Michael Kiwanuka “Kiwanuka” (Polydor). Already a personal choice for record of the year, this is Michael Kiwanuka’s follow up to the excellent “Love & Hate” which was released in 2016. He is often compared to Bill Withers and Terry Callier for his signature folk/soul sound. On this new release he takes his sound to new territories. Produced by highly sought-after producer Danger Mouse with the help of London hip-hop producer Inflo, the sound is both timeless and contemporary and deserves to be listened to in one extended sitting. Listeners paying sufficiently close attention will detect a darker undertow to his lyrics on this new release. There is an underlying thematic tie to racism in the word on this release but through all of the subject matters covered throughout the record, it is never downbeat. On the excellent track “I’ve Been Dazed,” the addition of a gospel choir takes the song to glorious heights. On the excellent opener “You Ain’t The Problem” Mr. Kiwanuka delivers a single full of psyche-funk-fuzz with a sharp vocal hook that’s wise, reassuring, and upbeat while delivering a strong opinion on current attitudes towards immigration. There are personal moments too, as with the track “Piano Joint,” an exquisite track where he’s eulogizing a love that can deliver him from a life of “sadness and fury.” This record is leaping in new directions, yielding an album that’s thoughtful, emotional, expertly crafted, and often sublime. Key tracks are “Piano Joint,” “I’ve Been Dazed,” and “Hero.”
Elbow “Giants of All Sizes” (Polydor). This is Elbow’s eighth record, recorded over a two-year period. The album is noticeably grittier than past releases but deeply serious, well crafted, and deeply defined by turbulence for the band. Singer Guy Garvey is one of the few lyricists who can perfectly describe the world around us. On this new effort, several themes dominate the songs describing love, heartbreak, mortality, and politics of the day. The new record follows in the footsteps of their last release “Little Fictions” in breaking new ground for the band. Musically it’s varied and adventurous; thematically it sees the world’s present darkness and raises hope. On this release Elbow return with yet another measured and exceptionally good record. In a recent interview, Garvey stated of the new album: “It’s an angry, old blue lament which finds its salvation in family, friends, the band, and new life,” adding the album is “sonically unabashed.” Key tracks are “Dexter & Sinister,” “White Noise White Heat,” and “On Deronda Road.”
Neil Young and Crazy Horse “Colorado” (Reprise). It’s been 50 years since Neil Young made his first record with Crazy Horse. The first was “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” an album that seems unpolished and savagely beautiful even now. Over these 50 years there is still a special joy of excitement at the prospect of Neil working with Crazy Horse. Last year he asked the band to join him on a low-key US theater tour that I was lucky enough to attend. These shows had no rehearsals and no discussions. Just grab an instrument and play. This new release is the first in seven years for the band. There is greater focus on this one than on the previous “Psychedelic Pill” release. No one plays guitar quite like Neil Young. He is one of a few artists whose sound seems to age with him organically. Ralph Molina and Billy Talbot are joined by long-time collaborator Nils Lofgren who was on loan from the E Street Band, and whose relationship with Neil dates back half a century too. Recorded in the mountains at 8,800 feet, Young brought oxygen to deal with the altitude problem and a truckload of ‘70s analog recording gear. There are several overarching themes on this record, one of which is climate change. On “She Showed Me Love” he pleads for a new generation to carry the torch in taking care of our planet. A Crazy Horse classic. Key tracks are “She Showed Me Love,” “Milky Way,” and “I Do.”
Van Morrison “Three Chords & The Truth” (Exile/Caroline). On this, his 41st release and sixth record released over the past four years, Van Morrison sticks closer to his R&B, blues, and jazz song structures and is a deeply passionate listen. It’s right up there with his best work of the ‘90s such as “Hymns to the Silence” and “The Healing Game.” Huge credits should be paid to the superb backing band which includes Jay Berliner who played on the career-best “Astral Weeks” record. “Three Chords” contains 14 original chords of the highest order, capturing the warmth and feel of the early classics by which every other Van Morrison album is judged. The opening track “March Winds in February” has a warm, beautiful feel immediately evoking comparisons with his other landmark albums. “Fame Will Eat the Soul” is Morrison’s take on Hollywood and the entertainment business and features a duet with The Righteous Brothers’ Bill Medley. Vocally, Morrison is still at the top of his game, the years have been kind to him and the track “Dark Night of the Soul” gives him the vehicle to indulge in the vocal gymnastics that characterized many of his early songs. Key tracks are “March Winds in February,” “Dark Night of the Soul,” and “Up On Broadway.”
Jeff Walker is our much-loved monthly music columnist, keeping us up to date on what is happening using his expert ear. Jeff knows music — he sees more shows in a week than we do in a year. Connect directly with Jeff for your comments and suggestions here.