By John B Moore & Lee Valentine Smith

Chris Bell
Looking Forward: The Roots of Big Star
(Omnivore Recordings)
Big Star were a tragically underrated band for their time and while they have finally clawed their way up to cult status, thanks in part to a deep love from a slew of influential musicians, sadly there is only one surviving original member of the band left. As this deep cuts-collection from a pre-Big Star Chris Bell shows, the talent was there long before the band was founded. Omnivore Recordings has become the curator of all things Big Star over the past few years, re-releasing their albums, digging up demos and rarities and pulling together some truly brilliant collections. "Looking Forward: The Roots of Big Star" is yet another gem in that crown. Coming in at 22 tracks, it may seem a little intimidating for those unaware of Bell's work, but with time these songs will grow on even the most novice of Big Star fans. For diehards, this set is like mana for heaven. While many of these songs have been around on bootlegs and other out-of-print records, it also includes six songs that have never been released before. A must-have for Big Star acolytes.

Various Artists
Mid-Century Sounds: Deep Cuts From the Desert (Fervor Records)
Since the resurgence of vinyl records there seems to be a race to the bottom as labels everywhere cleaned out their vaults to put everything they own on wax in a cynical attempt to cash in on nostalgia. But every now and then, there is a vinyl release that is wholly justified. That's certainly the case for "Mid-Century Sounds: Deep Cuts From the Desert". This remarkable 29-song collection, spread across two LPs can only truly be appreciated via a record player, with no skipping ahead, allowing the setlist to play out in this perfectly sequenced order. The album focuses on the career of Phoenix-based music entrepreneur Floyd Ramsey, a behind-the-scenes recording whiz who founded the legendary Audio Recorders of Arizona recording studio, as well several record labels. From the mid '50s through the '60s, he helped a slew of rock, country and even surf guitar heroes and would-be heroes find and refine their sounds, from Sanford Clark to Waylon Jennings. Though there are not a lot universally recognizable names on this collection, there is an immense amount of talent represented here. The songs are timeless and should only be experienced via the warmth that comes from a record player. This stellar two-LP set deserves to remain in your collection for the next several decades.

Bryan Adams
Wembley Live 1996 (Eagle Records/Universal)
Bryan Adams is one of those musicians that just seems to have been around forever. He's managed to revive his career countless times, all the while still having one of karaoke's most go-to songs ("Summer of 69"). His latest live record, "Wembley Live 1996" holds more than a few hints at why he's still touring today. The two-disc is a great snapshot of his career, the good and the bad. Songs like "Cuts Like a Knife," "Kids Wanna Rock" and "Somebody" have all held up remarkably well despite decades of music trends and fads that have all come and gone since those songs last charted. On the other hand, some of the tracks from his soundtrack years, like "Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman" (Don Juan DeMarco) and "(Everything I Do) I Do it For You" (Prince of Thieves), haven't aged well at all and come off a little too corny next to some of Adams' bona fide rockers. This London show was recorded at the end of Adams' "18 Til I Die" tour, so along with a slew of classics and solid covers ("I Fought the Law,") it also hosts a number of songs from this album that likely (hopefully) never made a set list after this show, like the groan-worthy "I Wanna Be Your Underwear". Aside from a few missteps, overall, it's a impressive collection and his interaction with the crowd and their overwhelming approval is proof that decades into his career, Adams shouldn't hang up the mic anytime soon.

Visonland (Bloodshot Records)
The past two years spent on the road have done nothing to dull the sound and ambitions of Nashville, by way of Birmingham's Banditos. Their 2015 debut was a magnificent mix of ZZ Top and the Georgia Satellites. The follow up, "Visionland," doubles down on those same ingredients and the result is twice as rewarding. Lyrically, there are plenty of hints at struggle and trying to get by throughout the record, ultimately, there is a sense of optimism that rises above all else here. The title song, named after a now-defunct Birmingham theme park, for example, highlights that feeling perfectly – a theme park opened to big ideas and ambition, shuts down after just a couple of years, but the dreams are still there. The band, like others, plays a solid mix of swamp funk, country and rock, but the secret to the Banditos brilliance lies in their two singers, Mary Beth Richardson and Corey Parsons (shown off beautifully on songs like "Thick N' Thin" and "Lonely Boy"). Elsewhere on the record, Richardson's sweltering vocals on a slow jam like "Healin' Slow" adds an impressive depth to the band's catalogue. Considering the exhausting schedule they've been under since their last record, it would be understandable if the band decided to take some time off to walk away for a while. Thankfully, for us though they didn't.


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