Ryan Adams

Ashes & Fire

Capitol Records

3 stars

Is this Ryan Adams’ best work? Not by a long shot. But those who would complain that Adams has gotten stagnant — that his songwriting is suffering from a lack of drama and his musicality suffers from a lack of Cardinals — are missing out. This is perfect autumn music. The songs are fire-lit and warm, the palette gray and brown and drab.

These are not the story songs we’re used to. These are sketches — leaves falling from branches. They tend toward sentimentality. There's a soft-rock Norah Jones aspect here, which is fitting considering that she guests on a couple tracks.

His songs tend to grow like storms brewing on the horizon. Right now they're just dark clouds, but give them time. Whatever comes, a weary Adams seems peculiarly prepared to weather it out. When the pace picks up it’s a welcome relief from some of the more somber walks. And there are certainly somber walks here.

Adams said the album is about sitting in one place, decaying and being reborn at the same time. It’s about looking backwards and forwards simultaneously. He said (back in 2009) that he’d never record another record. Here’s to more looking forward. -Jay Cullis

The Sugarhill Gang

"Rapper's Delight"

The Sugarhill Gang needs to be thanked; Sylvia Robinson, who died last month at age 75, needs to be praised. This was the beginning of mainstream rap — of hip-hop being accepted, of the real DJ scene. Earning the status of first hip-hop single to reach the Top 40, it’s the song that all the rest come back to.

Robinson was building an empire early on. In 1957 she recorded the single, “Love is Strange”: that twang-cow-bell-filled song that makes us all want to call “Baby.” How many films have featured that song? It’s so tight. When Al Green turned “Pillow Talk” down because it was too sexy, Robinson recorded it herself and saw it climb to #1 on the Billboard soul singles chart.

In 1979, she pieced the Sugarhill Gang together by driving around New Jersey in an Oldsmobile. This woman — this mother of rap — had more vision and determination than an army. It wasn’t easy, it certainly wasn’t entirely pretty, but Robinson set a foundation, establishing life for so many artists. -Micah Ling