By Sean Titone
David Bowie – Blackstar
What is there left to say about David Bowie? The man graced us with a catalog of music, art and film that is so massive, we may never fully understand his influence on our lives and culture. A distinguished shapeshifter until the end, he was never one to take the path of least resistance. When he released his 25th studio album, Blackstar, just days before his passing, we couldn’t have predicted that this would be his final musical offering. While the lyrics on Blackstar deal with themes of mortality and finding a light in the darkness, they took on a different life after his death that led many to look for clues and other insight into what his life had been like in his final months. The music on Blackstar is some of his most exciting and thrilling, and that’s saying a lot considering the man gave us Ziggy Stardust and Space Oddity. The eponymous leadoff track is a 10-minute jazz-influenced, synth jam while “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” is an upbeat banger with screaming saxophones. Jazz fusion is a genre I’ve never particularly liked, but somehow Bowie and his magic make it work on Blackstar. On Lazarus, he sings “Look up here, I’m in heaven/I’ve got scars that can’t be seen/I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen/Everybody knows me now.” Here’s hoping the scars have healed, the drama is gone, and he’s found peace in the afterlife.
Favorite tracks: “Blackstar” and “Lazarus”
Hinds – Leave Me Alone
Hinds is a four-piece, lo-fi garage rock band from Madrid, Spain. With stylistic nods to The Velvet Underground, The Strokes and the fuzz-pop guitar of Ty Segall, singers and guitarists Carlotta Cosials and Ana Garcia Perrote, bassist Ade Martin, and drummer Amber Grimbergen bring a peaceful, easy feeling to their debut album Leave Me Alone. The album sounds like the aural equivalent of a stroll down the sunshine-dappled cobblestone streets of Madrid (author’s note: I haven’t actually been to Madrid, but this is how I imagine it). With guitars and vocals heavy on the reverb and harmonies that sometimes border on strained but sweet notes, Leave Me Alone is a charming album that deals with, among other things, unrequited love amid life’s complications. There is an endearing looseness to the band as they ramble through a set of slacker gems that will make you feel young again, that is unless you are already young, which, in that case, enjoy it while it lasts!
Favorite tracks: “Bamboo” and “Garden”
Anderson .Paak – Malibu
Twenty-fifteen was an eventful year for California-based hip-hop artist Anderson .Paak. After performing in the underground L.A. rap scene for years, the man born Brandon Paak Anderson appeared in six songs on Dr. Dre’s return album Compton and turned heads with his distinctive delivery and voice. Now he follows that up with his sophomore album, Malibu, and it cements his status as one of hip-hop’s more promising personalities. As skilled a singer as he is rapper, .Paak shows that he’s a lover, not a fighter, and he navigates his way through Malibu with confidence and ease. The music is a patchwork quilt of funk, hip-hop, soul, and R&B, the production is warm and organic, and the guest list is impressive, although Dre didn’t return the favor. There’s a strong showing from The Game on the piano-driven “Room in Here,” as well as appearances from Schoolboy Q, Rapsody, BJ the Chicago Kid, Talib Kweli, and keyboard contribution from Robert Glasper, who also lent his talented skills to fellow West Coast rapper Kendrick Lamar on To Pimp A Butterfly. While he has confessed in interviews to a tumultuous upbringing, .Paak has ultimately created a joyful album, one that reminds us that life is short and we need to make the best of it. It might be winter but Malibu is filled with the sounds of summer.
Favorite tracks: “Come Down” and “Room in Here”
Dylan LeBlanc – Cautionary Tale
It’s a good time to be a musician from Alabama. Artists like Jason Isbell, St. Paul and the Broken Bones, and Alabama Shakes have paved the way for the next round of bands to make their mark on the national scene and by the sounds of it, Dylan LeBlanc is at the front of the line. The 25-year-old singer/songwriter moved from Shreveport to Muscle Shoals when his father pursued a career as a writer at the historic FAME Studios, and the young LeBlanc soaked up the rock and soul vibes that permeated those hallowed halls. On his third album, Cautionary Tale, he shows great maturation as a songwriter and manages to sound like both classic Neil Young and current My Morning Jacket. With production by Alabama Shakes touring member Ben Tanner, and a guest vocal performance by Brittany Howard, it’s no surprise that LeBlanc is going on tour with them later this spring. Catch him opening for the Shakes at the Uptown Amphitheater in Charlotte on April 22.
Favorite tracks: “Easy Way Out” and “Paradise”
Savages – Adore Life
Last year, I had the good fortune of catching Savages during their New York City residency of tiny venues in Manhattan and Brooklyn. They were workshopping songs that would ultimately make up their sophomore album, Adore Life, released at the end of January. Live, their wall of sound was so large, it nearly leveled the 250 person-capacity Mercury Lounge and those of us huddled together to witness their post-punk fury. Lead singer Jehnny Beth paced the stage like a tiger behind a cage, waiting to pounce on anyone who might get in her way. Her onstage charisma makes her one of the more intriguing figures in rock music today. So, how to capture that live energy into a recorded studio album? Adore Life builds on the promise of their debut with an album that sounds fuller and richer but maintains the elements that make them such an explosive unit. “The Answer,” “Sad Person,” “T.I.W.Y.G.” and “I Need Something New” practically jump out of your speakers and wreak havoc on your surroundings. Yet throughout all of the intensity, the message is to adore life and find love in yourself and others.
Favorite tracks: “The Answer” “T.I.W.Y.G.”
Eleanor Friedberger – New View
Eleanor Friedberger, once a member of the challenging and prolific brother/sister indie rock duo, The Fiery Furnaces, has now recorded three albums and New View is her strongest work to date. There’s a ‘70s AM gold vibe throughout, and the music is cozy and inviting. The foundation of the album was seeped in change. Friedberger moved to upstate New York after living in Brooklyn for nearly a decade and New View is her first album on new record label Frenchkiss Records. She also solidified a band lineup that was consistent throughout the writing, arranging and recording process and it’s the same band that tours with her as well. There’s a soulful, easygoing sound to New View that is carried by a healthy dose of analog keyboards reminiscent of the Fiery Furnaces. The lyrics are direct, clever, and emotionally resonating in all the right ways while delivered in rapid-fire, Dylanesque fashion.
Favorite Tracks: “Sweetest Girl” and “He Didn’t Mention His Mother”
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Ty Segall – Emotional Mugger
Ty Segall and his brand of infectious garage rock will never go out of style. His new album Emotional Mugger takes on a darker undercurrent, musically and lyrically, but still has distortion hooks galore and should please fans of his T-Rexian guitar fireworks.
Sia – This is Acting
Sia is pop music’s weirdo princess and on This is Acting, she makes her own songs that were originally written for and head-scratchingly declined by her fellow pop squad (Katy Perry, Adele, Rihanna). Full of empowerment anthems that are both ballads and bangers, her unmistakable songwriting voice will have you feeling you can take on the world.
Bloc Party – Hymns
Bloc Party has undergone some major changes over the last years, most notably losing two of its original, founding members. So, main singer/songwriter Kele Okereke hits the reset button on Hymns and launches Bloc Party 2.0. Incorporating Okerke’s recent infatuation with dance music that he explored on his solo albums recorded in between Bloc Party’s output, the sharper edges found in their earlier work have been smoothed down to a more melancholic, synth-based form.
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