When each year ends, it’s human nature to look back on the previous twelve months and reflect on the changes in the world around you, and within you. Such reflection often leads to new insights and revelations, but this year, I got nothin’. It was business as usual. I drifted through the year marking the days and months by the music I was listening to, and now it’s time to empty my head of all that so I can make room for more of the same in 2016.
To paraphrase Led Zeppelin, the format remains the same. New Releases are at the top, followed by a trio of sections spotlighting Reissues, the Best Singles of the Year, Finds of the Year, Best Music Reads, Most Played Artists of the Year, Label and Artist of the Year. Each list is prefaced by a short paragraph detailing in the vaguest of ways, what’s on the list. As always, nearly everything was bought and paid for with money I earned. So if it’s on the list, I considered it money well spent. Consider that an additional recommendation if one is needed. I hope you see something you want to add to your Internet stream.
This year’s Top Ten features a nice mix of brand new acts and gray beards side by side. No Pier Pressure by Brian Wilson was, by far, the record I played most in 2015. It’s not a perfect record, but it’s a great listen from beginning to end, and there are a half dozen songs on it as good as anything in Wilson’s entire catalog – and that’s saying something extraordinary at this late date.
Gospelbeach, formed from the remains of the expired Beachwood Sparks owes much to the architects of the West Coast sound as it evokes a more rustic California, but one no less drenched in sunshine and good vibrations. David Gilmour proved he is the keeper of the Pink Floyd sound by making a solo record that sounds like the band while sounding like a David Gilmour solo record, and Keith Richards returned with his first solo record in years, and reminded everyone that he is more alive than you’ll ever be. Ornette Coleman’s New Vocabulary record appeared with no fanfare in January, and was the immediate subject of a lawsuit because it had not been authorized by Coleman’s estate. I have no idea where the lawsuit stands, and I’m not certain the album is still available for sale anywhere. If it is, I recommend it highly. It’s different, but bears Ornette’s trademark sound, and because he now resides in the heavens, is invaluable to fans of his music. Van Morrison revisited some of the less celebrated, but no less superb recordings from his catalog with an ear for updating and re-imagining how they might sound with some hand-picked special guests bringing their talents to the festivities. As always, he succeeds on every level because the best songwriting and chops always rise to the occasion.
Datura4 has a fine rock & roll pedigree, and they made a great classic rock record just when it seemed someone had pulled the plug on that style. Whitesnake made a Deep Purple record the same year Deep Purple finally got inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and Purple founder/guitarist Ritchie Blackmore announced his return to rock in 2016 with the reformation of his post-Purple band Rainbow. I never stopped listening to the originals, but Whitesnake did them justice, and I welcome the opportunity to revisit the catalog no matter who’s playing the songs. Bob Dylan paid tribute to songwriters he loves and appreciates by cutting an album of songs Frank Sinatra could love (and in some cases, also recorded). And Mike Stax not only publishes one of the two best music magazines still published in 2015 (Ugly Things), but he has a band called The Loons that cut a new, and impressive garage-psych pop record that would’ve sounded good in any century, but is especially welcome in this one. It’s fitting the record is on one of rock’s oldest, and best indie labels, Bomp.
TOP TEN NEW RELEASES
1. No Pier Pressure – Brian Wilson (Capitol)
2. Pacific Surf Line – Gospelbeach (Alive Naturalsound)
3. Rattle That Lock – David Gilmour (Columbia)
4. Cross-eyed Heart – Keith Richards (Mindless)
5. New Vocabulary – Ornette Coleman (System Dialing)
6. Duets: Reworking The Catalogue – Van Morrison (RCA)
7. Demon Blues – Datura4 (Alive Naturalsound)
8. The Purple Album – Whitesnake (Frontiers)
9. Shadows In The Night – Bob Dylan (Columbia)
10. Inside Out Your Mind – The Loons (Bomp)
The reissue business is steady these days as artists and labels continue to sift through the ashes of the crashed and burned record industry for remnants of better days. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they don’t. This year produced mostly collections of previously released material in new configurations, studio outtakes and demos from landmark or forgotten records, and a plethora of live concerts that remind everyone of a time when the concert business was booming, too. The Rolling Stones label was very active with their From The Vault series of reissues, and the three listed below are gems. These packages come with both audio and video media, and Stones fans need deep pockets to maintain pace with the band. But it’s a good problem to have. Atlantic’s Progeny set by Yes (I bought the 2 disc version rather than the 14 CD set) spotlights the incredible year the band had in 1972 when it released one of the two greatest albums of all-time, Close To The Edge, and then took that record on the road to adoring fans. Omnivore Records is restoring to print some of the lost classics from the late 70’s/early 80’s West Coast rock scene, and in 2015 resurrected what was maybe the defining record of that period, Dream Syndicate’s The Days of Wine and Roses. Meanwhile, Sundazed Records continues to keep the 60’s alive and this year issued a pair of live essentials by two of the era’s most respected, and revered bands, The Standells, and Shadows of Knight.
To get a good anthology you need good source material, access, and purpose. There was no better shining example of that this year than Steve Howe’s (Yes guitarist) Anthology on Rhino spanning his entire solo career. Beautifully packaged and annotated, the set makes the case that had he not been a key member of one of the greatest bands in rock history that Steve Howe would’ve forged a sterling solo career anyway, and established himself as a master of the guitar even without his associates in Yes. A great listen from beginning to end.
The twelfth installment of Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series on Columbia, The Best of The Cutting Edge 1965-1966, collects the essential unreleased recordings from Dylan’s most fertile and groundbreaking period. Crypt Records somehow discovered two more discs of classic, lost and forgotten garage rock by bands you never heard, or don’t remember. One of Alive Naturalsound’s contributions to Record Store Day in 2015 was a collection of fantastic power pop by a band that defined that genre as well as any other, Shoes. Alive also resurrected recordings by DM3, a less celebrated, but no less important power pop act of that late 70’s/80’s era, too. And Alive celebrated its 20th anniversary by issuing a 2 record set for Record Store Day that samples the best of what the label has to offer right now.
It was a good year for box sets as well, although I was usually confined to the less expensive versions rather than the deluxe models. But the smaller sets are often far more listenable, and concise in presentation.
Bruce Springsteen’s The Ties That Bind: The River Collection brings together the original album, the earlier, unreleased single disc, and very different version of the two record set, an album of unreleased tracks, a video documentary, and a 2 DVD concert from The River tour in 1980 at Tempe, Arizona. The material recorded for The River is far richer than even the material that surfaced as The Promise from the Darkness On The Edge of Town sessions. It is, arguably, Springsteen’s finest hour, although you could make that case about the previous two records as well. Bottom line is that if you ever loved Springsteen, and his records mattered to you the way they did to me, this is a set you must own.
Columbia Records has done a real service to its greatest jazz artist, Miles Davis, by reissuing all of his work for the label in beautifully packaged box sets over the past several years. At Newport 1955-1975, a collection of the trumpeter’s performances at the jazz festival spanning three decades and 20 years of work looked, on paper at least, to be one of the lesser sets in Columbia’s series simply because Miles’s music evolved so much in that span that the set would surely prove to be a quality, but uneven listen at best. After all, there are many Miles fans that love his jazz groups, but find his electric ensemble records unlistenable. I’m not one of those, however, so this latest box, is, for me, the best buy in the whole lot because it showcases the evolution of Miles’s genius, and his facility as a bandleader and performer. These performances are brilliant across the board, and if you only wanted to own one Miles Davis box that was representative of his entire body of work for the label, this is the one.
The Velvet Underground remain popular with labels as reissue subjects, but that’s proving far more difficult with each passing year because the band was only actively recording for about four years, and nothing of their live history was preserved by either of their record labels at the time. All that has ever been available are bootleg tapes that surfaced after the band broke up. While Cotillion’s Live At Max’s Kansas City was certainly a valuable document, it wasn’t definitive. Polydor’s 1974 double record set, 1969 was better, but wasn’t there more? As a matter of fact, there was The Quine Tapes, issued by Polydor several years back. And there are a few more bootlegs with very rough sound making the rounds as well. But there was nothing definitive – until now. Polydor has rounded up the Matrix recordings from 1969 in San Francisco, done a remarkable job remastering the sound, and presented four separate shows in a single box as The Complete Matrix Tapes. David Fricke’s superb liner notes detail the entire history, and what we finally get, after decades of waiting, is an essential, and definitive live Velvet Underground experience. Some of this material surfaced in inferior form on both 1969 and The Quine Tapes, but this is something else altogether. You won’t believe how good this sounds. And what a series of performances! It’s mind blowing from beginning to end.
Even though England’s The Jam was never a big commercial proposition in America, thanks to their continuing worldwide popularity, Polydor has, once again, returned to the band for yet another box set. Fire and Skill collects six separate, previously unissued live shows spanning the band’s career from 1977-1982. The Jam was, in addition to being great makers of studio records, an extraordinary live act. That’s well documented in prior live releases, and a DVD collection released years ago. But this latest offering is probably the definitive live document of the band, and a perfect companion to the Direction Reaction Creation box of complete studio recordings. It’s also one of the most attractive box set packages I’ve seen in some time with a book, and collection of photos included.
Rubble, garage rock specialists, had issued a series of highly regarded garage rock collections from the late 1960’s under the title Acid Dreams. Now we get a 5 CD box (The Ultimate Acid Dreams Collection) that collects the originals, and the best recommendation I can give this set is to tell you that I’m someone with a huge collection of garage rock, (and all but ten of the 90-plus tracks presented here were not in my collection already), and as far as I’m concerned, it’s as important to the genre’s recorded history as Nuggets, Pebbles, the Back From The Grave series, Teenage Shutdown, or Psychedelic States sets. There truly seems to be no end in sight for finding quality garage rock from that very fertile period from 1965-1969.
Though I’m hardly an expert on classical music, I know what I like. When I use to work as music department manager at a Borders store that specialized in classical music, I was smart enough to hire people who knew the music far better than I did, and I was smart enough, too, to grill my employees almost daily about what they liked, and why. One of my best people told me that his favorite artist was a pianist named Martha Argerich, and he insisted I get acquainted with her work. I trusted his judgment, and I did exactly that. Over the past twenty years, I’ve added several of her recordings to my collection, but I had none of her work with conductor Claudio Abbaddo. So when Deutsche Grammophon issued the pair’s Complete Concerto Recordings on 5 CD’s spanning 45 years, and at a bargain price, I reached for my wallet. After 20 years listening to Argerich, I’ve yet to hear anything that’s less than extraordinary. It’s some of the best musical advice ever given to me. Argerich brings the same passion and fire to her work that the greatest artists in any genre do.
TOP RE-ISSUES (ORIGINAL)
1. The Marquee Club 1971 – Rolling Stones (Rolling Stones)
2. Progeny: Highlights From Seventy-Two – Yes (Atlantic)
3. Live At The Tokyo Dome – Rolling Stones (Rolling
4. Live in Leeds: Roundhay Park 1982 – Rolling Stones
5. The Days of Wine and Roses – Dream Syndicate
6. Live On Tour 1966! – The Standells (Sundazed)
7. Live 1966 – Shadows of Knight (Sundazed)
TOP RE-ISSUES (ANTHOLOGIES)
1. Anthology – Steve Howe (Rhino)
2. The Bootleg Series: Vol. 12 – The Best of The Cutting
Edge 1965-1966 – Bob Dylan (Columbia) (2 CD)
3. Back From The Grave Vols. 9 & 10 – Various (Crypt)
4. Primal Vinyl – Shoes (Alive Naturalsound)
5. West of Anywhere – DM3 (Alive Naturalsound)
6. Rock & Roll Is A Beautiful Thing/Alive 20th Anniversary
– Various (Alive Naturalsound) (2LP)
TOP RE-ISSUES (BOX SETS)
1. The Ties That Bind: The River Collection – Bruce
Springsteen & the E Street Band (Columbia/Legacy)
2. At Newport 1955-1975 – Miles Davis (Columbia/Legacy)
3. The Complete Matrix Tapes – The Velvet Underground
4. Fire and Skill – The Jam (Polydor) (6CD)
5. The Ultimate Acid Dreams Collection – Various (Rubble)
6. Complete Concerto Recordings – Martha Argerich &
Claudio Abbado (DG) (5CD)
As you might imagine, the increase in vinyl prices extended to 45’s as well – when you could even find something worth buying. But both Norton and Bomp have held the line to some degree, not allowing prices to skyrocket as they have for vinyl everywhere else. Four of my five best 45 buys of the year came from Norton, while the remaining title, a repro came from Bomp. Norton’s Bobby Fuller Four demo of I Fought The Law is fantastic. I like it as much as I do the original hit. So it was an easy choice for the top spot. Norton’s Rolling Stones Tribute Series continued, and one of my favorite garage bands, The Fleshtones, added their name to the long list of contributors with a cover of Gotta Get Away. The Seeds single came from a new version of the Raw & Alive LP, while the Kim Fowley hit was a straight reissue of the original record. Both have nice picture sleeves. A couple of hundred years ago I bought a Pebbles album from Bomp mail order, and flipped for a song called Swami by the William Penn Fyve. Swami is one of my all-time favorite garage classics, so when I saw that Bomp had a repro of the original I had to get it. It’s one thing to collect garage rock on various artist albums and CD’s, but it’s much cooler to have the best of them on 45, the way they were meant to be heard.
1. I Fought The Law (Demo) – Bobby Fuller Four
2. Swami – William Penn Fyve (Thunderbird)
3. Gotta Get Away – The Fleshtones (Norton)
4. Night Time Girl – The Seeds (Norton)
5. The Trip – Kim Fowley (Norton)
Finds of the Year has long been my favorite section of this year-end roundup because every title listed is something I either knew nothing of, or had not intended to add to my collection. They had flown under the radar, and suddenly surfaced and have become treasured additions to my collection. Because these are such a mixed bag of artists and genres, I don’t rank them. But I recommend them highly.
FINDS OF THE YEAR (In Order of Acquisition)
The Art of Conversation – Kenny Barron & Dave Holland
Bremen-Lausanne Solo Concerts – Keith Jarrett (ECM)
Two Sides of Peter Banks (Lilith)
Live At Hammersmith Odeon, 1975 – Todd Rundgren’s
Johnny Burnette & The Rock & Roll Trio (Wax Time)
Hallucination Generation – The Fuzztones (Lilith) (2LP)
Classic Masters – Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose
In Greenwich Village – Albert Ayler (Impulse)
Small Craft On A Small Sea – Brian Eno w/ Jon
Hopkins & Leo Abrahams (Opal)
Hidden Treasures – Dave Davies/The Kinks (Sanctuary)
Evening Star – Fripp & Eno (DGM)
Wasted Words: The Havoc 45’s – The Motions
Highway Call – Richard Betts (Capricorn)
#8 – J.J. Cale (Mercury)
Neither One of Us – Gladys Knight & The Pips (Soul)
Live at the BBC…and Beyond – Rolling Stones (Coda)
Finjan Club, Montreal, Canada 7.2.62 – Bob Dylan (BDA)
Live At The Agora, Cleveland, Ohio – The Runaways
LABEL OF THE YEAR
This year’s choice for label of the year is really two labels, brother and sister labels under the same roof sharing a mail order operation, and a husband and wife team I’m proud to call friends, Suzy Shaw, and Patrick Boissel. Bomp, one of the greatest (maybe the greatest of all independent labels) is really a mail order business now (and the only one I’ve been able to count on every time), but Suzy and Patrick still issue the odd title on the Bomp imprint now and then (this year’s Top 10 entry by The Loons, for example). Bomp is the reason I created The Recordchanger. It was the music I was getting from them – both on and off the label by mail order that made me want to write and spread the word about what they were doing. Alive Naturalsound came along a few years after I began buying from Bomp, and quickly became, in my opinion, the finest independent record label in the world today. There’s a great mix of quality, original recordings by young bands and archival material licensed from long forgotten, but important labels and artists whose work deserves to be made available again. Alive’s releases have so dominated my Top 10 lists over the past few years, that I often worried that people saw me as a shill for the label, and an “under-the-table” employee on the take. I was neither. What I am is a fan of the label, its artists, and the way they do business. Since this is the final edition of The Recordchanger, I thought it fitting that I honor them one more time. That, and they had a helluva great year! After all, they’re represented in this year’s Top 10, the reissues lists, 45’s, and some of the titles in the Finds section came from Bomp mail order, too. Suzy and Patrick, thank you for everything.
ARTIST OF THE YEAR
Brian Wilson is, in my opinion, the greatest composer/producer/musician of my lifetime. Musically, he invented the state of California, and his influence is widespread, and ongoing. He is also enjoying something of a renaissance in his career, and is, in the 21st century, more than 50 years after his career began, doing some of the best work of his entire life. There is simply no one with a better ear for melody and harmony than Brian Wilson. When Brian’s music plays anywhere in the world, the sun comes out. We’re truly blessed that he is still with us, and still making records.
BEST MUSIC READS OF THE YEAR
From The Velvets To The Voidoids by Clinton Heylin
This Is Reggae Music by Lloyd Bradley
One Way Out – Alan Paul
Ain’t It Time We Said Goodbye by Robert Greenfield
Goodbye 20th Century by David Browne
Record Collector Magazine
Ugly Things Magazine
I read a number of good music bios and histories this year. Clinton Heylin’s book From The Velvets To The Voidoids is the best treatment I’ve read of the genesis of the punk/new wave era. Lloyd Bradley’s This Is Reggae Music is the definitive history of reggae, as well as being the best-researched, best-written music book I’ve ever read. Alan Paul’s One Way Out is a verbal history of The Allman Brothers Band as told by those who lived it. Paul did an excellent job of collating and organizing the interviews into a readable narrative. Highly recommended, and the last, best word on the band. Robert Greenfield contributed another fine book to the growing Rolling Stones bookshelf with Ain't It Time We Said Goodbye, a story that catches the band at a career crossroads. And though it took me until the band had dissolved to get around to reading it, David Browne’s history of Sonic Youth, Goodbye 20th Century, was compelling and an essential contribution to post modern music history.
I only read two music magazines regularly now. Record Collector out of England, and Ugly Things, the brainchild of musician Mike Stax (The Loons) are both thoroughly enjoyable, and do what good music magazines have always done – push you to seek out the music they’re writing about. I wouldn’t be without either of them.
TOP TEN MOST PLAYED ARTISTS OF THE YEAR
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band
One more personal note: this is the final entry to The Recordchanger blog. Even on my best days I recognize my insignificance and irrelevance when it comes to my place in the world, but nowhere is that more evident than in a blog written in an age when everyone blogs, but few read, and what’s more, a blog about music chronicling a time when musicians still make music, but few listen, and almost nobody wants to pay for it. It’s time to stop writing, and just listen and read. There is still much to learn, and it’s easier to do that once you stop talking. I appreciate all those who took the time to read anything I ever wrote. I hope you found that time well spent. The blog will remain online for a while longer, but entries will gradually be deleted until there are no more entries. I reserve the right to retain the name for my Facebook page if I so choose, and my musical pursuits will still be detailed there, if less formally. Thanks again, and goodbye.