Mortality was a common theme among artists of the first golden age of rock and soul in 2011 -- which makes sense, given their advancing ages. But at the same time, those albums did more than ever to get the classic sounds of that era over to newer generations not even born when these singers and musicians first made their impact. Any of these ten discs are a good way to appreciate the oldies artists we still have with us, but also to introduce others to their impressive legacies. Take a listen!
The artist most folks recognize from 1972's soul classic "Clean Up Woman" scored a major artistic coup this year by teaming up with hip-hop/R&B band The Roots to craft a comeback that's either the most forward-thinking soul album in years or the most retro urban contemporary album. Labels don't matter, however, not with excellent slow jams such as "Surrender" and stinging dramatic funk crawls like "Hollywould." Those of you who know that the Roots are a real band playing real instruments will no doubt appreciate the cameos by Snoop Dogg and Lil' Wayne; those approaching from the other direction will be thankful for the presence of Joss Stone and Tower of Power's Lenny Williams. Either way, Wright's persona holds everything down -- and she's in line for some Grammy gold, too.
Fighting a losing battle with leukemia, the powerhouse behind "At Last" knew this would be her last album when she recorded it, and announced it as such. That alone would make it a must-own for Etta James fans, but the good news is that she's going out taking chances -- if an epic six-minute tour de force of Otis Redding's "Cigarettes and Coffee" doesn't convince you of that, her soul-blues re-imagining of Guns N' Roses' "Welcome To The Jungle" certainly will. Her fight has robbed her voice of a little of its power (which she actually puts to good use on the ironically uptempo "Too Tired"), but that still puts her well above much of what passes for R&B divadom today, and while there are no great lyrical pronouncements in her final words, her bearing at this late hour says all you need to know about the struggles of both life and death.
The Rhinestone Cowboy, too, was diagnosed with a grave terminal disorder recently, albeit a slower one; realizing he was in a fight with Alzheimer's, Campbell also decided to make an official "last album" (and tour) in order to say goodbye while he still could. The result is "Ghost On The Canvas," modeled after Johnny Cash's sunset "American Recordings" albums produced by Rick Rubin. Like those albums, this one does indeed stare mortality down lyrically, but in a unique way: former Jellyfish/Imperial Drag keyboardist Roger Manning wrote some songs on the subject, but others were written by Glen and his producer from notebooks full of memories, as a sort of aural biopic. Glen still sounds great, and everyone from Dick Dale, Brian Setzer, and Chris Isaak shows up to help him capture a scaled-down version of his full "Wichita Lineman" glory. A class end to a stellar career.
Booker T. sings! Well, only on one track, "Down In Memphis," from his followup to 2009's Grammy-Award winning "Potato Hole." But he has stopped going fully instrumental, despite that he gives his classic "Green Onions" organ touch to modern pop-n-B like Lauryn Hill's "Everything Is Everything" and Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy." The rest of the time he's supported by an even more eclectic cast of characters -- Lou Reed, Sharon Jones of Dap Kings fame, and Jim James from My Morning Jacket. The real reason this works, however, is the production and professional backing of... guess who? The Roots. Who are fast becoming the MGs of their own generation, if they keep working this hard.
Definitely the year's most lighthearted look at approaching death, Paul Simon's umpteenth "comeback" album was one that treated mortality as a great metaphysical joke. More importantly, it also made sure to play to one of Paul's more underappreciated strengths: his sense of wonder. His last album, 2006's "Surprise," was a wry look at the New Normal of the last decade, but you can tell Paul's feeling playful again here, because he's dragging out the doo-wop references. His canvas is more airbrushed than ever, though -- these days, it's nearly impossible to tell where the folk music ends and where the world music begins. It's be a triumph, if he'd still been looking for one.
Is the Mac ready to come back? Yet again? Though the rumors say yes, only 2012 will tell that tale. However, the singer/guitarist who turned the British blues band into soft-rock platinum in the late '70s certainly sounds reinvigorated on his last three solo albums, someone who's simultaneously come to terms with his own brand name while feeling free to risk it by branching out. "Seeds We Sow" is more of the same, but the studio shine and impeccable craftmanship of Fleetwood Mac albums are now here as well; all that's needed is a Stevie and Christine overdub. Even better, his quirkiness is once again matched perfectly to his professionalism and his love of the four-chord pop song, which hasn't happened since, well, since "Rumours." Same goes for the searing guitar solos.
Now the venerable old-school old country old fart he always longed to be, as much a vital root of Americana as heroes like Bob Wills and Bill Monroe once were to country music, The Band's drummer deserved this victory lap, held (very pointedly) at the Grand Ole Opry's original home, the Ryman Auditorium, and backed by a stellar cast of admirers from Sheryl Crow to John Hiatt. Call it the Last Last Waltz. But Levon never stopped loving this music, either, which -- along with the contiuing miracle of his recovery from throat cancer -- is why the setting alone was enough to juice him up into one of his best latter-day performances. Purist to the end, he only hauls out five Band classics: the rest range from the vintage R&B of Buster Brown to the country jubilee of the Carter Family and a nod to his peers in the Grateful Dead. And if you've only seen the PBS edit of this 2008 concert, you still haven't heard the whole thing.
Nothing is ever what it seems in Todd Rundgren's world, not even a simple risque pun like the title of this album. At first glance, it looks like Todd the Godd merely decided to prove he could play the Delta blues with this tribute to the legendary Robert Johnson, but being congenitally unable to let anything be, Rundgren decided to amp everything up and get in touch with his second-gen, Brit-blues inner child. (Remember, this Philly native first got on the map by imitating The Who with his first band, The Nazz.) In typical DIY fashion, he recorded it at home on his laptop and deliberately tackled the hoariest blues standbys he could think of -- "Love In Vain," "Dust My Broom," etc. The fact that it still sounds like Todd, and also like good blues, says a lot about his still-stunning talent.
Here's the best musical story of the year. Seems Hank Williams (the original honkytonk patriarch, not Bocephus or the punkabilly) left quite a bit of unsung material behind, reams of lyrics never set to music. It gets better -- someone had the genius idea to give them over to none other than Bob Dylan and see what he could do with them. Thing is, Bob didn't attempt to imitate Hank Sr. Instead, he assembled musicians he thought highly of and guided them through the process. This album is the result, and Bob's taste shines through, though he limits himself to one song, a straight waltz take of something called "The Love That Faded." Sheryl Crow, Jack White, Merle Haggard, and Rodney Crowell, among others, take slightly different tacks. But only slightly. Hank's influence is still that profound.
Wait a minute, you're thinking, Jeff's not really a veteran musician, just a veteran actor. True. Even portraying a country singer in the 2009 film "Crazy Heart" -- and in the process winning his first Best Actor Oscar -- doesn't qualify Jeff as a "real" musician. But it turns out The Dude has just as much personality as anyone else being fitted with obscure alt-country songs and pristine yet earthy production (from T-Bone Burnett, even). His voice doesn't have quite enough presence yet, but that presence itself is enough on covers like the existential "Blue Car" and originals such as the jazzy, spacy "Tumbling Vine." Also turns out Jeff the singer is as quietly mesmerizing in his simple wisdom as Jeff the actor, and the surrounding atmosphere is as bleak and authentic as "The Last Picture Show," but also as seductive as "The Fabulous Baker Boys" and as offkilter as... that other movie. As good an Americana album as any this year.