The new year is upon us and we are already anticipating new albums from the likes of Bruno Mars, Rihanna and Kanye West. But hold your horses – while you are waiting, here are a few gems from last year that you might have missed.
• Republic Records
Journalists around the world know the anguish of coming up with year-end lists of favourites. What did you love in February? How about March? In the world of music, there is so much being released – and so many ways to consume it – that forgetting about a great album or song isn’t so hard to do.
That’s what happened with Just Kids, the fifth effort from Oregon-born singer-songwriter Mat Kearney. Released in February, the album is a masterful and honest adventure that offers a mix of pop, alternative and hip-hop sounds.
Kearney’s voice isn’t heavy or loud, but it is commanding – and his lyrics are both relatable and powerful.
The title track is reflective, while Heartbeat, Billion and One Black Sheep are radio-ready anthems.
The album’s opening track, Heartbreak Dreamer, closes with a moving two-minute poem that sums up the album’s greatness.
In short, Just Kids is just amazing.
* Mesfin Fekadu
Between her songbird vocals and famous last name, more people should be buzzing about singer Alex Isley.
Daughter of The Isley Brothers’ Ernie Isley, Alex – who studied jazz at UCLA – is a serious artist in her own right, having written and produced her irresistible third set, Luxury.
She does soul in her own way, opening the album with lush orchestral strings that set the tone for a collection of euphoric, spacey tracks that contrast and complement the singer’s warm vocals.
“Nothing like freedom, in the palm of my hand,” Isley sings in the echoing Grown (Interlude).
The airy Loss for Words is a melodic trip through the clouds, It’s You is an infectiously upbeat and funky gem, while Inevitable melds Isley’s vocals into a delicious harmony. From intro to outro, Luxury is as rich in sound and substance as the title implies.
* Melanie J Sims
• Low Country Sound/Elektra Records
Last year was a great one for soul revivalists, with breakout albums from young musicians revitalising the classic sounds that originated from Memphis, Detroit and Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
Anderson East’s Delilah is one of those top-notch retro albums that transport the listener back to another era, with brassy horns, delicate organs and funky beats.
Grammy-nominated producer Dave Cobb, who knows how to bring out the best in great talent, including Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton, signed East as the first artist on his record imprint, Low Country Sound.
East, from Athens, Alabama, brought his songwriter lyrics, gospel upbringing and a raspy wail to Cobb, who paired him with country and Southern blues instrumentation.
The album’s standout track is Satisfy Me, a Wilson Pickett-inspired groove that burns up the record player when he howls that he’s “got a Ph.D. in T-L-C.”
He also growls out a great version of Find ‘Em, Fool ‘Em and Forget ‘Em, a “lost” George Jackson tune that he and Cobb dug out of the archives at FAME studio.
But he really gets creative when he slows down and minimises the instruments on What a Woman Wants to Hear, invoking a more sweet and tender approach.
* Kristin M Hall
• Text Records
Last year, prolific Londoner Kieran Hebden, known as Four Tet, did a mix with Jamie xx, deejayed with Skrillex and deftly touched up Eric Prydz’s Opus.
But nothing else he did came close to surpassing his stunning two-track Morning/Evening LP. Released through his Text Records imprint on Bandcamp (on a whim on summer solstice), the two 20-minute sides are influenced by ragas used in Indian classical music.
The production was inspired by a collection of Hindu devotional and film music inherited when Hebden was younger, which he dug into when his Indian grandmother died a few years ago.
Morning takes shape in the form of a taut, minimal drum pattern, in the realm of techno, before shades are lifted and streaming synthesisers colour the sound. As layers of textured drones unfold, an otherworldly vocal sample from Indian playback singer Lata Mangeshkar enters, exalting the track.
Evening starts off with more of a muted rhythm, as digital flares glow against the dusk-tinged backdrop. The final ascension takes it down to a naked percussive stomp as fidelity shifts, crumbles and refortifies.
It is one of those cosmic records that you can just let ride or obsess over every little detail. Four Tet makes electronic music feel organic.
* Jake O’Connell
Songs for Quintet
Canadian-born Kenny Wheeler, a mainstay of the British jazz scene for 60-plus years, delivers an impassioned, emotionally gripping performance on his last studio recording, which was released last January, just months after his death at the age of 84.
Though unable to hit the stratospheric high notes of his youth, Wheeler switched from trumpet to the physically less demanding flugelhorn to play lyrical solos with warmth and tenderness, underlined by a pervading sense of melancholy. He was supported by a quartet of sympathetic British colleagues, most notably tenor saxophonist Stan Sulzmann and guitarist John Parricelli.
This album of mostly new tunes also showcases Wheeler’s strong suit as an innovative composer able to combine compelling melodies with unorthodox structures.
His stylistic diversity is reflected in such tunes as Sly Eyes, on which drummer Martin France plays a military-style snare-drum tattoo under a tango-like melody; the meditative Pretty Liddle Waltz, on which Wheeler and Sulzmann engage in some lovely call-and-response patterns; and the unstructured 1076, which recalls Wheeler’s past associations with free jazz ensembles.
All in all, this is a moving last testament from a humble musician who strongly influenced the global jazz community.
* Charles J Gans
Letters to Ghosts
• Furthestpoint Records
British pop singer-songwriter Lucas Silvas enjoyed some mainstream success with two albums released in Europe several years ago, but is introducing herself to American audiences with this release, her first in the United States.
Now a resident of Nashville, Tennessee, Silvas found a community of songwriters and musicians who inspired her to record a new album for the first time in nine years.
She picked up some tricks from Americana and country music and the result is a great collection of rootsy, melody-driven songs with just enough southern twang to give them an edge.
Both her voice and her songwriting have matured from her earlier albums, adding just the right touch of wistfulness and wisdom.
The album’s title track has hearty arrangements that sound like Bonnie Raitt mixed with the Lumineers. Villain is a piano-driven, soulful ballad akin to Norah Jones. Find A Way cruises with a fuzzed out R&B beat.
She has been welcomed to the American south by country musicians including Kacey Musgraves and Little Big Town, but her music fits right into Nashville’s blossoming independent Americana scene.
* Kristin M Hall
• Associated Press
Source: art & life