We asked author and Tompkins Square founder Josh Rosenthal to pick his favorite year in music.
Rosenthal founded the historically-minded Tompkins Square record label ten years ago, releasing albums from Hiss Golden Messenger, Michael Chapman, Alice Gerard and countless other folk heros. This year also saw the release of Rosenthal’s book The Record Store of the Mind. Read his case for 1928 below and vote for your favorite year here.
Everyone knows that 1969 was the best year ever for music.
Leigh Stephens’ Red Weather was released that year, and so was Skip Spence’s Oar. The Beatles’ Abbey Road, The Stones’ Let It Bleed, Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left, The Kinks’ Arthur, Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, MC5’s Kick Out The Jams, The Dead’s Aoxomoxoa, Miles’ In A Silent Way, Leonard Cohen’s Songs From A Room, debut albums by The Band, Led Zeppelin (LZ II was also 1969 . . .) and The Stooges. And The Best New Artist Grammy goes to . . .
We tend to identify the past 100 years of recorded music history in compartmentalized bites called decades. The teens were about Ragtime. The 20’s brought the advent of modern blues and country. The 30’s jazz era saw a post-depression industry downshift, as rural blues and old-time vernacular string bands gave way to Nat, Django, Louis, Billie, Charlie Christian, Art Tatum, Duke. Corny crooners and big bands dominated the 40’s – the absolute shittiest decade for music. And so on.
But in 100 or 1000 years, if there are still human ears to hear, the distance between the earliest blues, country and jazz recordings and the music of the 60’s, or of today, will become so compressed that the seemingly wide chasm between 1928 and 1969 will become non-existent. There are only 39 years separating Zep’s “The Lemon Song” and Skip James’ “Hard Time Killin’ Floor.” The distance between this week’s new Neon Indian record and Led Zeppelin’s debut is 46 years. Yet, presumably because of its scratchy, archaic recording quality, Skip’s song seems ancient, while Zeppelin’s seems perfectly modern and relevant.
So stop your dismissive harrumphing when I state that 1928 was the best year in recorded music history. No, really, stop. I love Pink Floyd just like you. I know you love Depeche Mode and New Order and 1986 was the best year ever. I know you think 1967 and 1968 were the best years ever you nostalgic sack, and I know you love Devo, so – 1978, and you love Kraftwerk, so – 1972. What about 2007, ’11, ’06 or ’05 ? I would love to read those. Maybe those years are better than 1967, 1968 and 1969 but we don’t realize it, because media in that date-range sucked, the rules of engagement between music and the consumer have changed, and about 1000x more records came out in those years than in the late 60’s. Maybe those newer years are better just because there’s so much unexplored, overlooked, forgotten music in there. And maybe that’s more interesting than listening to classic rock for the zillionth time. I love it too, but time to move on.
Jimmie Rodgers – “The Breakman’s Blues”
The fact that all these giants roamed the Earth at the same time and all recorded in 1928 boggles the mind. Recorded in the second round of Bristol Sessions by Ralph Peer, the Big Bang of Country Music made Jimmie Rodgers a legend for all time.
Tommy Johnson – “Cool Drink of Water Blues”
That voice. Johnson led the way for all high-pitched blues moaners to follow. His spooky, spectral sound on this recording gives extra gravitas to the whole idea of 1928 as the Greatest Year Ever for Music, does it not? This song alone might do it, in fact.
Mississippi John Hurt – “Nobody’s Dirty Business”
Yep, 1928 is when MJ Hurt recorded classic sides like “Ain’t No Tellin’,” “Stack O’ Lee Blues,” and “Nobody’s Dirty Business” among others, all beautifully compiled on Avalon Blues : The Complete 1928 Okeh Recordings.
Carter Family – “Wildwood Flower”
Also recorded during the Bristol Sessions, the nine Carter Family tunes recorded in 1928 are some of the crown jewels in the country music cannon, influencing and inspiring countless musicians.
Blind Lemon Jefferson – “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean”
This tune was originally recorded in 1927 and was so successful that it was re-recorded and re-released in 1928, one of many beautiful songs recorded about a year before his death (in 1929, age 36) by the revered gospel and blues singer from Texas. And yes, Lemon was his real first name.
Blind Willie McTell – “Loving Talking Blues”
As Dylan said, no one sings the blues like BWM (except maybe Tommy Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson). Victor released two 78s in 1928 – “Three Women Blues” b/w “Statesboro Blues” (see Allman Bros.), and “Dark Night Blues” b/w “”Loving Talking Blues”.
Charlie Poole – “I Once Loved A Sailor”
One of music’s first true punks, this banjo player busted his thumb trying to catch a fastball barehanded and thus created his own clawhammer style to compliment a drunken old man voice that doesn’t match his cherubic if slightly mischievous/demented countenance. He landed a movie deal, then went on a 13-week bender and died at 39. But in 1928, he recorded “Old and Only In The Way,” “Took My Gal A-Walking” and “Rambling Blues,” and arguably invented alt/outlaw country.
Lonnie Johnson – “Broken Levee Blues”
Alfonzo “Lonnie” Johnson from New Orleans is first source blues, with intricate guitar stylings that influenced Django and Charlie Christian, and a gorgeous, reverb-y vocal on these tracks recorded during the 1928 Okeh sessions in San Antonio, TX – his best session of them all. Post-war blues singers fumble to get even 1% of the visceral passion running through this track, and they get nowhere.
VOTE FOR 1928 !!!!