This coming Friday the Reader will run an assortment of best of 2006 lists. Since I only got to chime in with my top five albums I figure this little blog can handle more elaborate surveys of the year in sound. In the coming weeks I’ll be posting lists of my 40 favorite albums and some of my favorite reissues, and starting today, commentary on a handful of exemplary box sets.
It should come as no surprise that Rhino Records is responsible for several of the items I’ll feature in this space—year in and year out they produce some of the finest retrospectives of all sorts of music. Occasionally their efforts are a bit too obvious, but that’s certainly not the case with Rockin’ Bones: 1950s Punk & Rockabilly, a terrific four-disc collection of raw rock ‘n’ roll made between 1954-69 with a deliberate emphasis on juvenile delinquency, sex, and general bad behavior, all of it delivered with the stripped-down urgency of titular punk. While some of the era’s best-known rockers are duly represented—Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent, Elvis Presley, Ronnie Dawson, Eddie Cochran, Buddy Holly, and Jerry Lee Lewis—the majority of the 101 tracks belong to more obscure talents. There are loads of freakish selections, from Joyce Green threatening to murder her boyfriend in “Black Cadillac” to the orgiastic moans that scream through John & Jackie’s “Little Girl,” and while it may be easier and more entertaining to focus on such oddities, the real value of this set is how it genuinely sums up the whole musical moment. It may not have every single hit by the Killer, but there’s not much that’s missing.
Each track is annotated by veteran British historian Colin Escott, but the most interesting essay in the enclosed book is by guitarist Deke Dickerson, a not particularly exciting retro-rocker from Los Angeles, who observes that while the vocalists often defined the rebellious spirit of the music, it was the guitarists who provided the real meat. Older and more seasoned than the singers, they’d come up as country and jazz musicians and were trying to adapt their styles to this manic sound, jerry-rigging hillbilly licks to high-velocity, high-volume bashing. Mistakes and aesthetic misjudgments often produced the most serendipitous brilliance. On “Down on the Farm” by the black rockabilly singer Al Downing, the guitar player Vernon Sandusky overshoots the target when he leaps in for his solo, blasting off wildly out-of-tempo for a few bars before finding the groove. It’s a fuck-up, but it sounds amazing. And that’s where the punk comes in; not only are most of these tracks free of polish, but some of them border on ineptness. Yet there’s never a shortage of snarling attitude.