Friday, June 5, 2009

Favorite CDs released in 2008

I annually list new releases of compact discs and records that I think merit mention. Most are compilations, reissues, and box sets of vintage rock 'n' roll, rhythm 'n' blues, and country. I put off doing this for three months during which time I recall 2008 being a pretty slim year, at least for me. Now that I have pulled together those items worth mentioning, I see just what a slim year '08 was! Actually, I added several older CDs to my collection this year including many psychedelic bands from the late 1960s that I thought were worth revisiting (that's how I came to a belated appreciation of the Dutch band The Shocking Blue, of all things!). But now it's time for Daddy-o Dilly's list of the best new CDs I heard in 2008:

Arthur Conley: "Soul Directions" Collectors Choice Music CCM913 & "More Sweet Soul" Collectors Choice Music CCM914.
Add these to the two-LP-on-one CD on the Collectables label and you get good U. S. CD reissues of all four of Arthur Conley's Atco LPs from the 1960s. Arthur remains one of my very favorite soul singers. He was introduced to the world by Otis Redding, another reason to admire Otis.

Buddy Holly: "Not Fade Away" El ToroETCD1016.
A three CD collection of every scrap of tape with the voice or guitar of Buddy Holly recorded during the year 1957 (including phone calls!), following the trend set by the 1956 collection released by Rollercoaster the year before. This is one of those European releases that do not require licensing from the owners of the recordings because the material heard here is over 50 years old (just barely), thus not subject to current copyright laws there. The good side of these European copyright laws is that it allows devoted fans to compile and release budget priced CDs containing music rabid fans want to hear and sell them under circumstances that allow them to produce and manufacture better than bootleg quality products without being clandestine about it. The bad side is that these collections often use secondary sources for their material because the owners of the recordings sure as hell aren't going to let them near the master tapes without paying royalties. It can also discourage CD labels that make properly licensed CDs from original sources from bothering because these out-of-copyright labels have already beat them to it. I tend to side with those labels that put out properly licensed CDs made from master tapes and first generation acetates. Still, I'm glad I have this CD set. Buddy Holly always sounds great. I especially like hearing those records by other artists with Buddy playing guitar such as Billy Walker, Carolyn Hester, and Jack Huddle. They are here, too.

The Jesters: "Cadillac Man" Big Beat/AceCDWIK282
Next to the "Mad Mike Monsters" CDs discussed earlier, this is my other favorite CD from 2008, which just made it under the wire in December. The Jesters were a mid-1960s garage band in Memphis that had the privilege of recording with Sam Phillips and having a record released on the Sun label. One of Sam's sons, Jerry, plays guitar in this fabulous band. Now, even though these guys have that mid '60s sound nailed, you can still hear that these guys are keenly aware of the rockabilly and blues that was recorded in this same studio the decade before. I mean this as a complement (just so I'm not misunderstood) but play the first two tracks on this CD to someone who has no idea who you are playing and then tell them its the White Stripes. They just might believe you. I have praised the welcome revisionist history of 1960s rock 'n' roll as documented by Alec Palao. This CD is another of his productions. Once again, Palao shines light on a neglected corner of 1960s rock 'n' roll that no one bothers to examine and finds brilliant heretofore-undocumented music. The Jesters were briefly included and a really nice LP box set in the 1980s on the Charly label "Sun Records Into the '60s", the final LP box set of Sun Records on Charly. Alec Palao may have been introduced to the Jesters by that box set. The Jesters along with Randy and the Radiants were Sun Records contribution to the mid '60s Beatle/Stones-era sounds. By then Sun Records tried to follow trends instead of setting them like in the 1950s. Within a couple of years Sam Phillips would sell off his beloved label and studio.

Hawkshaw Hawkins: "Car Hoppin' Mama" Bear Family BCD16988AH
The Bear Family label again shows its smarts by acknowledging the anniversary of the airplane crash that killed Patsy Cline, Cowboy Copas, and Hawkshaw Hawkins by releasing a CD each by these superb country singers in their "Gonna Shake This Shack Tonight" series of CDs that feature each artists up-tempo/near-rockabilly tunes. Thank God they did because I confess to never having heard much at all by Copas or Hawkins in spite of my keen interest in Patsy. Turns out Hawkshaw Hawkins was a really great country singer who could rock with the best of 'em. There are many tracks on this CD that has some of the finest fidelity I have ever heard. The credit begins with the engineers who recorded these tunes so crisply in the first place, then to the tape vault archivists who cared for these tapes for so many decades, and then to the digital transfer wizards at Bear Family who are simply the best in the world. Listen to "It Would Be A Doggone Lie", "I'll Be Gone", and the title track. Have you ever heard 1950s music recorded better than this?

Roy Orbison: "The Soul of Rock and Roll" Sony/BMG88697 05537 2
The 20th anniversary of the death of Roy Orbison was appropriately observed with this four CD career retrospective, the MP3 release of Roy's complete last-ever concert, an especially nice new documentary on BBC television in the U. K., the repeat of Roy's 1970s U. K. TV special, and dozens of newspaper, magazine, and website articles. Nicely done, really. Even the grumpiest of fans were impressed. This CD compilation includes most of the necessary hits and important songs. What is here to excite completist fans are several really old recordings by Roy that have only come to light in the last few years including a handful of songs recorded at a party in someone's house in Texas in 1956. The sound quality on most of these very early informal recordings sound quite good considering how bad tapes and discs from this era can sound. Roy was lucky in this regard. I also direct your attention to the comments made the accompanying booklet by Fred Foster, the owner of and producer at Monument Records where Roy made his biggest hits. It is clear that Foster probably enjoyed his experience recording songs by Roy Orbison more than anything else he ever did in the music business. You can tell he absolutely loved working with Roy. In recent years Fred Foster has become visible among Roy's fans and it is nice to have him share his experiences so eloquently. What I do not like about this four CD set are these stupid cardboard slots that hold and badly scratch the discs. Everyone's doing it these days (last years "Love Is the Song We Sing" compilation and this year's Buddy Holly compilations are more offenders) and I hate it. I immediately put the discs in slim jewel cases and they stay there. Once again the Bear Family sets the gold standard for multidiscs sets. Almost all of their box sets house the CDs in jewel cases in boxes, not these dopey book cover-type packages. I want my CDs in jewel cases and boxes. Do you hear me?

Buck Owens: "Live In Scandinavia” Sundazed SC11166 & "Act Naturally" Bear Family BCD16850EK
I never got to see Buck in person. Damn! I really wanted to! From the grave, Buck goes to bat twice in 2008. The "Live in Scandinavia" LP gets a CD release. This is not the best thing I ever heard but what impresses me here is the unerring rhythm of guitar player Don Rich. He is clearly leading the band here. And while I'm waiting for the Hagars and Buddy Alan to finish at least I can listen to Don's great chugging-along on guitar. He was great. The Bear Family item is a five CD box set that includes everything Buck recorded as a band leader during his first eleven years which takes us from his tentative early numbers through his impressive stab at rockabilly (everyone loves "Hot Dog") up through his early hits on Capitol under the unobtrusive baton of producer Ken Nelson. We are promised another box that takes up where this one leaves off. I've often described Buck Owens and the Buckaroos as the happiest country band I ever heard. Their music bounces right along like no one else in country music. Buck was the really big contrast to the country singer with a chip on his shoulder. I never cease to be amazed at how much country music is self-loathing. It makes me enjoy country music with tongue firmly in cheek. I love the idea of California country musicians in the 1950s and 1960s doing-very-well-thank-you without benefit of the Nashville Sound. Capitol Records, producer Ken Nelson, and a battalion of California country musicians virtually led by Buck were the alternative to what went down in Nashville. Competition is a healthy thing.

Gene Vincent: "Rebel Heart Vol. 10" TKO Magnum CDMF111.
I appreciate the sustained effort made here to present less than high fidelity recordings of the great Gene Vincent in this series of CDs. His vocal brilliance comes through even on the low-fi recordings. I'm told this will be the final volume in this series. It was hard to find on this side of the Atlantic.

Hank Williams: "The Unreleased Recordings" Time-Life 80031-D
The first of a few three-CD sets to come containing previously unreleased radio performances by the King of country music. This collection strengthens earlier examples of Hank and his Drifting Cowboys performing at their best in less formal settings than the pressured environment of recording studios. I've never heard anyone seriously sing "On Top of Old Smokey". But as Hank warns us in his introduction, he thought everyone missed the point of the song and reels it out the way he think it ought to sound.

Now for the Best of 2008, the World Heavyweight Championship belt is passed-on to Mad Mike!
Various: “Mad Mike Monsters”, volumes 1, 2, and 3, Norton CED 338, 339, 340.
Please read my earlier post about these three fantastic CDs (also available on LP) that document the unhinged rock ‘n’ roll that largely went ignored by the major radio stations and more polite society during the early and mid 1960s. Mad Mike was a radio personality in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on smaller radio stations. He like the more famous Porky Chedwick held dances for teenagers in nightclubs throughout the city where he played records like those heard on these CDs. It’s as if the musicians in these bands never had any false hopes that they would ever become rich and famous playing music like this and really didn’t care, either. Music for its own sake. As long as it makes the people in front of them dance their asses off, that’s all that matters. Although I’m sure they would not turn down a fortune if it were handed to them. Any rate, rock ‘n’ roll never sounded as unhinged in 2008 to me like it does here on these three discs. There might be more volumes in this series. This is the real stuff.

Even though 2008 saw a small crop of great music for me, 2009 is starting out with a vengeance in spite of the times. In February there was a logjam broken at Universal for Buddy Holly CDs in honor of the 50th anniversary of his death. In March alone, Bear Family is releasing three gotta have box sets by Hank Ballard, Eddie Cochran, and George Jones along with great single discs by Ray Smith, Link Davis, and Frankie Lymon. The Ace label is wrapping up their series of Little Willie John. Hip-o Select is coming out with a five CD set of Little Walter and a second four CD set of Chuck Berry. I can’t believe what’s out already in 2009.

The Hank Ballard box set is the first in what I REALLY hope will be several box sets by other artists from the King/Federal/Deluxe label. I would love to see box sets by Earl Bostic, Freddie King (coming in July!), Bill Dogget, and MOST OF ALL MOON MULLICAN!!! The George Jones box set is the first of two to complete Jones’ recordings for the Musicor label followed by the second box in July. They already have a box set containing Jones’ entire recordings for United Artists. The Eddie Cochran box set has come out a full year before the 2010 50th anniversary of his death in England.

If Hip-o Select is putting out multi-disc sets of the great artists from the Chess label like Little Walter and Chuck Berry, I think they ought to scrap their two disc series of Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley and go for big box sets and include Howlin’ Wolf, too.

It has been over a year since Rhino Handmade put out the wonderful four CD set containing the complete Atco recordings of the Coasters. I would love to see many similar sets containing the complete Atlantic/Atco catalogs of all the important rhythm ‘n’ blues artists such as Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, Solomon Burke, Don Covay, the Clovers, and Big Joe Turner among others.

We’ll see what all gets noted in this blog next year!

UPDATE:  Since this blog was written the Rhino Handmade label has indeed released multi-CD compilations of Wilson Pickett & Percy Sledge, both of which I am very happy with.