- REUTERS/Mike Blake
- The dinosaurs of rock had a very big 2017.
- The Rolling Stones, Robert Plant, and Jeff Beck all rolled out new releases.
- Old school rock isn’t for everybody, but if it’s your thing, these albums are worth a listen.
If rock-n-roll or old-school blues rock and its derivatives are your thing, the pickings these days are slim.
Washy synthesizers and ornately produced rap dominate, which is fine. I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about St. Vincent’s “Masseduction,” and one of my kids is bringing a lot of contemporary hip-hop into the house, which has actually given me an excuse to revisit the Public Enemy catalog.
But of course I was raised on rock on the 1970s, and at the moment, the authors of that art form are aging toward their final rewards. Presumably. Keith Richards might live forever.
The year 2017 was actually a great one for the dinosaurs. Numerous classic rock Rexes released new albums, and they were all quite good.
Here’s a rundown of my favorites:
The Rolling Stones, “Blue & Lonesome”
This might be my favorite Rolling Stones album ever, and I’m a student of their vaunted run of records from the late 1960s through the mid-1970s that featured “Sticky Fingers,” “Exile on Main Street,” and “It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll.”
“Blue & Lonesome” consists entirely of blues covers, so in a sense it’s a true back-to-the-beginning effort from Mick, Keith, Ronnie, and Charlie. The Stones started out as a cover band, determined to preach the gospel of American blues, as Keith once put it.
The Stones’ core garage-band vibe matches up perfectly with heavy, rollicking blues numbers originally composed by Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, and Willie Dixon. Imagine the young, raw Stones of the early 1960s combined with decades of experience and modern production. The result is just great, but the revelation is Mick Jagger’s skill as a harmonica player.
You don’t really get a lot of high-profile harmonica albums these days, but the instrument is crucial to the authentic Chicago blues sound, and Mick is a master. As Richards said when recounting how the album – recorded in just a few days and released in December of 2016 (I’ve grandfathered it into my 2017 list) – came about, he and Ronnie Wood were working up a few blues cover to get the band back into a groove, and Mick’s “harp” playing inspired them to keep going.
The goal was basically to get Mick playing more harp, Richards said. Was it ever worth it! (And for good measure, Eric Clapton joins in for a few tracks.)
Jeff Beck, “Loud Hailer”
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Beck was one of the three former Yardbirds guitarists – the other two were Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page – to invent the British blues-rock sound of the 196os. But Beck didn’t stick with vibe, while Clapton refined the form and Page went on to start Led Zeppelin.
Beck moved in a progressive direction and has been relentlessly and restlessly reinventing himself ever since. It’s kept him young, and because he doesn’t sing, he’s open to new vocal talent. Which he found and then some on “Loud Hailer” in Rosie Bones of the eponymous UK group Bones.
Beck’s tone is rich, gruff, scratchy, supple, energized, and virtuosic, usually all at the same time. He has power to burn, and combined with Bones’ fierce, confrontational vocals, he unleashes the incandescence on proggy, punky gut-checks such as “Live in the Dark.”
This is a dark, futuristic album that sounds like the soundtrack to something bad. Beck is trying to get our attention. And at 73, he proves he can do it again and again.
This is the most in-your-face record I’ve listened to from anybody in years. When Beck isn’t blowing your mind with the effects he can extract from a Stratocaster, he’s captivating your imagination with beautiful phrasing and huge, chunky riffs.
“Scared for the Children” is the ballad, if you could call it that. More like a warning. Heed it.
Robert Plant, “Carry Fire”
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In his late sixties, Plant – with his group the Sensational Shape Shifters – has been exploring a kind of world-music-meets-The-Band semi-solo career.
Zep is ain’t, but the yowling, yelping, shrieky vocals that made Plant such an icon in the 1970s aren’t really suited to a musician of his stature, as he himself has said many times when asked about a Zep reunion.
Instead, on “Carry Fire,” we get a rumbling, meditative Plant, backed by a versatile, crackerjack lineup. Almost all the songs feature rolling, drone-like structures, evocative of Middle-Eastern music and folk. It’s hypnotic, and for fans of Plant’s post-Zep records with Jimmy Page, an extension of a slightly bluesy take on those traditions, heavy and serious.
What it is, in the end, is classic rock for the thinking person. Standouts are the title track and “Bluebirds Over the Mountain,” a simultaneously menacing and uplifting exercise in thrum and feedback that features a guest appearance by Chrissie Hynde.
You can put this one on an endless loop.
Lindsey Buckingham/Christine McVie, “Lindsey Buckingham/Christine McVie”
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There’s no Stevie Nicks, but the rest of Fleetwood Mac is on the album, and it sounds like … well, it sounds like a Fleetwood Mac album missing Nicks’ vocals.
The production is gorgeous and the songs recapture that rhythmic-melodic-harmonic bliss that made “Fleetwood Mac” and “Rumors” such ’70s blockbusters. The weird thing is that nobody on the record sounds even slightly old – despite everyone being in their late sixties and seventies.
Buckingham’s singing is trippy but unaffected, and McVie’s grip on her particular version of pop blues is as pleasing as ever. The kickoff “Sleeping Around Corner” is terrific, and “In My World” and “Love Is Here to Stay” are delicious. For McVie, “Too Far Gone” and the plaintive, aching “Game of Pretend” are showcases.
On balance, the album is a something of a time machine and it doesn’t sound terribly 2017 – more 1977 or 1987. But Fleetwood-Mac-minus-Stevie hasn’t really lost a step, and unlike some of the other musicians in my rundown, that pervasive sense of it all coming to an end is nowhere in sight. In fact, it feels like something new is beginning.
Yusuf/Cat Stevens, “The Laughing Apple”
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“Blackness of the Night,” the opening track, is a song of such breathtaking sadness that if it weren’t sug in Yusuf/Steven’s so-familiar lilt from his hitmaking heyday, it would be hard to listen to.
It joins Leonard Cohen’s bleak, farewell-shot to life from 2016 (when Cohen did leave us), “You Want It Darker,” as a theme for our times.
Of course, the now-69-year-old Yusuf first sang it on his 1967 album “New Masters,” but it suffered then from gooey production. He re-recorded it and some other old tunes for this remarkable album, the latest in his return to music since the mid-2000s, after his controversial conversion to Islam in 1970s and disappearance from performing and recording.
Another tune on the album that everybody talked about after it was released is “Grandsons,” a sort of update to the songwriter’s “Father and Son,” but with the character of a grandfather hanging in there for as long as possible to watch his grandson move into the world.
Like the Buckingham/McVie album on my list, “The Laughing Apple” comes off as a contemporary blast from the past. Interestingly, Yusuf’s voice isn’t as lushly presented as it was on his Cat classics, such as “Tea for the Tillerman” and “Teaser and the Firecat,” but that’s a plus. Its new textures go straight to the heart.
Alice Cooper, “Paranormal”
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When I heard “Dynamite Road” while driving around one day, I thought, “How did I miss this great Alice Cooper tune for all these years?”
Turns out, I hadn’t missed anything – the song was on 2017’s brand-new “Paranormal,” the 69-year-old’s latest. Cooper is at his best when he’s absolutely living up to his deranged image and conjoining it with flat-out thunderous rock-n-roll.
He gets an assist from U2’s Larry Mullen on drums and, for the riff-tastic “Fallen in Love,” ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, laying down glorious six-string raunch. But he also shows a soul side, complete with a horn section and considerable gospel flavor, on “Holy Water.”
The whole thing is thumpin’-good, eye-winkingly nasty fun.
Willie Nelson, “God’s Problem Child”
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The godfather of outlaw country is 84 and presiding over a revival of that valuable subgenre.
“God’s Problem Child,” Nelson’s 77th studio album, is a gorgeous piece of work and worth it for the stupendous “True Love,” which features Allison Krauss on backing vocals. (Detect a theme here? These old dudes are enthusiastic about collaborating with some of the best female singers in the business.)
The album is a suave, soulful mashup of styles, from hooky country rock to Spanish-inflected ballads like “A Woman’s Love” (one of the tunes not penned by Nelson or co-writer Buddy Cannon). The musicianship on display is crystalline and convicted, and Nelson seamlessly melds his elegiac, anguished side with his distinctive type of coot-ish humor, evident on “Still Not Dead.”
With that twangy warble, nobody sounds like Nelson, and this album puts his voice in a perfect context, with songs that are often about lasting into one’s eighth decade and keeping it as real as possible the whole time.