Sunrise: Music for Mellow Mornings Various Artists
Starbucks / Sony

Author:
SAS

Oscillating between sounds with the grace of an ice-skater, Sunrise is here to make you feel comforted in the mornings. The music is peaceful but not melancholy, just the kind of thing to start an ideal day. There are modern artists (Kronos Quartet, Yo-Yo Ma), classic greats (Duke Ellington, Buddy Holly), vocalists (Taj Mahal, Harry Nilsson) and super-chillers (Sigur Rós, John Williams).

While there' plenty of room for you to get annoyed at a particular song that you find to be dragging, there are also lots of important musicians on here. It's like a radio program that's been carefully planned to orchestrate the most hopeful moment of your day, and if it's the right program for you, it's worth getting and turning into a morning ritual.

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Getting Dressed in the Dark Jaron and the Long Road to Love
Jaronwood /Big Machine /Universal Republic /Universal

Author:
SAS

It’s super poppy and over-the-top emotional – and that’s just the music. Jaron’s not terrible – his narrative songs aren’t boring, and his boyish voice is surely appealing to some. Working up those heartrending parts of the album is a well-loved technique in modern country music, and he does it with an extra dose of eye-watering sappiness; PMS-ing people, beware.

But he and his music are just too cute and preppy. And his lyrics that are more rough around the edges, just aren’t three-dimensional. For example, his song “Pray for You,” the one that is getting lots of airplay right now, is just obnoxious, and even less ironic than Alanis Morissette's "Ironic." The cool thing: Jaron claims he started playing and singing again after his six-year hiatus because he wanted to cheer up all the unemployed people in this country with a bit of music.

ARTIST TO WATCH

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You Can't Keep a Big Man Down Big Joe
Severn /City Hall

Author:
SAS

Big Joe is a longtime singer and drummer from the Washington, DC, area. He combines blues with jazz, and after he stirs that around a while, he adds rock and swing. Sounding almost straight from the 1950s, but with a modern daring for trying intense rhythms, Big Joe will sound always on top of his game.

Sometimes he's strong in his sorrows, and sometimes elated with love and sometimes filled with sass. But always, he covers he greats with grace. You'll hear songs by B.B. King, Billy Wright, Johnny Green, Jay McShann, Jimmy McCracklin and others. The best part of You Can't Keep a Big Man Down is that you also can't pen a big man in. Big Joe is all over the map as far as influence. From New Orleans to Texas to Chicago, there's nary a boring moment.

Editor's Note: Lord knows, even down-home homeboys fall prey to sinful temptations of rock-and-roll life, and every last one of these get chronicled in lip-smacking detail— Sweet baby Jesus!

Single of The Week: "What the Hell Were You Thinkin'?"

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The Brightness Anais Mitchell
Righteous Babe

Author:
SAS

Hadestown, the rock opera about the classical cast of gods and humans in eternal sturggle with each other, is Anais Mitchell's opus. But The Brightness, the full length album Mitchell released before Hadestown, shows shades of her storytelling power, and is full of her characteristic, phrase-oriented songwriting.

The warmth of The Brightness is enough to keep you safe through even a cold Northeastern winter, through frigid heartbreak, through icey troubles. Guitar, banjo, organ and other instruments, used sparingly, cover the few spaces not filled with Mitchell's unique voice to keep the folk music flowing and the folksters listening. Real-life lyrics about the travelers and the lovers and the workers entwine beautifully with other-timely finger-picking to create a new perspective on the everyday. And that twisting of the usual is what makes Mitchell a master.

Editor's Note: The songs are so anthemic and moving—and anti-hero's walk in the wilderness. There's such a depth of intellect, which is different from most artists these days.

LATE BUT GREAT

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California Fade Anna Waronker
Five Foot Two

Author:
SAS

Anna Waronker was the lead singer of the L.A. band That Dog back in the 1990s. When the band broke up, she put out a solo album, Anna, in 2002. Now she is back with California Fade. Her solo work, while all produced and written by Anna herself, is not simply a solo effort. Guest musicians were necessary in fulfilling her vision.

And her vision is well worth fulfilling. Her self-aware, intriguing lyrics and play within the world of modern folk make for a strong album. It seems that Waronker cam striding out of left field, demanding our attention with her complex honey voice, piano melodies and lyrics that speak the truth uncontrollably and in metaphor and story. It's good to know that Waronker's flourishing in her new musical pursuits after such a long break.

 

Single of the Week: "California Fade"

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Shoot to Kill X-Pistols
Suburban Noize

Author:
SAS

Daddy X and the Dirtball of the Kottonmouth Kings get back to some punk-rock roots with the X-Pistol's debut album, Shoot to Kill. This is probably the closest to a punk sound you will ever get from from members of an Orange County rap-rock crossover group. It actually sounds quite genuine. Interestingly, the X-Pistols includes both typical rap themes and a sense of rockabilly into the music. Guns are a hot topic, for example.

Even the rapping that takes place on this album has a punk-rock feel, especially when combined with call and response stylings. There's definitely some angry youth vibes eminating from the album, so let yourself bask in a the fire of a new band whose creators are self-consciously still in love with punk no matter how often it has recently been corrupted by pop ethics.

Editor's Note: They sound like beer-swilling front-men, who have just eaten Springsteen for breakfast while rocking out to The Clash.

MIGHTY, MIGHTY!

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Swelly Express Chiddy Bang
Pretty Much Amazing / On Smash / Crooks & Castles /Virgin / EMI

Author:
SAS

Are you serious? They nab samples from MGMT, Ratatat and some of the other catchiest bands of the new millenium, and turn them into the freshest of cuts. "And if you don't know, now you know..." So Biggie samples are on here too. But it's not any kind of stealing, it is straight upcelebrating! Any artist should be honored to be sliced into a Chiddy Bang song.

On Swella Express, you'll hear the sometimes awkward story of kids on the Chinatown bus from Philly to New York City, and these same kids attempting to get a record deal, the humble beginnings. Rapping guests include Passion Pit, Jordan Brown, Black Thought and Eldee the Don. Pay special attention to the beats, too. Chiddy Bang is poised to blow up right about now.

Editor's Note: All they needed to conquer the world was scrappy, laser-fueled tunes about being young and hopeful in Philly.

Single of the Week: "The Opposite of Adults"


Synthesis DJ Rap
Ministry of Sound America / Moshk

Author:
SAS

Electronic music with electric guitar as the base sample instrument is DJ Rap's steez on Synthesis. She's focused on drum 'n' bass for much of her musical career, but with changing trends, and as she matures, she is reaching out for a new style. While much focus is placed on her beat-making, perhaps because she is part of the female minority of DJs, DJ Rap should be recognized just as much for her vocals.

She heavily layers the vocals on top of every song on the album, so they are integral to the sound of Synthesis. And they are surprisingly poppy. Perhaps they could be described as country vocals with a pop spin. These, with mellow beats put through rigorous post-production processing, make for a cohesive album that would do better to mellow you than to hype you up. In short, DJ Rap is experimenting and has found her pop persona.

LET THE GOOD TIMES ROLL

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World Is China Various Artists
Starcon

Author:
SAS

World Is China is a fantastic compilation of traditional and new sounds from across China. It captures the evolution of music as cultural borrowing, melding, and reconstruction takes place between the world of folk, pop, Beijing opera, electronica and hip-hop. Each song on the album has a unique sound, and yet all are infused with classic Chinese melodies.

The order of the songs juxtaposes the new with the old, the stereotypical with the surprising. However, the 16 artists on the album, take you on a journey that will break your expectations for what's possible in the music of a diverse country like China, but also for what's possible in music, period.

Editor's Note: Chairman Mao and his partner Chou-en-Lai must be cheering in their graves. It's about time that the music of China has been given some proper respect.

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Starlight on the Rails: A Songbook, 4 CD Set U. Utah Phillips
DaemonAK Press

Author:
SAS

These 61 Utah Phillips songs span his work from the 1970s to the 1990s. They display his solo skills as well as his work with others. Of the four discs in this set, one of them even shows what happens when Utah Phillips songs are covered by other artists. If you are not familiar with Phillips's work, the basic things you need to know are that he's folky, he's conscious and his wonderful character cannot help but shine through his voice.

Many of these songs were previously unavailable, making this much more than a "best-of" collection. But the most exciting part of this box set is that each and every song is preceeded by an indroduction by Phillips himself, in his kind and lisping voice. He gives us a background for each song that enriches the listening experience and the meaning of each song to our modern ears considerably. Utah Phillips passed on in 2008, but his gifts to us will go on, not in the least from the stories he tells in words and song.

Editor's Note: He was a folkie boy-child and a weathered vet by the time he laid down these inspired gems. He sounds youthfully self-absorbed and all the better for it, with acoustic guitar, earnest poetry and harmonies that sound like they came down from old Joe Hill himself. A true anarchist hero.

Political Album of the Week

Single of the Week: "Talking N.P.R. Blues"
 

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Bob Ya Head Robert Hurst
Bebob

Author:
SAS

Robert Hurst plays the bass like nobody's business, but his willingness to step outside the constraints of a regular jazz ensemble is what makes Bob Ya Head great. Part ode to Africa, part ode to electronica, Bob Ya Head dances across the musical map with rhythm as a compass. Backup vocal noises, trumpet, keyboard, drum kit and hand drums all close in around Hurst's playing like fireflys around a warm summer evening.

The music entrances. It's sometimes afro-beat, other times jazz. The continuity of the album, the effect of careful production, will keep you listening the entire time. For maximum listening pleasure, have a decent set of speakers that can handle bass. You will not forget the richness.

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The Black Pacific The Black Pacific
SideOneDummy

Author:
SAS

The Black Pacific is fronted by Jim Lindberg from Pennywise, and the punk feeling continues, but the band lineup is totally different. This change of bands represents for Lindberg a new start and a frash slate lyrically. He comes at this album with the enthusiasm of someone tempered by time who also realizes that we don't have forever to screw around - we need to make the music happen now.

The music is fast and furious and sunshiney as only a Hermosa Beach band can be. The Black Pacific isn't whitewashing life or focusing on trite subjects like first love as the pop-punkers do. He rather has a more phiosophical take on things, a style of songwriting that is integral tot he punk rock spirit. This means that The Black Pacific deserves punk credibility - their sense of fun music-making doesn't detract from the sincerity of the message.

NEW ARTIST OF THE WEEK

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Even Things Up Pete Anderson
Little Dog / Vizz Tone

Author:
SAS

Producer and guitarist Pete Anderson has decided to give us a full-length album of his own playing on Even Things Up. He is best known for his work with country star Dwight Yoakam, but on this album he proves that he's the master of the blues lick as well as the country lick. He knows how to use repetiton just enough to leave us wanting more.

This album is any kind of straight Chicago blues, though. It edges onto adult contemporary with how smooth it is and it's slick production, and into some interesting Latin rhythms as well. However, the themes of the songs carry out the edge that is really necessary for making a good blues album. That sentiment of a comedy of errors is what we all love, and Anderson makes sure we get it.

 

Single of the Week: "Prophet for Profit"

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Beautiful Mistake Lisa Morales
Zaino

Author:
SAS

This is the kind of songwriting that provides a lust for life even in the face of death. It provides love in a field of heartbreak. It is provides heaviness in the light and jazz in the mundane. Lisa Morales, formerly of the Sisters Morales, is dealing with some heavy topics in this album, yet it is one of her best creations to date.

With creativity and an unfaltering dedication to the music, Morales and backing musicians create something that will keep you toe-tapping the entire album through. The Mexican-American feel of Sisters Morales isn't as explicit on this album, but influences of country and a multitude of instrumental sounds make this as diverse as anything else she's been a part of.

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Live! From Texas The Derailers
Varese Saraband

Author:
SAS

Live! From Texas was, as the title implied, compiled from various live Derailers performances throughout Texas. The goal of the album is to show off the tight connection between dancers and band, and you truely can get a feel for what a honky-tonk band is capable of. Feeling good isn't the only thing that music can accomplish, but when what you need is a lift, the age-old cure of dancing to great musicians with a sense of foot-stomping rhythm really is the answer.

This is country music, but it's far from the polished modern style of the genre. Instead, throat growling, piano raging and a stinging group dynamics make this the band you want to go to for a rural good time.

Editor's Note: They've been on major labels, produced by Americana legend Dave Alvin, have crafted another fine, straight-ahead country record. The group never makes any apologies about being an unabashed traditionalist honkey-tonk outfit, equally comfortable with twangy, barroom ballads and western swing. They are better than great.

SO NICE GOTTA DO IT UP TWICE! (created by the original NYC D.J., Jocko, 1955)

Single Of the Week: "I'm Your Man"

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Through That Glass Vince Hatfield
Blue Moon

Author:
SAS

Vince Hatfield sings of Texas and love in poetic phrases with a heartfelt, kind voice and standard country backup. He is attracted to the redemption story, the moral story and the family story. And through this, the long-time musician has filled his eleventh album with the most important kind of country songs - the ones that remind of our own lives.

The music is radio-ready yet delightfully underground and genuine. You can hear the Hatfield has singing for the love it, not for the money, since he was a kid playing Merle Haggard songs. Revealing his vulnerability as well as his stength, this is for someone who loves modern country but is tired to the extra-commercial stuff.

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Wingwalker Jane Ira Bloom
Outline

Author:
SAS

Kenny G's alter ego? Not quite. Jane Ira Bloom and her band rocket into the stratosphere with moody soprano saxophone and its ethereal musings. It's everything you'd want from shmoozy jazz, made for the connoisseur, the cloud-floater, the sound-explorer, though not necessarily for the lay person. Unless, of course, you like new age music.

Bloom is known for her style and has been playing the saxophone for 30 years. Her electronic additions to the sounds of her music are groundbreaking in the saxophone world. Her compositions are experimental and much less commercial than someone like Kenny G's. But if you like her sound, Wingwalker 11 originals and one interpretive cover just for you.

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Greatest Hits Joe Nichols
Show Dog / Universal

Author:
SAS

Joe Nichols is still the most charming bad boy in country music. Now that it's time of a "greatest hits" album, you'll have the opportunity to hear his sexy attitude develop loud and clear throughout his career. He sings about the ladies, about not being able stay put, and of course, about country love. He seems to prefer the messy kind of girl, and that's a-ok with most of us real women.

Nichols's style of music isn't surprising for modern country. It's just focused on those good-time tunes and sweetheart lyrics and rural fantasies. But Nichols has a way of making us identifying with him. He's just quirky enough, and his voice is just twangy enought to draw into his heart, thereby opening our own. Nichol's singing is quite pleasing to boot.

Editor's Note: Joe Nichols, a half-Cherokee artist, took the roundabout way to country success, scoring his first hit six years after landing his first record deal. This greatest hits result is a perfect album that remakes the country landscape in his own image.

IF YOU LIKE MUSIC, YOU'LL LOVE THIS!

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No Boys Allowed Keri Hilson
Mosley / Interscope / Universal

Author:
SAS

If "no boys allowed" sounds more like an enticement for the boys than a warning, that's because it is. Keri Hilson, on this recording, turns up the haughty magnetism, singing about her booty and her beauty ("Boys wanna marry / lookin' at my derri / er"), about money and how boys are to treat the ladies. This sophomore album is less musically focused than her first album, and has a more fantastical feel - her character has taken off from the humanity she displayed on In a Perfect World.

But this confidence is what's needed to rise above a range of multi-faceted beats that could stand up on their own. Keri and her production team are willing to sway from R&B to hip-hop to reggae, but the time that the album is the strongest is when the club sounds are blasted loud and clear.

Editors Note: Her roadhouse fantasies, r and b soul and pure-love lyricism all peak at once.

BEST ALBUM OF THE WEEK

Single of the Week: "Gimme What I Want"

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The King Is Dead The Decemberists
Capitol / EMI

Author:
Sophia A. Strosberg

The Decemberists are the ultimate everything folk band with full of minor keys and feel-good lyrics. But nothing about the band is cliche. As with all good uplifting art, The Decemberists are truly able to inspire, which requires creativity and a sense of what people want to hear. They have the ability to capture our desires and tell us that we can achieve these, however difficult the road.

Folk instrumentation such as the autoharp, accordion and harmonica melds with drums, bass and a variety of guitars to bring us a ringing upbeat charge. Male and female vocals grace the environment of the music, and a real motivation to play with sincerity is present throughout. Themes that relate to the natural world show us that The Decemberists are, on The King Is Dead, as aware as ever about the world beyond our tiny everyday interactions. And perhaps that's what we need to think about if we are ever to lighten our loads. As they put it: "Don't carry it all / Let the yoke fall from our shoulders."

Editors Note: Their wisdom matches their spirit, cracking wise and casually breaking your heart.

Single of the Week: "Rox in the Box"

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Graves Mountain All-Star Jam (Rural Rhythm 55 Year Celebration Live Album) Various Artists
Rural Rhythm

Author:
SAS

Idyllic bluegrass festival; idyllic bluegrass. Some would say that bluegrass is at its best when played live, and this multi-artist recording, made at Grave's Mountain Festival of Music, proves this true. On the All-Star Jam, Rural Rhythm's favorite artists holler and pick their way through 12 songs.

Wistful vocal harmonies, top-notch musicianship and some long-awaited bluegrass pairings flow throughout the album. You'll get a real feeling for the festival as well, as all of the introductions to the songs are intact and there's a scrapbook of photos in the liner notes. Even the sad songs sound happy when played outside on a sunny day.

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