Leon Bridges – Coming Home

DNA: Sam Cooke and Male Version of Amy Winehouse’s Retro Vocal Style

Leon Bridges’ “Coming Home” is one of the finest albums I’ve heard in the last five years. Much like Amy Winehouse, who artfully paid homage to female singers of the 60s, Leon Bridges grabs us willingly back several of decades. Make no mistake, Bridges isn’t a gimmick act. The whole presentation of this album is an excellent showcase of Bridges’ songwriting and vocals. It’s hard to believe that he is merely 26-years-old because his voice is so strong yet nuanced.

The album isn’t that long, but that’s okay. There’s a good mix of gospel, R&B, soul, and pop on “Coming Home.” It’s packed beginning to end with one good song after the next. “Lisa Sawyer” is one of the album’s best songs; it’s also an excellent introduction to Bridges’ songwriting and vocal phrasings. Bridges works hard to tell a story about his mother, using phrasings that are complex and rarely heard in songs these days. The album’s opening song — “Coming Home” — sets the mood and sounds as if the song has been around with other soul favorites for the last 40 years.

I suggest listening to the album start-to-finish; it clocks in at around 40 minutes. Highlights include “Smooth Sailin’,” which is vocally and lyrically one of the finest pop songs you can find in recent years. “Flowers” is also a notable song, which features an uptempo backbeat and pop song style.

My guess is that Leon Bridges is just as good live as he is a recorded musician. He makes things sound effortless. “Coming Home” and Leon Bridges are too good to think his retro-60s sound is a gimmick. “Coming Home” is pure goodness, leaving you wanting more.

On a scale of 1 (Boss Hog) to 10 (Roscoe P. Coltrane), “Coming Home” is a 10 (Roscoe P. Coltrane)

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Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color

DNA: Bon Scott vocals and lyrics like Tori Amos and Roger Waters

You’re not going to casually listen to Alabama Shakes, no sir. You’re going to be taken on a wild ride of emotion and be left sweating at the end of this album. Sound & Color is raw emotion bottled for your consumption.

Critics point to Janis Joplin as an easy comparison to Brittany Howard’s vocals. That comparison is insufficient. Howard lists AC/DC’s Bon Scott and David Bowie as her influences, and that gives you a more accurate description. Her vocals and lyrics are the big draw for this band; however, the other musicians are stellar without stepping on Howard’s ever-changing vocal approaches to the songs.

The album’s first song, “Sound and Color“, is a nice introduction to the musical mayhem awaiting the listener. It blends bluesy vocals with almost a lounge-sound backdrop. Alabama Shakes doesn’t waste any time thereafter, throwing you right into “Don’t Wanna Fight.” Listening to the song evokes the times when you overheard your parents fighting in the house. The hardest hitting song on this album is “Gimme All Your Love“; the vocals leave you speechless.

The lyrics are honest, brutally honest. “Over My Head” is one example of Howard’s confessions. The song structures differ throughout the album, as well. These aren’t formulaic blues or rock songs. “The Greatest” is a driving and hard-hitting song. “Shoegaze” borrows from The Rolling Stones (Sticky Fingers era) and T. Rex.

I recommend that you listen to both Alabama Shakes’ albums: “Boys & Girls” and “Sound & Color.” They are both solid albums. I also recommend that you read the band’s story and rise to fame; it’s a great story (here and here). Also, take a look at Brittany holding her own with Paul McCartney (here).

On a scale of Mel Sharples (“Forget It”) to Jean “Flo” Castleberry (“Get), both “Sound & Color” is a Flo 10.

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The Prodigy – The Day Is My Enemy

DNA: A harsher version of The Prodigy’s “Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned”

This is my first negative review. The Prodigy is a brilliant band. “The Day Is My Enemy” is far from brilliant. In fact, it is a disappointment.

One of the most impressive things about The Prodigy is that its first three albums demonstrate different styles of electronica and each is a masterpiece. “The Experience” was released in the tail end of the rave scene and offered more complex songs than their techno brethren. “Out of Space” and “Charly” are classic songs from that album.

The band took a different direction in “Music for a Jilted Generation,” which displays a style more in line with electronica of the late 1990s. Every song on the album is strong. “Voodoo People” and “The Narcotic Suite: 3 Kilos” are two examples.

“The Fat of The Land” thrust The Prodigy into the mainstream. The album is quite simply Liam Howlett’s opus. Two lesser known songs off the album are “Climbatize” and “Narayan.”

After “The Fat of the Land,” The Prodigy took a different direction with “Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned.” The song on that album are aggressive, almost a distant relative of thrash metal. The Prodigy’s most recent release “The Day is My Enemy” seems like a sequel to “Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned.” To me, that’s not a good thing. The songs aren’t built around innovative samples and drum beats. The songs run into each other with little distinction. After the lead song “The Day Is My Enemy,” the songs sound like one continuous, aggressive techno-thrash song.

If you’re a stranger to The Prodigy, I strongly recommend starting with “Music For A Jilted Generation.” The album is a bit dated but I think the songs still hold up. I also recommend “The Fat of The Land,” which has songs like “Breathe” and “Firestarter” that you’ll recognize and enjoy. Once you have heard the songs on those two albums, it will be difficult to listen to the songs on “The Day Is My Enemy.”

One a scale of Roscoe P. Coltrane (“Forget It”) to Boss Hog (“Get It”), “The Day Is My Enemy” is a 5 Roscoe P. Coltrane, Forget It.

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Jamie xx – In Colour

DNA: Art of Noise, New Order without vocals, Freeez, and Moby (techno period)

This is the best album of 2015, no exaggeration. At least in my universe, “In Colour” came onto the scene without fanfare. Jamie xx left us with an epic album, one that evokes a lot of emotion.

Jamie xx is Jamie Smith, a member of the indie brit pop band The xx. “In Colour” displays his massive talent as a music producer and DJ. The songs are lush soundscapes, which are made up of lo-fi beats, obscure samples, and wonderfully-placed keyboards and/or samples. The album’s sounds are engaging and hypnotic.

“In Colour” starts with “Gosh,” a wonderfully simple song that borrows from the rave scene of the early 90s. To say “Gosh” is a one-off rave song is a mistake; this song, like all the others on “In Colour,” touches your soul. Another personal favorite is “Girl,” which samples one of the best electronic songs in music history — Freeez’sI.O.U.” I read that Jamie xx enjoys sampling steel drums, and that’s evident in “Obvs.” He builds a beautiful song around several samples of steel-drum hooks.

Perhaps the album’s strongest song is “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times).” The song features Young Thug and Popcaan, who provide reggae-style vocals over a deep-bass drum sample and a vocal sample from which the song’s title borrows. “Hold Tight” is my favorite song on the album because it continually builds throughout the length of the song and creates a beautiful soundscape based on not much of anything. “Loud Places” mixes electronica with gospel, creating a song from another world.

This album is going to surprise you. The more you listen to it, the more you’ll understand that Jamie xx created a masterpiece. Hopefully this album will win a Grammy for best Dance/Electronic Album; it’s that good.

On a scale from Doc Bricker (“Forget It”) to Captain Merrill Stubing (“Get It”), “In Colour” is a 10 Captain Merrill Stubing.

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Big Grams – Big Grams

DNA: Blondie & Fab Five Freddy (with a faster flow); Metric

The saying goes that sometimes the sum is greater than the parts. Unfortunately, that’s not the case for Big Grams, which is a collaboration between Upstate New York’s very own Phantogram and Big Boi from Outkast. Nevertheless, I’m not going to harsh their mellow for trying something interesting. The album is much better than most. I was hoping for more, however.

Big Boi’s rapping skills on this album are beyond reproach. The lyrics flow and they’re interesting. Big Boi owns this album, spewing confidence in every direction. “Run for Your Life” [NSFW] and “Goldmine Junkie” [NSFW] are good examples of Big Boi’s skills. “Born To Shine” [NSFW] is another example; in this song he gets a little help from El-P and Killer Mike a/k/a Run The Jewels.

Sarah Barthel’s voice is heavenly and Joshua Carter’s beats are sparse and masterfully crafted. The interplay between Barthel’s singing and Big Boi’s rapping isn’t perfect or incredibly interesting at certain points on the album but it’s good, very good music nonetheless. One of the album’s strongest songs is “Lights On” [NSFW], which should have been the anthem for summer 2015. The song provides a good stage for Barthel’s voice. Her vocals throughout the album are beautiful.

Big Grams gets much props for creating something very different. More important, Big Boi, Barthel, and Carter look and sound like they’re having fun and want you to join the party. Ain’t no shame in that game, right? (here’s an example when they combine Outkast’s “Ms. Jackson” & Phantogram’s “Mouthful of Diamonds” live in concert).

On a scale of Natalie Green (Forget It) to Tootie Ramsey  (Vet It) to Blair  Warner (Get It) on the other side of the spectrum, this album is a Tootie Ramsey “Vet It” 7+.

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Wolf Alice – “My Love Is Cool”

DNA: The Sundays; Joan Jett; Smashing Pumpkins (if D’arcy sang lead most of the songs); Sex Pistols; and a dash of Pixies

It’s my obligation to introduce you to Wolf Alice. “My Love Is Cool” is one of the strongest albums of 2015. Before 2015, Wolf Alice was not on my radar. I’m assuming the band isn’t on your radar, either. We need to change that.

The vibe of the album changes from song-to-song. Ellie Rowsell fronts this four-piece band from London. The band is tight. Some songs feature Rowsell’s lilting vocals reminiscent of Harriet Wheeler (e.g., “Turn To Dust“); other songs feature guttural screams from the soul rivaling Johnny Rotten’s and Alain Jourgensen’s epic screams (e.g., “You’re A Germ” and “Giant Peach“). The guitarist (Jeff Oddie), the bassist (Theo Ellis), and the drummer (Joel Amey), similarly transition from atmospheric backgrounds, to straight-up rock-and-roll sounds, to punk-rock mayhem.

My favorite song by far is “Your Loves Whore,” which features a compelling drum intro (think “Bullet The Blue Sky”), a chunky bass hook, and great crescendoing guitars. Rowsell displays her vocal prowess on this song. Another great track is “Moaning Lisa Smile,” a grungey relative of any Elastica song.

“My Love Is Cool” is an album to explore. There are surprises on each track, all equally enjoyable for multiple reasons. The song videos are equally creative, with “You’re A Germ” winning for the most creepy.

Recommendation: On a scale from Dorothy Zbornak (“Forget It”) to Blanche Devereaux (“Get It”), “My Love Is Cool” is a 10 Get It.

Joywave – How Do You Feel Now?

DNA: The Killers; Big Audio Dynamite; and Big Audio Dynamite II

One song. It took one song to introduce me to Joywave, a band from Rochester, NY. That song is “Tongues [NSFW],” a perfect combination of an infectious, sample-based hook, a prominent falsetto voice, and simple but deep lyrics. (The video is brilliant and features another unique New York-based band, KOPPS.) I can’t wait to hear more music from Joywave and am ecstatic that this band is building (already has) a fanbase beyond NY.

It’s unfair to focus on any one song because the album has many strong ones. Each song is slightly different and borrows from different genres of music. “Somebody New” starts off the album, giving the listener an introduction to the many sounds of Joywave. It is a heavier sound with strong vocals. “Carry Me” overshadowed the already stellar “Tongues,” with a catchy chorus. “In Clover” borrow unintentionally from Big Audio Dynamite’s strongest songs. The ironic lyrics and saccharine vocals on “Nice House” make a wonderful song.

Joywave has staying power and stands out among the many new releases in 2015. Although a different vibe from “How Do You Feel Now?”, I recommend listening to the Joywave’s “Koda Vista.”

Recommendation: On a scale of Joe Polnachek (Forget It) to Tootie (Get It), “How Do You Feel Now?” is a Get It, 9.

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