Monday, 15 December 2008

News, Views and Music Issue 16 (Top Five): Releases Of The Year 2008

♫ We end this newsletter and wave an early goodbye to 2008 with our latest top five – the best releases of the year. It’s not been a vintage year for fans of AAA artists by any means, but we have had a smattering of juicy re-issues (with an emphasis on complete unreleased live performances this year I’ve noticed) and a few return-to-form new releases to savour throughout 2008 and beyond.

5) “Bark”/ “Long John Silver” (Jefferson Airplane, 1971/72). It may seem strange that I’m listing probably the two worst records out of a handful the original Airplane ever made as one of the best CD sets of the year – especially as this set has no bonus tracks included - but there’s a reason for my madness. These two sets may not be vintage Airplane but they are far too good to have waited a staggering 21 years since the first sale of a CD player to be re-issued and re-released, especially ‘Bark’ which has more than its fair share of minor gems lurking between the filler material. Both albums are also a case in point for how good CD mastering can be when it’s done right – both albums sounded horribly, often unplayably murky on vinyl, as if the Airplane’s fine band interplay was going on down a wind tunnel somewhere just out of ear-shot. While neither album sounds ‘clear’ in the traditional sense on CD, it’s still nice to hear them in their ‘true’ state at long last and both of these neglected and rather unloved sets are in firm need of appraisal. Alas, though, it’s a sign of our times that I never saw this set in the shops even once – I had to order mine from a mail order catalogue and even that doesn’t seem to be listing this CD set anymore.It’s worth seeking out though, if only to hear Grace Slick insulting the world in German – because, as she correctly guessed, the American censors would be too lazy to translate it!  

4) “The Present” (Moody Blues, 1983). Another album long long loooong overdue for a proper CD re-issue (it came out as a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it set in the late 80s which I have never seen once in 15 years of collecting all things Moodies, even at some exorbitant price in a second-hand shop), this set and its two companions (‘Octave’ and ‘Long Distance Voyager’) are often overlooked in the Moodies’ back catalogue. None of these first three reunion sets can compare to the band’s original seven – but then what can? ‘The Present’ is a particularly sturdy set, full of glorious Justin Hayward ballads, a classic moody Graeme Edge piece, some of the better uptempo John Lodge songs of the later Moodies era and Ray Thomas seemingly going mad at the end of the album – all pretty much for the last time, sadly, as in my opinion only Hayward seems to be intermittently on form on any of the band’s later albums. And like all good Moodies releases, it’s commercial and catchy without sacrificing depth; full of then-contemporary technology without sacrificing the classic late 60s sound that the Moodies mined better than pretty much everyone in their day. Alas the bonus tracks on all three sets were a bit of a let down but, hey, it’s Christmas, forgive and forget.   

3) “Déjà vu” (Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young DVD, 2008). Social commentary is always a hard thing to control in popular mainstream music – ignoring issues going around you for the whole of your career can make an artist seem ‘soft’ and unimportant, while throwing yourselves into a cause head-first puts off all of your fan-base that don’t think the same way as you. But CSNY at their best – whether solo, in pairs, as a trio or, rarely, as a quartet – have always done their best to reflect their times and give their fans a voice that otherwise might not be heard. For the first time in too long, this Neil Young dominated DVD finds the band flying head-first down the ‘social comment’ road, with every song on this 2006 tour a dig at George Bush’s ‘fake’ presidency somewhere down the line. The audience at the concerts don’t know what to make it, half of them cheering and half of them jeering, but for CSNY fans with open minds this tour souvenir was a welcome reminder of how brave and how special this band really are. All together now, ‘Let’s impeach the president for lying…’

2) “Electric Arguments” (The Fireman aka Paul McCartney and Youth, 2008). I doubt they’ve even heard of my website, but since my review for this album (newsandreviews 13a) every critic in the land seems to have joined in and called this album ‘McCartney III’ in honour of the two experimental, improvised albums that came out either side of Macca’s Wings discography. Temporally escaping from his world tour band for the first time in three albums, this is the special, experimental side of McCartney’s character that we don’t get to see very often and – after more or less 15 years in the wilderness – few of us ever thought we’d see throughout a whole album again. Performing under a pseudonym and giving full reign to his improvisation skills seems to have given Mr Macca new lease of life at long last, freed of his huge overbearing weight of a musical past and allowing him to go back to actually enjoying his music. Linda, always the biggest supporter of Macca’s more eccentric tastes, would have been dead proud. Heather Mills, on the other hand, seems to have been uncharacteristically stunned into silence after the release of this album and its uncharitable Mills-slaying opening track. More please Macca!

1) “Pacific Ocean Blue”/ “Bambu” (Dennis Wilson, 1977 and unreleased recordings, mainly from 1979). We Beach Boys fans have waited for a proper CD release of this album for so long, it positively hurt. And, unlike many ‘lost gems’ (Brian Wilson’s ‘Smile’ firmly excluded) this album didn’t disappoint. Here’s drummer Dennis Wilson at the crossover point of his life – his voice already gruff and lived in after years of excess and success, but still functioning well enough to put his sorrows into words and with oh so much on his mind. The second CD, full of tracks from an unfinished but still album-length follow-up release ‘Bambu’, is just as good if not better. Taken together, these two projects sounds like Tony Asher’s confused and lovestruck lyrics from ‘Pet Sounds’ set to the raging, ever-changing and always engaging music of ‘Smile’, all set to heartbreaking orchestral accompaniment, Dennis’ razor-sharp heartmelting voice and a large dollop of help from fellow genius and baby brother Carl Wilson. Which, as almost any Beach Boys fan will tell yopu, as good as music is ever going to get. Take ‘Smile’ out of the equation (and the Hollies’ long-lost 1973 album ‘Out On The Road’, issued in the UK for the first time in 2005) and this album is a strong candidate for best release of the decade by any artist. It was certainly the highlight of my year.      

Other new releases of the year you might have missed:

♫ Belle and Sebastian “The BBC Sessions”

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young “Déjà vu Live” (soundtrack CD)

♫ David Gilmour (and Rick Wright) “Live In Gdansk

♫ Graham Gouldmann and Kevin Godley aka 10cc “Clever Clogs” (live DVD with new material)

♫ Grateful Dead “Live In Egypt 1978” (previously unreleased live recording)

♫ Jefferson Starship “Tree Of Liberty” (a series of covers of ‘influential’ songs)

♫ The Kinks “Music Box” (6 CD box-set with a dozen unreleased tracks)

♫ Moody Blues “Octave” and “Long Distance Voyager” (first proper CD issues of old material)

♫ Oasis “Dig Out Your Soul”

♫ Rolling Stones “Shine A Light” (DVD and live soundtrack CD)

♫ Cat Stevens “Tea For The Tillerman” (Deluxe Re-issue)

♫ Brian Wilson “That Lucky Old Sun”

♫ Neil Young “Sugar Mountain” (one of Neil’s ‘Archive’ live recordings from 1968)

 Well that about wraps it up for another issue – see you next week for our last newsletter of 2008 and our last here at the AAA before our Winter break (set to include the top five AAA-related Xmas songs!) Happy listening till then!


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