1. Alison Krauss, Windy City (Capitol) This didn’t have a producer, it had a stylist.
2. Steve Jones with Ben Thompson, Lonely Boy: Tales from a Sex Pistol (Da Capo)“He never learned to read or write so well, but he could play a guitar”—and end up knowing where he’s been and what it meant. Jones on Johnny Rotten rejecting the band’s admittance to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2006: “He sent them a letter at the last minute refusing to appear and calling the whole ceremony ‘urine in wine’ … Left to our own devices, the rest of us would probably have done the show, but in the long run what he did was best for the Pistols as an idea.”
3. Paul Ryan, tweet (February 21), and Rubella Ballet, “Money Talks” (Ubiquitous, 1985) Ryan: “Freedom is the ability to buy what you want to fit what you need.” Rubella Ballet: “In this corrupt society/The rich/Pay/To be free.” But given the government we chose, with the country to be remade through tax cuts to the wealthy, the effective repeal of the corporate income tax, elimination of regulations inhibiting profit, the abrogation of prohibitions against bribery and self-dealing, and the removal of estate taxes—insignificant in terms of macro-economics, but symbolically, in terms of how America defines itself, enormously significant—the reality is not quite as either the Speaker of the House or a Thatcher-era London punk band defines it. The reality is that the rich will be paid to be free—to represent freedom, as an ever-receding but infinitely alluring possibility, to everyone else.
4.-7. Van Morrison, The Complete Them 1964-1967 (Legacy/Exile/Sony); ..It’s Too Late to Stop Now… Volumes II, III, IV & DVD (Legacy/Exile/Sony, 1973/2016); Keep Me Singing (Caroline/Exile, 2016); at SFJazz (October 18, 2016) The 69 tracks on the Them set, so much of it conceived and worked out live in Belfast with Morrison fronting a hurricane band, all of it recorded in London, with Jimmy Page’s hands tangled in the sound, remain unparalleled in their ferocity and lyricism: at their most unique, as with “Mystic Eyes” or their cover of Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” both at once. In 1973, as the leader of Marin County band Caledonia Soul Orchestra, he combined performances from the Troubadour in Los Angeles, the Santa Monica Civic, and the Rainbow Theater in London for a 1974 double live album, and to listen now to all three shows, with unpredictable song choices (“Since I Fell for You,” “I Paid the Price,” “Sweet Thing,” “Take Your Hand Out of My Pocket”) dancing around “Gloria,” “Caravan,” and “Cyprus Avenue” (but not “Madame George,” which I saw him play once at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco in 1969 and never again), is to fail utterly to place one above another: you’ll change your mind every time you listen. Which means it’s a risk to put your past on the market with your present.
Keep Me Singing is so tepid not even a version of Bobby “Blue” Bland’s 1963 “Share Your Love with Me,” a profound song which brought so much out of Richard Manuel on the Band’s Moondog Matinee 10 years later, seems to demand anything from Morrison, and the most notable new song, “Too Late,” catches your ear because, you realize sooner or later, it’s using the same melody as “Share Your Love.” And the story on stage is not necessarily different. As Joel Selvin reports on a recent show in San Francisco: “SFJazz is the bright, shiny 600-seat auditorium dedicated to jazz performance, funded by wealthy technocrats, who have turned to jazz instead of the opera or symphony for their cultural philanthropic impulses. Many notable figures in the jazz world such as Herbie Hancock or Chick Corea have worked the room, but Morrison, the first major rock performer to appear at the cozy, intimate showroom with pristine sound and generous sight lines, was able to command $250 tickets for this prestige booking. If he certainly looked the part in stingy brim fedora, shades and pin-striped suit, he didn’t deviate from his typical concert program one bit because he was playing a jazz room.
“For an hour and a half, Morrison ambled through a procession of largely recent material backed by a lean, pared down four-piece band and backup vocalist. He brought his daughter, Shana Morrison, out to duet on ‘That Old Black Magic’ and invited boogie-woogie pianist Mitch Woods, who had recently recorded with Morrison in New Orleans doing duets with Taj Mahal, to play a couple of songs. Otherwise, the show was a standard indifferent Morrison affair.
“He can be such a frustrating performer. He never really stepped on the gas until late in the set when he bellowed ‘Step right up’ from ‘Ballerina,’ from Astral Weeks, his chest pumped out, his head tilted skyward. He closed the set and returned for the briefest of perfunctory encores—a chorus of ‘Gloria’—leaving the stage while his band played extensive solos for an additional 10 minutes.”
But between 1980 and 1996 Morrison put out 15 albums without one that stuck, and a year later released The Healing Game, music of menace and sadness a younger man likely wouldn’t have understood, let alone made. You can never write him off, which is why Selvin was there for one more lousy show and I’ll always buy anything he does.
8. Lana Del Rey, “Love” (Polydor/Interscope) Michael Robbins writes in: “What gets me is the way she rhymes ‘all dressed up’ with ‘in particular,’ which wouldn’t work on paper. It’s all in her vocalization. Singers often understand intuitively things about sound that many poets never learn.”
9. Rhiannon Giddens, Freedom Highway (Nonesuch) The album is named for a Staple Singers song from 1965. Listening especially to Giddens’s own slavery songs—“At the Purchaser’s Option,” the title taken from a newspaper ad that can make you sick to read; “Julie,” which, knit to the bones of the traditional murder ballad “Pretty Polly” for its rhythm, continues the tale to a finale that could end a novel Toni Morrison hasn’t written; and “Come Love Come,” a story that compared to the first two feels dutiful, with programmatic words that nevertheless dissolve into the sweep of the singing—and then watching the Nazi and White Power signs from the Civil Rights era in I Am Not Your Negro or the separate-but-equal legalized contempt in Hidden Figures, it’s hard not to wonder how much of that country may be coming back. That makes this record, in the moment, almost unbearably difficult to listen to, and just as difficult to stay away from. It may be too measured in its weighing of the emotion proper to this word or that pause; it may be too careful, too precise, to stand up to the country it’s claiming. But if it fades, if it’s forgotten, sometime in the future someone will find it at a yard sale, in an online search for something else, and be shocked that anyone ever spoke so clearly.
10. Chuck Berry, “The Things I Used to Do” (YouTube) It was 1965. He was two years out of federal prison, where he’d been sent in 1962 for a racially-targeted Mann Act conviction, now appearing in a Belgian television studio surrounded by a large circle of young teenagers, the girls in dresses, the boys in coats and ties, who look as if they’ve been dragged there on a field trip. There’s a pick-up band of local musicians: a white-haired pianist, a goateed bass fiddle player, a drummer, and a rhythm guitarist, all of whom seem a nervous and full of pride over the chance to play with this man. The pianist hits the first of a series of trilling high notes he will follow throughout the performance and Chuck Berry, lithe, taking small, cat-like movements, impossibly handsome, with a large, loose pompadour, bends slightly into a crouch for Guitar Slim’s already classic 1953 tragic New Orleans blues.
He tracked the song, looking not at the bored students, not exactly at the moving camera in the center of the circle, but to the woman in the song, who he knows is “out with your other man.” “I used to search all night for you, baby/But my search/Would always end in vain”: he looks her straight in the eye, not with anger, scorn, or pain, but with something just short of a wink, saying that he knows she knows he’s done the same.
Not the curl of a note or a word is rushed. A flurry in the rhythm rises up and disappears. Guitar Slim had a harsh, angular tone on his guitar, creating a sense of drama he couldn’t quite sustain. With a quieter, more specific feeling in every musical or verbal phrase, Berry seemed to slow the song down from the inside. He let the listener all the way into the song, and then, when it ended, left the musicians, the woman in the song, you watching now, days after his death, maybe even himself, wanting more.