Mark Ronson: Uptown Special (RCA) It isn’t as if this very impressive collection of songs has arrived here unannounced: “Uptown Funk,” instantly soaring to the top of the charts via the presence of singer Bruno Mars and an impossibly tight rhythm section, led the way with conspicuous grandeur. But Ronson’s art as a producer, DJ and sound specialist has ensured that “Uptown” is but one shade of a very rich and textured sonic palette. There are hooks all over the place here, whether sung over by the variety of guest singers, James Brown-ed over by the heroically absurd Mystikal, or offered up casually, recalling the earliest work of Steely Dan, '70s imitators-to-come like the Bliss Band, and—for scattered moments—the more inspired solo work of onetime Ian Dury collaborator Chaz Jankel. The richness which abounds demands repeat listening: Song A sounds nothing like Song B, Song B nothing like Song C, and oh wait here’s that Bruno track, et cetera. It is not just a collection of tunes, not just a set, but it is an album of words and melodies that drives home the import of what a phonograph album was originally designed to be: A package, a mood, and more than a four-minute trek to the dance floor. Happy New Year.
Panda Bear: Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper (Domino) A lush, sonically dense package by that member of colorful combo Animal Collective known to some as Panda Bear--who despite the dopey name and the playfulness it implies hasn’t mucked up his music with cheap stuff in the slightest: This a very solid, tune-filled outing, boasting creative, unpredictable arrangements and a sophisticated touch that might surprise newcomers, if anyone new might actually be inclined to come. With its title, its colorful packaging—all album covers are now just six degrees away from Steve Miller’s Children of the Future—and its complete accessibility, which is no small thing, this is a fancifully packaged set of delicious pop tuneage, and that makes it something special. If you hear it, you will like it.
Kat Dahlia: My Garden (Vested in Culture/Epic) Born as Katriana Huguet in Miami in the early ‘90s, Cuban-American performer Kat Dahlia is not just a skilled singer, songwriter and rap artist—she’s got that little something extra, an intensity in her lyrics and vocals that’s unmistakable, that’s unique, and sometimes chilling. There are a few tracks here that are simply extraordinary; today I’ve been listening to an NPR First Listen spin of this record that includes at its tail end a track called “Pleasin’” that is chilling, much worth hearing, and a good indicator of the special talent Dahlia is routinely displaying. Unique, bold, and--though there are more than a few producers you’ve heard of here--not formulaic in the slightest. Highly recommended.
Various Artists: The Complete Stax/Volt Soul Singles 1968-1971 Volume 2 (Stax) A moment to pipe up about a very worthy collection that popped up in the final weeks of December: The first grand undertaking at boxing up all the terrific singles the legendary Stax label issued once parting from Atlantic Records in 1968, there are 9 CDs here filled with delightfully diverse, robust soul and R&B tracks, recorded by too many famous names to comprehensively list—Isaac Hayes, Booker T & The MGs, Eddie Floyd, Albert King, the Staple Singers, Rufus Thomas and Carla Thomas among others, and there are a lot of others. Though the diversity of the artists is near-overwhelming, the uniformity of the excellence on display—the playing, the singing, the writing—may be even more so, which is why in 2015 this music sounds so fantastic. There are hits galore here, certainly, but maybe even more impressive is the raw number of songs that should have been hits—they certainly sound that way now—but weren’t. A flood of riches, all at once, comprehensively annotated and available once again in boxed set form.
Alison Moyet: Minutes And Seconds – Live (Cooking Vinyl) Those of us who've forgotten how talented unique Brit singer Alison Moyet is--how her deep, soulful voice combined with the minimal electronic backing of Vince Clarke in their early ‘80s Yazoo/Yaz days and crafted something unique—may be surprised by how good this stuff sounds in 2015. Here Moyet is documented promoting her 2013 set The Minutes, with a similarly minimal band accompaniment--and as always, it is the depth and emotional pull of her voice that tugs at the listener. Classy stuff, chock full of unadorned emotion, and sounding even better than, if you’re the nostalgic sort, you might have hoped.
Chris Potter Underground Orchestra: Imaginary Cities (ECM) A rich and exceptionally well-played showcasing of saxophonist Chris Potter and his newish Underground Orchestra, an extended combo featuring his usual quartet, a vibes/marimba player, a string quartets and a few bassists. If that sounds sonically pleasing—and it should—it is, mostly because of playing, particularly on the four-part “Imaginary Cities” suite, and the textures the extended instrumentation naturally provides. Intricate, sophisticated stuff that will apparently be on display in live performance on both coasts this year and, from the evidence here, well worth seeking out.
Jazmine Sullivan: Reality Show (RCA) One of the very best new R&B performers of the last decade, singer Sullivan entered the scene with a stunning number of Grammy nominations to her credit—really, a lot—but never managed to win an actual Grammy, which was puzzling then and is even more so now. A talented vocalist and songwriter who probably scored her biggest hit with 2008’s “Bust Your Windows,” the singer briefly departed from the business in 2011 but is now back in a big way with Reality Show. It’s lyrically intense (“I’m a righteous bitch,” sings she), it’s topical to a fault, and it’s filled with songs that she herself largely wrote. The material is conspicuously personal and, like Sullivan herself, it’s always very, very good.
Alejandro Jodorowsky & Adan Jodorowsky: Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain: Original Soundtrack and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Dance Of Reality Original Soundtrack (both Real Gone/ABKCO) Record collectors who loved the music of El Topo, the 1970 “Acid Western” film by Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, will likely be thrilled be Real Gone’s dedication to that director’s movies and their associated soundtracks. Working with ABKCO Records, the classy reissue label now presents the score to the director’s 1973 film The Holy Mountain, featuring jazz trumpeter Don Cherry, and 2013’s The Dance Of Reality, scored by Jodorowsky’s son Adan, aka Adanowsky. Fascinating stuff, and eminently collectable among both film and music types, the albums are the sort of things you really ought to pick up while you can. These things do tend to evaporate.