This story was supposed to be a compilation of the year's best boxed sets and other reissues. But then it hit us: In today's shuffle-driven iPod world, with the pace of pop culture moving at breakneck speed, it's pointless to make such temporal distinctions. The past is ever-present, and the present quickly becomes the past. So instead of a list of old music released anew, we've come up with a list of timeless music -- albums that came out this year that heed no prevailing trends and sound as if they could have been recorded anytime between 1926 and 2006 -- or 2106, for that matter.
David Kimbrough Jr.
Shell Shocked (Lucky 13/BC)
The Burnside Exploration
The Record (Lucky 13/BC)
While Fat Possum Records has all but abandoned the "Not Your Same Old Blues Crap" of people like R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, both the Kimbrough and Burnside families have produced new generations of first-rate players. David Kimbrough Jr. (son of Junior) and the Burnside Exploration (featuring a son and a grandson of R.L.) both released albums very much worthy of the Mississippi Hill Country blues tradition of their forefathers. The Burnside Exploration album is a raucous and primal rotgut Saturday-night onslaught of guitar distortion and bashed drums, with occasional tinges of Dirty South hip-hop. Kimbrough's Shell Shocked rocks just as hard in spots, but is also downright harrowing in others.
Live at Fillmore West (Koch)
Murdered at 41, only a few months after this recording, sax player King Curtis possessed a squalling, harsh tone. And here, he unleashes it on an array of hits from all over the pop spectrum of 1971. So alongside expected songs like "Memphis Soul Stew," you also get funkified renditions of country-folk fare like "Ode to Billy Joe" and "Mr. Bojangles," and classic rock staples "A Whiter Shade of Pale" and even Zep's "Whole Lotta Love."
People Gonna Talk (Rounder)
It was the roots music story of this year: James Hunter stepped out of the shadows of Van Morrison, for whom he had served as lead guitarist for the past few years, and emerged as the leader of his own band. On People Gonna Talk, the suave Englishman wraps his honeyed tenor around early ska and rocksteady, the proto-funk of James Brown's early career, and suave, 1963-style big-city blues -- all framed by tight, spry horns and occasional pizzicato strings. The complete package cruises like a fast, moonlit ride in a vintage T-Bird convertible.
Roots of Rumba (Crammed Discs)
This is an endlessly compelling exploration of vintage sides from the former Belgian Congo, where the Cuban rumba was invented and later transformed. When Cuban recordings reached Kinshasa, the Congolese instantly recognized them as the work of their kinfolk -- those who were taken in chains to the sugar fields. Their Afro-Rumba would go on to sweep the continent in the late '50s and early '60s.
DJ Spooky Presents In Fine Style: 50,000 Volts of Trojan Records (Trojan)
Even if you consider yourself up to speed on the Trojan catalog, you should still pick up this two-CD set. Spooky did a fine job harvesting a wealth of obscurities: Derrick Morgan's weirdly incredible "The Great Musical Battle," ganja-baked covers of the Beatles' "Come Together" and Peggy Lee's "Fever," as well as such Jamaican classics as "007 Shanty Town" and "Rudy a Message to You." It also touches on every era of Jamaican music, from ska to rocksteady, right up to the first shimmerings of dub.
What's Going On? (Shout! Factory)
Marvin Gaye's soul classic gets a New Orleans brass band overhaul, and the Dirty Dozen makes the most of Gaye's masterpiece and today's prevailing post-Katrina atmosphere of paranoia and resolve. Bettye LaVette growls a star vocal on "What's Happening Brother." "Right On" funks along with righteous fervor, and "Flyin' High" is best of all, a second-line funeral parade that encapsulates the whole album -- and the very essence of New Orleans.
Cedric Watson, Edward Poullard, M. Ward
Post War (Merge)
A melancholy imagining of what American life will be like once our wars against terrorism are finally over, young neotraditionalist rocker M. Ward has created the most beautiful record of his short career. While his acoustic guitar retains its folky John Faheyness, Post War finds Ward's arrangements lushed up with a sonic grandeur, creating a vast panorama for his understated and, at times, eerie tenor.