Two decades ago, new albums from various Beatles, U2, The Rolling Stones and others were spinning away in my portable CD player. Here’s what I had to say about them back then (with some minor editing):
John Lennon | Anthology
Paul McCartney | Unplugged
Linda McCartney | Wide Prairie
Ringo Starr | VH1 Storytellers
Pete Best | Best
George Martin | In My Life
So this is Christmas, and what have they done? Released Beatles boxes and discs by the ton. OK, that’s not quite how John Lennon put it. But he might have been tempted to rewrite Happy Xmas (War is Over) if he saw the wave of Beatles CDs on the market these days. Decades after they self-destructed (and in a year when plenty of new big-name albums tanked), we’re being inundated with sure-to-sell Fab Four-related releases — some good, some bad and some downright ugly. And one that’s flawless.
That would be John Lennon: Anthology, a four-CD box of 94 unreleased tracks spanning Lennon’s post-Beatles career: His hippie Bed-In beginnings, his activist phase, his dissolute ‘Lost Weekend’ in L.A. and his domestic Dakota days. Meticulously compiled by Yoko Ono, this is a priceless string of musical pearls — home demos, alternate takes, live cuts, you name it. You get Lennon the composer, reworking Mind Games; Lennon the prankster, impersonating Bob Dylan; Lennon the wiseass, bickering with Phil Spector; Lennon the dad, playing with son Sean. Above all, you get Lennon the genius, channeling his life into his art. Listening to this intimate chronicle feels like you’re leafing through Picasso‘s sketchpad or Shakespeare‘s notebooks. If you have a Beatles fan at home (and who doesn’t?), your Christmas shopping is done.
Of course, if you don’t have the $100 or so to drop on Anthology, there are other choices. Like the rerelease of Paul McCartney’s Unplugged, capturing a splendid gig from 1991. Why this went out of print in the first place is beyond me. The set list is top-shelf — Beatles tunes, classic rockers, even the first song McCartney wrote — and Paul is playful, chatting between songs and charmingly flubbing the word to We Can Work it Out. This is musical comfort food.
And it makes Ringo Starr‘s VH1 Storytellers seem like empty calories. Backed by another ragtag band, the laid-back Ringo rambles through a few classics like Back Off Boogaloo and It Don’t Come Easy, interrupted by new songs no one wants to hear. Between, he fulfils the title requirements by mumbling a few old chestnuts everyone has already heard.
Maybe the lads should have stuck with Pete Best after all. At least his Best disc rocks. This 16-track collection of British Invasion fare — recorded with Best’s post-Beatles combos — sounds like a lost Fab Four disc. Producer George Martin, however, just sounds lost on In My Life, a Golden Throats collection of musicians and actors — including Goldie Hawn, Sean Connery and (heaven help us) Jim Carrey — defiling classic Beatles cuts. What, was William Shatner busy? Last and unfortunately least comes Wide Prairie, Paul’s celebration of late wife Linda. Romantic notion; awful album — unless songs about slaughterhouses turn your crank.
Rolling Stones | No Security
On their seventh live album, what could the Stones have to offer? Well, this time, they’ve got some cool obscure selections such as Memory Motel and Sister Morphine, guest spots by Dave Matthews, Taj Mahal and Joshua Redman, and only four songs from Bridges to Babylon. The bad news? Some performances are awful — they butcher The Last Time — and four new songs is still three too many. This is no Get Yer Ya-Yas Out, though thankfully, it’s no Flashpoint either.
U2 | The Best of 1980-1990 & B-Sides
Oasis | The Masterplan
Career in a slump? Last album a stiff? Time for the tried-and-true tactic — the Best of/B-sides collection. Just add a new song or two and presto! Instant cash. Seems simple — yet U2 still fail to make the grade with their two-disc offering. On the first CD, in addition to all the must-have hits — Pride, Desire, I Will Follow, etc. — you get one new track. And it’s not really new; it was a leftover from Joshua Tree that the band reworked this year. The limited-edition second disc of B-sides is just more warmed-over filler — half-finished songs, ideas that didn’t pan out, throwaway covers and the like. It’s about as appetizing as leftovers usually are. Oasis, by contrast, offer up some B-sides that are Grade A. No half-baked experiments here: These are fully realized, arranged and reasonably produced tracks. And good ones at that, full of Sex Pistols snot, Faces pub rock and the band’s own arrogant Britpop grandeur. This almost qualifies as a new Oasis disc.
Vanilla Ice | Hard to Swallow
Hard to swallow, indeed. First he was a popster. Then a gangsta rapper. Now Rob (Vanilla Ice) Van Winkle is a skate-metal skankster. But this time he really, really means it, he says. And to be honest, he almost pulls it off. The music here is no worse (and no better) that the last Korn and Rob Zombie albums, all crunchy rubber guitars and pseudo-industrial slam. But if he really wants to live down the past, he should stop chanting Ice, Ice Baby at every opportunity.
Mötley Crüe | Greatest Hits
Let’s play this by-the-numbers set by the numbers, shall we? Length: 73 minutes. Old Tunes: 15. New Tracks: 2.5 — two mid-tempo throwaways and last year’s retreaded Shout At the Devil. Best Old Track: Wild Side. Missing Old Track: Hooligan’s Holiday, from that CD with the other singer. Token Power Ballad: Home Sweet Home. Spinal Tap Moment: Tommy Lee thanking the “deputies at L.A. County Jail who were cool to me” and praying “God please bring my family back together” in the same breath.
Frank Zappa | Mystery Disc / Cucamonga
Along with being a prolific workaholic, iconoclastic rocker Frank Zappa was also a musical packrat. So it’s no surprise that years after his passing, Zappaphiles are still seeing discs of rare material on a regular basis. These two latest releases chronicle Zappa’s early weirdness, both before and during his Mothers of Invention days. If it’s full-band freakouts you’re after, go for the Mystery Disc. It’s 80 minutes of hand-picked Mothers outtakes — from demented doo-wop to Captain Beefheart cameos — all on CD for the first time. Or go further back with Cucamonga, a gaggle of loopy tracks FZ wrote, performed and produced for other folks while he owned his own studio in the early ’60s (on the downside, most of these cuts have already surfaced on various releases). Or do what any real Zappa fan would do: Get ’em both.
The Slackers | The Question
Slackers? Actually, this New York octet is anything but. The Question is their third album in as many years, and it’s more than an hour long. Where the band does live up to its name, however, is in its style — a loose-limbed, relaxed variation of old-school Jamaican blue beat. And along with the sweet harmonies and rock-steady riddim, they’re flexible enough to add everything from dub versions to calypso played on sitar. There’s no question these guys are stretching the ska envelope.
The Scofflaws | Record of Convictions
Like their name suggests, The Scofflaws tend to play fast and loose with the rules. The veteran New York septet specialize in peppy, upbeat, addictively jovial frat-boy skank. But along with the requisite tunes about beer, bud and the boob tube, they show off their slightly deeper roots. As far as we know, The Scofflaws are the only ska band so far to cover Frank Zappa‘s Any Way the Wind Blows and Ennio Morricone‘s The Good, The Bad and The Ugly on the same disc.
Zoobombs | Welcome Back, Zoobombs!
Hang up your distortion pedals and retire your Elvis shtik, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion; there are some new Delta blues-punk kings in town. And get this: They’re from Japan! The highly inflammable garage-rock foursome Zoobombs rocks out like they’ve been living in R.L. Burnside‘s juke joint for years. They can shake and shimmy like Bo Diddley. They can boogie, chillun, just like John Lee Hooker. They can play guitar just like ringing a bell better than Chuck Berry. Who cares if you can’t make out the words? Zoobombs speak the international lingo of rock, baby.
Fantastic Plastic Machine | Fantastic Plastic Machine
“This is recycled material,” a sampled female voice announces at the start of this debut disc by Fantastic Plastic Machine, masterminded by Tokyo DJ Tomoyuki Tanaka. That voice isn’t lying — Tanaka has tossed everything from ’60s beat records and kitschy Muzak to old bossa nova into the mix. But he ends up with more than the sum of his parts. These retro-hip ditties share a space-age bachelor pad with Cornelius, Austin Powers, Pizzicato Five and Stereolab.
Throwing Muses | In A Doghouse
“I swear to God, we thought we were a party band,” Kristin Hersh writes of her idiosyncratic ex-combo Throwing Muses. Obviously, she wasn’t paying attention. Then again, most people weren’t. Thankfully, Ryko has picked up the ball with this two-CD set of early releases by the band — which also featured Hersh’s stepsister Tanya Donnelly — along with demos and bonus tracks. Part Patti Smith, part Siouxsie Sioux, Hersh’s edgy alt-rock wail (“Listening now, I wonder if I was all there,” she admits) says it once and for all: This ain’t no party band.