Kris Kristofferson, "Feeling Mortal" (KK)
He's 76, so, sure, Kristofferson is feeling mortal. Over the past several years, however, that feeling has resharpened his muse, resulting in his best work since the '60s and '70s, when he introduced a new poetic lyricism to country music. "Feeling Mortal" is no exception — it's the first great album of 2013.
As on 2006's "This Old Road" and 2009's "Closer to the Bone," producer Don Was puts Kristofferson in the best possible light. He highlights the aging troubadour's craggy grace with spare arrangements that fit his conversational delivery and heighten the intimacy of these songs about life, love and hard-earned wisdom.
Kristofferson may be feeling mortal, but that's also freeing, and so the silver-haired devil doesn't sound as though he's ready to quit anytime soon, as he indicates on "You Don't Tell Me What to Do."
Nick Cristiano, Philadelphia Inquirer
Ra Ra Riot, "Beta Love" (Barsuk)
On its face, "Beta Love" is the sound of a band finally plugging into the matrix. Ra Ra Riot's previous two albums proposed a flowery, chamber-esque take on indie-rock, self-conscious sometimes to a fault. The new album plunges deep into synth pop, with Wes Miles' tenor soaring sweetly over a range of mechanized textures. The band still has its violinist but not its cellist, and it got a vital assist from producer Dennis Herring and session drummer Josh Freese. Naturally there's a concept, involving the cyberpunk sage William Gibson and the futurist-inventor Ray Kurzweil. Best to ignore all that. When Miles gets too literal, as on "Binary Mind," you can begin to feel cornered. Far better is his bittersweet keen on "Angel, Please" and "For Once" and "Is It Too Much," songs of direct melodic and emotional thrust.
NATE CHINEN, New York Times
Petra Haden, "Petra Goes to the Movies" (Anti-)
A great film score might seem like strange territory for a vocalist working unaccompanied. But then Haden happens to thrive best in strange territory. "Petra Goes to the Movies" features her a cappella versions of more than a dozen movie themes, with her vocals meticulously multitracked. The arrangements are ingenious, emphasizing Haden's gift for mimesis: She can suggest the swoon of a string section as handily as the blare of a solitary bugle. Her "Carlotta's Galop," from Fellini's "8 ½," has just the right jolt of Nino Rota circus mania; her "Psycho" has all the spikiness and stealth grandeur of Bernard Herrmann's famous title theme. Haden takes a more conventional turn on several tracks with accompanists — pianist Brad Mehldau, guitarist Bill Frisell and her father, bassist Charlie Haden — but she does her truest work here as a one-woman studio orchestra, her obsessive attentions clearing a fresh vantage on the music.
NATE CHINEN, New York Times