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The cult surrounding Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and
Thomas Bangalter has mushroomed in the eight years since their last proper
studio album, and "Random Access Memories" is to be a statement that the two
robot-headed Frenchmen are, in the words of its predecessor, human after all. It
wobbles and grooves, and those imperfections only sweeten the emotional payoff:
The creaky voice of Paul Williams imbues "Touch" with a depth that's plumbed
only further by a ragtime breakdown, while the sadness on "Within" is only
heightened by the vocals' heavy processing. Other cuts take cues from velvety
smooth-jazz sides and electro experiments gone by. "Giorgio by Moroder," a
tribute to the legendary dance producer, is the album's grandest statement, a
stunner that plunges into the future by reaching back into the past. – Maura
The National's somber, brooding chamber-pop is
just moody enough to be considered "rock," and it has seen its fortunes rise in
tandem with its adopted home borough of Brooklyn over the past decade. On the
surface, their sixth album sounds like it could be put into heavy rotation at
home in tasteful locavore outposts with handcrafted cocktails—ornate
arrangements of beautifully appointed music, an ideal bed for the deep,
perfectly cracked voice of frontman Matt Berninger. But The National have
inspired an increasing amount of fervor over their career because of the duality
that surface loveliness invites. Listen closer to Berninger's croon and lyrics
like "I have only two emotions/ Careful fear and dead devotion" (from the
pulsing "Don't Swallow the Cap") surface, and provide an unexpected punch in the
gut. - M.J.
In his second musical act, the former frontman for
jangle-pop megasellers Hootie & the Blowfish is a trailblazer. Five
years ago he topped the country chart with "Don't Think I Don't Think About It,"
making him the first African-American to have a No. 1 on that list since Charley Pride did in 1983. The South Carolina-born
Rucker's gentle growl makes him a natural for country, and on his third album in
the genre he embraces its grown-up side, turning in midtempo twangers like "Lost
in You" and the almost-power-ballad "Miss You." On the wistful postmortem "Love
Without You" he's joined by fellow adult-contemporary refugee Sheryl Crow, and its crystalline depiction of
getting back on the horse after a breakup makes it a likely crossover hit.
(Ironic, no?) - M.J.
Serious question: If 30 Seconds to Mars' pomposity-filled arena rock
had come from a bunch of no-name Brits instead of a one-time heartthrob (lead
singer Jared Leto broke hearts on "My So-Called Life"), would it be taken more
seriously? Listening to this loosely conceptualized album, which starts off with
the orchestral "Birth" and bows out with an instrumental worthy of a sci-fi
chase scene, brings to mind the similarly hyperbolic Muse. 30 Seconds to Mars throw every grand gesture
(Chanting crowds! Horns! String sections! A Radiohead-style "quiet" track!)
at the wall, and while they might not all stick, each one's individual impact is
loudly—sometimes too loudly—felt. At least Leto's intensity matches that of the
music: His frontman stance is so messianic that when he wails, "All we need
is faaaaith!" on "End of All Days" you half-expect him to add "in me."
The debut from this dapper New Zealand singer brings
to mind those aggressively retromaniacal diners that honor the
sock-hop-and-hula-hoop aspects of mid-20th-century America. Only at Willy
Moon's, the jukebox includes selections by Kanye West and Wu-Tang Clan alongside the Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly, with a single or two by the Cars providing some new-wave zip. "Here's
Willy Moon" stuffs all those influences (and a couple more) into brief, punchy
pop songs that develop and end almost simultaneously. The result—while recalling
the simiarly self-referential rockabilly-lite fluke "Are You Jimmy Ray?"
multiple times over its 30 minutes—throws more than enough curveballs to make it
one of this year's more curiosity-stoking releases. - M.J.