The O'Jays, Back Stabbers

A provocative landmark of soul from title to tracks. Yes, you have the hit singles like "Back Stabbers" and the instant hook of "Love Train," but the album cuts and B-sides are almost just as solid, particularly the feel-good grooves like lead-off "When The World's At Peace" and the effervescent "(They Call Me) Mr. Lucky." Some clever lyrics are on offer here too, my favourite being the thoughtful infidelities of "Listen To The Clock On The Wall" as an interesting emotional foil to the album's more acerbic offerings (the title track for sure but also "Shiftless, Shady, Jealous Kind of People," which doesn't mince any words with its opinions). The fifth star falls off partially for "Back Stabbers"' core riff turning up too many places but largely for its carefully considerated sedateness; while this is also its strength, it also means some otherwise better cuts take longer to get cooking than they ought to ("992 Arguments" and ironically "Time To Get Down" in particular). But other than that the rest is sublime, and I've got no qualms saying so right to their faces. The 2011 remaster adds the abridged single of "Back Stabbers," and as such is largely pointless by definition, but the six-minute remix of "Love Train" is as close to a 12-inch as you'll get of a song that really deserves one. (Content: adult themes on "Listen To The Clock On The Wall.")

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Joe Satriani, Surfing With The Alien

Some of Satriani's finest technical work surfaces here but unfortunately the real problem with this arresting red beauty is compositional. Besides its questionably short length most of the tracks on the second side don't exactly know where they're supposed to be going ("Hill of the Skull," "Circles") or only noodle their way there with difficulty ("Lords of Karma," "Echo"), and the obvious splattered-on drum machine riffs don't help. But when he's on, he's on: not just the scintillating title track or the deft "Ice Nine," or the fresh and crispy "Satch Boogie," but most of all the practically poetic "Always With Me, Always With You" with its central solo waxed so heartfelt his amplifier fairly sings. Just stop listening around the halfway point unless you're bored and you'll still get your money's worth. Current reissues omit the iridescent John Byrne Silver Surfer art due to a licensing dispute with Marvel; find any of the earlier pressings if you can for the full experience. (Content: pure instrumental.)

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Jethro Tull, Thick As A Brick

If this were a prog rock concert, the high-quality production would be well worth the price of admission and I might even stay seated for the whole thing. But this is a take-home album, for goodness sake, and in the manner of a passive-aggressive orthodontist Ian Anderson is going to make you sit through all of it whether you want to or not. Only the limitations of the LP yielded the band's solitary concession to split it in half. As musings on life and childhood and art, the lyrics are creative enough (as is that famous tabloid gatefold); as a self-indulgent satire of the worst excesses of the concept album, the idea is certainly clever. But a good idea doesn't necessarily make 43 minutes of it worth continuously sitting through, even when the execution's solid. As proof, the 25th anniversary reissue includes a 1978 live performance ... that's less than twelve. (Content: mild adult themes.)

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Mike + the Mechanics, Living Years

I couldn't bear to listen to this album anymore when my father was diagnosed with metastatic cancer, but when COVID-19 finally killed him in whatever wave this benighted country is on now I decided it was time to dust it off again. To be sure, my relationship with my dad was evidently better than Mike Rutherford's in the title track, though I'd have liked a few more living years to tell him I loved him too. Still, other than that and the single "Nobody's Perfect," this record still comes off on balance to me as too slickly hollow. Much like the singer's smashed avo worldview in "Seeing is Believing" or the airbrushed Horatio Alger type of "Poor Boy Down" or even the unsubtle anti-war anthems of "Blame" and "Why Me?", it's all so machined and polished down that everything gets melted together and the whole thing feels unreal (the simplistic lyrics and 1980s-heavy synthorock don't help). The first two tracks brought tears to my eyes and "Beautiful Day" is largely a solid cut from the album's remaining morass, but overall writing this review turned out to be more therapeutic than the record itself. I just wish I could hug you one more time, Dad. I really do. (Content: no concerns.)

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Muse, Absolution

I had to check the disc to make sure I was hearing Matt Bellamy sing and not Thom Yorke, but I was, and I meant that in a good way. One of the better prog outings so far during this turn-of-the-21st renaissance, at their finest ("Apocalypse Please," "Blackout," the classical piano of "Butterflies and Hurricanes" and the paranoiac closer "Ruled By Secrecy") the vocals, rafter-high harmonies and effervescent, atmospheric orchestration (even an explicit entracte and interlude) are everything a revanchist rock mannerist would desire — with a Storm Thorgerson cover to boot. They didn't forget the rockers either ("The Small Print") nor the softer moments ("Endlessly"). The fifth star falls off for some intermittent stylistic issues; headliner single "Stockholm Syndrome" doesn't know if it wants to be symphonic or slamming and "Falling Away With You" and "Hysteria" have too much grit and not enough texture. But an album that flirts this much with religion and theology even as it includes the "Thoughts of a Dying Atheist" ("it scares the hell out of me/and the end is all I see") clearly aspires to greater thematic depths than most other pop. On that level, it succeeds handsomely. (Content: no concerns.)

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Meco, Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk

The first half: an inspired and wacky disco rework of the Star Wars theme, complete with cantina bridge and character themes, enjoyable on repeat for hours on end. The second: a flaccid, underdeveloped jazz fugue that screams contractual obligation — the descriptor "galactic" solely applies in the sense that whatever planet it sounded good on wasn't this one. Fortunately for the album 2.5 stars rounded up is three, but look for it at an EP price because that's really what you're getting. Like most novelty acts, lightning only struck once here. (Content: pure instrumental.)

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