Christmas in August


While the Christmas season may be a few months away, I thought I’d take this opportunity to bestow an early gift on Opera readers. What follows is a list of seven artists or albums that have been essential to my listening experience over the past several decades, yet have been, perhaps, unduly neglected or overlooked in the current haze of mass consumerism and media-driven, ADD marketing schemes.

These artists have little in common other than a fiercely individual, down right stubborn refusal to accommodate any vision other than their own, and the talent and drive to turn that commitment into stunning works of art. In no particular order, I give you:

1-Chris Whitley:
Over the course of twelve albums this Houston, TX native explored everything from southern gothic balladry to full blown electro-rock mayhem, every bit of it filtered through a uniquely personal strain of hard-core blues. Whitley, who passed away in 2005, left behind a musical legacy to rival any of the last several decades. Anything the man touched is worth lending your ears to.

2- Drive- By Truckers-Decoration Day:
Although the albums that bookend this release, “Southern Rock Opera” and “The Dirty South” are more widely discussed and praised, this is the album that introduced Jason Isbell, one of the finest young singer/songwriters in the country. His self-penned title track is one of those rare examples of a perfect song: Isbell’s parched, soulful vocals spitting out a tale of two family’s hate filled blood-feud and one mans determination to move beyond revenge.

3-Marvin Gaye-Here My Dear:
Marital meltdown music at its finest. A bitter, disgusted and brutally funny Gaye turns what was initially planned as a quickie, throwaway album to cover divorce expenses into a sprawling soul/funk opera. Brilliant.

4-Neutral Milk Hotel- In an Airplane Over the Sea:
Populated by an unlikely cast of holy rattle snakes, shape-shifting ghosts and two-headed boys trapped in jars, this disturbing, hauntingly melodic song-cycle rewards the kind of repeated listening most so-called music fans no longer have the patience for. Definitely an acquired (very acquired) taste, but well worth the effort for anyone interested in what Bryan Wilson of the Beach Boys may have conjured up had he been a deranged, southern commune dweller instead of a burnt-out, California-bred man child.

5-The Congos-Heart of the Congos:
With all due respect to Mr. Bob Marley, this is the finest reggae album ever recorded. Period.

6-Junior Kimbrough-Sad Days, Lonely Nights:
A collection of some of the densest, deepest blues ever committed to tape. Kimbrough, who passed away in 1998, was one of the last of the original Mississippi Hill Country bluesman. The music he created is simply timeless–hypnotic, brutal and sexy as hell.

7-Grant Lee Buffalo-Mighty Joe Moon:
One of the great lost albums of the nineties, Grant Lee Buffalo’s second disc offers a sometimes subtle, sometimes brutal look at the myths that surround American history, wrapped in a sweeping musical mélange of banjo, violins and distortion that somehow manages to be every bit as dark and modern as a Nine Inch Nails album. Frontman Grant Lee Phillips sings lines like, “Have you tasted the finest in trout? Have you slept in a log burning house?” with an intensity bordering on the erotic. Add cover art that beautifully compliments the music found inside and you have yourself a modern classic.

So there you have it: A  grab bag of unique musical delights spanning the mid-70’s up through the first decade of the new millennium. There’s hundreds more where these came from: Orphaned sounds from across the decades searching for a friendly ear and a charitable heart. But be warned: The ghost of music’s forgotten past is rattling its chains outside the chambers of all you miserly, holiday-hardened souls. Take heed of its venturesome spirit or be damned to a future of stale sounds and  humbug hymns.

“God bless us, every one!”


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