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Review: “A&M 50: The Anniversary Collection”

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On its surface, it seems kind of crazy to make a compilation of tunes from A&M Records. There are plenty of labels with clearer narrative arcs: Columbia was a hotbed for melodic singer-songwriters in the ’60s and ’70s, from Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel to Springsteen and Billy Joel. Burgeoning soul fans started with Motown and graduated to Stax or Atlantic, depending on their region. ZTT was the place for avant-garde dance-pop/rock in the ’80s, much like Elektra was the source for dreamy West Coast folk-pop.

A&M, on the other hand, was an artist, trumpeter Herb Alpert, and a record promoter, Jerry Moss. Two guys working out of a garage. That’s the kind of narrative fit for Apple, not a label that facilitated everything from jazz-pop, British rock and New Wave to polished R&B and even a smidgen of grunge. In a weird way, the lack of narrative is almost a worthy narrative in and of itself – and it’s what makes A&M 50: The Anniversary Collection (A&M/UMe B0016884-02) a potentially vital compilation for your library.

And yet, the set misses the mark, obscuring that free-form narrative with a presentation that suggests uncertainty, as if this whole “A&M 50” venture was even worth it in the first place.

That’s not to say the set is bad. Remember, A&M doesn’t have the kind of market share a Motown might, so the deck is already stacked against the concept. But from a content perspective, A&M 50 excels. The three themed discs – “From AM to FM,” “A Mission to Rock” and “Soul, Jazz and More” – bring some sort of cohesion to the proceedings.

Disc One focuses mostly on the early years of the label, when Alpert’s Tijuana Brass, Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66 and the Carpenters were the stars of the A&M roster. Gradually, while the demeanor and ideology of pop artists would change, going from earthy (Cat Stevens, Joan Baez) to ineffectual (The Captain & Tennille, Chris de Burgh) to a mix of both (Amy Grant, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow), that devotion to pop hooks and inoffensive, of-the-moment production was always there.

Disc Two is where things get interesting. The (mostly British) rock scene A&M tapped into not only yielded some of the biggest hits on the label (The Police, Styx, Bryan Adams, Peter Frampton) but kept that smorgasbord mentality of A&M alive. This was a label that hosted guitar-heavy hitters like Procol Harum and Free alongside electronically influenced, wordplay-loving tunesmiths like Joe Jackson, Squeeze and Split Enz (all among the era’s most criminally underappreciated acts!). The two-song transition that closes this disc, Soundgarden‘s “Black Hole Sun” and Sting‘s “If You Love Somebody Set Them Free,” are whiplash-inducing in their dissimilarity, and easily the point where you might agree with this point of view – that variety was the whole point of A&M Records.

The third disc amps up the eclecticism even more. A&M wasn’t content to just give you “soul music.” There were your classics old (the Phil Spector-produced “Black Pearl” by Sonny Charles & The Checkmates, Ltd.) and new (a 1991 cover of The Main Ingredient’s “Everybody Plays the Fool” by Aaron Neville); real jazz (Jobim, Getz, Quincy Jones); some funky stuff (Billy Preston, The Brothers Johnson) and a few heaping helpings of poppy R&B (Jeffrey Osbourne, Janet Jackson, late-period Barry White). The disc earns its “and more” distinction by offering danceable tracks like “Crazay” by Jesse Johnson (formerly of The Time) and “Finally” by CeCe Peniston (unusually presented in its original album version, one of the few idiosyncratic decisions as far as which versions of songs appear on the compilation).

A&M 50 offers some fun discs, which is great. So what’s the problem? The set comes in a four-panel digipak, with a picture of Alpert and Moss and a brief essay (which nobody is credited with writing). The writer and producer credits are consigned to the inner panels, with little information outside of that. It’s very plain, and altogether a bit lacking. While a full-on box set approach might have been a tough sell, a double-sized digipak with a nicely-designed booklet should be less of a luxury and more of a commonality with sets like these.

Ultimately, it’s that lack of “luxury” which fails to elevate A&M 50 past a “Now That’s What I Call Three Sampler CDs from a Particular Label!” level. This was a fun idea that demanded better execution. Alpert and Moss may not have had a unifying goal when they founded that label out of their garage, but they had something worth showing off. It’s a shame that this concept didn’t quite get its due here.

Written by Mike Duquette

September 6, 2012 at 15:56

A&M Records Celebrates Half-Century Mark with Three-Disc Compilation

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Ask the most voracious of music trivia buffs what “A&M Records” stood for and they’ll tell you simply: Herb Alpert, noted jazz trumpeter and bandleader; and music promoter Jerry Moss, a duo who crafted the label from Alpert’s garage in 1962.

50 years later, with the upcoming release of the three-disc A&M 50: The Anniversary Collection, it’s clear that A&M stood for something else, too: one of the most intriguingly eclectic rosters in pop history, encompassing everything from jazz and modern R&B to New Wave and singer/songwriter pop. (There’s been a great amount of activity surrounding the label’s anniversary in Japan, like this compilation of Works by longtime A&M arranger Nick DeCaro.)

The three discs are rather cleverly themed: Disc 1, “From AM to FM,” chronicles some of the label’s earliest and most potent pop radio hits, from Alpert’s “The Lonely Bull” with The Tijuana Brass to the Carpenters’ beautiful “Close to You” all the way to Sheryl Crow’s inescapable “All I Wanna Do.” Things get great on Disc 2, “A Mission to Rock,” which features some of the best rock and New Wave acts of the ’70s and ’80s, including The Police, Squeeze, Joe Jackson, Split Enz, Styx, Free, Joe Cocker and many more. Disc 3 loops around to “Soul, Jazz and More,” showcasing the likes of Quincy Jones, Stan Getz, Gato Barbieri, Milton Nascimiento, The Brothers Johnson and Jeffrey Osborne. (All in all, the set covers roughly 30 years of works, with most of A&M’s output after the sale to PolyGram and break-up throughout Universal Music Group – overlooked.)

While there’s not a lot particularly rare on all three discs (save for some of the deep cuts on the ’70s side of things, including tracks from Alpert and Hugh Masekela as well as Alpert’s talented wife, Lani Hall), what does raise eyebrows are some song choices: “Roxanne,” not “Every Breath You Take,” is The Police’s entry, as “Caught Up in You” by 38 Special is included over “Hold On Loosely.” Minor quibbles aside, this looks to be a really fun keepsake of a deservedly-treasured label.

A&M 50 is out on August 28 and can be pre-ordered after the jump.

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Written by Mike Duquette

July 23, 2012 at 11:48

Release Round-Up: Week of April 5

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Rush, Moving Pictures: 30th Anniversary Edition (Mercury/UMe)

A CD/DVD remaster of one of the Canadian rock band’s most beloved albums, featuring a 5.1 surround remaster of the album and some rare music videos on the DVD. If you’re in the U.S., Best Buy is currently the only place you can get the set on CD/Blu-Ray; it’ll be available to general retail on May 3. (Amazon)

Material Issue, International Pop Overthrow: 20th Anniversary Edition (Hip-o Select)

An underrated power-pop classic gets expanded with rare B-sides and other unreleased content. (Hip-o Select)

The Tubes, The Completion Backward Principle: Expanded Edition (Iconoclassic)

A remaster of the New Wave band’s first Top 40 album and first record for Capitol, with bonus tracks and new liner notes. (Amazon)

Daft Punk, TRON: Legacy R3C0NF1GUR3D (Walt Disney)

One of the best soundtracks of last year gets the remix album treatment, the same day both TRON films are released on DVD and Blu-Ray. (Official site)

Ray Charles, Live in Concert: Expanded Edition (Concord)

The Genius’ 1965 live LP for ABC Records is expanded and remastered on Concord, keepers of much of Ray’s catalogue. (Amazon)

The Originals, California Sunset: Expanded Edition (Big Break Records)

An underrated, underground soul album from Motown’s vaults – already released in the U.K. last week – comes to U.S. shores today. (BBR)

Leon Russell, The Best of Leon Russell (EMI/Capitol)

A new compilation honoring the Rock & Roll Hall of Famer, from his solo and sideman days to his latest victorious album with Elton John. (Amazon)

Miles Davis, The Definitive Miles Davis on Prestige / Bill Evans, The Definitive Bill Evans on Riverside and Fantasy / Albert King, The Definitive Albert King on Stax (Concord)

Some new double-disc compilations from Concord that compile some of the best jazz and blues artists of the 20th century. (Amazon: Miles, Evans, King)

Sergio Mendes, Celebration: A Musical Journey (Verve/UMe)

Brazil’s most legendary musician is anthologized in a new two-disc set. (Amazon)

Marshall Tucker Band, Greatest Hits (Shout! Factory)

A reissue of the band’s original greatest hits compilation, with the added presence of some rare single edits. (Shout! Factory)

Various Artists, ICON (UMe)

A lot of traditional rock acts get added to the budget compilation series, including Eric Clapton, B.B. King, The Who, Cat Stevens, Sublime, Joe Cocker and others. (A full list, with Amazon links, is here.)

Another Round of “ICON” Track Lists (UPDATED 4/4)

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UPDATE 4/4: We now have confirmation on the track lists for each set!

Original post: Next week, another batch of ICON compilations will be released by Universal Music Group. This is particularly interesting, considering that all of the track lists for these upcoming sets have yet to be revealed.

Indeed, pre-order links on Amazon and other sites don’t even have all of these track lists, or cover art, finalized. (This is doubly ironic considering another batch of ICON titles is slate for May, and pre-order links are starting to crop up.) Fortunately, we’ve managed to pull together all but one of the sets (the two-disc compilation track list for The Who remains elusive) into one post for your perusal. It’s a mostly classic rock-oriented batch (The Who, Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker, Cat Stevens) with some new and old soul/blues acts (Quincy Jones, B.B. King, Avant), modern rock (Sublime) and a few smaller names (Nonpoint, Local H) thrown in for good measure. The set by the metal band Nonpoint features some previously unreleased material, which must be one of the first such instances on the usually barebones ICON sets.

Each title comes out April 5. The remaining track lists will be plugged in when they’re confirmed; the rest are after the jump!
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Written by Mike Duquette

March 29, 2011 at 11:59

ICON Updates from Universal

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The next batch of Universal’s ICON series is out in a few days, but we’re already seeing more on the horizon.

Two Icon country titles are coming out on March 22: one by Josh Turner, who enjoyed his biggest hit on the country charts last year with the No. 1 single “Why Don’t We Just Dance,” and Billy Currington, who’s racked up an impressive nine Top 10 singles on the country charts since his debut in 2003.

But that’s not all – April 5 is going to see another batch of ICON discs from all corners of the Universal catalogue according to Amazon, including Eric Clapton, The Who, Quincy Jones, B.B. King, Sublime, Cat Stevens, Joe Cocker, Avant and Local H. Only track lists for the last two (admittedly lesser known) bands have surfaced, but both sets actually boast a handful of previously unreleased tracks. While the bigger names likely won’t spoil fans with rare content on a budget title, we’ll surely find out soon enough.

Check out the track lists for Currington and Turner’s sets after the jump, and keep it here for more information on these compilations as it happens.

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Written by Mike Duquette

February 26, 2011 at 14:36

Cherry Red Preps Joe Cocker Reissue, Kiki Dee Compilation

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Some more goodies are coming out of the Universal vaults from the Cherry Red label group.

The T-Bird label is reissuing Joe Cocker’s Sheffield Steel from 1982. Like most Joe Cocker records, the iconic singer lays down great versions of rock and soul covers (written by luminaries including Randy Newman, Jimmy Webb and Steve Winwood). Unlike most Joe Cocker records, Sheffield Steel is heavy on reggae, with instrumental contribution from Sly and Robbie and guest vocals from Jimmy Cliff and Robert Palmer. The album was previously reissued by Island in 2002 with two 12″ remixes and a pair of unreleased outtakes; that presentation is replicated here.

More intriguing for collectors is I’m Kiki Dee: The Fontana Years 1963-1968 on the RPM label. A jam-packed disc, it includes all of Dee’s single, EP and LP sides from the years long before hitting it big with “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” her duet with Elton John, in 1976. It’s not complete – Dee recorded several tunes in other languages – but it is rather thorough, even including three incredibly rare BBC performances and new liner notes featuring contributions from Kiki and musical collaborator Les Reed.

Both sets are coming out in the U.K. on January 24. Pre-order them here and here and hit the jump for track lists. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Mike Duquette

January 3, 2011 at 13:35