Revisit some of 2014's lesser-known music gems

Looking for new music? Let's take a look at last year.

Here's a list of top-notch albums you may have overlooked in 2014, from rising R&B singer and reality TV star K. Michelle to Dan Wilson, the multitalented singer who co-wrote contemporary classics such as Adele's “Someone Like You” and the Dixie Chicks' “Not Ready to Make Nice.”

Dan Wilson, “Love Without Fear” (Ballroom Music LLC)

Creating pop tunes is like making candy — overuse the sugar and you ruin the whole batch. Dan Wilson doesn't do that. He mixes sweet melodies with aching emotion in appealing portions, and the 11 songs on “Love Without Fear” are so irresistible you can't listen to just one.

The album digs deep into matters of the heart, exploring true love and the false kind as well. “The fingertips that caress can also bruise,” he sings. Natalie Maines, Sara Bareilles and Sara Watkins sing bracing harmony, and Wilson does fine on his own, choosing just the right moment to unleash his formidable falsetto.

The climax comes on the finale, “Even the Stars are Sleeping,” which swells to achieve a symphonic grandeur and pins the romantic needle.

K. Michelle, “Anybody Wanna Buy a Heart?” (Atlantic)

The reality star-prefix to any singer's name can cause an eye-roll when that person begins to release music. But K. Michelle — star of reality TV shows on VH1 — proves that becoming famous on TV doesn't mean you can't sing. Because she can, and her new album drives home the point.

“Anybody Wanna Buy a Heart?” is one of 2014's best R&B albums. Michelle's strong vocals are the focal point as she spits matter-of-fact lyrics about love lapses and relationships on the outstanding 12-track set.

“Judge Me” kicks off the album in the right form. “Love ‘Em All” and “Going Under” are catchy and addictive, and the piano-tinged “How Do You Know?” is a winning pop ballad.

The best song, though, is “Maybe I Should Call,” a detailed track about her past relationship with British actor Idris Elba. She may have lost in the love category (for now), but she's a winner in the music one.

Willie Nile, “If I Was a River” (River House Records)

Live-wire Willie Nile, co-producing with Grammy winner Stewart Lerman, turns poignantly introspective in his first piano-based album.

The raging rocker, now brimming with an exquisitely tender tone, lush melodies and imagery, offers a musical embrace for anyone who's navigated the emotional currents of relationships.

The title track and its aquatic companion, “Let Me Be the River,” are comforting beacons — the latter for a loved one setting off on life's journey. In the haunting “Lost,” raw and roiling minor-key arpeggios spawn a seductive undertow amid the agony of separation. And Nile circles back to his socially conscious roots in the stirring “Gloryland” — some lyrics almost whispered.

It turns out you can take the rabble-rouser out of rock, but some impulses are hard to resist. “Lullaby Loon” spoofs musical genres and, as the sprightly tune fades, the irrepressible artist is heard chuckling.

“The Mike Longo Trio Celebrates Oscar Peterson Live” (Consolidated Artists Productions)

Pianist Mike Longo is best known inside the jazz community for his decades-long association with jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie as a sideman, music director, composer and arranger. On this CD, he pays tribute to another jazz great, pianist Oscar Peterson, with whom he studied intensely for six months in 1961.

On this impressive trio date, Longo offers a collection of standards recorded by Peterson such as Cole Porter's “Love for Sale” and Fats Waller's “Honeysuckle Rose,” but takes to heart his mentor's emphasis on “not playing like anyone but yourself.”

He doesn't try to imitate Peterson, but emulates his hard-driving swing, creative improvisations and technical command, whether playing George Gershwin's “Fascinatin' Rhythm” at a blistering tempo or dashing across the keyboard on Clifford Brown's “Daahoud.” Longo offers an original take on Irving Berlin's “Always.”

Remarkably this 70-plus-minute recording was done live without any rehearsal, demonstrating Longo's special chemistry with his veteran trio of bassist Paul West and drummer Ray Mosca. This is fresh-sounding, straight-ahead jazz, played by a pianist undeservedly overlooked in a half-century-plus musical career.

Chuck Prophet, “Night Surfer” (Yep Roc)

Chuck Prophet's sing-speak swagger separates him from the pack. He sounds world-weary but wise and willing to let us all in on the joke. “My life is an experiment that doesn't prove a thing,” Prophet sings.

Yes, the outlook is a bit bleak. But he has never sung better, and the songs are strong, too. Prophet name-drops Henry Rollins, quotes Al Green, rocks out and seems throughout to be trying to cheer himself up about life in these times.

The arrangements include horns, a banjo and even pizzicato strings, which keep the mood from getting too sour. Toward the end Prophet is singing about rainbows in the gutter.

Dan Wilson's "Love Without Fear" digs deep into emotional terrain. Associated Press
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