David Bowie :: ‘Blackstar’: Released on David Bowie’s 69th birthday, only a two days before he died on Jan. 10, Blackstar arrives just three years after The Next Day. It continues in that album’s experimental mood, but is warmer and more approachable. The title track that opens Blackstar is its most idiosyncratic, a 10-minute, cinematic epic that majestically sprawls from drum and bass dance music to avant-garde jazz. “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” takes the sounds of Bowie’s ‘80s pop smashes and sets them free. The gorgeous ballad “I Can’t Give Everything Away” is the greatest example of the album’s struggling with themes of mortality while Bowie’s sound steps boldly ahead. Bowie’s death casts a new light on the album, revealing it as an elegant goodbye. The song “Lazarus” in particular references his losing battle with cancer, closing with the words, “You know I’ll be free just like that bluebird. Now ain’t that just like me?”
Rachel Platten :: ‘Wildfire’: Four years ago, Rachel Platten seemed to have a promising career with the launch of “1,000 Ships.” However, a follow-up failed to materialize until her tough, inspirational “Fight Song” found an audience last year. Wildfire is the product of that new attention she has now received. But over the length of an album, the music feels like just more product churned out of a pop music machine. Platten’s upbeat “Hey Hey Hallelujah,” with fellow feel-good artist Andy Grammer, drains all spontaneity, and the call-out of Jeff Buckley is cringe-worthy. The collection does include new single “Stand By You,” a solid addition to any mainstream pop playlist.
Grizfolk :: ‘Waking Up the Giants’: Grizfolk came together in 2012 when Swedish producers Fredrik Eriksson and Sebastian Fritze met American singer-songwriter Adam Roth. They blend contemporary American music with catchy electronic pop, similar to fellow Swedes Miike Snow. The songs go down easy, but they have a bland quality to them. The biggest standout is “Bob Marley,” a contemporary road trip song created with a yearning for the sunny sounds of early Beach Boys. Unfortunately, the rest of this album breaks little ground.
Dylan LeBlanc :: ‘Cautionary Tale’: Dylan LeBlanc hails from Muscle Shoals, Alabama, but his musical pedigree goes far beyond that famous locale. His father is session musician James LeBlanc and he travels in the same circles as Alabama Shakes. He struggled after the buzz from his sophomore album Cast the Same Old Shadow, but has returned with his most confident work yet. LeBlanc’s high, lonesome voice resembles Neil Young in a country mood. If you’re interested in the cutting edge of Southern country-rock, Cautionary Tale is an album to hear.