Steve Almaas, "Everywhere You've Been" (Lonesome Whippoorwill)
Although best known in Minnesota as a pioneering punk rocker with the Suicide Commandos, Almaas long has forged his own engagingly eccentric path. When that trio broke up in 1979, he set out for New York and staked out a place in the city's burgeoning indie scene with groups such as the Bongos and his own Beat Rodeo.
Almaas' gift for melody comes to full flower in this solo effort, thanks in part to a crucial collaborator from those days, original R.E.M. producer Mitch Easter, whose magic touch at the mixing board helps this collection of all-original tunes sound like an instant classic. Other pals pitched in, too, among them indispensable sidemen like Tony Garnier (longtime bassist for Bob Dylan) and Kenny Vaughan (guitarist for Marty Stuart) and a host of harmonizers including Gary Louris of the Jayhawks.
Listening to songs like the Everly-loving title track, the rockabilly novelty "1955" and the summertime-sweet "Down by the Lake," you might picture Almaas as a kid with a transistor radio under the bed covers, soaking up sounds and dreaming of the world beyond. An untitled bonus track feels like a slow dance at the end of the night, full of unrequited yearning — a perfect conclusion to this gem of an album.
TIM CAMPBELL, Star Tribune
"Vince Staples" (Blacksmith/Motown)
This California rapper uses brevity to his advantage. This is his second consecutive album that's only 22 minutes long, a follow-up to 2018's "FM!" As its eponymous title suggests, Staples revisits his personal story, about growing up in Long Beach surrounded by gang violence. The results are quietly powerful. The silky "Take Me Home," featuring North Jersey singer Foushee, and the searching opener "Are You With That?" — which entices with its stutter-step beat and wispy melody before cutting to the core — are standout tracks on an album that's cohesive both thematically and musically, thanks in part to producer Kenny Beats.
DAN DELUCA, Philadelphia Inquirer
• David Crosby, "For Free" • Leon Bridges, "Gold-Diggers Sound" • Jackson Browne, "Downhill From Everywhere"