Bruno Mars, “24K Magic” (Atlantic)
On Mars’ third album, a song called “Perm” most resembles “Uptown Funk,” his inescapable 2014 smash with Mark Ronson. It comes and goes in a swish, showing off Mars’ talents for call-and-response bandleading, recalling James Brown one second and the Time the next.
Mars’ album opens with three of these retro-funk-turned-contemporary anthems, including the title track (which pays tribute to “the hustlers and gangstas” among others), “Chunky” and “Perm.” All are essential, pristinely produced by Shampoo Press & Curl, full of whooping and throwaway proclamations.
Then it downshifts into something different, still constructed around Mars’ impeccable falsetto and unyielding enthusiasm, recalling the changes of pace on classic Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder albums. “Versace on the Floor” is built on ringing, Stevie-style synths, and even though the title gives the punch line away, it’s still exciting when Mars coos it out loud: “Let’s close our eyes and close the door / oh, I love that dress, but you won’t need it anymore.”
“Too Good to Say Goodbye” recalls the polished romance of Jackson’s “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” closing the album with a Mars self-duet, screaming and testifying in perfect voice.
A 33-minute album has little room for filler, but Mars and his production team manage a few inessentials. “Straight Up & Down” is a leering pickup ballad, “Calling All My Lovelies” is mostly notable for a voice mail by actress Halle Berry, and “Finesse” doesn’t really go anywhere after its retro new-jack-swing beat. But these are small blotches on an album engineered for maximum joy.
Steve knopper, Newsday
Mo Pitney, “Behind This Guitar” (Curb)
He looks like a kid (he’s 24), but Pitney sounds like an old soul. On one of the best debuts of the year, the Illinois native cannily evokes country traditionalism with enough spit and polish to give his music a contemporary appeal.
It starts with the voice — like Josh Turner’s, Pitney’s baritone is a classic country instrument. And it extends to the songs. The singer co-wrote 10 of the 12 numbers, and he addresses age-old country themes with plain-spoken eloquence, whether he’s extolling the virtues of “Country,” running into an old flame in the supermarket (“Cleanup on Aisle Five”) or remembering a beloved pet (“It’s Just a Dog”).
Pitney does betray youthful exuberance when he’s telling the twang-fueled tale of how “I Met Merle Haggard Today.” Unlike a lot of young country singers who invoke the names of legends, Pitney doesn’t seem to be trying to boost his own credibility by implying a musical kinship with the Hag. He’s just telling a story in his typically charming, unpretentious manner. If Merle were alive, we imagine he’d be pretty pleased with Pitney’s take on country.
Nick Cristiano, Philadelphia Inquirer
• John Legend, “Darkness and Light”
• Rolling Stones, “Blue & Lonesome”
• Childish Gambino, “Awaken, My Love”
• Deadmau5, “W:/2016Album”
• Pete Doherty, “Hamburg Demonstrations”