Rock Classics

In Bloom

Nirvana

Paradise City

Guns N' Roses

We Will Rock You

Queen

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.

Appetite For Destruction

Guns N' Roses
Guns N' Roses' debut, Appetite for Destruction was a turning point for hard rock in the late '80s -- it was a dirty, dangerous, and mean record in a time when heavy metal meant nothing but a good time. On the surface, Guns N' Roses may appear to celebrate the same things as their peers -- namely, sex, liquor, drugs, and rock & roll -- but there is a nasty edge to their songs, since Axl Rose doesn't see much fun in the urban sprawl of L.A. and its parade of heavy metal thugs, cheap women, booze, and crime. The music is as nasty as the lyrics, wallowing in a bluesy, metallic hard rock borrowed from Aerosmith, AC/DC, and countless faceless hard rock bands of the early '80s. It's a primal, sleazy sound that adds grit to already grim tales. It also makes Rose's misogyny, fear, and anger hard to dismiss as merely an artistic statement; this is music that sounds lived-in. And that's exactly why Appetite for Destruction is such a powerful record -- not only does Rose have fears, but he also is vulnerable, particularly on the power ballad "Sweet Child O' Mine." He also has a talent for conveying the fears and horrors of the decaying inner city, whether it's on the charging "Welcome to the Jungle," the heroin ode "Mr. Brownstone," or "Paradise City," which simply wants out. But as good as Rose's lyrics and screeching vocals are, they wouldn't be nearly as effective without the twin-guitar interplay of Slash and Izzy Stradlin, who spit out riffs and solos better than any band since the Rolling Stones, and that's what makes Appetite for Destruction the best metal record of the late '80s.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

News Of The World

Queen
If Day at the Races was a sleek, streamlined album, its 1977 successor, News of the World, was its polar opposite, an explosion of styles that didn't seem to hold to any particular center. It's front-loaded with two of Queen's biggest anthems -- the stomping, stadium-filling chant "We Will Rock You" and its triumphant companion, "We Are the Champions" -- which are quickly followed by the ferocious "Sheer Heart Attack," a frenzied rocker that hits harder than anything on the album that shares its name, a remarkable achievement in itself. Three songs, three quick shifts in mood, but that's hardly the end of it. As the News rolls on, you're treated to the arch, campy crooning of "My Melancholy Blues," a shticky blues shuffle in "Sleeping on the Sidewalk," and breezy Latin rhythms on "Who Needs You." Then there's the neo-disco of "Fight from the Inside," which is eclipsed by the mechanical funk of "Get Down, Make Love," a dirty grind that's stripped of sensuality. That cold streak on "Get Down, Make Love" runs through the album as a whole. Despite the explosion of sounds and rhythms, this album doesn't add up to party thanks to that slightly distancing chilly vibe that hangs over the album. Nevertheless, many of these songs work well on their own as entities, so there is plenty to savor here, especially from Brian May. Whether he's doing the strangely subdued eccentric English pop "All Dead, All Dead" or especially the majestic yet nimble rocker "It's Late," he turns in work that gives this album some lightness, which it needs. And that's the reason News of the World was a monster hit despite its coldness -- when it works, it's massive, earth-shaking rock & roll, the sound of a band beginning to revel in its superstardom.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Say It Ain't So

Weezer

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

Bring The Noise

Public Enemy

It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back

Public Enemy
Yo! Bum Rush the Show was an invigorating record, but it looks like child's play compared to its monumental sequel, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, a record that rewrote the rules of what hip-hop could do. That's not to say the album is without precedent, since what's particularly ingenious about the album is how it reconfigures things that came before into a startling, fresh, modern sound. Public Enemy used the template Run-D.M.C. created of a rap crew as a rock band, then brought in elements of free jazz, hard funk, even musique concrète, via their producing team, the Bomb Squad, creating a dense, ferocious sound unlike anything that came before. This coincided with a breakthrough in Chuck D's writing, both in his themes and lyrics. It's not that Chuck D was smarter or more ambitious than his contemporaries -- certainly, KRS-One tackled many similar sociopolitical tracts, while Rakim had a greater flow -- but he marshaled considerable revolutionary force, clear vision, and a boundless vocabulary to create galvanizing, logical arguments that were undeniable in their strength. They only gained strength from Flavor Flav's frenzied jokes, which provided a needed contrast. What's amazing is how the words and music become intertwined, gaining strength from each other. Though this music is certainly a representation of its time, it hasn't dated at all. It set a standard that few could touch then, and even fewer have attempted to meet since.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Wanted Dead Or Alive

Bon Jovi

Slippery When Wet

Bon Jovi
Slippery When Wet wasn't just a breakthrough album for Bon Jovi; it was a breakthrough for hair metal in general, marking the point where the genre officially entered the mainstream. Released in 1986, it presented a streamlined combination of pop, hard rock, and metal that appealed to everyone -- especially girls, whom traditional heavy metal often ignored. Slippery When Wet was more indebted to pop than metal, though, and the band made no attempt to hide its commercial ambition, even hiring an outside songwriter to co-write two of the album's biggest singles. The trick paid off as Slippery When Wet became the best-selling album of 1987, beating out contenders like Appetite for Destruction, The Joshua Tree, and Michael Jackson's Bad.

Part of the album's success could be attributed to Desmond Child, a behind-the-scenes songwriter who went on to write hits for Aerosmith, Michael Bolton, and Ricky Martin. With Child's help, Bon Jovi penned a pair of songs that would eventually define their career -- “Living on a Prayer” and “You Give Love a Bad Name” -- two teenage anthems that mixed Springsteen's blue-collar narratives with straightforward, guitar-driven hooks. The band's characters may have been down on their luck -- they worked dead-end jobs, pined for dangerous women, and occasionally rode steel horses -- but Bon Jovi never presented a problem that couldn’t be cured by a good chorus, every one of which seemed to celebrate a glass-half-full mentality. Elsewhere, the group turned to nostalgia, using songs like “Never Say Goodbye” and “Wild in the Streets” to re-create (or fabricate) an untamed, sex-filled youth that undoubtedly appealed to the band’s teen audience. Bon Jovi wasn't nearly as hard-edged as Mötley Crüe or technically proficient as Van Halen, but the guys smartly played to their strengths, shunning the extremes for an accessible, middle-of-the-road approach that wound up appealing to more fans than most of their peers. “It’s alright if you have a good time,” Jon Bon Jovi sang on Slippery When Wet’s first track, “Let It Rock,” and those words essentially served as a mantra for the entire hair metal genre, whose carefree, party-heavy attitude became the soundtrack for the rest of the ‘80s.

Andrew Leahey, Rovi

Spoonman

Soundgarden

Superunknown

Soundgarden
Soundgarden's finest hour, Superunknown is a sprawling, 70-minute magnum opus that pushes beyond any previous boundaries. Soundgarden had always loved replicating Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath riffs, but Superunknown's debt is more to mid-period Zep's layered arrangements and sweeping epics. Their earlier punk influences are rarely detectable, replaced by surprisingly effective appropriations of pop and psychedelia. Badmotorfinger boasted more than its fair share of indelible riffs, but here the main hooks reside mostly in Chris Cornell's vocals; accordingly, he's mixed right up front, floating over the band instead of cutting through it. The rest of the production is just as crisp, with the band achieving a huge, robust sound that makes even the heaviest songs sound deceptively bright. But the most important reason Superunknown is such a rich listen is twofold: the band's embrace of psychedelia, and their rapidly progressing mastery of songcraft. Soundgarden had always been a little mind-bending, but the full-on experiments with psychedelia give them a much wider sonic palette, paving the way for less metallic sounds and instruments, more detailed arrangements, and a bridge into pop (which made the eerie ballad "Black Hole Sun" an inescapable hit). That blossoming melodic skill is apparent on most of the record, not just the poppier songs and Cornell-penned hits; though a couple of drummer Matt Cameron's contributions are pretty undistinguished, they're easy to overlook, given the overall consistency. The focused songwriting allows the band to stretch material out for grander effect, without sinking into the pointlessly drawn-out muck that cluttered their early records. The dissonance and odd time signatures are still in force, though not as jarring or immediately obvious, which means that the album reveals more subtleties with each listen. It's obvious that Superunknown was consciously styled as a masterwork, and it fulfills every ambition.

Steve Huey, Rovi

Spiderwebs

No Doubt

Tragic Kingdom

No Doubt
Released in 1995, the multi-platinum Tragic Kingdom not only transformed Anaheim's No Doubt into a household name, it also helped make ska-punk from the sprawling Cali 'burbs the hottest commodity since sliced bread. Nearly every song here, from the hard-bopping "Just a Girl" to the Blondie-tinged "Happy Now?," is sickly-sweet ear candy. A powder keg combo of riot grrrl defiance and Mouseketeers' radiant innocence, Gwen Stefani exudes so much charisma and straight-up sex appeal that the singer would've been a pop star even had she joined a struggling polka band from Youngstown, Ohio.

Justin Farrar, Google Play

Shout It Out Loud

Kiss

Destroyer

Kiss
The pressure was on Kiss for their fifth release, and the band knew it. Their breakthrough, Alive!, was going to be hard to top, so instead of trying to re-create a concert setting in the studio, they went the opposite route. Destroyer is one of Kiss' most experimental studio albums, but also one of their strongest and most interesting. Alice Cooper/Pink Floyd producer Bob Ezrin was on hand, and he strongly encouraged the band to experiment -- there's extensive use of sound effects (the album's untitled closing track), the appearance of a boy's choir ("Great Expectations"), and an orchestra-laden, heartfelt ballad ("Beth"). But there's plenty of Kiss' heavy thunder rock to go around, such as the demonic "God of Thunder" and the singalong anthems "Flaming Youth," "Shout It Out Loud," "King of the Night Time World," and "Detroit Rock City" (the latter a tale of a doomed concertgoer, complete with violent car-crash sound effects). But it was the aforementioned Peter Criss ballad, "Beth," that made Destroyer such a success; the song was a surprise Top Ten hit (it was originally released as a B-side to "Detroit Rock City"). Also included is a song that Nirvana would later cover ("Do You Love Me?"), as well as an ode to the pleasures of S&M, "Sweet Pain." Destroyer also marked the first time that a comic-book illustration of the band appeared on the cover, confirming that Kiss were transforming from hard rockers to superheroes. [In 2012, Universal issued a Resurrected edition featuring a new mix by original producer Bob Ezrin. The in-album version of "Beth" is extended, featuring a verse not heard on the original release, while a version of "Sweet Pain" with an alternate guitar solo is added as a bonus track.]

Aerosmith's Greatest Hits

Aerosmith
Aerosmith's Greatest Hits remains one of the most popular and enduring best-of collections by any rock band, selling nearly ten million copies in the U.S. alone since its release. But when it was issued in 1980, the band had just about reached its nadir. With original guitarist Joe Perry gone (and Brad Whitford soon to follow), Aerosmith had turned into a directionless, time-consuming ghost of its former self. Since there would be a three-year gap between 1979's Night in the Ruts and 1982's Rock in a Hard Place, Greatest Hits was assembled, more or less, to fill the void and buy the band some time. With the album clocking in at only 37 and a half minutes, many Aerosmith classics are not included, such as what many consider the band's quintessential track, their cover of "Train Kept a Rollin'." The only poor selection is the forgettable "Remember (Walking in the Sand)," but nine out of ten are bona fide classics -- "Dream On," "Same Old Song and Dance," "Sweet Emotion," "Walk this Way," "Last Child," "Back in the Saddle," and "Draw the Line." Also featured is their venomous cover of the Beatles' "Come Together," previously only available as a single and on the soundtrack to the 1978 movie Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. For the casual fan, Greatest Hits will do the job, as well as its sister album, 1988's Gems.

Greg Prato, Rovi

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

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.

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

Born To Run

Bruce Springsteen
Bruce Springsteen's make-or-break third album represented a sonic leap from his first two, which had been made for modest sums at a suburban studio; Born to Run was cut on a superstar budget, mostly at the Record Plant in New York. Springsteen's backup band had changed, with his two virtuoso players, keyboardist David Sancious and drummer Vini Lopez, replaced by the professional but less flashy Roy Bittan and Max Weinberg. The result was a full, highly produced sound that contained elements of Phil Spector's melodramatic work of the 1960s. Layers of guitar, layers of echo on the vocals, lots of keyboards, thunderous drums -- Born to Run had a big sound, and Springsteen wrote big songs to match it. The overall theme of the album was similar to that of The E Street Shuffle; Springsteen was describing, and saying farewell to, a romanticized teenage street life. But where he had been affectionate, even humorous before, he was becoming increasingly bitter. If Springsteen had celebrated his dead-end kids on his first album and viewed them nostalgically on his second, on his third he seemed to despise their failure, perhaps because he was beginning to fear he was trapped himself. Nevertheless, he now felt removed, composing an updated West Side Story with spectacular music that owed more to Bernstein than to Berry. To call Born to Run overblown is to miss the point; Springsteen's precise intention is to blow things up, both in the sense of expanding them to gargantuan size and of exploding them. If The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle was an accidental miracle, Born to Run was an intentional masterpiece. It declared its own greatness with songs and a sound that lived up to Springsteen's promise, and though some thought it took itself too seriously, many found that exalting.

William Ruhlmann, Rovi

Synchronicity

The Police
Simultaneously more pop-oriented and experimental than either Ghost in the Machine or Zenyatta Mondatta, Synchronicity made the Police superstars, generating no less than five hit singles. With the exception of "Synchronicity II," which sounds disarmingly like a crappy Billy Idol song, every one of those singles is a classic. "Every Breath You Take" has a seductive, rolling beat masking its maliciousness, "King of Pain" and "Wrapped Around Your Finger" are devilishly infectious new wave singles, and "Tea in the Sahara" is hypnotic in its measured, melancholy choruses. But, like so many other Police albums, these songs are surrounded by utterly inconsequential filler. This time, the group relies heavily on jazzy textures for Sting's songs, which only work on the jumping, marimba-driven "Synchronicity I." Then, as if to prove that the Police were still a band, there's one song apiece from Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers, both of which are awful, as if they're trying to sabotage the album. Since they arrive on the first side, which is devoid of singles, they do, making the album sound like two EPs: one filled with first-rate pop, and one an exercise in self-indulgence. While the hits are among Sting's best, they also illustrate that he was ready to leave the Police behind for a solo career, which is exactly what he did.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

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

Third Stage

Boston

The Eminem Show

Eminem
It's all about the title. First time around, Eminem established his alter-ego, Slim Shady -- the character who deliberately shocked and offended millions, turning Eminem into a star. Second time at bat, he turned out The Marshall Mathers LP, delving deeper into his past while revealing complexity as an artist and a personality that helped bring him an even greater audience and much, much more controversy. Third time around, it's The Eminem Show -- a title that signals that Eminem's public persona is front and center, for the very first time. And it is, as he spends much of the album commenting on the media circus that dominated on his life ever since the release of Marshall Mathers. This, of course, encompasses many, many familiar subjects -- his troubled childhood; his hatred of his parents; his turbulent relationship with his ex-wife, Kim (including the notorious incident when he assaulted a guy who allegedly kissed her -- the event that led to their divorce); his love of his daughter, Hailie; and, of course, all the controversy he generated, notably the furor over his alleged homophobia and his scolding from Lynne Cheney, which leads to furious criticism about the hypocrisy of America and its government. All this is married to a production very similar to that of its predecessor -- spare, funky, fluid, and vibrant, punctuated with a couple of ballads along the way. So, that means The Eminem Show is essentially a holding pattern, but it's a glorious one -- one that proves Eminem is the gold standard in pop music in 2002, delivering stylish, catchy, dense, funny, political music that rarely panders (apart from a power ballad "Dream On" rewrite on "Sing for the Moment" and maybe the sex rap "Drips," that is). Even if there is little new ground broken, the presentation is exceptional -- Dre never sounds better as a producer than when Eminem pushes him forward (witness the stunning oddity "Square Dance," a left-field classic with an ominous waltz beat) and, with three albums under his belt, Eminem has proven himself as one of the all-time classic MCs, surprising as much with his delivery as with what he says. Plus, the undercurrent of political anger -- not just attacking Lynne Cheney, but raising questions about the Bush administration -- gives depth to his typical topics, adding a new, spirited dimension to his shock tactics as notable as the deep sentimental streak he reveals on his odes to his daughter. Perhaps the album runs a little too long at 20 songs and 80 minutes and would have flowed better if trimmed by 25 minutes, but that's a typical complaint about modern hip-hop records. Fact is, it still delivers more great music than most of its peers in rock or rap, and is further proof that Eminem is an artist of considerable range and dimension. [The clean version of this album has been edited in attempt to remove profane material.]

From Under The Cork Tree

Fall Out Boy
Fall Out Boy's 2003 LP stacked sarcasm, wronged romance, and hardcore-derived passion on the head of a punk-pop pin. Take This to Your Grave was urgent at every turn, and though it fit the conventions of its genre, it was bolder and more memorable than the average release on Kung Fu or Drive-Thru. The kids responded -- Fall Out Boy were fast favorites of the online social networks (MySpace), and an endless tour schedule solidified their rep. With 2005's From Under the Cork Tree, the band fully delivers on their first full-length's promise. Sure, it nods a little more to the standard dynamics and production tweaks of pop-punk and emo in the mid-2000s -- Cork Tree was produced by Neal Avron, who's worked with A New Found Glory. But in many more ways it's the same album as Grave, a youth-intense blast of pop culture reference, pop-punk hyperactivity, and the feeling that we'll never understand life until Patrick Stump or Pete Wentz tells us about it. And we believe them. Stump is Fall Out Boy's vocalist and guitarist, Wentz its bassist and lyricist. Wentz' verbiage can be lengthy -- "I Slept With Someone in Fall Out Boy and All I Got Was This Stupid Song Written About Me," one title goes -- but he has an innate ability to simultaneously acknowledge and deconstruct the mushy emo soliloquy. Temper that with a road-hardened cynicism about band life, superficial love, and the adventure of signing a record contract, and you have lyrics with a point beyond simply acting up or getting sentimental. "Champagne for My Real Friends, Real Pain for my Sham Friends" is blunt. "Yeah we're friends," Stump says, "Just because we move units." But the album also has a current of longing to it, of missing regular life, regular relationships. Musically, Cork Tree's first five tracks are relentless, with razor-sharp melodies that seem familiar but sound totally unique at the same time. The "Oh! Oh!"s and punchy chords of "Of All the Gin Joints in All the World" are a thrill greater than any Jimmy Eat World album ever; "Sugar, We're Goin Down"'s half-time shifts are triumphs of tumbling words; and the opening track meditates wryly on all-ages shows' fame. Further, when Fall Out Boy rip into "Sophomore Slump or Comeback of the Year," summer 2005 will not be able to ignore them. "We're the therapists pumping through your speakers/Delivering just what you need," they sing. It's obviously time to embrace our inner mall kid.

Johnny Loftus, Rovi

Greatest Hits '93 - '03

311
From the chunkheaded rap-rock beta tests "Down" and "All Mixed Up" through the blue-eyed make-out reggae of "Amber" and on to latter-day stuff like the underrated Soundsystem single "Come Original," 311 spanned the nascence and ultimate codification of the alternative nation. "F*ck the naysayers 'cause they don't mean a thing!" -- if you went to college in the 1990s, 311 was on your radar. Greatest Hits '93-'03 remasters the highlights from those years, includes the Omaha group's graceful cover of the Cure's "Love Song," and pads the set with two new songs. As for the unreleased material, "First Straw" is a pleasant enough reggae-rock jam of the variety S.A., Nick Hexum, et al., have grown skilled -- if not necessarily better -- at writing, while "How Do You Feel" is a muscular rocker with the usual eager rap/triumphant chorus dynamic. Other highlights include a version of Grassroots opener "Homebrew" remixed for added punch and grit, and the diametrically opposed Evolver cuts "Creatures (For a While)" and "Beyond the Gray Sky." While "Do You Right" is the only representative from 1993's Music, it's nice to remember that it sounds like Fishbone playing Love. In short, Greatest Hits '93-'03 is the perfect time capsule for the casual 311 fan. It might even shake loose the name of that stoner kid from freshman year.

Johnny Loftus, Rovi

The Best Of Santana

Santana
The Best of Santana is a 16-track collection that greatly expands the scope of Santana's previous hits compilation, Greatest Hits. Drawing from the band's entire 30-year career, the disc contains such familiar items as "Evil Ways," "Jingo," "Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen," and "Oye Como Va," but it also has a number of longtime favorites of the band and fans. Furthermore, all the songs have been subjected to Super Bit remastering, resulting in the best sound ever. For some casual fans, Greatest Hits remains definitive, since it's a portrait of the band at its peak, but listeners wanting a career-spanning single-disc compilation will find that The Best of Santana suits their needs.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Greatest Hits Vol. 1

Korn
A decade after changing the metal landscape drastically with their self-titled debut juggernaut, Korn got the best-of treatment just as their standing began to seem increasingly shaky, commercially at least. Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 sadly isn't the disc it ideally could be, but it nonetheless summarizes how steady Korn were over the years, developing their sound oh so slightly from one album to the next and, in the process, coming up with several unquestionably killer songs every go-round. The band's six full-lengths resulted in enough of those killer songs to fill this best-of to the brim; in fact, there are quite a few more that could have been compiled here if there were more space on this single-disc release (a double disc would have been definitive). As it stands, however, practically every song here is a highlight in and of itself, with the sole exceptions of the below-par "Alone I Break" and a pair of album-opening covers: Cameo's "Word Up!" and Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall, Pts. 1-3." These newly recorded covers are here undoubtedly to bait the legions of Korn fans who already own all the band's albums but are loyal enough to purchase this best-of as a way to hear these songs. And yes, they're quite curious, so much so that you'll want to give them a listen if you're a fan (download them, though -- they're curious, no doubt, but certainly not worth the price of this disc alone). The band's "Word Up!" cover is awesome, and the Pink Floyd cover is overwrought, yet enticingly so. Then again, these two songs are "so" well known that you have to wonder, what's the point? Like Korn's previous cover of Metallica's "One," though, the point seems to be one of curiosity rather than one-upmanship.

In any event, these covers aren't the best way to start off this best-of -- not at all -- nor is the reverse chronological sequencing ideal. Because Korn developed their sound over the years, even if only slightly, it'd have been better to map out that progressive trajectory here, rather than hear the band regress from the elaborate, theatrical bombast of their later albums to the stripped-down naked rawness of their fierce debut. These quibbles aside, it's worthy stating again that nothing but great songs are featured here. If you're new to Korn, the most influential and successful metal band of the '90s, this disc should blow you away -- that is, assuming you're a fan of extreme music with a dark, disturbing edge. But if indeed you're new to Korn, you'd be better off skipping over this best-of and heading straight for their self-titled debut (their one undisputed classic), and then moving chronologically forward through the band's catalog. Each album stands well on its own, albeit some better than others, and here you're only getting the tip of each iceberg. If money is a concern, however, and you can only afford one Korn disc for your collection, don't think twice about picking up Greatest Hits. You won't be disappointed. No chance of that. Plus, there's a bonus DVD here of Korn's 2003 show at CBGB's that will give you a good taste of what the band is like live.

Vs.

Pearl Jam
Pearl Jam took to superstardom like deer in headlights. Unsure of how to maintain their rigorous standards of integrity in the face of massive commercial success, the band took refuge in willful obscurity -- the title of their second album, Vs., did not appear anywhere in the packaging, and they refused to release any singles or videos. (Ironically, many fans then paid steep prices for import CD singles, a situation the band eventually rectified.) The eccentricities underline Pearl Jam's almost paranoid aversion to charges of hypocrisy or egotism -- but it also made sense to use the spotlight for progress. You could see that reasoning in their ensuing battle with Ticketmaster, and you could hear it in the record itself. Vs. is often Eddie Vedder at his most strident, both lyrically and vocally. It's less oblique than Ten in its topicality, and sometimes downright dogmatic; having the world's ear renders Vedder unable to resist a few simplistic potshots at favorite white-liberal targets. Yet a little self-righteousness is an acceptable price to pay for the passionate immediacy that permeates Vs. It's a much rawer, looser record than Ten, feeling like a live performance; Vedder practically screams himself hoarse on a few songs. The band consciously strives for spontaneity, admirably pushing itself into new territory -- some numbers are decidedly punky, and there are also a couple of acoustic-driven ballads, which are well suited to Vedder's sonorous low register. Sometimes, that spontaneity comes at the expense of Ten's marvelous craft -- a few songs here are just plain underdeveloped, with supporting frameworks that don't feel very sturdy. But, of everything that does work, the rockers are often frightening in their intensity, and the more reflective songs are mesmerizing. Vs. may not reach the majestic heights of Ten, but at least half the record stands with Pearl Jam's best work. [Three bonus tracks are added to the 2011 expanded reissue of Vs.: a previously unreleased acoustic version of “Hold On,” the unreleased outtake “Cready Stomp,” and “Crazy Mary,” their staple from the Victoria Williams tribute album Sweet Relief.]

Steve Huey, Rovi

Nimrod

Green Day
Following the cool reception to Insomniac, Green Day retreated from the spotlight for a year to rest and spend time with their families. During that extended break, they decided to not worry about their supposedly lost street credibility and make an album according to their instincts, which meant more experimentation and less of their trademark punk-pop. Of course, speedy, catchy punk is at the core of the group's sound, so there are plenty of familiar moments on the resultant album, Nimrod, but there are also new details that make the record an invigorating, if occasionally frustrating, listen. Although punk-pop is Green Day's forte, they sound the most alive on Nimrod when they're breaking away from their formula, whether it's the shuffling "Hitchin' a Ride," the bitchy, tongue-in-cheek humor of "The Grouch," the surging surf instrumental "Last Ride In," the punchy, horn-driven drag-queen saga "King for a Day," or the acoustic, string-laced ballad "Good Riddance." It's only when the trio confines itself to three chords that it sounds tired, but Billie Joe has such a gift for hooky, instantly memorable melodies that even these moments are enjoyable, if unremarkable. Still, Nimrod suffers from being simply too much -- although it clocks in at under 50 minutes, the 18 tracks whip by at such a breakneck speed that it leaves you somewhat dazed. With a little editing, Green Day's growth would have been put in sharper relief, and Nimrod would have been the triumphant leap forward it set out to be. As it stands, it's a muddled but intermittently exciting record that is full of promise.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Licensed To Ill

Beastie Boys

The Black Parade

My Chemical Romance
The Black Parade is the third studio album by My Chemical Romance. Released on October 24, 2006 through Reprise Records, it was produced by Rob Cavallo, known for having produced multiple albums for Goo Goo Dolls and Green Day. It is a rock opera centering on a dying character with cancer known as "The Patient". The album tells the story of his apparent death, experiences in the afterlife, and subsequent reflection on his life.
Four singles were released from the album: "Welcome to the Black Parade", "Famous Last Words", "I Don't Love You", and "Teenagers". The Black Parade has received generally favorable reviews, and the band achieved its first Number 1 single in the UK with "Welcome to the Black Parade". The album debuted at number two on both the Billboard 200 and the UK Albums Chart and is also certified as platinum by the RIAA, as well as a Platinum certification in the UK and a Gold certificacion in Argentina by the CAPIF and in Chile by the IFPI Chile. The Black Parade was given the Platinum Europe Award by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry for 1 million sales in Europe. The limited edition boxed set also earned My Chemical Romance a Grammy Award nomination. In the video game Guitar Hero II, the song "Dead!" was added to the game's track list prior to the earlier PS2 version, and the three songs "Teenagers," "Famous Last Words" and "This Is How I Disappear" are available for download. The Black Parade has sold 1,610,000 copies in the US as of October 2010, and has sold 3,000,000 copies worldwide.

~ Provided by Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Black_Parade) under Creative Commons Attribution CC-BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/legalcode)

Greatest Hits

Alice In Chains
Greatest Hits is not, alas, the antidote to the botched Nothing Safe: Best of the Box compilation, but rather a lower-priced, ten-track sampler of Alice in Chains' career. The songs are mostly excellent and well-chosen, but unfortunately, there are simply too few of them. Greatest Hits will serve the needs of casual fans who just want ten of Alice in Chains' best songs on one disc without shelling out too much money, but there are too many other good moments in the group's back catalog to make this a good buy for anyone else.

Steve Huey, Rovi

August And Everything After

Counting Crows
When the prevailing guitar jingle of "Mr. Jones" cascaded over radio in the early '90s, it was a sure sign that the Counting Crows were a musical force to be reckoned with. Their debut album, August and Everything After, burst at the seams with both dominant pop harmonies and rich, hearty ballads, all thanks to lead singer Adam Duritz. The lone guitar work of "Mr. Jones" coupled with the sweet, in-front pull of Duritz's voice kicked off the album in full force. The starkly beautiful and lonely sounding "Round Here" captured the band's honest yet subtle talent for singing ballads, while "Omaha" is lyrically reminiscent of a Springsteen tune. The fusion of hauntingly smooth vocals with such instruments as the Hammond B-3 organ and the accordion pumped new life into the music scene, and their brisk sound catapulted them into stardom. On "Rain King," the piano takes over as its aloof flair dances behind Duritz with elegant crispness. The slower-paced "Raining in Baltimore" paints a perfectly gray picture and illustrates the band's ease at conveying mood by eliminating the tempo. Most of the songs here engage in overly contagious hooks that won't go away, making for a solid bunch of tunes. Containing the perfect portions of instrumental and vocal conglomeration, the Counting Crows showed off their appealing sound to its full extent with their very first album. [The 2007 Circuit City exclusive edition came packaged with a free album cover iPod skin.]

Mike DeGagne, Rovi

Bat Out Of Hell

Meat Loaf
There is no other album like Bat out of Hell, unless you want to count the sequel. This is grand guginol pop -- epic, gothic, operatic, and silly, and it's appealing because of all of this. Jim Steinman was a composer without peer, simply because nobody else wanted to make mini-epics like this. And there never could have been a singer more suited for his compositions than Meat Loaf, a singer partial to bombast, albeit shaded bombast. The compositions are staggeringly ridiculous, yet Meat Loaf finds the emotional core in each song, bringing true heartbreak to "Two Out of Three Ain't Bad" and sly humor to "Paradise By the Dashboard Light." There's no discounting the production of Todd Rundgren, either, who gives Steinman's self-styled grandiosity a production that's staggeringly big, but never overwhelming and always alluring. While the sentiments are deliberately adolescent and filled with jokes and exaggerated clichés, there's real (albeit silly) wit behind these compositions, not just in the lyrics but in the music, which is a savvy blend of oldies pastiche, show tunes, prog rock, Springsteen-esque narratives, and blistering hard rock (thereby sounding a bit like an extension of Rocky Horror Picture Show, which brought Meat Loaf to the national stage). It may be easy to dismiss this as ridiculous, but there's real style and craft here and its kitsch is intentional. It may elevate adolescent passion to operatic dimensions, and that's certainly silly, but it's hard not to marvel at the skill behind this grandly silly, irresistible album. [The 2001 Australian reissue includes two bonus tracks: previously unreleased live recordings of "Boléro" and "Bat out of Hell."]

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Mezmerize

System Of A Down
Adjectives like "ambitious," "jagged," and "startling" have always defined System of a Down, and their third official full-length is no different. Prerelease, the band described Mezmerize as being the first part -- the first side -- of what's essentially a double album. The records' packaging would even slot together, making the eventual "Mezmerize/Hypnotize" whole. Appropriately then, there's an intro to System's first new material since 2001's brilliant Toxicity. On "Soldier Side" Daron Malakian and Serj Tankian harmonize as they do throughout the record, and Malakian's guitar has a mournful, Eastern air. But it's just a lull before "B.Y.O.B.," a thrash assault pierced with rabid and incredulous screams. "Why do they always send the poor?" Suddenly the gears switch, and the song stomps in crunchy half-time as its lyrics riff with a sick grin on cultural ignorance. The government's lying, System's saying, but "Blast off!/It's party time." The vocal exploration between Tankian and Malakian on Mezmerize is a thrill -- they spur each other on like a two-headed hardcore hero. Their intermingling voices make "Cigaro" more aggressive, frantic, operatic, and totally bananas; they'd be triumphant over the break in "Violent Pornography" if they weren't spitting out lines like "Choking chicks and sodomy." The fantastic "Pornography" is a rusty shiv of absurdity, another example of System's ability to effectively skewer society with little more than hyper guitar, blistering percussion, and weird turns of phrase. Their volatile mix of righteousness, wordiness, odd meters, and thrash has balanced System's activism since their self-titled debut, making them "unique heavy music" over the much more problematic "unique, heavily political music." And Mezmerize doesn't fail to be unique. "Old School Hollywood" essays the bizarre experience of a celebrity baseball game ("Tony Danza cuts in line!") over keyboard effects from "Beat It" and a brutally simplistic rhythm, "This Cocaine Makes Me Feel Like I'm on This Song" is more twisted-tongue histrionics and explosive playing, and Tankian and Malakian's harmonies are the catalyst (again!) for making "Revenga" a truly feral epic. System of a Down -- what's another adjective for "awesome"? [Columbia released a clean edition.]

Johnny Loftus, Rovi

Antichrist Superstar

Marilyn Manson

Enema Of The State

blink-182
If the title Enema of the State didn't give it away, it should be clear from songs like "Dumpweed," "What's My Age Again?," and "Dysentery Gary" that moving to a major label isn't a sign of maturity for blink-182. "Dammit (Growing Up)," the first single from their third album, Dude Ranch, brought them a wider audience and the attention of major labels, which was just too tempting to resist. They signed with MCA, but the only sign that Enema of the State is a major-label effort is the somewhat cleaner production and the fact that they could afford porn superstar Janine -- all decked out as (surprise!) an enema nurse -- for the album cover. Of course, the lovely Janine is as much an indication as "Going Away to College," a catchy little number that pretty much repeats the narrative of "Dammit": blink-182 is not growing up, no way, no how, nowhere. And that's fine, because few of their peers are quite as blissfully stupid and effortlessly catchy as them. Sure, they might not show the emotional depth of Green Day, but they have good tunes and deliver them in a speedy, punchy fashion. Enema of the State isn't going to change anyone's life -- unless it's the first time a 13-year-old boy has seen Janine -- and it will likely irritate old codgers, but it's a fun record that's better than the average neo-punk release.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Recovery

Eminem

Greatest Hits

Heart
Heart had a pair of greatest-hits collections to their credit by 1997, but both did not contain all the renowned studio versions of their classic hits from the '70s (both 1980's Heart Greatest Hits: Live on Epic and 1997's Greatest Hits on Capitol contained half studio and half live material). 1998's Greatest Hits on Epic/Legacy finally corrected this once and for all -- collecting all of Heart's '70s studio hits on a single disc. Nearly all of the songs have become classic rock staples, the best-known being the Zep-esque rockers "Crazy on You," "Barracuda," and "Magic Man," while the more subdued acoustic material ("Dreamboat Annie," "Love Alive," "Dog & Butterfly") showcases the immense talents of vocalist Ann Wilson. Other notables include "Kick It Out," "Heartless," "Bebe le Strange," "Straight On," and "Even It Up," while an all-new studio cut recorded in 1998 ("Strong, Strong Wind") and a live cover of Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll" from 1980 are included as bonuses. While Heart may have enjoyed their biggest commercial success in the '80s with pop-oriented material, their more straight-ahead '70s work, showcased on Greatest Hits, has stood the test of time incredibly well.

Greg Prato, Rovi

Audioslave

Audioslave
It's subtle, but telling, that the cover of Audioslave's eponymous debut is designed by Storm Thorgerson, the artist behind Pink Floyd's greatest album sleeves. Thorgerson, along with Roger Dean, epitomized the look of the '70s, the era of supergroups, which is precisely what Audioslave is -- a meeting of Rage Against the Machine, minus Zack de la Rocha, with former Soundgarden vocalist Chris Cornell. Though both bands were leading lights of alt-metal in the '90s, the two came from totally separate vantage points: Rage Against the Machine was fearlessly modern, addressing contemporary politics over Tom Morello's hip-hop-influenced guitar, while Soundgarden dredged up '70s metal fueled with the spirit of punk. That these two vantage points don't quite fit shouldn't be a surprise -- there is little common ground between the two, apart that they're refugees from brainy post-metal bands. Of the two camps, Chris Cornell exerts the strongest influence, pushing the Rage Against the Machine boys toward catchier hooks and introspective material. Occasionally, the group winds up with songs that play to the strengths of both camps, like the storming lead single "Cochise." For Cornell fans, it's a relief to hear him unleash like this, given the reserve of his brooding solo debut, but this is hardly a one-man show. The Rage band, led by the intricate stylings of guitarist Tom Morello, gets their chance to shine, including on numbers that are subtler and shadier than the average Rage tune. Which brings up the primary fault on the album: Perhaps Morello, and perhaps the rest of RATM, are technically more gifted than, say, Soundgarden, but they never sound as majestic, as powerful, or as cinematic as what Cornell's songs need. His muted yet varied solo album proved that he needed muscle, but here it's all muscle, no texture or color. Consequently, many of the songs sound like they're just on the verge of achieving liftoff, never quite reaching their potential. There are moments, usually arriving in the first half, where Audioslave suddenly, inexplicably clicks, sounding like a "band", not a marketer's grand scheme. Still, these moments are few and far between and it's hard to get through this album as a whole. By the end, it's clear that this pairing was a clever idea, but not an inspired one.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Good News For People Who Love Bad News

Modest Mouse
After more than a decade with Modest Mouse, Isaac Brock still sounds young and weird and searching, and never more so than on Good News for People Who Love Bad News, which follows the band's meditative The Moon & Antarctica with a set of songs that are more focused, but also less obviously profound. The occasionally indulgent feel of The Moon & Antarctica allowed Modest Mouse the room to make epic statements about life, death, and the afterlife; while Good News for People Who Love Bad News is equally concerned with mortality and spirituality; it has a more active, immediate feel that makes its comments on these subjects that much more pointed. The band hits these points home with a louder, more rock-oriented sound than they've had since The Lonesome Crowded West, particularly on "Bury Me With It," which embodies many of the contradictions that continue to make Modest Mouse fascinating. For a song loosely about contemplating death, it sounds strikingly vital and liberated; Brock delivers finely shaded lyrics like "We are hummingbirds who've lost the plot and we will not move" with a barbaric yawp; it's nonsensical but oddly climactic, conveying how what seems trivial can be anything but. "The View"'s angular bassline and scratchy guitars underscore the Talking Heads influence on Modest Mouse, but since the Heads have become a more trendy touchstone (mostly for bands with less creativity than either Talking Heads or Modest Mouse), it's nice to hear how Brock and company take that influence in a different direction instead of just rehashing it with less inspiration. Feeling stuck is a major theme on Good News for People Who Love Bad News, but the same can't be said about the album's sound, which spans the forceful rock of the aforementioned songs, to the pretty guitar pop of "Float On" and "Ocean Breathes Salty," to the lovely, rustic "Blame It on the Tetons." That's not even mentioning the contributions of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, who open Good News for People Who Love Bad News with the aptly named "Horn Intro." They also add a theatrical jolt to the wickedly funny, Tom Waits-inspired "Devil's Workday," which along with the noisy stomp of "Dance Hall" and "Bukowski"'s witty self-loathing, underscore that Modest Mouse haven't lost the edge that made the band compelling in the first place. Other standouts include "Satin in a Coffin," a creatively creepy mix of rattling bluegrass-rock with a tango beat that nods to the group's backwater roots; "One Chance," an unusually open and straightforward ballad; and the dreamlike "World at Large," on which Brock sings, "I like songs about drifters -- books about the same/They both seem to make me feel a little less insane," once again proving that he's a past master of lyrics that are both abstract and precise. Even though this album isn't as immediately or showily brilliant as The Moon & Antarctica, Good News for People Who Love Bad News reveals itself as just as strong a statement. By drawing an even sharper contrast between the harsh and beautiful things about their music, as well as life, Modest Mouse have made an album that's moving and relevant without being pretentious about it. [The album's Japan edition featured bonus tracks.]

Heather Phares, Rovi

Late Registration

Kanye West

Back To Black

Amy Winehouse
The story of Back to Black is one in which celebrity and the potential of commercial success threaten to ruin Amy Winehouse, since the same insouciance and playfulness that made her sound so special when she debuted could easily have been whitewashed right out of existence for this breakout record. (That fact may help to explain why fans were so scared by press allegations that Winehouse had deliberately lost weight in order to present a slimmer appearance.) Although Back to Black does see her deserting jazz and wholly embracing contemporary R&B, all the best parts of her musical character emerge intact, and actually, are all the better for the transformation from jazz vocalist to soul siren. With producer Salaam Remi returning from Frank, plus the welcome addition of Mark Ronson (fresh off successes producing for Christina Aguilera and Robbie Williams), Back to Black has a similar sound to Frank but much more flair and spark to it. Winehouse was inspired by girl group soul of the '60s, and fortunately Ronson and Remi are two of the most facile and organic R&B producers active. (They certainly know how to evoke the era too; Remi's "Tears Dry on Their Own" is a sparkling homage to the Motown chestnut "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," and Ronson summons a host of Brill Building touchstones on his tracks.) As before, Winehouse writes all of the songs from her experiences, most of which involve the occasionally riotous and often bittersweet vagaries of love. Also in similar fashion to Frank, her eye for details and her way of relating them are delightful. She states her case against "Rehab" on the knockout first single with some great lines: "They tried to make me go to rehab I won't go go go, I'd rather be at home with Ray" (Charles, that is). As often as not, though, the songs on Back to Black are universal, songs that "anyone", even Joss Stone, could take to the top of the charts, such as "Love Is a Losing Game" or the title song ("We only said good bye with words, I died a hundred times/You go back to her, and I go back to black").

John Bush, Rovi

Odelay

Beck
Following the surprise success of slacker-rap novelty "Loser" and Mellow Gold, Beck Hansen teamed up with producers the Dust Brothers (Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique) to create a certifiable classic. Odelay captured all the elements that would make Beck such an enduring, shape-shifting star: cut-and-paste hip-hop, searing white boy funk and deeply felt folk melancholy. But while the crate-digging, mash-up style was ahead of its time, it's Beck's assured songwriting, appealingly nonsense lyrics and aloof charisma that seal it. From the mad guitar riff of "Devils Haircut" to the clap-along of "Where It's At" to the weary, heartbreaking folk drift of "Jack-Ass," Odelay gleefully bent all the rules of the rapidly ossifying "alternative" genre. As eternally fresh as a radioactive Twinkie.

Eric Grandy, Google Play

Waking the Fallen

Avenged Sevenfold
Mudrock's dry production focuses almost all of Waking the Fallen on Avenged Sevenfold's greatest strength. That, of course, would be performance, and the band delivers with unflagging aggression and precision. Never mind the lyrical ennui or throat-scrape yowling; there's more to this music than generic clich . When he wants to, M. Shadows can passionately project in a way that turns even the grim "Desecrate Through Reverance" into an almost bouncy little melody. (Incidentally, "Reverance?" "Remenissions?" "Reverand?" Maybe doomsday is around the corner, but isn't there still time to run song titles and soubriquets through a spell check?) And whether attacking a riff in unison or in harmonized parts, the double-threat guitars of Synyster Gates and Zacky Vengeance do their duty like search-and-destroy commandos -- in and out fast, leaving devastation in their wake. Especially noteworthy -- and note-heavy -- is the guitar solo that blazes through the last moments of "Second Heartbeat" and the head-spinning single-stroke virtuosity of the Reverand throughout the album.

Robert L. Doerschuk, Rovi

40oz To Freedom

Sublime

The Hits

REO Speedwagon
Over the course of the 1980s, REO Speedwagon became one of the decade's leading power balladeers. However, these singles sapped the band's reputation as a rock & roll band. Although it may focus more on ballads such as "Time for Me to Fly," "Keep on Loving You," and "Can't Fight This Feeling," Hits does not completely overlook the band's rock anthems, taking care to also include such underrated rockers as "I Don't Want to Lose You," "Don't Let Him Go," and a live version of "Ridin the Storm Out," the band's first and best rock single from the 1970s. Though there is a rather large quantity of REO compilations, Hits remains the wisest investment for most listeners.

Barry Weber, Rovi

Parallel Lines

Blondie
Blondie turned to British pop producer Mike Chapman for their third album, on which they abandoned any pretensions to new wave legitimacy (just in time, given the decline of the new wave) and emerged as a pure pop band. But it wasn't just Chapman that made Parallel Lines Blondie's best album; it was the band's own songwriting, including Deborah Harry, Chris Stein, and James Destri's "Picture This," and Harry and Stein's "Heart of Glass," and Harry and new bass player Nigel Harrison's "One Way or Another," plus two contributions from nonbandmember Jack Lee, "Will Anything Happen?" and "Hanging on the Telephone." That was enough to give Blondie a number one on both sides of the Atlantic with "Heart of Glass" and three more U.K. hits, but what impresses is the album's depth and consistency -- album tracks like "Fade Away and Radiate" and "Just Go Away" are as impressive as the songs pulled for singles. The result is state-of-the-art pop/rock circa 1978, with Harry's tough-girl glamour setting the pattern that would be exploited over the next decade by a host of successors led by Madonna.

William Ruhlmann, Rovi

The Black Album

Jay-Z
If The Black Album is Jay-Z's last, as he publicly stated it will be, it illustrates an artist going out in top form. For years Shawn Carter has been the best rapper "and" the most popular, a man who can strut the player lifestyle with one track and become the eloquent hip-hop everyman with the next, an artist for whom modesty is often a sin, and yet, one who still sounds sincere when he's discussing his humble origins or his recurring doubts. After the immediate classic The Blueprint found him at the peak of his powers, and The Blueprint²: The Gift & the Curse came as the most deflating sequel since Star Wars: Episode I, his follow-up (and possible siren song) impresses on the same level as the best of his career. As he has in the past, Jay-Z balances the boasting with extensive meditations on his life and his career. The back history begins with the first song, "December 4" (his birthday), on which Carter traces his life from birth day to present day, riding a mock fanfare and the heart-tugging strings of producer Just Blaze, along with frequent remembrances from his mother in This Is Your Life fashion. The other top track, "What More Can I Say," opens with Russell Crowe's defiant "Are you not entertained!?" speech from Gladiator, then finds Jay-Z capping his career with another proof that he's one of the best of all time, and a look into what made him that way: "God forgive me for my brash delivery, but I remember vividly what these streets did to me." He also goes out with a few words for underground fans who think he's sold too many records for his own good. On "Moment of Clarity," he lays it out with an excellent rhyme: "If skills sold, truth be told, I'd probably be lyrically Talib Kweli/Truthfully I want to rhyme like Common Sense/But I did five mil, I ain't been rhyming like Common since." The first single, "Change Clothes," is much more interesting than the lightweight club hit it sounds like, a keyboard-heavy pop sequel to the Neptunes' "Frontin'" (the anthem that rocked the summer of 2003, and his last collaboration with professional beat-maker and amateurish falsetto Pharrell Williams). And he can rock with the best as well, working with Rick Rubin on a cowbell-heavy stormer named "99 Problems" that samples Billy Squier and outrocks Kid Rock. The only issue that's puzzling about The Black Album is why one of the best rappers needs to say goodbye -- unless, of course, he's simply afraid of being taken for granted and wants listeners to imagine a rap world without him.

John Bush, Rovi

20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection: Best Of Scorpions

Scorpions
By one-upping the 1989 best-of Best of Rockers 'n' Ballads, Scorpions' 20th Century Masters makes the claim of being the hair metal band's definitive single-disc best-of. It does so by adding "Send Me an Angel" and "Wind of Change," the latter being one of Scorpions' largest and most well-known hits ever. Since these two songs were released after Best of Rockers 'n' Ballads, they don't appear on that best-of. Besides the inclusion of those two latter-day songs, not much else is different. All the big '80s metal anthems are still here: "Rock You Like a Hurricane," "Big City Nights," "No One Like You," "Still Loving You," and so on. Once again, this album reminds listeners just how impressive Scorpions were in their prime, as most of the included songs date back to the early '80s, with the earliest dating back to 1979. That, of course, means this best-of ignores Scorpions' mid- to late-'70s output, but that's no surprise since those recordings for RCA didn't make their way onto Best of Rockers 'n' Ballads nor the double-disc Deadly Sting.

Jason Birchmeier, Rovi

Songs About Jane

Maroon 5
Maroon 5 have certainly come a long way since their days in the indie outfit Kara's Flowers. After the band's demise in 1999, frontman Adam Levine surrounded himself with New York City's urban hip-hop culture and found a new musical calling. Maroon 5 was born and their debut album, Songs About Jane, illustrates an impressive rebirth. It's groovy in spots, offering bluesy funk on "Shiver" and a catchy, soulful disposition on "Harder to Breathe." "Must Get Out" slows things down with its dreamy lyrical story, and Levine is a vocal dead ringer for Men at Work's Colin Hay. Don't wince -- it works brilliantly. Songs About Jane is love-drunk on what makes Maroon 5 tick as a band. They're not as glossy as the Phantom Planet darlings; they've got grit and a sexy strut, personally and musically. It's much too slick to cross over commercially in 2002, but it's good enough for the pop kids to take notice.

MacKenzie Wilson, Rovi

Above

Mad Season
Think of the one-shot Seattle supergroup Mad Season as the grunge version of sober living. Guitarist Mike McCready, best known as the main six-string slinger in Pearl Jam, met bassist John Baker Saunders while in rehab, and the two paired with Screaming Trees' drummer Barrett Martin and Alice in Chains vocalist Layne Staley, partially in hopes of steering the singer onto the path of the straight and narrow. Ultimately, the plan didn't pan out, but for a brief while, the quartet -- who adopted the name Mad Season -- did have their moment of clarity, captured on the 1995 album Above. There was a single issued to modern rock radio -- "River of Deceit" -- but this record downplayed easy hooks and melody in favor of churning introspection and slow vamps that occasionally flirt with blues (the never-ending 12-bar "Artificial Red," balanced by the distorto riffs of "I Don't Everything"), but usually conjure nothing more than the dank sludge of Seattle. Mad Season aren't quite mired in the darkest areas of grunge -- they're clever enough to let a saxophonist lend color to "Long Gone Day" -- but the lack of melodicism is a bit of a drag over the long haul, turning Above into a bit of heavy mood music. In a sense, it's the id of Seattle run rampant: all the bands involved, outside of Saunders' Walkabouts and Martin's Trees (who were nevertheless considerably more popular than Saunders' group), enjoyed commercial success in 1995, so they could have gotten away with anything and, in a sense, they did, as a major-label actually released this turgid bit of soul-baring heavy rock. McCready gets plenty of room for his elliptical guitar, the players has space to dig into their minor-key vamps, Staley essays his only set of completely original lyrics, but the whole thing feels kind of inert and indulgent, which may be appropriate for a band treating rock & roll as therapy. [The 2013 Deluxe Edition of Above is loaded with bonus material, beginning with four tracks from Mad Season's unfinished 1999 album, finally completed with the Screaming Trees' Mark Lanegan as lyricist and vocalist. Lanegan adds a gravity the otherwise tortured Staley lacked -- as dynamic a frontman as Layne was, Lanegan feels made of granite -- and consequently these bonus tracks are little more compelling than the proper album. Elsewhere on the Deluxe Edition lies the entirety of the group's final gig, a performance at the Seattle venue the Moore from April of 1995, captured as both a CD (weighing in at 11 tracks) and a DVD (a seven-cut edit, followed by five bonus tracks). Elsewhere on the DVD are other live performances, including a full concert at RKCNDY and some highlights from Pearl Jam's Self Pollution Radio. These bonus cuts don't change the overall impression of the album, but they do give hardcore fans plenty of rarities to savor.]

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Live Through This

Hole
Courtney Love completely revamped Hole before recording their second album, keeping only Eric Erlandson in the lineup. That is one of the reasons why Live Through This sounds so shockingly different from Pretty on the Inside, but the real reason is Love's desire to compete in the same commercial alternative rock arena as her husband, Kurt Cobain. In fact, many rumors have claimed that Cobain ghostwrote a substantial chunk of the album, and while that's unlikely, there's no denying that his patented stop-start dynamics, bare chords, and punk-pop melodies provide the blueprint for Live Through This. Love adds her signature rage and feminist rhetoric to the formula, but the lyrics that truly resonate are the ones that unintentionally predict Cobain's suicide. For all the raw pain of the lyrics, Live Through This rarely sounds raw because of the shiny production and the carefully considered dynamics. Despite this flaw, the album retains its power because it was one of the few records patterned on Nevermind that gets the formula right, with a set of gripping hooks and melodies that retain their power even if they follow the predictable grunge pattern.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Second Helping

Lynyrd Skynyrd
Lynyrd Skynyrd wrote the book on Southern rock with their first album, so it only made sense that they followed it for their second album, aptly titled Second Helping. Sticking with producer Al Kooper (who, after all, discovered them), the group turned out a record that replicated all the strengths of the original, but was a little tighter and a little more professional. It also revealed that the band, under the direction of songwriter Ronnie Van Zant, was developing a truly original voice. Of course, the band had already developed their own musical voice, but it was enhanced considerably by Van Zant's writing, which was at turns plainly poetic, surprisingly clever, and always revealing. Though Second Helping isn't as hard a rock record as Pronounced, it's the songs that make the record. "Sweet Home Alabama" became ubiquitous, yet it's rivaled by such terrific songs as the snide, punkish "Workin' for MCA," the Southern groove of "Don't Ask Me No Questions," the affecting "The Ballad of Curtis Loew," and "The Needle and the Spoon," a drug tale as affecting as their rival Neil Young's "Needle and the Damage Done," but much harder rocking. This is the part of Skynyrd that most people forget -- they were a great band, but they were indelible because that was married to great writing. And nowhere was that more evident than on Second Helping. [The 1997 MCA reissue adds three bonus tracks: the single version of "Don't Ask Me No Questions," a demo of "Was I Right or Wrong," and "Take Your Time."]

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Use Your Illusion I

Guns N' Roses
The "difficult second album" is one of the perennial rock & roll clichés, but few second albums ever were as difficult as "Use Your Illusion". Not really conceived as a double album but impossible to separate as individual works, "Use Your Illusion" is a shining example of a suddenly successful band getting it all wrong and letting its ambitions run wild. Taking nearly three years to complete, the recording of the album was clearly difficult, and tensions between Slash, Izzy Stradlin, and Axl Rose are evident from the start. The two guitarists, particularly Stradlin, are trying to keep the group closer to its hard rock roots, but Rose has pretensions of being Queen and Elton John, which is particularly odd for a notoriously homophobic Midwestern boy. Conceivably, the two aspirations could have been divided between the two records, but instead they are just thrown into the blender -- it's just a coincidence that Use Your Illusion I is a harder-rocking record than II. Stradlin has a stronger presence on I, contributing three of the best songs -- "Dust n' Bones," "You Ain't the First," and "Double Talkin' Jive" -- which help keep the album in Stonesy Aerosmith territory. On the whole, the album is stronger than II, even though there's a fair amount of filler, including a dippy psychedelic collaboration with Alice Cooper and a song that takes its title from the Osmonds' biggest hit. But it also has two ambitious set pieces, "November Rain" and "Coma," which find Rose fulfilling his ambitions, as well as the ferocious, metallic "Perfect Crime" and the original version of the power ballad "Don't Cry." Still, it can be a chore to find the highlights on the record amid the overblown production and endless amounts of filler.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi