress.com - ZZ Top: Fandango!

Original Warners paper labels issue, about £4 online.

Motörhead: No Sleep ’til Hammersmith (1981)

I’ve deliberately avoided writing an obituary-style piece on Lemmy.  There are many of those out there, better and more insightful than anything I might have contributed.  Suffice to say I am a huge fan of Motörhead.  As a musician, they’ve long been a massive influence (I’ll Be Your Sister was a regular part of my solo blues set for a fair few years and the Dog Moon Howl track Punching Walls was intended as a cheeky wee Motörhead nod).  I was looking forward immensely to seeing them in Glasgow this month.  Sadly it wasn’t to be.  Lemmy’s death took the wind out of my sails somewhat, half expected and yet utterly inconceivable – the unstoppable force that stopped.

I’ve been trawling through the albums and various live videos and the likes and in the end the best way I could think of to remember Lemmy was to listen to No Sleep ’til Hammersmith with a Jack Daniel’s or two.  So I did …

Jesus, what a band Motörhead were.  Proof?  Not only did they have Ace of Spades in their arsenal but they could open with it – a great version at that – and not have the gig go downhill from there.  The many highlights here include: Stay Clean, with its awesome bass solo, those great slightly-psych leads from Eddie Clark on Iron Horse and then there’s No Class with its riff lifted from ZZ Top’s Tush, improving on perfection.  Overkill, the template for the entire thrash scene and still the best.  Furious.  Phil Taylor’s drumming.  Oof.  On We Are the Road Crew, Lemmy’s lyrical skills and knack for looking at things from an unexpected perspective bring us a “rock’n’roll excess” song but from a roadie’s vantage point (“Another bloody customs post/Another fucking foreign coast/Another set of scars to boast/We are the road crew”).  Capricorn is a heavy slab of moody psych-rock.  A real favourite of mine, betraying Lemmy’s Hawkwind roots (and, as per his introduction, his idea of a “slow one”!).  His war/militaria obsession comes to the fore in Bomber, as classic as it gets with this version giving the original studio cut a run for its money. Motörhead, the song, finishes things on a high.

No Sleep ’til Hammersmith is one of a clutch of live albums from the ’70s and early ’80s which were arguably their respective artists’ definitive statements.  Certainly, it stands with Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous and UFO’s Strangers in the Night among the greatest of live rock recordings.  It might be perfect.

I always knew – the only way
Is never live – beyond today
They proved me right – they proved me wrong
But they could never last this long
My life – my heart 
Black night – dark star
Capricorn

Tapes For My Walkman - No Sleep 'til Hammersmith

The original Bronze tape refused to play so a Castle reissue made do.

ZZ Top: Tres Hombres (1973)

By 1973, ZZ Top already had two albums under their belts,  ZZ Top’s First Album and Rio Grande Mud, both more-than-decent slabs of blues and hard rock with the promise of something more.  Third album Tres Hombres easily delivered on that promise and proved to be the band’s first major breakthrough.  With the band hitting a career-best as songwriters and performers, the end result is for many their finest moment, both a near-perfect rock album and a definitive contemporary Texas blues album.

Classic cuts abound:  Waitin’ For the Bus and Jesus Just Left Chicago sit so well together here that they’ve stayed that way on compilations and in live sets ever since.  Both are Texas blues anthems, with Jesus… in particular a standout featuring a stunning guitar turn from Billy Gibbons. In contrast, Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers is, as you might imagine, as “straight ahead rock” as it gets.  La Grange, celebrating a famous Texas brothel, starts out as a ringer for The Rolling Stones’ version of Slim Harpo’s Shake Your Hips before owning that arrangement’s John Lee Hooker heritage and taking it down a rocked-up road all its own.

That Stones influence is apparent too on Move It On Down the Line, a sort of lightweight second cousin to Street Fighting Man. Master of Sparks and Precious and Grace are great funky hard rock tracks while Sheik is a step or two further towards hard-edged funk, quoting the riff from Curtis Mayfield’s Freddy’s Dead and likely influencing Prince and the Red Hot Chili Peppers in the process (that Chili Peppers connection is most apparent in the ending, for which the intro to Aeroplane from One Hot Minute is a near soundalike).

There’s a religious element to the lyrics here and there but the themes are not shoved down your throat.  Have You Heard is a gospel number which preaches its damnation-or-salvation message softly: ‘Which way are you comin’ from?  Goin’ up or gettin’ down?”  Countryfied blues Hot, Blue and Righteous employs a similarly light touch while Jesus Just Left Chicago flat-out delights with its mix of Delta and Biblical imagery (“… muddy water turned to wine”).

Everyone here is at the top of their game – Dusty Hill’s gritty bass, Frank Beard’s tough and deceptively intricate drumming, Bill Ham’s pitch-perfect production, the mix of Gibbons’ and Hill’s contrasting vocals – but really this is Gibbons’ masterpiece as a guitarist.  Mixing fat Les Paul and wiry Strat tones, he even pioneers two-handed tapping, both with pick (or rather peso) and fingers, clearly planting the seeds for the likes of Edward Van Halen and Joe Satriani.  His slide playing is masterful too, while the bluesier leads are a clear influence on Stevie Ray Vaughan.

ZZ Top have continued to produce genre-stretching recordings of sheer class over a further four decades (okay, there was a bit of a fallow period in the ’80s when Gibbon’s commendable tendencies towards sonic experimentation led them down a synth-and-drum machine cul-de-sac, and now a new album from them is like chicken’s teeth, but still).  However, they never sounded better than on Tres Hombres.  One of the Great Albums.

ZZ Top Tres Hombres

Original Warner’s tape, paper labels and all that, decent playback, about four quid online.

 

Waylon Jennings: Leavin’ Town (1966)

Leavin’ Town was Waylon Jenning’s third full-length album release, his second for RCA with production by Chet Atkins. Though worth a listen, the album is most notable, as with much of Waylon’s early RCA output, as a prime example of what he would soon be railing against as he went on to spearhead the Outlaw movement.  Here, much of the vibe is conventional, Waylon’s non-mainstream sensibilities just about making themselves felt in the choice of some of the material.

The title track, a Bobby Bare composition, is an enjoyable piece of light country pop given teeth by some stinging lead guitar, likely from Jerry Reed (Atkins’ go-to studio player at the time, present on many of Jennings’ RCA sessions of the mid-’60s). If You Really Want Me To I’ll Go is a standout due to Reed’s unmistakable guitar arrangement, here on Dobro rather than his signature nylon strung instrument.

Next up is a Harlan Hubbard song, with a title losing enough in translation to tickle the funny bones of any British schoolboy.  It’s called Time to Bum Again.  Alright.  Settle down.  Once the culture shock passes it’s a nice enough number with the Dobro to the fore.  There’s more Hubbard balladry later on this side; clearly Waylon was a fan, as the following year he recorded a whole album of Hubbard’s songs (Ol’ Waylon Sings Ol’ Harlan).

The rest of the side is ballad heavy, mostly typical of Nashville’s Countrypolitan sound if a touch more “down home”.  In amongst that there’s the odd welcome Tex-Mex touch, and Time Will Tell the Story, the first Jennings original of the album (his only sole writing credit here).

Side Two shows clear signs of Waylon’s genre-stretching approach with its folkier/rootsier vibe informed in part by the use of writers from a distinctly non-Nashville background, Rod McKuen and Gordon Lightfoot. Kicking the side off, though, is a Mel Tillis number, You’re Gonna Wonder About Me.  It’s good but seriously hampered by overdone “heavenly Chorus” backing vocals.

For Lovin’ Me, the Lightfoot composition, sounds like “proper” Waylon, steeped in his rock and roll origins.  It’s a great track, easily the best on offer here.  However the McKuen song, Doesn’t Anybody Know My Name, is a real relic of its time, suffering from cloying lyrics and more of those overwrought backing vocals.

Anita, You’re Dreaming is a co-write between Waylon and Don Bowman which fits firmly with Waylon’s later ballad style, bringing to mind the likes of This Time.  Falling For You is another Tex-Mex flavoured number surprisingly written by legendary steel player Ralph Mooney who would go on to be a fixture in Waylon’s touring and recording band.  The album finishes with another Jennings/Bowman cowrite in that same ballad style, I Wonder Just Where I Went Wrong, with its brief Doors-like organ break keeping things interesting.

Leavin’ Town is a pleasant enough 29 minutes with a few standout moments. If you’re hoping for Outlaw-style material though, you’d be best to look elsewhere.  As for early Waylon, there are many reissues and compilations drawing on his first, independent and somewhat more rock’n’roll release, JD’s, which are more than worth your time.

Tapes For My Walkman - Waylon Jennings - Leavin' Town

The tape, an ’80s budget reissue in excellent order, was bought for about a quid online.