Which new albums should you be playing this week? Take a listen, and decide for yourself.
Whenever you hear some old codger bitching about how there's no one making good music anymore, tell him to shut up, put away his Woodstock records, and play this week's new releases. Here are five albums that represent the best in today's rock, alternative, singer-songwriter, and country genres. They're living proof that these are good times for music lovers. Open your mind and your ears, then press play.
PLAY: Paul Simon, "So Beautiful or So What"
Sick of two decades of mediocre reviews and bands like Vampire Weekend ripping off his sound, Paul Simon steps up to the plate, hits a home run, and reclaims his career. Simon will be 70 this year, and his songwriting prowess is completely undiminished. The dude has more chops than half of the Brooklyn hipsters a third of his age. "So Beautiful or So What" features tales of the afterlife, God's humor, and the workingman's struggle to exist. It's an album filled with big existential ideas and musical riffs from nearly every part of the globe. What's really beautiful about "So Beautiful" is its humanity. The sounds and the tales are universal without becoming "world music" in that summer-season-performing arts-center cliche kind of way. And they breathe — unlike the African rhythm loop on some sample library. Paul Simon is one of America's best songwriters, but he's also a citizen of the world. We're lucky to have him show us how humanity looks in all of its pain, loneliness, and joy.
PLAY: Foo Fighters, "Wasting Light"
Dave Grohl has had one the best second acts in rock history. Out of the ashes of Nirvana, Grohl stepped from behind the drum kit to reinvent himself as one of the best frontmen in the business. Foo Fighters does what few hard rock acts can: balance the heaviness with humor. Behind the Flying V guitars and ear-splitting riffs, Grohl is a rock hero who knows how not to take himself too seriously. He also knows how to make wickedly catchy pop tunes disguised as alt-rock anthems.
In many respects, "Wasting Light" is a return to basics and old friends. Producer Butch Vig and guitarist Pat Smear — both Nirvana alums — are back in their old seats. They hunkered down in Grohl's garage to make an album that's sonically rich in a way only analog can deliver. Top it off with guest turns from Husker Du godhead Bob Mould, Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic, and Tubes jester Fee Waybill, and you'll realize that Foo Fighters are occupying rare musical air. "Wasting Light" is essential music filled with epic swagger, rage, and a wink.
PLAY: Brett Dennen, "Loverboy"
Brett Dennen follows up 2008's "Hope for the Hopeless" with more brilliantly punchy songs that are on every music supervisor's wish list. They're also just a little too smart to keep him off mainstream radio stations. It's their loss. "Loverboy" is giddy joy from start to finish. Dennen wraps his lovelorn lyrics in calypso-influenced grooves. It's music to keep you company as the sun goes down while you wait for what nighttime brings.
PLAY: TV on the Radio, "Nine Types of Light"
In a world crowded with Brooklyn buzz bands, TV on the Radio stands apart. Their eclecticism comes off more as genuine musical curiosity than ADD, and they have the chops to string their primal, distorted grooves together into songs with an undeniable emotional core. For anyone who likes their bands to have one or two influences that are easily heard, TV on the Radio is not for you. "Nine Types of Light" is an album for those of us who want our musical mash-ups performed live instead of cut and pasted in a box. TV on the Radio represents the best of what is fast becoming the dying art of improvisation, spontaneity, and letting the spirit move you. They will move you — and force you to come up with some answers on your own. Isn't that what the best music should do?
PLAY: Alison Krauss and Union Station, "Paper Airplane"
Now that her flirtation with Robert Plant is out of her system, Alison Krauss has returned to the other men in her life. "Paper Airplane" is their first album since 2004's Top 10 hit "Lonely Runs Both Ways." The time apart has served them all well. "Paper Airplane" is the sound of a band that knows all of the secret places between the notes. It's a hushed album with arrangements that make you hold your breath for fear of intruding on these private moments. But the music never gets too precious (unlike their series of Dust Bowl-themed videos that seem a bit too self-conscious for their own good). It's a grown-up record, performed by a woman who keeps you wrapped around her finger and a band that follows her selflessly through every empty room.