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Ground Control’s Holiday Gift Guide 001

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Tuesday, 07 December 2010

Ah, Christmas time. It's a magical time of year when the hearts of children light up in excitement at the possibility of receiving gifts from Santa. It's a magical time of year when the hearts (and pants) of teenagers swell at the thought of spending their first holiday with that special someone. It's a magical time of year when college students remember that they should have gone more regularly to class, because even acing some exams will not save them from the possibility of an abysmal failure atht e hands of too much drunken hi-jinx. It's the magical time of year when the music industry gears up and dispenses a metric tonne of new releases and celebrated reissues on record stores, in order to cater to the gift-giving spirit.

There are so many choices offered at those record stores aren't there? As you walked through the door of [insert shoppe name here], you knew you wanted to buy some music for that someone special but, confronted with so many available options, it's hard to remember what your original choice was. Frustration and panic set in as you gallop around the store, hoping against hope that something might spur your memory. You know the gift recipient is an audiophile so how can it be that such a choice suddenly seems so difficult?

Never fear, we at Ground Control are here to help, because we know what's good. Below, readers will find the first in our series of guides to assist shoppers in buying that special music for that special someone. These titles are great, and will satisfy your audio-addicted gift recipient!

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Dixie Chicks
The Essential Dixie Chicks (2CD)
(Open Wide/Columbia/Legacy)
Now twenty-one years into the Dixie Chicks ongoing history, and the trio's story has been told from a multitude of angles but here's the truncated history/timeline:

Formed in Dallas, TX in 1989, the Dixie Chicks got their start on the bluegrass festival touring circuit. The band broke into the international stage in 1998 when Wide Open Spaces dropped onto New Country radio and topped the Country charts in both the US and Canada on the strength of the album's title track. After that, things really started flying as Fly yielded a staggering eight singles – six of which reached the Top 10 – between 1999 and 2001. From there, a series of hit records followed and the group became household names for both their music and their politics (in 2002, the Dixie Chicks became one of George W. Bush's more vocal and high profile artistic detractors) and they sealed their status as enduring pop culture icons.

That about sums it up, all that's left to cover is the music.

As many temporal landmark moments as the the Dixie Chicks have registered in the last two decades, their music has been the thing responsible for securing much of the group's status. In their time together, the group has released thirty-one singles and, not surprisingly, there are thirty songs one The Essential Dixie Chicks compilation; they are the singles and they are the hits that mark time but, incredibly, they also make for a really rewarding (read: not 'desert-only') listen when compiled as they are here. As it turns out, 'essential' and 'best-of' are synonymous in the Dixie Chicks' case, and that becomes apparent as this comp plays through; not a song on this set feels misplaced, and everything that would be required to become acquainted with the Dixie Chicks is here as well as everything a fan could hope for in a really good mix tape. That's the mark of an effective compilation.

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Iggy And The Stooges
Raw Power (Box Set)
(Columbia/Legacy/Sony Music)
In the context of rock n' roll, some albums are just inarguably timeless and of eternal value to listeners; they sound as good now as the day they were released, and pack the same emotional wallop no matter how much times may have changed. The list of such albums is not large, but is debated and quibbled over constantly – by turns, fans have questioned whether The White Album is of greater artistic value than Sgt. Pepper and Revolver, whether In Utero might have been a bigger deal than Nevermind, and the list goes on – but the one album that no one ever argues over is Raw Power by Iggy And The Stooges. The lore behind Raw Power's creation, recording and release is the stuff of magic and fantasy; sales were poor and the reception of the album was very, very mixed when the record first appeared in 1973, but eventually improved after punk broke through (musicians including the Sex Pistols' guitarist Steve Jones, Johnny Marr of The Smiths and Kurt Cobain have all claimed that the record is essential listening at some point) and, to date, Raw Power has been remixed (including by Iggy Pop himself in 1997), remastered and reissued no less than six times in North America alone. It is a record that endures and consistently finds new, very receptive ears every time it hits new release racks at record stores.

After all the re-tooling and re-tailoring that has been applied to Raw Power in the thirty-seven years since the album's first release however, someone had to take it back to basics for fear of it losing all its roots and just becoming another product and that's exactly what Legacy has done with this two-disc set. They've gone back to basics as (while the album has been remastered once again) the original mix supplied by David Bowie is re-presented and, even over three decades later, it cuts through fresh and vital. Read more.

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David Bowie
A Reality Tour (2CD)
(Legacy/Sony Music)
In this life, there are dreams come true and there are things one hopes for but does not expect to happen – particularly in the cases of rock n' roll institutions. A lot of that is psychological; for fans, the sound of a familiar and adored but nearly forgotten song can cause memories of events to rush back because the music was there as the soundtrack to them. The same thing happens to those musicians that wrote and recorded the songs – that's one of the reasons why some songs get retired; some things (no matter how good they are) are just better left untouched upon because the memories associated with them are just too painful. Such is the case with the Reality Tour that David Bowie embarked upon in 2003. For the singer, the Reality Tour marked the re-emergence of some songs in the set list for the  first time in years (“Ziggy Stardust” had gone un-played for well over a decade, but it closed the night on every date of the tour), presumably because they're reminders of “the bad old days.” For the audience, those that were in attendance would recall it as being an incredible show they would probably never see again; Bowie hasn't done a tour of comparable size, length or scope (115 shows in 24 countries)since then due to health concerns.

In both cases, the Reality Tour was decidedly bittersweet; sweet because it was an incredible show, bitter because it was an incredible show unlikely to be repeated and was dogged by problems (the famous 'lighting technician' incident where a man fell from the rafters of the James L. Knight Center in Miami, FL and repeated illnesses both of the band and Bowie, culminating in the singer having to come off the road to have an angioplasty).

Happily though, the tour was not lost to the sands of time. Fans knew that the tape was obviously rolling on the stage on the nights of November 22 and 23, 2003 because a DVD commemorating the tour was released the following year but, now, the audio has been released in its entirety for the first time. Read more

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Billy Joel
The Hits
(Columbia/Legacy)
How many songwriters can say that they've enjoyed consistent mainstream success through two decades that have been characterized by pop music tastes being burned to their foundations and rebuilt? How many can say they accomplished such a feat without changing styles dramatically at any point? Billy Joel can. Between 1973 and 1993, Joel released no less than fifty-two singles (most of which charted in the US and Canada) and became one of the most revered and iconic songwriters of his generation (he's a six-time Grammy Award winner, a 23-time Grammy nominee and has sold over 150 million records worldwide – not bad for a writer who only released one LP in the Nineties and one LP since the turn of the century). With that in mind, the fact that Billy Joel's newest best-of compilation is simply entitled The Hits betrays a bit of understatement but, really, it is an apt name; not a single one of these songs is under-appreciated, and none could be called 'lost gems.'

Listening to these songs now, it becomes apparent just how instrumental Joel was in shaping the face of radio between '73 and '93; while plenty of other things were happening at the time, of course (punk, rap, hip hop and alternative rock were just a few of the movements to pass through the same time frame), Joel held down the fort for singer/songwriter pop in the Seventies and Eighties especially, and did it with style. As one listens to The Hits, creeping memories of where a listener was the first time he/she heard songs like “Piano Man,” “Only The Good Die Young,” “The Longest Time,” “It's Still Rock And Roll To Me” (where the singer sums up every off-shoot pop craze from punk to new wave and beyond in one song) and “We Didn't Start The Fire” (where Joel goes one step further and sums up a century in less than five minutes) begin to surface and it'll be hard to not be overcome by that nostalgia along the way. Why? Because, regardless of listening taste, a well-written pop song can be responsible for great memories – even if it was only playing in the background – and hearing it again can cause them to come rushing back. That kind of nostalgia is valuable for anybody and, in The Hits, listeners get it all wrapped up in one neat little package.

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Gogol Bordello
Trans-Continental Hustle
(Def American/Sony Music)
It certainly took the rest of the world long enough to catch on to what many punk rockers already knew: Gogol Bordello is one of the best new (if one can call going strong for eleven years 'new') on the circuit right now. Punk rockers (lots of 'em – if not all of 'em) have known this since Gypsy Punks: Underground World Strike! hit like a dead-blow hammer in 2006 and, in so doing, suddenly made it okay to ave long hair in the pit, not have a distortion pedal anywhere on the stage and surf on a kick drum over a crowd of ecstatic fans on a nightly basis. Thank you Eugene Hütz!

So now that the band is in the limelight in partnership with a major label conglomerate, what does said conglomerate plan to do in order to improve the band's visibility? What could they do that an independent punk label (SideOneDummy) and the band not do themselves?

If you can believe it, they found a way.

As soon as 'Pala Tute” begins to crank the gears on Trans-Continental Hustle, listeners will the enormous size of the sound that is springing forth. Did the band add more members and more instruments after the success of Super Taranta!? Nope – they're simply backed by Rick Rubin, the perfect producer for Gogol Bordello. Under Rubin's supervision, singer/guitarist Eugene Hütz, violinist Sergey Ryabtsev, accordionist Yuri Lemeshev, guitarist Oren Kaplan, bassist Thomas Gobena, emcee Pedro Erazo and drummer Oliver Charles absolutely explode out of speakers as they fill every sector of the aural spectrum with sound. In this case, Rubin's production proves to be something of a secret weapon; each instrument is articulated perfectly and has its own space in the arrangement, with the right speakers and EQ, listeners will feel as if they're right in the room – encircled by the band.  Hütz jumps right in their faces on songs like “Immagranadia,” “Raise The Knowledge,” “Last One Goes The Hope” and “My Companjera” – encouraged and incited by the other players – and listeners can do nothing more than get the urge to dance or run for cover; it is just that infectious and potent. Read more.

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Pink
Greatest Hits… So Far!!! (CD&DVD)
(Jive/Sony Music)
Listening to Pink's greatest hits comp, listeners are reminded of the accelerated evolution that the singer has undergone over the last ten years. As this album illustrates, Alecia “Pink” Moore has gone from vacuum-sealed and vacuous pop tart (“There You Go,” “Get The Party Started”) to fallen star (“Don't Let Me Get Me”) to a genuinely unique, candid and autobiographical songwriter over the span of just five albums and, not only that, has transitioned smoothly each time without losing many fans along the way. How'd she do it? Some would say that Pink grew up with her fanbase, experienced many of the same life lessons at the same time they did and bravely put those discoveries out there for fans to find and relate with and, in listening to …So Far!!!, it's hard to argue with that logic. Presented in at-least-close-to chronological order, listeners are afforded the luxury of being able to both watch and hear a pop star be born, grow up and endure her trials and tribulations as the proverbial tape has rolled, and even get a few clues on where the singer may be headed in the future (two brand new, previously unreleased tracks, “Raise Your Glass” and “F***in' Perfect” are included here), on her forthcoming sixth studio album.

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Jimi Hendrix
Smash Hits
(Sony Music/Legacy/Experience Hendrix)
How many artists can say that, after just two full-length albums, their record label asked them to release a best-of compilation? In 1968, that's exactly what was asked of Jimi Hendrix; Track Records requested a best-of release of The Jimi Hendrix Experience just four months after the release of Axis: Bold As Love; while the band was n the middle of working on Electric Ladyland. The collection brought together the first four singles released in the UK as well as the accompanying B-sides along with a smattering of album cuts from Are You Experienced? thrown in for good measure. If effect, calling the set a greatest hits would've been inaccurate, and the title Smash Hits should the words “so far” appended to it. Hendrix' label in the States agreed and only put out Smash Hits after Noel Redding quit the group (thereby disbanding the Experience) in 1969. Still, there's no arguing that the songs collected for Smash Hits were huge and definitive early cuts for the guitarist (all from his first album, hilariously) and, in the years since Hendrix' passing, Smash Hits has remained in print; functioning as a cost-effective starter kit for those looking to find out if they want to spend more money. It's a good sampler in that regard, and Smash Hits will continue to win fans (it was the first Hendrix album I bought when I was twelve or thirteen) and serves its purpose ably – it is all the killer early material, and none of the filler. Read more.

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Carlos Santana
Guitar Heaven (CD&DVD)
(Arista/Sony Music)
Poet and critic Karl Schlegel once wrote that “A classical work doesn't ever have to be understood entirely. But those who are educated and who are still educating themselves must desire to learn more and more from it.” In effect, the greatest benefit a work that is regarded as classical can have is that it inspires others to learn more and aspire to levels beyond those they currently occupy as they etch their own mark into history. Such ideas are exactly the ones that begin to manifest as one listens to Carlos Santana's Guitar Heaven; on one album, an already celebrated guitarist digs into the history of rock n' roll and, with the help of fourteen upstart singers, seeks to illustrate the inspiration that some of the greatest songs in the genre's storied history have borne on a few generations of musician. It's an interesting experiment, and some of the results are pretty spectacular.

Of course, no one can debate Carlos Santana's abilities as a guitarist. For over four decades, Santana has wowed audiences with his unique and signature fusion of pop, rock, salsa and jazz, and managed to build a following that knows no particular time; he may have first garnered attention as part of the Woodstock generation, but he has been regularly re-discovered for for his work in the Seventies, Eighties, Nineties and the new millennium. In fact, it is that sort of history that has made Guitar Heaven possible; Santana's career has run in parallel with the life of all of the songs that populate Guitar Heaven; he has watched each of their legends grow. For the singer's assisting here, the chance to participate could be seen as a dream come true; here, they've been given the opportunity to pay tribute to some of the true greats. Some of the contributors and their choice of song for Guitar Heaven won't surprise anyone. For example, is anyone really surprised that that Chris Cornell is the guest voice on Santana's cover of “Whole Lotta Love” or that the vocals for “Fortunate Son” are supplied by Scott Stapp? Not really, Cornell's been drawing comparisons to Robert Plant since the earliest days of Soundgarden and Stapp covered “Fortunate Son” previously with Creed – while those could be construed as the obvious covers here, it's still good to hear them knocked out of the proverbial park as they are here. The more unusual choices on Guitar Heaven include NAS, who provides vocals for a cover of AC/DC's “Attack In Black,” and Chester Bennington's take on The Doors' “Riders On The Storm.” In each of those cases, the singers take a pretty significant venture outside of their established comfort zones (NAS' departure is obvious, and Bennington attempts to shift Morrison's baritone range up to his own mid-tenor) with thoroughly mixed results. Of that pair in specific, NAS emerges victorious because he doesn't adhere too closely to the song's original structure and thereby making it his own, while Bennington regularly trips over Santana's guitar (the song almost sounds as if it was originally cut at an instrumental with Bennington added as an afterthought) and doesn't really do anything of note other than that. One misstep out of fourteen experiments is totally permissible though, particularly when one remembers that, at its' core, Guitar Heaven is Santana's show, and his guitar work here is flat-out jaw-dropping. On the cuts of “Little Wing,” “Smoke On The Water,” “Sunshine Of Your Love” and “Whole Lotta Love” that appear here, Santana successfully grafts the guitar styles of the source material into his own and comes up with genuinely new and exciting interpretations of fourteen chapters in the rock n' roll Bible without just catbird-ing the songs or venturing too far off the map; each simply offers more food for thought on songs that most everyone (incorrectly) assumed were hammered flat. Those alterations and the fact that they work as well as they do on Guitar Heaven are an excellent lesson for young guitarists; some things have been hammered so flat that it would be easy to assume they're done but, here on Guitar Heaven, Carlos Santana illustrates that there can indeed be more inspirations to be had.

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Jimi Hendrix
West Coast Seattle Boy (CD/DVD)
(Experience Hendrix/Legacy/Sony Music)
Since his passing in 1970, an incredible amount of research has been done to try and discern more about the truth and nature of Jimi Hendrix' creative process. It has been discovered, for example, that (especially after the birth of Electric Lady Studios) many of Hendrix' songs were born and developed as the tape rolled; dozens of takes of well-established songs were captured on tape and, to this day, still more continue to be found. The proof of that process (and the fact that so many variant versions of classic songs exist) is the defining point of West Coast Seattle Boy – each of the album's fifteen cuts are either previously unreleased recordings or previously unreleased alternate versions of established songs and, in listening to the album, it's easy to understand why any Hendrix would be excited to hear them; they really show a different side of the guitarist. Here, none of the songs are exactly finished as fans would later know them, but offer the impressions of being exhilarating works-in-progress;  the production of “Are You Experienced?,” for example, is stripped to nothing here, and there is no vocal track included (likely because one had not yet been written), while the cuts of “Fire,” Hey Baby” and “Love Or Confusion” all feature less of the finished polish that has been added to the songs in the decades since their original release, which offers some interesting food for thought on where this most celebrated guitarist started versus where he would eventually end up when the songs reached completion (or, as some of these tracks illustrate, if they'd ever be completed at all). Such a 'work-in-progress' vibe would be interesting to any Hendrix fan, because it helps delineate a few more of the plot points along the guitarist's creative course; West Coast Seattle Boy is Jimi Hendrix raw – the beginning of what fans would know later as legendary.

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Bob Dylan
The Best Of The Original Mono Recordings
(Columbia/Legacy/Sony)

In this new age that has found established acts returning to their own beginnings and issuing remastered/remixed/re-envisioned/restructured/reconstituted/refurbished/re-packaged renditions of their time-honored and revered catalogue, one has to wonder what the auteurs actually think of their own work. While many of the new sets from John Lennon, The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix sound pretty cool, both common sense and aged wisdom dictate that, “if it ain't broke, don't fix it” don't they? So how insecure and uncertain of their own longevity are artists who embark on these massive 'artistic renovation' endeavors? Was there really something missing? These are the sorts of questions that Bob Dylan must have asked when Columbia proposed a reissue campaign of the singer's early records, and that's why the description of The Best Of The Original Mono Recordings is right there in the title of this Bob Dylan greatest hits compilation. There's nothing fancy about this single-disc best-of, it's simply a disc of great songs  presented on a medium that won't crackle if it gets dusty. The amount of remixing and re-mastering done here has also been an absolute minimum; the greatest difference, in that regard, is that the high end has been raised to such clarity that it's possible to hear Dylan's tongue cross his teeth and feel every articulated note from that acoustic guitar.

It doesn't sound like the changes present should make much of a difference in theory, but the difference in the sound of The Best Of The Original Mono Recordings is noticeable and, for some fans will certainly be worthwhile. Relying on a track list very, very similar to that of Dylan's 1967 Greatest Hits album (in fact, all ten of the songs on that record appear here, plus an additional five), The Best Of The Original Mono Recordings isn't so much designed to entice long-time fans to buy still another Dylan hits comp, it's designed to put the best possible foot forward in introduction to new fans; those who might like the ideas, statements and poetic truths that the singer was putting forth, placed again on new release walls in record stores in plain view for ready consumption. Some cynical naysayers who have previously flocked to the  re-presentation endeavors of other artists just to scream heresy at any changes made and claim that there was nothing wrong with the original recordings of the songs (these are the same people for whom EMI issued a 'Mono' edition of The Beatles' box set in addition to the 'stereo' set) will gravitate eagerly to The Best Of The Original Mono Recordings and hold it up as proof that no rethinking is required for great songs and they're right; the clarity with which songs like “It Ain't Me Babe,” “Blowin' In The Wind,” “The Times They Are A-Changin'” and “All Along The Watchtower” come through is beautiful and the simplicity of them seems almost heroic stacked against the big-dollar productions done by other bands to re-present their songs. In The Best Of The Original Mono Recordings, the idea must have been to present the statement that some songs were great the first time and don't need a bunch of gimmickry to remain timeless – they simply are.

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Neil Diamond
Dreams
(Columbia/Sony Music)

Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, image can be as important in pop music as the music itself. Fans love (or need) to be able to associate a name with some sort of branding – to be able to connect a face with a sound with an idea – and that is often how icons get established. Take Neil Diamond for example; since first building a head of steam in the 1960s, this singer has indelibly etched his name and likeness on pop music, and the sounds of soft, slick and warm vocals combined with songs of love or the quest for it (think “Sweet Caroline,” “Red, Red Wine,” “Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon,” “Cracklin' Rosie,” “Cherry Cherry,” the list goes on….) have become his staples, each set against an enormous wall of sound. There's no point in arguing it, that is simply who Neil Diamond is in the minds and hearts of the public at large.

But what could Neil Diamond be if he wasn't that?

That is the question that Dreams asks, in its' own way. For the first time in, well – maybe ever, Neil Diamond has jettisoned all of the superficial trappings of his sound, picked up an acoustic guitar, elected to produce his own record and put together a set of songs (only one of which, “I'm A Believer,” is his own) that he genuinely loves for himself to perform. Dreams is, simply said, the most uncharacteristic Neil Diamond release in history – and that's only the first attractive thing about it.

Second most attractive is the way he approaches his performance on Dreams. With no wall of sound t compete against, Diamond scales back his own bluster and sings both genuinely and tenderly as he carefully trips through covers from The Beatles' catalogue (“Yesterday,” “Blackbird”), the songbook of Leonard Cohen (“Hallelujah”) and the all-star songbook of Phillie International (“A Song For You”) among others. Each cut exposes a gentility rarely felt when one listens to Neil Diamond, and that change opens up a variety of different ideas; while Diamond has often sung of love, this set of fourteen songs marks the first time he has ever really been unsure of the result; here, the singer sounds fragile and unsure, and that is most endearing. Likewise, in listening, it almost feels like the singer has something to lose; every time his voice wavers a little or comes desperately close to cracking, listeners can feel it and are drawn ever-further in. That's the incredible thing about Dreams; in this set of covers, somehow Neil Diamond seems more human than the phenom he's always presented previously. Here's hoping he tries this approach with a set of his own songs – soon.

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