Prepare your checkbooks: These are my personal recommendations for Christmas 2009 shopping.
All books, CD's and DVD's came out this year.
Queen: The Ultimate Illustrated History of the Crown Kings of Rock, by Phil Sutcliffe. (Voyageur Press)
The “ultimate” book on Queen, arguably the most underrated (in the U.S.) rock and roll band ever, had to be as bombastic and colorful as the band itself. Everything Queen is, is here: Rare and not-so-rare black and white and color photos, biographical and chart info, detailed discography and tour info, and album-by-album reviews. The book has an obvious fan appeal, but is objective enough to deal with the most delicate issues in Queen's history intelligently: Paul Rodgers (the former Bad Company frontman who “led” the infamous Queen + Paul Rodgers concoction) ain't no Freddy Mercury, but the music he did with Brian May and Roger Taylor wasn't as bad as we think; that 1982's Hot Space, justly vilified when it came out, is now a semi-classic; and how Mercury, unfairly criticized for keeping his illness a secret during his last days, became a champion for AIDS-awareness in death. Most importantly, the book understands why Queen was a great band: Yes, they may have betrayed their own “no synthesizers” mantra when it was convenient to do so, but any band that can play and sing that well, and that can produce so many hits ranging from hard-rock to metal, to silly but instrumentally intricate music-hall and operatic gems, has the right to kill its own rules. A must for Queen fans and latecomers.
Elton John: The Bitch Is Back, by Mark Bego. (Phoenix Books)
I'll be honest with you: I can't really vouch for this one, because I've just started reading it. But it looks like a complete, entertaining bio on one of the most successful, versatile, and influential singer-songwriters of all time.
The Who, The Mods and The Quadrophenia Connection, directed by Alec Lindsell. (Sexy Intellectual)
There have been books and movies about the Who before, but this one specifically deals with the band's second rock-opera of 1973 and its connection with the cultural/fashion Mod fad of the 60s and its 70s revival. Rare archival footage, dynamite soundtrack (mostly from Quadrophenia but also from other Brit stars from the 60's and 70s, all the way to the punk and pre-New Wave eras), and testimonies from key witnesses of the Mod days, the most lucid of which is Eddie Piller, head of Acid Jazz records. Fascinating, but this is mainly for fans or serious music lovers. If you want to discover the Who or merely be “entertained,” The Kids Are Alright remains the video to watch.
AC/DC's Backtracks (Sony Legacy)
AC/DC liked things simple and to the point; pure no-bullshit rock and roll. I'll try to emulate them: Option 1 has three CDs of live and studio rarities, two DVDs (including Family Jewels 3), a vinyl LP of studio collectibles, a coffee table book, and a bunch of authentic memorabilia, all boxed in a “working guitar amplifier” (which I haven't seen). It's a limited edition and you can only get it in acdcbacktracks.com (it was $199, now $172, but hurry). Option 2 (which you can buy anywhere) has two CD's of studio and live rarities, the Family Jewels 3 DVD and bonus videos, and it also comes in an amplifier box (but this one you can't plug in, unless you're nuts). The band is still kicking ass on tour, and this is a good reminder of how their minimalist rock and roll swagger was, and is.
Manu Chao's Baionarena (Nacional Records)
Two live CDs and one DVD of a concert filmed in France. If you haven't had a chance to see Manu live, you must get this immediately, even if you heard Mano Negra and his solo albums (Manu live has nothing to do with his studio work). Roll a fat one, crank it up, and prepare for a trip.
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame + Museum LIVE (Time Life)
“It's slightly ironic that tonight you see us on our best behavior, but we're being rewarded for 25 years of bad behavior,” said Mick Jagger when the Rolling Stones were inducted into the R&R Hall of Fame in 1989. It's one of the many memorable scenes in this must-have nine-DVD collection with the best moments of the R&R Museum and Hall of Fame's history. Nothing fancy here; just a bunch of induction and acceptance speeches and performances put together, plus a few rehearsals and backstage footage as bonus material. But the performances make it all worthwhile. Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins performing “Tie Your Mother Down” with Queen; Paul McCartney inducting John Lennon (“You made it,” he said) and then Bruce Springsteen and Axl Rose doing a highly praised rendition of “Come Together” (I hate it, but can't stop watching it); Green Day does have a superb version of “Blitzkrieg Bop” on the same day the Ramones were inducted (Johnny thanked President Bush and Dee Dee congratulated himself); The surviving Doors + Eddie Vedder (who did a jaw-dropping version of “Roadhouse Blues”) proved to be a whole lot better than Queen + Paul Rodgers, even though the well-behaved and better dressed crowd didn't seem to give a shit (Eddie sang the “Roll, baby, roll” part with a “Move, you fuckers” attitude). “I know the Eagles got in first,” said Springsteen while inducting Jackson Browne, “but let's face it, and I'm sure Don Henley will agree with me: These are the songs they wish they had written” (a smiling Henley, sitting in the audience, seemed to agree). Class of 2007 Patti Smith remembered how her late husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith, once predicted how guilty she was going to feel to be inducted. “Yes, Triciaâ?¦ You will feel guilty because I'm not in it, and I'm clearly the better one.” Jeff Beck's acceptance speech, exploiting his love-hate relationship with Rod Stewart, is a riot that needs to be seen, and every single DVD has legendary moments worth treasuring. You can do no wrong with this one.
Louie & The Lovers' The Complete Recordings (Bear Family Records)
The great lost gem of Chicano rock, Rise was the Doug Sahm-produced 1970 debut (and farewell) of Salinas Valley, California foursome of Louie Ortega, Frank Paredes, Albert Parra, and Steve Vargas. Or was it? They actually recorded a second album, but it never saw the light of day. Danish label Bear Family has just remastered and reissued both albums, and there isn't a single bad song in the entire 27-track CD. Imagine a cross between country, folk, rock, Byrds guitars, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Crosby, Stills, and Nash harmonies, and you get the best album you never heard of. None of the members were older than 20, and the first album was recorded in 18 hours, with two takes at the most. It's a glorious historical document, but it's mainly a great collection of songs that still sound heavenly after 39 years.
A heartbeat and a guitar: Johnny Cash and the making of Bitter Tears, by Antonino D'Ambrosio. (Nation Books)
When radio stations boycotted 1964's Bitter Tears, Johnny Cash was livid, so he bought a full-page ad in Billboard magazine. “I had to fight back when I realized that so many stations are afraid of Ira Hayes,” wrote Cash on the ad. “Just one question: WHY??? â?¦ Ira Hayes is strong medicine â?¦ So is Rochester, Harlem, Birmingham and Vietnam.” Despite the slightly misleading title and cover of this book (more than half of it deals with the plight of the Seneca Indians and the life of Peter La Farge, the author of “The ballad of Ira Hayes”), it is nevertheless a fascinating read on the least explored aspect of Cash's greatness: His uncompromising, art-first approach to music, and his commitment to denounce the mistreatment of Native Americans even if that meant to put his own hit-making career in jeopardy. You can find our original review here.
Primal Twang: The Legacy of the Guitar, directed by Anthony Leigh Adams and written, produced and performed by Dan Crary and many guests. (Adams Entertainment)
See original review here here.
Nirvana's Live at Reading. (Geffen Records)
Check out our original review here.
I slept with Joey Ramone: A family memoir, by Mickey Leigh and Legs McNeil. (Touchstone)
This is the story of the Ramones from the unique perspective of Joey's brother, Mickey Leigh (the Rattlers, Birdland with Lester Bangs, STOP), co-written with Punk magazine founder Legs McNeil. It is candid, informative (did you know that, besides the Beatles, it was Ritchie Valens who turned Joey into rock and roll?), funny, but also heartbreaking. Joey battled a severe obsessive-compulsive disorder throughout his life, but he also had to put up with Johnny Ramone, who was a complete asshole, to say the least. The Ramones resented the fact that bands that admittedly had them as heroes (Green Day, Nirvana, Soundgarden, U2, and the list goes on and on and on) had the sales and riches that had always evaded them. For much of its 22-year career, the Ramones was a highly dysfunctional family, and more a miracle than band. You couldn't tell that by their live performances and many of its classic albums: the Ramones rarely had a bad show for several reasons (the almost tyrannical discipline Johnny instilled on the band, the band's great songs, and a loyal legion of fans worldwide), and they always pulled it off and managed to survive the changes in the music industry. Ultimately, this is a loving brother's tribute. No, Joey (born Jeff Hyman) was no saint and he didn't always get along with Mickey, but everyone agrees that, deep down, Joey was a sweet, well-meaning individual. At the end they had made peace, and Mickey knew better than anybody who his brother was. “Joey was the ultimate underdog who soared to a place far beyond mere overachievement,” Mickey wrote. “As low as he'd been, he never let it prevent him from setting sights on astronomical heights. His brave plight was inspiring, as I intend this story to be.” Mission accomplished.