Common - Nobody's Smiling

Common noted that this album's title references Eric B. & Rakim's "In the Ghetto" -- more specifically, the song's recurring sample from the duo's "I Ain't No Joke." More symbolic, if beneath the surface, is the use of Curtis Mayfield's grim and pointed "The Other Side of Town" on album opener "The Neighborhood." While Nobody's Smiling was inspired by the tragic condition of Common's hometown of Chicago, its incorporation of a relevant-as-ever song from 1970, recorded by a Chicagoan in Chicago, is an acknowledgment of how inner-city struggles are a constant, not a trend. Fervent throughout, Common deals out some of his hardest and heaviest rhymes. No I.D. strengthens his partner's work with rigid, reverb-heavy productions -- from the mechanical pings of "Speak My Piece" to the juddering drums and probing keyboards within the title track -- without approaching the harshness of the Yeezus tracks to which he contributed. On "Kingdom," something like a weathered "Jesus Walks," the rapper and the producer are at their most moving, with the protagonist attending a funeral and plotting revenge, unable to connect with the concept of faith: "My whole life I had to worry about eatin'/I ain't have time to think about what I believe in." Common places the most directly biographical track, "Rewind That," at the end of the album's standard edition. The second half, where he traces his friendship with J Dilla, involves some brilliant storytelling, and perhaps the only moments during the album's sessions when Common cracked a smile while recording. It's a touching finish to the rapper's best album since Be. ~ Andy Kellman,


FKA Twigs -- LP1

FKA Twigs' early EPs were such jewel-like statements of purpose, delivering songs full of sensuality and heartache so economically, that an album almost seemed superfluous. None of these songs appear on the simply titled LP 1, a bold move that extends to the rest of the album. Tahliah Barnett opens up her sound by working with a host of producers: along with previous collaborator Arca, indie darlings Paul Epworth and Dev Hynes contribute their sound-shaping skills, along with Emile Haynie, whose contributions to Eminem's Recovery earned him a Grammy. They help give LP 1 a lusher sound that's more accessible, and more overtly R&B, than FKA Twigs' earlier work but maintains its ethereal sensuality. It's an approach that shines on the lead single "Two Weeks": the flipside of songs like "Papi Pacify" and "Water Me," where pain was suffused and eclipsed desire, it finds Barnett powerfully in control of her sexuality, rooting out doubt and infidelity over the verses' underwater beats and soaring on the ecstatic choruses. Elsewhere on LP 1, she excels at broadening her emotional palette as well as her musical one. She glides from the album's lows to its highs, juxtaposing pitch-black tracks like "Numbers," where chopped-up breaths, beats, and horror movie strings channel panic, loss, and anger, with radiant ones like "Closer," the poppiest FKA Twigs song yet (and one that Barnett produced herself). FKA Twigs' music was already so fully realized that LP 1 can't really be called Barnett coming into her own; rather, her music has been tended to since the "Water Me" days, and now it's flourishing. ~Heather Phares,

CSNY -- 1974

Big bucks were the reason the CSNY 1974 tour even existed. Efforts to record a new album in 1973, their first since 1970's breakthrough Déjà Vu, collapsed but manager Elliot Roberts and promoter Bill Graham convinced the group to stage the first outdoor stadium tour in the summer of 1974, with the idea that CSNY would test-drive new material in concert, then record a new studio album in the fall, or maybe release a live record from the historic tour. Neither happened. The group cleaved in two upon the tour's conclusion and the live tapes sat in the vaults until Graham Nash decided to assemble a box set of the tour just in time for its 40th anniversary in 2014. Nash and producer Joel Bernstein -- the driving forces behind the excellent new millennial archival CSN reissues -- culled the best moments from the nine recorded shows, sometimes cobbling together composites, then assembled the whole thing as a three-CD set designed to replicate the mammoth three-hour sets the quartet played in 1974. That very length indicates how there was room on the 1974 tour for every aspect of CSNY, giving space to sensitive folk, woolly electric guitar jams, hits, and unheard songs. Several of those new songs showed up on albums by CSNY in various permutations, while a few -- mostly written by Young -- never got an airing outside of this tour, so the first official release of "Love Art Blues," "Pushed It Over the End," and even the throwaway Nixon jape "Goodbye Dick" is indeed noteworthy. But what makes CSNY 1974 a substantial chapter in their legacy is how it captures the band in full flight just as its moment is starting to slip away. Stills and Young play with the burly force they channeled into Manassas and Crazy Horse, providing a startling contrast to both the sweetness of disc two's acoustic set and Crosby's excursions into the haze of If I Could Only Remember My Name. Hearing the band pull apart as its members come together is simultaneously thrilling and enervating because Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young remain locked in a battle to outdo one another; it's fascinating to hear them spar, but also draining. Nevertheless, that messy competition is why CSNY 1974 is a vital addition to their canon. Tales of CSNY acrimony are legend, but this rancor rarely surfaced on record. Here, those brawling egos are pushed to the forefront, with all the pretty harmonies operating as an accent to the main event.    ~Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Allmusic

Got A Girl -- I Love You But I Must Drive Off This Cliff Now

In a project spawned on the set of the the 2010 film adaptation of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, San Francisco mega-producer Dan "The Automator" Nakamura (Gorillaz, Handsome Boy Modeling School, Deltron 3030) and winsome actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead deliver their playfully cinematic debut, I Love You But I Must Drive Off This Cliff Now, under the name Got a Girl. Another well-known, boy-girl indie pop duo of the late 2000s featuring a much-adored actress immediately springs to mind, but aside from melodic hooks, Got a Girl share little musical ground with the folky She & Him. They instead rely on a cocktail of '60s French pop, café jazz, psychedelia, and Bond-esque lounge, shaken (not stirred) and served in the chilled martini glass of Nakamura's classy soundscapes. For her part, Winstead's whispery, dulcet voice offers plenty to like, matching well with the type of retro luxury-pop style the duo has adopted. There has been no shortage of artists pairing classic lounge with modern samples and beats over the years, and throughout this debut you can pick out strains of similar-minded forebears like Pizzicato Five and early Goldfrapp. At times, the album, with its movie-themed packaging and big, dramatic orchestral samples, feels a bit like a theme exercise. Still, Got a Girl put their own stamp on this hybrid with finely crafted tracks like the low-key "Close to You" and the sweetly romantic "Last Stop." The uptempo "There's a Revolution" is also a hooky standout, and throughout the set, Nakamura's distinctive beats are in keeping with some of his classic work. Overall, this is a generally charming debut with a very stylized sound and some solid material within. ~ Timothy Monger,


The Gaslight Anthem -- Get Hurt

There's always been something a little nostalgic about the earnest, rust belt rock of the Gaslight Anthem, and it wouldn't be unfair to say that the band has been looking to the past with a laser focus on the rugged songwriting of New Jersey's favorite son, Bruce Springsteen. On Get Hurt, the fifth studio album from the Garden State rockers, the band expand their influences to create what might be their most unique album to date. Exploring the rock sounds of the '70s, the band show off their versatility as they take listeners on a guided tour of the LP bins of the day. Opening with a droning riff culled straight from the annals of classic stoner rock, the first track, "Stay Vicious," makes it clear that something very different is happening here. Given their past work, the last thing anyone would expect from the band is to open up their album with dirty, fuzz-covered guitars, but somehow they make it work. Further in, the searing leads and yearning vocals of "Helter Skeleton" feel like an homage to the starry-eyed power pop of Cheap Trick. No matter what sound they're using for a framework, though, the Gaslight Anthem always find themselves returning to these little moments of quiet honesty, stripping away the swagger to expose the emotional core at the center of their music. Delicate tracks like "Underneath the Ground" reveal that the real essence of the Gaslight Anthem's sound isn't sonic so much as it is emotional. Get Hurt shows that so long as they're passionate about their music, it doesn't matter where the band are getting their inspiration from, because genuinely caring about something is always compelling. ~ Gregory Heaney,

Shabazz Palaces -- Lese Majesty

Launched in a shroud of mystery, hip-hop duo Shabazz Palaces were much more forthcoming while promoting the release of this sophomore effort, coming clean that former Digable Planets member Butterfly -- now Palaceer Lazaro -- and instrumentalist Tendai "Baba" Maraire were the men behind the music. Good thing too, as otherwise Lese Majesty would be an almost unidentifiable object, falling into the genre of "left-field rap" by default because "Basquiat-styled broken boombox boom-bap" isn't available. The murkiness of cloud-rap, the off-kilter rhymes of Danny Brown, and the weird, spacy humor of Kool Keith all have their influences over this avant transmission, and while the opening "Dawn in Luxor" suggests the launch of a Deltron 3030-type journey, there's something utterly unique and artistically rich going on with this combination of soul poetry and intergalactic funk. Throughout the LP, catch phrases and hip-hop lingo mix with elevated ideas and scribbled notes from Philosophy class, and even if the minute-long interludes are generally scattered sound pieces or dark snippets of what sounds like Sunn 0))), Maraire makes purposeful music that will woo most open-minded listeners. With Lazaro frequently falling back on his warm and welcoming Butterfly-era flow, the album balances the avant with the approachable in a manner few others would even attempt. It's a shame that such a vanguard effort is weakened by a few clever and jokey interludes that don't warrant a return, but that just leaves Shabazz Palaces room for a proper masterpiece as the brilliant Lese Majesty is so very close. ~David Jeffried,


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