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Earl Scruggs
The Essential Earl Scruggs

The influence of Earl Scruggs on the banjo, bluegrass music and its place in American popular culture cannot be overstated. Scruggs is one of those rare American musicians whose style so transforms the way we hear and think about an instrument that over time, we come to assume that it was always played that way and forget that there was one man who did it first.

The Essential Earl Scruggs helps remind us of that. It contains tracks from his work with Bill Monroe, guitarist Lester Flatt and The Earl Scruggs Revue among others, but the focal point throughout is phenomenal banjo playing. Scruggs cultivated a sophisticated technique of banjo playing that involves picking with three fingers in a series of syncopated rolls that produce a cascade of notes endlessly flowing forward. The resulting sound lends a speed and drive to the music that other banjo styles of his day (like frailing or clawhammer) couldn't match. From the first time that Scruggs stepped onstage with Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys, his banjo playing became synonymous with bluegrass music.

You likely recognize Scruggs' banjo from some of the more familiar tracks such as "The Ballad of Jed Clampett" (the theme song to the 1962 TV show, The Beverly Hillbillies) and the "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," which became the theme song to the 1967 Warren Beatty film, Bonnie and Clyde. Tracks like these also show that when bluegrass music made its journeys into the broader American culture, it was Scruggs and his banjo at the helm.

Earl Scruggs stands in the elite company of American musical pioneers, living legends who transformed the music they were a part of. A disc like this is useful because it reminds us of this while we still have them around to thank. -- Jeff Burke

Hound Dog Taylor
Release the Hound

There's no getting around the sound. It's the sound of a metal slide on metal strings played on cheap Japanese guitars, and the Velvet Underground didn't summon much more fuzz and distortion on White Light/White Heat than Hound Dog Taylor did on the tracks collected on Release the Hound. Their noise was created for sinister purposes, designed to unsettle, while for Taylor and the Houserockers, the raw, electric screams are the sound of a desire for a big time that couldn't be contained by the feeble speaker cones in the Chicago blues band's amplifiers.

Taylor, who died of cancer in 1975, only released two albums while he was alive, though another eight albums have come out posthumously, at least four of them live. Release the Hound is a collection of odds and ends including previously unreleased studio versions of "Walking the Ceiling" and "Gonna Send You Back to Georgia." The rest are tapes of radio broadcasts or mixing board recordings. Some of these performances are sufficiently lost in history that nailing down the exact origin of the track is hard to do. "See Me in the Morning/It's Alright" was recorded in 1975 in Sydney, Australia, but no one is sure which television appearance provided this recording. Despite such disparate sources, the tracks all sound great, and any sonic differences are made irrelevant by Taylor's raucous slide guitar and the band's relentless boogie.

Fortunately, there's no overlap between Release the Hound and Beware of the Dog, Alligator Records' 1975 live Taylor set, and with 14 songs (versus Beware's nine), it's a good deal. The album also features a cover by Mekon/ Waco Brother Jon Langford that captures beautifully the ecstatic nature of Taylor's sound. -- Alex Rawls

Mahalia Jackson
The Essential Mahalia Jackson

Those looking for the definitive Mahalia are in for some confusion. A quick Internet search revealed 80 different CDs, many of them reprising the same material. Columbia, Jackson's label from 1954 until her death in 1972, has put out several different "must-haves" (The World's Greatest Gospel Singer, Greatest Hits, The Best of Mahalia Jackson among them) in addition to this latest compilation. What may set this collection apart is its thoroughness -- 37 tracks on two CDs, including well-known hymns like "Saints," "Just a Little While to Stay Here" and "Down by the Riverside" alongside lesser-known wonders; famous tracks from her Live at Newport and Ellington "Black, Brown and Beige" concerts, as well as previously unissued cuts.

The critical consensus has it that the much-harder-to-find Apollo recordings from 1946 to 1954 may be Jackson's best. They are certainly rawer, with no Percy Faith violin choirs therein. But as with her friend Louis Armstrong, everything Jackson recorded is worth hearing. The power of her booming contralto cannot be denied. Just be aware that any "greatest hits" collection you are apt to buy comes from the later, crossover years and doesn't tell the whole story. -- Tom McDermott


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