U2, Achtung Baby

If the cultural zeitgeist of the early 1990s could be etched into a disc, it would end up sounding a lot like this one. No coincidence, then, that it was recorded in Berlin and Dublin where their worldly tumults just ooze into the album's every moment by osmosis. No more the chastened Irish youth of Rattle and Hum, they now bring to their listeners the novelty and the weight of new frontiers for a generation that chafed just as much from constriction. There is introspection, self-examination, romance, regret and loss, and a just a touch of humour, but through it all the unavoidable impression that change has come with infinite possibilities that loom and bloom all at once, and the world through our eyes would never be the same. The music captures the same lyric feel as the words, the chiming guitars of "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses," the wistful musing beat of "One," the biting saunter of "Mysterious Ways" and the mournful dirge of "Love Is Blindness." Few musical time capsules are more complete: as Bono's distorted vocals correctly call out in "Zoo Station," in those heady days every single one of us was ready for what was next. (Content: mild language in "Acrobat.")

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Paul Simon

Did Lewis need Clark, or Gracie need George, or Abbott Costello? Because Simon still needed Garfunkel, and if his first solo album aimed to dispel that impression, it fails. The style evolves but Paul lacks Art's vocal range, and Roy Halee's flat production still assumes his presence to fill the aural gap. Plus, what Simon's music really lacks here is a hook. He can find it when he wants to ("Mother and Child Reunion," "Duncan," "Me and Julio Down By The Schoolyard") but others drown in a morass of their own meanderings ("Armistice Day," "Papa Hobo," "Congratulations") and some otherwise promising songs ("Run That Body Down," "Peace Like A River") simply fall short for one stylistic deficiency or another; it's not that I mind the musings, mind you, but they really ought to go somewhere rather than die off into the runout groove. Everyone is permitted their transition and it fortunately didn't take him long, but that doesn't mean I'm going to give this overall muddled effort a pass. The 2004 reissue adds demos of "Me And Julio," "Duncan" and an unreleased version of "Paranoid Blues;" the former is as uninteresting as such demos usually are, but the "Duncan" demo is a rather different song and the evolution of "Paranoid Blues" adds at least some variety. (Content: adult themes on "Duncan.")

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Trooper, Hot Shots

World famous in Canada! The stench of Randy Bachman's production is all over this group but all the songs you thought American bands did and actually didn't are here, right down to the classic "Raise A Little Hell" which I've even heard variously attributed to Kiss and Twisted Sister. (Eh.) This compilation needs a better engineer — they solved the tape hiss warning on the back of the CD by apparently mastering it at half-volume — but there are solid choices such as "General Hand Grenade," "We're Here For A Good Time (Not A Long Time)" and a slightly altered "The Boys In The Bright White Sports Car," and what's not standout is still enjoyable even if it's not always distinguished. In fact, the choices are so solid it pretty much eliminates any need to buy any of their other albums, making it a wonderful greatest hits collection and a disastrously poor business choice all at the same time. Hosers! (Content: no concerns.)

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Brass Construction II

Their first effort, innovative as the jazz-funk fusion might have been, was indelibly marred by their intentional use of words solely as colour to yield an album both musically sophisticated and thematically sterile. Good thing they didn't make the same mistake twice. For sure there's no ambiguity about the themes this time around, such as "Screwed (Conditions)" and "Get To The Point (Summation)," and the slightly charged "Sambo (Progression)," but for however affected or blunt the titles and exhortations are the message of social improvement is solid and the music is funky. The stylistic variations don't distinguish the tracks as much as I'd like and a couple overstay their welcome a bit, but the disco bridge on "Screwed" livens it up, the album's single slow track ("Blame It On Me (Introspection)") is a welcome groovy change and the party atmosphere runs all the way through to "What's On Your Mind (Expression)" at the end. Still, as good as the other songs are, the standout is the incomparable "The Message (Inspiration)," ignominiously familiar to younger generations as the core sample for N.W.A.'s "I Ain't Tha 1," whose unmistakable piano bassline, horn flourishes and honeyed vocals remind us through nearly five minutes of pure joy that "everything is going to be all right." The second time around is always better. (Content: no concerns.)

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Snowy White, Goldtop

Shed a tear for the session musician whose voice is not their own, but while he deservedly kept great company his output in his own right frankly disappoints. Although White's skill is considerable as a guitarist it's less so as a songsmith, meaning the most compelling part of this compilation is not the solo work which represents the majority of the running time. While "Highway to the Sun" is competent enough, "The Time Has Come" and "Love, Pain And Sorrow" are slow and maddeningly flat, and his almost cookie-cutter blues tracks (both solo and as Snowy White's Blues Agency) largely lack any special hook or style; likewise, of his brief time with Thin Lizzy, only "Renegade" really cooks while "Memory Pain" is just as dull as the rest. The remaining small number of tracks are remarkably variable in their breadth as well as in their quality: a Richard Wright instrumental selection ("Drop In From The Top"), one of the weaker pieces from the interesting but commercially stillborne "Wet Dream," two underdeveloped rehearsal (!) Peter Green tracks, two live Al Stewart pieces ("Dark and Rolling Sea," "Carol") both undermined by flaccid production, and the sole gem, the previously 8-track-only extended "Pigs On The Wing" (from Pink Floyd's Animals) with White's clarion guitar bridge between the halves unheard on any other format. It's quite a curio for fans, but you'll pay a price to get it, and there's little else to recommend the rest of what's here. (Content: no concerns.)

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REO Speedwagon, Hi Infidelity

A furious, freewheeling arena rock masterpiece, formulaic themes, by-the-numbers melodies and strictly perfunctory licks and solos notwithstanding, the performance is flawless, the execution is seamless and the result is peerless. While "Follow My Heart" falls relatively flatter than the rest, "Tough Guys" is just plain fun, "In Your Letter" and "Shakin' It Loose" mix in a little doo-wop for stylistic variety, and "Don't Let Him Go" and "Take It On The Run"'s gentle touch on human imperfections may be hackneyed but still comes across as mature and thoughtful. And despite the title, the wistful closer "I Wish You Were There" still makes us long for that forever relationship just out of reach. I've never wanted to skip a track and I've never wanted to miss a moment. Sure, call the production cynically commercial pablum, but since when was giving the customer what they want a sin? (Content: S-bomb on "Tough Guys," mild adult themes on "Someone Tonight.")

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