Essential New Music: Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings’ “Soul Of A Woman”

This album comes as a sad-yet-welcome surprise. Sharon Jones died in November 2016 after a recurrence of pancreatic cancer—although she joked that her stroke a week before passing was a result of Donald Trump’s election. She and the oh-so-excellent Dap-Kings managed to record Soul Of A Woman earlier in the year, in fits and starts when Jones was strong enough between chemo treatments. It’s an album full of life, energy and soul, and although Jones won’t be dancing across the stage to these songs, it’s easy to imagine her doing so. (Perhaps in heaven, with Charles Bradley.)

That said, it’s the sophisticated soul songs that outshine the raw R&B workouts this time. Horn-driven, James Brown-style rave-ups such as “Sail On!” and “Rumors” are fun, but Soul Of A Woman is even better when the tempos slow slightly and the horns provide seductive support rather than drive the arrangements. “Call On God” is a gospel ballad in the Muscle Shoals tradition; “Come And Be A Winner” and “Searching For A New Day” groove like ’70s Philly soul; “These Tears (No Longer For You)” recalls the grand drama of Gladys Knight & The Pips classics. Jones sings the hell out of all of them (although she might not approve of that expression). “When I Saw Your Face” is a tour de force of sensitive restraint and emotional power, and the politically minded “Matter Of Time” is an earnest, commanding testimony, punctuated by Jones’ funky exclamations of “Oh yeah!”

While it’s hard not to hear Soul Of A Woman and mourn Jones’ death, the joyful vibrancy and old-school expertise coursing through these tracks quickly supersede any hint of sadness.

—Steve Klinge

Essential New Music: OCS’s “Memory Of A Cut Off Head”

The 20th album in as many years from Oh Sees/Thee Oh Sees/the Oh Sees/OCS/etc. is what a late-night, fireside, gypsy-caravan jam session would feel like, with the added charm of an early, pop-savvy Françoise Hardy album. It’s a mesmerizing and haunting labyrinth filled with morbid storytelling, hurdling tempos and rhythms that would perfectly soundtrack a meaningful coastal or cross-country road trip. Yet sonically and lyrically, Memory Of A Cut Off Head comes with a bite that has a foreboding, overwhelming sense of existential dread. While overall the tempo and timbre of the songs is upbeat, the lyrics of each track speak to the likes of political sheep, an executioner, addiction and a fool in love. The musical roots of most of the material here is true to desert folk rock, with heart-wrenching instrumental strings and harrowing harmonies. While this is technically the prolific John Dwyer going by his original moniker of OCS, it’s also a showcase for on-and-off longtime band member Brigid Dawson’s return to the fold. Here, in a welcome return, she co-wrote all the songs and adds her distinctive vocals.

Megan Matuzak

Essential New Music: A Certain Ratio’s “The Graveyard And The Ballroom,” “To Each…” And “Force”

This reissue campaign for Manchester’s adventurous post-punk funkateers is probably more than a decade late for maximum impact. The kids would’ve lapped this stuff up during the mid-’00s dance-punk boom, when A Certain Ratio was an obvious influence on the early DFA Records stable. But it’s a treat nonetheless, and perhaps even more of a historical curiosity at this stage. This initial batch includes the band’s earliest document: 1979’s live, four-track The Graveyard And The Ballroom, a raw, scrappy set wherein Simon Topping’s dour enunciations are mere adornments for the nervy, forceful grooves. (Think Ian Curtis fronting a scared-stiff J.B.s.) 1981 studio debut To Each… ropes in some artier arrangement ideas, Latin-tinged percussion workouts and truly frightening trumpet manipulations, delivering a somewhat murkier effect despite the increased fidelity. We then leapfrog to 1986’s Force, a decidedly different and (in 2017) weirder affair: audibly time-stamped video-age art pop, complete with slathers of sax, but still, in its way, no less overpowered by funk.

—K. Ross Hoffman

Essential New Music: Langhorne Slim’s “Lost At Last, Vol 1”

Langhorne Slim has a striking tenor that imbues his songs with an aching sense of melancholy and uncertainty. On Lost At Last, Vol 1, he trusted in the spontaneous nature of creation, letting the songs dictate the direction the arrangements would take. Eighteen players joined him in the studio, but they remain in the background, mixed down to add subtle, almost invisible nuance to these bleak songs of heartache and dejection. Droning fiddle and sprightly acoustic guitar add tension to “Life Is Confusing” as Slim repeats the tag line until it begins to lose meaning. A marijuana farmer who’s hiding from the law confesses his crimes on “Private Property,” wondering why he’s been busted for “planting seeds on my private property.” Slim takes on the myth of true love and happy endings on “Zombie,” “Alligator Girl” and “Never Break,” promising to follow where love leads him, even when it’s to the brink of disaster.

—j. poet

Essential New Music: Hüsker Dü’s “Savage Young Dü”

Hüsker Dü’s historical trajectory follows a rather neat three-act arc: four years of woodshedding over a series of singles, one live and one studio record; three top-notch albums on SST during hardcore’s golden age; and two more on Warner Bros. at the start of punk’s crossover to the major labels. Savage Young Dü chronicles the band’s inception and development, from its very earliest recording sessions in 1979 to just before 1983’s Metal Circus EP.

If ever there were a punk band whose early years were ripe for archiving, it’s Hüsker Dü. From the start, as this collection makes clear, Bob Mould, Grant Hart and Greg Norton knew what they were about: a love for aggressive noise in perfect balance with a romantic (not sentimental) impulse. It took the band the better part of four years to find its cruising altitude, and one of the many pleasures of this set lies in the way the chronological presentation of studio and rehearsal tapes, live and practice sessions, charts the gradual acceleration of Hüsker Dü’s performance style into the “land speed record” the trio achieves on its first full-length of the same name. It’s easy to hear why D. Boon and the Minutemen, who released the Hüskers’ debut on their New Alliance label, were such big fans: Speed, precision and heart were the common ingredients of both bands’ aesthetics.

As impressive as Savage Young Dü is as a musical release—69 remastered songs over nearly three hours—it’s equally impressive as a historical document. A comprehensive, deeply intelligent essay by Erin Osmon and meticulous session notes by Hüsker archivist Paul Hilcoff place the band in its proper historical and artistic contexts. This is the star treatment, well-executed, given to a band whose music eminently deserves it. One of 2017’s essential releases, no matter how you cut it.

—Eric Waggoner

Essential New Music: Grandaddy’s “Under The Western Freeway 20th Anniversary Edition”

Jason Lytle’s debut album (reissued here exclusively on vinyl to celebrate its 20th anniversary) gets overshadowed in the wake of not just Radiohead but his own band’s follow-up, 2000’s The Sophtware Slump, as one of indie rock’s earliest brushes with grandiosity and technology. (Both Under The Western Freeway and Slump had the misfortune of appearing the same year as OK Computer and Kid A, respectively.) But it’s here that he first imagined a world where standard Neil Young folk rock collided jaggedly and colorfully with distorted electronic textures and not-quite-human lyrics to match; Freeway’s opening lines are “Hello, good morning, sir/The results are back/Now it’s time for you to pack your things and go.” Despite all his robotic obsessions, Lytle has always been too friendly to be dystopic, even though Freeway’s best-known song, malfunctioning-Casio waltz “A.M. 180,” prominently scored a scene from 28 Days Later. But the album has winning fuzz to spare on the driving “Summer Here Kids” and boasts one of the earliest known utterances of the phrase “Sorry, not sorry”—the last line on the album. Maybe Lytle really did see the future.

—Dan Weiss

Essential New Music: U-Men’s “U-Men”

No less an authority than Mudhoney’s Mark Arm has called U-Men a relic of the “old, weird Seattle,” and this boxed set definitively captures the shaggy, psychobilly garage-stomp of the U-Men during their decade-long ’80s run as the foremost representatives of the Emerald City underground. It’s all exhaustively captured here: all of the band’s singles and out-of-print EPs, its lone album (1988’s Step On A Bug) and the contributions the group made to now-legendary compilations such as Deep Six, C/Z’s pre-grunge sampler that somehow managed to document Green River, Soundgarden, Melvins and Malfunkshun all in one place. It’s most certainly not grunge—probably a closer cousin to the Sonics or even the Cramps, who developed in a shadowy parallel world—but, as tracks such as the fuming “Cow Rock” and “U-Men Stomp” make perfectly clear, U-Men steered their own bloody-minded and influential path for other freaks and geeks (such as Butthole Surfers, who named a song in their honor) to follow.

—Corey duBrowa

Essential New Music: Morrissey’s “Low In High School”

Steven Patrick Morrissey has become such a crank and a curmudgeon that it’s hard to tell when he’s being intentionally funny—we know he’s capable of being a world-class wit—and when he’s just sour and self-absorbed.

Take, for instance, “Spent The Day In Bed,” from Morrissey’s 11th post-Smiths solo album. The jaunty verse, set to a slightly funky electric-piano track, extols the happy luxury of spending some time in the sack, ending with, “I love my bed/And I recommend that you”—setting us up to expect him to advocate that we do the same. But the tone shifts, and he instead recommends that we “STOP WATCHING THE NEWS!” (all caps courtesy of the lyric sheet) “because the news contrives to frighten you/To make you feel small and alone/To make you feel that your mind isn’t your own.”

Maybe he’s complaining about fake news (opener “My Love, I’d Do Anything For You” deplores “the dead echelon’s mainstream media”). Or maybe he’s voicing a character (although spending the day in bed seems like a very Moz thing to do). But to ostrich-down on his mattress and blame the media instead of the events in the world seems at best desperately narcissistic and at worst irresponsible.

That personal/political dialectic repeats. A song about the Arab Spring returns to the declaration, “I just want my face in your lap” (“In Your Lap”). Another about how “Presidents come, presidents go/And oooh, the damage they do!” is also about how, as its title says, “all the young people must fall in love.” (That one is set to a fun, thumping handclap track.)

The songs range widely over the literal map, from Tel Aviv to Venezuela to Israel. It’s an album full of politics, religion and war, and of sex and self-interest. The arrangements range, too, from the sparse and acoustic “I Bury The Living” on one end to the bombastic, orchestral “My Love, I’d Do Anything For You” on the other. Throughout, Morrissey, who’s had throat and other health problems in recent years, sings in his inimitable style: commanding and dramatic, nuanced and confident.

Even when you can’t quite tell whether you want to laugh with or at Morrissey’s heavy-handed proclamations, they’re provocative, and that’s worth a lot.

—Steve Klinge

Essential New Music: Bob Dylan’s “Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series Vol. 13 / 1979-1981”

If purist audiences in 1965 were gobsmacked by folkie god and acoustic maestro Bob Dylan going loud and electric, imagine how next-gen audiences felt about the Jewish singer/songwriter turning to Christianity and devotional lyrics tinged with urgings of worship and catcalls of praise. That was the holy Dylan of 1979’s Slow Train Coming, 1980’s Saved, 1981’s Shot Of Love and a brand of poetry that filled his heart, head and this new nine-CD set of studio and live recordings that is the 13th chapter in his Bootleg Series. Detailed in the music and the Trouble No More DVD, Dylan was always and forever on a deep spiritual quest, one that led not only to Jesus and a discipleship in Southern California but an overall yearning that’s lasted through recent albums such as 2012’s Tempest, which touches on Christian hope and deed. Sometimes, it’s the search rather than the finding that makes for a more dramatic story.

The live songs from shows in Toronto (1980) and London (1981)—mixed as they are/were with classics such as “Girl From The North Country”—sound full-blooded and revival tent-ish. Like Dylan’s pre-grunge ragtag Rolling Thunder Revue tours, his sacred-songs shows all had a rounded, gospel vibe and rhythmic percolation with Dylan nearly carnival barking his lyrics. The treat here, as with all of his Bootleg releases, is the rarities: a threadbare, off-beat “Gotta Serve Somebody” that’s more casual than its original album version, a rakish “When He Returns,” the theatrically stormy unreleased likes of “Help Me Understand” and “Ain’t No Man Righteous, No Not One.” If “Jesus Is The One” is charmingly open-faced for Dylan, the carnivorous, never-before-heard “Ain’t Gonna Go To Hell For Anybody” could exist on any of his snarling latter-day albums.

Amen to that.

—A.D. Amorosi

Essential New Music: Björk’s “Utopia”

The challenge of following up the heartbreak of 2015’s Vulnicura with the spiritually renewed Utopia sounds effortless in the nimble hands of Björk. Artists as grand as Bob Dylan and Marvin Gaye have penned devastatingly profound breakup recordings long before Björk, but only she has contrived an equally ebullient, brainy and romantic follow-up—as dedicated in its love to gods and goddesses as it is to tenderness and carnality. Co-written and co-produced (again) with electronics-beats whiz Arca, the whole of Utopia—from the glacial and harp-strummed “Blissing Me” to icy epic “Body Memory” to the Gil Evans-esque “The Gate”—flutters and wows as it wraps itself in a serene and satisfied longing that gently comes to requited fruition with end tracks “Saint” and “​Future Forever.” Utopia is the perfect whooshing winter record, just in time for the bitter chill.

—A.D. Amorosi