I was around ten when I first heard Johnny Winter. My future brother-in-law gave me a live album to listen to. I eagerly put it on in our living room and was horrified. I did like my brother-in-law’s other offerings, his Freddie and the Dreamers, Beach Boys, Kinks, Beatles, Frankie Vallie, and other early 60s sounds. Johnny Winter sounded like he didn’t know how to play guitar or sing. I eventually realized that he just couldn’t get around AM corridors, and—I’m proud to say—his last album proved that he never did learn those ways. Step Back is classic Johnny Winter and is light-years removed from disco mirror balls and screaming teenagers. Though it no longer sounds that removed from the early rock and roll I once thought he contrasted with (I think chicken wire protects the stage and he plays through anything), he’s still playing rock and roll.
Prince got his chair back in the Warner Brothers’ boardroom, the rights to his back catalogue, and a decent revenge all in one stroke. Art Official Age is a shuffled mishmash of mid-seventies pop married to overproduction, making it one of the least rewarding of Prince’s albums—a true accomplishment given recent releases such as 20Ten.
Ringo did a cover of “You Belong to Me” on Stop and Smell the Roses back in 1981 and it was a great cover. The cynically-minded think he did so to cash in on the tune in a new era, though those who see Ringo as an artist hear it as an addition. Same can be said, pro and con, about the new tendency of previously forefront artists to renew careers through covers and duets. Annie Lennox’s Nostalgia begs that exact question. You know the one.
The first song of Leonard Cohen’s Popular Problems sets the tone—and pace—for the rest of the album. “Slow” says it all. There are no dance numbers on Popular Problems—some jazz, some blues, but no songs to dance to. Songs like “My Oh My” are the standard for Cohen’s new direction, minimalism with horns and background singers—all working together brilliantly. It is still clearly minimalistic, reminiscent of Songs from a Room in its essence, but with others, while leaving Cohen unencumbered at the microphone. This new phase, one almost fully worked out in 2012 with Old Ideas, gives us the most haunting album of Cohen’s career.