Paul Simon's dazzling mix of American roots music, South African pop and highly personal songcraft instantly became one of the key albums of the 1980s and is now internationally considered among the greatest of all time. The zydeco rush of "Boy in the Bubble" and the autobiographical title track both offer musical comfort to confusing, sometimes deadly, modern landscapes, while the transcendent "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" brings magical realism to gritty urban streets.
-- Nick Dedina, Google Play
Singer/songwriter Jack Johnson writes songs that just feel good, sticking to an equation that combines his warm, relaxed voice with an acoustic guitar. That cozy formula made him a favorite among American college crowds, so it's no surprise that Johnson sticks with what he does best for his third album, In Between Dreams. Producer Mario Caldato, Jr. is back again, touching up Johnson's summery backdrop for another playful set of songs. The genre-blending charm and sweetness that fueled Brushfire Fairytales and On and On hasn't changed that much, but does it really have to? Johnson, alongside drummer Adam Topol and bassist Merlo Podlewski, makes safe records. While there isn't anything wrong with that, taking a few more risks sonically and lyrically wouldn't work against him. Tender moments such as "If I Could" and "No Other Way" showcase a more reserved side on In Between Dreams. Other highlights include the lullaby-like "Breakdown" and the bossa nova rhythms of "Do You Remember." Whether he's singing about being in love -- which he does quite well on "Better Together" and "Banana Pancakes" -- or reflecting on its hardships, Johnson's laid-back approach is his biggest strength. In Between Dreams is a bit brighter and more upbeat, but his song remains the same.
MacKenzie Wilson, Rovi
Precocious Brit Florence Welch fired a bullet into the head of the U.K. music scene in 2008 with the single "Kiss with a Fist," a punk-infused, perfectly juvenile summer anthem that had critics wiping the names Lily Allen, Amy Winehouse, and Kate Nash from their vocabularies and replacing them with Florence + the Machine. While the comparisons were apt at the time, "Kiss with a Fist" turned out to be a red herring in the wake of the release of Lungs, one of the most musically mature and emotionally mesmerizing albums of 2009. With an arsenal of weaponry that included the daring musicality of Kate Bush, the fearless delivery of Sinéad O'Connor, and the dark, unhinged vulnerability of Fiona Apple, the London native crafted a debut that not only lived up to the machine-gun spray of buzz that heralded her arrival, but easily surpassed it. Like Kate Bush, Welch has little interest (for the most part) in traditional pop structures, and her songs are at their best when they see something sparkle in the woods and veer off of the main trail in pursuit. "Kiss with a Fist," as good as it is, pales in comparison to standout cuts like "Dog Days Are Over," "Hurricane Drunk," "Drumming Song," "Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)," and "Cosmic Love," all of which are anchored to the earth by Welch's knockout voice, a truly impressive and intuitive trio of producers, and a backing band that sounds as intimate with the material as its creator. [Lungs was also released in a Deluxe Edition that included Lungs: The B-Sides, a bonus disc featuring studio tracks like “Swimming,” “Falling,” and “Heavy in Your Arms,” the latter of which appeared on the soundtrack for Twilight Saga: Eclipse, as well as live cuts (“You've Got the Dirtee Love"), demos (“Ghosts”), and remixes (the "Yeasayer Remix" of “Dog Days Are Over").]
James Christopher Monger, Rovi
Greatest Hits 1970-2002 is a nearly flawless double-disc set commemorating Elton John's three-decade career. Disc one features what may arguably be John's most essential work: Seeing songs such as "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting," "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," "Candle in the Wind," and "Bennie and the Jets" -- not to mention "Your Song," "Rocket Man," and "Tiny Dancer" -- lined up back to back reaffirms just how diverse, and yet universal, his songwriting talent is. Disc two finds this talent maturing gracefully into the '80s, '90s, and beyond, touching on pop gems like "Don't Go Breaking My Heart," "I'm Still Standing," and "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues" as well as his Lion King classic "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" and the Aida duet "Written in the Stars" with LeAnn Rimes. The collection also finds room for the highlights of his most recent albums, including Made in England's "Believe" and "Blessed," The Big Picture's "Something About the Way You Look Tonight," and Songs from the West Coast's "This Train Don't Stop Here Anymore." For most casual fans, Greatest Hits 1970-2002 will replace the need for collections such as Greatest Hits, Greatest Hits, Vol. 2, and Greatest Hits, Vol. 3, although these collections are still worthwhile as of-their-time retrospectives of John's work.
Heather Phares, Rovi
Philadelphia-born, Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter Christina Perri found herself bearing the complex weight of a surprise platinum-selling hit in 2010 with the bare-bones break-up ballad “Jar of Hearts.” Her performance of the track on the Fox show "So You Think You Can Dance" landed her a contract with Atlantic Records, and with that, the pressures of eking out a quality, full-length debut in time to capitalize on her overnight success (listeners who picked up the rushed, 2010 Ocean Way Sessions EP will find most of the cuts here in attendance). Luckily, the tracks that make up Lovestrong, are cut from the same cloth as her signature hit. Songs like “Bluebird,” “Arms,” “Sad Song,” and “Black + Blue,” the latter of which feels like an update on events post-“Jar of Hearts,” find Perri in her comfort zone, trading barbs with past lovers over melodies spawned from countless hours listening to Brandi Carlile's “The Story,” Radiohead's “Creep,” and Jewel’s “Who Will Save Your Soul?” It’s a formula she rarely deviates from, and at 15 cuts, the endless soul searching and constant barrage of wine glass-gazing, post-relationship, magnetic poetry can get a bit thin, but her pleasant, even-handed voice and gifts for using familiar melodies in new and surprising ways (witness the countless YouTube mash-ups of "Jar of Hearts" and Beyonce's "Halo") helps to keep Lovestrong from sinking itself, no matter how much its author wishes for the cold comfort of deep waters.
Those looking to score their Sunday afternoons with polished, midtempo ruminations of life and love could do much worse than this compilation of David Gray's best work. "Babylon" is the only track to have previously enjoyed much chart success in the States, and many American listeners will find Greatest Hits to be more of a primer to Gray's acoustic-fueled style than a collection of past hits. But for returning fans -- particularly those who already own Shine: The Best of the Early Years, also released in 2007 -- Greatest Hits is a cohesive disc that paints the picture of a seasoned songwriter. Gray didn't start writing hit songs until four albums into his career; as a result, these tracks sound sophisticated and tasteful, quite possibly because they draw their maturity from years of touring, recording, and label-hopping. Also included are 14 pages of liner notes (written by Gray himself in track-by-track format) as well as two new numbers, "You're the World to Me" and "Destroyer," which bookend the CD with the sort of clean, crisp pop/rock that will always find a home on adult contemporary charts. David Gray's music doesn't quite electrify, but it rarely fails to please, making Greatest Hits a nice commercial companion to the fans-only appeal of Shine.
Andrew Leahey, Rovi
RCA\Legacy's 16 Biggest Hits collects (you guessed it) 16 classic cuts from the legendary singer/songwriter, including "Back Home Again," "Rocky Mountain High," "Take Me Home, Country Roads," and "Annie's Song." Notable omissions such as "Calypso," "Grandma's Feather Bed," and "Perhaps Love" keep this skimpy overview from providing any real cultural impact, but there is enough here to recommended it if it arrives as the result of charity.
James Christopher Monger, Rovi
It may be hard to believe, but 2004's Greatest Hits is not only the first retrospective Neil Young has released since 1977's Decade, it's the first ever single-disc collection of his best-known songs. That's a span of 27 years separating the two collections, which is an awful long time to resist a Greatest Hits disc -- many of his peers succumbed, offering countless comps during those years -- and such a resistance to a compilation may not be much a surprise from the legendarily prickly Young, but what is a surprise is that 11 of the 16 songs on Greatest Hits were also on Decade. Of the five songs that were not on Decade, only two date from after the '70s -- 1989's "Rockin' in the Free World" and 1992's "Harvest Moon" -- while one of the remaining three (1970's "Only Love Can Break Your Heart") comes from the time chronicled on Decade; the other two, 1978's "Comes a Time" and 1979's "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)," arrived in the two years of the '70s not covered on the 1977 compilation. All this means is that Greatest Hits offers the basic canon, with no frills and none of Neil's trademark idiosyncrasy. Some may miss that cantankerous spirit, pointing out that this contains nothing from his towering twin masterpieces of dark introspection -- Tonight's the Night and On the Beach -- or that there's nothing from Buffalo Springfield (which was covered on Decade) and that noteworthy songs like "Powderfinger," "Cortez the Killer," "Lotta Love," and "Long May You Run" are missing. Ultimately, that doesn't matter much, because Greatest Hits has all the songs that every Neil Young fan, from the devoted to the casual listener, agrees are his biggest and best: "Down by the River," "Cinnamon Girl," "Helpless," "After the Gold Rush," "Southern Man," "Ohio," "The Needle and the Damage Done," "Old Man," "Heart of Gold," "Like a Hurricane." And that's why it works as an all-business introduction for the uninitiated and as a concise summary for those not willing to travel down all the long, winding roads Young has traveled over the years. In other words, it's as good a compilation as it could have been. [Greatest Hits was released in several editions. In addition to the basic single CD, there was a limited edition containing a DVD video with the promo clips for "Rockin' in the Free World" and "Harvest Moon." There was another limited edition with a bonus 7" record. Finally, it was also released as a high-resolution DVD Audio disc.]
On the title track to his sophomore effort, Supply and Demand, singer/songwriter Amos Lee sings, "Baby I need a plan to help me understand, that life ain't only supply and demand." If the supply and demand Lee is referring to is money, success, and power -- and it clearly is -- then the stuff he truly values here is the currency of freedom, love, and sympathy for your fellow man. It's just such yin-yang subject matter that has driven folksingers to set struggle to melody ever since Depression-era scufflers like Woody Guthrie pointed out how America was technically "made for you and me" and not just those in the nice suits. For the most part, Lee is on about the same stuff here, although his vantage point is the more stylish, if no less lonely, tour bus and not a dust bowler's flatbed truck. Nonetheless, Lee is a heartfelt songwriter with an R&B crooner's sense of romance and drama and a real knack for turning his own ennui into anthems for the average guy. He tackles wars of various stripes on "Freedom" and like John Mayer's "Waiting on the World to Change," the song finds Lee deftly threading the political needle with lines like "Don't want to blame the rich for what they got or point a finger at the poor for what they have not" and "Freedom is seldom found by beatin' someone to the ground." It's a catchy stump speech of a tune and, three songs in, lifts the album up from just pleasant into something truly welcome and unexpected. Similarly engaging is the sanguine, slow ballad "Careless," which mixes the Band's "The Night We Drove Old Dixie Down" and Crosby, Stills & Nash's "Helpless" into a gut-wrenching and artful self-indictment of infidelity. However, it's the low-key and darkly sweet "Night Train" that should remain as not just the album's best cut, but Lee's signature song. Hypnotically simple, the song hangs on the chorus with Lee's candid omission, "I've been workin' on a night train/Drinkin' coffee, takin' cocaine/I'm out here on my night train/Tryin' to get her safely home." It's a hushed, rhythmically propulsive song filled with dramatic tension that is beautifully colored by shimmers of organ and lush guitars. On an album all about what's been bought and sold, both personally and collectively, it shows how in tune Lee is with this land of ours and how good he is at selling his soul in the best possible way.
Phillip Phillips' victorious run on American Idol included an abundance of R&B, as the young Georgia vocalist covered tunes by everyone from James Brown to Usher, amid some pop/rock classics. But even then, he displayed a vocal style closer to a cross between Chris Martin and Dave Matthews, and it's that amalgam that he explores on his debut album. Tracks like "Gone, Gone, Gone" and "Hold On" have all the grandeur of Coldplay times ten, while the combination of acoustic axes and anthemic touches on other tracks underlines a Mumford & Sons influence. The disco-tinged "Get Up Get Down" nods to Phillips' funkier side, but for the most part, we hear him trading groove-based moves for grand drama and panoramic pop.
Given its beginnings as Elena Tonra's solo project, it would be easy to assume that Daughter is just another singer/songwriter act with a couple of supporting musicians. However, over the course of If You Leave, Tonra, guitarist Igor Haefeli, and drummer Remi Aguilella make it clear that this is the work of a band. Together, they swing between moments of close-up intimacy and widescreen majesty, often during the course of one song. These songs have so many ebbs and flows that they're practically tidal: "Lifeforms" swells from spiraling guitars that recall the xx in their moody simplicity into towering rock that makes the most of Haefeli's amps and Aguilella's kit. That said, the most powerful part of Daughter's music is Tonra's lyrics, which are full of striking images that echo and intensify the music's mix of detail and drama. Heartbreak leaves physical destruction in its wake on "Youth," where the loveless are "setting fire to our insides for fun"; "Still" uses careful and clever parallel structures to track a relationship's decay, making a poignant contrast between when things were good and when they weren't. If You Leave's haunted, wounded, and weary songs aren't always the easiest listening; there's a fine line between brooding and moping, and while Daughter mostly stay on the right side of it, they wobble occasionally, to the point where the brisk acoustic guitars on "Human" feel like opening the windows in a stuffy room. Tonra's voice, which has just the right balance of warmth and ethereality, helps carry the album through its darkest moments and shines especially brightly on the closing track, "Shallows," a slow-building, seven-minute epic that earns its drama and shows what they can do with that kind of space. Even if their meditations on heartbreak and death can be overwhelming occasionally, If You Leave proves that Daughter can channel a single mood over the course of an entire album with often exquisite results.
Heather Phares, Rovi
The yang to Astral Weeks' yin, the brilliant Moondance is every bit as much a classic as its predecessor; Van Morrison's first commercially successful solo effort, it retains the previous album's deeply spiritual thrust but transcends its bleak, cathartic intensity to instead explore themes of renewal and redemption. Light, soulful, and jazzy, Moondance opens with the sweetly nostalgic "And It Stoned Me," the song's pastoral imagery establishing the dominant lyrical motif recurring throughout the album -- virtually every track exults in natural wonder, whether it's the nocturnal magic celebrated by the title cut or the unlimited promise offered in "Brand New Day." At the heart of the record is "Caravan," an incantatory ode to the power of radio; equally stirring is the majestic "Into the Mystic," a song of such elemental beauty and grace as to stand as arguably the quintessential Morrison moment.
The soundtrack to The Big Lebowski, the Coen brothers' follow-up to their breakthrough film Fargo, is an odd mixture of opera, world music, pop, jazz, exotica, folk and blues. In other words, it's as idiosyncratic as the Coens themselves, and the weird array of styles makes sense in practice, not on paper. Among the highlights are Elvis Costello's "My Mood Swings," Bob Dylan's "The Man in Me," Nina Simone's "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good," Yma Sumac's "Ataypura," Kenny Rogers' "Just Dropped In," Townes Van Zandt's "Dead Flowers" and Henry Mancini's "Lujon." The collection makes more sense if you've seen the film, but there are enough good songs and quirky humor to make it an enjoyable listen on its own terms.
Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi
The best songs on Trouble, the debut release from songwriter Ray LaMontagne, draw on deep wells of emotion, and with LaMontagne's sandpapery voice, which recalls a gruffer, more sedate version of Tim Buckley or an American version of Van Morrison, they seem to belie his years. The title tune, "Trouble," is an instant classic, sparse and maudlin (in the best sense), and songs like "Narrow Escape," a ragged, episodic waltz, are equally impressive, with careful, cinematic lyrics that tell believable stories of wounded-hearted refugees on the hard road of life and love. Most of the tracks fall into a midtempo shuffle rhythm, so the words have to carry a lot in order to avert a sort of dull sameness, and when it works, it works big, and when it doesn't, well, LaMontagne is so serious and sincere about his craft that you tend to forgive him instantly. Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek guests on "Hannah" and the sad, somber lullaby "All the Wild Horses," playing fiddle and adding vocals, and producer Ethan Johns adds drums and other touches on most tracks. The sound is measured and sparse, with few frills (a five-piece string section is used on a few tracks, but is never intrusive), all of which supports the emotional urgency of LaMontagne's writing. "How Come" sounds a bit like a rewrite of Dave Mason's "Feelin' Alright," and a couple of other cuts seem a bit labored, but overall this is an impressive debut by an extremely special songwriter.
Steve Leggett, Rovi