There were a lot of great albums to pick from this year. And several albums I expected to be in here just weren’t because for one reason or another I felt they fell short. But I won’t spoil it. Here’s the first part, #25-#21. My rule is simply that the album must have been released between December 2011 and December 2012. Each review includes two videos to check out on YouTube, usually a big single from the album and one of my personal highlight tracks.
Let’s get started.
#25: Adam Lambert – Trespassing
On Trespassing, Adam Lambert shows that he can be the host and the life of the party you want to be at on Saturday night. But he also shows his writing chops and he co-wrote almost all of the songs this time around, taking some cues possibly from P!nk. This lets him show some of badass side that shines in his live appearances and interviews, but seemed a little glossed over on his otherwise excellent first album For Your Entertainment.
The party kicks off in high gear, foot stomps and handclaps with the title track, and “No trespassing, yeah, my ass! Wait ’til ya get a load of me!”. “Cuckoo” keeps you on your feet and has some nice lyrics twists such as “Gotta get outta this straight… jacket!” Yes he means what you think he means. “Shady” follows with a groove that starts like a Daft Punk track gone awry. Adam lets us into his nightlife and commands someone to “get your ass down to the front” because he’s “feelin’ so shady lately”. Adam you bad boy! Then comes the major single “Never Close our Eyes”, which works, and is radio-ready, but you can tell it wasn’t written by him but rather Bruno mars. But then comes my favorite highlight, “Kickin’ In”, complete with cowbell funk and vocals that recall George Michael when he was trying Prince-funk on “Hard Day” and ” I Want Your Sex”, singing about a night of debauchery and man-hunting. It’s nice to see Adam sing about *his* world and not some random straight person’s. Rounding off the fast cuts is “Naked Love”. Another radio-ready track that seems aimed at the radio, and really good, but not as direct as the rest of, let’s call this “side one” for nostalgia’s sake.
The second half is the emotional and soul-searching half. Starting with “Better Than I Know Myself”, a song that Adam himself has left open to several interpretations thanks to a great video. “Broken English” is a state of the world song that shows he can write and has some electro-dubstep flourishes. “Underneath” is a powerful ballad about the discovery of getting to know someone you love and exposing your flaws. “Chokehold” picks it up with a bit more of a rock beat and a brooding melody. The blazer here is the “closing” track “Outlaws Of love”. A powerful heartfelt ballad about two people defeating the odds. And unlike album #1, you know this time that the odds are he’s talking about hate and injustice. “They say we’ll rot in hell, but I don’t think we will.” Very powerful.
The three bonus tracks on the deluxe version are good tracks and round out the second half of the album, but are hardly essential. In this case they are more or less pretty good B-sides that just didn’t make it. For effectiveness, think of “Outlaws of Love” as the finale.
Sure this album didn’t get the coverage and airtime it should have in the US. The songs that stand out do just that, stand out. I do hope Adam is around a long time. Because I can’t wait to see where he goes from here as a singer and as his songwriting continues to grow.
“Better Than I Know Myself”
#24: The Killers – Battle Born
I made a big mistake when I first bought this album. It came out during a three week span when several releases came out by some of my longtime favorite artists and I didn’t listen when Brandon Flowers once sang “Don’t put me on the backburner”. I mixed the album up in my Spotify playlist and eventually heard the tracks out of sequence. And in that way the songs didn’t grab me, but I wasn’t giving them my fair attention.
One thing The Killers always have down is that they sound cinematic. Brandon Flowers is always searching for the words to express the great American dream love story. But the band fills in the backdrop, the time, place, and supporting cast of the movie with their tight musicianship. While Brandon’s recent solo album Flamingo had some moments and great writing and vocals, a few minutes into Battle Born you remember what was missing.
“Flesh and Bone” starts off almost like opening credits. A Pong-like electronic pulse and Flowers singing his way into a big sweeping overture that pretty much is the audio equivalent of the image on the cover of racing into the distance. This is followed by “Runaways”, the first single and a teenage love story that sounds like it could have started as a Sam’s Town outtake. In fact, maybe the couple in the song was running away from Sam’s Town. A couple tracks in comes a big gushy ballad almost tailored for the arenas, “Here with Me”. “Don’t want your picture, on my cellphone.. I want you here, with me”. Theme song for annoyed concert performers maybe? Next comes one of my favorites, “A Matter of Time”, which could almost be called “Somebody Told Me Part II”. The stomp, the electronics vs. guitars, the whole feel is back in this song. “Miss Atomic Bomb” is a highlight also, recalling the majestic sweep of “Human”. Then the weird turn is “From Here on Out” which I don’t think would be incorrectly classified as their take on country. But this is lost in the desert on the search for the American dream country. Where the only station you can pick up is playing Juice Newton’s “Queen of Hearts”. Somehow that still works because of Brandon Flowers’ ability to fully invest himself in the songs with abandon for what anyone else may think. Following this is a full blown “fearlessness on your sleeve” slow burner “Be Still”.
Now here’s the dilemma. This movie is painted differently depending on where you bought the cd or download. There is a standard edition that ends with a proper rally cry of an ending in “Battle Born”. The song builds and builds to an over the top ending, then even has a quiet ‘ending credits” reprise at the end. Nice way to end the album. Oh you thought that was the end?
The deluxe edition has three more tracks. But in my opinion “Carry Me Home” and “Prize Fighter” both shine and stand out and should not have been cast aside as bonus material. In fact the lyrics of “Prize Fighter” provide some comedy where he compares his girl to Frank Lloyd Wright and brags that she “works 268 hours a week”. This should have been a feature track. Maybe they felt the keyboard flourishes in the melody didn’t fit the feel of the main album. Then wedged oddly between these is the Jacques Lu Cont remix of “Flesh and Bone”. As he did with Hot Fuss‘ “Mr. Brightside” Jaques a/k/a Thin White Duke a/k/a Stuart Price infuses the song with a different type of shine and the excitement of a Saturday night on the town without robbing the song of its power. The remix is not just a throwaway. Altogether these make a trilogy of tracks with a little more electronic feel than some of the rest. Think of it as an encore.
Now if you got this at Target, there are even more bonus songs, an alternate version of “Be Still” that on first listen isn’t all that different from the original with exception of the beat being more rock and less electronic. Interesting and good but inessential. And lastly, the Michel Remix of “Runaways”, which I dare say I might like more than the original. However, my introduction to The Killers was the Josh Harris remix of “Somebody Told Me” back in 2004 on a then new to me Sirius radio. But when done right, The Killers’ cinematic scope blends well with a slightly sleazy electronic beat.
In any incarnation, this is definitely one to enjoy as you would a movie, start to finish.
“Flesh and Bone (Live)”
#23: Dave Matthews Band – Away From the World
So, let me start by saying this album sounds like Dave Matthews Band. What I mean by that is that with producer Steve Lillywhite behind the wheel, this sound like the *real* Dave Matthews Band. It’s jazz. It’s rock. It’s funky. It’s all those things that make DBM a really tasty gumbo of musical styles and musicians.
We start with an upbeat shiny love song called “Broken Things”. The horns shine, the violin shines, the percussion shines… the *band* shines again! Next is a funky horned-up jam called “Belly Belly Nice”. It’s full of that weird mischief Dave brings when he goes for gritty and sexy. This is from the same place as “Too Much”, without being a copy. Next is the gentle and quiet “Mercy”, a feel-good come together plea of a song and the first and maybe not obvious single. The nice part is where this song takes a jazzy breakdown where most pop songs won’t. Next comes “Gaucho” which reminds us of those more complex jazzy moments that make their instrumental virtuosity stand out from other bands. “Sweet” is a simple and aptly titled song that highlights Dave’s vulnerable vocal side. “The Riff”, “Belly Full” and “If Only” are good but fairly standard by DMB terms, but all good enough to not just be filler. Then the barnburner here is “Rooftop”. I haven’t followed DMB’s live shows lately, but I have to imagine this being a definite highlight. It is energetic, frenzied at times, and shows off the skills of all the individual members. “Snow Outside” follows the tradition of “Proudest Monkey” as a simple song that twist and turns into something more fun and complex. The finale “Drunken Soldier” starts out with what I could maybe call a street corner ditty, the stops and starts proper. At nearly ten minutes, this is one you know was written with the concerts in mind. Starting with a delicate guitar, then the intro rave up, then a gentle violin soloing part, and the singing doesn’t start until about three minutes in. It’s here they give the best advice they could have given to the DMB of “Everyday” or “Stand Up”. “Don’t waste time trying to be something you’re not.”
If you get the deluxe edition for roughly $3 more, you get three bonus live tracks. The renditions of “Gaucho”. “Mercy” and “Sweet” all expand a bit on the studio versions. The best part is “Mercy” which clocks in at almost nine minutes. This is where you feel the band really getting into their groove and having fun. This is much tastier than that bag of Doritos you could have spent that $3 on. On a scale of Everyday to Crash I rank this about a Grey Street. Which started out as The Lillywhite Sessions so that fits nicely.
#22: ZZ Top – La Futura
After what seemed like years of word that the ZZ boys were back in the studio, with master producer Rick Rubin no less, expectations were high for this album. When Rubin is working with rock royalty, he is usually determined to get the band stripped back down to the sound that made them impress in the first place. So one may think this this album should be Tres Hombres II right?
Well to expect this is to discredit the many albums made between their breakthrough album and today. There’s been the 80’s sheen of Eliminator and Afterburner. There’s been the nineties grime and grunge (and I don’t mean the Seattle kind) of Antenna and Rhythmeen. Hell many people didn’t even notice their last album on RCA, Mescalero. It was good, yes, but it lacked focus. The 16 songs were good but they didn’t stick and it seemed to run kind of long.
So finally at long last we have the new, streamlined ZZ Top. The boogie-rock-country-Jesus-hillbilly-blues licks, with the modern age of amplification and guitar effects. But no keyboards this time. Leading off this album is the slow-stomping song “I Gotsta Get Paid”. The song is a remake of sorts of a 90s hip-hop track called “25 Lighters”. The chorus, “25 lighters on my dresser, yessir.. I gotsta get paid” makes little sense until you realize the song is about a drug dealer selling crack in hollowed-out Bic lighters. How’s that for your leadoff single? That sense of adventure is shown throughout the ten.. only ten.. tight tracks that make this album. If you don’t count the Best Buy edition bonus tracks, which are much better than average B-side throwaways added to many deluxe editions. But in this case, less songs means more focus.
Next up comes “Chartreuse”, a chugging blues-boogie that fits into the 70s ZZ canon. What’s apparent as you move to the woozy swing of “Consumption” and the ballady slow blues song “Over You” is that Billy Gibbons’ voice has aged. Not in a fine wine sense. He has far more grit and tear. But in the tradition of blues, it only sounds like every bit of gravel has a story.
Two more highlights on this album are “Big Shiny Nine”, because what is a ZZ Top album without some sleazy double entendres, and the big surprise, “Flyin’ High”. Surprise, because for a moment you think you’re listening to Back In Black era AC/DC. That’s a rhythm that’s not the norm for ZZ Top. But it works well and is among my top 2 or 3 tracks on La Futura.
So no, this isn’t Fandango Again!, and it’s not Incinerator or Rejuvenator either. It’s a band focusing everything they’ve learned in their long career into a tight blues-rock album, and having fun again. And looking to La Futura by revisiting the things that made them great.
“I Gotsta Get Paid”
#21: Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls
This band came at me from out of nowhere in the form of the video for the album opener “Hold On”. Their sound is like nothing I’ve heard out there recently. Their sound is blues-based classic soul, with a funky yet southern bar band feel, without veering into country territory. But at the helm of this tight band is an extraordinary female vocalist and guitarist named Brittany Howard who can soar from tender and quiet to a Janis Joplin-tinged howl. For being in her early twenties, you can hear an old soul come out of her lungs. And the faces she makes hitting those notes. You know she felt that.
“Hold On” is the kind of song to get stuck in your head for days and have you singing along with “Bless My Soul… and bless yours too!” and grabbing a hairbrush to wail along “Yeah you’ve got to… WAIT!” And a catchy bassline from Zac Cockrell, who started the band with Brittany.
As the album unfolds in its brief eleven tracks, you quickly notice the production style is much like early 60s low-fi rock. This adds character. But after seeing a live set, this actually detracts a bit from their monster sound. You basically get Brittany’s diary here. The good times, like the aptly titled “Hang Loose”, and “Rise to the Sun”.
The showstopper here is the heart wrenching bluesy soul of “You Ain’t Alone”, which recalls the sheer intensity of Etta James and just might have you shouting “Sing it girl!” in the spaces and echoes between. She’s taking you to the church of broken hearts. How do they follow this? Appropriately with the scolding “Heartbreaker”. Yes, that’s a church organ. And then comes “Boys & Girls” another slow blues number about the complications of being close friends without being a couple. And she wrings every bit of emotion out of those slow tortured notes.
Things pick up later on “Be Mine”, a groovy little jam about falling in love in the south and how “I took a shine to you”. Then later the band rocks a little heavier on “I Ain’t the Same”, and finally revving it up for the closer, “On Your Way”, which shows off the band some more and their ability to just have fun playing.
All in all this is a very promising debut. From the clips I’ve seen, this band has an undeniable energy on stage. They feel it, they don’t just sing it and play it. They should have a bright future and their next album should be pretty amazing. “But I don’t wanna… WAIT!”
“You Ain’t Alone (Live)”
That’s all for this installment. Next week I bring you #20 through #16. And they’re good!
-written by Rob Goodman