The Year that was 2020 – Part 2 of 2

A look back on my music journey over the past 12 months

This is second and last installment of my two-part year in review. In case you missed part 1, you can read it here.

Celebrating new music one song at a time

With more than 150 songs highlighted since the launch of the Best of What’s New feature, I find it impossible to call out the best tunes. As I wrote in the inaugural March 21 post, While I don’t see myself starting to write about electronic dance music or Neue Deutsche Haerte a la Rammstein, I’m hoping to keep these posts a bit eclectic. I realize the characterization “best” is pretty subjective. If a song speaks to me, it’s fair game. I should perhaps have added that I don’t need to like other tunes by an artist to include them. It’s literally about the specific song.

Best of What’s New installments have featured tunes ranging from prominent artists like Sheryl Crow, The Rolling Stones and Tom Petty to lesser known acts like rock bands Brother Man and Mondo Silicone and Austin, Texas-based band leader Joe Sparacino, aka. Dr. Joe. Frequently, these posts triggered new album reviews, e.g., LeRoux (One of Those Days), Mick Hayes (My Claim to Fame) and Niedeckens BAP (Alles Fliesst). Following are four songs I discovered in the context of Best of What’s New.

Dr. Joe: Believer

From Dr. Joe’s websiteBased in Austin TX but raised on a farm outside Salina, Kansas, band leader Joe Sparacino spent his early childhood learning piano from a southern gospel choir matron and listening to his family’s old vinyl collection of Ray Charles, Leon Russell and James Booker. Released on April 10, Believer was Dr. Joe’s then-latest single and it’s cooking!

The Reverberations: Under Your Spell

The Reverberations are a five-piece band from Portland, Ore. Their Bandcamp profile characterizes their music as “’60s influenced psychedelic jangle.” I’d call it psychedelic garage rock. Under Your Spell, the B-side to their single Palm Reader released May 28, features some cool Byrds-ey guitars and nice keyboard work. Did I mention it’s also got a quite catchy melody? And check out the lovely psychedelic cover art – super cool all around! For more on this great band, you can read my review of their February 2019 album Changes, their most recent full-fledged studio release.

Kat Riggins: No Sale

Kat Riggins is a blues artist hailing from Miami. According to her website, She travels the world with the sole mission of keeping the blues alive and thriving through her Blues Revival Movement. She has been vocally compared to Koko Taylor, Etta James and Tina Turner to name a few. The nice blues rocker No Sale, which has a bit of a ZZ Top vibe, is from Riggins’ fourth album Cry Out released on August 14. That woman’s got it!

Greta Van Fleet: Age of Machine

Age of Machine is the second single from Greta Van Fleet’s next album The Battle at Garden’s Gate, which is scheduled for April 16, 2021. I think this kickass rocker provides more evidence the young band has evolved their style, moving away from their initial Led Zeppelin-influenced sound. Looking forward to the album!

Live music in the year of the pandemic…

Except for two tribute band concerts in January, pretty measly for the ‘King of the Tribute Band,’ I didn’t go to any live gigs this year. Shows for which I had tickets, including The Temptations and The Four Tops, Ringo Starr and His All Starr Band, and Steely Dan with special guest Steve Winwood, were rescheduled until April, June and July 2021, respectively. Perhaps with the exception of the last concert, I hope all other shows will be rescheduled a second time and moved back to the second half of the year. For somebody who loves live music and over the past 4-5 years has gotten into the habit of seeing an average 20-30 shows per year (counting lower cost tribute band and free summer type concerts), seizing live concerts it’s a bitter but necessary pill to swallow until this lethal pandemic is behind us.

I ended up watching two live concerts via Internet stream: Southern Avenue at Instrumenthead Live Studio in Nashville, Tenn. last week, and Mike Campbell’s band The Dirty Knobs at the Troubador in Los Angeles in late November. It was fun and also a nice opportunity to support music via voluntary donations in lieu of buying official tickets, but no virtual experience can replace the real deal.

Some final musings…

While my primary motivation for the blog has always been the joy I get from writing about a topic I love, i.e., music, it’s nice to see continued growth in visitor traffic, followers and feedback. Just like in 2019, the most popular post remained my January 2018 piece about Bad Company’s live CD/DVD collection from their May 15, 2016 show at Red Rocks Amphitheatre; personally, I find the post average at best. By comparison, my July 12, 2020 post about the mellotron, which I’m proud of, received less than one percent of traffic than the Bad Company post. Perhaps, it was too geeky! 🙂 It’s funny how these things sometimes go.

I’d like to thank all visitors of the blog. If you’re here for the first time, you’re welcome back anytime. If you’re a regular, I hope you keep coming back. I also enjoy receiving comments, including different opinions. All I ever ask is to keep things civil.

Last but not least, I’d like to leave you with a great song by Southern Avenue they also played during the above noted virtual concert. I feel it’s a great message, especially during these crazy times: Don’t Give Up, from their eponymous debut album released in February 2017. Since I couldn’t capture footage from the above gig, here’s an alternative I can offer: a clip I recorded during a show at The Wonder Bar, a small venue in Asbury Park, N.J. in July 2019.

Sources: Christian’s Music Music Musings; YouTube

The Year that was 2020 – Part 1 of 2

A look back on my music journey over the past 12 months

At first, the thought of writing a year in review type post didn’t look very appealing. After all, it’s safe to assume most of us can’t wait to kiss 2020 goodbye and erase it from our memories. This certainly describes my sentiments in many ways. But while the past 12 months brought unprecedented challenges, including for the music business, I think not all was doom and gloom. Initially, this was supposed to be one post. Then, it got longer and longer, so I decided to break it up in two parts. Here’s part 1

The good and the bad…

On the positive side, the music industry recorded rising revenue fueled by streaming. As Music Business Worldwide noted in September, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) reported a 5.6% year-over-over increase in total U.S. recorded music retail revenue to $5.6 billion for the first half of 2020. This included a 12% surge in streaming music revenue to $4.8 billion. If streaming kept that pace in the second half of the year, it would be up one billion year-over-year. However, according to this Billboard story from earlier this week, growth in streaming volume has stalled since the end of June.

At the same time, the concert business, the main source of income for most artists, is in the toilet. The Los Angeles Times recently reported America’s largest concert promoter Live Nation experienced a nosedive in revenue of 98% and 95% during the summer and fall, respectively. The same article also stated 90% of independent performance venues will close for good without government aid, while long-established venues like the Troubador in L.A. are hanging on but face an uncertain future. This doesn’t only put the livelihoods of many artists at risk but also of all the folks working at performance venues or whose job are otherwise tied to live entertainment.

New music kept coming out

Despite COVID-19, new music continued to be released throughout the year – lots of it. In fact, at least some of this activity can be explained by the pandemic. Artists who weren’t able to tour found themselves with more time on their hands to work on new material. New albums by Bruce Springsteen, Taylor Swift and Paul McCartney are just some of the examples that come to my mind in this context.

I’m happy new music was a major theme for my blog in 2020, more than ever before. As frequent visitors know, I’m not talking about music you can find in the present mainstream charts. As of this blog post, I reviewed more than 20 new albums. That’s only counting new original music, not other releases, such as new installments from Springsteen’s great live bootleg series or James Taylor’s cover album of the American songbook. Yes, while I know next to nothing about American standards, I did review that album and enjoyed listening to it!

Frankly, I could have reviewed more new albums. I didn’t. In addition to lack of time, part of the reason was because of Best of What’s New. This weekly recurring feature on newly released music, which I launched in March, focuses on songs rather than entire albums.

It’s gratifying to me that except for one time due to a death in my close family, I posted new installments each week, meaning I’ve been able to discover new music week after week I found decent enough to write about. Keep in mind this is the same guy who as recently as last year kept complaining how “terrible” contemporary music is! I forgot one important qualifier: Music that’s in the mainstream charts. Let’s take a look at some of the new music I wrote about over the past 12 months.

My favorite new albums

While it’s hard to narrow things down, from the 20-plus new albums I reviewed the four ones I feel most excited about are AC/DC/Power Up (released November 18), Walter Trout/Ordinary Madness (August 28), Norah Jones/Pick Me Up Off the Floor (June 12) and Ruby Turner/Love Was Here (January 24). Following is a tune from each:

AC/DC: Shot in the Dark (Power Up)

Shot in the Dark, the album’s great lead single, is classic AC/DC and makes you feel you just time-travelled back to 1980. Like all other tracks on Power Up, it was co-written by Angus Young and his older brother Malcolm Young during the period between the Stiff Upper Lip (February 2000) and Black Ice (October 2008) albums. You can read more about Power Up here, a must listen to for AC/DC fans.

Walter Trout: Wanna Dance (Ordinary Madness)

I love Walter Trout, a no BS artist and decent guitarist who has lived through dramatic ups and downs. Perhaps, he’s the ultimate blues rock survivor! Here’s Wanna Dance. “I had Neil Young and Crazy Horse in mind when I wrote the tune,” Trout told American Songwriter. Dancing is a metaphor for enjoying and celebrating every moment in life, since We ain’t gonna live forever, as Trout sings. He knows all too well. This is one hell of a blues rocker! See here for more about Ordinary Madness.

Norah Jones: Flame Twin (Pick Me Up Off the Floor)

I had been aware and always liked Norah Jones and her piano-driven lounge style jazz for ,any years, but had never explored any of her albums. I’m glad Flame Twin from her seventh studio album Pick Me Up Off the Floor finally changed this. Written by Jones, the tune injects a dose of blues, which rarely if ever is a bad thing in my book. I also dig the Hammond B3 accents from Pete Remm who plays electric guitar as well. And, of course, there are Jones’ great soothing vocals and piano playing. Like other songs on Pick Me Up Off the Floor, the tune was inspired by poetry. My review of this great album is here.

Ruby Turner: Don’t Cry Over Yesterday (Love Was Here)

Don’t Cry Over Yesterday was the track that made me listen to Love Was Here, a beautiful classic soul album by British soul, gospel and R&B vocalist Ruby Turner. I hadn’t heard of Turner before, even though she’s performed since 1983 and worked with other artists like Bryan FerrySteve WinwoodMick Jagger and UB40. “Discovering” great artists like her is part of the reason why I love music blogging. If you’re into ’70s style soul, I’d encourage you to check out this album, a true gem! You can read more about it here.

Other new 2020 studio releases I’d like to call out include McCartney III (Paul McCartney), Letter to You (Bruce Springsteen), Bless Your Heart (The Allman Betts Band), Hate for Sale (Pretenders), Rough and Rowdy Ways (Bob Dylan), Homegrown (Neil Young), Self-Made Man (Larkin Poe), Blues with Friends (Dion), Early Morning Rain (Steve Forbert) and El Dorado (Marcus King).

In part 2 of this post, I’m revisiting the Best of What’s New feature and concerts before wrapping things up with final thoughts.

Sources: Music Business Worldwide; Billboard; Los Angeles Times; Christian’s Music Musings; YouTube

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

For this latest installment of the recurring feature, I had lots of new/recently released music to choose from: various singer-songwriters, Americana, rock and blues. It would have been easy to add at least four additional songs, but I’d like to keep these posts to no more than four to six tracks. As in previous installments, it’s a mix of young and more established artists, which is exactly what I’d like it to be. I’m really glad that my foray into new music continues to yield many promising discoveries. Here we go!

John Craigie/Don’t Ask

From his website: Renowned for his eloquent Americana style, engaging live shows, and off-the-cuff clever observations, John Craigie carries on the legacy of classic singer-songwriters, while blazing a trail of his own. Recently, that trail twisted and turned into new territory for the Portland, OR performer who The Stranger appropriately dubbed, “the lovechild of John Prine and Mitch Hedberg.” Released on May 8, Don’t Ask is the latest single from the 39-year-old’s upcoming new album Asterisk the Universe, slated for June 12. Two additional tracks from the record, which should be his seventh, are already available. According to Wikipedia, Craigie has been called a “modern day troubadour” reminiscent of Woody Guthrie and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. While I don’t know about that, I’ve no doubt I really dig what I’m hearing.

Israel Nash/Canyonheart

Israel Nash is a 39-year-old singer-songwriter from Dripping Springs, TX. Wikipedia puts his music in the Americana, rock and indie rock genres. Based on his most recent release – the EP Topaz – I can also hear some soul influences. Nash came to Texas via New York from Missouri, his original home. After moving to New York in 2006 and performing in local clubs, Nash independently released his debut album New York Town in 2009. After the appearance of his sophomore album Barn Doors and Concrete Floors in March 2011, Nash moved to Dripping Springs late in the same year. He has since released three additional studio records, one life albums and two EPs including Topaz, which came out on May 22. Here’s the great opener Canyonheart. Check out that tune’s beautiful warm sound!

John “Papa” Gros/It’s Raining

To start with, what an awesome name, and very much New Orleans – admittedly, it was part of the reason why I took a closer look at John “Papa” Gros, who hails from the big easy. For over three decades, Gros has brought his city’s celebratory culture to listeners around the globe., according to his website. Gros mixes all the sounds of New Orleans – funk, trad jazz, brass band, blues  – and makes it his own signature gumbo. His new solo album Central City, shows Gros capturing New Orleans’ distinct feel-good charm with help from some of its’ most renowned players. Gros began playing gigs when he was just fifteen years old but didn’t truly kick off his career until after graduating from Loyola in 1989 with a degree in French Horn performance…Between 2000 and 2013, Gros began his transition into the spotlight by leading Papa Grows Funk, a highly revered group that mixed hard-hitting funk grooves with often unpredictable jazz spontaneity. The band has since broken up, and John “Papa” John has carried on with a solo career. Central City, which came out on April 17, is his third solo effort. Here’s the beautiful It’s Raining. I hear some Randy Newman in here!

Scott Ellison/All Wound Up

Are you ready for some good ole’ blues and honky tonk? Enter singer-songwriter, guitarist and blues rocker Scott Ellison was born in Tulsa, Okla. in on June 13, 1954. According to his website, he started his career in the ’70s, playing with country singer Jesseca James and blues artist Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown in 1981. After relocating to Los Angeles in the mid-’80s, Ellison played with The Box Tops, The Shirelles, The Drifters and Gary U.S. Bonds, among others. By the ’90s he had formed his own blues band and opened for other artists like Joe Cocker, The Fabulous Thunderbirds and Buddy Guy. In 1993, Ellison’s first solo album Chains of Love appeared. Skyline Dive is his most recent record, which appeared on May 8. Here’s All Wound Up, a nice smoking blues rocker – my kind of music!

Fretland/Say It Well

I couldn’t find a lot of information on Fretland, an Americana band from Snohomish WA. The apparently still young group was founded by singer-songwriter Hillary Grace Fretland (vocals, guitar). The band also includes Luke Francis (guitar), Jake Haber (bass) and Kenny Bates (drums). Say It Well is the beautiful closer of Fretland’s eponymous album released on May 22. It’s a very bare bones acoustic tune, which sounds like is performed by Hillary with guitar only.

Dr. Joe/Believer

Dr. Joe is another artist I had not heard of before. From his website: Based in Austin TX but raised on a farm outside Salina, Kansas, band leader Joe Sparacino spent his early childhood learning piano from a southern gospel choir matron and listening to his family’s old vinyl collection of Ray Charles, Leon Russell and James Booker. Their debut single: “Tell Your Mother” was produced by Vance Powell (six-time Grammy Award winning record producer) whose credits include Jack White, The Raconteurs, White Stripes, Kings of Leon, Arctic Monkeys, Chris Stapleton, etc. and recorded at his famed Sputnik Studio in East Nashville. GOOD DAYS [apparently their second single] was recorded by – Niles City Sound (Leon Bridges) in Fort Worth Texas with additional work by Adrian Quesada (Black Pumas), Abhi The Nomad and Austin Jenkins (White Denim). It was mixed and mastered at Abbey Road in London. Believer is Dr. Joe’s latest single, which came out on April 10 (Good Friday). I think this tune is cooking. I suppose this means I’m a believer! 🙂

Sources: Wikipedia; John Craigie website; John “Papa” Gros website; Scott Ellison website; Fretland website; Fretland Facebook page; Hillary Grace Fretland Facebook page; YouTube