When everything old is new again

Thirty years ago, the vinyl record album was considered dead as a doornail, pushed aside in favor of the compact disc.  So I was stunned by this news item I saw a couple of weeks ago:  In 2016, sales of vinyl record albums reached $485 million, a 32% increase over five years ago.  Furthermore, my 26-year-old daughter and many of her friends all have turntables and burgeoning album collections.  Not CDs.  Albums.  They’re back, in a big way.

frameology-mobile-gift-wrap-lp-gift-wrap-01And vinyl isn’t the only “retro” thing on the market these days.  In what should be, well, music to the ears of those of you who prefer the music of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, here’s good news:  There were nearly two dozen new releases in 2016 by some of your favorite veteran bands and solo artists — stars who are primarily known for their work from those long-ago decades.

Granted, some of them are…um…not so great.  They may offer music that’s very different from what you remember, or the quality of material and/or performances might be decidedly inferior.  But I’m pleased to report that about half of these albums are pretty damn good, even great, and well worth your time and attention.

So it’s not too late to take those gift cards from Amazon or Barnes & Noble and treat yourself or a loved one to great new music by some of the established artists of the old days.  Let’s look at, and listen to, the ones I’ve selected for closer examination.  And here we go:

jonathan-barnbrook_david-bowie_blackstar_album-cover-art_dezeen_1568_01“Blackstar,” David Bowie

Leave it to the magnificent Chameleon of Rock to drop an extraordinary farewell album on an unsuspecting public last January 8th, give us two days to absorb its compelling music, and then gently pass away from the cancer that had been tormenting him for nearly a year.  Aptly enough, “Blackstar” is teeming with references to death and mortality, notably the six-minute “Lazarus” (“Look up here, I’m in heaven, I’ve got scars that can’t be seen…”) and the album’s closer, “I  Can’t Give Everything Away,” arguably one of the best five songs in his 50-year catalog.  Bowie has always pushed the envelope as he experimented over the years with a broad range of genres, and “Blackstar” is no exception.  Britain’s New Musical Express magazine called it “busy, bewildering and often beautiful,” and Sean O’Neal of A.V. Club found it to be “a sonically adventurous album that proves Bowie was always one step ahead — where he’ll now remain in perpetuity.”

packshot-800-285x285“You Want It Darker,” Leonard Cohen

In a similar manner to Bowie, Leonard Cohen spent the final months of his life squirreled away, furiously creating a farewell statement, recording the kind of stark, haunting material his fans have come to love and expect.  He too was suffering from cancer, and he knew the collection of songs on “You Want It Darker” would be his last.  His vocal delivery, which has always tended to be unrefined and plaintive, is almost uncomfortably gruff, as he offers some of the most heartfelt lyrics of his achingly moving repertoire.  Consider the title track:  “If you are the dealer, let me out of the game, if you are the healer, I’m broken and lame, if thine is the glory, mine must be the shame, you want it darker, hineni, hineni (Hebrew for “here I am”), I’m ready, my Lord…”  If you’re unfamiliar with Cohen, this LP is not a bad place to start.

stranger_to_stranger_cover“Stranger to Stranger,” Paul Simon

Probably the least prolific of our generation’s poet/songwriters, Paul Simon reached his 74th birthday before he came out in June with “Stranger to Stranger,” only his 13th solo album (after five Simon & Garfunkel LPs).  As has been the case throughout his career, he is intrigued and driven by new rhythms, eclectic instruments and unusual sounds on these songs, particularly “The Werewolf,” “Wristband” and “The Riverbank.”  Equally impressive are the lyrics, which alternate between wry observations and provocative accusations, reflecting the strange political times (“Ignorance and arrogance, a national debate, put the fight in Vegas, that’s a billion-dollar gate”).  The album debuted at #1, more than 50 years after “The Sound of Silence” was his first #1 single.

j1523_stones_packshot-digital-4000x4000-layered-f23ca9df-dee7-4b99-a7d4-a18b920f3501“Blue and Lonesome,” The Rolling Stones

Back in 1962-63, when the Stones were broke and struggling, they honed their chops by playing almost exclusively blues standards. Indeed, one of their first #1 hits in England was the Willie Dixon/Howlin’ Wolf classic “Little Red Rooster.”  Now here we are 53 years later, and Mick and Keith and the boys have treated us to an entire album of smoldering blues tracks, recorded with confidence and swagger.  Following their recent world tour, the band went into the studio to record their first batch of new songs since 2006’s “A Bigger Bang.”  They spent a couple hours warming up by playing some favorite Delta blues tunes, and they were so pleased with how they sounded that they decided to record them and release them.  Jagger’s harmonica, Charlie Watts’ deft jazzy drum work, and Richards and Ronnie Wood’s alluring guitar interplay bring new life into chestnuts like “All Of Your Love,” “Ride ‘Em On Down” and the title track.  Another #1 album for rock’s elder statesmen — no surprise there.

a5227515f9e66609910f6a706700fd64“Dig in Deep,” Bonnie Raitt

Forty-five years after her debut, Bonnie Raitt is still creating an irresistible mix of blues, R&B, gospel and rock, and every guitar player out there knows that Bonnie has few peers on slide guitar, which is in ample evidence here.  Even though the LP came out back in February, “Dig in Deep” has songs like “The Comin’ ‘Round is Going Through” with lyrics that perfectly describe the man who would somehow become President:  “You got a way of running your mouth, you rant and you rave, and you let it all out, the thing about it is, little that you say is true, why bother checkin’, the facts will be damned, it’s how you spin it, it’s part of the plan…”  Her 17th album reached #11 on the charts, a successful achievement for a woman who hasn’t typically sold a lot of records along the way but has always been universally respected by her peers and her core audience.

santana_iv_front_cover“Santana IV,” Santana

Wow, what a treat!  The original Santana band that stole the show at Woodstock in 1969 made only three albums (“Santana,” “Abraxas” and “Santana III”) before disbanding when Carlos wanted to go off to explore different directions, genres and musical partners.  Now, 45 years later, most of the original lineup reunited to produce an album called (what else?) “Santana IV,” an incredibly satisfying collection of songs that harken back to those golden days.  With keyboardist/vocalist Gregg Rolie and guitarist Neal Schon (who had formed Journey in 1973) back in the fold, the band came up with a strong balance of 16 songs and jams lasting nearly 80 minutes.  Said Carlos of the experience:  “It was really magical.  We never felt we had to force the vibe.  We’ve all been through so much since the last time we recorded together, and the good karma was immense.”

wonderful_crazy_night“Wonderful Crazy Night,” Elton John

Elton and songwriting partner Bernie Taupin set out to create a batch of tunes that recalled the feel of early ’70s classic albums like “Honky Chateau” and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” and by and large, they succeeded.   “Wonderful Crazy Night,” John’s 32nd album, includes plenty of upbeat pop rock tunes — “England and America” and “Looking Up” are the best of the batch –but the ballads are what make this album noteworthy.  It’s remarkable but true:  Elton can still create lasting melodies like “Blue Wonderful,” “A Good Heart” and “The Open Chord,” which are right up there in quality with classics such as “Levon” and “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters.”  Thanks to fine precision performances by the venerable Elton John Band (guitarist Davey Johnstone, drummer Nigel Olsson and bassist Dee Murray), these tracks will pop from your speakers.


1035x1035-monkees-good-times-cover-art1“Good Times!,” The Monkees

Seriously??  Didn’t these guys fade away when the Sixties ended?  And isn’t Davy Jones dead?  Well, no and yes.  Guitarist Mike Nesmith and bassist Peter Tork have been only occasionally involved in the many reunion tours and appearances over the past four decades…and Jones did pass away in 2011.  But drummer/singer Micky Dolenz has been the cheerfully reliable stalwart that has kept the band and its place in rock history alive, and he worked hard to locate and massage archival material that, thanks to production help from Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger, sounds like the delicious results of some time machine experiment.  Check out Neil Diamond’s downbeat “Love to Love,” where you’ll hear Jones’ vocals from a 1967 take, embellished by new harmonies from Dolenz and Tork.  You should also enjoy “Good Times,” an irresistible pop tune featuring Dolenz doing a virtual duet with the late Harry Nilsson.  Plus there’s a Goffin-King song “Wasn’t Born to Follow” and a perfect Monkees-like song (“You Bring the Summer”) that, in a perfect world, should’ve been all over the radio in July and August.  It’s not a flawless album, but none of the original Monkees albums were, either.

sting57th9th1472601281“57th and 9th,” Sting

After six increasingly popular years as frontman for The Police (1978-1984), Sting began a hugely successful solo career that included seven Top Five albums and ten Top 20 singles, but 2003’s “Sacred Love” was his last rock album for a while, as he branched out into classical, Christmas, and stage music for more than a decade.  The new “57th and 9th” LP is a welcome return, with strong guitar arrangements, infectious melodies and sobering lyrics about weighty topics.  Most movingly, he writes in “50,000” about the too-soon passing of fellow rock stars like Bowie and Prince, and how he too is feeling his own mortality:  “Another obituary in the paper today, one more for the list of those who have already fallen, another one of our comrades is taken down, like so ,many others of our calling… How well I remember the stadiums we played, and the lights sweeping across the sea of 50,000 souls we’d face…  Reflecting now on my own past, inside this prison I’ve made for myself, I’m feeling a little better today, although my bathroom mirror is telling me something else…”

mudcrutch-2-album-cover-art“Mudcrutch 2,” Tom Petty & Mudcrutch

Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers have come storming back with some great LPs recently (2005’s “…” and 2011’s “…”), but even better was “Mudcrutch,” Petty’s 2007 reunion with his old Florida band from the pre-Heartbreakers days.  Mudcrutch’s lineup includes Heartbreaker keyboardist Benmont Tench, who anchors “Mudcrutch 2” on tracks like “Welcome to Hell,” and banjo/guitar man Tom Leadon has a blast on the bluegrass number “The Other Side of the Mountain.”  But the album’s best moment is “Beautiful Blue,” a seven-minute ethereal piece that shows how Petty can totally stretch out when he’s so inclined.  If you like Petty, you’ll love this record.



Honorable mention:

album-this-path-tonight-large“This Path Tonight,” Graham Nash;  “Hardwired… to Self-Destruct,” Metallica;  “Alone,” The Pretenders;  “Peace Trail,” Neil Young;  “I Still Do,” Eric Clapton;  “This House is Not for Sale,” Bon Jovi;  “In the Now,” Barry Gibb;  “Lighthouse,” David Crosbpackshoty;  “Bang, Zoom, Crazy…Hello,” Cheap Trick;  “We’re All Somebody From Somewhere,” Steven Tyler;  “Braver Than We Are,” Meat Loaf;  “Keep Me Singing,” Van Morrison.

You might also want to explore these 2015 releases by veteran artists:  “Before This World,” James Taylor; “Crosseyed Heart,” Keith Richardjtaylor_40375-btw_rgb-700x636s; “Tracker,” Mark Knopfler; “Cass County,” Don Henley; “A Fool to Care,” Boz Scaggs; “Hand in Hand,” Richie Furay; “Back to Macon, GA,” Gregg Allman; “Rebel Heart,” Madonna; “Toto XIV,” Toto; “Postcards From Paradise,” Ringo Starr; “No keithsquarePier Pressure,” Brian Wilson;  “Bad Magic,” Motorhead; “Book of Souls,” Iron Maiden; “What the World Needs Now,” Public Image Ltd.; “Paper Gods,” Duran Duran; “Rattle That Lock,” David Gilmour; “Strangers Again,” Judy Collins; “Get Up,” Bryan Adams; “Another Country,” Rod Stewart; “Def Leppard,” Def Leppard.

annielennox-nostalgia-albumcover1-1024x1024And from 2014:  “The Endless River,” Pink Floyd; “Nostalgia,” Annie Lennox; “Standing in the Breach,” Jackson Browne.

Just so we all understand each other:  I am not stuck exclusively in the decades of my youth!  I still listen to, and purchase, great new music by vibrant newer artists like Mumford and Sons, Tame Impala, Jake Bugg, Imagine Dragons, Hozier, The 1975, Mayer Hawthorne, Bruno Mars, Alabama Shakes, Florence + The Machine and Adele.  Take heart — it’s not all hip hop, death metal and mindless pop dance stuff out there these days (although you’d never know it from the Top 40 charts…)



And the stars look very different today

david-bowie-space-ziggy-stardust-1973-alamay-billboard-650As a diehard rock music fan from Cleveland, I’ve always been proud to note that when the late great David Bowie made his American concert debut in 1972 in support of his phenomenal game-changing album “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars,” he did so from the stage of Music Hall in Cleveland Public Auditorium.

Sadly, I was a couple of months late to turn on to this strange new British sensation with the orange hair, bizarre costume and alien persona, so I wasn’t in attendance.  But once I heard the explosive, revolutionary sounds of “Suffragette City,” I ran out and bought the tumblr_inline_o0wvgzrtfn1s042m1_1280album, and played it incessantly for months.  Such an incredible record full of dynamic, in-your-face music — “Moonage Daydream,” “Starman,” “Hang On To Yourself,” “Rock and Roll Suicide,” and the indelible title track…

But he’s gone now, damnit.  Dead of liver cancer at age 69.  We lost a musical giant, a real Major Tom, this month.

Over the course of 28 albums in nearly 50 years, Bowie clearly earned his reputation as the Chameleon of Rock, continually changing musical styles, personas, accompanying musicians, producers, fashion and more, often with little regard for how it might appeal to his fan base or the commercial charts.  “My reason for performing is not to please an audience,” he said in 1997.  “It’s to present what I think are exciting new ideas.”

Exciting and new were both understatements.  As Entertainment Weekly put it in describing his Ziggy period, “No one had seen (or heard) anything like him in pop music before.  Here was a guy performing with cabaret-glam theatricality in women’s clothing — but he was playing loud, tough, hummable rock songs.  It started Bowie on the road to being a barrier-busting hero who acted as an avatar for gender fluidity before that was even a term.”

Bowie’s album repertoire may have included a few relative duds, but for the most part, he maintained an enviably high level of quality, from 1971’s “Hunky Dory” to 1993’s “Black Tie White Noise,” from 1975’s “Young Americans” to 2002’s “Heathen,” from 1977’s “Heroes” to 1983’s “Let’s Dance.”  Indeed, his final effort, “Blackstar,” purposely held for david-bowie-1release until only days before his death, shows him still successfully innovating, still pushing the envelope in riveting ways.  The album’s seven tracks are dark yet accessible, especially the forbidding “Lazarus,” which rather blatantly refers to the hereafter:  “Look up here, I’m in heaven, I’ve got scars that can’t be seen.”  The album’s heartbreaking closer, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” may be one of his very best compositions ever.

The fact that he worked with a fairly astonishing array of artists over the years speaks volumes about not only his enthusiasm for trying new things but also the eagerness of others to work with him. Early on, it was glam-rocker Marc Bolan of T. Rex, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed (the “Transformer” album), Mott the Hoople (“All the Young Dudes”) and guitarist Mick Ronson (a key member of his Spiders From Mars band).   Later, he recorded with the likes of David Sanborn (“Young Americans”), John Lennon (“Fame”), Freddie Mercury (“Under Pressure”), Stevie Ray Vaughan (the “Let’s Dance” album), Tina Turner (“Tonight”), Pat Metheny (“This Is Not America”) and Mick Jagger (the “Dancing in the Streets” single).  More recently, he performed with Foo Fighters, Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan, Moby, toured with Nine Inch Nails, and recorded with Arcade Fire.

Photo of Bing CROSBY and David BOWIEAnd talk about thinking outside the box:  In 1976, he recorded an are-you-kidding-me duet of the Christmas classic “The Little Drummer Boy” with the ageless crooner Bing Crosby.  His final live performance, in fact, was a duet on “Changes” with none other than Alicia Keys in New York City in 2006.

Born David Robert Jones in working-class England in 1947, he showed an interest in music at an early age, learning recorder and ukulele and singing in the school choir.  He especially shone in a “music and movement” class that presaged his mesmerizing stage shows.  His father changed his life the day he brought home a stack of 45s of American artists, including Fats Domino, John Coltrane and particularly Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti.”  Said Bowie later about that recording:  “I thought I’d heard God.”

david-bowieHe moved through a number of ragtag rock bands in his teen years, playing saxophone and guitar and often handling lead vocals, even winning a contract or two along the way, but nothing came of the records from that period.  In 1966, Davy Jones of The Monkees became a celebrity, so Jones quickly changed his name to Bowie (named after “the ultimate American knife”).  At age 22, he landed with a major label and released “Space Oddity,” just in time to coincide with the Apollo moon landing in the summer of 1969.  The sad tale of the lonely astronaut, combined with groundbreaking sonic effects and delivery, pushed the single to #5 in the UK and established him as a star in the making.  His time hadn’t yet come in the US; the song stiffed here at #75.

tumblr_inline_o0wvg64qw61s042m1_1280Over the next four years, the extraterrestrial, apocalyptic themes Bowie explored in the songs on “Hunky Dory,” “Ziggy Stardust,” “Aladdin Sane” and “Diamond Dogs” established him in some circles as one of the most literate of rock music songwriters, and his gender-bending appearance and eye-popping concerts opened the doors to a whole new pop subculture in the ’70s.  Although he nurtured a certain mysteriousness about his sexuality, he married Angie (the same “Angie” from the 1973 Rolling Stones song) in 1970 and they produced a son, Duncan Zowie Jones, soon after.  Although the couple divorced in 1980, Bowie received custody and has been, by all accounts, a great father to his son, now 44.

cover_36321919112009His first act of reinvention came in the form of his R&B/soul infatuation on “Young Americans,” including the danceable title track and his first US #1 hit, “Fame.”  His glam-rock fans were none too keen with this development, but no matter, he soon moved on to the more minimalist electronic-based music found on “Station to Station” and the three albums recorded in Germany (“Low,” “Heroes” and “Lodger”), where he fled to kick a nasty cocaine habit and absorb new influences with producer Brian Eno.

By the early ’80s, MTV had arrived, and Bowie, who had already been ahead of the curve creating unusual music videos for his singles, saw the time was right for another sharp turn toward the commercially accessible.  He teamed up with the great Niles Rodgers producing and topped the charts with one of my favorites, “Let’s Dance,” with its singles
bowietracks12n-1-web“Modern Love,” “China Girl,” “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” and the irresistible title track.  He now sported a shock of bright blond hair and wore sleek tailored suits. The set lists for his Serious Moonlight Tour, and the Glass Spider Tour that followed four years later, was full of his biggest crowd-pleasing hits and packed arenas all over the world.

Next:  Another change, of course.  In 1989, Bowie formed Tin Machine, a four-man band heavy on distortion and radio-unfriendly mixes, and just like that, he disappeared from the charts and the public favor.  But he simply didn’t care about that; he was doing what he wanted, as he always had.  Throughout the 1990s, he ran the gamut of styles, both catchy and not so much, and despite a few radio-friendly singles (“Jump They Say” in 1993 and “Little Wonder” in 1997), his albums went largely ignored, although appreciated by savvy critics and the usual faithful fan base.

david-bowie-gettyNot incidentally, during the decade he met and married supermodel Iman, and they eventually had a daughter Alexandria, now 15.  Bowie returned to touring to support 2002’s “Heathen” and 2004’s “Reality,” but he suffered a mild heart attack and required surgery.  To the surprise and disappointment of many, he seemed to retire from both live performances and the recording studio for nearly ten years, apparently happy to raise his daughter and live a life of relative leisure, only occasionally surfacing for the rare public event or charity.

His triumphant return to the studio with 2013’s “The Next Day” was rapturously received, but no tour followed, which hurt sales and dashed any chance of Bowie reclaiming the spotlight for more than a fleeting moment.  Did he care?  Not really.

As it turns out, his health was failing, and soon he was diagnosed with cancer, which he bravely battled for nearly 18 months, recording two dozen songs, unearthing shelved tracks to spruce them up for possible release and, most impressively, spearheading an off-Broadway musical, “Lazarus,” based on a new song.  All this flurry of activity had a motive:  He was urgently pressing to get things done in the little time only he and a few others knew he had left.

Less known, or sometimes overshadowed by his music, was his acting career.  Bowie turned in some exemplary performances in starring roles for “The Man Who Fell to Earth” david-bowie-l-1024(1976) and “Labyrinth” (1986), and also offered up some memorable moments in Christopher Nolan’s “The Prestige,” Tony Scott’s “The Hunger” and even a cameo in the comedy “Zoolander.”  The film people idolized him but found him self-effacing, approachable and willing to acquiesce to their direction.  “He had a level of charisma beyond what you normally experience, and everyone really responded to it,” said Nolan. “He was very gracious and understood the effect he had on people.  And I loved the fact that after having worked with him, I had just the same fascination with his talent and charisma.  I thought that was quite magical.”

Martin Scorsese, who directed him in a small part for “The Last Temptation of Christ,” said, “He was a delight to work with.  It’s not news to anyone that his image and his focus were always changing, always in motion.  I found him to be a compelling character.”

I, for one, shall miss him greatly.

“So I turned myself to face me, but I’ve never caught a glimpse of how the others perceive the faker, I’m much too fast to take that test…”