David Bowie, ★ (Blackstar)

What album would you write knowing it would be your last? That, posthumously, you could rest in the grave, the recording done, your sensibilities preserved and your artistic vision unfettered? Every musician should hope God grants them a last word on their own terms, and David Bowie got one: no compromises, no concessions to the pop charts, an eccentric, eclectic self-elegy shipped under the noses of a public unaware he was even ill. And, two days after its release, we have this album yet we have not him. Eternity suffuses the unfiltered emotions in the lyrics, from a man saved from his own execution by another ("★") to Lazarus in heaven against us collective Divëses below ("Lazarus"), even as he reassures Sue — or maybe us — that the clinic called and the X-ray's fine ("Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)"). Was he telling us all along he was "dying to[o]" ("Dollar Days")? Was he trying to? Every style he wanted he played: there's Nadsat and Polari ("Girl Loves Me"), earthy baroque ("'Tis A Pity She Was A Whore") and symphonic pop along with classic Bowie at the end with "Dollar Days" and the album's heartfelt closer "I Can't Give Everything Away" — a presumably deliberate irony as he gave us this very treasure to remember him by, its brilliance and unyielding intransigence even extending to the unreadable black on black of the liner notes. Everything about this masterpiece is sumptuous and unsullied, daring you to take him as he was and rewarding you with its sophistication when you do. Even a jerk music critic like me can't pierce the grave with my sharp wit nor effusive praise, but for an album as incredible as this one, let this summary be my attempt to try. (Content: sexual themes in "'Tis A Pity She Was A Whore," F-bombs in "Girl Loves Me," mild language in "Lazarus" and "Dollar Days.")

★★★★★

Sixpence None The Richer

This is not actually their début but one might accurately call it their crossing-over. Originating as a slight act in the Christian alternative scene, this outwardly secular third album expands their oeuvre and enlivens their style without compromising their perspective. While This Beautiful Mess was somewhat moody and overly prone to navel-gazing, Matt Slocum's songwriting has both matured and lightened to leaven the pensiveness with better beats and a little pop yet preserve the signature lyrical heft so sweetly delivered by lead Leigh Nash. Whether a meditation on emotion's fragility ("I Won't Stay Long") or just a gentle plea for romantic affirmation ("Can't Catch You"), her breathy nightingale vocals serve as the band's soul while the richer production by Steve Taylor yields a stronger body. The spiritual themes have not been abandoned ("Anything," "Moving On"), yet they ground the album without smothering it just as much as the sugary moments like "Kiss Me" don't trivialize it. It's not perfect — the Pablo Neruda-derived "Puedo Escribir" is fatally pretentious, one jarring note in a great symphony — but the fact they stay true to themselves throughout only makes this earnest, appealing album more delightful. The reissue adds "There She Goes," another airy single in the vein of "Kiss Me" and no less charming. (Content: no concerns.)

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Pearl Jam, Vitalogy

Bands that believe their own hype believe they can play what they want and this makes for interesting musical studies: sometimes you get the Beatles, and sometimes you get this. Now, for a band to have sufficient hype they have to be sufficiently good, and therefore rarely are such high-on-hype albums bad. Vitalogy generally exemplifies this principle but it's largely because of the songs that aren't so strange; the alternative ballads like "Better Man" and "Nothingman" play the best because they're not so off the wall, and there's some good bluesy rock in "Whipping," "Corduroy" and (in spite of the cheesily transparent metaphor) "Spin The Black Circle." However, their self-granted libertinitude in the studio doesn't prevent a couple by the numbers tracks ("Not For You") yet aides and abets the creation of various other musical deformities ("Pry, To" plus the sped-up musings of the mentally ill in "Hey Foxymophandlemama, That's Me" and the abusive accordions and flyswatters (!) of "Bugs"). It also birthed the impressive yet baffling deluxe nonsense of the packaging, the CD in a tightfitting sleeve and the booklet a simultaneous satire and shrine of a billion early medical condemnations of self-abuse. That's a good description of this album: they clearly enjoyed themselves while doing it, but it's not something all of us would like to observe for 55 minutes. The reissue adds three uninteresting alternate takes. (Content: adult themes and some mild-moderate language.)

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Tim Buckley, Greetings From L.A.

In the bistro queue in regional New South Wales, upon hearing my audibly American accent amongst a sea of Aussies, my friendly, rotund and unavoidable neighbour in line exclaimed that his favourite record — which he apparently plays regularly to this day — was this one. As a resident of the greater City of the Angels, I promised him I'd give it a spin. The album art is promisingly snarky enough, with a postcard of the suffocating smog I remember as a kid and Buckley in stamps on the back in a gas mask (the postcard, written to Herb Cohen and Mo Ostin, no less, also doubles as the track listing and was even removable in the earliest pressing), and Buckley's delivery here has all the sensuously hazy Jim Morrison depth of those L.A. days but a much more flexible range. Unfortunately, it's the actual songs that are the problem. There's some decent rock ("Night Hawkin'" in particular) and a fair bit of competent acid jazz, and as no prude I appreciate the submerged eroticism inherent in those styles, but Buckley is just far too horny to listen to. Between encouraging infidelity ("Move With Me") or foot fetishes ("Devil Eyes") or even prostitution and, gulp, a little whippin' ("Make It Right"), there's nothing this man wouldn't have indulged in; the excessive "Get On Top" is probably the most egregious of these, and with that title it doesn't take much imagination to figure out why. "Sweet Surrender" shows he was perfectly capable of cooking with the lid on, and his mournful bluesy elegy to a lover who left ("Hong Kong Bar") is maturely earthy without being dirty, but the rest of this smouldering pay-by-the-hour motel room comes across as way too much and way too strong. My wife and I had a nice dinner, and I had a nice chat, but as pleasant a chap as he was I don't think we have much overlap in music. (Content: sexual references and adult themes.)

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Beastie Boys, Licensed To Ill

The album's barely disguised misogynist tendencies (and not so disguised, see "Girls") wear pretty bad in these enlightened times — for that matter, so has Russell Simmons — and the overall feel of a second-rate frat party before the cops roll up permeates almost all of the first half. But what this record profoundly lacks in tact and social graces it makes up for with some truly original, genre-straddling hip hop: there's "Fight For Your Right" and "No Sleep Till Brooklyn," one more punk than rap and the other the reverse but darn good at both, the famous reversed 808 beat with a reversed revolutionary tale in "Paul Revere" and of course the party favourite "Brass Monkey" with all of its deep bass, howling horns and shallow alcoholic storyline. The production is hungry and minimal and the samples fast, furious and uncompensated, but the beat don't stop and neither does the boisterous attitude (like lead-in "Rhymin & Stealin" and "Slow and Low"). Kurtis Blow they weren't, but if you like your hip-hop raw, raucous and Jewish, it's time to get ill. (Content: sexual and drug references.)

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Nick Mason's Fictitious Sports

I put this album firmly in the camp of "just go with it." There is no explaining nor comprehending the title, the oddly low-effort Hipgnosis album art or the sometimes jarring juxtaposition of styles (primarily Soft Machine-style Canterbury rock, and Robert Wyatt himself even sings the majority, though jazz and prog get thrown in too just for startle effect). "Can't Get My Motor To Start" is an oddly fascinating way to begin, but like the protagonist car it takes far too long to get moving, and tracks like "Do Ya?" are just messy as well as perplexing. Likewise, "Wervin'" is best described as a recording studio DUI, though I like the musical impressions of panicked horns and headlights; "I Was Wrong" has a compelling beat, and the slower minor-keyed moments in "I'm a Mineralist" and "Hot River" are meaty and satisfying, but they're no less odd and there just aren't enough of them in this album's relatively short running time for a filling meal. The best way to experience these confabulatory competitions is with Mason's new mini-box set Unattended Baggage containing this, Profiles and his soundtrack from White of the Eye, complete with the pseudo-LP packaging presently in fashion for compact discs. None of the others are particularly strong albums on their own either, but like Fictitious Sports they have their moments, and at least you won't be paying much for any one of them as an item. (Content: mild adult themes on "Hot River" and "I'm a Mineralist.")

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