Jackson Browne: Standing In The Breach (Inside) There are a lot of good things to be said about this new Jackson Browne record—his first in half a decade or so, and one emphasizing all those things that have made him, at his best, a very special songwriter. Setting the tone in an almost cheating manner is opening track “The Birds Of St. Marks,” which Browne originally penned back in 1967, when his chord changes were wild and more unpredictable, his lyrics wide open, and his songs about politics that were personal above all else. He’s in excellent voice here, and when tracks like “The Long Way Around” instantly evoke his classic “These Days”—it’s that opening guitar bit, of course—it only reaffirms that he has been, since the start, like few other songwriters in his prime. Unlike most of his peers, he has not been over-recorded or reduced to cliché, and in 2014, he’s still got it. Excellent stuff.
Flying Lotus: You’re Dead! (Warp) Over the years there have been a few scattered albums that sounded otherworldly—a peculiar, cockeyed fusion of genres that may have intellectually registered as unique but, to many consumers of the time, sounded slightly off and unapproachable. Miles Davis’s 1970 live recordings at the Fillmore are like that: They were great then, they’re great now, but they sound a hell of lot less weird in 2014. You’re Dead isn’t Miles Davis reborn by a long shot, but the gripping fusion pervading its every track—jazz, hip-hop, guest like Snoop Dogg, Herbie Hancock and Kendrick Lamar, odd tracks sounding like Brit Canterbury fusion of the ‘70s on occasion—makes it one of the year’s most listenable albums by far. Sometimes, inadvertently, retail cues can tell the story—and this Amazon is selling this, genre-wise, as Dance & DJ, Dance Pop and Electronica, considering that list of players, is no small story at all.
Bill Frisell: Guitar In The Space Age (Okeh) Bill Frisell’s conspicuous talent has seen him popping up in aggressively creative settings more than once—he seems a “project” sort of guy—but this might be his contextual peak: An enormously talented jazz guitarist playing the sort of music that made musicians of a certain age first pick up a guitar. Framed with a pair of tracks that pretty much constitute the instrumental archetype—“Pipeline” and “Telstar”—the album is immensely listenable in that peculiar hybrid genre of jazz/instrumental pop/cocktail/surf/rock, satisfying on the surface level, fascinating for the sonic variations—smooth, lush midrange where there was once trebly staccato, etc.—and, really, pioneering in that no one has really given this stuff a 21stCentury contextualization. It’s a strikingly fine set from an artist who’s never been less than very good.
Betty Who: Take Me When You Go (RCA) It’s difficult to take exception to a finely sung, well-produced set of pop tunes penned by a crew of producers/songwriters better known for their songs than their names—not a bad thing, really—but when everything seems fine, rather than exceptional, when the artist in question is a 21-year-old Australian formerly known as Jessica Anne Newham, and when the bio quotes praise comparing her to early Madonna, Katy Perry and Robyn…we’re not exactly getting signals here that something groundbreaking is going on. Take Me When You Go is sturdy, well-sung, colorful pop music that first and foremost makes me want to see this girl’s videos. I’m not sure it’s supposed to work that way, but, as they say, money is money.
[Related: Betty Who Knows Exactly 'Who' She Is]
Tinashe: Aquarius (RCA) Wow! Some albums announce themselves as special after just one listen, and this set—after a batch of mixtapes, her first real album—essentially elevates 21-year-old Tinashe Jorgensen Kachingwe as the new artist to beat this year in the world of R&B. Jam-packed with creative arrangements provided by a host of famous collaborators and producers, Aquarius is a surprisingly mature, cohesive statement—which is fine and dandy in itself, but when combined with the fact that young Tinashe 1)once had a recurring role in Two And A Half Men and 2) has a black belt in Taekwondo, only illustrates that all of us have peaked, both personally and professionally, and we will simply never measure up to her standard. Rather than a collection of singles recorded by a variety of producers that sound like everybody and nobody at all, Aquarius sounds like the work of a full-formed artist who, like a Teena Marie or Sade, is not just mucking about.
Handsome Jack: Do What Comes Naturally (Alive Naturalsound) In the world of writing about popular music, comparisons are often helpful tools, but just as often completely useless. Is it helpful to mention that American band Handsome Jack, apparently from Lockport, New York, sound like what you’d get if you put Audience’s Howard Werth, Siren’s Kevin Coyne or even Mungo Jerry’s Ray Dorset in front of Humble Pie circa their 1973 ode Eat It? Hell no! But this record is probably more fun than the first Black Crowes record—which from an influence/aesthetics standpoint, it oddly evokes—and were it to bear a Harvest Records imprint and a 1970 copyright date, no one would bat an eye. Which must mean it’s really good.
Agnes Obel: Aventine (Deluxe Edition) (PIAS America) I’m all for new opportunities to showcase artists, and if it turns out this revamped version of Danish singer/songwriter Obel’s acclaimed 2013 album wins her new fans in the US, fabulous. Boosted with a second disc bearing live tracks, three new songs, and a memorable remix of her “Fuel To Fire” by David Lynch, Aventine is, like its award-winning 2010 predecessor Philharmonics, loaded with subtle and emotional material that is disarmingly catchy. With its “Pass Them By” already getting additional exposure here via its appearance in The Leftovers, this new-and-improved Aventine may give the US marketplace an inkling of what the European marketplace already knows: She’s something special.
Paloma Faith: A Perfect Contradiction (Epic) A very colorful, immensely appealing Brit singer who hasn’t quite crossed over to the US audience—though she’s quite big at home—Ms. Faith has the voice, the character, and the outright charm to similarly connect Stateside, if the material works for her. You’d think it would: Involved here are the likes of Diane Warren (for single “Only Love Can Hurt Like This”), Pharrell Williams, John Legend and Raphael Saadiq, among others, and the tone strikes that perfect balance between R&B and pop that should hit the States in its commercial jugular. To know her is to love her—and, in both cases, you will.