Making great music after all these years

In Part 3 of 3 segments examining the music I enjoyed during the 2010-2019 decade, I take a look at a handful of albums written and recorded by vintage artists from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.  You’ve got to give these folks credit that they can still produce quality work some 30, 40 or 50 years after first breaking into the music business.

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I’m going to let you in on a little secret.

Some of the biggest names in rock music history — those who came of age and put out their most iconic records in the ’60s, ’70s or ’80s — were still writing and releasing great new music in the 2010s.

Some of my readers are big fans of the great old stuff but very likely haven’t been paying attention to new album releases for many years.   If you liked Steely Dan or The Kinks, for instance, you should be thrilled to discover recent solo albums by Donald Fagen (“Sunken Condos”) and Ray Davies (“Americana”).  They’ve been out for six and three years, respectively, but few people know it.

Here at Hack’s Back Pages, we aim to correct that.  I, for one, think we should celebrate the stamina and the willingness these artists have shown to continue sharing their marvelous talents with us long after they’ve got anything left to prove.  I have the utmost respect for artists like Paul Simon or Paul McCartney who are still creating quality songs as they approach 80 years old!

There’s a Spotify list at the bottom.  Enjoy!

“Before This World,” James Taylor, 2015

815yadd7NjL._SY355_Taylor has had such a long, mostly successful career, from the over-the-top hits of his “Sweet Baby James” and “Mud Slide Slim” LPs in 1970-1971 through a mid-’80s slump to the Grammy-winning “New Moon Shine” and “Hourglass” in 1991 and 1997.  He seemed to run out of steam with his ho-hum 2002 release, “October Road,” which hinted that his songwriting muse had abandoned him.  Although he has maintained a presence on the road with his yearly tours, he released no new studio recordings for a dozen years.

Then, suddenly, “Before This World,” a welcome surprise in 2015.  Turns out he did have a case of writer’s block, so he sequestered himself in a waterfront apartment in Rhode Island for months and, bless him, gave birth to SO many entertaining songs here!  He can still come up with something whimsical like “Angels of Fenway,” a loving tribute to the favorite baseball team he and his grandmother once shared, and then turn on a dime and conjure up a harrowing piece such as “Far Afghanistan,” which examines the grim historical truths of that Godforsaken country:  “They fought against the Russians, they fought against the Brits, they fought old Alexander, talking ‘bout him ever since, and after 9/11, here comes your Uncle Sam, another painful lesson in the far Afghanistan…”

Mostly, the LP is full of the warm melodies and friendly tempos for which he has always been known — “Wild Mountain Thyme,” “Before This World,” “Watching Over Me” and the refreshingly gorgeous “You and I Again,” which examines the rekindling of a relationship that suffered a rocky period:  “You were tending your own fire, we were biding our time, both of us waiting for the moment when our backs would come together, you and I… And so although I know we are only small, in the time we have here, this time we have it all, you and I again, this time, this time…” 

“Thick as a Brick 2,” Ian Anderson, 2012

thick-as-a-brick-2-1Ian Anderson, now 72,  has been one of the most fascinating characters in rock.  Articulate storyteller.  Flute virtuoso.  Supreme showman.  And about as prolific a songwriter as you can name.  Between the Jethro Tull catalog and his solo work, he has personally written more than 250 songs on two dozen albums over a 50-year career.

In 2011-12, Anderson got the creative idea of revisiting his classic LP “Thick as a Brick” to explore what might have become of the fictional child poet Gerald Bostock who had been jokingly credited as having written the words to “Brick.”  In the lyrics to “Thick as a Brick 2,” Anderson suggests five possible roads the character might’ve traveled:  a greedy banker, a troubled homeless man, a soldier in the Afghan War, an evangelist preacher, or an ordinary small-town shopkeeper.  Anderson muses philosophically, “We all must wonder, now and then, if things had turned out – well – just plain different.  Chance path taken, page unturned…”

Musically, he uses the same song structure you’ll recall from the 1972 original — seven or eight major sections that, when laced together, constitute one hour-long song.  Some themes recur in different tempos and arrangements — the main rock theme heard in “Banker Bets, Banker Wins,” for instance, shows up again later in “Wooton Bassett Town.”  Anderson and his musically proficient sidemen have successfully collaborated 40 years later to provide a worthy sequel to the iconic “Brick.”

By all means, don’t sit this one out.

“Americana,” Ray Davies, 2017

Unknown-87The proud, prolific founder and chief songwriter of The Kinks is often regarded as a quintessentially British tunesmith, but he has also professed a keen interest in American music and culture, and has lived in the U.S. (New York and New Orleans) at various times.  In 2015, he published his memoirs, entitled “Americana:  The Kinks, The Road and The Perfect Riff,” which focused on his on-again, off-again relationship with the United States.  Two years later, he released “Americana,” an extraordinary album that continues the story set to music.

It had been nearly 20 years since the final Kinks album and the band’s breakup (which everyone saw coming, thanks to the Davies brothers’ notoriously tempestuous relationship).  Ray’s uncannily creative songwriting kept things afloat, and its quality didn’t waver much through a long career that enjoyed only occasional commercial success.

“Americana” bowled me over.  Davies can still write a great melody, and it’s a treat that, at 72, he can write enough of them to fill a whole album.  The instantly likable “Poetry” sounds like an outtake from the best Tom Petty album, while “The Great Highway” is more reminiscent of early ’80s Talking Heads.  The songs take us on a journey through distinctly American scenes:  “Rock ‘n Roll Cowboys,” “A Long Drive Home to Tarzana,” “Silent Movie,” “Wings of Fantasy.”  The title track does a beautiful job of showing his awe at the breadth and beauty of this country, despite its troubles:  “I wanna make my home where the buffalo roam, in that great panorama…  In the steps of the great pioneers, over air, sea and land, still I can’t understand how I’m gonna get there from here, wherever it goes, it’s gonna take me somewhere…” 

“So Beautiful or So What,” Paul Simon, 2011

sobeautiful_coverAlthough Paul Simon has been writing some of the most iconic songs of our time for more than 50 years, he is far from prolific.  There were only five Simon & Garfunkel albums, and since going solo 45 years ago, he has released only 12 studio LPs of new material.  Clearly, though, he has made up for in quality what he lacks in quantity.  “Still Crazy After All These Years,” “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon” and especially “Graceland” are among the finest albums of the past several decades.

But even in his 60s, Simon continued to create fantastic songs.  The inventive music and compelling lyrics found on his tantalizing 2011 release “So Beautiful or So What,” is a wonder to behold.  Once you get caught up in the rolling, hypnotic rhythm that drives the excellent title song, you just don’t want it to end.  I remember being knocked out by an amazing live performance of the song by Simon and his band on “Saturday Night Live” that year.  He has said his songwriting process always begins with a rhythm, usually something new or unusual that catches his attention.  Here’s solid proof of that.

Consider, also, the intriguing track “The Afterlife,” which ruminates on what actually happens when we reach the pearly gates.  Leave it to Simon to suggest that we’ll have to cope with paperwork and crowds, as if we’re at the motor vehicle bureau:  “After I died, and the make up had dried, I went back to my place, no moon that night, but a heavenly light shone on my face, still I thought it was odd there was no sign of God just to usher me in, then a voice from above, sugar coated with love, said, ‘Let us begin:  You got to fill out a form first, and then you wait in the line…'”

“Standing in the Breach,” Jackson Browne, 2014

81q+HAmjLWL._SL1500_Browne at 71 is still very much a passionate man, a gifted songwriter and a pleasing singer and guitarist-pianist.  From 1972 to 1986, he cranked out seven excellent LPs full of memorable tunes like “Fountain of Sorrow,” “Running on Empty,” “The Pretender,” “These Days,” “Of Missing Persons,” “For Everyman,” “Lives in the Balance” and “Rock Me On the Water.”  He made his mark with deeply personal tunes about relationships but later evolved to comment on the perplexing human condition in the world arena.

He hasn’t stopped making albums in the years since his heyday — there were new ones in 1989, 1993, 1996, 2002 and 2008, some of them very good.  So it’s a shame they didn’t reach the level of awareness and sales success just because his core audience had moved on or retired.  Browne’s music has pretty much always been worth the time it takes to investigate it.

Six years ago, he came out with “Standing in the Breach,” a decidedly political record that forces us to look at some of the unpleasant truths in our world today (“they say nothing lasts forever, but all the plastic ever made is still here”), but it does so with a positivity that offers some degree of hope (“We’re a long way gone down this wild road we’re on, it’s going to take us where we’re bound, it’s just the long way around…”). Musically, it’s a really nice collection of melodies and some top-flight musicianship from the likes of Greg Leisz on guitar, Benmont Tench on keyboards and Bob Glaub on bass.  Browne’s vocals, I’m pleased to report, remain an important strength in these proceedings as well.

“Egypt Station,” Paul McCartney, 2017

220px-Cover_of_Paul_McCartney's_'Egypt_Station'_albumIf you’re like me, you’ve had a love-hate relationship with Paul McCartney’s solo career.  Thanks to consistently strong albums like “Ram,” “Band on the Run” and “Tug of War,” you’ve kept coming back to check out his latest release, only to be disappointed when there’s only two or three decent tracks to be found.  That’s happened way more often than not, partly, I think, because he got lazy as he went along, turning dozens of half-finished ideas into unsatisfying recordings.

Finally, though, in 2017, he took the time to assemble “Egypt Station,” a remarkably consistent collection of compelling songs.  The album is bursting with McCartneyesque melodies, alternately playful and deadly serious — “I Don’t Know,” “Hand in Hand” “Dominoes.”

There’s also a fun oddity provocatively titled “Fuh You” which tries to slide the f-bomb by, and “Back In Brazil” is a surprisingly successful electro-samba excursion.  “Do It Now” recalls 1982’s “Here Today,” his paean to former partner Lennon, only this time it’s an older-and-wiser Paul pontificating on the kind of emotional resolutions you seek when you realize how short life is.  “Despite Repeated Warnings” shows McCartney at his most politically charged, worrying about the apocalypse.

He’s now 77, and you have to wonder if he’s got any more in him after this.  In my opinion, someone needs to advise him that, regardless of the high quality of the songs here, his voice is a far cry from its earlier brilliance (see “Confidante” for clear evidence).

“Sunken Condos,” Donald Fagen, 2014

71jhWg27W8L._SL1425_Donald Fagen’s superb legacy as a co-founder of Steely Dan is well documented, but his solo LPs haven’t always received the same kind of attention.  He and his late partner Walter Becker had been quite prolific, churning out amazing new albums every year for most of the ’70s, but then Becker had some personal problems, and Fagen went out on his own, opting to put out new music at a much more leisurely pace. ” The Night Fly” in 1982 (mistaken by many as a new Dan LP) and the disappointing “Kamikiriad” in 1993 were his only output in the Eighties and Nineties.

The twosome reconvened under the Steely Dan banner in 2000 on “Two Against Nature,” which won an Album of the Year Grammy on the strength of songs like “Cousin Dupree” and “Jack of Speed.”  It was followed in 2003 by a lesser collection of tracks called “Everything Must Go,” which turned out to be the final entry in the Steely Dan repertoire.  Fagen had another solo flop in 2006 with the comparatively weak “Morph the Cat,” but he and Becker continued to maintain the sterling nature of the Steely Dan brand with their regular touring commitments almost every year in the 2010–2015 period.

Curiously, when assembling concert set lists during this period, Fagen largely ignored his excellent fourth solo album, “Sunken Condos,” a strong set of originals that deserves a place of prominence in the ranking of Fagen’s total musical output.  There are several of those trademark funky jazz tunes like “Miss Marlene,” “The New Breed” and “Slinky Thing,” with sexy guitar riffs and smart horn arrangements aplenty.  He sounds like he’s channeling Stevie Wonder in his galloping cover of the old Isaac Hayes chestnut “Out on the Ghetto,” and best of all, there’s “Weather in My Head,” a mid-tempo blues with marvelous words that use extreme weather events — typhoons, sea-quakes, floods — to describe the emotional damage when a relationship crumbles: “They may fix the weather in the world…but what’s to be done, Lord, ’bout the weather in my head?…”

“Hypnotic Eye,” Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, 2014

TPATHCover1Nearly 40 years after their powerful debut album, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers still had the chops, the savvy and the songs that resulted in “Hypnotic Eye,” an album every bit as good as his brilliant LPs from the ’80s and ’90s.  In fact, the bulk of the tracks are a welcome return to the styles he exhibited on those first few records.  “Red River” is reminiscent of the great anthem “Refugee,” and “Full Grown Boy” could be a sequel to “Breakdown.”

Other songs show a more mature Petty.  The six-minute closer, “Shadow People,” builds nicely from a haunting beginning to a fuller sound with lyrics that eerily foreshadow his death:  “Well I ain’t on the left, and I ain’t on the right, I ain’t even sure I got a dog in this fight, in my time of need, in my time of grief, I feel like a shadow’s falling over me…”

The album debuted at #1 upon its release, and while that achievement in the downloadable age doesn’t carry the same significance it once did, it nonetheless stands as proof that his music remained popular even as the business around him changed.  Listening to this album again this week was a wistful experience, for it drove home the reality that we won’t be hearing any more new music from this fine band.  Petty worked his ass off, giving his all, and the grueling pace and concurrent lifestyle took their toll.  We lost him earlier than we should have…but we’ll always have the albums, including his excellent final one.

“Songs of Innocence,” U2, 2014

9f26c213d063779ce64558305bb3c0e5Five years in gestation following 2009’s “No Line on the Horizon,” due to writer’s block and group dissension about the recordings, this compelling album was finally released in 2014 to rave reviews, despite an unfortunate backlash from their marketing move to automatically download it to every iPhone, whether consumers wanted it or not.

But this is U2, who have a formidable track record, so let’s listen to the music.  “Songs of Innocence” is actually Part One of a two-part outpouring of new songs that concluded two years later with the lesser “Songs of Experience.” Lead singer Bono had been uncertain about the band’s ability to stay relevant in changing times, but he needn’t have worried.  “Songs of Innocence” in particular is a fantastic LP, no doubt about that.  The songs focus on themes of childhood memories and loves and losses, growing up in Dublin in the 1970s, using lush rock arrangements to tell their stories on what The Edge calls “the most personal album we’ve ever written.”

Critics praised the album as “more compact and direct, eschewing the global scale of U2’s previous material for intimate and personal perspectives.”  The band pays tribute to early musical inspirations on some of the harder rocking tracks like “The Miracle of (Joey Ramone)” and “Volcano,” while other tunes like “California (There is No End to Love)” and “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight” present U2 at their most melodic.  The best of the bunch is “Every Breaking Wave,” with its allusions to the need for intimacy and stability in a relentlessly challenging world:  “If you go your way and I go mine, are we so helpless against the tide, every dog on the street knows we’re in love with defeat, are we ready to be swept off our feet and stop chasing every breaking wave?…”

“Who,” The Who, 2019

The-Who-WHOIf you read Pete Townshend’s autobiography, “Who I Am,” you’ll learn that he struggled with self-esteem issues all his life, yet somehow managed to write hundreds of incredible songs, some of which dealt with the stuff that had troubled him — alcoholism, anger, fear, isolation.  From “My Generation” to “Behind Blue Eyes,” from “However Much I Booze” to “How Many Friends,” Townshend amassed a spectacular body of work with The Who and on his solo records from the mid-’60s into the 2000s.

The Who lost drummer Keith Moon early (1978), and then bassist John Entwistle in 2003, and Townshend and singer Roger Daltrey, despite their differences, have soldiered on through endless “farewell” tours in the years since, performing mostly their greatest hits.  Then, lo and behold, just a few months ago, we were treated to a new album simply titled “Who,” and holy smokes, what a huge treat to hear great new songs by Townshend at age 74!  The raised-fist glory of “Street Song,” “Hero Ground Zero” and “Rockin’ in Rage” harken back to the days of “Who’s Next” and “Quadrophenia,” while the melodic strains of “I’ll Be Back” and “She Rocked My World” remind me of the gems heard on Townshend’s dives into his home vault on the “Scoop” solo collections.

Through the years, Townshend has been a rather articulate philosopher who tries not to take himself too seriously.  He described the new album this way: “There’s dark ballads, heavy rock stuff, experimental electronica, sampled stuff and Who-ish tunes that begin with a guitar that goes yanga-dang.”  You can hear his matter-of-fact belief system on “All This Music Will Fade,” the album’s marvelous leadoff track and single, with lyrics that underscore the throwaway nature of pop music:  “I don’t care, I know you’re gonna hate this song, and that’s fair, we never really got along, it’s not new, not diverse, it won’t light up your parade, it’s just simple verse, all this music will fade…”

 

Open your ears, this is the new stuff

The name of this blog is Hack’s BACK Pages.  I am, by nature, a pretty nostalgic person.  I enjoy looking back fondly on the days of my youth and young adulthood, and it is the music from those days that I am most passionate about.

But still, as I have eased (or stumbled) into my 40s, 50s and 60s, I have continued to occasionally buy new music when it has been released, or when I have discovered it after the fact.  I remain curious and eager to build my music collection and keep my ears to the ground for artists that make me sit up and take notice.  To those who say “there’s no good music being made anymore,” I call bullshit.  There is a TON of good, even great, music coming out all the time.  You just have to look a little harder to find the music that appeals to you.

I like to think I enjoy many different genres of music, but truth be told, there are some I just can’t (or won’t) digest.  Hip hop?  Sorry, not interested.  Bubblegum pop?  Nope, I’m too old now for that cotton-candy froth.  Country?  Well, I’m more open to it than I used to be, but I certainly don’t prefer it.

My leanings are toward blues-based rock, and straight blues, and progressive rock, and perceptive singer-songwriter folk, and energetic rhythm-and-blues.  So as I have leaned in to the music of the 2010-2019 decade, I have naturally been inclined to find albums by artists in the genres that press those hot buttons.

images-81Some of these musicians are new, meaning they arrived on the scene within the last 10 years.  Others first showed up during the 1990s or 2000s, but I didn’t hear them (or they didn’t come up with their best work) until this decade.  And still others are vintage artists from my years (1960s, 1970s and 1980s) who are somehow still cranking out some amazing new stuff.

This week’s post will take a look at 10 new artists from the 2010s who I’ve been enjoying, artists who I believe are worthy of your attention.   In the next two blog installments, I’ll explore the bands from older decades who captivated me with their new releases during the 2010-2019 period.

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Alabama Shakes

A combination of soulful roots-rock, blues rock and the earthshaking pipes of Brittany Howard brought Alabama Shakes near universal acclaim when they made their full-c5d3279ab03b58701be6ea50a8e8ba5aalbum debut on “Boys and Girls” (2012).  Part of its appeal is its rough-around-the-edges production and down-home earthiness, which make the songs sound rawer and more vital.  Check out “Rise to the Sun” and “Heartbreaker” for a hint of what I’m talking about.

While Howard’s forceful voice shows serious evidence of Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin, it is actually closer to the late Amy Winehouse in the way she can grab a lyric and shake it like a dog with a squirrel in its mouth.  Conversely, she has a gentler side that coaxes songs like “I Found You” and the delicious title song over the finish line in convincing fashion.  I get the album-coverimpression she could win me over singing the New Jersey phone book.

The Alabama Shakes follow-up “Sound and Color” (2015) continues Howard’s startling dominance over her material, but this LP seems a bit too trippy and experimental in places, and suffers from production trickery that works against the band’s strengths.  But there are still some fine moments — the quirky, staccato rhythms on the the singles “Don’t Want to Fight” and “Future People” provide a seductive platform for Howard’s imaginative vocal play, and her band seem well equipped to the task of backing her up.

I hope to see an Alabama Shakes gig someday, hopefully in a small, sweaty venue.  I get the feeling it would shake me to the core.

The War on Drugs

A heartfelt thanks to my friend Raj for first exposing me to the dreamy music of The War on Drugs.  The rich, layered arrangements and strong vocals heard on “A Deeper 600x600bb-2Understanding” (2017) are truly a wonder to behold.  Adam Granduciel is clearly the wunderkind in charge as chief songwriter, keyboardist and singer, and he joins the ranks of do-it-all musicians like Stevie Wonder, Jack White and Ian Anderson who, although there are other band members who provide color and shading, tend to run the show with an iron fist.

The first track I heard was the 11-minute “Thinking of a Place,” which turned out to be the appropriate introduction to the album.  There’s so much going on here, but its slow development and its sense of not being sure exactly where it’s going is image-3downright thrilling as layer after layer builds into a shimmering production.  There’s such marvelous attention to sonic details, and the push and pull of grittiness and studio polish is mesmerizing.  It’s no wonder “A Deeper Understanding” won a 2018 Grammy for Best Rock Album.

Granduciel’s smooth, strong voice soars along the top edge of his arrangements (take note of “Holding On” and “Nothing to Find” with their Dylanesque influences), and the result is captivating.  The overall excellence of “A Deeper Understanding” has sent me back to explore The War on Drug’s earlier efforts, especially “Lost in the Dream” (2014), and I’m eager to hear if the band’s next release can top their work thus far.

Mayer Hawthorne

If you miss the sound of ’70s soul and ’60s Motown, then Mayer Hawthorne is for you.  Good Lord, this guy — who has chosen a public persona akin to Buddy Holly — has an Unknown-78uncanny ability to sound as retro as Al Green or Bobby Womack, although with a more modern day production.  On “How Do You Do” (2011), Hawthorne has Temptations send-ups like “Hooked,” falsetto-driven grooves (“A Long Time”), and perhaps the finest kiss-off to an ex-girlfriend I’ve ever heard (“The Walk”).  Check out these lines:  “I love the way you walk now, and your legs are so long/ well, your looks had me putty in your hand now/but I took just as much as I can stand now/ and you can walk your long legs, baby, out of my life…”

Unknown-80His more recent album “Man About Town” (2016) is also well worth your time.  Fabulously sexy ’70s-era soul tunes abound, from “Breakfast in Bed” to “Cosmic Love,” seemingly designed to take us back to those summer nights when The Stylistics and Marvin Gaye were our radio companions to romantic adventures in back seats.  There are plenty of dance-floor workouts here too, like “The Valley” and “Love Like That.”  In short, Hawthorne and Company bring a broad smile to my face whenever I slide either of these CDs into the player.

Emily Hackett

Ok, I am biased big time here, but it’s high time my girl got the kind of exposure and success her music deserves, and there’s a growing audience of fans that agrees with me. eh-sunEmily’s songs have matured in both lyrical content and musical sophistication since her early EPs, “Fury, Fear and Heartbreak” (2013) and “The Raw EP” (2015).  In 2018, she completed her first full album but chose to release it as two EPs instead — “By the Sun” (2018) and “By the Moon” (2019), which illustrate two different sides of Emily’s songwriting.

The spirited fun of “Nostalgia” and “Good Intentions” highlights “By the Sun,” offering quality examples 97afa893a4e0eb32a75fdafcd2cf0cc6.1000x1000x1of her pop side and country influence, respectively.  “‘By the Sun’ was open and honest, and that continued onto ‘By the Moon,’ but the songs on that one took me to a more vulnerable place,” she says.  “It’s like, ‘Now that I’ve introduced myself to you, let’s get real, so I can tell you about the mistakes I’ve made and the lessons I’ve learned.’”

Songs like “Easy” and “Worth the Weight” show a lot of the soul searching evident throughout “By the Moon,” and producer Davis Naish has done a marvelous job of adding nuanced electric guitars that turn Emily’s songs into strong recordings worthy of airplay.  The final tune, the achingly pretty “Once in a While,” was recorded in a church with a string quartet, and it might be my favorite of the bunch (I’m a sucker for melodic ballads!).

Imagine Dragons

I was first turned on to this band when I saw their are-you-kidding-me performance at the 2013 American Music Awards.  I’d never heard of them, but was so impressed by Imagine-Dragons-Night-Visions-album-cover-820what they offered that I picked up “Night Visions” (2012) and played it relentlessly for months.  The adrenaline rush I would get from the percussion-heavy “Radioactive” and the marvelous light/dark contrast of songs like “Demons” and “Bleeding Out” made me conclude that I’d found a new favorite band, at least for a while (these things do change, though, don’t they?).

To me, some of the tracks (“Hear Me,” “Amsterdam”) recall Fleetwood Mac at their late ’70s best, thanks to the harmonies provided by lead singer Dan Reynolds and the backing vocals of guitarist Unknown-81Wayne Sermon and bass/keyboard man Ben McKee.  Just as important is how Imagine Dragons utilize drums and percussion in such a dynamic way, taking a simple guitar melody and turning it into something else entirely.

I have been less impressed with the group’s subsequent releases as they have strayed from an alternative rock groove to a more pop-rock sound.  Indeed, when I first heard “Believer” and “Thunder,” the big hits from “Evolve” (2017), I assumed it was Maroon 5’s Adam Levine handling the vocals (not that that’s so bad, but not what I expected from Imagine Dragons).  Not sure what the future will hold for them, but I’ll be watching.

Hozier

What a heart stopping voice Hozier has!  Booming and effervescent, it’s an instrument 220px-Hozier_albumthat communicates passion, adventure and wisdom, and recalls the vocal virtuosity of early Elton John.  Indeed, on his debut, “Hozier” (2014), he channeled Elton on the brilliant, self-penned “Take Me to Church,” with majestic highs and lows.  There’s a virtual Irish stew of great music to be found here — a healthy dose of R&B, a dash of gospel, a hint of folk and a foundation of bass-driven rock.

I’m please to report that Hozier’s sophomore release,  Hozier_WastelandBaby“Wasteland, Baby!” (2019), picks up right where he left off, and is arguably an improvement.  Such great tunes, like “Almost (Sweet Music)” and the riveting opener “Nina Cried Power,” which name drops Nina Simone and others who used music to protest injustice, and he invites the great Mavis Staples to add her magnificent chops to the proceedings.

I heard Hozier perform many of these tracks last summer at an outdoor music festival in Ohio, and he held the crowd rapt with his soulful delivery.  Encore, baby!

Flying Colors

This American band came together through auditions set up by a producer named Bill Evans, who wanted to create a group that combined sophisticated music (complex composition and virtuoso performances) with accessible, mainstream songwriting.  His idea was to channel the instrumental complexity through a charismatic pop singer/songwriter81YKPfd-NvL._SX355_.  He found what he was envisioning when he met Casey McPherson, a fantastic singer-songwriter who had worked in Alpha Rev in Nashville.  Evans put McPherson together with Steve Morse and Dave LaRue from the Dixie Dregs, plus Steve’s brother Neal and drummer Mike Portnoy, and they toiled for many months creating intriguing workups of basic song structures McPherson had written.

The result, “Flying Colors” (2012), is indeed complex yet accessible, sophisticated yet mainstream.  I can’t get enough of this stuff, and you need look no further than the opening track, “Blue Ocean,” to understand what this band is about.  The galloping beat, the guitar/keyboard interplay and especially McPherson’s compelling voice combine to create an instantly likable sound, and it’s an exhilarating roller coaster ride.

There’s a definite progressive rock bent to their music.  Songs like “Everything Changes” and “The Storm” remind me of Kansas at their most melodic, with majestic chord changes and soaring guitars.  While some tracks are as immediately accessible as Unknown-83promised, others take some time to absorb, just as the best progressive rock of the ’70s did (Yes, Genesis, et al).

By the time of their follow-up LP, “Second Nature” (2014), Flying Colors were now self-produced, and had been together long enough to enjoy a productive chemistry in their songwriting.  Each member was encouraged to bring in ideas, maybe song fragments that could then be developed by the entire band.  Again, the opening track, the 12-minute “Open Up Your Eyes,” offers a perfect example of that collaborative effort, with McPherson’s vocals not coming in until the four-minute mark.  Drummer Portnoy describes “A Place in Your World” this way:  “catchy vocal hooks with clever, tasty musicianship sprinkled on top — a great example of the Flying Colors vocal blend.”  Amen!

Leon Bridges

Holy smokes, another amazing R&B voice in the Sam Cooke tradition!  This product of 54bdf139Fort Worth, Texas bars and clubs exploded on the musical scene with “Coming Home” (2015), and quickly gained national recognition for this strong batch of Neo-soul.  I first heard him on “Saturday Night Live,” where he performed the effervescent “Smooth Sailin'” and the amazing gospel ode “River,” and I was struck by his amazing tenor and vocal control.

The songs found here are the product of an excellent four-man songwriting team headed up by Bridges, and the influence of masters like Unknown-84Smokey Robinson and the Holland-Dozier-Holland team at Motown is undeniable.  I’m partial to tracks like “Better Man,” “Twistin’ & Groovin'” and “Brown Skin Girl,” which showcase Bridges’ butter-smooth voice and some luscious saxophone licks.

The more recent release “Good Thing” (2018) puts Bridges’ voice even more out front, and on a more diverse set of material.  “Believe” uses a spare acoustic guitar arrangement, while “Bad Bad News” has a jazzier groove that recalls the later albums of Steely Dan.  “If It Feels Good (Then It Must Be)” positively overflows with danceable vibes.

Ed Sheeran

A friend told me recently, “If I hear Ed Sheeran one more time, I swear I’m gonna snap.”  I get that.  He’s had three albums in the 2010s, and they’ve all had many millions of hits online.  This guy has suffered the backlash that comes from near-unanimous praise and suffocating overexposure.

es-divide-final-artwork-lo-res-1And yet, I really like his songs and the way he sings them.  Take “Supermarket Flowers,” a track from his most recent LP “÷ (Divide)” (2017).  It’s a wispy ballad Sheeran wrote as a tribute to his late grandmother, a retelling of the aftermath of her funeral from the perspective of his mother.  Though the poetic verses deal with how a loved one’s death can be numbing in its monotony, the chorus, with its angel imagery and “hallelujah”-ing, seems built for cathartic group sing-alongs.  It sure worked for me when my mother passed away recently.

“Castle on the Hill” and “Galway Girl” are both also autobiographical but miles apart musically, and they each work beautifully.  The former uses a relentless U2-type rhythm to tell how his sad remembrances of youth can’t keep him from wanting to visit the hometown anyway, while the latter, as you might expect, is all Irish jig and positivity Unknown-85about a lady he admired and then wishes well when she marries someone else.  On the other hand, I can do without the big single “Shape of You,” which I find repetitive and boring.

Sheeran is a ridiculously prolific songwriter, churning out well over 100 songs for “X (Multiply)” (2014), from which he chose 12 for the album (and another dozen for deluxe editions).  Perhaps his best from this group are the megahit “Thinking Out Loud,” a lovely ballad, and the equally gorgeous “Bloodstream.”

His music goes down very easy with me, and it is among the most streamed over the past five-plus years.  He’s certainly my type, even if he doesn’t float everybody’s boat.

Maggie Rogers

DpLbfZSX4AAgAK8Nominated for Best New Artist at this year’s Grammy Awards is 25-year-old Maggie Rogers, a gifted singer-songwriter who has found an appealing way to merge her folk style with electronic production.  The resulting debut LP, “Heard It in a Past Life” (2019), includes songs from earlier EPs and strong new tunes such as “Light On,” “Fallingwater” and “Past Life,” on which her voice recalls early Joni Mitchell.  Several music publications and online sites picked Rogers’ LP as one of the Top 50 of 2019.  I love her stuff, and I’m eager to see what happens next for her.