Posts Tagged ‘ Blues ’

Album of the Week 06-2020: The Allman Brothers Band – Hittin’ The Note


‘Hittin’ The Note’ was the first and only studio album The Allman Brothers Band recorded without either of their legendary founding guitarists. Duane Allman died way back in late 1971 and Dickey Betts was asked to leave the band in 2000. For a guitar-oriented band like The Allman Brothers Band, this could be disastrous. With replacements like Derek Trucks and Gov’t Mule frontman Warren Haynes, however, there was nothing to worry about. Especially with Haynes, who also acts as co-producer, tightening up the songwriting significantly. As a result, ‘Hittin’ The Note’ rivals ‘Shades Of Two Worlds’ as the band’s best post-reunion release.

Musically, ‘Hittin’ The Note’ sounds notably more focused than its meandering predecessor – by no less than nine years – ‘Where It All Begins’. Since this is The Allman Brothers Band, the music is still rather jam-heavy, but the songs feel less like mere vehicles for extended jams. Betts’ departure also means that the music is notably less country-oriented. Of course this was not Betts’ only trick, but as main songwriters, Haynes and singing keyboard player Gregg Allman are obviously more strongly inspired by blues and soul. Even the acoustically-based ‘Old Before My Time’ and ‘Old Friend’ sound folky and bluesy respectively.

At times, it can become fairly obvious that the main songwriter on the album – Haynes co-wrote all the non-covers on ‘Hittin’ The Note’ – is a member of Gov’t Mule. The dry, funky blues of opening track ‘Firing Line’, the fierce and tight ‘Maydell’, the gritty blues rock of ‘Rockin’ Horse’ and the relatively low-key, rumbling soul blues of ‘Who To Believe’ could easily have been Gov’t Mule songs had they had slightly different arrangements. Those arrangements are relevant though. At least half of the Allman Brothers’ sound is about their unique rhythm section (drummers Jaimoe and Butch Trucks and percussionist Marc Quiñones) and how well the musicians play off each other.

Nowhere is this musical interaction as obvious as on the twelve minute ‘Instrumental Illness’. The Allman Brothers Band has a history of fantastic instrumental tracks and this one is no different. Its playful, jazzy vibe conjures up memories of Betts’ masterpiece ‘In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed’, but ‘Instrumental Illness’ is more tightly composed and arranged. There are more parts, which appear to be designed to let every musician shine without diverting your attention away from the stellar playing behind the solos. ‘Desdemona’ has a middle section like that as well. It starts as a fantastic slow blues with a heartfelt vocal delivery by Allman, broken up by what almost feels like a slower take on the jam in ‘Whipping Post’.

In short, ‘Hittin’ The Note’ is exactly what one would expect from The Allman Brothers Band, just done somewhat better than usual. It is definitely one of my favorite three studio albums of the band and I think that is mainly due to the fact that the focus is on strong songwriting in which to incorporate spirited jamming rather than making the jams the center of the album. Whatever the case, anyone who is into bluesy rock music should hear this album, if only to hear that even without Duane Allman and Dickey Betts, the band was capable of some mind-blowing work.

Recommended tracks: ‘Rockin’ Horse’, ‘Instrumental Illness’, ‘Maydell’

Album of the Week 40-2019: The Magpie Salute – High Water II


While it isn’t entirely fair to keep comparing The Magpie Salute to The Black Crowes due to the large number of shared members, the fact is that the Crowes had not impressed me as much as The Magpie Salute’s debut album ‘High Water I’ did last year. Without his brother Chris, Rich Robinson was allowed to focus on what made his music so good in the first place: well-written songs and the inspired guitar interplay between him and Marc Ford. Add an exceptional singer in the shape of John Hogg and you’ve got recipe for success. ‘High Water II’ is no different.

Musically, ‘High Water II’ does appear to be a little more direct than its predecessor. The latter day Led Zeppelin-isms of ‘High Water’ and the slightly psychedelic touches have mostly been sacrificed in favor of a selection of tightly composed southern rock, southern soul and americana songs that are big on melodic hooks and spontaneity. Though I am not familiar with the recording process, it does look like it has been recorded with the entire band in one room again. The recordings just have that feel. Especially in the way the musicians react to one another at times.

Despite its more direct approach, ‘High Water II’ failed to make the impression the first part did when I listened to it the first time. A couple of spins in, it is hard to define why, as there is plenty to like on here for anyone who enjoyed the debut. Fans of the soulful rockers will be delighted by the likes of ‘Doesn’t Really Matter’, ‘Leave It All Behind’, the horn-heavy ‘In Here’ and ‘Turn It Around’, while the more americana-oriented part of the audience will certainly be enamored by the Marc Ford-sung tracks ‘Lost Boy’ and ‘Life Is A Landslide’. The semi-epic ‘Mother Storm’ marries the two sides quite perfectly.

As a whole, ‘High Water II’ has a very pleasant flow, because its consistently energetic, high-quality playing and writing does not let up. There are slightly less obvious highlights this time around, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t around. Closing track ‘Where Is This Place’ is a masterpiece in the way it combines the compositorical elements of country blues with the electrified grooves of late sixties and early seventies soul. The Stonesy grit of ‘Gimme Something’ accounts for a driving, powerful song, while ‘Sooner Or Later’ definitely is the most Crowes-like song on the record and therefore a perfect choice to open the record.

I’ve said it before, but I will say it again: without Chris Robinson’s insistent hippie mysticism, Rich Robinson’s songs come across much better these days. There don’t appear to be any ego’s in The Magpie Salute: everyone just seems to want what is best for the song. While it is easy to transform these types of songs into a vehicle for overlong soloing, the band keeps its records concise, memorable and highly inspired. While I still think ‘High Water I’ has a slight edge over this new album, it is basically as close as it can possibly get and quite likely is more consistent as a whole.

Recommended tracks: ‘Where Is This Place’, ‘Mother Storm’, ‘Gimme Something’

Album of the Week 29-2017: The Meters – Rejuvenation


Within the funk idiom, The Meters are the prime representatives of the New Orleans sound. Not as angrily defiant as James Brown, not as dirty as the Ohio Players and not as crazy as Parliament-Funkadelic, the band focused on swinging, relatively relaxed grooves, which landed them a job as the backing band of New Orleans greats like Allen Toussaint and Dr. John. Their own material is worth hearing as well though. ‘Rejuvenation’ is their first album without any instrumentals, which were part of their charm, but the record is so full of inspired grooves and memorable melodies that it hardly matters.

On their first three albums, The Meters specialized in laid-back funk grooves, often making their songs sound like they belong on the soundtracks of one of the Blaxploitation films that were so popular at the time. The shift to predominantly vocal tracks on this album’s predecessor ‘Cabbage Alley’ may have raised some eyebrows at the time, but it is a fact that ‘Rejuvenation’ is full of excellent songs, some of which – most prominently the typical New Orleans rhythm of ‘Hey Pocky A-Way’ – sound like they could have been on one of their earliest records, except that these songs feature singing.

At other times, ‘Rejuvenation’ features the band leaning heavily towards more contemporary funk. Opening track ‘People Say’ has a suprisingly propulsive, stomping beat that nods strongly towards the harder funk that was gaining popularity at the time, while ‘Just Kissed My Baby’ is as close as The Meters ever came to the slinky, sexy grooves of the Ohio Players. ‘Jungle Man’ and the excellent closing track ‘Africa’ are great examples of the band adapting the sparse, prominent grooves of Sly & The Family Stone to their New Orleans background and bridging the gap between several types of funk in the process.

The album’s centerpiece, however, is the massive, 12 minute track ‘It Ain’t No Use’. This masterpiece of a song starts out like a blues track with some excellent stinging guitar fills by Leo Nocentelli, which are strongly reminiscent of Clapton during his best days in Cream. Art Neville’s passionate vocals are incredible as well. After the more song-oriented part is out of the way, a long, inspired funk jam starts, during which every member gets a chance to shine. Especially the rhythm section of drummer Ziggy Modeliste and bassist extraordinaire George Porter Jr. is beyond incredible here. Its jamtastic nature makes it stand out from the relatively concise material on ‘Rejuvenation’, but that’s not a problem.

‘Rejuvenation’ is the ultimate proof that The Meters could handle any kind of funk. As such, it is one of the most versatile and varied funk records released to date, as its styles range from the highly poppy ‘Loving You Is On My Mind’ all the way to the hard driving ‘Africa’. And The Meters tackle all of these styles with equal enthusiasm and inspiration. The album is definitely where the musicianship and the songcraft of The Meters is in perfect balance. Which is great, because as much as I love their contributions to the records of all these New Orleans legends, making their own music is really what The Meters do best.

Recommended tracks: ‘It Ain’t No Use’, ‘Africa’, ‘Jungle Man’

My Eric Bibb interview in Gitarist


It has been in stores a while already, but I would still like to inform you about this month’s issue of Gitarist. I have had a very nice interview with Eric Bibb about the recordings of his fantastic new album ‘Migration Blues’ and the concept behind the record. It was a very pleasant and insightful interview and on top of that, Bibb is a very kind guy. I am also happy that Gitarist used one of the photos I took of him at his show at De Flux in Zaandam.

There is plenty more to enjoy. Tons of gear and album reviews for instance. Or more practically: a 10 page chord special. It is in stores now, so enjoy it while it still is!

Album of the Week 50-2016: Chris Rea – The Return Of The Fabulous Hofner Bluenotes


More than three decades after his biggest successes, Chris Rea only does whatever he wants. Freed from the shackles of label pressure and being given a second chance after pancreatic cancer nearly took his life, Rea went back to the blues that has inspired him since he started playing guitar in his early twenties. Often employing a theme as the framework for his later records, ‘The Return Of The Fabulous Hofner Bluenotes’ is a tribute to the importance of the relatively cheap Hofner guitars for the development of British sixties music. The music, however, is pure, unadulterated Chris Rea blues.

Rea was always too much of a songwriter – and a really good one at that – to be taken seriously by fans of the delta blues that influenced him strongly, but that’s also what makes his music so interesting. Sure, in the eighties, producers often smoothed his sound to the point that there was more pop than blues, but his slide guitar playing is full of bluesy soul. And then there’s the voice. His sandpaper vocal cords are instantly recognizable and therefore, it’s difficult to categorize ‘The Return Of The Fabulous Hofner Bluenotes’ as anything else than a Chris Rea record.

However flawed it is as a period piece – save for the Shadows-like instrumentals of the fictional group The Delmonts – the songs are amazing. That’s also where Rea’s songwriting comes in: these aren’t just vehicles for live jamming, a considerable amount of effort has gone into the structure, atmosphere and attention span of these songs. Especially when Rea and his rhythm section of Colin Hodgkinson (bass) and Martin Ditcham (drums) adopt a somewhat more laidback approach, like they do in ‘I Will Be With You’ and ‘The Shadow Of A Fool’, something magic happens. It’s almost as if Rea whispers incantations.

‘Blues For Janice’ is the album’s highlight. In essence, the song isn’t that much different than some of Rea’s eighties hit songs, but the rawer approach gives the song an air of sincerity that you don’t often hear anymore. It’s great how the rawness of Rea’s guitar enhances the dreamy atmosphere of the song rather than clashing with it. Other songs, like ‘Legacy Blues’ and ‘Don’t Give Your Ace Away’ have a rhythmic drive that is a trademark of Rea’s later work. It’s remarkable how much variation there is on the record; there are elements of blues, rock, jazz, pop and soul throughout the record, but the unique sound never really becomes one of each.

Whether you get the trimmed down version on one cd or the huge audio book version where The Delmonts can be heard on one cd and the Hofner Bluenotes on the other – in case it wasn’t clear, it’s all Rea, Hodgkinson and Ditcham – there’s enough variation and good songwriting going on to keep any listener interested all throughout its length. Like any of Chris Rea’s latter day albums, ‘The Return Of The Fabulous Hofner Bluenotes’ is full of great, blues-inspired music that doesn’t care if it’s marketable or if it fits any category. That’s how the best records get made.

Recommended tracks: ‘Blues For Janice’, ‘The Shadow Of A Fool’, ‘Legacy Blues’

Album of the Week 47-2016: Robert Plant and the Strange Sensation – Mighty ReArranger


“My peers may flirt with cabaret / Some fake the rebel yell / Me, I’m moving up to higher ground / I must escape their hell”. Sure, these words may come across a bit arrogant, but they’re very true first and foremost. Not a single member of any legendary group had a solo career that has been so consistently focused on constantly reinventing himself the way that former Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant does. Not even George Harrison and Paul Simon. Hungry to discover folk music from all the corners of the world and determined to stay relevant, Plant’s solo output is consistently amazing.

What is it that makes Plant’s discography so good? Mainly that he stubbornly refuses to repeat himself. Whether he does a contemporary take on the Zep sound (‘Manic Nirvana’) or immerses himself completely in different styles (‘Shaken ‘n’ Stirred’), he is convincing rather than embarrassing. ‘Mighty ReArranger’ manages to be both extremes at the same time. There are big, beefy Zeppelin-esque riffs and Plant’s voice is of course one of a kind, but the textures and rhythms borrowed from Middle-Eastern, American and North and West African folk music give the record a clear identity of its own, not to mention a layered approach that slowly reveals its secrets over repeated listens.

Plant was in his late fifties when ‘Mighty ReArranger’ was recorded, but his backing band The Strange Sensation consists of people with indie, jazz and trip hop backgrounds, while guitarist Justin Adams grew up in Egypt and produced Mali’s mighty Tinariwen and brings a knowledge of the African music that Plant loves so much to the table. All these influences blend in a way that shouldn’t work, yet it does. Songs like ‘The Enchanter’ and the brooding ‘Tin Pan Valley’ sound like Massive Attack jamming with Led Zeppelin, while ‘Takamba’ and ‘Somebody Knocking’ have distinct desert blues leanings.

Another asset of ‘Mighty ReArranger’ is that a lot of attention has been spent on its flow. This isn’t just a collection of songs, it is designed for a listener’s maximum attention span. It builds up from the acoustic-based ‘Another Tribe’ and the accessible rocker ‘Shine It All Around’ through some more experimental moments like the folky ‘All The Kings Horses’, the Byrds-inspired hippie rock tune ‘Dancing In Heaven’, the aformentioned ‘Tin Pan Valley’ and the subdued, yet rhythmically throbbing ‘Let The Four Winds Blow’ until it ties all ends together in the title track. And the bar boogie Ray Charles tribute ‘Brother Ray’ is a nice epilogue.

Despite the consistently high level of Plant’s solo output, ‘Mighty ReArranger’ is the record I revisit most. Possibly the presence of an actual backing band gives Plant a solid basis to work with and as a result, it’s about the music as much as it is about his performance. It speaks volumes about his versatility that everything sounds equally convincing, no matter if it touches upon hardrock, blues, indie, folk or world music. If you’re into one of those genres, you will do yourself a favor by checking this record out. You’ll probably end up liking the others as well.

Recommended tracks: ‘Tin Pan Valley’, ‘Let The Four Winds Blow’, ‘Freedom Fries’

In Memoriam Leon Russell 1942-2016


Why the media haven’t quite gotten to this sad death of another musical icon is beyond me. Leon Russell was a presence to be reckoned with. When he sat down behind the piano with his long white hair and beard, often with a hat, you just felt there was someone there. His broad musical output, which touches on folk, country, blues, rock, soul and jazz, speaks for itself. His woeful tale of heartache known as ‘A Song For You’ has been covered by over 100 artists, but even so, he was more known as a studio musician for the likes of Joe Cocker, Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra and the Rolling Stones.

Leon Russell was – along with Dr. John – my favorite white piano player. The Oklahoma born pianist had a way of combining styles from a young age; his early band The Starlighters, which also included J.J. Cale, was one of the creators of what would became known as the Tulsa Sound, which combined elements of country, blues, rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll. As a result, Russell was often invited to studio sessions by people looking for that sound, even after he moved to Los Angeles. Not just on piano, by the way; he was a proficient guitarist as well.

During this time, Russell had also proven himself as a highly successful songwriter. It was in this capacity that he was introduced to Joe Cocker, who recorded his song ‘Delta Lady’. Russell eventually became the band leader for Cocker’s ‘Mad Dogs & Englishmen’ tour, of which a popular concert film was made. Meanwhile, Russell was already working on a solo career. His self-titled debut was released in 1970 and included classics like ‘Shootout On The Plantation’, ‘Hummingbird’ and his own version of ‘Delta Lady’. And ‘A Song For You’, on which Russell’s performance may not be technically perfect, but it’s an intense emotional experience.

His contribution to George Harrison’s ‘The Concert For Bangladesh’ in 1971 is likely what brought him to public attention. Besides playing the piano and bass, he also sang the Rolling Stones classic ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ and The Coasters’ ‘Young Blood’. During the rest of the seventies, he would keep steadily releasing albums either under his own name or his country alter ego Hank Wilson. I personally consider the dreamy, jazzy and occasionally bizarre ‘Carney’ to be his best solo studio album. ‘Magic Mirror’, ‘Tight Rope’, ‘This Masquerade’, ‘Roller Derby’ and ‘Manhattan Island Serenade’ are all masterpieces. Dutch listeners may recognize the latter as the basis for the 1981 Amazing Stroopwafels hit ‘Oude Maasweg’.

After the seventies, Leon Russell slowly faded into obscurity. He would continue releasing albums and playing live solo or backing artists, but it would take until 2010 before the duet album ‘The Union’ he recorded with ardent admirer Elton John brought him back to the public eye. The album is a masterclass in both piano playing and songwriting and shines with an unbridled joy for making music. Both Russell and John simply hadn’t sounded that great in years. Russell’s last studio album ‘Life Journey’ was released in 2014.

Even though he kept on playing live right until the end of his life and was even talking about tour dates in 2017, the many health issues that plagued Russell in recent years have ultimately prevented him from doing so. He was recovering from heart surgery when he died in his sleep at age 74 yesterday. And so, the in memoriam I had hoped not to write in a while is a fact. I will miss Russell’s adventurous musical spirit and urge everyone to dig into his sizable discography as a tribute to this musical mastermind who may not have gotten the public praise he deserved, but could count on undivided admiration from his fellow musicians.

Album of the Week 23-2016: Sven Hammond Soul – The Usual Suspects


When Sven Hammond Soul started out, they were a Hammond organ-based (don’t tell me that surprises you) instrumental Soul band reminiscent of Booker T. & The M.G.’s and maybe The Meters. Through a sort of horn-filled Soul revue approach, they eventually became the best Rock ‘n’ Soul band in the Netherlands. As a result, the band eventually dropped the “Soul” from the name, but this last record under the original name is where the shift towards more song-oriented material first happened. Having an amazing singer (Ivan Peroti) in the line-up and a Rock oriented producer (Tony Platt) may have influenced that, but whatever the case, the album is amazing.

‘The Usual Suspects’ has a distinct late sixties and early seventies vibe, but still sounds rather current. Platt’s clear and vibrant production helps a bit, but even moreso, the band knows how to write a good song without trying to get too caught up in becoming a period piece. There’s hints of Blues and Pop, larger parts of Soul, Funk and Rock and most impressively, those influences blend together seamlessly in a way that should please fans of any of those genres. It certainly feels like these songs came together without much concern of what genre it fits and the whole record profits from that.

It was the (almost) title track of this record that definitively won me over for the band. ‘The Usual Suspect’ has some nice riffs that don’t overpower the composition, a great vocal melody from Peroti and an amazing chorus. Try to imagine a mixture of The Black Crowes more concise songs and Tom Jones’ most Soulful material. But it’s hardly the only highlight on the record. ‘Happy People’ is nice and funky, ‘Children Of The Dark’ works towards the perfect climax that is the moving chorus and ‘Pussy’ compensates for its unfortunate title by being an instrumental track with all the band members firing on all Funk cylinders.

Although ‘Good Home’ is primarily a Funk track, drummer Joost Kroon seems to be channelling his inner John Bonham in a main section that is highly reminiscent of ‘Immigrant Song’, which pleases the Led Zeppelin fan that I am. ‘Heaven’ and especially the sparse closer ‘My Name’ give Peroti all the room he needs to prove his excellence as a singer. Guitarist Tim Eijmaal has plenty of moments throughout the record, but the relatively heavy Blues riff that ‘Bad News’ is built upon deserves a special mention. That simple, but brutally effective lead is pretty awesome too!

Even if you’re not primarily a fan of Soul music, you’d still do yourself a favor checking ‘The Usual Suspects’ out. It’s an extremely well written record featuring a band that takes full advantage from the fact that it consists of five top class musicians. Don’t be fooled though: Sven Hammond – with or without Soul – doesn’t get its kicks from blowing your mind with their technical prowess. Instead, they use their skills to give each and every song the treatment it needs to shine. The results are stunning.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Usual Suspect’, ‘My Name’, ‘Happy People’

Album of the Week 35-2015: Imelda May – More Mayhem


Most Rockabilly revival artists are charming and entertaining, but so exclusively driven by nostalgia that they lack any relevance in the contemporary music industry. Imelda May avoids this pitfall with a more versatile approach to her – admittedly strongly old school – style. There’s a lot of Rockabilly, of course, but also hints of Jazz, Country and quite a healthy shot of Blues. In addition, miss May isn’t just a great singer, she’s a fantastic songwriter as well. All of this contributes to the fact that ‘More Mayhem’ – a reissue of her best album ‘Mayhem’ – manages to stay interesting all throughout its running time.

Why ‘More Mayhem’ then, you may ask? Why not just ‘Mayhem’? Well, first of all, ‘More Mayhem’ has ‘Road Runner’. With its driving rhythm and May’s irresistible lower register vocals, it is easily one of May’s best and most vibrant songs. The slow Blues ‘Blues Calling’ has a distinct New Orleans vibe that sets my heart on fire as well. Also, I might enjoy the remix of ‘Inside Out’ just a little more than its slightly slower original. So now we’ve only talked about the bonus tracks and we’ve already discussed three of the album’s highlights. That’s why!

Among the original album, there are quite a few moments of absolute brilliance as well. Quite a few of those are outside of May’s supposed comfort zone. ‘Proud And Humble’ doesn’t exactly sound out of place in terms of atmosphere, but the acoustic guitar parts seem to pay more tribute to May’s Irish heritage than her Rockabilly fascination. ‘All For You’ in all its sultriness and seduction sounds like it could have been one of those Jazzy show tunes from the 1930’s – and that roar in the chorus induces goosebumps. ‘Too Sad To Cry’ almost sounds like a funeral dirge, but May’s hertfelt delivery makes it beautiful.

Early on, ‘Let Me Out’ became one of my absolute favorites of Imelda May’s entire oeuvre. It rocks relatively hard; had it not been for Darrel Higham’s distinct reverb-drenched Rockabilly sound and the shuffle rhythms, it could have been a Gov’t Mule song. Higham churns out a great guitar solo as well. The song builds toward its amazing chorus fantastically. Also, May has been known for a number of fantastic covers of songs from the fifties and sixties. On this album, she comes close to Gloria Jones’ original of ‘Tainted Love’. Not as good as the original, but definitely the best cover of the song I’ve heard so far. ‘Pulling The Rug’ and ‘Mayhem’ are more familiar territory for May, but executed extremely well.

Lately, retro styles have been quite popular, but what makes a really good artist is to take the musical legacy that comes with your tastes and turn it into something of your own. Imelda May has understood that and although elements of her sound are extremely familiar, she consistently refuses to paint a musical picture that’s just true to nature, opting to go for something a bit more timeless instead. It has so far resulted in three good to incredible albums, with this one being the most allround satisfying listening experience.

Recommended tracks: ‘Let Me Out’, ‘Road Runner’, ‘All For You’

Best of 2014: The Albums

Yes, it’s that time of year again. And let me start out by saying that 2014 was a slight disappointment in terms of new releases. Sure, one of the best Dutch Rock albums in ages was released (look for it at number one) and that wasn’t the only impressive release this year, but in all honesty, most of the releases I anticipated were live documents and reissues. Some surprisingly strong comebacks and a few new bands that blew me away did compensate for the initial disappointment though.

Make no mistake though: each and every one of these albums is worthy of your time and attention. This year’s number one is one of the albums I played most throughout the year and restored my faith in the fact that the Rock scene hadn’t drowned in its own self-importance or hit song obsession.

1. Navarone – Vim And Vigor

Oh, how I love this record! Navarone already was one of Holland’s most promising bands, but with ‘Vim And Vigor’, they made one of my favorite records in recent years. While the song durations may hint at a more compact direction, the album is surprisingly adventurous. It shows Navarone exploring all the corners of their versatile Rock sound. There are loads of seventies Hardrock riffs, but also a few songs consisting of a more rhythmical contemporary approach, Southern Rock-style ballads and psychedelic passages, all tied together by concise songwriting, massive choruses and Merijn van Haren’s fantastic, powerful voice. ‘Vim And Vigor’ is obligatory for every Rock fan of any kind. And good luck trying to play it more than I have.

Recommended tracks: ‘Time’, ‘Wander’, ‘Indigo Blue’

2. D’Angelo – Black Messiah

Now where did that album suddenly come from? D’Angelo had been working on ‘Black Messiah’ for over fourteen years and we have been told it was nearly done since 2011. It was worth the wait though; ‘Black Messiah’ is almost as good as ‘Voodoo’. But where ‘Voodoo’ was seductive, ‘Black Messiah’ is militant. Or at least socially conscious. It’s a grower for sure, in the sense that the album slowly reveals its secrets over repeated spins, in all of their grooving, riotous and at times psychedelic glory. This is ‘There’s A Riot Goin’ On’ for the 21st century. Very much so, in fact. Even though D’Angelo sticks to his story that he rushed through the final phase of the album – once again: I chuckled – it’s obvious he worked hard at once again creating a unique work of art. He succeeded.

Recommended tracks: ‘Betray My Heart’, ‘The Charade’, ‘1000 Deaths’

3. Sanctuary – The Year The Sun Died

With Nevermore, a band I loved intensely, gone – or, if you will, on hiatus – this reunion of Warrel Dane’s and Jim Sheppard’s former band is the second best thing I can wish for. Then again, because of the modern production and Dane’s current vocal range, it does sound a lot like Nevermore. While the song patterns don’t vary greatly throughout the record, the riffs call for headbanging, the choruses are catchy and recognizable and the soaring guitar leads are just fantastic. This may not be the falsetto screams and old style Power Metal riff festival that ‘Refuge Denied’ was, but this is a clever contemporary Metal record with all the elements that make Heavy Metal so amazing in the first place firmly in tact.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Year The Sun Died’, ‘Frozen’, ‘Question Existence Fading’

4. OverKill – White Devil Armory

It’s not unusual for me to anticipate an OverKill album. They’ve been my favorite band – alongside Led Zeppelin – for ages. But it doesn’t happen very often that my blood gets boiling as quickly as it did upon first listening to ‘White Devil Armory’. This is OverKill’s East Coast Thrash Metal in all its aggressive, violent and full speed glory. It’s interesting that Dave Linsk’s lead guitar work infuses some of the songs with an almost triumphant old school Heavy Metal feel, most particularly in the amazing closing track ‘In The Name’, one of OverKill’s carreer highlights. ‘White Devil Armory’ should send all these young Retro Thrashing kids back to rehearsal in shame. And they’re only allowed when they come back when they have at least half the energy that Bobby ‘Blitz’ Ellsworth has today. Incredible.

Recommended tracks: ‘In The Name’, ‘Pig’, ‘Where There’s Smoke…’

5. King Of The World – KOTW

Almost exactly a year after their brilliant first album, there was a brilliant second album. As if it takes them no effort whatsoever. ‘KOTW’ confirms King Of The World’s status as the best Blues band in the Netherlands. Possibly in Europe. While the first album was one of the most versatile Blues records I had heard in a while, this one shows the band branching out even outside the borders of what is traditionally considered Blues by combining it with flourishes of Soul, Funk grooves and even some Rock riffs. And all of it with similar conviction and audible enthusiasm. And if that wasn’t enough to convince you, let me tell you that King Of The World is one of the very few Blues bands that can translate their live excitement to their records. ‘KOTW’ is proof.

Recommended tracks: ‘Beating Like A Drum’, ‘Living With The Ghost Of The Past’, ‘Hurricane’

6. No Sinner – Boo Hoo Hoo

Not only was No Sinner’s press day one of the most fun I have ever had – singer Colleen Rennison is awesome and their entire entourage is incredibly friendly – but the debut album of the Vancouver based band was one of the first albums I’ve loved this year. Rennison seems to love sixties Rock ‘n’ Soul as much as I do, possibly even more, and as a result, ‘Boo Hoo Hoo’ is a fantastic record that brings back memories of the best Janis Joplin, Big Mama Thornton and Ike & Tina Turner recordings. Eric Campbell’s guitar work does keep the songs firmly within the realms of Rock music though. It does sound like I have to see them in a smokey bar – are there still any of those left anyway? – for the full experience, but this album is as good as it gets if you need your fill on rootsy Rock music.

Recommended tracks: ‘September Moon’, ‘That’d Be The Day’, ‘Love Is A Madness’

7. Dir En Grey – Arche

It’s good to hear Dir En Grey try their hand at something more melodic after the more brutal approach of the last few records. The contemporary progressive leanings are retained though, resulting in – once again – a truly unique record. For me, the fact that Kyo equips his clean vocals more often is one of the album’s redeeming factors, but the songwriting is top notch once again. Where some passages of ‘Dum Spiro Spero’ were a bit of an aural blur, the songs on ‘Arche’ all have a face of their own and those faces may not be pretty (except for maybe ‘Kuukoku No Kyouon’), but they definitely all are worth interacting with. Because of the album’s layered nature, some of the album’s shining moments won’t immediately be at the surface. One of them, though – Shinya’s best drumming so far – is right where you can hear it.

Recommended tracks: ‘Un Deux’, Chain Repulsion’, ‘Kuukoku No Kyouon’

8. Joanne Shaw Taylor – The Dirty Truth

Okay, so I’ve never made a secret of my love for what Joanne Shaw Taylor does, but then again: her huge guitar work, her raw and heartfelt voice and her versatile songwriting leave very little to be desired anyway. After the wildly eclectic ‘Almost Always Never’, ‘The Dirty Truth’ is a more concise set of American Roots music. All the more impressive, given that Taylor is British. The Soul influences were always at the surface, but it seems like Taylor increasingly embraces funky grooves. And she’s got Memphis legend Steve Potts on drums here, so why not? The simple fact is that ‘The Dirty Truth’ is full of amazing Blues, Soul, Rock and Americana tunes played passionately by one of the biggest talents in the contemporary Blues scene.

Recommended tracks: ‘Wicked Soul’, ‘Wrecking Ball’, ‘The Dirty Truth’

9. Robert Plant – Lullaby And… The Ceaseless Roar

Robert Plant could easily just sit back and enjoy the benefits of once being the legendary frontman of the world’s ultimate Rock band, but his hunger to discover Folk music from all over the world is seemingly endless. That much is clear when you put on ‘Lullaby And… The Ceaseless Roar’; he moves from Americana to the Middle East and even has a Gambian griot in his backing band. Speaking of which: the Sensational Space Shifters brings back several members of Plant’s best backing band the Strange Sensation and even though the music isn’t quite as exuberant as on ‘Mighty Rearranger’ – the lullaby drowns out the ceaseless roar – the influence from African Rock and Blues is more than obvious. The results are often hypnotizing and haunting. It’s not an easy album to get into, but then again: regardless of your taste, Plant hasn’t ever released anything less than impressive.

Recommended tracks: ‘Embrace Another Fall’, ‘Arbaden (Maggie’s Babby)’, ‘A Stolen Kiss’

10. Triggerfinger – By Absence Of The Sun

For a minute, the mainstream Pop success of their cover of ‘I Follow Rivers’ – a decent cover of a terrible song – made me afraid of Triggerfinger’s future. I know I shouldn’t have; the Belgian trio has always done what they wanted and nothing else. As a result, ‘By Absence Of The Sun’ is yet another manifestatation of what makes Triggerfinger so good in the first place. It’s a record of very little subtlety. It’s raw, it’s powerful, it’s primal and has a few warts that make it all the more attractive. Also, it seems like someone finally succeeded in translating the sweaty energy of the band’s intense live performances to a studio record. Predecessor ‘All This Dancin’ Around’ was a collection of good songs, but ‘By Absence Of The Sun’ has been put just that little extra effort into to make it the hard working band’s ultimate mission statement.

Recommended tracks: ‘Halfway There’, ‘There Isn’t Time’, ‘And There She Was Lying In Wait’

11. The Tea Party – The Ocean At The End

Where the live documents from 2012 proved that The Tea Party was perfectly able to capture the spirit of their classic material, ‘The Ocean At The End’ is the proof that they’re still coming up with material that can easily stand the comparison with it. In fact, the band sounds more free and relieved than ever, giving ‘The Ocean At The End’ sort of a jam feel instead of the tightly composed productions that were ‘Transmission’ and ‘Triptych’. The Canadian power trio is obviously not afraid to experiment and although sometimes the Led Zeppelin influences are slightly too obvious – opening track ‘The L.O.C.’ sounds a ridiculous amount like ‘The Song Remains The Same’ at some points – the results are stunning. The title track is Jeff Martin’s crowning achievement as a guitarist; that guitar solo cuts right through your soul.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Ocean At The End’, ‘Cypher’, ‘The Black Sea’

12. The Backcorner Boogie Band – Faico Faico

Hailing from a part of the Netherlands that is litterally translated to “The Backcorner”, this is definitely the most aptly named band in this year’s list. Also, their music is just amazing. The lineup of the band is massive, but they’re all devoted to comibining Blues, Rock, Soul and even hints of Americana and Gospel into an irresistable cocktail. The results sound a little similar to The Black Crowes and The Rolling Stones and fans of those bands should know that this band can absolutely compare itself favorably to them. There’s a swinging rhythm section, a bunch of amazing singers, bombastic horns, killer guitar work and a rumbling Hammond organ and no one is trying to upstage or outshine anyone. This makes ‘Faico Faico’ the ultimate jam record released in the Benelux this past year and should be heard by anyone.

Recommended tracks: ‘Angels’, ‘When The Day Is Done’, ‘Lost My Job To A Chinaman’

13. Anthem – Absolute World

Because of bassist and band leader Naoto Shibata’s illness, Anthem was shortly on hold. When they returned, it wasn’t Eizo Sakamoto, but Yukio Morikawa who fronted the band. And while he hasn’t stood the test of time as good as his two-time predecessor, his spirit and passion are part of what make ‘Absolute World’ such a good Heavy Metal record. The songs courtesy of Shibata and guitarist Akio Shimizu are important as well; ‘Absolute World’ is Anthem’s most riff-driven album in a while and Shimizu seasons the album with a number of mindblowing guitar solos. This is quite obviously a band that is very heartfelt about old school Heavy and Power Metal and they succeed at getting that across even three and a half decades into their carreer. Well worth the import price that may be steep.

Recommended tracks: ‘In The Chaos’, ‘Sailing’, ‘Destroy The Boredom’

14. De Dijk – Allemansplein

Predecessor ‘Scherp De Zeis’ already saw De Dijk moving away from the French chanson influences that characterized part of their recent output and ‘Allemansplein’ is once again an almost fully Blues and Soul infused record. Because make no mistake: for a band whose lyrics are entirely in Dutch, De Dijk sounds remarkably American musically. The title track is one of the most sparse tracks in the history of the band and has this wonderful tension hanging in the air, making it reminiscent of their masterpiece ‘Recht In De Ogen’ in terms of atmosphere. As for the rest, there are the swinging riffs and horns that make every De Dijk album good, there’s just more emphasis on them than before. Another work that proves that De Dijk is much better than some Dutch people may think.

Recommended tracks: ‘Allemansplein (Wat Het Nooit Was)’, ‘Steen’, ‘Zelfs De Regen’

15. Umphrey’s McGee – Similar Skin

This one almost went by unnoticed in the stream of new releases I got to review. Am I glad I gave this one a chance anyway, because ‘Similar Skin’ is a sensational record. It’s hard to describe Umphrey’s McGee; they came from the nineties jam band scene, but they have more in common with Progrock in terms of style, despite several recognizable songs, guitar passages reminiscent of The Police’s later work, Funk grooves, Metal riffs and Jazzy instrumental prowess. There aren’t many bands that have a distinct sound and albums on which every song sounds different, but Umphrey’s McGee succeeds there. The only thing that could make the band better is a powerful lead singer; though all four singers in the band do quite well, none of them are lead singers. Don’t let that keep you from enjoying this highly surprising and versatile record.

Recommended tracks: ‘Hourglass’, ‘Bridgeless’, ‘Cut The Cable’

16. Triptykon – Melana Chasmata

Thomas Gabriel Fischer wanted to build upon the pitch black sound of ‘Monotheist’ some more after the demise of Celtic Frost and I’m happy he did; that record was a masterpiece and so was Triptykon’s debut ‘Eparistera Daimones’. And ‘Melana Chasmata’. Enormous monoliths of pitch black riffs and dirge-like tempos paint a bleak atmosphere that is impossible to escape as a humble, helpless listener. While this melancholic sound still rings through most of ‘Melana Chasmata’, it also contains some of the band’s most aggressive and defiant material so far. It’s remarkable how easily the band makes this transition from dreary Doom Metal to angry, Death Metal-like Thrash passages, but one thing is for sure: nobody does it like they do!

Recommended tracks: ‘Breathing’, ‘Tree Of Suffocating Souls’, ‘Waiting’

17. While Heaven Wept – Suspended At Aphelion

Those who still consider While Heaven Wept as a Doom Metal band will probably be disappointed upon hearing ‘Suspended At Aphelion’. This is definitely not Doom Metal anymore; this is huge, epic Power Metal driven by massive riffs, fantastic vocals courtesy of Rain Irving and a desolate, overwhelming atsmosphere. There are piano interludes and purely classical pieces, ballad segments, instrumental Progmetal violence and epic Metal chapters in a 40 minute journey that is designed to listen to in one go. For me, that was easy, because the album is so expertly written and well performed. Mainman Tom Phillips already deserved all the praise he can get for his ambition and the sheer scope of the record, but the quality of ‘Suspended At Aphelion’ more than justifies it. Interesting sidenote: the session musicians are remarkably significant for some of the pieces here.

Recommended tracks: ‘Indifference Turned Paralysis’, ‘Souls In Permafrost’, ‘Introspectus’

18. VandenBerg’s MoonKings – MoonKings

A couple of years ago, no one would have expected Adrian VandenBerg ever releasing a new album again; he had a wrist injury and spent his entire professional life painting. However, he apparently feels good enough to record another album and tour again. And the album is good! With a strong, young rhythm section, Vandenberg and singer Jan Hoving – who tries to sound like David Coverdale a little too hard at some points, but does fit the music really well – recorded a collection of energetic, Bluesy Rock ‘n’ Roll songs that just scream for the live environment. This isn’t just an exercise in nostalgia; the songs sound fresh and I applaud Vandenberg for not taking the road of least resistance by gathering a bunch of big names here. Let’s just hope that this is the first chapter in the new book of Vandenberg’s musical carreer.

Recommended tracks: ‘Line Of Fire’, ‘Close To You’, ‘Leave This Town’

19. Prince & 3rdEyeGirl – PlectrumElectrum

Since he stubbornly refuses to do anything the way anyone else does – and that’s his strongest feat – Prince released two albums simultaneously. ‘Art Official Age’ was a bit too modern and digital for me, but ‘PlectrumElectrum’ has Prince and his all-female backing band 3rdEyeGirl exploring the two things he’s best at anyway: guitars and grooves. The ladies – in particular bassist Ida Nielsen: holy shit! – do a fantastic job backing Prince on his most consistent set of songs since ‘Musicology’. Of course, the Funk and Soul influences are right there, but the songs rock surprisingly hard at some points as well. Maybe the purple one should consider releasing a live album with these ladies… And this material of course!

Recommended tracks: ‘AnotherLove’, ‘FixUrLifeUp’, ‘PlectrumElectrum’

20. Mastodon – Once More ‘Round The Sun

While the psychedelic masterpiece of ‘Crack The Skye’ will be hard to equal for Mastodon, they will always find new ways to challenge themselves and expand upon their existing sound and that alone would be a reason why each album of the Atlanta-based band is enjoyable at the very least. ‘Once More ‘Round The Sun’ is a more melodic record than ‘The Hunter’, though the basic sound is similar. As a result, most of the songs have a triumphant and – despite the band’s inaccessible nature – almost catchy vibe to them. If those are words that scare you as a Mastodon fan; don’t worry. Opposite material like the amazingly memorable ‘The Motherload’, there’s still stuff like the dark monster that is closing track ‘Diamond In The Witch House’. All worth your time!

Recommended tracks: ‘The Motherload’, ‘Tread Lightly’, ‘Once More ‘Round The Sun’