It’s gift-shopping time, for gift-worthy recordings, recommended alphabetically, by artist.
* Bombino “Azel” — A fresh, fine world-beat guitar-voice-and-band blast from the Nigerian master of happy riffs, move-your-feet beats and post-Hendrix riff solos. Dave Longstreth of Dirty Projectors produced this pulsating party soundtrack in Woodstock.
* Leonard Cohen “You Want it Darker” — A stunning sign-off from rock’s best poet, Dylan’s Nobel Prize notwithstanding. Cohen wrote and spoke-sang as if he knew the end was near but still had important things to tell us. This farewell is as compelling as David Bowie’s “Black Star.”
* Drive-By Truckers “American Band” — Their first album to hit the heights of their departed co-writer Jason Isbell, this is a hard-rocking, warts-and-all snapshot of an anxious and divided America. Writers Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley tear off the hoods hiding racism, gun violence and fear of the other as effectively as the election.
* Alejandro Escovedo “Burn Something Beautiful” — It’s beautiful and it burns: forceful guitar rock, old-school. When he yells, “C’mon!” they (some R.E.M. guys and other killers) light it up. Singing behind the beat brings Escovedo’s words into bright prominence; nobody means it more than he does.
* The Jayhawks “Paging Mr. Proust” — Best-ever lineup of this often-changing band serves up some great straight-ahead rock songs – the gloriously noisy “Ace,” the sweet “Lovers of the Sun,” the jaunty jangle of “Comeback Kids” and “The Dust of Long-Dead Stars”– packed among very good ones, all performed with suave confidence.
* Norah Jones “Day Breaks” — A brilliant consolidation, it’s jazzier than her jazzy multi-Grammy debut, rocks harder than anything she’s done before and even visits country. She gets tremendous support from a truly all-star crew including jazz-sax master Wayne Shorter and, as always, is a supple, versatile instrument herself.
* Maxwell “blackSUMMERSnight” — State of the art, and of the moment, R&B: powerful songs wonderfully well sung and played with uncommon unity and purpose. This album is so strong that the songs accompanied by Robert Glasper’s great band don’t stand out: Everything stands out.
* NRBQ “High Noon – A 50-Year Retrospective” — This is a five-CD gorgeous, gleeful romp through every flavor and every phrase of perhaps our greatest band. The unifying constant is the widescreen vision of keyboardist Terry Adams who co-founded the ‘Q – yes, 50 years ago – and still leads it today. It’s 106 songs deep, stretching from the pre-Q’ Seven of Us (1966) to the crew that rocked The Egg last week.
* Sturgill Simpson “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” — Here’s a Nashville record that breaks all the Nashville rules to astonishing effect. Simpson’s sound is a surprisingly effective blend: an up-hollow hillbilly voice, psychedelic big-band rock and super-witty, evocative writing. Check Estonian-born guitarist Laur Jaomets.
* Allen Toussaint “American Tunes” — His last recording, another Joe Henry production masterpiece and swan song of an American great. Toussaint played lovely piano right up to the end: He died on tour. Like the late, great Leon Russell, he was a briliant architect of sounds, specifically those of his native New Orleans.
* Trixie Whitley “Porta Bohemica” — A young talent with promise as great as her genes. Daughter of the late, great modern bluesman Chris Whitley (check his “Living With the Law”), she has arrived, with a detailed and compelling vision, and an arresting sound framing a persuasive, bone-deep voice.
* Wussy “Forever Sounds” — Power-tool blue-collar rock-blues by masters from Cincinnati who work dirty-fingernail day-jobs. They mirror Rust Belt desperation in every chain-saw chord, every fuzz-toned riff. Amid high-angst explosions, such wistful departures as “Better Days” add pained ironies cloaked in deceptive sweetness. Brilliantly paced, played and sung with fiery fervor, the record takes you up, down and all around, then lets you down gently.
* Nels Kline “Lovers” — The Wilco axe-man continues his non-rock explorations on this sonically rich two-disc set where guitar melodies emerge from abstract clouds, fade, mutate and reassemble in new shapes with strings and horns. It’s the music of smart and fearless dreaming; cozy chamber jazz.
* Charles Lloyd & the Marvels “I Long To See You” —A venerable sax master teams up with guitarists Bill Frisell (six-string electrics) and Greg Leisz (on pedal steel here, he supports Jackson Browne at the Palace April 9), Eric Harland (drums) and Reuben Rogers (bass) lay down the beats, and Norah Jones and Willie Nelson guest-sing. A beautiful rocking, swinging meditation on melody and momentum.
* Brad Mehldau Trio “Blues and Ballads” — It’s just what the simple title claims, but its modesty understates the elegance, eloquence and exquisite control of this music. Mehldau, bassist Larry Grendadier and drummer Jeff Ballard played some of this mostly quiet repertoire at The Egg in April; it’s nice to have more of it on this sumptuous album.
* Gregory Porter “Liquid Spirit” — Forget the gimmicky hat, just listen to the warm, buttery sound of Porter’s singing, the graceful funk of his band, the unerring song choices. Porter serves savory jazz as comfort food, but he also easily invites listeners past its polished surface to soulful substance.
* Markus Stockhausen & Florian Weber “Alba” — This subtle music tiptoes out of your speakers and eases into the quiet place where contemplative pleasure lives. It’s a caress as much as a meditation; the often improvised but always cogent collaboration of trumpeter/composer Stockhausen (son of composer Karlheinz) and pianist Weber.
* Vijay Iyer & Wadada Leo Smith “A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke” — Amazingly, another brilliant trumpet-and-piano duets album, this pairs melodic young Albany-born pianist Iyer with older (74) spikey abstract trumpeter Smith in airy inventions that seem to arrive from mid-air, then unfold, often at a leisurely pace, always to startling effect.
I was late catching up to these extra-cool jazz albums last year, music worth a listen in any year.
* Cecile McLorin Salvant “For One to Love” —A wonderfully expressive young voice, singing songs often older than she is, but without a hint of misplaced modernizing or condescension. She sings everything as if it arrived fresh that morning, like this newspaper landing on the doorstep or screen. Pianist Aaron Diehl’s trio plays sensitive, strong accompaniment.
* Kamasi Washington “The Epic” — A HUGE record: three discs crammed to overflowing with ambition fulfilled by inspiration. The saxophonist/composer’s vision unites everything, but he gives his mates plenty of latitude, greatly enriching the music. Try this, really: Listen to it all, front to back – it’s a tremendous ride.
Happy shopping, gifting and listening.
Reach Gazette Columnist Michael Hochanadel at [email protected]