If you've been following along with the steady rise and eventual crossover of blues-rock re-visionaries The Black Keys over the last decade, than it should come as no surprise that El Camino is their glossiest, most formulaic album to date. All the signs were there; last year's Brothers was one step away from it, a perfect compromise of their sonic strengths—raw enough to keep fans, big enough to gain a whole lot more. So really, in the midst of a successful run in the pop spotlight, where the Keys are doing what they do best for an ever-expanding audience, it's natural to see them cash in a bit and get silly. Sure-hits like "Lonely Boy" are easy to digest, and hard not to like, but also spells out the message loud and clear: those still gripping to their copy of Rubber Factory should probably accept that this once ferocious duo has left the building. Then again, it's also hard to think of these guys ever not completely owning a concert, so there's that.
The world lost a great talent this year, and her first posthumous album of songs, both previously heard and unheard, is a reminder of that. What it's not, however, is a proper follow-up to the timeless blockbuster appeal of 2006's Back To Black. She never got around to that, but this collection of odds and ends, be them covers, demos, alternate versions, or unreleased early material, is at least something to sit with. Hidden Treasures literally pieced together all that was left behind, and will likely be the last offering of its kind. Sad, but perhaps better this than the endless commercial cycles that have followed other fallen stars.
The legendary hip-hop professionals and everyone's favorite, slightly-controversial late night TV house band have returned with their 13th LP, and first attempt at a traditional concept album. While it can be a dangerous, often self-indulgent, move for any veteran act, The Roots pull it off with their usual swagger. As the story goes, undun follows the drug-dealing life of Redford Stephens (inspired by Sufjan Stevens’s “Redford”) in reverse, opening on the 25 year old's death bed, then traveling back through his many misturns. It's a sad tale to say the least. And one to be taken as a whole, there's a deliberate lack of standalone singles here, which is why these guys remain true artists in the mainstream game.
Since his 2004 debut, Polish composer Jacaszek has earned a prestigious reputation in the electronic world, his work characterized by an ability to cross modern ambient sounds with classical instruments and textures, throwback jazz, and weathered drone. Glimmer is more of that, with extra attention placed on the climactic burst, those echo chamber drifts that start slow and end in a crackled frenzy. It makes for an involved listen, something to actual grasp—more than just zone-out material.
Auto-Tune enthusiast T-Pain wants you to think he evolved as an artist, hence he capitalizes the middle of rEVOLVEr so it highlights "evolve"—deep, man. Though the album really just continues with the usual club-ready smattering (which have won this man Grammy's in the past), complete with a heap of that tuned-out serenading, luckily broken up by guest appearances from Lil Wayne, Pitbull, Lily Allen, Wiz Khalifa, and Ne-Yo. rEVOLVEr will no doubt sprout a few hits, and we're almost in 2012—further proof that no amount of critical head-scratching or down-with-auto-tune anthems can eliminate the fact that: there is definitely a market for this.
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