(In alphabetical order)
Glen Campbell, Ghost on the Canvas
After a career encompassing guitar-ace status with the Wrecking Crew on (among many others) Sinatra, Presley and Beach Boys sessions, dozens of his own groundbreaking and beloved hits, an iconic TV variety series, acting with John Wayne in True Grit -- and some digressions into troubled behavior -- Campbell has made the album of his life. Literally. Ghost traces the arc of his journey from Depression poverty of his Arkansas childhood through his roller-coaster success to his current twilight, 75 with his memories flickering out due to Alzheimer's but his faith in love (both Earthly and eternal) strong. But it side-steps mundane autobiography, rather using colorful allusion in the music (echoes of such classic countrypolitan as "Wichita Lineman" abound) and expressive lyrics to tell the story. Songwriting contributions from Paul Westerberg (including the title track), Jakob Dylan and other young acolytes are uniformly strong, but it's such originals as the curtain-raiser "A Better Place" and "It's Your Amazing Grace," built by producer Julian Raymond from Campbell's insights, that make this "farewell" album a worthy capper to a remarkable journey.
Ry Cooder, Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down
Having devoted his last few albums to colorful memories (and some tall tales) about Southern California in the '50s, culminating in his new book Los Angeles Stories, Cooder taps into his inner Woody Guthrie for his latest album. Pointed sarcasm ("No Banker Left Behind") mixes with poignant tableaus (a lonely old man's lament for his long-absent Mexican maid in "Dirty Chateau"), stirred with Norteño polka, blues, reggae, funk, rock 'n' roll and all the other music at the guitarist's great command. And he's not through -- he recently followed up with an "Occupied" single, "The Wall Street Part of Town."
Dengue Fever, Cannibal Courtship
Not only has the alt-Cambodian hybrid evolved into something that far transcends the novelty of its beginnings (L.A. rockers teaming with Cambodian-born singer Chhom Nimol to cover her country's '70s pop hits) with such original avant-beach-pop peaks as "Cement Slippers" (sung in English!), but this album marks the recording debut of the Mastadong, Zac Holtzman's custom-built, two-necked splicing of a Fender JazzMaster with a two-stringed Cambodian lute known as a chapei dong veng.
Frank Fairfield, Out On the Open West
Old-timey music from a young-timey musician. Los Angeles fiddler (and banjoist, guitarist) and singer Fairfield doesn't just play tunes from or evoking '20s rural America, he inhabits them. As such, while at times he plays it all pretty straight, he makes it all as fresh as it was in the earliest days of recorded music. And in some places, notably "Poor Old Lance" with its otherwordly string trio, he creates a vibe that could be called urban rustic. Or new antique.
Hanni El Khatib, Will the Guns Come Out
This San Francisco-raised son of Palestinian and Filipino immigrants is the all-American garage-rock boy, not just picking up where the White Stripes and Black Keys took things, but going back to their roots in rock, blues, soul and even doo-wop to create his own gloriously unkempt but virtuosic blend, embodied by the power-blast (and title) of the song "Build. Destroy. Rebuild." And he confidently puts his own stamp on covers from disparate eras and styles: the Dixieland standard "You Rascal You," Elvis' "Heartbreak Hotel" and Funkadelic's "I Got a Thing, You Got a Thing, Everbody's Got a Thing." Oh yeah, he's got a thing alright.
Gabby Moreno, Illustrated Songs
The Guatemala City-raised Los Angeles resident is bilingual in her singing (Spanish and English), but many-more-lingual in her music, equally expressive in breezy tropical or country-ish romantic moods ("Fin") as in scorching blues and R&B ("Mess a Good Thing") and even a speakeasy-ready slink ("Daydream by Design"). This isn't dilettantish scattershot, though, but a wide-ranging embrace captured fully in the outsider-solidarity song "Ave Que Emigra" and the earthy, horns-spiked growler "Sing Me Life."
Aaron Novik, Floating World Vol. 1
Bay Area composer and bass clarinetist Novik found inspiration in the words of three Mission District "outsiders" for his genre-free chamber music song cycle. The music balances the formality of composition with the top-of-the-head thoughts of the wordsmiths, coming in somewhere between The Threepenny Opera and Harry Partch's hobo songs, while an all-star band of players and singers, including Tin Hat Trio/Charming Hostess member Carla Kihlstedt and Katy Stephan give voice to colorful observations ranging from "Hitler 1945" to "Peanut Butter and Jam Germ Sandwich."
Sea Lions, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sea Lions But Were Afraid to Ask
Coming out of that well-known rock hotbed Oxnard, this young quintet's debut is DIY at its best -- guileless and sweet, sounding like singer-songwriter Adrian Pillado spent his formative years immersed equally in Buddy Holly, the Beach Boys and the Cure. Guitars are over-reverbed, the vocals are pointedly buried in the mix, all serving an aura of sweet naivete that calls to mind Jonathan Richman.
Various, Hear Me Howling! Blues, Ballads & Beyond as recorded by the San Francisco Bay by Chris Strachwitz in the 1960s.
The "beyond," from the teenybopper ephemera of "The Beatles Are in Town" to some out-there free jazz, may be the key to truly appreciating what the El Cerrito-based Arhoolie Records label is all about: label founder and guru Chris Strachwitz has always valued energy and immediacy over genre or style. This elaborate 4-CD/book combo drawn from Arhoolie's heady '60s output, with detailed, informative and entertaining text by Adam Machado, was released in early 2011 to celebrate both the label's 50th anniversary and Strachwitz's 80th birthday. Coming from Germany as a youth after WWII with his mom and becoming besotted with North American regional music, starting with blues and traditional jazz. Recording started as a hobby but quickly became much more as he brought such figures as Texas bluesman Lightning Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb and Big Mama Thornton out of the shadows, not to mention entire cultural phenoma including Cajun, Zydeco and Norteño. Strachwitz is still going strong and the Arhoolie treasures' value is infinite. And beyond.
Jonathan Wilson, Gentle Spirit
He's been declared "The King of Laurel Canyon" by the breathless English press. And indeed he's the fulcrum of a vibrant scene, taken under the wing of Jackson Browne and Graham Nash and in turn mentoring and producing such locals as the band Dawes and Mia Doi Todd. His album is stronger on vibe than songwriting, but it's a very cool vibe, powered by his expressive guitar skills and unfolding, yes, gently but with simmering power over the course of its 78 minutes.