First, let's please have another moment of silence for the mighty Clarence Clemons, who left the E Street Band for the last time. He held the promise and power of rock 'n' roll in his mighty saxophone wail. Rest in peace, Big Man.
Now, raise your lighter for Jill Scott, Bon Iver, and Jim Lauderdale — three unlucky musical traveling companions who play well together. As for "Weird Al" and Night Ranger? Aren't you suffering enough?
PLAY: Jill Scott, "The Light of the Sun"
It's been a long four years since Jill Scott's last album, "The Real Thing: Words and Sounds, Vol. 3." During that time, she divorced her husband and her record label, and she had a baby boy with her (now-ex) boyfriend. At last, Scott is ready to make music again. "The Light of the Sun" is a classic soul soundtrack sung by a woman ready to tell her tales of survival. The 15 songs play like Marvin Gaye's break-up masterpiece "Hear, My Dear" — if Marvin was an empowered black woman hell-bent on redemption rather than revenge. Beneath the Philly strings, beat box rhythms, multilayered vocals, and street poems, "The Light of the Sun" has a simple message: stay strong, sisters.
SKIP: "Weird Al" Yankovic, "Alpocalypse"
At first I thought the joke behind "Weird Al's" new album had something to do with the dog food Alpo. Silly me, it's AL-pocolypse — like the end of the world, with "Weird Al" thundering from the sky. HA! That's funny. Oh, Al, you're a card. There's something quaint about "Weird Al" cranking out his Lady Gaga parodies, mashing up Taylor Swift with TMZ, and talking about those crazy kids' tattoos. The guy's cute. Problem is, the world of parody has moved on. The Lonely Island and others cornered the market on smart pop culture commentary that feels born of the moment. Yankovic seems like the creepy dad trying to stay hip by sharing his Hoagy Carmichael collection with the kids.
SKIP: Night Ranger, "Somewhere in California"
Time stands still for Night Ranger. Now 27 years after "Sister Christian" ruled the middle of the road, the '80s hair band's hair is thinner, but they're still keeping the classic rock dream alive. "Somewhere in California" is full of twin guitar attacks and songs about Saturday night. It also has a big power ballad "("Time of Our Lives") halfway through the album. The band themselves put it simply: "It's really Night Ranger." No argument here. These guys are true salesmen. You can decide if you're buying. I've made my decision.
PLAY: Jim Lauderdale, "Reason & Rhyme"
Grammy winner Jim Lauderdale has released 19 albums, played with country greats, and is one of the most prolific songwriters around. Still, he's been relegated to near-cult status. That's criminal, because while the world is sleeping Lauderdale is quietly reinventing bluegrass music. "Reason & Rhyme" is his third outing with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, and it's the pair's deepest exploration into the genre that the Dead flirted with. Lauderdale pulls bluegrass from the sepia-toned corners of county fairs and into the mainstream, where it deserves to live. Hopefully, more than the faithful will tune in.
PLAY: Bon Iver, "Bon Iver"
Bon Iver's Justin Vernon occupies a similar introverted space as Iron & Wine's Sam Beam, even if he does supersize the ethereal factor. And make no mistake, Bon Iver's sophomore album takes introspection to wider spaces. "Bon Iver" steps up its sonic game (whereas the debut was recorded in a cabin, this one was tracked in a vet clinic-turned-recording studio) with the help of some stellar sidemen — most notably pedal-steel mad scientist Greg Leisz. At the heart are Vernon's otherworldly vocals, born in the darkness, reaching for the light.