Doyle Bramhall II, Shades. This Texas-California hybrid has been a multi-threat for long enough to know exactly where he wants to go. As a guitarist, Doyle Bramhall II has very few equals. Bathed in blues from a youngster, he quickly expanded into electronic rock bliss in his twenties. And never looked back. He is also a singer and songwriter of massive soulfulness. While an unrelenting current of melancholy runs through so many of his songs, there is a joyous abandon living there too. It's like the music is nurtured by gospel roots before it's extrapolated into future blues. In the end, only the musician himself knows how he does it. Listeners get to reap the endless reward. It might look like Doyle Bramhall II's career has taken a circuitous path to today, complete with a side move alongside Charlie Sexton into the Arc Angels, but like those who place creativity above all else, he is looking to express himself at the highest possible level. So far, the man hasn't missed yet. With winning assists here from Eric Clapton, Norah Jones, Greyhounds, and the Tedeschi Trucks Band, Bramhall has stacked the deck to make this the best album he's made. More to come.
Erin Costelo, Sweet Marie. It has been awhile since singers like Dusty Springfield set the musical bar so high, but Erin Costelo is in that world and can sing tall next to anyone. While this isn't her first album, it is the one to establish the woman as a world-wide presence, never mind that she comes from Nova Scotia. It is, simply, blonde-haired soul music that has few equals. Costelo's voice is sultry and sweet, often simultaneously, and by gathering the best musicians from the Canadian gene pool, it almost feels like a resurrection of the Hi Records band in Memphis. She is able to split the difference between '60s soul and her very own invention of that incredibly moving music. All in the present tense. That's obviously not as easy as it sounds, but Erin Costelo gathered every bit of feeling inside her and fought her way over the finish line with colors flying. She begins an American tour in mid-November, allowing those in the spiritual home of so many of her influences a living chance to see cross-pollination in action. Do not miss.
Elvis Costello & the Imposters, Look Now. By now, over 40 years since his historic debut album, Elvis Costello has covered the waterfront, climbed to the mountaintop and taken everyone to the river. He's even washed them in the water. Still, Costello continues to sound like the restless spirit who captured the rock world's attention all those years ago. Now, on one of the best albums of his storied career, the Englishman has outdone even himself. This is a man at the very toppermost of his game, zigging and zagging in and out of musical styles with the flick of a wrist and sound of his voice. Even with co-writing partners Burt Bacharach and Carole King, it is 100% unadulterated Elvis Costello, and proud of it. Part of the irresistible pull comes courtesy of his mighty men the Imposters, a rock & roll aggregation for all-time. No matter the sonics or the substance, it is a supportive trio of such strength the mind and feet boggle. For all those who ever loved any period of Costello's always inventive past, it's all here in its majestic glory. Pump it up.
DeJohnette Grenadier Medeski Scofield, Hudson. There are certain combinations of what can loosely be called jazz musicians that sound like they were born to blow together. Like drummer Jack DeJohnette, guitarist and flautist John Scofield, bassist Larry Grenadier, and keyboardist John Medeski. Together they let the notes roam free, finding overt grooves when necessary but also letting serendipity take its turn rearranging the molecules in the room. DeJohnette is one of the most accomplished drummers alive, an alumnus of one of Miles Davis' peak periods as well as the go-to skinsman for any number of jazz classics. He anchors the band with such freedom the head spins. Scofield is electrifying from note one, pushed even further by Medeski's keys-creativity. And Larry Grenadier puts the bass-ic heartbeat front and center in every song, making sure the sometimes melodic mayhem stays ultra-musical. The setlist includes Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Robbie Robertson next to Hudson's organic originals, which makes sense because the musicians reside in New York's Hudson Valley, not that far from Yasgur's farm. For sure they are stardust, they are golden and from the sound of things are most definitely getting themselves back to the garden of groove. Setting souls free.
Amy Helm, This Too Shall Light. As this year gets closer to its end, Amy Helm's new album blows across the country to grab a spot on the year's very best list. Being Levon Helm and Libby Titus' daughter surely gave her an up close and personal look at rock & roll, but it's really what Helm has done on her own that shows the woman's deepest strengths. Working with superb producer Joe Henry on this crowning release feels like the natural extension of a life well-sung. Starting with a song list as strong as it gets, and playing with a stirring band including guitarist Doyle Bramhall II, Helm sounds like she's finally found the heights she's been moving towards for many years, including when she co-founded the band Ollabelle. There is a timelessness in these songs, reflecting her background in the Woodstock woods, and also a sense of wonder at what music does for her and all who listen. From songwriters like Rod Stewart, Allen Toussaint, T Bone Burnett and, yes, Robbie Robertson (on Levon & the Hawks' single "The Stones I Throw"), this is an album for the ages. It may have been recorded in Southern California, but it has the ethereal pull of an ancient land in its blood. And that land is America, at its finest. Ring them bells.
Paul Kelly, Nature. By now singer-songwriter Paul Kelly should need no introduction anywhere. From his roots in Australia, he has continued to conquer the musical world and show how the intelligent can meld seamlessly with the emotional. It is no mistake Kelly draws lyrics from the works of Dylan Thomas, Walt Whitman, Sylvia Plath, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Phillip Larkin to put next to his own words, and shows how the past can come roaring into the present like an Indian Ocean wave. The songwriter weaves in images of nature to ensure the music takes on a grander theme, like the natural world itself. Most of the titles themselves are telling: "Little Wolf," "With Animals," "Seagulls of Seattle," "Mushrooms," "The River Song," "God's Grandeur," and "The Trees." And the others—"And Death Shall Have No Dominion," "With the One I Love," "A Bastard Like Me," and "Bound to Follow"—fill in the full beating of the human heart. Paul Kelly is walking a new road, one fired by poetry from himself and others. Follow him home.
Wayne Kramer, The Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, The MC5 & My Life of Impossibilities. Among the guitarists who first grabbed the glory in the 1960s, put Wayne Kramer in the front row. In Detroit's flagship rock band MC5, Kramer made sure the engine was always running on eight cylinders supercharged beyond the red zone. He lived his life that way too, and hit enough walls and bridges to almost take him down. Luckily, in his new autobiography, Kramer is able to not only remember it all, but also weave a tale and danger, near-death, and ultimately redemption. He is a true red-white-and-blue hero, in the finest connotation of those words, someone who never backed down and more importantly never gave up. Drug addiction, prison, and all other extracurricular activities that seemed to swirl around some rock & rollers came his way. For moments it looked like his end was way nearer than his beginning, but Wayne Kramer defied the odds enough times to wear his own medal of life. His unshakeable belief in the highest ideals of helping others eventually came through to take him into a whole new life, one he so richly deserves. His story will be an inspiration to us all as long as there is a world to read about it. Start right here.
Richard Lloyd, The Countdown. Richard Lloyd's resume stands second to none. As an original member of Television, he helped build the foundation for so much music that followed. When that band splintered, Lloyd went on to guitar chores with artists like Matthew Sweet and John Doe, but even more importantly he recorded solo albums that continued to expand what Television had started. Today, calling himself "an anthropologist from another planet who is observing human nature and expressing my observations through rock & roll," Lloyd turns up the cosmic knob a few clicks and heads out into unexplored territory. He never strays too far out to be unrecognizable, but he also isn't afraid to take big chances in the name of going place he hasn't been before. It's all in the unfettered spirit of what Richard Lloyd began exploring on electric guitar over 45 years ago, and he has shown no intention of slowing down. Those that created our modern world need to be heard, and the countdown has started for Richard Lloyd's next blast-off into taking his audience to his next destination. Three-two-one.
Paul Oscher, Cool Cat. Is there any way to follow being a teenager playing harp in Muddy Waters' band in the late 1960s, not to mention sharing the basement in Waters' house with none other than pianist Otis Spann? That's blues cred beyond the cosmos. But that's exactly what Paul Oscher did, and he has stayed the course all these years on the blues highway, never veering off to rock & roll or anything else. It is so deep in his blood that it is likely there is no choice: this is his life's work and to betray that heritage would be like pulling the ripcord on being alive. The central Texas-based artist has rounded up the most bodacious blues player, moves from guitar to piano, blows the kind of blues harp that feels like blind bats and swamp rats flying through the trees, gathers a studio full of equally-imbued musicians and goes for the gusto. There isn't much low-down blues like this left in the world, and to hear it from someone who shared a bandstand for several years with the Big Daddy of them all is to get a glimpse into an era not to be seen again. And just for kicks, Miss Lavelle White takes over the microphone to sing "Dirty Dealin' Mama" to represent for the 80-year-olds in the audience. Darker than blue.