Saturday, December 31, 2011

Personal Chart, Top 100 of 2011

Best of 2011 - Television

1. Downton Abbey (PBS/ITV). Season one deftly introduced us to the stately Crowleys and their servants, while season two pulled our heartstrings even tighter as the story progressed into the perils of World War I. Fast-paced, beautifully filmed and perfectly acted, Downton Abbey gave off-the-air Mad Men a run for its money for the title of television's best period serial.

2. Happy Endings (ABC). What started as a mid-season replacement with little buzz has, by now, grown to become the funniest show on television. The ensemble cast is uniformly great, especially the uber-expressive Damon Wayans Jr. (wisely choosing this series over the vastly inferior New Girl) and Casey Wilson as zany Penny. But of course I also love control-freak Jane, her goofy sister Alex (Elisha Cuthbert, finally moving past the cougar), wacko post-gay Max and straight-guy Dave.

3. Modern Family (ABC). Moving into its third season, Modern Family isn't as fresh as it used to be, but it's still the best family sitcom on television.

4. Parks and Recreation (NBC). Unlike most shows, Parks and Recreation just keeps getting better, with Amy Poehler proving she's a comic genius to rival her pal and former coworker Tina Fey. After a few cast tweaks last year, the show has really hit its stride.

5. Project Runway (Lifetime). Runway continues to prove itself the best reality show on television, making fashion's behind-the-scenes antics a compelling watch as guided by Heidi, Tim, Michael and Nina.

6. Walking Dead (AMC). Walking Dead may have felt like a stall this year, as the action took place almost exclusively in and around a rural farmhouse, but it was really the perfect boiler to watch the tensions between the characters simmer and boil over once they discovered the pastoral estate's secret.

7. Top Chef (Bravo). Tom, Padma, Gail and friends took their Project Runway in the kitchen to Texas this year for a spicy, southwestern third season.

8. Glee (Fox). Glee has definitely slid in quality. The third season got off to a particularly rocky start, although it picked up near the end. About the best decision they made this year was making Darren Criss a regular. He's fantastic.

9. American Horror Story (FX). The most bizarre show on television, with credible actors Dylan McDermott, Connie Britton, and especially Jessica Lange making the gruesome head-scratcher a tasty treat.

10. 30 Rock (NBC). It's not what a it used to be, but when it's on, it's great TV.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Best of 2011: Albums

1. Adele - 21. This year, Adele's 21 proved resolutely that the pop album is not dead. That a young woman from Britain can release an album to near universal acclaim and appeal is really something, recalling the great pop albums of the '80s. In an era where tastes are sliced, diced, dissected, genred and market-tested to death, it's nice to know we can still all come together around something that we all like because it's just that good. Best: Someone Like You.

2. Lady Gaga - Born This Way. Lady Gaga is basically the polar opposite of Adele, but I have plenty of space for her and her dazzling third album in my year-end top 10. Born This Way was funkier and more ambitious than The Fame or Fame Monster, ultimately proving to be her best and most cohesive work yet. Even if the singles aren't all hitting #1 anymore, she's still got the touch. Best: Born This Way.

3. PJ Harvey - Let England Shake. This was the critics' favorite album of 2011, but don't let that stop you from enjoying it too. History buffs will appreciate Harvey's historical references to specific World War I battles. Music fans will just enjoy her eclectic mix of sounds and clever lyrics. Best: The Glorious Land.

4. The Strokes - Angles. This is the one album among my favorites that I'm surprised to see missing from most other year-end lists. I thought Angles, The Strokes' fourth album, was a winning return to form form the band many consider the most "important" of the '00s indie rockers, putting in some of their trademark simple arrangements but also exploring new wave and other territory. Best: Machu Picchu.

5. Foster the People - Torches. I'll give Torches the award for the year's best debut. Foster the People--aka this year's MGMT--dominated pop radio this fall with "Pumped Up Kicks," but their lively debut has lots of other gems from the indie band. I'm surprised they haven't scored a follow-up hit yet. Best: Helena Beat.

6. Will Young - Echoes. Here's one I'm not surprised isn't on a lot of year-end lists, but it's a shame, for Will Young turned out another fine pop album with Echoes, employing producer Richard X to give his love-spurned pop songs a pleasing electronic veneer. Best: Jealousy.

7. Coldplay - Mylo Xyloto. Coldplay continue to earn their keep on this fifth album. Although at times it feels that Chris Martin & company are too eager to please, they still churn out their brand of pop/rock uplift effectively. Best: Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall.

8. Florence + the Machine - Ceremonials. On their second outing, Florence Welch & co. rocked out with even bolder and better songs than on their 2009 debut Lungs, with a larger than life sound that proves everything and the kitchen sink can be a god thing. Best: Shake It Out.

9. The Weekend - House of Balloons/Thursday/Echoes of Silence. The modern R&B mix tape became a staple of 2011, as artists too cool for things like labels, albums and selling their music, took to the internet to give us free tastes of their remakes, remixes and original songs. The Weekend's House of Balloons was the best of that set, but his follow-up Thursday was interesting too, and although I'm just starting to enjoy his third set, Echoes of Silence, it's clear already that it ranks up with the other two. Best: What You Need.

10. Beyoncé - 4. With I Am...Sasha Fierce, Beyoncé proved she could put out a blockbuster two-disc concept album that stocked radio with hits and earned her critical acclaim at the same time. With her fourth album, 4, she didn't have to prove anything, freeing her to buck the electro trend and put out a mostly acoustic set ranging from the manic "Countdown" to the Prince-worthy "1+1." Although it didn't sell as well, it showed a great deal of artistry and continued growth. Best: Countdown.

11. Foo Fighters - Wasting Light. Along with Adele and Lady Gaga, this is one of three albums released this year nominated for the Grammy Award for Album of the Year. Although some said it was a surprise, I thought it was totally deserving, representing a solid set of muscular guitar-rock. Best: These Days.

12. The Decemberists - The King Is Dead. Gotta love a good indie band from my hometown, especially when they start the year off with putting out a great album like this. When I reviewed this album, I said they reminded me of a folksier, more backwater R.E.M. Best: Down by the Water.

13. St. Vincent - Strange Mercy. This was my first exposure to American musician St. Vincent, who put out this highly compelling set of eclectic and deftly produced tunes. Best: Chloe in the Afternoon.

14. James Blake - James Blake. Another important trend this year was dubstep, which, frankly, I still have trouble identifying, but apparently this was one example. Whatever you want to call it, I thought it was crafty, soulful electronic that recalled both The XX and Bon Iver. Best: The Wilhelm Scream.

15. Lykke Li - Wounded Rhymes. Joining the long line of Swedish pop tradition (Abba, Roxette, Ace of Base, Max Martin, Robyn) this year was Lykke Li, whose lo-fi production style was, in many ways, the antithesis of the usual Nordic gloss, but still with an ear for a good pop tune. Best: Sadness Is a Blessing.

16. Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds. Sure, Oasis split last year, but they all kept making music. You'll find the rest of the gang further down this list. Both were very good, but I felt that Noel Gallagher's songwriting skills meant that his album was just a little bit better. Best: If I Had a Gun...

17. Take That - Progressed. Take That's album Progress was one of my favorite albums of 2010. In fact, it's one of my favorite pop albums of all time. This follow-up EP was a welcome second helping of that album's greatness. Best: When We Were Young.

18. Amy Winehouse - Lioness: Hidden Treasures. Posthumous releases should always be viewed with suspicion, but thankfully this one manages to be an appropriate tribute to an amazing singer gone before her time. Her modern take on '60s soul remains one of pop music's most interesting tricks in recent years. Best: Our Day Will Come.

19. Jessie J - Who You Are. Jessie J received so much hype that it would be hard for the singer to live up to it. And yes, her album wasn't "all that," but it was still pretty decent pop from the strutting "Do It Like a Dude" to the affecting title track. She's got a lot of people in her corner. Album #2 could be even more interesting. Best: Who You Are.

20. The Civil Wars - Barton Hollow. Like Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan, Robert Plant & Alison Krauss and Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, The Civil Wars achieves a beautiful alchemy with the tried-and-true formula of a male/female vocal harmony over a lovelorn folksy sound. And then they kicked up their heels with the album's title track. Moving and fun. Best: Poison & Wine.

21. The Black Keys - El Camino. These southern-influenced blues rockers from Ohio shifted their sound more toward classic rock & roll for this seventh album. More and more they sound less like the stopgap for The White Stripes' absence and more like that duo's worthy successor. Best: Dead and Gone.

22. Ed Sheeran - +. I didn't get around to reviewing this album, since I only recently got it (consider it a 4/5 rating). Although I wasn't initially sold on Sheeran via "The A Team," in the end, I was ultimately won over by his acoustic-leaning pop debut, particularly its more upbeat tracks. Best: Lego House.

23. Radiohead - The King of Limbs. That Radiohead's eighth album is more of an exercise in sounds than in songs means this album won't be for everyone, but for those who like Kid A and Amnesiac because of that, then should be up your alley. Best: Bloom.

24. Kasabian - Velociraptor!. Fourth album by British rockers Kasabian finds them mining familiar '60s territory but with a bolder take than on their last album. Best: Days Are Forgotten.

25. Death Cab for Cutie - Codes and Keys. For their seventh album, these indie rockers from Bellingham, Washington, make their sound lighter and more modern than their recent works. Hints of Arcade Fire permeate the buoyant title track with its deep mix of strings, piano, guitar, bass and drums. Best: Codes and Keys.

26. Bon Iver - Bon Iver. The last thing Wisconsinite folk singer Justin Vernon probably thought when he released his 2008 debut, For Emma, Forever Ago, was that a few years later he'd be a major influence in alternative rock music. Even Kanye West got into him. On this second Bon Iver album, he gets a little more adventurous and manages to still please, even despite the deafening hype. Best: Towers.

27. Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie XX - We're New Here. Serving as an effective stopgap before the hotly anticipated second album from The XX, its member Jamie XX remixed nearly every track from the late soul and jazz poet Gil Scott-Heron, reinterpreting his quirky, final spoken-word album into a satisfying dose of late-night electronica. Best: The Crutch.

28. Frank Ocean - Nostalgia, Ultra. Singer Frank Ocean has been tipped to be a major breakout star next year. This year, however, he's already racked up a lot of acclaim for his self-released mix tape, a winning mix of original songs and remakes where he sings over popular songs with his own new lyrics. Best: Strawberry Swing.

29. Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues. Like Bon Iver, this is another indie act that achieved significant acclaim with its folksy debut and followed it up this year with a second album of similarly great material. Title track "Helplessness Blues" proves that, like Mumford & Sons have shown, folk music doesn't equate always with slow and quiet. Best: Helplessness Blues.

30. Raphael Saadiq - Stone Rollin'. Retro R&B is a trend right now for sure, but with so many great examples of it, like this eclectic set from Raphael Saadiq, I'm not ready for it to end. Stone Rollin' is an eclectic, decade-jumping work with a of heart and soul. Best: Go to Hell.

Wilco - The Whole Love. Wilco's eighth album delivers much of the same from the band as what we've heard before--accomplished alt. rock with influences from country and '70s rock. But it's the dynamite 7-minute opener, which dabbles a bit in Radiohead Kid A electronica and delivers a 2-minute guitar solo, that makes this album worthwhile. Best: Art of Almost.

32. The Naked and Famous - Passive Me, Aggressive You. Although "this year's MGMT" ended up being Foster the People, New Zealand's The Naked and Famous auditioned for the role with this lively, at times moody debut of new wave revival pop. Best: Young Gun.

33. Kanye West & Jay-Z - Watch the Throne. Two kings of rap show they can effectively share the throne with this collaboration, one of the year's most hotly anticipated albums. As you'd expect, modesty is rarely displayed on this album chock full of ego and big-name guests (including two acts named above). Best: Why I Love You.

34. Beady Eye - Different Gear, Still Speeding. One fourth of the former Oasis is up at #16 and the rest are here at #34. It might sound corny to say these albums sound like brothers, except for the fact that they literally are made by brothers, so its fitting. Oasis fans should find solace in the fact that both albums are pretty great, with this being the bolder and more upbeat of the two. Best: If I Had a Gun...

35. Rihanna - Talk That Talk. Another year, another Rihanna album. On her sixth outing, the Barbadian singer continued global chart domination with her most risque work yet, continuing to churn out frothy dance pop and laid back island-inspired grooves. Best: We Found Love.

36. Britney Spears - Femme Fatale. Britney got her career back on track with 2008's Circus and she continued her hit streak this year with this unabashedly frothy dance pop album. She slowed down a bit for the album's final track, "Criminal," and that proved to be interesting too. Best: Till the World Ends.

37. Katy B - On a Mission. Those needing a lesson on contemporary dance music styles could do worse than listen to Katy B's debut album, on which she explores a variety of contemporary and (recently) retro dance styles, including dubstep, garage and drum 'n' bass. Best: Lights On.

38. Real Estate - Days. On Days, Brooklyn-based Real Estate's second album, the band churns out mellow and melodic rock. They don't produce much in the way of variety, but have a pleasant sound--the kind of music that's a nice soundtrack to a sunny Sunday afternoon. Best: Green Aisles.

39. Washed Out - Within and Without. Washed Out wears its influences on its sleeves--its ambient electronica evokes names like Moby and Chemical Brothers. Another "chill" album that lives up to that nickname. Best: Eyes Be Closed.

40. Glee: The Music Presents - The Warblers. With The Warblers release, Glee came as close as it may ever come to putting out a proper album, since the group, which is really actor/singer Darren Criss and Tufts University's male singing group The Beelzebubs, sing all these songs a cappella, effectively imitating a bevy of instruments. Best: Teenage Dream.

Worst Album of the Year

Moby - Destroyed. I supposed it's unlikely this is actually the worst album of the year. Hopefully I never had a chance to hear that. Still, I was awfully disappointed by this bland release, which only recycled his old sounds.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Mix Tapes of 2011

Gather 'round kids. Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time, back in the '80s and early '90s, kids like you had total control over their music.

"Oh C'mon," you might chortle. "You gotta be kidding. Y'all could only buy whatever was on tape or CD and you had to go to the store...and pay...a lot." Well yes, this is true. The options were fewer. And yes, today there are a myriad of ways you can slice and dice your music collection, creating, uploading, sharing and downloading playlists via iTunes, Genius, Spotify, Facebook, MySpace, Pandora, Last.FM, etc., etc., (Bit Torrent, shhhh...), etc.

These services provide an amazing amount of convenience and options. But what you may not be aware of, or just choose to ignore, is that all of those things are corporate products, and by using them, you're agreeing, in essence, to allow them to use you. To monitor, track and profile you to improve their services, to market to you, and sometimes to sell information about you to third parties.

I'm getting off track. Anyway, back in good ol' days, it wasn't like that. If you wanted to create a mix of songs and share it with friends it was nobody's business but yours, and it was super simple. Any 8 year-old could do it. All you needed was a a dual cassette player with a radio and you were all set.

Of course, I'm talking about the mix tape. That magical piece of media that millions of youths (and adults) assembled in the complete privacy of their own homes and either shared with friends or kept for their own enjoyment. Just like an iTunes playlist, you could drop in any song you already owned or even copy one off the radio. Unlike an iTunes playlist, neither Apple nor any other corporate entity could find out what you were up to. It was all you. You could assemble your own greatest hits collections, build a mix tape with a particular theme (songs made up of girls' names, for example), or just tape new songs off the radio that you didn't yet own (a no-no, but since you weren't getting perfect digital copies like you can today, no one really cared).

I had quite a few mix tapes, mostly recorded onto TDK SA-90, which was my favorite brand, since its higher quality meant that it sounded better for non-radio copying. And 90 minutes was the perfect length too, allowing you to fit about 10 songs on each side.

In recent years, the mix tape is enjoying somewhat of a renaissance, although in a significantly different form. The term is being used to describe collections of songs, often by new artists, that are more than EP but not quite an album, often containing remakes, remixes and lack of unifying concept that would signify an album.

Many of the year's most exciting "mix tapes" are by R&B artists doing exciting work that's far from the mainstream David Guetta/JR Rotem sound that's all over pop radio today. The nice thing about all three of these is that you can download them for free and not illegally, as they're intended to be free. How novel.

Frank Ocean - Nostalgia, Ultra (4/5). The year-end accolades keep piling up for Frank Ocean and his self-released debut, the mix tape Nostalgia, Ultra. The melodies are easy to recognize: Coldplay, Radiohead, MGMT. But listen to the lyrics and you'll notice they've been mostly re-written. "Spaceships are lifting off of a dying world; millions are left behind while the sky burns," he sings over what would normally be the instrumental middle 8 of Coldplay's Viva la Vida hit "Strawberry Swing," put a much darker spin on the uplifting song. Original track "Novocane," a Tricky Stewart production, is smooth, horny R&B, while "We All Try" is even smoother and "Lovecrimes," during which the unmistakable sounds of sex can be heard, even hornier. The lovelorn, autotuned vocals on "There Will Be Tears" reminds me of Bon Iver. The interludes are clever too: "Bitches talkin'" features what the title says--a few women wondering who Radiohead is while Radiohead's Kid A track "Optimistic" plays briefly. Best of all, Ocean nods to the cassette origin of the mix tape, with the sound effects of tapes being played, stopped, rewound, turned over, etc. during several interludes. Best: Strawberry Swing, Novocane, There Will Be Tears, American Wedding.

The Weeknd - Thursday (4/5). I already reviewed The Weeknd's first 2011 mix tape, House of Balloons, which I thought was really good. Although Thursday isn't quite as great, it's pretty similar. Like Ocean, The Weeknd churns out modern, electronic-flecked R&B. He's horny too, such as on "Lonely Star." Baby, I could fuck you right" he offers on the downbeat piano tune. I'm sure the girls are lining up, even if he might be a jerk (he's certainly not coming off as a nice guy on these mix tapes). "Life of the Party" is a nice change of pace, pulsing with an insistence swagger and a harsher arrangement. It feels very '90s, bringing to mind Lords of Acid with a slower tempo (I imagine The Weeknd loves the Sliver Soundtrack). "Thursday" has a nice vibe, both cool and cold, owing to its slow tempo and processed sound. Fellow Canadian and superstar rapper Drake shows up on "The Zone," a highlight of hollow beats and tinkling keys. Things get really dark on "The Birds, Part 2," during which Tesfaye sings about who gives him all her pills and ends up on the floor. Best: The Zone, Life of the Party, Rolling Stone.

Album Reviews

The Civil Wars - Barton Hollow (4/5). Folk duo The Civil Wars' debut album, Barton Hollow, has drawn comparisons to the folk duo of Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, stars of the charming musical Once and the recent documentary The Swell Season. It's easy to see why, as the album exudes a similar warm, acoustic sound and male/female vocal harmonies. Most of the album is slower songs, climaxing with the brilliantly beautiful "Poison and Wine," although they do also let their hair down on the toe-tapping title track. Best: Poison and Wine, Barton Hollow, I've Got a Friend, 20 Years.

Wilco - The Whole Love (4/5). Wilco begins their eight album, The Whole Love, with a real knockout of an opening song: a 7-minute epic that begins like Radiohead with beats and electronic blurts that are eventually drowned out by a tuning mass of strings before the song proper begins. "Art of Almost" is quite brilliant. It concludes with a satisfying 2 minutes and 30 seconds of guitar solo. While the rest of The Whole Love lacks that level of ambition, it doesn't lack for quality. Much of it floats around them doing what they do best--alternative rock with tinges of country and '70s rock influences on songs that are alternately bouncy and upbeat or slower. "I Might" and "Standing O" exude a similar retro feel, while "Dawned on Me" rolls along over a prominent bass line with a tune that sounds an awful lot like Supergrass' "Alright." I tend to like these more than the slower songs, although I do like the somber acoustic guitar of "Black Moon." Overall, I don't think it's as consistent as Sky Blue Sky, but I do think it's better than their last album. Best: Art of Almost, I Might, Dawned on Me, Black Moon.

Monday, December 19, 2011

UK Singles Chart, December 24, 2011

1.(NEW) Cannonball - Little Mix

The X Factor winner leads what is certainly the season's biggest X Factor-influenced chart yet. For the first time, the show ended up with a group as the winner. Not for the first time, the single they chose to put out was a cover, this time a version of Damien Rice's "Cannonball," itself charting at #19 this week.

Little Mix's version sold about 210,000 copies of "Cannonball," making it the year's biggest one-week sales for a #1 single, surpassing the 154,000 of previous champ, One Direction's "What Makes You Beautiful." As impressive as that may sound, it's a pretty small haul for an X Factor victory single. Only Steve Brookstein's paltry first-week take of 127,000 copies was less.

2004: Steve Brookstein
Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)
127,370 (debuted at #2 the week of Christmas, sold 26,400 when it hit #1 the following week)
2005: Shayne Ward
That's My Goal
2006: Leona Lewis
A Moment Like This
2007: Leon Jackson
When You Believe
2008: Alexandra Burke
2009: Joe McElderry
The Climb
450,838 (debuted at #2 the week of Christmas, sold 195,730 when it hit #1 the following week)

2010: Matt Cardle
When We Collide

2.(7) Paradise - Coldplay

Also benefiting from the X Factor finale are the show's guest performers. Coldplay, who see 2-month-old "Paradise" reach a new peak position of #2. At first it didn't seem the single would ever chart this high. After debuting at #14, it fell to #20 two weeks later. But it's been climbing ever since, entering the top 10 last week and now reaching #2, where it will surely peak. This is Coldplay's fourth single to reach the top 2, including #2 hits "In My Place" and "Speed of Sound"--there's been one from each album except their 2000 debut. Only "Viva La Vida" climbed a notch higher to hit #1.

8.(NEW) Hurt - Leona Lewis

The other big star was former X Factor winner Leona Lewis, doing a remarkable rendition of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt." Early in the week, this was as high as #4, so I'm bummed it slipped through th week down to #8.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Album Reviews

St. Vincent - Strange Mercy (4/5).

On her third album, Strange Mercy, St. Vincent paints her emotions on the surface and fills in her canvas with a range of sounds that can be airy and ethereal or heavy and raspy--sometimes both at that same time. "Chloe in the Afternoon" has a beautiful arrangement composed of cacophonous elements that resolve under the bass synths of the chorus and then vanish, replaced by gentle electric guitar. "Cruel" is bouncier, bursting with retro synths but also light, airy choruses. "Cheerleader" and "Surgeon" approximate Goldfrapp, with the former throwing out a bold synth-draped verse garnished with electronic flourishes and the latter repeating a airy refrain reminiscent of John Barry's James Bond theme for You Only Live Twice. She rocks out harder on "Northern Lights," sounding more like Liz Phair, on which she sings "it's a champagne year full of sober months," setting up later track "Champagne Year," one of the albums slower cuts, along with the art-rock title cut (although that picks up toward the end). "Dilettante" shows a bit of swagger, with a loud, raspy guitar cutting incisively into the groovy melody. It concludes with a lush brush of keyboard and piano. "Year of the Tiger" completes the picture, but leaves some spaces unfilled with its mysterious lyrics about "living in fear in the year of the tiger," (the period ending last February, according to the Chinese calendar). Best: Chloe in the Afternoon, Cruel, Cheerleader, Surgeon.

Black Keys - El Camino (4/5).

On their seventh album, The Black Keys continue to churn out tight, minimalist songs with a rugged feel, although this time their faster, harder tempos push them away from blues-rock and more toward a classic rock & roll sound. It's apparent from the start with "Lonely Boy" pulsing along its racing guitar melody and the harder drum and bass of "Dead and Gone." Other kicky tracks include "Money Maker," with its cool use of talk box, "Run Right Back," which charges along a staccato bass line and "Nova Baby," which nicely uses the new female trio of backup singers. Producer Danger Mouse (Gorillaz, Gnarls Barkley, Broken Bells), who was responsible for the group's fifth album and their last album's big hit, "Tighten Up," returns to work the controls on the entirety of this release, an influence you can hear on the retro instrumentation of tracks like "Gold on the Ceiling," through which the prominent guitar and bass overlay the less obvious keyboards and hand claps. Subtler "Sister" has them too, along with a darker melody. "Little Black Submarines" starts out as a ballad but transforms into a loud rocker halfway through. Best: Dead and Gone, Lonely Boy, Little Black Submarines, Gold on the Ceiling, Nova Baby.

Real Estate - Days (3.5/5).

On Days, Brooklyn-based Real Estate's second album, the band churns out mellow and melodic rock, the kind of music that's a nice soundtrack to a sunny Sunday afternoon. The vocals are delivered somewhere just above a hush and never louder, the guitars play continuously but never threaten to rock out and distort. Because the songs sound so much alike, it's hard to pick standouts, although the dual guitar arrangement of "Green Aisles," makes it a strong contender, as does the sweetness and slightly faster tempo of "It's Real" and the brighter sound of "Wonder Years." Instrumental passages are long and, in the case of "Kinder Blumen," constitute the entire track. Best: Green Aisles, It's Real.

Amy Winehouse - Lioness: Hidden Treasures (4/5).

After last year's disappointing Michael, I'm suspicious of posthumous releases. Made by definition without the artist's input, it's easy for such an album to feel undercooked and lacking a continuous thread that would define the work as an album and not just a collection of leftovers. Thankfully, Lioness actually manages to feel rather cohesive, making it a touching coda to Amy Winehouse's brief by vibrant pop music career. That it lacks the gusto of her 2006 masterpiece Back to Black is fitting: it's emphasis on slower songs plays up the album as a memorial and tribute. Because Winehouse sounded so comfortable in her soulful retro '60s mode, the remakes of actual '60s songs like "Our Day Will Come" and "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" sit comfortably alongside new songs written in a '60s-inspired mode like the breezy "Between the Cheats." Several of the tracks are alternate versions previously songs. Particularly interesting is "Tears Dry," which recasts the boisterous Back to Black single as a rueful ballad with a gorgeous strings arrangement. The album closes with a 2009 recording of "A Song for You," on which Winehouse sounds quite fragile--she was, after all, in quite a bit of trouble at that time. Nonetheless, her beauty and talent shine through. In the end, she may have been overcome by her demons, but songs like this leave a lasting impression of her beauty. Best: Our Day Will Come, Tears Dry, Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow, A Song for You, Between the Cheats.