Looking for new music? Let's take a look at last year.
Here's a list of top-notch albums you may have overlooked in 2014, from rising R&B singer and reality TV star K. Michelle to Dan Wilson, the multitalented singer who co-wrote contemporary classics such as Adele's "Someone Like You" and the Dixie Chicks' "Not Ready to Make Nice."
Dan Wilson, "Love Without Fear" (Ballroom Music LLC)
Creating pop tunes is like making candy — overuse the sugar and you ruin the whole batch.
Dan Wilson doesn't do that. He mixes sweet melodies with aching emotion in appealing portions, and the 11 songs on "Love Without Fear" are so irresistible you can't listen to just one.
It helps that Wilson tends to keep things simple. The title cut shows how a two-note guitar figure can serve as the sturdy foundation to a great song.
The album digs deep into matters of the heart, exploring true love and the false kind as well. "The fingertips that caress can also bruise," he sings. Natalie Maines, Sara Bareilles and Sara Watkins sing bracing harmony, and Wilson does fine on his own, choosing just the right moment to unleash his formidable falsetto.
The climax comes on the finale, "Even the Stars Are Sleeping," which swells to achieve a symphonic grandeur and pins the romantic needle. Feel free to pig out on these goodies.
— Steven Wine (twitter.com/Steve_Wine)
K. Michelle, "Anybody Wanna Buy a Heart?" (Atlantic)
The reality star-prefix to any singer's name can cause an eye-roll when that person begins to release music. Do you remember the traumatizing Kim Kardashian song and music video?
But K. Michelle — star of reality TV shows on VH1 — proves that becoming famous on TV doesn't mean you can't sing. Because she can, and her new album drives home the point.
"Anybody Wanna Buy a Heart?" is one of 2014's best R&B albums, thanks to Michelle's voice, which echoes Keyshia Cole and Mary J. Blige. Her strong vocals are the focal point as she spits matter-of-fact lyrics about love lapses and relationships on the outstanding 12-track set.
"Judge Me" kicks off the album in the right form. "Love 'Em All" and "Going Under" are catchy and addictive, and the piano-tinged "How Do You Know?" is a winning pop ballad.
She's stern on "Cry," with lyrics like, "You gon' cry, 'cause it's not about love, it's all about revenge." And she's both clever and hilarious on "Drake Would Love Me," an ode to the multiplatinum rapper-singer.
The best song, though, is "Maybe I Should Call," a detailed track about her past relationship with British actor Idris Elba. She may have lost in the love category (for now), but she's a winner in the music one.
— Mesfin Fekadu (twitter.com/MusicMesfin)
Sturgill Simpson, "Metamodern Sounds in Country Music" (High Top Mountain Records)
Call it whatever you want — acid-drenched old-school country, traditionalist psychedelia or modern Americana roots rock — Sturgill Simpson's sophomore effort, "Metamodern Sounds in Country Music," begs to be heard.
Simpson channels Waylon Jennings, throws in some trippy-sounding guitar and studio effects, and sings earnestly about drugs, religion, love and longing.
He cuts through the clutter of what passes as country music nowadays to deliver the goods.
Gazing laconically off to the side on the cover, Simpson looks like someone who just returned from the Civil War or who's had enough riding the rails in the Depression. The vintage-appearing picture is placed smack dab in the middle of an image of outer space. It's a perfect encapsulation for the duality of the music within.
When Simpson wails on "It Ain't All Flowers" about dancing with demons all his life, you can feel it. He means it. And because he does, you can relate, even if you've never been on the wrong side of the tracks.
Sturgill Simpson is as real as they come.
— Scott Bauer (twitter.com/SBauerAP)
David Virelles, "Mboko" (ECM)
After impressive outings as a sideman on ECM albums by Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko and saxophonist Chris Potter, the New York-based Cuban pianist David Virelles displays a distinctly original voice on his first album as a leader for the independent label, refracting folkloric Afro-Cuban sacred music through a modern jazz prism in 10 of his own compositions.
That originality is enhanced by the unique combination of instruments. Two double bassists, Thomas Morgan and Robert Hurst, often create a rumbling dronelike sound. Marcus Gilmore uses a conventional jazz drum kit with a freer approach, while Cuban percussionist Roman Diaz is a master of the biankomeko — the four-drum hand percussion array used in the sacred music of the Abakua, a secret Afro-Cuban religious society.
The classically trained Virelles keeps his virtuosity under control whether playing percussively with banging chords on "Biankomeko" or displaying a delicate touch in his lyrical solo intro to "Stories Waiting to Be Told."
Starting with the opening two tracks — "Wind Rose" and "The Scribe" — in which Virelles and Diaz engage in sparse, meditative dialogues, the pianist and company take the listener on a spiritual journey that goes beyond categories.
— Charles J. Gans (twitter.com/ChJGans)
Willie Nile, "If I Was a River" (River House Records)
Live-wire Willie Nile, co-producing with Grammy winner Stewart Lerman, turns poignantly introspective in his first piano-based album.
The raging rocker, now brimming with an exquisitely tender tone, lush melodies and imagery, offers a musical embrace for anyone who's navigated the emotional currents of relationships.
As in life itself, the mood of this heartfelt work is a mixture of passion, darkness, hope and humor.
The title track and its aquatic companion, "Let Me Be the River," are comforting beacons — the latter for a loved one setting off on life's journey.
In the haunting "Lost," raw and roiling minor-key arpeggios spawn a seductive undertow amid the agony of separation.
Nile circles back to his socially conscious roots in the stirring and steadfast "Gloryland" — some lyrics almost whispered.
It turns out you can take the rabble-rouser out of rock. ... Though some impulses are hard to resist.
"Lullaby Loon" spoofs musical genres — starting with the claim that "Rock 'n' roll is a crock of ..." (Note: Cover little kids' ears.)
As the sprightly tune fades, the irrepressible artist is heard chuckling.
— Kiley Armstrong (twitter.com/Kiley2011)
Chuck Prophet, "Night Surfer" (Yep Roc)
Chuck Prophet's sing-speak swagger separates him from the pack. He sounds world-weary but wise and willing to let us all in on the joke.
"My life is an experiment that doesn't prove a thing," Prophet sings.
Yes, the outlook on "Night Surfer" is a bit bleak; Prophet mentions sirens on more than one tune. But he has never sung better, and the songs are strong, too. Prophet name-drops Henry Rollins, quotes Al Green, rocks out and seems throughout to be trying to cheer himself up about life in these times.
"So much of it's terrible," he observes, "but all of it's great."
The arrangements include horns, a banjo and even pizzicato strings, which keep the mood from getting too sour. Toward the end Prophet is singing about rainbows in the gutter.
— Steven Wine (twitter.com/Steve_Wine)
"The Mike Longo Trio Celebrates Oscar Peterson Live" (Consolidated Artists Productions)
Pianist Mike Longo is best known inside the jazz community for his decades-long association with jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie as a sideman, music director, composer and arranger. On this CD, he pays tribute to another jazz great, pianist Oscar Peterson, with whom he studied intensely for six months in 1961.
On this impressive trio date, Longo offers a collection of standards recorded by Peterson such as Cole Porter's "Love for Sale" and Fats Waller's "Honeysuckle Rose," but takes to heart his mentor's emphasis on "not playing like anyone but yourself."
He doesn't try to imitate Peterson, but emulates his hard-driving swing, creative improvisations and technical command, whether playing George Gershwin's "Fascinatin' Rhythm" at a blistering tempo or dashing across the keyboard on Clifford Brown's "Daahoud." Longo offers an original take on Irving Berlin's "Always," playing it as an up-tempo cooker rather than a slow ballad.
Remarkably this 70-plus-minute recording was done live without any rehearsal, demonstrating Longo's special chemistry with his veteran trio of bassist Paul West and former Peterson drummer Ray Mosca. This is fresh-sounding, straight-ahead jazz, played by a pianist undeservedly overlooked in a half-century-plus musical career.
— Charles J. Gans (twitter.com/ChJGans)