The gifted Gerry Rafferty sometimes soared the staggering singer/songwriter heights of that unattainable deity, Dylan. Unfortunately, this cynical Scot also encountered a variety of corporate roadblocks (hence the title track) that continually affected his productivity. Another blatant shot at the bigwigs looms in "Sign on the Dotted Line," written with future Stealers Wheel partner Joe Egan (the duo detailed industry fatigue further in the sinister "Stuck in the Middle With You"). The limited Rafferty works that actually made it to wax remain potent years later. Song by song, Rafferty delineates life ("New Street Blues"), love ("Didn't I"), and fitness ("Mr Universe") with a classy professionalism that still retains an emotional impact, a trait unique to the '70s, and Rafferty is a consummate '70s star. This record harnesses the cosmic production presence prevalent in the latter discs of the decade, when Rafferty's commercial Renaissance arrived with City to City, but returns to earth with intrinsically fluid melodies, facile poetry, and folksy playing. Simply superlative, Can I Have My Money Back is the first of too few full-lengths from a sporadic but splendid talent. [The 2002 reissue of Can I Have My Money Back contains 12 songs from Rafferty's pre-Money band, the New Humblebums.]
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
Babel seems an ironic title, considering the universal quality underpinning Mumford & Sons' musical language. A lot like its predecessor, Sigh No More, the album sweeps through one grand gesture after another while striking an uncanny triangulation between The Pogues, Bruce Springsteen and Animal Collective. So adjectives like epic, earnest and demonstrative all apply to their brand of banjo-laced folk rock. Pushing everything over the top is Marcus Mumford's lyricism, laced as it is with Christian metaphor and fervor. The most potent example is "Broken Crown," a Yardbirds-flavored, solemn and baroque-like ballad detailing an embittered battle over anointment between two lovers. Gruff and desperate, Mumford declares, "Crawl on my belly till the sun goes down, I will never wear your broken crown."
Justin Farrar, 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
Following on the heels of an album where he repudiated his past with his greatest backing band, Blood on the Tracks finds Bob Dylan, in a way, retreating to the past, recording a largely quiet, acoustic-based album. But this is hardly nostalgia -- this is the sound of an artist returning to his strengths, what feels most familiar, as he accepts a traumatic situation, namely the breakdown of his marriage. This is an album alternately bitter, sorrowful, regretful, and peaceful, easily the closest he ever came to wearing his emotions on his sleeve. That's not to say that it's an explicitly confessional record, since many songs are riddles or allegories, yet the warmth of the music makes it feel that way. The original version of the album was even quieter -- first takes of "Idiot Wind" and "Tangled Up in Blue," available on The Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3, are hushed and quiet (excised verses are quoted in the liner notes, but not heard on the record) -- but Blood on the Tracks remains an intimate, revealing affair since these harsher takes let his anger surface the way his sadness does elsewhere. As such, it's an affecting, unbearably poignant record, not because it's a glimpse into his soul, but because the songs are remarkably clear-eyed "and" sentimental, lovely and melancholy at once. And, in a way, it's best that he was backed with studio musicians here, since the professional, understated backing lets the songs and emotion stand at the forefront. Dylan made albums more influential than this, but he never made one better.
Stephen Thomas Erlewine, 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.]
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
When the prevailing guitar jingle of "Mr. Jones" cascaded over radio in the early '90s, it was a sure sign that the Counting Crows were a musical force to be reckoned with. Their debut album, August and Everything After, burst at the seams with both dominant pop harmonies and rich, hearty ballads, all thanks to lead singer Adam Duritz. The lone guitar work of "Mr. Jones" coupled with the sweet, in-front pull of Duritz's voice kicked off the album in full force. The starkly beautiful and lonely sounding "Round Here" captured the band's honest yet subtle talent for singing ballads, while "Omaha" is lyrically reminiscent of a Springsteen tune. The fusion of hauntingly smooth vocals with such instruments as the Hammond B-3 organ and the accordion pumped new life into the music scene, and their brisk sound catapulted them into stardom. On "Rain King," the piano takes over as its aloof flair dances behind Duritz with elegant crispness. The slower-paced "Raining in Baltimore" paints a perfectly gray picture and illustrates the band's ease at conveying mood by eliminating the tempo. Most of the songs here engage in overly contagious hooks that won't go away, making for a solid bunch of tunes. Containing the perfect portions of instrumental and vocal conglomeration, the Counting Crows showed off their appealing sound to its full extent with their very first album. [The 2007 Circuit City exclusive edition came packaged with a free album cover iPod skin.]
Mike DeGagne, Rovi
Every bit of the eponymous debut album by The Lumineers—the sawing fiddles, the ramshackle percussion canter and the wind-weathered croak of frontman Wesley Schultz—seems to speak of a bygone age, of an America long past. Yet if there's a group this breakout Colorado gang most recall, it's a contemporaneous one: British yankophiles Mumford & Sons. Heady romance and twangy banjo are the order of the day, but there's a humble authenticity to the lovelorn call-and-response of "Ho Hey," and bags of charm to "Flapper Girl," a sozzled piano serenade to an absent sweetheart.
– Louis Pattison, Google Play
America's debut album is a folk-pop classic, a stellar collection of memorable songs that would prove influential on such acts as the Eagles and Dan Fogelberg. Crosby, Stills & Nash are the group's obvious stylistic touchstone here, especially in the vocal harmonies used (compare the thick chordal singing of "Sandman" and "Children" to CS&N's "You Don't Have to Cry" and "Guinevere") and the prominent use of active strummed acoustic guitar arrangements (contrast "Riverside" to CS&N's "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes"). America's intricate interplay of acoustic guitar textures is more ambitious than that of their influences, however. Performance quality is usually good, though on occasion sloppily executed or out of tune (especially on the openings to "Donkey Jaw" and "I Never Found the Time"). Lengthy instrumental introductions ("Donkey Jaw"), middle improvisatory interludes ("Here"), and closings ("Clarice") are frequently encountered. Most of these selections boast highly unusual and inventive chord progressions that work well without drawing undue attention to themselves. Lyrics are sometimes trite ("I need you/Like the flower needs the rain") or obscure ("He flies the sky/Like an eagle in the eye/Of a hurricane that's abandoned"), but the music more than makes up for any verse problems; only the odd "Pigeon Song" seems an unsalvageable misstep. Sound quality here has a covered, intimate feel that lends a ghostly aura to this release. Chart hits from this album include the spectrally loping "A Horse with No Name," the squarishly tuneful "I Need You," and the nervously dour "Sandman." Other highlights include the buoyantly charming "Three Roses," the yearningly lovely "Rainy Day," and the quietly ringing "Clarice." In spite of its flaws, this platter is very highly recommended.
David Cleary, Rovi
The Best of Simon & Garfunkel supersedes Greatest Hits as the best compilation of the duo, with more tracks (20 compared to Greatest Hits' 14). Among the new additions are some notable hits: "Hazy Shade of Winter," "At the Zoo," "Fakin' It" (in its "Mono Single Version," for what that's worth), "The Dangling Conversation," and the 1975 reunion "My Little Town." Includes the A-sides of all 16 S&G singles to make the Billboard charts, as well as three B-sides and one album cut. The only number lost from the Greatest Hits set is "Kathy's Song."
Richie Unterberger, Rovi
A companion piece to the luminous Workingman's Dead, American Beauty is an even stronger document of the Grateful Dead's return to their musical roots. Sporting a more full-bodied and intricate sound than its predecessor thanks to the addition of subtle electric textures, the record is also more representative of the group as a collective unit, allowing for stunning contributions from Dave Torbert (the poignant opener "Box of Rain") and Bob Weir ("Sugar Magnolia"); at the top of his game as well is Jerry Garcia, who delivers the superb "Friend of the Devil," "Candyman," and "Ripple." Climaxing with the perennial "Truckin'," American Beauty remains the Dead's studio masterpiece -- never again would they be so musically focused or so emotionally direct. [The 2003 reissue on Rhino contains expanded liner notes with lots of photos. It also adds five new tracks to the album's original running order: the single version of "Truckin'" and four live tracks ("Friend of the Devil" recorded at the Filmore East on 5/15/1970, "Candyman" recorded at Winterland on 4/15/1970, "Till the Morning Comes" recorded at Winterland on 10/4/1970, "Attics of My Life" recorded at the Filmore West on 6/6/1970, and "Truckin'" recorded at Legion Stadium on 12/26/1970).]
The Carpenter, the sixth studio album (and second with producer Rick Rubin) from North Carolina’s Avett Brothers, is as amiable, quaint, mischievous, sad, and disarmingly sincere as its predecessor, landing somewhere between the easy, late summer nostalgia of Ron Sexsmith, the wise and wounded defiance of the Band, and the harmony-laden, pop-laced melancholy of the Jayhawks. Chillier and less piano-heavy than 2009's I and Love and You, The Carpenter feels like both an exorcism and a benediction, bringing down the magnifying glass on the myriad complexities of death while maintaining an unwavering sense of optimism, a delicate balance that's best exemplified on the lovely opener "The Once and Future Carpenter," a dusty, sprawling, yet meticulously crafted '70s folk-rock stunner that's built around the notion that "If I live the life I'm given I won’t be scared to die." That adherence to maverick decency permeates much of the album, dutifully utilizing the outlaw country archetype of the weary traveler in search of an honest woman and a respite from the spiritual grind of the open road. Scott and Seth Avett's glassy tenors may not harbor the grit and grime of Waylon Jennings or Townes Van Zandt, but set piece ballads like the bittersweet "February Seven" and "Winter in My Heart," the latter of which is pure Red Headed Stranger-era Willie Nelson with a bigger arsenal of chords, ache with the kind of weary, pre-dawn fervor that usually accompanies a wanderlust binge. It's not all tears and beers though, as evidenced by more propulsive cuts like the bouncy, banjo-led "Live and Die," "I Never Knew You," a skiffle-soaked takedown of an ex-lover, replete with stereo-panned Beatles harmonies, and the left-field, feedback-drenched art rocker "Paul Newman vs. the Demons," but it's the quieter moments that really resonate, despite what the group's notoriously kinetic live shows may suggest. At its heart, which is most definitely on its sleeve, The Carpenter is a relatively simple, country-folk record, albeit one with a college degree, and when it connects it hits that sweet spot between joy and despair that has served as the target for many a dusty brimmed singer/songwriter over the years. The Avett Brothers aren’t rewriting the book, they're just translating it for a new generation.
This set is exactly the same as Columbia's 2000 double-disc release The Essential Bob Dylan with a third disc included that features six additional songs as a bonus. There's nothing here to get serious fans or collectors excited, except for the intriguing "Things Have Changed," perhaps, and even in this incarnation, it remains a set for casual listeners who want familiar Dylan songs all in one easy package.