New Holiday Albums: The Best of 2020

One of the most essential parts of the holiday season is the music we listen to with our family and friends. This year, we especially need to come together to celebrate (virtually or in person), so we’re offering our list of the most comforting and inspiring holiday albums that have been released over the past few months. Included are brief reviews of our top six holiday albums of 2020, including releases from Leslie Odom Jr., Warren Wolf, the original cast of Hadestown, Amber Weekes, Lynda Randle, and Pentatonix. Also included is a list of honorable mentions, since there were too many amazing albums released this holiday season to cover in depth. Although this Christmas and holiday season may be a bit different from what most of us are used to, we hope these new music selections will help make this Christmas feel just as special as the last.

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Jimi Hendrix Experience – Live In Maui

 

Title: Live In Maui
Artist: Jimi Hendrix Experience
Label: Experience Hendrix L.L.C./Sony Legacy
Formats: 2-CD or 3-LP + Blu-Ray set
Release date: November 20, 2020

 

Rarely a year goes by without a new release from the Hendrix archives and 2020 is no exception. This year’s offering, Live In Maui, features both the audio and video documentation of the “Rainbow Bridge Vibratory Color/Sound Experiment” concerts performed by the Jimi Hendrix Experience in Hawaii on July 30, 1970, plus a new documentary and liner notes that chronicle the story behind the making of the film Rainbow Bridge. As is the case with the majority of these posthumous releases, the results are a mixed bag. For most Hendrix fans, however, there is likely enough new, high quality content to warrant the purchase of this three disc set. First and foremost, there’s the music, a remarkable live performance previously available only on bootlegs, offered here in superb sound, newly restored and mixed by Eddie Kramer and mastered by Bernie Grundman.

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Prince – Sign O’ The Times Super Deluxe Ed.

 

Title: Sign O’ The Times Super Deluxe Ed.
Artist: Prince
Label: Warner
Formats: 8-CD or 13-LP + DVD Box Set
Release date: September 25, 2020

 

Any Prince fan on your holiday gift list would likely be thrilled to receive the new edition of Sign O’ The Times, one of the Prince’s most memorable albums now offered as a super deluxe box set. Featuring 92 tracks across eight CDs plus a DVD and a 120-page illustrated hardcover book with essays by Dave Chappelle, Lenny Kravitz, and various Prince scholars, this set can be considered a bargain. In addition to the original 1987 double album remastered by Bernie Grundman, the other CDs include 63 previously unreleased tracks ranging from single remixes and B-sides to live songs plus a complete concert performance recorded in Utrecht, Netherlands, on June 20, 1987 during the Sign O’ The Times Tour.

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Chuck Berry – The Original King of Rock ‘N’ Roll

 

Title: The Original King of Rock ‘N’ Roll
Artist: Chuck Berry
Label: MVD Visual
Formats: DVD, Blu-Ray
Release date: November 6, 2020

 

Back in 1987, while the legendary rock and roll icon Chuck Berry was still alive and performing, the documentary Chuck Berry – Hail! Hail! Rock N’ Roll was released in celebration of the musician’s 60th birthday, but the primarily focus was on two 1986 concerts. Director Jon Brewer (also responsible for great documentaries on B.B. King and Nat King Cole) uses some of that footage for this wonderful new 97-minute film, The Original King of Rock ‘N’ Roll, including clips with Berry’s contemporaries, Little Richard and Bo Diddley. This if the first feature-length documentary on the life and music of Berry, taking us on a journey from his early years right up to the present day.

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Little Richard – Expanded Editions of Reprise Albums

In a year that has brought many heartbreaking losses, one of the greatest was Little Richard, the undisputed architect of rock and roll who died on May 9, 2020 at the age of 87. Along with his peers, pianist Fats Domino and guitarists Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, Richard secured a place in the rock n’ roll pantheon for Black musicians in the 1950s and managed to hold onto that success for the next 60 years through recordings and live performances. Though a number of compilations have been released in the past that cover his early years with Specialty, OKeh, and Vee-Jay Records, his recordings for Reprise Records in the 1970s have been somewhat neglected. Thanks to the reissue label Omnivore Recordings and producer Cheryl Pawelski, fans can now enjoy expanded CD editions of three of Little Richards’ Reprise releases as well as his 1986 Warner Bros. release, all with new liner notes by Bill Dahl.

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Chubby Checker and the 60th Anniversary of The Twist

 

Title: The Twist
Artist: Chubby Checker
Label: ABKCO
Format: 7” vinyl
Release date: September 25, 2020

 

Sixty years ago, Philadelphia teenager Chubby Checker released his iconic version of “The Twist.” Dropping in the summer of 1960, the single hit the top of Billboard’s Hot 100 on September 24, 1960. Originally a twelve-bar blues song written and released a year earlier by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, it was Checker’s rendition that caught the attention of Dick Clark, who invited him to perform on American Bandstand. The rest, as they say, is history. Checker’s song spurred a worldwide dance craze, eventually earning him a spot in the Grammy Hall of Fame as well as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Library of Congress National Recording Registry. In recognition of the 60th anniversary of “The Twist,” ABKCO Records is offering several commemorative releases of Checker’s recordings.

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Beyoncé – Homecoming: The Live Album

 

Title: Homecoming: The Live Album
Artist: Beyoncé
Label: Columbia
Format: 4-LP vinyl set
Release Date: December 4, 2020

 

The first African American woman to headline the Coachella festival, Beyoncé received immediate acclaim from fans and critics alike following her April 2018 Homecoming performances. Her concert celebrated Historically Black Colleges and Universities with over 100 dancers, a band, and special guest performers including J Balvin, Jay-Z, and a nostalgic Destiny’s Child reunion with Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams. This new 4-LP set includes over two dozen songs from the live performances that thrilled over 125,000 concertgoers on those April weekends.

Reviewed by Chloe McCormick

Songhoy Blues – Optimisme

 

Title: Optimisme
Artist: Songhoy Blues
Label: Fat Possum
Format: CD, LP, Digital
Release Date: October 23, 2020

 

Hailing from Mali, the African rock band Songhoy Blues has returned with their highly anticipated third album, a response to their homeland’s corrupt and oppressive political system. Entitled Optimisme, French for optimism, the album reflects the group’s desire to impact the world around them in tangible and positive ways through their music.

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Cindy Blackman Santana – Give the Drummer Some

 

Title: Give the Drummer Some
Artist: Cindy Blackman Santana
Label: Copperline
Formats: CD, LP, Digital
Release date: September 18, 2020

 

Virtuoso drummer Cindy Blackman Santana is well-known for her versatility, especially in the realm of jazz and rock. A member of Lenny Kravitz’s band from 1992-2007, for the past decade she has been the regular touring drummer for Santana (and later married Carlos Santana). Heavily influenced by her mentor, the late drummer Tony Williams who initially rose to fame in the 1960s as a member of Miles Davis’ group, Cindy has extended and expanded his jazz-rock fusion legacy. On her new album, Give the Drummer Some, Cindy reaches new heights, on vocals and percussion, as she collaborates with four of the world’s top fusion guitarists: Carlos Santana, John McLaughlin, Kirk Hammett (Metallica), and Vernon Reid (Living Colour). Produced by Narada Michael Walden, the album was three years in the making, and the results are no less than spectacular.

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Free Radicals – White Power Outage Volume 1

 

Title: White Power Outage Volume 1
Artist: Free Radicals
Label: RWE
Format: Digital
Release Date: September 15, 2020

 

One of the most diverse musical collectives in the country, Free Radicals includes over 50 musicians that range from 4-year-old attendees of Peace Camp Houston to 92-year-old vibraphone player Harry Sheppard. These musicians bring together their varied backgrounds and talents on White Power Outage Volume 1, a revolutionary album that demands an end to white supremacy in the arts, culture, and politics.

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Fantastic Negrito – Have You Lost Your Mind Yet?

 

Title: Have You Lost Your Mind Yet?
Artist: Fantastic Negrito 
Label: Cooking Vinyl
Formats: CD, LP, Digital
Release date: July 17, 2020

 

GRAMMY award winning artist Fantastic Negrito has returned with his new album, Have You Lost Your Mind Yet?  While the Oakland native’s 2018 release, Please Don’t Be Dead, focused on songs that embrace love and unity, the musical framework for his new project more closely mirrors the pressing issues in the current social, economic and political climate. Using his signature rock-soul style, he presents timely topics such as the benefits of communication, particularly during the pandemic, when so many are battling with or recovering from mental illness. Negrito believes that if we talk more openly about what’s happening in our lives, we can work toward finding healing within our communities by eliminating isolation.

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L.A. Salami – The Cause of Doubt & a Reason to Have Faith

 

Title: The Cause of Doubt & a Reason to Have Faith
Artist: L.A. Salami
Label: Sunday Best
Format: CD, LP, Digital
Release Date: July 17, 2020

 

Described as classy rap, street-poet blues and fierce folk, the music of London artist L.A. Salami creates a truly unique and always evocative experience. Born Lookman Adekunle Salami, L.A. Salami began writing poetry from an early age, a hobby which eventually blossomed into writing poetic lyrics with acoustic-oriented instrumental backing. On his most recent album, The Cause of Doubt & a Reason to Have Faith, Salami ventures into more experimental ground as he draws on everything from ‘90s hip-hop and rap to psychedelic folk and proto-punk of the ‘60s.

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Moonlight Benjamin – Simido

 

Title: Simido 
Artist: Moonlight Benjamin
Label: Ma Casa
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: February 21, 2020

 

Haiti’s high priestess of voodoo rock and roll, Moonlight Benjamin, returns with her latest release, Simido. As with her previous breakout album, Siltane, the lead vocalist performs primarily in her native Creole language, with lyrics that always delve deep into the soul of Haitian culture. Now based in France, Benjamin strives to honor her roots and harness the spiritual power of her homeland. At the same time, she expresses concern that as a woman, she must constantly affirm her existence and command respect. As she states, “It is, unfortunately, an eternal battle for us who are women.”

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New Holiday Albums: The Best of 2019

That special time of year has come around again, filling everyone with holiday cheer. But nothing has the ability to spread Christmas spirit quite like music does. Following are brief reviews of what we believe to be the best holiday albums so far this year, featuring releases from Keb’ Mo’, Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, The McCrary Sisters, Elijah Blake, Jonathan Butler, and Mariah Carey. We hope these selections provide the perfect soundtrack for everyone’s holiday season. Continue reading

Jimi Hendrix – Songs for Groovy Children: The Fillmore East Concerts

 

Title: Songs for Groovy Children: The Fillmore East Concerts
Artist: Jimi Hendrix/Band of Gypsys
Label: Sony Legacy
Formats: CD, LP, Digital
Release date: November 22, 2019

 

In the summer of 1969, Jimi Hendrix broke away from The Jimi Hendrix Experience and formed a new trio with bassist Billy Cox and drummer Buddy Miles. The album that was spawned from this black power trio was Band of Gypsys, which featured six songs from the concerts at the Fillmore East on January 1, 1970. As an album much revered by Hendrix fans, as well as one of the best live albums in rock and roll history, Band of Gypsys has certainly received its share of accolades. Songs for Groovy Children supplements this classic live album by including over two dozen previously unreleased tracks and all four of the Band of Gypsys’ performances from the Fillmore East on New Year’s Eve 1969 and New Year’s Day 1970. Continue reading

Michael Jackson – This Is It (10th Anniversary Limited Ed.)

 

Title: This Is It (10th Anniversary Limited Ed.)
Artist: Michael Jackson
Label: michaeljackson.com
Format: Box Set
Release date: December 11, 2019

 

Yet another repacking of Jackson’s This Is It, the movie that captured MJ’s final concert rehearsals before his death, this limited edition box is for serious fans who don’t mind spending nearly $500. Only 1000 numbered copies will be pressed, adding to the collectible market of the product. The box includes a 60-page hardcover coffee table book, 4-LP translucent blue vinyl of the soundtrack, 3D enhanced Blu-ray disc of the film never released as a standalone version, and one of the actual lenticular concert tickets for the July 24, 2009.

Rockabye Baby! Lullaby Renditions of Snoop Dogg

 

Title: Rockabye Baby! Lullaby Renditions of Snoop Dogg
Label: Rockabye Baby
Formats: LP, Digital
Release date: December 6, 2019

 

Need a gift for new parents? Do you know what new parents really need? If your answer is more sleep, we’ve got you covered. What could be more slumber inducing than Lullaby Renditions of Snoop Dogg, which trades beats and rhymes for the soothing sounds of glockenspiel. This is rap music made baby-friendly and kids music that’s adult-friendly. While parents groove to “Sensual Seduction” and “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” they can hope junior will be blissfully sleeping in the crib. And yes, “Gin and Juice” is also included as a nightcap. From the company that previously released lullaby renditions of Prince, Beyonce, Jay-Z, and Bob Marley, this latest addition to the catalog is sure to please. Continue reading

Stevie D ft. Corey Glover – Torn from the Pages

 

Title: Torn from the Pages
Artist: Stevie D, featuring Corey Glover
Label: Mighty Music
Format: Digital
Release date: September 6, 2019

 

Stevie D, a.k.a. Stephen DeAcutis, has teamed up with Living Colour vocalist Corey Glover on his debut album, Torn from the Pages. Not to be confused with the Buckcherry guitarist, DeAcutis is more often thought of as a producer and engineer who has recorded and mixed albums for pop stars such as Cyndi Lauper, as well as metal heavyweights Nuclear Assault and Overkill. However, on this project, Stevie D demonstrates his chops as a songwriter as well as a guitarist, proving throughout the album that he is a strong lead player who is also capable of some blistering guitar work. The pairing with Corey Glover, for whom DeAcutis has engineered and co-produced projects in the past, is a seamless collaboration that never feels forced. In fact, Torn from the Pages could pass as a release by a long-standing band. Continue reading

Brutal Africa: The Heavy Metal Cowboys of Botswana

 

Title: Brutal Africa: The Heavy Metal Cowboys of Botswana
Artist: Various
Label: Svart
Formats: CD, Vinyl
Release Date: August 30, 2019

 

From Finnish label Svart Records comes Brutal Africa: The Heavy Metal Cowboys of Botswana. This compilation of six bands from across Botswana explores the thriving, yet often unrecognized heavy metal scene of the country. The name Brutal Africa is likely inspired by brutal metal, a sub-section of metal music that is played by some of the bands on this recording. Continue reading

Protobilly: The Minstrel & Tin Pan Alley DNA of Country Music

Title: Protobilly: The Minstrel & Tin Pan Alley DNA of Country Music
Artist: Various
Label: JSP
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: October 25, 2019

 

 

Those who watched Ken Burns Country Music documentary on PBS and want to dig a little deeper into the roots of the genre should find this new box set quite fascinating. Protobilly: The Minstrel & Tin Pan Alley DNA of Country Music 1892-2017, as the title suggests, “documents old country songs with origins in minstrelsy, vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley, ballads, ancient hymnals, deep-south blues, and other venerable popular music genres.” The anthology was meticulously produced by three highly regarded sound recording historians—the vernacular music specialists and radio producers Dick Spottswood and Henry Sapoznik, who also wrote the liner notes, and David Giovannoni, who contributed many rare cylinders and discs from his own collection. Additionally, Grammy Award winning musician Dom Flemons, aka “The American Songster” and former member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, also contributed to the notes.  Continue reading

Hundred Watt Heart – Turbulent Times

 

Title: Turbulent Times
Artist: Hundred Watt Heart
Label: Whole Leap
Formats: LP, Digital
Release date: May 24, 2019

 

Hundred Watt Heart’s Turbulent Times is the first solo recording by “Captain” Kirk Douglas from The Roots. Joined by The Roots bassist Mark Kelley, the Hundred Watt Heart is a Black rock power trio rounded out by drummer Ricc Sheridan from the band Earl Greyhound (the three also perform together as The Dust Rays). Given the power trio theme, it is appropriate that this album was recorded at Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady Studios in New York. The eight tracks feature excellent songwriting and musicianship that is at times bare-bones rock and roll, and at other times well-produced pseudo-psychedelia. The entire band is first-rate, and Douglas is outstanding both as a vocalist and a guitarist. Perhaps most impressive is Douglas’s restraint as a guitar player. On tracks like “Uma” he demonstrates that he can play at a top-tier level when he wants to, but unlike some other highly technical guitarists, Douglas does not populate the entire album with flashy guitar licks. Continue reading

Burnt Sugar The Arkestra Chamber – 20th Anniversary Mixtapes: Groiddest Schizznits Vol. 1-3

 

Title: 20th Anniversary Mixtapes: Groiddest Schizznits Vol. 1-3
Artist: Burnt Sugar The Arkestra Chamber
Label: TruGroid/Dist. CD Baby
Formats: 3 CDs, Digital
Release date: 2019

 

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the acclaimed and renowned experimental soul-jazz-hip hop ensemble, Burnt Sugar The Arkestra Chamber. Founded in 1999 by Village Voice critic, black music scholar and guitarist Greg Tate and co-leader/bassist Jared Michael Nickerson, Burnt Sugar was, and is, a collective of musicians creating music that traverses black music styles, genres, and eras. According to Tate and Nickerson, “Burnt Sugar was originally conceived as a forum for the New York area improvisational musician to compose, record and perform material which reflects the breadth and depth of African diasporan music in the 21st century.” To commemorate their illustrious career, Burnt Sugar recently released their three volume album compilation, 20th Anniversary Mixtapes: Groiddest Schizznits. Continue reading

Little Junior Parker Rocks

 

Title: Rocks
Artist: Little Junior Parker
Label: Bear Family
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: April 5, 2019

 

Little Junior Parker (1932-1971) is the most recent artist to be featured on Bear Family’s long-running Rocks! series, which focuses on “the best upbeat recordings of seminal roots music artists.” Though Parker’s life “was tragically truncated by a brain tumor,” the blues harpist “had enough time to leave behind a bountiful blues recording legacy that stretched across two decades.” As explained by Bill Dahl, reissue producer and author of the extensive liner notes, Parker released a string of R&B and blues hits for two of the seminal independent labels of the postwar era: Sam Phillips’ Sun Records in Memphis and Don Robey’s Houston-based Duke imprint.” Both are represented on this compilation. Continue reading

John the Martyr Self-Titled Debut Album

 

Title: John the Martyr
Artist: John the Martyr
Label: Plus One
Formats: CD, LP, Digital
Release date: June 14, 2019

 

It’s becoming a familiar story: young soul music enthusiast encounters a seasoned elder who hasn’t performed professionally for years, and invites him or her to front a band. In this instance, the band is the ten-piece rock and soul group John the Martyr, and the elder is none other than 70-year-old Harlem soul singer Bill Hudson, who had been earning extra cash performing with a doo-wop group in the New York subway. Now, just two years after their formation, John the Martyr has released its eponymous debut album to wide acclaim. You may have already heard their first single, “Crossing the Line,” which is brimming over with a youthful enthusiasm tempered by the gravitas of Hudson’s vocals that reflect the septuagenarian’s lived experience: Continue reading

Alan Evans – Nothing To Say

 

Title: Nothing To Say
Artist: Alan Evans
Label: Vintage League Music
Formats: CD, LP, Digital
Release date: May 24, 2019

 

Don’t let the title fool you—Alan Evans has plenty to say on his solo debut album. Steeped in psychedelic rock and funk, Nothing To Say finds Evans stepping out from behind his drum kit and away from his acclaimed funk/jazz trio Soulive. The album’s ten original tracks were written, recorded, and produced over the past four years by Evans and released on his Vintage League Music label. In addition to laying down the drum tracks, the singer and multi-instrumentalist performs all vocals as well as guitar, bass, keys and percussion. Joining Evans on this outing are guitarists Danny Mayer and Ryan Hommel, who doubles on pedal steel, with Darby Wolf, Kris Yunker, Beau Sasser, and brother Neal Evans (Soulive) filling in on Moog, organ, piano and Mellotron. This keyboard centric mix is heavy on the organ, creating a soulful yet funky feel throughout, but includes enough stellar guitar solos to rock hard. Continue reading

Cole Williams – Believe

 

Title: Believe
Artist: Cole Williams
Label: Louisiana Red Hot
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: May 31, 2019

 

After making a name for herself as a vocalist and percussionist with the Brooklyn-based quintet Pimps of Joytime and contributing background vocals for numerous artists, Cole Williams decided she was ready for a reboot. The Jamaican-American singer-songwriter and self-described “punk empress” relocated to New Orleans in 2015 and formed the Cole Williams Band, then set out to invoke an “African Rock Revolution.” Her new solo album, Believe, offers eleven original tracks all written, produced, and performed by the talented Williams. From the distorted soul of “Opposites ATTRACT” to the electro/hip hop vibe of “Turn Up,” the album gets off to a righteous start. Other highlights include the densely packed soundscape of the manifesto “Single Black FEmelle,” the good vibes of “Get High,” and the cautionary tale of “Sin City.” The album closes on a high note with the mid-tempo title track, “BeLieVe,” featuring jazzy, multilayered vocals over a punchy horn section on this affirmative song about love and relationships.  Though Believe is more experimental, free flowing, and synth heavy than Williams’ previous efforts, the album should still strike a chord for fans of her unique blend of rock and soul music. Continue reading

Dwayne Dopsie & The Zydeco Hellraisers – Bon Ton

 

Title: Bon Ton
Artist: Dwayne Dopsie & The Zydeco Hellraisers
Label: Louisiana Red Hot
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: May 24, 2019

 

Dubbed the “Jimi Hendrix of the accordion” by Rolling Stone magazine, Dwayne “Dopsie” Rubin is a master of the “blood pumping zydeco” that seeps from the heart of Louisiana’s bayous on a hot summer night. Known for playing his accordion like a guitar, Dopsie’s fiery style incorporates elements of rock, funk, and R&B as well as the more traditional zydeco learned at the knee of his father, the late Alton Rubin Sr. (a.k.a. Rockin’ Dopsie). On his latest release, Bon Ton, Dopsie definitely ushers in summer with some good times and great music. His backing band, The Zydeco Hellraisers, features Paul Lafleur on washboard, Brandon David on guitar, Tim McFatter on sax, Dion Pierre on bass, and Dondrell Fleming on drums. Together they perform a synthesis of the blues, rhythm and blues, and traditional Cajun music that comprise the zydeco tradition. Continue reading

Los Coast – Samsara

 

Title: Samsara
Artist: Los Coast
Label: New West Records
Formats: CD, LP, Digital
Release Date: June 14, 2019

 

Austin, Texas based band Los Coast has made a name for themselves on the local scene as an exciting and inventive young band. On their debut album, Samsara, Los Coast delivers a blend of pop and soul inspired tracks that incorporate the band’s distinctive grooves and infectious energy. Continue reading

Various Artists – Putumayo Presents World Peace

 

Title: Putumayo Presents World Peace
Artist: Various Artists
Label: Putumayo World Music
Formats: CD, Digital
Release Date: June 14, 2019

 

Putumayo World Music, the record label known for its joyful compilations of international music, has released its newest project, World Peace. Inspired by John F. Kennedy’s historic “peace speech” of 1963 that eased Cold War tensions, World Peace draws upon the speech’s themes of ending excessive militarism and “making the world safe for diversity.” Continue reading

Bernard Fowler – Inside Out

 

Title: Inside Out
Artist: Bernard Fowler
Label: Rhyme and Reason
Formats: CD, LP, Digital
Release date: April 19, 2019

 

Bernard Fowler has had an impressive career for being someone whose name flies under the radar of the average mainstream listener. He has recorded with composers such as Philip Glass, jazz legend Herbie Hancock, and rock icon Alice Cooper. Inside Out, Fowler’s newest release, presents a unique interpretation of the music of the Rolling Stones that will sound fresh and new to even the most seasoned Rolling Stones fan. As a performer, Fowler has worked as a backup singer and percussionist for the Rolling Stones both live and in the studio since 1988, so he is very familiar with the band’s style. Yet these tracks are more than just arrangements of Rolling Stones songs that he has performed—they are new musical compositions on top of which Fowler interprets the lyrics in a spoken-word format in the style of Last Poets and Gil Scot-Heron. Continue reading