Maybe 90 percent of the music blogs on the Internet deal with currently popular rock and rap. The rest of the musical universe is left to the other 10 percent. Classic R&B and soul music blogs are a particularly fertile region on a normal week, and this week, many of them are memorializing James Brown--so be sure to visit The Stepfather of Soul, Soul Sides, and Funky16Corners. There are a few blogs that deal with classic country and/or early rock, such as Living in Stereo (whose Brown obit is brief and marvelous) and Big Rock Candy Mountain. The best jazz blog I know of is Jazz and Conversation, but it hasn't been updated since September and may well be defunct.
This blog is about our Top 40 past, both on records and on the radio. (For what it's worth, we don't seem to have much direct competition in our topic area.) Although every post in the present is informed by that past, we're not entirely about the past. In fact, I've probably bought and/or listened to more new music in 2006 than in any recent year. Here are some of the notable albums, in no particular order, at first.
Other People's Lives/Ray Davies. A friend recommended this to me right after it came out, but I didn't rush out and get it, mostly because I'd heard one track and didn't like it. When I finally picked it up, I was surprised to learn that the single track I'd heard wasn't representative of the album as a whole--a batch of wry and well-crafted tunes that brings Davies' reputation as a keen observer and creator of memorable characters right into the 21st century. Key track: "Is There Life After Breakfast."
Pay the Devil/Van Morrison. In which Van sings country standards and his own compositions backed by shimmering steel guitars and whispery mixed choruses. His voice is too idiosyncratic to make this album an heir to the Jim Reeves/Eddy Arnold/Patsy Cline "Nashville Sound" of the 1960s, but that's the closest box you could put it in. But then again, the album's very existence is evidence of Morrison's refusal to be put in boxes of any sort. Key track: "There Stands the Glass."
Black Cadillac/Rosanne Cash. Next to Donald Fagen's Morph the Cat (about which more below), this was the new 2006 release I most wanted to hear. It was also the one that took me the longest to embrace. Cash wrote the songs on the album in response to the deaths of her father, mother, and stepmother over a 15-month period, and they're by far the darkest songs of her career. Stay with 'em and they become the most gorgeous and heartfelt. Key tracks: "Radio Operator," "God Is in the Roses."
Nothing But the Water/Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. There was a minor brouhaha in Paste magazine earlier this year over a snide review of a John Mayer album that suggested he couldn't credibly sing the blues because he hadn't suffered enough. I don't know if suffering is necessary to credibly sing the blues, but if it is, Grace Potter must have suffered something awful--and her band can rock. You'd have to make room for her at the head table of contemporary female blues singers with Bonnie Raitt and Susan Tedeschi. Key tracks: "Joey," "Toothbrush and My Table."
All the Roadrunning/Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris. These two had been trying for several years to make a record together, and it was worth the wait. I've said something like this before: It's great to hear so many songs in which an adult listener can easily recognize oneself. Key tracks: "This Is Us," "Red Staggerwing," "Love and Happiness for You."
Modern Times/Bob Dylan. No jokes about Dylan's singing, please--he sounds fine here for a guy in his 60s who never had the world's greatest voice to begin with. His band is in fine form, too. I've seen a few critics' lists picking this as the top album of the year. I don't know enough to say that, but I like it. Key track: "The Levee's Gonna Break."
We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions/Bruce Springsteen. Once you get past just how odd it is to hear old-school hootenanny music again, this album is terrific. It's great to hear how much fun Springsteen and his musicians are having. Not all of it works, but what does is magnificent. The real revelation in the wake of The Seeger Sessions has come thanks to music bloggers, chiefly Pete at ickmusic, who have posted tracks from various live shows around the world that give us the chance to hear earlier Springsteen songs such as "Cadillac Ranch" reworked into Seeger mode. Key tracks: "Jacob's Ladder" and "Pay Me My Money Down" which is my favorite single of the year.
My favorite album of 2006 is . . . .
Morph the Cat/Donald Fagen. Worthy of standing alongside Aja as a creative triumph, Morph the Cat sounds better to me every time I listen to it--the songs are some of Fagen's best, and the band is simply wicked tight. The biggest disappointment of the year, however, was that Fagen didn't perform any songs from Morph when Steely Dan went on tour this summer. As good as the Dan's Milwaukee show was, a live version of "Security Joan" would have been the highlight of it. Other key tracks: "What I Do," "Rhymes."
("Security Joan" is a WMA file; buy a deluxe CD/DVD edition of The Seeger Sessions here; buy Morph the Cat here.)
Coming tomorrow: A few words about a few other artists I've dug this year.