Guitar Greats

Aerosmith's Greatest Hits

Aerosmith
Aerosmith's Greatest Hits remains one of the most popular and enduring best-of collections by any rock band, selling nearly ten million copies in the U.S. alone since its release. But when it was issued in 1980, the band had just about reached its nadir. With original guitarist Joe Perry gone (and Brad Whitford soon to follow), Aerosmith had turned into a directionless, time-consuming ghost of its former self. Since there would be a three-year gap between 1979's Night in the Ruts and 1982's Rock in a Hard Place, Greatest Hits was assembled, more or less, to fill the void and buy the band some time. With the album clocking in at only 37 and a half minutes, many Aerosmith classics are not included, such as what many consider the band's quintessential track, their cover of "Train Kept a Rollin'." The only poor selection is the forgettable "Remember (Walking in the Sand)," but nine out of ten are bona fide classics -- "Dream On," "Same Old Song and Dance," "Sweet Emotion," "Walk this Way," "Last Child," "Back in the Saddle," and "Draw the Line." Also featured is their venomous cover of the Beatles' "Come Together," previously only available as a single and on the soundtrack to the 1978 movie Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. For the casual fan, Greatest Hits will do the job, as well as its sister album, 1988's Gems.

Greg Prato, Rovi

The Definitive Collection

Howlin' Wolf
At six foot three and 270 pounds, Chester Burnett was a bear of a man, but his voice, rough and harsh as broken Delta glass, was what really gave him dimension. A powerful blues shouter out of the Charley Patton mold, Burnett (or Howlin' Wolf, as he came to be known) brought a feral fire to his vocals that made him sound like a gale force hurricane in front of the microphone. But he was far from a loose cannon. He had remarkable control over that voice, as the first track from this wonderful collection of his classic Chess sides makes clear. "Moanin' at Midnight," recorded in 1958 for Sam Phillips (Phillips promptly sold the master to Chicago's Chess Records), is nothing more than an amped-up and electrified field holler, but Wolf's subtle, wordless vocal phrasing makes it carry enough pain, suffering, pride, desperation, and resignation to fill the world to breaking, all in a single rocking performance that hits like a brick to the head. The Chess brothers recorded Wolf frequently in the next dozen or so years, wisely pairing him with guitarist Hubert Sumlin and bassist/songwriter Willie Dixon more often than not, and Wolf's output for the label between 1958 and 1964 forms the core of one of the greatest legacies in the history of the blues. All of his key Chess singles are here, including "Smokestack Lightning," his redefinitions of the Mississippi Sheiks' "Sittin' on Top of the World" and Skip James' "Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues" (reborn as "Killing Floor" in Wolf's hands), and his signature versions of Dixon's "Backdoor Man," "Spoonful," "The Red Rooster," and "I Ain't Superstitious," making this set a marvelous introduction to one of the most powerful voices in recorded history. What you need to hear is here. [The Definitive Collection contains the same tracks as the 1997 MCA release His Best].

Steve Leggett, Rovi

Hot Rocks 1964-1971

The Rolling Stones
This two-LP/two-CD set of Hot Rocks, 1964-1971 is both a lot more and a bit less than what it seems. It is seven years' worth of mostly very high-charting -- and all influential and important -- songs, leaving out some singles in favor of well-known album tracks, and in the process, giving an overview not just of the Rolling Stones' hits but of their evolving image. One hears them change from loud R&B-inspired rockers covering others' songs ("Time Is on My Side") into originators in their own right ("Satisfaction"); then into tastemakers and style-setters with a particularly decadent air ("Get Off of My Cloud," "19th Nervous Breakdown"); and finally into self-actualized rebel-poets ("Jumpin' Jack Flash," "Midnight Rambler") and Shaman-like symbols of chaos. On its initial release, Hot Rocks sold well, not only as a unique compilation but also as a panorama of the '60s. The only flaw was that it didn't give a good look at the Stones' full musical history, ignoring their early blues period and their psychedelic era. There are also some anomalies in Hot Rocks' history for the collector -- the very first pressings included an outtake of "Brown Sugar" featuring Eric Clapton that was promptly replaced; and the original European CD version, issued as two separate discs on the Decca label, was also different from its American counterpart, featuring a version of "Satisfaction" mastered in stereo, and putting the guitars on separate channels for the first time. Those musicologist concerns aside, this is still an exciting assembly of material.

Bruce Eder, Rovi

Slowhand

Eric Clapton
After the guest-star-drenched No Reason to Cry failed to make much of an impact commercially, Eric Clapton returned to using his own band for Slowhand. The difference is substantial -- where No Reason to Cry struggled hard to find the right tone, Slowhand opens with the relaxed, bluesy shuffle of J.J. Cale's "Cocaine" and sustains it throughout the course of the album. Alternating between straight blues ("Mean Old Frisco"), country ("Lay Down Sally"), mainstream rock ("Cocaine," "The Core"), and pop ("Wonderful Tonight"), Slowhand doesn't sound schizophrenic because of the band's grasp of the material. This is laid-back virtuosity -- although Clapton and his band are never flashy, their playing is masterful and assured. That assurance and the album's eclectic material make Slowhand rank with 461 Ocean Boulevard as Eric Clapton's best albums. [The Deluxe Edition features the remastered original album with four added bonus tracks; disc two is a live set from 1977.]

Ultimate Santana

Santana
Billed as the first Santana compilation to span his entire career, it is true that Ultimate Santana does indeed run the gamut from 1969's "Evil Ways" to 2002's "Game of Love," but if you think that means it handles all phases of his career equally, you'd be sadly mistaken. Essentially, this 18-track set plays like a collection of highlights from his Supernatural-era comebacks, spiked with a couple of classic rock oldies -- because that's what it really is. It contains no less than "ten" superstar duets, including new numbers with Nickelback's Chad Kroeger (the streamlined and smoothed "Into the Night," which has little of Kroeger's trademark growly histrionics) and Jennifer Lopez and Baby Bash ("This Boy's Fire," a dance number where Santana seems incidental), plus a version of "The Game of Love" with Tina Turner (don't worry, the lighter, brighter, superior Michelle Branch version is here too) and plus "Interplanetary Party," which is a new band recording that sounds like a star duet. These are piled upon seven previously released duets -- including, of course, the hits "Smooth," "Maria Maria," and "The Game of Love," but also album tracks with Everlast, Steven Tyler, and Alex Band of the Calling -- with classic rock radio staples "Oye Como Va," "Black Magic Woman," "Evil Ways," "Europa," "Samba Pa Ti," and "No One to Depend On" for good measure. In other words, this is certainly "not" a hits disc for the fan of his earliest music, or his most adventurous music either; it's for the pop fans won over by his latter-day comeback, and for those listeners, it's the hits disc they'd want -- but for everybody else, it's better to seek out other compilations or original albums, because those paint a better picture of what Santana was all about than this crisp, clean collection of lifestyle pop.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Blak And Blu

Gary Clark Jr.
Gary Clark, Jr. has been hailed by a number of critics as "the New Hendrix," which seems to be the fate of any guitarist who combines blues and rock styles at a considerable volume (particularly if they cover "Third Stone from the Sun"). While that's a blurb that may look good in Clark's press kit, it rather misses the point; Clark isn't a visionary, game-changing artist like Hendrix, but instead he's a canny singer, songwriter, and instrumentalist who has learned from the past and present, fusing them into a style that's distinctive and exciting if not necessarily revolutionary. Warner Bros. is also pitching Blak and Blu as Clark's "groundbreaking debut album," when in fact it's just his major-label debut, with four indie releases preceding it, making the confidence and ambition of this set a bit less remarkable. But if Gary Clark, Jr. isn't likely to change the way we look at rock & roll or rewrite the aesthetic of the electric guitar, he "is" one of the most interesting talents to come out of the contemporary blues scene in quite some time. On Blak and Blu, most of Clark's tunes are solidly rooted in the blues, but he's also folded in hearty servings of hard rock, funk, retro-soul, and even a dash of hip-hop, and the way he lets the flavors mix is a big part of what makes this album work so well. There's an undertow of Northern Soul on the dance-friendly opener "Ain't Messin' Round," "Travis County" is a no-frills rocker that recalls the Stones in fifth gear, "The Life" finds Clark moving back and forth between singing and rapping in a streetwise tale of drug addiction, "Numb" recalls the punk blues attack of the Black Keys and the White Stripes in its fuzzed-out blast, and the title cut samples both Gil Scott-Heron and Albert King as Clark melds conscious themes with blues backdrops. While the typical modern-day guitar hero goes out of his way to throw his dexterity in your face at every turn, here Clark shows off a tougher and more primal style, and though his chops are certainly good, he keep his solos concise and his attack muscular throughout. And if his songwriting is a bit uneven, he has an inarguable talent with both lyrics and melodies, and he's a good-to-great singer, sounding soulful and honest on every cut. Blak and Blu's production (by Rob Cavallo and Mike Elizondo in collaboration with Clark) is too polished and processed for its own good, but if this album isn't likely to change your life, it will make an hour of it a lot more interesting, and there's no arguing that Gary Clark, Jr. is a talent strong enough to match his record company's hype.

Mark Deming, Rovi

Battle Studies

John Mayer
It's no secret that John Mayer is a 21st Century Fox, wining and dining women all through tabloid headlines, so it's about time he delivered an album that traded upon his loverman persona -- and Battle Studies is that record in spades. Here, Mayer fashions a modern groove album that maintains a smooth seductive vibe so thorough it spills into a one-man band cover of "Crossroads." Mayer remains a disciple of Eric Clapton, but he shows an unusual interest in big AOR, creating a coolly clean blend of synths and Strats that's as much about texture as it is about song -- perfectly appropriate for a make-out album. Sometimes, Mayer dips too heavily toward texture, but he can't resist good, tight melodies and builds this album upon them.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

The 2nd Law

Muse
Muse have been masters of Olympic Stadium-sized bombast since long before they scored a theme for the actual 2012 London Games, so the inclusion of that theme ("Survival") on The 2nd Law doesn't quite push the proggy alt-rockers' sixth album into unfamiliar territory. That honor belongs to the dubstep synth drills of "The 2nd Law: Unsustainable" and, to a lesser extent, the bass wobbles of "Madness." But whatever the new toys in tow, the Muse war machine marches on with the same oversized, Wagnerian logic as ever: Better or not, more is simply more, and that's always seemed justification enough for Matt Bellamy and company's excesses.
On The 2nd Law those excesses include shameless echoes of U2 in "Big Freeze," and of Queen in the chorus of "Survival," an "I'm gonna win!" that wants desperately to outrace "We Are the Champions."

Eric Grandy, Google Play

Evil Empire

Rage Against The Machine
Rage Against the Machine spent four years making its second album, Evil Empire. Their rage at the "fascist" capitalist system in America hadn't declined in the nearly half-decade they were away. Their musical approach didn't change, either. Lead vocalist Zack de la Rocha is caught halfway between the militant raps of Chuck D and the fanatical ravings of a street preacher, shouting out his libertarian slogans over the sonically dense assault of the band. Guitarist Tom Morello demonstrates an impressive palette of sound, creating new textures in heavy metal, which is quite difficult, and de la Rocha's dedication to decidedly left-wing politics is admirable, simply because few other performers of the '90s had made "any" sort of political stance.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Live At The Isle Of Wight Festival 1970

The Who
Eagle Records’ 2010 release of The Who Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970 is essentially a repackaged reissue of Legacy’s 1996 archival release, containing the same 30 songs over two discs. This, of course, makes sense: both CD editions contain the entirety of the concert, which was heavily bootlegged before the official 1996 release. Eagle Records doesn’t change anything but the cover art, but it doesn’t need to: this is one of the Who’s legendary live shows, not as good as Live at Leeds but running a close second, and is certainly worthwhile for any serious fan.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Elephant

The White Stripes
White Blood Cells may have been a reaction to the amount of fame the White Stripes had received up to the point of its release, but, paradoxically, it made full-fledged rock stars out of Jack and Meg White and sold over half a million copies in the process. Despite the White Stripes' ambivalence, fame nevertheless seems to suit them: They just become more accomplished as the attention paid to them increases. Elephant captures this contradiction within the Stripes and their music; it's the first album they've recorded for a major label, and it sounds even more pissed-off, paranoid, and stunning than its predecessor. Darker and more difficult than White Blood Cells, the album offers nothing as immediately crowd-pleasing or sweet as "Fell in Love With a Girl" or "We're Going to Be Friends," but it's more consistent, exploring disillusionment and rejection with razor-sharp focus. Chip-on-the-shoulder anthems like the breathtaking opener, "Seven Nation Army," which is driven by Meg White's explosively minimal drumming, and "The Hardest Button to Button," in which Jack White snarls "Now we're a family!" -- one of the best oblique threats since Black Francis sneered "It's educational!" all those years ago -- deliver some of the fiercest blues-punk of the White Stripes' career. "There's No Home for You Here" sets a girl's walking papers to a melody reminiscent of "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground" (though the result is more sequel than rehash), driving the point home with a wall of layered, Queen-ly harmonies and piercing guitars, while the inspired version of "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself" goes from plaintive to angry in just over a minute, though the charging guitars at the end sound perversely triumphant. At its bruised heart, Elephant portrays love as a power struggle, with chivalry and innocence usually losing out to the power of seduction. "I Want to Be the Boy" tries, unsuccessfully, to charm a girl's mother; "You've Got Her in Your Pocket," a deceptively gentle ballad, reveals the darker side of the Stripes' vulnerability, blurring the line between caring for someone and owning them with some fittingly fluid songwriting.

The battle for control reaches a fever pitch on the "Fell in Love With a Girl"-esque "Hypnotize," which suggests some slightly underhanded ways of winning a girl over before settling for just holding her hand, and on the show-stopping "Ball and Biscuit," seven flat-out seductive minutes of preening, boasting, and amazing guitar prowess that ranks as one the band's most traditionally bluesy (not to mention sexy) songs. Interestingly, Meg's star turn, "In the Cold, Cold Night," is the closest Elephant comes to a truce in this struggle, her kitten-ish voice balancing the song's slinky words and music. While the album is often dark, it's never despairing; moments of wry humor pop up throughout, particularly toward the end. "Little Acorns" begins with a sound clip of Detroit newscaster Mort Crim's Second Thoughts radio show, adding an authentic, if unusual, Motor City feel. It also suggests that Jack White is one of the few vocalists who could make a lyric like "Be like the squirrel" sound cool and even inspiring. Likewise, the showy "Girl, You Have No Faith in Medicine" -- on which White resembles a garage rock snake-oil salesman -- is probably the only song featuring the word "acetaminophen" in its chorus. "It's True That We Love One Another," which features vocals from Holly Golightly as well as Meg White, continues the Stripes' tradition of closing their albums on a lighthearted note. Almost as much fun to analyze as it is to listen to, Elephant overflows with quality -- it's full of tight songwriting, sharp, witty lyrics, and judiciously used basses and tumbling keyboard melodies that enhance the band's powerful simplicity (and the excellent "The Air Near My Fingers" features all of these). Crucially, the White Stripes know the difference between fame and success; while they may not be entirely comfortable with their fame, they've succeeded at mixing blues, punk, and garage rock in an electrifying and unique way ever since they were strictly a Detroit phenomenon. On these terms, Elephant is a phenomenal success.

Heather Phares, Rovi

El Camino

The Black Keys
Picking up on the ‘60s soul undercurrent of Brothers, the Black Keys smartly capitalize on their 2010 breakthrough by plunging headfirst into retro-soul on El Camino. Savvy operators that they are, the Black Keys don’t opt for authenticity à la Sharon Jones or Eli “Paperboy” Reed: they bring Danger Mouse back into the fold, the producer adding texture and glitter to the duo’s clean, lean songwriting. Apart from “Little Black Submarines,” an acoustic number that crashes into Zeppelin heaviosity as it reaches its coda, every one of the 11 songs here clocks in under four minutes, adding up to a lean 38-minute rock & roll rush, an album that’s the polar opposite of the Black Keys’ previous collaboration with Danger Mouse, the hazy 2008 platter Attack & Release. That purposely drifted into detours, whereas El Camino never takes its eye off the main road: it barrels down the highway, a modern motor in its vintage body. Danger Mouse adds glam flair that doesn’t distract from the songs, all so sturdily built they easily accommodate the shellacked layers of cheap organs, fuzz guitars, talk boxes, backing girls, tambourines, foot stomps, and handclaps. Each element harks back to something from the past -- there are Motown beats and glam rock guitars -- but everything is fractured through a modern prism: the rhythms have swing, but they’re tight enough to illustrate the duo’s allegiance to hip-hop; the gleaming surfaces are postmodern collages, hinting at collective aural memories. All this blurring of eras is in the service of having a hell of a good time. More than any other Black Keys album, El Camino is an outright party, playing like a collection of 11 lost 45 singles, each one having a bigger beat or dirtier hook than the previous side. What’s being said doesn’t matter as much as how it’s said: El Camino is all trash and flash and it’s highly addictive.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Greatest Hits

Fleetwood Mac
Greatest Hits is a fine overview of Fleetwood Mac's hitmaking years, containing the bulk of the group's Top 40 hits of the late '70s and '80s, including "Over My Head," "Rhiannon," "Say You Love Me," "Go Your Own Way," "Dreams," "Don't Stop," "Tusk," "Sara," "Hold Me," "Gypsy," and "Little Lies." Minor hits like "Think About Me," "Love in Store," and "Seven Wonders" are missing, making room for the new songs "As Long as You Follow" (which actually became a hit) and "No Questions Asked," but overall, Greatest Hits is an excellent choice for casual listeners. [WEA released a version of Greatest Hits in 2006 that included the bonus track "Oh Diane".]

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Bonnie Raitt

Bonnie Raitt
The astounding thing about Bonnie Raitt's blues album isn't that it's the work of a preternaturally gifted blues woman, it's that Raitt doesn't choose to stick to the blues. She's decided to blend her love of classic folk blues with folk music, including new folk-rock tunes, along with a slight R&B, New Orleans, and jazz bent and a mellow Californian vibe. Surely, Bonnie Raitt is a record of its times, as much as Jackson Browne's first album is, but with this, she not only sketches out the blueprint for her future recordings, but for the roots music that would later be labeled as Americana. The reason that Bonnie Raitt works is that she is such a warm, subtle singer. She never oversells these songs, she lays back and sings them with heart and wonderfully textured reading. Her singing is complemented by her band, who is equally as warm, relaxed, and engaging. This is music that goes down so easy, it's only on the subsequent plays that you realize how fully realized and textured it is. A terrific debut that has only grown in stature since its release.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

The Very Best Of Prince

Prince
Even geniuses (maybe especially geniuses) are taken for granted, not seen as geniuses, or only appreciated in small doses. Which is a grandiose way of saying that, no matter how partisans may complain, there are many listeners out there that don't want to delve into the deliriously rich catalog of Prince and would rather spend time with a single disc of all the hits -- especially since the first singles compilation was botched, spread too thin over two discs and sequenced as if it were on shuffle play. That doesn't mean that 2001's The Very Best of Prince is perfect, even if it is a better hits overview than its predecessor. First of all, Prince had so many hits, and so many of them were so good, that 17 tracks couldn't possibly summarize everything great. After all, this doesn't have Top Ten hits like "Delirious," "Pop Life," "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man," or "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" (or the number one "Batdance," for that matter, continuing Batman being unofficially written out of his discography), nor does it have such great second-tier hits as "Take Me With U" and "Mountains," or B-sides like "Irresistible Bitch" and "Erotic City," let alone album tracks. What is here are the big songs -- "1999," "Little Red Corvette," "When Doves Cry," "Kiss," and so on -- all presented in their single edits. And, frankly, that's enough to make this a dynamite collection, perfect for those that just want one Prince disc, and a good, solid listen of some of his best. Besides, this trumps both Hits discs by including "Money Don't Matter 2 Night," his best single never to reach the Top 10.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

His Best, 1947 To 1956

Muddy Waters
This entry into MCA's Chess 50th Anniversary Collection now officially takes the place of The Best of Muddy Waters as an essential first purchase in building a Muddy Waters collection. All 12 songs that comprise the budget-priced The Best of Muddy Waters are aboard, with eight more essential goodies from his first period of creativity, including great early ones like "Rollin' and Tumblin'," "Train Fare Blues," and "I Feel Like Going Home." The one ringer that keeps this collection from being a deluxe The Best of Muddy Waters is an alternate take of "Hoochie Coochie Man" in place of the original issued master, a production error of the highest order. It's a radically different-sounding one, too, with some surprisingly sloppy unthought-out harp work from Little Walter (at one point he simply stops playing), but with a far more intense vocal from Muddy than the issued version. But it is the issued version that by rights "should" have been the one heard here, as this "is" supposed to be a true best-of compilation. That niggling point aside, this collection (part of a two-volume best-of retrospective, the second covering the years 1956 to 1964) sports far superior sound and excellent liner notes.

Cub Koda, Rovi

His Best, 1956 To 1964

Muddy Waters
The first eight tracks of this 20-track collection date from 1956: "All Aboard," and featuring both James Cotton and Little Walter on twin harmonicas, "Forty Days and Forty Nights," "Just to Be With You," "Don't Go No Farther," "Diamonds at Your Feet," "I Love the Life I Live," "Rock Me," and the studio version of "I Got My Mojo Working." By now, Waters was a rhythm & blues star, as far removed from the Clarksdale plantation he grew up on as you could get. He also had developed the modern-day blues band lineup and by this time had his running like a well-oiled machine. Little Walter (by now a star in his own right) was still on call for studio dates and if not, Walter Horton, Otis Spann, and Jimmy Rogers were still in the lineup. By 1958's "She's Nineteen Years Old," Muddy had built up his second great band with James Cotton, Pat Hare, and Luther Tucker on guitars and Francis Clay on drums, the unit he would take to Newport in 1960. It's this unit that contributes so mightily to "Walkin' Thru the Park," "She's Into Something," and Big Bill Broonzy's "I Feel So Good." Two of Muddy's most influential tracks, "You Shook Me" and "You Need Love" (the blueprint for Led Zepplin's "Whole Lotta Love"), curiously feature Earl Hooker on slide guitar, along with A.C. Reed and John "Big Moose" Walker, the core of the Age-Profile label's house band. A pair of tracks from his now-celebrated Folk Singer album with Buddy Guy and Willie Dixon ("My Home Is in the Delta" and "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl") offset the collection's final selections, Willie Dixon's "The Same Thing" and Muddy's classic "You Can't Lose What You Ain't Never Had," a perfect closer for this essential collection.

Cub Koda, Rovi

King Of The Delta Blues Singers

Robert Johnson
Reading about the power inherent in Robert Johnson's music is one thing, but actually "experiencing" it is another matter entirely. The official 1998 edition of the original 1961 album was certainly worth the wait, remastered off the best quality original 78s available, of far superior quality to any of the source materials used on even the 1991 box set. Johnson's guitar takes on a fullness never heard on previous reissues, and except for a nagging hiss in spots on "Terraplane Blues" (the equalization on this disc is extreme, to even sport some minute turntable rumble in the low end), this really brings his music alive. If there is such a thing as a greatest-hits package available on Johnson, this landmark album, which jump-started the whole '60s blues revival, would certainly be the one. The majority of Johnson's best-known tunes, the ones that made the legend, are all aboard: "Crossroads," "Walkin' Blues," "Me & the Devil Blues," "Come On In My Kitchen," and the apocalyptic visions contained in "Hellhound On My Trail" are the blues at its finest, the lyrics sheer poetry. And making its first appearance anywhere is a newly discovered (in 1998) alternate take of "Traveling Riverside Blues" that's appended to the original 16-track lineup. If you are starting your blues collection from the ground up, be sure to make this your very first purchase.

Cub Koda, Rovi

Greatest Hits - We Will Rock You Edition

Queen

Van Halen

Van Halen
Among revolutionary rock albums, Van Halen's debut often gets short shrift. Although it altered perceptions of what the guitar could do, it is not spoken of in the same reverential tones as Are You Experienced? and although it set the template for how rock & roll sounded for the next decade or more, it isn't seen as an epochal generational shift, like Led Zeppelin, The Ramones, The Rolling Stones, or Never Mind the Bollocks Here's the Sex Pistols, which was released just the year before. But make no mistake, Van Halen is as monumental, as seismic as those records, but part of the reason it's never given the same due is that there's no pretension, nothing self-conscious about it. In the best sense, it is an artless record, in the sense that it doesn't seem contrived, but it's also a great work of art because it's an effortless, guileless expression of what the band is all about, and what it would continue to be over the years. The band did get better, tighter, over the years -- peaking with their sleek masterpiece 1984, where there was no fat, nothing untidy -- but everything was in place here, from the robotic pulse of Michael Anthony and Alex Van Halen, to the gonzo shtick of David Lee Roth to the astonishing guitar of Eddie Van Halen. There may have been antecedents to this sound -- perhaps you could trace Diamond Dave's shuck-n-jive to Black Oak Arkansas' Jim Dandy, the slippery blues-less riffs hearken back to Aerosmith -- but Van Halen, to this day, sounds utterly unprecedented, as if it was a dispatch from a distant star. Some of the history behind the record has become rock lore: Eddie may have slowed down Cream records to a crawl to learn how Clapton played "Crossroads" -- the very stuff legends are made of -- but it's hard to "hear" Clapton here. It's hard to hear anybody else really, even with the traces of their influences, or the cover of "You Really Got Me," which doesn't seem as if it were chosen because of any great love of the Kinks, but rather because that riff got the crowd going. And that's true of all 11 songs here: they're songs designed to get a rise out of the audience, designed to get them to have a good time, and the album still crackles with energy because of it.

Sheer visceral force is one thing, but originality is another, and the still-amazing thing about Van Halen is how it sounds like it has no fathers. Plenty other bands followed this template in the '80s, but like all great originals Van Halen doesn't seem to belong to the past and it still sounds like little else, despite generations of copycats. Listen to how "Runnin' with the Devil" opens the record with its mammoth, confident riff and realize that there was no other band that sounded this way -- maybe Montrose or Kiss were this far removed from the blues, but they didn't have the down-and-dirty hedonistic vibe that Van Halen did; Aerosmith certainly had that, but they were fueled by blooze and boogie, concepts that seem alien here. Everything about Van Halen is oversized: the rhythms are primal, often simple, but that gives Dave and Eddie room to run "wild", and they do. They are larger than life, whether it's Dave strutting, slyly spinning dirty jokes and come-ons, or Eddie throwing out mind-melting guitar riffs with a smile. And of course, this record belongs to Eddie, just like the band's very name does. There was nothing, "nothing" like his furious flurry of notes on his solos, showcased on "Eruption," a startling fanfare for his gifts. He makes sounds that were unimagined before this album, and they still sound nearly inconceivable. But, at least at this point, these songs were never vehicles for Van Halen's playing; they were true blue, bone-crunching rockers, not just great riffs but full-fledged anthems, like "Jamie's Cryin'," "Atomic Punk," and "Ain't Talkin' Bout Love," songs that changed rock & roll and still are monolithic slabs of rock to this day. They still sound vital, surprising, and ultimately fun -- and really revolutionary, because no other band rocked like this before Van Halen, and it's still a giddy thrill to hear them discover a new way to rock on this stellar, seminal debut.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Houses Of The Holy

Led Zeppelin
Houses of the Holy follows the same basic pattern as Led Zeppelin IV, but the approach is looser and more relaxed. Jimmy Page's riffs rely on ringing, folky hooks as much as they do on thundering blues-rock, giving the album a lighter, more open atmosphere. While the pseudo-reggae of "D'Yer Mak'er" and the affectionate James Brown send-up "The Crunge" suggest that the band was searching for material, they actually contribute to the musical diversity of the album. "The Rain Song" is one of Zep's finest moments, featuring a soaring string arrangement and a gentle, aching melody. "The Ocean" is just as good, starting with a heavy, funky guitar groove before slamming into an a cappella section and ending with a swinging, doo wop-flavored rave-up. With the exception of the rampaging opening number, "The Song Remains the Same," the rest of Houses of the Holy is fairly straightforward, ranging from the foreboding "No Quarter" and the strutting hard rock of "Dancing Days" to the epic folk/metal fusion "Over the Hills and Far Away." Throughout the record, the band's playing is excellent, making the eclecticism of Page and Robert Plant's songwriting sound coherent and natural.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Sheryl Crow

Sheryl Crow
Hiring noted roots experimentalists Tchad Blake and Mitchell Froom as engineer and consultant, respectively, Sheryl Crow took a cue from their Latin Playboys project for her second album -- she kept her roots rock foundation and added all sorts of noises, weird instruments, percussion loops, and off-balance production to give Sheryl Crow a distinctly modern flavor. And, even with the Stonesy grind of "Sweet Rosalyn" or hippie spirits of "Love Is a Good Thing," it is an album that couldn't have been made any other time than the '90s. As strange as it may sound, Sheryl Crow is a postmodern masterpiece of sorts -- albeit a "mainstream", post-alternative, postmodern masterpiece. It may not be as hip or innovative as, say, the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique, but it is as self-referential, pop culture obsessed, and musically eclectic. Throughout the record, Crow spins out wild, nearly incomprehensible stream-of-consciousness lyrics, dropping celebrity names and products every chance she gets ("drinking Falstaff beer/Mercedes Ruehl and a rented Leer"). Often, these litanies don't necessarily add up to anything specific, but they're a perfect match for the mess of rock, blues, alt-rock, country, folk, and lite hip-hop loops that dominate the record. At her core, she remains a traditionalist -- the songcraft behind the infectious "Change Would Do You Good," the bubbly "Everyday Is a Winding Road," and the weary "If It Makes You Happy" helped get the singles on the radio -- but the production and lyrics are often at odds with those instincts, creating for a fascinating and compelling (and occasionally humorous) listen and one of the most individual albums of its era.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Texas Flood

Stevie Ray Vaughan And Double Trouble

Buddy's Baddest: The Best Of Buddy Guy

Buddy Guy

The Best Of John Lee Hooker 1965 To 1974

John Lee Hooker
MCA's The Best of John Lee Hooker has a misleading title. All of the 16 selections are taken from his recordings for ABC, which were made at the end of the '60s and beginning of the '70s. During this time, his producers were experimenting with his sound, adding contemporary sonic touches like funk rhythms and wah-wah pedals. Needless to say, this sound didn't sit particularly well with Hooker's lean, haunting blues. However, these songs do take the best material from generally poor albums -- anyone who wants to sample his ABC material should turn here first and they'll realize that they don't need to explore much further.

Thom Owens, Rovi

The Definitive Collection

John Lee Hooker
What can be said about yet another John Lee Hooker greatest-hits collection!? Not only is the music consumer loaded down with these discs, but frankly, most are very similar in content. The main thing to look for when purchasing a compilation of "The Hook" is a trust-worthy label. Hip-O's Definitive Collection provides one such example, complete with professional packaging, informative liner notes, superlative sound, and most importantly, the best-known songs from Hooker's massive catalog spanning six decades. From solo material recorded in Detroit in the '40s for the Modern label, through his mostly electric recordings on Chess, Vee Jay, Impulse, and ABC-BluesWay up to his final, Grammy Award winning collaborations with Bonnie Raitt and Carlos Santana, these are the 20 cuts that any John Lee Hooker neophyte should hear.

Al Campbell, Rovi

Surfing With The Alien

Joe Satriani
Surfing with the Alien belongs to its era like Are You Experienced? belongs to its own -- perhaps it doesn't transcend its time the way the Jimi Hendrix Experience's 1967 debut does, but Joe Satriani's 1987 breakthrough can be seen as the gold standard for guitar playing of the mid- to late '80s, an album that captures everything that was good about the glory days of shred. Certainly, Satriani was unique among his peers in that his playing was so fluid that his technical skills never seemed like showboating -- something that was somewhat true of his 1986 debut, Not of This Earth, but on Surfing with the Alien he married this dexterity to a true sense of melodic songcraft, a gift that helped him be that rare thing: a guitar virtuoso who ordinary listeners enjoyed. Nowhere is this more true than on "Always with Me, Always with You," a genuine ballad -- not beefed up with muscular power chords but rather sighing gently with its melody -- but this knack was also evident on the ZZ Top homage "Satch Boogie" and the title track itself, both of which turned into rock radio hits. This melodic facility, plus his fondness for a good old-fashioned three-chord rock, separated Satriani from his shredding peers in 1987, many of whom were quite literally his students. But he was no throwback: he equaled his former students Steve Vai and Kirk Hammett in sweep picking and fretboard acrobatics and he had a sparkling, spacy quality to some of his songs -- particularly the closing stretch of the Middle Eastern-flavored "Lords of Karma," the twinkling "Midnight," and "Echo" -- that was thoroughly modern for 1987. The production of Surfing with the Alien is also thoroughly of its year -- stiff drumbeats, sparkling productions -- so much so that it can seem a bit like a relic from another era, but it's fine that it doesn't transcend its time: it captures the best of its era and is still impressive in that regard.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Passion And Warfare

Steve Vai
Widely acclaimed as his best album, Passion and Warfare finds Steve Vai coming into his own as a composer, as well as bypassing vocals almost entirely. His style isn't quite as derivative of influences Frank Zappa and Joe Satriani as it was six years earlier on Flex-able; while some of Vai's sense of humor is still evident on tracks like the cock rock strut of "The Audience Is Listening," it is mostly replaced by a spiritual reflectiveness on ballads like "For the Love of God" and "Blue Powder" and dignified, committed rockers like "I Would Love To" and "Liberty." Vai is a more distinguished composer than most of his guitar-shredder contemporaries, and rather than simply showing off his technique, he isn't afraid to experiment or take chances in his playing. Thus, Passion and Warfare is arguably the richest and best hard rock guitar-virtuoso album of the '80s.

Steve Huey, Rovi

Nothing's Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now

Justin Townes Earle
Justin Townes Earle's 2010 effort Harlem River Blues sounded like he'd found his way as a singer/songwriter amid the spidery, criss-crossing lines of Memphis' long and sometimes fractious musical heritage. Earle moved to London, but the sound of Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now is even more haunted by Memphis than its predecessor. Its sounds have woven their way so far inside his songwriting and arrangements here that he "almost" disappears. Recorded in North Carolina, loneliness, frustrated desire, regret, thinly veiled admissions of substance abuse, and even self-pity topically weave themselves through these songs. On "Am I That Lonely Tonight?" he talks about being emotionally and physically wasted when hearing his father on the radio and the conflicting feelings it raises. The sad, slow horn chart, nostalgically acknowledges the Memphis influence. The fingerpicked electric guitars, standup bass, and brushed snares just underscore the singer's desolation. The title track, with a shimmering B-3, muted horns, and upright bass walking a straight line, is the third heartworn ballad in a row, and it threatens to overwhelm the proceeding. (Sequencing on this date is an issue.) Its melancholy, dragging tempo, slurred, uneven time signature, and most of all, Earle's voice, all sound completely ragged. On the first uptempo number, "Baby's Got a Bad Idea," populated with a rockabilly swagger, Earle's hoarse, near-spoken, off-key delivery almost derails it. "Maria" fares better with a Willie Mitchell-style slippery horn chart and in the pocket drums. The muted trumpet in the gospel-blues of "Down on the Lower East Side," is a nice touch, as is the restrained passion in Earle's vocal delivery. "Memphis in the Rain" is more lighthearted and actually swings, with R&B effortlessly carrying the singer. "Won't Be the Last Time" and "Unfortunately Anna," both exhausted, oppressive ballads, commence as halting folkish Americana -- though the latter has a very attractive jazzy mid-section and bridge. Closer "Movin' On" uses Johnny Cash as an inspiration, and it feels more natural than anything here. It shuffles and hops; it finds a groove and relaxes inside it. As strained as some of Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now is, there is much to enjoy: Earle's lyrics, while sometimes sophomoric, are fairly sophisticated and searingly honest; the arrangements and his melodies usually lovely. While it's true this album often feels like the listener is being asked to endure a personal confession without redemption as a reward that is also part of its hopefully deliberate, perverse charm.

Thom Jurek, Rovi

The Best Of Johnny Winter

Johnny Winter
Columbia/Legacy's 2002 release The Best of Johnny Winter concentrates solely on the guitarist's early recordings for Columbia, which are often (and deservedly) considered his best work. Nearly all of the 16 selections here were recorded between 1969 and 1971 -- there's a stray cut from 1973, plus two cuts from 1979, dating from his time on Blue Sky -- and all of them showcase Winter at his best, not just as a fiery blues-rock guitarist, but as a band leader. While there are a few items that may be relatively rare here, there is no unreleased material, just selections from Winter at his prime, and this collection does a very good job of summarizing that peak succinctly and enjoyably.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Birds Of Fire

Mahavishnu Orchestra
Emboldened by the popularity of Inner Mounting Flame among rock audiences, the first Mahavishnu Orchestra set out to further define and refine its blistering jazz-rock direction in its second -- and, no thanks to internal feuding, last -- studio album. Although it has much of the screaming rock energy and sometimes exaggerated competitive frenzy of its predecessor, Birds of Fire is audibly more varied in texture, even more tightly organized, and thankfully more musical in content. A remarkable example of precisely choreographed, high-speed solo trading -- with John McLaughlin, Jerry Goodman, and Jan Hammer all of one mind, supported by Billy Cobham's machine-gun drumming and Rick Laird's dancing bass -- can be heard on the aptly named "One Word," and the title track is a defining moment of the group's nearly atonal fury. The band also takes time out for a brief bit of spaced-out electronic burbling and static called "Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love." Yet the most enticing pieces of music on the record are the gorgeous, almost pastoral opening and closing sections to "Open Country Joy," a relaxed, jocular bit of communal jamming that they ought to have pursued further. This album actually became a major crossover hit, rising to number 15 on the pop album charts, and it remains the key item in the first Mahavishnu Orchestra's slim discography.

Richard S. Ginell, Rovi

The Essential Allman Brothers Band: The Epic Years

The Allman Brothers Band
This compilation is highly debatable as to whether it's the "Essential" Allman Brothers Band on Epic or essential at all. But there are some nice things here. For one, if offers a pretty good look at Dickey Betts as a songwriter. The title cut from Seven Turns could have been on his own Highway Call, and the live version of "Blue Sky," whose studio version originally appeared on Eat a Peach, appears here from 1992's An Evening With the Allman Brothers Band. It's notable, as is his "Jessica" from the release of the second set of that evening as a separate outing. His other tunes, "Nobody Knows" and "No One to Run With," are less successful. The former sounds like Betts was trying to rewrite the jamming section of "Whipping Post" as a new song, and the latter sounds like a bombastic Bo Diddley tribute. Of the rest, there is the now irritatingly ubiquitous "Soulshine" by Warren Haynes, which appears on almost every live outing by Gov't Mule or the Allmans. It's a decent song, but if one never heard it again it would be too soon. The acoustic version of "Midnight Rider" is taken from a previous anthology called Mycology; terrible backing vocals and Haynes doing a bad Jerry Garcia impersonation during his solo mar the cut. The final tune is a live version of Gregg Allman's "Please Call Home" from Peakin' at the Beacon. Allman is one of the greatest white blues singers in history, but simply put, this isn't one of his best performances of this tune. His vocal never catches fire because he's overwhelmed by a band that doesn't get the subtlety of the tune. This is spotty to be sure, but it contains some inspired moments.

Thom Jurek, Rovi

All We Are Saying...

Bill Frisell
All We Are Saying is Bill Frisell's third album for Savoy in 13 months. Since August of 2010, the guitarist has released Beautiful Dreamers, Sign of Life, and now this one. In addition, he collaborated on the duet recording Lagrimas Mexicanas with Brazilian guitarist Vinicius Cantuaria on Naive Jazz, released earlier this year. All We Are Saying is a full-length offering of Frisell's interpretations of John Lennon's music. Frisell's quintet includes violinist Jenny Scheinman, pedal steel and acoustic guitarist Greg Leisz, bassist Tony Scherr, and drummer Kenny Wollesen. Almost none of these 16 tunes are radical reinterpretations of Lennon's songs; most stick close to the original melodies even at their most adventurous. While there are obvious attempts at rock due to the root material -- "Revolution" and "Come Together" most notably -- this isn't a "rock" album per se, nor is it a noodling jazz record; it's much more slippery than either. Opener "Across the Universe," with its twinning of Frisell's electric guitar and Leisz's pedal steel as Scheinman's violin picks up the lyric melody and extrapolates its harmonic aspects, is indicative of the recording's M.O., offering a close examination of Lennon the "composer". The interplay between the three principals is remarkable, such as on the intro to "Nowhere Man," where Scheinman's ostinato tenses up in advance of the changes, and Leisz grounds her fluidly while Frisell pulls his lower strings to wind up, allowing the track to begin then flow into more open areas without losing sight of the melody. Sometimes it doesn't work. "Hold On" is such a ghostly sketch it's hardly there at all. "Mother," with its dissonant opening guitar, is the bluesiest thing here; its much slower tempo only adds to this impression. "Beautiful Boy" dispenses with anything extraneous save for inserting a country stroll at its center; its pace is a bit quicker to boot. The album closes with "Give Peace a Chance." Frisell employs an array of effects in swirling, shimmering contrast with Leisz's swelling steel and Scheinman's droning violin. Scherr's languid bassline, and Wollesen's lack of an authoritative backbeat and slow tempo attempt psychedelia, but feel more like an opium dream. It's the only exception to the close-to-the-core feel of the the album, and it becomes something wholly other. All We Are Saying is a revealing listen to the side of Lennon that isn't examined closely -- or often -- enough. That said, as a whole, it feels a bit "too" laid-back, especially given its nearly 70-minute length.

Thom Jurek, Rovi

Texas Cannonball (World)

Freddie King

Revelator

Tedeschi Trucks Band
Revelator is the debut studio album from the 11-piece Tedeschi-Trucks Band, who already have a reputation as a wildly exciting live jam group. That said, the record that Susan Tedeschi and husband Derek Trucks have recorded proves something beyond their well-founded reputation as a live unit: that they can write, perform, and produce great songs that capture the authentic, emotional fire and original arrangements that so many modern blues and roots recordings lack. The duo forged their two individual solo bands (Trucks remains with the Allman Brothers Band) and added some other players. Oteil and Kofi Burbridge and Mike Mattison, as well as drummers Tyler Greenwell and J.J. Johnson are on board, as well as backing vocalists and a horn section. Produced by Trucks and Jim Scott, these 12 songs seamlessly meld blues, rock, Southern soul, gospel, and funk traditions into a heady, seductive, spine-slipping stew. The record also showcases Tedeschi as one of the finest vocal stylists in roots music, and Trucks, has become the only true heir of Duane Allman's bell-like slide guitar tone, his taste and restraint. More than this, Revelator offers proof that this pair and their bandmates are serious songwriters as well as players--anyone remember the original Little Feat? It's like that, but with a woman up front. While the single, "Midnight in Harlem," highlights the softer,side of the band with Tedeschi's soulful croon and Trucks' swooning slide, it's the harder numbers that fill out the story. The sexy opener "Come See About Me," the bluesy, gospelized "Don't Let Me Slide" (one of two cuts written by Trucks and Tedeschi with Jayhawk Gary Louris), the second-line funk-blues of "Bound for Glory" with its punchy horns; all of these offer evidence of the real depth that this band abundantly possesses. There's the skittering, slow-tempo guitar and B-3 soul-blues of "Simple Things," and the New Orleans-style horns introducing "Until You Remember," which can distract the listener for a moment from experiencing these songs for what they are-- until Tedeschi opens her mouth and lets the lyrics come up from her belly and drip from her lips and Trucks matches her emotion in his solo-- love songs; the likes of which we haven't heard since Delaney & Bonnie. The Eastern modal tinge in Trucks' playing and tablas dustinguishes "These Walls," tempered by the quiet conviction in the grain of Tedeschi's vocal would have made for a better single. The nasty, funky, Hendrixian droning blues of "Learn How to Love" is textured by Kofi's funky clavinet and Wurlitzer. Speaking of funk, Tedeschi takes her own smoking guitar break in "Love Has Something Else to Say," a slamming, break-ridden funk tune that quakes. It combines hard Southern Stax-styled rhythm, soul, blues, and nasty-ass rock. Revelator is a roots record that sets a modern standard even as it draws its inspiration from the past. It's got everything a listener could want: grit, groove, raw, spiritual emotion, and expert-level musical truth.

Thom Jurek, Rovi

Flamenco!

Pepe Romero

Love Grenade

Ted Nugent

Setzer Goes Instru-MENTAL!

Brian Setzer
Given the never-ending flood of Brian Setzer albums, it comes as a mild shock that 2011’s Setzer Goes Instru-MENTAL! is his first-ever instrumental record. And a good one it is, too. Concentrating on the pre-Beatles classics that are his lifeblood, he tears it up on “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” crosses the ocean for “Cherokee,” then throws a slight curve ball by dipping his toe into bluegrass with “Earl’s Breakdown” and “Hillbilly Jazz Meltdown.” It’s enough to distinguish the album from the innumerable collections of swinging rockabilly and rocking jazz that Setzer has released since his ‘90s big-band makeover, but the best thing about the album is how it focuses squarely on Setzer’s quick picking, confirming how he is a consummate roots guitarist.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Working Girl's Guitar

Rosie Flores
In a better world, Rosie Flores would be a major star, given her estimable skills as a guitarist, songwriter, and vocalist, and the truth is there are plenty of roots rockers who have enjoyed more lucrative careers with far less to offer musically. But if Flores has had to settle for the life of a cult heroine and journeyman (journeyperson?) musician, she doesn't seem the least bit bitter about it, and the title cut of her album Working Girl's Guitar finds her proudly celebrating her life as a hard-working picker, as seen through the eyes of the well-used Telecaster copy pictured on the front cover. Flores picks up a storm all over Working Girl's Guitar, and though she's tasteful enough not to let her solos get in the way of her songs, when she feels like tearing up the fretboard, her chops are just as impressive as her melodic smarts, and she can strut her stuff on tunes that lean toward country ("Yeah, Yeah"), rock & roll ("I'm Little But I'm Loud"), surf ("Surf Demon #5"), vintage R&B ("If I Could Only Be with You"), or rockabilly ("Too Much") and sound equally at home and fully in command. Flores also pays tribute to her friend and inspiration Janis Martin with a joyous cover of her classic "Drugstore Rock and Roll," and Flores' vocals are just as limber and as spirited as her guitar work, no small accomplishment. Flores has some talented accompanists on this project, including Greg Leisz on pedal steel, Tommy Vee on bass, and Noah Levy on drums, but this is Rosie's show from the jump, and her jazzy re-imagining of George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" closes out the show in style. Working Girl's Guitar shows that Rosie Flores is still earning her keep as a musician the old-fashioned way, and she sounds like she's loving every minute of it -- and when the music's this good, there no reason she shouldn't.

Mark Deming, Rovi

A New Day Yesterday

Joe Bonamassa
Named after the early Jethro Tull classic, which he expertly covers here in a jaw-dropping performance, A New Day Yesterday is a fine debut by guitar ace Joe Bonamassa. And though his record company tried to ride the coattails of teenage guitar prodigies like Kenny Wayne Shepard and Jonny Lang and position him (misguidedly and much too late) as a straight-up prodigal blues kid, Bonamassa is really much more than a traditional bluesman. Rather, as best exemplified by the Jethro Tull number cited above, his bluesy take on Free's "Walk in My Shadows," or his hard boogie romp through Al Kooper's "Nuthin' I Wouldn't Do (For a Woman Like You)," this excellent debut places the guitarist's influences as much in classic '70s hard rock as in the blues. Along with his deceptively age-wearied vocals (he was only 22 at the time of this recording), this unusual combination translates into the aggressive, soulful crunch heard on Bonamassa's many original compositions. Among these, the jolting double whammy of "Miss You, Hate You" and "Colour and the Shape" (note the Anglicized spelling) are the most obvious standouts, but the guitarist also makes the Warren Haynes-penned "If Heartaches Were Nickels" his own with a tense, riveting performance. All in all, a promising debut.

Eduardo Rivadavia, Rovi

Afterglow

Black Country Communion
Black Country Communion recorded their third album, 2012's Afterglow, in a matter of weeks, and it shows. Its songs sound by and large looser and more spontaneous than the oftentimes overwrought, Zeppelinian extravaganzas dominating 2011's still quite wonderful BCC2, thus sort of coming full circle to their template-setting eponymous 2010 debut in the process. This, in conjunction with some public sparring betwixt BCC's celebrity band members, suggests Afterglow may end up being the group's final hurrah -- which wouldn't be all that surprising, given the always mercurial dynamics of supergroups, but why wallow in anticipated misery before the fat lady sings? Better to carry on indulging, for now, in the incomparable voice of living legend (and bassist) Glenn Hughes, instead, as well as the versatile guitar licks (and lone vocal on "Cry Freedom") of Joe Bonamassa, plus the ever powerful, spot-on drumming of Jason Bonham, and even Derek Sherinian's always tasteful keyboards -- all four led as always by Svengali producer Kevin Shirley. Actually, if anyone's ego and talent have taken a backseat to the others' throughout BCC's existence, it's been Sherinian's, so it's refreshing to be able to call out his more pronounced contributions to Afterglow. His keys lend a gospel flavor to the hypnotic churn of "This Is Your Time" (before it erupts into a blistering solo from Bonamassa); on "Confessor," they pogo around the other instruments like vintage Rush; on "Cry Freedom," his Mellotron embarks on a swirling vamp…and so it goes. One must also note that, despite the less labored vibe of the material, in general, Led Zep remain crucial instigators behind the quartet's classic hard rock stylings -- as evidenced by the start-stop dramatics of "Midnight Sun," the "No Quarter"-like reverie of "The Giver," and leaden grooves-meet-sweeping strings battling evermore across the title track. However, a disappointing, second-half quality drop-off due to workmanlike sleepwalks through "The Circle," "Crawl," and others is certainly cause for concern; after all, Hughes admitted having more time than ever before to compose for BCC this time around, possibly marking this as another clue to the group's imminent dissolution. But when you're dealing with musicians of such rare talent (not to mention an exacting producer like Shirley) even the filler tracks give off an iridescent class and arresting confidence that will doubtless come to define BCC's passage through the classic rock firmament -- even if it ends here, in a trilogy capped by Afterglow's release.

Eduardo Rivadavia, Rovi

Aftermath of the Lowdown

Richie Sambora
With the title of Aftermath of the Lowdown, his first solo album in 14 years, Richie Sambora could very well be referring to a bunch of personal problems that plagued him in the back half of the 2000s. Certainly, there is an element of confession running throughout Aftermath of the Lowdown but what's more striking about this, Sambora's third solo album, is that it is not only emotionally charged but also musically adventurous, the guitarist straying far from Bon Jovi's teased Springsteen tributes. Sambora dabbles in some modern sounds, explicitly evoking Coldplay on "Every Road Leads Home to You," but more often he suggests Bowie by way of Aerosmith, retaining his bloozy leads but indulging in trashy glam stomps as frequently as he shows a fondness for lively pop that's artful and almost a little soulful. After beginning with a deluge of heavy guitars that fall within the realm of expectations, Aftermath of the Lowdown then takes several left turns, so much so that it's never entirely clear what kind of song will follow next. This sense of adventure explains the album's release on Dangerbird Records and it also makes the album something else entirely: a record that firmly establishes Sambora's artistic identity outside of Bon Jovi.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

In Advance Of The Broken Arm

Marnie Stern
On the one hand it's almost hilarious to call Marnie Stern's music "indie rock," given the quality of her technical gifts as a finger-tapping electric guitarist (bottom line: she's a firebrand). She has a unique style that is precise and knotty and seemingly would be at home in some prog rock band of her own design. Except for one thing: her songwriting adheres to quirky lyrics and is defined by a flip-flop, herky-jerky (somewhat ) homemade rock & roll aesthetic. In Advance of the Broken Arm was written over a couple of years in her apartment on New York's Upper East Side, and was co-produced with the equally hyperactive and truly inventive drummer Zach Hill (Hella), with contributions from John Reed Thompson (who also engineered and mixed the set). Hill remains a pop songwriter -- albeit a fractured one. These songs are noisy, full of shards and sharp edges -- there is a New York no wave lineage at work here to be sure -- but they contain unmistakable hooks and strategies that set them firmly in the pocket. This music is loud and obnoxious but endearing, and in the sonic wail and skip of "Vibrational Match" one can hear everything from the lineage of David Byrne's irresistible outsider charm from his days with Talking Heads to the sonic rock & roll attack of Chavez, the rock & roll swagger of Sleater-Kinney (Stern's initial inspiration to write songs), and the free-for-all fun of the Boredoms and Melt Banana. Stern's multi-tracked vocals are elfin and authoritative as well as playful. She can conjure a chanted rock & roll anthem with power chords or knotty twist-and-turn lead and sung lines ("Grapefruit"). She can transform a standard six-string riff into an intricate, turn-on-a-dime, sonically warped avant construct "without" losing her groove ("Every Single Line Means Something") or engender jagged-edged chaos -- with help from Hill's frenetic, over the top drumming ("The Weight of a Rock"). There isn't anything subtle about In Advance of the Broken Arm. It swaggers and twirls, careens and cavorts with disaster at every moment, but always manages to keep its insane energy in focus with infectiously good humor to boot. This album is the prescription for anyone who thinks rock has imploded or has nothing new to offer. This record may flaunt its excesses -- and there are many but they're mostly all welcome (Stern's album is "maximalist" indie rockism, after all) -- without concern or hesitation, but it is perhaps forward enough in its reach and ambition to act as a spark for as-yet-unheard rockers writing in bedrooms everywhere.

Thom Jurek, Rovi

Smokin' At The Half Note

Wes Montgomery
Smokin' at the Half Note is essential listening for anyone who wants to hear why Wes Montgomery's dynamic live shows were considered the pinnacle of his brilliant and incredibly influential guitar playing. Pat Metheny calls this "the absolute greatest jazz guitar album ever made," and with performances of this caliber ("Unit 7" boasts one of the greatest guitar solos ever recorded), his statement is easily validated. Montgomery never played with more drive and confidence, and he's supported every step of the way by a genuinely smokin' Wynton Kelly Trio. [In 1998, Verve reissued the complete show on disc two of Impressions: The Verve Jazz Sides, although the scrambled track order and some nonessential cuts didn't diminish the appeal of the original album. Smokin' at the Half Note appeared again in 2005, this time with six additional tracks left off the original.]

Jim Smith, Rovi