None of you reading this are greenhorns when it comes to “Greatest Hits” compilations. We all know the gamut: by creating a goto catalog release that will entice casual fans for years and decades to come, Greatest Hits/Best Of compilations are a reliable source of income for record labels and artists alike. We all snicker whenever an artist feels the need to tack on a “Volume One” onto that title, because unless you’re the Eagles or Billy Joel, you ain’t gettin’ a Volume Two, rest assured.
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Eclectic singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Sufjan Stevens recently announced his first solo album in five years, Carrie & Lowell. The album, which is named after his mother and step-father, is said to be a return to his folk roots, with songs about “life and death, love and loss, and the artist’s struggle to make sense of the beauty and ugliness of love.” Though Stevens has not been quiet for the past five years, releasing music with his side project Sisyphus as well as composing music for ballets and films, the promise of a new, 11-track solo album is an exciting one. This list of 11 songs is sure to get us back in the mood ahead of the March 31st release of Carrie & Lowell.
It’s always nice to think that if you had a lackluster 2014, you can wipe the slate clean in 2015. A new year means a new chance to do all the things you wanted to do in 2014, but didn’t get around to. However, by the end of January, the gyms are already emptying out. Perhaps the key to making changes in the new year is to not get overwhelmed by taking on too much. As Martin Luther King once wrote: “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” This is good advice for those of us who have already given up our New Years resolutions or haven’t made them at all because they seem like a waste of time or too much trouble.
Christmas music is built on duality, a lopsided mix of saccharine falsity and genuine emotion. For every decent tune we don’t mind hearing every December, there’s more than a few others that make us want to overdose on spiked eggnog. But Christmas is about taking the good with the bad, the head with the heart, and the joy and humility of the season.
Classic Christmas tunes have dominated the charts for far too long, so don’t expect to see any of these ten tunes cracking radio playlists any time soon. In fact, some of these songs aren’t even about Christmas specifically; just more about the feeling of longing and nostalgia that accompanies the memories of bygone Christmases past. Some evoke happiness in their desperation, and some call despair to the forefront and parade it about. All are reflective and more than a bit downtrodden, so fair warning to those whose emotional state is perilous enough on frozen winter nights. But if you open your heart and let the good of the season in, there are more than a few songs that surface around Christmastime that can illuminate the beautiful and spiritual side of an otherwise commercially-ridden holiday. Here’s hoping you can identify with some of the purity put forth by these indie artists.
In honor of Jack Bruce’s recent passing, and as a companion piece to my tribute to the late bassist, here’s my take on the ten best Cream songs. This list is offered with one caveat: it’s mostly going to avoid the ones everyone knows, so we’ll assume it’s more or less a given that the cream of Cream’s crop necessarily includes “Strange Brew”, “Tales of Brave Ulysses”, “Crossroads” and especially “Sunshine of Your Love”.
These ten selections, some more obscure than others, are chosen to represent the songs where Cream was most focused, most locked-in, and most original. As such, many of the trio’s blues covers or blues-influenced homages (whether more paint-by-numbers like “Spoonful” and “Rolling and Tumbling” or more inspired like “Born Under a Bad Sign”) don’t rise all the way to the top. When Bruce, Eric Clapton, and Ginger Baker were properly locked-in, they not only used the blues as a successful point of departure, but they carved out a unique—and oft-imitated but seldom matched—blend of psychedelia and proto-prog (the frenzied “Deserted Cities of the Heart” is a scorching hand grenade of a song, planting a signpost of where rock had come and where it was headed): they took the British Invasion’s obsession with blues masters as far as it could (should) go, using their power trio pyrotechnics to blend a distinct English sensibility (“Wrapping Paper”, “Mother’s Lament”) with a more American rock ‘n’ roll aggression, which itself was a triumph of traditional music combining blues and folk, along with a more experimental edge influenced by jazz and the avant-garde (“SWLABR”, “Those Were the Days”).