In 2009 I had a certain milestone birthday, the number of which I don't wish to discuss here. So it's no wonder that I felt more disconnected from what's going on in pop music than ever before. I mean, it is me just getting old and out of touch, right? It couldn't be that new music nowadays just sucks... could it? Then again, the two most popular recording artists of the year were Michael Jackson and the Beatles, so maybe I'm not missing that much after all.
Most of the "new" music I've gotten into this year is actually old music that's never been heard before, dredged up from the vaults just in time to make a buck before recorded music ceases to have any monetary value whatsoever. And by that yardstick, 2009 was a tremendous year. My top ten includes punk and funk, jazz and classic rock, legends and unknowns -- and all of it was recorded between ten and fifty-five years ago. The catch is that none of it was made available to the record-buying public until now.
With apologies to Herb Alpert & Lani Hall, A.C. Newman, Bob Dylan, The Disciplines, and especially Brendan Benson, whose My Old, Familiar Friend was my favorite genuinely new album of the year, here, in ascending order, are my top ten old new (or is it new old?) records of 2009:
10. LOVE - Love Lost (Sundazed). One of the most ambitious and dazzling American bands of the '60s, Love's stock was falling by 1971, when these tracks were recorded for a Columbia album that never materialized. The band members who'd helped to craft masterpieces like 1967's Forever Changes had long since disappeared, leaving leader Arthur Lee with a less subtle and harder rocking crew in its stead. As a result, much of this album sounds like Lee's recently deceased friend Jimi Hendrix -- Lee even slips in a minute or two of Jimi's "Ezy Ryder" into one song. So what makes Love Lost a keeper? For one thing, if anyone has the right to sound like Hendrix, it's Arthur Lee, who was friends with Jimi, and an early musical influence besides. These songs are in the Hendrix mode, but with an exception or two, they're not pastiches or hollow imitations -- and they genuinely rock. For my money, though, the highlight is five gorgeous solo acoustic demos that showcase what a great singer and songwriter Lee was even at this relatively late date.
9. BING CROSBY - The CBS Radio Recordings 1954-56 (Mosaic). People tend to forget that in the '20s and early '30s, before Bing Crosby was the mellow crooner of "White Christmas" and other assorted pop pablum, he was a remarkable and innovative singer of hot jazz. These mid '50s recordings -- all 160 of them, 144 of which are previously unreleased -- were made with a small jazz combo, and while he sounds pretty relaxed compared to his earlier recordings, Der Bingle's sense of rhythm is still razor sharp, and his way with a melody impeccable as always. And for fans who wish he'd recorded less ephemera during his heyday, a good chunk of these tunes are standards by the likes of Gershwin, Porter, Arlen, et al., that he'd never cut before, as well as some swinging takes on vintage jazz chestnuts.
8. TREAT HER RIGHT - The Lost Album (Hi-N-Dry). I'm generally not into white dudes from the '80s trying to play the blues, but THR, who were active from 1985-91, were uncommonly good at it. They're best remembered today as the band that Mark Sandman and Billy Conway cut their teeth in before they went on to form the '90s alt-rock band Morphine (more on them later). Indeed, Sandman's songwriting and vocals and Conway's spare, powerful drumming are highlights of this collection of ten previously unreleased tracks. But Dave Champagne also contributes some fine tunes along with a searing, biting lead guitar. And Jim Fitting's roaring vocals and brilliant harp work make me wonder why he's still playing clubs in his native Cambridge, MA. The man deserves better.
7. FRANK SINATRA - New York (Reprise). This box set, featuring live performances recorded in various NYC venues between 1955-90, could have been so much better than it is. Given that he performed regularly in Noo Yawk for his entire career, the selection of not one but two concerts from 1974, a very shaky year pipes-wise for Ol' Blue Eyes, is inexplicable. And chopping up two fine latter-day concerts so that they'd fit on one CD, while another disc runs all of 35 minutes, is similarly boneheaded. But we're dealing with Frank Sinatra here, so despite the estate's bungling of the project, there's still plenty of music to love. And the kicker is a DVD of a triumphant, rafter-raising Carnegie Hall show from 1980. Hearing him sing at the top of his game is amazing enough, but watching him perform takes it to a whole 'nother level. (For a more in-depth review of the box, click here.)
6. THE JACKSON 5 - I Want You Back! The Unreleased Masters (Motown/UMG). Motown wasted no time vault-diving in the wake of Michael Jackson's death, coming up with a dozen vintage tracks, recorded between 1970-74, that had thus far escaped the barrel-scrapers. Sounds like a gruesome quickie exploitation, right? Well, it is, I guess. But it's also a tremendous album, which may hold together better than any of the J5's "real" early LPs. Highlights include "Buttercup," written and produced by Stevie Wonder from an unreleased album he cut with Michael; an early version of "ABC" with an alternate vocal melody that's almost as cool as the one we know and love; and a Sly-meets-Marvin Gaye funk track about What's Wrong With The World Today. There are a couple of relative duds, but on the whole this is a surprisingly good collection.
5. SCOTT LAFARO - Pieces Of Jade (Resonance). Even jazzbos who don't know LaFaro's name have probably heard his bass playing on Bill Evans' classic albums Sunday At The Village Vanguard and Waltz For Debby. LaFaro was killed in a car accident in 1961 just days after they were recorded, cutting his legacy tragically short. In fact, this is the first album released under his own name. It's a grab-bag of odds and ends, with the centerpiece being a 1960 session recorded with pianist Don Friedman and drummer Pete LaRoca. It's as good, in its own way, as LaFaro's work with Bill Evans -- Friedman is a hell of a pianist in his own right, and their take on "Green Dolphin Street" is one of the most beautiful trio recordings I've ever heard. LaFaro is given ample space to stretch out with fluid, melodic and inventive solos. Among the other selections are a fascinating if somewhat low-fi rehearsal tape of LaFaro and Evans, and a 1966 interview in which Evans speaks very movingly about his late bandmate. A great tribute.
4. DEATH - For The Whole World To See (Drag City). Detroit in the late '60s and early '70s was home to both the soul factory of Motown and howling proto-punkers like the MC5 and the Stooges. It seems almost inevitable, then, that a black band would have taken the wrong turn on the way to Hitsville USA and wound up rocking out with the white kids. So why did Death not become cult heroes like their peers? Maybe the world simply wasn't ready for a black rock band. Or maybe it's the music, which was so far ahead of its time that it still sounds fresh all these years later. The seven 1974-vintage tracks on this CD -- apparently Death's entire recorded legacy -- are ferocious, buzzsaw rock that not only anticipate the punk movement of the late '70s but the more advanced time signatures and songcraft of '80s bands like the Bad Brains. Legend has it that Clive Davis was interested in signing Death in the mid '70s, but only if they changed their name. Instead of capitulating, they told him to buzz off. 1975's loss is 2009's gain.
3. BETTY DAVIS - Is It Love Or Desire (Light In The Attic). Remembered for both her career as a '70s funkette and her brief marriage to Miles Davis, I was never too impressed by what I'd heard of Betty Davis. Which makes this white-hot slab of raunchy funk even more surprising. Never released or even bootlegged until now, Is It Love Or Desire apparently sank in a sea of record company politics back in 1976, not to mention the onrushing tide of disco. Heaven only knows how music this hard and uncompromising would have been received in a year when "Disco Duck" was a #1 hit. But it's not just the music here that kicks ass. Davis squeals, growls and moans incisive, biting lyrics about gender roles, sexual politics, and most tellingly, the music biz itself -- which she left for good after this record got shelved.
2. ELLA FITZGERALD - Twelve Nights In Hollywood (Hip-O Select/UMG). In 1961-62, when the 4 CDs making up this limited-edition box set were recorded, Ella was at the peak of her powers, meaning she could go tonsil-to-tonsil with any other singer before or since. Whether it's a tender ballad, an uptempo swinger or a jazzy scat-fest, for 75 astounding tracks there's nary a blown phrase or a bum note, or even an uninspired moment. Ella was recording so much in the early '60s that this treasure trove, recorded at the Crescendo Club in Hollywood with a small group featuring Paul Smith on piano, must have seemed like no big deal at the time -- which is why the tapes stayed in the vaults for close to half a century. In 2009, however, it's the musical equivalent of King Tut's tomb coming to light.
1. MORPHINE - At Your Service (Rhino). Morphine's sound -- a two-string slide bass, saxophone and drums playing a hybrid of blues, rock, funk, pop, jazz and beat poetry -- was completely unique during the grunge-laden '90s. Ten years after bassist/vocalist/songwriter Mark Sandman died onstage of a heart attack, there's still no other band out there that sounds like them. Morphine had only completed five albums when Sandman died, but he recorded almost every note the band played together. This cache of 35 live and studio recordings, all of them previously unreleased, is the tip of the iceberg. Longtime fans can salivate over live-in-the-studio radio broadcasts; alternate versions of well-known songs that often differ radically from the finished records; and tunes only previously heard in concert, or not at all. But for newcomers, the quality of the writing and performances here is so uniformly good that this could serve as an introduction to the band -- a sort of parallel universe greatest-hits album. This is one band that richly deserves to be rediscovered, and At Your Service is a fine place to start. (For more on Morphine and Mark Sandman, click here.)
Coming up next time, more of my favorite records of '09 -- 1909, that is. Stay tuned!