• Hackney Diamonds

    Hackney Diamonds

    Rolling Stones

    Sometime after the Rolling Stones wrapped up their 2022 tour -- the second they completed since the 2021 death of their drummer Charlie Watts -- Mick Jagger decided the band had spent enough time working on their first record of original material since 2005's A Bigger Bang. Jagger gave Keith Richards, the only other surviving founding member of the Stones left in the band, a deadline of Valentine's Day 2023 for wrapping up the sessions that had been dragging on for years. The ultimatum worked: by October of that year, the Stones released Hackney Diamonds, their first collection of new songs in 18 years. The album doesn't entirely consist of material the Stones cut early in 2023 -- two tracks feature Charlie Watts, including "Live by the Sword," which has original bassist Bill Wyman guesting on a Stones record for the first time in 30 years -- yet it bears the unmistakable imprint of a record delivered on a deadline. There's little hesitation, no thoughtful pondering here: Hackney Diamonds just barrels ahead with a clean efficiency. Although they're largely working with a new producer -- Andrew Watt, who came recommended by Paul McCartney -- the Rolling Stones don't attempt new tricks anywhere on Hackney Diamonds, save maybe "Whole Wide World," whose bizarre neo-new wave vibe gets odder thanks to Jagger singing in an exaggerated cockney accent. Even that is a slight nod to the band's mall-rat rock of the early '80s, one of many different guises the Rolling Stones adopt over the course of Hackney Diamonds. While a good portion of the record is devoted to straight-ahead rock & roll, they also find space for ragged country ("Dreamy Skies") and acoustic blues ("Rolling Stone Blues"), not to mention "Sweet Sounds of Heaven," a showstopping ballad featuring Lady Gaga. That track is a good indication of how Hackney Diamonds plays. At first, it seems like a solid evocation of "Beast of Burden," but it's a slow burn, a song that sounds stronger with each repeated listen. So is of the rest of Hackney Diamonds. Because it has no grand conceptual hook and because the Stones so thoroughly integrate their superstar guests -- not only are Gaga and Wyman here but so are Stevie Wonder, Elton John, and McCartney -- it doesn't overwhelm upon an initial listen the way the lengthy Voodoo Lounge or A Bigger Bang do; that small scale is its strength. At its heart, it's nothing more than the Rolling Stones knocking out some good Rolling Stones songs, which seems like a minor miracle after such a long wait. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine (syndetics)

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  • I/o

    I/o

    Gabriel, Peter

    Peter Gabriel hid I/O, his first album in 21 years, in plain sight. Over the course of 2023, he released every one of its 12 songs as a single, each in two separate mixes (one "Bright," one "Dark"), and then toured the record -- all before its December release. A steady drip of singles didn't build anticipation for I/O -- many of the tracks didn't attract much chatter -- so much as get his audience accustomed to listening to new Peter Gabriel music again, allowing them to focus on a song at a time instead of immediately immersing themselves in an album that has its own intricate clockwork. Gabriel took his time crafting I/O, so listening to it slowly and steadily lets the record unfold and lets the distance between the decades narrow. In many ways, I/O picks up where Up ended, sounding a bit like a relic from the height of the CD era when albums were crafted as a long, continuous experience showcasing the outer limits of high-end audio. It also follows a recognizable template, balancing its innate moodiness with a few sprightly numbers that relieve the tension -- a blueprint that's been in place since So. The familiar approach helps illuminate how I/O does mark an emotional progression, finding Gabriel curiously optimistic as he searches for new beginnings, discovering glimmers of hope within the darkness. This shift isn't merely evident in the "Bright Side" mix, either. There's an inherent openness to the songs Gabriel completed for I/O, a spirit evident in such titles as "Road to Joy," "Love Can Heal," "This Is Home," and "Live and Let Live." Some of these songs surge, some simmer, but they all return to an idea essayed on the title track: "stuff coming out, stuff going in/I'm just a part of everything," a worldview that's intimate and all-encompassing. What makes I/O unique, even special, is that the process of searching isn't central to the finished product. There's no restlessness here, only acceptance, a quality that gives I/O a quiet power that can't help but build over time. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine (syndetics)

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  • Rockstar

    Rockstar

    Parton, Dolly

    Upon receiving a nomination to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2022, Dolly Parton demurred, claiming that she wasn't rock & roll. The Rock Hall wound up inducting her, and she accepted the honor, deciding to deliver her first full-fledged rock album in return. Hence, Rockstar -- a star-studded double album where Dolly attempts every sound under the rock & roll sun. Parton splits her time covering (very) familiar classic rock tunes and writing made-to-order originals, only occasionally shutting the studio door so she can sing on her own. The combination of overblown renditions of songs you know by heart and cuts that feel as if they were tailored for album rock radio in 1990 does have some charms, especially because Dolly embraces the goofiness of the entire project: the album opens with a sketch of Parton "shredding" on guitar, as if it was a dangerous thing to do in 2023. Occasionally the cornball patter can be a bit much, especially on "What Has Rock and Roll Ever Done for You," an otherwise amiable rocker bookended with Stevie Nicks and Dolly exchanging canned barbs, but the silliness is preferable to playing it straight; the po-faced preaching of "What's Up?" falls flat. Parton proves to be a generous host at her party, yucking it up with both Ronnie McDowell and Rob Halford and crooning sweetly with Peter Frampton and Chris Stapleton alike; she even deigns to spend some time with Kid Rock. By the time Rockstar reaches "Free Bird," the party has been rolling on for two hours and is starting to feel a little tired -- it doesn't help that Parton is duetting with the ghost of Ronnie Van Zant, either -- but that doesn't erase the good spirits created by the rest of the record. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine (syndetics)

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  • 1989: Taylor's Version

    1989: Taylor's Version

    Swift, Taylor

    While Taylor Swift transitioned cautiously from country to pop on 2012's Red, she became the face of mainstream pop music with the monumental synth-driven hit parade of her next album, 1989. Released in October of 2014, the album was named after Swift's birth year as well as the era of synth pop radio hits that provided partial inspiration for the dancy, hyper-produced material. 1989 [Taylor's Version] continues Swift's series of re-recording her albums for purposes related to licensing rights, and more than any of the revised versions that preceded it, illuminates the moment when she became a timeless songwriter. At the time of its original release, 1989 was a grand slam, moving platinum numbers, producing seven hit singles (three of which were number ones), and remaining in the charts internationally for more than a year. Returning to this material exactly nine years later, one would expect songs played to death on the radio for nearly a decade to feel a little dated, or for the Jack Antonoff or Max Martin and Shellback co-written tunes to sound especially formulaic in hindsight. Instead, the re-recorded versions (like all of Taylor's Versions, aiming for faithful re-creation of the originals more than artistic updating) sound fresh and vital, perhaps even more powerful in light of Swift's often-shifting artistic progress since. Songs that may have come across shallow or substanceless in 2014 (the cheerleader-y bounce of "Shake It Off" or Swift's PG-rated Lana Del Rey mirroring on "Wildest Dreams") now make more sense as part of the unfettered celebration of pop -- in all its self-indulgence and escapism -- that 1989 was intended as. The album's homage to the gated reverb and MIDI keyboard tones of late-'80s radio comes into full view on the five additional tracks that were kept in the vault from the time the album was initially made. There are echoes of the Outfield's 1986 hit "Your Love" in the verses of "Say Don't Go" before a decidedly 2010s chorus washes up on a cascade of bubbly synth notes, and both "Suburban Legends" and the magnetic hooks of "Slut!" offer a more subdued counterpoint to the overenthusiastic electro-pop exclamation Swift got into on "New Romantics." Fleshed out by these extra tracks, 1989 [Taylor's Version] confirms the lasting strength that Swift's songwriting was achieving in this one of many blooms, and serves as a lovely reminder of when she officially stepped into her place in the pop culture continuum. ~ Fred Thomas (syndetics)

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  • Cat Power Sings Dylan: The 1966 Royal Albert Hall Concert

    Cat Power Sings Dylan: The 1966 Royal Albert Hall Concert

    Cat Power

    As revealed on this album, Marshall approached every song in the setlist with both heartfelt reverence and a deep understanding of the delicate nature of song interpretation. And while Marshall admits to a nervous anticipation prior to the show, a certain sense of devotion helped to carry her through the night. (syndetics)

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  • Before and After

    Before and After

    Young, Neil

    The very title Before and After suggests Neil Young is in a contemplative mood on this acoustic set from 2023 and, sure enough, a good portion of the record finds him looking back at his very beginnings. A number of songs he wrote for Buffalo Springfield are here, balanced by a few rarities -- chief among them "If You Got Love," which was pulled from Trans at the last minute -- selections from Sleeps with Angels, Mirror Ball, and Ragged Glory, albums that retrospectively can be seen as written during a particularly restless middle age. Before and After isn't agitated or electric, though. The album features no other musician than Young, who supports himself with an acoustic guitar, harmonica, and, occasionally, a pump organ. The starkness of the arrangements helps draw attention to the distance between the origin of a song and Young's present. Now creeping toward 80, he doesn't sound fragile, yet his vocals display some age-related raggedness. Embracing his weathered, keening voice, Young highlights the tender yearning that runs throughout these songs. They may have been written at various stages in his life, but they're united by his iconoclasm, his dedication to the earth, and his quest for universal love, common threads that are emphasized by how the 13 songs are segued as a suite, allowing listeners to immerse themselves in Before and After as a holistic experience. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine (syndetics)

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  • Speak Now: Taylor's Version

    Speak Now: Taylor's Version

    Swift, Taylor

    Taylor Swift reimagines her third album along with the addition of vault tracks with Paramore's Hayley Williams and Fall Out Boy. (syndetics)

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  • Fearless: Taylor's Version

    Fearless: Taylor's Version

    Swift, Taylor

    Taylor Swift left her longtime home of Big Machine in 2018, setting up shop at Republic Records. Usually, such changes in label are only of interest to trainspotters, but once Swift departed Big Machine, the label was acquired by a group owned by Scooter Braun, a nemesis of Taylor's. The singer attempted to regain rights to her original recordings to no avail, leaving her with one option: she could re-record her records, thereby undercutting the value of her catalog in terms of syncs, placements, and licensing. Swift carried through on the promise in April 2021, releasing Fearless (Taylor's Version), a brand-new version of her 2008 breakthrough. Swift recorded all 19 songs from the 2009 Platinum Edition of Fearless, adding a new version of "Today Was a Fairytale" from the Valentine's Day soundtrack, then six additional songs ("From The Vault") -- songs that were written around the time of Fearless but not released. These tracks are of greatest interest, as they certainly have a younger, dewy-eyed perspective but were recorded with Aaron Dessner and Jack Antonoff, the producers of Swift's mature work. The blend of youth and experience is appealing, and it can also be heard in the newer renditions of the Fearless material. Swift largely re-creates the arrangements and feel of the original 2008 album, yet her voice and phrasing has aged, giving the music a hint of bittersweet gravity. That said, it's only a hint; Fearless (Taylor's Version) serves the purpose of offering new versions that could be substituted for the originals for licensing purposes. It's to Swift's credit that the album is an absorbing (if long) listen anyway. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine (syndetics)

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  • Guts

    Guts

    Rodrigo, Olivia

    Three-time Grammy Award winner Olivia Rodrigo is back with the follow-up to her smash hit debut album, SOUR. This album sees her exploring changes in her life. Includes the single Vampire. (syndetics)

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  • Laugh Track

    Laugh Track

    National (Musical group)

    The surprise companion to the National's April release, First Two Pages of Frankenstein, is the band's most freewheeling, all-hands-on-deck album in years. If Frankenstein represented a rebuilding of trust between group members after 20-plus years together, the vibrant, exploratory album is both the product of that faith and a new statement of intent. Reveling in the license to radically upend its creative process, the National honed most of this material in live performances on tour and captured those invigorated versions in impromptu sessions at producer Tucker Martine's Portland studio. Two nights later in Vancouver, the nearly eight-minute album closer Smoke Detector was recorded during soundcheck, completing a body of work bristling with spontaneity and vintage rock energy that makes a perfect complement to the songs found on its more introspective predecessor. (syndetics) (2/29/2024 9:26:41 PM)

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