Obviously, March has been an exceedingly weird time. But it’s also been a surprisingly groovy one, judging by some of the month’s top albums. Here are the titles that did it for me over the past few weeks, presented in alphabetical order. Click on the cover pic to read the full review, hear the music and check out the videos.
MY TWO CENTS: We may be trapped in the darkest timeline right now. Not to mention stuck inside our individual homes and headspaces. But hey, that don’t mean we can’t dance. And take a much-needed mind-clearing, soul-cleansing interior trip in place of an actual outing IRL. And who better to deliver it like pizza to a flaming bedroom than Troy Barnes himself — aka Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino (aka Earnest Marks if you wanna take it all the way to Atlanta) — via his fourth album 3.15.20. Quietly and briefly released as one massive loop (and with no cover art) on the title date, this 57-minute masterpiece finds Glover/Gambino ambitiously pushing the sonic and stylistic envelope even farther than he has previously (which is saying something).
WHO IS HE? The 57-year-old British rhythm and soul throwback who went from busking in London to playing guitar and singing backup for Van Morrison — before launching a solo career that has earned him a Grammy nomination and opening slots for everyone from Aretha Franklin and Etta James to Willie Nelson and Tom Petty. Not bad for a guy who quit school at 16 and worked as a railway switchman.
WHAT IS THIS? His sixth North American release, 11th album overall (counting four he made as the leader of the regrettably named Howlin’ Wilf and the Veejays), and fourth collaboration with Daptone Records co-founder, producer and likeminded retrophile Bosco Mann, aka Gabriel Roth.
WHAT DOES IT SOUND LIKE? Another great lost soul album from the early ’60s. As usual, the grainy-voiced Hunter and partner-in-crime Roth pay zero attention to modern musical or technical standards, preferring to live in a monaural world where Sam Cooke and Nat King Cole rule, melodies are front and centre, grooves make you snap your fingers, horn lines are low and growly, and great songs last 2:50 before fading out.
MY TWO CENTS: In my world, it’s been a great year for jazz. I honestly don’t know if that’s because there are more great albums being made, or because I just happen to be stumbling across more of them. Either way, I’m good. Though not half as good as this mind-altering, consciousness-raising sophomore set from Irreversible Entanglements, a groundbreaking collective whose members hail from Philadelphia, New York and Washington. Most prominent among those members: Poet Camae Ayewa (aka the prolific verbal and visual artist Moor Mother). Her urgently potent, politically charged spoken-word monologues about mad popes, infinite possibilities and making bread from stone not only serve as the focal and vocal centrepieces to these restlessly exploratory post-modern jams; they also keep the sax and trumpet-led combo’s fiercely propulsive grooves, intricately interwoven lines and hard-blowing flights of free-jazz fancy grounded in the here and now — while keeping one eye firmly fixed on the future.
WHO IS SHE? The raspy-throated rock ’n’ roll queen (and former Canadian Idol judge) behind Can-rock classics like Make You A Believer, Tell Somebody, Rescue Me and the Joe Cocker duet Trust In Me from The Bodyguard soundtrack.
WHAT IS THIS? The first authentic blues album of her three decade-plus recording career, and her first solo disc in a more than a decade.
WHAT DOES IT SOUND LIKE? A welcome return. And a helluva homecoming. Cut on the fly and off the cuff with her touring band The Champagne Hookers and produced by husband (and current Guess Who frontman) Derek Sharp, the eight-song Rebel Moon Blues finds Jordan jubilantly and expertly celebrating the songs, sounds and styles of everyone from old masters like Willie Dixon, Elmore James and Freddie King to younger, louder guns like Gary Moore, Rory Gallagher and The Allman Brothers Band. (Full disclosure: I was paid to write some promotional material for the album. But honestly, I would be recommending this wicked little gem either way.)
MY TWO CENTS: This is jazz? For some reason, a lot of people seem to think so. I don’t. In fact, I think it’s a bad idea even to call this album jazz. Not that I’m some sort of purist policing the borders of the genre. Not even close. I think it’s a bad idea because the J-word not only turns off the masses of people who should hear this — it actually does the album a massive disservice. Melt Yourself Down’s incredible and inventive 100% YES is so much more than just another stuffy, serious jazz album. It’s a wild, weird and wonderfully woolly musical romp through a kaleidoscopic landscape of musical genres and styles — funk and soul and Afrobeat and reggae and punk and whatever else strikes this unbridled sextet’s fancy in the moment. Over the course of 10 infectious tracks powered by skronking saxes, infections grooves, lumpy basslines, quirky vocals and trippy sonics, you’ll be reminded of everyone from Pigbag to Fela, James Brown to James White, Talking Heads to Tower of Power, Red Hot Chili Peppers to Primus, Big Audio Dynamite to Lee Scratch Perry — and plenty more besides.
MY TWO CENTS: I come not to praise Morrissey. At least, not for the apparently endless stream of wrongheaded, deliberately provocative shit that spews from his yap these days. Bigmouth strikes again, indeed. But I come not to bury Morrissey either. Chiefly because the former Smiths frontman’s latest studio missive — despite its clearly contrarian title — is another strong entry in his recent musical renaissance, thanks to impressively adventurous songwriting, sharp production, a slate of strong performances and no shortage of Morrissey’s mordantly witty lyrics. If you’re one of those folks who can’t separate the artist from his art, I totally respect that. But for those who can, I Am Not A Dog On A Chain suggests the curmudgeonly old cur can still learn a few new tricks.
WHO ARE THEY? The musical heroes of every dude (or dudette) who ever donned a flannel shirt and a backwards ball cap. And Seattle’s second-favourite musical sons after Nirvana — or maybe third, if you want to go back and include Jimi Hendrix. Any way you slice it, they’re the last major grunge band standing (sorry, Mudhoney; no hard feelings). More importantly, they are indisputably the most important, relevant and vital American rock band of their generation. Maybe this generation too.
WHAT IS THIS? Gigaton, their long-overdue, much-anticipated 11th studio release, which comes nearly seven years after its predecessor Lightning Bolt — their longest gap between albums by a long stretch. And an LP that arrives not a single goddamn minute too soon.
WHAT DOES IT SOUND LIKE? The album we all need right now. Whether you want to rage against the system (and the Fuckstick-In-Chief), contemplate the perilous state of our world or just rock out to get your mind off of it all, Gigaton will speak to you and perhaps for you. A powerful, pointed, potent and overtly political return to form, the dozen-track set finds Eddie Vedder and his long-serving bandmates sounding the alarm about climate change and global apocalypse. Granted, that isn’t the apocalypse at the top of everybody’s list right now, but it’s close enough for rock ’n’ roll. Speaking of which: The album sports a fair share of crowdpleasing arena-rock anthems — along with a few tunes that take their music in unexpected new directions and monkey with their time-honoured brain/brawn balance.
MY TWO CENTS: “I should’ve fucked your friends / It would’ve been the best revenge.” Those are the first words Jessie Reyez sings on the opening track of her debut album Before Love Came To Kill Us — an album whose cover pictures her perched on a coffin in a cemetery. Clearly, the woman knows how to get your attention. More importantly, she knows how to keep it with her sensually scratchy drawl, songwriting that manages to be nostalgic and groundbreaking at the same time, and provocative lyrics that find her fixated on obsession, instability and death. If love doesn’t end you, she just might.
MY TWO CENTS: British saxophone trailblazer Shabaka Hutchings has been on quite the hot streak lately with his other bands, the acclaimed outfits Sons of Kemet and The Comet Is Coming. Based on the deep dynamic grooves, soaring exploratory solos and exotically stirring vocals at the heart of these transcendent and compelling pan-cultural tracks, it’s clear that in his case, good things really do come in threes. Until he starts up a fourth band, anyway. You have been called. History awaits.