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Michael Jackson, “Xscape”

mj-1399044636Michael Jackson has been more prolific in death than he usually was while alive. For his second posthumous studio LP, weighing in at an ungenerous eight songs, Timbaland and Jerome Harmon lead a team of producers who’ve added bulk and even dubstep eruptions to Jackson’s unfinished tracks, originally laid down between 1983 and 2002.

“Loving You” (recorded during sessions for 1987′s Bad) follows the wonderful, breezy legacy of “Rock With You” and “The Way You Make Me Feel.” But it’s an exception: Most of these songs rot and sway with fear. In “Chicago,” Jackson rails at a harlot who seduced him, despite being married with kids. The Dangerous outtake “Slave to the Rhythm” details an ugly marriage, and the EDM surges of the astounding, audacious “Do You Know Where Your Children Are” chronicle the grim fate of a preteen girl who runs from an abusive stepdad. Even with such dark subject matter, though, it’s a joy to hear the joy in Jackson’s voice.

Tune-Yards, “Nikki Nack”

tune_yards_nikkinackAbout a year-and-a-half after Merrill Garbus, who records under the moniker Tune-Yards, released her breakthrough 2011 sophomore record, “whokill,” a groove-inducing tour de force of looped vocals and African-inspired polyrhythms that made critics and crowds take notice, she couldn’t stand herself. “After hearing so much about yourself and your own music,” said the singer/multi-instrumentalist in a recent interview, “you say, ‘I know it’s not all about me, so what is it all about?’”

Santana, “Corazon”

santana-corazonThe best instrumentalists don’t just play — they speak. Instruments can move freely without language or diction hampering them, but that also makes it more challenging to deliver a message or establish an identity. Yet the sound of Carlos Santana’s guitar is unmistakable: angular melodies with a signature piercing tone, easy to distinguish no matter the genre, from rock to Latin to jazz.

No wonder that “Corazón,” billed as Santana’s first Latin album, is all about that guitar, despite boasting star vocal collaborators from around the world. The instrument’s leading role lets “Corazón” be much more than what would typically qualify as Latin (music sung in Spanish), as the guitar’s universal language turns the album into a global mixtape: You never know what you’re going to get, or from where.

Black Keys, “Turn Blue”

black-keys-turn-blue-410For lovers of pop music, advance word about the new Black Keys album was a bit alarming. Guitarist-vocalist Dan Auerbach, drummer Patrick Carney and returning co-conspirator/­co-producer Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton said in recent interviews that they were consciously steering themselves away from producing singles. Considering the whiz-bang accessibility (and multiple Grammy wins) of the band’s last album, 2011′s “El Camino,” this approach seemed needlessly contrary. But it all makes sense now that “Turn Blue” is here. No, the Black Keys’ eighth long player isn’t loaded with obvious hits, and that’s more than okay — because this is a brave, varied and engaging collection of songs.

“Looking Into You: A Tribute to Jackson Browne”, Various Artists

81si31zna5l-sl1500-1395950189Don Henley, Bruce Springsteen and Bonnie Raitt are just a few of the artists contributing tracks to Looking Into You: A Tribute to Jackson Browne. The 23-track album from Music Road Records premieres at USA TODAY, a week in advance of its April 1 release.

“The album was supposed to be only 15 tracks on one CD,” says Tamara Saviano, one of the album’s co-producers. “As these things happen, the more people hear about it, they more they want to be part of it.”

Henley was one of the first artists to commit to the proejct, Saviano says. “Don Henley immediately said he wanted to These Days, and, of course, we all thought that was perfect,” she says. “He found Blind Pilot on YouTube. He went to Portland and worked with the band and their engineer and producer. It’s one of my favorite tracks.”

“Working Man’s Poet: A Tribute to Merle Haggard”, Various Artists

Working Man’s Poet: A Tribute To Merle Haggard, released April 1merle-haggard1 on Broken Bow Records. The album includes performances fromJason Aldean, Dierks Bentley, Garth Brooks, Luke Bryan, Kristy Lee Cook, Ben Haggard, Randy Houser, Toby Keith, Dustin Lynch, Joe Nichols, Jake Owen, Parmalee, Thompson Square andJames Wesley.

Mickey Jack Cones, Derek George, Michael Knox, Jeff Stevens, andMark Miller are the producers behind the project.

“Merle Haggard is a founding-father of country music and is an inspiration to us all. I am honored to be a part of such a significant collaboration between today’s biggest artists and a one of the greatest country music legends of our time,” says Cones.

Leon Russell, “Life Journey”

91q8n5veqpl-sl1280-1395948666After 50 years as a session player, producer, songwriter, label owner, rock star and – on 2010′s The Union – as Elton John‘s duet partner, Leon Russell could tell tales strong enough to curdle milk. Instead, the 72-year-old pianist crafts a less slanderous but equally colorful musical autobiography on Life Journey, a wry collection of blues, jazz and pop oldies fleshed out by two Russell compositions, the ribald rocker “Big Lips” and the big-band finale, “Down in Dixieland.” Russell’s croon may be raspy, but it’s always eloquent: Dig the fondness he brings to “Georgia on My Mind” while coaxing from his keys a kindred finesse that’s alternately yearning and joyous.

Mac DeMarco, “Salad Days”

71iftvufj7l-sl1400-1395949283“Macky’s been a bad, bad boy,” Mac DeMarco declares on his second album. Glance around the Internet, and you can see why: The 23-year-old Montreal indie rocker loves to get naked, smoke and crossdress. It’d be easy to write him off as another product of Generation Selfie. But Salad Days is packed with wry, knowing lyrics and washed-out vocals, like a meeting of Stephen Malkmus and Marc Bolan. On “Let My Baby Stay,” he ruminates on relationship paranoia, and “Brother” philosophically urges you to “let it go” over groovy, pot-fueled guitars – it’s slacker rock that (sort of) has a message.

 

 

Rihanna, “Nobody’s Business”

Chris Brown only shows up once on Rihanna’s seventh LP, during the defiant “Nobody’s Business.” But the abusive ex she took back is like a co-writer throughout, sort of the way Germany was a co-writer on World War II: “I was flying till you knocked me to the floor,” she sings on “No Love Allowed.” Unapologetic‘s stark, shadowy R&B is confrontationally honest and sung within an inch of its life, whether she’s turning a strip-club anthem into a declaration of independence (“Pour It Out”) or pleading at the piano (“Stay”). When she sings, “I’m prepared to die in the moment,” on “Love Without Tragedy/Mother Mary,” a clichéd line pulses with real terror and impossible resolve.

 

 

Peter Buck

Peter Buck is the first ex-member of R.E.M. to take the solo plunge, and the guitarist has totally done it his way: cutting the whole thing in five days, on analog tape, with his friends, including R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills, R.E.M. associates Scott McCaughey and Bill Rieflin, and members of the Decemberists and Sleater-Kinney. And it’s only on vinyl. No turntable? Tough luck. Or get one, because there is great fun here, including crackling garage rock (“10 Million BC”), acid-ballad whimsy (“Travel Without Arriving”) and two dusky jangle-pop jewels, “Nothing Matters” and “Nothing Means Nothing” (the latter sung by Corin Tucker), that would have fit just fine on another, classic R.E.M. album.

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