Tool, “Fear Inoculum” (Dissectional/Volcano Entertainment/RCA)
Tool’s first album after a 13-year creative, personal and legal impasse finds the band still carving its own niche at the intersection of metal and progressive music, flavored with Eastern and experimental textures, slowly unfolding arrangements and cerebral wordplay. Six tracks clock in at more than 10 minutes, with the inventive drumming of Danny Carey and the neo-philosophical narratives of singer Maynard James Keenan dominant. Keenan adopts a sing-speak, storytelling mode as he zeros in on questions of aging, relevance and learning how to undo the crippling head games that tripped up his younger self. The album plays like an extended mood piece that bends and drifts, with a shortage of the crushing hard-rock crescendos and riffs that defined the band’s work on 2001’s “Lateralus” and before. The album is all about restraint until the closing “Tempest” and we get 15 roller-coaster minutes of guitarist Adam Jones, bassist Justin Chancellor and Carey at their peak as an A-plus hard rock/metal power trio, while Keenan finally lets it rip on vocals.
GREG KOT, Chicago Tribune
King Princess, “Cheap Queen”
Just 20, King Princess — singer/songwriter Mikaela Straus — launched her recording career last year with “1950,” a streaming hit that begins with a blunt statement about her genderqueer orientation: “I hate it when dudes try to chase me.” Merging subterranean bass throbs and digitally tweaked drums with the vintage warmth of hymnlike piano and reverb-heavy guitar, the song’s structure could have come out of the 1960s Brill Building. She carries that approach — candid and forthright while grounded in past generations’ pop — onto her full-length debut, singing about self-doubt and self-confidence, passion and longing, connection and betrayal. Most of the songs are midtempo, keyboard-centered ballads, harking back to Fiona Apple and perhaps Stevie Wonder, Carole King and the Beatles, but she also knows her way around the hip-hop arsenal of loops and samples.
JON PARELES, New York Times
Jon Regen, “Higher Ground” (Ropeadope)
“I’m back here in style,” Regen sings more matter-of-factly than boastfully on the title song. The piano man has always exuded a blend of earthiness and sophistication that recalls such fellow masters of the 88s as Allen Toussaint and Bruce Hornsby (a big fan). On “Higher Ground,” he collaborates with producer and multi-instrumentalist Matt Johnson of Jamiroquai and guests including fellow keyboardists Benmont Tench and Chuck Leavell and Police guitarist Andy Summers. The first track, “Wide Awake,” is an intoxicating number that sounds forward-looking without being faddish. It’s grounded in the verities that make Regen’s music appealing: melody and hooks, craftsmanship and soul.
NICK CRISTIANO, Philadelphia Inquirer
• Kanye West, “Jesus Is King”
• FKA Twigs, “Magdalene”
• Neil Young & Crazy Horse, “Colorado”
• James Blunt, “Once Upon a Mind”