I've got a huge beef with mastering engineers. Why do most, if not all current digital releases - rock, R&B, certainly rap -- have to red line every track and final mix in the mastering phase? They squash any and all sonic detail by pumping up the dynamic range compression. Louder is not better. Let the music breathe. Ear fatigue is a real and present danger pushing the already declining music industry closer to the ledge. I must say -- and it pains me cuz I'm a huge Springsteen fan -- that The Boss's Magic is one such release. Besides being overrated, when compared to his majestic cannon of music, it sounds dreadful.
Another victim of this "extreme mastering" syndrome. Arrggghh! What happened to the warmth of vinyl and organic dynamics of music? For acoustic music truly inspiring, check out Matthew Shipp's latest CD, Piano Vortex. And if you're looking for old school rock, try Ian Hunter's Shrunken Heads for some real warmth and memorable melodies. There are plenty of other "small" discs deserving of the press, and I hope to explore more of them in the coming winter months. But in the interim, here are ten of my favorite music releases (and other culture) from 2007 and quite possibly crucial for anyone's personal listening experience:
Tinariwen: Aman Iman: Water Is Life (World Village) - World beat desert blues guitar rock from North Mali produced by Robert Plant's guitarist Justin Adams.
M.I.A.: Kala (Interscope) - Rare that a dance record can so effortlessly mesh a kaleidoscope of musical genres and flavors in one smart head-bobbing package, but Ms. Maya A. has done just that on her sophomore effort.
Yeasayer: All Hour Cymbals (We Are Free) - Brooklyn art-rock with eclectic, infectious, compelling flourishes throughout - from folk to psychedelic to pop. Joyful.
Ian Hunter: Shrunken Heads (Yep Roc) - Former Mott the Hoople frontman reminds folks what a fine songwriter and performer he still is.
Modest Mouse: We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank (Epic) - Johnny Marr adds his lead guitar prowess to this heady alt-rock juggernaut and propels them to their best effort.
Band of Horses: Cease to Begin (Sub Pop) - Catchy Americana folk-rock with soaring vocals and ringing guitars. Sound familiar?
Orgone: The Killion Floor (Ubiquity) - Funky, funky, funky from North Hollywood, huh? Yep, horns and wah-wah guitar bursts make this sound like some time warp mugging of the Bay Area funk workouts of Tower of Power and Cold Blood.
Bettye LaVette: The Scene of the Crime (Anti) - Southern-fried greasy git-tar funk and sultry R&B vocals.
Matthew Shipp: Piano Vortex (Thirsty Ear) - The reigning jazz heavyweight champeen of the 88s unleashes another barrage of finger magic in an inspired, all-acoustic trio (bass - drums - piano).
Robert Plant & Alison Krauss: Raising Sand (Rounder) - Compelling roots-rock from two unlikely partners conjures up real magic that can be created when two music enthusiasts paint outside their respective canvases.
REISSUE OF THE YEAR:
Prefab Sprout: Steve McQueen (Legacy) - Scottish Nu Wave pop meister Paddy McAloon was the top of the '80s songwriting class, as this reissue so convincingly demonstrates. This essential release--also know as Two Wheels Good in the U.S.--sounds as fresh today as it did in 1985.
Derek Trucks Band at the Nokia Theater, NYC - Derek's dudes can play circles around most bands and though he splits his guitar heroics with the Allman Brothers, I prefer this outfit. From blues to jazz to ragas, these accomplished cats crush with organic gusto on covers and originals alike.
Von Iva at Great American Music Hall, San Fransisco - Booked for a private party for DLO during Macworld 2007 last January, this trio of bad ass chicks showed all in attendance how to crank up the dance grooves with just drums, keyboards, and vocals. I don't think one person sat still through their blistering 45-minute set. It was like Jillian Iva channeling Janis Joplin in front of a stripped down funk-punk duo.
Porter Wagoner at Joe's Pub, NYC - One of this country legend's last live performances before joining the great country band in the sky. He and fan/friend/producer/instrumentalist Marty Stuart delivered one of the great history lessons of the year. His rendition of "Rubber Room" was truly haunting, as if he'd channeled all 80 years into one career-defining moment. He also released the pathos-soaked, Stuart-produced Wagonmaster disc in June 2007. (Dusty and Porter backstage, left.)
RatDog at Summerstage, NYC - On one of the hottest evenings of the summer -- and that's not just weather - Mr. Weir led his merry pranksters on a jam-jaunty trip down memory lane that was anything but nostalgic, heavy handed, or tired.
Duncan Sheik at Ethical Culture Center, NYC - He'd just bagged multiple Tony Awards for his Broadway musical
Spring Awakening and invited some of the cast to join him on several numbers in this intimate setting. That aside, it was as close to Nick Drake as I'll ever come.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy (Vintage) - As bleak and savage as a novel as you'll ever read; the pages tug at your soul, one painful page at a time. A masterpiece of modern literature.
Beasts! by Jacob Covey (Curator) (Fantagraphics) - 90 modern artisans from the worlds of comics, skateboarding, rock graphics, science fiction, children's books, commercial art, and fine art render creatures that were thought to exist.
God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens (Twelve Books) - This avowed atheist's dismantling of myths and removal of the veils of religion is required reading even if you are a true believer.
CREEM: America's Only Rock 'n' Roll Magazine by Robert Matheu & Brian J. Bowe (Collins) - Back when music really mattered (more) there was this American institution born in Detroit Rock City. A loving homage worthy of any album crate or coffee table top.
No Country for Old Men (Miramax) - Cormac McCarthy's 2005 novel about the theft of innocence was masterfully adapted by the Coen Brothers. This film will stand the test of time and should reap its share of awards, too.
Eastern Promises (Universal) - David Cronenberg's top-notch thriller about the Russian mob in London has one of the most brutal bathhouse brawls (with Viggo Mortensen, left) ever filmed.
Steep (Sony Classics) - An awe-inspiring. lovingly constructed documentary from Peter Jenning's production company about big mountain/extreme skiing that will resonate even with non-skiers.
There Will Be Blood (Miramax) - Pound for pound, Daniel Day-Lewis, the best actor on the planet delivered the best performance of the year in one of the best films of the year about oil and the pursuit of wealth.
Inland Empire (Absurda/Rhino) - Is Laura Dern's character in a dream or is it just her imagination running away from her again? Only director David Lynch knows for sure.
The Great Debaters (Weinstein Co.) - This David vs. Goliath movie will tug at your heart and make you stand up and cheer. A huge and necessary social commentary from Oprah W. and Denzel W.
The Beatles LOVE: Cirque Du Soleil - This performance/music homage by the Montreal-based company is worth the trip to the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas even if you despise gambling. It is one of the most spectacular evenings you will ever spend in a theater, even if you're not a fan of The Beatles, and I find that inexcusable.
Spring Awakening - I only sat through about eight plays in 2007, not a very good showing on my part, but this play was top of the class, pun intended. Duncan Sheik was as unlikely a Broadway composer as you'd ever meet, but that didn't stop him from partnering with Steven Sater (book and lyrics) to create one of the most memorable and dynamic and Tony-award winning rock musicals to assault the Great White Way since Hair!
R.I.P.: The problem with growing old gracefully is watching your heroes pass on. And this year, we lost many; a whole column could be written about jazz legend Oscar Peterson's passing.
The following is a list of folks that left their unique stamp on culture:
Michael Brecker, Alice Coltrane, Brad Delp - vocalist of Boston, Lucky Dube, Dan Fogelberg, Merv Griffin, Lee Hazelwood, Evil Knievel (left), Sneaky Pete Kleinow - Flying Burrito Brothers, Hilly Krystal - owner of CBGB, Norman Mailer, Luciano Pavarotti, Oscar Peterson, Boots Randolph, Max Roach, Tom Snyder, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Rip Torn, Ike Turner, Kurt Vonnegut ,Porter Wagoner, and Joe Zawinul.
Stay tuned for more smart culture from Culture Catch in 2008!
Mr. Wright is the former editor-in-chief of Creem and Prince's New Power Generation magazines as well as a writer of films, fiction, and music. He is also a singer/songwriter who has released 3 solo CDs and a member of the folk-rock quartet GIANTfingers. And before all of this he was an agent at the William Morris Agency!