Sleater-Kinney called a time-out after the release of rock perfection The Woods (2005) and after a few years it seemed this hiatus was going to be permanent. But in yet another badass move, bandmates Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein, and Janet Weiss decided to record an album in secret and when they announced No Cities to Love (2015), jaws dropped everywhere. No Cities to Love is 33 minutes of no-holds-barred electricity with Tucker’s soaring wails and Brownstein’s punk vocals, along with their clashing and diverging guitars, held to the ground by Weiss’s powerful drumming, all three together finding melody in the chaos. Addressing working-class financial woes (“Price Tag”), their hiatus and reunion (“Hey Darling,” “Gimme Love,” and epic closer “Fade”), and just powering through the obstacles of life in the rocking “Surface Envy,” Sleater-Kinney didn’t just tentatively test the current indie rock waters, they jumped in like a cannonball.
Johnny Cash experienced many ups and downs in his long career, both professional and personal. In the ‘80s the country music icon’s star had dimmed; he’d left longtime label Columbia Records, had a brief, largely forgettable stint with Mercury Records, and was making guest appearances on TV’s Dr. Quinn. He was approached by famed producer Rick Rubin to be on his American Recordings label, leading to the phenomenal American Recordings (1994). The minimal production is striking; all you hear is Cash’s deep baritone and a guitar, and really what more do you need? Cash takes on tracks written by Kris Kristofferson, Glenn Danzig, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits and more, expertly owning each, his dry yet deeply emotional delivery adding pathos to songs about murdering a lover (“Delia’s Gone”), faith (“Redemption” and “Oh, Bury Me Not”) and looking back on the past (“Drive On” and “Like A Soldier”). American Recordings was a critical and commercial success, validating the devotion of longtime fans and luring in a younger generation who had never before given country music its due.
Dusty Springfield is revered for her blue-eyed soul hits in the 1960s like “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me” and “Son of a Preacher Man” but despite that early success she struggled in the 1970s-80s, battling low self-confidence, alcoholism, and a changing industry. It wasn’t until 1987 when she was asked to sing on Pet Shop Boys single “What Have I Done To Deserve This?” that things turned around. The collaboration eventually led to her 1990 album, Reputation, on which Pet Shop Boys produced half the songs, four of which they wrote. It’s a solid synth pop album with Springfield’s voice shining on the title track and “Born This Way,” which fans like to think of as her coming-out song, jazzy soul tracks (“Arrested By You” and “Nothing Has Been Proved”), and electronic pop goodness (dance club hit single “In Private” and “Occupy Your Mind”). If you’re crate-digging for Dusty In Memphis (a must-have) and see this album, get it. Reputation is responsible for the renewed interest in her career in the ‘90s, leading to today’s recognition of Springfield as an important figure in music.
We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service (2016) is A Tribe Called Quest’s first album in eighteen years and maybe its last due to the passing of founding member Phife Dawg during its recording. An energy-filled reunion quickly turned to mourning the loss of one of the group’s driving forces. But Tribe persevered and turned out something urgent, life affirming, fun, and yes, political. From taking on “The Donald,” to protesting needless deaths in “The Killing Season,” and satirizing the demonization of ‘others’ on “We the People….” they don’t shy away from the heavy stuff, which gets even heavier when the tributes to Phife roll in like on “Lost Somebody.” They also mix things up with great guest spots from the likes of Busta Rhymes, Kendrick Lamar, Elton John and more. We Got It From Here is the reunion album we didn’t know we needed; it’s banging, grooving, and has Phife, Q-Tip and Jarobi lighting it up like they’d never stopped.
Elvis Presley was not really king of much by the late ‘60s. Entrenched in increasingly mediocre film musicals with forgettable pop fare, Elvis was a joke. But then he filmed the ‘68 Comeback television special which convinced Presley that he still had it in him to make a really great record. Needing a change, he went back to Memphis to record at famed American Sound Studio with producer Chips Moman. The result is Presley’s last great album, From Elvis in Memphis (1969).
Presley focused on soul, country, and R&B and it’s a refreshing change of pace from those silly soundtracks. There’s a new maturity on numbers like “Wearin’ That Loved On Look,” “Only The Strong Survive,” and “Gentle On My Mind.” Presley gets out of his comfort zone on hit single and album closer “In The Ghetto,” about inner city youth. Other album highlights include “Power Of My Love,” a bluesy number about a love that can be kicked and crushed but will never give up, and “Any Day Now,” a beautiful plea for a lover to not leave. For the first time in years, Presley sounded confident and committed and it’s an album that deserves frequent spins.
David Bowie may have been a rock god, but he was also an artist with a desire to create. He teamed with longtime collaborator Tony Visconti and secretly recorded and surprised fans with The Next Day (2013), his twenty-fourth studio album and first in ten years. There wasn’t a need to relive former glories, though he slyly acknowledged them by repurposing the cover of beloved album “Heroes” and slapping a white square over his image. Long schooled in the art of reinvention and perception, Bowie knew whatever he did would be compared to what’s come before so he beat everyone to the punch, owning and moving beyond the past in one visceral image.
Dark, stunning, sexy rock ‘n roll as only David Bowie can do it, we listen to songs about doomed longing (“Love is Lost”), a mass shooter (“Valentine’s Day”), and the futility of war (“I’d Rather Be High”). The lush “Where Are We Now?” reflects on the passing of people and time and Bowie takes an unflinching look at fame in the sweeping “Stars (Are Out Tonight).” Despite not promoting the album with a live tour, The Next Day was a success and a triumphant return by a cultural icon.
Loretta Lynn is more than country music royalty, Grand Ole Opry veteran, and the film Coal Miner’s Daughter. In her prime she exhibited a determination and willingness to put herself out there, like daring to sing about birth control, the stresses of having lots of kids, and losing one’s virginity – songs that were banned from male-dominated radio stations. In her early 70s, a time when most legends coast through the limelight, Lynn teamed with indie rocker Jack White to produce her 2004 album, Van Lear Rose, cracking the top ten in the country album charts for the first time in over 10 years. She expertly weaves tales about troubled relationships and cheating (“Trouble On The Line” and “Family Tree”), drunken hook-ups (“Portland Oregon”), old family stories (title track and “Little Red Shoes”), the loss of a spouse (“Miss Being Mrs.”), and even a song meant for Elvis Presley (“Have Mercy”). Lynn gamely plays along with White’s production and belts it out, at ease with both foot-stompers and ballads. Van Lear Rose was a crossover success and went on to win the Grammy in 2005 for Best Country Album.
There are many reasons why 2014’s Black Messiah is essential on vinyl, least of which that D’Angelo recorded and mixed everything in analog, making vinyl playback the best way to enjoy this masterpiece. Neo-soul icon D’Angelo took a 14-year break between albums, dealing with alcohol and drug problems and his disillusionment with his status as a sex symbol. But in that time not once did he abandon the influences that had solidified with previous album Voodoo. Continuing to channel his inner Prince and Sly Stone, Black Messiah is a funk R&B journey through the usual hot jams with a more overt social awareness, seducing with his sexy falsetto on “Really Love” and “Betray My Heart” but also commenting on the realities of injustice in the current political landscape on songs like “The Charade.” While lyrics like “All we wanted was a chance to talk/‘Stead we only got outlined in chalk” get quoted often, Black Messiah is more than politics. D’Angelo gets personal, he gets funky, he yearns for a better past and imagines a better future.
What do break beats, psychedelia, experimental synths, John Carpenter, and Ennio Morricone have in common? The answer is Portishead’s 2008 album, Third. It had been a little over ten years since their last studio release, and Portishead was best known for popularizing the trip-hop genre with their combination of jazz, hip hop grooves, and samples on their first two albums. Not concerned with going for what was expected or commercial, they tossed their trip-hop laurels to the dustbin and decided to create, not just recreate. Album opener “Silence” makes the listener do a double-take with its frenetic tempo and drum loops. Delicacy meets brutality with Beth Gibbons’ frail vocals and Adrian Utley’s familiar Morricone-like guitar pickings taking leaps off psychedelic cliffs full of Carpenter-inspired horror synths (see “Hunter,” “Small,” and “Threads”). Other favorites include “The Rip,” a synth-fueled odyssey, and “Machine Gun,” a cacophony of repetitive drum machine and menacing metallic-tinged synths. Third is jarring, threateningly dark, and still very much Portishead.
Private Dancer (1984) is the best damn comeback album ever. Tina Turner had mouths to feed and debts to pay after leaving husband and music partner Ike in 1976. She took what gigs she could, giving it her all at her cabaret shows, releasing two lackluster solo albums, and appearing on television variety shows. She networked like hell, parlaying word-of-mouth about her killer shows for opening gigs for Rod Stewart and the Rolling Stones. After every major label refused to sign her (ageism and other -isms likely a factor), Capitol Records took a chance and with the success of her cover of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” in late 1983, the label demanded an album. Turner ran with it.
At age 45 Turner defied expectations and proved a perfect match for slickly produced pop/rock ballads like “Private Dancer” and “What’s Love Got To Do With It.” Every bit a survivor and emotional powerhouse, Turner demands respect (“Better Be Good To Me”), rocks out (“Steel Claw”) and absolutely owns David Bowie’s “1984.” Turner clawed her way back from obscurity, paying her dues all over again, with the payoff being four Grammys and everlasting diva status. Told you it was the best one.