Neil Diamond: Melody Road (Capitol) For someone who has left such an imprint in popular music, Neil Diamond might be expected to be in his gracefully petering out phase: A few scattered recordings, released less and less frequently, issued more to prove that it all can still be done, that he’s still got it, before the inevitable, terminal fade. But. Here’s his first album of new studio material in six years, produced by Don Was and Jackknife Lee and featuring a hefty number of musicians old, young, and similarly skilled, and—well—a bunch of brand new Neil Diamond songs. They are well played, they are catchy—most of his best songs have been incredibly catchy—they don’t drone off into dullsville, and Diamond’s voice is remarkable. Not to name names, but there are a certain number of iconic vocalists in pop who, as they’ve aged, have lost a significant portion of their vocal range—but we understand, and we rarely complain. This guy has still got it. This is a strong album, with a varied array of tunes—not just tunes, but Neil Diamond tunes—and he’s got to be very proud of it.
Kiesza: Sound Of A Woman (Island) Saying there is a huge buzz on a woman who has already reached the heights of international stardom may be a redundancy, but why not? The Canadian-born singer may be best known to some for her hit “Hideway,” but there is so much more in play here—the songs she writes, performed by such as Rihanna, Icona Pop and Kylie Minogue—her sense of style, on display in the innovative “Hideaway” video and fashion spreads and lines to come, and her quite remarkable voice. While most of the songs on Sound Of A Woman are slick, rhythmic pop concoctions aimed at filling the airwaves and/or dancefloor, the concluding track “Cut Me Loose” is a stripped-down demonstration of the singer’s powerful, soulful voice—and all the indication you’d need that Kiesza unplugged is very much the real thing.
[Related: From Navy Sharpshooter to Pop Diva]
Annie Lennox: Nostalgia (Blue Note) Nostalgia is a polished collection of very classic songs interpreted here by former Eurythmic Annie Lennox, and while it has likely been created with the very best of intentions, the very worthiness of the compositions are what makes it less than exciting. Between “Georgia On My Mind,” “Summertime,” “Strange Fruit, “God Bless the Child”—you get the idea—you’ve got a dozen or so standards, most of which have been taken to nearly every high (and low) imaginable by a near-century’s worth of jazz singers with vocal ranges clearly outshining Lennox’s. Given that the songs are classics, we’re left with admiring their very selection (good show, Annie), the tastefulness of the musical arrangements (nice, sparse stuff, allowing the vocals ample room), and how nearly everything here sounds artfully workmanlike at best. Great albums typically reveal something; this reveals that Annie Lennox, like most of us, knows a good song when she hears one. Maybe telling us about them would have been enough.
Aretha Franklin: Aretha Franklin Sings The Great Diva Classics (RCA) Speaking of reinterpreting divas, here’s Annie Lennox’s singing partner on “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves”—no less than the Queen Of Soul herself, Aretha Franklin—actually making sense of it all. She’s taken the whole Clive Davis “concept album” thing and emerged with a surprisingly credible, upbeat project that works more often than it doesn’t. Successes include tunes you know she couldn’t miss on: Etta James’ “At Last,” Gladys Knights “Midnight Train To Georgia, ” even Gloria Gaynor’s appropriately re-titled “I Will Survive (The Aretha Version).” Surprisingly astute covers include first single “Rollin In The Deep,” her Adele take which features Franklin going vocally bonkers at the two-minute mark—it is spectacular—and album closer “Nothing Compares 2 U,” a blues-jazzy reinterpretation of Sinéad/Prince that is appealing spry, upbeat and non-teary-eyed. The downside? The heavy dance beat pasted onto both the “I’m Every Woman / Respect” medley and “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” which may cause a stir at some clubs but sonically evokes the very worst of formulaic ‘70s dance records. That said? A great showing for Aretha Franklin, and in 2014, one hell of a party record.
Bush: Man On The Run (Sony Music) From a marketing standpoint, it’s a sign of the times: Just when reality TV show The Voice returns with Gwen Stefani on hand as a judge, and hubby Gavin Rossdale as an advisor—what a coincidence!—here’s a new single by Gwen, here’s a new album by Gavin’s band Bush! If that’s what it takes, so be it. Bush’s latest—their second since reconfiguring a few years back—is solid, melodic stuff that oozes with commerciality. It’s always seemed odd that their career so conspicuously derailed when it did; between the non-stop Nirvana comparisons and accusations of Rossdale being a pretty-boy—certainly the most heinous of crimes—the band never really got a fair shake. There’s more than a hint of Peter Gabriel’s vocals on Man On The Run here, but comparisons don’t do anybody any good, least of all Gavin Rossdale. Nice work, both for him and his band, and worth your time.
Billy Idol: Kings & Queens Of The Underground (Kobalt) A surprisingly hot album by Billy Idol in 2014 is a good thing: Here the man returns with a collection of great, rockin’ poptunes, produced by Trevor Horn and Greg Kurstin, sounding as if it’s only been a few years since Generation X departed, “White Wedding” came and went, and all those years intervened. Idol’s in fine voice: in retrospect he’s emerged as one of the few artists with British punk roots to establish himself firmly in the pop mainstream and soldier on with credibility intact. Between album opener “Bitter Pill” and the concluding “Whiskey And Pills,” there’s enough straight-on rock ‘n’ roll here to do the Idol legacy proud and satisfy concertgoers who enjoy thrusting their fists into the air, as, certainly, we all do. If his ‘80s contemporaries are playing the state fair circuit, Billy’s having none of it.
The Pop Group: We Are Time, Cabinet Of Curiosities (both Freak R Us) While an enormous amount of music seems to have come and gone—I assure you, it ain’t all streaming—there are always pleasant surprises. And here are two: Two new collections by the UK’s pioneering Pop Group—one briefly issued years ago, and one newly compiled. The band was among the first from the UK scene to combine the energy of punk with funk and avant-garde jazz, and to say they influenced the generation of musicians that followed is no exaggeration. Both sets are fascinating, though the latter—with Peel session tracks and other unreleased material—will excite longtime fans the most. The first in a promised series, so make the most of them while you can.
Burnt Belief: Etymology (Alchemy) The joint work of Porcupine Tree bassist Colin Edwin and guitarist Jon Durant—the second under the Burnt Belief moniker—Etymology traverses that interesting area between progressive rock, jazz fusion, new age, and space music without ever seeming the inevitable hodgepodge that description implies. With several percussionists and a violinist on hand, the album is texturally delightful and surprisingly intricate; one suspects it would sound dandy with headphones, and even better with the lights out. That’s how this stuff always works, note informed insiders.