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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Lil Nas X, Montero

Mostly a gritty Auto-Tune mess exploiting the same tired riff; there's no genre-busting this time. Dollar signs and fronting was so last decade, and this man is no gangsta. And just because he's not heteronormative doesn't mean he's not a chauvinist (notably ugly moments: the title track, "Scoop," "Dolla Sign Slime"). But when he slows down and stops the preening, he can be contemplative, even complex: "Lost in the Citadel," "Tales of Dominica" in particular, and I dug the sweetly yodelly falsetto of "Void" but also his candid self-reflections in "Sun Goes Down." Clearly he has talent. Why doesn't he use it? (Content: F-, S- and N-bombs, adult themes.)

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REM, Green

The zenith of REM's discography is this scattershot, eclectic collection of vignettes and jangle where the cover doesn't even match the title. The best part is that they learned from their mistakes on Document: the politics persist, but more subtly, Scott Litt's production is richer and higher quality, and a solid balance of radio-friendly ("Pop Song '89," "Stand" and "Orange Crush") and cerebral ("World Leader Pretend," "Hairshirt" and particularly the heart-rending "The Wrong Child") songs make the album eminently listenable in pieces or end-to-end. 1988-me played the cassette single of "Stand" non-stop, and when I finally bought the full tape it turned me into an REM fan for life. Their later work is where they started to believe their hype, and their worthy earlier works were too often too insular, but this one was their Goldilocks — and that title might even match. The 25th anniversary disc adds another one of those live CDs which is a full example of their then-current setlist but mostly makes you want to buy the originals. (Content: no concerns.)

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Def Leppard, Pyromania

This album didn't create hair metal (it's not even clear High 'n' Dry did that), but between the ballads and banging it sure made it work. Tossing their heavy metal roots in the bin, they channeled their inner Dokken and turned out an album that you'll dig every track on even if none of it burns, er, breaks any new ground. Choice moments: the as-you-see-it "Rock Rock (Till You Drop)," some actual albeit actually cheesy pathos in "Photograph" and power anthem "Foolin'." Oh, and don't forget Mutt Lange's mock German count-in to "Rock of Ages," the most relevant contribution a producer has ever made to any album. The 2009 reissue adds a 1983 show live set-list, though other than their cover of CCR's "Travelin' Band" die hard Leppardists won't find a lot there that's new. (Content: mild adult themes.)

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