To help you make merry melodies or spread some holiday cheer to the music lover in your life, Gambit Weekly offers a diverse guide detailing the best recent music releases. From the season's best box sets, local CDs and children's albums, to a primer on Muslim music.
Creedence Clearwater Revival
Creedence Clearwater Revival
With the song "Keep on Chooglin'" from its 1969 album Bayou Country, Creedence Clearwater Revival frontman John Fogerty coined the perfect term for his band's signature sound. Despite the fact that Fogerty and his bandmates were California natives and weren't really born on the bayou, Fogerty crafted an ineffably Southern landscape, steeped in Louisiana hoodoo and swamp imagery and riding a gloriously ramshackle rhythm section that choogled along like a southbound train headed for New Orleans. Then there was Fogerty's voice, a firecracker of an engine that mixed raw power with an inimitable down-home slur, so he "hoiy-d" it through the grapevine, and "burnin'" in "Proud Mary" became "boi-nin'."
By collecting the band's entire catalog and packaging CCR's albums chronologically, this eponymous six-CD box set finally sets one truth in stone: Fogerty was the driving creative force and heartbeat of the band. Fogerty's late older brother Tom (CCR's rhythm guitarist) and the rhythm section of bassist Stu Cook and drummer Doug Clifford long complained about John Fogerty's all-encompassing role as primary songwriter, arranger and producer, but the grooves don't lie. In one remarkable sprint from 1969-1970, Fogerty was the catalyst for five classic albums that yielded a stunning parade of hit singles, ranging from the scathing Vietnam protest "Fortunate Son," the wistful touring lament "Lodi," the back-porch jug-band stomp of "Down on the Corner," and the foreboding "Bad Moon Rising" -- and that's just scratching the surface of Fogerty's songbook.
The studio-album bookends of the set shine a light on the songwriting and vocal contributions of Fogerty's bandmates, inviting unflattering comparison to John Fogerty's artistic genius. The first disc collects the output of two pre-CCR bands, Tommy Fogerty & the Blue Velvets and the Golliwogs. The former finds Tom Fogerty helming the pedestrian boogie-woogie of "Come on Baby" and the watered-down doo-wop of "Oh My Love," while the latter is a mish-mash of unremarkable British Invasion knockoffs. (Only an untitled "Green Onions"-inspired instrumental and John Fogerty's bruising vocal on "You Can't Be True" produce any sparks.) By the time Tom Fogerty quit in 1970 and his younger brother gave into the demands of the rhythm section on CCR's final album, 1972's Mardi Gras, the results were lackluster, save for the lone Fogerty original, "Someday Never Comes." Still, the core of this beautifully packaged and annotated box set is a moving testament to CCR's timeless choogle. -- Jordan
The Complete in a Silent Way Sessions
Conventional wisdom says that Miles Davis' In a Silent Way was the end of an era -- or at least the beginning of the end. In 1968, the mercurial trumpeter turned his ear toward the electric sounds of rock 'n' roll and soul and began using electric guitar and keyboards in his band, moving away from the lush acoustic modal orchestration of previous landmark Davis albums Milestones and Kind of Blue. In a Silent Way also marked the dissolution of one of his famed quintets -- saxophonist Wayne Shorter, keyboardist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Tony Williams -- and introduced listeners to young talents Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette and John McLaughlin, the crew that would ultimately usher in the fusion era with the scalding electric landscape of Davis' controversial 1969 album Bitches Brew.
In retrospect, all the cries of heresy that accompanied the initial release of In a Silent Way sound like knee-jerk posturing. The album, containing only two songs, is certainly more aggressive than Davis' other late-50s and '60s output, but it's an effect achieved more through the spooky dual keyboard bubblings of Hancock and Zawinul, McLaughlin's pulsing and edgy single-note runs, and Williams' insistent cymbal ride on "Shhh/Peaceful"; Davis' playing still rides on his minimalist airy and fluttering tone and provides a calming, hypnotic counterpoint. With Shorter's beautiful alto sax playing as a foil, Davis follows a similar path on the LP's title track, a suite of sorts anchored by Dave Holland's brooding bass line.
The Complete In a Silent Way Sessions continues Columbia's masterful restoration of Davis' catalog, offering three full CDs of material from the original sessions. Some of the material eventually showed up on later Davis releases like Filles de Kilimanjaro; other tracks have never been issued. It's revelatory to hear this phenomenal burst of creativity from Davis, recorded over the course of six months, in its entirety. Herbie Hancock wasn't using reverb or other effects on tracks like the 18 minute-plus "Two Faced," and his playing contains all the expert comping and bluesy splashes that he brought to his previous work with Davis, while saxophonist Shorter's lyrical interlude is a work of quiet beauty. Major splicing and cross-fades were also used on the original LP's tracks to accommodate space constraints, and it's just as fascinating here to hear the uncut work of the ensemble. Superb liner notes and packaging help make The Complete In a Silent Way Sessions a box set to shout about. -- Jordan
Music mogul Quincy Jones' storied career includes partnerships ranging from Ray Charles to U2's Bono, Sinatra to Miles Davis, and countless points in between. Jones is best known as the producer behind such blockbusters as Michael Jackson's Thriller album and USA for Africa's historic superstar charity collaboration, "We Are the World." But the four-CD box set Q shows Jones' amazing range, beginning with his early-50s jazz work with Lionel Hampton and Cannonball Adderly, through his 1995 solo album Q's Jook Joint, which paired Jones with a typically diverse range of artists including Take 6 and Stevie Wonder.
As a producer, Jones' greatest strength is his ability to guide his recording sessions and never get in the way of the artists' trademark sounds. His jazz years are covered in the first disc, Jumpin' in the Woodshed, which showcase Jones' concise orchestral arrangements for instrumentalists (Lionel Hampton) and vocalists (Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald) alike. Jones' flexibility and superb track record then made him a much sought-after soundtrack composer and arranger, and on Gone Hollywood, Q's second disc, Jones displays his uncanny intuition for adapting to changing musical trends and still achieving maximum emotional impact with his writing and arranging. One of the set's highlights is the full version of the theme from Sanford & Son, which has Jones throwing down some hard '70s funk, punctuated with greasy clavinet and a wailing harmonica. He just as easily created the suspenseful horn-and-flute theme for Ironside, and the barrelhouse blues of "Many Rains Ago (Oluwa)," from the Roots series.
The only disappointing segment of Q is the final tracks from The Dude Throws Down, which chronicles Jones' solo work. Tracks like "Back on the Block," featuring rappers Ice-T and Big Daddy Kane, sound like forced attempts to sound contemporary and lack the magic touch of Jones' other solo work, including the James Ingram-sung ballad "Just Once," and the '60s jazz standard "Killer Joe." It's those kind of songs that pack the jolt of recognition, and Q is filled with them. Listen for examples like the suave late-60s instrumental "Soul Bossa Nova" -- recently resurrected as the theme to Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery -- and Michael Jackson and Diana Ross' duet on the dance floor anthem "Ease on Down the Road." It makes for an incredibly diverse and hit-filled collection, and illuminates Quincy Jones' pervasive influence in 20th century American music. -- Jordan
The Grateful Dead
The Golden Road (1965-1973)
Few rock 'n' roll bands have the dubious distinction of being as critically reviled as the Grateful Dead, but the box set The Golden Road (1965-1973) makes a convincing argument that the Dead's long, strange trip contained some superb musical adventures. Covering the band's creative high point (its early tenure at Warner Bros. Records), this massive 12-CD opus contains two discs of pre-Dead material that chart the band's early development, remastered versions of the band's first nine albums, and a wealth of unreleased live tracks from that era.
The unreleased early sides show the band's two distinct musical personalities emerging early, with versions of traditional blues, country and jug-band standards like "Stealin'," "Sittin' On Top of the World" and "In the Pines" alongside extended psychedelic jams like "Mindbender (Confusion's Prince)" and "Viola Lee Blues." The band sounds young and enthusiastic though the material generally sounds like the work of a competent (albeit slightly skewed) bar band. The band's first two albums -- its eponymous debut and Anthem of the Sun -- were disorganized messes, the sound of an untested studio band fruitlessly trying to capture its freewheeling live sound (with Weir asking the engineer to record with "thick air"). The band began to learn from its mistakes on their third LP, Aoxomoxoa, which featured the shimmering ensemble dynamics of "St. Stephen" and "China Cat Sunflower."
Jerry Garcia and company truly hit their stride with Workingman's Dead and American Beauty, back-to-back classics that sound like the Dead's answer to the Byrds' Sweethearts of the Rodeo. Those masterpieces found the band incorporating their hardcore country influences into a batch of superb new songs, yielding such future staples at "Casey Jones," "Friend of the Devil," "Sugar Magnolia" and "Ripple." The streamlined sound also translated well onto the bandstand, with the live album Europe '72 standing as a definitive live document of the Dead's now-formidable stage prowess.
That maturation accounts for some of The Golden Road's best surprise cuts, taken from soundboard recordings from the heyday of the Fillmore West. The hefty price tag of the set makes some of the CDs' bonus material questionable; with "Truckin'" already appearing on American Beauty, including the single version and a truncated live version on the same disc seems lazy.
But Dead aficionados and neophytes will love the set's superb sound quality -- and a batch of unlisted hidden gems such as promotional Dead radio advertisements, and Bob Weir's oft-told "yellow dog" joke, so lame that it's hilarious. -- Jordan
Can You Dig It: The '70s Soul Experience
Simply put, this is the party box set of the year, and one right up New Orleans' alley. While King Floyd ("Groove Me," "Baby Let Me Kiss You") and Jean Knight ("Mr. Big Stuff") are the only artists with local ties (with a nod to Allen Toussaint's production for Labelle's "Lady Marmalade") on this six-CD, 136-song opus, the hallmarks of the '70s soul sound mirror the classic output of perennial local favorites like the Meters and Chocolate Milk. The necessary ingredients are a soulful lead singer, smooth vocal backup harmonies, a punched-up horn section and a slinky rhythm section; extra touches like percussion or a few Hammond B-3 organ waves are always welcome.
Most of the songs on this box set fall into five categories: socially conscious anthems, ballads of unbreakable love, adultery chronicles, good-time dance anthems, and sweaty sex tributes. The first group includes the gospel-influenced message of the Staples Singers' "Respect Yourself" and the timeless protest of Edwin Starr's "War"; the second spotlights the deep devotion of Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" and the Four Tops' "Ain't No Woman (Like the One I Got)"; Shirley Brown's "Woman to Woman" and Betty Wright's "Clean Up Woman" represent the cheater's segment; the Hues Corporation's "Rock the Boat" and the O'Jays "Love Train" get the disco ball spinning; and Marvin Gaye and B.T. Express drop sex bombs with "Let's Get it On" and "Do It ('Til You're Satisfied)."
As always, Rhino's design and packaging are top-notch, recreating eight-track tapes for the cover and packing the 76-page liner notes with loads of vintage photographs and album cover reproductions. For fans of Rhino and soul music, this makes a perfect companion to their previous six-CD box set, Beg, Scream & Shout: The Big Ol' Box of '60s Soul. -- Jordan