D'Angelo And The Vanguard: Black Messiah (RCA) However unexpectedly, and thoroughly delightfully, the near subversive release of Black Messiah on Sunday night took most people by surprise and—with a complete absence of the now standard lead-up hype—dominated most music fans’ conversations on Monday. This record is simply that good. Fourteen years in the making? No, just 14 years between albums, more than enough time for this much admired but essentially absent neo-soul pioneer to wipe the slate clean, erase remaining preconceptions, and fashion a very dense, highly listenable album that while sounding entirely modern pounds out sonic references to past classics by Sly & the Family Stone, early ‘70s Miles Davis and a whole batch of “The Electric Spanking Of War Babies”-era George Clinton. This is scarily complex songcraft that approaches sonic sculpture, that merits non-stop repeat listenings more than any album I’ve heard his year, that will likely frustrate any music critic you know who’s already filled out his or her 2014 Best Albums list and didn’t see this coming. It is a whole lot of listening, a whole lot of classic, and a whole lot of reassurance that today’s very best musicians are not as focused on hit records and topping the charts as it sometimes seems. Thoroughly remarkable.
Charli XCX: Sucker (Atlantic) Speaking of year-end critical bomb-drops: Here’s the new album by Brit songstress Charli XCX, who’s credentialed up the booty via her collabs with Iggy Azalea and Icona Pop and her True Romance album of 2012—and it is tuneful, action-packed, freakishly catchy and poppish, and the sort of thing that, as her label might expect, could launch her into the commercial stratosphere Stateside. As it is, it’s loaded with songs either already known and loved (“Boom Clap” and now “Break The Rules”) and many more soon to be likewise appreciated. I caught her a few months back in a small North Carolina club, captivating a college audience and doling out an oddly appropriate cover of Barrett Strong’s “Money” to the masses; she's very good, she writes, she sings, she dances, she performs with an all-female band, she’s young, she’s attractive, she makes good records, and she’s better than nearly all of her peers at the moment. And there are very few of them. She is, as the saying goes, sitting pretty during these last weeks of 2014.
Nicki Minaj: The Pinkprint (Deluxe Edition) (Cash Money) One can imagine that there is a part of the extremely visible Nicki Minaj that is—how to say this politely—distressed that the week that her very best album ever is released, the most substantial thing she has ever had her name on, the sort of thing that should dominate conversations far and wide, it is really coming in third place compared to to the unexpected reappearance of D’Angelo, the official superstar launching of Charlie XCX, and, oh yeah, something else this week from Nicki Minaj. Aside from the pleasing absence of the sonic bloops and bleeps that Minaj apparently assumed were integral to her persona, The Pinkprint boasts a heck of a lot of substantial, varied material, memorable guest appearances from well-known humans such as Drake, Chris Brown, Ariana Grande, Beyoncé, Skylar Grey, Meek Mill, and the extraordinarily named Lunchmoney Lewis. There is a whole lot of talk about sex, drama, what life as Nicki Minaj is really all about, but unexpectedly…remarkably…there is no sense of Minnie Mouse ranting after a helium overdose, no aggressively shrill chirping that makes one’s fists involuntarily ball intermittently, and no overriding compulsion to take this damn thing off and go take the dog out for a walk just to cleanse your palate. It’s actually pretty good, which—since this is Nicki Minaj—means it is pretty good. Maybe she’ll be around a bit.
Gov’t Mule: Dark Side Of The Mule (3 CDs/1 DVD) (Evil Teen) Those who haven’t been following them may be puzzled by what might drive these well-known veterans of the American “jam band” scene to release an album such as this—an archive release of their Halloween show of 2008 featuring three hours of music and one hell of a lot of Pink Floyd covers. It comes midway between the recently released Stoned Side Of The Mule, in which the band likewise covered the Rolling Stones, and the soon-to-come Dub Side Of The Mule, devoted to reggae covers and featuring no less a guest than Toots Hibbert. There is no easy answer, except that this much-loved band, now celebrating its 20th anniversary, is highly skilled and thoroughly devoted to all forms of music, and bandleader Warren Haynes, onetime Allman Brothers Band fixture, makes an awful lot of music without ever seeming to waste a note. Here the band covers Floyd’s “Money,” “Wish You Were Here” and “Comfortably Numb” admirably and sounds—sometimes spookily so, for a bunch of Americans—unexpectedly Floydian when it’s appropriate, which either means they’re unnaturally skilled or setting themselves up for a retirement playing planetarium shows. Either way, they’re good, they focus on music, they’re still at it, and the have a fan base still getting larger every year. Which means they’re doing things exactly right.
Jack Bruce: Rockpalast: The 50th Birthday Concerts (DVD edition) (MIG) No one doubts that Jack Bruce, who died in October, will be sorely missed by those who knew him or recognized his contributions to popular music. But this well-timed commemorative concert—shot in Germany in 1993 and celebrating the one-time Cream bassist’s 50th birthday—drives home exactly how much Bruce has contributed to popular music, be it blues, rock or jazz, and how awesome a player and performer he was from the very start. With a talented backing cast including guitarists Gary Moore (himself recently passed) and Dave “Clem” Clempson, saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith, pianist Bernie Worrell, drummer Simon Phillips and his former Cream partner Ginger Baker, Bruce runs through the best-known parts of his Cream material, including arty acoustic stuff like “As You Said,” much of the better material from his superb string of post-Cream solo albums, and some straight-out jazz not entirely removed from the Things We Like album he recorded back in 1970. He was an exceptional musician, very little of the material he penned or sung was repetitive, and his musical adventurousness, which took him to collaborating with people like Carla Bley and Leslie West, made him one of rock’s most fascinating figures. As packages go, this collection fairly well paints as complete a picture as you might want. Highly recommended.
5 Seconds Of Summer: LIVESOS (Capitol) There is nothing particularly exceptional about this season’s latest Boyband Of The Moment, except that they seem completely enraptured by rock ‘n’ roll, bless their hearts--which means most of us are spared from grisly recollections of earlier *NSYNC- and Backstreet Boys-types goonishly aping R&B groups several magnitudes greater and more authentic than they would ever be. The Aussie 5SOS boys are instead all about covering the Romantics’ “That’s What I Like About You” (twice here!) and have a bio loaded with the names of American pop-rock bands and influences like Hot Chelle Rae, Good Charlotte, Green Day and Fall Out Boy. So this set, a live album that, were it not for the slightly-turned-up, between-song audience screams, would seem a workmanlike attempt at power-pop circa 1999 or so, is by no means bad—just not particularly exceptional, not the sort of thing you can imagine some gallant rock-crit type climbing out on a limb about and yammering that 5SOS will save rock ‘n’ roll. In fact, I would be inclined to like them much more if one of them didn’t "joke" toward the end of the set, “The last song we’re gonna play is a cover of ‘Barbie Girl.’” Ha-ha, teen dude—you only wish you were that good.
Gravenhurst: Flashlight Seasons / Black Holes In The Sand / Offerings (Warp) Must say a good word for the newly reissued works of UK singer songwriter Nick Talbot--who for the past 15 years or so, under the name of Gravenhurst, released a number of quietly compelling, atmospheric, folkish-electronic recordings that were only recently getting the turn in the spotlight again via their reissue this week on Mute Records. But just this month, at the age of 37, Talbot’s plans and career came to an abrupt end when he died unexpectedly on Dec. 2. It is sad, it is horrendous, and there is nothing good about it—but there is much good to be found on the recordings Talbot made while here, and this collection offers up a fine sampling of what made his music so appealing and so personal. Very much worth your time and your energy.
Anthony Pirog: Palo Colorado Dream (Cuneiform) An instrumental guitar trio recording here that’s a bit more than usual: Pirog, an American guitarist with taste, skills, and a creative drive that takes him from jazz to rock to prog to covering Terry Riley’s “In C” with 29 other people, is all over the place but in a good way here. Meaning: This is a fine album, lush, diverse and filled with texture--but notably grounded in musicality, structured as an album, and a continuous piece of content. It’s very good, and it sounds like the work of one highly skilled player whose muse is taking him to that special place where genre classifications have no meaning. You’ll like it if you hear it, so maybe you should.