At the heart of Legends of Benin lies the spiral, the curve, the unfinished circle that leads to its replica. The silence at the start of the album is broken by the sound of a drumbeat, but this forward movement is eventually joined by a guitar, which introduces the spiral, and that’s that for the rest of the album—the spiral is there. Percussion shuffles; men shout, “yow!”; keyboards sprout rills of ice; horns proudly serenade singers; but through it all, this insidious curving tickle of noise goes on, always proposing an end and never reaching it. This sets it apart from the guitar chords of rock music, all beginnings and endings, stamping on the stage with one foot and declaring, “I’m here!” The West African guitar fills the middle ground of the song, and there’s nothing the other instruments can do to get away from it. The whole sound, spiral and everything else, comes together in a fat stew, stirring round and round and rising up and up.
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In 1959, Ray Charles released The Genius of Ray Charles, still considered one of his finest albums. Now, 50 years, hundreds of accolades, awards, hits, and a motion picture later, Ray Charles is again putting out a new album, albeit a compilation. And the genius that was back in 1959 seems to resonate just as much now. Part of Charles’ appeal was the fact that when asked what kind of music Charles made, critics couldn’t simply toss out one genre or niche that thousands of cookie-cutting artists fall into so easily. Country? Yes. Blues? Definitely. Rock? Yes. Gospel? That too. Soul? Without question. Just listening to the opening track off this 21-track collection, “Hit the Road Jack”, symbolizes how versatile Charles was. Part jazz, part swing, and completely solid, the tune shines despite being all of 119 seconds. This compilation should be in your emergency gift stash to pull from when you forgot someone – anyone, on or off your list, will love this album
Best live album ever? Who cares. What is beyond dispute is that 1970’s Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out is certainly the best live album the Rolling Stones ever recorded. And here we are, 40 years after the concerts took place in NYC at Madison Square Garden. World’s Greatest Band + World’s Greatest Stage = Deluxe Box Set! What are we looking at here? The original, remastered album? Check. Six unreleased tracks? Check. Bonus disc of opening acts B.B. King and Ike & Tina Turner? Check. Bonus DVD mixing live songs and offstage antics? Check. Obligatory booklet with critical essays and never-before seen photos? Check. Caveat emptor: for anyone thinking of shelling out $40-to-$60, be warned that the extra Stones material and the DVD are both less than 30 minutes in length. For Stones enthusiasts, this newly unearthed bounty is essential and price should be no object.
The best way to get into the holiday spirit is by listening to some classic Christmas songs, and I’m not talking about that schmaltz that’s piped in over loud speakers at some overcrowded, overheated and overstocked department store. This collection of Christmas songs is the perfect mood setter with classics such as “Deck the Hall”, “O Holy Night” and “Joy to the World”. The honey-voiced crooner, Nat King Cole, remastered here for ultimate sonic smoothness, can make anyone feel that this really is the most wonderful time of the year.
Since 1997’s Grammy-winning Time Out of Mind, Bob Dylan has benefited from increased exposure. 2001’s Love and Theft and 2006’s Modern Times both sold big, there’s a new installment of his groundbreaking Bootleg Series every couple years, and Dylan has contributed new recordings to a number of tribute albums and film soundtracks (“Things Have Changed”, from 2000’s Wonder Boys, won an Academy Award). The sales figures and consistently high quality of his work over the past decade have led critics to rightly declare that Dylan is undergoing a late-career renaissance. All the while, he’s been touring and occasionally shining onstage. And yet The Bootleg Series, other than the original box set, hasn’t acknowledged the fact that, yes, the man’s career has extended past 1975. Until now. Dylan (or his people, or Columbia) decided now would be a good time to dip into the more recent vaults and right that wrong, and Tell Tale Signs is what they came up with. It’s a 27-track collection of studio and live material dating back to 1989, with the bulk of the studio numbers coming from the Oh Mercy and Time Out of Mind sessions. The two-disc set comes with a 64-page booklet and liner notes by Larry “Ratso” Sloman, author of On the Road with Bob Dylan, a chronicle of the first Rolling Thunder Revue. As in past Bootleg Series sets, the notes put the contents of the package in the context of Dylan’s career while also discussing the music, and the circumstances of its creation, in detail. This is the collection to complete the Dylan fan’s Dylan collection.