Chumbawamba, Tubthumper

And they say socialists can't dance. Not nearly as tart nor as astringent as their prior post-punk incarnation, they're still topical and they're still barbed, but this time they've got a beat. The rollicky "Tubthumping" got into a lot of people's heads who'd never heard of the term, and the album shoots its wad a little quick by front-loading it with that and their other strong singles "Amnesia" and "Drip, Drip, Drip," but there's still a lot to be said for the zippy remainder. The audio clips between tracks are a little distracting (though I did enjoy the, er, thematic meditation from Rising Damp), but they're all in good fun, and the vox populi extracts really cut to the heart. Still, people dared call them sellouts? Put the pop shift aside for a moment and consider this album brought anarcho-syndicalism to a generation that couldn't even spell it. How about their comparison of a faithless union leader to Pontius Pilate in "One by One" (complete with hymn backing)? How about their sharp-as-knives criticism of lifestyle-oriented lifestyles in "The Good Ship Lifestyle," or the seductive ease of the blame game in "Scapegoat" (with a instrumental callback)? "Outsider" and "Smalltown" may not be as lyrically adept, but they're still standing up for the non-conformist. Heck, even Alice Nutter was saying people could just go nick the album off the shelves if they wanted to. Now, that's commitment to putting the products of production in the proletariat's hands. I wonder if I still have the receipt. (Content: mild expletives with more severe ones bleeped, gleeful Marxism.)


Run-DMC, Raising Hell

Hip-hop wasn't big until this album, really. But this album made it really big and did so almost effortlessly. Dig the variety: silly stuff like "My Adidas" and "You Be Illin'" (setting the mold for later acts like DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince), beatboxing in "Hit It Run," hard beats in "Peter Piper" and "It's Tricky" and phat rock and bass in "Raising Hell," probably the most technically well-constructed track on the disc. "Dumb Girl" might hit a little too close to home for some and "Son Of Byford" is a dopey throwaway, but "Proud To Be Black" is a literate, aggressive and proud history lesson any listener of any colour can learn from. And let's not forget their new advance in sampling, where instead of just DJing the song Aerosmith came back to actually perform on their cover of "Walk This Way" and rebooted themselves in the process. That's big. The 2005 remaster includes an "acapella" version of "My Adidas" which isn't all that special and the two radio spots (one complete with outtakes and producer) are absolutely brainless, but "Lord Of Lyrics" has a solid rock backing strong enough to make the main album and the rough cuts and glitches of the "Walk This Way" demo have a strangely affable feel that puts you right in the studio. (Content: mild expletives; S- and F-bombs in the "Live At The Apollo" spot.)


Simon & Garfunkel, Bridge Over Troubled Water

This was the first album I ever owned, part of a four-pack of Simon and Garfunkel cassettes my parents got me in junior high, and even to this day this one is still the standout. It was more than just the folk music of their early days and even transcended the eclectic wider-world feel of Bookends, yet remained grounded in the human stories and the murmuring vocals they started with. It didn't hurt that there was much more of it, too; there are many strong tracks here, not least the opening title track with Spectoresque reverb and shimmery stings of percussion like seawater splashing on rock, plus the tortuous memories of "The Boxer" past his prime and the meditative airy B-side "The Only Living Boy in New York," though as a kid I gravitated towards the peppier ones such as the slightly salacious "Cecilia" and "Baby Driver." Indeed, the song I'm personally most fond of, even though it is by no means their best work, is the unreliable narration of "Keep The Customer Satisfied" who winds his suspect tale of persecution with a rockabilly feel and a full set of brass that is in fact just as satisfying as advertised. The live "Bye Bye Love" seems tossed in at the last moment, and "Song For The Asking" yields a wantingly wan goodbye for their last and greatest work, but none of their albums together or solo have ever approached its excellence and its appeal is practically universal. The 2001 remaster adds two demos, the Haitian folk song "Feuilles-O" which is engaging but far too short and too much of a throwback, and a disappointingly flat-sounding earlier take of the title track; neither are at all as compelling as the main work. (Content: mild adult themes in "Cecilia" and "Baby Driver.")


Queensrÿche, Empire

It's a rare band that puts the progressive in progressive metal, though politically that wouldn't be the title track where Geoff Tate's officious voice-over bemoans the relative dearth of local law enforcement funding. Still, tracks like "Best I Can" and "Resistance" hit hard in all the right ways, and even if this album does sit right on the transition from hair metal to grunge (hear those synth hits in "The Thin Line") "Jet City Woman" and "Another Rainy Night (Without You)" mostly avoid sounding too dated. But the slower, meatier and more deliberate pieces ("Della Brown", "Hand on Heart," "One and Only") have real art and a rich sound fostered by the environmental effects throughout the album and even a cameo from an answering machine; oddly, the otherwise beguiling "Silent Lucidity" may have the most ornate prog trappings but wears the least well in authenticity, almost a cynically deliberate attempt at a metaphysical "Comfortably Numb" (Michael Kamen's presence wouldn't be a coincidence, either). Nevertheless, you could do a lot worse for hard rock, and much of the pretense of lesser art metal bands is refreshingly absent. The 2003 reissue added three ill-advised B-sides, including a disastrous cover of "Scarborough Fair," and the 20th anniversary second disc is another lazy pack-in all-live recording not sufficiently interesting to seek out on its own. Just buy the original; you can probably find it cheaper too. (Content: adult themes in "The Thin Line.")


U2, No Line on the Horizon

I know Bono was shooting for "future hymns" but this album sounds an awful lot like previous ones, with some interpolated actual hymns ("White As Snow") thrown in for good measure. There isn't the wildness of Achtung Baby, the experiments of Pop and Zooropa or the punch of How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb; what persists is a throwback feel with that same level of lyrical complexity but a hollower style that varies widely from refreshingly ethereal to vaguely claustrophobic. I like the more contemplative pieces ("Moment of Surrender" and "FEZ-Being Born") but some are just hackneyed ("Unknown Caller" with out-of-place references to passwords and the Macintosh Finder), and "I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight" has their classic verve but still sounds more like a soundcheck than a studio. (Strangely, it's those Steve Lillywhite-produced tracks that are the weakest artistically; you can really tell who had the reins when.) Fortunately they can intermittently find their edge with solid, harder-hitting tracks like the title and the off-kilter Middle Eastern shifts of "Get On Your Boots," and in the end it's still a good album, but it nevertheless comes off as slightly beneath their talent. The iTunes bonus tracks aren't anything to write home about either; the Crookers remix of "Get On Your Boots" in particular merely makes a pleasingly daffy track daft. (Content: S-bomb on "Cedars of Lebanon.")


Sparks, Halfnelson

They later billed themselves as Englishmen; they were not. They billed themselves as Halfnelson; that didn't stick (in fairness Albert Grossman was largely to blame). They billed themselves as good; their début wasn't. All the pieces were there: Russ Mael sang like a 12-year-old with tight pants, Ron Mael had his stache, the lyrics were wacky and the wit was undeveloped but present. Unfortunately, the melody lines are all over the place, self-savaging otherwise better tracks ("Wonder Girl," "Simple Ballet") and dooming others ("Biology 2"), and producer Todd Rundgren left too much to the band who resorted to stripped-down mixes and studio jams because of their inexperience. The rock sort of works ("High C," "(No More) Mr Nice Guys") but doesn't really play to their strengths, and the more competent slow jams like "Fletcher Honorama" are listenable but hardly stand out. But glimpses of the future show up now and then: "Saccharin and the War's" war sacrifice motif for weight loss is only let down by the flat recording and "Slowboat" might have fallen off a better album yet to come. That album wasn't the next one A Woofer in Tweeter's Clothing, either, which reissuer Edsel put together in a two disc set. The production under Thaddeus Lowe is richer, but the same problems persist, and it wasn't until they jettisoned the Mankeys and went to Island Records that they really took off. The most curious inclusion is a earlier mix of "I Like Girls," practically a demo tape, and nowhere near as fun as the fully realised version from Big Beat. About the best I can say is they got better. (Content: mild adult themes.)