I’m not one of those people who is good at year-end lists. I tend to have other things to do, come the year end — and I also feel overwhelmed by so much mediocre music that I often forget the great stuff.
This year, I decided to break it up a bit and reflect on the great stuff so far. I know I forgot something. I’ll have to make up for it in six months …
No. 10 — TOTO – 35TH ANNIVERSARY TOUR: LIVE IN POLAND (POP/ROCK): How can a band who gives us no new music and some songs which are 35 years old almost make a best of the year so far list? The band is stellar. Nathan East teamed with drummer Simon Phillips (a 23-year member of the band) make a fantastic rhythm section — but more on them later. Joseph William is at the top of his game vocally, and keyboardists David Paich and Steve Porcaro are predictably brilliant. Steve Lukather is the musical glue holding it all together, and playing world-class guitar. Listen to the song “Stop Loving You.” That will put a smile on your face.
No. 9 — AMY LaVERE – RUNAWAY DIARY (POP): Don’t let Amy LaVere’s beauty fool you. A wonderful duet album with John Paul Keith as Motel Mirrors, and numerous other appearances, have already shown the powers and elegance of her voice — not to mention the virtuosity of her acoustic bass playing. The Luther Dickinson-produced Runaway Diary album also shows her strength as a composer.
No. 8 — KIKI EBSEN – THE SCARECROW SESSIONS (JAZZ): More than a jazzy father’s day tribute to her father Buddy Ebsen, The Scarecrow Sessions give Kiki Ebsen a chance to showcase her excellent arranging chops. Who would have guessed that the song “If I Only Had A Brain” could sound so substantial? Part of the album’s success also lies in Ebsen’s classically trained and soulful voice, and her excellent keyboard skills. A compact but powerful core group of players (including John Patitucci, Chuck Loeb and David Mann) fill out the sound nicely.
No. 7 — OZ NOY – TWISTED BLUES VOL. 2 (JAZZ): This Israeli-born and New York City-based guitarist returns with another electric blend of tasteful electric blues and fiery jazz. Musicians are often known by the company they keep, so it’s telling that Noy’s Twisted Blues Vol. 2 features such luminaries as drummers Keith Carlock and Anton Fig, bassists Roscoe Beck and Will Lee, and guitar buddies Eric Johnson and Warren Haynes, among others. That said, the guest never outshine Noy’s talented writing and dynamic playing. You’ll be amazed, from the first track (“You Dig”) to the last (“Freedom Jazz Dance”). Oh, go out and get Twisted Blues Vol. 1 too!
No. 6 — ANI CORDERO – RECORDAR (ROCK): The leader of the rock en espanol band Cordero delivers a heartfelt and powerful collection of solo songs of love and protest. Recordar harkens back to the days of Mexican protest songs, but encorporates many elements of traditional music from all over Central America and Puerto Rico . Granted the songs are classics from the 1930 to the 1970’s, but Ani Cordero arrangements and vocal approach adds a new found fire and urgency to them all. This album should not be missed.
No. 5 — JUDITH OWEN – EBB AND FLOW (JAZZ/POP): Don’t let the sweet and expressive vocals fool you: Owen, wife of singer-songwriter Harry Shearer, knows how to craft a song. Her original compositions are outstanding. Anguish, betrayal and loss haven’t sounded this good since Linda Thompson’s 2013 release Won’t Be Long Now. But, unlike Thompson, Owen has a distinct California 1970s Laurel Canyon-vibe to her music, with hints of jazz. “I Would Give Anything” and “Under Your Door” are so stellar they almost overshadow classics like “In The Summertime” and “Hey Mister, That’s Me Up On the Jukebox.” Ebb and Flow is a treat from start to finish.
No. 4 — CHRIS GREENE QUARTET – MUSIC APPRECIATION (JAZZ): This Chicago-based quartet mixes elements of blues, and rock in with traditional jazz — and the result is anything but smooth. Music Appreciation was recorded in a two-day span, yet shows a sophistication of a band who loves playing together. Credit four musicians who are masters of their instruments. Greene’s tenor saxophone hints of Wayne Shorter and Warren Marsh, but has a tone all its on. Drummer Steve Corley and bassist Marc Paine are perfect foils for each other — supportive yet expressive. Damian Espinosa is a master of his domain on the Fender Rhodes and acoustic piano. Listen to the track “Papuera” and you are hooked. But don’t stop there.
No. 3. — NATHAN EAST – NATHAN EAST (JAZZ/POP): Bass player to Eric Clapton, Phil Collins and Toto as well as to his own group Fourplay, East steps out on his own with an eclectic and exciting mix of jazz funk and soul. It’s obvious East has chops, but the album proves beyond a doubt he has tasteful soul. As band leader on this project, he expertly integrates the styles and chops of people like the late Ricky Lawson on drums; Jeff Babko, David Paich and Greg Philliganes on keyboards; and Ray Parker Jr. on guitar through interpretations of classics such as the Steve Winwood/Blind Faith classic, “Can’t Find My Way Home” and the reimagined version of Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke.” East even collaborates with guitarist Michael Thompson on the song “Daft Funk,” a nod to his contributions to the Grammy-winning Daft Punk album in 2013.
No. 2 — KERE BUCHANAN – GOODBYE YESTERDAY (POP): This New Zealander is a master producer whose chops behind the boards are only eclipsed by his talent at arranging music and playing most instruments. This album harkens back to the salad days of California AOR, with great harmonies, intricate chord changes, savvy keyboard parts and outstanding lead vocals. Highlights like “Could This Be Love” and the Bill Champlin-sung “Never Gonna Give You Up” begin with an old-school foundation yet bring a modern sensibility and spirit. This is a fantastic album.
No. 1 — SIMON PHILLIPS – PROTOCOL II (JAZZ): The original Protocol album arrived from this jazz-rock great and Toto alum back in 1989. In 2013, after his final tour with Toto, Phillips assembled a phenomenal band with Steve Weingart on keyboards, Andy Timmons on guitar and Ernest Tibbs on bass. They recorded live, producing an astonishing collection of original jazz-fusion songs almost 25 years after Phillips’ first solo album. He excels as a band leader, producer, engineer and composer. In fact, one can almost forget that Phillips is one of the best drummers in the world. That is, until you hear the lead off track “Wildfire” or his deep groove on “Soothsayer.” Truly a band effort, Timmons, Weingart and Tibbs all shine in the ensemble. This is a must have for drummers, and jazz-fusion connoisseurs alike.