Alone 2: The Home Recordings of Rivers Cuomo
Like last year's Alone, this second collection of solo demos by the Weezer frontman works best when Cuomo stays on familiar ground. So the glistening power-pop of "I Was Scared" and "My Brain Is Working Overtime" rock; the plodding "Come to My Pod" and the tuneless "Paper Face," not so much. Cuomo also tosses in a cover of the Beach Boys' "Don't Worry Baby" for no other reason than to acknowledge his debt to Brian Wilson (see Alone 2's "The Purification of Water," "I Don't Want to Let You Go" and several others). Some songs call out for full-band treatment, others settle comfortably into a singer-songwriter groove. All the while, Cuomo rummages through his vast catalog of unreleased songs for something a little more substantial than his full-time gig usually allows. - Michael Gallucci
Universal Mind Control
Common is Chicago's ambassador of soul. Over eight albums, the Midwest maestro of jazzy hip-hop has carried the Native Tongues torch into the limelight, garnering Grammys, legions of fans, hot girlfriends like Erykah Badu and a movie career that spans films like Wanted to the upcoming Terminator Salvation. The spiritual funk de force of his last two records, Be and Finding Forever, both masterfully produced by Kanye West, solidified his Sam Cook-meets-A-Tribe Called Quest style. And yet Common's new album bridges bigger gaps. This time he's remaking his old-school, abstract jazz-rap with what's popular on the charts right now - club-life hip-hop - but with a nostalgic feel.
The title track is actually a throwback to the originator of over-glossed, futuristic dance-rap - Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock." Bambaataa was an enormous influence on producers like the Neptunes, whom Common tapped to make most of this record. Yet the result is not necessarily the retro-rap breakthrough it should be. Common awkwardly scores chicks on the Timbaland-style dance mix "Sex 4 Suga." And he invites Cee-Lo to "Make My Day" on what sounds like a Gnarls Barkley b-side. The disc's crowning moment is the lounge anthem "Announcement," which sizzles but doesn't compare to Common accomplishments like 2005's "The Corner." - Keith Gribbins
Call and Response: The Remix Album
The concept of the remix album seems so antiquated that it's strange the guys in Maroon 5 would want to attempt to resuscitate it. But here they are, letting Swizz Beatz add rapping and hip-hop beats to "If I Never See Your Face Again" and allowing Chris "Trick" Stewart to turn "This Love" into a rocking club track with echoing vocals. To be honest, the disc, which plays more like a mix tape than a remix album, is a surprising success. It might be that Maroon 5's songs are actually pretty decent and improve when an outside producer tweaks them so that the emphasis isn't on the band, but on the melody. The Mark Ronson remix of "Wake Up Call," with a vocal cameo by Mary J. Blige, might be funkier (and more fun) than the original version. You gotta give the guys props for giving a free hand to such a wide range of artists - everyone from indie-rockers like Of Montreal and Deerhoof to DJs like Ti‘sto and Paul Oakenfold. - Jeff Niesel
Since her last album, 2004's Afrodisiac, Brandy served as a judge on America's Got Talent, was involved in a tragic car accident and was slapped with a wrongful-death lawsuit. While her star plunged (Afrodisiac bombed), her baby brother Ray J's soared, leading to both a Top 10 hit and a career-making sex tape with Kim Kardashian. On her fifth CD, Brandy gets back to business. Partly produced by Rodney Jerkins, the guy responsible for her biggest hits, Human glides along on head-nodding R&B beats that cuddle up to Brandy's rich, silky voice. The 29-year-old singer has never sounded more assertive and assured than she does on these all-grown-up love songs. Slinky jams like "The Definition," "Warm It Up (With Love)" and "Camouflage" milk oodles of ecstasy and ache out of Brandy, who re-emerges on Human battle-scarred, but far from beaten. -Gallucci
The All-American Rejects
When the World Comes Down
The All-American Rejects' last album, Move Along, which came out back in mid-2005, was undeniably catchy. Its immediately likable, though blatantly unoriginal, tracks showcased a genuine talent. The Oklahoma group's new disc doesn't quite measure up. The pop sensibility is there, perhaps to an even greater degree, but some of the songs feel like they're trying too hard. The first single, "Give You Hell," is certainly hooky, but its chorus ("When you see my face/I hope it gives you hell") lacks the earnest, amiable quality of singles like "Dirty Little Secret" and "Move Along." The disc's ballads, like the lackluster "Mona Lisa," aren't badly written but seem to be on the record just to provide a contrast to the louder, faster tracks - not because singer Tyson Ritter actually has something to lament. AAR knows how to grab your attention and keep it, even hours after a song has finished playing (the jumping "I Wanna" is ridiculously catchy in a good way). But ultimately you wish there was more behind the songs. - Emily Zemler
A Cross the Universe
There's sorcery behind the dance-metal duo Justice (French clubbers Gaspard Augé and Xavier de Rosnay). The band's bizarre 2007 electronic debut Cross is a horror-film version of Daft Punk-style house music that hypnotizes both hips and fists. The hit "Genesis" is basically a club remix of the famous theme from Dario Argento's 1982 slasher film Tenebre by Italian prog-rock legends Goblin - a sick disco mix of synths, slapping bass, tribal drums and retro-cool macabre vibes that cuts like a knife. The entire album sounds like clever cult music, as if the Misfits decided to do dance instrumentals.
The church of Justice is growing around the world, as shown by their new live disc A Cross the Universe. The album is a soundboard recording of a 2008 San Francisco performance, loaded with crowd noise and supernatural energy. The Justice remix of Simian's "Never Be Alone (We Are Your Friends)" is an added bonus to the 17-song set, but overall the album lacks fresh meat. The real substance is the accompanying DVD. The movie documents the surreal encounters the Grammy-nominated Parisian duo had during 18 months of touring after the release of Cross, spliced with footage from its head-banging shows. For diehard fans, the CD/DVD package will perfectly capture the phenomenon of Justice's retro, metal-monster bash. Yet adding some new material to the party might have made for a more sinister music sequel. - Gribbins
T-Pain catches a lot of shit for sounding like a robot, but he has nothing on Senegalese R&B crooner Akon. On his third album of focus-group-approved club beats and bedroom jams, Akon layers his reedy voice over a stream of sturdy hip-hop hooks. But a few minutes of his machine-like monotone will have you wondering where the soul is. Like T-Pain, Akon showed up on dozens of cuts over the past year. A few of his pals return the favor on Freedom, including Lil Wayne, Young Jeezy and, yep, T-Pain. Yet it all settles into formula: Akon's hook, rapper's verse, repeat. The singer's hollow sentiments and casual indifference to lyrics don't help matters. "Wish I could keep you much longer/I know you gotta go, 'cause you got things to do," he sings on one track; "We dancing together like we belong in my bedroom" he drops on another. Freedom contains a few moments of radio bliss - "Right Now (Na Na Na)," especially - but you can always hear the gears spinning. - Gallucci
Death Was Too Kind
When he was touring in the Dead Kennedys, Jello Biafra looked outside the punk-rock norm and tried to establish connections with like-minded bands. The Canadian Subhumans (not to be confused with the like-named British punk-rockers) were one of the first bands he discovered. Now the Subhumans celebrate their history and accomplishments with the compilation Death Was Too Kind. This full-length album is part of the Alternative Tentacles' "Reissue of Necessity" series and includes Subhumans songs that haven't been heard in years. The disc includes the band's hard-to-find first single "Death to the Sickoids," the entirety of its 1979 self-titled EP and two bonus "lost" tracks from 1981 demo sessions. As tunes such as "Fuck You" and "Slave to My Dick" imply, this Vancouver band with a Sex Pistols-influenced sound is best keeping things simple, and delivering call-and-response lyrics and straight-head guitar riffs. No wonder Biafra liked these guys. - Erika Schramm
We Wish You a Metal Xmas and a Headbanging New Year
Christmas CDs are usually sterile, mind-umbing compilations you own merely o fulfill a playlist. We Wish You a Metal Xmas and a Headbanging New Year is no exception. Contributing artists run the gamut from Dave Grohl and Alice Cooper to John 5 and John Tempesta. Tracks like "We Wish You a Merry Xmas," "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" fall completely flat. Potential gems like Lemmy Kilmister's rendition of "Run Rudolph Run" or Chuck Billy's version of "Silent Night" offer dismal rays of hope. Yet the songs have no edge to them. It's not that you want Ronnie James Dio to honestly sing about a savior, but he should at least bless us with a curl of the lip or a shred of repugnance. The metal crowd surely won't be fooled by this lame attempt to cash in. - Hannah Verbeuren
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