Sonny Rollins – The Freedom Suite (1958) The Civil Rights movement and bebop came of age together in the 1940s and ‘50s. It makes just as much sense for the jazz artists of that time to make music about the blatant racial inequality happening in America at the time as did for Chuck D, KRS-One and Mos Def to do it in their times. The hard-hitting title song lasts nearly 20 minutes and takes up the entire first side. In it Rollins displays his talent for twisting, flipping and turning a theme inside-out, only without any of the humor he usually infuses into his playing. Rollins is dead serious here and his point is driven home by Max Roach’s sympathetic and dynamic drumming. The second side is devoted to softer material, including a stellar reading of The Music Man’s “’Till There Was You” (also covered by the Beatles). Rollins’ pacing in the production of this album is just as impeccable as in his playing. He knows when to clench a fist and when to extend a hand.
Raffi – Singable Songs for the Very Young (1976) This was a favorite album from my childhood and my son now enjoys it. I wrote extensively about Raffi and his then-unknown producer some time ago.
Les Vikings de la Guadeloupe – Enko on ti Tou: 1966-2016 (compilation) I don’t know anything about this band or this music except that I love it. Internet research tells me this is “one of the most important French Antillean band from the ‘60s and ‘70s.” This practically goes without saying. In all my acquaintances with other French Antillean bands from the ‘60s and ‘70s, Les Vikings de la Guadeloupe definitely rest on the top of that pile. The internet also tells me their music is “a unique mix of Biguine, funk, Latin, compass and early Zouk.” Don’t confuse Les Vikings de la Guadeloupe with a late Zouk band. They are strictly early Zouk. Look, here is all you need to know about this fantastic collection. Ready? You know how there aren’t many airplanes in the sky right now, because we can’t really leave our houses except to go to the grocery store? And you know how we all can’t wait for this to end and safely return to exploring our world? If you put this record on and close your eyes, you can take an easy vacation in your mind down to the Caribbean. No frequent flyer miles required.
Bob Dylan – Under the Red Sky (1990)
Joni Mitchell – Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm (1988)
Paul McCartney – Egypt Station (2018) Most longtime artists who hang around long enough reach a crossroads at a certain point in their careers. Do they want to continue pushing to be on the vanguard, or will they regroup and continue to create from their strengths? Typically, the audience figures this out an album or two before the artist. A common attempt to hang on the precipice of the cutting edge a little longer is to rope in several high-profile guests.
This is the place Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell found themselves in the late ‘80s. Mitchell enlisted Tom Petty and Billy Idol to assist on “Dancin’ Clown,” with a result that is as head-scratching as it appears on paper. Other duets were more successful. Peter Gabriel steps into “My Secret Place” and makes it sound like a So b-side. Willie Nelson and Don Henley trade vocals with Mitchell on “Cool Water” and “Snakes and Ladders,” respectively. The best duet on the album, though, comes between Mitchell and saxophone legend Wayne Shorter on “A Bird that Whistles (Corrina, Corrina).”
The hype sticker on my copy of Under the Red Sky boasts special appearances by David Crosby, George Harrison, Bruce Hornsby, Elton John, Al Kooper, Slash, Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan, Don Was and more, with each musician’s name in all caps. For all that star power it’s remarkable that only a few guests manage to differentiate themselves from standard studio pros. The other problem with Under the Red Sky is that some of the songs are embarrassing. It doesn’t matter which special guest plays the solo on “Wiggle Wiggle,” the ghost of Jimi Hendrix couldn’t save a tune with the lyrics “wiggle to the right, wiggle to the rear/wiggle ‘til you wiggle right out of here.” Dylan is still Dylan though, and he gives us the great “Born in Time” to counterbalance “Wiggle Wiggle.” But that’s the problem: the album is a wash.
Neither Chalk Mark or Red Sky are bad albums, per se. It’s that not only do the results fail to add major works to each artists’ considerable songbooks, they seem to be trying awfully hard to achieve this mediocrity. To be fair, half-baked Dylan and Mitchell are still better than the majority of songwriters, and there are some keepers hidden in both albums. But Chalk Mark and Red Sky are also the final contemporary-sounding albums each made before retreating to acoustic guitars and the style of music that made both of them icons and haven’t come close to anything close to modern again.
Paul McCartney has managed to avoid this trap for the most part. There was a time in the mid-to-late ‘90s after the Beatles Anthology came out that it looked like he was going down the heritage path, but he still believes he can land on top of the charts again. On McCartney’s most recent album, Egypt Station, he brought in producers Greg Kurstin, who has worked with Sia, Beck, Pink and Zayn Malik of One Direction, among others, and Ryan Tedder, who has worked with Beyonce, One Direction, Selena Gomez, Ed Sheeran and many more. Clearly McCartney was thinking about the zeitgeist when he selected these producers. And while the single “Fuh You” was obviously written for Top 40 appeal, it’s also not half as awkward as “Wiggle Wiggle” or “Dancin’ Clown.” Egypt Station won’t make anyone forget about Band on the Run, but it also feels a lot less forced that Under the Red Sky and Chalk Marks in a Rain Storm.
Obviously, Dylan and Mitchell went on to release some great albums after they embraced heritage status. I don’t know that McCartney has made an album as good as Love and Theft this century, but he also hasn’t resorted to a hits-with-strings live album or three consecutive standards album. (McCartney did one, 2012’s Kisses on the Bottom, and moved on.) That has to count for something.
Mavis Staples – Livin’ on a High Note (2016) Mavis Staples is a treasure. Her soulful voice never fails to put me at ease. For her 10th solo album, Staples is assisted by some of the top indie music songwriters today. Justin Vernon, Benjamin Booker, Valerie June, Aloe Blacc and Neko Case all contribute songs. Case’s work is rarely performed by other singers, so it is intriguing to hear Staples’ voice interpret Case’s unique phrasing. Vernon and M. Ward’s “Dedicated” is another standout track. I love the way Staples delivers the lyric “if it’s us against the world/Well I would bet on us” with so much hope and assurance. Livin’ on a High Note ends on a high note with “MLK Song,” a gospel folk song that incorporates one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches for the lyrics. Staples knew King well and marched with him several times in the 1960s. Again, her singing is full of hope and optimism, not sadness or loss. Livin’ on a High Note is a feel-good album for any time, but it seems especially needed right now.