It's been a real good year for music. The last few years were average but I have come across some good stuff this year. I'll deal with CDs then books and then live shows.
1. Paul Simon - Surprise
Back in the late 80's Paul Simon turned out arguably his greatest work - "Graceland". It's still in my top personal top 10 most influential albums of all time. However Paul Simon has not turned out anything close to the work of Graceland until now. On "Surprise" we find an interesting collaboration between Paul Simon and Brian Eno (one of my favorite producers). While I'd never have thought of putting the author of "Me and Julio Down By The Schoolyard" with the father of Ambient music, the collaboration works well. The product reminds me of what Peter Gabriel was going for on Up or even what Kevin Prosch was trying to do on Palanquin yet with much better results. The resulting product is beautifully arranged music framing some of Simon's best lyrics.
2. Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris - "All The Roadrunning"
It's awesome when 2 artists you love collaborate. When I heard that Knopfler and Harris had a CD coming out I was excited and yet a bit worried especially after Mark Knopfler's last CD - Shangri La which was rather mediocre. It turns out my worries were unfounded. This duet works great. Their voices work so well together and the music is what you would expect from Knopfler.
3. Bruce Cockburn - "Speechless"
In the last 12 years Bruce Cockburn has become one of my favorite songwriters. Cockburn is one of those artists who not only writes incredible lyrics but is also a skilled and innovative musician. "Speechless" is a collection of instrumentals which he has written over his 35 year career. Though many of these songs have appeared on other albums the collection works remarkably well together for such a vast time frame. There are also a couple of new instrumentals as well. This is a great CD to leave on in the background whether meditating or reading.
4. Over The Rhine - "Drunkard's Prayer"
I'm a newcomer to Over The Rhine but currently they are my favorite band. This is a simple CD recorded in their home studio with sparse instrumentation including upright piano, acoustic guitar, bass and the occasional cello. Karin Bergquist sings delicately these songs of her and her husband re-discovering what they love about one another, life, God etc. Drunkard's Prayer is an album of simple beauty, which is not diminished in the listening.
5. Tom Petty - "Highway Companion"
Tom Petty is at the top of his game on this one. Again he finds himself working with Jeff Lynn with whose help he turned out so much of his best work in the early nineties (Won't Back Down, Learning to Fly, Free Fallin' etc.). In fact this CD sounds like it could have come out around the same time as some of his most well known stuff. It's everything we like about Tom Petty.
6. Medeski, Scofield, Martin, and Wood - "Out Louder"
Back in 1998 John Scofield got the funk organ trio of Medeski, Martin and Wood to collaborate with him on an album entitled "A Go Go". "A Go Go" is still one of my favorite CDs by both Scofield and MMW. So when I heard they were going to do another CD together I immediately went to Amazon.com to pre-order. The CD kicks off with "Little Walter Rides Again", an infectiously funky ditty that is the most accessible and coherent tune on the CD. Then they jump into the crazy fast funk of "Miles Behind" which features Medeski ripping up a distorted electric piano and Scofield furiously playing some real cool solos while Wood and Martin keep the thing rollin'. The whole album is definitely enjoyable, but in my opinion MMW work better backing Scofield up rather than Scofield joining them. Scofield has such a good sense of songwriting, which is not as apparent in most of these songs that were predominantly written by Medeski. MMW's love for extended jams and experimenting comes through strong as the album progresses, which is not bad but seems a little disjointed at times. All that said, I really dig anything by these guys and hope that they will continue to works together in the future.
7. Bill Frisell - "East West 1", "2", and "Further East Further West"
Like John Scofield, Bill Frisell is an innovator on the electric guitar. These 3 CDs are live recordings from his last major tour, which find him improvising with his simple trio of musicians that turn out some remarkably subtle and complex musical ideas. He does amazing covers of several songs. Two standouts are Bob Dylan's "Hard Rain's Gonna Fall Down" and "I Heard It Through The Grapevine". Frisell's playing is a mixture of jazz, country and ambient with a splash of experimental which is just too cool. As a musician myself I am in awe of what these guys pull of live.
8. Music at Mars - "Worship in Every Direction"
I became interested in Mar Hill church after reading their pastor Rob Bell's book Velvet Elvis. Since I'm a worship pastor I'm very interested in the way worship occurs within churches so I was glad to get a hold of this CD. The CD has the attention to art you would expect from Bell's church. The CD is actually 2 CDs in what looks like a small book with pictures from the live recording. I like the realness of this recording. The production is not slick and polished- just very natural. There's not a sense that they tried to be something their not on the recording or wow us with coolness. I particularly like the incorporation of readings into worship whether of scriptures or prayers. One thing I didn't much care for on this CD was the section of hymns such as "I'll Fly Away" and "When the role is Called Up Yonder" lead with banjo. It sounds a little scary when you hear thousands of white people singing songs like that with a banjo and violin. It almost reminded me of A Mighty Wind. But besides those few songs I really like the rest of the tunes. What I though was cool were the few songs they did with a drum line - very cool. In these days of mass-marketed worship it's good to hear something non-pretentious and worshipful happening within a church.