Prince, Welcome 2 America

A posthumous release of a 2010 recording, this newly released gem from his estate is one of the better outings and certainly the best release so far since his unfortunate demise. The funk and R&B are solid but sufficiently updated for the modern taste, and while his self-production is a little stingy with the dynamics, its live jam feel is blessedly free of booth diddling; both he and his skillful backing mercs play like he never left this earth. Lyrically it's a mixed bag, some great uplifting semi-gospel ("1000 Years From Here," "One Day We Will All B Free") and thoughtful topicality (title track, "Born 2 Die") undermined by puerile manstrutting ("Check The Record," "When She Comes," snicker snicker nudge nudge), but the insta-singles are fun ("Hot Summer") and the slow moments burst with soul ("Stand Up And B Strong"), and his now almost nostalgic use of single character words means you won't have to spend a lot of time texting the track names 2 ur friends. (Content: adult themes.)

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Billie Eilish, Happier Than Ever

Or more likely the title's just one big snarky troll. Her repertoire has expanded and the breathy-girl vocals mellowed and refined (with the intentionally ironic exception of "Male Fantasy") and it goes well with the slinkier, smoother initial tracks, even the harshy "I Didn't Change My Number." (Stand-out: "Billie Bossa Nova." Yes, literally. You can almost imagine the stage show.) The slower, more introspective moments show real maturity ("my future" and "Halley's Comet" in particular), even if "Getting Older" doesn't quite wash with her age ("NDA"'s interesting power reversal reads more like it), and a little bit of grit doesn't harm "OverHeated" or at least doesn't harm "Therefore I Am" fatally. Still, "Oxytocin" is annoying and even a little thuggish, "GOLDWING" doesn't have enough of a hook to overcome the weak writing and the half-hearted angsty R&B in "Lost Cause" comes off even worse. The accuracy of the title notwithstanding she's still got growing up to do and the bad habits of her prior art die hard, but this album shows growth for sure, and those unmoved by her earlier efforts might find more to like in this one. (Content: F- and S-bombs, adult themes.)

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Badfinger, Timeless ... The Musical Legacy

This band suffered, at times unjustly, and they suffered bad. Their compilation producers aren't doing them any favours either. The obvious and deserving hits made it ("Day After Day," "Come and Get It" and "No Matter What") plus at least one worthy B-side ("I'll Be The One"), and the group's (well, more) Beatlesque days as the Iveys are at least somewhat represented by "Dear Angie" and the beguiling "Maybe Tomorrow." Unfortunately their irritating original version of "Without You" shoots itself in the head early (any of the covers are superior), "Baby Blue" was a dopey choice for a single (the George Harrison-produced tracks from that album like "Name of the Game" and of course "Day After Day" are better) and "Believe Me" is as good as it is only because it's actually interpolating "Oh! Darling." Still, this collection gets the nod over 2000's The Very Best of Badfinger for completeness, especially the inclusion of Ass, though there was probably good reason in earlier attempts to leave off the aimless "Apple of My Eye" and the dreary, overstuffed seven-and-a-half-minute excess of "Timeless." Two of their Elektra tracks also made it, paragons neither one, but they're here ("Dennis" from Wish You Were Here takes a little while to get where it's going, while Airwaves' "Love Is Gonna Come At Last" never does). The most accurate compilations capture a group's aesthetic clearly, and while listening to this one it's hard to shake that as unfair as life was to the members of this band, they weren't entirely blameless for it either. (Content: no concerns.)

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Sparks, A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip

The pandemic turned everything upside down: besides face masks and Zoom mutes, Sparks was back on the charts for the first time in literally decades. There's even a movie out about them. Did greater America finally rediscover these two after all those years quietly keeping their corner of L.A. weird? Twenty-four albums and fifty years later Russ Mael's range is down a storey or six and Ron's glasses are a bit thicker, but the production's better than ever and the wit still doesn't quit, and they've wisely moved away from their less approachable chamber music days to something, yes, closer to their last chart success of the 1980s. That doesn't mean they've gotten artistically lazy, mind you: "Lawnmower" feels like a zippier earworm version of "Suburban Homeboy" in all the right ways, I like the splash of insincerity in "All That" and the thinly disguised indictment of modern disinformation in "Nothing Travels Faster Than the Speed of Light," and solid pop grooves keep it moving like "Left Out in the Cold" and "One for the Ages." Not everything fires on all cylinders, such as the lurching beat and opaque lyrics of "Sainthood Is Not In Your Future," and "Stravinsky's Only Hit" is high-quality but hard to follow, while their other attempts at topicality ("iPhone" and closer "Please Don't F--k Up My World") are a bit too hamfisted to fully enjoy. Stiil, they make up for it with other entrancing tracks like "Self-Effacing," a wacky anthem of the excessively modest (lyrical highlights: "I'm not the guy who says 'I'm the guy'" and "Thank you but Autotune has been used/used and perhaps a trifle abused"), fabulous humour-infested throwbacks to their zany 70s output in "Onomato Pia" and "The Existential Threat" (a prescient COVID commentary?) and my favourite "Pacific Standard Time," a luxurious buffet for the ears that simultaneously mocks and celebrates the superficiality of southern California in devilish equal measure. Meanwhile, they're recording another album and they're actually going to tour in 2022. I, for one, blame the Delta variant. (Content: F-bombs in "iPhone" and obviously "Please Don't F--k Up My World.")

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Metallica, Master of Puppets

I'd never accuse heavy metal of subtlety; I'd never accuse the music of beating around the bush. But only the most banal of the genre would I accuse of brainlessness, and this one sure isn't that. The ornamentation is spare and some of the riffs seem recycled, but Lars Ulrich keeps the drums pounding at a frenetic pace and Kirk Hammett's circuitous solos wind around them like the most sinuous of serpents. Compositionally the skill impresses, especially Cliff Burton on the instrumental "Orion" in the second half (sadly his last great work before his untimely death). And, oh, that nihilism; a lesser, less earnest band wouldn't be able to pull it off with a straight face, but while "heartfelt" is probably the wrong word for James Hetfield's lyrics, they're direct, sincere and the sincerest of middle fingers to the society that made them that way. The sharpest knives paired with the sharpest licks are probably the title track and "Disposable Heroes," but don't think the rest of the album pulls its punches. Duplicitous televangelists, heartless politicians, Lovecraftian monsters all (but I repeat myself), line up and take your beating: in the cover's red light of righteous rage now we see the strings you pull. The digital reissue adds live versions of "Battery" and "The Thing That Should Not Be," still unfailingly energetic, but the album cuts remain definitive. (Content: some violent imagery, F-bombs on "Damage Inc.")

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Pink Floyd, The Dark Side of the Moon

There are many reasons this album loomed large for years like the Kubrick monolith over the Billboard charts, and all those explanations suffice, but the biggest is its unfailing consistency. This album radiates quality from every rainbow-tinged and inky black atom, and every member did his part, whether it was Roger Waters' restrained lyrics, David Gilmour's scintillating guitar, Richard Wright's VCS-3 soundscapes or even a rare solo credit for Nick Mason. The songs vary in style but not in theme and flow perfectly from one track to the next, aided greatly by Alan Parsons' unerring engineering and a startling world-building array of overlaid sounds. Heartbeats and helicopters? Check. Inscrutable quotes? Check. Coins and cash registers in 7/4 time? Check and double check. The technique reinforces the music; the music reinforces the concept; the concept reinforces the experience. Rarely are there true artistic unities in pop music, even when pop music was more explicitly artistic, but this album is indisputably one of them. Notwithstanding various later local maxima you might even say they would never eclipse it. Recurrently reissued and remastered, the postcards in the 20th Anniversary version were fun but to my ear James Guthrie's mix for the 30th is the superior release. (Content: a muffled F-bomb in "Speak to Me" and a single S-bomb in "Money.")

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