Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, “Reunions” (Thirty Tigers)
Isbell established himself as a songwriter of emotional depth on 2003’s “Decoration Day,” the first of three albums with the Drive-By Truckers. And ever since he got clean and sober on 2013’s “Southeastern,” the Americana guitarist has been producing one forthright, finely wrought solo album after another.
“Reunions” maintains that winning streak. “It Gets Easier” (“but it never gets easy”) is about the ongoing battle to lay off the bottle. “Letting You Go” is a heart-rending parent’s lament. Isbell’s songs feel so completely lived-in, with telling details that ring true.
“Reunions” has a fuller, thicker sound than its recent predecessors. That rocked-out approach serves Isbell well when he gets his dander up on “What’ve I Done To Help,” and “Be Afraid.” Those songs exhort the world at large, urging others to prioritize the common good and speak up. But they also work as notes to himself to continue to face his fears and hold himself to the highest standard.
Dan Deluca, Philadelphia Inquirer
Hayley Williams, “Petals for Armor” (Atlantic)
One of the most gifted emo graduates, Paramore frontwoman Williams spent a decade firmly restating that she was no solo act. But the band itself evolved so much — with a lineup change on every record — that this belated rebranding and its curveballs won’t shock anyone. Yet it’s Williams’ biggest musical leap.
Her singing has absorbed the hushed shrugs of Billie Eilish, sung over the high-mixed drums of clattering latter-day Radiohead. Unusual R&B-influenced song shapes invite ’90s folk-jazz comparisons. A funky Suzanne Vega? Two winners, “Taken” and “Sugar on the Rim,” have the mark of Erykah Badu and Lady Gaga, respectively, while the broken beat of early highlight “Cinnamon” has roots in St. Vincent.
Give a onetime genius for obvious hooks her props. She’s gone subtle without turning dull.
Dan Weiss, Philadelphia Inquirer
• The 1975, “Notes on a Conditional Form”
• Steve Earle, “Ghosts of West Virginia”
• Indigo Girls, “Look Long”
• Badly Drawn Boy, “Banana Skin Shoes”