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Tocotronic

Hound Dog

SkuLrot

Love Sick

Reh Dogg

Злой и неизвестный

My Sweet Pain

Close to the Glass - Single

The Notwist

Kong

The Notwist

PASSAGE TO HEAVEN

Deita Klaus

ON YOUR KNEES 2014

Deita Klaus

CHANIN

Deita Klaus

Ich Vermisse Dich

Stars and the Sea

My Sweet Pain

My Sweet Pain

orDiNary wOrLD 92-11

Michael William Andersen

Live

My Sweet Pain

Solar/Lunar EP

Tackle Punch

Hungry

Tackle Punch

Top Albums

Sublime

Sublime
Sublime's eponymous major-label debut arrived a few months after the band's leader, Brad Nowell, died tragically of a heroin overdose. As a show of sympathy, the album tended to be slightly overrated in some critical quarters, who claimed that Nowell was an exceptionally gifted lyricist and musical hybridist, but Sublime doesn't quite support those claims. Even so, the trio does have a surprising grace in its unabashedly traditionalist fusion of Californian hardcore punk, light hip-hop, and reggae. Switching between bracing hardcore and slow, sexy reggae numbers, Sublime display supple, muscular versatility and, on occasion, a gift for ingratiatingly catchy hooks, as on the hit single "What I Got." What they don't have is the vision -- either lyrical or musical -- to maintain interest throughout the course of the entire album. Sublime sags when the band delves too deeply into their dub aspirations or when their lyrics slide into smirking humor. The low moments don't arrive that often -- by and large, the album is quite engaging -- but they happen frequently enough to make the record a demonstration of the band's blossoming ability, but not the fulfillment of their full potential. Of course, Nowell's death gives the record a certain pathos, but that doesn't make the album any stronger.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

MTV Unplugged In New York

Nirvana
Sadly, MTV Unplugged stands as Nirvana's last album. While it's an album of covers and old songs, it ranks as one of the band's most cohesive records. Instead of relying on the trio's overpowering sonic force, Unplugged concentrates on Kurt Cobain's subtly shaded songwriting and Nirvana's deceptively simple musical power. Every version of their previously recorded songs, with the possible exception of "On a Plain," dramatically improves the original, and the covers reveal more about Cobain than he intended. By the time Nirvana close with a wrenching, spine-chilling version of Leadbelly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night," the emotional complexity of Nirvana's music is clear. It's also clear that they could have made even greater music.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Nevermind

Nirvana
Twenty years after the release of an album that irreversibly altered the landscape of popular music comes this enormous five-disc box set that features, alongside the original album, three CDs of previously unreleased recordings, rarities, B-sides, BBC radio appearances, alternative mixes, rare live recordings, and a DVD featuring an entire previously unreleased concert.

Dookie

Green Day
Green Day couldn't have had a blockbuster without Nirvana, but Dookie wound up being nearly as revolutionary as Nevermind, sending a wave of imitators up the charts and setting the tone for the mainstream rock of the mid-'90s. Like Nevermind, this was accidental success, the sound of a promising underground group suddenly hitting its stride just as they got their first professional, big-budget, big-label production. Really, that's where the similarities end, since if Nirvana were indebted to the weirdness of indie rock, Green Day were straight-ahead punk revivalists through and through. They were products of the underground pop scene kept alive by such protagonists as All, yet what they really loved was the original punk, particularly such British punkers as the Jam and Buzzcocks. On their first couple records, they showed promise, but with Dookie, they delivered a record that found Billie Joe Armstrong bursting into full flower as a songwriter, spitting out melodic ravers that could have comfortable sat alongside Singles Going Steady, but infused with an ironic self-loathing popularized by Nirvana, whose clean sound on Nevermind is also emulated here. Where Nirvana had weight, Green Day are deliberately adolescent here, treating nearly everything as joke and having as much fun as snotty punkers should. They demonstrate a bit of depth with "When I Come Around," but that just varies the pace slightly, since the key to this is their flippant, infectious attitude -- something they maintain throughout the record, making Dookie a stellar piece of modern punk that many tried to emulate but nobody bettered.

Greatest Hits

Foo Fighters
Almost 15 years on from their debut, Foo Fighters deliver their first Greatest Hits, a 15-track (16 if the double dip on "Everlong" counts) retrospective covering their six albums from 1995 to 2007. Greatest Hits isn't arranged chronologically, which isn't a detriment; if anything, skipping through the years emphasizes just how consistent the Foos have been, always delivering oversized rock & roll where the hooks are as big as the guitars. The only exceptions to the rule are the two lo-fi cuts "Big Me" and "This Is a Call," with "I'll Stick Around" qualifying as this comp's inexplicable omission ("Walking After You," "DOA," "Stacked Actors," and "No Way Back" all also didn't make the cut), plucked from their 1995 debut, where the band was only Dave Grohl recording at home. Apart from this pair of tunes, this is all muscular, melodic modern rock, the kind that Foo Fighters almost patented, and if their consistency has occasionally made their albums blend together, it does result in one strong hits collection.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Greatest Hits

Red Hot Chili Peppers
The Red Hot Chili Peppers' Greatest Hits is a compelling listen, culling tracks from the band's 1989 breakthrough, Mother's Milk, to its melodic 2002 release, By the Way. In some ways, one could view this as the best of the John Frusciante years, charting most of the band's work with the talented guitarist after the death of original member Hillel Slovak. The tracks here are all hits, including such stellar singles as "Give It Away," "Under the Bridge," and Frusciante's first single after his phoenix-like resurrection from heroin addiction, "Scar Tissue." It should be noted, though, that as a Warner-issued hits collection such fan favorites as "Taste the Pain" and the touchstone antidrug anthem "Knock Me Down" -- both from the 1989 EMI release Mother's Milk -- aren't included. (Similarly, nothing from the Chili Peppers' rambunctious early efforts -- including 1984's Red Hot Chili Peppers, 1985's Freaky Styley, and 1987's The Uplift Mofo Party Plan -- appears on this hits collection.) Nonetheless, Greatest Hits still portrays the band as one of the most consistently brilliant groups of its generation. Helping to paint this picture are such solid cuts as the group's searing, albeit overplayed, 1989 cover of Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground" as well as its rarely available addition to the Coneheads movie soundtrack, "Soul to Squeeze." Not surprisingly, "My Friends" is the sole cut to make it from the band's disappointing one-off effort with Jane's Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro, One Hot Minute. Throw in two new tracks ("Fortune Faded" and "Save the Population") that easily match the quality of the material collected here, and you've got one of the most consistently listenable Chili Pepper releases since Blood Sugar Sex Magik. For fans who gave up after Frusciante left the band, Greatest Hits is the perfect reintroduction.

Matt Collar, Rovi

Ten

Pearl Jam
Nirvana's Nevermind may have been the album that broke grunge and alternative rock into the mainstream, but there's no underestimating the role that Pearl Jam's Ten played in keeping them there. Nirvana's appeal may have been huge, but it wasn't universal; rock radio still viewed them as too raw and punky, and some hard rock fans dismissed them as weird misfits. In retrospect, it's easy to see why Pearl Jam clicked with a mass audience -- they weren't as metallic as Alice in Chains or Soundgarden, and of Seattle's Big Four, their sound owed the greatest debt to classic rock. With its intricately arranged guitar textures and expansive harmonic vocabulary, Ten especially recalled Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. But those touchstones might not have been immediately apparent, since -- aside from Mike McCready's Clapton/Hendrix-style leads -- every trace of blues influence has been completely stripped from the band's sound. Though they rock hard, Pearl Jam is too anti-star to swagger, too self-aware to puncture the album's air of gravity. Pearl Jam tackles weighty topics -- abortion, homelessness, childhood traumas, gun violence, rigorous introspection -- with an earnest zeal unmatched since mid-'80s U2, whose anthemic sound they frequently strive for. Similarly, Eddie Vedder's impressionistic lyrics often make their greatest impact through the passionate commitment of his delivery rather than concrete meaning. His voice had a highly distinctive timbre that perfectly fit the album's warm, rich sound, and that's part of the key -- no matter how cathartic Ten's tersely titled songs got, they were never abrasive enough to affect the album's accessibility. Ten also benefited from a long gestation period, during which the band honed the material into this tightly focused form; the result is a flawlessly crafted hard rock masterpiece.

Steve Huey, Rovi

Rage Against The Machine

Rage Against The Machine
Seething with revolutionary spirit, the self-titled debut of Rage Against the Machine record had social, cultural and musical rebellion at its very core. In the group's marriage of heavy metal guitars and hip-hop rebellion, tunes like "Killing in the Name," "Take the Power Back" and "Know Your Enemy" were a singular crystallization of underground movements that were waiting to burst through to a mainstream audience, and the band's uncompromising message was every bit as astonishing as their commercial success. Years after its release, guitarist Tom Morello's brilliant, jagged shredding and the eloquent fury of vocalist Zack de la Rocha are just as incendiary as ever.

Nate Cavalieri, Google Play

Phobia (Explicit Version)

Breaking Benjamin
Breaking Benjamin are nothing if not consistent. Phobia finds them picking up exactly where they left off with 2004's We Are Not Alone, mixing heavy hard rock dynamics with a moody demeanor that never slips into full-on dejection, thanks in part to their proficient grasp of the accessible melody and ever-rousing chorus. Darkness permeates Phobia's tracks (bookended by a useless intro and outro), but the quartet always remembers the silver lining hanging in its oft-cloudy skies. Songs like "Until the End" exhibit this resilient attitude, affirming that while life can be tough, "Why give up? Why give in?…So I will go on until the end." Breaking Benjamin mix urgent up-front vocals with dense underside riffing ("The Diary of Jane," "Topless"), while still being able to effortlessly pull off songs with vulnerable edges ("Here We Are," "Breath"). This is heard even more in the gentle acoustic version of "The Diary of Jane" not listed on the back cover; it sounds natural and not just like a strained bonus novelty -- featuring Dropping Daylight's Sebastian Davin, the version may even be better than the original. As is often the case, certain tracks work out much better than others, as in the tough angst of "Dance with the Devil" versus the forced warbling of "Unknown Soldier." The main problem with the guys has always been that while everything is pulled off capably, there isn't always much to distinguish them from the rest of the post-grunge/alt-metal pack or really, each of their songs from one another. But what Breaking Benjamin lack in distinctiveness, they make up in a certain charm that makes them 100 times more appealing than most of their testosterone-clogged peers. Phobia will not win over any skeptics still holding out on the band, but for those already happily settled in the Benjamin camp, it makes for another satisfying listen. [The clean version contains no expletives.]

Corey Apar, Rovi

Rearviewmirror: Greatest Hits 1991-2003

Pearl Jam
Joe Strummer once claimed that the Clash had stardom in their hands, then they dropped it on the floor and broke it. Pearl Jam took the opposite tact: they purposely left stardom behind. Nirvana may have ushered in the age of grunge and alternative rock, but Pearl Jam were the biggest band in the land during the first half of the '90s, dominating radio airwaves, MTV, and college dorms alike. Most bands would have embraced such widespread acclaim, but the quintet bristled at this vein, and started to restlessly explore new musical territory, a move that eventually whittled their fan base down to just the hardcore by the beginning of the next decade. That hardcore following was still large, and the band could still have the occasional surprising crossover hit, like the 1999 cover of J. Frank Wilson's teen tragedy classic "Last Kiss" that went to number two on the Billboard charts, but they were no longer the biggest band in the land. Spanning two discs, Rearviewmirror (Greatest Hits 1991-2003) chronicles that journey and it does an expert job not only of capturing the moment when Pearl Jam were monstrously popular, but proving that they still turned out good music even when they were fading from the spotlight. Unlike most career-spanning, multi-disc retrospectives, Rearviewmirror does not emphasize latter-day albums in order to achieve a sense of balance that's inherently phony. Of the 33 tracks, only 12 date from the post-Vitalogy era, which means that the bulk of the collection concentrates on their early-'90s heyday, and nearly every radio hit and concert staple is here, outside of the Victoria Williams cover "Crazy Mary" and "Tremor Christ." While their presence would have been nice, they're not terribly missed, partially because such non-LP cuts like "State of Love and Trust," "I Got ID," "Last Kiss," and "Man of the Hour" are collected here, but mainly because the compilation plays so well. The songs are divided into the "Up Side" and "Down Side," meaning the first disc has all the rockers and the second disc has all the ballads. At first, this seems like a questionable strategy, since it's usually preferable to have all the hits follow in chronological order, but what makes this work is that the songs on each disc "are" presented in chronological order, and they sustain their mood quite well (this is partially helped by Brendan O'Brien's new mixes of "Once," "Alive," and "Black," which retain the feeling of the original songs but remove much of the dated glossy sheen in the production). Distilled to their hits and anthems, all of Pearl Jam's best qualities shine through and they sound bigger, better, and frankly more coherent than they do on their full-length albums. And that's why Rearviewmirror is a cut above most '90s hits collections: it not only gives casual fans all the hits, but it captures why the band mattered, while providing a better listen than their proper LPs in the process.

In Utero (20th Anniversary Remaster)

Nirvana
Nirvana probably hired Steve Albini to produce In Utero with the hopes of creating their own Surfer Rosa, or at least shoring up their indie cred after becoming a pop phenomenon with a glossy punk record. In Utero, of course, turned out to be their last record, and it's hard not to hear it as Kurt Cobain's suicide note, since Albini's stark, uncompromising sound provides the perfect setting for Cobain's bleak, even nihilistic, lyrics. Even if the album wasn't a literal suicide note, it was certainly a conscious attempt to shed their audience -- an attempt that worked, by the way, since the record had lost its momentum when Cobain died in the spring of 1994. Even though the band tempered some of Albini's extreme tactics in a remix, the record remains a deliberately alienating experience, front-loaded with many of its strongest songs, then descending into a series of brief, dissonant squalls before concluding with "All Apologies," which only gets sadder with each passing year. Throughout it all, Cobain's songwriting is typically haunting, and its best moments rank among his finest work, but the over-amped dynamicism of the recording seems like a way to camouflage his dispiritedness -- as does the fact that he consigned such great songs as "Verse Chorus Verse" and "I Hate Myself and Want to Die" to compilations, when they would have fit, even illuminated the themes of In Utero. Even without those songs, In Utero remains a shattering listen, whether it's viewed as Cobain's farewell letter or self-styled audience alienation. Few other records are as willfully difficult as this.

The Downward Spiral

Nine Inch Nails
The Downward Spiral positioned Trent Reznor as industrial's own Phil Spector, painting detailed, layered soundscapes from a wide tonal palette. Not only did he fully integrated the crashing metal guitars of Broken, but several newfound elements -- expanded song structures, odd time signatures, shifting arrangements filled with novel sounds, tremendous textural variety -- can be traced to the influence of progressive rock. So can the painstaking attention devoted to pacing and contrast -- The Downward Spiral is full of striking sonic juxtapositions and sudden about-faces in tone, which make for a fascinating listen. More important than craft in turning Reznor into a full-fledged rock star, however, was his brooding persona. Grunge had the mainstream salivating over melodramatic angst, which had always been Reznor's stock in trade. The left-field hit "Closer" made him a postmodern shaman for the '90s, obsessed with exposing the dark side he saw behind even the most innocuous façades. In fact, his theatrics on The Downward Spiral -- all the preening self-absorption and serpentine sexuality -- seemed directly descended from Jim Morrison. Yet Reznor's nihilism often seemed like a reaction against some repressively extreme standard of purity, so the depravity he wallowed in didn't necessarily seem that depraved. That's part of the reason why, in spite of its many virtues, The Downward Spiral falls just short of being the masterpiece it wants to be. For one thing, fascination with texture occasionally dissolves the hooky songwriting that fueled Pretty Hate Machine. But more than that, Reznor's unflinching bleakness was beginning to seem like a carefully calibrated posture; his increasing musical sophistication points up the lyrical holding pattern. Having said that, the album ends on an affecting emotional peak -- "Hurt" mingles drama and introspection in a way Reznor had never quite managed before. It's evidence of depth behind the charisma that deservedly made him a star.

Steve Huey, Rovi

Automatic For The People

R.E.M.
Turning away from the sweet pop of Out of Time, R.E.M. created a haunting, melancholy masterpiece with Automatic for the People. At its core, the album is a collection of folk songs about aging, death, and loss, but the music has a grand, epic sweep provided by layers of lush strings, interweaving acoustic instruments, and shimmering keyboards. Automatic for the People captures the group at a crossroads, as they moved from cult heroes to elder statesmen, and the album is a graceful transition into their new status. It is a reflective album, with frank discussions on mortality, but it is not a despairing record -- "Nightswimming," "Everybody Hurts," and "Sweetness Follows" have a comforting melancholy, while "Find the River" provides a positive sense of closure. R.E.M. have never been as emotionally direct as they are on Automatic for the People, nor have they ever created music quite as rich and timeless, and while the record is not an easy listen, it is the most rewarding record in their oeuvre.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Tidal

Fiona Apple
Fiona Apple demonstrates considerable talent on her debut album, Tidal, but it is unformed, unfocused talent. Her voice is surprisingly rich and supple for a teenager, and her jazzy, sophisticated piano playing also belies her age. Given the right material, such talents could have flourished, but she has concentrated on her own compositions, which are nowhere near as impressive as her musicianship. Most of Tidal is comprised of confessional singer/songwriter material, and while they strive to say something deep and important, much of the lyrics settle for clichés. Apple does have a handful of impressive songs on Tidal, like the haunting "Shadowboxer" and "Sullen Girl," but the gap between her performing talents and songwriting skills is too large to make the album anything more than a promising, and very intriguing, debut.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Weezer (Blue Album)

Weezer
Even if you lived through it, it's hard to fathom exactly why Weezer were disliked, even loathed, when they released their debut album in the spring of 1994. If you grew up in the years after the heyday of grunge, it may even seem absurd that the band were considered poseurs, hair metal refugees passing themselves off as alt-rock by adapting a few tricks from the Pixies and Nirvana songbooks and sold to MTV with stylish videos. Nevertheless, during alt-rock's heyday of 1994, Weezer was second only to Stone Temple Pilots as an object of scorn, bashed by the rock critics and hipsters alike. Time has a way of healing, even erasing, all wounds, and time has been nothing but kind to Weezer's eponymous debut album (which would later be dubbed The Blue Album, due to the blue background of the cover art). At the time of its release, the group's influences were discussed endlessly -- the dynamics of the Pixies, the polished production reminiscent of Nevermind, the willful outsider vibe borrowed from indie rock -- but few noted how the group, under the direction of singer/songwriter Rivers Cuomo, synthesized alt-rock with a strong '70s trash-rock predilection and an unwitting gift for power pop, resulting in something quite distinctive. Although the group wears its influences on its sleeve, Weezer pulls it together in a strikingly original fashion, thanks to Cuomo's urgent melodicism, a fondness for heavy, heavy guitars, a sly sense of humor, and damaged vulnerability, all driven home at a maximum volume. While contemporaries like Pavement were willfully, even gleefully obscure, and skewed toward a more selective audience, Weezer's insecurities were laid bare, and the band's pop culture obsessions tended to be universal, not exclusive. Plus, Cuomo wrote killer hooks and had a band that rocked hard -- albeit in an uptight, nerdy fashion -- winding up with direct, immediate music that connects on more than one level. It's both clever and vulnerable, but those sensibilities are hidden beneath the loud guitars and catchy hooks. That's why the band had hits with this album -- and not just hits, but era-defining singles like the deliberate dissonant crawl of "Undone - The Sweater Song," the postironic love song of "Buddy Holly," the surging "Say It Ain't So" -- but could still seem like a cult band to the dedicated fans; it sounded like the group was speaking to an in-crowd, not the mass audience it wound up with. If, as Howard Hawks said, a good movie consists of three great scenes and no bad ones, it could be extrapolated that a good record contains three great songs and no bad ones -- in that case, Weezer is a record with at least six or seven great songs and no bad ones. That makes for a great record, but more than that, it's a great record emblematic of its time, standing as one of the defining albums of the '90s. [The 2007 Circuit City exclusive edition came packaged with a free album cover iPod skin.]

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Jagged Little Pill

Alanis Morissette
It's remarkable that Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill struck a sympathetic chord with millions of listeners, because it's so doggedly, determinedly insular. This, after all, plays like an emotional purging, prompted by a bitter relationship -- and, according to all the lyrical hints, that's likely a record executive who took advantage of a young Alanis. She never disguises her outright rage and disgust, whether it's the vengeful wrath of "You Oughta Know" or asking him "you scan the credits for your name and wonder why it's not there." This is such insider information that it's hard to believe that millions of listeners not just bought it, but embraced it, turning Alanis Morisette into a mid-'90s phenomenon. Perhaps it was the individuality that made it appealing, since its specificity lent it genuineness -- and, even if this is clearly an attempt to embrace the "women in rock" movement in alterna-rock, Morissette's intentions are genuine. Often, it seems like Glen Ballard's pop inclinations fight against Alanis' exorcisms, as her bitter diary entries are given a pop gloss that gives them entry to the pop charts. What's all the more remarkable is that Alanis isn't a particularly good singer, stretching the limits of pitch and credibility with her octave-skipping caterwauling. At its core, this is the work of an ambitious but sophomoric 19-year-old, once burned by love, but still willing to open her heart a second time. All of this adds up to a record that's surprisingly effective, an utterly fascinating exploration of a young woman's psyche. As slick as the music is, the lyrics are unvarnished and Morissette unflinchingly explores emotions so common, most people would be ashamed to articulate them. This doesn't make Jagged Little Pill great, but it does make it a fascinating record, a phenomenon that's intensely personal.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Rotten Apples: Greatest Hits

Smashing Pumpkins
Like many alt-rock bands, the Smashing Pumpkins sound better than expected when reduced to singles, possibly because their high points were singles, no matter how carefully created their albums were. They had more than enough great material for a good compilation, and Greatest Hits almost fits the bill, although it gives too much credence to the music made after the group's peak. Essentially, anything that most listeners will want to hear wraps up 11 tracks into the 18-track album, when the collection dives into material from Adore and Machina, although even these two albums aren't embarrassments. Still, it does have many of the cuts that fans will want on one disc, including the non-LP "Drown" and "Landslide."

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

U218 Singles

U2
U2's first two greatest-hits albums neatly divided themselves by decade, with the first covering the '80s and the second summing up the '90s. Their third hits comp, 2006's U218 Singles, is at once more ambitious and more concise, offering an overview of their first 26 years on a single disc comprised of 18 tracks -- and since two of those are new songs, that leaves just 16 songs to tell their whole story. That's not much space for a band with a career as lengthy and ambitious as U2, so it's inevitable that some painful cuts have been made. Nothing from October, Zooropa or Pop is here, and unless you're buying various import editions that have "I Will Follow" as a bonus track, there's nothing from Boy, either. There's only one cut each from The Unforgettable Fire and Rattle and Hum -- and bucking conventional wisdom, none of their three widely accepted masterpieces -- War, The Joshua Tree, or Achtung Baby -- provide the most songs here. No, out of all their albums the one that dominates U218 Singles is All That You Can't Leave Behind, their 2000 comeback from the depths of the misguided Pop, and one of two records that they've released since their last hits compilation, The Best of 1990-2000.

The other record they've released since then is How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, which provides two songs here -- or, as many as there are from War and Achtung Baby. What this means is that this compilation skews very heavily toward latter-day U2 -- eight out of 18 tracks, a full 44 percent of the collection, are from 2000 on, which means that U218 Singles presents the classicist version of the band, featuring the anthems from U2 at their peak, plus the highlights from when U2 were trying their best to "sound" like U2 at their peak. They did it quite well, of course, from both a commercial and artistic standpoint, sometimes writing songs that stood proudly alongside "Pride (In the Name of Love)" and "Sunday Bloody Sunday" (as in "Beautiful Day") and sometimes not ("Elevation"). When it's all mixed together, it paints a portrait of a band that's a little slicker and streamlined than it often was, and it's hard not to miss the big-hearted yet moody band that made "Bad," "Gloria," and "A Sort of Homecoming," not to mention the middle-aged Euro experimentalists responsible for "Numb" and "Stay! (Faraway, So Close)," two essential components of the band that has been forced aside by the arena rock pros on display here.

Then again, U2 always were the best arena rockers of their generation, and for those who love the spectacle and sound of the band in full flight, U218 Singles serves up that side of the band quite well, along with two new entries that find the band continuing the assured, even-handed sound of Atomic Bomb: a cover of the Skids' "The Saints Are Coming," recorded with Green Day and rewritten to vaguely address the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and "Window in the Skies," an anthemic pop number that relies too heavily on synth strings yet is saved by the band's sturdy songwriting and reliable performance. As such, it might not cover all the bases, but it covers enough of the major ones to be a good summary for fellow travelers who just know U2 from the radio, and it's also a good one-stop introduction to the basics for neophytes.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

MTV Unplugged

Alice In Chains
Between the end of 1993 and a performance for MTV Unplugged in the spring of 1996, Alice in Chains performed no concerts -- they didn't even support the release of their eponymous third album with a minor tour. There's a variety of reasons for their inactivity -- primarily it's due to the health of certain members -- but the lack of concerts made the Unplugged performance seem special. During the concert, Alice in Chains drew from their three albums and two EPs, offering new, more reflective arrangements for harder songs like "Would?" and virtually re-creating the original versions of "Got Me Wrong" and "No Excuses." Throughout the album, the group sounds tight and professional -- on the basis of this performance, it's hard to believe that they hadn't played together for nearly three years -- but it doesn't offer anything that the albums don't already. The acoustic arrangements of the harder songs sound like novelties, and the rest sound like rehashes of their previous work, only without much energy. Again, it's a case of an Unplugged album that is designed to attract the band's core audience, which makes it a fairly entertaining effort that is essentially just an official bootleg.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Dirt

Alice In Chains
Dirt is Alice in Chains' major artistic statement and the closest they ever came to recording a flat-out masterpiece. It's a primal, sickening howl from the depths of Layne Staley's heroin addiction, and one of the most harrowing concept albums ever recorded. Not every song on Dirt is explicitly about heroin, but Jerry Cantrell's solo-written contributions (nearly half the album) effectively maintain the thematic coherence -- nearly every song is imbued with the morbidity, self-disgust, and/or resignation of a self-aware yet powerless addict. Cantrell's technically limited but inventive guitar work is by turns explosive, textured, and queasily disorienting, keeping the listener off balance with atonal riffs and off-kilter time signatures. Staley's stark confessional lyrics are similarly effective, and consistently miserable. Sometimes he's just numb and apathetic, totally desensitized to the outside world; sometimes his self-justifications betray a shockingly casual amorality; his moments of self-recognition are permeated by despair and suicidal self-loathing. Even given its subject matter, Dirt is monstrously bleak, closely resembling the cracked, haunted landscape of its cover art. The album holds out little hope for its protagonists (aside from the much-needed survival story of "Rooster," a tribute to Cantrell's Vietnam-vet father), but in the end, it's redeemed by the honesty of its self-revelation and the sharp focus of its music. [Some versions of Dirt feature "Down in a Hole" as the next-to-last track rather than the fourth.]

Steve Huey, Rovi

Evil Empire

Rage Against The Machine
Rage Against the Machine spent four years making its second album, Evil Empire. Their rage at the "fascist" capitalist system in America hadn't declined in the nearly half-decade they were away. Their musical approach didn't change, either. Lead vocalist Zack de la Rocha is caught halfway between the militant raps of Chuck D and the fanatical ravings of a street preacher, shouting out his libertarian slogans over the sonically dense assault of the band. Guitarist Tom Morello demonstrates an impressive palette of sound, creating new textures in heavy metal, which is quite difficult, and de la Rocha's dedication to decidedly left-wing politics is admirable, simply because few other performers of the '90s had made "any" sort of political stance.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Blood Sugar Sex Magik

Red Hot Chili Peppers
The Red Hot Chili Peppers' best album, Blood Sugar Sex Magik benefits immensely from Rick Rubin's production -- John Frusciante's guitar is less overpoweringly noisy, leaving room for differing textures and clearer lines, while the band overall is more focused and less indulgent, even if some of the grooves drag on too long. Lyrically, Anthony Kiedis is as preoccupied with sex as ever, whether invoking it as his muse, begging for it, or boasting in great detail about his prowess, best showcased on the infectiously funky singles "Give It Away" and "Suck My Kiss." However, he tempers his testosterone with a more sensitive side, writing about the emotional side of failed relationships ("Breaking the Girl," "I Could Have Lied"), his drug addictions ("Under the Bridge" and an elegy for Hillel Slovak, "My Lovely Man"), and some hippie-ish calls for a peaceful utopia. Three of those last four songs (excluding "My Lovely Man") mark the band's first consistent embrace of lilting acoustic balladry, and while it's not what Kiedis does best as a vocalist, these are some of the album's finest moments, varying and expanding the group's musical and emotional range. Frusciante departed after the supporting tour, leaving Blood Sugar Sex Magik as probably the best album the Chili Peppers will ever make.

Steve Huey, Rovi

Pretty Hate Machine

Nine Inch Nails
Virtually ignored upon its 1989 release, Pretty Hate Machine gradually became a word-of-mouth cult favorite; despite frequent critical bashings, its stature and historical importance only grew in hindsight. In addition to its stealthy rise to prominence, part of the album's legend was that budding auteur Trent Reznor took advantage of his low-level job at a Cleveland studio to begin recording it. Reznor had a background in synth-pop, and the vast majority of Pretty Hate Machine was electronic. Synths voiced all the main riffs, driven by pounding drum machines; distorted guitars were an important textural element, but not the primary focus. Pretty Hate Machine was something unique in industrial music -- certainly no one else was attempting the balladry of "Something I Can Never Have," but the crucial difference was even simpler. Instead of numbing the listener with mechanical repetition, Pretty Hate Machine's bleak electronics were subordinate to catchy riffs and verse-chorus song structures, which was why it built such a rabid following with so little publicity. That innovation was the most important step in bringing industrial music to a wide audience, as proven by the frequency with which late-'90s alternative metal bands copied NIN's interwoven guitar/synth textures. It was a new soundtrack for adolescent angst -- noisily aggressive and coldly detached, tied together by a dominant personality. Reznor's tortured confusion and self-obsession gave industrial music a human voice, a point of connection. His lyrics were filled with betrayal, whether by lovers, society, or God; it was essentially the sound of childhood illusions shattering, and Reznor was not taking it lying down. Plus, the absolute dichotomies in his world -- there was either purity and perfection, "or" depravity and worthlessness -- made for smashing melodrama. Perhaps the greatest achievement of Pretty Hate Machine was that it brought emotional extravagance to a genre whose main theme had nearly always been dehumanization.

Steve Huey, Rovi

Californication

Red Hot Chili Peppers
Many figured that the Red Hot Chili Peppers' days as undisputed alternative kings were numbered after their lackluster 1995 release One Hot Minute, but like the great phoenix rising from the ashes, this legendary and influential outfit returned back to greatness with 1999's Californication. An obvious reason for their rebirth is the reappearance of guitarist John Frusciante (replacing Dave Navarro), who left the Peppers in 1992 and disappeared into a haze of hard drugs before cleaning up and returning to the fold in 1998. Frusciante was a main reason for such past band classics as 1989's Mother's Milk and 1991's Blood Sugar Sex Magik, and proves once and for all to be the quintessential RHCP guitarist. Anthony Kiedis' vocals have improved dramatically as well, while the rhythm section of bassist Flea and drummer Chad Smith remains one of rock's best. The quartet's trademark punk-funk can be sampled on such tracks as "Around the World," "I Like Dirt," and "Parallel Universe," but the more pop-oriented material proves to be a pleasant surprise -- "Scar Tissue," "Otherside," "Easily," and "Purple Stain" all contain strong melodies and instantly memorable choruses. And like their 1992 introspective hit "Under the Bridge," there are even a few mellow moments -- "Porcelain," "Road Trippin'," and the title track. With the instrumentalists' interplay at an all-time telepathic high and Kiedis peaking as a vocalist, Californication is a bona fide Chili Peppers classic.

Greg Prato, Rovi

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