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David Bowie 

Reality (ISO/Columbia)

David Bowie's history is his blessing and his curse. While his excess-fueled glam, synth-rock, and soul experiments created an iconic image that gives him unparalleled creative freedom, every subsequent album he releases is in some subtle way compared to the impossible heights he reached in the 1970s.

Bowie won't escape this dilemma on Reality, thanks to producer Tony Visconti, Bowie's collaborator during his heyday. The epic guitar spirals of Heroes flourish anew on "Fall Dog Bombs the Moon"; "Looking for Water" shakes with a driving pub-rock backbeat and gnarled keyboard noises. Lyrically, Bowie's usual collection of fallen idols ("Bring Me the Disco King") and loners ("The Loneliest Guy in the World") earn profiles as well. Nonetheless, Reality's striking feature -- demonstrated by an electric cover of the Modern Lovers' "Pablo Picasso" -- is a sense of immediacy. Bowie freely pillages his past for musical ideas, but sounds fully immersed in his current tunes. In fact, Reality is Bowie facing just what the title implies: He doesn't need to be Ziggy anymore; just being himself, circa 2003, is good enough.

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