AC/DC: Rock Or Bust (Columbia) There is something extraordinarily, mathematically pure about AC/DC that maybe escaped most critics’ notice back in their very early days of the ’70s, when, if they were written about at all, it was only to be portrayed as the legendary Easybeats’ dopier side of the family. But they were an exceptional band then, and continue to be even now. Despite the comings and goings of members Bon Scott and, now, Malcolm Young, there is a certain consistency and conciseness in everything the band has recorded—controlled abandon, howling, scratchy guitar, thick drumbeat—that makes the AC/DC catalog special and nearly impossible to imitate. They are not only freakishly good, albeit within their gleefully selected artistic confines, they are complete sales monsters: Per our reliable friends at Wikipedia, they have sold more records than Madonna or Mariah Carey, and their classic Back In Black is the fifth best-selling record of all time here in these rock-hungry United States. Within another decade they will likely become their own genre. They have not caved in to commercialism, and—despite the unavoidable gutter press, drummer-wise—they remain a complete, lovable, laughable class act. Good for them, and us.
Mary J. Blige: The London Sessions (Capitol) A well thought out, smart creative move for illustrious R&B diva Blige, whose credentials have never been less than evident from the early days, but whose here-and-there discography has always suggested a massively powerful singer looking for a contemporary re-contextualization that would strip away that “Queen of hip-hop soul” designation in favor of someone who simply sings real good. And she does that here. It is a tad ironic that the title “the London Sessions” brings to mind those early ‘70s Chess Records albums in which legendary US players like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters were given appropriate “street cred” via pairings with the hip Brit likes of Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Steve Winwood and some Rolling Stones; here Blige, essentially street-credded to the max, pops up with a Brit crew that uniformly treats her music and her sound with the respect it deserves, and surprise: everybody wins. A great showing for Blige, at exactly the right time.
Willie Nelson And Sister Bobbie: December Day: Willie’s Stash Vol. 1 (Legacy) From its singular cover to the conspicuous warmth occupying one and all of the tracks here, December Day is a reassuring, nice look for Willie Nelson in 2014: Together with his sister Bobbie, a longtime band member, the grizzled vet presents here a batch of songs both original and not (“Alexander’s Ragtime Band”), but all sharing that peculiarly detached, emotional oomph that is so hard to put into words but so core to that thing that makes Nelson’s music so uniquely his own. Though the man at this point appears to have recorded a hundred billion albums for his current label—bless his heart—that each one merits special consideration in and of itself is absolutely astounding. “Mona Lisa”? “Who’ll Buy My Memories”? He is so good–and his sister ain’t bad, either. This stash will not dry up anytime soon.
She & Him: Classics (Columbia) While this is an entirely familiar, cover-songs-by-rote album approach—and thus not worth getting all huffy about—one has to sort of wonder what the grand aesthetic payoff is for hearing a comparatively new duo (Zooey Deschanel & M. Ward) singing songs made famous by people much better known, and perhaps musically more consequential, than them. Is it a kick to hear “modernized” versions of “Stars Fell On Alabama,” “Time After Time,” and “Unchained Melody” this far into the 21st Century? I dunno. But I do know that whatever irony might have been wrought from the Byrds’ re-fashioning Vera Lynn’s 1939 track “We’ll Meet Again” in 1965 has long since left the building—and now, 50 years later, being nostalgic for nostalgia itself seems kind of silly, no?
The Rolling Stones: From The Vault: Hampton Coliseum (DVD/2CD), From The Vault: L.A. Forum (DVD/2CD) (Eagle Rock Entertainment) Both of these are surprisingly, stunningly, quite good and worthy of your purchase if you are a fan of the Rolling Stones. That they can be so good, and so…instantly available…speaks well for our era of over-documenting nearly anyone of any repute, particularly when the subjects are the Rolling Stones and—not importantly—the band is, age-wise, absurdly in its prime! The Forum show, captured in both audio and video format (two different shows!) during five nights in 1975, features new guitarist Ronnie Wood, sounds absolutely amazing thanks to Bob Clearmountain’s new mix, and—most importantly—features a relatively young Stones, with M. Jagger in his very early 30s and the repertoire laden with classics before they officially became oldies. The Hampton show, fascinating for its own reasons, was captured during the band’s 1981 Tattoo You tour, apparently became the first-ever musical pay per-view event, and captures the band precisely in the middle of putting classics like “Brown Sugar” and “Tumbling Dice” into the amber, at least temporarily. Superb packaging—these sets are available as 2CD/1DVD sets or 3LP/1DVD collections—and equally fine, non-commoditized music, make these very much your while. Unexpected? Maybe. Recommended? Oh yeah.
Linda Jones: The Complete Atco-Loma-Warner Brothers Recordings (Real Gone) One has to hand it to the Real Gone label for nearly single-handedly—at least in 2014—instituting a methodical resurgence of priceless ‘60s-‘70s recordings by classic, undersung female R&B stars like Barbara Lynn, Jackie Moore and Linda Jones. An exceptional singer whose music was comparatively obscure—1967’s “Hypnotized” was her best-known track—Jones had an outstanding voice, and much of the music heard here, arranged by keyboardist Richard Tee, is simply amazing. An inspiration to the much-missed Teena Marie, Jones was just 28 when she died in 1972, but her recordings—via collections like this—will be telling her remarkable tale for years to come. Kudos to the label for putting this together.
Leonard Cohen: Live In Dublin (CD/DVD) (Columbia/Legacy) Recorded in September of 2013—when Leonard Cohen was, as he’d be the first to admit, no spring chicken—Live In Dublin is a worthwhile collection for many reasons. First, Leonard Cohen is great, and so is his music, so there you go. But secondly, because the man has really constructed an extraordinary song catalog since the ‘60s, and aside from a few obvious numbers—“Suzanne,” “Hallelujah,” “Bird On The Wire”—not everyone in his increasingly larger audience may have heard much of it. And a whole bunch of it is here. While some of the numbers that might’ve cut most deep, career-wise (“Dress Rehearsal Rag,” “Avalanche” and “Story Of Isaac”) aren’t here, the spread of classics, and the depth of Cohen’s accomplishments, are conspicuous and extraordinary. He is a true creative jewel, and that he manages to produce and create so much fine material, even now, is one happy story that shows no sign of ending.
The Miles Davis Quintet: All Of You: The Last Tour, 1960 (Acrobat) Just a note about a new collection fascinating not only for the music it provides—a 4 CD collection of European live tracks recorded in 1960 by the legendary Miles Davis Quintet featuring John Coltrane, Wynton Kelly & Jimmy Cobb—but by its very existence. Most of these recordings have been around for years due to their sources (radio broadcasts and audience tapes), but organized effectively, packaged with respectable liner notes and contextualizing what in many ways might be perceived as a copyright “mess”—now less of a problem due to international law—makes this a very nifty, understandable means to witness saxophonist Coltrane’s artistic evolution as it was happening. Great stuff, worth your time and listening.