Bruce Springsteen had become increasingly downcast as a songwriter during his recording career, and his pessimism bottomed out with Nebraska. But Born in the U.S.A., his popular triumph, which threw off seven Top Ten hits and became one of the best-selling albums of all time, trafficked in much the same struggle, albeit set to galloping rhythms and set off by chiming guitars. That the witless wonders of the Reagan regime attempted to co-opt the title track as an election-year campaign song wasn't so surprising: the verses described the disenfranchisement of a lower-class Vietnam vet, and the chorus was intended to be angry, but it came off as anthemic. Then, too, Springsteen had softened his message with nostalgia and sentimentality, and those are always crowd-pleasers. "Glory Days" may have employed Springsteen's trademark disaffection, yet it came across as a couch potato's drunken lament. But more than anything else, Born in the U.S.A. marked the first time that Springsteen's characters really seemed to relish the fight and to have something to fight for. They were not defeated ("No Surrender"), and they had friendship ("Bobby Jean") and family ("My Hometown") to defend. The restless hero of "Dancing in the Dark" even pledged himself in the face of futility, and for Springsteen, that was a step. The "romantic young boys" of his first two albums, chastened by "the working life" encountered on his third, fourth, and fifth albums and having faced the despair of his sixth, were still alive on this, his seventh, with their sense of humor and their determination intact. Born in the U.S.A. was their apotheosis, the place where they renewed their commitment and where Springsteen remembered that he was a rock & roll star, which is how a vastly increased public was happy to treat him.
William Ruhlmann, Rovi
Released in advance of the Who’s half-time appearance at the 2010 Superbowl, the 2009 Greatest Hits reworks the 2004 collection Then and Now: 1964-2000, retaining the basic structure of that compilation (including its then-new bonus track “Real Good Looking Boy”), trimming its 20 tracks down to 19 -- “I’m a Boy,” “See Me, Feel Me,” and “5:15” traded for “Pictures of Lily” and “Eminence Front,” the new “Old Red Wine” swapped for “It’s Not Enough” from their 2006 comeback Endless Wire -- but otherwise not changing much about the basic character of the album. This collection remains a solid overview of the Who’s basics, containing every one of the huge hits from “My Generation” to “Who Are You,” all sequenced chronologically. There are no surprises and no need to get this if you already own one of the many Who collections released over the years, but if Townshend and Daltrey’s Superbowl set piques some interest in procuring a Who hits album, this will surely satisfy.
Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi
In many ways, Stanley Road is Wild Wood -- Part Two, a continuation of the laidback, soul-inflected rock that dominated his previous albums. Named after the street where he grew up, Stanley Road could be seen as a return to Paul Weller's roots, yet his roots were in The Who and the Kinks, not in Traffic. (At this point, the sound of The Jam matters little in what his music sounds like.) Weller's music has always had R&B roots -- the major difference with both Wild Wood and Stanley Road is how much he and his band stretch out. Stanley Road in particular features more jamming than any of his previous work. That doesn't mean he has neglected his songwriting -- a handful of Weller classics are scattered throughout the album. Unfortunately, too much of it is spent on drawn-out grooves that are self-conscious about their own authenticity. Still, he has the good sense to revive Dr. John's "I Walk on Gilded Splinters" and invite his disciple Noel Gallagher (Oasis) along to jam.
Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi
The Cure could be found in a mix of holding pattern and seemingly constant activity in 2011, with an irregular series of world-wide performances of the band's first three albums and a slew of guest appearances and one-offs by Robert Smith on his own and with other performers standing in for either new or reissued albums. But there was also a one-off headlining performance at the Bestival in the U.K. that summer, resulting in the band's first official live album since the Show and Paris releases of 1993. Feeling more like a souvenir than anything else, it's above all a portrait of a band that has the knack of handling a career-spanning catalog down cold, something with both positive and negative sides to it. On the one hand, besides a thankfully clear mix that feels like a brisk soundboard recording, there's the treat of hearing a then-unique quartet lineup of Smith, Simon Gallup, and Jason Cooper matched with the then-recently returned Roger O'Donnell adding keyboards for the first time in some years. If it's not quite Seventeen Seconds all over again, performances of "Play for Today" and the inevitable "A Forest" do happily nod in that direction. Smith himself still sounds in astonishingly well-preserved voice, only occasionally stepping aside from some high notes while sounding as moodily powerful as ever on guitar -- not to mention as half-understandable as ever on his occasional song introductions. On the other hand, Smith and company have been playing this kind of set for years upon years when it comes to general or festival audiences, emphasizing the big hits of the first 15 years of their career. Out of 32 songs, literally only three of them couldn't have appeared on either Show or Paris -- happily one of them being the underrated "The Hungry Ghost" from 4:13 Dream -- while the remainder of the selections leans much more toward the hits and singles than the album cuts, stalwarts like "Plainsong," "Push," and "Disintegration" aside. (Though the appearance of "The Caterpillar" is a fun surprise, having never been played for a full-on show by the band once since 1984.) Bestival Live 2011 is an understandably honest reflection of the Cure in the popular mind as their commercial high point recedes further into the past, but given Smith and the band's other contemporaneous activities, it's an incomplete portrait.
Ned Raggett, Rovi
Technically, All the Best was the first compilation of McCartney's solo material, since Wings Greatest covered songs released under the Wings aegis. Well, there is considerable overlap between the two records -- no less than "ten" of that album's 12 songs are here, yet only the hard-rocking "Hi Hi Hi" is truly missed -- although the seven new songs do give this album a different character, for better or worse. With the U.S. version of All the Best, which has four different songs than its British counterpart, the balance shifts toward the positive, since it simply boasts a better selection of songs. Yes, "Once Upon a Long Ago," the single offered as bait on the British All the Best, isn't here, but it's not missed since two of the four songs exclusive to the American version are among McCartney's best solo singles ("Junior's Farm," "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey") and the other two are good adult contemporary easy listening (the previously non-LP "Goodnight Tonight," "With a Little Luck"). These songs add to the retrospective, although it's still not perfect -- such highlights as "Maybe I'm Amazed" and "Take It Away" really should have been included. However, as a cross section of McCartney's solo singles, this is very, very good. It may be a little heavy on the schmaltz at times, yet this is still mainstream pop craft of the highest order.
Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi