Fun.'s debut album Aim and Ignite was an interesting blend of seemingly divergent styles topped by a healthy dose of grandiose ambition and performed with a precise abandon. The trio made an album that was truly progressive and also super catchy and fun. The follow-up, Some Nights, ramps up the ambition and sonic bombast, but also manages to be even more powerful and impressive. While writing and planning the album, singer Nate Ruess, guitarist Jack Antonoff, and multi-instrumentalist Andrew Dost were heavily influenced by both the sound and scope of Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and made every attempt to achieve something similar, even to the point of hiring that album's co-producer Jeff Bhasker to produce and craft beats for them. (Also Emile Haynie, who has worked with Eminem among others) Though the album has more of a hip-hop influence than Aim and Ignite did, there are still large doses of Queen and ELO coursing through the band's blood, both in the machine-crafted vocal harmonies and the ornate bigness of the sound. The album is overloaded with strings and horns, backing vocals, keyboards, and programmed drums surrounding Ruess like a clamoring crowd, but never drowning out his innately sincere vocals and painfully honest lyrics. He has the kind of voice that could cut through any amount of noise, not by using volume but honesty. Even when he's fed through Auto-Tune, you know he's telling you the truth all the time. On songs like the lead single "We Are Young" or the rollicking "All Alone," he provides a very human core that grounds things even as the music builds to ornate crescendos. Indeed, the album is really, really big sounding and could easily have ended up collapsing under its own weight and pretension, but the opposite happens and Some Nights takes flight instead. The songs are both anthemic and human-sized, the heartfelt words and naked emotions are never buried, and the music is uplifting, not overpowering. The trio has crafted a record that measures up to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy musically and delivers enough emotional charge to power a small town for a month. It's an impressive achievement and Fun. deserves every bit of acclaim that comes its way because of it.
Tim Sendra, Rovi
Since Michael Jackson botched his first hits collection by pairing it with a new album of material in a double-disc set, making it considerably less attractive for those legions of listeners who want just a single disc of hits, it's both inevitable and welcome that he attempted another compilation a few years later. This second collection, Number Ones, was released in the wake of the 2000 blockbuster Beatles 1, which rewrote the rules of modern-day hits collections from major artists, since it not only contained a generous, representative cross section of hits, it had a specific focus and did gangbuster business. An avalanche of similar-minded compilations by other titans followed, notably Elvis' 30 #1 Hits and the Rolling Stones' Forty Licks, and MJ's Number Ones is part of that wave. For some artists, sticking to number one hits isn't a bad way to make a collection -- the Beatles are a perfect example, actually, since even if 1 didn't contain such seminal items as "Strawberry Fields Forever," it still offered a full, representative portrait of their career. Jackson doesn't fare so well by the number one rule. First of all, he doesn't strictly "follow" the number one rule, leaving behind the number one hit duet "Say Say Say" with Paul McCartney, substituting a 1981 live version of "Ben" for the original hit, adding "Break of Dawn," an Invincible album cut never released as a single, and including "Thriller," "Smooth Criminal," and "Earth Song," none of which hit number one, and the latter wasn't even released as a single in the U.S. (there is, of course, the requisite previously unreleased song, the OK slow jam "One More Chance"). Then, there's the fact that Thriller changed the business, inaugurating the era of the blockbuster album that rode the charts for years, spinning off hit singles every quarter. Thriller generated tons of hits -- six of its nine tracks hit the charts, but only two of them hit number one. Its successor, Bad, had seven of its 11 songs hit the charts (one other, the CD bonus cut "Leave Me Alone," was a staple on MTV), and of those, five peaked at number one. So, by sticking to number ones, and adding "Smooth Criminal," this collection skews very heavily toward Bad, at times playing like an expanded reissue with bonus tracks. This may be a fairly accurate reading of chart positions, but it doesn't result in a particularly representative collection, since the brilliant Off the Wall is granted only two songs, leaving behind such charting hits as "Off the Wall" and "She's Out of My Life" (both gold singles, mind you), and Thriller is represented by only three tracks, with such defining songs as "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," "Human Nature," "PYT (Pretty Young Thing)," and "The Girl Is Mine" being left behind. These two albums are the core of Jackson's legacy, and it simply feels wrong that Number Ones gives them short shrift. Dangerous also is neglected, providing just one selection, when on the whole it had far more memorable songs than HIStory or Invincible. But these problems are inherent with any collection that concentrates just on the charts, not the music that got the songs on the charts in the first place. And while Number Ones contains enough of the big songs to recommend it for those listeners who are looking just for a cross section of the biggest hits from Jackson's career, it is also true that the perfect Michael Jackson hits collection has yet to be assembled. Maybe next time, particularly if he's granted an entry into Sony's generally excellent The Essentials series.
Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi
Even though Night Visions has several repackaged tunes from Imagine Dragons' previous EPs, including the instantly appealing breakthrough hit "It's Time," the band's debut LP is a confident, commercially savvy collection of energetic hooks, crunchy electro beats and glossy synthesizers. With sweeping choruses and booming bass, it's big-sounding party rock, but the savvy, kitchen-sink production of Alex da Kid makes other would-be singles like "Bleeding Out" and "Tiptoe" as interesting as they are overwhelming. Even though under all the layers there are occasionally pockets of pure cheese ("With the beast inside, there's nowhere we can hide," Dan Reynolds sings on "Demons"), the scope of the band's full-length debut leaves a big impression.
Nate Cavalieri, Google Play
Bruno Mars has said that Unorthodox Jukebox represents his freedom, and it lives up to its title as Mars moves through genres and eras, veering mostly into retro soul. The follow-up to his Grammy-winning 2010 debut Doo-Wops & Hooligans opens with the '80s pop-influenced "Young Girls" and lead single "Locked Out of Heaven." "I got a body full of liquor with a cocaine kicker and I'm feeling like I'm 30 feet tall," Mars indulges on "Gorilla," an animalistic sex jam. "Natalie" and "Money Make Her Smile," about a gold-digger and stripper respectively, follow in that gritty tone, while the retro-disco "Treasure" paired with "Moonshine" play out like a cinematic love story.
Laura Checkoway, Google Play
At the time of its release, much of the fuss surrounding 1984 involved Van Halen's adoption of synthesizers on this, their sixth album -- a hoopla that was a bit of a red herring since the band had been layering in synths since their third album, Women and Children First. Those synths were either buried beneath guitars or used as texture, even on instrumentals where they were the main instrument, but here they were pushed to the forefront on "Jump," the album's first single and one of the chief reasons this became a blockbuster, crossing over to pop audiences Van Halen had flirted with before but had never quite won over. Of course, the mere addition of a synth wasn't enough to rope in fair-weather fans -- they needed pop hooks and pop songs, which 1984 had, most gloriously on the exuberant, timeless "Jump." There, the synths played a circular riff that wouldn't have sounded as overpowering on guitar, but the band didn't dispense with their signature monolithic, pulsating rock. Alex Van Halen and Michael Anthony grounded the song, keeping it from floating to pop, and David Lee Roth simply exploded with boundless energy, making this seem rock & roll no matter how close it got to pop. And "Jump" was about as close as 1984 got to pop, as the other seven songs -- with the exception of "I'll Wait," which rides along on a synth riff as chilly as "Jump" is warm -- are heavy rock, capturing the same fiery band that's been performing with a brutal intensity since Women and Children First. But where those albums placed an emphasis on the band's attack, this places an emphasis on the songs, and they're uniformly terrific, the best set of original tunes Van Halen ever had. Surely, the anthems "Panama" and "Hot for Teacher" grab center stage -- how could they not, when the former is the band's signature sound elevated to performance art, with the latter being as lean and giddy, their one anthem that could be credibly covered by garage rockers? -- but "Top Jimmy," "Drop Dead Legs," and the dense yet funky closer, "House of Pain," are full-fledged songs, with great riffs and hooks in the guitars and vocals. It's the best showcase of Van Halen's instrumental prowess as a band, the best showcase for Diamond Dave's glorious shtick, the best showcase for their songwriting, just their flat-out best album overall. It's a shame that Roth left after this album, but maybe it's for the best, since there's no way Van Halen could have bettered this album with Dave around (and they didn't better it once Sammy joined, either).
Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi