LIVE AT THE APOLLO 1995
James Brown (Scotti Bros. 75480)
James Brown's philosophy about recording at New York's Apollo Theater is pretty simple: If at first you succeed, go back and do it again. His 1963 "Live At the Apollo" was an epochal document of his stage show, while 1968's "Live at the Apollo, Vol. 2" firmly established him at the forefront of modern funk. Even his third Apollo album, 1971's "Revolution of the Mind," showed that there was still plenty of power in Brown's stage show. Still, what could he possibly gain by releasing a fourth Apollo set? For one thing, "Live at the Apollo 1995" makes it clear that Brown's current band is every bit as sharp as his earlier outfits; indeed, the interplay on "Cold Sweat" is as impressive as anything on the second Apollo album, and he even manages to make "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" sound as fresh as it did it in 1965. Brown doesn't stint on the ballads, either, but as much as he brings to "Try Me" and "It's a Man's World," he shines brightest on the classic "Georgia" and his own, lesser-known "Georgia Lina." It's enough to leave most fans hoping there will be a fifth Apollo album in a few years!
I JUST WASN'T MADE FOR THESE TIMES
Brian Wilson (MCA 11270)
Don Was didn't just make a documentary about the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson; he also made an album with the guy, and anyone expecting "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times" to be as casual as the conversations in the film is in for a pleasant surprise. Recorded with a first-rate studio ensemble -- the lineup includes session stalwarts Benmont Tench, Waddy Wachtel, James "Hutch" Hutchinson and Jim Keltner -- the album finds Wilson remaking a range of old songs, from "The Warmth of the Sun" to "Love and Mercy." It's nothing like a Beach Boys album, but that works to Wilson's advantage. By emphasizing his writing over the band's sense of style, it allows him to bring a wider range of color and texture to these songs, adding a soulful warmth to the glorious harmonies of "This Whole World" and bringing an almost symphonic majesty to the lush chords and intertwining melodies of " 'Til I Die." Add in a sweet and upbeat remake of "Do It Again" and a heartbreakingly beautiful "Caroline, No," and "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times" qualifies as the comeback of the year.
THE MIGHTY BO DIDDLEY
Bo Diddley (Triple-X 51161)
Bo Diddley may get credit for the beat that bears his name -- that whomp whomp whomp chunk-chunk groove beneath such classics as "Not Fade Away" and "Mona" -- but in many people's minds, that's all he ever does. But Diddley is no Johnny-One-Note, and few of his recent albums have made that case as succinctly as "The Mighty Bo Diddley." A well-rounded mix of blues laments, funky protest songs and typical Diddley braggadocio, it offers virtually everything but a straight-up version of the Bo Diddley beat. Diddley isn't putting aside his past; instead, he's trying to show how much his sound has evolved. So "Mona, Where's Your Sister" manages to seem every bit as earthy as "Mona," even though the groove is much more modern, while "I Don't Want Your Welfare" drives its point home with a rhythm arrangement that's every bit as timely as the lyric. Add in the expressive, slow-grinding blues of "Evil Woman," and it's clear that Diddley is as mighty now as he was in the '50s.
ERIC CLAPTON'S RAINBOW CONCERT
Eric Clapton (Polydor 314 527 472)
There's no doubt that the performance Eric Clapton gave with Pete Townshend, Ronnie Wood, Jim Capaldi and Steve Winwood at London's Rainbow Theatre in 1973 was one of rock 'n' roll's greatest comebacks; trouble is, those who know the show only from what turned up on record have no idea just how good the playing was that night. Fortunately, a new, extended version of "Eric Clapton's Rainbow Concert" ought to rectify that situation. Not only does it raise the total number of songs from six to 14, but it greatly enhances the musical value by including the surging version of "Layla" that opened the show; a crunchy, guitar-crazed run through "Blues Power"; and a rollicking, expansive rendition of "Let It Rain." In fact, by the time the group charges into the Robert Johnson classic "Crossroads," most listeners will be left as enthralled as the crowd at the Rainbow was that night. And isn't that what live albums are supposed to do?