For the 11th consecutive year, two music junkies share our thoughts as to what we considered to be the best releases of the past year.
Dr. J’s Best Albums of 2019 (in alphabetical order)
Andrew Leahey & The Homestead – “Airwaves”. Immediately appealing with its ringing guitars, prominent keyboards, and steady beat, Andrew Leahey and his band come on like a new version of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. “Airwaves” is the audio equivalent of a dark chocolate sugar rush; and this excellent album will be enjoyed by all fans of classic hook-filled and guitar-centric rock and roll songs. Favorite Tracks: “Start The Dance”, “Airwaves”, “Make It Last”, and “Moving Like The Weather”. Watch the video for “Airwaves” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CKmwY_mEX84
Beatles – “Abbey Road 2 CD Anniversary Edition”. What can one say that hasn’t already been said about the Beatles’ final album? The impressive anniversary reissue was put together by Giles Martin who did such great work on the recent reissues of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “The Beatles (a.k.a. The White Album)”. Like those, the “Abbey Road Anniversary” contains a second disc of outtakes programmed in the same order as the original. The combination of the outstanding original album along with the outtakes make for a fascinating listen. Favorite Tracks: “Come Together”, “Something”. “Oh Darling”, “Here Comes The Sun”, and the fabulous medley that concludes the album. Watch the video for “Something” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UelDrZ1aFeY
Black Keys – “Let’s Rock”. The duo’s first album in five years lives up to its title. The Black Keys and The Raconteurs are masters of modern classic rock. “Let’s Rock”, like their two previous albums “El Camino” and “Turn Blue”, finds Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney producing a record that once again seems to touch on all of the great rock radio staples of the 60’s and 70s without ever sounding dated or nostalgic. Favorite Tracks: “Shine A Little Light”, “Eagle Bird”, “Go”, and “Fire Walk With Me”. Watch the video for “Go” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TCYsY5B8hcQ
Bruce Springsteen – “Western Stars”. The Boss has been on a creative roll for the past few years, and his new album and the film of him performing it live certainly add to his legend. The songs evoke the classic 60s pop found in the hits of songwriter Jimmy Webb and others. Although the sound is different from his material with the E Street Band, it’s still classic Springsteen. Favorite tracks: “Western Stars”: “Tucson Train”, “The Wayfarer”, “Hello Sunshine”, and “Moonlight Motel”. Watch the video for “Western Stars” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_IXzAAKrsFE
Business of Dreams – “Ripe For Anarchy”. Corey Cunningham’s impressive solo release, under the pseudonym ‘Business Of Dreams’, blends his melodic, wistful, and somewhat melancholy songs with a production gloss that’s immediately pleasing. It’s a different twist on jangle pop. Favorite Tracks: “Chasing That Feeling”, “Ripe For Anarchy”, “The Hatchet Song”, and “I Feel Dread”. Watch the video for “Ripe For Anarchy” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AxmE9QNytQQ
Cage The Elephant – “Social Cues”. The band’s awesome fifth album, produced by John Hill, has more production touches than the garage rock approach of the Dan Auerbach-produced “Tell Me I’m Pretty”. Every song on the new album, which mostly seem to dwell on the price of success, pivot around the lead vocals of Matt Schultz, one of the most creative singers in rock. Top notch from start to finish. Favorite Tracks: “Broken Boy”, “Social Cues”, “Skin And Bones”, and “The War Is Over”. Watch the video for “Social Cues” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2gR9LAI6rZQ
CCR – “Live at Woodstock”. It’s a shame that John Fogerty was opposed to having the band’s performance be part of the original Woodstock film and soundtrack. This new CD release clearly indicates that CCR’s set was one of the festival’s highlights, and that the band was a stellar live act even when forced to perform in the middle of the night in front of an audience that was half asleep. Favorite Tracks: “Born On The Bayou”, “Green River”, “Commotion”, and “Proud Mary”. Watch the video for “Green River” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OAFrfw8kSj8
David Byrne – “American Utopia on Broadway 2 CD”. I had the opportunity to see David Byrne’s incredible production in New York this year. It builds on last year’s “American Utopia” solo album by adding a host of his Talking Heads’ songs to the show. The outstanding choreography and positive messages from Byrne that are part of the Broadway show are missing so the music has to stand on its own, and stand it does. Byrne put together a great band, heavy on percussion, who both play and dance for the entire show. Even without the visuals, this document of his hit musical rocks from start to finish. Favorite Tracks: “This Must Be The Place (Native Melody)”, “Slippery People”, “Once In A Lifetime”, “Burning Down The House”, and “The Great Curve”. Watch the live performance of “Burning Down The House” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SgAKXiEGakY
Dido – “Still On My Mind”. The teardrop in Dido’s voice gets me every time. This is her first album in six years, and it reunites her with her brother, Rollo Armstrong, who produced her first two hit albums, “No Angel” and “Life For Rent”. Dido told an interviewer that she recorded the vocals at her home; and the folk-tinged songs, like her earlier compositions, are pleasing blends that incorporate elements of pop, dance and electronic music. Favorite Tracks: “Hurricanes”, “Take You Home”, “Mad Love”, and “Friends”. Watch the video for “Take You Home” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pTXCuJMo118
Dude York – “Falling”. My favorite indie band has released not only a new album this year, but also the cool “Happy In The Meantime” EP. The big news is the emergence of bassist Claire England as one of the band’s principal songwriters and singers. Her compositions and vocals are quite different from those of guitarist Peter Richards and the combination gives Dude York a diversity of sound that makes for very interesting listening. Favorite Tracks: “Longest Time”, “Box”, “I’m The 1 4 You”, and “:15”. Watch a performance video for “Box” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Wh3hDxWduU
Guided By Voices – “Zeppelin Over China”. You have to wonder how Robert Pollard, the band’s founder and principal songwriter, does it. To say that Guided By Voices is prolific, would be something of an understatement. The albums are chock full of quirky and hooky songs that are a little under or over the two-minute range. “Zeppelin Over China” has 32 songs, and it is available as either a double vinyl album or it can be downloaded from iTunes and burned onto one CD. Favorite Tracks: “Carapace”, “Wrong Turn On”, “The Rally Boys”, “Questions of the Test”, and “Cold Cold Hands”. Listen to “Cold, Cold Hands” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eIKTDzNmEZk
Jesse Malin – “Sunset Kids”. Although it seems strange matching Jesse Malin’s New York punk roots with the alt-country pedigree of Lucina Williams, it works like a charm. Williams co-produced the album with her husband and duets with Malin on two of its highlights. Malin’s world-weary vocals are a perfect match for the 14 songs on this wonderful album, which also includes a duet with Billie Joe Armstrong that deals with their punk rock glory days. Favorite Tracks: “Room 13”, “When You’re Young”, “Do You Really Want To Know”, and “Dead On”. Watch the video for “Room 13” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Du3KPVQUmLw
Josie Cotton – “Everything Is Oh Yeah”. This incredible album had been in the vaults of Elektra Records for over 30 years before Josie Cotton resurrected it when the Stranger Things TV show put out a call for unreleased songs from the 80s. Cotton, whose vocals are a combination of Wanda Jackson and Cyndi Lauper, put together an album that combines the sounds of power pop, girl group, punk, classic rock, and rockabilly into one glorious package. It’s astounding that it wasn’t released back in the day. Favorite Tracks: “If You Really Want Me To”, “The Night Before”, “Loves Love”, and “Sometimes Girl”. Listen to “The Night Before” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=99zSGMKGTek
Long Ryders – “Psychedelic Country Soul”. A welcome return of a vastly underappreciated alternative country rock band of the 1980s. The Long Ryders broke up in 1987 after releasing three strong albums, but the original members have reunited after three decades to record a great new collection of material that even features harmony vocals from their old Los Angeles friends The Bangles. Favorite Tracks: “Greenville”, “Molly Somebody”, “All Aboard”, and “Walls”. Watch the video for “Walls” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4vPJAEcjhp8
Madonna – “Madame X”. It’s always interesting to see a great artist stretch out and take chances with their music. Madonna’s new album reflects her time in Portugal; and the influences she absorbed were used to produce a collection of danceable songs that seem more intended for the Latin Music chart than the Hot 100. Always bold and never predictable, the set list from Madonna’s intimate 2019 tour was largely made up of songs from “Madame X”. Favorite Tracks: “Medellin”, “Future”, “I Don’t Search I Find”, and “I Rise”. Watch the video for “Medellin” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xAxNaLAR2to
Of Monsters and Men – “Fever Dream”. I wasn’t familiar with the Icelandic folk-pop band until their latest album. It finds the group experimenting with a bigger pop sound, featuring liberal use of synths and orchestration, and moving away from its more traditional folk roots. The band features two strong vocalists and their leads and harmonies are an important ingredient as the album’s songs slowly reveal a dream-like story to the listener. Favorite Tracks: “Alligator”, “Ahay”, “Rororo”, and “Soothsayer”. Watch the video for “Alligator” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ThrK0Re1lJs
Olivia Jean – “Night Owl”. This is the Detroit native’s second solo release on Jack White’s Third Man Records. The multi-instrumentalist first gained notice as the lead singer and guitarist for Third Man’s Black Belles, and she also played on the White-produced Wanda Jackson album. Olivia Jean self-produced her new record which combines her modern takes on garage rock, surf music, rockabilly, and girl group sounds with hot guitar licks and bad girl vocals - a killer 2019 update of what Josie Cotton was up to on her ‘lost’ album reviewed above. Favorite Tracks: “Garage Bat”, “Night Owl”, “The Hunt”, and “I Used To Be Lonely”. Watch the video for “Night Owl” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bx-PW5MwBhA
Raconteurs – “Help Us Stranger”. The Raconteurs rock the house on the band’s third album after an 11-year wait. Jack White and Brendan Benson co-wrote 11 of the original songs on the album which also includes a smoking cover of Donovan’s “Hey Gyp”. Outstanding Detroit-style rock from start to finish. Favorite Tracks: “Bored And Razed”, “Help Me Stranger”, “Now That You’re Gone”, and “What’s Yours Is Mine”. Watch the video for “Help Me Stranger” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pDtIABGdc18
Some Other Good Stuff:
Bob Mould – “Sunshine Rock”. A hard rocking release of new original songs from the former Husker Du singer/guitarist.
Juliana Hatfield – “Weird”. The alt-rock legend’s most recent album of cool original songs.
Liz Brasher – “Painted Image”. A large helping of smooth Southern R&B from the big-voiced Memphis native.
Sharon Van Etten – “Remind Me Tomorrow”. The singer/songwriter goes for a bigger sound with impressive results.
Stef Chura – “Midnight”. Detroit indie-rocker’s strong second album rocks harder than her debut.
Sturgill Simpson – “SOUND & FURY”. Simpson’s impressive synthesizer and electric guitar-driven soundtrack to a Netflix anime film is a complete about face from his country music roots.
Sunflower Bean – “King Of The Dudes” EP. I really like this young band and their four new songs, and I’m looking forward to the new album.
Best CDs of 2019 by Larry Van Cleve
Here we are again with another look at what has caught my ear this year. It was actually quite a good year. Albums would come out weekly and many times I knew immediately they had a really good chance to make my final list. Thank you streaming services for making my listening both easier and harder (time consuming). As always some old and some new as far as artists go. The “recommended” section is mostly all guitar oriented rock…still the mainstay of my listening. The excitement of being a rock fanboy is the wide range of genres you’re happily exposed to…always has been that way and hopefully always will be.
1.) “Help Us Stranger” – Raconteurs. If you are a fan of their first two albums there is not much else to say. Nine years after their last album, Jack White and Brendon Benson are in fine form. Solid songs and varied styles are their hallmarks. The garage and power pop tendencies are there (as well as an abundance of hooks to grab you) but, as you would expect, surprises abound (especially the cover of Donovan’s “Hey Gyp”). This disk is one of the best of the year. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WFaozNKOdLk
2.) ”Let’s Rock” - The Black Keys. Let’s rock indeed. This is the first group album in five years and the Keys deliver again. The band takes up where “Turn Blue” left off with great tight rock tunes that just rock along. In the interim, Dan Auerbach became a highly regarded producer, did several solo albums and formed another group called the Arcs. All of these experiences are evident on “Let’s Rock”. I would rank this among their best. The Keys are a major rock group. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FNHEK3BLRR4
3.) “Colorado” - Neil Young & Crazy Horse. Which Neil Young/Crazy Horse sound I like varies over the years. I’m probably more in the almost out-of-control guitars camp than most of their other styles. Many of the variations are evident on this release. No Frank Stampedro this time around on guitar. He’s replaced by Nils Lofgren with a more restrained (compared to Stampedro) guitar sound which has the effect of not causing Neil’s guitar to fall off that fence he tends to straddle with this group. Not saying the album doesn’t rock out but it’s no “Ragged Glory” or “Weld” with overdrive guitars and the usual excess (though “She Showed Me Love” is thirteen and half minutes long). This approach tends to be in service of the tunes which is a good thing. I hear a lot more of “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” than I’ve heard in awhile. (Note: Young also released “Tuscaloosa (Live)” with the Stray Gators this year…worth looking into). Listen to "Think Of Me" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UBdnIeZBEdQ
4.) “The Saint Of Lost Causes” – Justin Townes Earle. son of Steve Earle and named after Townes van Zandt, wears his influences well (even after a history of substance abuse, jail time and anti-social attitudes). Heavy Americana roots with a languid, toe tapping bouncing country blues that gives a flow to the album that’s really pleasurable. He’s come a long way lyrically. A big positive is that the production sounds so damn clean. Watch a performance of "The Saint Of Lost Causes" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RSpuEM91HHY
5.) “Up and Rolling” – North Mississippi AllStars. This band consistently makes my list most years for good reason as evidenced by “Up and Rolling”. Thematically the album centers around artists and tunes that played Junior Kimbrough’s Juke Joint in Mississippi. Heavy on guest artists (Mavis Staples, Jason Isbell, Duane Betts, et al) and cover tunes, Luther and Jim Dickinson’s Mississippi roots are the focus here. As usual it all maintains a bluesy and rocky country pace with outstanding guitars and vocals. They’re always a pleasure to listen to. Watch the video for "Up And Rolling" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LHt29ZnW5lA
6.) “Psychedelic Country Soul” - Long Ryders. Well, the title says it all. Heavy 80’s country folk rock influencers, the Long Ryders give us their best studio work since “Native Sons” and “State Of Our Union” in the mid-eighties. Actually this is their first attempt at an original material album in 32 years and boy, they don’t miss a step. The original band all contribute to the song writing and the result is a mature look at the alt-country sound they helped create. I give a high recommendation for this release. Watch a performance of "Make It Real" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CafM361KcBI
7.) “Union” – Son Volt. This, the ninth Son Volt album, is another stop in the journey of Jay Farrar that started with Jeff Tweedy in Uncle Tupelo in 1987. While not hitting the high points Tweedy attained with Wilco through the years, Son Volt has been on a consistent journey through Americana with Farrar’s distinctive vocal style. “Union” continues the trip. A combination of more laid back acoustic material and melodic electric tunes with a country rock edge, “Union” is a fine addition to the canon for the Son Volt fan. I feel comfortable sitting back and listening to this album. Though that’s sometimes anathema to the tenets of rock and roll, the times seem to call for such things. Farrar’s lyrics also show a bit of an edge that is needed in today’s America. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JeGaeWAsnok
8.) “Turn Off The News (Build A Garden)” - Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real. This is an outstanding album from Willie Nelson’s son Lukas (as well as son Micah and Willie himself). Experience as a “go to” backup band (especially their work with Neil Young) has served to solidify their playing. Lukas Nelson and Logan Metz are excellent tunesmiths. The material is melodic and memorable, running from classic rock to country rock to pop and rhythm and blues. Sit back and enjoy this one. Listen to "Mystery" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=apj_lWyfnXI
9.) “Airwaves” Andrew Leahey & the Homestead. After a near brush with death a bit ago, Andrew has finally realized the promise he’s shown in the past. This is rock in the Tom Petty and Springsteen/ E-Street band mode with no apologies. Electric guitars abound with great pop rhythms and explosive leads. You could see these guys headlining large venues with aplomb. Pay attention. Watch a live performance of "Start The Dance" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aGaTfktRBis
10.) “Human Question” - The Yawpers. This is a Colorado three piece rock band that delivers. Having gone through several drummers they have abandoned any acoustic approach on this album for totally straight ahead explosive rock. There’s forward propulsion here that belies their roots music beginnings. Strap yourself down for this one. Watch a live performance of "Human Question" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LChcnNTAhqI
11.) “Problems” – The Get Up Kids. Kansas City emo band, around since 1995, they have formed and reformed several times and the various adventures the members had away from the band (including work with Spoon) have now coalesced in this album. “Problems” is represented by a high energy melodic sound that takes the best of the emo sound along with rhythmic guitars, a tough rhythm section, enhancing keyboards and memorable tunes. Watch the video for "The Problem is Me" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fHAnR_Uj-Ko
12) “Rewind, Replay, Rebound” – Volbeat. Huge Danish band (all their albums went at least Gold there) giving us their seventh album. Since 2005 they’ve explored hard rock, metal, punk, glam and (yes) rockabilly. It all seems to come together on the anthemic songs on this album. Polished and tight, “Rewind, Replay, Rebound” covers a lot of ground very successfully. Fans of the previously mentioned styles will want this on their playlist (or hopefully on their shelves). There’s lots of head banging here. Watch the video for "Last Day Under The Sun" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ptro0vwRMaA
13) “Weird” – Juliana Hatfield. Former Blake Babies singer, Juliana has built an uncompromising solo career through the years. Apt title reflects her approach to life and music in general. I found this one very listenable and a good introduction to the varied styles she employs in her tunes from ballads to loud guitars. Who knows, maybe you’ll want to check out her back catalog. Watch the video for "Lost Ship" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ahyzofBL9I4
“Dusty Notes” – Meat Puppets. The original drummer joins the other two original Puppets for the first time since 1996 (along with the current second guitar and keyboard guys). The result is a listenable combination of classic Puppets and later iterations.
“No Exit” – The Resonars. This band is actually Matt Rendon’s solo project since 1997. A combo of early British rock and seventies power pop, as usual this dude delivers.
“How Far” – Deadbeat Beat. Tight indie pop tunes from this Detroit trio from start to finish.
“Upset” – Upset. Welcome back to the 90s and the grunge revival. This all female band featuring the former Hole drummer don’t just repeat the form but improve on it. Tightly constructed tunes with excellent vocals.
“You Deserve Love” – White Reaper. This is a Louisville quintet that delivers the guilty pleasures of an arena classic rock band. All the excesses are here performed in a very listenable form. Forget all your “rock” pretensions and just enjoy.
A Look Back…
I couldn’t leave without looking at some of the outstanding historical releases and re-releases of the last year:
“Abbey Road” - The Beatles. Box set similar to the outstanding White Album box of last year. Not quite as expansive as that one, “Abbey Road” features two important cds of unreleased sessions. Excellent book included. The blu-ray high end mixes are amazing with the proper audio set-up.
“Traveling Through” - Bob Dylan. The latest in the Bootleg box set series this one covers Dylan’s late 60s period in Nashville. The sessions with Johnny Cash are amazing but don’t skip the other stuff.
“Live At Woodstock” – Creedence Clearwater Revival. John Fogerty always said he didn’t care for their performance at Woodstock. This recording totally rejects that criticism. An amazing set by a classical rock band.
“No Other” – Gene Clark. This is a 1974 studio album that was supposed to catapult Clark (Byrds, Dillard & Clark) into super stardom. For some reason though, the record company backed off promoting it and it tanked and so did Clark. Cult status for this album reigned through the years and it’s finally given the proper release. His songwriting is the star here and any perceived excesses in 1974 do not get in the way at all. A classic.
“On Broadway” – Bruce Springsteen. A true performance for the ages, Bruce’s solo show on Broadway is essential not only for the music but also for the mesmerizing tale telling. I don’t think the dvd from HBO is available (yet) but that would be the preferred medium.
“Country” – Ken Burns. I had to mention this one. This is a 10-part Ken Burns documentary on PBS and is essential for the true rock fan. So much that is covered here played a large part in the development of the music we all live for. Hopefully it will open rock fans ears to the works of many seminal artists. The box set dvd might have to be in your collection.