It's that time again, so let's just get to it.
The list isn't in any order. I'm too much of a chicken to call any one, let alone all 22 "the best of 2019." There are too many records out there. These are the records...that aren't "The Who Sell Out"...that I've played the most this year. My favorites. They are separated into halves: the bottom half and the top half. I think you can figure that out. But if you can't, I love the Bottom 11 and I really, really love the Top 11.
(in no particular order)
V/A- RED, GOLD, GREEN AND BLUE
The mastermind and curator of this absolutely wonderful collection of reggae legends covering the blues is Zak Starkey. Mykal Rose, Robbie Shakespeare, Andrew Tosh, Freddie McGregor and Toots Hibbert all appear, delivering truly inspiring performances of songs you might think you're tired of hearing. But this record is special, for Toots & The Maytals version of Peter Green's classic, "Man Of The World" alone.
VAN MORRISON- THREE CHORDS & THE TRUTH
"Scorecards! Get your scorecards! Can't tell a new Van Morrison album from another without yer scorecards!" I think the number is six. Six Van Morrison albums in the last three years! But I am not going to let that get in the way of my pleasure. They've been solid. Scouts honor. Starting with 2016's "Keep Me Singing" and finishing up with "Three Chords & The Truth," Van's brilliant vocal phrasing sounds as if he is at the top of his game and while each of his last four double albums contained covers of standards and reworkings of Van originals, "Three Chords" is all Van and for now, it is my favorite of the lot.
LEYLA MCCALLA- THE CAPITALIST BLUES
Leyla McCalla was the cellist in the Carolina Chocolate Drops and in 2010, she moved to New Orleans, to hone her craft on the streets of the French Quarter. Her 2016 solo debut was terrific, but she really hits the mark on "The Capitalist Blues." McCalla covers a lot of musical ground here--- Bessie Smith blues, upbeat Cajun swing, Haitian rhythms and more, all with that special New Orleans flavor. And the playing is superb. "The Capitalist Blues" is pure joy from head to tail.
LUCILLE FURS-ANOTHER LAND
Every note on "Another Land" sounds as if it received nods of approval from a panel consisting of Syd Barrett, Marc Bolan, Rod Argent and Ray Davies. Not bad for some kids from Chicago, Illinois. This is Lucille Furs second record and I loved it more and more with each spin. "Another Land" does not feel like parody. Retro bands can flop miserably, simply for trying too hard to be like their heroes. Lucille Furs rises above that by writing solid songs. Great stuff!
THE RAILS- CANCEL THE SUN
Loyal readers will know by now that I love The Rails. Their debut, "Fair Warning" was my favorite record of the year for two years in a row. That's how much I loved that record. "Cancel The Sun" is their third, and Kami Thompson (daughter of Richard & Linda) and husband, Pretenders guitarist James Walbourne have expanded their musical horizons a bit further from the British folk of their debut. The sublime harmonies are still there. While some of the harder rocking tunes don't quite work for me, "Cancel The Sun" has one of the most perfect Side Twos in recent memory, including my favorite song of the year, by anyone, "Something Is Slipping My Mind."
LUTHER RUSSELL- MEDIUM COOL
It can be argued that Big Star is one of the most influential bands in the history of music. Amazing, considering their limited output and short life span. And while labels continue to clear out the vaults of every burp and grunt created by the band, and young bands, power pop or not, cite Chilton and Bell as heroes, Luther Russell somehow managed to nail the Big Star sound on "Medium Cool," a collection of originals that admittedly sounds a little too much like that band. But Russell does it so well, I don't care. If you can't have the real thing, "Medium Cool" does the trick better than anything else.
JEFF LYNNE'S ELO- FROM OUT OF NOWHERE
Yes, it contains a song that sounds like Roy Orbison. And a song that sounds like The Beatles. And another song that sounds like Roy Orbsion. And a few that sound like ELO. But, so what? When you can create perfect pop tunes and sing and harmonize as well as Jeff Lynne, I'll take it any day of the week. Lynne deserves this late career revival as much as anyone and the ten songs on "From Out Of Nowhere" make me very happy.
CHUCK MEAD- CLOSE TO HOME
The first time I heard Chuck Mead I didn't realize it was Chuck Mead. The tune was "Little Ramona's Gone Hillbilly Nuts" by BR5-49, a song I fell in love with back in 1996 and still love madly now, and Chuck Mead was singing it. Then, back in June, a friend posted a tune from a new album by Chuck Mead. I listened and loved it, still not realizing he was in BR5-49. I bought his new record "Close To Home," and listened and loved it! "Close To Home" is a fantastic album recorded in Nashville and released on Plowboy Records. Give these tracks a spin. Chuck Mead is a great writer, smart, occasionally hilarious, and always sincere. The songs have just the right amount of twang versus pop, which makes it easy to love and hard to pigeonhole.
LAKOU MIZIK- HAITIANOLA
"Lakou Mizik is a powerhouse collective of Haitian musicians united in a mission to use the healing spirit of music to communicate a message of pride, strength, and hope for their country." That is taken directly from their website. I would have known nothing about this new record, "HaitiaNola" if not for my friend Michael Giltz who is aware of my love of New Orleans and gave me a heads up on the special guests helping out Lakou Mizik. Jon Cleary, Trombone Shorty, Cyril Neville, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Leyla McCalla, The Soul Rebels and more offer their love and chops on this truly joyous and infectious collection of music.
THE JAY VONS- THE WORD
I just wrote about this record a few days ago, and it's been spinning ever since. At long last, a full length from this retro soul band, who make you forget from the first minute of song one, that this record is brand new. Before I go on, let me say this about The Jay Vons, Daptone Records, Crytopvision Records and the entire family, immediate and extended, of musicians and singers doing the whole retro soul thang. It ain't all good. At times, I find it gimmicky and a bit forced. All style, no subtance. Taking advantage of a recording technique and creating records that almost sound vintage is fun for awhile, until you realize, there are far too many real things out there, A-listers through D-listers, "chitlin circuit" players who 50 and 60 years later are still paying their dues playing small town stomps, doing two and three tunes a night along with a dozen other might-have-beens on the line-up. It makes it hard, at least for me, to get behind some bridge and tunnel kids, holed up in a Brooklyn studio making fake soul records. But it's not all like that. Sharon Jones was the shit. And so are The Jay Vons.
As you may (or may not) recall, I did not drink the Alabama Shakes kool aid. Yet, I was completely sold on Brittany Howard's first single "History Repeats." Thankfully, the rest of the record did not disappoint. "Jaime" reminds me of the best experiments of Prince, Sly Stone and even Miles Davis. This album unfolds nicely and is best listened to as a whole. A solid release and a lot fresher than Howard's work with the Shakes.
THE TOP 11
(in no particular order)
THE WHO- WHO
Not in a million, trillion years would I have expected to love a new Who record as much as I love "WHO." Is it "The Who Sell Out?" Of course not. Nothing is, damnit! NOTHING IS! Is it "Who's Next?" No, not even close. But it is truly wonderful, because of what it isn't and that is trying too hard. This is a collection of solid Pete Townshend songs, played with mature restraint, and sung by one of the greatest voices in rock and roll, Roger Daltrey. There are just enough elements of The Who you've grown to love scattered throughout, and when you notice them, the record gets even better. I am both thrilled and relieved by "WHO."
RICKIE LEE JONES- KICKS
The first of three covers albums to appear in my Top 11, "Kicks" finds Miss Rickie Lee Jones surrounded by some of New Orleans elite for a collection of what seems like a random collection of tunes...until you listen to the album. Songs by Bad Company, America, Steve Miller, Benny Goodman, Skeeter Davis and Elton John all sound wonderful and fresh, thanks to arrangements that take a chance. And Rickie Lee's one and only vocal delivery is as strong as ever. This record will not bore you. "Kicks" is what a covers record should be.
WILCO- ODE TO JOY
This one took some time, and seeing these songs performed live certainly helped matters, but "Ode To Joy" is not a record to be taken lightly. And if you are a fan of Wilco, you owe it to yourself and to Jeff Tweedy and company to live with this record. Forget the current state of streaming, playlists, YouTubing and Facebook DJ-ing, and think back to some of the greatest days and nights of your life, ripping open the shrink on a new album and listening to it over and over until you could afford to buy another. THAT is how to listen to music and that is how "Ode To Joy" became one of my favorite records of the year.
BINKY PHILIPS & THE PLANETS- ESTABLISHED 1972 NYC
"Established 1972, NYC" is the debut from The Planets, who have have been around the block and back. This is a band that was all over the NYC rock and punk scene in the 70's; a band that came this close...I'm holding my thumb and forefinger about 1/2" apart...to signing a major label deal; a band that skillfully used their almost fifty years of chops and created an original record with both grime and finesse, in a brilliant, fast fucking assault that clocks in at just a second or two under 30 minutes. This is my kind of record! Your fearless leader of all this is Binky Philips, who manages to sound fresh while still serving up his best "Live At Leeds" Pete Townshend and "Anderson Theatre" Jimmy Page on his guitar. This album is relentless with its earworms. One listen to "Goodbye To All That," and you're done. You'll be singing the refrain for hours. The very best thing about "Established 1972 NYC" is that it evokes the best parts of your heroes without an obvious reveal. The ten original songs are utterly and completely Planets songs and I am finding it hard to choose a favorite, though the groove laid out by Bobby Siems on the album closer, "Wear Out The Grooves" is to die for. (What can I say? I'm a drummer. I hear drums first!)
JOEL PATERSON- LET IT BE GUITAR!
The second of three covers records in my Top 11 is from guitarist extraordinaire Joel Paterson. I know, I know. We need a Beatles covers record in 2019 like we need a hot Vicks enema. But dagblummit, when the playing is this spectacular, and the melodies are this good, and the arrangements are this smart, I say, "Bring on the Vicks!"
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN- WESTERN STARS
Haters gonna hate. That's okay. I'm guilty of it, too. But I can't hate "Western Stars" because I love music too much. If you're still sitting around waiting for another "Rosalita," you are gonna die in your beach chair. But if you want to hear one of America's greatest storytellers age gracefully while taking you to yet more new places, at least for him, listen to The Boss on "Western Stars." It's a stunning, sweeping collection of songs evoking your favorite AM hits of the 70's and more. Well done, sir. A real beauty.
ALISON MOORER- BLOOD
Alison Moorer has been making records for years, but most have been lost on me. She has a wonderful voice and she can certainly write a song. But it wasn't until her collaboration of covers with her sister Shelby Lynne, 2017's "Not Dark Yet," that I got on board. I wish I could tell you the precise reason why 20 years of prior recording failed to pique my interest. But I can't. Wrong place, wrong time, I guess. Now seems to be the right time, as her new release, "Blood," the companion to her memoir of the same name, has really shaken me up. Moorer's not so secret life includes among other things, a divorce from husband Steve Earle, and of course, the 1986 murder-suicide of her parents, both of which I imagine take up more than a few pages in the book. While I plan on reading the memoir, until then, "Blood," the album, gets heavy rotation, thanks to some truly amazing songs, like the beautifully heartbreaking "I'm The One To Blame," a song with lyrics written by her father and found in a box, or "All I Wanted (Thanks Anyway)," a song Jagger & Richards have been trying to write since 1975.
ANDY BURROWS & MATT HAIG- REASONS TO STAY ALIVE
Best selling author Matt Haig's 2015 memoir "Reasons To Stay Alive," about living with severe depression is now the subject of a musical collaboration with singer/songwriter and Razorlight drummer Andy Burrows. Released earlier this year, "Reasons To Stay Alive," the album, is a stunning, moving and completely musical collection of songs that manages to be both joyful and uplifting despite the subject matter. An NME review of the album, mentions both Queen and Elton John as influences, but aside from the occasional layered harmonies and the presence of a piano, I don't really hear either. What I hear is a perfectly crafted set of adult songs and smart yet restrained production. There is certainly a 70's feel to "Reasons To Stay Alive," but to say it resembles any one artist would be selling it short.
THE CLAYPOOL LENNON DELIRIUM- SOUTH OF REALITY
For a short time in 1991, I got a kick out of Primus, the offbeat punk/funk/in-joke trio led by the interminably obnoxious Les Claypool. I particularly loved "Tommy The Cat," a song highlighted by a killer Tom Waits cameo. For an even shorter time, I thought I enjoyed Sean Lennon's attempts at making indie music, but quickly grew bored. Then, my friend sends me the video for "Blood & Rockets," a new single (!) from The Claypool Lennon Delirium, taken from their second release "South Of Reality" and suddenly I am no longer offended by Claypool's sophomoric sense of humor and no longer bored with Mr. Lennon. Quite the contrary! "South Of Reality" is a smart, exciting, well-played, and admittedly, somewhat out of control mix of Pepper-era Beatles, Barrett-era Floyd, and all the listenable bits from your favorite psych and prog records. It has more than a few kitchen sinks, but always keeps you engaged by never forgetting to toss in a great hook or melody with everything else. This one is consistently entertaining, something that becomes increasingly more difficult to say.
MICHAEL MONROE- ONE MAN GANG
Whether with his influential punk and glam outfit Hanoi Rocks, or the various bands he's led over the years, like Demolition 23 and Jerusalem Slim, or the solo albums he's released with help from Ian Hunter, Little Steven Van Zandt, Steve Stevens. and members of both the Dead Boys and the Damned, Michael Monroe has been consistent. He loves rock and roll. And even if you can't easily find every one of his post-Hanoi Rocks records, take it from me, each and every one is full of hard rocking and hook-filled gems. Now comes, "One Man Gang," what might be his best record since 1994's "Demolition 23." This one explodes out of the gate and never lets up. There are no electronic experiments, no trendy duets, no autotune. This is pure, unadulterated rock and roll, and Michael Monroe, now nearing 60, is singing better than ever. Every track has a chorus to die for, with most of the songs written or co-written by NYC's Steve Conte and Sorry & The Sinatras guitarist Rich Jones, who also produced "One Man Gang." It wouldn't be a stretch to compare Monroe's attack to Bruce Springsteen. Just substitute a few key locations and turn the guitars up a little, or in some cases, a lot louder, and you will hear the similarities. I know I do.
THE DOUGHBOYS- RUNNING FOR COVERS
The last of my covers albums in my Top 11 is from Plainfield, New Jerseys' The Doughboys.
On paper, "Running For Covers" bored me. I did not want or need more versions of "96 Tears" and "Solitary Man." But at the insistence of our friend and occasional contributor Jeff K, I decided to keep the peace and give "Running For Covers" a focused spin. And then, I played it again. And again. And again. Thanks, Jeff K. You're not such a bad cat, after all. What makes this collection of cover versions stand out from so many others is the pure joy that seems to be sweating profusely from each minute of each song. It's not just another cover of Mose Allison's "Your Mind Is On Vacation." It's "Your Mind Is On Vacation" reimagined as "Tobacco Road." It's not just a nervy cover of The Band classic "The Shape I'm In." It's "The Shape I'm In" turned into a bashing rocker that somehow manages to sound both 80's-era MTV ready and "Exile"-era Stones. Or how about "Rock On" the David Essex hit that made me want to throw a hardball at the radio every time Ron Lundy played it, that now sounds like a lost garage nugget. The Doughboys have been around the block and back, with their first two singles for Bell Records coming out in 1967. Both of those singles have been upgraded for "Running For Covers," "Rhoda Mendelbaum" and my favorite track on the record, a deep Four Seasons cut called "Everybody Knows My Name," which was buried on Side Two of "Working My Way Back To You" and found Frankie Valli trying and failing to channel his inner Dylan. Even The Doughboys 1967 version tries to out-Zim, Zimmy, but here on "Running For Covers" the acoustic guitars and harmonies owe more to The Byrds doing Dylan and it is tailor made for these boys.
THE TOP 22 OF 2019
Alison Moorer- Blood
Andy Burrows & Matt Haig- Reasons To Stay Alive
Binky Philips & The Planets- Established 1972 NYC
Brittany Howard- Jaime
Bruce Springsteen- Western Stars
Chuck Mead- Close To Home
The Claypool Lennon Delirium- South Of Reality
The Doughboys- Running For Covers
The Jay Vons- The Word
Jeff Lynne's ELO- From Out Of Nowhere
Joel Paterson- Let It Be Guitar!
Lakou Mizik- HaitiaNola
Leyla McCalla- The Capitalist Blues
Lucille Furs- Another World
Luther Russell- Medium Cool
Michael Monroe- One Man Gang
The Rails- Cancel The Sun
Red, Gold, Green & Blue
Rickie Lee Jones- Kicks
Van Morrison- Three Chords & The Truth
Wilco- Ode To Joy