Mike Stinson, Hell and Half of Georgia. Being classified as an Americana artist is a noose no one should have to wear around their neck. It immediately conjures images of beat-up blue jeans, scarred acoustic guitars and badass attitudes, musicians whose noses are pressed up against the glass staring in on popular success. It's a niche that doesn't need to be called home. Mike Stinson may have found himself forced into that box on past occasions, but his new album is so sweeping and sky high that it should be the one to wake up the world about the musician's true talents. Because when it comes to songwriters, right now Stinson has few peers. He has taken country and rock and boiled them down to their essence before injecting everything with the kind of ju-ju that Gram Parsons died for, except Stinson is the stone cold real deal and would never need the Rolling Stones for street cred. Hell, he doesn't need anybody because at the end of it all he's got it all.
Consider new songs like "Late for My Funeral," "This Year," "Lost Side of Town" and "The Kind of Trouble I Need," and then compare those to anything else being recorded now. There is an edge of sweaty desperation underneath a huge coating of hope that makes Mike Stinson's songs sound like they'll live forever. Extremely astute producer R.S. Field feels the heat, and is able to help channel it into recordings that are meant to last. Stinson's vocals can curl the soul, and listen close enough and there's just enough fear so it might be best to make sure the windows and doors are locked. He is not kidding around, nor should listeners. When it's time to find that breakthrough album this year, the line starts here. If that's not enough, be advised his "Walking Home in the Rain" will probably be topping country radio charts sometime soon, recorded by a teenster raised on corn dogs and tweets, while letting Mike Stinson have the last laugh. After all, anyone who moves to Houston to make it in music knows a thing or two about courage that we could all learn from. Buffalo Bayou or bust.
Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. At a time when the world seems like its crankshaft is cracked, a band like Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros are exactly what the cosmos ordered. Considering there is no one in the band named Edward Sharpe, things start to make a little more sense. What this aggregation really is is a gathering of the vibes, centered in Ojai (aka O-high) but really plugged into the spirit of the universe. At times they'll come across as a possible house band for San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, and others could be rocking the house in New York's Tompkins Square, but no matter where the music is being played chances are levitation is just around the corner.
Lead singers Alex Ebert and Jade Castrinos have taken Sonny and Cher and plugged them into the air. Naturalism abounds, but the Magnetic Zeros are a complex bunch who somehow find a singular groove to keep everything on course. Though there's no song that matches the instant magnetism of their theme song "Home," there are plenty of other tracks like "Better Days," "Two" and "If I Were Free" that show forward movement is ever-present everywhere. At the end of the day, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros are like a promise fulfilled, musicians who went to school on the Haight-Ashbury revolution but didn't get stuck on rewind. Like always, the future is now and the sustaining infinite is right at hand. Feel and you're healed.
Otis Redding, The Complete Stax/Volt Singles Collection. This is the kind of collection that should be given to new parents in maternity wards around the world, because the complete human experience is encapsulated in the 70 songs like no other artist ever has or ever will be able to accomplish. Otis Redding had happiness and hurt on speed dial, and could go to either emotional extreme at the turn of a line. From the very start on "These Arms of Mine," Redding arrived fully-formed, but the mind-blowing way he continued to grow and find new ways to express himself, right up to the posthumously released "(Sittin' on) the Dock of the Bay," has never been equaled in soul music or any other music. Maybe that's because the man came from hard dirt around Macon, Georgia, a country boy at heart who fell into the big city of Memphis but never really forgot where he came from. No matter what he sang, Otis Redding sounded like he could have been laying down on the ground.
Spread out over three discs, every single he recorded for Stax and Volt Records is gathered into a no-frills set that includes photos of the actual 45s. No need for words because what Otis Redding sings says it all. "Pain in My Heart," "Try a Little Tenderness," "I've Got Dreams to Remember" and even covers like "My Girl" and "Merry Christmas Baby" make a case that this man might be the greatest soul singer of all time, especially considering how short his career really was. Within five years after starting recording it was all over, but in that time it's like a whole universe of feeling was created for music lovers to live with forever. There's nothing better a new mother or father could do for their child than play these songs, guaranteeing that rhythmic movement and righteous beliefs are instilled forever. Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa for sure.