Pharrell Williams: G I R L (Columbia) Few would deny that the most fascinating album release of the week comes courtesy not just of the talented Pharrell Williams, but via his extraordinary hat, which in the scheme of things—the world at war, recent American cultural ceremonies honoring the best of music and film, hot TV shows like True Detective—could not be more profoundly relevant. Plus, like his hat, were you to buy this album in its vinyl configuration, place it between two sheets of glass measuring roughly a square foot or more, then place the entire mess in your oven for a few moments, you could pull it out, bend it over your head, and perhaps dig the fabness of being Pharrell himself. Hint: wearing sunglasses helps! With a set of great duets featuring Justin Timberlake and Alicia Keys, absolute hipness beyond belief following his Oscar performance, and his association with the now godlike Daft Punk megaclassic of last year, Williams is simply the most impressive musician ever to be pictured on his album cover riding a Holiday Inn elevator wearing his bathrobe! Well, except for Kanye!
Bob Dylan: The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration (Deluxe edition) (Columbia/Legacy) One of the oddest aspects of getting older is having anniversaries of anniversaries: That is, it was almost 22 years ago when many of us first witnessed the original four-hour TV broadcast honoring the 30th anniversary of Bob Dylan’s first Columbia Records album! Between you and me? That adds up to more than 50! And that’s a lot of years! Which means that the appearance of some performers—like, say, Tracy Chapman, John Mellencamp, Eddie Vedder and Sinéad O’Connor—maybe meant a lot more back in October 1992 than it might here, today. While it’s near impossible to argue with much of the other cast here celebrating Dylan—Willie Nelson, Eric Clapton, Kris Kristofferson, Neil Young, George Harrison, Tom Petty—it should be pointed out that the dude himself was not dead, and quite capable of making many more albums on his own that did not offer this peculiar air of posthumous tribute album, which he in fact did! And so did most of those other people! Still, Lou Reed’s performance of Dylan’s little-known “Foot Of Pride” was weird in 1992 and is even weirder in 2014, which makes this less an unnecessary tribute album than a fascinating Polaroid picture of a particular moment that now can be re-introduced for all eternity via digital means, and likely will be. That said: More Dylan, fewer guest stars, please!
Rick Ross: Mastermind (Maybach Music Group) What irony! Here’s platinum rapper Rick Ross, back with his sixth album, titling it “Mastermind” and not realizing the “MIND” part of the title was printed backwards on the album cover! What a dope! Aside from that, though, this record is great! If you’re like me, you’ll probably agree with ace Amazon reviewer Ronald Mcteer, who noted only this week that “expecting Ross not to spit about the hustler lifestyle is like going to a strip club and not wanting to tip the strippers, it does not make sense.” Exactly! And when it comes to that unique “slice of life” philosophizing that rappers like Ross do best—the sort vividly on display here via tracks like “Dope Bitch Skit,” “Thug Cry” and the thought-provoking “Rich Is Gangsta”—Mastermind shows Ross has risen to a completely new level: The eighth floor, specializing in housewares, kitchen appliances and home décor!
Regina Carter: Southern Comfort (Sony Masterworks) A superb, highly substantial showing from Detroit’s own stellar violinist Regina Carter, who came on the scene playing jazz—which she certainly still does—but now brings much more along with her than simply one genre. Her Masterworks debut features a lush array of tunes, whether based on folk, blues or jazz, all focused on what her label has called “her roots through a modern lens.” The end result is tasteful, extraordinarily well-played, and only the latest in a career that has consistently focused on artistic expression rather than the blatantly commercial. Thoroughly wonderful stuff.
Ashanti: Braveheart (Written Entertainment) Her first album since 2008’s The Declaration, in which the sensual R&B chanteuse proclaimed she was about to leave the business for either a career in acting—whether it be a role in The Wiz or Army Wives—or devoting her future career to making albums about her favorite movies, Ashanti has made her move! And it looks like Mel Gibson is the big winner! Braveheart isn’t just a fab new album, but a fascinating account of the First War of Scottish Independence, fought against England’s own King Edward I during the 13th century! I don’t know about you, but I never expected this! With guest stars including French Montana, Jeremih, Beenie Man and the eloquent, ever-present Rick Ross, Braveheart is precisely the album Ashanti needed to make to recapture the public’s imagination in 2014! With any luck, she’ll soon stop eating her own hair on her album covers and be back in the game like the pro she is!
Real Estate: Atlas (Domino) Kind of a gorgeous album by nifty un-Googleable combo Real Estate, who recorded it last year at Wilco’s studio in Chicago and, like its two predecessors, loaded it with the sort of sophisticated, melodic rock that is instantly appealing and sounds even better with repeated listenings. While a flat-out comparison to power-pop pioneers the Shoes would be off base—this stuff is airy and spacious where Shoes, say, strive for compressed and throbbing—both bands seem to be pursuing a sound that is deliberately insular, not quite attuned to their own era by design, and all the more fascinating for it. Highly recommended.
Lea Michele: Louder (Columbia) Like most of today’s authoritative record reviewers, I strive to sound like I know what I’m talking about! Also, I have never watched Glee! Thus imagine my dilemma! For it appears that Lea is “best known” for her role as Rachel Berry on the much-acclaimed TV show, and according to her enthusiastic cult of Amazon reviewers, is now “The ‘Celine Dion’ of the Current Generation”! High praise indeed! Not a bad record by any means—kind of like Laura Branigan 30 years on—but certain tracks like “Battlefield” here evoke musical theatre much more than flat out “real” music, ultimately to this album’s detriment. As a rule I prefer singers to actors who sing, and you probably do, too.
Ume: Monuments (Dangerbird) Ume are quite good–loud, rocking and cool, fronted by a female guitarist and vocalist–and are heard here in fine form. Produced by Seattle’s Adam Kasper, who has worked with Queens Of The Stone Age, Cat Power, and the Foo Fighters, Monuments is the Texas band’s third album and by far their most fully realized sonically. The songwriting is sharp, the visuals are there, and the post-punk dynamics—forgive the cliché, but it’s apt here—make each track just different enough from its predecessor to keep the whole album interesting. A big step up here.
Nothing: Guilty Of Everything (Relapse) Thanks to one of the most enticing email subject lines in recent memory—“New Music from Nothing Available Today”—I was reminded to check out this startlingly good, very loud Philadelphia-based band, who fashionably evoke the unfashionable shoegazey sounds of bands long past but do so in a manner that sounds smart, contemporary and very forward looking. Powerful stuff that demands to be seen in the live format, Nothing is, as the saying goes, really something.