Essential Albums: A Mix and Match 12 Pack…

What makes an essential — must hear this before you die — top album of all time? I would define it as a perfect set of distinct songs. That is, a set of songs that works separately and as part of a larger context. And by context, I would mean either a style or lyrical theme but not necessarily a concept which can often lead to dreadful filler or overwrought instrumental passages. Is this easy to achieve? Not at all in the “rock” genre although you could probably say it about any musical genre. This would explain the presence of so many warhorses on the various all time lists that circulate in different media. Incidentally, that also explains the absence of so many great artists that focused on songs rather than developing a song cycle. Artists such as Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Little Richard. That said, Carol, Who Do You Love and Rip it Up probably say more in 2 minutes then any 10 or 12 songs ever could.

So are we stuck with a glacially changing set of classic albums? Not at all. Nor, incidentally, does an album fall off the list. Because who says a list needs to be finite? Just concise and suited to your tastes, in my opinion. In fact, those albums that “fall off” the various lists are the very album’s you should seek out first because they are just likely to be those albums with a narrower presence in your daily life. Think of For What It’s Worth as opposed to Once I Was as an immediate way to invoke the 1960's. One is well known and the other is more obscure but both are equally powerful. And which is going to sound fresher and tempt you to keep listening? So why box yourself in with a 100 or 500 or even a 1,000 essentials? Life may be short but it ain’t that short.

But I digress. Allow me to humbly suggest some additions to the cannon. I will admit they are weighted on the side of roots rock or Americana or whatever you want to call it but that is where the bulk of my listening time lies. I would like to eventually add a Camper Van Beethoven or Cracker album but I am just not there yet and I am not sure I am really straying far from Americana with those two bands albeit bizarre Americana to be sure. I have chosen 5 studio albums and 5 live albums with 2 honorable mentions in each category. Let’s start in the studio.

1) Dr. John’s Gumbo — Dr. John: Here you have a greatest hits package disguised as distinct release. No matter. What makes this a keeper is the band, the production, the song selection and the running order. Yes, the running order. This platter flows like the mighty Mississippi itself and that matters. But what matters more here is the level of musicianship and the fierce delivery led by Dr. John’s growl and pounding piano. The songs are the flower of New Orleans style R & B and Dr. John and company give a clinic on how to play the piano and drums for this style of music. Should you seek out the originals? Yes. Will you find them all in one place with clean, crisp production? No. Final words: cue this up and throw a Mardi Gras party.

2) American Music — The Blasters: By 1980 the punk wave had crested and conversation turned to impact and legacy. And along came the Blasters and connected all the dots. This album provides a direct link from the dawn of the rock era right up until that very moment. Rockabilly with a punk attitude in 1980? What could be more timely and fun? Oddly enough, another band of rockers half a world away were having similar impulses and their output was equally essential.

3) Seconds of Pleasure — Rockpile: Leave it to the English to be our astute musical mirror. The catch here is the mix, fun originals (When I Write the Book) next to note perfect tributes to American music (Now and Always) next to “classic” covers which in fact only sound that way (Oh What a Thrill). There is a little punk and a little new wave attitude thrown in for good measure. And if that weren’t enough, since the album was first issued on vinyl — vinyl! — it has always come with a bonus EP and it is a flat out mini masterpiece. Nick and Dave deliver spot on, emotional readings of slightly lesser known Everly Brothers tunes. Try not to feel your heart break when they sing When Will I Be Loved and Crying in the Rain.

4) Liquored Up — Southern Comfort on the Skids: Is there a greater collection of underappreciated talent then in this band? And it’s a trio! Rick Miller is easily one of the best overlooked original guitarists you will ever have the pleasure of discovering. Need a little punk? Check. How about some Surf? Check. A touch of Mariachi? It’s here. So the man can play but he can also write. Sure, the humor may seem a little obvious and low brow now but the disc is almost 20 years old and a lot of low brow got blasted into our lives via the internet and cell phones since its release. And low brow or not, the title track is funny, as is King of the Mountain, Cheap Motels and Corn Liquor. But if you simply can’t get past that King of stuff, try I Learned to Dance in Mississippi or Haw River Stomp the best CCR song John Fogerty never wrote. And then there is bassist Mary Huff… I could write on about her underappreciated glories but let the woman speak for herself. Her vocals are towering on Just How Lonely and it is one of the greatest county sides that even modern Nashville might still reject.

5) Let the Good Times Roll — JD McPherson: Ok, you got to have balls to name your album Let the Good Times Roll and then double down by naming one your original tunes the same. So it had better deliver. I mean you are up against two stone cold original classic songs with that title. Well, all I can say is, make room for a third. This song brings the party noise as does Head Over Heels and You Must Have Met Caroline. Sure this stuff and especially the song titles — echo all the way back to the 1950's but it is the alternative flavors he sprinkles about this set that help put it on another level. And dare I say it? Is that a slight hint of funk bass work I hear?

Honorable Mention

Buster’s Happy Hour — David Johansson: So I could tell you this was the greatest album ever recorded and only a happy few could investigate and prove me wrong because this one is no longer available.

My mind is boggled by that. Is there a storage shortage somewhere in the cloud? Nothing ought to be out of “print” these days but go figure. And especially not music this good.

Is this disc the greatest ever? Of course not. Is it damn close to Dr. John’s Gumbo in terms of style, theme and quaintly of musicianship? Razor thin. The concept is mostly about drinking and when the songs ain’t directly about that, they are about the good times that are often fueled by alcohol.

Buster/Dave delivers the vocals as if he wrote them himself and he is determined to get your attention. Take for example, Rocket 88. Prior to the cleaned up original version now available, this was possibly the keeper take of its time. It burns. Again, like Gumbo, this is a greatest hits party package all assembled for your listening pleasure. No shopping around needed. Just press and play if you can find it. Now on to the alive stuff…

1) 25 to Life- The Reverend Horton Heat: The good Reverend has always had a quality control problem in the studio but on this live set he can unashamedly rip though his best. And he does. Punk rock meets the 1950's with style, humor and some fierce guitar chops. 400 Bucks might be the funniest punk hillbilly song ever written. It is not the only one thankfully.

2) Live From Armadillo World Headquarters — Commander Cody: This is a musical smorgasbord. A little something for everybody. Elvis? Little Richard? The Coasters? A county weeper about running out of marijuana? It’s all here. And it is all musically fearless. Fiddles creak, horns blare, guitars are picked and pianos are barrel housed. And when all else has been tried, let the Commander sing one of his signature novelty numbers. Should Hot Rod Lincoln at least be a contender for the national anthem?

3) Blow Your Face Out — J. Girls Band: The boys from Boston — and the Bronx — released three live sets. Two singles and one double. Go for the double because less is not more in this case. By the time Blow Your Face Out was being released the old school R & B shows like Stax and Motown reviews were in decline, if not extinct. So along comes these guys to keep faith with those glorious good times. This is seriously hot stuff. You’ll be sweaty by the time you are done listening.

4) Red Hot & Live! — Brian Setzer: Similar to the Reverend, Brian has always had a consistency problem in the studio. But as with 25 to Life, this set is all cream and no crop. The band is tight and without the large scale orchestra to share the stage with, Brian has to step up his guitar game. And he does — concisely. There is no endless noodling here. When the time is right he lets loose with some fiery flourishes and then it is right back to the glories of songs like Broke Down Piece of Junk, This Cat, Rock This Town and Gene and Eddie.

5) No. 2 Live Diner — Robert Earl Keen: Mr. Keen has 5 live albums to his credit and while that may seem redundant or indulgent, but all have has a place in his catalog. One is spare (The Live Album), one is essentially a greatest hits and a bit of a jumble (Austin City Limits), one is a “full” set but is closely associated to his recent release at the time (Ryman) and then there is the new one which is a tribute to No. 2. So why go with the tribute? The setlist is an excellent mix of his songwriting strengths and he is in fine voice. Also, and this is no minor detail, Mr. Keen’s band is in rocking form. A special shout out to the set closer: I’m Coming Home which is a mature celebration of the ordinary joys of simply loving your life partner. What could be sweeter than that? Check out Feeling Good Again for another joyful celebration from the Ryman set.

Honorable Mention:

Who’s Next Deluxe Edition — The Who: Keith Moon, one of rock music most unique and talented drummers, was chronically undermined in his short life by bad production and his own demons. This is especially true after 1970, where it is virtually impossible to find a full authorized set of live materials. The one exception is buried here at the end of this otherwise redundant deluxe set. There is a history here and you should read it and judge for yourself. My guess — from the between song banter — is that the band ran up against a somewhat indifferent audience. Nevertheless, the boys’ blast through the complacency and leading the way is Keith knocking them back one drum roll at a time. Almost all of Who’s Next is here, including the only authorized live take I know of Getting In Tune. Some of the best — and most famous — Who’s Next outtakes are also here: Pure and Easy and Too Much of Anything. The live power of the delivery here make you long for what could have been had Keith just found even a little bit of self-restraint. Listen and enjoy a true rock original as you may never have heard him before.

Till next time!

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