Brittany Howard – Defying Categorization

Brittany Howard, leader of the band Alabama Shakes, is up for four Grammy Awards this year in four different musical categories. Defying musical categorization is something Howard has done since the beginning of her career, but this year she’s stretched those boundaries even further. Her first solo album, Jaime, was released in September and is up for Best Alternative Music Album. It’s an award Alabama Shakes won as a band in 2016 for Sound & Color.

“Stay High” is nominated for best Rock Performance and Best Rock Song. An early release of the single “History Repeats”, which is included on Jaime, was nominated in this category last year, and these awards were won by Alabama Shakes in 2016 for “Don’t Wanna Fight”.

Brittany is also up for Best American Roots Performance for “Short and Sweet”. This is an award Alabama Shakes won in 2018 for “Killer Diller Blues” from the documentary movie American Epic Sessions. Here’s a solo acoustic version.

Finally, Brittany is up for Best R&B Performance for “Goat Head”. This is Howard’s first nomination in this genre. Here’s a live performance featuring the killer band she’s put together, from the Save Our Stages Festival. The lyrics, which start at about 1:30 are worth the wait.

Rock Hall 2020

A couple of weeks ago the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inducted its Class of 2020. T. Rex, The Doobie Brothers, Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails, Whitney Houston and the Notorious B.I.G. Wow. Let’s sample some of that breadth.

Marc Bolan and T. Rex were credited with launching glam rock, and this video of their biggest hit “Bang a Gong” shows off some satin and glitter in a sea of other 1971 styles. And who’s that sitting in on keyboards? Someone who would set new standards for glam himself, Elton John!

Joan Jett covered T. Rex’s “Jeepster” for the tribute album AngelHeaded Hipster: The Songs of Marc Bolan and T. Rex. The album was released this past September, in time for the band’s Rock Hall induction, and Joan did a pandemic performance on The Late Late Show to show it off.

Depeche Mode got off the ground with their first U.K. top ten hit “Just Can’t Get Enough” in 1981. In 1984 they achieved their greatest single hit, “People Are People”, and 1989’s Violator was their masterpiece and top charting album. Here’s a video of “People Are People” and Johnny Cash’s cover of Violator’s “Personal Jesus”.

Whitney Houston scored three #1 singles from her eponymous 1984 debut album, including “How Will I Know” with a synth intro worthy of a Depeche Mode track.

One of the best selling singles of all time was Whitney’s “I Will Always Love You” recorded for the movie The Bodyguard. The song was written and recorded by Dolly Parton nearly 20 years earlier. Since Whitney’s soaring chorus is burned into your memory, here’s Dolly’s original.

The Old Guard Still Bringin’ It

They say that Rock is dead, but don’t tell that to the bands that have been in the game for decades and are still delivering new music.

At it for thirty years, with three of four original band members on board, Smashing Pumpkins will release their eleventh studio album, Cyr, on Black Friday. The thick guitars of their earliest hits like “Cherub Rock” have been replaced by synths, but Billy Corgan’s voice is as distinctive as ever. Here’s the music video from the album’s title track.

Foo Fighters formed in 1995, after the release of the album Foo Fighters on which Dave Grohl played every instrument on every track, save guitar on one song. Grohl has been a standard bearer for guitar rock, from the first track of that first album “This is a Call”, to “Shame” performed for the first time on Saturday Night Live last night.

Though founding member Malcolm Young passed away in 2017, brother Angus, long-time lead singer Brian Johnson, and original drummer Phil Ruud, will release Power Up this week, with tracks that sound like they were made in their early days. Here is “Shot in The Dark”, the first song released form the new album.

Top of the heap of artists who still bring the rock and roll is “The Boss”, Bruce Springsteen. Letter to You was released on October 23rd and it made Bruce the first artist to have a top 5 album in 6 consecutive decades. The title track has gotten a lot of airplay in the past few weeks, but here is the second video released from the album, “Ghosts”, that is vintage E-Street Band. You know you want to see this live!

Sir Elton’s Jewel Box

On November 13th Elton John will release Jewel Box, a 148-song collection of curated selections and previously unreleased material. Jewel Box includes favorite album tracks of Elton’s that were not hits, dozens of demos and unreleased tracks, B-sides of singles that never made it to albums, and a set of songs mentioned in Me, John’s 2019 autobiography. You can find all the details at www.eltonjohn.com.

Two tracks from Jewel Box have been pre-released to whet our appetites. “Sing Me No Sad Songs” is a 1969 demo that never appeared on an album or single, but represents an early Elton John/Bernie Taupin collaboration.

“Regimental Sgt. Zippo” was recorded in 1968 and was to be the title track of Elton’s debut album, but that project was never released. I can’t seem to find who’s responsible for this newly created, but very retro, video.

Elton’s debut album was, rather, 1969’s Empty Sky. It was not released in the U.S., and I’d always thought of his 1970 eponymous album featuring “Your Song” and “On the Border” as his debut – but not so! Jewel Box contains a demo version of “Skyline Pidgeon” from Empty Sky. The song was rearranged years later and appeared on the B-side of the hit “Daniel”. Here is the original version, which was was chosen to play through the closing credits of the 2018 Academy Award winning film The Favourite.

Rolling Stone Magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time

Rolling Stone magazine’s October 2020 issue features an all new list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.  It’s a fresh take on the magazine’s first such list published in 2003.  I pulled out my mint condition copy of that 2003 “Special Collector’s Issue” and sat down to compare the two lists.  And what an interesting comparison it is!

First observation: only two albums released since 2003 made it into the 2020 Top 20, and neither made the Top 10.  The 20th Century musical canon remains strong (further tidbits – only 17% of the albums on the 2020 list are from this century, and nearly one-third of the list is from the 70’s).  Second observation: despite the lack of infiltration of new albums into the Top 20, the 2020 versions of the Top 10 and Top 20 are almost unrecognizable from the 2003 versions.   Only two of the 2003 Top 10 are in the 2020 version, and only eight of the 2003 Top 20 survived to make the 2020 list.  So, why the wholesale reshuffling of the view of 20th Century music?  It’s all about the voters.

The group of voters Rolling Stone assembled to create the 2003 list was dominated by music critics, recording industry execs, broadcasters and the like.  Only 70 or so artists were polled, few of them women and few artists of color.   The 2020 voters included a much more diverse and inclusive pool of over 170 artists, and while older artists and non-artists were still represented, the new list creates a much more balanced picture of the breadth of musical influences that have shaped popular music.

The #1 album of all time?  What’s Goin’ On by Marvin Gaye.  The album was #6 on the 2003 list, behind no fewer than three Beatles albums. Here’s the famous lead single and title track.

Vaulting to #3 from a #30 ranking on the 2003 list is Joni Mitchell’s Blue. I’m not surprised that this masterpiece, which Rolling Stone characterizes as “a still-unmatched standard for confessional poetry in pop music”, got the recognition it deserves once more women singer-songwriters got the franchise.

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill had only been out for five years when the 2003 list was published, and slotted in at #312. The 2020 list places it at #10. Hill broke all sorts of records at the time with this, her first, solo album: most first week album sales by a female artist ever, most Grammy nominations (10) and awards (5) for a female artist in one night ever. Here’s the #1 single.