Daft Punk, Random Access Memories

In the aftermath of the electronica duo's breakup, let's look at their last, probably greatest work. There's something inexcusably pretentious about liner notes that prominently state "Starring (in alphabetical order)" and not all of those guests are the album's high points (Paul Williams' "Touch" disappointingly in particular), and the obvious pop single moments are fatally obvious pop singles ("Lose Yourself to Dance" and the Pharrell Williams hit "Get Lucky" are cute but ultimately disposable). But the shift to richer orchestration and a more expansive style really delivers, with real meaningfulness here in a genre generally fixated on throwaway beats. I have never heard a more heartfelt, human vocal out of a vocoder than "Within," I enjoyed the U2 feel of "Instant Crush," "Fragments of Time" adds wistful nostalgia without being cloying, and while "Beyond"'s orchestral lead-in is a trifle overwrought it's still thrilling. However, while there are many such quality instrumental interludes, the album's three official instrumentals are its finest moments and indisputably the best tracks they've ever done: "Motherboard" and the tingly wonderous glow of first "Contact" deliver a solid punch, though it's their interview with disco deity Giorgio Moroder that hits it out of the park, rendering his insightful, introspective self-summation of his career and life over a wonderfully realized throwback beat in "Giorgio by Moroder." This album may be almost eight years old now but it is so suffused with atmosphere it will forever be timeless. Perhaps they took Fatboy Slim's advice: if this is the greatest, why try harder? The deluxe edition adds "Horizon," a fourth prog-styled instrumental as strong as the three on the main album and well worth picking up. (Content: mild adult themes on "Get Lucky.")

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David Gilmour

A not-bad first-solo effort by Pink Floyd's guitarist during the interregnum between Animals and The Wall, which would be a good description of the style as well. The album photograph comes off particularly low-effort for Hipgnosis, however, and the gatefold spread of personal snaps feels like a party you weren't invited to. For that matter Gilmour was never much of a lyricist either; the tedious "So Far Away" in particular sprawls thematically for the better part of six minutes. But even "So Far Away" has good musicship going for it and not just guitar — he also appears on piano and organ, with a couple session mercenaries in for drum and bass, and as befit the prog rock fashion of the day there are also several instrumentals, all strong (though "Mihalis" and "Deafinitely" are the standouts). Of the vocal tracks, "There's No Way Out Of Here" (which he didn't write) and "I Can't Breathe Anymore" (which he did) are good, solid, pensive rock and the others at least please melodically. If he wanted just to see if he could do it, I've heard worse. The 2008 remaster lengthens most of the tracks, a blessed improvement over the usual practise of including alternate takes, but the differences will be too subtle for most to appreciate. (Content: no concerns.)

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The Best of Walter Murphy

If Mason Williams was too staid for you, then I guess there's this. Like most 1970s novelty acts — see also Meco — he's strongest doing disco retreads of the music you know ("A Fifth of Beethoven," "Flight '76" with Rimsky-Korsakov, and especially his gloriously gauche arrangement of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," which could rehabilitate United Airlines' soiled reputation all by itself if they ever put it in an ad). His original material, however, never quite matches up: none of it is incompetent (and "California Strut" is even fun), but none of it is special or genre-busting, and the vocals at times ("Keep Dancing" as the worst example) get incongruous. The problem is that's most of this disc. The moral of the story is always give the customer what they want, especially if you're United Airlines. (Content: no concerns.)

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The Manhattan Transfer, Vocalese

I have fond memories of this album as a kid because my local library had it on cassette. (You know, those places with books that people visit now for the free Wi-Fi.) It's not aged wholly without tarnish — the synths and drum machines are definitely products of its time — but the hook of vocalists singing those florid stratospheric jazz solos, squeals and squeaks intact (sometimes together with the very instruments they're mimicking), never gets old. And not just vocables and scatting, though there are some, but the witty, wacky Jon Hendricks lyrics sung to their usual high quality by the members and an ensemble cast of guests including Hendricks himself. While you'll get the joke better if you know the originals, as a fascinated young listener who didn't know a Grammy from my granny I did know the sounds in my headphones were gold. The songs are less compelling when they're less formed (particularly "Another Night in Tunisia," with guest Bobby McFerrin beneath his talent), and it loses its fifth star for being a cover album at its core, but good golly, man, what covers. It would have almost been worth the fine to keep the tape. (Content: no concerns.)

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Brass Construction IV

The last of this funk band's Roman numerals (though not their last numeric album: that would be Brass Construction 6), it's not as nakedly idealistic nor high quality as their first two, but the shift in conventionality is hardly fatal. While the aspirational messaging remains a thing here and there ("Perception (What's The Right Direction)" and "Help Yourself" in particular), there's also more typical funk ("Get Up") and a bit of disco ("Night Chaser"), and although the latter bunch of tracks might not be as sophisticated they're still a lot of fun. My favourite track, however, is the wistful procastination of self-improvement in "Starting Tomorrow," sung to smooth '70s style R-and-B with an almost Zappaesque doo-wop bridge, and one of the band's best tracks yet to appear on any of their collections. The weakest part of this album, besides the pedestrian mating ritual of "One To One," is that it's just too short. EMI tried to get you covered here by pairing the reissue with the inferior Brass Construction III, more of the vulgar and less of the clever, but my CD-R (made to order) has a screwed up first track and weird artifacts on IV's "Sweet As Sugar." Heaven forbid they should do their back catalogue any favours. (Content: mild adult themes on "One To One.")

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Mumford and Sons, Sigh No More

Is the title true? This album's strict folk aesthetic, broken up occasionally by ornamental piano and the odd organ and brass, could be one big sigh, really. It's very well executed ("After The Storm" the artistic peak) and the guitar and string instrument work in particular is really super ("Roll Away Your Stone" and "Timshel" especially). But its indefatigable minimalism is its greatest conceit and its gravest flaw: largely bereft of percussion, and barely a rhythm section to speak of, it never gets going much and it mostly ends up sounding the same. The lyrics are also a mixed bag, running hot and cold over romance and religion, as determinedly unresolvable as the style. Their Celtic bluegrass fetish is relentless, but I like their technical skill and I like the flourishes, and I salute their truculence in defence of their ambiguity. For me it ends up an album for the quiet evenings when I need something murmuring on that I don't have to pay attention to. So, sigh, but only a little bit. (Content: F-bombs on "Little Lion Man.")

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