While music is a constant in people’s lives, the album era is all but gone and shuffle play has become the intermingled soundtrack to all manner of other activities. Great albums are still being made (or, in some cases, reissued), but they are quite easily missed. Here then are some gift suggestions for your musically inclined friends and family who may have been distracted when these all quietly landed in whatever is left of the marketplace.
At the top of the list is Ry Cooder’s Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down (Nonesuch). Even erstwhile Cooder fans didn’t seem to know about this one. He revitalized and expanded his recording career over the past half-dozen years with a trilogy of albums that found him, for the first time, flexing his muscles as a songwriter. Having been a great interpreter of songs composed over the past century, he learned his lessons well. With this year’s release he’s brought forth a formidable set of protest songs. They’re rich with character; he’s pulling no punches as an armless soldier ponders an empty Christmas, or a high roller wonders how he’ll get by without his maid. Potent stuff, and some richly supple playing with his usual gang of musical cohorts.
With his Yo Miles! Ensemble, Wadada Leo Smith released two double albums (Sky Garden is 2004, Upriver in 2005) devoted to Miles Davis’ ’70s funk-based music. Heart’s Reflections (Cuneiform) is the second with his band Organic. The extended pieces are comprised of far brighter colors than what Davis was creating 40 years ago. It’s a rich tapestry of electric guitars (including the legendary Michael Gregory), keyboards and bass, drums (Pheeroan akLaff), saxophones and a violin on a few, and Smith’s stunning trumpet throughout.
Ray Bonneville’s Bad Man’s Blood (Red House) is a new peak in his 30-year career. Born in Canada and living in Texas, he writes rich vignettes suffused with the stuff of life: love, regret, hope, and loss. One cannot listen to this album’s “River John” and be unmoved. The performances are built around his acoustic guitar, his tapping foot and some judiciously deployed accompaniment by sympathetic players. As with Greg Brown and Chris Smither, Bonneville doesn’t fit easily into categories, being neither folk nor blues, but falling into both those camps, while always delivering with a soulful honesty.
On the reissue front are an important pair by country soul songwriters. Harlan County by Jim Ford (Light in the Attic) was released in 1969. Sly Stone called Ford “the baddest white man on the planet,” and there is quite a tale to read, but suffice to say songs and performances of this caliber were never going to go away. A contemporary reference point of sorts would be the stripped-down approach that Nick Lowe has adopted over the past 20 years of his career. Bobby Charles achieved greater success as a songwriter during his life than did Ford, but he also released a singular classic. Now expanded to a three-disc set, Bobby Charles (Rhino Handmade) contains the perfect original album along with a couple dozen additional numbers, demos and other fully recorded songs. People often already know his songs without knowing his name (“Tennessee Blues,” “Small Town Talk, “Walking to New Orleans,” “See You Later, Alligator”), or may remember his appearance with the Band in their Last Waltz.