Radiohead's latest album, In Rainbows, was initially released, as you may have heard, in a rather unorthodox fashion. Opposing views asserted that their methods were merely novel or industry-revolutionary, and both held some credence. Whether or not they have succeeded in downsizing the monumental anticipation that meets the release of one of their albums—a goal they have been discussing since around Kid A —In Rainbows stands as the next chapter in the Radiohead canon, possibly the most fervently beloved body of work of any contemporary band.
At show-and-prove time then, In Rainbows is a great work if not necessarily a collection of great songs. The band have become truly masterful at what they do; the beauty of the production and attention to detail invested in this record are heroic and, at times, stunning. There are a few resplendently great moments—opener "15 Step" finds them in more ebullient and rhythmically intricate form than ever; "Faust ARP" lilts with a Joni Mitchellesque ease; and the final cut, "Videotape," wades in the same haunting, death-lit waters as Amnesiac's "Pyramid Song." The record's high point by far comes with "Nude," a new rendering of old bootleg favorite "Big Ideas" that unfolds majestically.
The rest of the album's songs, however, are pleasant but not threaded with the same moments of ecstatic drama present in the band's greatest works. The second disc of bonus material (only officially available with the purchase of the album's deluxe discbox version) is stricken with inconsistency, veering wildly from the excellent, string-tingled "Down Is the New Up" to the regrettably Killers-reminiscent rocker "Bangers and Mash" to the undemanding but pretty "4 Minute Warning." Still, compared to most major-label rock bands that have made it to their seventh album, Radiohead are, artistically speaking, doing wonderfully—one just yearns for a little more of that old black magic. SAM MICKENS
With all the goodness Stones Throw Records served up in 2007, it's no wonder their most interesting release went mostly unnoticed. The L.A.-based tastemakers pushed the leading edge of hiphop with solid albums from polymath beat conductor Madlib, his Hair-sampling younger brother protégé Oh No, and others. Their masterpiece of the year, though—the record that slinks past genre and era into the realm of pure groove—is the Heliocentrics' Out There.
An eight-piece collective from London, the Heliocentrics are something of an enigma. They're led by drummer Malcolm Catto, reportedly a longtime friend of DJ Shadow (it's said the two go toe-to-toe as obsessive crate diggers with absurd record collections). Catto has played custom beats for Madlib samples, the Heliocentrics play on a track from Shadow's last album, and this debut took four years to finish. It's a great backstory that hints at the brand of hazy, complex, beat-forward space jazz the Heliocentrics conjure. The album is the most compelling electro-jazz record since Cinematic Orchestra's Every Day; it's exactly what John McEntire's Bumps project—a 2007 misfire from Stones Throw—should've been.
If the Heliocentrics' name speaks to Catto's Sun Ra devotion, the music's immediate swirl of chattering percussion, sinuous reeds and horns, and slow-simmering African rhythms are straight-up proof. The update here is Catto's drumming—pugilistic, usually snapping on a high hat and snare break. It's pure hiphop, the true-school stuff of Stones Throw, beholden to 1970s soul-jazz cats like Bernard Purdie and Idris Muhammad. That hard-swinging syncopation shifts and stutters but never lets down, lubricating these diffuse, swaying melodies with a slick rhythmic sheen. Where rhythm and melody come together—in the cosmic funk of "Distant Star," the buzzy downtempo smokeout "Untitled," the gorgeous "Winter Song"—sublimity occurs. These songs radiate with crystalline guitars and sitars and synths like morning light. Throughout, space-age vocal samples and sound effects evoke a retrofuturistic vision rendered into a wry, self-aware soundtrack to a moment that's not quite then, not quite now, not quite later.
Like much of Sun Ra's output, Out There is too long, too dense, too full of ideas to fully digest. It's a collusion of art and science, a cool-as-fuck fantasy more vast than a mere album of music. JONATHAN ZWICKEL
Alone: The Home Recordings of Rivers Cuomo
If you want to convince your unknowing friend that Weezer's infamous frontman Rivers Cuomo is (or used to be) a genius pop songwriter, buy them a copy of Weezer's self-titled debut—aka "the Blue Album"—or Pinkerton, because Alone isn't for those who are still deciding where (or if) Cuomo belongs in their life. These 18 tracks are the rough drafts of uncompleted songs, early demos of Weezer tunes, and loose constructions of musical thoughts that Cuomo has been hoarding for as long as 15 years.
But should you already have a weakness for (or an obsession with) the man's ability to craft a charming and catchy pop tune, you'll appreciate the hints of magic that appear through the collection's veil of lo-fi sloppiness.
"Lover in the Snow" (1997) is my favorite. Though Cuomo admits the whole song is "fantasy," "Lover in the Snow" is an upbeat, simplistic guitar/tambourine tune about seeing a past love with someone new, and the song is as vivid as anything the band have ever released. And unlike Weezer's current inclination to rock, 1994's "Longtime Sunshine" is all piano, drums, and clarinet. A slow waltz, the bittersweet song confesses desires to run away and start over. Other gems include "Wanda (You're My Love)," the love song that predated "You Gave Your Love to Me Softly"; "Crazy One," about a girl regrettably dumped; and "Chess," the song that saved "the Blue Album."
Thanks to Cuomo's candid liner notes, we're given a brief history of each song—where he was, what he was thinking, why the song is only appearing for the first time now; the stories are quick but endearing. And they also reveal that he's a little weird, he falls in love quickly, and he's not very good at rapping (but only a n00b wouldn't already be fully aware of all those facts).
Most importantly, for fans who have been less than impressed with Weezer's watered-down efforts of this century, Alone's crop of fresh but familiar songs will take you back to a time you may have been missing, a time when Cuomo could connect like no other songwriter. MEGAN SELING
Patty La Belle's Choir