Rolling Stones, “Blue & Lonesome” (Interscope)
In a career that spans more than 50 years, the Stones have just about run out of surprises. So it’s only fitting that their first studio album in 11 years is dedicated to covers of the Chicago blues to which the band owes its very existence. This album’s unvarnished tone approaches the feel of the tracks the band cut at Chess Records in Chicago on their first tour of America in 1964.
In the intervening decades, the Stones have learned a few things about an art form created by Southern blacks who migrated North in the middle of the last century. Jagger was often self-deprecating about his blues-inspired vocals, but the singer on “Blue & Lonesome” is 73, three years older than Muddy Waters was when he died in 1983. In a sense, the Stones have become their elders, and their seasoning as a first-rate blues band is evident.
When Jagger sings “Baby, please come on home to me” on Little Walter’s title song, his voice breaks on “please” — a yowl from the gut that a more precious singer might’ve wanted to retake. He shades the lines on Magic Sam’s “All of Your Love” with eroticism or wistfulness in the way he stretches or compresses the syllables. Charlie Watts’ crash cymbal ratchets up the chaos on Howlin’ Wolf’s unforgiving “Commit a Crime.” “Just Your Fool” turns the mix of Jagger’s harp and the guitars of Ron Wood and Keith Richards into a freight train, ornamented by Chuck Leavell’s piano fills.
GREG KOT, Chicago Tribune
John Legend, “Darkness and Light” (Columbia)
A little darkness serves Legend well. Without it, the love songs that regularly place him in the Top 10 are anodyne enough to work as wedding songs — a worthy and lucrative enterprise that can leave a saccharine aftertaste. But his fifth studio album treats love as something far more complex. Love can be a counterattack on mortality, a dangerous compulsion, a realm of sweaty adventures and a bulwark against forces of divisiveness. “Love Me Now,” already a hit, is a seize-the-moment song with an overt sense of doom about the relationship: “I know it’ll kill me when it’s over.”
With a producer from outside the usual precincts of pop and hip-hop — guitarist Blake Mills, who has worked with Alabama Shakes and Fiona Apple — Legend’s music turns earthier and often spookier. Among the songwriters, along with pop-factory names like Julia Michaels and John Ryan, is Will Oldham, aka indie-rocker Bonnie Prince Billy. The title track, “Darkness and Light,” a duet with Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes, reclaims an old, slow soul backbeat and makes desire a force of nature, ungovernable and irresistible and anything but simple.
JON PARELES, New York Times
• J. Cole, “4 Your Eyez Only”
• Neil Young, “Peace Trail”
• Yasiin Bey & Ferrari Sheppard , “December 99th”