Skip to content

Jeff Tweedy – Love Is The King

This is Jeff Tweedy’s quarantine album. It is my favorite of his non-Wilco work. It harkens back to his alt-country beginnings.

In the context of Wilco you forget what a great guitar player Tweedy is with all the great players in that band. On Love Is The King he reminds us – his electric work is on fire. In a recent Rolling Stone interview he states:

To me, that’s a totally different guy than the guy that’s strumming acoustic guitar and singing, the songwriter. The electric guitar guy is a commentator in a way. And I could never really fuse those two things together performance-wise, to be honest. That’s something that making a record during quarantine allows you to do maybe a little bit more.

These are not Tweedy demos like Springsteen’s Nebraska, this sounds like a band with fully realized arrangements. Not Wilco, but kind of like a simple (in a good way) Wilco.

Bruce Springsteen – Letter To You

Bruce and the E Street Band – what a nice gift! Bruce and the band are in a total late 70s groove. They sound great. We don’t need any additional challenges and so the gang is presenting us the audio equivalent of comfort food.

This is Bruce’s most meta album. The last few years Bruce has been very reflective: the memoir, the Broadway show and now this album. Many of the songs reflect on what it means to be Bruce, the meaning of Rock and being in a band.

The album was recorded live over four days with minimal guitar overdubs at the end of last year. In interviews Bruce says he avoided presenting demos to the band. Instead he just gave them the songs and let things happen organically. The result is a classic E Street Band vibe.

There are new songs and unreleased songs from early in his career. The new songs are reflective. The old songs are wonderfully wordy and represent a more naive and not fully formed Bruce – which is perfect juxtaposition given the retrospective nature of the album.

If you are a regular reader of this blog you have witnessed my amazement at the ability of ancient rock stars to deliver late career excellence – if not one last masterpiece. I can add Letter To You the list of late career masterpieces. If you have access to Apple TV check out the excellent documentary on the making of the album.

Tom Petty – Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition)

Wildflowers is the second solo studio album by Tom Petty (vs. with The Heartbreakers), released on November 1, 1994. This was his first Petty album produced by Rick Rubin (fresh off his success with Johnny Cash). It is an absolute masterpiece. It is Petty’s Americana album.

Since Wildflowers was released we have always been told it was missing about a third. Conceived as a triple album, Warner Brothers (Petty’s new label) convinced him to cut it down and surprisingly Petty complied. Petty teased for years that he would properly release all of Wildflowers. It has finally arrived along with deluxe and super deluxe editions.

The basic edition is a remastered original album along with the ten songs Petty intended to be on the album. The deluxe edition of Wildflowers & All The Rest contains 54 tracks:

  • 8 unreleased songs
  • 24 unreleased alternate versions
  • The 15 track original album (remastered)
  • All The Rest (10 songs from the original Wildflowers sessions)
  • 15 solo demos recorded by Petty at his home studio
  • 14 live versions of Wildflowers songs recorded from 1995 – 2017
  • Packaging includes a 60-page book, an introduction by Rick Rubin, an essay by David Fricke, a complete track-by-track, and rare photos and specially commissioned illustrations
  • Exclusive to the super-deluxe edition is two LPs of alternate versions (Finding Wildflowers)

The deluxe version is available on streaming services (master quality on Tidal).

The 10 All The Rest songs are revelatory – they were not fat trimmed from the original – they are essential tracks that appropriately complete Wildflowers and make it better that it already is. I have been waiting for this for a quarter of a century and it was worth the wait. This is not over hyped material.

Petty’s home demos of the Wildflower material are very enlightening. You get a sense of what a masterful songwriter Petty is. Most of the home demos are 80% of the final product. This is an artist with a vision.

The live stuff comes off so easy and natural for Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers – like perfectly broken in boots. Thankful they don’t play it straight – it’s a jam. Petty and band are great live performers. They are tight and lose at the same time and a touch theatrical (in a good Springsteen kind of way). They are rock stars and know how to put on a rock show. Mike Campbell can blaze on the guitar and Benmont Tench can sure tickle the keys. Petty is a confident, but laidback front man. It is pure magic.

In the end I picked up the 3 LP version on vinyl (original album plus the ten All The Rest songs). The bonus material is nice but I can’t justify $150 when high resolution streaming is available (Tidal Masters being my choice). The vinyl edition sounds fantastic and has revealed gems in the arrangements that I never noticed on the original 1994 CD or the current Tidal Master stream.

Best of 2020

Courtesy of The Electric Fetus

In general 2020 has sucked, but the music has not. Lots of great albums this year. Here is my top ten and several honorable mentions. The list is dominated by old favorites – no new discoveries this year.

The War On Drugs – Live Drugs

#10 I didn’t get a chance to write a formal review of The War On Drugs live album Live Drugs. Their last two albums were fantastic. I assumed they were a studio band that would not translate well live – well they sound great live. The album takes an unusual approach: splicing songs from ten years of shows and in some cases they seamlessly edited multiple versions of a song – I would have never known that if I had not read an interview with the Drugs’ main man Adam Granduciel:

“I wanted to go through the wormhole a little bit,” he explains. “Taking six versions of ‘Under The Pressure’ and getting it down to one.”

Stereogum
Margo Price – That’s How Rumors Get Started (with COVID puppy Margo)

#9 Margo Price refuses to conform and rather than make another country album she made a rock album. In my original review I said: “There is not a bad song on the album, but some of the highlights for me are:

  • ‘That’s How Rumors Get Started’ – the titular track has a Fleetwood Mac vibe with Margo purring like Stevie Nicks
  • ‘Hey Child’ a remake of an old song from her Buffalo Clover band that has a Delaney & Bonnie psychedelic gospel feel
  • ‘I’d Die For You’ an epic power ballad the is begging to be covered by Lady Gaga
  • ‘Twinkle Twinkle’ a catchy rock song that is Margo’s autobiography in three and a half minutes”
Pat Metheny – From This Place

#8 I have been a Pat Metheny fan for over 40 years and he has never failed to delight and challenge my ears. From This Place does not break the chain. In my original review I said:

I can’t listen to this new Pat Metheny album without thinking of Metheny’s long time collaborator Lyle Mays who recently passed away. From This Place is a guitar, piano and orchestra album. These last two features were the kind of contributions Lyle Mays typically made as keyboardist, composer and arranger in the Pat Metheny Group. Although this album’s creation predates Mays’ passing, I choose to savor it in Mays’ memory. Fortunately for us and in remembrance of Mays, From This Place is an extraordinary album.

Bruce Springsteen – Letter To You

# 7 Bruce returned to his roots and made an E Street Band album. According to interviews and the documentary about the making of the album, Bruce took a more spontaneous approach for this album. Instead of demos, he played the songs for the band and they quickly arranged and recorded them. He combined new songs with songs from early in his career that had never been released. The results are an unsentimental reflection of a lifetime as a rocker and the spirituality of rock music.

Jeff Tweedy – Love Is The King

#6 This is my favorite Tweedy solo album thus far and it rivals the last few Wilco albums too. It is the most Americana/country thing he has done in a long time. In Wilco, Tweedy rightly defers the guitar solos to Nils Cline, but here it is all Tweedy. I forgot what a great guitar player he is.

The Flaming Lips – American Head

#5 in my original review I said: “This album sounds as good as their best work. I like the juxtaposition of down to earth narrative lyrics in a psychedelic context. In the past The Flaming Lips have been weird just to be weird – almost a novelty act. American Head sounds honest and sincere. An added bonus is that fellow stoner Kacey Musgraves (whose 2018 Golden Hour is one of my favorite albums of all time) guests on several tracks.”

Pearl Jam – Gigaton

#4 I am not much of a Pearl Jam fan (I was a Soundgarden guy) but as I said in my original review: “It is hard not to be a rock fan of a certain age and not be a Pearl Jam fan. Their first three albums (Ten, Vs. and Vitalogy) were great. Those three albums, plus being a great live act, have allowed them to be the grunge Grateful Dead for thirty years.”

I went on to say: “The new album sounds fresh and energetic. It is a mix of punk attitude and classic rock influences – my definition of Seattle grunge. Like their 90s best, the songs have great hooks. Eddie Vedder’s vocals sound fantastic. It is probably not fair to call this a comeback, but it is for me – I have comeback to Pearl Jam because of the quality of this album.”

Jonathan Wilson – Dixie Blur

#3 Jonathan Wilson produces Father John Misty and plays the David Gilmour role in Roger Waters band. I am a huge fan of Wilson’s solo work which typically has a psychedelic rock vibe. On this album he mixes in an Americana vibe and pulled fiddler Mark O’Connor out of retirement to add some amazing textures to the Wilson sound.

In my original review I said: “It is a delightful album. Wilson has successfully mixed his Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter schtick with his psychedelic Pink Floyd vibe and Americana to create a Jonathan Wilson sound. It results in Wilson’s most original album to date. That is all you can ask from a recording artist – to develop their own voice. It has the perfect album title Dixie Blur. He has brilliantly blurred several styles with down-home southern charm.”

Bob Dylan – Rough And Rowdy Ways

#2 I assumed this would be number one album of 2020. It is so good. In my original review I said: “At 79 Bob Dylan remains relevant as ever on his 39th studio album. After an 8 year dalliance with the Sinatra songbook, he returns with an inspiring collection of new original material. It is yet another masterpiece in his catalog – an amazing feat.”

Taylor Swift – folklore & evermore

#1 If ten years ago you told me that a Taylor Swift album would be at the top of my list, let alone beating out a Bob Dylan masterpiece, I would have told you, that you were crazy. After years of dismissing TSwift as a mere pop star I now officially get her genius.

I have spent a lot of time with folklore and just a little bit of time with evermore. They are birds of a feather and should be taken as one artist statement.

In my original review of folklore I said “This is adult music and teenage lyrics (in a good way) or as one reviewer said: bildungsroman obsession. This is a brilliant pivot for a pop star – hook up with an indie rock cult hero and make some magic. This is not a gimmick or desperate posturing by Taylor to ‘take me seriously.’ Instead, it is the right move at the right time. Without bombastic big arrangements, I really hear Taylor. Turns out she was hiding in plain sight for a guy like me. I now realize what a great storyteller she is and like all great rock and pop stars, an actor.”

Catchlore/Groovemore

Honorable Mentions (in no particular order):

  • Sturgill Simpson: Cuttin’ Grass Volumes 1 & 2 – bluegrass reimagining of the Simpson catalog
  • John Scofield: Swallow Tales – a collaboration forty years in the making
  • Lucinda Williams: Good Souls Better Angels – the queen of Americana rocks out
  • Norah Jones: Pick Me Up Off the Floor – she has never made a bad album; this is on the jazzier side of her spectrum
  • Khruangbin: Mordechai – mellow funk with a world music vibe
  • Haim: Women In Music Pt. III – girl group fun accented with singer-songwriter gravitas
  • Jason Isbell: Reunions – my first time truly getting him
  • Laura Marling: Song for Our Daughter – continues to be my favorite Joni inspired heir
  • Bob Mould: Blue Hearts – no Sunshine this time around, just a lot of righteousness indignation
  • Rose City Band: Summerlong – if you like JJ Cale you will like the RCB
  • Jayhawks: XOXO – Gary Lourdes pushes the rest of the band to the front
  • Secret Sisters: Saturn Return – reminds me of the Everly Brothers, mid-70s Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt and of course their producer Brandi Carlile
  • Jeremy Ivey: Waiting Out The Storm – don’t listen once, listen ten times
  • Stephen Malkmus: Traditional Techniques – his folk album
  • Texas Sun: Khruangbin and Leon Bridges together at last – it really works – only disappointment is this is an EP vs. LP
  • Puss n Boots: Sister – alternative country band from Brooklyn featuring Norah Jones, Sasha Dobson and Catherine Popper
  • Jamie Wyatt: Neon Cross – outlaw country
  • Atmosphere: The Day Before Halloween – a different sound – European techno vibe
  • Ryan Adams: Wednesdays – he is back and sounds mournful – can we forgive him?
  • Lady Gaga: Chromatica – back to the dance floor
  • Paul McCartney: McCartney III – quarantine recordings from one of the Titans – as Macca says “recorded in Rockdown”
Prince – Sign O’ The Times

Best Reissue: There were some great deluxe reissues this year but the best of the best was the massive (13 LPs + DVD + Book) deluxe reissue of Sign O’ The Times. In my original review I said: “Prince has always been known as a prolific artist and this super deluxe reissue of his 1987 classic Sign O’ The Times is evidence of that prolificity. It includes nearly four hours of previously unreleased material. The collection captures the scope of the Prince’s boundless genius: funk, jazz, gospel, rock, new wave, pop, singer songwriter of pop symphonies – it goes on and on. The new material, is at its worst, intriguing experiments, most of it is good and there are some absolute gems. This is what bonus reissues are supposed to be: a true treasure chest.”

Other notable reissues:

  • Tom Petty: Wildflower & All The Rest – After all these years we get to hear the rest of the album and bonus material
  • The Replacements: Pleased To Meet Me Deluxe – a rawer original mix and some great demos
  • Wilco: Summerteeth Deluxe – Demos and outtakes along with a live show
  • Uncle Tupelo: Uncle Tupelo Live March 24, 1994 Lounge Ax Chicago – I never saw this band live, so it is fun to hear them live – sorry RSD only release
  • Neal Casal: Fade Away Diamond Time – A gorgeous vinyl reissue of Casal’s solo debut from 1995 – sorry RSD only release

The Flaming Lips – American Head

I haven’t listened to the Flaming Lips for years and have not seriously listened to anything since 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. I noticed the Lips had a new release and the fact that Wayne Coyne is about my age somehow caught my attention. Pitchfork gave it a decent review (7.7). This Pitchfork tease was hard to resist:

“At the top of their fifth decade, the Lips rekindle their past romance with Neil Young’s piano ballads, the Beatles’ psychedelic guitar tones, and Bowie’s stargazing anthems on a deeply personal album.”

So I gave American Head a serious listen. I love it! The album has a wonderful trippy vibe. It is in line with lots of the mellow psychedelia I have been listening to lately (e.g. Jonathan Wilson, Khruangbin, Dope Lemon, Rose City Band, etc.). Musically and lyrically this is stoner music. Check out some of these track titles:

  • “Watch The Lightbugs Glow”
  • “You n I Sellin’ Weed”
  • “Flowers of Neptune 6”
  • “At The Movies On Quaaludes”
  • “Mother I’ve Taken LSD”
  • “Dinosaurs On The Mountain”

You get the idea.

This album sounds as good as their best work. I like the juxtaposition of down to earth narrative lyrics in a psychedelic context. In the past The Flaming Lips have been weird just to be weird – almost a novelty act. American Head sounds honest and sincere. An added bonus is that fellow stoner Kacey Musgraves (whose 2018 Golden Hour is one of my favorite albums of all time) guests on several tracks. I highly recommend this album. It will for sure make my 2020 best of list.

I liked this enough to pick up a vinyl copy. Like a lot of acts, the Lips issued a special independent record store version on colored vinyl. The packaging is high quality and the wax sounds great.

There is a great long form interview on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast.

Sturgill Simpson – Cutting Grass Vol. 1 (The Butcher Shoppe Sessions)

Earlier this year Sturgill Simpson gave us some COVID relief with a free online concert. The show was Sturgill songs arranged bluegrass style. During the show he tantalized us that there would be a couple of bluegrass albums coming out later in the year. Well one of them is finally here.

This is no Pinkin’ On Sturgill album. These bluegrass arrangements of old songs come off like new songs. According to some of Sturgill’s interviews, these bluegrass arrangements are the way the songs were always meant to be. I have added a playlist of the original songs. Most of the songs come from Sturgill’s first two studio albums, a couple from his third and a few are making their debut.

An example of the radical reinvention can be heard on the first cut. “All Around You” from A Sailor’s Guide To Earth originally sounded like some Celtic soul Van Morrison might do. The bluegrass song sounds like it was always meant to be bluegrass – like it has been around for a hundred years. Although Sturgill has a very distinctive voice, he phrases differently on each version. Both versions are perfect.

Sometimes bluegrass can be too focused on pyrotechnics, but this album puts the songs first. I know from interviews that Sturgill has an eclectic musical taste and I know from his first four albums that he can perform expertly in several styles. Now he shows us that he has “high and lonesome” mastered. I can’t wait for volume 2!

Pretty amazing interview with Sturgill by Rick Rubin here.

Here is playlist of the original songs:

Neal Casal – Fade Away Diamond Time

Fade Away Diamond Time (1995) First time on vinyl. Limited to 1000 copies for RSD 2020 (drop 3) on Royal Potato Family

Per Royal Potato Family: “Neal Casal‘s debut record, Fade Away Diamond Time, was released in 1995 to much critical acclaim. Produced by Jim Scott (Wilco, Tom Petty, Johnny Cash) in a sprawling mansion in the hills of Santa Ynez, California, the album introduced the intimate songwriting and lyrical guitar work that would become the foundation of his career.”

I discovered Neal Casal in 2011 as the guitarist in The Chris Robinson Brotherhood (CRB). His guitar was essential to the CRB sound. I then realized he was the guitarist in Ryan Adams’ Cardinals band (one of my favorite incarnations of Adam’s career). I loved Casal’s side project Circles Around The Sun. When I saw that his first solo album was part of Record Store Day (2020 drop 3), I checked it out on streaming services and it was great. I waited in line outside of the Electric Fetus to nab one of their two copies on Record Store Day.

If the album was released in the last ten years, it would be called Americana. It has that classic 70s singer songwriter vibe – I feel Jackson Browne and Neil Young in these album grooves.

Like his work in CRB and with Ryan Adams, Casal’s guitar work is gorgeous. Although a highly talented guitarist, he is not showy – his focus is in service to the songs.

Although, I knew Casal had lots of solo albums, I had no idea what a great songwriter he was. On this, his solo debut, he sounds comfortable and confident. He has a cool plaintive voice. I don’t know why Casal never became a star on his own vs. a brilliant sideman (other than stardom is elusive, if not outright serendipity). Maybe that is why he was such a great sideman – he had a singer songwriter’s soul. I look forward to exploring the rest of Casal’s solo catalog. I have said this several times in blog posts, this is exactly what Record Store Day is all about: shining a light on obscure art deserving greater attention.

The vinyl pressing is of high quality and spins at 45 RPM resulting in outstanding sound quality.

John Scofield – Swallow Tales

John Scofield: Swallow Tales released 6/12/20 on ECM

John Scofield rivals Pat Metheny as my favorite jazz guitarist. I love his tones, his lyrical approach to improvisation and ultimately his funkiness. He is as comfortable in a traditional jazz setting as he is in a jam band. This album finds him in a traditional jazz trio with Steve Swallow (bass) and Bill Stewart (drums).

The “gimmick” of the album is to focus on Steve Swallow’s compositions. Although recorded in a day, it is the result of more than forty years of homework. John was a 20-year-old student at Berklee when he first met and played with bassist Swallow. They have remained close and they have continued to play together ever since.

“The rapport between Scofield and Swallow is evident in every moment. John: ‘Sometimes when we play it’s like one big guitar, the bass part and my part together.’ Behind the drum kit, Bill Stewart, a close associate of Scofield’s since the early 90s, is alert to all the implications of the interaction.”

Per ECM website

This is a beautiful album that is gentle and easygoing enough to play softly as background music and rich and complex enough to purely listen to. A great summary of Scofield’s tasteful and accessible approach to jazz. Beauty takes priority over guitar pyrotechnics.

Classic ECM release: great sound, minimalistic album art and music that is the fine art of balancing gentle and edgy at the same time. The vinyl is clean and well pressed.

The Replacements – Pleased To Me – Deluxe Reissue

Pleased To Meet Me is my favorite Mats album. Rhino Records has recently released a deluxe edition. It includes rough mixes on vinyl by studio engineer John Hampton that include the majority of the original album tracks along with non-album tracks like “Election Day” and “Birthday Gal.” A CD remaster of the original album by Justin Perkins, who was also behind the boards for the similar package: Dead Man’s Pop (Don’t Tell a Soul reimagined). Finally, two CDs of bonus material:
– 1986 demo session with Bob Stinson – his last recorded Replacements performance
– Additional 1986 demos with the band as a three-piece outfit (sans Bob)
– Studio outtakes from the album recording sessions (Memphis, 1987)
– Rare single mixes

The full package is available on streaming services if you can’t justify $65 for the physical.

The remaster sounds fantastic, but the treat here is the bonus material. The demos are well recorded. There are songs I have never heard before (gems – not left over turds). The rough mix of the album reveals a little more of the Mats’ natural rawness – if I have any criticism of the original album it was a bit too polished. The rough mix is not as revelatory as Dead Man Pop’s over due restoration is Don’t Tell A Soul, but still a treat for serious Mats fans. If you don’t believe me, check out this stellar Pitchfork review.

Prince – Sign O’ The Times Super Deluxe Edition

I am just beginning to sample this massive release via Tidal (streaming service – appears to be available on all services) and it is amazing. Granted Sign O’ The Times is one of my favorite Prince albums – so I come to this as a receptive vessel.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune’s Jon Bream, who has followed and written about Prince’s career since day one, has a great review/article on the reissue. See link here.

I will be hard pressed to justify $300 for the vinyl edition, but it is sure tempting given the quality of material here.

Prince has always been known as a prolific artist and this super deluxe reissue of his 1987 classic Sign O’ The Times is evidence of that prolificity. It includes nearly four hours of previously unreleased material. The collection captures the scope of the Prince’s boundless genius: funk, jazz, gospel, rock, new wave, pop, singer songwriter pop symphonies – it goes on and on. The new material, is at its worst, intriguing experiments, most of it is good and there are some absolute gems. This is what bonus reissues are supposed to be: a true treasure chest.