Nada Surf – The Weight Is A Gift (2005)
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I didn’t listen to the radio at all in 1996, so I’ve never heard Nada Surf’s claim to fame, the hitlet that was “Popular.” I also don’t know how The Weight Is A Gift measures up against their previous albums, but I suspect they’ve undergone something of an evolution in sound, because I can’t imagine anything like this finding its way onto the radio during the year of No Fucking Doubt and Alanis Goddamn Morissette.

Does that mean it’s great? Not really. I’ve read some pretty rapturous reviews of this album, and I can understand why — it’s got that quirky, lo-fi sound that drives a particular breed of rock critic daffy with love — but it still sounds more or less like every other middling power-pop album I’ve listened to over the last fifteen years. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, mind you. “Concrete Bed” (download) is hum-a-long good, “Always Love” (download) is an engaging wisp of flower power, and “Blankest Year” (download) rides a snide, cynically catchy rock & roll vibe. I’m just not sure how much lasting appeal this album will have for anyone who wasn’t an English major.


Our Lady Peace – Healthy in Paranoid Times (2005)
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I’m not sure if it was an intentional production decision or just a really crappy mastering job, but this is one brittle-sounding album. Everything is bright and loud and compressed all to hell, from Raine Maida’s unbearably strident lead vocals right on down to the drums. Taken all in one sitting, it’s a punishing listening experience.

It’s also extremely earnest. Almost every song strives for Meaningful Anthem status, starting with the opener, “Angels/Losing/Sleep” (download). Sometimes it works fairly well — the single, “Where Are You,” is tailor-made for sports highlight reels, and “World On A String” (download) has a certain swinging tension — but overall, it’s like U2 without the warmth or occasional flashes of intimacy.


The Rolling Stones – A Bigger Bang (2005)
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Every new Stones album since Dirty Work has been billed as “THEIR BEST SINCE (insert album title here),” so I hate to describe A Bigger Bang this way, but in this case, it’s entirely accurate. Okay, so at sixteen tracks, it’s too long, and yeah, Mick’s overt Exile on Main Street comparisons are bogus, but still, this is better than anybody had a right to expect. Dirty Work was embarrassing, Steel Wheels uneven, Voodoo Lounge dull, and Bridges to Babylon just plain dreadful. The Stones have been on a frustrating path for at least the past twenty years, and that’s an awful long time for guys this long in the tooth.

The difference here is that it sounds like the band has rediscovered how to have fun in the studio. You can usually count on the Stones to be worthwhile live — even if they’re playing a cut from one of their latter-day turkeys — but the albums have sounded like business decisions for a long time now. Maybe it’s just the first-few-listens pixie dust talking, but to these ears, Bang is the sound of some old pros getting together for a few yuks. It’s really refreshing.

What truly makes it work, though, is that this is the strongest set of songs the Stones have bothered to record since…well, I’m not going there. You can fill in the blanks yourself. But the production is bare-boned and loose, the arrangements are casually muscular, and the performances are full of tongue-in-cheek swagger. There are a couple clunkers — much as I might agree with the sentiment, “Sweet Neo Con” is lame — and again, this would have packed a more powerful punch at ten or twelve songs. That being said, I could grab just about any handful from this album and walk away satisfied, so here’s a random three for your playlist. “Oh No, Not You Again” (download) is a barrelhouse rocker, “She Saw Me Coming” (download) finds Mick playing the wounded lecher like only he can, and “Infamy” (download) is vintage, greasy, slinky Keef. If they have any sense, they’ll go out on a high note and make this their last album.