Today marks the 30th anniversary of the release of Black Sabbath's Seventh Star, easily one of the strangest and most misunderstood albums in the band's history. A “Black Sabbath” album in name only, it featured sole original member Tony Iommi fronting a short-lived lineup with ex-Deep Purple bassist/singer Glenn Hughes (vocals), Dave Spitz (bass), Geoff Nicholls (keyboards) and former Lita Ford/future KISS drummer Eric Singer. Although Seventh Star's commercial sound (especially with the epic power ballad "No Stranger To Love") and “Black Sabbath Featuring Tony Iommi” moniker left many fans scratching their heads, it's still a brilliant mid '80s Hard Rock album that stands alongside the era's best.
You came on board with Sabbath in 1985. Was it considered “Black Sabbath” at that point, or was it still a Tony Iommi solo project?
When I got involved, I was playing with Lita, and Tony was dating her. Tony saw me playing with Lita, and he was actually producing some of the demos we were doing for Lita. He played on some of the demos, if I remember. One song we did was a version of B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone,” and Tony played the solo on it. Tony and Lita were engaged, and we did a song called “The Bride Wore Black.” I think that might have been the tentative working title for her album at the time. I did a lot of demos with Lita, and actually did pre-production twice for a record that never happened because Lita was going through different changes at the time. Then, Lita said, “Tony wants to know if you want to play on some demos for him.” Of course, I was very jazzed about it. I started going to Cherokee Studios and doing demos of different stuff. It started off originally with Gordon Copley of Lita Ford’s band playing bass, with Tony and Geoff Nicholls. We’d flesh out ideas and put them on tape.
Tony was originally going to try working with a different singer. I remember he brought that guy Jeff Fenholt down. He used to be in Jesus Christ Superstar. He’s kind of a Born-Again guy who claims he used to be in Black Sabbath and gave up “the Devil’s music.” I always thought it was ridiculous, because the guy was never in Black Sabbath. He basically came to the studio for a period of a few weeks or maybe a month and worked on some ideas with Tony, but it never got past that. Somehow, he claims he was in Black Sabbath, which I always thought was very weird.
They brought in Jeff Glixman to produce. He produced a lot of the Kansas records and a couple of Gary Moore records. Jeff was actually the one who brought in Glenn Hughes. Originally, Tony’s idea was to do a solo record with multiple singers. He was going to have David Coverdale, Robert Plant and all these different people sing on different tracks. From what I can remember, once Glenn started singing, they figured, “Why get all these other guys? This guy’s so good!” Glenn ended up singing on everything. Of course, it ended up being put out as a Black Sabbath record because of the record company. Obviously, they figured they would get better mileage out of sales. I’m sure it was a record company/management decision. What started out of a solo project became another Black Sabbath record, although Tony was the only member of Black Sabbath left.
Once you were in Sabbath, how did you approach the drum tracks that Bill [Ward] created for the earlier material, and what was your greatest challenge in re-creating some of those moments?
Sabbath has always been Tony’s baby, and he’s the only one who’s kept it going all these years. He would sometimes sit and explain to us how to approach the songs the way he wanted. I remember one time in particular when we doing production rehearsals, we were doing the song “Black Sabbath,” and he was really specific on how he wanted it interpreted. I have to be fair and honest with myself and say that I was really inexperienced and pretty green at the time. Mind you, this was the mid ’80s, when the whole approach to music was very different than what Sabbath had based its roots on. Even though I was always a fan of Sabbath and influenced by them, I probably didn’t have the appreciation and understanding I do now. The old saying, “When you’re older, you’re wiser,” is absolutely true. There were times when Tony would explain to Dave Spitz – who was playing bass at the time – and me how to approach the songs with the right attitude. Tony always approached the music very seriously. He’s a total prankster, and he likes to wind people up and stuff, but he’s also very serious when it comes to the musical side of things. Sabbath was never about, “Let’s have a big smile on our faces and have a big party.” It was a more serious thing.
With the release of 13 in 2013, Black Sabbath fans braced themselves for the last recorded chapter in the band's long and groundbreaking career. (After all, why else would they close the Standard Edition of the album with the sound of rain and thunder – the same thing they used to open their debut album in 1970?). And with a much-discussed feud between the group and estranged original drummer Bill Ward preventing him from being a part of the final run, there was little hope of anything truly Black Sabbath hitting our ears ever again. (While many fans loved 13, the thing left me cold, which I made clear in my review shortly after the album's release.) But the 2015 announcement of (supposedly) one last tour was later accompanied by an intriguing addendum – the release of a new Black Sabbath CD called The End.
The End offers nearly a hour of music split between four previously unreleased studio tracks and four live songs ( “God Is Dead?” “Under The Sun,” End Of The Beginning” and “Age of Reason”) recorded during the band's 2013 Australian and 2014 Canadian tour stops. Currently, the CD is only available for purchase at the band's shows on their worldwide “The End” farewell tour, which kicked off in Omaha on January 20 (although printing problems delayed the appearance of the CD until two nights later in Chicago.)
At the time of this writing, every second of The End that showed up on YouTube over this past weekend has already been removed, while copies of the disc are already appearing on eBay at ludicrously high prices. These factors, combined with the CD's $30 price tag at shows, have led more than a few longtime fans to give up on experiencing The End. While the reluctance to embrace this release is understandable, it is also a critical mistake for any follower of the world's greatest Metal band to make. No mere collection of cash-grabbing filler, The End has more to offer than many might realize.
First of all, let's address the four studio tracks. Although they were apparently culled from the same sessions that spawned 13, this writer's hand is firmly on his heart when he states that these songs blow away everything on that album. (And that includes the four bonus tracks that were spread over different incarnations of the album, save for maybe the still-blistering "Naïveté in Black" that appeared on the Best Buy edition.) The mid-tempo march that opens “Season Of The Dead” gives way to a classic vocal performance by Ozzy Osbourne and the same high level of fluid musicianship that defined Sabbath's original era (especially with the 80 Technical Ecstasyesque seconds that begin at the 3:17 point). There are moments on “Season Of The Dead” where the Sabs explore their deepest grooves since the '70s, and the Ozzman is right there with them. This is a brilliant number made even more fascinating by the fact that it was somehow excluded from 13.
This is the Sabbath we know and love.
Although its first three minutes are fairly standard, “Cry All Night” becomes an instant classic thanks to yet another untouchable Tony Iommi solo in the song's midsection. (By the way, take a good listen to this tune...Does anyone else think this would have been killer on Cross Purposes or Forbidden with a solid Tony Martin vocal?)
Fueled by Sabbath's incomparable slow crunch, “Take Me Home” showcases one of Iommi's greatest moments in his nearly 50 years with the band. Offering a beautiful acoustic guitar solo that echoes the majesty of 1972's “Laguna Sunrise,” he gives us all a powerful reminder of why he will forever be the undisputed king of Metal guitar. The man doesn't need distortion to be powerful; the sounds he makes are from the soul.
Although “Isolated Man” sounds much closer to a latter-day Ozzy solo track than a traditional Sabbath tune, the sucker packs a punch thanks to some stellar interplay between Geezer Butler and 13 studio drummer Brad Wilk (Rage Against The Machine/Audioslave) during Iommi's solo. Controversy aside, Wilk's work on this song alone demonstrates why he was the best second-best drummer for the job.
As for the live tracks...If you've seen or heard Sabbath live in the last few years, you know what to expect (for better or worse), although the inclusion of “Under The Sun” is a nice touch. And live drummer Tommy Clufetos (Ozzy/Rob Zombie) does an adequate job behind the kit, even if his workmanlike performance is often bereft of Ward's endearingly sloppy swing.
So why does The End work for me when 13 didn't? I'm not entirely sure, to be honest. Perhaps I'm listening to this without the incredibly high expectations I had for 13. Perhaps I've accepted that the final version of the “classic” Black Sabbath is a trio and not a quartet. Perhaps I'm giving this a more-than-fair shake because this is really really (probably) the end this time. (Considering their advanced ages and Iommi's overall health, how much longer can this band really last?) Or perhaps the studio tracks on this thing really are better than 13. (I re-listened to that album before writing this review. I'm still not into it.) Whatever the reason, The End feels like real Black Sabbath to me. If this is indeed the last time we'll be able to experience a Black Sabbath release with new music, then the fellas are saying goodbye on a surprisingly high note.
There's a great reason why this “Best of 2015” feature has arrived so late.
Although my original (and obvious) plan was to post this at the end of last month, I found myself facing the very happy dilemma of somehow whittling down one of greatest years ever for music into a few categories. The “Best of” pieces I wrote for 2013 and 2014 were difficult, but this year was nearly impossible. Not surprisingly, compiling the feature you're about to read took a helluva lot of extra time.
With so much exceptional music hitting my desk in 2015, it made sense to do a Top 40 albums list (with special emphasis given to the Top 20) instead of my usual Top 30. Additionally, I expanded the categories for other releases (including my first-ever Top 10 list just for EPs), which will hopefully put this fantastic year into a greater perspective.
On a personal note, I want to thank everyone who continues to read and follow this website. Readership grew exponentially in 2015, thanks in large part to coverage in places like NME, Classic Rock, Metal Hammer and ABC Radio News. I'm humbled by this support, and I hope to continue producing content that exceeds your expectations and helps you expand your knowledge and love of music.
Before getting into the list, these were the 10 most-read posts on this site in 2015:
Without further ado, let’s start this look back at 2015 with the very best of the best…
1. ALBUM OF THE YEAR: The Juliana Hatfield Three: Whatever, My Love
Some artists are just perfect. While plenty of musicians struggle to maintain the inspiration and drive that fueled their early work once the years start to pile up, Juliana Hatfield has created absolutely flawless albums for nearly 30 years now. From her late '80s/early '90s work with The Blake Babies (whose 1989 album, Earwig, remains one of the most beautiful things ever committed to disc) to a solo career that has survived 23 years in an ever-changing (and often-frustrating) industry, the New England-based songwriter has never once disappointed. Her latest release, Whatever, My Love, finds her reuniting with drummer Todd Philips (Moving Targets/Bullet LaVolta) and bassist Dean Fisher (Tanya Donelly/Dylan in the Movies) as The Juliana Hatfield Three for the first time since 1993's Atlantic Records release, Become What You Are. In a world where many singers demonstrate their strengths by screaming to the heavens, Hatfield shines brightest when expressing the quiet courage that is often needed to simply get through the day. Whatever, My Love is catharsis with guitars, and it is not hyperbole to suggest that its songs have the power to better – and even save – lives. There isn't a single moment on Whatever, My Love that isn't completely magical. Hear it once and you'll never forget it. (Go HERE for an-depth review.)
2. Motor Sister: Ride
When Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian turned 50 in 2013, his wife, Pearl Aday, held a series of parties to mark the momentous occasion. One event found Ian, Aday, Armored Saint/Fates Warning bassist Joey Vera and former White Zombie/current Cult drummer John Tempesta joining their good friend Jim Wilson in playing a special set in front of an intimate audience at Ian's home. The dozen songs performed were originally written and recorded by Wilson's previous outfit (and one of Ian's favorite bands), the Los Angeles-based Mother Superior. Now, the vibe felt on that special night has been captured on Ride, the debut studio album recorded by the quintet under the name Motor Sister. Released on Metal Blade Records, Ride features the same 12 Mother Superior songs performed at Ian's birthday party. For longtime fans of Mother Superior, Ride serves as a greatest hits compilation performed by an all-star cast that obviously cherishes every note they play and sing. For those who are unfamiliar with Mother Superior, the record is a gateway to one of the best Classic Rock-fueled trios to ever grace a stage. (Go HERE for a feature on Motor Sister; go HERE for a feature on guitarist Jim Wilson.)
3. Bill Ward: Accountable Beasts
In addition being the man who invented Metal drumming, this original Black Sabbath member has been quietly releasing extraordinary solo recordings since 1990. His latest, Accountable Beasts, was unveiled in April 2015 amidst a very public war of words with singer Ozzy Osbourne. While the Ozzman's comments suggested that Ward is unable to keep up with Sabbath's current schedule, Accountable Beasts proves that the man can still deliver the goods. It takes only the first 60 seconds of the album-opening “Leaf Killers” to inform us that Accountable Beasts (which features Ward handling lead vocals on all tracks) will be an intense ordeal. Chilling orchestration and operatic female vocals permeate the proceedings, giving listeners an aural haunted house tour more akin to Cradle of Filth than the mellower sounds featured on Ward's previous album, 1997's When The Bough Breaks. The power continues through the fiery, near-Industrial charge of the title track, while the menacingly mid-tempo “Katastrophic World” is the track on Accountable Beasts that most captures the spirit of classic Black Sabbath, thanks to Keith Lynch's heavy riffing and Ward's unmistakable drumming. The Metal power displayed on “Katastrophic World” reaches its zenith on the raging “Ashes,” which finds Ward's most incendiary solo album performance ever matched by some truly scorching work by longtime Bill Ward Band guitarist Lynch. However, those expecting a full-on Metal assault throughout Accountable Beasts will instead encounter an album that mostly feels more like Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band than Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. The experimental “First Day Back” mixes touches of Psychedelica and Funk to offer the album's most eclectic moment, while the keyboard-driven “D.O.T.H.” soars thanks to Ward's McCartneyesque vocals and the unforgettable female voices that accompany them. The Beatles feel can also be felt on the understated “As It Is In Heaven.” (Go HERE for my in-depth review; go HERE for my latest interview with Bill Ward.)
4. Lucifer: Lucifer 1
Fronted by captivating German singer Johanna Sadonis (formerly of The Oath and Informer) and boasting former Cathedral/current Death Penalty member Garry “Gaz” Jennings on guitar, Lucifer hits listeners with a jaw-dropping blend of classic Black Sabbath, Pentagram, Coven and Blue Oyster Cult wrapped up and presented by Sadonis' soaring voice. While countless bands try to emulate the vibe and character of these past greats, Lucifer actually succeeds while also building their own intriguing identity. (Go HERE for my interview with Johanna Sadonis. Look for a feature on Gaz Jennings on this website in 2016.)
5. Killing Joke: Pylon
When at their best, the reunited original members of Killing Joke create music that is meant to be felt – a primitive burst of energy and catharsis that continues to enthrall after more than 35 years. Not only does Pylon prove that this veteran act is still sonically relevant, but the record stands alongside – and often exceeds – the finest moments in the band's decades-spanning discography. Simply put, this is the best album by the original four since their first. (Go HERE for an in-depth review.)
6. Trauma: Rapture And Wrath
Best known for once featuring late Metallica bassist Cliff Burton, the San Francisco band Trauma returned in 2015 with the fantastic Rapture And Wrath, their first album in 31 years. Bolstered by the vocal might of original singer Donny Hillier and a powerhouse performance by drummer Kris Gustofson, Rapture And Wrath set the stage for a surprising second life for a band as impressive now as they were in the original heyday of Bay Area Metal. (Look for an extensive multi-part feature on Trauma on this website in 2016.)
7. Agnostic Front: The American Dream Died
After nearly 35 years in the New York Hardcore (NYHC) scene, Agnostic Front show absolutely no signs of slowing down. Whether taking on corrupt and immoral cops (“Police Violence”) or lamenting the loss of the grittiness that once defined their home and music scene (“Old New York”), there isn't a single second on The American Dream Died that holds anything back. The older this bands gets, the more incendiary they become. To call them an inspiration would be an understatement. (Go HERE for my interview with Agnostic Front bassist Mike Gallo.)
8. iwrestledabearonce: Hail Mary
There is absolutely nothing about iwrestledabearonce (IWABO) that is conventional. Released on Artery Recordings, Hail Mary is a glorious musical mindfuck, mixing experimental noise in the grand tradition of The Boredoms and John Zorn's Naked City with a heavy dose of Prog-inspired Metal. Although IWABO already had a reputation for brutally confrontational music, Hail Mary represents the band at its darkest and most abrasive. (Go HERE for my feature on iwrestledabearonce.)
9. Huntress: Static
Imagine fronting one of the most esteemed and successful new Metal bands around while fighting the ongoing urge to take your own life. This is the struggle in the heart of Huntress frontwoman Jill Janus. While the past six years have seen the California band gain an international following, Janus has experienced a life fraught with a variety of psychological issues including schizophrenia. The process of recording the band's third album, Static, saw her overcome various hospitalizations and suicide attempts. Not surprisingly, the album's deeply personal lyrics detail the Hell she went through to simply stay alive during the album's creation. Fiery from start to finish, Static is not just the latest album from one of the most powerful bands on the scene today - it is a statement on strength and survival under horrific circumstances. Instead of hiding her battles from the public eye, Janus uses Static to air her journey and stand before the world as nakedly honest as possible. (Go HERE for my interview with Jill Janus.)
10. The Ancients: Mind
Recorded in the mid '90s but shelved until this past summer, Mind finds The Ancients – singer Fred Schreck, multi-instrumentalist Morgan Visconti and guests including Killing Joke's Big Paul Ferguson – delivering an album brimming with brilliant ideas that are far from dated. Mind's many highlights include album opener “Dope,” the Big Paul-driven “Things Fall Apart,” the irresistible Low-meets-Visage vibe of “Circa 1977” and the chest-hitting drumming on “Shovel.” The world needs more music as perfect as this. (Go HERE for my in-depth review.)
11.Tairrie B: Vintage Curses
Throughout a career that has included everything from experimental spoken word (The LVRS) to Rap (1990's classic The Power Of A Woman) to Metal (with Manhole, Tura Satana and the long-running My Ruin), Tairrie B has always done things her way. On the self-released Vintage Curses, Tairrie returns to Rap with a vengeance. The listener gets inside the mind of a deeply creative woman who is perhaps too Metal for old school Rap fans and too Rap for the Goth contingent. Of course, this kind of musical and aesthetic dilemma is exactly what has driven Tairrie's career from day one, and exactly what gives this album its heart and soul. (As she said on The Power Of A Woman's “Swingin' with 'T'” way back in 1990: “Rappin' comes from the mind/Not from the look.”) This is music made by someone with the confidence and strength to do whatever she wants without answering to anyone. The proclamations of her formidable might heard throughout Vintage Curses are not mere boasts – they are statements of fact. The album is “Occult Rap” by a Metal singer, but it's also the most Punk Rock thing this writer has heard in years. (Go HERE for my full review.)
12. UFO: A Conspiracy Of Stars
There are very few guarantees in life, but you can always count on UFO to deliver the real thing. For nearly 50 years, the band has consistently earned an international cult following by being one of the world's most durable and dependably strong Hard Rock acts. Fueled by original members Phil Mogg (vocals) and Andy Parker (drums), the current version of UFO (which also features former Spread Eagle bassist Rob De Luca taking the place of ailing original member Pete Way, guitar hero Vinnie Moore and longtime keyboardist/guitarist Paul Raymond) marked 2015 by releasing the excellent A Conspiracy Of Stars, an album that easily lives up to the band's reputation. (Go HERE for my interview with Vinnie Moore.)
13. Nik Turner: Space Fusion Odyssey
At 75, the great Nik Turner remains one of the most innovative minds in this or any other world. Best known for his years with Space Rock masters Hawkwind, Turner has maintained an active recording and touring schedule for nearly five decades. On his latest work, Space Fusion Odyssey, he is joined by an amazing cast of characters including The Doors' Robby Krieger, Amon Düül II's John Weinzierl, Soft Machine's John Etheridge, Gong alumni Steve Hillage and Gilli Smyth and former Megadeth guitarist Chris Poland. With Turner delivering his trademark sax and flute explorations, the mostly instrumental album reaches its Prog pinnacle on the frenetic “Pulsar,” while Krieger and Poland lay down some true guitar magic on “Hypernova.” Forty-five years after the first Hawkwind album, Turner is still producing some of the most fascinating songs in the galaxy. (Go HERE for my 2013 interview with Nik.)
14. O.R.k.: Inflamed Rides
Considering that current King Crimson drummer Pat Mastelotto (Mr. Mister/Berserk!) and Porcupine Tree bassist Colin Edwin (Metallic Taste Of Blood/Obake) are two of the most accomplished and experienced musicians in Rock, it was no surprise that fans of both groups were excited to learn that the duo would be working together in a project called O.R.k. Joining forces with singer/keyboardist Lorenzo Esposito Fornasari a.k.a. Lef (Obake/Berserk!) and guitarist Carmelo Pipitone (Marta sui Tubi), Mastelotto and Edwin exceed already high expectations on Inflamed Rides, an adventurous, heavy-leaning collection that will appeal to those who embrace Tool or Faith No More's more esoteric moments.
15. The Joykiller: Music For Break-Ups
Songs that sound like Motown...or Broadway...This is a record by a bunch of Punk guys, right? Yes, but it's record by the right bunch of Punk guys. Name a classically trained composer from the original Masque scene other than Paul Roessler. Can you think of another frontman besides Jack Grisham who could go from a song like “Abolish Government” (from the first T.S.O.L. EP in 1981) to something as developed as “Forever Old” (from Beneath The Shadows) in the span of two years? And who else on this planet plays guitar like Rikk Agnew or Steven Hufsteter? These people are innovators, which is why the decidedly unPunk-sounding Music For Break-Ups makes absolute sense. If you think Punk is a state of mind and not just a genre of music, then this is the record for you. (Go HERE for my in-depth review.)
16. Teenage Time Killers: Greatest Hits Vol. 1
Named after a Rudimentary Peni song, this massive supergroup offers a Punk version of Pigface with a revolving door of musicians centered around My Ruin/Birds of Satan guitarist Mick Murphy, Corrosion of Conformity drummer Reed Mullin and producer John “Lou” Lousteau. Guests on Greatest Hits Vol. 1 include Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters), Pat Smear (The Germs/Twisted Roots/Foo Fighters), Brian Baker (Minor Threat/Bad Religion/Dag Nasty), Jello Biafra (Dead Kennedys/Lard), Phil Rind (Sacred Reich), Pat Hoed (Brujeria/Santa Sabbath), Lee Ving (Fear), London May (Samhain/Reptile House/Distorted Pony) and tons more. Highlights include “Clawhoof” with Tairrie B, “Big Money” with Ving and Smear and Rind's vocal appearance on “Say Goodnight To The Acolyte.”
17. Metallic Taste Of Blood: Doctoring The Dead
Founded in 2008, the London-based label RareNoiseRecords has been responsible for some of the most eclectic and downright challenging music released in recent times. The avant-garde avalanche continues with Doctoring The Dead, the latest album by RareNoise co-founder Eraldo Bernocchi's project, Metallic Taste Of Blood. Although the band's moniker would lead some to believe that Doctoring The Dead is some kind of Death Metal release (an assumption made stronger by song titles like “The Death Of Pan,” “Murder Burger” and “Day Of Bones”), the album is actually a highly adventurous instrumental collection showcasing everything from Dub to distorted noise. Along with longtime collaborator Colin Edwin (Porcupine Tree/O.R.k.) on bass, Bernocchi is joined on this second Metallic Taste Of Blood release by veteran drummer Ted Parsons, whose extensive history includes stints with Swans, Prong, Foetus, Of Cabbages And Kings, Godflesh and Killing Joke. Recorded at Prague's Faust Studios (Killing Joke's Hosannas From The Basements Of Hell), Doctoring The Dead follows in the grand tradition of the mighty Tackhead, Tin Machine and other audio documents of unforgettable occasions when musicians of the highest possible caliber joined forces and got to work. (Go HERE for my in-depth review.)
18. Trey Gunn: The Waters, They Are Rising
This independently released gem finds the former King Crimson member exploring the possibilities of touch guitar through a series of captivating instrumental pieces bookended by two numbers (a cover of Bob Dylan's “Not Dark Yet” and the Gunn-penned “The First Return”) created for the soundtrack to the film Every Beautiful Thing and featuring the soulful voice of actor Dylan Nichole Bandy. Four of the album's 11 tracks are live solo improvisations taken from introductions to the song “Here Comes The Flood” by Peter Gabriel, recorded live during a 2014 tour by Trey's Gabriel tribute act, The Security Project. A brilliant release from an ever-evolving master of sound. (Go HERE for my recent interview with Trey.)
19. The Danse Society: Reincarnated
A staple of Gothic Rock compilations and a band responsible for more than few unforgettable tracks in the 1980s, The Danse Society (currently led by original drummer Paul Gilmartin) take a harder direction on Reincarnated. Certainly more Ian Astbury than Ian Curtis, new singer Brian O'Shaughnessy turns The Danse Society into something more akin to the Hard Rock leanings of Craved In Sand-era Mission than the Siouxsie And The Banshees vibe achieved by the group on their previous two female-fronted albums. Reincarnated not only lives up to the Danse Society legacy, but also points to an intriguing future for this formidable combination of musicians. (Go HERE for my in-depth review.)
20. Demi Lovato: Confident
One of the greatest risks in being a commercially oriented singer is having your genuine talents ignored by those who typically dismiss this kind of stuff as disposal drivel. Anyone who closes his or her ears to Demi Lovato is making a huge mistake, as she is an absolute Pop powerhouse. “Cool For The Summer,” “For You” and the title track are perfect examples of how to excel in this genre, while the soulful “Stone Cold” and the utterly heartbreaking “Father” show that this 23-year-old entertainer is a serious contender for Adele's Queen of the Tearjerkers title. The best album of its kind since Taylor Swift's Speak Now.
21. Gang of Four: What Happens Next (Go HERE for my in-depth review; go HERE for my interview with Andy Gill.)
22. Christian Death: The Root of All Evilution (Go HERE for my interview with Valor Kand.)
23. Coal Chamber: Rivals (Go HERE for my interview with Dez Fafara.)
24. SOTO: Inside The Vertigo (Go HERE for my interview with Jeff Scott Soto.)
25. Raven: ExtermiNation (Go HERE for my interview with John Gallagher)
26. 10,000 Maniacs: Twice Told Tales (Go HERE for my interview with Mary Ramsey.)
27. The Spanish Donkey: RAOUL (Go HERE for my interview with Joe Morris.)
28. Karina Denike: Under Glass (Go HERE for my interview with Karina Denike.)
29. Round Eye: S/T (Go HERE for my tribute to late Round Eye contributor/Stooges member Steve Mackay.)
30. Youth: The Anarchist Colouring Book Soundtrack
31. Wilco: Star Wars
32. Miley Cyrus: Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz
33. Kory Clarke/Warrior Soul: Light Your Bonfires
34. W.A.S.P.: Golgotha
35. Sleater-Kinney: No Cities To Love
36. Blind Idiot God: Before Ever After
37. Monster Magnet: Cobras And Fire (The Mastermind Redux)
38. Chastain: We Bleed Metal
39. Bob Forrest: Survival Songs
40. Black Rainbows: Hawkdope
The 10 Best EPs of 2015
1. EP OF THE YEAR: Time Is Fire: S/T
The tradition of exceptional music coming from our nation's capital continues with the incredible Time Is Fire. Produced by Fugazi's Brendan Canty, the group's eponymous four-song EP presents an absolutely perfect assemblage of musicians and the freshest new sounds his writer has heard in years. Extraordinary singer Kamyar Arsani comes across like a cross between The Pop Group's Mark Stewart and The Sleepers' Ricky Williams, while bassist Ashish Vyas (Thievery Corporation) and former GWAR/Alter Natives drummer Jim Thomson generate Funk as fiery as early Gang Of Four. Imagine PiL's Keith Levene sharing notes with The Edge circa Boy/October, and you have guitarist Matt Perrone (also of Alma Tropicália). These comparisons are mere attempts to describe something that needs to be heard to be truly understood and appreciated. Just brilliant. (Go HERE to listen and order.)
2. Into Another: Omens
3. Lead Into Gold: Low & Slow
4. Kinghitter: S/T
5. Oceans Of Slumber: Blue
6. Santa Sabbath: Children Of The Sleigh (Go HERE for my feature on the CD)
7. Grip Inc.: Hostage To Heaven (Go HERE for my interview with Dave Lombardo)
8. Girlschool: Propaganda
9. Adrenaline Mob: Dearly Departed
10. Primitive Race vs. Pig: Long In The Tooth (Go HERE for my feature on the CD)
Song of the Year – Gang of Four: “The Dying Rays”
Although Gang of Four circa 2015 was more like Gang of One following the gradual departure of all classic lineup members except founding guitarist Andy Gill, the appropriately named What Happens Next had far more peaks than valleys. The album's bona fide masterpiece, “The Dying Rays,” evokes the quiet desperation of Shrinkwrapped's “Unburden” as German music megastar Herbert Grönemeyer delivers a raspy, Sealesque interpretation of Gill's moving lyrics on mortality. (Go HERE for more on the song.)
Best Single – Bl'ast!: “For Those Who've Graced The Fire” / “The Pulse”
This former SST Records act returned after decades with two songs featuring Black Flag's Chuck Dukowski on bass and some guy named Dave Grohl on drums. These blistering tracks show the kids how it's done.
Best Video – The Pop Group: “Mad Truth”
Fronted by the incomparable Mark Stewart and anchored by ex Slits/current PiL drummer Bruce Smith, the reunited Pop Group ended their 35-year silence with 2015's Citizen Zombie. Directed by actress Asia Argento, the hypnotic video for “Mad Truth” served to reintroduce the world to an intriguing band that had been away far too long.
Best Compilation – Toiling Midgets: A Smaller Life
Formed in 1979 from the ashes of the legendary San Francisco Punk band Negative Trend after the departure of their then-singer, Rik L Rik, Toiling Midgets have been sporadically releasing consistently great music ever since. With founding member Craig Gray and long-serving guitarist Paul Hood leading the charge, the group's ever-fluctuating lineup has seen Ricky Williams (The Sleepers/Crime), Joe Goldring (Swans/American Music Club), Erich Werner (The Blackouts), Annie Ungar (Gun Club), Tim Mooney (The Sleepers/American Music Club), Joanna Hood (Loma Mar Quartet /Paul McCartney) Mark Eitzel (American Music Club) and many others flow in and out over the course of nearly 40 years. Released digitally as well as on double vinyl, A Smaller Life offers musical momentous from every chapter in Toiling Midgets' sprawling history. An inspiring listen from start to finish. Check it out HERE (and look for an extensive feature on the band on this website in 2016.)
Best Live Album: Chicken Shack: Live in Germany '75
Although he is best known for his lengthy career in Heavy Metal (including playing bass on – and penning the lyrics and co-writing the music for – some of Ozzy Osbourne's most recognizable songs), bassist Bob Daisley is a bona fide Blues lover. Forty years ago, Daisley indulged his love for this music as a member of Chicken Shack, one of the most beloved Blues acts in the world. In early 2015, he released Live in Germany '75, a CD recording of a Chicken Shack lineup completed by founding member Stan Webb on vocals/guitar, guitarist Robbie Blunt and drummer Bob Clouter. And man is it killer. (Go HERE for my in-depth review; go HERE for my most recent interview with Bob Daisley.)
Best Digital-Only Release – Praxis: Sound Virus
The great Bill Laswell has a musical history that has embraced virtually every genre imaginable. A visionary workaholic to the nth degree, Laswell currently showcases several of his projects via his label, M.O.D. Technologies. In 2015, the perpetually expanding Laswell discography welcomed Sound Virus, the latest title by the mighty Praxis. Issued as part of M.O.D. Technologies' Incunabula Series of digital-only releases, Sound Virus features what the label calls “re-stored, edited, enhanced and remastered” versions of Praxis tracks from their early '90s albums Sacrifist and Metatron. Praxis stands alongside Bladerunner and PainKiller as one of Laswell's most brutal musical endeavors. Although the project's discography has its fair share of reasonably digestible moments (including a good chunk of 2008's brilliant Profanation [Preparation for a Coming Darkness]), this eight-track collection offers the group's most uncompromising creations. This comes as no surprise considering that Sacrifist-era Praxis saw the band's core lineup (Laswell, guitarist Buckethead and drummer Bryan “Brain” Mantia) joined by the likes of Mick Harris (PainKiller/Napalm Death/Scorn), John Zorn (PainKiller/Naked City) and Yamatsuka Eye (The Boredoms/Naked City). (Go HERE for my in-depth review of Sound Virus; go HERE for my interview with Bill Laswell regarding the project.)
Best Vinyl Reissue – Christian Death: Ashes (30th Anniversary Edition)
Limited to 1,250 copies worldwide (500 black/500 ash grey/250 clear), this “30th anniversary edition” of Christian Death's 1985 masterpiece Ashes represents the conclusion of the all-too-brief Rozz Williams/Valor Kand/Gitane DeMone/David Glass lineup and one of the strongest moments in the band's lengthy career. Those unfamiliar with the magic created by this incarnation of Christian Death are encouraged to start with “The Drowning” or “The Luxury Of Tears.” (Go HERE for audio of Gitane DeMone discussing Ashes.)
Best CD Reissue – Sonny Sharrock: Ask The Ages
Co-produced by Praxis leader Bill Laswell, this “enhanced and remastered” version of late Free Jazz great Sonny Sharrock's 1991 swan song serves as a stunning reminder of the guitarist's genius. Joined on this six-song outing by bassist Charnett Moffett (who's worked with everyone from Ornette Coleman to Bette Midler) and legendary John Coltrane collaborators Pharoah Sanders (tenor and soprano saxophones) and Elvin Jones (drums), Sharrock effortlessly flows from mellow (the gorgeous “Who Does She Hope To Be?”) to maelstrom (the frenetic “Promises Kept”). The album's strongest moment, “As We Used To Sing,” features all four of these master musicians performing at the peak of their individual and collaborative powers. Nearly 25 years after its initial release, Ask The Ages remains essential (if at times uneasy) listening for the adventurous music fan and an extraordinary final statement from a true innovator going out on top.
Best Cassette Reissue – The Dogs: Fed Up!
Without a doubt, The Dogs have enjoyed one of Rock’s richest histories. Formed in Lansing, Michigan in the late ’60s, the group was born from the same dirty Detroit music world that spawned The MC5 and The Stooges, sharing bills with both bands as well as a young guitarist by the name of Ted Nugent. By the early ’70s, the trio found themselves in New York, sharing the stage with the likes of Television, The Stilettos (featuring a young Debbie Harry) and a pre-stardom KISS. They even got kicked out of the then-new CBGB for playing too loud! Fast-forward a few more years, and The Dogs turned up in sunny California, joining forces with The Motels and The Pop to create the legendary “Radio Free Hollywood” scene. In the ’80s, the trio played alongside people like Steve Marriott and Robin Trower before singer/guitarist Loren Molinare landed a deal with Geffen Records with his other band, Little Caesar. Oh, there's also a London era of The Dogs in there somewhere, and that one time Sid Vicious sang with them at the Whisky in LA…but you get the idea. Courtesy of CA's Burger Records, this cassette edition of The Dogs' career-spanning 2000 compilation Fed Up! is some of the best American Punk Rock 'N' Roll you'll ever hear. Highlights include “John Rock & Roll Sinclair,” “Are You A Boy Or Are You A Girl?” and the immortal “Slash Your Face.” The Dogs are still going strong and putting out new music.
Best Unearthed Recording - KKB: Got To Get Back
A true labor of love for former KISS/current Grand Funk Railroad member Bruce Kulick, Got To Get Back is a special album containing songs recorded in 1974 by the guitarist, bassist/singer Mike Katz and drummer Guy Bois. Based in the Jackson Heights area of Queens, the then-unnamed trio lasted long enough to write a handful of original songs and record them live in a NYC studio. Now, these songs have been packaged in an impressive release that chronicles the magic these three musicians shared during a unique time in their lives. (Go HERE for my interview with Bruce Kulick.)
Best Box Set - The Orb: History of the Future Part 2
Originally formed in West London in 1979 by an assortment of characters including graphic artist Mike Coles and members of Killing Joke, Malicious Damage Records has been responsible for some of the most fascinating visual/musical adventures ever conceived by human beings. Now solely helmed by Coles, the label issued a masterpiece in 2015 in the form of History of the Future Part 2, a three-CD/one-DVD collection from long-running UK electronic legends The Orb. Assembling tracks and visuals from 2002 to 2013 (plus one killer tune from 1989), the box set offers hours of trippy entertainment courtesy of sole original member Alex Paterson and an extensive list of guests and collaborators including longtime cohort Thomas Fehlmann, Lee “Scratch” Perry, MC Brother Culture, Soom T and Killing Joke's Martin “Youth” Glover. History of the Future Part 2 also boasts a stunning 100-page book designed by Coles, whose creative mind never ceases to amaze and inspire. (Go HERE to order.)
Best Live Act: Flipper with David Yow
With original singer Bruce Loose bowing out of Flipper's latest reformation due to health reasons, the rest of the band (original drummer Stephen DePace, original guitarist Ted Falconi and Bad Posture's Bruno DeSmartass on bass) recruited the great David Yow (Scratch Acid/The Jesus Lizard/Qui/Pigface) for a string of dates including an appearance at Hassle Fest 7 at the Brighton Music Hall in Allston, MA on November 7. With Yow's nutsack exposed through his strategically holed jeans and the three musicians behind him laying down the aural sludge, the group ensured that many a safe space was invaded among the hip collegiate crowd in attendance.
Best Music-Related Documentary – Midge Ure: Fragile Troubadour
In January 2015, veteran musician Midge Ure (Ultravox/Rich Kids/Thin Lizzy/Visage) toured America with little more than a rental car, a box of merchandise and a portable guitar to see what it was like to be an independent musician trying to eke out a living in today's industry. Not surprisingly, Ure's solo trek was often rocky – especially when playing the east coast during one of the worst winters in history. While he encounters the occasional sold out crowd, Ure also faces a frozen bank account, dodgy rental vehicles and less-than-hospitable lodging conditions. By the end of the two-part film, Ure echoes the concerns expressed to him by fellow musician Mark King (Level 42) that theirs could be the last generation to make a real living in the music business. (Go HERE to view the film; go HERE for my most recent interview with Midge.)
Best Music-Related Book- Red Velvet Underground: A Rock Memoir, with Recipes by Freda Love Smith
Former Blake Babies/Antenna/Mysteries of Life drummer Freda Love Smith injects dozens of recipes (including Garlic Placenta!) into a meditation on the ups and downs of balancing career and parental responsibilities in the years after all the records and tours. Anyone who has ever slummed it on the road with a band, fallen in love with a city's food or fretted over his or her child's job prospects will enjoy and empathize with Smith's every word.
So there you have it. I wish you all a happy, healthy and successful 2016!
Although the current incarnation of Gang of Four is more like Gang of One following the gradual departure of all classic lineup members except founding guitarist Andy Gill, the band's appropriately named 2015 release What Happens Next (reviewed HERE) had far more peaks than valleys. The album's bona fide masterpiece, the mournful ballad “The Dying Rays,” evokes the quiet desperation of Gang of Four's 1995 track “Unburden” (from Shrinkwrapped) as guest vocalist/German music megastar Herbert Grönemeyer delivers a raspy, Sealesque interpretation of Gill's moving lyrics on mortality and regret: What I wanted Disappears in the haze A speck of dust Held forever in the dying rays Breath on the mirror, nothing in sight The horizon's bare but in the night I missed the pilots' light Control and power Empires were built in our minds But it will all go up in a blaze Only dust In the dying rays.
In my interview with him last year, Gill offered insight into the song's meaning and creation. “It's very much written from the heart,” he said. “It's not a young man's song, let's put it that way. I think with a little bit of experience and a certain amount of looking in the rearview mirror, you have some ideas about time, wasted time and things like that. I hesitate to over-explain because I think Gang of Four, over the decades, has sometimes been guilty of trying to be our own reviewers and trying to really spell out what we think it's supposed to say. I think sometimes, you can take away some of the magic in things by over-talking them. But the crucial thing about that song was Herbert Grönemeyer talking to me and saying, 'How's it going, Andy?' I explained that Alison [Mosshart, The Kills/The Dead Weather] had sung on a couple of tracks, and I was excited about it. He said, 'Do you want me to sing on something?' I thought, 'Yeah!' It was an interesting idea, and a lot of people in Germany have recently expressed quite a lot of surprise at that collaboration. I thought, 'I've got a few songs kicking around here; I've got some demos. Maybe Herbert can do this one or maybe that one.' Then I thought, 'Hold on a second. Let's not waste this opportunity.' I went and kind of really listened to Herbert's work and the things he's done. The thing that he does that most affects me and most moves me are the mid-tempo, angst-filled ballads. He has a very emotional and moving voice. He did a great track with Antony of Antony and the Johnsons guesting on it. It's quite a sad song, and Herbert really inhabits the track with his voice and his emotions; he seems to be in the track. So I thought, 'I'm not just going to give him any old thing; I'm going to have to really try to make a track for Herbert to sing.' It was hard work; I went down a lot of blind alleys and went in circles. I was really kind of getting getting frustrated; I was getting in different musicians I knew to come in to try to help me co-write this thing. “I didn't know where I was going, but eventually something clicked,” he continued. “I was just playing around with a little drum loop, and then the guitar seemed to work and then it started to fall into place. It took a long time. And then the words...I was in this Elizabethan house, [a] hotel in England. The sun was going down, and I was sitting in the chair and doing nothing, staring off in the middle distance. I just saw this speck of dust coming down in front of my eyes. It mesmerized me; I was hypnotized like a cat. [Those were] the first words...the 'speck of dust' thing. Everything came from that.” Last fall, the song received extra attention with the release of The Dying Rays Collection, a four-song digital EP including two remixes and the English and German vocal versions. The release is also available on a super-limited, hand-numbered white label vinyl pressing that quickly sold out in Germany. The final available copies are available HERE.
Like the rest of What Happens Next, “The Dying Rays” is a masterstroke of musical exploration from a group unafraid to take left turns nearly 40 years into their career. It was easily the best song of 2015. READ JOEL'S BIO