Beck, Morning Phase. From the Silver Lake street boy wandering through Los Angeles on the city buses to worldwide conqueror of all things musical, Beck is one of the great enigmas of the past quarter century. At first he was like Woody Guthrie's illegitimate son, except he specialized in a boom box instead of an acoustic guitar. Over the years he's grown in huge leaps and bounds, and with this recent album it's like he made it to the mountain top.
Though it may not be as outré as what some expect from Beck, destroying expectations is the man's specialty. Songs like "Heart is a Drum," "Don't Let Go" and "Waking Light" enter into the ethos of Beck's creations like eternal spirits. They really are that good, and what might be best of all, this is the album to introduce Beck to those who have been strangers to the person who's defined true alternative music all these years. Next stop: Mt. Washington — and please exit through the rear door.
Carlene Carter, Carter Girl. Those musicians to the manor born, like June Carter and Carl Smith's daughter Carlene Carter, are often one step ahead of themselves, expected to hit the ground running and never look back. Which is exactly what Carlene Carter did when she started recording in the early '80s and becoming semi-famous in country and rock circles. Marrying Nick Lowe didn't hurt, but it also intensified the spotlight on the Tennessee lady.
A lot of water and other liquids have run under that bridge since, but leave it to Carter to show them all and make the kind of album that comes once in a lifetime. She gathers songs by grandfather A.P. Carter, grandmother Maybelle Carter and other relatives and envisions them in a way they become completely her own. With producer Don Was and an A-list of players, Carlene Carter has chiseled her name on the Carter musical monument in a loving and laudable way. She even includes her own classic "Me and the Wildwood Rose," maybe to show she's got her own stuff to strut, and strut she does, right down the stage of Nashville's Ryman Auditorium into the loving ears of her many fans.
Rosanne Cash, The River & the Thread. There is nothing like hearing a career breakthrough this far down the line. Rosanne Cash has been making music a long time, but sometimes it really is the experience of life that allows an artist to find a new plateau. Being Johnny Cash's daughter no doubt created as many obstacles as it presented opportunities. Having a famous mother or father can cast a long shadow but Rosanne Cash never let anything stop her.
The past few years have been semi-undercover for the singer-songwriter, but boy, does she bust loose now. These are songs from a mature woman looking at the long game of life, and finding ways to make sure love and hope stay alive. Throw in "Modern Blue," a soaring anthem for all those who continue to stay on course on the high road, and this Cash is in a class by herself.
John Fullbright, Songs. The amount of music from Nashville these days is dizzying. Between television series that are selling a made-up version of Music City, award shows that come with the regularity of monthly bills, and a crushing amount of media all heralding the arrival of yet another new mega star, it feels like country music is secondary to its endless hype machine. Really. But every now and then someone breaks through with songs that strike so deep it reminds us of why we love this music in the first place.
John Fullbright is that person right now. He is from Oklahoma and sounds like he's in no hurry to leave, but someday soon he'll be seen throughout Nashville as the keeper of the true flame by those who know the difference. Hopefully it won't change the man, and we won't see him in a chartreuse Speedo going backwards on a burning trapeze flying through the air during the ACMs or CMAs. For now, Fullbright has zeroed in on love, loss, loneliness and happiness. That's the Big Four, and on his second studio album he's got them all covered. Thanks, ya'll.
Hollis Brown, Gets Loaded. Defying the odds of gravity and greatness, the Brooklyn-based Hollis Brown band records all the songs on one of the perfect rock albums, Velvet Underground's Loaded, and still manages to hold their head high. So what may have looked like a long shot on the assembly line turns into an inspired piece of music-making. When the Velvets' fourth (and last) studio album was released in 1970, it finally looked like the ultra-boundary-breaking New York outfit would get their due. Except for one small problem: the Velvet Underground had already broken up. So soon-to-be classic Lou Reed songs "Sweet Jane," "Rock and Roll," "New Age" and others were left in the cold light of winter to die, only to live now and see another day.
Now that Hollis Brown has decided to do their own take of the entire album, it's clear this is rock that has never been surpassed. By anyone. As much as what Hollis Brown has accomplished by putting their own life into these ten songs, it is also a mighty display of courage to even attempt such a thing, proving that lives are still being saved by rock and roll — and Lou Reed.
Jimmer, The Would-Be Plans. There is nothing on this earth better than a comeback. For someone to lose a grip on all that's around him and drift downstream is a scary thing, and rocker Jimmer Podrasky did all that and more. He had stardom in his sights just over the horizon in his earlier band the Rave-Ups, but things changed—really changed—and there were times when Podrasky likely wondered if he'd make it back to shore.
Looking at his photos on the album booklet can cause a second take, but that's not nearly as breathtaking as the heart-rushing wonder of these songs. They come from the place where the world becomes a friend instead of an enemy, and have the power to take listeners there right along with Podrasky. Everyone has had their hardships, and it's true no one gets out alive, but this is music to turn a light on the down side and make it bright. That kind of gift comes along way too infrequently, so grab it now and hold on tight. Jimmer is going to take us all there.
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Give the People What they Want. There were some who weren't sure if Sharon Jones was going to make it back. The hardest-working woman in show business had an illness that almost took her out. Still, when Jones showed up again earlier this year with a new album, tour and television appearances, she might have had a new hair-do, or lack thereof, but all systems were go in the singing department. The lady was tearing it up onstage, and with the big bad Dap-Kings behind her it was hard to believe she almost hadn't made it.
These ten songs are serious excursions into soul music with a capital "S," and are a window into foreverness. Jones' voice has an urban edge that says she's been there, and isn't afraid of going back if she had to. That isn't going to happen, thank goodness, and with nods of the fedora to Memphis, New Orleans, Chicago and beyond, Sharon Jones is so much more than a survivor. She's a Queen, and that, misters and missesses, is with a capitol "Q."
Lake Street Dive, Bad Self Portraits. Sometimes the difference between a superb bar band and one destined for the concert halls is an inspired and gifted singer. That's surely the case with Lake Street Dive. Like their name says, it could have been easy for the foursome to find their way into the clubs and stay there. They can swing like mad, supply the needed kick to keep a lubricated crowd twitching, and throw in enough sultry songs to make a dance floor feel like Match.com come to life.
But lead vocalist Rachael Price has the kind of voice and smarts to carve out a whole new trajectory for the band, able to get in the middle of a song and set it on fire. Even if she started on the jazzy side of town, today she is going for the gut and getting there. They could well be the success story of 2014, and with this kind of no-frills soul will keep getting better and better. Amy Winehouse pushed open this door a while back, and Adele set up an entire super store within those walls. Now Lake Street Dive is staking an American flag in this music that started here, and for that and so much more they've earned a spot at the top.
St. Paul & The Broken Bones, Half the City. Yes, blue-eyed soul music became a cottage industry way back in the mid-'60s when dancers started demanding music that shook the walls and wiggled the bathroom stalls in joints around America. Young whites had to learn to play that sound quick, or be relegated to surf band gigs in high school auditoriums. One of the better bands of this realm today is St. Paul and the Broken Bones. The main reason for their supremacy is because they most definitely dance to their own drummer. They're not trying to be Junior Walker & the All-Stars, Bobby "Blue" Bland & the Mellow Fellows or anyone else, because exploring what they can come up with on their own is a full-time gig.
Singer Paul Janeway is a stone-cold keeper. He can croon, he can wail and always shake that vocal tail. The group's mondo hit "Call Me" is just the start, which is obvious. The way the musicians quote Sam & Dave's "Soul Man" riff in the middle of the song gives them insta-props, and should spread a smile to anyone who's been lost on the dance floor doing the Dog, the Sideways Pony, the Tip or, yes, the Funky Penguin. Get down or get out.
The Strypes, Snapshot. It's almost impossible not to love a band of Irish teenagers who have fallen heavy for American musical heroes like Bo Diddley, Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters. They take that most elemental of sounds and jack it to the max, much like the Rolling Stones and Animals did over 60 years ago. The wonder of all this cross-cultural mongreling is how contemporary it still is. It doesn't matter that it's been done before. If the feeling is there, and with the Strypes it most surely is, it's just like first love — nothing ever feels quite like that again.
To hear a group tear up "I Can Tell" and "Rollin' and Tumblin'" with this kind of ferocious verve is to believe in the eternal rejuvenating power of rock and roll. Then to turn around and write original songs that also capture the spirit of their inspirations is to see all the way down the line. And just to show they get the big picture, the band does a juiced-up take on Nick Lowe's anthem "Heart of the City," offering final proof that the circle not only remains unbroken, it will stay solid as steel no matter how many times it gets blown apart.