"Out Among The Stars" (Columbia Legacy)
Thirty years after getting shelved, a nearly forgotten Johnny Cash album is being made public for the first time. "Out Among The Stars" may not rank with the legendary material that made Cash an American icon, but it carries plenty of quality work typical of his recordings from the early 1980s, when these songs were originally cut.
Working with producer Billy Sherrill -- who at the time was creating top hits with George Jones and David Allan Coe -- Cash breezes through a well-selected series of songs, mixing the sentimental ("Tennessee") with the spiritual ("I Came To Believe") and the humorous ("If I Told You Who It Was").
Sherrill keeps the mood light, even on darker fare like "She Used To Love Me A Lot," an album standout.
Fans will find plenty to enjoy, including two rollicking duets: a cover of Hank Snow's "I'm Movin' On" with Waylon Jennings and a sprightly "Baby Ride Easy" with wife June Carter Cash (on a song previously cut by her daughter, Carlene Carter).
At the time, Cash was a decade beyond when he regularly released top country hits and a decade prior to his creative resurrection with the series of American recordings made with producer Rick Rubin from 1994 until the singer's death in 2003.
But the Country Music Hall of Fame member's love for good songs shines bright on "Out Among the Stars."
-- Michael McCall
The Hold Steady
(Razor & Tie)
The Hold Steady is a garage band at heart, but it's a two-car garage in a nice neighborhood, and there might be a Mercedes inside.
Singer Craig Finn and his mates have always come across like upper-middle-class products who are usually the oldest, smartest guys at the party -- and thus the ones who tell the most interesting stories. "'Teeth Dreams," the Brooklyn band's sixth album, is filled with Finn's characteristically compelling characters, mostly female, as he sings about bad company, simple minds, night moves, life in the fast lane, dancing the night away and Pink Floyd. Rock doesn't come much more classic.
To help keep the '70s alive, the Hold Steady doubles down on the guitars, and recent addition Steve Selvidge teams with band co-founder Tad Kubler to frame the songs with dense, shimmering sound.
It's often pretty, and it always packs plenty of punch. Horns? Strings? There's no need when you're a garage band.
-- Steven Wine
Jerrod Niemann's one-of-a-kind recordings have been as adventurous as any male country singer to score a hit in the last five years. But country music doesn't always embrace experimentation. So the Kansas native has enjoyed a few hits but has struggled with consistency on the radio charts.
"High Noon," Niemann's third album with Arista Records, is his attempt to reign in his wilder ideas without completely ditching his daring nature. His current hit, "Drink To That All Night," overflows with unusual musical flourishes, bringing life to Niemann's mix of rap-influenced verses and a thumping, sing-along chorus. Even the seemingly conventional "Come On, Come On" features sly embellishments, while Niemann nails the feel-good spirit of the lyrics -- making it the album's standout cut.
However, some songs go too far in dulling Niemann's edges. Nearly every male Nashville singer has a song boasting that country boys can get loud and rough, and Niemann's "We Know How To Rock" doesn't add anything new or clever. The lackluster "She's Fine" wastes a chance to create something special with country rapper Colt Ford.
But when Niemann ends the wacky "Donkey" by mocking the animal's signature bray, it's clear he's still full of unexpected turns. Let's hope he keeps the weirdness intact while trying to strike gold.
-- Michael McCall
Shakira's domination in America has dwindled since she became a hip-swiveling goddess of festive pop hits like "Whenever, Wherever" and "Hips Don't Lie."
Already a superstar in her native Colombia, the multitalented singer-songwriter-instrumentalist took the American pop scene by storm when she made her U.S. language debut in 2001 with personal, rich songs about romance and more. But her recent albums haven't matched the spark, edge and charisma from her work a decade ago, and her new self-titled release, while enjoyable at times, doesn't showcase this Grammy-winning, Golden Globe-nominated superstar in the right light.
"Shakira," her tenth album, features the 37-year-old taking a back seat as lead songwriter and producer, and that doesn't come off as a wise move. "Dare (La La La)," helmed by Dr. Luke, Max Martin and others, sounds like a Jennifer Lopez song, and that's not a compliment (sorry, Jenny). While Shakira's stint as a judge on "The Voice" has been pleasurable to watch, her duet with fellow mentor Blake Shelton on the country-feeling "Medicine" is a bore, though it was co-written by Academy Award nominee and hit country songwriter Hillary Lindsey.
Even the duet with Rihanna, the up-tempo lead single "Can't Remember to Forget You," comes off as a cry for a pop hit. The song lacks energy though two superstars are part of it, and the collaboration feels forced (Rihanna and Shakira are both signed to Roc Nation management).
The album's lyrics also lack emotion and depth. It's a far stretch from Shakira's earlier songs, such as her Latin pop breakthrough "Estoy Aqui (I'm Here)" or the part-gritty, part- bouncy "La Tortura." The new album follows in the footsteps of her last two albums, 2009's "She Wolf" and 2010's "Sale el Sol," which have bright spots, but still didn't carry the oomph and appeal of her earlier work.
Shakira does move the needle a bit on the reggae-laced "Cut Me Deep," which features the band Magic! Nasir Atweh, the band's lead singer, is part of the songwriting duo The Messengers, who have penned hits for Justin Bieber, Chris Brown and Pitbull.
"Spotlight," co-written by Lindsey and produced by Greg Kurstin, sounds arena-ready, which is excellent for an entertaining performer like Shakira. And the album's most honest moment is "23," a sweet ode to her 1-year-old son's father, soccer player Gerard Pique, who is 10 years younger than Shakira (he was 23 when they met). She co-wrote the simple guitar tune with Luis Fernando Ochoa, who collaborated with Shakira on her third album and major label debut, 1996's "Pies Descalzos."
Full-blown reunion please?
-- Mesfin Fekadu
Sage the Gemini
There is a distinct old school West Coast vibe to rapper Sage the Gemini's first album "Remember Me." Minimalist beat structures blend with an assured lyrical approach to make this debut memorable indeed.
Sage the Gemini burst into wider consciousness a year ago with his well-received single "Gas Pedal." That dance-friendly track sets the tone for "Remember Me," an album that pays a stylistic homage to northern California's Oakland/Fairfield/Vallejo nook of hip-hop creativity.
The title track "Remember Me" has a spacey melody interspersed with booming bass and finger snaps that would have been at home on any late 1980s Too Short track. This song and "Red Nose" smartly make as much use of silence between sounds as they do of the beats and melodies themselves.
The true gem is "Go Somewhere," which sets aside the leering lasciviousness of "Gas Pedal." Here, Sage the Gemini and featured rapper Iamsu offer a more gentlemanly approach for the targets of their affection. It's one of the smoothest hip-hop tracks you'll hear this year and a slow clap is due for Sage the Gemini and his debut album that refuses to shout in an age of endless noise.
-- Ron Harris