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Favorite Albums of 2019 

It looks like another year has passed where I did not write any individual album reviews.  Sorry about that.  I did listen to a lot of music and I wrote a decent amount of it too.  Often, I am discovering old music that I have not yet heard.  For instance, I listened to a lot of Cheap Trick (going beyond the hits), Whitesnake (because it's an extension of Deep Purple), Lou Reed (some of the deep cut albums) and Peter Frampton (under-rated) and many more.  I also relistened to the entire Bob Dylan official discography and the official bootleg series (and what I had of the unofficial ones).  However, as is the tradition, these are the ten NEW albums that I found myself listening to again and again.  The releases from 2019 that I enjoyed most were:

1. Jenny Lewis – On The Line 

2. Jade Bird – Jade Bird 

3. Grace Potter – Daylight 

4. Duff McKagan – Tenderness  

5. Matt Maeson – Bank on the Funeral  

6. The New Pornographers – In the Morse Code of Break Lights 

7. Sleater-Kinney – The Center Won’t Hold 

8. White Reaper – You Deserve Love 

9. The Cactus Blossom’s – Easy Way 

10. Blink-182 – NINE

Chestertons Release New Single “Heaven” 

Cleveland’s Chestertons have dropped a new jam, “Heaven,” from their forthcoming EP.  The song begins with an ambient arena rock guitar build that recalls bands like U2 and Angels & Airwaves.  However, as soon Kevin Bianchi’s beautiful vocal kicks in, you know that you’re listening to something distinctive and different.  The song shifts into a driving and memorable chorus that asks: “Do you know what it’s like to be recklessly loved?”  “Heaven” is accessible and likeable on the first the listen.  If the Chestertons keep up this kind of momentum on the rest of the EP, we’re all in for a treat.  You can hear the song by clicking here

Out of the Shadows . . . 

Meet the Shadow Division, the four-piece rock outfit based out of Cleveland, OH featuring: Max Espinosa (vocals and guitar), Michael Ridley (guitar), Joe LaGuardia (bass) and Kevin Hannah (drums).  On their self-titled debut EP, the band weaves a sonic tapestry that fuses the best elements of 80s and 90s alternative, 2000s indie and modern punk.  Think of bands like the Explosion, U2 and Midtown mixed together with a hint of Taking Back Sunday (minus the screaming).  Shadow Division’s songs have heavy hooks, pop sensibilities and well-crafted lyrics that balance between themes of angst and vulnerability.  The group worked with producer Jim Stewart, and each track cuts through with a crisp excitement and urgency.  Honestly, the EP flows from front to back without a dud in the batch.  It’s a promising debut by a band with ambition and potential for great things.  Check this record out and catch them in the clubs of Cleveland and beyond . . .

Blink-182 Go Back to the Basics 

With California, we have a rebooted Blink-182 deciding how to carry on after parting ways with co-lead-singer and guitarist Tom DeLonge.  In many ways the album is very nostalgic and plays heavily to the music of the band’s Enema of the State and Take Off Your Pants and Jacket commercial glory days.  However, do not be critical of this choice.  The band is refinding its footing by going back to the sound that first made kids love them.  California is an album made with an eye on the fans.  Mark Hoppus, Travis Barker and new member Matt Skiba (of Alkaline Trio-fame) knew that this album would be scrutinized to death, especially given the absence of DeLonge.  Teaming with producer John Feldmann, they circled the wagons and delivered the most Blinky-sounding Blink-182 album they could muster.  This concept may drive some cynicism among listeners.  Fans will miss the Mark Hoppus-Tom DeLonge back and forth vocal deliveries, but when you focus on the songs, you realize that this record sounds like the Blink-182 that made you want to fall in love with the girl at the rock show.  Also, Matt Skiba is no slouch.  He may not have been the immediate obvious choice for a replacement for DeLonge, but he’s a pretty solid “step-dad” and shares similar musical roots to Barker and Hoppus.  Skiba fills the DeLonge roll guitar-wise, but he sings like Matt Skiba.  
Kick back and enjoy the early-2000’s throwback sounds of “She’s Out of Her Mind,” “Kings of the Weekend,” “No Future” and the lead single “Bored to Death.”  The album hits a few less inspiring moments with “Rabbit Hole,” “Home Is Such a Lonely Place” and the title track.  Goofy mini-tracks like “Built This Pool” and “Brohemian Rhapsody” recall the sophomoric charm of old-school Blink-182.  Keep an open mind.   There is plenty of summer fun to be found on this record. 
Essential tracks:  “Bored to Death,” “She’s Out of Her Mind,” & “Kings of the Weekend.” 

Tegan and Sara - Love You To Death 

Having reached a new level of commercial success on 2013's Heartthrob, Tegan and Sara continue in the same indie pop vein with their latest effort, Love You To Death.  However, the follow up is not as compelling.  LYTD is certainly not bad, but when held up against its predecessor and masterpieces like So Jealous and The Con, LYTD’s limitations show.  There are solid songs like “Faint of Heart” with its big eighties pop chorus, also the anthemic "Stop Desire" as well as the harshly honest ballad “100x.”  Yet, LYTD lacks a monster single like “Closer” (from Heartthrob).  “Closer” was infectious but had an explosive emotional weight that made it great.  Further, Tegan and Sara up until this point have always been a band that always moved forward and evolved with each release.  Each album was united by similar lyrical themes, but the production style shifted.  LYTD is less ambitious and feels more like they are treading water.  Again, LYTD is not a bad album.  Tegan and Sara are still a great band.  It is just that they've been better.

Essential tracks: "Stop Desire," "100x" & "Faint of Heart."

Clapton Still Does  

At 71, Eric Clapton proves that he still has his fire.  The icon's newest record, I Still Do, is a swampy and soulful blues journey that is arguably the man's finest album since his 2004 tribute to Robert Johnson, Me and Mr. Johnson.  Although Clapton has admitted that a neurological disorder is making guitar playing more difficult for him, none of that shows as Old Slowhand gracefully feels his way through a collection of originals and covers.  I Still Do is produced by the legendary Glyn Johns who helmed Clapton’s 1970s classics Slowhand and Backless, which contain some of Clapton’s biggest hits.  
I Still Do does not have any real duds.  There are some more forgettable tracks like Clapton’s “Catch the Blues” and “Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day.”  However, they do not detract from the overall listening experience.  Clapton really grooves on his covers of JJ Cale’s “Can’t Let You Do It” and “Somebody's Knocking'”.  “I Will Be There” features Ed Sheeran (credited as Angelo Mysterioso, a pseudonym first employed by George Harrison when he guested with Clapton’s band Cream in 1968).  Other standouts are his take on Dylan’s “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine,” Robert Johnson’s “Stones In My Passing” and the opener “Alabama Women.”  
On his original “Spiral” he sings: “You don't know how much this means to have this music in me.  I just keep playing these blues hoping that I don't lose.  I just keep playing my song hoping that I get along.  You don't know how much it means to have this music in me.”  On I Still Do, these words are especially poignant.  The bluesman sounds inspired.  Despite Clapton’s physical ailments, the guitarist says he is not done.  Let’s hope so.  

Essential tracks: "Can't Let You Do It", "Somebody Knockin'", "Spiral" and "Stones In My Passing."

Rocky Return of P!ATD 

Brendan Urie is a great vocalist and front man.  He is the sole remaining original Panic! member and has been dutifully keeping the brand alive by delivering inspired live shows and a steady flow of new music.  However, in a nutshell, the new Panic! At The Disco album, Death Of A Bachelor, is cripplingly uneven.  The greatest flaw of the album is that the albums worst songs all hit at the beginning of the album.   “Victorious,” “Don’t Threaten Me With A Good Time,” and “Emperor’s New Clothes” come off as substance-lacking Fall Out Boy throwaways.   “Hallelujah” is the exception to this on the album’s opening with its sampling of Chicago “Questions 67 and 68” and catchy chorus.  So if you wade through the garbage at the front of the album, you actually hit some good stuff.  
Urie’s love of Sinatra is a good thing.  He lets that flag fly on the album’s title track as well as on the closer “The Impossible Year.”  Then, you also get your more traditional Panic! songs with fun jams like “LA Devotee,” “Golden Days,” “House of Memories” and “The Good, The Bad And The Dirty.”  It’s in these songs that the merit of Death Of A Bachelor comes through.  This album is probably the band’s least compelling album, but there are enough redeeming moments for us to not write Urie and Co. off.  
Essential tracks: “Golden Days,” “Hallelujah,” and “House of Memories.”

Sticky Fingers Revisited – the 2015 Reissue! 

Everybody knows that Sticky Fingers is one of the all-time great rock and roll records.  This past week, the album was reissued again, but this time with extras.  So the million-dollar question is are the extras worth it?
That depends – the recent Rolling Stones reissues of Exile On Main St. and Some Girls gave you a number of unheard songs, some of them with newly completed vocals from Mick Jagger and guitar from Mick Taylor.  With Sticky Fingers, the band admits that they already raided the cookie jar pretty heavily with the Exile reissue so there wasn’t as much left when they went back for this one.  Therefore, the extras of the “Deluxe Version” hinge on five alternate takes and five live cuts.  The first is an alternate version of “Brown Sugar” with Eric Clapton on slide guitar.  It’s pretty cool for historical reasons and has a good edgy feel.  “Wild Horses” lacks the electric leads and Keith’s harmonies and feels empty.  “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” captures the band figuring out the song.  It’s pretty loose.  The alternate take of “Bitch” has a lot of fight to it and Jagger sings some alternate lyrics.  It is interesting to hear the song develop.  Eventually the track comes to an abrupt ending.  “Dead Flowers” sounds a little dirtier and is played a slightly faster than the final album version.  However, none of the alternate takes surpass the versions that are on the final official album.  They are fun, but not essential to the casual listener. 
The rest of the bonus disc features five Sticky Fingers-era live tracks from the Stones’ 1971 performance at the Roundhouse.  The five songs, “Live With Me,” “Stray Cat Blues,” “Love In Vain,” “Midnight Rambler,” and “Honky Tonk Women” are cool gritty examples of the Stones’ live power, but none of these songs are actually tracks from Sticky Fingers.  The fade-ins and outs show that these are clearly part of a longer concert.  Why not include tracks from Sticky Fingers
Lastly, if you pick up the digital version of the “Super Deluxe” Sticky Fingers or paid $152.98 for the physical box set, you get a bonus disc of a 1971 full concert at the University of Leeds.  The show features the Stones introducing the Sticky Fingers material to the crowd for the first time.  It’s pretty great and is a more rewarding listen than the five alternate takes and five live cuts on the standard “Deluxe Version.”
Sticky Fingers is an undeniable classic and rock fans of all generations should be familiar with it.  The question with the reissue is how much you want to invest in it.  If you want the bonus material and don’t want to spend $152.98 on the box set, I would recommend buying the $19.99 digital version so that you get the University of Leeds live material.  That is the way to maximize your "satisfaction." 
Essential Bonus Track: “Brown Sugar (feat. Eric Clapton)”

Another Beauty From FOB . . .  

On the band’s second post-hiatus album, American Beauty/American Psycho, Fall Out Boy prove that they are still one of the boldest pop-rock bands around.  This year marks the tenth anniversary of FOB’s commercial breakthrough From Under the Cork Tree.  It would be easy for the band to rehash the past and do anniversary tour for that album.  That is not the band’s style.  They don’t need to.  They are still a vibrant and commercially-successful musical outfit cranking out hits.  As always, they never make the same album twice – yet anchored by Patrick Stump’s distinctive and soulful vocals and Pete Wentz’s clever lyrical wordplay, the band doesn’t lose touch.  When you hear Fall Out Boy, you know it is them.
Much of FOB’s new American Beauty/American Psycho centers around up-tempo arena jams that are sure to be blasted at sporting events for the next couple years.  “Centuries” is a prime example.  It was the album’s first single and has been used heavily on ESPN.  “Irresistible” and “Immortals” play into the same themes.  However, the real standouts on this album are the title track, “Novicane” and “Uma Thurman.”  “Uma Thurman” is a lot of fun and even makes a sample of the Munster’s surfy theme song sound pretty badass.  Meanwhile, “American Beauty/American Pyscho” and “Novicane” are pure adrenaline dance parties.  With an album that fixates on high-energy stadium rockers, the quieter moments (“The Kids Aren’t Alright” and “Jet Pack Blues”) are refreshing and welcome as well. 
At this point in their career, FOB is still as brash and bold as they were when they first rose to popularity.  They are not afraid to embrace arena pop-rock and they do it well.  Haters are gonna hate, but American Beauty/American Psycho is a welcome addition to the FOB catalogue.
Essential tracks: “American Beauty/American Psycho”, “Uma Thurman” & “The Kids Aren’t Alright”.

Shawn & Shelby's Sparse & Beautiful Debut 

Sleeping In A Spell is the beautiful debut release by Cleveland-based duo Shawn & Shelby a.k.a Shawn Brewster and Shelby Lynn Sangdahl.  Many may already be familiar with the two’s work in their other band Oldboy.  What is most notably different comparing Shawn & Shelby with Oldboy is the way the songs are arranged.  Sleeping In A Spell is a much more sparse presentation of their music.  In this new setting, the poetic elements of Brewster’s lyrics becomes a greater focal point.  Meanwhile, Sangdahl’s cello playing tastefully adds dynamics and drama to each track. 
The record consists of six songs: five originals and a cover of Iron & Wine’s “Upward Over The Mountain.”  They are all warmly, yet crisply engineered by Jim “The Wizard” Stewart.  The opening track “Light” is one of Brewster’s prettiest melodies.  “The Sound of Breathing” could have fit well with Springsteen’s material on the Devils And Dust album.  Sleeping In A Spell is a consistently excellent EP.  However, the crown jewel of the collection is “Speed of Night”.  The song is both somber and exciting in its arrangement as Brewster’s guitar and voice musically converse back and forth with Sangdahl’s cello.  The song’s lyrics are rich in their imagery.  For example: “Sick of my sins.  Sick of all these cities and these sidewalks paving over hell.” And: “Bend me back and forth like a wire.  Watch me as I dance and shake like a liar."  "Speed of Night's" lyrics offers many great lines that brew with harsh, but vulnerable sincerity. 
All in all, Sleeping In A Spell is a promising and compelling debut that highlights the musical chemistry between Shawn & Shelby.  It is now being offered at a “pay what you want” price on the group’s bandcamp, so check it out.  If you’re looking for a soulful Americana record to listen to by the fire this ungodly cold February, this is it.  Put it on.  Open up that bottle of Malbec and let the winter winds howl.

AC/DC "Rock or Bust" Rocks 

Throughout their 40-year career, AC/DC have never altered their signature sound.  They have never apologized for not growing artistically.  They have never written a ballad and for that, we salute them.  There is something so inherently primal and blood boiling about their music.  Even though one could argue that they are rehashing the same old themes and drum parts every time, their music is somehow still refreshing and hits you in the gut.  With rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young retired and sadly battling dementia, the band carries on with Rock or Bust using Malcolm and Angus’s nephew Stevie to fill in.  (Malcolm is credited as a co-writer, but does not play on any of the songs).  Although Malcolm’s presence is surely missed by fans and the band, ten seconds into listening to the opening title track, it is clear that nothing has changed.  The spark that is AC/DC continues to rock.  Though most of the members of the band are in their sixties, the band sounds as fierce as ever as Angus and Stevie deliver riff after electrifying riff.  Brian Johnson’s howl is intact too as he croons double entendres about sex, women and rock and roll.  Rock or Bust is a good time from start to finish, but be sure to enjoy the title track, “Play Ball”, “Rock The Blues Away” and “Baptism By Fire”.  40 years ago, AC/DC discovered a magic musical formula that they never needed to change.  Because if it ain’t broken?
Essential Tracks: “Rock or Bust” & “Rock The Blues Away”

Nothing Really New, But Still Solid Foo 

At this point, it would be tough for the Foo Fighters to make a bad record.  They are too talented and too consistent to fall into those traps.  On their new album Sonic Highways, the band stays within familiar territory.  There are some small sonic developments (a track with horns and one with an orchestra) but nothing groundbreaking.  It’s a solid and pleasant record.  None of its eight tracks are bad, but none of them really stun you.  The intro to the opener “Something From Nothing” is kind of similar to the opening to their song “Skin and Bones”, but diverges into an up-tempo rocker.  The two standouts are the horn-infused “In The Clear” and the epic orchestral closer “I Am The River”.   In the canon of the Foos, Sonic Highways does not reach the heights of predecessors like 2011’s Wasting Light 2005’s, In Your Honor or 1990s jewels The Colour And The Shape or There Is Nothing Left To Lose.  Yet, it is more consistent than commercial successes such as Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace and One By One.  All in all, it is the Foo Fighters, which means the album was made with thoughtful integrity.  And since it is the Foo Fighters, it is still way better than most of the competition. 
Essential tracks: “In The Clear” & “I Am The River”

Gerard Way's Brit-pop Experiment  

Gerard Way’s solo debut Hesitant Alien is an interesting experimental tribute to the Brit-pop of the 1990s and late-seventies Bowie.  From the instrumentation to the way the album is mixed, he definitely had a vision for what he wanted.  It is a big enough shift in sound that it is not unlikely that this will throw some My Chemical Romance fans for a loop on the first listen.  However, if you dig into the record, it becomes apparent that if some of these songs were given a more “commercial” mix they could have the poppy shimmer of Way’s former rock band.  For example, with a different mix, “Action Cat” could have worked on MCR’s Danger Days and “Brother” could have worked with The Black Parade.  The stand out track on the record is “Millions”.  The song blends power-pop and surfy-post-punk and is sure to get the mosh pit started. 
Essential Tracks: “Millions”, “Brothers” & “Drugstore Perfume”

Weezer Makes Things Right 

Weezer have never put out a “bad” album.  The music was always pleasant enough, but their more recent albums can be criticized for lacking the emotional depth that made their earlier work so compelling.  This month, Weezer released Everything Will Be Alright In The End and it is a true return to form.  It is clear that lead singer and songwriter Rivers Cuomo really wanted to deliver on this one.  He dug deep lyrically and, along with his band mates, came through big time.  “Back To The Shack”, “Lonely Girl”, “Da Vinci” and “The British Are Coming” are the clear standouts.  Sonically, they reflect the sound of the band’s 1990s work, but at the same time it is not a total rehash.  All in all, this is a delightful record that is sure to be one of this year’s bests. 
Essential tracks: “Back To The Shack”, “Da Vinci” & “The British Are Coming”

U2’s Gift Horse Album 

So much has been said about U2’s surprise “free” album, Songs of Innocence.  Rumor has it that the band earned 100 million dollars from Apple.  Questions have been raised:  Is it a violation of privacy for Apple iCloud users to have this album “forced” upon them? Is this just another instance of Bono and the Illuminati trying to take over the world?  These questions have their place.  However, here at The Rolling Clone Blogazine, the only questions to be asked are: “What is the music like and is it any good?”
First off, if Apple is going to give you a free album, this is a pretty good choice.  Love or hate the band, U2 is always looking forward and not afraid of modern production and new sounds.  At the same time, you can listen to this record and still know that you are listening to U2.  Tribal rock drumming, spacey guitars and soaring arena-sing-along vocals – yep, all of these elements are here in spades. 
U2 is one of the biggest bands around, but for a large number of people this “free” album may be their introduction to the band.  Bono and Co. know this and make the record extremely accessible.  Songs of Innocence is not as daring of an album as their last studio effort, 2009’s No Line On The Horizon, but it is a lot more fun and upbeat.  Each track is anchored by a memorable pop melody.  The album opens with “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)”.  Driven by a dirty rhythm guitar riff and woah chants, the song is infectious.  The follow up, “Every Breaking Wave” is classic U2 and reminiscent of their sound on All That You Can’t Leave Behind.   “California (There Is No End To Love)”, a driving pop song, and “Song For Someone”, a beautiful ballad, keep the listening experience enjoyable and friendly.  The strongest material is at the front of the record.  The later tracks (“This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now” and “Raised By Wolves”) on the record may require a second or third listening to get into them, but ultimately remain pretty accessible for people who like rock music in general.  All in all, as a consumer, there really is no reason not to get this album, especially since it is free (until October 14) and the artist is still getting paid.  You can be critical of its commerciality and/or the way it was delivered to you, but on the whole, it is still easily one of the year’s best albums, so quit complaining. 
Essential tracks: “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)”, “Song For Someone” & “Every Breaking Wave”.

Foxy Shazam’s Gonzo Mess 

Steve Albini producing Nirvana = good idea.  Apparently, Steve Albini producing Foxy Shazam = bad idea.  Gonzo, the follow-up to 2012’s (and Rolling Clone Blogazine’s winner of album of the year), The Church of Rock and Roll, is a bit of a letdown.  With Albini at the helm and the band recording live in the studio, something got lost in translation.  A lot of the record sounds like a cross between Deep Purple with horns and the first Foo Fighters record, but not in a good way.  The band comes off as self-indulgent and missing much of its infectious charisma and over-the-top attitude.  The mixes are muddy as if the respective band members were arguing over whose instrument should be the loudest.  Eric Nally is one of the best frontmen around, but on Gonzo he appears uninspired and overpowered by the cacophony surrounding him. 
With a band as good as Foxy Shazam, it is hard to write off the album completely.  Tracks like “Shoe Box” and “Don’t Give In” could have turned out cool.  Perhaps if they had reteamed with the Darkness’s Justin Hawkins, a man who understood and knew how to direct the band? 

Candy Hearts: Sugar-Sweet Pop-punk 

All The Ways You Let Me Down,
the sophomore LP from New Jersey’s Candy Hearts, recalls the glory days of the pop-punk emo movement, a time when bands like Blink-182, NFG and Sum 41 were all over MTV and the charts.  In fact, any one of these songs on this eleven-track collection, produced by NFG’s Chad Gilbert, could have fit nicely on one of the American Pie soundtracks.  Fueled by big sing-along choruses, emotional lyrics, big drums and crunchy guitars, All The Ways You Let Me Down is a fun summer record that is hard to turn off. 
On a first listen, it is easy to get hooked by mosh-pit starters like “I Miss You”, “Michigan” and the title track.  On subsequent listens, the rest of the songs reveal their own strengths.  For instance, “Coffee With Friends” is a nice change of pace as an up-tempo acoustic track with lush chorus harmonies.  Another driving pop gem is “Fools Gold” with singer and songwriter, Mariel Loveland, telling off some boy by singing: “You are fools gold.  You’re wicked and beautiful, but I’ve got nothing left for you”.  All in all, if you miss the heyday of pop-punk, before slick over-production killed it, the Candy Hearts are for you. 
Essential tracks: “I Miss You”, “Coffee With Friends” & “Fools Gold”.  Listen to the record on Spotify by clicking here

The Black Keys’ New Turn Blue 

This week the world received a new album from Akron's favorite sons, the Black Keys.  The combined commercial success of 2010’s Brothers and 2011’s El Camino launched the band after years of being “kind of famous” and transformed them into the world’s biggest young rock act.  After the type of success that has befallen the band, it would be easy to expect that their new album, Turn Blue, would be El Camino II – it is not.  Turn Blue is a far more ambitious work that (for the most part) steps outside the expected big rock riff radio singles and moves into a beautiful dark and murky exploration of psychedelically-tinged bluesy rock and blends it with soul and hip-hop elements. 
The first single “Fever” is nothing particularly special.  It is more like radio cannon fodder compared to most of the rest of the album.  The song sounds like it is there more to satisfy record executives and people who only know the band for their big radio hits.  Also, tracks like “In Time”, “Year in Review” and the title track are guilty of sounding similar to some of the material on Brothers or El Camino.  For instance, they feature singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach singing in his falsetto while drummer Patrick Carney lays down a hip-infused drumbeat.  Yes, it is familiar terrain, but songs like these can also be seen as sonic bridges between the two previous albums. 
The blood, guts and vitality of Turn Blue come from the psychedelic musical catharsis found in tracks like the fantastic slow-burning opener “Weight of Love” and “Bullet in the Brain”.  Although not as riffy as El Camino’s “Lonely Boy”, “Weight of Love” features incendiary guitar work from Auerbach.  Lyrically, this album comes from a dark place as Auerbach, with the musical support group of Carney and producer Danger Mouse, exercises the demons haunting him in the wake of his recent divorce.  A sense of loss and anger is apparent in each track.  “In Our Prime” is somberly soulful and focuses the album's sense of loss before the closing track.  The closer, “Gotta Get Away”, is different from the other songs on the album.  It’s a refreshing up-tempo rock and roll song that has a Springsteen meets CCR vibe.  Lyrically and musically, the track leaves with Auerbach and Carney riding away from the storm clouds.  It is a great way to end Turn Blue.
The Black Keys have come too far for them to return to the garage rock sound of their excellent early albums like Rubber Factory and Magic Potion.  Yet, they refuse to become slaves to the immediate commercial appeal of El Camino. At the same time, the duo does not completely alienate its newer fans.  Instead, the band finds a renewed sense of purpose while exploring a more psychedelic soul sound. 
Essential Tracks: “Weight of Love”, “Bullet in the Brain”, “In Our Prime” & “Gotta Get Away”. 

More Treasures From The Johnny Cash Vaults 

Eleven years after his death, Johnny Cash’s distinctive baritone, songwriting and storytelling continue to intrigue new generations of listeners.  He will certainly be remembered as one of the great voices of the twentieth century and beyond.  Since his 2003 passing, his fans have been blessed by a number of fantastic posthumous releases built from his sessions with Rick Ruben as well as from a rich stash of home recordings.  Unlike most posthumous collections by other artists, these are not just “alternate versions” of songs already available on Cash's other albums.  Listeners are getting to hear Cash’s take on these songs - some originals and some covers - for the first time. 

Last month’s release of Out Among The Stars offers proof that there are still treasures waiting for us inside the Johnny Cash vault.  These recordings were originally tracked in the early 1980s, but were shelved by Cash’s record label Columbia.  In 2012, Cash’s son found the tapes and, with some 2013 musical overdubs, a “new” Cash record was born.  Overall, the collection’s production can be described as crisp timeless country complete with slide guitar, shuffling drums and boogie-woogie piano.  An obvious highlight is the opening title track, a song telling the story of a robber with a death wish.  It is a morbid tale, but the catchy sing-along chorus mixed with Cash’s delivery gives it a real warmth.  His duet with his wife, June Carter Cash, on “Baby Ride Easy” is a lot of fun too and serves as a sweet reminder of how well the two sang together.  “I’m Movin’ On”, which includes some vocals from Waylon Jennings, has the feel of an old school rock and roll tune that would not have been a stretch for Elvis Presley to have sung.  “If I Told You Who It Was” features some of that country “talk/singing” that can often come off as a bit cheesy, but Cash somehow avoids this and delivers his lines with charm and authority.  Out Among The Stars features two versions of “She Used To Love Me A Lot”.  One is the original and the other is a remix by Elvis Costello.  The original version is a moving ballad while the Costello’s odd remix comes off as unnecessary.  On the whole, Out Among The Stars offers some validation to an often overlooked period in Cash’s career.   Overall, there are plenty of memorable moments on this collection that beg the question: "What else is in that vault?"
Essential Tracks: “Out Among The Stars”, “She Used To Love Me A Lot” (Original Version), & “Movin’ On”. 

WATIC: Pop-Punk and Proud 

We Are The In Crowd’s latest effort, Weird Kids, is an enjoyable collection of pop-punk jams.  Listening to the disc, it is clear that WATIC is eyeing a larger audience.  However, the band successfully finds a balance of making a slicker and bigger album without it coming off as soulless.  The band wears their influences on its sleeve. For instance, the album opens with the Black Parade-era-MCR-flavored “Long Live The Kids”.  The song starts off slow before building into an energetic rocker with a big chorus.  “Manners” recalls Taking Back Sunday minus the screaming.  Having toured with Yellowcard and All Time Low, songs like “Reflections” and the album's highlight “The Best Thing (That Never Happened)” show that some of their influence rubbed off in the album’s writing as well.  We Are The In Crowd have not rewritten the pop-punk rulebook, but instead of have just continued to perfect its craft and mold its sound.  The male/female vocal trade off between singers Tay Jardine and Jordan Eckes is strong and distinguishes WATIC from the above-mentioned bands.  On the whole, there is a not a bad song on this album.  Of the up-and-coming bands waving the pop-punk flag, We Are The In Crowd is one of the best.  So if punk-pop is your thing, so are these “weird kids”.
Essential tracks: “The Best Thing (That Never Happened)”, “Long Live The Kids” & “Come Back Home”.

The Rolling Stones' Electrifying Live '65 

The recent release of The Rolling Stones’ Live 1965: Music From Charlie Is My Darling offers an interesting audio snapshot of this legendary band in its original incarnation.  It is a time when they are definitely in the process of becoming a hot item, as one can tell from the constant roar of screaming girls throughout the recording, but have yet to truly conquer America.  This pre-Satisfaction era set captures the band performing in Ireland.  The entire recording clocks out in at under 28 minutes, but such was the standard set during those early tours.  The song selection is heavy on blues covers played by the band at proto-punk speed.  Each tune segues nicely into the next.  The guitars come through with raw intensity and were recorded a little "in the red", but the extra distortion only adds to the fierceness of the music.  Mick’s voice sounds great.  Performances of “Route 66”, “The Last Time” and “Everybody Needs Somebody To Love” are exceptionally electrifying.  All in all, it’s pretty freakin’ cool.
Essential tracks: “Everybody Needs Somebody To Love”, “Route 66” & “The Last Time”.

Panic’s Dance Party Continues 

In 2009, half of Panic! At The Disco left because of creative differences, leaving singer Brendon Urie and drummer Spencer Smith with the task of figuring out how to carry on.  In 2011, they worked with producer Butch Walker and released the favorably-received Vices & Virtues.  This fall, Too Weird To Live, Too Rare To Die!, an album largely driven by Urie and new bassist, Dallon Weeks, unveiled the next chapter in the Panic! saga.  Spencer Smith is on the record, but his rehab stint hindered his full participation. 
With this new album, they worked again in the recording studio with Butch Walker, but this time, they have moved from dancey-pop-punk to dancey-pop-electronica with splashes of hip-hop.  The record is solid and also genre-defying, especially with the opening two tracks, “This Is Gospel” and “Miss Jackson”.  “This Is Gospel” has a lot of processed electronic vocal production on the backing vocals, but Urie’s lead vocal comes through with righteous pop clarity most notably in the exploding chorus: “If you love me, let me go!”.  Also, Too Weird consistently makes use of electronic beats instead of live drums.  “Miss Jackson” is a good example of the album’s hip-hop influence with its beat-tastic verse instrumentation and the tight rhyme structure of Urie’s lyrical delivery.  It’s a song built for the dancefloor.  Occasionally, the album loses momentum with snoozers like “Girl That You Love” and the indulgent closer “The End of All Things”, but it manages to regain its footing with tracks like the ultra-catchy “Collar Full”, “Nicotine” and the provocative “Girls/Girls/Boys”.  All in all, Too Weird is designed to make you dance.  As with all things Panic!, it is bold, a little unpredictable and over-the-top – kind of what you’d expect.
Essential tracks: “Miss Jackson”, “This Is Gospel” & “Collar Full”. 

Best Coast – Not To Fade Away 

Of the bands that made it big during the indie rock low-fi movement, Best Coast has stood out as one of the best . . . if not the best.  In the beginning, singer/guitarist Bethany Cosentino wrote reverbed-out, sassy and catchy sixties-flavored pop songs about love and heart break in the California hipster world.  Last year’s The Only Place, was a sonic change of pace for Cosentino and her co-conspirator, Bobb Bruno.  The songwriting stayed in the same vein as their earlier releases, but the production was more hi-fi (choosing to record at the legendary Capital Record’s Studio B) and less reverb was used on the vocals, further highlighting Cosentino’s vocal gifts. 
Last month, Best Coast unveiled a new EP, Fade Away, and it is their best work to date. The production is crisp, but also gritty.  Each one of the seven tracks demonstrate Cosentino’s knack for writing great pop songs.  Best Coast’s surfy-girl-pop-sass is still intact, but the band’s sound is also showing some more nineties rock influences.  One can hear some Dookie-era Green Day guitar crunch on rockers like “This Lonely Morning”, “I Wanna Know” and “Who Have I Become?”.  The title track has a pop-grunge vibe in its production and arrangement.  The band returns to its sixties-tinged roots on the closer, “I Don’t Know How”.  The song opens sounding like the cousin of Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home To Me” before switching into double time and exploding with power-bliss.  All in all, Fade Away is a great EP that showcases the band’s growth and should get music fans excited about Best Coast's next full-length album. 
Essential Tracks: “This Lonely Morning”, “I Wanna Know” & “Who Have I Become?

Elton John, T-Bone Burnett and the Diving Board 

T-Bone Burnett is the recording industry’s go to Americana record producer.  Sonically, he practically writes his name into everything he touches from the Grammy-winning O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack to Robert Plant and Allison Kraus’s Raising Sand duets collection to Gregg Allman’s under-rated solo album Low Country Blues.  Burnett’s production style is stark and haunting and he always finds a means to highlight a vocalist's voice in both new and old ways.  He did so with Leon Russell and Elton John on their 2010 acclaimed release The Union.  Now, he and John have reteamed in the studio for John’s latest solo effort The Diving Board.  The album was recorded and written over a matter of days and is an accolade-worthy effort. 
In some ways, the album recalls the simplicity of Sir Elton’s pre-Goodbye Yellow Brick Road era, a time when John and lyricist Bernie Taupin would hammer out bare bones piano rock songs, many with lyrics about the old American West.  Like a lot of those early tracks, the instrumentation on The Diving Board has John’s voice front and center accompanied by the piano and with some bass and drums as well as some subtle string arrangements here and there.  Burnett’s production style favors and often highlights vocalists.  One of the big differences between Elton John then and now is that his voice is huskier from the boyant tenor he had in the 1970s.  It is still a powerful voice, but a different one.  Some of Diving Board’s best vocal performances are “A Town Called Jubilee”, “Ocean’s Away” “Can’t Stay Alone Tonight” and “Take This Dirty Water”.  Much of The Diving Board’s material is rather somber sounding, which makes the subtly more uptempo songs like “Can’t Stay Alone Tonight” and “Take This Dirty Water”, with their light swinging rhythms, really pop.  The Diving Board lacks the big pop hooks of the early Elton John canon, but with that being said, the underlying music and Taupin’s lyrics are really strong.  Listening to this record is like having a bran muffin.  It’s good for you.  Elton John has enough gold and platinum records.  He has reached an age and status where he has earned the right to make the music that moves him.  It is quality stuff and T-Bone Burnett is just the right producer for the job. 
Essential Tracks: “Can’t Stay Alone Tonight”, “Oceans Away”, “Town Called Jubilee” & “Take This Dirty Water”.   

Kings of Leon Hop Back On The Mechanical Bull 

To listen to the Kings of Leon’s Mechanical Bull is to hear the sounds of a machine humming back to life.  After their ill-fated 2011 tour, the future of the KOL seemed uncertain.  Rumors of a potential breakup circled the music world.  Earlier this year, however, the band entered the recording studio.  With the resulting album, it sounds like things are getting back on track.  The band worked again with their longtime producer and collaborator Angelo Petraglia at KOL’s music studio: The Neon Leon.  Mechanical Bull was mixed by James Brown (not the soul singer) and engineered by Brent Rawlings.  Between the two of them and Petraglia, the audio is excellent, especially with the guitar and drum production.  The tones are crisp. 
On Mechanical Bull, the record is less of a step forward and more like a review of all the different personas the band has embodied over the last ten years.  This idea is reinforced by reoccurring lyrical themes of “returning” and “comebacks” that are all over the back half of the album.  One can hear traces of the Youth & Young Manhood and Aha Shake Heartbreak-era Kings of Leon in the opening track and first single, “Supersoaker”.  This is shown with the "Southern Strokes" flavored guitar arrangement and the tight drum production.  Tracks like the fabulous “Rock City” and “Temple” feel like more commercial cousins of some of the material on Because of the Times.  The arena-rock/“Use Somebody”- era KOL are represented on Mechanical Bull with mid-tempo, but epically produced tracks like “Wait for Me”, “Tonight” and the ass-kicking “Coming Back Again”.  Lastly, the laidback Come Around Sundown KOL make a couple of appearances too: “On The Chin”, “Comeback Story” and the somewhat boring “Beautiful War”.  “Comeback Story” is really well produced, the guitar arrangement creates a lot of dynamic space and the vocal harmonies are both beautiful and catchy.  Mechanical Bull gives the overall impression that sometimes it is necessary to understand where you have been in order to figure out where you are going.  After a rough patch, the KOL have embraced their past, created a quality record and can now look towards the future.
Essential tracks: “Rock City”, “Temple”, “Comeback Story” & “Coming Back Again”.