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The Listening Room: Michael Jackson, Ryan Adams and more...
“Michael” is not, nor is it expected to be, “Thriller.” Nor “Bad,” “Off the Wall” or even “Dangerous.” But a convincing case can be made that it’s more consistently exciting then “Invincible,” the late Michael Jackson’s previous studio release in 2001 and that, given its circumstances, it’s more than some mere vault trolling exercise for posthumous profit. The modest album’s 10 songs come mostly from tracks Jackson worked on from 2007 until his unexpected death in June of 2009, though at least one — the closing ballad “Much Too Soon” — dates back to the early 80s. All-stars such as Akon, Teddy Riley, C “Tricky” Stewart and Jackson estate co-executor John McClain were brought in to finish them off, and the result is admirably cohesive and, if not as awe-inspiring as Jackson’s mega-platinum triumphs, tuneful enough to be part of a catalog that’s sold some 750 million albums worldwide. The soulful, lushly orchestrated “Hold My Hand” with Akon, “Michael’s” first single, starts things off, but Riley’s productions — the “Billie Jean"-styled “Hollywood Tonight,” the brassy and topical (“Everybody watching the news...They wanna see that I fall ‘cause I’m Michael Jackson”) “Breaking News” and the aggressive, paparazzi-slamming “Monster” with 50 Cent — bring more noise and funk. “(I Like) The Way You Love Me,” which appeared as a demo on 2004’s “Ultimate Collection,” is a winning slice of sweet pop, while the Lenny Kravitz collaboration “(I Can’t Make It) Another Day,” with Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl on drums, works as the set’s token rocker. “Best of Joy” is just a whisper above demo quality and a far cry from the usual polish we associate with Jackson’s recordings — and downright haunting when he sings “I am forever.” And his vocalized rendition of the Yellow Magic Orchestra’s “Behind the Mask” mixes electro energy with jazzy horn charts. Don’t look for it to set any enduring sales records, but “Michael” speaks to a creative integrity the former Motown wunderkind held onto until, literally, the end of his life.
Ryan Adams & the Cardinals, “III/IV” (Pax Am) ***
Ryan Adams has proven himself to be a mercurial, moving target in his post-Whiskeytown solo career, but sometimes he makes it just sound easy. Recorded during the same sessions that yielded 2007’s magnificent “Easy Tiger,” this two-disc, 21-song existential rock opera is a rocking tour de force, an assault of killer guitar riffs, memorable melodies and ensemble energy on par with Neil Young’s Crazy Horse and the Replacements — both of which are models for more than a few of the songs here. The “III” disc is a bit more consistent, highlighted by the compact “Ultraviolet Light” and the chugging “Users,” but “IV” has more than its share of moments, too, from the punky “Numbers” to the dynamically shifting “Star Wars” and the seven-and-a-half-minute album closer “Kill the Lights.” Adams may challenge us at time, but payoffs like this are worth it.
New & Noteworthy
Crystal Bowersox, “Farmer’s Daughter” (Jive): This year’s Ohio-based “American Idol” runner-up teamed with former “Idol” judge Kara DioGuardi and Nickelback’s Chad Kroeger on one song for her debut album and also covers Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth.”
Ciara, “Basic Instinct” (LaFace/Jive): The R&B/pop singer enlists Usher and Ludacris to help her on her fourth studio album.
The Damned Things, “Ironiclast” (Island): The debut outing by the heavy metal supergroup featuring members of Anthrax, Fall Out Boy and Every Time I Die.”
Diddy-Dirty Money, “Last Train to Paris” (Bad Boy/Interscope): Sean “Diddy” Combs teams with singers Dawn Richard and Kalenna Harper on this electro-soul set that includes collaborations with T.I., Drake and the late Notorious B.I.G.
Kandi, “Kandi Coated” (Kandi Coated/Asylum): The Atlanta R&B singer’s sophomore album sports a guest appearance by Ne-Yo and top-shelf producers such as Jazze Pha, Drumma Boy and Bryan-Michael Cox.
R. Kelly, “Love Letter” (Jive): The R&B loverman produced his 10th studio album entirely himself, with a first single, “When a Woman Loves,” that’s already nominated for a Grammy Award.
Leona Lewis, “The Labyrinth Tour — Live From the O2” (J): A 10-track companion to the full-length DVD chronicling the British songstress’ most recent live show.
Phish, “Alpine Valley 2010” (Jemp): A double CD and DVD set from the trippy quartet’s August shows at the Wisconsin amphitheater.
Tank, “Now or Never” (Atlantic): A first single called “Sex Music” tells you pretty much all you need to know about the R&B singer’s fourth album.
Volbeat, “Beyond Heal/Above Heaven” (Rebel Monster): The fourth album by the Danish heavy metal group features guest appearances by pals from Napalm Death, Mercyful Fate, Kreator and King Diamond.
From The Vaults: Popa Chubby, “The Essential” (Blind Pig)
New Music DVDs: Leona Lewis, “The Labyrinth Tour - Live From the O2” (J); Brian Setzer Orchestra, “It’s Gonna Rock ‘Cause That’s What I Do” (Surf Dog)
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