Monday, December 9, 2013

Rock Guitar Daily's Top 20 Albums for 2013 - Rock Ain't Near Dead!

2013 has been a helluva year - I've heard as much great new music in the last year as I heard in the last ten, and things seem to be lining up even better for 2014, but looking back over the last twelve months is pretty thrilling. Mind you, this list doesn't aspire to be a 'best of,' but rather it's simply my favorites of the last year. Especially impressive is the fact that ten of these records are debuts, and I'm expecting follow ups from all ten next season and more. You'll note that there's 21 albums here - the number one slot was a tie between two fantastic records, and I went over rather than to go one short. It was also a year in which your humble servant got married and had his first child. Yeah, 2013 has been a helluva year.

1 (tied) - Dan Baird and Homemade Sin - Circus Life:

Sonically, this album is wonderful - you never wonder what Baird is singing about, the harmonies well placed and Stonesy, the rhythm section of drummer Mauro Magellan and bassist Keith Christopher sounds like they've known each other forever (which they have), and then there's the guitars. The guitars are not only well played, they also sound like a masterclass in tone - Baird and Hodges are a great team. Listening to the pair's rhythm tracks reveals all - they're playing the same song, the same chords, but the differences in nuance and style are beautifully distinct. Almost always panned left and right, there's a great education in rock there alone. But then there's the songs....

I'm given to hyperbole, but I'm not given to being wrong (well, not about rock 'n' roll, anyway), and I am here to tell you that Dan Baird is as great a writer of that thing known as a rock 'n' roll song as anyone on the planet. There's not a much harder thing to do than to write a straight up rock 'n' roll song in the late year of our Lord in 2013, but Baird makes it sound simple as he avoids cliche while writing instant cliches every step of the way. There's gold in these words and chords.

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1 (tied) - Pinnick Gales Pridgen:

Talk about an auspicious entree into 2013 - Pinnick Gales Pridgen have thrown down the gauntlet hard - the high-water mark for the new year is set, and set high.

Make no bones about it, this is a supergroup, but there's nothing to fear, for these three musical titans seem to have checked their egos at the door, and simply gotten down to the business of making a great album. There's not a weak link to be found - the songs are thrilling, with incredibly fat grooves, sophisticated changes, some great poetry for lyrics, and an always solid melodic foundation; the playing is stupendous - you have three guys who are absolute state of the art in terms of chops, tones and taste; even the production is exemplary - there's massive amounts of information, but it's all delivered with a crisp clarity. PGP has it all in spades, and I won't be alone in hoping that this lineup takes it onto the road, and back into the studio.

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2 - Johnny Lang - Fight For My Soul:

There's little better than to be greeted on a Monday morning by a record that completely overturns the coffee cart and kicks you square in the ass.

Fight For My Soul by Jonny Lang is one of those records - don't make the mistake of thinking that Lang is just another wannabe blues rocker, no, he's long since moved on to serious and sophisticated rocking soul that evokes the best of Marvin Gaye, Prince, and yes, even the pop wizardry of Michael Jackson. Not just a record, this is an achievement.

I'll build my case, but let me start with his singing - every song here is drenched with Lang's excellent sense of soul, melody, and passion. There's no walking through the tunes, he's putting his soul on the line with every cut, and making the mark and often greatly transcending it. Then there's also tons of great guitar work, and a production that harkens back to the days of big budgets and dreams. This record is one expansive son of a gun - it covers a lot of ground, but Lang always sounds like Lang, he's definitely found his voice.

This is Lang's first studio outing in seven years, and it sounds like he spent the whole time working on his songwriting, singing, and record making chops - fighting for his soul? It sounds like the war is being waged and won. His singing on the title track covers a lot of ground, from a whisper to very healthy belting, and back. This picks up where R&B got lost in the late '80s, when skills gave way to drum machines and infantile loops. I also like that albums are getting back to reasonable lengths - 11 songs are a manageable dose.

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3 - King King - Standing In The Shadows:

King King's second long player picks up where their first left off, and Alan Nimmo goes bold by covering such legends as Frankie Miller (who's Jealousy is the album's first single), and Paul Rodgers, (by way of Free on Heavy Load, from the band's classic 1970 release, Fire and Water) - and he totally pulls it off in grand fashion. Standing In The Shadows covers a lot of bases, and its gorgeous mix of soul, blues, and classic rock makes this one of the best records I've heard this year. This is another one of those records that I consider to be not unlike a greatest hits album by an act I had somehow missed along the way.

There's not many records that I write about these days in which I can state that I like the vocals as well, if not better than the guitars. Alan Nimmo? Now, let me just say - the guy is a killer, killer guitar player. It's taken me two weeks to get this review written, because I can't help but at some point pick up a guitar and start playing myself, and that's one step higher than dancing for me. But, I digress - Nimmo takes on some legends here, and he does them proud. He has tone, phrasing, and just a damned good voice fin which to listen. He's powerful, and his vibrato is velvet and honey. A great singer.

Wayne Proctor brings not just some seriously swinging drum chops, but also his fine ears and skills as co-producer on this, and I thank him not just for the cool stickwork, but also for placing it perfectly in a superb mix. Any time a guy can separate a bass, Hammond organ, and kick drum this well, I consider him a friend, and myself a fan. This record sounds great - it is a joy to listen to sonically speaking, great performances aside.

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4 - Monster Truck - Furiosity:

Monster Truck is a four piece power rock powerhouse out of Hamilton, Ontario - after a few years of thrilling the Northern section of our beautiful continent with two EPs of pure  and fine hard rock, and a stream of great shows opening for such stalwarts as Slash and Deep Purple, the band is releasing their first full length LP, Furiosity, and playing a few select shows in the US this summer opening for the likes of Sevendust and Alice In Chains. Given that Furiosity is a blazing disc full of inspired and genuine hard rock fury, and the band's live shows are the stuff that rock dreams are made of, I'm hoping  we can stay on their good side. Their debut single off of FuriositySweet Mountain River is #2 on the singles charts in Canada this week - can America be far behind?

Furiosity is one of the finest hard rock records that you'll put into your machine of choice this year - it rocks like mad, but the band also brings to the table some deeply soulful selections, great singing and playing on every cut, and they care so much about their product that they went to the considerable cost and effort to scrap an entire session (yes, the whole album) when it didn't live up to what they felt their audience deserved. In a day when most groups don't even know what a recording budget is, it takes huge balls and tremendous determination to look your record label in the eye (if you're lucky enough to have one, especially a great one like Dine Alone) and say, 'We've gotta do it over."

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5 - Reuben Archer's Personal Sin:

Reuben Archer has made the best record of his life, and it takes me straight back to the time in which melodic hard rock ruled the radio. His vocal cords are in fantastic shape, and the best thing I can say is that he sings the way he sings - no need for auto-tune, no stepping back from the tough notes, he takes them to the mat head on. His writing is brilliant - part hard rocker, part skillful soul man. This is like how Frankie Miller should've to turn out.

Rob Wolverson is just 23 years old, but he sounds like he was raised on a diet of organic guitar rock since he left the womb, and has done little since. His lead work is a gas, and it's going to get the attention, but he's a natural riff writer and rhythmatist. He jumps from fierce power chording to smooth, linear single note fills to staccato stabs with an ease that suggests this is not his first stampede.

Archer and Wolverson are a grand match indeed, reminding me of the mating of Mogg and Schenker in the hey day of UFO. The singer gives the guitarist all the room in the world for his expansive, expressive soloing, and Wolverson plays like he actually knows the words - a near dying art for guitarists.

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6 - The Winery Dogs:

The Winery Dogs is a hit - in spite of the name, there's not a dog on the record, and what in an earlier era could have been an ego fueled nightmare is instead an album full of cool tunes and fantastic musicianship that reveals a definite connection between the birth of the power trio and today.

The Winery Dogs are, of course, Richie Kotzen (guitars/vocals), Billy Sheehan (bass, vocals), and Mike Portnoy (drums, vocals). Between them, I'd guess they've laid tracks on a few thousand tracks, and it goes without saying that their formidable reputations precede them. When I heard they were picking up the pieces of a failed project that had included long missing-in-action guitar star John Sykes, my first concern was that the finished product may have ended up sounding piecemeal, or half baked. I'm very pleased to say that my fears were unfounded, and Kotzen's arrival truly saved the day for this, the latest in a series of successful 'supergroups' that seem to be making the sound of classic hard rock again something new and exciting.

The first comparison I draw is to the ill-fated, but brilliant supergroup, Beck, Bogert, and Appice. You've got three guys who are world class instrumentalists, have been around more than a few blocks throwing their hats into the ring, and instead of this being any sort of shredfest, you have an album full of songs that happen to feature some (well, a lot) of incredible playing. A more recent comparison may be to the a supergroup success for earlier this year, Pinnick Gales Pridgen, who also elected to go for the emphasis on song and group vibe, as opposed to the 'Hey, look at me' approach. It's a shame that the brightest lights in big guitar rock are not young bands but rather aging veterans, but it is what it is - The Winery Dogs are picking it up and putting it down in grand style.

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7 - The Temperance Movement:

The Temperance Movement is fronted by Phil Campbell, and he has it all - he sings like a lost remnant from Carnaby Street circa 1968, he writes like he's lived a life that hasn't always went his way, but made for great stories, looks like a movie star, and has surrounded himself with a wickedly divine band of rock 'n' rollers. The band has just released their debut album, and it's an automatic for the inevitable year end top tens - a killer record.

The band is straight up, straight ahead, and what you see is what you'll love. Exuberant guitars gush out of the speakers as their frontman tells his tales, and the rhythm section pushes and pulls just right - no click tracks in sight, no this bunch sounds like they set up, laid it down and headed back to the pub for another set. Tasty riffing is the order of the day, and the production is as crisp and clean as a summer morning. Great guitar tones are to be found from stem to stern, and I'm not really looking for one, but they have not a chink in their mighty armor.

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8 - Black Star Riders - All Hell Breaks Loose:

Black Star Riders have pulled it off. They've made an excellent record, created an identity for themselves, been true to Phil's legacy, and managed to not piss me off. I didn't think they'd piss me off, nor do I imagine that they'd worry much if they did - but here's what I said about this record's prospects back in 2011:
"What about a new Thin Lizzy record? 
"Now this is a whole other can of worms, and it's where I have some serious concerns. This is a tough call. I do believe that the band has every right to record new music, and to release it under the Thin Lizzy name. However, to release new music under that name is a huge responsibility, and has not been done since Phil died. That being said, it would be very ballsy, as no one currently in the band has released any original music that is even close to the standard set by Lynott. It would come with a tremendous amount of pressure, and a dim view from a great many music fans. Personally, I would love to see them try it. Send Warwick back to Scotland for a couple of months, with nothing but pen, paper, and a busman's wages. Take some of the dough that's been made on these recent tours, and hire a ball busting producer who loves the legacy. Then make the best Thin Lizzy album that can be made. If at the end, it isn't up to snuff? Bury it. Deep."
Turns out they did me one better - they made a great record and managed to do it in the best way, with a new name, and a new beginning.

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9 - The Graveltones - don't wait down:

"Forget Batman and Robin. The Graveltones are The Dynamic Duo for the 21st century. Jimmy and Mikey deliver the most exciting, musical, and texturally compelling sounds of any duo I've had the pleasure of listening to (and jamming with) in a very long time!" ~ Elliott Randall
My problem with most duos is the fact they're often not great players, singers, or performers. In fact, that's been my gripe with shitloads of rock for way too long, but the tide is turning, and The Graveltones have shown me the light - these guys have mad skills, they write catchy rock, play their asses off, and what do you know, the guy can even sing.

That guy is Jimmy O, who handle the guitars and vocals, and he's driven to his madness by the thunderous, but precise bashing of drummer Mikey Sorbello. They're creating a hell of an effective stew - I'm hearing some Zep, a boatload of T. Rex, and even some early G&R, and that's just in the first tune, Bang Bang. O is a wicked six-stringer, he manages to carry the show with fat, aggressive riffs and inventive pointed soloing. He also has great pipes - he swoons and sweeps in and out of song sections, and always returns to a solid, gritty baritone that jumps out of the mix.

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10 - Michael Schenker's Temple Of Rock - Bridge The Gap:

Bridge The Gap will do just what it says - it's the record that will find Michael Schenker returning to the major leagues in the very near future. It's filled with great riffs, compelling melodies, the best set of songs on a Schenker project in ages, and it finally sounds like Mr. Schenker is back in a band.

Michael Schenker is at the top of his game - riding higher in the saddle than he has in decades, rifling off riffs that make you ask, "How does he do that?," soloing with smoldering intensity and his trademark melodicism, and writing tunes you want to hear again and again. Whist the mad axeman's guitar playing is why we attend, this record finds him partnered with veteran shouter Doogie White - the singing Scotsman has written the best melodies and lyrics to be heard on a Schenker project in a great many years, and there is something magical that happens when Michael is matched up with his Scorpions brothers, Herman Rarebell and Francis Buccholz.

The last five years have seen Michael steadily climbing, and gaining confidence along the way - once hindered by the anxieties of stage fright, and all-to-many incidents of infamy, it would appear that the guitar master has settled into a place in which he finds peace, and full command of his considerable creativity. I don't know of a hard rock guitarist who doesn't hold the man in high esteem, and now they'll be back to chasing his lead.

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11 - Steve Hunter - The Manhattan Blues Project:

Oh, that should every Kickstarter dream end this sweetly. Veteran guitarist Steve Hunter came off the road with his old shock-rock boss, Alice Cooper, and he humbly and charmingly asked his fans for help in the recording of his next album. Five grand seemed like a deal, so I signed on and tried to do what I could to raise the project's awareness - I say this not for self aggrandizement, but rather because that is how this kind of stuff has to happen for the record business to ever make sense again. Right premise in action.

The request for the five grand? As I both thought and hoped, the project did well, eventually raising almost $14,000 - what goes around comes around, and Hunter hasn't just recorded an album, he's made one of the coolest fusion guitar records since Jeff Beck's Blow By Blow blew my mind as a young neophyte of the guitar. I say fusion not to invoke the Di Meolian jazz of the past, but to convey that there are plethora styles and sounds to be found - a true fusion.

I have to start with how the damned thing sounds - every time I have put the record on, I have almost involuntarily shut the blinds and turn down the lights. Sonically? This is bliss. The attention to detail found on every track is almost startling in this day of super-quick production (which have both their ups and downs). Hunter's limited vision may slow him down some at the mixing board, but this might be the best sounding record I've heard yet this year, so I thank him for the obviously loving care spent here.

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12 - Jake Bugg - Shangri La:

Shangri La is the young Brit's second effort, and it's going to be the one. Producer Rick Rubin picked the right few players, and got it down - not losing the kid's great writing, but framing it with great sonics. Matt Sweeney, Chad Smith, Pete Thomas, Jason Lader, these are all hallmark names, and they deliver the goods as sidemen - sure, this sounds a little ProTools-ish and sometimes a bit derivative, but in a day and age when this is just how projects are done, this is a wall-to-wall winner.

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13 - Michael Des Barres Band - Hot 'N' Sticky Live:

Rock Ain't Near Dead, and if you need any convincing on this point, look - no, listen no further than Michael Des Barres fiery new live set, Hot N Sticky Live. Coming on the heels of last years fabulous long player, Carnaby Street, this disc will cure what ails you with ample doses of rhythm, the blues, and a heaping helping of a sensational love of rock 'n' roll.

Des Barres has returned to the stage after an absence of way too long, but it's better late than never, and if you miss a true London bred hero fronting a tight but loose group of swaggering pirates, look no further. This makes good on the promise set to lie by such acts as Rod Stewart & The Faces, who left to soon only to not return - well, I'm here to say that this is as good as I could have dreamt for rock's growing up into the new millennium. This set moves, grooves, and shakes you down with a top flight band of LA aces, and a frontman who melts all before him.

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14 - SIMO:

J. D. Simo has figured it out. A perfectly wonderful guitarist/singer/songwriter, Simo did the smart thing, and managed to hook up with a rhythm section which is his equal, and they make what I call 'a glorious noise.'

SIMO is their debut album, and it's a very auspicious birth. It's going to get called things like retro, '60s,  this that and the other, and deservedly so, but it's really just great rock, played by a cool bunch. Together a little more than a year, they've been unleashing their hard rock fury over audiences, and garnering a great deal of attention along the way.

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15 - Niacin - Krush:

Niacin, the organ based power trio made up of Billy Sheehan, Dennis Chambers, and John Novello, has returned with their eighth album, Krush, on Prosthetic Records, and it may be their best yet. It sounds like they've been downright hungry to get to this one, and their return is a very welcome one.

They've been gone for the better part of a decade, and while they have been on hiatus, it is obvious that they've not stopped working for a moment - chops are razor sharp, and on this outing it sounds like they've not only brought their virtuosity as players, but they've also been in the woodshed working on their composition skills. These tunes come off as songs, memorable and fresh.

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16 - Joanne Shaw Taylor - Songs From The Road:

Joanne Taylor Shaw rips it up from one end to the other on Songs From The Road, her new CD/DVD offering, and it's tough to tell which she does better - sing, play, or write excellent blues rockers.

Recorded a few months back at The Borderline in London, England, this set reveals Shaw Taylor to possess more true grit than a bucketful of your run of the mill boy bluesers - her voice belies her soft look, suggesting a much rougher road than pictures would suggest, and her guitar tone is on the verge of psychotic reaction breakup. That she chooses a Les Paul and a Marshall as her main weapons speaks volumes - she is connected to the past, but not at all committed to sticking with the script.

I love her guitar solos for the simple reason that she sounds as if she's playing what she feels more than relying on the usual SRV apings - she's got a lot of rock 'n' roll under her fingers, and as anyone who knows me knows, I like my blues rock with a good dose more rock than blues. Her playing is incendiary - from the dirty riffing to an extended solo that touches much familiar territory for an experienced listener, but she's hitting it all with her own take. You won't here me saying anything about her being a hot female guitarist - she is simply a hot guitarist who happens to be female.

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17 - Neal Morse - Live Momentum:

Live Momentum is a stunning achievement by any measure - when looked at from any angle it more than excels, it exemplifies. Neal Morse, The Professor of Prog, has unleashed a superlative set (2 DVDs and 3 audio CDs) that captures not just a three hour tour de force performance from October 11, 2012 at the High Line Ballroom in New York City, but also includes an excellent handheld, homemade documentary from behind the scenes of the entire tour that provides over an hour more of quality entertainment. The level of performance throughout is astounding.

The Live Momentum Tour is somewhat unique, in that Morse hired half of his spectacular six piece band via YouTube auditions. Morse, longtime bassist Randy George, and super-drummer Mike Portnoy are joined by guitarist/vocalist Adson Sodre, Eric Gillette on guitars/keyboards/percussion and vocals, and multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Bill Hubauer rounds out the troupe. Whatever Neal dreamt of when he envisioned this process surely must have been tremendously exceeded by these prodigious talents. This is an encyclopedia of progressive rock - equally melodic, virtuosic, and absurdly precise - when the band goes into an a cappella 5 part harmony on Author Of Confusion, all I could do was laugh outloud at the breathtaking beauty. And there's almost three hours of this beauty on tap.

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18 - Humble Pie - Performance Rockin' The Fillmore - The Complete Recordings:

I'll admit to having been intrigued and excited last winter when I first heard that Peter Frampton and Jerry Shirley were going back into the vaults to revisit their classic 1971 live epic, Humble Pie - Performance - Rockin' The Fillmore. What I didn't expect was to be saying a year later that this might be the best sounding live document of a rock show that I've ever heard. But it's just that - the two surviving members of one of rock's greatest road shows have put together amazing evidence with which to proclaim Humble Pie as one of the best live outfits to ever tread the boards.

Recorded on two nights with two shows per evening on May 28 and 29, 1971 at the world renowned Fillmore East, Performance - Rockin' The Fillmore captures all four shows from beginning to end unabridged, which is all the more, given frontman Steve Marriott's rants and charming ravings between tunes. I've always considered the original album to be one of the seventies best live long players, but when I hear the unbridled aggression of the Marshall amps and the howling Les Pauls, the crisp clarity of the vocals, and the incredible rhythm section of Jerry Shirley and bassist/vocalist Greg Ridley, I am astounded to discover what I thought very good turns out to be very great - very, very great.

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19 - Daft Punk - Random Access Memories:

Daft Punk reminds us that we can make musical dreams come true, that's why. Random Access Memories is a concept come to life in a way that's been missing from music for too long. Is it the best album of 2013? Well, that's a very subjective thing, and how do you measure that anyway?

It is a great record - it is well written, incredibly well played by some of the best ever, and it's so pleasing to the ears that it will make kids want big speakers again. Could it be that the robots finding a heart may be more key than we're aware? Daft Punk haven't taken down the wall, they've done better - they've become vulnerable, while reminding us of our own humanity at the same time.

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20 - Scorpion Child:

Scorpion Child are having a helluva year - in addition to releasing their first album, the Austin, Texas based riff rockers are getting set to headline a month of tour dates with Mothership, Gypsyhawk, Wilson, and Nuclear Blast label mates Kadavar - just days after completing the Rockstar Mayhem Tour, not to mention a slate of earlier dates with the legendary Clutch. A helluva year.

Everything I read about Scorpion Child focuses on trying to compare the band to this or that seventies sensation, when in fact, what should be talked about is how tight and together this hard rock troop is, and the skill set on display across their debut.

Clearly the instant star is singer Aryn Jonathan Black - and that's not a completely unfair declaration, as the guy has tremendous chops and a very distinctive voice, and he sings like every note may be his last. The rest of the band is razor sharp and on point. This is great album rock with real arrangements that keeps you involved and entertained. They've honed this material to the point where it stands proudly next to any of their distant forefathers first albums. I'm thrilled to hear a debut that rocks with this much confidence. I've been running around a lot lately and spouting out the mantra that 'Rock Ain't Near Dead,' and this is solid evidence. As good a debut as this is, though, it's their next that I can't wait to hear - just a hunch.

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