Bob Dylan – The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964 (2010)
To my generation, so much has been made of Bob Dylan “going electric.” How brave and invigorating it was, how it resulted in Dylan’s best work, how we should wish we were 20 years older, just so we could’ve been around when it was happening. I’m not disagreeing with any of that necessarily, but an unintended counter-effect of this type of praise is an underestimation of Dylan the baby-faced folksinger. It took me a long time to seriously pay attention to any material that pre-dated Bringing It All Back Home. But now, with the release of The Witmark Demos, my silly prejudice has been washed away for good. Both an interesting insight into the workings of Tin Pan Alley and a testament to the prolific genius of the young Robert Zimmerman, this collection of demos gives us an unprecedented look at the burgeoning star spilling his ideas on tape, for the purpose of impressing other artists, not the public. All the elements are here – the shameless Guthrie-aping, the snidely funny political commentary, the jaunty blues numbers, the timeless statements. And the sound quality is better than you’d think; “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” rings out with such honesty and clarity, it breaks your heart all over again. This is 47 peeks into the formative years of America’s most influential singer/songwriter, complete with coughs and murmured explanations, flubbed notes and in-the-moment inspirations. Treasure it.
Jamey Johnson – The Guitar Song (2010)
A double album from the guy who co-wrote “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk”? Sounds like something whipped up by the Satan of my own personal hell. But there ain’t nothing trendy or empty-headed about The Guitar Song, a robust collection of songs with roots in traditional country and production values that gleam like an oil soap-polished bar. Don’t be fooled by the record’s “Black” and “White” subtitles, because Johnson’s interested in grey areas. Whether he’s singing about heartbreak, the plight of the modern farmer or breezy afternoons on porch swings, there’s either a resiliency behind the sadness, or the sense that real happiness is earned. Through it all, the pedal steel licks soar and mourn, the pianos dance in dark corners, and every word is soaked in Johnson’s elegant, commanding baritone.
Pink Floyd – Meddle (1971)
This is Pink Floyd’s bridge album – after the departure of the band’s original creative force, Roger Waters & company stayed in acid freakout mode for a bit. And while Meddle has its share of spacey, groove-based psychedelia, it also provides the first glimpses of the more accessible rock juggernaut to come. This transitional nature is perhaps best illustrated by Meddle’s final two cuts. First is the quirky Delta blues of “Seamus,” a two-minute song about a dog. It’s followed by the 23-minute “Echoes,” a gorgeous, undulating epic that does justice to its title, introducing melodies, riffs and freaky bird sound effects that continue to resonate across the decades. For folks who dig early Floyd as much as the mainstream stuff, this is the best of both worlds.