9 unmissable CDs of 2014 (so far)

No. 2: Against Me!

1. Sia, 1000 Forms of Fear. Sia’s come a long way since “Breathe Me,” a song so emotionally vulnerable it borders on overwhelming. No wonder premier pop starlets have been knocking on her door, hoping for a piece of her songwriting genius (ask Rihanna and Beyoncé). Luckily, though, Sia held onto some of her gems for her first release in four years. The moving-on mantra “Burn the Pages” is a glorious circus of sounds, while soaring ballads “Big Girls Cry” and “Eye of the Needle” take her to new heights. A stunning full-blown pop achievement, this album should do the same.

2. Against Me!, Transgender Dysphoria Blues. Against Me!’s sixth release is a deeply personal outpouring, a disc as necessary — both to now-frontwoman Laura Jane Grace and the band’s fans — as it is empowering. An open diary exploring internal and external struggles with identity, but also acceptance and love, fear and loss, the complex, often-tremendous Transgender Dysphoria Blues triumphs at acknowledging one’s differences and the power that can be had when we embrace them.

No. 5: Mariah

3. Miranda Lambert, Platinum. While Lambert’s restless peers stray from the purity of the country genre to achieve mainstream acclaim, the Nashville Star alum (and reigning queen of country) has stuck to her guns and been rewarded for it. She’s known for slipping one in her back pocket should she need to pop an abusive lover, but what’s more, Lambert’s not leaving the house that built her. At least not any time soon, as demonstrated by yet another feather in her cowgirl hat with the irresistibly witty, hit-heavy Platinum.

4. Lykke Li, I Never Learn. It’s hard not to wish eternal sadness upon Lykke Li — her gloom inspires greatness. Thankfully, the Swedish songstress is in a bleak place on I Never Learn, an emotional reflection of fragility and isolation that abandons almost all sense of hope – and also almost all sense of pop. Li is better for it: The intimacy she strikes on this album is a portal into her broken heart.

5. Mariah Carey, Me. I Am Mariah … The Elusive Chanteuse. The title is insane; the retouched album art, even more so. So how is it that Mariah Carey’s latest album — her 14th! — defies expectations, making for one of the diva’s best? Simply put: She. She is Mariah. And from the surprisingly low-key lead-in, “Cry,” to the glass-shattering gospel stunner “Heavenly (No Ways Tired / Can’t Give Up Now),” Carey affirms that when you’ve survived Glitter, anything is possible.

6. Sharon Van Etten, Are We There. Affecting without any of that sentimental preciousness, there’s a transparency to Sharon Van Etten’s latest that daringly exposes the visceral emotions of the end of a relationship. A stunningly sad truth-telling about two hearts that have grown apart, “I Love You But I’m Lost” cuts deep. “I Know,” too, is simple poignancy told potently. This fourth album from Van Etten is a work of soul-baring genius.

No. 7: The Antlers

7. The Antlers, Familiars. An enveloping soundscape of crescendos and thoughtful literary reflections, the Brooklyn band’s fifth album is, at its core, concerned with catharsis — particularly having to do with mortality. That universal certainty is threaded throughout Familiars. Void of singles, its intention is to be heard as a full narrative. Conjuring one endless dream with its majestic lacing of twinkling pianos and wistful horns — on “Palace,” particularly, it sounds like the sky is opening up — The Antlers know that even in death, there’s life.

8. Tori Amos, Unrepentant Geraldines. Tori Amos is reinvigorated on Unrepentant Geraldines, a compelling return to the back-to-basics sound of her ’90s zenith. “Invisible Boy,” an obvious standout, wouldn’t have sounded out of place on any of Tori’s earliest works. Then there’s “Promise,” an inspiring conversation with Amos’ daughter that sweetly embodies the lifelong bond between mother and child. (Read our interview with Tori, who performed last night at the Winspear, here.)

9. Lana Del Rey, Ultraviolence. Lana Del Rey’s follow up to her claim-to-fame, Born to Die, is such a convincing piece of mainstream-defying art that it’s easy to write off that Saturday Night Live flub. Fleshing out the persona introduced on its 2012 predecessor, Rey’s follow-up feels like a hallucinatory acid trip — it could levitate you to the sky on its feathery sound pillows.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Mariah Carey surprises gay fans at awards ceremony

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Mariah Carey

Mariah Carey surprised a packed crowd at New York’s Terminal 5 when she made an unannounced appearance Thursday at Out Magazine’s annual OUT 100 bash in honor of her director pal Lee Daniels, the Huffington Post reported.

The 43-year-old pop diva was introduced at the event by the stars of HBO’s hotly-anticipated gay drama “Looking,” and drew cheers from the audience when she emerged in a skintight evening gown, her face coyly hidden behind a fan, after a short delay.

“I’m a straight girl, so I don’t really know why they asked me to be here — but my boobs have been out for years,” Carey quipped as she accepted the “Artist of the Year” award on Daniels’ behalf. Of the “Precious” and “Butler” director, who is openly gay, she noted, “He’s an innovator, he’s a dear, true great person … I live for him.”

The evening’s other high points included live musical performances by Steve Grand and Debbie Harry, while the well-dressed crowd also was treated to an advance peek at “Looking,” which stars out actors Jonathan Groff and Russell Tovey. Particularly moving was an appearance by Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) plaintiff Edie Windsor, who received a Lifetime Achievement honor at the event.

—  Steve Ramos

The gay interview: Jordin Sparks

American Idol winner Jordin Sparks’ first feature film — Sparkle co-starring the late gay icon Whitney Houston — opens tomorrow, and earlier this month she spoke frankly with our celeb correspondent Chris Azzopardi about working with Whitney Houston, their affection for their gay fan bases and how her Christian background taught her to love, not hate.

Jordin sparkles

Whitney Houston’s starring role — the last before her tragic death earlier this year — isn’t the only reason Sparkle has “gay” written all over it: There’s the flamboyant style of the ’60s, an all-girl singing group and, well, the movie’s name.

Seated in a hotel suite outside Detroit, where the film was shot, American Idol winner Jordin Sparks lights up knowing how many of her gay fans will see her on the big screen in her movie debut.

Sparks’ return to Motown in early August was even more appropriate when Aretha Franklin, who sang on the soundtrack for the 1976 original film, showed up to walk the red carpet with the remake’s star. Even though she lost a nail, the 22-year-old said having the Queen of Soul there was “absolutely incredible.”

About the finger fiasco: “I was freaking out because I looked at the picture of Aretha and me and the nail is gone.” That’s not a problem today, however. “I made sure I glued these suckers on like nobody’s business!”

After the jump, ever so bubbly Sparks chats about Whitney’s mutual adoration for the gay community, addressed “mean” rumors of her anti-gay upbringing and recalled her first time at a drag club — in Dallas!

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

LISTEN: Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett duet on ‘The Lady is a Tramp’

Tony Bennett’s doing the duet thing again with his upcoming release, Duets II scheduled for release on Tuesday. The big hype was first about his work with Amy Winehouse. Then the buzz started in on his duet with Lady Gaga and how he has compared her to the likes of Elvis Presley. We finally get to hear what the latter’s collaboration sounds like. This was posted on YouTube today giving listeners a slight preview of the album.

The album is star-studded including queer faves Queen Latifah, Mariah Carey and k.d. Lang.

—  Rich Lopez

Mariah Carey at Nokia last night

Remember when Mariah Carey was a hot mess a few years ago? I don’t think she’s quite done with that whole stint just yet. Last night’s show had “train wreck” written all over it. And then “sinking ship” graffiti-ed over that!

The show was scheduled to start at 7:30 with opening act RydazNrtist. We didn’t make it in time for that but heard they were on and off the stage in no time. We arrived maybe a nickel after 8 p.m. With Michael Jackson’s greatest hits blaring over the speakers, the crowd seemed in an OK mood. That is until the crowd started to realize that both CDs of MJ’s hits were sounding like they would be played to completion. The air in the room was filling with frustration and after one MJ track too many, Nokia filled with aggressive booing by the entire audience. And then the lights went out. Although the audience then switched into screaming applause, the move felt more like a way to stifle the booing than building anticipation.

FYI – the above video is NOT from last night.

—  Rich Lopez

Concert notice: Mariah Carey brings her 'Angels Advocate' tour to Nokia in February

LiveNation released Mariah Carey’s itinerary for her Angels Advocate tour yesterday and it includes the DFW area. Carey will play the Nokia Theatre February 18, just in time for a slight post-Valentine’s celebration.

If you’re a very special member of Honey B. Fly, the official MC fan club, go to Carey’s site for ticket pre-sale info. Otherwise, tickets go on sale Friday, Dec. 18 at noon and will run you between $59–$150. Visit LiveNation.com or Ticketmaster.com to order.

The video above is from her last concert in Dallas back in September ’06 at American Airlines. Not sure why she’s not returning to as big a venue. Seriously, if Pink can fill the place, I’m certain Carey still could.

—  Rich Lopez