Shakira: Shakira. (RCA) Certainly more important than the fact that Colombian pop superstar Shakira has a brand new album out is the unexpected news that she has recently become the most popular person on Facebook on the entire planet—with over 86.2 million followers, according to a popular rewritten press release! Adds the tempestuous singer: “I always wanted to have a lot of friends, but never imagined it would be so many!” So let’s get real: Even if this brand new album features a huge array of spectacular collaborators—indeed, some of the most popular musicians in the world, including Rihanna, Blake Shelton and, very probably, a drummer—and Shakira has already sold over 60 million records worldwide, how on Earth could that possibly matter in light of the fact that aliens could unexpectedly land on this planet and steal her purely because she’s our most popular human? And even more intriguing—at least for those of us who dwell on the dark side—is that statistics such as these imply there is someone out there who is Facebook’s least popular human! And word is he once sang with the Smiths!
Johnny Cash: Out Among The Stars (Legacy) For sentient beings of a certain age, Johnny Cash has always been there, singing about rings of fire and inhabiting an archetype that has lasted longer than half a century. And while the more youthful among us will remember Cash eerily singing Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” in his final days, this new collection features the man in his relative splendor, circa 1984, produced by Billy Sherrill, featuring guest vocals by June Carter Cash and Waylon Jennings, and sounding prime, utterly contemporary, and so appealing it’s hard to fathom why this stuff never saw previous release. A great array of songs, including a version of Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On” with Jennings and Cash’s own “Call Your Mother,” which, however glorious, inspires the sort of guilt that only a man habitually dressed in black could provide, makes this really good listening and a reminder that talent is timeless, ageless, and these days more welcome than ever.
The Hold Steady: Teeth Dreams (Razor & Tie) It’s difficult to say anything negative about the rockin’ Hold Steady, as they evoke much that is good about rock ‘n’ roll, project a sound that is oddly midway between Bruce Springsteen and Thin Lizzy, and offer up that reassuring sense that Bono was not a raving lunatic when he noted that all he had was a red guitar, three chords and the truth--he was just a silly man! But there is much to impress on this, the band’s sixth album, their first in four years, and a collection that would in a perfect world bring nothing but joy and an adrenaline-infused rush were it not for the well-known fact that the “teeth dreams” of the title—as any post-grad psychology student can tell you—involve fear of growing old, castration anxiety, general stress, or, worst of all, actually losing your teeth! Between you and me, that isn’t the sort of stuff I spend my hard-earned money to think about! Plus any band name that sounds like an actual order is weird!
Elton John: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (40th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition) (Island) 1) Was the original album particularly special? Yes, I think you could make the case that the streak of records that our man Elton recorded between his first American set (Elton John, 1970) and this one (originally released 1973) remain the very best in his catalog, and that maybe this one or 1971’s Madman Across The Water is the very best. 2) Sonically speaking, does this sound good? Yes indeed, but the same album was already released in 5.1 SACD a decade ago. 3) Are there any compelling extras? Yes, in the 5-disc Super Deluxe Edition, two discs feature the singer live at Hammersmith Odeon, and an additional DVD features the 1973 film Elton John and Bernie Taupin Say Goodbye To Norma Jean and Other Things, which is great fun. 4) Are there any non-compelling extras? Yeah, well maybe the nine Elton cover songs here—by Ed Sheeran, Miguel, The Band Perry, Fall Out Boy and more—belong on a tribute set and not attached to the original album. 5) Is the packaging exemplary? With the lavishly illustrated 100-page book and overall attention to graphics, yep, I’d say so. So, in total: Nice presentation, nice package, nice album, and a great treatment for one pop music’s all-time bestsellers. Contains “Bennie And The Jets,” “Candle In The Wind,” “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting,” and—see points 1-5 above—much more.
Asia: Gravitas (Frontiers) I find it interesting that the term “gravitas” suddenly dominated the English language is that odd, faddish way about two years ago and has surfaced yet again both on the fine new album by distinguished rapper Talib Kweli (buy it here!) and on this unexpected return by prog-rockers Asia, who were hugely successful in the early ‘80s and then, as Yes/King Crimson/Emerson, Lake & Palmer off-shoots tend to do, faded away into commercial prominence of a sort, but little more. So, that being said: Do you realize that when you visit the Asia page on Amazon, you are offered the opportunity to “See all 142 albums”? Yikes! This new one features three quarters of the original Asia—John Wetton, Carl Palmer and Geoff Downes—as well as “new guy” Sam Coulson, a guitarist recommended to the band by Paul Gilbert of Mr. Big. If all these names mean nothing to you, you might still like this album—it’s good, hook-filled hard-rock; if you know what Asia has historically represented—prog rock without the yank-off solos—there’s all that and more on Gravitas. I kind of like it, but I'm also into logos!
Kylie Minogue: Kiss Me Once (Warner Bros.) If you’re like me, after a thorough listening to this great new album by pop thrush Kylie Minogue, you’ll stare at the cover, your eyes will tear up, you’ll listen to great new tracks like “Sexy Love,” “ Sexercize,” and “Les Sex,” and you’ll think about that time, long ago, when you sat in your classroom, nuns hovering over you with a ruler in their hands, suggesting that a life in the priesthood could be yours for the asking! Then maybe you’ll glance at the album title and find yourself wondering whether Kiss Me Twice, Shame On Me couldn’t fit on the album cover! Likely as not, though, you’ll find yourself captivated by this very fun, hook-filled pop music that demands very little of you, is never less than exuberantly pleasant, and wouldn’t mind taking you out for dinner and a movie! Do it!
Eric Carmen: Essential Eric Carmen (Sony Legacy) Right around now might be a really good time to re-acquaint or actually acquaint yourself with the talents of Mr. Eric Carmen, who came to most people’s attention in the early ‘70s via his fab pop group the Raspberries (brought the energy and discipline of ‘60s pop to sloppy ‘70s rock, wore nice clothes and were well-groomed, had oddly retro hits with “Go All The Way” and “Tonight”) and then made the commercial leap to the acceptable face of solo stardom via such hits as “All By Myself” and, in general, stayed pretty true to himself aesthetically through thick and thin. This 2-CD collection offers the best known Raspberries tracks, a gem from his earlier, little-heard Cyrus Erie days, the solo hits and should-have-been hits (“Change Of Heart”), a 2005 Raspberries reunion version of “Ecstasy,” and “Brand New Year,” the man’s first new recording in almost two decades. It’s all very good, as Eric Carmen and the Raspberries always were. Highly recommended.
London Grammar: If You Wait (Columbia) Making considerable noise on the international level and about to do the same Stateside is this highly appealing Brit trio notable first and foremost for strong songcraft and the vocals of Ms. Hannah Reid—which are powerful, oddly evocative of a combination of Sandy Denny and Judie Tzuke, and likely to appeal to humans of every station. Nominated for awards left and right, sonically and visually appealing, and with considerable hair, the band has everything going for it--including bold and powerful song titles filled with affirmation, including “Hey Now,” “Stay Awake,” and the unforgettable “Maybe.” If there’s a chance, they’ll take it!
Miles Davis: Miles At The Fillmore (Legacy) Those paying attention to the shape of jazz in the late ‘60s knew that what trumpeter Miles Davis was doing was utterly pioneering—and much of that came from his classic 1969 set Bitches Brew and the flood of albums that would follow. This fabulous 4-CD set further elaborates on the picture: As the bio here notes, between August 1969-August 1970, the man recorded Bitches Brew, Jack Johnson, much of Big Fun and Live-Evil, and the original Miles Davis At Fillmore, each of which might’ve launched an entire career for a lesser batch of musicians than Davis had assembled here. This new set collects the Fillmore (both coasts) performances, allows them to stretch out without the conspicuous editing that some felt marred the original Fillmore set, and during this brief stretch offers the unique keyboard pairing of Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett, whose rocking out on the organ is much worth hearing. A vital period for both jazz and Miles Davis, and now there’s more.
Aztec Camera: High Land, Hard Rain (Domino) If you don’t already thinking you’re getting old, you will when you figure out that this classic slice of Scottish pop music has recently celebrated its 30th anniversary. The first full album by youthful writer Roddy Frame and a rich collection of astute, intelligent pop, the set is bolstered by an additional disc featuring single tracks and radio sessions, and sounds just as good now as it did when Roddy was a teenager. Brought to you by the same label that now brings you reissues of Orange Juice and Triffids albums and, oddly, contemporary music of comparable quality. Imagine that!