Difficult to choose amongst so many terrific new releases and reissues this past year, but here’s a short list of noteworthy records (with accompanying playlists where possible) that I believe are worthy of your time.
J-Jazz: Deep Modern Jazz From Japan 1969-1984 (BBE Records)
Aretha Franklin: The Atlantic Singles Collection 1967-1970 (Rhino)
Miles Davis & John Coltrane: The Final Tour/Bootleg Series Vol. 6 (Sony Legacy)
King Crimson: Meltdown in Mexico (DGM)
Last year, I raved about the mighty Crim’s ‘Live in Chicago’. This set, recorded only weeks later, is a qualitatively different beast. It’s difficult (and inaccurate) to continue calling Crim a “prog rock” band. Not even close. Sure, they’re reimagining numerous tracks from a 5 decade(!) career mixed in with new pieces and some improv, but what the Crims are doing now sounds NOTHING like the prog rock from days of yore. The emphasis here is on ROCK, with a three drummer frontline and a five man guitar/guitar/bass/woodwinds/keys backline who are heavy and nimble at the same time, capable of achingly beautiful orchestrated soundscapes one minute and face-melting intensity the next. This BluRay/CD combo is sonically stunning—I’m kinda incredulous that they nailed a mix of eight players making this much noise *THIS* well. Visually, for a straightforward presentation that shows a group of working players performing at the top of their game, it ticks all the right boxes: not too many frequent cutaways, no cheesy/unnecessary effects or CGI, the camera focuses on the right musician(s) at the right time and the camera angles/framing are all spot on. A keeper.
Umphrey’s McGee: it’s not us/it’s you (Nothing Too Fancy)
Drilling down through their deep new album “it’s not us” (not to mention surprise companion album “it’s you” and its sophisticated packaging that included a hidden sidewall with a further surprise 7” single with even MORE music) is what I want to focus on for the moment, the track “You and You Alone”. Mad props to songwriter/guitarist/vocalist Brendan Bayliss for beautifully articulating a complex set of thoughts so authentically. Millions of fathers/husbands have struggled with voicing some variation on this theme and they have fucked it up for decades, but Brendan nailed it and nailed it perfectly. Get on it guys…weddings, births…the sooner you make this the standard it deserves to be, the faster you may save generations men from having to sleep on the couch when all they were trying to do was say the right thing.
Bob Dylan: More Blood, More Tracks Bootleg Series 14, 2LP/1CD edition (Sony Legacy)
This reimagining of the ‘Blood on the Tracks’ works spectacularly for me. I’m a fan of the original album who appreciates its gravitas moreso than a deep student of the record. Nor am I someone for whom the album occupies a special history or carries a deep emotional resonance (I’ve got other breakup albums for that). So without that emotional frame of reference, I think I might even be enjoying this more than the original just from a listening perspective. I’d have to leave it to more of an expert to get into the expansive 6 CD version, a much deeper dive into one of the most iconic albums, ever.
Tom Petty: An American Treasure (Rhino/WMG)
The most aptly titled release of the year. This 63-track collection makes the argument for Petty as one of the all-time great songwriters, lyricists and bandleaders. *SUPERB* work from Petty’s family, bandmates and those who knew him best in curating an excellent balance of hits, hidden gems, alternate takes, live tracks and deeper album cuts that deserve a closer look. Those only familiar with (or perhaps overly familiar with) Petty as a classic rock omnipresence may find themselves surprised at the depth of songcraft and musicianship on display here. Some songs—now recontextualized—can be heard with different ears. For instance, inclusion of four tracks from ‘The Last DJ’—an album many Petty fans might describe as being on the more somber side of Petty’s repertoire—take on a warmer, more inviting tone here even though these are the exact same tracks. Such is the magic of this collection. ‘I Won’t Back Down’—here a slower, world-weary but unwavering rendition performed by Petty with electric guitar, no other instrumentation and the crowd joining on vocals—feels stripped of all dad rock sheen, but leaving the underlying impact intact. There are other places to go if you want the hits, a deep dive into the hidden depths of the vault or if you want to revel in what a great band Petty led. This is the set that tells Petty’s stories and the story of Petty…an American treasure gone too soon.
Frank Zappa: The Roxy Performances (UMe)
Zappa’s multifaceted talents as guitarist, composer, arranger, bandleader and provocateur were brought to life by a series of fantastic bands. The 73/74 ‘Roxy & Elsewhere’ band was among his best (some say top-of-the-heap…me, I’d his best tied with his 88 band) and the double LP and later on double CD and later later on long-awaited film of his 4 day stand at the Roxy are highly regarded in Zappa fan circles. So there was much rejoicing when it was announced that every note of the run was coming out. The wait was worthwhile—this collection has it all. Bonus points to UMe and the Zappa Family Trust for the straightforwardness of this set—instead of loading it up with extra emphemera, they’ve kept the packaging small (thank you!) the cost reasonable at under $50 (thank you!) and the focus on the music and an interesting booklet of informative liner notes & photos. 7 discs of one of the most dangerous bands to have ever stomped the earth. We are lucky to have this.
Woody Shaw: At Onkel PO’s Carnegie Hall Hamburg 1982 (Jazzline/PÖ)
This entire series of live recordings is worth investigating for jazz and blues fans with several terrific titles from Freddie Hubbard, Albert Collins and Elvin Jones available as well. But this Woody Shaw recording is one of those “where have you been all my life?” listens. There are quite a few live Woody Shaw archival releases out there, many of which are quite good but there was something in the water on the night of 13 Jan 1982 and this quintet was ON FIRE. Woody Shaw is on trumpet and flugelhorn, backed by his well-rehearsed quintet of the era which included Steve Turre – trombone; Mulgrew Miller – piano; Stafford James – bass; & Tony Reedus – drums. Sound is really terrific as the band stretch out across five long tracks. This is peak-era Shaw. Do not miss it.
The Grateful Dead: Pacific Northwest ’73-’74 The Complete Recordings (Rhino/Grateful Dead)
The “Birdsong” alone from the epic 6/22/73 show is proof that on the right night, the Grateful Dead were the best band gracing a stage anywhere on planet earth. This box is filled with many such moments, and despite having several of these shows as nicely recorded soundboards for years, this box still sounds like a revelation. There’s a 3-CD highlights available for those who might not want to take the plunge, but I really suggest plunging. This is some of the best Grateful Dead music ever played and the sound will blow your mind.