Fall is the busiest time of the year for new music releases. Every time you turn around one superstar or another is issuing a blockbuster (or so the ailing industry hopes). Toiling beneath the behemoths are the second-tier majors and ready-for-primetime indies, all hoping to break through with their own recordings.
This avalanche of material is both blessing and curse for someone like me, who is expected to stay on top of all the new music. There just isn’t enough time or enough column inches to cover it all — which is why I’m devoting this column to albums that fell through the cracks but still deserve to be recognized.
Jazzanova – “Of All The Things” (Verve): Jazzanova, the Berlin-based, six-man producer/remixer collective that’s internationally renowned for its trademark House-inflected nu-jazz sound, stretches itself on this knockout album, incorporating a ’60s Wall of Pet Sounds and a ’70s rhythm & boudoir bouillabaisse into its sonic stew. Guest vocalists including Leon Ware, Dwele, Bembe Segue and rapper Phonte of N.C.’s acclaimed crew Little Brother spice the recording with one outstanding performance after another. This is easily among the best releases I’ve heard in 2008.
Solange – “Sol-Angel And The Hadley St. Dreams” (Geffen): There’s no sophomore slump here. Solange spectacularly emerges from big sis Beyoncé’s shadow with this soulful, near-concept album about a girl coming into her own. The production is old school R&B laced with modern electronic flourishes by super knob-turners Mark Ronson, The Neptunes and Soulshock & Karlin joined by sonic innovators like Thievery Corporation and Jack Slash (from Plantlife).
Waves On Waves – Self-titled (VTP): Openly gay singer/guitarist Thornton (yep, just Thornton) fronts this Nashville trio that very nearly answers the question what would it sound like if Morrissey fronted a country-fried art-rock band? on its intriguing debut. Key tracks include “Modern Man,” with its Sting-like “help me” refrain and Steely Dan guitar, and “Your Operator,” which is propelled by Thornton’s emotive singing.
Jon McLaughlin – “OK Now” (Island): The sophomore album from 25-year-old piano-popster Jon McLaughlin (last seen on the 80th Annual Academy Awards telecast performing the nominated song “So Close” from “Enchanted”) has old-fashioned star-maker potential. “OK Now” is well-written, there are hooks everywhere and McLaughlin’s playing and singing are ace. This is a neo-classic pop album that bears traces of giants like Elton John, Billy Joel, U2 and ELO. Lecherous digression: The fact that McLaughlin is superhot doesn’t hurt a thing.
Lucinda Williams – “Little Honey” (Lost Highway): Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Williams adds another outstanding album to a three-decade career that’s flush with them. This eclectic 13-track roots rock outing includes a stirring break-up duet with Elvis Costello (“Jailhouse Tears”) and guest appearances from Matthew Sweet and The Bangles’ Susanna Hoffs. Williams is backed up throughout by her crack road band, Buick 6.
Rahsaan Patterson – “Wines & Spirits” (Artistry): When he issued his eponymous debut in 1997, Patterson more or less got lost among the sea of male neo soulsters vying for attention. It’s too bad because the album was among the better R&B offerings of the year. After issuing two more critically acclaimed but commercially overlooked collections, Patterson dropped this alternative soul/funk gem in early fall. During a promotional interview with BETJ.com, he took the bold step to come out of the closet and end the long-swirling speculation.
Bimbo Jones – “Harlem 1 Stop” (Silver Label/Tommy Boy): This British trio issues its first artist album after a long run of hit club tracks and remixes for other artists. Diva vocalist Katherine Ellis is a fire-breathing dragon on tracks like the “Billboard” chart-topping lead single “And I Try,” the title cut and “Salty.” Co-conspirators Lee and JB play all the instruments and handle production duties on this speaker-shaking, floor-quaking 12-cut collection.
Amanda Palmer – “Who Killed Amanda Palmer” (Roadrunner): Openly bisexual Palmer takes a break from her regular gig — singing and playing piano in the alterna-cabaret duo The Dresden Dolls — to deliver an evocative solo debut that exists between a haunting whisper and a grandiose scream. Fellow keys man Ben Folds produces half the material and proves an able collaborator, but it’s Palmer’s own board work on the raucous, horn-boosted “Leeds United” that puts “Killed” over the top.
Nikka Costa – “Pebble To A Pearl” (GoFunkYourself): The funkiest white girl since Teena Marie hits her full stride on her first independent release. (The album’s been licensed to legendary soul label Stax for distribution.) Costa said jumping off the sinking ship that is the major-label record business reinvigorated her as an artist. “Pebble” proves that assertion — brimming with absolute craft and confidence on cuts like the strutting “Can’t Please Everybody,” the title track (a terrific Stevie Wonder-circa-’73 homage), vocal showcase “Without Love,” and Dub dream “Damn I Said It First.”
Morel – “The Death Of The Paperboy” (Outsider Music): After co-writing and producing three of the best cuts on Cyndi Lauper’s recent “Bring Ya To The Brink” album (including lead single “Same Ole Story”), dance music producer/remixer Richard Morel, who is openly gay, turned his attention to completing and releasing this two-disc opus. “Disc 1” is moody and introspective; “11 new songs about the things that bring you down,” Morel explains. “Disc 0” (get it, disco?) is eight remixes of disc one tracks. “Paperboy” proves that a well-written song works in almost any musical context.
Leigh Jones – “Music In My Soul” (Peak): This album was a delightful surprise. I wasn’t expecting a blue-eyed soulstress to craft the best R&B debut I’ve heard in some time. The secret to Jones’ success is that she eschews beats in favor of songs. You remember those, right? Jones shows her mettle early on “Music” with a winning cover of Debarge’s classic “All This Love,” then busts out a few tracks later with “Free Fall,” her first single that’s just as good. One of my ’08 faves.
Robin Thicke – “Something Else” (Star Trak): After breaking through with his last album, which produced the multi-format hit “Lost Without U,” Thicke returns with his first release as an established star. He wears the expectations lightly. “Something” is a confident and polished R&B statement that feels like an honest next step rather than a calculated grab for more hits. Thicke earns kudos for resisting the urge to pack his album with hot guest stars — although Lil Wayne makes a lone cameo.
Matt Alber – “Hide Nothing” (Silver Label/Tommy Boy): Alber, a former member of the Grammy-winning a capella ensemble Chanticleer, offers up a lovely, dreamlike song cycle about out of the closet love in its various forms and stages. “Field-trip Buddy” recalls that first grade school crush while “The End Of The World” is an unflinching look at a crumbling relationship. Alber’s classically trained voice soars and swoops effortlessly, at points recalling fellow gay artist Rufus Wainwright. “Hide Nothing” is a gorgeous work of art.
Chanté Moore – “Love The Woman” (Peak): Sultry siren Moore is back with another R&B set tailor made for grown folks cuddling on the couch. Put this album on and dim the lights. Things step off with “Always Gonna Be Something,” an exquisite admonishment for lovers to remember that every relationship has problems. The ultra-lush “Give Me Time” features a beautiful harmonica solo by George Duke, while the title song is the sound of slowgroove sex caught on tape. To fan the flames, “Love” is all you need.
Val Emmich – “Little Daggers” (Bluhammock): Even though Emmich has released a handful of albums in his career, the 29-year-old has found his greatest fame playing Betty’s love interest Jesse this season on ABC’s “Ugly Betty.” Hopefully his newfound notoriety will lead the public to discover this delectable pop offering from a true renaissance man. (In addition to music and acting, Emmich has recently completed his first novel.)
Various Artists – “Noah’s Arc: Jumping The Broom” (Silver Label/Tommy Boy): The soundtrack to the movie that updates the lives of Noah Nichols (Darryl Stephens) and his closest trio of friends since the cancellation of Logo’s groundbreaking TV series is a satisfying collection that offers hot remixes of tracks from Michelle Williams and Solange, punchy electro pop (“Cable TV” and the sterling “Spies”) and a handful of effective ballads from artists including Matt Alber, Roy Young and Phoebe Snow. Worthwhile for fans and non-fans alike.