I haven’t done one of these for a few years, but this year I thought it was time. Here are my album picks [of new music] for 2015:Dwight Yoakam – Second Hand Heart – 3 Pears was a welcome return to form for Dwight Yoakam in 2012. Second Hand Heart is equally awesome, and even louder. Country radio lost interest in Dwight Yoakam a long time ago. You’re more likely to hear Second Hand Heart on NPR. That’s country radio’s loss. He’s not looking for a hit anymore, so he just plays what he wants. Here he goes back to the cowpunk days of the 1980s when he shared the stage with such roots acts like The Blasters and Los Lobos as well as the punks in X. DY stays the old-school course he set a long time ago, and the world is a better place for it. Standout songs: In Another World, She, Liar, Second Hand Heart. Play it loud!
Keith Richards – Crosseyed Heart – It’s been 23 years since Keith Richards graced us with a solo album [1992’s superb Main Offender]. When the Rolling Stones record new stuff, you can spot the “Keith songs” immediately. They’re the ones that don’t try to sound “contemporary” [that’s Mick’s department]. So when Keef decides he wants to put out new stuff, you grab it while it’s available because that’s the old-school stuff that hold its age better. The Human Riff shows he still knows how to come up with no-frills rock ‘n’ roll. Keef even goes back past when the Stones were teenagers with a faithful acoustic cover of Leadbelly’s Goodnight Irene. Keef loves reggae, and here he’s included Love Overdue from Gregory Isaacs, and it isn’t bad for a white guy. Robbed Blind is a country-ish acoustic ballad complete with steel guitar [courtesy of Larry Campbell]. Standout songs: Heartstopper, Trouble, Amnesia, Blues in the Morning, Substantial Damage.
David Gilmour – Rattle That Lock – Pink Floyd released The Endless River last year and having Rattle That Lock follow so quickly thereafter is a minor miracle. DG used the usual suspects to make Rattle That Lock that he did to make 2006’s On An Island. Given that, Rattle That Lock is a bit more upbeat than its predecessor. The music for the title track was inspired by a jingle DG heard while waiting for a train in France. But the lyrics are a bit more seriously. His wife and lyricist Polly Samson drew her inspiration from the second book of Milton’s Paradise Lost. There’s a waltz with Faces of Stone, a lament from DG about his mother who succumbed to dementia. When you listen it sounds like something you would hear while dining at a French sidewalk café. A Boat Lies Waiting is a piano ballad that is an ode to the late Richard Wright. It’s an old demo DG made that evokes Wright’s Us And Them. If you listen closely, Wright himself can be heard saying “it’s like going to sea – it’s lovely” [he was an avid sailor]. David Crosby and Graham Nash once again loan their harmonies – their voices and Gilmour’s work brilliantly. If you want guitar heroics, they can be found on In Any Tongue.
Buddy Guy – Born to Play Guitar – With the passing of BB King, the “King of the Blues” throne is vacant, but the blues does have a new elder statesman in Buddy Guy. Buddy is the last giant standing. He’s 79 years old now, but you wouldn’t know it from listening to Born To Play Guitar. Picking up where they left off with Buddy Guy’s last album the award winning Rhythm and Blues the team of Guy and Tom Hambridge have crafted another marvel of modern blues Usually BG plays with guests who have no business being near the blues, but not so this album. Hear he hosts the likes of Billy Gibbons, Doyle Bramhall II, Kim Wilson, and Van Morrison. And as usual, Buddy Guy is an assassin on a Stratocaster. Jimi Hendrix wanted to be Buddy Guy, and if he was still alive he might be making records like this one. Buddy Guy once explained that Muddy Waters’ final request to him was “keep the damn blues alive”. He’s still doing just that.
Warren Haynes – Ashes & Dust – Warren Haynes is a great bunch of musical guys. One Warren Haynes is the leader of Gov’t Mule, a fearless, muscular, take-no-prisoners blues rock outfit. Another Warren spent 21 years with the Allman Brothers Band, weaving his magic first with the legendary Dickey Betts and then with Derek Trucks, all the while staring down the ghost of Duane Allman. A third Warren put out a terrific soul/R&B album in 2011 called Man In Motion. Now we have Warren in another guise, that of a rootsy, acoustic-leaning folky who sings about salt-of-the-Earth blue collar Americans trying to survive. Warren teams up with newgrass/Americana band Railroad Earth to create Ashes & Dust, which I could best describe as “Appalachian.” While there are plenty of acoustic instruments on Ashes & Dust [fiddle, mandolin, upright bass, banjo, acoustic guitar], Warren still plays plenty of electric guitar. There are still enough guitar solos to satisfy the jam band crowd, but here they are more restrained and relaxed, not like the face-melting solos he does with Gov’t Mule.
Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free – Jason Isbell used to be in the Drive-By Truckers. He wrote two of my favorite songs from that group – Danko/Manuel and Goddamn Lonely Love. But he barely remembers his tenure in the band [2001-07]. An alcoholic who had quite the fondness for Jack Daniel’s, his first marriage to Shonna Tucker unraveled. After his departure from DBT, he made some records that were ok but didn’t set the world on fire. After his marriage to Amanda Shires, he went to rehab and sobered up [he remains so today], and made the best album of his career, Southeastern. It was a masterpiece full of tales of loss, forgiveness, newfound sobriety and second chances. I read somewhere that Southeastern was described as what happens after you’ve hit bottom and you’ve gotten back up off the deck. With Something More Than Free Isbell turns his focus outward. He didn’t want to write about himself with this song cycle. Here he wrote and sings about working class people from his native northern Alabama. Like his former bandmate Patterson Hood, Isbell is focusing on what adulthood is really like - marriage, jobs, bills, parents, children, belief, doubt, illness, learning and loss. He’s come a long way from the young twenty-something he was in the Drive-By Truckers – he’s grown up and he’s now got two masterworks under his belt.
Sonny Landreth – Bound By the Blues – I haven’t heard much about Sonny Landreth. The little bits that I have heard from his musical peers have one theme – Sonny Landreth is probably the best slide guitarist in the business. Considering that Ry Cooder is still walking this Earth that’s a bold statement. So after having seen the man himself on the bill of every Eric Clapton Crossroads festival, I finally broke down and bought me some Sonny. I got Bound By the Blues and loved what I heard, so now I have six albums from Sonny [plus one he recorded with John Hiatt]. I don’t know if he’s the best slide guitarist there is, but he’s a damn fine one.
Steve Earle – Terraplane – Steve Earle has the blues. He’s had some bluesy songs on past albums, but this time he goes all-in with an entire album of blues. These aren’t the sad blues the Mississippi Delta, but more of the bar-stomping Texas variety. Here he pays homage to the likes of Lightning Hopkins, Robert Johnson [whom Earle name-checks on The Tennessee Kid], SRV, Freddie King and ZZ Top. In some places he plays solo; in others he goes the full-band route. The Dukes sound like they were born to play the blues. Standout songs: Baby's Just as Mean as Me, the aforementioned The Tennessee Kid, Go-Go Boots Are Back, Better Off Alone.
Los Lobos – Gates of Gold – Los Lobos have been around since 1973. They have yet to make a bad album. On previous albums there have been an overarching theme, but on Gates of Gold I can’t find one. But you expect a few things with each Los Lobos release – smoking guitar playing from David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas, lo-fi production, a couple of songs with Spanish vocals, a traditional Mexican song or two. And so it is with Gates of Gold. This is more of the same from Los Lobos, and that’s all I want. Standout songs: Made to Break Your Heart, Mis-Treater Boogie Blues, Too Small Heart.
Billy Gibbons – Perfectamundo – Billy Gibbons goes to Cuba – without ZZ Top! The Rev. Willie G was inspired to make this record when he got an invitation to play a festival in Cuba. He didn’t have any material or a band to play there, so he made this album instead. It sounds like ZZ Top meets Santana. It has that sort of Afro-Cuban flavor to it, with timbales, congas, bongos, acoustic piano and Hammond B-3. One can hear auto tuned vocals in places [BG doesn’t need it, he just messes with it], and there are some rap sections that are best left unheard. Overall, this album is as good as it is unexpected. Other than the hip-hop rap shit, my only other complaint about Perfectamundo is that at 39 minutes, it’s too damn short. Standout songs: Got Love If You Want It, Pickin’ Up Chicks on Dowling Street, Piedras Negras, Hombre Sin Nombre.