Dropkick Murphys, "Signed and Sealed in Blood" (Born & Bred)
An early contender for 2013's finest Christmas song arrives halfway through the new Dropkick Murphys album in "The Season's Upon Us." It's a rowdy Celtic-punk number in which singer Ken Casey runs down the charms of his extended family, member by miserable member. As in its obvious predecessor, "Fairytale of New York" by the Pogues, affection accompanies spite in "The Season's Upon Us"; but warmth is all you hear by the time the song's brandy-soaked chorus hits.
And so it goes throughout "Signed and Sealed in Blood," which demonstrates that, for this long-running Boston band, loving and fighting aren't opposites but rather complementary manifestations of the only thing that matters: passion.
In "The Boys Are Back" they exit Interstate 93 "looking for trouble," yet pause to buy roses from "a bum at the light"; in "Burn" they resolve to "kiss the finest girl" before going down in a blaze tonight. With cranked guitars and breakneck tempos, the music gallops forcefully but shimmers with beauty, too, as in the bagpipe-enriched "Out of Our Heads" and "Rose Tattoo," which features banjo from Winston Marshall of Mumford & Sons.
MIKAEL WOOD, LOS ANGELES TIMES
Conor Maynard, "Contrast" (Capitol)
In the old days, singers used to get discovered by record-label scouts while singing absent-mindedly at gas stations. Today, they're self-made YouTube stars until powerful people discover them and turn them into pop stars. Maynard's powerful people were R&B singer Ne-Yo and the Neptunes' Pharrell Williams; they help the 19-year-old Brit channel his proto-Justin Bieber tendencies into pop copies of Katy Perry, Rihanna and Justin Timberlake.
In addition to being small, cute and inoffensive, Maynard has a strong, adaptable voice. For this debut, he works with a variety of top producers, songwriters and guest stars, and manages to sound like them (and others). On "Pictures," written by rising R&B star Frank Ocean, Maynard elevates from a sleepy storytelling tone to a falsetto so pristine it's almost shocking; on "Lift Off," his vocals match the playful syncopation of Pharrell's skittery beats; on the jumpy sure hit "Vegas Girl," he's so enamored of RiRi that he drops her name in the song and copies her distinctive vocal mannerism.
The main problem with "Contrast" is that Maynard so obviously surrenders himself to the heavy hitters making his album that he leaves no space to be himself. He's a talented mimic. But his career will advance only if he follows his talent down Timberlake Lane rather than Jonas Boulevard.
Maynard will perform at 2 p.m. Sunday at Mall of America.
STEVE KNOPPER, NEWSDAY