Michael JacksonXscape/Epic Records
Michael Jackson was such a perfectionist about his music that he was notorious for releasing albums on a painfully slow timeline: His last album of new music was 2001's "Invincible," eight years before his death, and that record was a six-year wait for Jackson's fans.
His estate is less discerning when it comes to his music. There are now two albums that have been released under Jackson's moniker since his untimely 2009 passing: 2010's "Michael" and now "Xscape."
Like "Michael," this latest posthumous release is a compilation of Jackson outtakes that includes material from decades ago, so there's already a dated feel to much of the album, despite the wizardry and production under the helm of Epic Records CEO L.A. Reid, who worked with Jackson in the studio for one of the tracks.
But that doesn't necessarily negate the music, and some of the most enjoyable songs are the oldest: The first single, "Love Never Felt So Good," with its mirrored-ball disco groove, is infectious and irresistible, with Jackson's youthful-sounding falsetto sounding like it is gliding. It was recorded in 1983.
The magic continues through the funky jam "Chicago" as well as "Loving You," a smooth, dreamy track given a fresh, modern sound, thanks to the magic of well-placed keyboards and Timbaland, the album's main producer (the deluxe version of "Xscape" lets you compare the originals with the finished works). Songs like this make you wonder why Jackson shelved them.
Things start to falter a bit with "A Place With No Name," which has the same beat and sound as "Leave Me Alone" from the "Bad" era and is lyrically weak: We can tell why Jackson left it on the cutting room floor. And it's a sentiment that most will share for about half of the eight-track album.
Putting out music that falls below Jackson's standards - even if overly high - detracts from the carefully constructed catalog the King of Pop spent decades creating and protecting. The holders of Jackson's estate would be wise to apply some of the same standards the next time they consider releasing another posthumous album.
By Nekesa Mumbi Moody, Associated Press
Elton JohnGoodbye Yellow Brick Road (40th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition)/Universal Music Enterprises
It's time to dig yet again into the Elton John archives. Ten years have passed since the release of the "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road 30th Anniversary Deluxe Edition."
Happily, the four-CD, one-DVD set to commemorate the album's 40th anniversary is more than mere record label recycling. Included are a CD of "GBYBR" songs covered by contemporary artists, two discs of a 1973 concert with John and his band in top form, a handsome 100-page hardcover book and a DVD of a long out-of-print 1973 documentary by the British filmmaker Bryan Forbes.
The artists performing the covers are younger than the original album, a testament to its durability. Best is English singer Ed Sheeran, who transforms "Candle In the Wind" into strummy folk, and Irish musician Imelda May, who applies rockabilly zeal to "Your Sister Can't Twist (But She Can Rock 'n Roll)." Alas, Fall Out Boy reduces "Saturday Night's Alright (For Fighting)" into a pep rally, and an R&B/rap remake of "Bennie and the Jets" by Grammy winner Miguel and Wale never takes off.
John's original album has been remastered yet again and sounds better than ever. The loud-to-soft contrasts are remarkable for a pop record, rewarding owners of quality headphones or loudspeakers. Dee Murray's underrated bass work, Nigel Olsson's angelic high harmonies and Davey Johnstone's seven guitar parts on "Saturday Night" can be appreciated as never before.
Like the dynamic range, the range of material remains impressive. A musical sponge from childhood, John was at his prolific peak when the two-disc LP, 17-song set was written and recorded in a span of just two weeks. Bernie Taupin's cinematic lyrics become Technicolor tunes, and "GBYBR" is an unsurpassed distillation of rock's golden era spanning both sides of the Atlantic. John draws on the Beatles and the Stones, the Beach Boys and the Band, Bob Marley, "Soul Train," Jerry Lee Lewis and Liberace, and makes it all his own.
By Steven Wine, Associated Press
Forget about the health issues and personal problems. George Michael sounds super on his first new album in seven years, recorded live during his 2011-12 "Symphonica" tour in Europe.
Time has not taken a toll on Michael's voice, which if anything sounds more supple and emotive than during his earlier pop incarnations.
Gone is the swagger and blatant "come and get it" sexuality, replaced by a more subtle singer happy to pay homage to Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye and other giants as the album unfolds. He strikes a wistful tone, lamenting lost youth, in "John and Elvis Are Dead," and captures the yearning and loss at the heart of the old standard "Wild Is the Wind."
There's a jazzy feel, with some swing, to his cover of the timeless "My Baby Just Cares for Me," and he captures perfectly, without overdoing it, the pathos of the American depression-era classic "Brother Can You Spare a Dime."
Michael avoids a number of traps on this album, which was produced by the late Phil Ramone, who also teamed with the singer in 1999 on "Songs From the Last Century." Michael deserves credit for moving deftly into big band and orchestral territory without in any way trying to imitate the master, Frank Sinatra, or taking on the vocal tics of the many other artists who have turned to American standards as a mid-career tonic.
The style and phrasings are all his own and the sparse arrangements allow ample room for his hypnotic voice to soar. By instinct, he shies way from self-dramatizing vocal pyrotechnics, letting the melodies and lyrics carry the day.
There is a simple clarity to this approach, but it also means the new release can seem a bit slow in places. The beat is too subdued, the tempo too languid, and the production too lush at times. The collection could use a showstopper to set off its mellow tone. It would benefit from a bit more tension, more of a climax toward the end.
But the quality of the singing puts Michael head and shoulders ahead of the other English rockers looking to the Great American Songbook for inspiration. Michael sounds effortless and free, as if he could do this for decades to come.
By Gregory Katz, Associated Press
Willie NelsonBand of Brothers/Legacy
Willie Nelson has written a song - sometimes two, three or four - for every occasion, mood and moment. There's Wistful Willie. Defiant Willie. Repentant Willie. Randy Willie. Preacher Willie. Populist Willie. Whimsical Willie. Vengeful Willie.
Nelson the songwriter returns in all his wonderful guises on the first album of mostly new material he penned himself since 1996's "Spirit," the best album of the latter half of his 60-year career. Nelson wrote nine of the 14 songs on "Band of Brothers" with album producer Buddy Cannon, and each song is a perfect projection of its writer's best qualities. They're comfortable, familiar, well-worn, but also new and different.
Nelson is 81 now, and the new songs make allowances for this. His defiant moments sound a little more world-weary, his regrets a bit more painful. But his sense of humor and philosopher's personality remain un-diminished.
"Band of Brothers" opens with Defiant Willie staring down the storm on "Bring It On." Wistful Willie lets the "Guitar in the Corner" play him, Repentant Willie hits "The Wall" and Randy Willie leads us through a tall tale of all his "Wives and Girlfriends," "but may they never meet/may they never know each other when they pass on the street."
Populist Willie provides the title track, a beautiful display of the sentiment that has made Nelson incongruously both an outlaw and a figure beloved by all. "We're a band of brothers and sisters and whatever/On a mission to break all the rules."
Nelson positions that song between a pair of Billy Joe Shaver covers - "The Git Go," featuring Jamey Johnson, and "It's Hard to Be an Outlaw" - midway through the album, and this outlaw triptych serves as a powerful reminder of why we've loved Nelson all these years.
By Chris Talbott, Associated Press