Much has been made of the death of the CD and moving digital music to third party servers that deliver your favorites songs to desktops, laptops, mobile phones, MP3 players, flash drives, hard drives, and anything else that will hold that precious binary code. I still like my vinyl and CDs in the three-dimensional plane. I like being surrounded by the walls of music in my cramped, bulging domicile. I love randomly picking out a CD, cranking my stereo with a sound that can shake the bricks of my entire building. Recently there's been a dearth of superb music released, most of it reissues stocked with all sorts of details and photos and bonus tracks, etc., and ready to be consumed by those of us still hungry enough to invest in the ritual of using/reading/touching/playing physical product.
Elbow: The Seldom Seen Kid (Geffen)
Evocative, haunting, nuanced rock music from this vastly underappreciated U.K. quintet. Sonic blasts of string and brass intertwined with delicate keyboard and guitar filigrees launch the opening track "Starlings." Like a wonderfully malnourished Porcupine Tree meets Sigur Ros mugging Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, AKA "prog without the solos." Case in point, "Weather to Fly." On a very short list as my favorite release of 2008.
Bob Dylan: The Bootleg Series Vol. 8 - Tell Tale Signs (Legacy)
From alternate takes to unreleased gems, Mr. Zimmerman remains the benchmark for all singer-songwriters. These nuggets on this essential two-CD set are every bit as compelling as the records that they were left off of (or on which they appeared in different versions). "Red River Shore" was not included on Time Out of Mind yet may have been the best song from that session. Listen, and decide.
The Legendary Pink Dots: Plutonium Blonde (ROIR)
And if you want old school art-prog, I recommend this Amsterdam-based outfit led by Edward Ka-Spel (vocals, keyboards) and Phil Knight AKA The Silverman (keyboards). The passage of 27 years hasn't dulled their Dayglo luster, lust for psychedelic flourishes a la Syd Barrett, and surreal imagery. These sparse, disturbing, and deeply hued tunes are the aural equivalent of Van Gogh paintings after a few absinthe cocktails.
Creedence Clearwater Revival: Bayou Country - 40th Anniversary Edition (Fantasy)
The reverb-drenched arpeggio guitar riff that opens John Fogerty's Bay-area quartet's second LP remains one of those timeless American rock moments. "Born on the Bayou" -- "Proud Mary," too -- would become a radio and juke joint jukebox staple. That it was born in the haze following the Summer of Love, far from the Southern delta, gives lends even more to its undeniable power.
Michael Falzarano: We Are All One (Woodstock Records)
Roots-rock has many disciples that can barely deliver the goods. Not so with this gritty singer-songwriter/founder of The Memphis Pilgrims and rhythm guitarist in Hot Tuna, the New Riders of the Purple Sage, et al. He's joined by friends like Vassar Clements (R.I.P., his last recordings), Melvin Seals, Buddy Cage, Jorma Kaukonen, Gary Hudson, and others on a raucous set of simple, four-on-the-floor, toe-tapping tunes.
Charlie Hunter: Baboon Strength (Spire Artist Media)
Charlie continues to dazzle my ears with his seven-string guitar/bass chops. He's a flat-out freak, playing both parts on one neck in his jazz trio. My old friend Erik Deutsch gets to employ all of his bag of vintage analog keyboard tricks to augment the trippy, funked-up experience. Charlie actually lays back on several numbers, allowing Erik to stretch out and shine. Drummer Tony Mason keeps it all in a very tight pocket with nimble-wrist finesse. Check out the funky fresh "Astronaut Love Triangle."
The Replacements: Tim (Sire/Rhino)
The last Mats LP with lead guitarist brother Tommy Stinson and their first for Seymour Stein's alt-rock label juggernaut; many critics agree that this is Paul Westerberg's crowning achievement. From "Waitress in the Sky" to "Can Hardly Wait" they sound as raw, raucous, and fresh today as when I first heard them on pristine vinyl back in 1984.
Marcus Goldhaber w/ Jon Davis Trio: Take Me Anywhere (Fallen Apple)
What a wonderful straight-ahead jazz vocalist from Buffalo; part Chet Baker meets a breathier Bobby Darin. Strong arrangements of some jazz standard classics and plenty of strong originals, especially the swinging lilt of "Take Me" with Hendrik Meurkens's tasteful harmonica solo. Jon Davis and his trio play with just enough sauce to keep the songs from dragging.
Hector Zazou & Swara: In the House of Mirrors (Crammed Discs)
Afro-electronic minimalistic fusion meets world beat on recently deceased French composer Zazou's last album. He invited instrumentalists from India and Uzbekistan to jam on this transcendental ambient journey, so devastatingly gorgeous one can drift off and experience new frontiers of perception just from the sonic subtleties alone.
Warren Zevon: s/t (Rhino)
Damn, if this isn't one of my favorite albums of all times. From the strung-out junkie's lament "Carmelita" to achingly tender "Desperados Under the Eaves" or the rip-roaring yet prescient "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" (R.I.P.); nary a clunker. And it comes with a second disc of early demos and alternate takes that will equally move you. Many have attempted to capture the ethos of the L.A. singer-songwriter scene, but few matched Mr. Z's songcraft and execution.
Lykke Li: Youth Novels (Atlantic)
I missed this release way back in February, but it's still vital. Those aching for the idiosyncratic electronic pop of Bjork will find comfort in this 21-year-old indie Swedish artist's disc. The infectious as hell "I'm Good, I'm Gone" -- even with its verse sounding like a quirkier rewrite of Devo's cover of "Working in a Coalmine" -- is an iPod staple. Ditto for her whacked video.
R.E.M.: Murmur Deluxe (A&M)
This record ushered in the alt-rock movement that would spawn an industry of indie bands all around the world. From Teenage Fanclub to My Morning Jacket, this Athens, GA quartet delivered the blueprint for the future sound of modern alt-rock. If there is a better song than "Shaking Through" from the '80s, I'd like to hear it.
Johnny Cash: Folsom Prison Deluxe (Legacy/Sony)
Most box sets are for completists only, so do you need all of this sprawling box set? Both shows and a DVD doc? You bet. The documentary alone is worthy of a separate purchase, but the fact that it's all part of this historical concert by the iconographic Man in Black makes this essential for any music fan. Fantastic liner note and photos by famed SF-based photographer Jim Marshall.
Van Morrison: Veedon Fleece [Bonus Tracks] (Polydor)
The last album from the Irish curmudgeon before his self-imposed three-year exile is the aural bookend to his masterwork Astral Weeks. Its highly confessional and introspective offerings shared his divorce from his wife Janet Planet. Evocative and heartfelt as any of his best work, this musical confessional is rich poetry both in form and function. "Cul de Sac" is classic fare from the Belfast Bard.