Producer: Don Was
Label: Michigan Broadcasting Corp.
Release Date: Feb. 14
It's been nearly 30 years since Mitch Ryder's last U.S. album, but he's hardly been a sleeping dog since that John Mellencamp-produced set ("Never Kick a Sleeping Dog"). The rock veteran remains popular and prolific in Europe, particularly Germany, and "The Promise"-released overseas in 2010 as "Detroit Ain't Dead Yet (The Promise)"-certainly showcases his creative growth during the past nearly three decades. This time in the hands of producer Don Was, Ryder displays confident, soul-singer swagger, singing about his life ("Thank You Mama") and these times ("The Way We Were") over the tight, funky underpinning of a crack band propelled by drummer James Gadson, with guitarist Randy Jacobs providing instrumental highlights throughout. The voice that belted out "Devil With a Blue Dress On" is still intact (check out the shouts at the end of "Thank You Mama"), but Ryder is just as effective when he dials it down on the richly emotive "Crazy Beautiful" and a soaring live cover of Jimmy Ruffin's "What Becomes of the Broken Hearted." This album is one promise that's more than fulfilled.
Producers: Brett Beavers, Luke Wooten
Label: Capitol Nashville
Release Date: Feb. 7
There are few singers out there who have the equal touch with a ballad and uptempo songs as Dierks Bentley. After taking a turn off the mainstream highway for his excellent 2010 album, "Up on the Ridge," Bentley returns with a set that spotlights his ease with both-maybe as strong as ever. Among the uptempo tunes, "Am I the Only One" stands out for its singalong chorus, as does the romp "5-1-5-0." A song that's almost sure to be a runaway hit is the clever "Diamonds Make Babies," which with the humor of the track brings to mind some of Waylon Jennings' best work. On the other side of the equation, the ballads fare pretty well themselves. "When You Gonna Come Around," a collaboration with Little Big Town's Karen Fairchild, is a stunner, as is the Conway Twitty-esque "Breathe You In," which should be a huge record among Bentley's female following. Throw in current single "Home," and you have what could well be Bentley's strongest country album to date-one that should provide him with plenty of well-deserved radio success.
Sharon Van Etten
Producers: Aaron Dessner, Sharon Van Etten
Label: Jagjaguwar Records
Release Date: Feb. 7
From the opening chords and pounding snare on first single "Serpents" alone, it's become clear that singer/songwriter Sharon Van Etten has come a long way in the short time since her largely acoustic 2010 release, "Epic." By the time she delivers the line, "You enjoy sucking on dreams/So I will fall asleep with someone other than you," amid machine-gun bursts of drums, it's evident that she can deliver the sass of Liz Phair with the soaring vocals of Neko Case. Along with the National's Aaron and Bryce Dessner, other guests include singers Jenn Wasner (of Wye Oak) and Julianna Barwick. It makes Tramp just as much a collective work of the Brooklyn rock scene as it is a Van Etten solo record. But the singer's knack for melody and a winning lyric shines throughout, particularly on tracks like "Magic Chords" (a duet with Aaron Dessner), "Leonard" and "All I Can," which takes on an anthemic quality with Barwick's harmonies. This album is sure to be a hit with Los Angeles' KCRW crowd, but could see Van Etten broaden her base to a point where she's mentioned in the same breath as many of her accomplished guests.
Producer: Manfred Eicher
Label: ECM Records
Release Date: Feb. 7
Two years of rehearsal preceded the recording of "Snakeoil," giving saxophonist Tim Berne and his quartet a shot at creating a unique vocabulary and series of dialogues that move between the composed and improvised. Berne and clarinetist Oscar Noriega form a front line that creates mood- and image-evoking blocks of music-a midnight sky, bustling car traffic, a downhill run-that receives contrasts and support from pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer/ percussionist Ches Smith. The songs are lengthy-four of the six tracks exceed 12 minutes-and all showcase each instrumentalist contributing to a collective force, shying away from any technical displays heavy on the "wow" factor. Berne, with more than 30 years in jazz's avant-garde, has a sympathetic comrade in Noriega, whether they're emphasizing the meditative or the rapturous. Smith is largely responsible for creating tension throughout the album's 68 minutes, adding an urgent rock sound to the compelling "Yield," a track that picks up where John Coltrane's "Stellar Regions" left off.
ROBERT GLASPER EXPERIMENT
Producers: Robert Glasper, Bryan-Michael Cox
Label: Blue Note/EMI
Release Date: Feb. 28
Robert Glasper proves why he's a multitalent to be reckoned with on his brilliant fourth album, Black Radio. While his roots are definitely in jazz, the keyboardist/producer/songwriter/bandleader knows no boundaries, deftly incorporating hip-hop, R&B and rock into a fresh sound that never comes off as trite or forced. Reminiscent of the intrepid days of black radio-before playlist-tightening and copycat music strangled the medium-the album is a rewarding listen from start to finish. Complementing Glasper's tight Experiment band is a diverse array of artists who personify urban music's vast spectrum. Spoken-word opener "Lift Off" sets things in motion. From there friends Erykah Badu, Lalah Hathaway, Lupe Fiasco, Bilal, Ledisi and Stokley Williams bring their own special gifts to the party. It's like you're listening to an impromptu jam session, where everything and everyone is clicking on all cylinders. That's especially the case on such originals as lead single "Ah Yeah" with Chrisette Michele and Musiq Soulchild and "Gonna Be Alright (F.T.B.)" featuring Ledisi. Glasper's crew also brings a new dimension to covers of Sade's "Cherish the Day" with Hathaway and Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit." A jazz-infused take on Nirvana? There's no stopping Glasper, and thank goodness for that.
Producer: Mark Nevers
Label: Merge Records
Release Date: Feb. 21
Loss and memory as fodder for artistic inspiration is a centuries-old conceit. And in paying tribute to the late Vic Chesnutt, Kurt Wagner and Lambchop quickly set a dark mournful tone on Mr. M and maintain it throughout. A tribute to the pain Chesnutt expressed in his songs, the album is also a lushly orchestrated affair, befitting of a graveside service rather than a wake. The material on Mr. M is a collection of modern saloon songs, the slow ballads that pour out with the final shot in the bottle. Instead of, "It's quarter to three/No one's in the place/Except you and me," it's, "So stay in/Clean your coffee maker/I adore you and I represent you crying." No barfly, Wagner is more often standing in the kitchen, chronicling the mundane and posing cryptic questions. The strings, a crucial element on the Nashville band's 11th album, stir feelings of solitude and hopelessness, echoing Burt Bacharach and Frank Sinatra's '50s sessions. It's Wagner's voice-a tenor swooping toward baritone without quite hitting Leonard Cohen territory-that indicates despair will eventually end, and that the haze of depression is a dreamlike state and one day we'll all awaken.
Producer: Jim Eno
Label: Partisan Records
Release Date: Feb. 14
The Austin group's fourth album, Arrow, is all about change-and being the better for it. Singer/guitarist Erika Wennerstrom is on the other side of the romantic breakup she chronicled on 2009's The Mountain. But she's still reeling a bit ("For a long while I thought I would break/But now I know it just takes a while," Wennerstrom sings). The band, meanwhile, has changed labels and lineups, unveiling a four-piece format that, along with Spoon drummer Jim Eno's production, gives Heartless Bastards more depth and texture than ever on these 10 tracks. The sound is broader, too, exploring different shades of rock-the crunchy "Got to Have Rock and Roll," the psychedelic-tinged "Simple Feeling" and the doomy, album-closing epic "Down in the Canyon." Other examples include noir laments like "The Arrow That Killed the Beast" and "Marathon," the soulful pop of "Only for You," the smooth Americana of "Skin and Bone" and "Parted Ways" and the sparse, folky "Low Low Low." Arrow is pointed and poignant, a sharp continuation of the upward trajectory Wennerstrom and company have been on since 2005.
Reviews by: RJ Cubarrubia, Chuck Dauphin, Phil Gallo, Gary Graff, Andrew Hampp, Jason Lipshutz, Gail Mitchell, Ryan Reed, and Maria Sherman