Nickelback: No Fixed Address (Republic) There is something fascinatingly average about Nickelback—that well-known Canadian combo that oddly seem best known now for inspiring overall audience antipathy rather than fervent love, but sell records like maple-syrup covered hotcakes nonetheless. They are by no means bad: They make the right noises on their instruments, lead vocalist Chad Kroeger belts hard-rockishly in that familiar, post-grunge Paul Rodgers/Eddie Vedder gravelly blend, and the songs rock precisely where they’re intended to. But it isn’t stripped-down-and-raw-enough to be enjoyed for being a dopey, plodding archetype, and there aren’t enough subtle hooks to be enjoyed in that subversive late ‘80s Loverboy/.38 Special approach. It’s just there, colored by the predictable “unpredictable” cameo (Flo Rida on “Got Me Runnin’ Round”), the bad consumer reviews by longtime fans (“What will be next,” asks one Amazon reviewer, “a duet with Pitbull or Enrique Iglesias?”) who offer that fascinating, albeit unfathomable perspective that the band was great once, but… And so it continues. With any luck, Nickelback might enjoy a career that parallels their Canadian brethren of a few decades past, Bachman-Turner Overdrive: Loved by the masses, spurned by the critics, and all these years later, fully capable of being enjoyed for the minimalist, artful THUD that had been there from the get-go but few took the time to notice. Nickelback, misunderstood cultural heroes of the Canadian avant garde? Yep, that sounds about right.
One Direction: Four (Syco) Those who tend to write off each half-decade’s Biggest Boyband Phenoms as being typical, ever-present, and not worth much thought as they all eventually go away, may want to consider this: Midnight Memories, this group’s prior album, was, it says right here, “the world’s bestselling album of 2013.” So why isn’t every song on it deeply ingrained in our collective psyche? Still, if you’re expecting the goods here to be disposable pop, which you might be, you’ll be surprised to learn that a significant number of the 12 tracks on display are quite good, more than credible pop songs that, were they to be delivered by an avant-garde French band led by a sunglass-wearing lead singer, might be garnering praise from unusually hip quarters. There’s nothing here that’s an absolute masterpiece, that might make an entire generation rethink their entire notion of what constitutes great pop music—but there’s nothing here that might make the most cynical among us say, “Ugh, take this crap off” when they’re hearing it against their will. In 2014, that's what's known as a good review.
Various Artists: The Art Of McCartney (Kobalt) The quality of most tribute albums is directly related to our need to ever hear most of the material being paid tribute to—and in the case of Paul McCartney, he’s kind of done well enough already. Do we really need to hear anyone else do him? Well, yes and no. No if it’s songs we’ve already heard simply too often (“Hey Jude,” “Let It Be,” “Yesterday”—sorry, Steve Miller, Chrissie Hynde and Willie Nelson), Yes if they’re McCartney songs worthy of rehearing (“Junk,” “Let ‘Em In,” “C Moon”—thanks, Jeff Lynne, Dr. John & Robert Smith). That there is sufficient novelty value in hearing humans the likes of Brian Wilson, Barry Gibb and Bob Dylan cover “Wanderlust,” “When I’m Sixty Four” and “Things We Said Today” perhaps goes without saying, but that of all bands, Kiss acquit themselves commendably covering “Venus And Mars / Rock Show” borders on the stunning. McCartney’s catalog is so vast that between the songs and the singers, there’s no repetition at all here—it’s a fabulous package, and who can argue the presence of Smokey Robinson and B. B King? While the originals are still the greatest, there are some goods to be had here that may surprise you.
David Bowie: Nothing Has Changed (Columbia/Legacy) The time seems righter than ever for Mr. David Bowie, who unlike nearly every one of his contemporaries—and he’s had a lot of them since the mid-‘60s—has never really had a duff period (well, aside from that Tonight album), but has had an awful lot of exceptional periods not everyone may have heard. This 3-CD compilation wisely starts with the lesser-known material, beginning with new track “Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)” and going backwards—giving most listeners a chance to freshly rehear Bowie’s underplayed latter-day stuff before, mid-Disc 2 or so, getting to “Let’s Dance” and all the glories that preceded it. There are extras, but not a surplus, and there are single versions, rather than album versions, but most importantly, there is a context here—David Bowie, from back to front, here’s the man and here’s the catalog, one that does him proud indeed. A great collection from a man who, as his song would have it, has never let us down.
Bryan Ferry: Avonmore (BMG Rights Management) Bryan Ferry’s career has been consistently forward-looking: He has seemed, since his earliest Roxy Music days, to be striving for some sort of perfection—sonically, lyrically, attitudinally—of which perhaps only he has an inkling. That drive has resulted in a number of exceptional albums both with his former band (Manifesto, Flesh + Blood, Avalon) and on his own (Boys & Girls and the recent Olympia). When he is not devoting his time to singing other people’s material--which he often does, to some degree to his detriment, he is really performing in areas that few have the skills to comparably manage, blending a near-perfect sculpted sound to lush sentiment, but never really getting nutty about it. He’s often remarkable. Not so much here, though. That groove he does is ever-present, and that’s good, the original songs are fine but not particularly emotionally gripping, and the cover songs—well done, but filler-esque--are alternately predictable (“Send In The Clowns”) and distracting (“Johnny & Mary,” which makes me want to go listen to Robert Palmer again, maybe not the desired effect). Still, 1) He is better than most and 2) He has had few if any imitators during the course of his career. Which must mean he is exceptional. And that’s OK.
Robert Wyatt: Different Every Time (Domino) An excellent new compilation profiling one of contemporary music’s most respected musicians, Different Every Time samples the works of England’s Robert Wyatt, one-time drummer of Soft Machine in the ‘60s, later founder of the short-lived Matching Mole, and a man whose uniqueness as a vocalist, songwriter, player, collaborator and vocal political thinker has been largely unrivaled. Released in conjunction with a new Wyatt biography penned by Marcus O’Dair, this collection gathers up some of Wyatt’s most notable work in the context of his bands (Soft Machine, Matching Mole), on his own (his stunning version of Chic’s “At Last I Am Free” is here), and as a collaborator—and he does a lot of that. Highlights include his tracks with Working Week, Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera and trumpeter Mike Mantler, but there’s lots here and even more to be explored by those who find Wyatt’s work, and way, singularly remarkable. And it very much is. Find the book, find this music, and find out more about one very remarkable musician.
Thompson: Family (Fantasy) While there have certainly been precedents—I am thinking of that time in the early ‘70s, when a batch of siblings named Taylor (and that would be James, Livingston, Alex and Kate) suddenly started making records, or when the various offspring of Loudon Wainwright III did (and continue to do) likewise. And so it is that this really very charming record, produced by Teddy Thompson, comes, sounds great, and features a whole batch of related folks, including father Richard, mother Linda, brother, sister, brother-in-law, nephew, etc., and it all sounds exactly like the work of one very large and, by definition, extended family. It is good stuff largely because, from mom & pop on down, the musicians are known for taste, precision, avoidance of excess, warmth and humor--and this album has all that and more. True family affairs are getting harder to come by every day, and this is a good one.
Captain Beefheart: Sun Zoom Spark: 1970 To 1972 (Rhino) Much has already been said and written about the late, lamented Don Van Vliet, better known as Captain Beefheart, but for most, there’s still much to discover about him. The legendary California-based performer's 1969 album Trout Mask Replica is his best-known: Those who hear it for the first time love it or hate it, but they never forget it. Yet it may be that this collection, which gathers together the three albums the man and his Magic Band recorded immediately afterward (Lick My Decals Off, Baby, The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot), could be the best starting point of all for those new to the man and his music. Remastered and noticeably more driving, the discs offer both a further refinement of the Trout Mask sound via Decals, and a surprisingly accessible commercial approach via Clear Spot, which continues to amaze even now. Throw in a fourth CD of previously unreleased material, and you’ve got a well-packaged collection of prime Beefheart that, more than 40 years later, continues to astound. Wow personified.