Part of catching up with the many releases on Leo Records that I haven't reviewed (first installment here) includes covering the label's latest offerings. It just released eight CDs in January; I review half of them here, meanwhile looking back at older related Leo albums (most of the other January releases I will look at in the next installment in this series, which I hope to finish writing within a week). As before, dates in parentheses after album titles are recording dates, where listed; if not available, then year of release ("p." for "published").
I've already gone over the best of 2011, and periodically rounded up rock and pop releases as the year went along, yet there were many more albums that came out last year that I also meant to review but didn't get around to then, for one reason or another. Here are a few of them.
Last time I did a review roundup, I dissed the Dark Side of the Moon two-CD remaster's second disc. I'm happy to report that this one's a lot more interesting.
Leo Records was founded in 1979 by Leo Feigin, a Russian who had emigrated to England. Early in its history, back before the glasnost era, it was most noted for releasing avant-garde Russian jazz at a time when government authorities discouraged the style. As Alexander Alexandrov of Moscow Composers Orchestra says, "What the authorities really hated was free jazz and improvised music – for the reason we loved it, because it was a powerful symbol of individual freedom." Although somehow the Ganelin Trio's first album came out on the official Soviet record label, Melodiya, it was the group's many albums on Leo that earned both the band and Leo world-wide reputations.
The Eagles were considered one of the top country-rock bands practically from the day the group came together. Certainly the consecutive No. 1 singles "Best of My Love" and "One of These Nights" and No. 2 "Lyin' Eyes" in 1974-75 made them mainstream rock fans' favorite country rockers by a wide margin. Extensive touring ensued, in the midst of which founding member Bernie Leadon (previously in the Flying Burrito Brothers) quit and the more rock-oriented Joe Walsh (ex-James Gang, and already with a moderately successful solo career) took his place after having opened for the Eagles on tour in 1974 thanks to sharing the same manager, the ruthless Irving Azoff.
Here's what I have to say to all the people who bemoan the state of classical music: My classical list is the last one I'm posting (as has often been the case) because there were so many great releases to listen to that I didn't finish until now.
I want to once again admit the biases operating in my best-of-the-year classical lists: I am most interested in the piano, choral, and symphonic literatures. I’m happy to listen to other things when they come my way, but those are what I seek out, vastly tipping the balance in their favor (tipping the balance against opera is the increasing disinclination of record companies to send promos for new opera recordings unless one specifically asks -- and even that is no guarantee). Also note: no reissues or compilations here. That disqualified even the first box-set appearance of David Zinman's fine Mahler cycle, because it had all been released separately in past years.
And one more thing, since there are fewer and fewer record stores and even fewer that stock much classical music: Whenever possible, the heading for each album links to that album on iTunes.
This is the point at which I'm supposed to ponder the immediate present and near future of jazz and improvised music. Not gonna do it. No matter how dire the straits of the music industry, changing distribution and presentation, etc., this music will continue to be made because it has to be made, and artists feel compelled to keep it going despite travails. It's all about the music and its amazing power for catharsis, its ability to lift us and inspire us. So without further ado, here's what inspired me most in 2011.
1. PJ Harvey: Let England Shake (Vagrant/Island)
A great concept album, a statement about England's proclivity for war and how it has costs both (more or less) countable -- lives, injuries -- and unquantifiable: shattered psyches and tainted national morality. That Harvey is able to do this not in essays but in songs, including some of the best in her long and distinguished career, is an achievement that has eluded many. I wrote about this album at greater length in a review early this year.
I was toying with the idea of calling this list "Ephemeral Pleasures," but if there's anything I've learned in my decades of music fandom, it's that the silliest stuff can show surprising durability thanks to the tenaciousness of nostalgia. And "silly" certain describes three of these songs.
As will quickly become clear, I find Asian pop music more alluring than most of the cliched bombast on American radio. There were many catchy songs I omitted because they were also supremely annoying. I suppose to some people even some of my picks here are annoying, but that's the thing about catchy songs: there's a fine line between pleasure and -- after sufficient repetition -- pain.
Note that though I tried to avoid overlap between this list and my best albums list that will soon follow, I had to include the #1 song.
Don't get your 2012 calendar by waiting until mid-January to buy a crappy one at half price. Get a cool calendar that comes with a CD of classic and rare old-school acoustic blues and hokum songs from (mostly) the 1920s and '30s. In other words, get volume 9 of the Classic Blues Artwork from the 1920's calendar (and pardon that incorrect apostrophe and inaccurate title).
Almost a decade ago, a cache of Paramount material -- blues 78s, ad art for promoting them, etc. -- was discovered, and Blues Images has been putting out these great calendars since 2004.
The CDs alone are worth the $19.95 to any serious blues fan; long-lost tracks are "re-debuted" on Blues Images CDs, and this year's has some especially interesting surprises.
Wilhelm Stenhammar (1871-1927) has been called "the finest Swedish composer after Berwald" by none other than Robert Layton. The PR materials and booklet notes for this release freely admit the heavy influence of Brahms on Stenhammar's Piano Concerto No. 1 (1893), but of course that just makes me like it more. A pianist himself, Stenhammar made his debut in 1892 with Brahms's First, and Stenhammar's own First is definitely influenced, right down to its four-movement structure, but it's also more extroverted and showier, less profound and densely woven (though just as big and thick). And not as great, alas, but that would be surprising; it is an extremely good work for lovers of big, Romantic symphonic works, especially its lovely, soaring Andante.