A song list to celebrate the music poet’s 80th birthday
Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday kind of sneaked up on me. While as I have noted before my sentiments are mixed about his music, there is no doubt Robert Zimmerman is one of the most significant artists of our time. I feel Dylan’s life has been extensively covered, so instead of putting together yet another biographical write-up, I’d like to celebrate the music poet’s birthday with a list of songs I dig.
It’s hard to believe Dylan has had a close to 60-year recording career. That’s just mind-boggling! I’m generally more drawn to his early work. I will also admit I’m much less familiar with his post mid-’70s catalog. This playlist starts with the first Dylan song I ever heard many moons ago: Blowin’ in the Wind. I still think it’s great. The post wraps up with a tune from his last album Rough and Rowdy Ways, a true late career gem that really surprised me!
Blowin’ in the Wind – The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (May 1963)
The Times They Are a-Changin’ – The Times They Are a-Changin’ (January 1964)
It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue – Bringing It All Back Home (March 1965)
Like a Rolling Stone – Highway 61 Revisited (August 1965)
Just Like a Woman – Blonde on Blonde (June 1966)
Lay Lady Lay – Nashville Skyline (April 1969)
Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door – Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (July 1973)
Tangled Up in Blue – Blood on the Tracks (January 1975)
Hurricane – Desire (January 1976)
Goodbye Jimmy Reed – Rough and Rowdy Ways (June 2020)
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 Worldwidenoted 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 Billboardstory 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 Uphere, 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 Ferry, Steve Winwood, Mick 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.
I deliberately let this one simmer for a while. As a more casual listener of Bob Dylan, I felt giving Rough and Rowdy Ways more time to sink in was the right thing to do. Dylan’s 39th studio album, his first with original songs since Tempest from September 2012, appeared yesterday on Columbia Records.
To be very clear upfront, I’m not trying to compete with clever music critics, so if you’re hoping for any sort of interpretation what the maestro’s lyrics mean and to what extent they are autobiographical, you can probably stop reading here. Frankly, I’m not sure anyone on the planet can fully figure out the man – I certainly can’t and won’t pretend I can!
When Dylan released the album’s first single Murder Most Foul in late March, I didn’t quite know how to feel about it. Clocking in at just under 17 minutes, my first thought was it’s massive. I also wondered whether we really needed yet another account about the murder of JFK, one of the most widely covered stories – not to mention all the crazy conspiracy theories around it!
Of course, I fully realize Dylan’s timing in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t look like coincidence and points to a broader meaning. But we’re getting into interpretation, which is exactly what I said at the outset I didn’t want to do!
Weirdly, the more often I listen to Murder Most Foul, the better I like it. To some extent perhaps it’s simply getting more used it. Another factor could be that Dylan without any doubt in my mind is one of the most significant contemporary music artists, so I kind of feel a bit reluctant to “dismiss” it outright. I mean who am I after all to judge him!
The next single was the record’s opener I Contain Multitudes, which came out in mid-April. While I didn’t exactly jump up and down, I felt that tune was easier to process. But it really did take the May 8 release of the third single, False Prophet, to get my full attention. I can’t deny the fact it probably helped that the track is a blues, one of my favorite music genres. Plus, at that time it also became clear we weren’t just looking at a series of one-off singles but a forthcoming new Dylan album.
Generally speaking, when it comes to songs, I primarily pay attention to the music and the vocals, viewing great lyrics more like nice icing on the cake. Otherwise, how could I possibly explain that I love songs with lyrics like I want to hold your hand; she loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah; or love, love me do, you know I love you! Nothing wrong with silly love songs, but that’s what they are: Silly, at least from a lyrical perspective!
So how about the remaining tracks on Rough and Rowdy Ways? Well, let’s get to some of them!
Here’s My Own Version of You. A lyrical excerpt: All through the summers, into January/I’ve been visiting morgues and monasteries/Looking for the necessary body parts/Limbs and livers and brains and hearts/I’ll bring someone to life, is what I wanna do/I wanna create my own version of you…cheerful stuff! Somehow as I’m reading this, I’m picturing the video of Tom Petty’sMary Jane’s Last Dance.
Next up: Black Rider, a quiet ballad. Is it about death? No idea! But a cheerful tune it certainly is not. Black rider, black rider, all dressed in black/ I’m walking away, you try to make me look back/ My heart is at rest, I’d like to keep it that way/ I don’t wanna fight, at least not today/ Go home to your wife, stop visiting mine/ One of these days I’ll forget to be kind. As Max from PowerPop and I were joking earlier today, one would hope these lyrics aren’t autobiographical!
Crossing the Rubicon is another blues-oriented track. I kind of like the slow burning groove of that tune. And, yes, you guessed it, there are more cheerful lyrics here: …I feel the bones beneath my skin and they’re tremblin’ with rage/I’ll make your wife a widow – you’ll never see old age/Show me one good man in sight that the sun shines down upon/I pawned my watch and I paid my debts and I crossed the Rubicon…Jeez, don’t mess with Bob!
The last track I’d like to call out is Key West (Philosopher Pirate). I think this is actually becoming one of my favorite songs on the album. I find Dylan’s singing here strangely pretty in spite of his less than opera quality vocals and the lyrics:…I was born on the wrong side of the railroad track/Like Ginsberg, Corsi and Kerouac/Like Louis and Jimmy and Buddy and all the rest/Well, it might not be the thing to do/But I’m sticking with you through and through/Down in the flatlands, way down in Key West…
In addition to Dylan (vocals, guitar), who is also listed as producer, Rough and Rowdy Ways features Bob Britt (guitar), Matt Chamberlain (drums), Tony Garnier (bass), Donnie Herron (steel guitar, violin, accordion) and Charlie Sexton (guitar). These musicians make up the band that has been backing Dylan on his Never Ending Tour, which is currently on hold due to the coronavirus. Additional musicians/guests, among others, include Fiona Apple (vocals) and Benmont Tench, founding member, keyboarder and vocalist of Tom Petty’s former band The Heartbreakers.
I thought I give the final word to Dylan, so naively went to his website to see whether there is any statement there. Since that would have been the obvious thing, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that my search came up empty. Instead, one of the first things you see is a news item titled Bob Dylan remains an immeasurable and inimitable force, a review by The Line of Best Fit, which by its own description is “the UK’s biggest independent website devoted to new music.”
Sources: Wikipedia; Bob Dylan website; The Line of Best Fit; YouTube
A selection of newly released music that caught my attention
This latest installment of the recurring new music feature must acknowledge two albums that dropped today by two of the most influential music artists of our time: Bob Dylan and Neil Young. I already covered Young’s record in my previous post, so I’m skipping him here. There is also a new band of veteran session musicians who recently released their first single in the U.S., a great rock tune by an Australian band and a song from a German blues singer-songwriter and guitarist.
Bob Dylan/Goodbye Jimmy Reed
Goodbye Jimmy Reed is a tune from Rough and Rowdy Ways, the new and widely anticipated album by Bob Dylan. It’s his 39th studio record and the first with original material since Tempest from September 2012. In-between, the great music poet put out three cover albums with standards from the American Songbook. I was going to add all that’s missing is a Christmas collection when I just noticed Dylan already checked off that box in October 2009 with Christmas in the Heart. If you’re frequent visitor of the blog, you probably know my sentiments about Dylan range from outstanding to less than brilliant and everything in-between. Regardless, there’s no doubt Dylan is one of the most important singer-songwriters of our time. I also give him huge credit that age 79 instead of releasing yet another cover album, he dropped a collection with brand new songs. Goodbye Jimmy Reed is a tribute to the American electric blues guitarist who influenced Elvis Presley, Hank Williams Jr., The Rolling Stones and many other artists who I have no doubt include Dylan.
The Immediate Family/Cruel Twist
The Immediate Family is what you could call a super group featuring five veteran session musicians: Danny Kortchmar (guitar), Waddy Wachtel (guitar), Leland Sklar (bass), Russ Kunkel (drums) and Steve Postell (guitar). Between them, they have worked individually and together with artists like Jackson Browne, Carole King, Neil Young, Linda Ronstadt, Stevie Nicks, Keith Richards, James Taylor, Bob Dylan, Joe Walsh – and the list goes on and on. It’s yet another illustration that great musicians like to play with great musicians. But throwing together a group of top-notch musicians doesn’t automatically guarantee the outcome is as great as their skills. In this case I have to say I really like what I’m hearing! Cruel Twist is the group’s first U.S. single released on June 12. As reported by Rolling Stone, an EP is planned for October, followed by a full-length album next year.
According to their website, Datura4 are a Western Australian band combining full-tilt boogie, heavy psychedelia, blues and classic rock’n’roll for a sound heavy on riffage and mind-bending wig-outs – okey dokey. Founded in 2009, the band includes Dom Mariani (guitar), Bob Patient (keyboards), Stu Loasby (bass) and Warren “Wazza” Hall (drums). They released their debut album Demon Blues in 2015, followed by sophomore Hairy Mountain in 2016. Give is a great rocker from Datura4’s most recent album West Coast Highway Cosmic, which appeared on April 17. I dig the harmony guitar playing and the keyboard work. These guys are cooking – check it out!
Michael van Merwyk/We’re Human
Michael van Merwyk is a blues singer-songwriter and guitarist from Germany. According to this biography, he has become famous as one of only a few lap steel guitar players in the blues business. Michael performs and entertains fans at large festivals and also smaller clubs throughout Europe, either together in an acoustic duo with a blues harp player and singer Gerd Gorge as Delta Boys or his own band called Bluesoul. The (German) website of Bluesoul also notes van Merwyk started playing guitar at the age of 15 and has been an active musician for almost 35 years. I had never heard of him before. We’re Human is from what appears to be his most recent CD The Bear released on May 8. According to Discogs, the CD was recorded live in studio in December 2019 and January 2020.
Sources: Wikipedia; Rolling Stone; Last.fm; Bluesoul; YouTube
Next month will see the release of new albums by two of the most influential singer-songwriters of our time: Bob Dylan and Neil Young. Both are scheduled for June 19, which I assume is a coincidence. I’ve previously written about Dylan’s new work Rough and Rowdy Ways, most recently here. Young recently announced the release date for Homegrown, an album that originally was supposed to come out in 1975. But the end of Young’s 5-year relationship with actress Carrie Snodgress caused him too much pain, so the songs ended up in the vault.
As reported by Relix, Homegrown includes 12 tracks and features guests like The Band’sLevon Helm (drums) and Robbie Robertson (guitar), as well as Emmylou Harris (backing vocals). Other musicians include Ben Keith (steel and slide guitar), Tim Drummond (bass) and Stan Szelest (piano).
The title song and tunes like Love Is a Rose, White Line, Little Wing and Star of Bethlehem already found their way on other Young records over the years. The remaining tracks will be released for the very first time. Here’s one of them called Try, a country tune you could easily picture on the Harvest album. It sounds like Harris is singing backing vocals on this song.
Relix also published a statement by Young: I apologize. This album Homegrown should have been there for you a couple of years after Harvest. It’s the sad side of a love affair. The damage done. The heartache. I just couldn’t listen to it. I wanted to move on. So I kept it to myself, hidden away in the vault, on the shelf, in the back of my mind….but I should have shared it. It’s actually beautiful. That’s why I made it in the first place. Sometimes life hurts. You know what I mean. This is the one that got away. Recorded in analog in 1974 and early 1975 from the original master tapes and restored with love and care by John Hanlon. Levon Helm is drumming on some tracks, Karl T Himmel on others, Emmylou Harris singing on one. Homegrown contains a narration, several acoustic solo songs never even published or heard until this release and some great songs played with a great band of my friends, including Ben Keith – steel and slide – Tim Drummond – bass and Stan Szelest – piano. Anyway, it’s coming your way in 2020, the first release from our archive in the new decade. Come with us into 2020 as we bring the past.
A selection of newly released music that caught my attention
This latest installment of the recurring feature presents yet another new tune by Robert Allen Zimmerman, who finally revealed there will be a new album with original music, probably providing some relief among die-hard Bob Dylan fans. The piece also includes a new song by a German singer-songwriter who happens to be a yuge Dylan fan and has led my favorite German rock band for more than 40 years. There’s also a melancholic track by Norah Jones. And how about rounding out things with some smoking hot blues by an indigenous artist from Canada? Let’s get to it.
Bob Dylan/False Prophet
False Prophet, released today, is the third new song by Bob Dylan that appeared in recent weeks. He probably thought three make a charm and also finally confirmed what many fans had hoped for: All these tunes appear on a new album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, set to come out on June 19. It’s Dylan’s 39th studio album, per Rolling Stone’s count, and his first release of original music in eight years since Tempest from September 2012. False Prophet, a guitar-driven bluesy tune, definitely speaks to me more than the previously released I Contain Multitudes and the nearly 17-minute Murder Most Foul. In fact, I kinda like it!
Niedeckens BAP/Ruhe vor’m Sturm
BAP or, since September 2014, Niedeckens BAP have been my favorite German rock band for now close to 40 years. I’ve covered this group from Cologne around singer-songwriter Wolfgang Niedecken on various past occasions, most recently here. One of their characteristic features is they sing all of their songs in Kölsch, the regional dialect spoken in the area of Cologne. Ruhe vor’m Sturm (calm before the storm), the first tune from the band’s next album scheduled for September, has rather dark lyrics, drawing a bridge between Germany’s past Nazi era and the growing influence of right-wing extremist ideology in Germany and other countries. “Everything that has happened in previous years, the populists that step by step are gaining power and those who are still in their starting positions…are developments that can frighten you and make you think, ‘how is it supposed to continue’,” said Niedecken during an interview with German broadcast station SWR1. “I’ve had many sleepless nights. I have now grandchildren…and don’t simply want to say, ‘ do whatever you want’ – I won’t accept that.” Niedecken who writes all of the band’s lyrics has spoken up against racism for many years. The song was deliberately released today, the 75th anniversary of Germany’s unconditional surrender to the Allies and the official end of World War II and one of the darkest chapters in human history.
Norah Jones/Tryin’ to Keep It Together
Every time I listen to Norah Jones, which for some reason I hardly do, I somehow feel at ease. There’s just something about the singer-songwriter’s voice I find incredibly powerful. Tryin’ to Keep It Together is a bonus tune on Jones’ upcoming eighth studio album Pick Me Up Off the Floor, which will appear on June 12. “I didn’t intend on releasing it early, but it kept running through my head,” said Jones in a statement, as reported by Rolling Stone. “It’s very much how I feel in this moment, so it felt appropriate to release it. Maybe it’s how others feel as well.” The song was co-written by Jones and Thomas Bartlett, a.k.a Doveman, who also produced it. Jones released the official video for the tune today. In a tweet she wrote, “The official video for ‘Tryin’ To Keep It Together’ was filmed at home and is out now. Thanks to my quaran-team house-mate, Marcela Avelar, for making this video.”
Crystal Shawanda/Church House Blues
Crystal Shawanda is an indigenous country-turned-blues artist. According to her website, she grew up on Wikwemikong reserve on an island in Ontario, Canada. While her parents exposed her to country music and taught her how to sing and play guitar, her oldest brother introduced her to what became her ultimate passion, the blues. She started her career in country music and her debut album Dawn of a New Day was released in June 2008. But while country music apparently brought her some success, she started feeling like a fish out of water and decided to take off some time. Shawanda returned in September 2014 with her first blues album The Whole World’s Got the Blues. Her new record Church House Blues was released on April 17. According to this review in Glide Magazine, it was produced by Shawanda’s husband and collaborator Dewayne Strobel, who also plays guitar on the record. The review notes influences from Shawanda’s heroes Etta James, Koko Taylor, The Staple Sisters and Janis Joplin. Regardless whether you agree with their take or not, one thing is crystal clear to me: That woman has mighty pipes and great energy. Check out the title track!