Frank Zappa, Hot Rats

Zappa's first after jettisoning the Mothers of Invention, this brash and breathtaking landmark of acid fusion seamlessly blurs the lines between prog and jazz in over forty minutes of wild-eyed bliss. (Also wild-eyed: the GTOs' Miss Christine on the cover emerging hot, pink and bothered from a concrete crypt.) All six tracks are stellar but "Peaches en Regalia" is the undisputed jewel from its infectious hooks, fascinating multi-instrument harmonies and startling production effects like buzzy reeds yipping away at double speed like kazoos; its little brother "Son of Mr. Green Genes" is nearly as good for nearly the same reasons, and Zappa even got something consistent out of Captain Beefheart for a change as the sole vocalist on "Willie The Pimp." Loses its fifth star solely for its more meandering moments not being everyone's cup of tea, and that's truly the only reason, because instrumentally and technically the album is near peerless. Hardcore Zappatistas will menacingly scrap over the relative virtues of the original LP mix (resurrected on current CD pressings) versus the 1987 Rykodisc CD, the latter largely reflected in a substantially expanded "The Gumbo Variations," but I'm not that rabid and "frankly" either is excellent. It should also be noted that Zappa himself did the 1987 remaster, so there's no use appealing to authority. (Content: mild adult themes on "Willie The Pimp.")

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Bob James, 12

Another smooth, sinuous and unspectacular outing from the king of unchallenging jazz, though I'm not actually dissing him here, because too many in this genre fail to accomplish even that. Tracks like "Midnight" and "No Pay, No Play" run a little long but hold your attention well enough, as does "Legacy" with its gentle if lengthy guitar, while "Ruby, Ruby, Ruby" and its lead sax roll along superbly like tires on the freshest road. There's no unique verve (compare with "Angela" from Taxi) and no gripping central style, yet it's all so sufficiently consistent you won't much care. The '80s synths and beats (especially in "Moonbop" and "I Need More of You") do sometimes wear a bit dated to modern ears, though the album's ironically at its best when it indulges in it; indeed "Courtship," the ripely rambunctious second track, is undeniably its strongest (and shortest) piece with complex arrangements and a delightfully shifty rhythm. This unambitious outing won't blow your mind or your speakers, but you'll probably find yourself grooving along to it anyway. (Content: pure instrumental.)

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Patrick & Eugene, Postcard from Summerisle

It's got a big helping of British whimsy but that gimmick dies quick. Lead-in "The Birds and the Bees" is a genuinely zippy earworm that deserves all the airplay and ad spots it's wound up in (like the one with VWs multiplying like, er, Rabbits), and "A Dog's Tale" is a cute little number from the view of man's best friend — even if it rips off the same basic hook. On the other hand, most of the rest of the album is afflicted by overwrought style pastiches that are skillful but don't really gel ("Circus Train" and "Tribal" in particular but also the ponderous Flanders-and-Swann wannabe "Old Times"), and they have rather suspect choices in covers: the retread of Kylie Minogue (!)'s "Can't Get You Out of My Head" bops along credibly enough but their version of the "59th Street Bridge Song" is pedestrian and their Beyoncé (!!) cover of "Crazy in Love" is obnoxious. Despite the obvious instrumental and engineering talent here it didn't really seem to translate into anything very engaging. CD issues include a single "pop mix" of "The Birds and the Bees" plus another interminable instrumental "Garden of Love," though there are a few impressively atmospheric moments of note. (Content: mild adult themes in "Crazy in Love.")

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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.)

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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.)

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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.")

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