Feb. 17 1. Big Sean, “I Decided”Big Sean finally returns (to those of us without Tidal) for the first time since Feb. 2015’s “Dark Sky Paradise,” and he has a hell of a record. “I Decided” is a concept album centering on the ideas of sacrifice, growth and rebirth. Big Sean is an enigma of the “Billboard rap” scene, inexplicably the constant underdog while sharing beats with the likes of Eminem and getting production from Rick Rubin. Sometimes the themes are contrary to the content of the album. It’s hard to take raps about sacrifice seriously when there is no real perspective of loss, but I think that’s more a fault of the genre’s braggadocio than of Big Sean himself.
2. Grails, “Chalice Hymnal”No one else sounds like Grails. Imagine the soundtrack to Dracula on acid, or the fuzzed-out sounds of that porno channel you can just barely get reception on. There’s a heady dose of synthesizers mixed with languid hip-hop production that flows like molasses on a summer Sunday. Horns burst in, layered under oppressive amounts of reverb, sounding simultaneously jarring and comfortable. Overall there is a lightness, a trimming of the fat that doesn’t let “Chalice Hymnal” bog the listener down, but envelops them in its ambiance. This will challenge your perceptions and your ears, but is one of the more rewarding listens I’ve had this year.
3. Ryan Adams, “Prisoner”And here I thought the man lost it after he spent actual time and effort covering the entirety of Taylor Swift’s “1989.” Ryan Adams has put out his greatest album since 2000’s “Heartbreaker.” “Prisoner” is a quintessential break-up album at its very core, simultaneously pulling from all of music history and the future of the “rock” genre. Seriously, put on the lead single “Do You Still Love Me?” and tell me it doesn’t sound straight out of one of those collections of glam-rock ballads that we all saw commercials for, or a lost Tom Petty great. Seriously, I am blown away by this album. If you think good music ceased to be 30 years ago, punch yourself in the mouth and then buy “Prisoner” on vinyl and cry.
4. Alison Krauss, “Windy City”Tribute/standards albums are very hit or miss for me. Bob Dylan, for example, keeps releasing standards albums and he needs to stop. It’s interesting then that after nearly 20 years since her last solo outing, Alison Krauss returns with a covers album. It helps that they aren’t songs I was familiar with, but beyond them being covers, Krauss brings eclectic instrumentation and lush production to these old country ballads done by folks like Willie Nelson, John Hartford, Glen Campbell, and two Brenda Lee songs. The songs sometimes even seem more genuine than their original versions.
5. Jidenna, “Chief”I, like a lot of Jidenna’s fans, was blindsided by the eerie beat that begins the track “Long Live the Chief” in Netflix’s “Luke Cage.” What followed was a three-minute burst of hip-hop majesty that takes the aforementioned braggadocio to a different level than most rappers, channeling class, traditional fashion, and his ivy league education, into a scathing analysis of the hip-hop genre as a whole. His bites at the genre remind me of KRS-One, while his delivery brings to mind the big ones of the current scene, like Kendrick and Killer Mike. He falls into the genre pitfalls of sing-rapping a bit much for my taste, but this dude has the potential to blow up big, so you best be listening.