This story, as originally conceived, was supposed to be a compilation of the year's best box sets and other reissues. But then it hit me–in today's shuffle-driven iPod world, with the pace of pop culture moving at breakneck speed, it's pointless to make such temporal distinctions. The past is ever-present, and the present quickly becomes the past. So instead of a list of old music released anew, I've come up with a list of timeless music: albums that came out this year that heed no prevailing trends and sound as if they could have been recorded any time between 1926 and 2006. Or 2106, for that matter.
David Kimbrough Jr., Shell Shocked(Lucky 13/BC)
Burnside Exploration, The Record(Lucky 13/BC)
While Fat Possum Records has all but abandoned the "Not Your Same Old Blues Crap" of people like R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, both the Kimbrough and Burnside families have produced new generations of first-rate players. David Kimbrough Jr. (son of Junior) and the Burnside Exploration (featuring a son and a grandson of R.L.) both released albums very much worthy of the whiskey-delic Mississippi Hill Country boogie/blues tradition of their forefathers. The Burnside Exploration album is a raucous and primal rotgut Saturday-night onslaught of guitar distortion and drums with occasional tinges of Dirty South hip-hop. Kimbrough's ShellShocked rocks just as hard in spots, but is also downright harrowing in others, like "Wild Turkey" and "I Don't Do the Things I Used To." What's more, Kimbrough's keening tenor is the finest singing voice this subgenre has ever had.
The Kashmere Stage Band, Texas Thunder Soul 1968-74(Now-Again)
Faced with a flurry of band defections in the mid '70s, James Brown made the discovery that immortal funk did not require elite musicianship. The results of Brown's eureka moment eventually provided him with one of his most fertile periods. Houston high school band teacher Conrad Johnson, director of the Kashmere Stage Band, came to the same conclusion, with results that are no less funky. The luxuriant big band jazz-funk on this double-CD makes it well-nigh impossible to believe that this is the work of students from one inner city high school, or even from all the high schools in America put together.
King Curtis, Live at Fillmore West(Koch)
On the other hand, elite musicians did create immortal funk, as evidenced on this King Curtis live set. Curtis, a sax player who was murdered at 41 a few months after this recording, had a squalling, harsh tone common to the black Texans of his era that dates back to guys like Illinois Jacquet, Arnett Cobb and "Cleanhead" Vinson. Here, he unleashes it on an array of hits from all over the pop music spectrum of 1971, so alongside expected songs like "Memphis Soul Stew," you also get funkified renditions of country and folk fare like "Ode to Billy Joe" and "Mr Bojangles" and classic rock staples "A Whiter Shade of Pale," "My Sweet Lord" and even Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love." And, oh yeah—we mentioned that Curtis had some musicians . . . How about the Memphis Horns, Billy Preston on the organ and guitarist Cornell Dupree?
James Hunter, People Gonna Talk(Rounder)
It was the roots music story of this year: James Hunter stepped out of the shadows of Van Morrison, for whom he had served as lead guitarist for the past few years, and emerged front and center as the leader of his own band. On People Gonna Talk, the suave Englishman wraps his honeyed, Sam Cooke-ian tenor equally around early ska and rocksteady, the proto-funk of James Brown's early career, and suave big city blues, all framed by tight, spry horns and occasional pizzicato strings. The complete package is as smooth and thrilling as a moonlit ride in a vintage T-Bird convertible on an open stretch of coastal highway.
Various Artists, Roots of Rumba (Crammed Discs)
This is an endlessly compelling exploration of 1950s-vintage sides from the former Belgian Congo, where the Cuban rumba was originally invented and later transformed. When Cuban recordings reached Kinshasa (then known as Leopoldville), the Congolese instantly recognized them as the work of their kinsfolk, those who were taken in chains to the sugar fields. In the Congo, local musicians replaced Cuban piano parts with guitars and Spanish lyrics with others in Lingala, and their Afro-Rumba would go on to sweep the continent in the late '50s and early '60s. Many of those tunes are here, and they come in a beautifully photographed package with copious, informed liner notes.
DJ Spooky, DJ Spooky Presents In Fine Style: 50,000 Volts of Trojan Records (Trojan)
Even if you consider yourself up-to-speed on the Trojan catalogue, you should still pick up this two-CD set. While DJ Spooky is characteristically pedantic in the liner notes, there is no doubt he did a fine job here harvesting obscurities like Derrick Morgan's weirdly incredible "The Great Musical Battle" and Peter Tosh's judicial proceedings in "Here Comes the Judge," placing them alongside ganja-baked covers of hits like the Beatles' "Come Together" and Peggy Lee's "Fever," along with classic Jamaican hits like "007 Shanty Town" and "Rudy a Message to You." It also touches on every era of Jamaican music, from ska to rocksteady right up to the first shimmerings of dub, making this a perfect gift for neophytes.
Dirty Dozen, What's Going On? (Shout! Factory)
Marvin Gaye's soul classic gets a New Orleans brass-band overhaul at the hands of the Dirty Dozen, and the band makes the most of both Gaye's masterpiece and today's prevailing post-Katrina /blunders-of-Dubya atmosphere of paranoia and resolve. Bettye LaVette growls a star vocal turn on "What's Happening Brother"; "Right On" funks along with righteous fervor; and "Flyin' High (in the Friendly Sky)" is best of all, a second-line funeral parade that encapsulates the whole album—and the essence of New Orleans—in five glorious minutes.
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Cedric Watson, Edward Poullard, James Adams, Les Amis Creole(Arhoolie)
With the partial exception of New Orleans jazz culture, young black American musicians rarely spend much time looking to the distant past for inspiration. One exception is Cedric Watson, a 22-year-old Creole fiddler from the prairies just west of the zydeco hotbed of Houston. Watson's interests extend beyond zydeco, back to the music called "la-la," the pre-electric folk material of his Louisiana Creole ancestors. Here, he performs these French-language waltzes, reels and two-steps with some of the few remaining older practitioners, and the result is as joyous and unexpected as that ivory-billed woodpecker sighting a few years back. This music was supposed to have gone extinct a decade or so ago, and now it appears safe for another couple of generations.
M. Ward, Post War(Merge)
A melancholy imagining of what American life will be like once our wars against terrorism are finally over, young neo-traditionalist rocker M. Ward has created the most beautiful record of his short and already distinguished career. While his acoustic guitar playing retains its folky, John Fahey-esque bluesiness, Post Warfinds Ward's arrangements lushed up with strings, piano and kettle drums and other such sonic grandeur, creating a vast panorama for his understated and, at times, eerie tenor. It's schizoid, by turns achingly gentle and violently boisterous, utterly joyous and profoundly depressed. In other words, it's the perfect album for our imperfect times.